Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience”
– CS Lewis, The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment
The moral busybodies of the secular university have an insatiable appetite for tearing down Western tradition, a yen masquerading behind the good will of their intentions. As a student concluding my first year at the University of Sydney, I have been intimately exposed to this radicalisation, most recently devoted to a semester’s focus on the history of incarceration in America. As readers may by now have guessed, it dwelt on the general ills of the West, Donald Trump’s boundless perfidy and, of course, the currently fashionable “systemic racism”. Have I learned anything? Chiefly that what pases for truth and historical fact on campus is a selective and malleable thing.
The term started off reasonably well with anecdotal experiences of individual felons. However, by the end of the semester it was clear the intentions of my history class echoed and advocated a Marxist uprising of proletarians and progressives against the Judeo-Christian tradition, capitalism, Western bourgeois society and, of course, classical conservatism.
The history course itself was nearly void of any impartial study of research and data. Sources were purely anecdotal interviews from one side of the political sphere. Any desire to question the validity of those claims was suppressed by the view that it would be offensive to ask such questions and harmful for the individual. Quadrant‘s Keith Windschuttle in The Killing of History describes the opportunities of approaching history without the distorting lens of a subjective and politicised perspective:
Western historical method is available to the people of any culture to understand their past and their relations with other people. It is by facing the truth of both our separate and our common histories that we can best learn to live with one another.
Sadly, a lesson in learning “to live with each other” has not been what I have observed. Let me recount a few illustrative moments.
During one of our weekly discussions, the tutor asked for raised hands in support of the abolition of prison. With me as the only exception, every single student raised their hand. Most got to explain their position. I was strangely skipped over and, at other times, instructed to keep my opinion to myself. It seems my oposition to transforming the police and throwing open the prison doors were just too dangerous to be discussed. Ultimately, the class concluded that supporting honest policing and the quaint notion that dangerous criminals need to be sequestered from the society is to support Jim Crow and the institution of slavery! Lest I persist in my unenlightened ignorance, I was instructed to absorb the wisdom of the documentary 13th, which draws its title from the US Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery. You’ll get a sample of the film’s insistence that the incarceration of black offenders is slavery by other means from the clip below.
I politely asked why the sainted Barack Obama supported locking up criminals — “superpredators”, as Hillary Clinton branded them — to which the grudging reply was “In theory, yes, they have all supported Jim Crow, including Obama”. Interestingly, the solution the class arrived at was a revolution to bring down the “genocidal, patriarchal and capitalist social order” of the West. This was no intellectual exercise in theorising and debate, which I had anticipated on my first day at university, but a Marxist endorsement of violence. No surprise, really. The violence of the Black Lives Matter protests that saw US cities burn throughout the pre-election summer had been championed throughout the term.
Fundamentally, what I had encountered was the tyranny of good intentions. My classmates and teachers were all very nice and polite when not talking about politics. However, they were sadly indoctrinated by years of exposure to systemic cultural Marxism — not racism — in our education system. It all comes down to how they see the nature of human beings. Like Jean Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin, radical progressive picture humans as born free but bound by the chains of society, with social behaviours determined by race, gender and socioeconomic background. This led Karl Marx in Das Kapital to argue for “a final state of nature”. What Marx means by this is explained by Roger Scruton in his opening chapter, ‘What Is Left?’, in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, noting that it presupposes progress towards a utopian social order of shared property, eradication of common law and the dismissal of government. As Scruton writes, the Left’s dogma illustrates
…an enduring outlook on the world and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment, nourished by the elaborate social and political theories that I shall have occasion to discuss …
… Leftists believe, with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practised by a dominant class. They define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed.
Yet what the Left fails to realise is that man is chained to his own human frailties. Thucydides concludes that we are “a human race that escaped chaos and barbarism by preserving a thin layer of civilisation based on moderation and prudence”. This is coined the ‘tragic vision’, a realisation that we will never find perfect solutions and achieve the myth of human perfectability. Professor Richard Epstein , author of The Classical Liberal Constitution, substantiates this vision as “the study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections”. The vision is one of trade-offs, rather than idealistic solutions.
When we look to history, this contention has played out over millennium with competing visions of human nature and, consequently, the correct penalty for ill behaviour. Hence, prison, police and punishment have become a topics in microcosm for this intellectual debate between the tragic and progressive vision of humanity. As Thomas Sowell notes in Intellectuals and Society, these competing visions do not disagree on all policy but view the world through their respective visions.
In one reading, our class discussed the work of feminist African-American writer and academic Angela Davis, recipient of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize and acquitted supplier of guns to urban terrorists. Her book’s premise reflects the title, Are Prisons Obsolete? , with a conclusion that registers an emphatic ‘yes they are’.I shall quote her ideas as proposed.
To reiterate, rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society. Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to de-carceration and will not advance the goal of abolition.
The virtuous vernacular of ‘alternatives’ underscores her primary argument and objective: the total upheaval of all systems of society that reflect Judeo-Christian values and Western structures of social organisation. Promising much more than just an upheaval is Davis’s ideas for what she wishes to come next and what she presents as validating her position: Homophobia justifies sexual promiscuity, the distortion of marriage and a general liberation of sensual desires. Male dominance is justification for the necessary destruction of masculinity, the breakdown of the nuclear family and a rejection of the issues arising from single parenting and divorce. Racism justifies viewing people — is the irony lost on Ms Dacis? — by the colour of their skin, as white people are oppressors and subjugators by definition and all black people victims. All these critiques fall under a cultural Marxist desire for power. If one views everything as a Foucauldian structure of power, then all power, when held by the right sort of people, becomes justified.
Interestingly, this position was ‘balanced’ with another reading, this one by “independent journalist” Jack Herrera in his essay “The Defunding Debate“. He argues that the function of police, “to protect and serve the people” is a grotesque caricature of reality, which he sees as law enforcement protecting and preserving the interests of oppressors while serving nothing but injustice. Yet Herrera fails to understand that police are often of the same race and from the same class as the civilians they serve. Secondly, there is the rub when po-mo theorising encounters real life on the streets. When New York’s police earlier this year saw their budget cut and heard City Hall hailing rioters as heroes of the moment, homicides rose by a factor of ten in a single, bloody week. That casualty list included the murders of five children in two days.
By arguing that police serve the needs of oppressors Herrera ordains himself the occupier of the moral high ground while simultaneously insisting one cannot have an intellectual discussion without first acknowledging and accepting ‘the truth’ of the ideas he espouses. This is certainly the case in universities today. After arrest and incarceration for serious crimes was presented in my last tutorial not as crime and just punishment but as the new face of slavery, I politely asked if higher crime rates in African-American communities might have something to do with commensurate high rates of imprisonment. Not only was I told to keep my opinion to myself, but also that my ideas were too dangerous to talk about! So much for unfettered inquiry and debate on campus.
A common thread of progressive doctrine crystallised as I was told to stow my unacceptable perspective: ideas that are “dangerous”, “oppressive”, “homophobic”, “full of bigotry” and “patriarchal conditioning” are swept away in the name of what the Left defines as moral virtue.
In the prison system itself, this has manifested in the idea of humanitarian punishment. C.S. Lewis in response to the rise in such theories critiqued their ‘good-willed’ intentions. He states,
The basic question is: Is the sentence just or unjust? ‘When we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others… we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a “case”.
Lewis’s attacks on the humanitarian theory prompted a response from Dr. Norval Morris and Dr. Donald Buckle who claimed Lewis ignored “the vital purpose of the criminal law is the protection of the community”. Apparently, if you follow their logic, criminals are as integral to their communities as shopkeepers, families and anyone else you might care to mention who stays on the right side of the law.
This debate epitomised the contradictions between rehabilitation and retributive justice, as the nature of man is either sinful and morally autonomous, as Lewis argued, or ultimately socially determined, as Buckle and Morris contended. Lewis replied that the utility of communal happiness does not mean the happiness of the community should be pursued at all costs, but only in so far as the pursuit is compatible with degrees of mercy, human dignity and veracity. He concludes his essay on humanitarian punishment thus
The Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. This means that you start being “kind” to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindness which they in fact had a right to refuse, and finally kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties. You have overshot the mark. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful.
The tragic and progressive vision of humanity has manifested itself in theories of punishment and prison. Contemporary revolutionary ideals to eradicate the prison system and the police are mirrored by the change in attitudes during enlightenment and the way criminals are treated as patients, rather than societal perils. Thomas Sowell again critiques this new wave of identity politics with his customary clarity,
The seemingly sophisticated notion of reality being ‘socially constructed’ disregards the facts of things being socially evolved or socially validated by experience… For if logic, reason and scientific evidence is all arbitrary ‘socially constructed’, then all that is left is consensus and personal preference.
To once again paraphrase Keith Windschuttle’s The Killing of History, the preservation of this intellectual heritage—i.e. traditional history—is what is ultimately at stake in the current contest. Social constructs and cultural relativism have become ubiquitous in the proliferation of historical revisionist courses at the tertiary level. The consequence is a rising generation of virtue busybodies, who have good-will intentions to create a tyranny of mercy and direct the sharp end of that revolution against Western civilisation.
What then is the answer to man’s fallen nature, to our state of tragedy and repetition of historical trauma? It comes down to recognising tyranny when it is disguised as mercy and justice. George Orwell brilliantly notes that when a society has rejected truth it will hate those who speak it. Real mercy and justice are therefore hated by today’s standards, from the otdeal of George Pell to the recent and dubious impeachment in its motives of President Trump. C. S. Lewis ends his essay with an apt metaphor describing the need to discern between good and bad forms of justice.
As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.
Personally, I think Jesus said it best:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits
Yes, we will know the universities by their fruit. Having tasted it now for a year, that fruit leaves a bitter taste.
Luke Powell is studying English Literature and Modern History at Sydney University