Sunday, November 04, 2007

What the New Atheists Don't See

Theodore Dalrymple rightly says below that to regret religion is to regret Western civilization. I would add that it is to regret humanity -- for religion is in fact one of the things that distinguishes man from animals. One has to feel rather sorry for the hate-filled atheists Dalrymple discusses below. Atheism should be a relaxed and tolerant state. It certainly is with me and with the conservative atheists that I know

The British parliament's first avowedly atheist member, Charles Bradlaugh, would stride into public meetings in the 1880s, take out his pocket watch, and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds. God bided his time, but got Bradlaugh in the end. A slightly later atheist, Bertrand Russell, was once asked what he would do if it proved that he was mistaken and if he met his maker in the hereafter. He would demand to know, Russell replied with all the high-pitched fervor of his pedantry, why God had not made the evidence of his existence plainer and more irrefutable. And Beckett came up with a memorable line: "God doesn't exist-the bastard!"

Beckett's wonderful outburst of disappointed rage suggests that it is not as easy as one might suppose to rid oneself of the notion of God. (Perhaps this is the time to declare that I am not myself a believer.) At the very least, Beckett's line implies that God's existence would solve some kind of problem-actually, a profound one: the transcendent purpose of human existence. Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing. However much philosophers tell us that it is illogical to fear death, and that at worst it is only the process of dying that we should fear, people still fear death as much as ever. In like fashion, however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.

Of course, men-that is to say, some men-have denied this truth ever since the Enlightenment, and have sought to find a way of life based entirely on reason. Far as I am from decrying reason, the attempt leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin. Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man's mental or moral economy.

The search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible evidence, continues, however; and recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success, at least if success consists of having slain the inveterate enemy of reason, namely religion. The philosophers Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins, and journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens have all written books roundly condemning religion and its works. Evidently, there is a tide in the affairs, if not of men, at least of authors.

The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think that they are saying something new and brave. They imagine themselves to be like the intrepid explorer Sir Richard Burton, who in 1853 disguised himself as a Muslim merchant, went to Mecca, and then wrote a book about his unprecedented feat. The public appears to agree, for the neo-atheist books have sold by the hundred thousand. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett's, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14 (Saint Anselm's ontological argument for God's existence gave me the greatest difficulty, but I had taken Hume to heart on the weakness of the argument from design).

I first doubted God's existence at about the age of nine. It was at the school assembly that I lost my faith. We had been given to understand that if we opened our eyes during prayers God would depart the assembly hall. I wanted to test this hypothesis. Surely, if I opened my eyes suddenly, I would glimpse the fleeing God? What I saw instead, it turned out, was the headmaster, Mr. Clinton, intoning the prayer with one eye closed and the other open, with which he beadily surveyed the children below for transgressions. I quickly concluded that Mr. Clinton did not believe what he said about the need to keep our eyes shut. And if he did not believe that, why should I believe in his God? In such illogical leaps do our beliefs often originate, to be disciplined later in life (if we receive enough education) by elaborate rationalization.

Dennett's Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms-for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.

For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations-and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

One striking aspect of Dennett's book is his failure to avoid the language of purpose, intention, and ontological moral evaluation, despite his fierce opposition to teleological views of existence: the coyote's "methods of locomotion have been ruthlessly optimized for efficiency." Or: "The stinginess of Nature can be seen everywhere we look." Or again: "This is a good example of Mother Nature's stinginess in the final accounting combined with absurd profligacy in the methods." I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. (And Dennett is not alone in this difficulty: Michel Onfray's Atheist Manifesto, so rich in errors and inexactitudes that it would take a book as long as his to correct them, says on its second page that religion prevents mankind from facing up to "reality in all its naked cruelty." But how can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?)

No doubt Dennett would reply that he is writing in metaphors for the layman and that he could translate all his statements into a language without either moral evaluation or purpose included in it. Perhaps he would argue that his language is evidence that the spell still has a hold over even him, the breaker of the spell for the rest of humanity. But I am not sure that this response would be psychologically accurate. I think Dennett's use of the language of evaluation and purpose is evidence of a deep-seated metaphysical belief (however caused) that Providence exists in the universe, a belief that few people, confronted by the mystery of beauty and of existence itself, escape entirely. At any rate, it ill behooves Dennett to condescend to those poor primitives who still have a religious or providential view of the world: a view that, at base, is no more refutable than Dennett's metaphysical faith in evolution.

Dennett is not the only new atheist to employ religious language. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them; nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him. The last of the atheist's Ten Commandments ends with the following: "Question everything." Everything? Including the need to question everything, and so on ad infinitum?

Not to belabor the point, but if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove. Metaphysics is like nature: though you throw it out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns. What is confounded here is surely the abstract right to question everything with the actual exercise of that right on all possible occasions. Anyone who did exercise his right on all possible occasions would wind up a short-lived fool.

This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris's book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book's nastiness; it makes Dawkins's claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate.

Harris tells us, for example, that "we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting." I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: "The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live."

Let us leave aside the metaphysical problems that these three sentences raise. For Harris, the most important question about genocide would seem to be: "Who is genociding whom?" To adapt Dostoyevsky slightly, starting from universal reason, I arrive at universal madness.

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens's drumbeat in God Is Not Great: "Religion spoils everything."

What? The Saint Matthew Passion? The Cathedral of Chartres? The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber-a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England. It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn't be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.

In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting, by Juan Sanchez Cotan, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window.

Even if you did not know that Sanchez Cotan was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage-or of anything else-quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it. The painting is a permanent call to contemplation of the meaning of human life, and as such it arrested people who ordinarily were not, I suspect, much given to quiet contemplation.

The same holds true with the work of the great Dutch still-life painters. On the neo-atheist view, the religious connection between Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland is one of conflict, war, and massacre only: and certainly one cannot deny this history. And yet something more exists. As with Sanchez Cotan, only a deep reverence, an ability not to take existence for granted, could turn a representation of a herring on a pewter plate into an object of transcendent beauty, worthy of serious reflection.

I recently had occasion to compare the writings of the neo-atheists with those of Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I was visiting some friends at their country house in England, which had a library of old volumes; since the family of the previous owners had a churchman in every generation, many of the books were religious. In my own neo-atheist days, I would have scorned these works as pertaining to a nonexistent entity and containing nothing of value. I would have considered the authors deluded men, who probably sought to delude others for reasons that Marx might have enumerated.

But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved: much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new atheists. Hall was bishop of Exeter and then of Norwich; though a moderate Puritan, he took the Royalist side in the English civil war and lost his see, dying in 1656 while Cromwell was still Lord Protector.... Let us compare Hall's meditation "Upon the Sight of a Harlot Carted" with Harris's statement that some people ought perhaps to be killed for their beliefs:
With what noise, and tumult, and zeal of solemn justice, is this sin punished! The streets are not more full of beholders, than clamours. Every one strives to express his detestation of the fact, by some token of revenge: one casts mire, another water, another rotten eggs, upon the miserable offender. Neither, indeed, is she worthy of less: but, in the mean time, no man looks home to himself. It is no uncharity to say, that too many insult in this just punishment, who have deserved more. . . . Public sins have more shame; private may have more guilt. If the world cannot charge me of those, it is enough, that I can charge my soul of worse. Let others rejoice, in these public executions: let me pity the sins of others, and be humbled under the sense of my own.
Who sounds more charitable, more generous, more just, more profound, more honest, more humane: Sam Harris or Joseph Hall, D.D., late lord bishop of Exeter and of Norwich? No doubt it helps that Hall lived at a time of sonorous prose, prose that merely because of its sonority resonates in our souls; prose of the kind that none of us, because of the time in which we live, could ever equal. But the style applies to the thought as well as the prose; and I prefer Hall's charity to Harris's intolerance.

More here

The limits of "openness"

By Roger Kimball

A few days ago, I returned from some missionary work in England. One object of my visit was to bring culture to the natives, specifically to bring news of The New Criterion to the culture-starved readers of London. To this end, I participated in a panel discussion at the Travellers Club in Pell Mell, where I was joined TNC regulars Anthony Daniels, Eric Ormbsy, Kenneth Minogue, and David Pryce Jones. It was a jolly and well attended event, and one that, I hope, will presage the advent of The New Criterion in more bookstores and on more coffee tables through the semi-United Kingdom.

Travel these days is full of irritations, large and small. Among the small irritants, I offer for general condemnation the series of politically correct advertisements with which HSBC bank has plastered the jetways at many major airports. It's a catchy, if semantically troubling, campaign. Each ad consists of two pairs of identical pictures boldly labeled with opposite one-word descriptors. For example, an image of a serious-looking young businessman in suit and tie bears the label "Leader" while next to it is an image of legs in ratty jeans and scuffed boots bearing the legend "Follower." The same images are then repeated with the words reversed: the leader becomes the follower and vice versa. Other image-pairs come labelled "Good/Bad," "Trendy/Traditional," "Pain/Pleasure," "Perfect/Imperfect," etc. And in case you are slow on the uptake, the Aesop behind the ad includes a helpful moral: "If everyone thought the same, nothing would ever change," for example, or "An open mind is the best way to look at the world," or "Isn't it better to be open to other people's points of view?"

Let's pause over that last one. It is meant to be a rhetorical question, of course-what Latinists call a nonne question, i.e., one that expects the answer "Yes"-but I at least want to hesitate before responding with an unqualified affirmative. What HSBC proudly calls its "" campaign is doubtless a successful (I believe "creative" is the favored epithet) bit of huckstering. But it is also a wearisome bit of propaganda. Propaganda for what? There's an irony here. The whole rhetorical machinery of the ads communicates the presumption that we are dealing with the spirit of bold openness and a healthy tolerance for diversity. The incidental beneficiary of that happy thought is HSBC. But the reality of the message is simply the biggest unexamined clich, of our time: that differences among people are simply so many "points of view" and therefore (note the logic) that discriminating among those points of view with an eye to favoring one over another is to be guilty of an intellectual incapacity that is at the same time a moral failing (narrowness, intolerance, elitism, ethnocentrism-the whole menu of politically incorrect vices).

This might seem like a prescription for moral relativism. But it isn't quite that. What makes the ad campaign a significant emblem of the Zeitgeist is the way it insinuates a consistent prejudice into its brief against prejudice. The smartly attired young chap and the slob in jeans are not so much equals as competitors. The moral burden of the campaign (as distinct from its aim of benefiting its client) is not to encourage us to think more carefully about what it means to be a leader or follower, to be good or bad, to be trendy or traditional, but rather to blur the distinction between those contraries altogether. The aim is to short-circuit, not refine, our powers of discrimination. And the goal of that disruption is always at the expense of one side of the equation. (Another irony: were the transvaluation implicit in the "point-of-view" campaign really to succeed, one of the first casualties would be competitive enterprises like HSBC.)

There is much in England at the moment that reminded me of the HSBC ad campaign. I think, for example, of the marquee outside the National Portrait Gallery in London that features, on one side, the beaming visage of Mick Jagger with the words "Please allow me to introduce myself" and, on other side, an abstract portrait of T. S. Eliot with a famous line from Four Quartets: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." It would require a lengthy disquisition to enumerate everything that had to go wrong to produce that conjunction.

Such an explanation might begin with the implicit equivalence proposed between an antinomian rock anthem and a monument of high modernism, the fact that the peculiar alchemy of commercial success has given the world such spectacles as Sir Michael Phillip "Mick" Jagger, and the reality of what the National Portrait Gallery has become-no longer an institution animated by the stately imperatives of cultural confidence but, on the contrary, a demotic, postmodern enterprise wherein celebrity, even notoriety, happily substitutes for genuine achievement. Item: The "major international exhibition" on at the moment is devoted to "Pop Art Portraits." What is more depressing: the exhibition itself, or the fact that such sinister puerilities should be underwritten by a corporate giant like Lehman Brothers? (Once upon a time, the values-all those old-fashioned bourgeois verities-that fired a commercial enterprise like Lehman Brothers were deeply antithetical to the smirking "anything goes" mentality of Pop Art. What would it mean if this were no longer the case?)

"Isn't it better to be open to other people's points of view?" Well, doesn't it all depend on the point of view in question? I thought about this again at a conference I attended at All Souls at Oxford in honor of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. The ostensible subject of the colloquy was "Enlightenment, Modernity, and Atheism," but many of the contributions revolved around the issue of tolerance-more particularly, tolerance in an age of militant Islam. It tells us quite a lot that one of the participants could blithely assert, in the course of her reflections on this subject, "I know, of course, that there is no truth." Of course?

What really brought me up short, however, was the praise lavished by one speaker on Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim activist and impresario. "He is," quoth my fellow conference-goer, "precisely the kind of Muslim we should be engaging with." The Department of Homeland Security may have revoked Ramadan's visa, preventing him from taking up a teaching post in the United States. But Oxford was proud to have him teaching there. "Isn't it better to be open to other people's points of view?"

Let's consider the "point of view" of Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their credo: "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope." Is this what Ramadan, too, believes? That is not an easy question to answer. It is significant, I think, that he should deny that there is "any certain proof" that Osama bin Laden was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (But if "there is no truth," who can object?) He is said to have met early and often with various members of al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. Ever sensitive to the nuances of language, he refers to such atrocities as the bombings in Bali and Madrid as "interventions." In truth, Ramadan is a consummately slippery customer-ferociously articulate, adept in deploying the rhetoric of compromise, tolerance, "dialogue," and accommodation. He is, as the French writer Caroline Fourest notes in her forthcoming book Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, a "master of the art of euphemism."
His approach, seemingly moderate, succeeds in attracting the more or less modern Muslims that he will gradually initiate into radicalism, and then fundamentalism, the environment that produces future terrorists. How? By pretending to advocate a form of fraternity and tolerance that has the effect, above all, of making any moderate Muslim feel guilty in comparison to the extremists. Once their vigilance has been dismantled, he has only to put those he has thus outfitted in touch with the Brothers' network.
In a 2005 article in Le Monde, for example, Ramadan called for a "moratorium" on the application of some aspects of Muslim law-e.g., stoning adulteresses to death, executing anyone who apostasizes from Islam, cutting off the hands of thieves, and other benevolent prescriptions brought to you by the "religion of peace." True, Ramadan then went on to criticize the West's "unilateral condemnations" of such practices, arguing that "Western governments and individuals have a major responsibility to allow the Muslim world to engage in this debate serenely within Islam's interior."

All that is preposterous, but let's go back to Ramadam's original offer of a "moratorium." Now a "moratorium" is a temporary suspension of some activity or state of affairs. Should we be pleased that Ramadan wants his fellow Muslims to leave off stoning errant women until-when? Next Tuesday? After the New Year? Until Europe finally "goes Muslim" altogether and silly Western scruples like the prohibition against maiming criminals or protecting religious freedom can be dispensed with for good?

Ah, the dreaming spires of Oxford! "Tolerance" for folks like Tariq Ramadan is not enough, because one tolerates only that of which one disapproves. What Ramadan wants is "respect" and approbation, not tolerance. He wants us to embrace him and his beliefs-until they triumph to such an extent that he can reject us categorically in the name, not of tolerance or diversity, but of divine truth. "Everyone looks at the world from a different point of view. What's your point of view?" Lee Smith, in an article in The American Prospect a couple of years ago, accurately summed up Tariq Ramadan's "point of view":
Ramadan is a cold-blooded Islamist who believes that Islam is the cure for the malaise wrought by liberal values. His revision of the jihadist paradigm-peaceful but total-is brilliant in its way, and he may well turn out to be a major Islamist intellectual, far surpassing even his grandfather's influence. His cry of death to the West is a quieter and gentler jihad, but it's still jihad. There's no reason for Western liberals to try to understand that point of view.
That gets to the nub of the issue-both with respect to the reality of Tariq Ramadan's agenda and what we in the West should think of it. It was not a popular "point of view" at Oxford. But then political realities have always had a difficult time surviving in that rarefied air. On the High Street I saw a church placard announcing that they were "praying" to be a more "inclusive" congregation. And remember the Oxford Union in 1933: "Resolved, that we will in no circumstances fight for king and country." To have resolved otherwise would have been to exhibit what one confrence-goer stigmatized as "cultural essentialism" and a lamentable tendency to demonize "the Other." How comical Tariq Ramadan and his friends must find these effete moral gymnastics. "An open mind is the best way to look at the world." It's such emollient advice, especially if you are bent on making sure that you alone will decide what counts as openness.


Activist judiciary a looming menace for Australia

FRANKLY, there may be more to fear from Labor's lady lawyers than from the union blokes who run the Labor Party. Astute Labor lawyers in a future Rudd government, women such as Julia Gillard, Nicola Roxon and Penny Wong, will surely have their eyes on the real prize: leaving a legacy that will outlast a term or two in government. That legacy may be an activist judiciary. A Rudd government may come and go, but the judges it appoints are there to stay.

To be sure, appointing judges is the right of every government, and the decision rests ultimately with the prime minister. The Howard Government has stacked the High Court with stodgy conservative judges. You know the type. Judges who have that old-fashioned view about democracy under which politicians and the people make the laws and judges implement them. Under a Rudd government, Labor's lady lawyers may champion the need to fashion an entirely different system of justice by appointing judges who have little time for such democratic traditions, preferring a more adventurous role for judges. Whether a prime minister Kevin Rudd could withstand that push remains to be seen.

It's not such a zany prediction given the legal shenanigans in Victoria. Last week, Labor Attorney-General Rob Hulls announced that human rights advocate Lex Lasry will take up a seat on the state's Supreme Court and former ALP member and ACTU assistant secretary Iain Ross will head to the County Court. Hulls, who has apparently appointed more than half of the state's 214 judges since he became A-G in 1999, has been busily revolutionising the Victorian judiciary. Hulls says the judiciary must be more representative. But this representative revolution is not about returning power to the people. Quite the opposite. Hulls has been choosing judges that represent a certain Labor view of the world. Going by the more prominent appointments, we're talking about installing progressive judges who have staked out their preference for ambiguous human rights and international law. Outlandish?

Consider Chris Maxwell. Since 2005, the former civil libertarian president of Liberty Victoria, has presided over the Victorian Court of Appeal. Maxwell is rather keen on bringing nebulous notions of human rights and international law into his courtroom wherever possible. A future Ansett administration? Throw out your copy of the Corporations Law. According to Maxwell, the demise of Ansett demonstrated that "quintessential corporate law issues such as insolvency ... can throw up human rights issues". He has spoken about how his court will "encourage practitioners to develop human-rights based arguments".

Why? Well, let's just say that judges who draw upon international laws invariably use them to reach courtroom decisions that have more to do with their own grand personal preferences than the tedious rule of law and pesky domestic laws. Take former academic Marcia Neave, appointed to the Victorian Court of Appeal in 2006. As head of the Victorian Law Reform Commission, she advocated the courtroom as a change agent, suggesting that if you're looking for a quick way to change the law, go looking for a judge.

And Hulls has made sure there are plenty of judges ready and willing to serve as judicial law-makers. Judges such as Kevin Bell, appointed to the Victorian Supreme Court, who has demanded that judges be given "the necessary tools - you have to introduce a bill of rights". Happily for Bell, Victoria has just such a tool: its Charter of Rights. So let's not beat around the bush. Hulls has appointed those who share his human rights view of the world.

Now, prima facie, human rights are fine notions. But they are deliberately framed in airy language to disarm debate, to put them beyond reproach. Yet their vague nature means they can be twisted this way and that, depending on whether the result a judge wants is this or that. There is little predictability or certainty. The rule of law becomes no obstacle for significant social change.

Social change is a fine thing, too. But it comes down to who should be changing society: elected politicians or unelected judges. Hulls appears to prefer the latter. Call me old-fashioned but this is a fundamental change to the way we make laws. The whole purpose of elections is you get to choose politicians to represent you. If we don't like the laws, out goes the government. Why bother voting for politicians if unaccountable judges, appointed for life, get to make laws under the guise of international human rights law.

At the moment, this postmodern version of democracy is largely confined to the poor punters in Victoria. We need to hear from Rudd that this is not a precursor of similar change at a federal level under the ALP. Rudd says he is an economic conservative. He appears to be a social conservative, last week rejecting the idea of gay marriage. But where is he on the judiciary's role? There are plenty of Labor lawyers only too eager to push for more activist-minded judges.

Mention judicial activism and the usual refrain is that this is a meaningless term used by those who don't like the decisions of some judges. That's poppycock. It is a valid term if properly defined. Academic Greg Craven summed it up rather nicely a few years ago when he described judicial activists as those who believe "parliaments are untrustworthy, executives nasty and the people unreliable".

There will be plenty of opportunities for a judicial makeover, with HC justice Michael Kirby and Chief Justice Murray Gleeson soon to retire. If Labor is really impatient, they could simply legislate to increase the number of HC justices from seven to nine. There were murmurs about that before the 2004 election. And Labor has done it before.

As The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia records, when one of the founding HC justices died in 1912, Labor attorney-general Billy Hughes quickly legislated to increase the HC by an additional two judges, allowing the government to make three appointments in the last few months of office.

Who might we see as our leading judges? Rumours swirling around include human rights silk Julian Burnside as a possible future chief justice of the Federal Court and Labor lawyer George Williams scoring a seat on the High Court. Some wags are even saying that Labor's favourite Sydney silk, Bret Walker, is quietly boasting that he has been assured a seat on the High Court. And here's the irony. In government, Labor may end up appointing judges who have nothing but disdain for politicians and parliament and, yes, the people. Let's hear from Rudd that this is not on the cards.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


No comments: