Too many rights make a wrong
By Australian commentator Janet Albrechtsen
It was one of those rare, particularly sunny days in Vancouver in September when, addressing an audience at the University of British Columbia, I suggested that multiculturalism and its partner in crime, moral relativism, were leading to the demise of Western values. "But you must understand," implored a well-intentioned woman in the audience, "multiculturalism is Canada's gift to the world."
If Australia is set to follow Canada, then thanks, but no thanks. Call me ungrateful, but we should have returned the gift to Canada long ago. I say that as someone who has long adored Canada. Its politics may be as dripping wet as Vancouver, but the people are warm and funny, and there is something sweet about the US's insecure, slightly wimpy northern neighbour. Yet there comes a point when weakness morphs into a reckless death wish.
That point is about now. I'm back in Canada and the distinct chill is not just in the air. Last Friday, conservative commentator Ezra Levant was hauled before Alberta's Human Rights and Citizenship Commission for publishing the infamous Danish Mohammed cartoons two years ago in the Western Standard. Syed Soharwardy, the head of Canada's Islamic Supreme Council, complained that Levant had incited hate against Muslims.
Levant's opening statement was a tour de force as far as punchy defences of free speech go. Apparently viewed almost 200,000 times, it is one of the most-watched clips on YouTube in recent times. It's also on his website, www.ezralevant.com, where he describes the chilling process: "No six-foot brownshirt, no police cell at midnight. Just Shirlene McGovern, an amiable enough bureaucrat, casually asking me about my political thoughts on behalf of the Government of Alberta. And she'll write up a report about it, and recommend that the Government do this or that to me. Just going through checklists, you see ... a limp clerk who was just punching the clock. She had done it dozens of times before and will do it dozens of times again. In a way, that's more terrifying." It was, said Levant, the epitome of Hannah Arendt's warning against "the banality of evil".
Refreshingly, Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the chap who helped found these commissions in the 1960s and '70s, was equally appalled. Writing in the Calgary Herald, he said "during the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech". Pointing to the empire-building frolic of the commissions, Borovoy advised that the legislation needed to be changed to make it clear that these commissions had no business investigating and making edicts about thought crimes.
Borovoy's warning about the alarming expansion of the jurisdiction of these rights bodies adds another and very timely warning for Australians about the implications of human rights law. Expressed in impossibly platitudinous and therefore vague language, these so-called human rights bodies effectively decide how far their reach extends. Canada shows where we will end up in due time: with a system of governance where large swaths of social policy have been delegated by parliament to the unelected grey bureaucrats, who get to implement "progressive" policies that could never get through a body of elected politicians.
As the jurisdiction of these commissions expands into areas never originally intended, fundamental freedoms contract. When state bodies start enforcing the religious prohibitions of Muslims, which forbid the depiction of the prophet Mohammed, it destroys a few fundamental Western values, namely the separation of mosque and state and, more critically, the freedom of speech.
This is not simply a defence of Levant because he is a conservative columnist. Far from it. If a bleeding heart on the Left was dragged before a human rights commission for thinking and saying unpalatable things, even stupid things, the defence would remain the same. Defending the right to say the right things is easy. Defending the right to say the wrong things, even offensive things, is what counts if we are serious about free speech.
That's why, some years ago, I wrote in defence of my colleague Phillip Adams when he was accused of racial vilification by an American who was offended by Adams's assertion that the US was one of the most violent nations on earth and was largely to blame for the events of September 11. The comments were daft but Adams has a right to be wrong and so it was important to stand up for his right to say it.
Allowing a state body to investigate it as a speech crime sends a chill down the spine of Western progress. As Levant argued, "Freedom of expression is only meaningful when it trumps other values, such as political sensibilities, or religious dogma, or personal sensitivities. Indeed, Western civilisation's progress in all realms, ranging from science to art, to religion, to feminism, to civil rights for racial minorities and gays, has come about from the free expression of ideas that necessarily offended some earlier order." In short, self-criticism is at the core of the West's progress. The battle of ideas may be no place for the faint-hearted, but it produces exceptional results by thrusting forward the better ideas.
In the Canadian multicultural zeitgeist, where bland political correctness is preferred, those on the Right tend to get hit more often by ludicrous complaints to human rights commissions. A bunch of law students marched off to a Canadian human rights commission complaining about Maclean's for running an excerpt from Mark Steyn's book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. Steyn, like Levant, can defend himself. As Steyn wrote on his blog: "I don't want to get off the hook. I want to take the hook and stick it up the collective butt of these thought police." But what about the little guys put through the human rights commission wringer? Failing to complain about the quotidian incidences of oppression by human rights bodies only encourages the egregious examples to occur.
Take the case of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal drafting an inane apology last November to be run by the Mission Beach Advertiser for publishing an admittedly unpleasantly anti-gay letter that offended the catch-all Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Intersex Anti-Violence Committee. Or when the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal upheld a complaint against The Australian's opinion page editor, Tom Switzer, for saying perfectly accurately, if somewhat colourfully, in 1998 that the Palestinians were "vicious thugs" who were derailing the peace process.
So, we need to watch Canada. As it goes, so will we. And even if you can stomach the idea of handing over power over social policy to unelected bureaucrats and self-opinionated lawyers, you might like to hang on to free speech. Oh Canada, where are you taking us?
New York Times Sunday Book Review of "Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11" by Matthias Kuentzel
The anti-Semitic worldview, generally speaking, is fantastically stupid. If its propagandists actually understood the chosen people, they would know, for instance, that no one, not the chief of Mossad, not even the president of Hadassah, could persuade 4,000 Jews to stay home from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. ("And why should I listen to you?" would have been the near-universal rebuttal to the call.) Anti-Semitic conspiracy literature not only posits crude and senseless ideas, but also tends to be riddled with typos, repetitions and gross errors of grammar, and for this and other reasons I occasionally have trouble taking it seriously.
The German scholar Matthias Kuentzel tells us this is a mistake. He takes anti-Semitism, and in particular its most potent current strain, Muslim anti-Semitism, very seriously indeed. His bracing, even startling, book, "Jihad and Jew-Hatred" (translated by Colin Meade), reminds us that it is perilous to ignore idiotic ideas if these idiotic ideas are broadly, and fervently, believed. And across the Muslim world, the very worst ideas about Jews - intricate, outlandish conspiracy theories about their malevolent and absolute power over world affairs - have become scandalously ubiquitous. Hezbollah and Hamas, to name two prominent examples, understand the world largely through the prism of Jewish power. Hezbollah officials employ language that shamelessly echoes Nazi propaganda, describing Jews as parasites and tumors and prescribing the murder of Jews as a kind of chemotherapy.
The question is not only why, of course, but how: how did these ideas, especially those that portray Jews as all-powerful, work their way into modern-day Islamist discourse? The notion of the Jew as malevolently omnipotent is not a traditional Muslim notion. Jews do not come off well in the Koran - they connive and scheme and reject the message of the Prophet Muhammad - but they are shown to be, above all else, defeated. Muhammad, we read, conquered the Jews in battle and set them wandering. In subsequent centuries Jews lived among Muslims, and it is true that their experience was generally healthier than that of their brethren in Christendom, but only so long as they knew their place; they were ruled and taxed as second-class citizens and were often debased by statute. In the Jim Crow Middle East, no one believed the Jews were in control.
Obviously, then, these modern-day ideas about Jewish power were imported from Europe, and Kuentzel makes a bold and consequential argument: the dissemination of European models of anti-Semitism among Muslims was not haphazard, but an actual project of the Nazi Party, meant to turn Muslims against Jews and Zionism. He says that in the years before World War II, two Muslim leaders in particular willingly and knowingly carried Nazi ideology directly to the Muslim masses. They were Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, and the Egyptian proto-Islamist Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. The story of the mufti is a familiar one: he was the leader of the Arabs in Palestine, and Palestine’s leading anti-Jewish agitator. He eventually embraced the Nazis and spent most of the war in Berlin, recruiting Bosnian Muslims for the SS and agitating for the harshest possible measures against Jews. Kuentzel writes that the mufti became upset with Himmler in 1943, when he sought to trade 5,000 Jewish children for 20,000 German prisoners. Himmler came around to the mufti’s thinking, and the children were gassed.
Hassan al-Banna did not embrace Nazism in the same uncomplicated manner, but through the 1930s, his movement, aided by the Germans, led the drive against not only political Zionism but Jews in general. "This burgeoning Islamist movement was subsidized with German funds," Kuentzel writes. "These contributions enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to set up a printing plant with 24 employees and use the most up-to-date propaganda methods." The Muslim Brotherhood, Kuentzel goes on, was a crucial distributor of Arabic translations of "Mein Kampf" and the "Protocols." Across the Arab world, he states, Nazi methods and ideology whipped up anti-Zionist fervor, and the effects of this concerted campaign are still being felt today.
Kuentzel marshals impressive evidence to back his case, but he sometimes oversimplifies. One doesn’t have to be soft on Germany to believe it was organic Muslim ideas as well as Nazi ideas that led to the spread of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. In his effort to blame Germany for Muslim anti-Semitism, he overreaches. "While Khomeini was certainly not an acolyte of Hitler, it is not unreasonable to suppose that his anti-Jewish outlook... had been shaped during the 1930s," Kuentzel says, citing, in a footnote, an article he himself wrote. He also oversimplifies the Israeli-Arab conflict. Jews today have actual power in the Middle East, and Israel is not innocent of excess and cruelty.
Still, Kuentzel is right to state that we are witnessing a terrible explosion of anti-Jewish hatred in the Middle East, and he is right to be shocked. His invaluable contribution, in fact, is his capacity to be shocked, by the rhetoric of hate and by its consequences. The former Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi once told me that "the question is not what the Germans did to the Jews, but what the Jews did to the Germans." The Jews, he said, deserved their punishment. Kuentzel argues that we should see men like Rantisi for what they are: heirs to the mufti, and heirs to the Nazis.
The China temptation
2008 will be China's year. The Olympic Games -- no doubt perfectly organized, without a protester, homeless person, religious dissenter or any other kind of spoilsport in sight -- will almost certainly bolster China's global prestige. While the U.S. economy gets dragged down further in a swamp of bad property debts, China will continue to boom.
Exciting new buildings, designed by the world's most famous architects, will make Beijing and Shanghai look like models of 21st century modernity. Chinese entrepreneurs will be featured more and more in those annual lists of the world's richest people. And Chinese artists, favored by their newly rich compatriots, will command prices at art auctions that many others can only dream of.
To come back from near destitution and bloody tyranny in one generation is a great feat, and China should be saluted for it. But China's success story is also the most serious challenge that liberal democracy has faced since fascism in the 1930s. This is not because China poses a great military threat. War with the U.S., or even Japan, is only a fantasy in the minds of a few ultra-nationalist cranks and paranoiacs.
No, it is in the realm of ideas that the China model is scoring victories because the country's material success (despite its consequences for the natural environment) is making its political-economic model look like an attractive alternative to liberal democratic capitalism.
Contrary to what some pundits are saying, Chinese capitalism is not like 19th century European capitalism. The European working class, not to mention women, may not have had the right to vote 200 years ago, but it was possible to have many forms of organized life, for all social classes, that were independent of the state. Even during the most ruthless phases of Western capitalism, civil society in Europe and the U.S. was made up of a huge network of clubs, parties, societies and associations ranging from churches to sports clubs. The same was true of far-from-democratic China before Chairman Mao Tse-tung crushed everything that challenged the absolute monopoly of his Communist Party.
Since the death of Maoism, Chinese individuals have regained many personal freedoms, but not the freedom to organize anything politically, or otherwise, that is not under the control of the party. Communism may be bankrupt as an ideology, but in its lack of civil society, China has not changed. The China model is sometimes described in traditional terms, as though modern Chinese politics were an updated version of Confucianism. In fact, however, a society in which the pursuit of money by the country's elite is elevated above all other human endeavors is a very far cry from any kind of Confucianism that may have existed in the past.
Still, it's hard to argue with success. If anything has been put to rest by the Chinese rise to wealth, it is the comforting idea that capitalism, and the growth of a prosperous bourgeoisie, will end up inevitably in liberal democracy. On the contrary, it is precisely that same rich middle class, bought off by promises of ever-greater material gains, that hopes to conserve the current political order. It may be a Faustian bargain -- prosperity in exchange for political obedience, indeed abdication -- but so far it is a bargain that has worked.
The China model is not just attractive to the new elites of coastal China. It has a global appeal. African dictators, or indeed dictators everywhere, who walk the plush red carpets laid out for them in Beijing love it. The model is non-Western, and the Chinese do not preach to others about democracy. They are hardly in a position to do so even if they wanted to. But China is also a source of vast amounts of money, much of which will end up in the pockets of the tyrants themselves. Corruption is not the point, however. The real success is ideological. By proving that authoritarianism can be successful, China is an example to autocrats everywhere, from Moscow to Dubai, from Islamabad to Khartoum.
China's appeal is growing in the Western world as well. Businessmen, media moguls, architects -- they all flock to China. What could be a better place to do business in, or to build stadiums and skyscrapers, or to sell information technology and media networks, than a country without independent trade unions, or indeed any form of organized protest that could hinder business? Meanwhile, concerns for human rights, or civic rights, are denigrated as outmoded or expressions of arrogant Western imperialism.
There is, however, a fly in the ointment. No economy keeps growing at the same pace forever. Crises occur. What if the bargain between the Chinese middle classes and the one-party state were to come unstuck because there is a pause, or even a setback, in the race for ever-more material wealth? This has happened before. The closest thing, in some ways, to the China model is 19th century Germany, with its industrial strength, its cultivated but politically neutered middle class and its tendency toward aggressive nationalism. In the case of Germany, nationalism became lethal when the economy crashed and social unrest threatened to upset the political order.
The same could happen in China, where national pride constantly teeters on the edge of belligerence toward Japan, Taiwan and, ultimately, the West. Aggressive Chinese nationalism, nascent for the moment, could turn lethal too if its economy were to falter and the pact with the middle class were to fall apart.
The only way to deflect domestic unrest would be to deflect it toward targets abroad. Because this would not be in anyone's interest, we should wish all the best for China in 2008, while sparing a thought for all the dissidents, democrats and free spirits languishing in labor camps and prisons, and hope that they will live to see the day when the Chinese too will be a free people. It might be a distant dream, but what is the New Year season good for, if not for dreaming?
The wowsers will run out of things to ban
Comment from Australia. "Wowser" stands for "We Only Want Social Evils Removed" -- a onetime slogan of temperance campaigners. But the term is now applied in Australia to Puritanical killjoys generally
Crisis looms. Corporate empires could be laid waste, countless jobs lost and millions of dollars in public funding disappear unless something is done now to open up new markets. No, we're not talking about the Australian car industry or the rural sector but that great growth industry of recent years, the do-gooder lobby group. Judging by the news reports of the past few weeks, very shortly the wowsers and the self-righteous of this country will soon run out of things to ban and areas of our lives to control and intrude upon.
Think about it. What a flying start to the new year for the nanny state. We ended 2007 with calls to ban smoking in outdoor areas such as the Queen Street Mall, because some people apparently get upset at a whiff of tobacco smoke mixed in with the miasma of car exhaust fumes. Not to be outdone, the ever sanctimonious Australian Drug Foundation then suggested a ban on alcohol on planes because a small minority of passengers get squiffy to the point of being obstreperous. Then we welcomed 2008 with federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's harebrained commitment to force all internet service providers to provide a "clean feed" to Australian homes which will censor all the naughty bits that the Government doesn't think fit for working families.
This is because some parents apparently don't supervise their children's internet usage, or fail to install their own filtering software. Who knows what vile filth their delicate progeny might see - possibly images of sweating semi-naked young men kissing and hugging in an orgy of homo-erotic excitement. If that's the case, then don't let them watch the soccer. Easy.
Anyway, news then emerged that various state governments are testing speed-limiters for cars because a small minority of drivers act like bloody idiots on the road. Anyone picking up a theme here? Something to do with imposing a blanket restriction or ban on everyone because of the behaviour or wishes of a vocal minority? Or maybe society forgetting the concept of people taking responsibility for their own actions?
That said, the professional campaigners - from the rabid anti-smokers to the Citizens Against Neighbours Who Have Cats That Once Killed a Bird (it was a noisy miner and we're better off without it, so get over it) have just about had their way. Short of the Temperance League making a comeback, there's not much alleged good for many of the do-gooders left to do. So to protect the sinecure of countless professional crusaders, new fronts of attack on our personal freedoms need to be opened up. Here's a few helpful campaign suggestions:
* Road Safety: Ban caravans. In one move you will remove the single greatest cause of road rage in Australia by removing this poison from our nation's automotive arteries. Countless lives will be saved, greenhouse emissions will be reduced and any selfish bastard caught venturing on to our roads towing a Viscount or Millard can spend the rest of their miserable life making a useful contribution to society by making number plates at the nearest correctional facility. While we're at it, let's also campaign to ban all smoking in cars because it could be distracting, and make it illegal to sell vehicles with a radio for the same reason. In fact, in terms of dangerous driver distractions, let's ban young children in cars as well.
* Food: Food kills. To reduce the obesity epidemic in Australia, we need to introduce patron care to supermarkets, in the same way that all the fun of getting absolutely rat-arsed at the pub has been taken away from us. Next time a plumper pushes a trolley laden with potato crisps, frozen pies, ice cream and soft drink up to the checkout, they should be firmly told they've already had too much and can't be served . . . just expand the "No more. It's the Law", campaign.
* Gambling: This one's red hot and ripe for milking a bit of funding for a smart campaigner. There's probably years of sound bites and donations to be extracted from a campaign to rid our society of a scourge that first appeared when the convicts off the First Fleet saw their first two flies on a wall. Who knows, there might even be a Senate seat and federal sinecure in it for a slick operator.
Someone's already done pokies, though, so maybe a crafty campaigner could shift their holier-than-thou indignation to horse racing, bringing you into opposition with big government and big business - a sure fire attention grabber and donation attracter.
* Booze: Alcohol has to be the next big one on the radar. The smoking battle is just about won, so let's demonise anyone who likes a tipple because a minority act like galahs when they've had a few too many. Warning labels would be a good start, followed by rationing. "Sorry sir, you've had your three standard drinks. I can't serve you any more." There's a decade or two of lucrative righteous self-aggrandisement in that one.
Actually, I'm wrong in my original premise about the do-gooders running out of nanny state campaigns. There's a wealth of untapped opportunity. We could have shower-cams to monitor our water usage - a bit like speed cameras but potentially more profitable depending on how you use the footage. What about installing noise meters in all homes to monitor barking dogs, power tools and loud stereo abusers?
Or perhaps we should consider banning columns like this because they take the piss out of the narrow-minded and sanctimonious and, judging by the fan mail I receive, offend a minority of people who wouldn't have enough functioning brain cells to look up "satire" in the dictionary let alone understand the definition. Get a life people. Then live and let live as you see fit. And leave the rest of us alone.
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 blogger.com is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.