Quand une guerre éclate, les gens disent : « Ça ne durera pas, c’est trop bête. » Et sans doute une guerre est certainement trop bête, mais cela ne l’empêche pas de durer. La bêtise insiste toujours.
When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It won’t last – it is too stupid!’ And, of course, war certainly is too stupid, but that does not prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always insists.
(Camus, La Peste, 1947)
I don’t believe that the current world is significantly worse than any other period in history. As a conservative, I always think that we are in some kind of degenerate state but I don’t believe that this degenerate state is worse than any other.
The churn in Western democracies at the moment is questioning a lot of wisdom which we have not, on a grand scale, questioned for a while. We have a moment to reexamine the received wisdom that many people — far too many — accept entirely without challenge. We have intuitions about democracy, freedom of speech, and liberty that, on closer reflection, do little but support tired power structures in society. And I say this from the conservative end of politics, reflecting on the incredible expansion of the market that has filled the void where traditional state authority used to be.
But it is rare that so many people are invited and encouraged to challenge liberalism, centrism, and even democracy to engage in a discussion about what sort of a society we want and how we can go about realising that society.
The Guardian published an article by Simon Gathercole about whether there was an historical Jesus. The article is depressingly terrible and it’s annoyed me for a full day.
We should start with who Gathercole is. He is an outstanding theologian who is pushing the development of several areas of inquiry about early Christianity. When we talk about wanting Richard Dawkins to engage with serious theology, we’re talking about people like Gathercole.
But that doesn’t mean Gathercole isn’t sometimes afflicted by bouts of sloppy thinking, as evidenced by the Guardian article.
A few weeks ago, Australia’s chattering classes were gripped in an unedifying discussion about the Rule of Law. The new head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, was asked by ABC’s Leigh Sales if she believed in the Rule of Law (she did) and if that belief was inconsistent with the amount of law-breaking undertaken by unions. It was an asinine series of questions and the resulting conversation covered nobody in glory. I pointed to it as yet another example of legal theorists letting down the wider community.
What might surprise some people, perhaps, is that the same discussion points raised by the questioning of Sally McManus also arise in the recent decision to smack Assad with the tomahawk missiles.
It has been alleged — not unfairly — that I’m routinely more critical of conservatives than I am of progressives and radicals. One person has suggested that this is because I’m after a pat on the head: the vast majority of my friends and colleagues are progressives, so it is socially profitable to go after conservatives than the alternative. This greatly underestimates what an atrocious dinner guest I am.
The answer is less sinister. I have more invested in an improvement in right wing politics than I do in the left. I am like the theologian who wants to improve understanding of Christianity regardless of how many atheists I convert.
So why am I conservative?
There’s not a lot to be gained by engaging in any sort of analysis of Milo Yiannopoulos’ behaviour. He’s an attention seeker and we keep, for whatever reason, giving him attention.
I want to focus on one aspect of the Milo saga: the part where a publisher withdrew a book deal with him due to comments he’d made in support of statutory rape. I want to focus here because it raises questions about censorship and about freedom of expression and because, for whatever reason, we struggle with these concepts as a society. The problem, as ever, is that quite a lot of the tricky bits of liberalism haven’t been resolved, yet all the loudest people on social media think that they have.
The obvious answer is that ‘Guy’ was his given name, but we can (and should) look more deeply at the gendered and racial nature of anonymity. Why is Guy Fawkes — the symbol and icon — a grinning white male, and not something else?
In 1939, Robert Menzies gave the commencement speech at Canberra University College (which would later become the ANU Faculties). The speech ought to be read by every undergraduate in the country; I had to get a copy brought up from the archives where all the little-read books rest in half sleep, half death.
He delivered the speech in April 1939, shortly after becoming Prime Minister and six months prior to entering Australia into the Second World War. Menzies worries that the ‘barbaric philosophies of blood and iron are resurgent’ and that democracy is ‘on the defensive’, and he sees in universities part of the answer.
It is difficult, armed with hindsight, not to be cynical. For all the universities in the Anglophone world, and for all of the leaders with degrees from those universities, there was a lot of sympathy with Nazism among the educated elite. Their university studies did very little to disabuse them of their worst prejudices. The same occurs today: how many students really change their minds about The Big Things during their studies?
Menzies gives seven defences of ‘pure’ academic learning. One of those defences regards practical training and, in particular, the practical training of lawyers — a topic about which I spend a lot of time thinking.
Every so often, I see a story about how some fourteen-year old with an iPhone has created a lawyer app to deal with parking fines or something. The praise is always lavish: could this be the end of lawyers? But it’s nonsense. As I’ve written before, C-3PO will never be your lawyer. The law is about meaning and intent, and these things aren’t reducible to mere words. I have a theory that people are promoting machine-readable statutes for a sinister intent: there’s profit to be made in selling the software that will read statutes written in a particular way.
My conspiracy theories aside, two things have made me think about app lawyers again. The first is the inability of ordinary people to deal with the Centrelink fiasco. People are being encouraged to appeal and go through merits review, but there are bigger legal questions at play here: what is the statutory basis for Centrelink’s actions and has the statute been applied correctly? The second is that I keep getting adverts for mental health apps. This might say something bad about me, but the adverts are persistent and they make me think about the range of sensitive services (legal services, health services, &c., &c.) that we are outsourcing to app developers.
So the question arises: are we abandoning the poor and vulnerable to robo-services?
There’s an essay by Isaiah Berlin called ‘Does political theory still exist?‘ Like most of Berlin’s writing, it starts off with an interesting question and then smashes up against the rocks of his dull and uninspired thinking. By 1961, there really hadn’t been a ‘commanding work of political philosophy’ in the twentieth century and so, ‘with suspicious frequency’, people had put the question of whether political theory was still a thing.
By the end of the essay — after we’ve wandered through topics such as whether JFK was really president… again… — Berlin informs us that there’s still work for political theory to do and so it wasn’t really dead. But right up near the start of the essay, Berlin says something interesting about how intellectual disciplines fall into disrepair. First, a discipline might just be proven false, its central presuppositions having ‘withered away’ or ‘been discredited or refuted.’ Second, a discipline might have been usurped by new disciplines.
Today — an age of Brexit, Trump, debates about populism, about democratic participation, and about the (counter-)revolutionary impact of technology — there’s not a lot of doubt that political theory has interesting things to say.
But can the same be said of legal theory?
It demonstrates how poor we are at protesting and engaging in political debate that a protest about asylum seeker policy has generated more discussion about the nature of protest and about the adequacy of security of Parliament House. Don’t get me wrong: the protest was clearly wrongheaded and nonsensical, and I wonder if people’s position on the nature of protest is mostly determined by how they feel about the message of the protest. But I worry that the public is hostile to protest and political spectacle.
There’s probably another post in me about the nature of disruption, protest, and legitimacy, but it’s fairly dense and full of legal theory issues. The short version of that post amounts to: ‘Asking if disrupting parliament is legitimate is asking the wrong question.’
In this post, I want to tackle the other limb of the conversation: the security of Parliament House.