Monday, April 20, 2009

Janet Albrechtsen, Freedom of Expression, hapless vaches, Monty Python and internet filtering

(Above: how to swear without using swear words).

Just as a stopped clock tells the time correctly at least twice a day (at least if it's an analogue 12 hour timepiece), so it's sometimes possible to agree with Janet Albrechtsen.

Yep, amazing but true, and only fair to note, since we normally spend a fair amount of time berating Dame Slap's intemperate slapping down of alternative opinions. The point being, she's entitled to do so, just as her opponents are also entitled to show that on some days she's barking mad and howling at a full moon, thinking it's somehow full of activist judges and well heeled indigenous activists. 

You might argue that The Australian is generally packed full, to the point of bursting seams, with this kind of barking mad columnist, but that's another matter, to do with editorial policies which will see some time down the track the Murdoch press forced to give away its product, rather like a suburban throwaway, driven by advertising sales rather than a modest charge for a hard copy (and if you go to the airport, at least in Sydney, you can see this boosting of circulation numbers via giveaways already in full swing for all the dailies).

Opinion is now one of the least valuable ingredients in a newspaper's content food chain, and it thinking otherwise always brings back fond memories of the absurd New York Times thinking they could charge a premium for readers anxious to read Maureen Dowd and David Brooks.

Anyhoo, Albrechtsen, in The freedom to be offensive,  makes the point that a lot of pious claptrap goes on when confronted by Holocaust deniers like Frederick Toben, or ratbags like George Galloway.

It's a pity really that freedom of expression isn't in an Australian bill of rights, so that those crazy Christians in Melbourne might have had some way of defending themselves in Victoria against the charge of upsetting Islamics. Why, we're even thinking of Peter Costello as our new messiah - so Paul Sheehan tells us - and he just loves those crazy Christians, and soon he'll be our freedom-loving PM. So if you love God and Peter Costello, and hate Islamics and the deceiving Jew, why not be able to shout it from the rooftops? With any luck, it'll be the kind of support that'll put the kibosh on Costello's chances.

Albrechtsen has a fine old time mauling Canada, and the sometimes conflicting actions of its Human Rights Commission, but that's not the same as the bill of rights the Canadians have. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (available here) does in fact in clause 2 allow for fundamental freedoms, including:

b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

So you need to distinguish between Albrechtsen's abhorrence of bills of rights, and activist judges, and the use of technicalities by the Canadians to stop Galloway from touring.

In fact, there's something of an argument that a bill of rights in Australia might help clarify the intent and deployment of laws like the Racial Discrimination Act. Janet doesn't take kindly to such laws:

.... when we use laws to prohibit people from expressing their offensive views, the unintended consequences are far more offensive. Suppressing even the most offensive opinions won’t make them go away. They are driven underground where they avoid the blowtorch of robust public debate and often become more powerful as they fester.

When we shut down offensive speech we lose the best possible method of demolishing bad ideas, namely demonstrating in a public forum why they are wrong. Free and full debate only kills bad ideas. It sustains and invigorates the good ones.

But Albrechtsen deguts her concern a little by staying in the ideas arena, and using easy examples like Toben, Galloway, the Danish cartoons, mad Christians battling mad Islamics, and obvious stereotypes like pommy bastards and curry eaters. 

And at the same time, she concedes a crucial point that has allowed activists to drive a truck through the freedom of expression issue:

To be sure, the right to free speech is not open slather. Laws to protect children and to protect people from words that incite violence are a necessary part of civil society.

Easy to say, but hard to sort out the words that do incite violence. Try wandering into a public bar in South Sydney, and saying loudly that the Rabbitohs suck, a sentiment that has truth, accuracy, fairness,  and moral force behind it. You'll be lucky to leave with all your teeth intact.

A more interesting dynamic can involve taking away the power of words, as for example the way blacks in America have reclaimed the word "nigger" so that now few northern whites would dare to use it in any context, even in italics, while blacks can use it freely in all kinds of contexts to subvert dominant forms of racism. Some gays have done the same with words like "poofter" - but the question in both cases isn't the form of words used, but the discrimination actually deployed, as in the case of Christians who just love homosexuals but hate their kind of loving (even when addicted to it themselves).

But you can also understand why soft-hearted liberals sometimes get very afraid, since if a popular vote can suddenly re-instate torture as a policy of the United States (and produce a fine flurry of memos arguing for its legality and efficacy), what happens if the freedom of expression of an incoherent George W. Bush leads to major out break of loonacy? 

Where it gets interesting in this country at the moment is the proposal to censor the internet, about which the right wing commentariat has remained resiliently silent, perhaps because it involves pornography (along with other issues like euthanasia), and the thorny question of censoring what for one person might be vile pornography, but to another might be sweet erotica.

If freedom of expression includes the licence to offend - a licence which in the United States explains the multi billion dollar pornography and sex industry - what price the licence in this country, and what right of expression do Australians really have, or will have if the federal Labor government has its filtering way?

It would be interesting to see what kind of consensus a discussion with Archbishop Peter Jensen would produce as we got down to the nitty gritty, especially as his brother is convinced that Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group (rather than the availability of condoms) produced the end of Western civilization as we know it.

Well he's welcome to that view - free and full debate can kill that stupid idea in a second, except in brain affected Anglicans - but it's a pity that Albrechtsen avoids biting that particular bullet.

She also avoids the issue of Australia and a few other countries refusing to turn up to a UN racism conference on the basis that it might turn out to be anti-semitic, a decision demanded by many in the right wing commentariat as a kind of censorship in advance. 

It would seem that if you followed Albrechtsen's argument, the best course would have been to turn up, argue the bad ideas down, and if that course failed, then withdraw and publish a dissenting opinion, containing a set of arguments explaining just why the conference had failed in its task. All the more important if the UN thinks it can somehow protect the Islamic religion from righteous denunciation by people not enamored with its view of the world.

That said, it's always good and easy fun to kick the Canucks, and Albrechtsen manages to do it so relentlessly that you have to think freedom of expression for her is mainly essential so that she can shellack soft-bellied Canadians.

I have some sympathy for Canadians, perhaps because my first boss was a stuttering, sensitive Canadian with a yearning for snow and ice hockey, and perhaps because much of their notable sensitivity to minorities has been induced by the Francophones in their midst, always ready to react to the slightest slight delivered by the dominant tribe of English pigs. 

You have to draw the line when freedom of expression involved the FLQ letting off a bomb or two, rather than firing a cow. In the same way that you can understand Germany might be a little bit sensitive about Toben and his holocaust denying, given where the ideas expressed in Mein Kampf eventually took that state.

Did I mention that as well as being a vegetarian, Hitler was fiercely opposed to the bodily fluid sapping effects of pornography?

The fight against pollution of the mind must be waged simultaneously with the training of the body. To-day the whole of our public life may be compared to a hot-house for the forced growth of sexual notions and incitements. A glance at the bill-of-fare provided by our cinemas, playhouses, and theatres suffices to prove that this is not the right food, especially for our young people. Hoardings and advertisements kiosks combine to attract the public in the most vulgar manner. Anyone who has not altogether lost contact with adolescent yearnings will realize that all this must have very grave consequences. This seductive and sensuous atmosphere puts notions into the heads of our youth which, at their age, ought still to be unknown to them. Unfortunately, the results of this kind of education can best be seen in our contemporary youth who are prematurely grown up and therefore old before their time. The law courts from time to time throw a distressing light on the spiritual life of our 14- and 15-year old children. Who, therefore, will be surprised to learn that venereal disease claims its victims at this age? And is it not a frightful shame to see the number of physically weak and intellectually spoiled young men who have been introduced to the mysteries of marriage by the whores of the big cities?

You have to be slightly deluded - and not notice the history of the Inquisition - to think good ideas always win, and bad ideas always lose. Still, in the end, in the balance, it's better to know what the idiots are thinking than to have them hide away and brew up an ideas feast with the aim of taking over the world.

The predicament of hapless Canadian liberals intent on doing the right thing reminds me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail,  where a French man delivers as noble a spray as has been managed over many a century. 

Arthur (on hearing a castle has a holy grail): Well ... can we come up and have a look?

Man: Of course not! You are English pigs.

Arthur: Well, what are you then?

Man: I'm French. Why do think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king.

Galahad: What are you doing in England?

Man: Mind your own business.

Arthur: If you will not show us the Grail we shall storm your castle.

(Murmurs of assent).

Man: You don't frighten us, English pig-dog! Go and boil your bottoms, son of a silly person. I blow my nose on you, so-called Arthur-king, you and your silly English K...kaniggets.

(He puts hands to his ears and blows a raspberry).

Galahad: What a strange person.

Arthur: Now look here, my good man!

Man: I don't want to talk to you, no more, you empty-headed animal, food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. You mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.

Galahad: Is there someone else up there we could talk to?

Man: No. Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time.

Arthur: Now this is your last chance. I've been more than reasonab...

Man: Fetchez la vache!

Guard: Quoi?

Man: Fetchez la vache!

Cut to battlements to see a cow led out of a stall. Cut back to Arthur.

Arthur: Now that is my final offer. If you are not prepared to agree to my
demands I shall be forced to take ... Oh Christ!

A cow comes flying over the battlements, lowing aggressively. The cow
lands on Galahad's page, squashing him completely.

Robin: What a cruel thing to do.

Bedevere (choking back tears): It hadn't even been milked.

(Below: but what about the rights of the cow and its freedom of expression, you ask, and luckily PETA is standing by, waiting right now for your application).

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