On my visits to Australia I have felt a strong sense of mystery and even apprehension. How is it that a civilisation so suburban and seemingly secure should have established itself at this wild limit of the world? It might look startlingly like Britain, and yet, Australia is utterly unlike my settled, habituated, and decaying nation. It hangs suspended in a sort of void. It has inherited the language, and Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights, and even an adversarial parliament, that priceless jewel. But beyond the city limits you will not find the deep, intimate, muddy landscape that Cromwell knew and which I can still visit, full of history and monuments, reminding us that there are in fact limits to what governments – and people – may do, binding us to habit and tradition and dampening our ardours with drizzle. Instead there are gum trees, cockatoos and then naked desert, and of course, the previous population, whose dispossession must be officially regretted but will not be rescinded any time soon. How unsettling must that be? Canberra will, I think, always look as if it has been lowered into its site from a spaceship.
When I think, as I often do, that I should love to live in the beautiful, clean, optimistic world of the antipodes, I wonder if I could really cope with it, or if the transplant would ever take. Because if you fall through the floor in Australia, you keep on falling. I sense that, once Australia finally slashes through the remaining rotted, frayed cables and ropes that tie it to its British origins, almost anything could happen.
I had a very strong sense of that void when I appeared, in November 2013, on the ABC’s Q&A as part of my obligation to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas to which (to my great surprise) I had been invited. I had never heard of Dan Savage before that evening. I shall certainly not forget him. He came storming out of nowhere into my life, unrestrained by any visible rules.
I do not think that the BBC’s ‘Question Time’, would have allowed him to speak to me as he did, let alone use phrases such as ‘suck dick’ and ‘full of sh-t.’ How had I let myself in for this? I watched as Dan Savage stated, again and again, the maxims of the creed I call Selfism. What genius thought of basing the new paganism on self-worship, the idol who is always right and never fails?
Mr Savage just cannot stop interrupting me, intoxicated by the exuberance of his own certainty. Take the point at which he tells me, after I have referred to the intolerance of the moral left, ‘You’re paranoid and you’re projecting by saying we are intolerant.’ I responded: ‘See, this is the intolerance. Because I hold an opinion different from his, he has become suddenly a qualified psychoanalyst … who can tell me that my opinions … .’
At this point, in any normally restrained debate (even one dominated by the left), Mr Savage would have known that he would make my point by interrupting me. I also think that a moderator would have intervened. But this didn’t happen, Mr Savage leapt in to say, ‘You’re entitled to your opinions. You’re not entitled to your smears.’ To this day, I don’t know what ‘smears’ he meant. But it wasn’t the moment to ask. I just carried on as if he hadn’t interrupted: ‘… are a pathology. And this is the absolute seed bed of totalitarianism … .’ Unworried that he might appear to be trying to shut me up he said, ‘You’re the one standing there pathologising other people’s choices.’ I wasn’t. But he got away with it. I ploughed on: ‘… the beginning of the stage that leads to the secret police and the Gulags.’ He retorted, ‘You sit there saying that other people being free to live their lives by their own light … oppresses you, when it oppresses you in no way whatsoever. … People are freer now, happier now. It’s a less intolerant world than it used to be because people like me are now empowered to look at people like you and say you are full of sh-t.’
After the programme, he expressed concern that he might have gone too far. I reassured him that it was all in a day’s work. Indeed, I have often prayed for him, because, in truth, I rather like him and think his noisy persona is a sad consequence of living in a world where the Christian case has not been very well put.
Perhaps one day we will recall this as the high tide of ‘libertarianism’, when the answer to self-disciplining morality is in all cases a fervent, righteous and often angry claim that we owe nothing to anyone but ourselves. Who are you to say I should wait around in this difficult marriage to see that my children grow up securely? Who are you to say I shouldn’t kill this unborn baby? Who are you to say I shouldn’t buy this company, strip it of its assets and walk away with the money leaving hundreds of people jobless? Who are you to say I shouldn’t smuggle these migrants past legal border controls, for money? And so on.
Supposed political conservatism long ago embraced the Selfism of money, while the political left was embracing the Selfism of the body. They have ended up in a sort of heteropolitical civil partnership, formed of the ideas of Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, whose hideous lovechild is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
Why shouldn’t the Opera House audience have behaved as they did? Whichever way they look, they see an endless freedom. The end of this is the world of Mad Max, but it does not come immediately. They grow up in an Enid Blyton world of safe suburbs and banality and think that their pursuit of liberty is a garden game. Then they find, beyond the hedges and fences, that they are in a cruel jungle full of beasts that fight and tear.
More than 50 years ago Leonard Cohen sang: ‘Where do all these highways go, now that we are free?’ Given the chance to answer this, I named the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead as the most dangerous idea in all human history. For if it were not so dangerous, we would not fear and dislike it so. Oddly enough, it is when you see the power of the enemy on full display, that you most readily recognise the enormous countervailing power of the God of Love. The knowledge that what we do matters, and why, and how service can be perfect freedom, is what makes us truly free.
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