Activism and emotion pale beside science and reason

10 December 2019

6.5 MINS

By Greg Sheridan, The Australian.

Editor’s Note: Greg Sheridan describes the increasing violence and anarchy afflicting Western societies, without regard to democratic, reasoned decision-making or the good of the nation. How can we move forward in the face of dangerous hysterical activism?
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Here’s the punchline — political culture in the West has become so crazy that in the pursuit of love and justice, people increasingly practise hate and violence.

In a sign of the deepening political crisis in Western culture, strikes and protests crippled most of France on Friday. The protesters were upset that the government might marginally raise the retirement age. These are successor mobilisations to the Yellow Vest protests a year ago in which hundreds of thousands of people paralysed and vandalised the French capital. Emmanuel Macron was going to implement a small fuel price increase as part of combating climate change.

The French protests illustrate the broader cultural crisis of Western politics in two specific ways. First, it is core religious dogma of all progressives that radical action must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Activists never level with people that this must mean drastically reduced living standards. So when inevitably climate action explicitly reduces living standards, the public rebels.

Second, the French protests ­illustrate a deeper element of the Western crisis: a new contempt for the processes of politics and reasoned decision-making. There is contempt especially for election results that progressives don’t like, and a deep belief that all such ­results are corrupt in themselves and, in any event, partake of an ­inferior morality to the overriding morality of the progressive cause.

There are plenty of anti-democratic tendencies on the right, ­especially among the deadly fringe of white supremacists, anti-Semites and racists generally on the far right. But it is the progressive world view that is promulgated in state education systems across the West — from preschool to university — and in state-owned broadcasters, and in the Hollywood-dominated entertainment industry and in most mass media (with honourable exceptions).

These progressive causes range from climate change through the gender politics agenda, the redress of past racial injustice, aggressive secularism intent on removing ­religion from the public square, ­intersectional identity crusades through income and wealth redistribution and ending inequality.

There is some measure of justice in all these causes. But their most ardent proponents take them to unreasonable, at times insane, extremes. And, most important, their champions see them as so morally transcendent as to justify breaking all the rules of democratic politics, as justifying physical direct action as well as the foulest abuse imaginable.

This is a deep crisis in Western political culture and Australia is experiencing it fully. Let me offer some examples. Conservative senator Cory Bernardi retired from the Senate this week and warmly thanked the Australian Federal Police for their help over the years. Bernardi is not an extremist. He also does not claim any victim status. But it turns out people have come to his home making threats, his wife has been subject to vicious texting abuse, people have threatened savage violence against him and the schools his kids attended. This sort of thing goes on across the board ideologically.

The three causes that excited the most abuse for Bernardi were his opposition to same-sex marriage, his opposition to strong ­action on climate change and his criticisms of Islamism, although the latter was by far the least of it.

Gerard Henderson is a distinguished columnist on this newspaper. Among many subjects he considers, he has written lucidly and at length, and in a vein similar to lawyers and scholars, about aspects of the legal judgments against George Pell, who was convicted of child sexual ­assault offences. Pell asserts his innocence and his appeal will be heard in the High Court next year.

Louise Milligan, an ABC journalist who wrote a book attacking Pell that has been criticised by Henderson, among others, for ­alleged factual problems, tweeted that Henderson was “a vile bully” and was involved in “pedophile protecting”. Not by the wildest ­interpretation could you construe anything Henderson has ever written as sympathetic to or protecting pedophiles. Yet if you didn’t read Henderson’s columns and only saw Milligan’s tweets, you would form a wildly inaccurate view of him. And yet Milligan is a mainstream journalist. Her ­offensive tweets are a minor example of the way a sense of righteous rage blinds activists to considerations of fairness, civility or keeping in touch with reality.

These examples are straws in the wind. There are thousands upon thousands of others. Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute has written an interesting short book, Our Very Own Brexit. He diagnoses, correctly, a certain “hollowing out” of our political system, a loss of faith in it. Where he is seriously mistaken is in concluding this is likely to produce ­triumphant right-wing populism that would be expressed through one side of politics wanting to end immigration to Australia.

Right-wing and left-wing populism end up being very similar, but left-wing extremism is much more pervasive in Western societies than right-wing extremism. Jeremy Corbyn is, according to numerous polls, just a “regulation polling error” (as British journalist Liam Halligan puts it) from becoming prime minister next week, with all his decades of support for terrorists, anti-Semites, dictators and communists. There is nothing remotely equivalent on the right.

The movement most likely to produce extremism in our politics is green activism. We have seen in the Occupy Wall Street, farm ­invasion and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations a contempt for normal politics, a determination to take direct action and a settled conviction that mere democratic election confers no legitimacy on a government. And the accompanying conviction that anyone who opposes these movements justifies extreme rhetorical, and sometimes physical, attack.

John Anderson, former deputy prime minister and long-time cattle farmer, thinks there is every chance extremism on climate change will hurt Australia economically, blight the future of young people and polarise and coarsen our politics, without doing anything to help the planet.

One of Anderson’s great qualities is balance and restraint, qualities little esteemed in this moment of cultural derangement. He tells me:

“On climate, we have to adopt a mixture of mitigation and adaptation. But the world is not going to end. Internationally, grain prices are low because production keeps rising ahead of demand.”

Feeding the world, he says, causes 30 per cent of global emissions. Should we stop feeding the world? Anderson surprises me with his priority policy prescription:

“Reducing food waste would be our most important contribution. Australia wastes something like 40 per cent of the food it produces and uses.”

What a wonderfully unglamorous, unromantic, undramatic, practical thing it is we really need to do — stop wasting food.

“There is an effort to delegitimise our industry,” he says.

“The problem is the debate has moved from science and reason to one of political activism and emotion. People are involved in these campaigns with very different agendas.

“It involves a lot of people who have come to loathe our culture and our history and think capitalism and profits are dirty words. This overlooks the enormous positive contribution of the West.

“Competition and innovation in business, combined with a lot of compassion, have contributed to reducing the proportion of malnourished people in the world from 40 to 50 per cent 50 years ago, to 15 per cent now. Life expectancy has doubled. Education has kept increasing.”

Farmers, he says, care passionately about the climate and the mix of policies he would like to see focuses on better farming, less ­dependency in farming on fossil fuels, greater carbon sequestration and a reduction in energy intensity in feeding the world. (Though he says we must recognise no carbon reduction policy of ours will have any effect on droughts or fires.)

These are gradual, ameliorative measures of the type Western ­societies have undertaken in confronting countless problems before, but they won’t fire a demon­stration, cause anyone to glue themselves to the road, invade a farm, threaten a politician’s family, so they stand against the perversities of the zeitgeist.

Ideology and emotion are everywhere destroying good policy options. Says Anderson:

“Every scientist will tell you that one of the most valuable transition fuels we have is gas, but we’ve allowed the Greens to demonise even gas.

“Gas could save us from exporting our industries to places that use energy far less efficiently and will produce much greater greenhouse gas emissions. We could easily end up de-industrialising Australia without doing anything to lower emissions on the planet.”

Anderson draws deeper cultural lessons: “Our young people have been trained to rely on their emotions rather than facts.”

Modern education and culture, he thinks, tell young people that the world is divided between completely good people and completely bad people, and “climate change hysteria could be the tipping point for Western societies”.

How we got to this point is a huge intellectual debate. Many writers see the loss of religion, the loss of unifying transcendent ­belief, as key.

Os Guinness in Last Shout for Liberty argues the West is still ­adjudicating the conflict between the American Revolution, which was a conservative movement to allow citizens to pursue lives of virtue and tradition with minimum interference from the state, and the French Revolution, which empowered the state to do anything.

We need to break free of the syndrome that now grips the West, of ever greater protest, ever more vitriol, ever feebler politics held in ever greater contempt.

Oh, and ever greater competition from rising nations untroubled by these complexes.


Greg Sheridan, The Australian‘s foreign editor, is one of the nation’s most influential national security commentators, who is active across television and radio and also writes extensively on culture. He has written seven books. His latest, God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, is a passionate defence of religious belief in a secular age. Before that, When We Were Young and Foolish was an entertaining memoir of culture, politics and journalism. As foreign editor, he specialises in Asia. He has interviewed Presidents and Prime Ministers across the world.

Photos by Vincent M.A. Janssen from Pexels; Norbu Gyachung at Wikimedia Commons.

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One Comment

  1. […] take—would that not rightly invoke an emotional response? Well, what we’re seeing today is an emotionally-driven wave of environmental hysteria, closely mimicking Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Because we fear […]

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