Deeds that move the wheels of the world

16 July 2023

By: John Roskam

My comments on rebuilding a culture of freedom last weekend in Hobart.

The road must be trod, but it will be very hard.  And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it.  This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong.  Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.

Those lines from The Lord of the Rings about the deeds that ‘move the wheels of the world’ came to me as I was preparing for a talk I gave in Hobart last weekend at a conference of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies.  The conference theme was how to save our heritage of Western Civilisation and all the presentations were outstanding and they’ll be available online in the next few weeks.  My subject was ‘Rebuilding a Culture of Freedom’ and I talked about how our liberties are more likely to be secured by someone we’d previously never heard of than by a politician or any of the great or the good.

This is an outline of what I said.

Freedom is now the province of dissidents and heretics  In the fight for freedom one Peter Ridd or Bill Leak or Calum Thwaites or Zoe Buhler is worth ten government ministers.  Jacinta Price is the exception – not the rule.  It’s the dissidents who bring about change and risk their careers and their livelihoods for a point of principle.  It’s they who remind us for what we’re fighting.

The ‘great’ have their gaze upon themselves focussed on their next promotion or board appointment.  The ‘great’ don’t need looking after, and they keep their power by simply fitting in and going along with the flow.  The ‘great’ and the good never talk about the importance of freedom of speech is because they rarely feel the need to say anything that doesn’t conform with what their peers say and think.  The ‘great’ care little about freedom because they never wish to be anything but orthodox – which is why it falls to us to defend the legacy of liberty.  But if we are to defend liberty we must be realistic about the situation in which we find ourselves.

For too long Australian committed to freedom have consoled themselves believing that while their condition is desperate, it’s not yet serious. As Christians lose their jobs, as Liberal and Labor government embrace government censorship of our speech and opinions, and as the heritage that’s created liberal democracy and the rule of law is obliterated too many of us have shrugged our shoulders and uttered some variation of ‘oh well, it’s always darkest before dawn’ or ‘the tide will turn’ or ‘the pendulum will swing back’.

But a pendulum swung from one side to the other never returns to its original position.

We need to understand that in Australia we’re not losing our freedoms – we’ve already lost them.  If you don’t feel you’re a free person you’re not.   The institutions that once sustained our freedoms either no longer exist or are hostile to freedom.  Two years of COVID is proof that the principles or practices of freedom are no defence against the government.  Put simply, if the Australian public were ever to be given the choice between liberty and security, it is now clear which they will choose.  Remember while Daniel Andrews was decisively re-elected last year, so was Mark McGowan in 2021.

COVID revealed Australians to be among the most obedient public in the world.  If the arrest and handcuffing of a mother in her pajamas in her living room in front of her screaming children for a social media post advertising a lawful protest doesn’t arouse a population and its politicians than probably nothing will.  No matter what the circumstances, a free country is not one which doesn’t allow it’s citizen to enter or exit.

One of the most perceptive historians of this country, John Hirst wrote nearly twenty years ago about the myth we tell ourselves that we are easy-going, freedom-loving larrikins.

At my university, at the beginning of each semester, I am asked to speak to the new students from overseas. My task is to tell them what sort of society they have come to. Most of what I say is very conventional and would not surprise you. But one thing I say I ask them to keep secret from the Australians they will meet. I tell them that Australians are a very obedient people. I advise them to keep this secret because Australians imagine themselves to be the opposite of obedient. They think of themselves as anti-authority. They love a larrikin. Their most revered national hero is a criminal outlaw, the bushranger Ned Kelly. Their unofficial national anthem honours an unemployed vagrant who commits suicide rather than be taken by the police troopers for stealing a sheep.  All this is true. So I am careful to give the evidence for Australian obedience.

[O]ne of the most distinctive features of Australian political life, the compulsion to vote. Other countries have this provision but none in the English-speaking world. We did not copy it from anywhere else; we worked it out for ourselves.

The existence of government is taken for granted and the people can be forced to be citizens.  Government is without social character; it is an impersonal force. That makes it possible for Australian egalitarians to give it the great respect which its record deserves. Australians are suspicious of persons in authority, but towards impersonal authority they are very obedient.

That government is simply there; that its existence does not have to be explained: that has been the Australian experience. Government in Australia has been continuous; it has never broken down and had to be reconstituted. Except in the treatment of Aborigines, government has never been an oppressive force, something that large numbers of people feared.

Australian government was not created in Australia. The government came off the boat, in the person of the Governor and his officials, carrying all the authority of the government in Britain. With only one exception settlers never had to come together and form a government. The authority which secured to them the benefits of their pioneering was not of their making.

Hirst argued whatever freedoms Australians once enjoyed were given to them, not won and that because of our history the state has been relatively benign we therefore tend to assume the best, not the worst, of our rulers.

The reality is that today in Australia, freedom is very much a niche interest.  It goes without saying we’re more free than say the residents of Hong Kong.  Our elections are still free and we still can choose who to vote for (even if our major parties are virtually indistinguishable from each other).

To say that ‘freedom is lost’ is not to suggest that freedom can’t ever be regained.  It can be, but it’s much more difficult win back something than to maintain a hold of it.  If ever we are to win back our freedom there are some things we must understand three things.

(1)        The way to freedom is not through politics.

Andrew Breitbart was right.  ‘Politics is downstream from culture’.  If we want to change our politics we must first change our culture.  The Liberal Party is not a cultural institution, it has no interest in culture, and its influence on the country’s culture in recent decades as been negligible.  Unlike the ALP that understands cultural power, the Liberals have done nothing to foster intellectual or policy support for either the party or its aims.  When Liberal MPs claim their party should avoid the ‘culture wars’ it reveals just how far their party is removed from the battle for the Australian way of life.  No Labor MP would ever say their party should only talk about economics.

The Liberal Party, just like any other civil institution is a creature of a nation’s culture.  As Australia’s culture has moved left so have the Liberals.  The party’s position on the indigenous voice to parliament is welcome, but took a long time coming.  It’s noteworthy the Liberals did not oppose the voice as a matter of principle when the idea for such an institution was first suggested.  The Liberals have followed, not led, public opinion on the voice as they do nearly every single issue.

The Coalition has won seven of the last ten national elections but from the direction Australia has headed over the last 25 years you wouldn’t know it.  Federally, the Liberals are good are winning elections – but that’s it.  At the state level the Liberals are not even good at winning elections.

(2)        Our key institutions are lost.

Second, the institutions of education, the mainstream media, and civil society are all now unequivocally hostile to freedom.  They cannot be renovated or ‘recaptured’.  The only alternative is to create new and alternative institutions.  It’s inconceivable for example that Australia’s universities will tolerate, let alone embrace, genuine diversity of opinion – they are too far gone.  There’s no point attempting to ‘reform’ something irretrievably broken.

(3)        We must think small.

We are a minority and the forces arrayed against us are great.  Justice, truth, and human dignity might be on our side, but in practical terms we’re holding a butter knife while our opponents are in charge of an Abrams tank.  Gramsci was right.  It will be a long march back and success will be measured in inches.

Charles Handy put it this way – ‘We cannot wait for great visions from great people, for they are in short supply.  It is up to us to light our own small fires in the darkness.’

Every time we don’t lie to ourselves we’re lighting a small fire.  That’s the point of ‘Live Not by Lies’ the statement Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn released on the day he was arrested by the Soviet authorities in 1974.  Each of us must do what we can – no matter how seemingly insignificant – when we can.

The simplest, most accessible key to our liberation [is] a personal nonparticipation in lies!  Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!