Crossing The Boundaries: Kent State University, Ohio, USA, 4 May 1970. The Youth Revolt of the 1960s and 70s was not quelled by Ohio National Guardsmen shooting down student protesters. All the conservative establishment's heavy-handed repression did was fuel the “New Left’s” sense of grievance and drive an iron spike of intolerance into its soul. Today's liberal establishment appears equally determined to make martyrs out of its right-wing critics.
TRANSGRESSION is extraordinarily appealing to the young. Giving voice to opinions that cause older people to throw up their hands in horror is always great fun. Almost as much fun as listening to music dismissed by the old folks as “noise”, or wearing clothes calculated to provoke Mum into inquiring: “You’re not going out dressed like that – are you?”
Adolescent psychologists put this sort of behaviour down to young people’s need to “test the boundaries” of the adult world. A coming-of-age process which helps to firm up the outlines of their future adult selves.
Politics, too, has its own forms of adolescent transgression, and this past week New Zealand has been introduced to two of its more notorious exponents. Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, both hailing from the mild-mannered nation of Canada, have turned testing the boundaries of political discourse into something of an art form. (Or, at the very least, into a million views on YouTube!)
Like the normal adolescent, who is concerned to discover exactly how far he can go before his parents/teachers/friends bring the hammer down, political adolescents seek to discover how broadly or narrowly society has set the bounds of tolerance.
When I was a young person, political transgressors hailed almost exclusively from the left of the political spectrum. This was hardly surprising, since the prevailing social mores of most western nations in the 1950s and 60s were those laid down by the mainstream Christian churches. Throughout most of the Cold War era, the dominant political values were similarly conservative: unflinchingly hostile not only to the claims of communism and socialism, but also to all but the most anodyne forms of social democracy.
Yet, to the horror and fury of the RSA, young anti-war protesters attempted to lay wreaths commemorating the millions killed in “imperialist” wars – with special reference to Vietnam’s civilian dead. Scandalising the nation’s editorial writers, student leaders (like Tim Shadbolt) and visiting feminist luminaries (like Germaine Greer) uttered the word “bullshit” in public places. Young-at-heart poets also joined the provocation game: most memorably with James K. Baxter’s “A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting”.
Baxter cited the example of Robbie Burns “that sad old rip/From whom I got my fellowship”. A man who liked, as the bearded poet reminded his readers, “to toss among the glum and staid/A poem like a hand grenade”.
Fifty years on, however, most of the rhetorical bomb-throwers (like Southern and Molyneux) hail from the Right – not the Left. What happened?
In a nutshell, the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s congealed into an all-embracing liberal establishment. Over the course of fifty years, the transgressive ideas of what Colin James dubbed “The Vietnam Generation” became the orthodox beliefs of the Twenty-First Century’s ruling elites.
Accordingly, young women like Southern are calling “bullshit” on what they see as the constantly encroaching claims of an ever-more-intolerant feminism. Intellectuals like Molyneux are loudly insisting that what they call “the scientific evidence” must over-ride the plans of “politically correct” social-engineers to obliterate even the most obvious human distinctions.
Across the western world these right-wing firebrands are igniting bonfires of controversy over the meaning of nationality; the desirability, or not, of unlimited diversity; and the limits of religious toleration. Whether their agitation constitutes a rebirth of Enlightenment values, or (as the Left insists) the resurgence of ideas more commonly associated with extreme nationalism, even fascism, there is no disputing right-wing populism’s impact on the political complexion of the times we are living through.
Which is why, in my opinion, the Auckland Mayor, Phil Goff, erred in denying Southern and Molyneux access to all the public platforms controlled by the Auckland Council. Quite apart from turning the pair into free-speech martyrs (to the undoubted benefit of their YouTube accounts) Mayor Goff’s actions represented an authoritarian solution to a democratic problem.
The Youth Revolt of the 1960s was not quelled by jailing the Chicago Seven or allowing the Ohio National Guard to shoot down student protesters. Suppression merely fuelled the “New Left’s” sense of grievance and drove an iron spike of intolerance into its soul.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher of whom the Alt-Right are inordinately fond, wrote: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Those who believe they can kill right-wing extremism by denying it a stage are in for a very unpleasant surprise.
DISCLOSURE: Chris Trotter is a member of the Free Speech Coalition which is seeking a judicial review of Mayor Goff’s decision.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 July 2018.