Guy Rundle’s comments on Christopher Hitchens at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas raises some broader points. What’s an idea, anyway — and when does it become dangerous?

Ideas festivals are everywhere, while their close cousins literary festivals increase in proportions almost directly inverse to the numbers of people who actually read literature.

It’s a reflection, at least in part, of the phenomenon that also drives book clubs: a yearning for some kind of social collectivity, over and above the individual experience of reading. Anyone involved in literary culture needs to take heed. In a digital age, the future of publishing will almost certainly depend upon communities in which the book — or the idea — becomes merely part of a broader social engagement.

Yet the festival phenomenon also manifests a contradictory tendency, a weird reification of ideas and books that lends a bogus glamour to the mere presence of an author. Too often festival audiences simply want to soak in the aura of some literary celebrity or another, as if proximity provides some wisdom or authenticity not present in their actual books. It’s particularly perverse in the literary context, since writers, whose lives centre on introspection and isolation, do not, by and large, possess much in the way stage charisma.

The FODI project (disclosure: I spoke at it), with its explicit orientation to edginess, seems, in that sense, a worthwhile attempt to encourage debate, rather than the “blah blah blah: now buy my book” orientation that besets many similar event.

Yet the reification of authorship — that sense of ideas as simply commodities from which the canny consumer picks and chooses — also relates to the question about danger.

Here’s some of the topics from FODI. “People with flat-screen TVs should stop whingeing about capitalism.” “Bring back conscription.” “Yes to child labour, no to the minimum wage.” Given the Left-liberal orientation of most festival goers, the Rightward slant seems distinctly odd.

But since the 1990s, the Right has cultivated an insurgent populism. Even when Bush occupied the White House and Howard in the Lodge, Right-wing intellectuals presented themselves as heroic rebels, cutting a swathe through political correctness and liberal orthodoxy. That’s the basis, one presumes, on which Centre for Independent Studies can endorse an event based on “dangerous ideas”, even as it advocates for the preservation of the free market.

If the Right prides itself on confrontation, the mainstream Left makes a virtue of its innocuousness. Consider The Australian’s recent series on the Left, a bizarre project that resembles one of those ghastly videos from Iraq, in which a captured solder brokenly disavows any connection with the cause he purportedly represents, shortly before being beheaded. The Left must, we learn, embrace patriotism, the family, the free-market — in fact, more or less everything it has always stood for. Most of all, it must engage in the project of changing the world without disruption, without struggle, without even really offending anyone. As Lindsay Tanner explains in the most recent contribution, the Left must strive to embody “moderation and civility”.

Well, it wasn’t always so. Nothing shaped the contemporary Left as much as the great social movements of the ’70s, movements that were genuinely transformatory and thus cheerfully offensive. Glen Tomasetti’s anthem Don’t be too polite, girls captured the mood not only of feminism but of the Left as a whole, a belligerence that accepted that change necessarily discomforts those with a vested interest in the status quo.

More importantly, while the social movements definitely produced individual “stars”, their participatory nature fostered an interaction between ideas and action that simply doesn’t exist now. For every Germaine Greer or Anne Summers, there were thousands of ordinary people debating how the dangerous insights of feminism might impact on their own lives. In that respect, the social movements overcame the contemporary separation between, on the one hand, the yearning for community and, on the other, the obsession with individual celebrities.

Yes, ideas festivals are great and, yes, let’s have more of them. But a “dangerous” Left will only revive if it orients to movement building, and thus manages to get ideas to take hold beyond the polite ambience of a seminar room.

Peter Fray

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