In the hours between filing a bodyslam on Christopher Hitchens in yesterday’s edition, and this note on the Festival of Dangerous Ideas of which his talk was the keynote, your correspondent has been assailed by more than a few people who had thought the whole occasion was a pretty good idea.

Fair enough. There were a range of topics you don’t usually see at this sort of thing. “Bring Back Conscription”, “Unfit for Life (pro human genetic modification)” as well as Germaine Greer on freedom, and a couple more luminaries.

Trouble was the adjective attached to your bog standard ideas festival, which gave the whole thing the appearance of a six year old in a tiger costume. Gwwwww. I’m dangewous.

For the Darlinghurst secular-liberals most of these ideas were either safe, or so ridiculous as to be of no interest. Really dangerous ideas — ones that people might act on — didn’t get a look in, even though a generation ago they were commonplace.

You can see the reasoning behind the dangewous tag. Ideas festivals are ten-a-cent these days. What an exciting new idea they were a decade or so ago, an evolution on from writers’ festivals, where the pre-text of a book wasn’t required for a good old fashioned stoush.

But what made Ideas Festivals so interesting was also what dooms them to mundanity — they’re about anything and everything, there’s no agenda, no attachment to practice.

The Ideas Festivals emerged at about the same time as other types of gatherings were falling into a degree of disrepair on the left — and that was conferences, of parties and movements, where future political directions were thrashed out, and the mesh of ideas and action had a feel of the real about it.

Ideas Festivals have flourished precisely because ideas have become undangerous and un-threatening that holders of radically different ones can be in the same room together. When things are at stake that isn’t really possible. When the sphere of daily life — the work-brunch cycle — has become so unquestionable as to look like part of the body’s natural metabolism, then the separation of idea and practice is total.

It’s precisely because this is one of those periods when ideas don’t change how people live that such festivals can run. And it also governs how certain ideas are excluded, or never suggested.

What’s interesting — especially in relation to l’affaire Polanski, a sort of lost memory of the 70s — is how ideas that were common currency a few decades ago can now not even be spoken of at a festival of dangerous ones.

Political violence would be one. In Barry Oakley’s published diaries Minitudes, he records a night in the 70s, arguing with other Pram Factory renegades about the Red Brigades in Italy — Oakley’s position (against) being the minority.

There is a case for political violence. There is a case for political terror. I suspect that any discussion of this sort would have had the Festival’s sponsors in a bit of a flurry.

Or take that other 70s staple, child sexuality. Thirty years ago, it was taken as de rigeur that the 16-18 age of consent was miles too high, and that younger people were quite capable of expressing themselves and enjoying the attentions of famous film directors, rock stars, writers and the like. Not an idea I hold to, but most definitely a dangerous one. Conference organiser could then recover their legal costs by publishing their prison writings.

Some others:

  • Abortion to term should be available on demand. Women’s sovereignty over their bodies should be total.
  • Live organ transplants should be either banned totally, or opened completely to the free market. People should be able to sell parts of their liver, their corneas, etc, even if it shortens or damages their life.
  • Australian aborigines have a right to resort to the aforementioned political violence, given the continued and embedded racism embedded in health-care, opportunity and policing.
  • The surrendered wife. The Amish have got it right. Women are happier if they just let men run things. Legal equality has been mistaken for identicality, and the pressure to be men just makes women unhappy.
  • Homosexuality and marginality. A culture that displaces the child-having couple from the centre of it, is in deep trouble. Homosexuality should be legal but permanently marginal.

Any others?

And so on. That would get some punch ups happening in the foyer. And if there aint no punchups there aint no danger, and best not use the adjective.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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