For those who love the ABC’s Q&A — world championship wrestling for the coffee lab set — last Monday’s edition was a cracker. With a panel drawn from this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas — i.e. A.N.Other Festival of Ideas — and comprising sex columnist Dan Savage, End of Men author Hanna Rosin, conservative columnist Peter Hitchens and sui generis Germaine Greer, the topics substantially circulated around sex, gender, SSM, a bit about Tony Abbott, permisiveness, etc.

Like all Q&As, it was a process of occasional bursts of contestation surrounded by longer moments of mutual incomprehension. But as usual, the program was all the better for having no politicians on, giving out cautious blather. In this case, it was doubly advantaged by having three people — Rosin was a bit dull — with firm opinions, ready to speak their mind; Savage represented what is now a pretty standard progessivism, Greer with a more complex take — rooted, as she has said before, in Marxism, among other influences — and Hitchens representing an uncompromising religious conservatism, of the type that sees the sort of world Savage wants as something amounting to a kind of hell.

But therein lay the problem. Savage’s model of freedom and the good life as a simple multiplication of choices — connect with whomever you like, however you like, take whatever drugs you want, commit to euthanasia, have no objection to porn, etc — is, on the one hand, mostly common sense in our era. It’s also an asinine and simplistic reading of some of the cultural challenges we face, and it needed a good conservative/critical response. Greer fired a salvo for the critical response — pointing out that Savage’s idea of freedom was really consumerism transferred to everyday life, with people rather than objects as its ultimate purchase. From the look on Savage’s face, that was like teaching Spanish to dogs — this well-meaning but gormless American liberal could barely follow the argument.

But the conservative side didn’t get a look in, mainly because it was Hitchens doing it, and quickly accelerated from fairly sensible points — that if you want to see the downside of a libertarian/consumerist culture, look at the lives of the poor — to a sustained jeremiad in which liberal feminism was an alliance the “equal of the Nazi/Soviet pact”, in which he claimed that he would soon be forbidden from offering his opinion at all (he is a columnist in Britain’s Daily Mail, which has 8 million readers a day), and that the most “dangerous” idea was the divinity of Jesus Christ.

The performance was pure Hitchens, P, a man who has lived much of his life in the shadow of his late brother. Like Christopher, Hitchens was a young Trotskyist (indeed, he introduced CH to it) and then rapidly went in the other direction. So too later did CH, and although they ended in different places, the motive appears to have been the same — the search for an absolute politics with all the answers, an anti-Trotskyism, vesting faith in either Church or George W Bush.

“Add to that the blighted lives of many of the poor … and progressives have some questions to answer.”

Such a double act suggests two people for whom politics is psychology by other means, and you don’t need to go far back to find why. Papa Hitchens was a naval officer, commanding a WWII destroyer in his early 20s, and thus a figure of pretty much unmatchable gravitas and will; Mama Hitchens was a party girl and manic-depressive, highly alive and creative, who ended her life by suicide with a ne’er do well she’d run off with, in an Athens hotel room.

The family politics have been driven by those twin poles ever since — the manic need to project internal feeling onto an external world, kept in motion by a super-mensch father, whose psychic presence would not allow their egos to solidify. The sparks they have throw off through sustained lack of personal reflection have been mistaken for the illumination by all sides and corners of politics for five decades.

You saw it on Monday night. What was required for the political cause of conservatism was making the calm and reasonable point that we have a world of “freedom”, which seems to be choked by branding, consumerism, pseudo-choice, enslavement to debt (which Greer mentioned), porn, exploitation on a global scale, atomisation and a form of social media which appears to make many people lonelier and sadder each time they go on it. Add to that the blighted lives of many of the poor — cut off by powerlessness, with drugs like “ice”, poor health and other waste as the result — and progressives have some questions to answer.

But if you put it, as Hitchens P did, as if it is the end of a civilisation, rather than problems to address, and be more reflective about, if the only answer is religion then you lose the argument in wilful absurdity — and can then congratulate yourself, as Hitchens did, on not being listened to. It was a silly and egotistical performance by a man who has a greater need to be jeered than he does to be listened to.

The trouble for conservatives is that they have too many people like this — from Hitchens to Mark Steyn to Mad Lord Monckton to Melanie Phillips — who are more interested in stilling their own psychodynamics than they are in mounting a reasonable cultural conservative case. The parlous state of conservatism, its incipient and disabling hysteria, could be no better illustrated than by the fact that Germaine Greer had to do most of the heavy lifting in putting a reasonable counter view to daffy American progressivism.

Nevertheless, it was a cracking hour of actual debate. Next week, said Tony Jones, wrapping up, a panel of business leaders. Even he could not hide the dismay in his face. More of this, less of that, say the coffee lab set.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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