News Corp free speech Israel Folau
Israel Folau. (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Man I was all set to sit back, relax and enjoy the Israel Folau free speech thing after a few days thinking about environmental catastrophe.

This was a stoush that had everything you want from a culture pseudo war: unimportant speech utterance of an archaic type, overreaction, right-wing pile on, ridiculous cultural left counter-reaction, happy-clappy escalation. The works. Folau’s fire ‘n’ brimstone pronouncement appears to have been barely noticed when he made it. Rugby Australia made sure it would by censuring him. He gave himself the appearance of being a little opportunistic with a legal funds appeal, which GoFundMe magnified by cancelling, and here we are.

The best part of all of this? Whatever superficial satisfactions the right got from it, there was no way they could win it. Should their campaign to reinstate Folau succeed in the legal realm, they would/will have established that freely signed employment contracts can be judged onerous if they restrict speech and expression rights — knocking Anzac Day, for example? Were the challenge to fail, it would establish that generally progressive values could be enforced in various social arenas.

Win/win so far as I could see.

The jam the right was in over Folau was of their own making. Convinced by their own Cold War nostalgia propaganda that the big bad state was the enemy, they hadn’t noticed that their victory in matters economic ensured that our lives were increasingly dominated by all encompassing corporations, many of whom imposed restrictions on outside-of-work activities as part of employment contracts.

This was added to by a couple of articles from the cultural left, which was so desperate to cover the inconvenient fact that race-LGBTIQ solidarity had broken down that it treated Folau as part-child, his actions determined by his colonial Christian-Pacific heritage.

The day after that was expressed, Folau launched his GoFundMe, making everyone look silly. No one really cared much. The Australian was really having a bit of trouble turning it into a wider issue, until Q&A — which is possibly the only TV show in the world to have Stockholm syndrome — bigged it up. When the right attacked GoFundMe for managing its own brand responsibly, I was over the moon.

But I knew it would be too good to last, once one got acquainted with the case. It turned out that Folau did not suddenly start speaking in tongues, but had made his remarks after Rugby Australia, as an organisation, had thrown its support behind the marriage plebiscite yes vote. That detail — missing from most reports of the matter — surely changes things somewhat. Rugby Australia has taken a political position on behalf of its players, and Folau is surely entitled to assert his dissident opinion in relation to such. Possibly, had Rugby Australia a neutral stance, he might not have felt the need to do such at all.

So damn it, there goes the shits and giggles. There’s an actual issue here. The soft totalitarian — very soft but nevertheless — fashion whereby a sports peak body feels the need to have an official position on sexuality, or to be an agent for anti-racism (AFL) is one of the most bizarre phenomena of our time.

Taking part in the scourge of the age — institutions bombarding us with messages as part of behavioural programming — such strategies call out the behaviour they claim to oppose, by giving it the appearance of resistance. Folau’s actions are — though very different in content — similar in form to US footballers “taking the knee” during the national anthem (also happening here). It is a refusal to be spoken for, simply because an organisation has bought your talents for a few years.

That’s especially so when the talent is sporting — that is, embodied — and the body is black. Sports stardom has been a devil’s bargain through the twentieth century, offering black people a rare chance at wealth and celebrity, if they will fit into the animal and gladiatorial metaphors that sports summons. That presumption was behind the torrent of racism directed at Adam Goodes, but such racism was given a frisson of anti-authoritarian resistance by the AFL’s anti-racism proselytising.

There’s a simple way to get rid of a lot of this: make institutions as neutral as possible. Rugby Australia no more needed a same-sex marriage plebiscite policy than Beaumaris Golf Club needs a Middle East peace plan.

We have created a society which combines people born into a high-tech secular elite with rural traditionalists and recent arrivals from unmodernised religious cultures. The only possible public ethic for this social form is pluralism in which some restraints on speech might be enforced in the interests of neutral public space — but in which the enforcement of authorised values (other than pluralism itself) are anathema.

There will still be time to enjoy the Folau-RA confrontation, but dammit, the issue turned out to be important after all. Meantime, let’s see what else non-white sports people object to in the future (Anzac kitsch? The anthem?) should Folau’s case establish that a player’s citizenship can’t be traded away for a few bucks.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey