The Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Originally published in the Spectator Australia here.

When I clicked on the program for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, I expected the usual lineup of ideologically homogeneous speakers, but I was pleasantly surprised to find some diversity in the mix of the usual suspects.

The vast majority of the topics are curated the interests and preoccupations of the inner-city Left, such as asking audiences to ‘look beyond gender binaries’ or ‘unpack Australian colonisation and how ongoing untruthful narratives’ or whether ‘pandemic policy-making … were all in aid of preserving the lives of rich white people’.

But there are some odd voices in the mix.

The first surprise is the one speaker in the festival that usually has the most mass appeal. Rather than being the most dangerous, it is the one usually given by a member of the old Left. The Left once revered Enlightenment values, rather than dismissing them as a tool of the patriarchy – such as Stephan Fry of a previous festival. This year, author and psychologist Steven Pinker is filling the role, chaired by Quillette founder Claire Lehmann – an online publication often smeared as far-Right but in reality, its articles and interests (at least in my view) skew more ‘old Left’.

There is also a panel on Woke Capital which includes free market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and its Executive Director Scott Hargreaves. A bit of diversity casting, clearly, but credit where credit is due.

This is not the first time that publicly funded art or ideas festivals decided to put some diversity on the ticket.

A few years ago, Dark Mofo decided to bring out (actually) controversial Coleman Hughes, infamous for his opposition to reparations for slavery in America, and Diana Fleischman, an evolutionary biologist that doesn’t mince words about differences between the sexes. I might have spent my hard-earned on tickets and supported the inclusion of such people; had I known. But the problem with these festivals is that rarely do I think the program is worth looking at in the first place, given the preponderance of speakers and topics geared towards very different concerns than the ones that I possess.

The issue I have is not with having speakers I disagree with, in fact, I would quite like to see people who I tend to agree with square off against those that I do not, even if the ratio is four to one ‘new Left’ concerns and speakers to just ‘others’. They don’t even have to be conservative. Just different.

What would have been nice is for there to be true controversy surrounding the program topics that a devil’s advocate was bought on. I am not even asking for a 50 per cent representation of people on broadly the other side of each issue, just one.

In the case of the discussion of pandemic handling, perhaps bringing UNSW’s (the Principal Partner of this festival) very own Professor Gigi Foster to give the view that those that suffered were the poor in general with race being somewhat irrelevant. There is no issue more controversial topic at the moment than the effect of teaching that gender is a spectrum and that individuals are to self-identify on that spectrum, so perhaps bring in Holly Lawford-Smith to provide the counterargument against the lecture on gender fluidity. On the panel on American Decadence, it seems a waste to not bring out the person who wrote the book on the subject, New York Timescolumnist Ross Douthat, but of course, that would mean spending money on a speaker that will be widely disliked by the very audience that the Festival of Dangerous Ideas attracts.

The reality is that the public funds poured into the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and the preoccupations of those that direct these funds, mean there will never be any truly dangerous ideas spoken at such a festival. There definitely won’t be any ideas dangerous enough to be protested against or cancelled. Those that support this festival may never admit that they are part of the establishment, but they clearly are when the speakers they want to hear are so undeniably mainstream that they can have them subsidised. If the institutions in this country don’t think they are dangerous, then they probably aren’t.

Conservatives may like to complain about the bias in the content funded by taxpayers, be it the ABC or festivals like this, but the reality that the establishment doesn’t want to sponsor conservative voices means that they think their ideas are truly dangerous or seductive.

The treatment of CPAC Australia by the bureaucracy which, far from getting funding for a conference full of mainstream conservative speakers, gets investigated for foreign interference, is proof of how dangerous these ideas are as viewed by the establishment.

I will probably book tickets to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in order to send a signal that more heterodox voices in this festival are very much appreciated, but I will, at the same time, be booking tickets to CPAC. They clearly need my money more.

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