The Festival of Dangerous Ideas

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

The vast majority of topics are organized according to the interests and concerns of the inner-city left, such as asking the public to ‘looking beyond gender binaries’ or ‘unpacking Australian colonization and how the ongoing false narratives’ or whether ‘pandemic policy-making…have all helped preserve the lives of wealthy white people’.

But there are some weird vocals in the mix.

The first surprise is the festival speaker who usually attracts the most mass. Rather than being the most dangerous, it is usually given by a member of the old left. The left once revered Enlightenment values, rather than rejecting them as a tool of patriarchy – like Stephan Fry of an earlier festival. This year, author and psychologist Steven Pinker fills the role, chaired by keel Founder Claire Lehmann – an online publication that is often referred to as far right but in reality her articles and interests (at least in my opinion) skew more ‘old left’.

There is also a panel on Woke Capital which includes a 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 isn’t the first time that publicly funded art or idea festivals have decided to put a little diversity on the ticket.

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

The problem I have is not having speakers I disagree with, in fact I’d like to see people I tend to agree with who I tend to I disagree, even if the ratio is four for a “new left” concerns and speakers to “others”. They don’t even have to be conservative. Just different.

What would have been nice is if there was genuine controversy surrounding the program topics Devil’s Advocate was bought on. I’m not even asking for a 50% representation of people who are broadly opposed to every question, just one.

In the case of the pandemic management discussion, perhaps getting UNSW’s own Professor Gigi Foster (the lead partner of this festival) to opine that those who suffered were the poor in general, race being somewhat irrelevant. There’s no more controversial topic at the moment than the effect of teaching that gender is a spectrum and that individuals should identify on that spectrum, so perhaps call on Holly Lawford-Smith for provide the counter-argument against the gender fluidity lecture. On the panel on American decadence, it seems a waste not to highlight the person who wrote the book on the subject, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, but of course that would mean spending money on a speaker who will be widely hated by the very audience the Festival of Dangerous Ideas attracts.

The reality is that the public funds poured into the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and the concerns of those who run those funds mean that there will never be any truly dangerous ideas at such a festival. There will certainly be no ideas dangerous enough to be challenged or overruled. Those who support this festival may never admit they are part of the establishment, but they clearly are when the speakers they want to hear from are so undeniably mainstream that they can get them subsidized. If the institutions of this country don’t think they’re dangerous, then they probably aren’t.

Conservatives might like to complain about the bias in taxpayer-funded content, whether it’s 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 really dangerous or seductive.

The treatment of CPAC Australia by the bureaucracy, which, far from obtaining funding for a conference of traditional conservative speakers, is being investigated for foreign interference, is proof of the dangerousness of these ideas as perceived by the establishment.

I’ll probably book tickets for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas to send a signal that the more heterodox voices at that festival are highly valued, but I’ll book tickets for CPAC at the same time. They clearly need my money more.

Dara Macdonald is the founder of All Minus One (allminusone.org.au).

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