Liberal tyranny on the World Wide Web
The champions of mandatory filtering are not Australia’s Christian Right but its PC, feministic, leftish elite.
Guess who really kickstarted the current push for mandatory ISP-level filtering here in Australia ? No, it wasn’t the Christian right; it was Clive Hamilton and the supposedly left-of-centre Australia Institute.
The Australia Institute is a think tank established by Hamilton in 1994 to lobby for increased government regulation over market forces. It ‘participate(s) forcefully in public debates’, with the express aim of developing policy initiatives which ‘reassert the place of ethics’ by prioritising ‘justice, equity and sustainability’ over economic efficiency.
Hamilton himself could well be described as ‘the King of Australian whinge lit’, or perhaps ‘Hairshirt Hamilton’. He feels miserable in the modern world and wants to spread the message. In recent years, he has produced a string of books, with titles such as Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, Growth Fetish, and Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change. They are all variants on the theme that modern consumer society has turned us into helpless hedonists, duped by the market into indulging our basest desires (and stupidly destroying the planet as we do so). Remarkably, he is regarded here as a leading leftist intellectual.
Hamilton and the Australia Institute began their campaign for internet censorship back in 2003, with a deliberately targeted media splash, based on some rather spurious research supposedly documenting the evil effects of porn on Australian youth (for more detail see here).
This is all written up on the Electronic Frontiers Australia website (see here and here), but has remained largely unmentioned by the major ‘left’ blogs in Australia, which have tended to oppose the censorship scheme anaemically, at best.
Back in 2003, Hamilton did manage to get the attention of the conservative Coalition government led by the then Liberal Party prime minister, John Howard. Senator Richard Alston, then minister for communication, information technology and the arts, promised to look into Hamilton’s ideas for online censorship. Religious ‘family oriented’ groups then took the opportunity to raise their voices, making extensive use of the Australia Institute’s material in their lobbying on the issue.
However, in 2004, the idea of ISP-level filtering was rejected by the Howard government, which argued: ‘Given the limited benefits of an ISP-level filtering system, the costs of a mandated requirement to filter do not appear justified.’
While Howard remained PM, the only action taken was the establishment of the Net Alert website which provided advice about net safety and free downloadable filters, for those who wanted them. Shortly before the 2007 election, the Liberal Party did try to pander to the Christian Right by offering to establish ISP-level filtering, but only for those who wanted it (that is, it was a non-mandatory filtering proposal). That was as far as it went under Howard.
However, with the election of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Kevin Rudd as prime minister last November, the Hamilton/Australia Institute campaign found itself with a far more sympathetic government.
The ALP under Rudd is in fact far more moralistic and authoritarian than the Liberals ever were. In his election campaign, Rudd quite consciously targeted ‘market fundamentalism’ on the basis that it undermines traditional family values. He publicly (and opportunistically) embraced some of the communitarian ideas of David McKnight (author of Beyond Right and Left) in his speeches to the intelligentsia, noting in his November 2006 lecture at the Centre for Independent Studies (at which he was introduced by McKnight), that ‘market fundamentalism has split the political right down the middle along the traditional fault lines of conservatives versus liberals, and… this in turn provides Labor with fresh political and policy opportunities for the future’.
Hamilton, like McKnight, is a communitarian who believes that capitalism creates a level of wealth, freedom and choice which corrupts us. In a number of his books, he has hijacked part of the earlier (and far more interesting) analysis developed by Daniel Bell in his 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, arguing that economic growth engenders a consumerist mentality which destroys ‘normal’ human relationships, creates the desire for instant gratification, manipulates us in ways over which we have no control, and so on. We would be happier, and morally better, if we were poorer, and forced to live more simply and locally.
Hamilton’s crusade against pornography is driven both by standard political correctness (it ‘objectifies women’, ‘subverts healthy sexual relationships’, ‘incites male violence’), and by a more generally puritanical attitude toward sex. He riles against the ‘pornographication’ of everyday life, and chastises ‘the libertarian left’ for continuing ‘to invest so much in the freedoms won in the Sixties’. He says:
‘The ideas of the libertarian left have become a reactionary force, for they have substituted an uncritical defence of the freedoms won in an earlier era for a real politics of social change.
‘Like young people everywhere I thought we were freeing ourselves from the shackles of oppressive convention and sexual hang-ups. We thought we were creating a new society and we knew our opponents were being defeated. The conservative establishment lost cause after cause and could no longer sustain the institution of social convention: Victorian morality, women’s oppression, the unbearable constraints of social convention. But while the battle against social conservatism was being fought and won, the real enemy was getting on with business and savouring the new commercial opportunities that the radical were opening up.
‘In the 1950s, middle-class respectability may have been oppressive, but it carried with it a certain deference. Women are the subject of far more sexual objectification now than they were in the 1950s, although men have become more adept at concealing it. And even the need to conceal has been discarded by the crass exploitation of “girl power”. Why should a young man pretend that he doesn’t lust after the young woman who has just burned him off at the traffic lights, when nubile popstars thrust their groins at the camera and declare “more power to us”?’
The research conducted by the Australia Institute and Hamilton and his colleague Dr Michael Flood concludes that internet porn is a social evil associated with increased levels of misogyny among young Australian males. There’s a critical account of it on the EFA website, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s not too hard to pick apart.
Regardless of any research claims, there is no empirical evidence that Australian men have deteriorated in their attitude towards women. In fact, the social trend seems to be in the other direction.
With regard to pornography, Hamilton casts his net quite wide. He uses the bogeyman of child porn to provoke moral outrage (despite the fact that child porn is already illegal and, since it is hidden, no-one sees it ‘accidentally’), and then hitches a ride on this to condemn almost all other porn. Michael Flood has even mooted the idea of an ‘ethical porn’, which depicts people engaged in ‘normal loving sexual behaviour’. The availability of material which shows men ejaculating on women’s faces, double penetration, male-female anal sex, bondage or simulated rape scenes is seen as just obviously socially dangerous. ‘Normal’ sex, as defined by Hamilton and his supporters, should be… well, I don’t know quite what, but certainly very politically correct and restrained. It seems that the liberal censors would like the government to find a way of censoring sexual fantasies, and imposing the ‘correct line’ on sex.
The whole area of human sexuality is such a complex mix of primitive urges, emotional needs and our higher-level needs for connection on a mental level that at present we don’t have the tools to tease it apart. That includes Hamilton. No amount of political correctness can substitute for genuine understanding.
In any case, we already have laws about real-life non-consensual, violent sex. It’s outrageous that people like Hamilton would like the state to regulate material that allows people to explore the fantasies which turn them on.
Of course, there is plenty of porn that is distasteful, boring, superficial and (to me) very off-putting. But I don’t have to look at it, and if our young people come across it, either accidentally or as part of their natural curiosity, I don’t think we need to worry that it will create a dangerous epidemic of ‘unhealthy’ sexual appetites.
Hamilton really ought to be taken apart for his role in attempting to impose his own morality on everyone else. His role in this discussion of widespread mandatory filtering in Australia has been far more significant than that of the Christian Right.
While he is correct when he says that market capitalism has a shallowness which leaves us with an ‘emptiness’ and a desire for deeper, more meaningful lives, his moralistic call for people to accept lower living standards and his (very serious) attempt to have the state step in to regulate various atavistic desires are simply reactionary. The yearning ‘for something more’ is exactly the impulse which will one day lead people to want to step up, take responsibility and run things themselves. I’m convinced that they won’t decide that they want to be poorer and have less freedom.
Kerry Miller blogs at Strange Times.
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