The other Saturday morning, as one does when the federal election campaign is on, I picked up two metal A-frames holding corflutes for an old mate of mine, Trevor Evans, who is running as the LNP candidate in the seat of Brisbane, drove two suburbs down and set up outside the eponymous Gasworks in Newstead on a busy local road, and across the street from a construction site. Thinking back, the choice of a location was entirely coincidental; it wasn’t my intention to troll the heavily unionised workforce toiling on the site that Saturday morning. The whole Newstead is at the moment a forest of cranes, and wherever else I might have set up I would have been within a spitting distance of a CFMEU congregation.
All throughout the morning the construction workers kept crossing the street and walking past me and the A-frames to get take-away coffees or food at Gasworks, not paying me much attention as I wasn’t paying them. Which is why I was a bit startled to hear one of them start talking to me. He didn’t stop; it was a walk-by spray, as he kept on his way back to the site:
“You’re going down, you filthy fucking grubs”. There were several similar permutations of the above. “You” presumably meaning me, Trevor, Malcolm Turnbull and collectively the whole Liberal/National government and the right side of politics.
He also left me with a promise, “I’ll be coming back later on to tip shit all over you.”
I was somewhat taken aback. He didn’t seem particularly feral, quite the contrary; just a middle height, middle built, middle aged, clean cut guy. But for a large tattoo covering his entire right calf he might have been a local real estate agent on a morning stroll, although with the ubiquity of tattoos these days you can’t really tell.
One of the things I reflected on in the course of the next hour, waiting for the man to come back (spoiler alert: he didn’t), was the little irony that I was born and raised in a country where, at that time, trade unionists – or anyone else for that matter – where threatened with violence for holding political beliefs unpopular with the government, and here I was, 15,000 km away and 30 years later, being threatened with violence by a trade unionist for holding political beliefs unpopular with the trade union movement.
As Jesus might have said, the thugs you will always have with you. Thanks to the moral, social and political progress that the humanity has, if rather unevenly, been making over the past few centuries, there might be proportionally fewer of them than ever before and they certainly have less impact (so to speak). I might have lived too long now in a safe space that is the modern Australia, but I cannot help but always feel a tinge of sadness when I come across anyone who thinks that physical violence is a good way to make your political point and win the hearts and minds in a pluralistic, liberal, democratic society like ours. Do you have so little faith in the persuasive power of your ideas that you think you need to silence anyone who disagrees in order for your ideas to triumph?
There is private silencing and there is public silencing.
I have to say I’m less concerned with a union big mouth who feels the need to intimidate others in order to boost his fragile manhood than I am with the state and its officers trying to tell me what I can and cannot think and say. Private thugs there are a few, public ones a legion; the former only have their fists, the later the full apparatus of state authority; a fist can only silence one person (two if you’re agile), the state the whole society.
Hence, another level of irony – being born and raised in a country where, at that time, people could lose their job (or worse) for telling a joke, only to find myself, again 15,000 km away and 30 years later, in a place where people can lose their job for telling a joke. Or, more sinisterly, get dragged through the courts because someone somewhere got offended, as happened to Andrew Bolt a few years back, as happened to a bunch of QUT students earlier this year, and as keeps happening to more and more people. This is not to imply any sort of moral and political equivalence between the communist countries of my childhood and the Australia of today; there is none, an irony or not. But this in many ways makes the whole situation even more absurd and obscene, because we are – we should be – so much better than totalitarian apparatchiks of the Cold War era. This is not just Australia’s problem – the United States is now the epicentre of the free speech wars, in the United Kingdom, as Brendan O’Neill reminds us, “between November 2010 and November 2013, more than 350 people were arrested for stuff they said on social media” and in Germany a comedian is being prosecuted for insulting the Turkish Prime Minister. Germans were never particularly renowned for their sense of humour, but what’s our Anglo-Celtic excuse?
A few weeks ago I was dumbfounded when I came across what I initially thought was an April’s Fool’s joke:
The Greater Glasgow Police were serious, and they turned out not to be the only ones running the Orwellian T.H.I.N.K. campaign.
As law-abiding a citizen as I have been my whole life, my first thought was “Fuck the police”. Hurtful? Kind? Really? I have lived in a society where you constantly have to watch what you say, even as a child. Call me crazy, but I don’t want to go down that memory lane again, and I don’t think anyone else should have to. Imagine a world where you don’t get punched by union thugs and sucker-punched by the sensitivity police. Imagine a world where you are not going to be intimidated into silence. Imagine, if you can – because you still can.