One word of truth
Tucker Carlson said something you don't often hear.
You've probably already watched or heard about Tucker Carlson's video that went up on Twitter yesterday. He announced he'll be starting a new program on the platform. As I'm writing this the video has been watched 119 million times.
I wasn't a religious viewer of Carlson. What I saw of him came mostly via clips of his monologues friends sent me. Usually I agreed with him - sometimes I didn't I think he's misguided about Russia and the West should do everything possible to support Ukraine. I've never met Carlson in-person but a few years ago I was on a Zoom call with him. After nearly two hours the main impression I formed was that he was completely sincere in what he believed. He was honest and he said what he thought to be true - he didn't dance around the edges of things. He was happy to say in a private discussion what he'd say on television to three million people.
Carlson on Twitter may or may not succeed. Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson aren't on television and they're doing OK. I was less interested in Carlson's announcement itself than in his explanation of why he doing what he was. He talked about how in his opinion the media inevitably restricts what can be talked about - and then he said this:
You can't have a free society if people aren't allowed to say what they think is true. Speech is the fundamental prerequisite for democracy.
Free speech is the main right that you have. Without it, you have no others.
A TV host saying this a few years ago would have been nothing special. It's worth reflecting on that he felt the need to say it. After I watched the video the first time I watched it a few more times just to hear him say it. No-one says it much these days.
What you say might be right or wrong or completely misconceived - but you need to be allowed to say it. The 'truth' is something to be challenged and argued about and tested. Which is why freedom of speech is vital - without freedom of speech it impossible to discern the truth.
In some ways it's incredible to think that in 2023 we need to be reminded upon what rests a free society. But we do. Defenders of a free society have tended to assume the arc of history bends only one way - but the history of the last decade shows that's not true. It's not an exaggeration to say that freedom of speech throughout the English-speaking world is under the greater threat now than at any time since 1945. In 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' George Orwell wrote of the Ministry of Truth defining the truth. Three years ago during Covid Jacinda Ardern as the New Zealand prime minister declared of the her government - 'We will continue to be your single source of truth' and '…remember that unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth.'
Here in Australia Scott Morrison said in 2017 that freedom of speech 'doesn't create one job'. To which one response would be - 'nor does democracy'. That was the same year Gillian Triggs as the president of the Human Rights Commission lamented 'Sadly you can say what you like around the kitchen table.' In 2012 the 'Finkelstein Inquiry' into media established by the Labor government recommended a government-appointed authority regulate and censor media organisations. And so it goes on.
One of the last acts of the Morrison government was its promise to implement a plan to give a federal government agency, the Australian Communications and Media Authority the power to censor 'misinformation' and 'disinformation' on the internet. Anything the Authority regarded as an 'imminent and serious threat' to 'Democratic, political and policy making processes' or to 'Public goods such as the protection of citizens' health, protection of marginalised and vulnerable groups, public safety and security or the environment' could potentially be censored.
Morgan Begg, the Director of the Legal Rights Program at the Institute of Public Affairs wrote to every member of the Commonwealth Parliament telling them of his research on the implications of the plan. A glimpse into the ambitions of the Authority came via an example it used as to the sort of discussion that it believed should be censored. 'Anti-lockdown conversations' were a case study of a 'misinformation narrative' that should be controlled by the government. As Begg wrote - 'Lockdowns are one possible public health policy response, but being opposed to a policy option is not a question of fact or truth: it is an opinion.' Discussing the censorship by the technology companies of things like the Great Barrington Declaration he said:
Social media companies would not allow content that challenged the assertions of unelected public health bureaucrats, from lockdowns to other Covid policies, such as the efficacy of face masks and mandatory pharmaceutical interventions.
This was not 'science'. Engaging in science means being part of a process of testing hypotheses and debating what conclusions should be drawn from the available evidence. What platforms did during Covid was not about science, but political and ideological bias.
Perhaps because it was so close to the federal election that Morrison's plan received very little publicity. Or maybe it was because the plan both major parties supported it. Begg said to the MP's:
There is no distinction in 2022 between a Liberal Communications Minister and a Labor Communications spokesperson on seeing the need to censor the internet. This suggests there is a bipartisan consensus that the parameters of Australian democracy need to be confined, and what Australians are allowed to debate and discuss needs to be limited.
Unlike the Australian media, Tucker Carlson saw the truth of what was happening in Australia during Covid. And in October 2021 what he also said about the British is interesting.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has condemned Australia's response to Covid as a 'horrifying' attack on civil liberties which betrays the country's reputation for 'rugged individualism'.
'To see your media, and most of your public officials, endorse policies that are just so destructive of basic civil liberties is so crazy, I mean with respect,' Carlson said. 'It's horrifying.'
'Well I gotta be honest with you, it's shocking to me, I work for Australians, as you know, I just had dinner with bunch of Australians last week,' Carlson said. 'And so to see this country that you imagine…is founded by convicts so it's like the one thing you know about Australia, rugged individualism is the ethos nationally.'
'[The British] ruled the world because the Britons were tough as hell, really tough, and independent-minded. That's why they dominated and they bequeathed to the world this remarkable culture and justice system and language and they really improved the world more than any other group ever, and to see their descendants which is us, you, me, Canada, New Zealand, display the spirt of obedience and cravenness, it's a shame to watch it.'
Not many people in the public eye today would say something like the British 'improved the world more than any other group ever'. It's a statement you can agree or disagree with. As it happens I've just been reading Nigel Biggar's 'Colonialism - A Moral Reckoning'. It's now not simply that to say there could be anything positive about colonialism is controversial - many believe it shouldn't be allowed as a topic of debate at all. This is from five years ago.
An international coalition of academics has condemned Oxford University's support for plans to construct a balance sheet of the rights and wrongs of imperialism, with Oxford accused of backing apologists for Britain's colonial legacy.
A letter signed by more than 170 scholars of empire from the UK, US, India, South Africa and other countries argue that the university is wrong to throw its backing behind a project named Ethics and Empire [led by Nigel Biggar, a Regius professor of theology at Oxford] proposed by the university's McDonald Centre.
'The 'balance sheet' approach to empire is rooted in the self-serving justifications of imperial administrators, attempting to balance out the violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits. It has long since lost its scholarly legitimacy,' the letter states.
'[The letter goes on] We are also troubled that Oxford, a public institution, supports the development of a 'Christian ethics of empire' particularly in light of the project's aim of 'negotiating' contemporary military interventions and 'the cohesion of multicultural societies'.
If as the letter's signatories claim colonialism was 'self-serving', and 'Christian ethics' is irrelevant to the study of the British empire they're going to have a hard time explaining why they British abolished slavery.
I mention Biggar and colonialism as an example of how in academia, a place where supposedly debate is encouraged, the boundaries of what can be talked about are becoming ever more tightly constrained. In a university lecture theatre, or in the boardroom of an ASX 100 company, or on the government-funded broadcaster you can say what you like about climate change or the Voice as long as you say you believe in net zero and you'll be voting yes in the referendum. Big business loves diversity - except diversity of opinion. Today, if you work at an ASX 100 company and you honestly believe the constitution should not divide Australians according to their race you have a problem. If someone asks your opinion on the Voice it's easier to stay silent or just lie. You can't speak your truth.
Tucker Carlson is no eastern European dissident. But what he said about truth echoes the authors on my bookshelf that you'll have glimpsed if ever you've seen me on Sky News. The Polish Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz in 'The Captive Mind', Vaclav Havel in 'The Power of the Powerless', and of course Solzhenitsyn. He also won the Nobel Prize and in 1970 at the very end of his acceptance speech he said this:
Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence… It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.
And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions!...
Proverbs about truth are well-loved in Russian. They give steady and sometimes striking expression to the not inconsiderable harsh national experience: ONE WORD OF TRUTH SHALL OUTWEIGH THE WHOLE WORLD.