Mark Steyn’s recent appearances in Australia remind us why he’s a world leader in defending free speech
Mark Steyn is a bigoted, bullying, brazen, egotistical, unfunny, crass, self-serving Islamophobe and right-wing homophobe with the wit of a Soviet drains inspector and the sartorial understatement of a deposed Middle Eastern dictator, whose tedious views and repetitious anecdotes leave the listener feeling depleted of insight and starved of intellectual oxygen.
Actually, none of the above is true (apart from the sartorial bit — even Gaddafi would have thought twice about the gold tie and orange handkerchief combo) but the good news is I’m totally confidant that The Spectator Australia’s and the IPA’s recent celebrity guest — who dazzled Australia with appearances on Alan Jones, Counterpoint, Q&A and a sold-out speaking tour to promote his book After America — won’t sue me for defamation. Plagiarism, maybe, if I nick any of his jokes, which I would dearly love to. But defamation, no. That’s the beauty of free speech. It’s a doddle when you’re addressing people who are secure in their convictions, passionate in their attitudes yet happy to confront diversity of opinion. Free speech only gets tricky when you’re dealing with religious zealots or (just as bad) government bureaucracies who, when taking offence, threaten to imprison or kill you in order to ensure your silence.
Adapting Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the first world war, Steyn maintains that we are losing the war on free speech: ‘The lights are going out all over the world on core western liberties; one light at a time, one cartoonist at a time, one novelist at a time, one filmmaker at a time, one newspaper columnist at a time.’ Steyn’s mission, he says, is to ‘relight those lamps’.
‘Anyone can be in favour of free speech for Barney the Dinosaur and the Wiggles,’ says Steyn, ‘but if you’re not in favour of free speech you find offensive and repellent and loathsome, you’re not in favour of free speech at all. And you’re on the side of creeping totalitarianism.’
Such is the legacy, according to Steyn, of the collision during the past two decades of two gargantuan forces: the West’s cowardly appeasement of radical Islam, and the Left’s ever-increasing desire to protect particular groups from being offended.
The upshot, according to Steyn, is that ‘if you belong to certain privileged groups, the State affords you rights it does not extend to others,’ which ‘strikes at the heart of the bedrock of justice; equality before the law’.
In 2007, Steyn ‘fell afoul of the Tolerance Enforcers and Diversity Compliance Regulators of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal’, who ‘devoted an entire day to analysing the “tone” of my writings’, even flying in a professional stand-up comic to give an expert appraisal of his wit. In the end, they ‘let him off the hook’ but nonetheless accused him of flagrant Islamophobia. As Steyn quips: ‘How is flagrant Islamophobia any different to normal Islamophobia?’
Speaking of stand-ups, Mark has an unhealthy obsession with how many lesbians it takes to change a light bulb, or, more pertinently, to turn out the lights of our liberties. ‘Surprisingly few,’ was his humorous retort (you had to be there), before illustrating the dangers to our basic freedoms posed by the ‘hierarchy of phobias’, in which one minority group’s sensitivities can be judged more worthy than another’s. ‘A joke or a song is a criminal act according to whom you perform it in front of.’
‘I’m phobiaphobic,’ says Steyn, jabbing his finger passionately at the crowd, in a way that makes the front row, John Howard and myself included, sit up. (John and Janette Howard, incidentally, received a lengthy burst of applause as they discreetly made their way to their seats, of the heartfelt and spontaneous sort that Gillard must lie awake fantasising about.)
‘The head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, was interviewed on the BBC and expressed the view that homosexuality was “immoral”, was “not acceptable”, “spreads disease”, and “damaged the very foundations of society”, Steyn explains. ‘A gay group complained and Sir Iqbal was investigated by Scotland Yard’s “community safety unit” for “hate crimes” and “homophobia”.
‘Independently but simultaneously, the magazine of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association called Islam a “barmy doctrine” growing “like a cancer” and deeply “homophobic”. So Scotland Yard had to investigate GALHA for “Islamophobia.”
‘If a Muslim says that Islam is opposed to homosexuality, Scotland Yard will investigate him for homophobia; but if a gay says that Islam is opposed to homosexuality, Scotland Yard will investigate him for Islamophobia. Two men say exactly the same thing and they’re investigated for different hate crimes,’ says Steyn, incensed.
It’s a contradiction that Steyn himself has had to deal with. When one Mohamed Hazard tweeted that demographic figures proved the rise of Islam in Europe is irreversible, nobody batted an eyelid. Yet Steyn was lambasted for saying precisely the same thing on his blog with his normal dollop of wit: ‘By mid-century a majority of Austrians under 15 will be Muslim. Salzburg, 1938, singing nuns, Julie Andrews — ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’ Salzburg, 2038: How do you solve a problem like Sharia?’
After the audience stop laughing, Steyn wryly observes; ‘When I discuss Muslim birthrates it’s a hate crime, when Mohamed Hazard discusses it its part of life’s rich tapestry.’
Steyn also cites the chilling case of Lars Hedegaard, convicted of a hate crime in Denmark for claiming — in private — that ‘girls in Muslim families are raped by their uncles, their cousins or their dad’.
‘He was tried, acquitted, retried, convicted, [and] fined for a private conversation in his own home.’
Just as ludicrous is the story of Constable Sam Adams in Britain, where, as Steyn jokes, ‘everything is policed except crime’. The gay constable, who happens to be his local area’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Liason Officer, overheard street preacher Dale McAlpine chatting about the Bible’s disapproval of homosexuality. McAlpine was promptly carted off to the nick, booked, and held for several hours. As Steyn puts it, ‘Constable Adams arrested Mr McAlpine for offending Constable Adams.’
Meanwhile, when 14-year-old Manchester schoolgirl Codie Stott was assigned to a group discussion with five other pupils who only spoke Urdu, she went to her teacher and said, ‘I’m not being funny, but can I change groups because I can’t understand them?’ Codie, too, found herself whisked down to the station and charged with racism.
‘The lofty ideal of anti-racism is going to be to this century what communism was to the last,’ opines Steyn. ‘It is happening in UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, Scandinavia and now Australia,’ he says, referring to the recent federal court case in which columnist Andrew Bolt was found guilty under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
In fact, so fired up was Steyn by the ruling that he recorded an entertaining video in support of the IPA’s demand to ‘Repeal 18C’ on freespeech.ipa.org.au.
During a thought-provoking panel discussion with John Roskam, Janet Albrechtsen and Spectator Australia editor Tom Switz
er, Steyn had a genuine ‘fire in the belly’ moment, urging Australians to fight for their free speech. ‘You are free men and women, you have a proud history, you are one of the world’s oldest democracies. You don’t need some hack mediocrity to tell you who and what you can read.’
He defends Bolt on the grounds that ‘if the State creates a human right to be offended and extends it only to members of certain interest groups, it is incentivising membership of those groups. So how we define membership… is a legitimate matter of discussion.’
However, he sees in most left-of-centre governments, such as ours, an ‘insecurity and touchiness’ about diversity of opinion and warns that ‘if you give the State extraordinary powers, they start at the fringes and move their way in.’ In a country where critics of the carbon tax and the mining tax find themselves under ever-increasing attack from senior ministers, it is a salient point.
Steyn, born Catholic, confirmed Anglican, raised in Toronto and educated in the UK, gives a quick history lesson: ‘In 1215 Magna Carta Libertatum [his emphasis] couldn’t have made it plainer: Real human rights are restraints that the people place upon the King.
‘Today, we have entirely perverted and corrupted the principle. We’re replacing human rights with ersatz rights that, rather than restraining the King, give him vastly increased state powers to restrain his subjects.
‘It’s an abomination, and is explicitly Orwellian because these new rights are not handed out equally to individuals but … according to what particular identity group you fall into.’
He compares the bravery of Salman Rushdie — who in the face of the fatwa maintained ‘free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game’ — with the cowardly response of the West to the Danish cartoons fiasco: ‘The minute someone threatens to kill you the conversation is over.’
I, along with many others, almost died listening to Mark Steyn — from laughter. It’s rare to hear somebody make so much sense in such an entertaining fashion, although his cover of 1970s disco hit ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ probably won’t trouble the YouTube hit parade. But then again, you never know. Particularly if he sticks to that dazzling tie and ‘kerchief combo.
Neither of which managed to survive the fearsome ABC wardrobe department, leaving Steyn to front up to Tony Jones’s Q&A in more casual attire, where his enthusiasm for free speech must have been sorely tested by the musings of Adelaide luvvie Paul Grabowsky. Ever the perfect gentleman, Steyn listened patiently to his every word.
‘What benefit can there be in allowing him to speak?’ a human rights lawyer recently said in prosecuting a particular eccentric who had caused offence to some group or other, prompting Steyn to ask: ‘How many more of us will one day find the State saying they “can’t find any benefit” in allowing us to speak?’
Fortunately, Mark Steyn is one light the heckling lesbians, the Islamic radicals, the white aborigines, the Chinese disco-haters, the Urdu schoolkids, the climate change fanatics and all the other collective offence-takers haven’t yet managed to switch off.
Rowan Dean is associate editor of The Spectator Australia and a columnist with the Australian Financial Review.
The A-PAC channel will broadcast replays of the Spectator Australia-IPA event in Sydney from this weekend onwards.
Check your Foxtel guide for listings.