One of the most admirable things about Australia is that no witches were ever burnt here. As Nick Cater has pointed out, where Oz’s close cousins America and Britain must bear the historical stain of having once strapped eccentric women to stakes and set them alight, Australia, being a nation founded after the Enlightenment, has no such smoky track record. But a new, intolerant elite rising up Down Under seems hell-bent on changing that. These modern-day Witchfinder-Generals might not want actually to burn witches, but they certainly want to banish them, to cast them out of the land of Oz, to holler these harridans into oblivion. Consider the case of Tamar Iveri.
Ms Iveri, the Georgian opera singer and possessor of dodgy views on homosexuals, is a witch for our times. Where the female transgressors of the Medieval era were burnt on the basis that their wicked words might warp souls, Ms Iveri has been given the boot by Opera Australia on the grounds that her outré views might, in the words of one of her persecutors, ‘evoke hatred and violence’. She may have only been sacked rather than stuck on a stake, but the impulse behind her moral hounding is indistinguishable from that which fuelled witch hunts of old — it’s about cleansing society of a Bad Woman whose heresies apparently threaten to rip up the moral fabric.
It is true that Ms Iveri has said some foul things about gays. On her Facebook page, over a year ago, she expressed pleasure at some of the assaults meted out to homosexuals taking part in a Gay Pride parade in Tbilisi. ‘I was quite proud of the fact of how Georgian society spat at the parade’, she said. She also pleaded with the Georgian president to ‘please stop vigorous attempts to bring West’s “faecal masses” in the mentality of the people by means of propaganda’. That garbled sentence has been interpreted by her army of critics as a description of gays as ‘faeces’. As soon as this FB rant was exposed, Twittermobs, opera buffs and so-called progressives were demanding that Opera Australia ditch Ms Iveri from its forthcoming production of Otello, due to launch in Sydney next month. OA caved, issued a statement describing Ms Iveri’s views as ‘unconscionable’, and sent her packing. Ding dong, the witch’s reputation is dead.
The effective banishment of Ms Iveri from Australia over her moral outlook raises many thorny questions. The first is this: why on earth should it matter what a performer or artist believes? Surely the only criterion by which we should judge Ms Iveri is whether she can sing. The important thing is what comes out of her mouth on stage, not what lurks in her heart or on her Facebook page offstage. The judgment of an artist by entirely non-artistic criteria sets a dangerous precedent. Imagine if Wagner were still about and was heading Down Under to do a concert. Would he, arguably the greatest ever composer, likewise be hounded out by the puffed-up guardians of what it’s OK for artists to think on the basis that he had a massive problem with Jews? Then there’s T.S. Eliot, another Jew-hater — ban his books? What about that son of Oz Mel Gibson, who has said horrible things about minority groups? Should he be prevented from making movies because of his occasional lapses into prejudicial claptrap?
We’re witnessing the political policing of the arts, in the name of ensuring that no artist holds what are decreed by the Great and Good to be incorrect opinions. If Tony Abbott were to issue a decree saying no communist was allowed to perform on an Australian stage, there would be outrage, and rightly so — he’d stand accused of seeking to cleanse the arts, of unfairly expelling potentially great artists simply because they have different moral viewpoints to his own. How is the mob-won expulsion of Ms Iveri from Opera Australia any different? Here, too, an artist has been morally policed, found wanting and hounded out of her role on the basis that her political outlook offends the arty brigade.
In old East Germany, the philistine Stasi only allowed politically agreeable artists to write, sing, perform; today, a PC Stasi chases out of Oz an artist deemed to have the wrong views. Different methods, same result — an artist is silenced for failing to embrace the right way of thinking about political or social affairs.
Here’s another thorny question: when did it become acceptable again to deny people a role in public life on the basis of their moral convictions? I thought us progressives were against that kind of thing? The right-on shake their heads in horror as they watch George Clooney movies about the dark days of 1950s America when McCarthyites were bent on destroying the careers of any actor, movie-maker or other luvvie who veered too far to the Left — yet they do the same thing today, using the Iveri case to send the very clear message that anyone with morally suspect views will be expelled from the art world. Perhaps they should set up a House of Un-Australian Activities to interrogate those who want to perform in Oz. ‘Are you now or have you ever been homophobic?’ It’s PC McCarthyism, this rash, unforgiving expulsion from public life of anyone who doesn’t measure up morally. An editorial for the opera magazine Schmopera was bizarrely open about its intolerance of artists who have the wrong moral views, saying it is ‘incomprehensible and inexcusable’ for Ms Iveri to ‘hold these opinions and still expect to continue her career’.
Welcome to the new intolerance, to an era in which growing numbers of people who hold the ‘wrong views’, whether on climate change, multiculturalism, immigration or gay marriage, can expect to be petitioned against, Twitch-hunted and possibly hounded out of their jobs. One of the key commandments of this new intolerance is Thou Shalt Not Insult Homosexuals. It’s remarkable — just a few decades ago, homosexual literature and art was, outrageously, censored; now it’s people who criticise homosexuality who are likely to find themselves censored, like the Swedish pastor sentenced to a month in jail for describing homosexuality as a cancer, or the American preacher arrested in Britain for saying gay sex is abnormal, or Ms Iveri herself. We need to wake up to the fact that intolerance is intolerance, whether its target is gays or the critics of gays.
There has been a recurring argument in all the fury spat at Ms Iveri: that a modern society like Australia ‘cannot tolerate intolerance’. The aim of such doublespeak is to send a stern message about the limits to tolerance — you will be tolerated so long as you say the right thing as decided by the wise protectors of civilised thought. Here we can see how the new intolerance is even worse than the old intolerance, for it deceitfully dolls itself up as liberal, progressive and caring while coming down as harshly and censoriously as any old witch-hunter against those deemed to have uttered a heresy.