Born during the years of the murderous dictator Stalin, the young Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko began to cast a fresh eye over the oppressive USSR of the 60s. He himself was a gifted athlete, with a geologist father, and with both parents descended from families of Russian nobility. His two grandfathers were arrested during Stalin’s purges as “enemies of the people”. Yevtushenko’s own refusal to compromise over what he saw as the truth of things, and over the importance of good poetry (now largely suffocated in the Post-Poetry pretentiousness of our cultural decline) made him a target for the violent hostility of those settling for political dogmatism. His challenging the Soviet distortions of historical facts, including the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev in September 1941, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babi_Yar was an act of conscience, although he always denied being brave. But he believed, like Shostakovich, in the importance of acting according to conscience. The result was his most famous poem, Babi Yar.
In 1957, he was expelled from the Literary Institute for “individualism”… (which brings echoes of today’s blacklisting in this country of individuals (I can vouch for this from personal experience) challenging our literary in-groups, particularly the politicisation of children’s writing. The blacklisting of those refusing to adhere to the required “themes” of “biculturalism”, political “relevance” and “national identity” – and the targeting of teachers objecting to the increasing and inappropriate racial grandstanding throughout our schools’ curricula today: all these bring to mind the PC mean-mindedness the late Charlotte Dawson sadly experienced in this country.
What particularly struck me, discovering, in my 20s, Yevtushenko’s poem “Talk”, was that while discounting the praise of those who called him a brave man, he ended with lines which have grown even more relevant for us now in the West, today white-anted by the new intolerance of free speech masquerading as “liberalism”.
“How sharply our children will be ashamed
taking at last their vengeance for these horrors
remembering how in so strange a time
common integrity could look like courage.”
To those who in innocence protest that we are the West, surely, not the Soviet Russia of a Yevtushenko, a Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn – we would do well to take on board Solzhenitsyn’s warning that “the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive”. There is little doubt that what the late great Times columnist Bernard Levin described as “the atrophy of moral judgment”, calling it the characteristic disease of our times – is the inability to see what is in reality an evil – and the willingness to condone it.
The reality is that in New Zealand now, too, we’re being culturally, politically and morally bullied in the name of “tolerance”. On flagship issues such as gay marriage – an obvious dead-end in biological terms, but now supported by the demand from the growingly strident LGTB (lesbian, gay, and transgender, bisexual) fraternity trumpeting the new fashion of transgender identity, what became a reasonable demand to respect the privacy of individuals in their own homes is being extended. The tolerance long offered to individuals in a free society to make their own choices is by no means being returned.
The real bullying throughout the West is now characterised by this aggressive intolerance and antagonism – now extending to an attack on those who object to vulnerable children being propagandised in schools, or to girls being exposed to transgender males invading toilets and changing rooms. Querying what is actually happening to a once family-stabilised society – where children were best protected as nature intended, by a biological father and mother – now meets with even vindictive opposition. In America (the Land of the Free…) those claiming the right for their own beliefs to be respected can now expect to be met with a wave of intolerance, aggression, vilification – even to be taken to court and sued on some anti-discrimination pretext. Debate is a no-no…except for those drawing on the very courage which Solzhenitsyn called common integrity.
And yet, we have the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in honour of the Russian physicist and dissident, Andrei Sakharov – (who, together with his wife Yelena Bonner, faced state persecution while fighting for the necessity of freedom of speech). It is still awarded to individuals as brave as Raif Badawi http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20151215STO07590/Sakharov-Prize-Raif-Badawi-was-brave-enough-to-say-no-to-their-barbarity
The irony is considerable, given that public opinion and support for the European Union has plunged, due to the number of peremptory edicts continually coming from the unelected, unrepresentative body of the European Commission.
http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/8224/european-union-support Its administrative bureaucracy has tirelessly worked to restrict the sovereignty of the 28 nation states comprising the European Union. There is little doubt that its proposed code of conduct, attempting to ban “hate speech”, is a direct attempt to impose politically correct thinking and behaviour on those within its ambit.
But how little different are we now? Universities were once regarded as fiercely independent bastions of freedom in debate, insisting on the right of individuals to fairly engage in intellectually defending their viewpoints. So I recall my then shock, three or four years ago, when Wellington’s Victoria University refused to allow a debate on that most extraordinary of global cults, the massively financially supported claim of man-made global warming and the supposed culpability of CO2. In spite of the fact that an almost certainly natural, cyclical period of global warming ended approximately in 1998 – as well-qualified scientists – deliberately denied debating platforms in this country – have well substantiated, there is now so much financial and career investment in buying into the global warming hysteria that credulous action groups have forgotten what Upton Sinclair pointed out: “ It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And so many university grants and positions now depend upon individuals endorsing the group-think which has become so characteristic of our times.
From Oxford and Cambridge, one-time flagships of intellectual freedom, come these reports of students refusing to even attend lectures, let alone to debate points of view, which challenge their highly programmedthinking. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/30/jesus-christ-would-be-banned-from-uk-universities-today-oxford-p/
And in the US, the bastion of freedom? https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/free-speech-is-under-attack-on-the-
How many New Zealanders would disagree with the reminder that it is better to debate a question without settling it – than to settle a question without debate? Our parents’ generation and those preceding them unquestioningly accepted what most of us were brought up to acknowledge – how important it is in a free society to respect individuals’ beliefs, even if one doesn’t agree with them – and to be allowed to say so.
Well, we all once knew. But it isn’t happening any more. Over a whole range of topics on important issues of the day, the individual brave enough to say, for example – I respect your right to believe what you do, but for my own part, I disagree with the current liberal thinking about gay “marriage” being a genuine marriage – and regard it as an obvious contradiction in biological terms – can now expect, as in America – to be met with a wave of intolerance, aggression, vilification – even to be taken to court and sued on some anti-discrimination pretext. The very groups attacking the respect for the traditional family as the most important and stabilising unit of Western society, and trumpeting accusations of intolerance, are characterised now by that extraordinary intolerance of debate.
Yet debate is the bedrock of democracy in any culture or political system. It is a fundamental part of freedom of expression which is itself recognised world-wide as a basic human right. To realise the importance of debate we just have to look at the alternative. There are numerous examples in history of autocrats who demanded blind acceptance of their rule, brooked no criticism, stamped out dissent and locked up opponents. There still are. Countries particularly oppressive include Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, closer to home, and moving down the Pacific, Communist China. These all act as repressive societies. The results are governments that lack accountability and systems that breed corruption, resort to violence and today imprison their own Solzhenitsyn’s Sakharovs, Yevtushenkos.
Schools in many countries have debating societies. As Peter Millet, the British Ambassador to Libya reminds many of us: “At my school… we were encouraged by our teachers to tackle the most controversial subjects of the day. It taught us skills that have been invaluable in our working lives: about the importance of preparation, about setting out key points in a simple and logical way, and about anticipating the counter-arguments.
“We also learned that debating was not about winning the vote, but about getting to the heart of the matter. Yes, the vote was about which side presented their facts in the most effective way. But the purpose of the debate was to expose all the vital issues to public scrutiny. Truth was more important than victory.”
Apparently, what we in the West now need to be reminded of, when faced with the intolerance and intimidation now deliberately used as weapons to prevent us from challenging what is happening abroad, and in our schools – is the importance of courage. Shouldn’t we be opposing the deliberate targeting of our children and what is now regarded as the worrying decadence transforming the West, with its move towards liberal-thinking totalitarianism? To act according to conscience is no less important now than it was to Yevtusheno, when challenging the corruption of the former USSR.
In the words of another individual to whom we owe so much: “Intellectual freedom is essential — freedom to obtain and distribute information; freedom for open-minded and unhearing debate; and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship.” Andrei Sakharov.
© Amy Brooke.
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© Amy Brooke, Convener. See my book “100 Days – Claiming Back New Zealand …what has gone wrong, and how we can control our politicians.” Available on Kindle, or through www.copypress.co.nz and HATM Publishers.