Europe, Witch Hunting and Censorship

The fallout for the European Union of the Iraq war has only just begun. The clutch of central and eastern European countries which a couple of months ago signed up to join an extended union, and most of which, including Poland and the Czech Republic, have convincingly voted in referenda to confirm this choice, which when complete will raise the number of constituent countries from 15 to 25, is not in the wake of the behaviour of "old Europe" inclined to be respectful and well-behaved. Nor are they all inclined to go ahead with plans to transform the loose confederation which is the EU, characterised by strong institutions promoting the economic aspects of the union, including the dubious Common Agricultural Policy, into a full-fledged federal union of the kind being advocated by former French President Giscard d'Estaing and the constitutional convention which he has headed. A new analysis opposed to this is developing which argues that democracy is a function of the nation state, and a superstate cannot be democratic. Certainly the EU already suffers notoriously from a "democratic deficit".

One of the most interesting of the new European leaders is the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, elected by the Czech parliament in March, with whom we spoke at length in Prague some days ago. The interview is published in this issue. (He has been a friend of Quadrant and its editor for several years) . He is a clear contrast to his predecessor, one of the great moralists of post-Communist Europe, Vaclav Havel. But perhaps surprisingly for an economist who has declared his admiration for free market processes, he differed from the outgoing Havel in refusing to endorse the Iraq war, though being far from anti-American. He has no great interest in fighting the battles of 30 years ago, although as he says he is one of the few leaders of the post-Communist Euro-candidates who was never a member of the Communist Party. But he is not, any more than Havel, a mere figurehead. He points out that the Czech constitution, of which he was one of the authors, gives an explicit role to the president in the formulation of foreign policy. The activist president with a prime minister and parliament is a European democratic variation pioneered by Gaullist France, and adopted with lesser force elsewhere.

Criticism of the EU institutions is not going to be suppressed just because the new members see the advantages of adherence.  As Klaus said in a speech to a Munich economic summit at the beginning of May, "I do not criticise the more or less spontaneous European integration process (if it is only modestly institutionally supported) but its current unionistic and heavily institutionalised character." He distinguishes between "Euroscepticism" in the sense of opposition to the EU on the one hand, and having a sceptical view of how the EU is working, with its taste for overregulation, on the other. But he does not equate insistence on the importance of the nation state with fashionable attacks on globalisation.  Klaus is subject to vociferous criticism in the Czech press, though he enjoys strong support in the electorate. This is partly because of the hangover of ex-communists (these days in most other countries calling themselves social democrats, an amusing theft of the clothes of those whom the communists once used to describe as "social fascists") and centralist Christian Democrats who try to claim that the wholesale successful privatisation of the economy has not been a success - a view at odds with that of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development which sees the Czech polity and economy as one of the bright spots of central Europe.

Since the constitution puts appointments to the constitutional court, a body Klaus has criticised for its uniformity of views, in the hands of the president, the forthcoming retirement of 8 of the 15 members of the court will lead to another uproar. It is a familiar story: "how dare you reverse our successful stacking?"

Klaus defends the survival of the Communist Party as preferable in a democratic system in which agendas are not hidden behind post-Communist names. Thus there has not been a witch hunt for supporters of the old regime ("what do I care that they were following me around 30 years ago?"), something which paradoxically many of those who think of themselves as Left in central Europe would like to pursue. These are old issues. Klaus, and the other new entrants into the EU, are going to be promoting a new Europeanism within what has become a sclerotic bureaucracy dominated by France and Germany, which even the pan-Europeans of the UK are now beginning to reconsider sceptically. Far from the creation of a new European super state, with a super bureaucracy, the expansion of the EU is likely to increase, rather than oppose, Europe's cooperation with the United States.

This is of course the intelligent road for Europe. The foolish anti-Americanism which characterizes so many of the European intelligentsia is not shared by the ordinary people of Europe who in general adopt those aspects of American culture, popular or otherwise, which they find attractive while confidently maintaining many aspects of their own cultures. Just as Japan has happily absorbed huge slabs of European and American language and culture while remaining unique, and indeed increasing its interest in its own fascinating traditional customs, so have many of the European countries. And it is not so long since the vaunted French intellectuals enthusiastically adopted and adapted American culture (often misunderstood, sometimes for the good) and created new genres like the "film noir", or the cinematic cult of the auteur.

So far, apart from the usual barrage of propaganda from opponents of the Iraq war, still desperately trying to pin some wrongdoing on the Americans (like the rather tedious attempt to prove that they were deliberately shooting at journalists, rather than ignoring those who deliberately placed themselves in the line of fire, so endangering combat soldiers) it is clear that the outcome of the Iraq war, though inevitably mixed, is generally desirable. Even the over-heated propaganda about the destruction or looting of antiquities is proving to be a furphy, and the only real culprits members of the Iraqi Baath party which was overthrown.

It is the members of the "new" Europe which will question the stupid anti-Americanism which has replaced thought amongst the intelligentsia of France, Germany and their allies like Belgium -- which seems much more enthusiastic about persecuting foreigners than in tracking down their own child rapists and murderers.


Ding, dong, the witch is dead! Let us all rejoice at the destruction of former Governor General Peter Hollingworth, the perpetrator of unnamed crimes and offences against -- whom? Against children? No, he has never been accused of that. His offences of course have been against contemporary hysterical denunciations of child sexual abuse in the past, and in particular the old-fashioned insensitivity he has shown towards the language insisted upon by his accusers. In his treatment of offenders in his church he did not do anything very different from many others in a similar position. Certainly, it was not enough as is now generally realised. But was there any greater degree of sensitivity thirty years ago on the part of those of his accusers, including the feminists who are now amongst his fiercest accusers? There was a notable carelessness about sex between teachers and students, both university and school, in those days. Many starry-eyed readers of popular anthropology texts thought that sexual stimulation of children, or their presence during adult sex, was perfectly acceptable. Retrospective moralism is the best general description of the newly discovered horror of child sexual abuse. Of course it is wrong for anyone to claim that sexual contact was initiated by, say, a fourteen year old girl -- not because that has never happened, but because it is the duty of any adult, particularly one in a position of authority vis a vis the girl, to refrain from responding. The fact that there was an invitation never excuses its acceptance. But now we are supposed to pretend that temptation was never, ever offered.

What will this witch burning have achieved? First of all, unless there is a general revulsion against the treatment of Hollingworth, we will get more of the same. There are plenty more potential witches out there. Then it is a question of motives. There was from the beginning a strong political element in the attack on Hollingworth, as John Howard's appointment and as successor to the Keating appointment Sir William Deane. Now the destruction of Hollingworth is seen as the perfect opportunity for a republican attack on the post of Governor General, and a change in our constitutional arrangements. This may well backfire. It is hardly likely that the prime minister will accept that as a result of this affair he should open up the process of selecting the next appointee, especially not to an Opposition which has played so hard a political game against Hollingworth. Far more likely is that he will select a successor beyond criticism who will restore the position to uncontroversial neutrality.

Those who wish to force constitutional change through this affair will want to keep controversy alive, at the expense of whoever is appointed. But it is just as likely that there will be a sense of shame and disgust gradually spreading through the population at what has been done to Hollingworth, such that ten years hence it is probable that the incumbent will again be considered as beyond criticism unless for some real offence. That is, the long term result of the whole dirty business is just as likely to be the consolidation of our form of constitutional monarchism. Peter Costello, still the heir apparent to John Howard, is a republican. But would he as prime minister be able to ignore this affair and move towards any form of republicanism, which would only throw the whole sensitive issue of the appointment (and possible removal) of the head of state back into the gutter?


Yet another crusade against censorship, once again involving the Sydney Film Festival, has revived all the old arguments about letting adults see whatever they want. This has now become such a motherhood line that anyone who expresses doubts or reservations will be automatically categorised as some kind of dinosaur or persecutor of the arts. Yet is it so simple? There is already virtually unanimous support in the community, even amongst those who consider themselves enlightened, for some degree of censorship. Nobody sane, not even the silliest libertarian, seriously believes that there should be absolutely no censorship of films and TV programs. There is hardly an active lobby to permit the screening of snuff movies, or of pornography involving children. The film to arouse the latest storm, Ken Park, is neither  but it apparently involves mature actors (if the age of 16, or 18, can be considered mature) pretending to be underage participants in various sexual activities, graphically and realistically portrayed -- or actually performed.

It may be, though we cannot yet know, that the film is a work of art. Even so there is considerable discomfort about art involving sexual images of children -- like the little girls of an undoubtedly important artist, the late Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski). There is here an important and fundamental issue  does "art" licence any portrayal of a person or act? There are many calling themselves artists these days who believe that it does, regardless of the actual quality of the image or performance. Depictions of nudes, provided that they can be labelled "art", now run almost routinely in newspapers which would never confess to running pornography. There is a continual testing of boundaries in matters of censorship, and more and more is appearing which would be unthinkable except amongst the publishers of magazines like "Screw", which featured a famous photograph of Germaine Greer in a rather awkward pose, as recently as 35 years ago. The real question about this is not whether it is a "good thing", but whether we can or should do anything about it. Certainly the strongest argument for censoring or trying to prohibit child pornography is that by limiting the size of the ultimate market there will be a smaller demand for the product, and therefore fewer children abused and debauched.

Ken Park seems to be on the brink of child pornography, though we are assured that no children are involved. Perhaps like the pretence of simulated sex, which has now led to actual sexual acts on the screens of mainstream cinemas, one soon leads to the other. Of course hard core pornography has long had a thriving quasi-underground existence in video and even TV markets, and seems to have done relatively little harm. Even so, there is some ground to wonder if the penetration of such material into the day to day lives of adults, and even unavoidably of adolescents and children, is a particularly desirable phenomenon, and whether it has an entirely neutral impact on the mental health of the community. Nor is it clear that it does not debase sexual and social behaviour, not to mention familial stability. Nevertheless it is difficult to make a convincing case for any censorship outside obvious areas like child pornography -- we must assume the right of adults to make autonomous decisions, even if they are bad ones. (What about the mentally ill or disturbed, the psychopaths or the criminally insane?).

But the case against censorship is never so badly made as when it comes as a kind of self-righteousness and a total lack of concern for the difficult issues involved. It is not surprising that the fiercest propaganda should come from those connected, directly or indirectly, with the precariously surviving Sydney Film Festival. Like environmentalists, festival goers see themselves as a kind of dedicated elite, a priesthood, who are not as the rest of men. They think themselves too sophisticated to need protection from the most repellent films, interspersed amongst the interminable Third World films, agitprop and schmaltz which is their usual diet.

Padraic McGuinness . Quadrant  editorial . July - August . 2003

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P.P. McGuinness