Ever since I became interested in politics and culture in the 1990s at the time Jeff Kennett’s obscene “Linking Melbourne” project served to remake Australia’s climate, my mother and brother have consistently said I support “fringe groups”, “special pleaders”, “lobby groups” and other tags. Nonetheless, I have always felt, and still do whenever something like:
- Marthe Robin’s claimed fifty-three year fast on only a weekly Eucharist
- the relationship between radical rainfall changes in Western Australia and Australia’s pro-freeway transport policies
- the fact that New Zealand ecologically can maintain a far larger population than Australia
- the notion that religious conservatives are much less selfish than atheistic liberals
is criticised aggressively by my relatives, I feel that they have read less than I have.
Ross Douthat, in his recent article “Pariahs and Prophets”, looks at the case of veteran libertarian politician Ron Paul and argues that, whilst Ron Paul’s ideas are extreme at at times abhorrent - especially regarding what he is supposed to have said about Martin Luther King’s supposed sexual misbehaviour and his tendency to blame intellectual or business élites for the United States’ problems, people like him are extremely valuable for the criticism they offer of fixed, long-term government policies:
But consider a third possibility. There’s often a fine line between a madman and a prophet. Perhaps Paul has emerged as a teller of some important truths precisely because in many ways he’s still as far out there as ever.I can agree one hundred percent with the notion that very frequently it is necessary to be far-out in order to tell the truth. Ever since I joined the Public Transport Users’ Association, though my absorbing the ideas of radical Trotskyists (Socialist Alternative and the Democratic Socialist Party), Tim Flannery and Tom McMahon, and finally the Politically Incorrect Guides, I have always seen immense value in radical criticism. When a country is on an ecologically or culturally destructive path, its population (and even those outside thereof with interests therein) is very often wedded tightly to values that simply do not allow anything to be done to deviate from such a path. This is for instance, the case with the enormous greenhouse emissions in suburban Australia and with the selfish, ultra-materialistic welfare cultures of Europe, Canada and New Zealand. People who see a need for changes tend to be dismissed as extreme, when in fact there could be many long-term benefits from adopting radical changes.
The classic example I give to my mother and brother concerns what Australia’s climate might be like if it had successfully sold its last new car in 1990 and invested every cent of transport money on a high-speed national rail network. In my view, such a policy could have cut Australia’s greenhouse emissions immensely more than all the small measures taken since then, and if the rail service was good enough it would have more than compensated for the loss of mobility from private cars.
The same thing could be said for many other examples which on my present sojourn in Singapore with my brother have become irritating to me as well as to him. Although I can admit that more people would lose out from the radical changes I can easily see as essential than their advocates admit, every reform beloved of the Left - from universal suffrage to welfare states to decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion - was won in Europe, Asia and most of the Americas by protest from below initiated by people with extremely radical ideas for their time. The same is true of reforms in America and former Stalinist nations beloved of the Right.
Fringe radicals almost always solved past social problems (whether real or not you can decide); there is no reason why the future will be different. We need to be careful before seeing people with radical ideas as madmen: they may have much more to offer than any mainstream politician.