The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) – thoughts

Sydney plays host to a wonderfully titled “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” on an annual basis, and this year was my first time attending. I love events like this, and need to make more of an effort to go to these things in future.

Below are some of my thoughts on the topics covered over the two days.

Session 1 – New Religion v New Atheism – Peter Rollins and Lawrence Krauss

So, in the interests of full disclosure – I’m an atheist. I’m irreligious and it’s not that I have a war to reconcile some inner conflict with a set of beliefs or anything. It’s just that I have no space where religion would be. Equally, though, I’m not hostile to religion. I think using science to disprove religion is like using apples to disprove chocolate. In my mind there’s no question that evolution and the big band and all that are probably true based on the evidence, but that’s because I don’t trade in faith as a currency. Religious people do, so you need to barter in a currency they recognise. Merely telling them how wrong they are is not discourse, it’s throwing pitch from atop an ivory tower.

So I’ve always felt more aligned with Christopher Hitchens than Richard Dawkins, for example.

This explains why I knew little of Krauss beforehand, and nothing of Peter Rollins. The good news I now know Krauss, as a physicist, has written a book I will likely never fully comprehend. I’m still not sure what Rollins stands for… but I was engaged with his ideas.

In short, from what I can tell from his talk (and Wikipedia), Rollins is to modern Christianity what Jesus was to Judaism – a radical reformer (and equally, you know, not magical). Like most evangelical movements, he seems to (and I could be wrong here, which isn’t my fault – this stuff was incredibly hard to pin down) advocate for a direct connection to God, bypassing church structures entirely. He also seems to employ philosophy, psychological and catharsis as the basis for his dogma, which I guess means he’s a like a Buddhist Christian. Paradoxical, I know!

This session suffered from dual problems of the lack of clarity of Rollins’ argument – though to be fair I found myself wishing more Christians shared his open-mindedness – and Krauss being an arrogant asshole the whole time. I wish I could say something better, but…

Session 2 – The End of Men – Hanna Rosin

I love Hanna Rosin. I want to get that out in the open first and foremost.

I first discovered Hanna Rosin through her contributions to the weekly Slate magazine discussions on Mad Men. I liked her take, which was usually the most refreshing of the three commentators, and clicked through to her other works. You’ll notice i commented on one her articles in this blog, regarding the “77% pay claim”.

Rosin wasn’t served by just an hour to speak and I feel like we could have had a day in exploring the issues she raised. For those who don’t know – in 2010, Rosin noted a tipping point moment had occurred – in the US, women’s participation in the workforce was greater than men’s participation. Expanding on this idea was a question around whether the new work paradigm, with diminishing emphasis on labour, would suit women’s skills better. Rosin expands this in her book (of the same title), which I need to read in its entirety soon.

To be clear, Rosin’s not arguing for the end of men as a species – she rejects the argument that women would be softer and more gentler if men were swept aside, as well as the concept that men could just be harvested for sperm – but rather, that the end of the era in which being male was an automatic leg up, a dominant benefit, is ending. Results support this thesis and I can’t actually bring to mind any issues with this idea.

(The Atlantic – The end of men:

Panel – The world is not ready for women in power – Hanna Rosin, Arlie Hochschild, Dr Vandana Shiva, and Anne Summers

This panel was wonderful, exploring some great ideas but suffering from some pitiful questions from the floor and inadequate time to really get good discussion going. It was the only panel I saw but I feel like 90mins might be a better time for panels in future.

The takeaway quote from the session had to be, in my mind, Dr Shiva’s when she said “It’s not the end of the era of men, but the dawn of a new era of men”. I like this idea, because rather than calling it feminism – which to some is a dirty word – it’s just accepting a new normal paradigm is emerging and that we should get comfortable with it.

Session 4 – Some are more equal than others – David Simon

David Simon is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed sadly only in the field of television. I really want to, and need to, get a hold of his books The Corner and Homicide, which were the inspiration for the shows The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. In addition to these shows, Simon has penned the adaptation of Evan Wright’s book Generation Kill, about the First Marine Recon division during Operation Iraqi Freedom; and the show Treme, which deals with New Orlean’s slow and steady crawl back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The Wire, as a show, is revolutionary in my view. It firstly didn’t so much change the police procedural show as it threw it in the dirt, tore it up, and started again. If you haven’t seen it, start with Season 1 and thank me later.

SImon’s talk, with its title lifting from the allegorical novella Animal Farm (also, actual animal farm – thanks Archer!), focused on the concept of a two tiered America; a land of opportunity and a land of abject poverty within a few blocks on one another. Miles apart, but worlds away (the US is rated the 39th most unequal nation on Earth using the Gini coefficient).

Simon begins his talk with reference back to Marx – Karl, not Richard or Groucho. He will keep touching on the point but really he uses Marx the way I used Lenin’s seminal essay Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. As you would expect, the writer Simon is more elegant than this guy, and phrases it that Marx was a better diagnostician than he was clinician. He could diagnose the flaws inherent in capitalism but had no workable solutions to it (and there are people who feel that a full and unfettered socialisation of all industry with complete or near complete redistribution of wealth is still viable. They’re wrong, and every example in history right up to and including Venezuela shows this. Socialism fails to provide incentives to risk take or innovate, and cannot overcome this obstacle).

Simon then touches on, though he doesn’t expressly say this, but a period in liberal thinking after James Mill published his work but before John Stuart Mill had finished his input – socialism. Socialism came along and liberals felt that the idea of a social welfare safety net was a good one, and incorporated it into liberalism and liberal writings (albeit a less radical iteration than the one the socialists of the day advocated). Interesting fact: the first instances of the modern welfare state, shaped by this thinking, were implemented by conservative Otto von Bismarck.

Simon argues for a New Deal-esque fusion of socialism’s focus on equality and safety net, and capitalism’s respect for private enterprise and wealth creation. It’s actually, to me, a compelling point and it’s caused me to rethink my attitudes. See, as Simon points out, there’s little left when capitalism wins all the ideological battles, except to go on winning. Again, without expressing it directly, he’s invoking Marx’s argument that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Previously I dismissed, say, Russell Brand’s diatribe that did the social media rounds as “the Revolution has begun! (…I don’t have to do anything, do I?)” and had a fairly cynical response to it. Every generation has radical youth, but this current generation was affected by a lifetime of laziness courtesy of PlayStation and MTV (etc etc). It would make some noise, get bored and move on. But Simon’s argument – and if you watch no other video here, watch his – was that in total victory, capitalism would continue without regard to a social compact. The tension between capitalism and socialism made capitalism better, because of the investment of all sectors in the outcome of the economy as a whole. In the unopposed victory of capitalism, the only motive that’s survived has been “I, me, mine.” As a result, the more vulnerable aspects of society get shut out and left behind and we all celebrate a world where, as the misquote actually goes, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”.

(This argument starts from the 11min mark on the video.)

If history has shown us one thing other than that socialism will fail to work in every situation, it is that sustained economic disenfranchisement often leads to violence and radicalism. And herein lies Simon’s argument – bring back the social compact, scale back the greed, and let capitalism not only engender wealth but also engender a helping hand for those who need it. He doesn’t want me to earn the same as a factory worker, but he wants me to be ok with some of my tax being used to make the life of the factory worker a bit easier but covering some of his or her medical expenses with my tax (As you can imagine, the idiocy of the Republicans and their opposition to the Affordable Care Act – “ObamaCare” – came up as examples of people who forgot this).

If we don’t, it’s not going to end well.

The idea was, as expected, dangerous but I also think paradoxically it actually wasn’t. There is little to lose by ensuring that we don’t end up as unequal as the US, and we don’t need to sacrifice capitalism to do it.

Simon does a much better job articulating this than I do, but I’m going to rewatch the whole thing and take more notes.

Also, I have to say, of all the sessions I went to, this had by far the best question at the end – asking if America was the template for other nations, or a cautionary tale. Recommend you stick around for the answer.

Session 5 – Australian film premiere of ‘The Unbelievers’ – Lawrence Krauss

The Unbelievers calls itself a documentary, but it’s not. It’s more akin to a rock tour film like “The Song Remains The Same” etc. A backslapping celebration of the partnership of Richard Dawkins (the evolutionary biologist) and Lawrence Krauss as they tour the world extolling the virtues of science and making religious arguments look stupid.

Whilst the film did soften my view of Krauss from the previous day, it didn’t assuage my concerns about the Church of Science and Reason or “Sciencism” taking hold. The film uses a raft of celebrities to open it, but having Cameron Diaz “like, you know” an endorsement for the unlimited benefits of science is a poor way to start. Moreover, the film is so one sided that it ends up indulging in the cult of personality for its two mild-mannered scientist leads. They’re rock stars, cry the film makers. Worship them!

There are genuinely funny and interesting moments in the piece, but when the film makers said the film was intended to reach the fence sitter, I have to wonder what it does to the fence sitter? Shame them into compliance? This is a film that preaches (irony! Go me!) to the converted and will do precisely nothing in changing religious people’s minds.


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