Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pearsons Writers Festival transcript (partial)

Here’s an extract I’ve transcribed from Noel Pearson’s speech to the Brisbane Writers Festival. He challenges us to recognize our self interest as real and outlines how the left has deteriorated from a radical movement in the 19th Century to a pseudo progressive movement that covertly opposes the interests of oppressed people. While Pearson spoke the Green Left organized a demonstration against him outside.

It’s best to listen to the audio (and the whole thing) since his delivery is very powerful. Source:

14:00 minutes
I’m very taken with the discussion about self interest and its relationship with altruism …. you know Adam Smith’s discussion about self regard and other regard and the relationship between the two … and our capacity as human beings to have regard for other things than ourselves and our own interests

I want to make two observations about this

The problem with a lot of contemporary thinking about the whole question of self interest and altruism is that too many left liberals think that we can somehow abandon our self interest, that we can be completely altruistic

We forget David Hume’s point that self interest is present at all times. We never for a minute abandon our own self interest. It figures in all of our calculations, it is the starting point when we get up in the morning. and yet we carry on with a conceit that somehow we are singular in our capacity to transcend our self interest in favour of the interests of other members of society, in favour of the environment, in favour of a whole lot of important causes

As the old leftist would say, we engage in false consciousness, we’re kidding ourselves when we think we are singular in our ability to cut a link with our self interest. Yes we are human and we have that extraordinary human capacity to transcend our interests. But we are never cut off from it

And my great truculence in relation to the whole environmental debate and peoples’ concerns about the state of the planet, the destruction of bio diversity, climate change and so on, is that too much of this discussion takes place as if we are uniquely capable of putting aside our self interest. We are not. We engage in conceit when we think we can. The minute our interests start getting effected is the minute that we will buck up. And in my view the great function of the western environmental movement (it will not have the function of effectively confronting and solving the problems of environmentally catastrophe facing the world. I don’t believe it) … All that the western environmental movement will do will be to try to shift the cost to those who can least bear it. (repeated again) The minute that the changes that are sought will affect your interests, those in this room, is the minute you will turn against those changes

And this kind of schizophrenia about us not wanting our material well being to suffer whilst at the same time wanting a whole lot of fundamental changes made to the way we deal with the environment is an absolute reflection of the fact that when it comes down to it, whatever we might profess is at odds with what our actual interests are

The other point I wanted to discuss is that in consideration of the predicament of indigenous Australians our analysis has not just got to take into account the horizontal division between indigenous and non indigenous Australians – the race division. We can’t understand what is going on here unless we also understand the vertical stratification within the indigenous community and so on. This is not just a question of race. It is also a question of class. And this is one of the issues I address in my Quarterly essay. I am not just an aboriginal Australian. I am in truth a middle class aboriginal. And there are many indigenous people who share that class position with me. And a real challenge for us is the challenge in relation to whether many of the things we believe in represent our interests in our class status. Or are we unique in our ability to abandon our interests in being members of a class? It seems to me that that is another conceit that we engage in. There is a middle class black Australia. In my Quarterly essay I seek to discuss what comes down to a real challenge to the black middle class and the white middle class left.

In my view the middle class left is by definition an oxymoron. There is no true middle class left. It is in the definition of the tradition an impossible category. In my Quarterly essay I seek to articulate my argument in relation to this.

My own view about political economy is that the Left / Right divide has swung over time. Its polarized around this way. They are not true Left and Right positions. Because the original critique of liberal political economy that was advanced in the 19th Century was a radical critique. This is not the critique that the Left advances today. So the winds of political economy have swung over the past century and a half such that, yes, there is a cultural and political animus between left and right today. But it is not an animus on the original plane. The left’s critique is not a radical critique as it was when it was first invented. The threatening radical critique that was developed in the 19th Century in response to liberal capitalism is not the lefts position today.

And so we get to the really curious situation where we find ourselves in relation to the predicament in relation to aboriginal Australians. I’ve been an absolutely unrelenting advocate for the land rights of my people of Cape York. We have been relentless in insisting on the land rights and land entitlement of our people. And we’ve recovered a lot of lands under state legislation and under the Mabo decision and the Wik decision. Over the course of the last 20 years we’ve made great gains in restoring the land rights of our people. Mabo was extremely important in that as was the Wik decision.

Now the agenda for our development is an agenda that promotes both land rights and reform. – development reform and welfare reform. Our people taking responsibility for our lives, rebuilding families, rebuilding the strength in our people. And never succumbing to victimhood .

And we’ve been at odds with so much of the progressive thinking around what was right for aboriginal people. In my Quarterly essay I discuss a rule of thumb I’ve always had. The rule of thumb that I’ve had over the past 10 years is one that says whatever the progressive nostrum is to a particular issue we have got to look at approximately the opposite of that for the solution. And it’s always born out. In searching for the right way forward our rule of thumb is nearly always born out. If we do almost the opposite of what is prescribed it turns out to be the right thing to do.

And that’s a strange state of affairs. It is strange that on too many issues the progressive position is regressive. The progressive position would see us further unravel and make no progress.

We actually need more law and order in order to have freedom. But the progressive position is 180 degrees away from that. In my writing over the years I’ve sought to articulate this position about how it is that the sails of progressive thinking are set almost entirely in a way that I would be able to argue is contrary to our interests

I could give many examples of this. One of which is our position with regard to welfare. My position is that we’re not entitled to welfare. We’re entitled to a fair place in the economy like you people. How is it that you’ve convinced me that I’ve a right to 12,500 dollars per annum. How is it that I have been convinced that I’ve a right to 12,500 dollars per annum. I’ve a greater right than that. I have a right to a share in the country like the rest of you. I have a greater right than welfare. But if you condition a people to think, "Geez, we have a right to welfare, we’re going to defend it to the death", then you’re defending your right to remain at the bottom of the pyramid. With complete obedience you accept your position down there. But we in Cape York say no. we’ve got a better right than welfare. We’ve got a right to take a real place in the economy. Just like everybody else.

So on numerous policy settings we set the sails in a completely different position from the progressive prescription ... how is that our culture can produce currents to get an oppressed people to accept their oppression, to get an oppressed people to accept their right to welfare.
28:00 minutes

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