Moral Panic

Moral Panic 101: safe schools and new folk devils
(another version of this paper appeared in Independent Australia 24 October 2017:,10860)

Many social scientists of an older generation will have felt a warm glow at the appearance of Benjamin Law’s Moral Panic 101. Its title reminds us of important battles over academic & public discussion of deviants at a time when, as now, Universities, and Social Science faculties, schools and departments within them, were under pressure to show that they could made useful contributions to public policy. While Marshall McLuhan had used the term Moral Panic to refer to a pervasive sense of fear, its most familiar usage and the closely associated concept of Folk Devil were introduced by a few junior academics in British Universities, notably Jock Young and Stan Cohen, who put their careers at risk by arguing that significant policy concerns relating to policing and social control were responses, not so much to what was happening in the wider society but rather to what we would now call media ‘beat-ups.’

The British story of Moral Panic – the American story is rather different, while the Australian story draws on both – begins in Clacton in Essex, the closest seaside resort east of London, over the rain-soaked 1964 Easter weekend, when groups of bored young people, collectively known as mods & rockers, deprived of their anticipated beaches, fought in the wet streets frightening bystanders and damaging public property – a few seats and lamp-posts – in the process. Mods/rockers fights resumed a few weeks later at a number of seaside resorts in the South of England.

Mods, for the most part, got around on scooters while rockers used motor bikes. They dressed differently if only because most bikes available in Britain at the time leaked oil onto their riders’ clothing and scooters did not: rockers wore jeans & leathers; mods dressed more conventionally and generally looked smarter.

Media reports of their clashes referred to riots and represented both groups, along with young people in general, as threats to public safety, a view reinforced by ill-informed pronouncements by an Anglican Archbishop, police and politicians. Moral Panic, in this case, was not based on a total fabrication: groups of young people did indeed fight in Clacton over Easter 1964 and in other resorts a few weeks later. Yet, the scale of the violence and the threat posed to innocent bystanders and to public order more generally were vastly exaggerated.

The Moral Panic here was the fear that Britain’s youth were getting out of control, a fear both promoted and reported as fact by the media and by important public figures. The Folk Devils were the mods & rockers who were represented as threatening public order and social values. One important implication of the Cohen/Young approach was seen to be that, rather than allowing media beat-ups or politicians, to define their research problems, social scientists would do better to investigate how social problems came to be identified, if not actively fabricated, both in the media and by politicians.

While they would now be seen as rather conservative, Cohen & Young’s arguments were widely interpreted in their time as a radical critique of current policing practices and of conservative thinking in the fields of criminology and sociology. This critique was soon given a distinctly Gramscian twist in Stuart Hall’s powerful analyses of Thatcherism & neoliberalism. Many of its supporters hoped, naively perhaps, that this critique would reduce the impact of, if not put an end to, Moral Panics around what was seen as deviant behaviour and the associated stigmatisation of the alleged deviants – and, for a time, it did seem that police chiefs and other public figures were becoming a little more circumspect in their pronouncements.

In the longer term, however, the impact of this critique is not so clear. What many of us read as critical of current thinking and practices could also, with a bit of effort, be read as an admirably clear guide to action, showing would-be perpetrators what they need to do to mobilise a successful panic.

Subsequently, police chiefs and senior clergy have become more imaginative in the threats they claim to identify while the mainstream media appear to have fewer qualms and political parties continue desperately promoting Moral Panics, particularly around law and order, in the hope of electoral advantage.

Overall, leaving aside wildly successful campaigns to demonise asylum-seekers and Muslims, Moral Panics involving coordinated action on a national scale between police, clergy, politicians & media organisations seem relatively uncommon, although, in the Australian context, this observation should be qualified in at least two ways: first, the existence of distinct state police forces makes coordinated perpetration of panic more difficult to achieve in Australia than in the more centralised British system; second, it is hard not to notice the contemporary international Moral Panic promoting fear of Islamic radicalisation, which has taken hold right across Australian jurisdictions. Like the British mods/rockers Panic of the 1960s, this last has not been built entirely out of nothing: there have been documented cases of young Muslims becoming radicalised. Yet, again as in 1960s Britain, the extent and significance of this phenomenon have been greatly exaggerated.

We should also note a number of more or less successful Australian attempts to conjure up Moral Panics: John Howard’s campaigns against the ‘black-armband’ view of Australian history; the children overboard affair; the Coalition’s valiant efforts to demonise latte-sipping elites and trades union activists and its unscrupulous use of security as an excuse for granting draconian powers to police and security agencies; Labor’s effective Mediscare campaign during the 1916 election; the current No campaign’s efforts to demonise supporters of marriage equality, representing them as intolerant extremists; and, of course, the anti ‘safe schools’ campaign’s attempts, admirably dissected in Benjamin Law’s Moral Panic 101, to convince us that safety for LGBTQI kids would make schools unsafe for heterosexuals.

As a recovering sociologist, the first things. I looked for in Moral Panic 101 were references to the Cohen/Young material, the work of their successors and the rather different American history of the idea. Since he was not writing primarily for an academic audience, Benjamin Law decided, not unreasonably, to follow a different route by providing an angry but careful account of the scandalous campaign against safe schools. My only worry about his impressive discussion concerns a point noted earlier, that a good, clear examination of an only partially successful Moral Panic campaign might provide future panic perpetrators with a practical guide to action and what they might do to be more effective in future, exactly as the 101 in his title suggests.

Two essays on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers

1.Never Walk Away (a slightly different version was published on the Independent Australia website, 27 July 1917:,10526)

Ursula le Guin’s powerful short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” first appeared in 1973, more than 40 years ago. Yet, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. The story depicts a happy, prosperous city, marred by one barbaric practice: it always keeps one young child locked away alone in “a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings.” The people of Omelas all know the child is there. “Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, …. depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Many are disgusted at what Omelas is doing to this child – Often, when they have seen the child, “the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, …” – yet most of them appear to accept it as an disagreeable necessity. Omelas has made a Faustian bargain in which happiness must be balanced by misery: the “terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” Others who don’t accept the bargain simply walk away. They appear to have despaired of their fellow citizens: “Each one walks alone [as they] leave Omelas … and they do not come back…. it is possible that [the place they go towards] does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” End of story!

Science fiction writers – le Guin prefers to be called a novelist – rarely aim at prediction. Sometimes they propose a possible future or, as in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a plausible alternative present, with an alternative history leading up to it, but in both cases the imagined world serves as metaphor. It raises questions about the present. Ursula le Guin’s regards her imagined futures as safe, sterile laboratories for trying out ideas: in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she invites readers to imagine a society without gender as we currently understand it while in The Word for World is Forest she reflects on the impacts of European colonialism and less directly on what America was doing in its destructive war on Vietnam and its SE Asian neighbours. The Omelas story depicts neither an imaginary future nor an alternative present but a fragment of another reality that could plausibly belong to either. Its partial portrayal of a different society performs a similar function to le Guin’s imagined futures.

There is no exact parallel between le Guin’s imaginary Omelas and today’s Australia. Omelas like le Guin’s America has no hereditary ruler and no slavery and while Australia also has no slavery or none that is legal, it does have an hereditary monarch, at least for the moment, but she is widely thought to play no active part in government. The Omelans, like today’s Americans and Australians appear to govern themselves but, unlike us, they have no stock market, advertising or secret police. Le Guin insists that the people of Omelas are different, but not less complex than us. We would not contemplate keeping just one solitary child locked away in a basement just to benefit the rest of us, although we do lock far too many non-Australians away in immigration detention, a practice that outrages many of us – not to mention the many indigenous people we incarcerate.

Australia’s disaffected citizens, unlike those of Omelas, do not have the option of walking away: whether we walk, drive or take public transport, we still find ourselves somewhere in Australia. Instead of walking away, all we can manage is to retreat into our heads: we can tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our Government is not acting in our name.

Nor, it seems, does Omelas have any politics. Le Guin tells us there is no King. Otherwise she tells us nothing about how Omelas is governed. Perhaps it is ruled by a few powerful families or by what we now think of as democratic means. Those who despair and finally walk away are not described as engaging in protests, signing petitions, attending demonstrations or joining political parties in the hope of change. They despair, not only of their leaders but also of their fellow citizens.

Omelas’ leaders, like Australia’s, appear to believe that there is no alternative to their barbaric policies. They believe also that most of their citizens do not understand why these policies are necessary. Omelas sticks to its Faustian bargain and we hold fast to the view that penalising several hundred strangers will protect us from the world’s rising tide of refugees. No matter, most citizens are content to leave such issues to their leaders.

While le Guin’s Omelans can walk away, albeit to an uncertain destination and, with some effort, disaffected Americans could walk or drive to another country (Mexico or Canada) without being entirely sure of how they would be received, disaffected Australians can walk away only in their minds. If disaffected Omelans take the risk of not knowing where they will end up – it could be somewhere worse – something similar holds for disaffected Australians who mentally walk away but physically remain – our heads might end up in a worse political space.

The risk of a worse political space is particularly acute for anyone tempted to use the ‘dog-whistle’ metaphor to explainr why many Australians support our asylum-seeker policies. What is going on when we accuse John Howard or some younger Coalition politician of dog-whistling? Obviously, we accuse the dog-whistler of appealing deliberately and indirectly to racist sentiments. But the metaphor also points to those who respond, comparing them to trained sheep-dogs who hear the whistle and follow the command it contains. To use this metaphor is to compare many of our fellow Australians to trained animals – smart enough to follow commands but not to think for themselves. The risk here is the temptation to see those who follow the whistle as lesser beings – not a good headspace for anyone on the left to occupy.

Finally, if disaffected Omelans despair of their fellow citizens – why else would they walk away alone, not in groups large enough to make others notice? – there is no good reason for disaffected Australians to despair of our fellow citizens, although there are reasons to despair of our political leaders. Sure, there have been polls purporting to show majority support for our brutal treatment of asylum-seekers, with a significant minority appearing to follow the dog-whistle script, but we all know that poll results turn on the wording of the question and the context in which it is asked – and there have also been polls showing just the opposite.

If we cannot walk or drive away from Australia except into the sea and we should not retreat into the attractive seclusion of our heads, there is no alternative to the hard slog of engaging our fellow Australians politically.

2 A Comment on Paul Muldoon’s ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy’ (final version forthcoming in The Australian Journal of Politics and History)

The core of Paul Muldoon’s ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy’i is a subtle and sophisticated reading of Plato’s tale of the last days of Socrates which he uses it to throw light on the dilemma facing Australians who despair of their government’s asylum-seeker policy. While I do not dispute his commentary on Socrates, its bearing on the position of those who reject Australia’s asylum-seeker policies is less straightforward than Muldoon suggests. I argue first, that the parallel he draws between the situations of the latter and Plato’s Socrates is too big a stretch, and second, more specifically that, while both the Athens of Plato’s Socrates and contemporary Australia present their citizens with dilemmas of democratic citizenship, the two dilemmas are so radically distinct as to render problematic any attempt to draw lessons for one from the other.

From opposition to Asylum-seeker Policy to Plato’s Socrates

Ever since Schiller’s 1795 ‘On naïve and sentimental poetry’,ii Western commentators have derived lessons for their own time from simplified accounts of Western classical antiquity.iii Paul Muldoon performs a sophisticated variation on this manoeuvre, taking classical Athens more seriously than most. His argument begins by identifying opposition to Australian asylum-seeker policies with a kind of cosmopolitanism and noting that cosmopolitans may be tempted by an irresponsible abandonment of political engagement, both of which lead him to focus on Socrates’ engagement as an alienated citizen with Athenian laws and other Athenian citizens. His paper ‘explores how “we cosmopolitans” [among whom he clearly includes himself] might make effective use of our citizenship in circumstances where our views about “aliens” … put us at risk of being treated as enemies of “the people”’. He questions, in particular, ‘the way humanitarians,’ [i.e. cosmopolitans], have distanced themselves from government policy [through] acts of moral dissent’, acts that ‘incline towards irresponsibility and are no substitute for an ongoing interrogation of the ethos of the democratic community.’ In effect, Muldoon ‘calls for an explicitly political philosophy which… seeks to isolate and amplify those strains within the local political culture that open out to general moral claims.’iv

I agree that it would be a mistake for those opposed to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies to withdraw from political engagement but would not invoke responsibility in the Arendtian sense to make the point.v

Arendt’s political thinking draws on an idealised image of the Greek polis, as governed by the collective action of its citizens, to argue, inter alia, that the citizens are collectively and individually responsible for its Muldoon endorses her view ‘that citizens remain “collectively responsible” for things done in the name of the political community [and further that] for the future generations who stand in judgement, it will not be the moral stance we take as individuals, but the political action we undertake as a collective, that will really truly matter.’vii Here, two observations are called for: first, for many of those who object to what our Government is doing to asylum-seekers today the judgement of future generations is a secondary concern; and, second, if what matters is our collective action, it seems perverse to treat one individual, Socrates, as an exemplar

Moreover, while it is easy to understand why many political theorists might wish to frame their opposition to offshore detention in universalistic terms, we might wonder how far Australians who oppose such policies are motivated by ‘general moral claims’ of the kind Muldoon has in mind rather than by more straightforward feelings of sympathy and disgust – i.e. by principles that are both particularistic and strongly held.

Some might even appeal to ‘general moral claims’ of a different order than those Muldoon cites – claims that apply, for example, to states rather than to individual humans. A case in point would be the claim that states should abide by rules they have voluntarily agreed to follow – like the rule contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention and many subsequent Conventions that individuals seeking asylum should not be penalised for doing so – or else publicly withdraw from the agreement. Some of us have been angered by the sight of political leaders – who, in other contexts, seem happy enough to criticise others in the name of a rules-based international order – complaining about UNHCR rules-based criticisms of Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers as if it were some kind of interference in Australia’s internal affairs. Such criticism could easily be avoided by our withdrawal from the Refugee Convention.

Muldoon’s appeal to ‘general moral claims’ introduces the topic that takes up the bulk of his paper concerning ‘one of the greatest exemplars of moral individualism in the Western tradition: Socrates …. [whose] example helps to clarify the stakes of principled dissent and to provide an insight into the role that universal moral philosophy can play in relation to local democratic politics.” Muldoon portrays Socrates as both exemplary individualist and conformist, who stands against the customs of his community, yet still follows its laws. The final step leading up to Muldoon’s principal focus is to portray opposition to asylum-seeker policies as acts of moral dissent against the ethos of a ‘general public [that] has either willingly followed or actively encouraged this hard-line approach to asylum-seekers,’ thereby establishing a parallel with Socratesviii

This last point deserves more careful consideration than I have space for here. Suffice it to say first, that media representations of popular opinion are normally less than entirely reliable and second, that, while Muldoon cites evidence to support his negative view of Australians’ perceptions of asylum-seekers,ix it is not hard to find evidence to the contrary, that Australian attitudes towards outsiders may be more welcoming and the ethos of its general public more complex than Muldoon’s opening discussion suggestsx

We should be wary of reading opposition to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies as a courageous act of moral dissent from majority opinion – a reading that serves to legitimise Muldoon’s treatment of Plato’s Socrates as a pertinent exemplar. On June 29, 2016 The Guardian reported a poll purporting to show that a majority of Australians at the time believed that refugees arriving by boat should be allowed to settle in Australia.xi Dissent from Government asylum-seeker policies cannot always be seen as dissent from the views of one’s fellow citizens – although this would not stop influential media outlets and senior politicians from portraying it as an anti-democratic elitism.

Democratic politics in Socrates’ Athens and today’s Australia

However, my principle concern is to dispute Muldoon’s use of Socrates to provide insights into the role Australian dissidents could ‘play in relation to local democratic politics’. If Socrates is hardly an appropriate role model for contemporary citizens who reject their government’s policies, neither is the Athens of Socrates’ time a fruitful model for understanding the Governments of contemporary democratic states. Australia and other contemporary democratic states have little in common with Socrates’ Athens apart from being open to awkward rhetorical appeals to popular rule & popular responsibility – appeals that are central to both Arendt’s & Jasper’s rather different discussions of individual & collective responsibility.xii

At first sight, contemporary democracies seem far removed from what we might understand as government by the people. They are, for the most part, governed by a mixture of elected representatives and unelected public servants operating, at least in part, within institutional arrangements – constitutional monarchy, a quasi-independent judiciary, police and military apparatuses that are nominally under civilian control – inherited from an even less democratic past. In today’s democracies, the people play an important part in their own government, mainly through electing representatives, but in what Madison calls ‘their collective capacity’, they are kept well away from the actual work of government.xiii

In practice, of course, something similar might be said about Socrates’ Athens.xiv Like Socrates himself, many citizens took no part in the activities of the Assembly or Council and the practical work of government was performed by slaves and by citizens chosen by lot, the latter ensuring that many citizens had the experience both of ruling and being ruled, and that democratic Athens was not a case of government by the one or by the few – although what remained of its aristocracy was more influential than those who regard Athens as an exemplary democracy would find entirely comfortable. It would be an exaggeration to say that the people of Athens in ‘their collective capacity’ actually governed themselves – or that they were collectively responsible for the actions of the polis.

Yet, if both contemporary democracies and Socrates’ Athens deviate significantly from the ideal image of the people acting ‘in their collective capacity’ they do so in their own ways and neither is a useful model for understanding the workings of the other. While the same ideal image underlies Arendt’s account – and also, I suspect, Muldoon’s – of collective responsibility, just as it underlies the long history of Western opposition to democracy,xv it has little to offer our understanding of the workings of contemporary democracies – or of Socrates’ Athens – or the role of disaffected citizens within them.

If today’s Australians hardly enjoy collective responsibility in Arendt’s sense for the conduct of their Government, neither are dissidents who, having despaired of their fellow citizens, give up on them exactly irresponsible although they do risk losing any chance of making a difference


1. Paul Muldoon, 2017, ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy: Political Alienation, Socratic Citizenship, and Cosmopolitan Critique’ AJPH: 63, 2, 2017, pp.238-253

11. F. von Schiller. “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” in Walter Hinderer & Daniel O. Dahlstrom (eds.) Friedrich Schiller: Essays: (London, Bloomsbury 1993) pp.179-201. Schiller was by no means the first to return to the Greeks: cf E.M.Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge, CUP 2012)

111. See my “‘The Greeks had a Word for It’: the polis as political metaphor”, Thesis Eleven 40, 1995: 119 – 132.

iv. Contesting…, p. 239 first emphasis added

v. As I have argued elsewhere:,10526

vi. The Greeks…

vii. Contesting… p. 242 Note Arendt’s distinction : ‘What I am driving at … is a sharper dividing line between political (collective) responsibility, on the one side, and moral and/or legal (personal) guilt, on the other’ (‘Collective Responsibility’, in James Bernauer (ed) Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, (Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff) pp. 43-50, at p. 46). In her view, guilt is a moral and/or legal category, whereas responsibility is political.

viii. Contesting…, pp. 239, 40

ix. Cf, Daniel Flitton, ‘Asylum seeker boat turn-backs supported by 71% in poll’ Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 2014

x. See, for example, Andrew Markus, 2001, Race, John Howard and the Remaking of Australia (Allen & Unwin, Sydney) and his annual (since 2007) Mapping Social Cohesion Reports (Scanlon Foundation with Monash University & The Australian Multicultural Foundation, Carlton, Vic) and David Marr’s 2017 discussion in ‘The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race’, Quarterly Essay 65, pp10f

xi. 2016 was a year of intense debate on the legitimacy of Australia’a offshore detention, culminating in The Guardian’s release of a huge cache of leaked incident reports from the Nauru detention centre, in August. Muldoon hardly refers to the journalism of this period & his last dated reference cites the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2016.

xii. Arendt, “Collective Responsibility” ; Jaspers, Karl, 1961, The Question of German Guilt, E.B. Ashton (trans.), New York: Capricorn.

x111. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay 2003 [1787] The Federalist Papers (Bantam, New York) #63. cf my ‘Representation Ingrafted upon Democracy’. Democratization 7 (2) 2000: 1-18

xiv. See Christopher Blackwell’s useful discussion, “Athenian Democracy: a brief overview,” in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, eds., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities])

xv. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, 1997, Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (Princeton University Press)

Another Balfour Declaration

Abstract: Arthur James Balfour is remembered today as the British Foreign Secretary who signed a letter, dated November2, 1917, to Baron Rothschild. Generally known as the Balfour declaration, this letter affirmed that the British government viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’ and added the qualification ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. In Chapter One of Orientalism, Edward Said examines another, somewhat earlier and less familiar declaration, this time in the course of a speech on June 13, 1910 to the House of Commons. Here Balfour spoke of ‘the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt’, problems that he described as belonging ‘ to a wholly different category’ than those ‘affecting the isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire’1

At a time when what many of us know about Balfour and other historical figures is largely derived from secondary sources, I argue that, while it might seem unexceptional, Said’s insistence on what they have actually said operates as a salutary form of criticism.

Edward Said begins ‘Knowing the Oriental’, the first chapter of his Orientalism by commenting on a speech to the British House of Commons, 13 June 1910, by Arthur James Balfour, a former Conservative Prime Minister and still a senior figure in the Party. Balfour spoke of ‘the problems with which we [the British Government] have to deal in Egypt’, problems that he described as belonging ‘ to a wholly different category’ than those ‘affecting the isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire’.2 Rather than cite problems that arise from the difference in size between Egypt and these parts of Britain or in their distance from London, Balfour focuses on the fact, as he sees it, that in the history of the East,

you never find traces of self-government. All their great centuries – and they have been very great [unlike, we might add, Yorkshire and the Isle of White] – have been passed under despotisms, under absolute government. All their great contributions to civilisation – and they have been very great – have been made under that form of government….[T]he working government which we have taken upon ourselves in Egypt and elsewhere is not a work worthy of a philosopher… it is the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour3

Balfour insists that the Egyptians have benefited from British rule

Experience shows that they have got under [our rule] far better government than… they have ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilised West.

Balfour says nothing about how far the Egyptians appreciate what British rule has done for them. On this point, Said notes, it does not occur to him to let the Egyptians speak for themselves, since presumably any Egyptians who speak out are more likely to be agitators who wish “to raise difficulties” than good natives prepared to overlook the ‘”difficulties” of foreign domination’ (p.33)

Following this opening discussion, Balfour’s name does not appear much in the text, except in a few references to ‘the Balfour declaration’. So, we might ask, why would Said start his book with Lord Balfour? One possible answer is that Balfour’s name would already be known to many of Said’s readers as that of the British Foreign Secretary who signed an infamous letter, dated 2 November, 1917, to Baron Rothschild, a prominent member of the British Jewish community who was expected to forward the letter to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It was, in effect, a letter to British and thence to international Zionism. Generally known as the Balfour Declaration,4 this letter affirmed that the British government viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. The letter adds a qualificatio: ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’.

Balfour’s earlier speech to the British Parliament about British rule in Egypt, with its striking declarative quality, was written only a few years before its more famous counterpart. Said’s examination of this speech gives his readers who know of Balfour only as signatory of his eponymous Declaration an important clue about how he may have understood the rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. It was clear to Balfour that, like most other peoples of the East and unlike those of Yorkshire and other parts of Britain, they had no understanding of self-government. Except for a few agitators, they would not know what to do with self-government if it were offered to them. What their rights and their interests are is not a matter to be decided by people who have no understanding of what might be involved in governing themselves.

On this reading, Said’s discussion of Bafour’s 1910 speech performs an important critical function by informing his readers what Balfour seems to have thought about the people who were likely to be displaced by the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It reminds us that little weight should be put on Balfour’s qualification concerning the rights of the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.

We can take this critical point a little further by recalling that, unusually for leaders of the British Conservative Party, Balfour was something of an intellectual who, a year or so before issuing his famous declaration, had published a critical Preface to the English translation of Heinrich von Treitschke’s Politics, a selection of his political lectures. Here, Balfour identifies himself as a liberal, unlike Tretschke, who had once been a member of the National Liberal Party but had abandoned his early liberalism long before the publication of this book,. Liberalism, Balfour says in a footnote, ‘is a name for principles of constitutional liberty and representative Government which have long been the common property of all parties throughout the English-speaking portions of the world.’ (p.ix). ‘All parties’ here naturally includes the British Tories, of which Balfour was a leading light. Since there is no reason to think that Balfour’s 1916 commitment to liberal principles was a recent development in his thought, we see here, and not for the first time, that influential liberal thinkers do not treat their principles as applying to the government of Orientals, to peoples of the East.

Balfour was a senior figure in the British Conservative Party. So, Balfour is a liberal, by his own assessment, and he is also a conservative. This raises the question of who we identify as liberal. One option, which I follow for the most part in this paper, is to say, as political theorists tend to do, that liberals are those who profess something like the principles that Balfour sets out in the footnote cited earlier. Other options are, first, to identify liberalism with a concern for economy in government, as Foucault sometimes appears to do5 and, second, like many historians, to describe as liberal anyone who belongs to a party or movement with the term ‘liberal’ in its name.6 Tony Abbott, Liberal Prime Minister of Australia at the time of writing, would be liberal in this last sense while Malcolm Turnbull, a senior figure in the Australian Liberal Party, would be liberal in all three senses.

I take Said’s insistence on what significant historical figures, like Balfour, have actually said to be a salutary form of criticism. I should qualify this immediately by adding that he would not want to copy out every word that Balfour may have said and nor would we want him to. There has to be an element of strategic calculation, a calculation that determines what is worth focusing on. In Said’s case, this is clearly a political calculation. This focus on what people say may not seem to be anything special, I will devote the remainder of this paper to indicating why I think it is important.

First, I can imagine some of my readers thinking: isn’t this just a standard feature of academic scholarship; isn’t it what we all do? Well, No, I don’t think we do, and for two reasons: first, we all know colleagues who will do anything to avoid critical engagement and, second, careful reading of familiar texts is the last thing that many academics now do. I say this, not because I see them as lazy – most, in my experience, work extremely hard – but for other reasons.

At one level, the reasons for this are fairly straightforward – I’ll add a few complications a little later. Even in areas, like literary criticism, political theory/history of political thought, and parts of cultural studies, most of us already know, from our own training, what the big names – Kant, Hume, Mill, Fanon, Said – have said. So, under pressure of time and rather than challenge the received wisdom, we find it easier to trot out the familiar quotations. Consider, as an example, the familiar principle of individual liberty stated in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty:

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good… is not a sufficient warrant (1977 [1859], p.223, emphasis added)

This sounds nice and we’ve all seen it before, but the qualification, ‘member of a civilized community’ is disturbing. While the quoted passage taken as a whole could be read as identifying one of the distinguishing features of a civilised community, Mill’s qualification tells us that the principle need not apply to large sections of humanity, that is, to anyone who is not a member of a civilized society. We can see the consequences of this point in Mill’s next book Considerations on Representative Government, published only a couple of years after On Liberty. He describes representative government as
the ideal type of the most perfect polity, for which, in consequence, any portion of mankind are better adapted in proportion to their degree of general improvement. As they range lower and lower in development, that form of government will be, generally speaking, less suitable to them (1977 [1861], p.413)

In fact,

There are … conditions of society in which a vigorous despotism is in itself the best mode of government for training the people in what is specifically wanting to render them capable of a higher civilization (1977 [1861], p.567)

Earlier in the same book, Mill gives an example of the kind of vigorous despotism he has in mind:
Even personal slavery, by giving a commencement to industrial life, and enforcing it as an exclusive occupation of the most numerous portion of the community, may accelerate the transition to a better freedom than that of fighting and rapine (1977 [1861], pp.394-5)

So much for the principle of individual liberty. Like many liberals of his time, Mill hated slavery. He invokes it here to make the point that it may be acceptable to sacrifice individuals but only under certain conditions – only, that is, if they belong to societies that range ‘lower and lower in development’, societies that, in other words, are not civilized.

Not only do many of our colleagues appear not to have read Representative Government carefully but, without wishing to name names,I have even heard people in conferences and seminars insist that Mill could not possibly have said anything like what I have just quoted him as saying – essentially because of his commitment to individual liberty and his well-known antipathy to slavery.

How can one respond to such comments: ‘Take yourself off to a good library and don’t leave until you’ve read the bloody text?’ One might say something similar to those philosophers who seem reluctant to acknowledge the racist assertions of Hume and Kant.7

My point is simply that the careful reading of texts is not as common amongst political theorists or historians of political thought as one might wish and that, as a result, misleading accounts of the views of significant figures and thus of the doctrines – such as liberalism – they are said to have espoused are widely accepted. This is one reason why a careful, critical reading of these historical figures have actually said can be politically important.

I promised earlier to complicate this straightforward story. The problem is that, in the absence of extensive serious critical engagement with their work, blandly conventional views of significant historical figures are still widely accepted and promulgated, giving us an anemic version of, in this case, liberal political thought. (Of course, Kant and Mill are not the only figures I could have picked on to make this point.) Something similar could be said about significant historical events but I need not go into that issue here.

What are we to make of all this? One complication worth noting here is that the publication of Uday Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire in 1999 provoked the emergence of a minor industry in the history of political thought concerned to explore whatever relationships there might be between liberal political thought and imperialism. Mehta had noted (pp.6-7) that most British political theorists in the nineteenth century were deeply involved with the empire in their writings but the historians’ debate has focused on the narrower issue of whether or not liberals supported imperialism (Bell, 2007). (It turns out, not surprisingly, that some did and others did not.) Some historians (eg Muthu 2003) confuse liberal criticism of colonial practices in particular cases, which, as Mehta notes (pp2-3), was not uncommon, with criticism of imperialism in general.8

Mehta argued that liberalism is centred on an inflexible epistemological stance in which the unfamiliar is forced into familiar schema and that this results in liberals being insensitive to difference. Encounters with others therefore involve subordination, not a conversation between equals. In this respect, Mehta argues, to adopt the liberal stance towards others is to rely on the backing of imperial power. His point here is not so much that liberalism favours empire but rather the reverse, that imperial power favours liberalism. Thus, the focus of the historians of political thought on whether or not liberals supported imperialism evades the point of Mehta’s argument. The major problem with Mehta’s argument, missed by the historian’s response, is that his focus on epistemology lets liberals of the hook too easily – suggesting that what is seriously objectionable about liberalism’s take on empire is not so much its politics as its theory of knowledge.
Leaving the historians’ response to one side, am I suggesting that there is a conspiracy among liberal political theorists to misrepresent liberalism’s past? Well, Yes. Conspiracy theories are not always wrong and there are real conspiracies out there, some of which involve people who identify as liberal: the Liberty Fund, for example, and several competing varieties of Straussian (see the revealing discussion in Jaffa, 2013). Liberals who teach political theory or the conventional ‘ideologies’ or ‘-isms’ courses in politics departments generally aim to present a positive image of their own doctrine.

Another part of the story is that prominent liberals have seemed uncertain about the ramifications of their imperial responsibilities. When J. S. Mill, who, like his father, spent much of his adult life as a senior officer with the British East India Company, discusses in his Autobiography (1873) the different influences on his thinking, it reads as if his work for the Company – in effect, his work in imperial administration – had no real impact on the development of his political thought. Zastoupil’s careful discussion (1994) clearly undermines this congenial fantasy. More to the point, Mill’s reflections on his experience at the London Office of the Company show up in the closing chapters of Representative Government.

Like other imperial administrators in London or Paris around his time, Mill tried to distance himself from the more unsavoury practices of the Company’s subordinates in the field. In his remarks on the people of British India towards the end of Representative Government, Mill observes that, in marked contrast to the enlightened views of the colonial government itself – that is, of Mill himself and his London colleagues – administrators on the ground will often be tempted to ‘think the people of the country mere dirt under their feet’ (p. 571) and to treat them accordingly. He adds that it will always be extremely difficult for the colonial government itself to eradicate these feelings. This observation, and the more general discussion of imperial rule in which it appears, is revealing in a number of respects: first and most obviously it displays Mill’s recognition that practices which he regarded as distinctly unsavoury were an unavoidable part of the Company’s rule over its Indian subjects; and second, in the suggestion that he and his colleagues in the London office would not themselves have condoned such practices, it also serves to convey a corresponding sense of Mill’s own degree of civilisation. Balfour’s reference, in a passage quoted by Said, to ‘the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour’9 convey’s a similar sense of Balfour’s own refinement. He does this ‘dirty work’ because it has to be done, not because he enjoys it.

Balfour’s speech brings us back to my starting point. Balfour had been challenged by the Liberal – in the sense of Party member – MP, J. M Robertson, ‘What right have you to take up these airs of superiority with regard to people you call Oriental’10

His reply begins, “I take up no attitude of superiority…” – and this from a man who goes on to say that Egyptians, unlike Britons, cannot be trusted to govern themselves. ‘That is the fact’, he insists. ‘It is not a question of superiority and inferiority.’

Some years earlier, while he was Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1887-91, Balfour had directly linked the issues of the superiority of some people and the relative inferiority of others with their capacities for self-government. His New York Times obituary (20 March 1930) reports him as saying that ‘in many respects they [the Irish] are our superiors. But in one respect they are our inferiors and no amount of Gladstonian rhetoric can make them otherwise. They are politically incapable of self-government.’11

In some of his later writing, Said insists on reminding his readers of what he clearly sees as the chaacteristic hypocrisy of many liberals. For example his Oxford Amnesty lecture refers us to Aimé Césaire’s view (1972) that ‘unpleasant European practices against people of colour’ were routinely covered by ‘a façade of appeals to the greater civilisational levels attained by the white race (Said 1992:184, emphasis added). Said goes on to say that powerful imperial governments ‘ babble on about how really moral they are as they do some particularly gangsterish thing.’ How, he asks, is there any ‘appeal for liberals in such rhetoric’? (190).

It is tempting to see this example just as Said presents it, that is, as yet another instance of liberal hypocrisy, as showing that, like the rest of us, liberals have acquired the habit of saying one thing and doing something else and of varying both what they say and what they do according to context. Yet, this perception would be neither interesting nor informative. Hypocrisy is a common enough feature of public life and pointing out that liberals engage in its practice would not distinguish them from anybody else. Much better, I think, to pay close attention to what liberals say or write and to the internal, if not particularly logical, ‘logic’ that connects its conflicting elements and thereby serves to generate the familiar hypocrisy: we should pay attention, for example, to Mill’s principle of individual liberty, which I quoted earlier. As Mill presents it, the principle applies to some people, who are members of civilized societies, but not to those who are not members of such societies. In these terms, the ‘hypocritical’, differential treatment of the English and their colonial subjects makes some kind of sense. Or when Balfour tells us that governing the people of Britain is not like governing Egyptians, his point, as he understands it, is simply that Egyptians require a more authoritarian kind of government – ‘its what they understand’, he might well have said, ‘what they are used to’ – than the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight or Yorkshire, not that one group is inferior and the other superior. We have seen that this last is exactly what he does think but it is not the point he tries to make in this speech:here are two kinds of people in the world – those who do and who do not belong to civilized societies – and they have to be governed differently.

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