Over the cuckoo’s nest


Some 45 years ago, in my one-radio-station small rural town we university students used to avidly listen, with great amusement, to the broadcasts of an American evangelist, Garner Ted Armstrong. Quite mad, of course, in that American evangelical way, and he would rant and rave (what is the difference, I forget?) about sin and stuff and how everyone except those who sent money to his show were going straight to hell, not passing Go or collecting $200. We couldn’t get enough, exchanging, the next day, examples of his lunacy.

About 35 years ago, in the slightly bigger rural town I had then moved to, there was a chap who used to stand preaching in the central town square at lunchtime. Well, when I say “preaching” that doesn’t quite give the feel of it. He was a small neat man, but dressed, some 20,000km from Glasgow, in full Scottish kilt, long tartan socks, ruffled shirt and so on. And he didn’t preach so much as read inaudibly from something I presume was the bible (possibly John Knox’s personal copy) totally inaudibly, with absolutely no concern for, or eye contact with, the passing parade of secular Australians. He just read on and on in a whispering monotone, would be reading when you went to buy lunch, would still be reading when you came back half an hour later. I presume he had set himself the task of reading the book to Australia at the end of which the heavens would open or something and he would be raptured away to Brigadoon.

Incidentally I was delighted to read the other day that when another of those American millennial madmen was predicting the end of the world in May (presumably trying to beat the Mayans to the punch) that some American atheists (yes, I know, a precious few) were offering to take care of the pets of the rapturees. You know, afterwards – would be a comfort to know your cat and dog were being cared for while you were off lolling around in heaven. I suppose.

Before I became (very briefly, and ironically, I hasten to add, before you get the wrong idea here) a Garner Ted fanboy I remember going to one of those outdoor speaker’s corner locations. Forget where it was in Perth, the Esplanade perhaps? Years later I went to the equivalent one in Melbourne, but its location escapes me, one of my knowledgeable readers will help I am sure. I think they were in all Australian capital cities (was Sydney the Domain?) in the old days B.I. (Before Internet). There were people standing on soap boxes (probably literally in many cases) preaching to and/or shouting at the crowd who were, as part of the entertainment, shouting back. It was all based on the original Speaker’s Corner in London.

The speakers were self-elected prophets, political and religious, crying in the wilderness (well, crying in well-manicured parks actually, but wilderness is in the eye of the beholder), and they acted like so many pressure valves, letting off steam from the pressure cooker in which political, economic and social changes and issues were fermenting away. Each soap box, its occupant working up a sweat, was, metaphorically and in reality, letting off puffs of steam to prevent the community at large becoming overheated. Everyone accepted this function, and so the most outrageous, indeed lunatic, things could be said, often shouted, and the pairs of police, assigned to the easy duty of a stroll in the park, would smile complacently as they were accused of being the running dog hounds of world-wide capitalism, or communism, or fiends from hell. Then stroll on, hands behind backs, as if rehearsing for the old titles of The Bill, to the next eruption of fire and brimstone.

In my university vacation days I had a boss who was a young earth creationist and would attempt to gain the scalp of a young Darwinist without success. Later, as an archaeologist, I would spend time in country pubs (not much time, obviously, what did you think?) being harassed by elderly, educated in the school of hard knocks, and rather red-faced men who had seen a UFO, or knew what should be done to solve the Aboriginal problem, or were outraged that the government was poisoning us all with fluoride, or had proof that the moon landing was a fake, and by the way I did know that there was a CIA man on the grassy knoll, didn’t I? Would talk at you until the cows came home or the pub ran out of beer.

So these guys (almost always, something to do with the Y chromosome I expect) have been around a long time, even longer than me, probably back to the first human societies. If you didn’t have a village idiot it was because you had just lost one and were waiting for the new one to arrive. But in all these villages, these societies, the village idiots were recognised as being just that, a kind of tax on rational discourse. If you had freedom of speech then that included the freedom to hold ideas that a chimpanzee society wouldn’t have entertained for a moment. These little safety valves, letting off steam in pubs, or parks, or even workplaces if their delusions didn’t prevent them working, lived their own virtual lives while the rest of us got on with real life. You knew where they would be, could avoid soap box country on the street corner or pub corner. Nobody would have considered for a moment allowing, indeed encouraging, these nutters (I was searching for a word, but you don’t have to search far) to have some kind of a role in the governing of the country.

And yet here we are, in the internet age, and these fellows are clogging up every thread on climate change, ensuring that the Labor government is too frightened to undertake action on global warming, and the Liberals don’t want to. They are screaming about refugees, and Aborigines (still), and unwed mothers, and gay marriage, and guns, and “greenies”. Screaming loudly, but their voices no longer restricted to the back bar of the Black Stump Pub, instead on blogs from anywhere in the world, having an influence, their importance magnified not by the echoes of the pub toilet wall but by the world-wide web. The kind of people once represented by my lonely and inaudible Scots evangelist or my creationist boss, are now determining policies on drugs, social welfare, law and order, and, the biggie, education. My old boss would be delighted to discover that instead of his lonely path clutching a tattered book imported from America, being cheeked by a young biologist, he and his kind would now be running schools, demanding creationism be taught.

And further, not only are these people having individual influence in backroom chats with premiers or prime ministers, but they are getting elected to parliaments themselves, by hordes of their peers, suddenly seeing each other through a glass darkly, recognising the power in coordinated action. Suddenly there they are on the front bench of the federal opposition, waiting impatiently to take over the country. And there they are, with even more power, behind their own microphones in shock jock radio stations, writing opinion columns, and appearing on television.

Rational policies to deal with greenhouse gases, refugees, taxation, drugs, guns, land clearing, resources, social support, housing, terrorism, public education, health and all the rest of the conundrums facing modern governments, can no longer be reached because of the cacophony from the once soap box orators, now released, beyond the wildest dreams of their forebears, to run the country directly or by proxy.

Brave new world.