Bill Leak (1956-2017) – ‘waking up with a roaring fatwa’

“It’s a strange world when the most conservative people on earth call themselves ‘progressives’ and no one bats an eyelid” – email from Bill Leak, 4-10-15

“These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism” – email from Bill Leak, 30-10-16

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marx cartoon - Bill Leak

I had the privilege of becoming one of Bill Leak’s friends. We corresponded, sometimes in substantial emails, and chatted by phone. We never met, but wanted to.

I did not agree with all his cartoons, needless to say, but defended his right to express his views via his excellent technical skills, brilliant intellect and wit, powerful way with words and awesome imagination. In terms of political philosophy, I had very little in common with those on the Right who supported him – other than a shared, stated, commitment to free speech.

And I didn’t agree when he would use the term ‘the Left’ to assail his opponents. It was understandable that he would regard the censorious reactionary creeps who John Pilger and Andrew Bolt both agree are ‘the Left’ as actually constituting some kind of left. After all, where is the alternative – a genuine Left – in public discourse? But I managed to point out to him that the Left is not defined by self-labelling, or by the right-wing media, or by some dogmatic formula into which reality is forced, but rather by long-established values and theory, and politics based on the ever-changing real world.

In an article Bill wrote defiantly for ‘The Australian’ after being summoned before the Human Rights Commission, he again attacked ‘the Left’. I emailed him, arguing that “such types have nothing in common with Marx’s rebellious spirit, let alone revolutionary political philosophy, and the term ‘pseudo-left’ and ‘faux-Marxists’ needs to be popularised”.

Bill’s response:

“Thanks SO much, Barry. If ONLY I’d spoken to you while writing it. I squirmed in my chair for a fortnight but couldn’t come up with the terms pseudo left and faux-Marxists and now it’s too late”.

 

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Our contact began when I wrote to him, three or four years ago, to congratulate him on an excellent cartoon in ‘The Australian’, attacking a union boss who had been dog-whistling about ‘foreign workers’. As a leftist influenced by Marxism, I knew there was no such thing as foreigners when it came to the working class. I told Bill. He agreed.

Foreign workers’ cartoon… (112 years) after Livingston Hopkins… 

 Bill Leak cartoon - foreign workers - cropped

 

He had an indomitable sense of humour and wit. Early in 2015, when very serious death threats were made against him by Islamo-fascists, he had to uproot his family and move house and studio at short notice, and adopt a false name. Armed protection had to be arranged for him and his family. His crime had been to portray a figure in a cartoon that resembled Muhammad. It was not gratuitous stuff, but a response to the murder of cartoonists in France.

“Je suis Charlie’. Remember?

Bill’s response to me, in an email was:

“In much the same way that it takes a bit of time before you can laugh at tragedies, it might still take a while before Goong [his wife] and I can laugh about all this upheaval. I feel pretty sure though that it won’t be long before I’ll be able to say, “You remember that day when I woke up with a roaring fatwa? Best thing that ever happened for both of us.”

He continued:

“It is of course galling to read the letters in the paper from people “daring” me to “dare” to draw a cartoon that may offend Muslims in the way Saturday’s cartoon appears to have offended some of the more humourless Christians. It’s not as if I can write a letter myself, demanding they go back and check the cartoon from January 10. I’d love to tell them it resulted in me having to find a new home and live under an assumed name because the people I’d “offended” wanted to square things up by tracking me down and cutting my head off but, for obvious reasons, the less people know about it the better.

 

“Right now the thing that worries me most is the prospect of discovering I’m being targeted by Evangelical Christians, wanting to turn up at my place in a mini-bus and stand around on the front lawn strumming guitars and singing songs at me.

“One fatwa at a time, please!”

 

State censorship and the spirit of ’68…

As someone radicalised in the 1960s, who still regards 1968 as the Left’s finest year and high point internationally, I saw in Bill’s spirit and many of his cartoons the long-lost spirit of that year: its irreverence, rebelliousness, defiance and challenge to the dominant ideology (what we today call ‘Political Correctness’ – yes, it was around back then but in an openly right-wing form).

Much of the censorship back then was undertaken by the state under the guise of clamping down on obscenity. There was an Obscene Publications Act, which banned art and writings that members of a Vice Squad regarded as sufficiently pornographic for them to physically remove them from bookshops. If a magistrate shared the Vice Squad’s view, then the literature was banned.

Publications exposing US war crimes in Vietnam were also banned under the Obscene Publications Act. At high school, I unlawfully distributed the banned pamphlet, ‘US atrocities in Vietnam’ (I think it was called that, from memory).

The attempt at state intimidation and censorship that Bill Leak experienced, and fought, was undertaken via ‘human rights’ legislation: the Racial Discrimination Act. Go figure. And see the Appendix below for Bill’s email of 30-10-16 as to why and how the cartoon sought to support Indigenous people in remote communities and was not racist.

Every society has a dominant sense of what is right and wrong, what is fair comment and what is going too far, but the real question concerns the parameters as set down by the state, by official censorship.

That action could be taken against a cartoonist in the C21st by an arm of the state – and let’s not be coy about it, that’s what the Human Rights Commission is – showed that the parameters are way too broad and censorious. Even the Greens Senator, Nick McKim, stated on national television that he felt Bill’s controversial ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was exempt under Section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which basically exempts on the grounds of ‘fair comment’).

‘Dear old dad’ cartoon…

leak dear old dad

Bill tapped into a mood of resentment on the part of many people who grew sick and tired of being smugly admonished by their finger-prodding ‘betters’ in the Establishment that they should not do this or that, or think ‘like that’. This is not to suggest that those feeling resentment are always right, they are not, but the culture of Political Correctness has made nuance almost impossible. You either toe the line entirely or you are racist and any variety of ‘phobe’. There is little room in this culture for debate, for the open clash of conflicting ideas. In this context, ‘Being offended’ has become an argument – a case for opposition to something – rather than just a subjective feeling.

Punching up… at the cultural establishment

Those who accused Bill of ‘punching down’ have it upside down. His cartoons in the main were actually punching up, challenging those at the top, the decision-makers, those with great and sometimes dominant influence in the media, the senior bureaucracy, bourgeois academia, the ‘aristocracy of labour’ (or ‘union bosses’ as we described them in the communist party) and mainstream politicians of all stripes who, in general, prefer to deny or obfuscate life-threatening problems and restrict civil liberties. It takes a weird sense of victimhood – a denial of human agency – to see it the other way ‘round.

No other mainstream cartoonist so incisively mocked the Green quasi-religion. His ‘Christine Milne’ sitting self-righteously with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, in vivid unreal technicolour, was among my favourites.

Green fairies at the bottom of the garden…

leak milne

No other cartoonist so effectively challenged economic protectionism. None so willingly revealed the absurdity of all the religions, including the quasi-religious totalitarian impulses of the reactionary pseudo-left. None so courageously stood up to the current brand of ‘clerico-fascism’.

He will be best remembered for his defence of free speech. He stood up to fascists, at great personal cost. To me, regardless of the cartoons with which I disagreed, those qualities make him a cultural hero.

I’m devastated by his death, and disgusted by the attacks he endured from what passes for ‘the left’ today, by the state and by Islamo-fascists.

Bill, thank you for your work, and for having me as a friend. And for your spirit, the best long-term hope for which is the revival of a genuine left.

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Appendix:

 

Bill’s email of 30-10-16 on why his ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was not racist:

Sorry I didn’t reply to your previous email that arrived just a few days after I received news I was about to be hauled before the Inquisition. Since then I’ve discovered drawing cartoons and fighting the dark forces of tyranny at the same time is bloody hard work and doesn’t leave me with much time to spare for writing emails.

I have to give my cartoons names when I put them up on the website and the name I gave the one that’s caused all this latest trouble was “Dear Old Dad”. Well, dear old dad is having one hell of an impact. I hoped it would prompt people to take a good, hard look at the plight of aboriginal kids in remote communities but it seems that’s something so confronting they prefer not to look at it at all. So much easier to accuse me of racism for having brought the subject up. It’s pleasing to see, though, that finally the virtue signallers are running out of abuse to hurl at me and the conversation is starting to focus on the little boy in the middle of it and his indescribably sad, desperate life. The cartoon was supposed to be about him after all, for Christ’s sake. Col Dillon (Anthony’s father) [both of Indigenous ancestry] rang me on the morning of the day it was published to thank me and congratulate me for doing it. He knew what I was trying to say and knowing he was glad to see I’d tried to say it clearly was good enough for me. 

I grew up in a place in the bush called Condobolin among aboriginal kids. When I went back there in 2001 (for the first time in over 30 years) it was depressing to see how much worse things were for the indigenous people than they were in the 60s. Intergenerational welfare dependency is like a slow working poison. Killing with kindness is just the ticket I suppose if, deep down, what you really want to do is discreetly eradicate a population while simultaneously parading your compassion and telling everyone how much you care.

To tell you the truth I had no idea dear old dad would also trigger a debate on 18C, let alone that I’d end up at the pointy end of a battle to get it amended or (dare I hope) repealed. Two shitfights for the price of one! Perhaps by now Southpommasane and Triggs might be regretting they decided to try to rid themselves of this turbulent cartoonist. But they did, and I’m going to fight like buggery. It’s just as well I like a blue, Barry.

These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism. And if that’s where we end up the Triggses and Southpossums and all their fellow members of ‘the new monocled top-hatted elite who hold the workers in disdain for their consumerism’ won’t know what hit them. – Bill Leak, 30-10-16

leak bob dylan

 

Free speech is surely something to fight for… Memories of the Free Speech movement in Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia, 1933

The following 22 minute edited excerpt from an interview I recorded with Ted Bull (1914-1997) between 1988 and 1990 recalls Ted’s memories and reflections on the Free Speech movement in Brunswick, Melbourne, in 1933. The struggle is commemorated today by a monument in Sydney Road, Brunswick, but the lessons – the need to defend and assert free speech – remain valid.

Ted Bull was arrested on the free speech protests. As he recalls: “You’d get half a dozen words out and you’d be arrested. Not only arrested but the coppers would take you behind the Town Hall and they’d give you a bloody ‘doing over’ – and a good ‘doing over’ too”.

For overseas listeners, a “stump” in this context refers to a spot where a speaker regularly set up – usually a street corner – to speak to passers-by. Crowds would gather and this was seen as dangerous by the state at a time when communist ideas were gaining support. Also, when Ted refers to “the hook”, he means his work as a waterside worker – or ‘wharfie’ – in the days before widespread mechanisation when much of the work was manual and sacks were carried using a hook.

At the time of interview, I had no idea that someone had been shot during the free speech struggle in Brunswick, which happens to be my ‘hometown’. Ted talks about ‘Shorty’ Patullo who was shot by police and hospitalised. It was also surprising, though shouldn’t have been, to learn that in addition to the police it was die-hard Labor Party supporters who would disrupt the stumps.

The 1933 struggle is probably best remembered for the makeshift cage in which Noel Counihan (1913-1986) locked himself in Sydney Road in order to give his speech without being arrested.

 

The above is a 22 minute edited excerpt but the full interview runs for about 20 hours, based on a whole-of-life approach, and is available in full via the National Library of Australia’s on-line catalogue.

Marx, Murdoch and freedom of the press

“Censorship should be resisted in all its insidious forms. We should be vigilant of the gradual erosion of our freedom to know, to be informed, and make reasoned decisions in our society and in our democracy” – from ‘Smash fascism!’ leaflet, published by the Red Left group, Melbourne, 1970.

If you didn’t blink at the above quote, from the ‘Red Left’ group in 1970, then that’s because the sentiment expressed is precisely what you would expect from a ‘Red Left’ group in 1970. It is what those of us on the left actually believed back then. The quote, however, is not from a leaflet: the ‘Red Left’ group is fictitious. The words are those of Lachlan Murdoch in his 2014 ‘Keith Murdoch Oration’ in Melbourne.

Censoriousness is yet another indicator of the move to the Right in Australia’s political culture. In common with the C19th Prussian ruling class, who wanted to ban publication of anything offensive to religion or morality, in Australia the Labor Party, the Coalition and the Greens have been all for allowing the C21st bourgeois state to decide what is offensive in a publication and what isn’t. And, like the Prussian state, they supported a body to ensure that only ‘proper’ and ‘accurate’ content is published. In Australia, the previous government – with delightful Orwellian sensibility – called this the ‘Public Media Interest Advocate’ (PMIA). After all, the masses – you know, the “motive force of history” – cannot be trusted. Ah, what would they know?! Fortunately, the PMIA was defeated.

When individuals and groups self-identifying as ‘left-wing’ support censoriousness, the notion of a pseudo-left comes into play. Opposition to press freedom has nothing in common with Marxism or a Marxist-influenced Left.

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Fighting censorship

I first intentionally broke the law as a left-wing political activist in the late 1960s, when I was a student at high school. Armed with a bundle of copies of a banned pamphlet, which from memory was called either ‘US War Crimes in Vietnam’ or ‘North Vietnam: an eye-witness account’, I distributed the banned material to those among my fellow students whom I knew, or felt, were thinkers.

The pamphlet had been banned under the Obscene Publications Act (from memory) and I was worried about being caught and facing the embarrassment of arrest for distribution of ‘obscene literature’. To young blokes in their mid-teens, ‘obscene literature’ was something other than images of napalmed women and children.

I wasn’t caught, or punished, but the school principal spoke in generality at the next assembly about the importance of the law and the consequences of breaking it, even in situations where it may seem unjust. I wasn’t – and have never been – an anarchist, so I accepted the need for the law but also felt it was right to break it in this particular circumstance.

A couple of years later at university, I – and other young communists – expected, and DEMANDED, the right to freely distribute the pamphlets, leaflets, and off-set-printed newspapers that we were publishing at frenetic pace.

Within a short period of time, I came to identify with the Maoist rebels in Melbourne, and happily embraced that label. The main thing that appealed to me was the fact that Mao had declared “It is right to rebel!” at a time when Australia’s political leaders were either doing their best to crush dissent or contain it by telling us radicals to ‘use the proper channels for change’. During the Cultural Revolution in China, in the early period, hundreds of new newspapers were being published and expressing divergent and often antagonistic views. ‘Big character posters’ were pasted on walls, criticizing corrupt party officials and exposing bureaucrats who were holding things back.

Freedom to express one’s views means freedom to speak them, and also freedom to publish them. In the flair of our own youth ‘cultural revolution’ back then, I loved the slogans coming out of Paris in 1968. ‘Sous les paves, la plage’ (beneath the paving stones, the beach) is on the masthead of this blog, but I also relished others, including ‘Il est interdit d’interdire’ (It is forbidden to forbid).

Struggle against censorship was a big issue in Australia in the 1960s and the left played an important part in opposing it.

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‘Comrade’ Lachlan Murdoch – “Every citizen a journalist!”

In his oration, Lachlan Murdoch makes some important points. For instance, he understands how the new technologies have a liberating potential in the sense that everyone can be a publisher or a reporter:

“Journalists today file electronically, not just by email but through streaming live images through Skype or Facetime. Pictures taken seconds before can be seen in newsrooms half the world away. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Tumblr, Instagram, even Snapchat are used to amplify a story to devastating effect. These are tools available not only to journalists but to everyone with a mobile phone. Every journalist has these tools, yes, but also every soldier, every citizen, every teenager, taxi driver, mum, dad, troll, and yes, terrorist”.

“Every citizen a journalist!” – Sounds like something Mao might have said.

Murdoch jr also takes a very good line on the recent Australian security anti-terror proposals. He says: “Our current government is introducing legislation that includes jailing journalists for up to 10 years if they disclose information that relates to a “special intelligence operation.” This proscription lasts in perpetuity. Forever. Long after an operation is complete. And breaching it has no defined defences, despite such defences being well understood under Australian law”.

He provides important facts about the extent of the new “era of human communication” in which we all live:

“Of the 5 billion mobile phones in use today, 1.8 billion are smart phones, capable of publishing and receiving media. Currently smartphone sales are running at about 400 million units per quarter… Over 2 billion pieces of user-generated content are created every day. There are 277,000 tweets every minute. Ten per cent of the world’s images were recorded in the last six months. In fact, 90 per cent of the world’s digital data has been created in the last two years”.

It must be increasingly difficult being a dictator, trying to control a population. In the old days, they could send in goons to seize printing-presses. But today?

Lachlan Murdoch also points out that “the creation of the internet has not, in itself, made the world a better place. It cannot force any of us to be better human beings. But, through the knowledge it facilitates, the internet can help us to choose to be better. Choice is the nature of freedom. And knowledge is at the very root of free choice. It is also at the very core of our democracy”.

And through that knowledge and that choice, people like myself see the likelihood of a better future, one in which the big media empires will be redundant and ‘melt into air’.

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Karl Marx: the free press as the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul

Karl Marx’s first political activism was prompted by the issue of press censorship by the Prussian ruling class. He was a journalist from the 1840s to the 1860s and, as a supporter of the bourgeois democratic revolutions in Europe, he wrote eloquently about the need for freedom of the press. Marx had been editor of ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ and ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’, as well as European correspondent for the ‘New York Tribune’. He wrote nearly 500 articles for the latter.

The context for Marx’s campaign against press censorship was the decision taken by the Prussian cabinet in 1841 to extend the scope of the censorship law by decree. Under the decree, the state could censor anything critical of the “fundamental principles of religion and offensive to morality and good will”. It was long ago but, gee, there is resonance there with attacks on press freedom in the C21st, including in Australia. The term “offensive” certainly leaps out. And Marx responded as any good leftist should: “The censorship law”, he stated, “is not a law, it is a police measure”. And, moreover, “The censorship law is a law of suspicion against freedom”.

In 1843, Marx himself was censored when he wrote an article exposing the poverty among wine-farmers in the Mosel region. The ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ was banned and Marx was threatened with arrest. So, he did what any good revolutionary would do: he quickly married his fiance and fled to Paris.

For Marx, there could be no progress without freedom of the press. Comparing it to a beautiful woman, he declared that it “has its beauty… which one must have loved to be able to defend”. Censorship to Marx was an “illogical paradox” as the Prussian rulers and their ideologues argued that it was necessary in order to improve the quality of the press. Again, this has remarkable resonance with C21st press censorship. That a free press will sometimes produce lots of nonsense and much that is repugnant is true, but as Marx pointed out: “You can’t pluck the rose without its thorns!” How strange that some people and groups claiming to be left-wing today actually seem to believe that the state – the bourgeois state, I hasten to add – should be empowered to remove the thorns for our protection, as though we – the members of society – could not decide what is, or what isn’t, a thorn for ourselves. A Marxist-influenced left opposes press censorship.

Marx spent a fair bit of time fleeing different places but finally settled in London in 1849, one year after publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which he wrote with Frederick Engels. He died in London in 1883.

Among his rich legacy of revolutionary thought and writing are these words against press censorship; perhaps among the finest ever written on the topic:

“The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form. It is a people’s frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.” (Censorship, Karl Marx 1842)

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Postscript: There is an article at The Drum about this, which argues the Murdoch print media supports the new ‘security laws’: Murdoch’s belated stand.