I Spent An Hour Playing Right-Wing Bingo With Andrew Bolt And It Was Predictably Awful

It was also very boring.

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‘How many dangerous ideas can one person have?’ was the title of Andrew Bolt’s talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) held at the Sydney Opera House this Saturday. For an event that was pitched like a real life version of clickbait, seemingly designed to outrage FODI’s progressive leaning audience, it was more a predictable conservative pantomime than anything remotely ‘dangerous’.

All of the hot button conservative issues, regularly dissected on Bolt’s blog and TV show, got an airing. Everything from multiculturalism, climate change, the ABC and free speech was on the agenda as Bolt sat down to verbally spar with The Ethics Centre’s Simon Longstaff.

The controversy around his talk had been brewing for months. Bolt’s inclusion on the festival lineup provoked significant controversy when it was first announced. At the time Nakkiah Lui wrote, “I am so disgusted with the programming of Andrew Bolt, who has been successfully sued for his racist commentary, at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.”

Back then I doubted that FODI’s audience would be willing to stump up $27 to hear in person what they could read for online for free. How very wrong I was. The event was absolutely packed out with about a dozen people relegated to standing up the back. About 20 minutes before the event kicked off a line had formed outside the doors, with people pushing past each other in order to try and get a prime position inside.

At one point Suicide is Painless’, the theme song from M*A*S*H, played over the speakers while everyone was still waiting in line. A subtle dig from the festival’s music producer? Eventually the doors opened and we trudged in. It was the only event of the festival where I saw staff searching the bags of attendees. Bolt would later joke about the fact that the beefed up security proved how “dangerous” some of his ideas could be.

After searching my bag and finding nothing but a drink bottle and a laptop, a security attendant informed me that backpacks weren’t allowed in and I would have to go and cloak it before entering. I was surprised considering they had 1) searched my bag before ruling it out of order and 2) allowed my backpack into every other event of the festival. I was later told that “No backpacks” was a blanket rule across the festival, which is fair enough, though I found the selective enforcement at the Bolt event to be quite funny.

Longstaff kicked off the event by giving an acknowledgement of country and paying respect to the traditional owners of the land. One of the first things Bolt did, after praising the Freemasons (seriously), was criticise Longstaff for his acknowledgement. According to Bolt, such actions can make “Australians” feel unwelcome in their own country and is an example of certain “tribes pulling rank”.

The audience, to my surprise, absolutely loved this comment. They clapped and cheered enthusiastically. I was totally thrown. I knew people were eager to get in, but I’d assumed the middle-aged white guys desperate to get in were satisfying some sort of sadistic intellectual curiosity. This is FODI after all — the keynote speech was a discussion on Black Lives Matter. The audience is supposed to be bleeding heart pinkos. But it turns out right-wing middle aged people attending festivals look exactly the same as left-wing middle aged people attending festivals.

Over the course of the hour long talk, as Bolt covered every topic that riles up conservatives, like a sort of right-wing bingo, the audience whooped and applauded and I shrank further and further into my chair. “This is FODI!” I said to myself. “Where are all the lefties?!?!”. One guy eventually did boo Bolt and got absolutely eviscerated for it by the man himself. Again, the audience ate it up.

But for a talk that was hyped as one of the most “dangerous”, at a festival all about dangerous ideas, it ended up being pretty… lukewarm. At one point, in response to an audience question, Bolt explained why he thought the French Revolution was a backwards step for conservatives and civil society. Which I guess is dangerous if you’re a member of the petit-bourgeois in 1789.

On basically every topic Bolt threw up the most predictable, conservative responses. If you knew Bolt was you could pretty easily guess what his view would be on an issue. If you hadn’t heard of him why were you paying to see him talk?

On climate change Bolt decried “global warmists” (people who accept climate change is happening and is being driven by humans) and compared climate change sceptics to Albert Einstein. On free speech he defended the right of people to offend others on the basis of race or religion, prefacing his comments with “I have good friends who are Indigenous…” and “I have good friends from the Jewish community…”. He attacked the ABC for allegedly being full of left-wingers. When asked to identify who he was talking about he responded by singling out Radio National’s Fran Kelly because she supports same-sex marriage and is a “global warmist”.

The most disappointing part of the event wasn’t Bolt, but the failure of Longstaff to point out the obvious contradictions in his arguments. Bolt staunchly defended freedom of speech, but also admitted that his position as a widely published writer and regular TV host gave him the ability to call out people he disagreed with. But doesn’t that show the flaw in the absolutist free speech position? Not everyone has the ability to write a nationally syndicated column denigrating another group. If Bolt exercises his free speech by attacking members of the Indigenous community, they’re unlikely to be able to respond on a similar platform.

Unfortunately Longstaff let this one go to the keeper, despite the fact the debate around free speech is one of the biggest political issues around. At times it felt like Longstaff had been beaten into submission by the pro-Bolt audience, even agreeing with Bolt that the “totalitarian left” presented as much of a threat to society as the rise of the far-right.

Overall the event was a bit of a washout. As Alex McKinnon wrote at The Guardian“arguably the biggest sin FODI committed in pencilling Bolt in was that of being boring”. If you bought a ticket you basically paid $27 to hear the man read out a curated selection of his favourite blog posts. The idea of an event that actually engages with Bolt’s ideas and surgically dissects them is a good one. Especially since he obviously has a lot of followers. But that’s not what we got.

It seemed like the event’s organisers thought simply having Bolt appear was dangerous enough. In a world full of Milo Yiannopoulos’ and Glenn Becks, how come the best we get is Andrew?

Junkee’s full coverage of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas will be published tomorrow.