Anyone who has been around the left of Australian (or UK) politics long enough will be aware of the Fabian Society. It’s a group that’s earnest in the way only an organization founded in the late 19th century can be. It produces carefully researched papers on topics like education funding and housing policy, invariably worthwhile, but rarely fiery.
The Society takes its name from a Roman general who achieved victory over the seemingly invincible Hannibal, by avoiding pitched battle and wearing his opponent down: the idea was that socialism should be achieved by gradual reform through democratic processes, rather than through the revolutionary approach advocated by Marxism. This gradual approach was symbolised by the adoption, as a logo, of a tortoise (or maybe turtle), drawn by Walter Crane, the leading illustrator of children’s books in the late 19th century, and a society member. And, after 100+ years, even the most optimistic Fabians would concede that, if anything, the tortoise exaggerates the pace of movement towards socialism.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this resolutely gradualist approach, the Fabian Society has always loomed large in the demonology of the nuttier sections of the political right, appearing as some sort of cross between the Illuminati and the United Nations. Here for example is Rose Martin of the Mises Society, warning that the tortoise is now going at the pace of a freeway.
The Institute of Public Affairs is the leading Australian representative of this kind of wingnuttery (although it manages to get taken seriously by surprisingly many) so it’s unsurprising to see the IPA’s Julie Novak muttering darkly at Catallaxy about this “shadowy group” (she’s a bit puzzled that Julia Gillard openly declares her membership). What’s interesting is her claim, with illustration that “The logo of the Society, of a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing, is all you need to know about how these people seek to achieve their objectives”
Huh? What happened to the tortoise? The answer it turns out, goes back to a joke played by George Bernard Shaw early in the 20th century
In 1910 Shaw commissioned a stained glass window to commemorate the founding of the Society. He never collected it, and it remained lost to view for much of the 20th century until it suddenly surfaced in 2005. It’s an elaborate example of Shaw’s wit. The Society members are represented in medieval garb and he gives the Society a coat of arms featuring the wolf in sheep’s clothing. As far as I can tell, this coat of arms appeared nowhere else until 2005, when the discovery of the window set off the conspiracy theorists on the right.
Given the echo chamber that is the wingnutosphere, the wolf in sheep’s clothing rapidly propagated from Prison Planet to New World Order sites and beyond. The only surprising thing is that it’s taken 7 years to reach the IPA. Someone should write a play about it.
fn1. IPA favorites like Monckton, Delingpole and Plimer push the full suite of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories, appearing on Prison Planet and similar sites.
fn2. Hat tip to a commenter who alerted me to this