We are the boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand To burst in twain the Saxon chain, and free our native land!
The Boys of Wexford, RD Royce 1898
Glory-o, Glory-o to her brave men who died For the cause of long down-trodden man. Glory-o to Mount-Leinster’s own darling and pride Dauntless Kelly, the boy from Killane.
Patrick Joseph McCall, 1898
It was on this day in 1798, during the first great Irish rebellion against British dominion, that the Battle of Vinegar Hill took place at Inis Córthaid, now the second-largest town in County Wexford.
The Rebellion of 1798 (Éirí Amach) also known as the United Irishmen Rebellion, was an uprising against British rule in Ireland during the summer of ‘98. The United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions, were the drivers of the rebellion. It was led by Presbyterians irate at being shut out of power by the Anglican establishment whilst Catholics became increasingly involved. Plans called for significant French support, which never eventuated. The uprising was poorly organized, uncoordinated, and quickly suppressed by much more powerful British forces. Both sides indulged in bloody reprisals. Between 10,000 to 30,000 souls perished, most of them Irishmen and women of all denominations.
The rebellion raged Ireland-wide, but County Wexford was its heart. Overlooking the town, Vinegar Hill was the site of the largest camp and the headquarters of the Irish rebels who held County Wexford for thirty days against vastly superior English forces; and it was there, after inflicting several defeats upon the insurgents that the English sought to finally destroy the rebel army. Battle raged on Vinegar Hill itself and in the streets of Enniscorthy with considerable loss of life among both rebels and civilians. It marked a turning point in the rising, being the last attempt by the rebels to hold and defend ground against the British military.
The famous statue in the market square of Enniscorthy shows the doomed Father Murphy, a leader of the ’98, pointing the way to Vinegar Hill for a young volunteer, ‘The Croppy Boy’.
Father Murphy and The Croppy Boy
The Battle of Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy
History – and indeed, our lives – have a way of echoing across the world and down the years. In 1804, Irish convicts in the far-away penal colony of New South Wales, raised the flag of rebellion against the British soldiery and the colonial masters they served. It was the only convict rising in Australia. Many of those convicts would have been involved in the ‘98, and transported to Botany Bay for their part in it. Their quixotic Intifada was crushed at a place they called Vinegar Hill after the Wexford battle. In 1979, having migrated to Australia, I visited what is believed to be the site of the convicts’ revolt, the Castlebrook lawn cemetery on Windsor Road, Rouse Hill, where a monument commemorating the revolt was dedicated in 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year. Once open farmland, a place of market gardens and horse riding (back in the day, Adèle and I would canter across its gently rolling paddocks), it is now a suburban sprawl of McMansions.
The Battle of Vinegar Hill, New South Wales
Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oftimes forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consquences of heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:
Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying, Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.
And ponder Seamus Heaney’s poignant Requiem for the Croppies:
The pockets of our greatcoats, full of barley No kitchens on the run, no striking camp We moved quick and sudden in our own country. The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp. A people, hardly marching on the hike We found new tactics happening each day: We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike And stampede cattle into infantry, Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown. Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave. Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon. The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave. They buried us without shroud or coffin And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.
Father Murphy and me
I’ve always felt a connection with Vinegar Hill and “the boys of Wexford” who fought there.
In Birmingham, back in the early fifties, we lived with our aunt in a cold-water, back-alley walk-up on the border of Balsall Heath (just inside Moseley, a ‘better’ suburb). Aunty Mary was my mother’s mother’s sister. Her family had lived through Ireland’s war of independence and the civil war that followed, and she carried with her the memory of those times when she migrated to Birmingham before the Second World War – after her husband had run off “with another woman” (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). She lived in that same old house right through the Blitz when German bombers regularly targeted The Second City’s engineering, motor and arms factories, and not a few public buildings including the Piccadilly and Waldorf cinemas on nearby Stratford Road which were destroyed with considerable loss of life. Mary would serve tea to the bomb-disposal lads as they carried out their dangerous work. When her sister died and daddy Paddy (Patrick Joseph, my middle names) had decamped – he’d found a new Love – Mary brought their six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy one by one.
I never met nor learned what became of my grandfather. My aunt and mother would say that if Paddy Whelan died, the devil himself would come and tell us. Old Nick never did, but my brother Robert recently chased down the records. Paddy also crossed the water, passing on in Leicester – not that far from Brum – in 1985 at the age of eighty.
My father arrived in Brum by another road. He was born in Castlederg in County Tyrone. An Ulster man, indeed, and Protestant too, He and several of his brothers has likewise crossed the water in search of a new life. Most Ulster ‘Proddies’ migrated to Glasgow in those days – the original homeland of the the Protestant settlement of Ulster initiated by King James I of England and consolidated with Orange King Billy’s victory over the forces of catholic ex-king James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. you can read more about all that here, and its legacy in Northern Ireland here. How he and my mom got together is another story and quite unrelated to this one. But it had a lot to do with the times. geography, coincidence, miscommunication, innocence – and romance.
I was born in Mary’s house. She had a friend who had once given birth so that friend was the midwife. My brothers followed over the next two years. By then, the National Health Service had kicked in, and they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life-threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, Aunty Mary, three uncles, two aunts, a pekingese called Monty, named for the famous field Marshall, and an ancient white cat called Gorgee. Monty was flattened by a bus on Moseley Road, right outside our home.
Three bedrooms, girls in one, boys in another, and our family in the third. Outside loo and coal shed, no bathroom or hot water (we kids bathed in the kitchen sink and grown-ups went down to The Baths). Cold and damp, and close to the shops. And there we lived until 1956 when a council house in Yardley Wood became our first family home. Cold and colder running water that froze in winter, but it was at least inside the house; a bathroom with hot water heated in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down in the garden. A big garden it was too, for winter and spring vegetables, snowmen and summer camp-outs.
There we grew, with free medical treatment for all our ailments, and free optical and dental care. I still have crooked teeth – no fancy orthodontics on the NHS – but I have all my teeth still. And my eyesight. We were educated for free. This came in during the war with the Butler Act. So, thanks to the Welfare State, we were housed and healthy enough to get to primary school and beyond. Once there, we had free books, free pens and paper and compulsory sport, and doctors and nurses would turn up on a regular basis to check our vitals. And thus, we were able to reach the glorious ‘sixties ready to rock ‘n roll.
In 1956, my uncle took me “across the sea to Ireland” to meet our family – my mother’s, that is. Dad was a proddie from County Tyrone, and we didn’t talk about them. We stayed in the tiny terrace house in Patrick Street where my mother was born in 1928, a crowded place with an outside toilet and a whitewashed back wall that looked out onto windswept fields beyond.
Uncle Sonny (Philip, really, but knicknamed for Al Jolson’s famous song), took me to the top of Vinegar Hill, and it’s lonely ruined round tower, used then as a shelter for cattle. We visited the statue of Father John Murphy and the young volunteer, and I learned the story of The Croppy Boy. Today, the term “croppy” is used derogatively to refer to a country bumpkin. Back then, it also referred to the young patriots who answered to the call “at the rising of the moon”. Their name came from their cropped hair – interpreted by some at the time as symbolic of the rejection of the powdered wigs of the gentry and also of the style popularised by French revolutionaries. Sonny took me to The Bloody Bridge on the outskirts of town where Father Murphy was tortured and executed by the English soldiers, the ‘yeos’ (or yeomen). I put my fingers in the groove in the bridge’s stone parapet, said to have been made by the dying priest himself. We walked across the bridge in Wexford Town where so many martyrs perished at the hands of the foe – and, alas, so many innocents were murdered by the rebels. Little matter that the bridge we now trode was the third built there since those fateful days.
History was alive, and it was black and white. People remembered, as if it was yesterday, how Oliver Cromwell cut a bloody swathe through Catholic Ireland and massacred the innocents of Wexford town. It was said that people hung Cromwell’s picture upside down in their living rooms, and turned his face to the wall for good measure. Relatives would recount how the Black and Tans, the English paramilitaries raised to terrorise the populace, held their bayonets to women’s throats demanding “where’s your husband?”…or father…or son…Even the English teachers at my English grammar school would remark that the ‘Tans were war veterans who’d survived carnage of the Western Front and wanted more.
In the summer of 1969 my brother and I and an old chum spent several weeks in an Enniscorthy that looked and felt felt like it had not changed since Aunty Mary’s day – so well portrayed in the academy award nominated film Brooklyn. Dressed as we were in hippie garb and sporting long locks, we cut incongruous figures in the pubs and at the local hop, and were so unsuccessful hitchhiking around the county that we walked many a long Irish mile. We hiked to Killane, Sean Kelly’s country, and inspired by the song, climbed upwards though heath and hedge to the top of Mount Leinster. We stayed at 13 Patrick Street, and spent a lot of time sitting up on Vinegar Hill, beneath its round tower, looking down on the River Slaney and the town beyond. My brother was a keen photographer, and he took the following pictures:
The Croppy Boy 1969
Enniscorthy from atop Vinegar Hill August 1969
Enniscorthy Sunset August 1969
Fast forward into another century, and I was “on the Holy Ground once more”. Adèle and I attended the wedding of an old pal and cosmic twin (born on the same day as me at about the same time, in English town beginning with B) we were the only Brits in a seminar at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Back then, SOAS was known to many Arabs as the school of spies, a status I was reminded of by the owner of our hotel when we all visited Damascus in 2006. But I digress.
The wedding was held at an old pub in right in the heart of Ireland, and in getting there, we did a whistle-stop tour of the south, including Enniscorthy, Wexford and Ross, the heartland of the ‘98 rebellion. When I first visited Enniscorthy, you could lie down in the middle of the Main Street and not be disturbed by traffic. This time, you could still lie down in th middle of Main Street – we were stuck in a traffic jam as we wound up the hill past Saint Aiden’s Cathedral to Patrick Street, which was no longer on the edge of town. The old house was still standing, as the song goes. Clean and crisp and pebble-dashed. As we stood outside number thirteen, a young goth girl in a multicoloured hoodie with tattoos and piercings opened the door. I told her how my mother and her brothers and sisters were born in this very house a long, long time ago, and that we’d come all the way from Australia to see it. “You don’t say!” she said.
13 Patrick Street, August 2004
Vinegar Hill August 2004
I was best man at that wedding, and in a speech largely devoted to the groom and our mutual, lifelong appreciation of Bob Dylan, I was able to relate to guests young and old tales of my Irish childhood, taking us all “down the foggy ruins of time”, and sang extracts from songs I actually did learn at my mothers knee. When I was little, mother Mary would march us up and down the parlour as she sang Enniscorthy’s songs of rebellion: Kelly the Boy From Killane, Boulavogue, and the eponymous Boys of Wexford. “In comes the captain’s daughter, the captain of the Yeos …” – I’ve always wondered what became of that young rebel lass. Transported to Australia with hundreds of others, maybe? The songlines of my Celtic twilight.
We were told that such songs were banned in Britain, and that we must never sing them in public. There’s nothing so tempting as forbidden fruit. A relative brought us over Irish Songs of Freedom, sung in a sweet tenor by Willie Brady – a daring deed indeed, listening to it was, and perhaps my first act of rebellion. We know now that this was all a cod. The Clancy Brothers were singing those rebel songs to packed houses the length and breadth of the British Isles and North America. And today, of course, you lose count of the collections and anthologies of Irish songs of freedom, rebellion or resistance, sung with vim, vigour, and nostalgic gusto from the Clancy Brothers and Dubliners back in the day to Sinead O’Connor and Celtic Woman.
In true men, like you men – songs of ‘98
So, on this, the two hundredth and twentieth anniversary of Vinegar Hill, let us remember the patriot men with a few of those old songs.
At Vinegar Hill o’er the pleasant Slaney Our heroes vainly stood back to back And the yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy And burnt his body upon the rack God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy And open heaven to all your men The cause that called you may call tomorrow In another fight for the green again
Boulavogue Patrick Joseph McCall 1898
The song commemorates local parish priest Father John Murphy, he of the statue in he market place, who led his parishioners into battle in Wexford. Father Murphy and the other rebel leaders were captured and executed. He was hanged, decapitated, his corpse burnt in a barrel of tar, and his head placed on a spike as a warning to other rebels.
Enniscorthy is in flames and old Wexford is won And tomorrow the barrow will cross On the hill o’er the town we have planted a gun That will batter the gateway to Ross All the Forth men and Bargy men will march o’er the heath With brave Harvey to lead in the van But the foremost of all in the grim gap of death Will be Kelly, the boy from Killane
Patrick Joseph McCall 1898
Sean Kelly was one of the leaders of the ‘98, celebrated for his role in then Battle of Ross, where he was wounded. After the fall of Wexford on 21 June, he was dragged from his sick bed, tried and sentenced to death and hanged on Wexford Bridge along with seven other rebel leaders. His body was then decapitated, the trunk thrown into the River Slaney and the head kicked through the streets before being set on display on a spike as a warning to others…Bad times for brave men.
Some on the shores of distant lands Their weary hearts have laid, And by the stranger’s heedless hands Their lonely graves were made; But though their clay be far away, Beyond the Atlantic foam, In true men, like you, men, Their spirit’s still at home.
Who Fears to Speak of ‘98, John Kells Ingram 1843
Never in recent memory have so many words have been printed about so little. at least not since The Australian’s last holy war.
Australia’s national broadsheet (that is, published nationally rather than in a particular state) The Australian, owned by expatriate Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is indulging in a mighty bout of shadow boxing on the subject of whether or not western civilization is or isn’t in decline in our antipodean Elysium. Shadow boxing in the sense that it preaches largely to the converted on a subject that is close to the heart of its opinionistas, and of little consequence to the public at large. Its adversary is that will ‘o the wisp otherwise know as the ‘green-left’ that has set up a virtual red commune in the our universities and the soviet that is our national broadcaster.
Take the question of whether the Australian National University should have accepted money from a private body to establish a course in Western civilization aimed at educating a new generation of potential movers and shakers in the cultural foundations of our society. This argument has swept the pages of the conservative media like a wildfire with, it must be said, more heat than light. In the outrage industry it is hard to recall an episode that has generated, well, more outrage.
Cultural commentator Peter Craven writes: “It’s hard to imagine the heat of the Western civilization/Ramsay Centre debate being generated in the way it has been anywhere but in this country”. And it is indeed a peculiar penchant of our own predominantly white, middle aged, Anglo-Celtic cultural warriors. Nothing, it seems, stirs their blood more than an argument about academic license or press freedom if this is not favourably disposed to their side. One is tempted to ask what would these champions of “political incorrectness” do without academia and the ABC to rail against; although it might be observed that one person’s political correctness is another person’s political incorrectness.
Now, many of us share reservations about sources of university funding that may or may not have a particular political purpose, such as those directed at establishing Confucius institutes and such like, supported by Chinese government front organisations, and cash provided to the likes of the ANU’s Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies by Middle East autocracies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Somehow, soft power exercised through football stadiums and other bread and circuses are preferable to surreptitiously propagating favourable opinion, research, and influence in our institutions of higher learning.
In a university like the ANU, recognized globally as one of Australia’s top three universities (with Sydney and Melbourne), a course in the great foundational texts of Western civilization would seem to be desirable. It would have been modeled on the Great Books courses offered as core curricula at American institutions like Columbia and Chicago. None of these courses are branded as disciplines in “Western civilization’’, this is the basis for the works studied, representing the canon of Western literature and thought.
Given the challenges facing us in an era disrupted by a rank populism that owes little to the Enlightenment – rather a return to the Dark Ages – it would seem all the more desirable for a great Australian institution like the ANU to focus on texts that have contributed to Western civilization.
And there is indeed nothing wrong with a university course dedicated to western civilization provided it included the bad bits as well as the “hope and glorious”, like the dark side of Empire, Ireland, Australia, and the MidEast, the Wars Of Religion, and such. And if it endeavoured to avoid bias and prejudice, and control by the Centre for Independent Studies. One would hope that the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies would do likewise and resist the atavistic urging of its autocratic and anachronistic donors (we are assured that all is indeed above board). But it’s hard to dismiss the logic of that old German idiom Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing – His song I sing who gives me bread.
Much of the opposition to the proposed course by left-wing academics, students and commentators is inspired by its sponsors. Those old culture war-horses, former Liberal prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbot get people thinking the course will be an Anglo-Christian, Rule Britannia whitewash, and a mirror of the old Oxbridge PPE that has spawned much of Britain’s Tory elite. To many, these two and those who think like them, are in thrall to our English heritage as a conquering Anglo-Celtic tribe and wish we were back in the 1950s when the Christian God was in his heaven, women were in the kitchen, blacks were in their place, and our White Australia Policy kept out all the rest.
The Abbott and Howard vision would no doubt be an Anglo-centric one. They seek a panegyric of Imperial nostalgia and a narrative that reflects their world view. I can’t quite see these old culture warriors and many Young Liberals for that matter (an incongruous, anachronistic cabal of reactionaries if ever there was one) getting off on Greek and Roman poetry and philosophy (Socrates and Sappho would not pass moral muster), Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, and the Russian and French literary canon. There’s much more to Western Civilization than Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible. Recall what Old Mahatma Gandhi said when asked about western civilization. He thought it might be a good idea, and worth giving it a try.
Much of the commentary concerning the Ramsay Centre has been secreted behind News Limited’s pay-wall, Which, by default, preaches to the conservatism converted. So I have taken the liberty to republish below some of the more intriguing coverage. I begin, however, an amusing overview from Crikey, followed by commentaries by journalist and academic Peter van Onselen, whom many on the right would probably regards as a communist mole and class traitor like Malcolm Fraser, and The Australian’s resident aynrandista and the counter-revolution’s Madame Defarge, Janet Albrechtsen. I present more cogent opinion pieces by sociologist John Carrroll, and the ever-readable and reasonable Peter Craven, whilst American pundit Daniel Pipes provides an international perspective on the wider “war of civilization” to ground the puny polemics of our parochial partisans. Western civilization is indeed under threat at the moment, and it certainly needs defending – from enemies far more dogmatic, determined and dangerous than the reds under our Murdoch myrmidons’ beds.
I’m with Craven when he writes: “It’s all been a bit mad, the suggestion that any reverence for Western civilization implies an endorsement of all the crimes done in its name, or the opposite notion, that it requires blatant boosting and barracking in a world of dangerous futile left-wing loons who do nothing but repudiate our heritage and deprive our children. None of which is to deny elements of truth in both bits of cartoon invective”. And I’m still with him when he concludes “We’re all better for reading these things. They civilise us. Take the Ramsay money and run”.
This story has all the makings of a classic Australian culture war campaign. But what are those exactly?
There’s no outlet in the country that’s dedicated quite as much energy to the latest culture war battle than The Australian. Last week, Australian National University announced it was dropping a controversial degree in Western civilisation, funded by the Ramsay Centre. The Oz has been closely following developments, especially since Ramsay Centre director and former PM Tony Abbott wrote about the centre being “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it” in Quadrant in April.
The story has all the makings of a classic Australian culture war campaign. Some of the coverage already shows signs of being a full Holy War. If it does, here’s what we can expect over the coming weeks:
There has already been a small flurry of “exclusive” news stories from national education correspondent Rebecca Urban over the past few days, with headlines including “Uni blasted for double standards”, “ANU reaps mid-east millions”, and “Fury as uni dumps study of the West“.
If past campaigns are anything to go by, you can expect more stories up the front of the paper about the decision to close the centre, the people involved, and reactions from the their usual rent-a-quote sources. The IPA’s Bella d’Abrera has been quoted today, and Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s comments to Sky News have also made the cut. Abbott was quoted yesterday. In fact, Liberal politicians are always a good source for quotes — they’ve provided content for one of the news stories in today’s paper.
Urban has taken the lead on the “news” coverage (as she did with the Holy War on Roz Ward and Safe Schools), but other reporters will also be on the case. Today, Andrew Clennell, Samantha Hutchinson and Rachel Baxendale all have bylines on stories.
A key feature of any Australian Holy War is quantity. Today, for example, there are five full pieces in the print edition, including two comment articles. Expect this to continue, with roughly daily news stories, entries in Cut and Paste, commentary pieces from staff and external writers, editorials, and letters to the editor. As the “story” develops, expect increasingly trivial updates — the goal is to keep the story alive.
In order to keep the content coming, any social media posts, speeches and public appearances of anyone remotely relevant will be monitored, and their histories examined. Those under the radar will include Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, who announced the decision to drop the course. No target is ever too qualified or too well-respected to be above attack, so don’t expect his Nobel Prize or academic pedigree to be off limits. ANU’s history department head Frank Bongiorno, quoted in yesterday’s story by Rebecca Urban, could also be under suveillance, as could officials from the National Tertiary Education Union, especially branch president Matt King. His letter to ANU about the course after Abbott’s article was published was quoted in Urban’s piece about the uni withdrawing from the deal, and was cited by Ramsay Centre chairman John Howard as a reason for the deal falling through.
Call in the opinion attack dogs
Since June 2, when the paper printed news of the degree being dumped, there’s already been one editorial, two “Last Post” letters columns, and op-eds from foreign editor Greg Sheridan, Swinburne University of Technology’s John Fitzgerald, and higher education editor Tim Dodd. And before that, they had Janet Albrechtsen, Jennifer Oriel, former deputy PM John Anderson, and education minister Simon Birmingham writing about the degree. Sheridan is back today, and political editor Dennis Shanahan also had a piece on it.
Keep an eye out for more on this topic from Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson, Henry Ergas and Terry McCrann.
How many words do you think The Australian will dedicate to this Holy War? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know
There’s an ugly side but it does not diminish Western civilisation
Peter Craven, The Australian, June’s 16th 2018
The Western civilisation that brought us Adolf Hitler also brought us Gustave Mahler
It’s hard to imagine the heat of the Western civilisation/Ramsay Centre debate being generated in the way it has been anywhere but in this country. Someone wants to leave a lot of money to establish courses at the Australian National University that trace the glories of what we have inherited from, say, Homer and Herodotus, Plato and the Psalms to wherever you want to stop: Wittgenstein and Proust, perhaps. The Ramsay Centre appointed a board that included John Howard and Kim Beazley.
Yes, but it also includes Tony Abbott, who writes an article in Quadrant suggesting the course must be for Western civilisation and the people who teach it should be selected to further this bias. And, lo and behold, this scares the horses, or rather the academics who are fearful of being Eurocentric, who want to interrogate the horrors of postcolonialism and generally back away from cultural triumphalism.
This, in turn, affects the Nobel prize-winning vice-chancellor of ANU, Brian Schmidt, the physicist, and he has to back off, so the pot of gold falls from the hands of the university. Sydney University is also chary but no doubt there will be negotiations with others.
It’s all been a bit mad, the suggestion that any reverence for Western civilization implies an endorsement of all the crimes done in its name, or the opposite notion, that it requires blatant boosting and barracking in a world of dangerous futile left-wing loons who do nothing but repudiate our heritage and deprive our children.
None of which is to deny elements of truth in both bits of cartoon invective. But, look, an investment of money in teaching the history and substance of our art and thought and literature can only be a good thing, even if we all know what Gandhi meant when he said of Western civilisation that he thought it was worth a try. Just as we all know the deep truth of what that great German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin meant when he said that the history of civilisation is always at the same time the history of barbarism.
We should never forget that Greece executed Socrates and Rome executed Christ. That our own English language civilisation that produced Shakespeare was also, during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, a period when people burned each other at the stake for their religious opinions. A monarchist like Abbott would not fail to recall, in the lead-up to the English Civil War that followed, how Oliver Cromwell, said of Charles I: “I will cut off his head with the crown on it.” And did.
That great epic poem, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, came from that period of horror and so did what is probably the most formidable work of political philosophy in our language, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: Hobbes said life was nasty, brutish and short, and argued that violence should be the prerogative of the state.
The regicide and the absolutist would each have their place in a Western civilisation course. And why not? It was Guy Rundle recently in The Saturday Paper who said that literature courses these days were likely to exclude Milton even though all the writers on them would have read him.
So perhaps we need to push our own tradition a bit. None of which is to deny the argument that we already have courses on Western civilisation: they’re taught — sometimes badly, sometimes well, but abidingly — by the arts faculties of our universities.
But bear in mind that one of the competing orthodoxies in the teaching of literature when I was growing up — and one that caused a civil war in the Sydney University English department — derived from FR Leavis of Cambridge, and consisted of saying that much of the canon was not up to scratch. And years later when Harold Bloom — in reaction against relativism and deconstruction — wrote The Western Canon, he was not disputing the right to discriminate. He once said of that great flawed poet Ezra Pound —— who had referred to the Old Testament as “black evil” — “Call that a Western mind!”
We all have Western minds, alas, black, white and wishy washy. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating it, even though this is something that has traditionally been done rather more in America because the Americans are not afraid of a delicatessen approach to this subject. Think of the Great Books course of the University of Chicago, or the comparable course at Columbia. The latter was undertaken, in later middle age, by David Denby, then New Yorker film critic, and he wrote a book about what it was actually like to encounter such figures as Plato or Machiavelli who may be only known even to educated people by surmise and reputation or as archaic memories from adolescence.
One difficulty with Great Book courses, however, is that they require the teaching of people from different disciplines who, by necessity, see the world from different angles. If the lectures on Plato, say, were given by Raimond Gaita (whose own philosophical work is in the Platonist tradition) this would be very different from the way Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, the Monash classicist who now teaches drama, would teach the Electra of Sophocles.
Still, these problems would be surmountable, nor would it be impossible to teach a course like this while admitting that the Western civilisation that brought us Mozart and Mahler also brought us the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Our Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition has a very strong emphasis on self-scrutiny: “Know thyself” (gnothi seauton), as Socrates said. And this, inevitably, in the Hebraic and Christian traditions involves self-reproach. Think of the self-massacring majesty of the Psalms. Think of those plangent words of the Anglican confession that can stir any believing or unbelieving soul: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”
What is great in our civilisation went along with plenty of frailty, plenty of fault. And, as someone who is wheeled out to talk about how much the great moments of the Christian calendar underlie our culture, I have always tried to emphasise the high and mighty parallels in Eastern religion and the way a work like the Bhagavad Gita enriches our sense of our own scripture — as TS Eliot knew. A reverence for our tradition will hardly diminish our sense of the great T’ang poets Pound translated or the classical art of China so beloved of Pierre Ryckmans. Just as we might as well acknowledge that the combination of totalitarianism and capitalism that characterises contemporary China is something we gave them, like the Opium Wars.
We should not be afraid of being cultural conservatives, though I remember the sorrow on the face of Bloom, the one time I met him, when I got him to admit that this is what we were. But that kind of conservatism has nothing to do with political boosterism.
It’s also worth remembering that some fraction of people I fought with during the theory wars could recognise a good writer — a Gerald Murnane or a Helen Garner — when they saw them.
But we are too afraid of words. I wonder if that conservative John Howard is haunted at times like these by the time when, as opposition leader, he was given a copy of War and Peace by Barry Jones. “Why, Barry?” “Because, John, if you ever become PM you’ll be better for having read it.”
We’re all better for reading these things. They civilise us. Take the Ramsay money and run.
Ramsay Centre has Tony Abbott to blame for ANU’s rejection
Peter van Onselen, The Australian, 9th June 018
The first rule of trying to seal a deal is to give the other party an excuse to say yes, not an excuse to say no. Which brings us to the Australian National University’s decision to reject the Ramsay Centre-sponsored course on Western civilisation.
The excuse to say yes was the money, plain and simple. The centre was offering millions of dollars and, yes, there was internal opposition at ANU — which, according to the latest world university rankings released this week, has maintained its status as Australia’s No 1 university.
But the excuse for vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt to say yes was compelling — in an era when funding for higher education isn’t what it once was, here was a chance to lock in long-term funding for a course Schmidt had some sympathy for. As do I. When the Ramsay Centre was announced I contacted its chairman, John Howard, to voice my support. I’ve spent my working lifetime as an academic promoting democratic principles derived from Western civilisation. Many of my writings on this page have done the same, just as I equally have condemned dictatorships and totalitarian regimes that don’t ascribe to Western democratic values.
Then, as if on cue, entered Tony Abbott, who couldn’t help but write an opinion piece for Quadrant magazine. In the piece he cited the Ramsay Centre’s unofficial design principle to not lose its philosophical direction: “Every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing.” As though Western civilisation is owned by one side of this crude ideological divide. He went on to claim the centre would have a say over curriculum design and academic appointments when giving money to universities, which infuriated some academics (who still believe in academic independence) and many left-wing ideologues within the student and staff unions on campus at ANU.
Yes, they already were working behind the scenes to scuttle a deal between Australia’s best university — which also houses our only world top 10 humanities division — and the Ramsay Centre. But, courtesy of Abbott, the thing you never want to inject into the deal-making moment happened.
ANU had an excuse to say no.
There is no escaping the reality that, by design or by accident, Abbott became a martyr rather than a rational conservative seeking to lock down a deal to bring new ideas and potential cultural change to an important institution. He handed left-wing critics the ammunition they needed.
It’s not conservative to storm a defensive line you cannot defeat in one blaze of glory. True conservatives know that Western civilisation was built across thousands of years. Its incremental advance is why it has been so successful. Equally, any conservative with a modicum of strategic sense knows that getting a foot in the door from which incremental cultural and political change can happen is far more effective than blowing up a deal simply to get a few cheap headlines; headlines that preach only to the converted anyway.
I’ve worked in the Australian university sector for nearly 20 years, from PhD student to professor, across five institutions. I can tell you that the CV tag line of having once worked for Abbott is no asset.
The broad point that the so-called left (the labelling is a little crude) is dominant in the sector is absolutely true, although there are many other moving parts that don’t fit that crude classification in big universities. And, yes, at a superficial level there appears to be hypocrisy — universities tolerate taking money from non-democracies to fund centres yet the ANU unions kicked up a fuss about the Ramsay partnership.
But Abbott was wrong — strategically and intellectually — to seek to challenge academic independence, to claim his board could wield influence beyond the mandate formally discussed in the negotiations. It took the goodwill out of the discussions to get the deal done that the unions weren’t even part of. By gloating too early about the influence Abbott hoped his board would have, he gave his enemies the excuse they needed to thwart the deal. It was dumb. Of course there’s soft power handing out money but nobody wants that unsaid power to be explicitly detailed in a way that violates academic rules.
I don’t like Australian universities taking money from non-democracies, especially anyone tied to tyrannical non-democracies (which is most of them). And while I can see the failures of elements of Western civilisation, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is an overwhelming success story in the annals of time, valuable to be taught over and above other histories.
In fact, a core ingredient of Western civilisation, robustly built organically from the 1700s on, is academic independence. Listening to critics of ANU’s decision not to go ahead with the partnership citing other worrying funding streams to higher institutions is as lowbrow as it is weak. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Fix such failures rather than build on them by letting what, according to the Quadrant article, is essentially a think tank violate academic standards and independence. That is no solution to existing failures. And even if that’s your clandestine ideological goal, keep it clandestine, don’t put it in a polemic publication before the deal has been inked.
The reason the left has the influence it does within some universities is because it plays by the rules, using the system to its advantage. That is what it has done by jumping on Abbott’s article — more fool him for giving it the ammunition. Conservatives are supposed to be better at using the rules to their advantage. A degree on the history of Western civilisation would show how they generally have been.
The idea that some other lesser institution may pick up the deal is no substitute. They haven’t a vice-chancellor such as Nobel laureate Schmidt, who can walk into any room (even at our best uni) and command the cultural discussion. He was a supporter until the deal was wrecked. It took the strategic genius of a prime minister who managed to blast himself out of office less than two years after winning a thumping victory, and six months after a partyroom warning, to unintentionally disempower Australia’s most formidable and awarded VC.
The loud critics of ANU’s decision completely miss the point. Bemoan the outcome by all means, but reflect on the process failures that led to the Pyrrhic victory (note the classical reference) of martyrdom over getting this centre established at ANU.
I see the suggestion floating around now is that the Ramsay money instead could go to a new liberal arts college because Australia’s public universities are too far gone. How ridiculous.
First up, only a fraction of the money businessman Paul Ramsay bequeathed is specifically allocated for this venture. There is nowhere near adequate funding to properly set up such an institution.
Second, it likely would lack credibility anyway and attract only students who already believe in the virtues of Western civilisation, when surely a key goal is to teach others about such things.
Finally, giving up on our university sector is the kind of defeatism I don’t associate with Western civilisation or conservatism.
Peter van Onselen is a professor at the University of Western Australia and Griffith University.
Disdain for the best of the west
John Carroll, The Australian, June 9th 2018
The Australian National University has just backed off hosting a course on Western civilisation on the grounds of it being somehow in conflict with what the university stands for. What does it stand for, we might ask.
One further step in the demoralisation of the academy has just taken place, care of ANU senior management caving in to a minority of noisy radical students, one which, while small in itself, can count on background support from most of the academic staff in the humanities. There is a long history behind how we, as a society, have let this come to pass. At issue is what has transpired in the humanities and social sciences, not in the rest of the university.
The Western university as we know it today was founded in the Middle Ages as a Christian institution. It was predicated on unquestioned and unifying faith. Within the faith, its central task was theological, to explain the works of God to man and to train minds for that interpretative work. The university was transformed by the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment, into a humanist institution. In this, its second phase, culture replaced God as the transcendental force that welded the unifying vision. We are now well into a third phase in which the university has a confused idea of itself, and inasmuch as it has direction, it is to be found in pockets still under the influence of the ghosts of the old beliefs.
This history is best clarified by a closer look at the humanist era. The humanist university drew its lifeblood from three related ideals. One was aristocratic, that of the gentleman, a character ideal. The assumption was that the good society depends on a social hierarchy led by a cultivated elite, one with a strong sense of civic duty. That elite was defined by the character of its individuals.
The second ideal was that of “civilisation”, which was imagined as the pinnacle of human achievement. It depends on the most intellectually and imaginatively gifted, in trained application, producing great works. Civilisation has created the gothic cathedral and the steam engine, Hamlet and the Sistine ceiling, Newton’s laws of motion, graceful town planning, hygiene, democracy and codified law. The works of civilisation show humans at their highest, transcending mundane everyday life; making of themselves something immortal and godlike; and creating both powerful tools for the conquest of necessity and objects of supreme and edifying beauty.
A fresco featuring Plato, Arisotle and The School of Athens in the Vatican.
The third ideal was a utilitarian one, that culture and knowledge are useful. In Matthew Arnold’s formulation, deriving from Socrates, knowledge will make a person better and happier. Ignorance is the source of misery and evil. Humans who have knowledge will find it more difficult — in the extreme version, impossible — to do ill. They will be more rational about their lives and therefore make them more pleasurable and fulfilling. These qualities applied to society will result in it, too, being reformed and improved.
This humanist optimism had gone by the end of World War I, as German sociologist Max Weber reflected in a 1918 lecture titled “Knowledge as a Vocation”. Weber’s question was whether the university is possible in a godless and prophetless time, a time in which the traditional ultimate values had lapsed and no new ones had appeared. Weber observed that many were looking to the university to provide the meaning that had gone out of a disenchanted world. However, knowledge cannot provide meaning in the ultimate sense of answering Tolstoy’s questions: “What should we do and how shall we live?” Nor, according to Weber, should it try. Prophecy does not belong in the lecture halls.
What then remains? Weber finds three functions for the university: the advancement of knowledge, the teaching of methods of thinking, and the imposing on students of a clarity and consistency of thought within the framework of already given ultimate values. At this point, Weber’s defence of the university collapses in unacknowledged contradiction. The one function that preoccupies him is the third, but it depends on already given ultimate values, the lack of which is the problem that stimulated his lecture in the first place.
Weber concludes by defending the virtue of intellectual integrity, founded on the individual teacher’s own conscience. The implication is that rigorously disciplined scholars dedicated to their own branches of knowledge will communicate enough moral authority to their students to fill the metaphysical void.
Behind this flattering absurdity, Weber has described the modern university: where there is authority, it is in individuals obeying their own consciences, usually in isolation, an odd dispersion of one-person sects to be found sprinkled thinly through an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
In the US, there were examples of the survival of the old education, especially in the liberal arts colleges, often centring on courses teaching the great books of Western culture. Chicago and Columbia were notable. The Ramsay initiative at the ANU sought to revive this noble tradition.
In the 20th-century wake of the humanist university, there was one quite different strategy: to create a politically active institution. In the ashes of the last “idea” grew the university as training camp for political and social reformers. Here the university again followed the church, in compensating for a lack of belief in itself with political activism. Weber knew the phenomenon in the German universities of the 1890s. It reappeared in the 1930s with the sacking of Jewish professors, the burning of books and Heidegger’s rectorial address at Freiburg in which the eminent philosopher urged commitment to Hitler.
In the 30s it also appeared in other countries, England for instance, where a Marxist socialism became the fashion among intellectuals. The political motivation returned in the 60s and has continued ever since, this time pioneered by leftist students demanding that radical social reform replace learning as the main activity of the university.
Activism was energised by a displacement of religious zeal into politics. With the death of God and the marginalisation of the churches, salvation came to be sought in social crusades and highly charged moral causes, loosely guided by Marxist ideology. One might have imagined that the main historical lesson of the 20th century would provide a cautionary tale, that redemptive politics — whether communist or fascist — leads not to utopia but to a human wasteland strewn with a hundred million corpses. The universities, free from any constraining reality principle, were blind to this lesson.
The politicisation of the university continues unabated. For instance, until a decade or so ago, courses teaching Shakespeare and Jane Austen remained common. Today, if the creator of the classic novel is to be found in any English literature department, it will probably be because of her picture of colonialism — in reality, so trivial amid the magnificence of her work as needing a microscope to find.
The demoralisation of the humanist university was compounded by a profound attack launched by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880s, in a castigation of intellectuals, and indeed of the entire Western ascetic tradition of scholars and priests. Sorel, Spengler, Benda, Rieff, Allan Bloom and other later critics of intellectuals have been much under his influence, although their work is pale by comparison. Weber’s 1918 lecture is troubled precisely because it accepts Nietzsche’s case and cannot get around it.
Nietzsche’s argument contrasts instinct and knowledge. The history of civilisation is the history of increasing repression, of steadily proliferating checks on the instincts. This development is against nature. Healthy, strong, admirable human individuals are decisive, they see things clearly and can act on what they see — their instincts are good, and they obey them.
The high level of repression concomitant with civilisation produces people, by contrast, whose passions are tepid, who dither, who are ineffectual and who take to moralising in compensation for their inability to decide and to act. Hamlet is the literary exemplar. He lost the instinctive sense of what is good and bad, what is worth doing and what is not, and lived under the delusion that he could reason himself into action. It follows that the celebration of knowledge, epitomised in the philosopher and the university, is not a mark of progress, not the banner under which human life will be made better and happier.
In effect, Nietzsche makes two points. One is about the human types who pursue knowledge; the other about the function of knowledge itself. The first point is that it is the worst people who become intellectuals, types who are devious, inhibited and rancorous. Not only is repressed emotion sublimated into thinking but the overcharged intellectual faculty is then commandeered to manufacture tortuous justifications of bad motives as good ones, of bad acts as reasonable ones.
The recent politicisation of language in the universities exemplifies this. In diametric opposition to the principle of free speech, students are discouraged from saying what they think lest they transgress approved usage and risk being damned as a “racist” or whatever the current target for righteous indignation. It is as if they are being trained in political inhibition.
Nietzsche’s second point is that knowledge has helped us become more comfortable, not better or happier. The best societies have strong cultures. Culture is rooted in myth, not knowledge. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge is a sure sign that the sacred myths have lost their authority. In particular, academic history is an abstract endeavour and only appears once real ties to the past have withered — family ties, tribal ties and communal ties. Our own Anzac Day illustrates this in its revitalised mythic force.
The last part of the argument is that the increasing repression of the active individual, combined with the canonisation of knowledge, has killed God. There are no transcendental powers left in a rational world. Where comfort is the highest value, it is the stomach, not the sacred, that rules. However, without belief in a higher order of some kind, human life becomes meaningless, losing purpose and direction.
Weber’s defence of the university is against modern culture as interpreted by Nietzsche. The task of the university is not to restore the spirit or revive the heart. In any case, Weber is too pessimistic to believe in that possibility. His modest claim is that the university allows specialist disciplines and that they have a virtue as long as their practitioners obey their ethos, that of intellectual integrity.
We know, early in the 21st century, that Weber’s uncertain defence of the university does not work — as a conglomerate of specialist disciplines vaguely unified at the individual level by an ethic of intellectual integrity.
Nor is a polytechnic a university, and, in any case, it only suits the natural sciences and perhaps such in-between studies as business and the various professions. A university draws its sustenance from the ultimate questions about the human condition, and therefore it centres on the humanities (including the social sciences). It always has.
The university requires a unifying and guiding vision. Experience in the past century proves that, without such a vision, it becomes demoralised, and those teachers who are not completely listless in their vocations tend to become rancorous, teaching against the authorities and truths of the inherited culture in what they themselves often celebrate as a “critical” or “radical” manner. This is not criticism in the sense of open-minded scrutiny of a text in order to gain access to some truth.
A university depends on collective belief in universals of goodness, beauty and truth — and that they carry with them some kind of transcendental value. When that belief fails, all that remains is to tear down and to shock — what the contemporary academy has unselfconsciously legitimised as “deconstruction”. The high priest of modernism, Marcel Duchamp, entered a urinal in an art exhibition in New York in 1917. His intention was to shock but also, more seriously, to challenge that there are no standards left by which to say that my porcelain urinal is less beautiful, good or true than any of the works of the old masters. Duchamp has carried the day, both in contemporary art and in university arts faculties.
A further cost of the collapse of confident belief in the university has been the failure of academics in the past two decades to resist bureaucratisation, to their own further detriment. Fifty-five per cent of those employed in Australian universities today are administrators. This is not the place to go into what they all do, or don’t do, in an institution devoted to teaching and research. Academics have joked, borrowing from Yes Minister, that the perfect university for the new order of management is one in which there are no academics and no students. Indeed, there is little chance that these vast structures of senior and middle management, with rare exceptions, will have any sense of the higher purpose of the institution they run. Recent events at the ANU are, given this context, unsurprising.
The humanist university has run down. The Christian university, founded in medieval form, is too culturally alien to the contemporary West to be revived. The church, the one institution that could replace the university as the master teacher of eternal truths, is in a state of hopeless disrepair. Yet the university is here to stay, for a bureaucratically organised society will, of its nature, maintain an educational hierarchy, with the universities at the pinnacle.
Nietzsche saw that cultural demolition will start with ascetic individuals, ones subject to high levels of instinctual repression, complexity of psychological disposition, given to thinking, those very individuals to fill the ranks of the priesthood, the academy and the caste of artists, writers and musicians. When they begin to lose their faith, they turn on the gods that have failed them.
It is commonplace that the most virulent critics of the pope and the Church of Rome are priests with faltering belief or laity in the process of defection. There is a sense of betrayal, a rage against the sacred walls that have crumbled, against the past authorities that still roam around uneasily in the individual unconscious but no longer command.
And “rage” is not an overstatement. George Orwell lamented towards the end of World War II that the whole left intelligentsia in Britain had been secretly pleased whenever the Germans won a battle. Orwell called himself a socialist at the time, and while he no doubt exaggerated, the visceral intensity and irrationality of national self-hatred is exemplified here — preferring Hitler to your own people. There is very little left at any level in the universities with the spine to resist this kind of cultural self-loathing.
The rage against a culture that has lost authority has percolated more and more widely through left-green political culture, if usually in more mellow tones. Generations of students in schools and universities have now been subjected to Marxist ideology, teaching them about the West’s capitalist exploitation of other peoples, of its own minorities and of the disadvantaged in general. That the West is evil has become the default reading for much of the tertiary-educated upper middle class. Yet only a small, noisy minority are rancorous. For most, a vague reflex view of the world has come to prevail, ignorantly held and often naive, while occasionally grounded in genuine empathy for those who are less well-off.
It is, of course, true that Western history has its negative episodes, but which society or civilisation hasn’t? Realist comparisons show the modern West, especially since 1945, in a very favourable light in terms of quality of life, fairness and respect for universal human rights.
The hatred of Western civilisation that has arisen in the cultural elites draws on one further motivational strand: power envy.
The very success of the West, in creating the most prosperous, the most powerful and the most just society the world has ever known, creates its own irritant. Those who are unhappy with their lives, insecure in their identities and anxious about their future may come to resent the extraordinary privilege, comfort and opportunity into which they have been born. Their society is successful and powerful; they are not.
What follows is identification with the “wretched of the earth”, those victims who are helplessly disadvantaged. This first appeared among radical university students in the 1960s, in a ludicrous inversion of the reality that they were a uniquely privileged generation of spoiled rich kids.
University rancour has commonly surfaced in a condescending disparagement of ordinary people and popular culture — for cheap taste, crass materialism, jingoism, xenophobia and syrupy values. The reality is that Western popular culture, by contrast, has retained a healthy belief in universal moral laws, in the value of the beautiful and in the ultimate significance of truth.
Power envy is linked with a paranoid reflex, which holds that if I can destroy what has power and persecutes me, then I myself can gain that power. Hence the radical hostility to the main power on our side, the US, and, increasingly on the left, to Israel — as the one prosperous, democratic and successful country amid the wretched stagnation of most of the Middle East.
Where to now? Central to any viable idea of the university, whether Christian, humanist or other, is a retelling of the human story as a kind of epic, with gravity and dignity, following the diverse ways it plays out its fateful tragedies. This requires interpretations of the story that reveal that life is more than an egoistic performance governed by power struggles.
All humans want answers to the big questions of where they come from, what they should do with their lives in order to make sense of them and what happens when they die. Deep engagement with the best literature, art, music and philosophy of our own Western culture is fundamental. Today’s students crave just this sort of education.
Here is the aim of the Ramsay Centre for western Civilisation, which will almost certainly have to set up its own independent institution if it is to prosper.
It is vitally important for the country that it succeeds.
John Carroll is professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University. johncarrollsociologist.wordpress.com
How to stop the culture wars: unite on the kernel of liberty
Janet Albrechtsen.The Australian, June 9th 2018
Janet Albrechtsen has been labelled Australia’s answer to Ayn Rand, who famously said: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Former Labor leader Mark Latham once controversially said she was “a skanky ho who would die in a ditch to defend the Liberal Party” in parliament. Crikey dubbed her a “right-wing rage machine”. But The Australian’s “most talked about columnist” is adored by conservatives as well as her editors.
The body count from the killing fields of the Australian culture wars keeps piling up. And don’t imagine the battles are esoteric disagreements among elites. The battles over how free we are in a liberal society seep into every corner of the country, from a dour scientist at a north Queensland university to a glamorous morning television host beamed into Australian living rooms.
Here’s a tally from this week alone. The Australian National University recoiled in response to objections from a few unionists, pulling out of an unprecedented deal with the Ramsay Centre to provide students with generous scholarships and a new course in Western civilisation. The editor of literary journal Meanjin, Jonathan Green, wrote a long, grovelling apology for his white privilege because the latest cover wrongly chose to promote #MeToo feminism over indigenous people in the Balkanised world of identity politics. Television personality Sonia Kruger will have to answer to a government bureaucracy because she expressed a view about Muslim immigration. Go back a few days further, to when a fine professor of physics was sacked for not toeing an ideological line on climate change at James Cook University.
It’s easy to write up what’s wrong with intellectual freedom in Australia. It’s much harder to work out how we work through this mess. A sure way to entrench the madness is to stay in our bunkers, convince ourselves that we, on our side of politics, whichever that may be, hold the high moral ground. That has been the way for the past few decades and things have gone from bad to worse. It must be time, then, to try something different. Perhaps listen to the other side, find points of common ground, admit where we may be wrong, and do all this in the spirit of respect for others, curiosity about ideas and a determination that Western progress genuinely means progress.
Inquirer spoke at length this week with Grahame McCulloch, who has been general secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union since its inception in the early 1990s, and whose working adult life has been with the union movement. The NTEU has been in the press a lot in recent days, lining up on both sides of the culture wars that are ripping apart intellectual learning in this country.
The NTEU, under McCulloch’s leadership, was an early defender of Peter Ridd, the geophysicist recently sacked on trumped-up charges of misconduct by JCU because he spoke out about science that is not properly checked, tested or replicated. Ridd said some people pushing out research were not very objective: “They’re emotionally attached to their subject and, you know, you can’t blame them, the reef is a beautiful thing.”
On March 1, the Queensland division secretary of the NTEU, Michael McNally, wrote to union members at JCU explaining the union’s support for Ridd. McNally said the right to academic freedom was specifically enshrined in the enterprise bargaining agreement with JCU, and “it is not for a university management to determined that such scholarly debate either denigrates or offends others”.
On June 1, the NTEU issued a compelling press statement that asked: “Whither academic freedom?” It demanded Ridd’s immediate reinstatement by JCU.
“The NTEU is obliged to reassert its commitment to academic freedom, even or especially where its expression contains statements that may be at odds with many or most members’ views. Without the maintenance of the core value of academic freedom, our universities would cease to be worthy of the name,” wrote McNally.
Are we more comfortable bashing the NTEU when it does something wrong than paying credit when it does the right thing? After all, the NTEU’s support for Ridd hasn’t received much attention in the press. Whereas the words of one NTEU branch member opposed to funding from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has received blanket coverage.
Talking to Inquirer this week, McCulloch said “the NTEU was prepared to consider making some financial contribution to Peter’s defence but in any event his GoFundMe (where Ridd raised $260,000 for legal costs) was oversubscribed so it was unnecessary”.
“I believe in serious intellectual discussion. That is why I am on Peter Ridd’s side even if I am concerned about the methods of delivering his message. But that’s a different point,” adds McCulloch, who grew up in Hobart, was a student leader at the University of Tasmania and then national leader of the National Union of Students.
A few days before we spoke, McCulloch posted some comments on a blog by political scientist and writer Don Aitkin, pointing out that the NTEU has defended many cases of academic freedom in the past two decades, from Ted Steele at Wollongong University to Andrew Fraser at Macquarie University, Judith Bessant at RMIT, Roz Ward at Latrobe, and now Ridd. Andrew Fraser was an academic moved on by Macquarie University in 2005 because he expressed views about the problems of increased crime from African migration that offended the sensibilities of orthodox views on campus. The issue still offends polite circles, and still demands to be debated. The Macquarie branch of the NTEU didn’t like Fraser’s views, but the centrally run union took the view that it raised fundamental questions about individual rights and academic freedom. Supporting him was non-negotiable.
“The union’s support in the Steele, Fraser, Ward and Ridd matters attracted some hostility from sections of our membership and the press,” wrote McCulloch. “The interesting point is that the intellectual perspectives of the academics involved have ranged from the right conservative to radical left poles … this underlines that NTEU has adopted a principled defence of academic freedom — a necessary condition for a viable university — even at the cost of internal and external criticism.”
Whatever we may think of a government imposing Ward’s Safe Schools agenda, if we believe in academic freedom at universities, it must apply equally to Ward and Ridd and Fraser.
The NTEU has 28,500 members, 16,000 of them academic staff. Union coverage among permanent teaching and research staff in universities is high, between 35 per cent and 50 per cent, and between 15 per cent and 20 per cent among professional staff. It has been a swift transformation given that academic labour was one of the last workforces, before enterprise bargaining, to become unionised.
Since its inception, the NTEU has been fighting to include academic freedom clauses in collective bargaining agreements with all 37 public universities in Australia, to sit alongside internal review panels, which Ridd did not have access to at JCU. McCulloch explained the fine pedigree of academic freedom clauses, drawing on the Humboldtian universities in Germany, the liberal philosophy of John Newman, John Dewey who created the American Association of University Professors, and models of academic freedom in Canadian universities. The NTEU deserves praise for this pursuit.
Now for the hitch. The general secretary of that same union has nothing to say about the hijacking of education by Matthew King, the NTEU branch president in the ACT who opposed ANU accepting money from the Ramsay Centre to teach a course in Western civilisation. King used an article in Quadrant by Tony Abbott, a Ramsay board member, to launch spurious objections to the Ramsay donation.
McCulloch’s silence on this matter is unfortunate. After all, the craven hypocrisy of ANU and King is obvious. If they are so concerned about relinquishing academic freedom, what about ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies which, as The Australian reported this week, receives money from Middle Eastern countries such as United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey? A Dubai foundation is listed as member of the centre’s advisory board. Six Australian universities host Confucius centres with money from Chinese donors who also assign a teacher to each program and have control over what is taught.
ANU’s pusillanimity is doubly clear. It had almost sealed a deal for students to learn the great books of Western civilisation, then caved in to a few rowdy voices. The next time ANU cries poor, the Education Minister surely will recall this episode as severely denting its credibility. And, by the way, why isn’t one of our premier universities already offering a course on the great books of Western civilisation, without outside money?
The head of a tertiary education union could have a lot to say here. What McCulloch will say is that he has had enough of the rising corporatism in universities that causes administrators to run for cover whenever there is a controversy. Vice-chancellors don’t want a Roz Ward or a Peter Ridd, or anyone who ruffles feathers. University bosses want calm waters so they can carry on with their marketing and advertising, domestically and especially overseas. Craven corporatism causes a university to lose sight of its mission as a place of learning, inquiry and debate. It explains why Bjorn Lomborg couldn’t find a home at an Australian university. It explains why University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence tried to stop the Dalai Lama from speaking on campus in 2013. Once leaked emails appeared in the media, the university tried to use logistics to justify its position, but emails pointed to a university keen to disassociate itself from a man who upset Chinese sensibilities. The same craven corporatism that explains JCU’s treatment of Ridd also explains ANU backing out of a deal with Ramsay. In fact, the NTEU branch manager exploited the cowardice of university administrators, writing to ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt that the association with Ramsay “could potentially damage the intellectual reputation of the humanities at ANU and the ANU more broadly”.
McCulloch will say only this: “I have consistently, across many universities, had it put to me directly by senior management, up to and including deputy vice-chancellor level, that the profitability, and more particularly the reputation, of the university is the primary consideration in these matters. That we can’t afford to have things that might put our brand reputation in the international marketplace or in the research race … in jeopardy.”
McCulloch says this corporatist attitude is a seriously conformist and stifling influence on internal debate at all levels of a university. The NTEU boss has no beef with corporations but worries when university leaders “have swallowed this management jargon bible and intellectual discourse has been lost in an arid sea of performance-management indicators that lack substance”.
Is McCulloch’s silence over ANU and Ramsay a case of the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, a union boss staying quiet to support a union comrade at the branch level? Or is there another way to join the dots here? Given the NTEU’s public statements on other matters such as Ridd, McCulloch’s silence over the Ramsay debacle may suggest deep dissent within the NTEU and disagreement with the actions of a rogue branch at ANU. Either way, it doesn’t pay to tar everyone with the same brush. There is too much at stake. Equally, left and right occasionally joining forces won’t settle the culture wars. That will happen only when the warring sides find more common ground to embed fundamental principles of liberty and enlightenment in our universities, and beyond.
A good place to start is learning about what is good, not just bad, about Western civilization.
In an interesting excursion into to what The Australian’s readers might be thinking about this business. Here are the comments posted online with respect John Carroll’s article:
So what has Western civilization done for us? Now philosophy, value systems and history have been mentioned but what about literature, dance and classical music? Wouldn’t our lives be eminently poorer without thes
Most who have succeeded over the last century+ in those artistic endeavours you mentioned are likely to never have graduated from Uni. Classical music might have had some respected candidates within their fields but Classical Music itself hasn’t seen a front billing in popularity since probably the mid-late 19th century. Talented people no doubt but otherwise unknown.
Great article, not one stupid or senseless idea. The professor will never be heard on the ABC. Time to found new institutions all over, stop funding the existing ones incrementally.
Humanities “academics” have abandoned any pretence at upholding genuine intellectual values. And this has happened before. Just look at how, for example, with few exceptions, the Humanities in Germany served the Nazi state.
In China they celegrate to butcher Mao, and at Melb Uni they want to hang Captain Cook. The MU system is a joke
Great insight. Thank you Professor Carrol. More of this please The Australian. There is hope for our institutions of higher learning as long as this calibre of academic discipline survives the onslaught of mechanical bureaucratic politicians.
30 years ago a migrant said to me, Rolf, the West is going to excuse itself out of existence. Horrifically possible that may be true. Thankfully there are enough rebellious youth around.
And here I was thinking that ALL academics were devoid of common sense and reason and analytical thinking. There is some hope after all.
Except that Prof Carroll is long retired.
Why do so called conservatives like John Howard and Tony Abbott reject the scientific consensus on climate change. Science after all is one of the most important tenants of Western Civilization. Further they are both comfortable with the High Courts gymnastics calling asylum seekers indefinite detention administrative imprison instead of judicial imprisonment. Otherwise habeas corpus does not apply and we are no longer a western society. Then again neither man believes in the Christian 8th commandment bearing false witness against people. Remember it is not against the law to seek asylum, however both men call them illegals. They obviously do not understand the fundamental tenants of Western society. Very sad.
Science isn’t about consensus. Ever. Religion often is.
@Garrett This just appears to be a leftist rant……unsubstantiated drivel!
@Garrett In referring to science, many people seem to conflate theories or interpretation of the available evidence with demonstrable fact. This is the case with climate change (formerly “global warming”), and even with evolution as the origin of species. Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and the evolution of man from single-celled organisms are strongly held beliefs, not empirically established facts – far from it.
A summary on the Parliament of Australia website says those who come to Australia by boat seeking Australia’s protection are classified by Australian law to be “unlawful non-citizens”, though they have a right under international law to seek asylum. In general, the tough response to asylum seekers arriving by boat was a pragmatic solution to an out-of-control border policy that had effectively ceded significant authority to a people-smuggling model. Most Australians are happy with the stricter stance.
The real problem with Western Civ studies for the Left is that it shows up the “new age” university education for what it is – a shallow and miserable imitation of true scholarship. WC will appeal only the strong and eager student rather than the lazy and bitter.
I am thankful that my degrees are in engineering and later business. Real fields of study that have real concepts able to have real applications
Your outlook is part of the malaise that has infected the Western world; bare ‘utility’ yields nothing but incomes and materialism, and in the end the despair of nihilism.
Engineering and science require rigour, intuition, creativity and hard work; failures are often very visible and result in litigation.
Most science science and humanities do not require those characteristics and often little more than an ability to live in an echo chamber full of non achievers, who believe that their ignorance qualifies them to pontificate on complex issues they do not understand eg electricity supply
Mine are in chemical engineering, physics, and…cosmology, er, similar to the V/C at ANU, O dear…can it be that studies of type 1a supernovae lead one to Mike’s malaise infecting the Western world? Nihilism awaits, so does despair…aaaaargh, off to the nearest euthenasiatorium…
You fundamentally miss the point. Pursuing any endeavour with passion creates truth, beauty and happiness. Gaining Knowledge for its own sake is shallow; having the wit and wisdom to know what to do with it is precious. Doing something worthwhile and doing it well is uplifting.
Power envy? I’m sure the captive market that colonies were and captive source of raw material via colonialism combined with captive source of labor through slavery helped a lot in modern Europe’s rise. Are we supposed to envy that?
On the other hand, this is one of the rare case of quality argument on this sections though. Hats off to the author who seems to understand that conservatism is different from the plain tabloid style appeal to baser instincts of humanity which daily mail and Murdoch media generally tries to cater to.
Slavery has been around for many thousands of years, in most cultures. Freedom from slavery is only a recent human achievement, especially in western cultures. It still occurs in Africa and Asia.
Thank you John for your patient, reasoned article on a subject of such importance that has been conflicted and distorted by those with other agendas.
Only the threat of a funding cut would now have any effect on having an open and free place for ideas and courses in Universities.
Agreed, the best article I have read in a long time. Thought provoking, timely and true.
JThis is the kind of truly great op-ed contribution from outside the newspaper industry that makes a great newspaper. No full-time press writer can produce a diamond like this week after week or day after day. I’m guessing it took months of work and distils a lifetime of experience and thought. It is the clearest and most incisive analysis of the tertiary education syndrome I have ever read.
However, it does not convince me that the Ramsay Centre can rescue the public university sector from itself, or even survive within it. On the contrary, it convinces me that the forces of nihilism are fundamental to public university humanities, because of the combination of academic autonomy and financial independence. Cut off from any need to justify its own existence or fertilise the source of its own sustenance, it must always end up this way. And freedom of thought, counter-intuitively, will always be its enemy, not its guiding light.
I would be approaching Notre Dame University, the only private university in Australia that has a fully developed faculty of humanities. It still has traditional courses in the liberal arts that celebrate the Western tradition, classics, the Enlightenment … everything that that state-run universities now refuse to study without lampooning it.
Great article. I hope Professor Carroll still has a job tomorrow when he fronts up at La Trobe.
He is an Emeritus Professor. He stands on his own good reputation. They can’t take that away from John Carroll.
This is one of the best articles I have ever read in a newspaper. There can be transcendent beauty in truth and high standards. The miserable regressives of the far-Left should be pulling people up but prefer to drag others down – jealousy, and feelings over facts, and avoiding personal responsibility which is arrested development. Their virtue is disguised hate. They hate humanity.
I don’t know if you have noticed or would agree that Professor Carroll’s article has, in general, raised the standard of ‘debate’, for want of a better word, on this board. It appears to be less given to specious name calling and subjective assertion and posters seem more willing to grapple with a few salient facts and real argument. It seems also that the general tone is a little less abusive. Maybe I’m dreaming. I hope not.
Socialism is revenge of the underling, pure and simple. Socialists identify with envy and guilt they divide and conquer.
ANU when are going to start burning books?
You have not heard or read of the burning of historian Geoffrey Blainey’s books that occurred at some Australian universities following some very mild remarks he made about immigration some 20 or so years ago?
Bit long but a great article. I wonder if the good professor would keep his job at La Trobe, after this article, if he was still employed there.
thank you Professor; a polemic work
Peterborough Cathedral is in [drum roll] Peterborough. Not Cambridge. If you look really closely you may discern a very subtle clue in the name. FAKE NEWS
Yes. It’s in Cambridgeshire though.
Correct. Many places are in Cambridgeshire but Peterborough Cathedral is only in one place, namely, Peterborough.
A cathedral – like a university – encompasses, or should encompass, more than the one place in which it is situated. The world at large does not need cloistered minds.
What a confused article. When I look at lists of the top universities in the World they are almost all universities with very strong Science, Engineerng and technology departments. Think MIT, Caltech, Stamford, Cambridge..Over the past 50 years social and humanity disciplines have ceased to be of great importance in deciding what a university shoiuld stand for. The disdainfull way that Carroll says a Polytechnic is not a University demonstrates that the arts departments in Universities have lost the plot.
No confusion at all. Carroll clearly distinguishes between the practical sciences and the humanities, with the corruption of the classical ideal of the university starting and being most advanced in the humanities.
Prof. Carroll is disparaging when he says “nor is a polytechnic a university” and it only suits the natural sciences and seems to make a put down about some business studies and various other professions. He reinforces that by saying a real university centres on the humanities. “It always has”, he said. Fortunately things change and the humanities can go on navel gazing while the world passes them by.
Both arts and science departments have lost the plot but it is less obvious in the science departments as they are just looking at physical phenomena.
Neither tend to have any idea about human nature or the true purpose of a university.
Professor Carroll simply states a fact when he says that a polytechnic is not a university. A 101 course in western civilization incorporated into degrees such as in science, engineering, law, economics, commerce, business, etc., would enrich the education of leaders in these fields and give them moral guidance.
A 101 course in western civilisation would be a good course, however to suggest any 101 humanities or social science course provides moral guidance is somewhat optimistic given than graduate and advanced degrees in these subjects have already created an amoral society
In the UK all technically oriented universities of repute started as polytechnics, other than Cambridge which had a strong maths and physics reputation, they were doing advanced research in many areas, the university community could not handle this and they were force ably converted to universities or merged into them. Part of the reasons for this was a general contempt for applied science which had led to the UK being among the last countries in Europe to offer university science and engineering courses, this forced the development of high grade polytechnics which were at least equal to universities in intellectual rigour. e.g. Loughborough, UMIST, Cranfield, Hadfield Rugby, London polytechnic. Without this forced conversion and assimilation of the polytechnics many of the universities would have died of irrelevance.
Victor Orbán’s landslide electoral victory on Sunday, gaining 134 seats out of 199 in Hungary’s parliament, increases his governing supermajority and endorses his tough policy of excluding illegal immigrants, especially from the Middle East. His success dramatizes a new reality across Europe and in Australia: a novel kind of party has emerged, disturbing the political scene and arousing impassioned debate.
Examples of this phenomenon include the other three members of the Visegrád group (Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia) as well as Austria’s four-month old government. Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, sees western Europe following the Visegrád group: “In the Eastern part of Europe, anti-Islamification and anti-mass migration parties see a surge in popular support. Resistance is growing in the West, as well.”
In France, the National Front emerged as the second strongest party in last year’s presidential elections, in Italy, a muddled situation could lead to an Orbán-like government, while Cory Bernardi’s Conservatives and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation have made their mark on the Australian scene. Indeed, like-minded parties have quickly become a significant force in some twenty countries.
General election seats won by civilizationist parties in Europe.
An initial problem is how correctly to name them in general. The media lazily lumps these parties together as far-right, ignoring their frequent leftist elements, especially in economic and social policy. Calling them nationalist is wrong, for they neither bellow calls to arms nor raise claims to neighbors’ lands. Populist misses the point because plenty of populist parties such as La France Insoumise (Rebellious France) pursue nearly opposite policies.
Best is to focus on their key common elements: rejecting the vast influx of immigrants and especially Muslim immigrants. Non-Muslim immigrants also cause strains, especially those from Africa, but only among Muslims does one find a program, the Islamist one, to replace Western civilization with a radically different way of life. Turned around, these parties are traditionalists with a pro-Christendom, pro-European and pro-Western outlook; they are civilizationist. (This definition also has the benefit of excluding parties like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, that despise traditional Western civilization.)
Enlightened opinion generally reacts with horror to civilizationist parties, and not without reason, for they carry a lot of baggage. Some have dubious origins. Staffed mainly by angry political novices, they feature dismaying numbers of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim extremists, Nazi nostalgists, power-hungry cranks, economic eccentrics, historical revisionists, and conspiracy theorists. Some proffer anti-democratic, anti-European Union, and anti-American outlooks. Far too many – and especially Orbán – have a soft spot for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Putin (L) and Orbán chat amiably.
But civilizationist parties also bring critical benefits to the political arena: realism, courage, tenacity, and a civilizational critique necessary if the West is to survive in its historic form. Therefore, contrary to many friends and allies, I favor working with most civilizationist parties, advocating critical co-operation rather than rejection and marginalization.
Four reasons drive this decision: First, civilizationist parties pose a lesser danger than do Islamists. They are traditionalist and defensive. They are not violent, they do not seek to overthrow the constitutional order. Their errors are correctable. Arguably, they are less dangerous even than the Establishment parties which permitted immigration and shirked Islamist challenges.
Second, they respond to political realities. The lure of power has already inspired some civilizationist parties to mature and moderate; for example, the founder of the National Front in France was expelled from his own party by his daughter due to his persistent antisemitism. This sort of evolution entails personnel fights, party divisions, and other drama; however inelegant, these are part of the growing process and, so, have a constructive role. As they gain governing experience, the parties will further evolve and mature.
Third, parties focused on civilizationism cannot be dismissed as ephemeral. They emerged quickly and are steadily rising in popularity because they represent a sizeable and growing body of opinion. As they relentlessly approach power; it is better they be engaged with and moderated than be reviled and alienated.
Finally, and most critically, civilizationist parties have a vital role in bringing their issues to the fore: without them, other parties usually ignore immigration and Islamist challenges. Conservative parties tend to overlook these issues, in part because their big business supporters benefit from cheap labor. Leftist parties too often promote immigration and turn a blind eye to Islamism.
Great Britain lacks a civilizationist party because Nigel Farage decided that UKIP would not deal with immigration and Islamism.
To appreciate the role of civilizationist parties, contrast Great Britain and Sweden, the two European countries most lax in dealing with culturally aggressive and criminally violent forms of Islamism. Lacking such a party, these issues are not addressed in Great Britain; immigration and Islamist inroads progress almost unimpeded. Prime ministers might provide excellent analyses, but their words lack practical consequences and problems such as the sex-grooming gangs go unaddressed.In contrast, because Sweden’s civilizationist party, the Sweden Democrats, has doubled its votes every four years since 1998, it has fundamentally altered the country’s politics to the point that the country’s right and left blocs have allied against it. While this maneuver successfully excluded it from power, some policy changes have already occurred and more may lie ahead, especially as a conservative party, the Moderates, has raised the hitherto inconceivable notion of cooperating with the Sweden Democrats.
This points to another implication: the presence of an expanding civilizationist party pressures legacy parties of both right and left. Conservative ones, fearing the loss of voters to civilizationist parties, adopt policies to keep their support. The Republican Party in France has moved sharply in this direction, first under François Fillon and now under his successor, Laurent Wauquiez. Germany’s Free Democratic Party withdrew from the “Jamaica” negotiations for this same reason. Angela Merkel may still be chancellor of Germany, but her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, is doing his best to apply civilizationist policies.
Leftist parties have also begun to take note of the voters they have lost, especially those workers who tend to be economically and culturally on the front lines. The Danish Social Democrats led the way when its leader, Mette Frederiksen, declared “We want to introduce a cap on the number of non-Western foreigners who can come to Denmark” and offered a detailed, if ungainly, plan. The party would set up reception centers outside Europe.
Migrants in Budapest, Hungary, in 2015.
I acknowledge their many faults, but parties focused on immigration and Islamism are essential for Europe not to become an extension of Northern Africa but to remain part of the Western civilization it created. Their raising the immigration and Islamist issues makes up for their shortcomings. This assessment leads me to urge cooperation with civilizationist parties, rather than a horrified shunning of them. In my experience, they are open to discussion and to learning; they also have something to teach. For example, Anne Marie Waters of For Britain focuses on Islamic law, or sharia, bringing new clarity to complex problems.
Returning to Viktor Orbán: despite his serious flaws as a democratic leader and an alignment with Putin, his electoral success points to a real and legitimate anxiety in Hungary about immigration and Islamization, especially in the aftermath of the 2015-16 surge in both. Orbán leads, but others are not far behind. In twenty years, I predict, civilizationist parties will likely be widely in government; no less important, their policies will have influenced their conservative and leftist rivals. It would be folly to try to ignore or ostracize this movement; far better to temper, educate, and learn from it.
Why is it that when we think of Roman Emperor Caligula, we recall the late John Hurt’s over the top, mad and malevolent portrayal in the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Grave’s sardonically serious I Claudius.(1976). Or else, Malcolm McDowell’s vicious, almost cartoon villain in Penthouse pontiff Bob Guccione’s semi-pornograpic biopic Caligula(1979).
British author Simon Turney turns I Claudius on its head with the bumbling, stumbling, stammering Clau-Clau of book and film cast as a canny, conniving and ultimately successful player positioning himself to assume the imperial purple. Gone is the Caligula so malevolently and magnificently portrayed by John Hurt. No horses in the Senate. No incest. None of the orgies, explicit sex and delectable cameos of Penthouse Pets. But there is violence and gore – loads of it, in fact – and plots and conspiracies aplenty. But it is Claudius who is “nasty, brutish and short” while young Gaius is tall, blonde and well-intentioned. He’s certainly not all hugs and puppies, but he’s an astute, well-meaning but misunderstood victim of imperial circumstance who rides the perilous waves of bereavement and betrayal to assume the psychotic Tiberius’ throne.
The full title of Turney’s tome says it all: Caligula: loving brother, reluctant ruler and tortured soul (Orion 2017)
It is inevitable that history is written by the victors and throughout the past two millennia there have been plenty of cases of good men being maligned by their successors, as well as evil men canonized by their heirs and successors. Rome was no different and may indeed be the very epitome of this. Being so far removed from our modern world, we have only fragmentary archaeological and epigraphic evidence to directly base our research on – that and the writings of those who lived in these times.
And so it is with Caligula. Turney argues that once the chaff is cleared away, misunderstandings and misrepresentations clarified, and the more obvious cases of character assassination discarded, we are left with a complex man who fell foul of the most influential and dangerous people in the Empire. He could hardly have been the monster he has painted, for while those powerful senators and nobles managed to remove him, the ordinary people of Rome held him up as the golden prince and the army remained his – the latter in part on account of how as a child, he’d accompanied his father on victoriouscampaigns in Germania and Syria, earning the sobriquet “Little Boots” – in Latin, “Caligula” – named for the replica army sandals he wore on these road trips.
So, leave your assumptions and preconceptions at the city gates and enter Rome, 37AD.
Emperor Tiberius Caesar is dying. No-one knows how much time is left to him, but the power struggle has begun. The ailing old tyrant thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order to the chaos and carnage engineered by Sejanus, the cruel commander of the Praetorian Guard. The story is told through the eyes of Livilla, Caligula’s loyal, little sister and confidante. She recounts how her quiet, caring, beautiful brother became the most powerful man in the known western world, how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever. She is an attractive and insightful narrator, drawing the reader into her life as niece and hostage of mad, bad Tiberius and sister of his infamous successor.
Starship Captain Picard as Praetorian commander Sejanus
Being part of the extended family of the Divine Augustus is a tough gig. The five children of Germanicus appear to be cursed from birth. Their war-hero father is believed to have been poisoned on Tiberius’ orders, and mom and two brothers are arrested for treason, exiled on desert islands, and starved to death. Cold, ambitious, Agrippina is married off to an abusive husband, but keeps her eye on the ultimate prize. Sweet, docile Drusilla is wedded to a mild nonentity and pines for her own true love. Only Caligula and Livilla remain, as virtual captives on Capri, Tiberius’ pleasure island.
The ascent of the family into the imperial succession transforms Caligula from the easygoing lad Livilla knew to a shrewd, wary and calculating young man, used to watching his back and learning the dangerous power game of thrones. As much out of self-preservation as ambition, he maneuvers himself into the top job. A golden age beckons for Rome, but things unravel as political allies, friends, and finally family betray him and plot his demise. He becomes a bitter, resentful and vengeful Emperor, eventually losing touch with reality and his humanity. Even loyal Livilla comes a cropper. Power corrupts and absolute power, whilst not surreal scale of the films, leads Caligula to a rendezvous with the assassins’ knives.
Complementing the human drama of the quasi-Shakespearean rise and fall of a tragic hero, Turney also provides his tale with a political dimension. There is the well known backstory of the Roman Republic and how Julius Caesar was slain by gallant patriots who feared that he was about to make himself King – a concept that was anathema to SPQR, the Senate and people of Rome. Caesar’s heir, Octavius, who became Augustus, whilst hailed as ‘Imperator’, was most careful not to become ‘Rex’. Through Robert Graves’s epic, Claudius as courtier and as Caesar, perennially proclaims his desire to restore the republic – although, truth be told, the republic had run its course, governed by a corrupt and self serving senatorial elite. It was, perhaps, a nostalgic chimera, which, nevertheless, provides numerous conspirators in Turney’s narrative with a worthy motive. Caligula, they fear, is falling under the influence of royal middle eastern friends who advertise the attractions of absolute monarchy. At the end, Caligula’s Caesar complex commands a Caesar solution.
Turney next turns his attention next to another Roman emperor who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Skipping the lugubrious Nero, who features in Caligula as a chubby babe in the arms his devious and disloyal momma Agrippina, the projected series of “The Damned Emperors” will jump to Commodus, last seen impaled by Maximus Decimus Meridius, known today as Russell Crowe, in Ridley Scott’s solid if somewhat overwrought sword and sandals saga Gladiator (2000). It would appear that whatever history and show business has conceived, Turney aims to tear asunder.
In That Howling Infinite has traveled the Roman world many times before:
The serpentine storylines of Nathan Hill’s astonishing debut novel The Nixconverge on the chaos and carnage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, when Hubert Humphrey was selected as candidate to run against Richard Nixon that fall, and Mayor Daley set the city’s finest upon the thousands who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and other social and political ills in what contemporary reports described as a “police riot”.
Hill sets the scene beautifully…
“The day before the riots the weather turned. The grip of the Chicago summer loosened and the air was spring-like and agreeable…In the very early dawn there appeared on the ground a thin, slick dew. The world was alive and lubricated. It felt hopeful, optimistic, and therefore disallowable as the city prepared for battle, as National Guard troops arrived by the thousands on green flatbed trucks, as police cleaned their gas masks and guns, as demonstrators practiced evasion and self-defense techniques and assembled various projectiles to lob at the cops. There was a feeling among them all that so great a conflict deserved an nastier day. Their hatred should ignite the air, they thought. Who could feel revolutionary when the sun shined pleasantly on one’s face. The city instead was full of desire. The day before the greatest, most spectacular, most violent protest of 1968, the city was saturated with want”.
Indeed, for most of that year, the western world was full of unfulfilled desires and unsatisfied wants.
In this, the third in a series of posts recalling the tumultuous events of 1968, we review a year that breathless commentators have dubbed “the year that changed America”, and, drawing an even longer bow, “the year that changed the world”. It was indeed a year of seismic social and political change, from the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements in America, to protests and revolutions in Europe, and famine in Africa. And as the year ended, Apollo 8 gave us our first view of our sad, blue planet from space.
It was indeed a great year to be alive, young and engaged – although a very great many endured grief, misery and pain, and met violent deaths. Yet, it is in our nature to imagine and indeed, re-imagine our salad days as the best of times and the worst of times. But looking back through our back pages, the year was perhaps no better or worse, no more significant or seminal than any year fore or aft. Like cars seen through the rear-vision mirror, memories always seem a lot closer and bigger. Recall the last verse of Bobby Goldsboro’s tear-jerker Honey, released that February: “…see the tree how big it’s grown. But friend it hasn’t been too long. It wasn’t big”. But we do, however, enhance our depth of perception, and accordingly, our understanding.
1968 conjures up a kaleidoscope of searing images apart from those of police clubbing demonstrators on the streets of Chicago.
A South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains of a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive. The Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis standing next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr. and point to where the assassin’s bullet was fired. Students at Columbia University taking over campus buildings, only to be hauled away, battered and bloody by police. Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police. Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan in the basement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Women dumping bras and girdles into a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant. Protesters facing off against coppers and horses in a violent mêlée in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in the Black Panther Salute as second-placed Aussie Peter Norman stands tall and silent in solidarity (a stance which would earn him opprobrium in his still prejudiced and conservative homeland).
As young people in the UK, we viewed these scenes to an exciting and eclectic soundtrack of blues, rock and psychedelia as the pop music cavalcade of the ‘sixties rock ‘n rolled on.
The Beatles sang Hey Jude, and The Rolling Stones, Street Fighting Man, and Jimi Hendrix delivered simply the best-ever cover of a Bob Dylan song with his blistering, sinister All Along the Watchtower. Imagining we were Born To Be Wild, we were invited to get our motors running and head out on the highway, or else to “take the load off, take the load for free”. We could pointlessly ponder the mysterious meaningless of MacArthur Park, or just lay back in a hazy daze with the Hurdy Gurdy Man (a strange ditty that has enjoyed a brief comeback with the recent hippy, trippy Romans-versus-druids soap Britannia). Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson!
Images and music aside, what was it really like to experience 1968?
Christopher Allen, in a piece in The Australian reviews an exhibition commemorating the events of 1968 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. His is an original overview, advising caution when seeking signs and patterns in contemporary events. The past, as they say, is a foreign country – they see things differently there. “The signs 50 years ago were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
In an entertaining and upbeat piece in The Guardian, Hendrick Herzberg rebuts that cliched putdown of how people who remember the sixties weren’t really there, recounts his own adventures, and claims that “In a modest way, 1968 was the kind of year that pushes history in some unforeseen, astonishing direction – a gentler little brother to 1492, 1776, 1848, 1914, 1945, and 2001”. I would add 1789, 1939, and 1989 and 2011. Check them out.
I too remember the ‘sixties, and I too was there, albeit not on the political, social or cultural front lines. But I was at Grosvenor Square, occupied the vice-chancellor’s offices, did drugs (soft, mind), dug Cream, read Oz and IT, and totally got into Hair, which opened in London that year. And today, I share Hetzberg’s reverie: “In 1968, the ‘sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068. The ‘sixties again! I Can’t wait!”
In contrast, Tod Gitlin gazes through a glass darkly in a sober retrospective for The New York Review of Books: “When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy”.
And indeed, the enduring historical memory of 1968 is one of a succession of seemingly disconnected conflicts and collisions, turmoil and turbulence, not only in the USA but around the world. Yet beneath the apparent chaos, Gitlin seems to suggest, there were patterns that can only be discerned with the benefit of hindsight or as visions from a great height – much like, perhaps, that iconic image of our blue planet.
“Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued appeared breakable, breaking, or broken”.
The pendulum was swinging away from the previous year’s Summer of Love into a darker place. The lyrics of Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, released that September, seem, in retrospect, to describe the turning tide: “Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp, so I wished that I could stay, but before the thing could answer me, well, someone took the lamp away. I looked around, and a lousy candle’s all I found”. In November 1968, Jimi Hendrix sang: “Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl”.
There lurked a new narrative, and this was one of backlash and counterrevolution. “What haunted America”, writes Gitlin, “was not the misty spectre of revolution but the solidifying spectre of reaction. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal”.
”This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely. And presciently. Fifty years on from this momentous year, all that is old is new again.
Read on and enjoy these articles and the accompanying pictures.
But first, a poignant memento of 1968 from the 1979 film version of the “tribal love-rock musical” (yep, that how it was marketed back in the day) Hair, which i saw in London in the fall of 1968.
Commemorations are the greeting cards that a sensation-soaked culture sends out to acknowledge that we, the living, were not born yesterday. So it is with this year’s media reassembly of 1968. What is hard to convey is the texture of shock and panic that seized the world a half-century ago. What is even harder to grasp is that the chief political victor of 1968 was the counter-revolution.
When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy: a South Vietnamese general’s blowing out the brains of a prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive; the Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr., pointing at where the assassin’s bullet had come from; demonstrators at Columbia taking over campus buildings, then hauled away, battered bloody by cops; Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police; Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan’s shots at the Ambassador Hotel;Soviet tanks rolling into Prague; police clubbing demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; women’s liberation activists dumping girdles, hair curlers, and bras (unburnt) in a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant; Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in defiance.
A more thorough survey would take note of social collisions that, however violently repressive, failed to register in America with the same supersaturated significance. For example: the killing of three students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, by highway patrol officers after the students protested segregation at a bowling alley (February 8); the near-deadly shooting of the German radical student leader Rudi Dutschke in Berlin (April 11); Chicago police battering a wholly nonviolent antiwar protest (April 27).
As for less bloody demonstrations, there were so many, so routinely, that TheNew York Times regularly grouped civil rights and antiwar stories on designated pages. Neither does this rundown of calamities take into account images that did not see the light of day until much later, like the color shots of the My Lai massacre (March 16), not published until late 1969—by which time they were almost expected. Or the images that never materialized at all, like the slaughter of hundreds of demonstrating students by troops in Mexico City (October 2).
Images aside, what was it really like to experience 1968? Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued then appeared breakable, breaking, or broken.
The textureof these unceasing shocks was itself integral to what people felt as “the 1968 experience.” The sheer number, pace, volume, and intensity of the shocks, delivered worldwide to living room screens, made the world look and feel as though it was falling apart. It’s fair to say that if you weren’t destabilized, you weren’t paying attention. A sense of unending emergency overcame expectations of order, decorum, procedure. As the radical left dreamed of smashing the state, the radical right attacked the establishment for coddling young radicals and enabling their disorder. One person’s nightmare was another’s epiphany.
The familiar collages of 1968’s collisions do evoke the churning surfaces of events, reproducing the uncanny, off-balance feeling of 1968. But they fail to illuminate the meaning of events. If the texture of 1968 was chaos, underneath was a structure that today can be—and needs to be—seen more clearly.
The left was wildly guilty of misrecognition. Although most on the radical left thrilled to the prospect of some kind of revolution, “a new heaven and a new earth” (in the words of the Book of Revelation), the main story line was far closer to the opposite—a thrust toward retrogression that continues, though not on a straight line, into the present emergency. The New Deal era of reform fueled by a confidence that government could work for the common good was running out of gas. The glory years of the civil rights movement were over. The abominable Vietnam War, having put a torch to American ideals, would run for seven more years of indefensible killing.
The main new storyline was backlash. Even as President Nixon assumed a surprising role as environmental reformer, white supremacy regrouped. Frightened by campus uprisings, plutocrats upped their investments in “free market” think tanks, university programs, right-wing magazines, and other forms of propaganda. Oil shocks, inflation, and European and Japanese industrial revival would soon rattle American dominance. What haunted America was not the misty specter of revolution but the solidifying specter of reaction.
Even as established cultural authorities were defrocked, political authorities revived and entrenched themselves. In so many ways, the counterculture, however domesticated or “co-opted” in Herbert Marcuse’s term, became the culture. Within a few years, in public speech and imagery, in popular music and movies, on TV (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, TheMary Tyler Moore Show) and in the theater (Hair, Oh! Calcutta!), profanity and obscenity taboos dissolved. Gays and feminists stepped forward, always resisted but rarely held back for long. It would subsequently be, as the gauchistes of May ’68 in Paris liked to say, forbidden to forbid.
In the realm of political power, though, for all the many subsequent social reforms, 1968 was more an end than a beginning. After les évènements in France in May came June’s parliamentary elections, sweeping General De Gaulle’s rightist party to power in a landslide victory. After the Prague Spring and the promise of “socialism with a human face,” the tanks of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact overran Czechoslovakia. In Latin America, the Guevarist guerrilla trend was everywhere repulsed, to the benefit of the right. In the US, the “silent majority” roared. As the divided Democratic Party lay in ruins, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy turned the Party of Lincoln into the heir to the Confederacy. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.
Counter-revolutions, like their revolutionary bêtes noires, suffer reversals and take time to cohere. The post-1968 counter-revolution held the fort against a trinity of bogeymen: unruly dark-skinned people, uppity women, and an arrogant knowledge class. In 1968, it was not yet apparent how impressively the recoil could be parlayed into national power. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely.
1968: the year that changed America
Hendrick Herzberg, The Guardian, April 15, 2018
Where were you in the 1960s? And what were you? A toddler, a grade schooler, a teenager? A young adult? Were you already old enough to form your own memories? Or were you old enough but in the “if you can remember The Sixties you really weren’t there” category?
Of course, if you’re like most people, you were nowhere. You hadn’t been born yet. You didn’t exist. But wherever and whatever you were or weren’t, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard about The Sixties – quite enough, maybe. Ad nauseam, maybe.
There is a continuing theological controversy among sixtiesologists concerning when The Sixties can properly be said to have begun and ended. Tuesday 8 November1960 – the day Senator John F Kennedy was elected president – has a pretty good claim to the beginning. Kennedy’s campaign slogan, which appeared on every campaign poster, had been LEADERSHIP FOR THE 60’s. Out with the dull, conformist, priggish, crewcut, Eisenhowerish Fifties! In with the dashing, exciting, daring, sexy, slightly longer-haired, Kennedyesque Sixties!
A darker view – the view I take – sets the clock of The Sixties ticking three years later. The assassination of President Kennedy was a crack in time. Like Sunday 7 December 1941; and like Tuesday 11 September 2001; Friday 22 November 1963 was “a date that will live in infamy”. And, like them, it was a day that is remembered in vivid detail by those who experienced it.
I was taking a noontime shower in my Harvard dorm room, having been as usual up till dawn getting out the college daily, the Crimson. I heard a faint, muffled radio news bulletin coming through the wall from the neighboring room. As I dried off, I turned on my own radio. I can still see the edge of the shower stall and the little bathroom window next to it. On the grass below, a girl was standing under a tree, weeping. The Crimson put out an extra that afternoon, but without my help. It felt too much like a schoolboy stunt. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to play newspaperman. I didn’t want to be distracted from the communal grief all around me.
So The Sixties, in this conceit, began either in 1960 or, like Philip Larkin’s sexual intercourse, in 1963. And the ending? That too has long been a subject of debate. There are plenty of nominees, two of which may be considered the frontrunners. Like the beginnings, one is light and one is dark. The light one: Friday 9 August 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, freeing the nation from a quarter-century of having had him to kick around. The dark one: Altamont. Sunday 6 December 1969. Google it. Or see the movie.
It is possible to build a narrative around two currents of the year’s events, currents that melded and crisscrossed and fed off each other, to startling effect: the music, mostly a kaleidoscopic, wildly imaginative explosion of rock’n’roll; and the politics, mostly a politics of protest – protest against the Vietnam war, against racial injustice, and, more broadly, against what was experienced as the joyless, stultifying blandness of mainstream American life.
Those two currents, the music and the protests, washed over me as they did over millions of others. In 1966, a year out of college and a newly minted cub reporter for Newsweek, I was lucky enough to land in San Francisco. Something was happening there, and I found myself in a position to absorb it.
The scene, cultural and political, was quite something. A new kind of music – rooted in blues, rock, and electronica, and supercharged by psychedelia – was drawing motley-dressed weekend crowds to a couple of repurposed old dance halls, the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. For $2.50 you could spend hours listening and dancing to bands that were still unknown back east or down south in LA – bands still without record contracts but with wonderful names: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service – often paired with iconic bluesmen like Muddy Waters and James Cotton. The walls were mesmerizingly alive with rhythmically pulsating, ever-changing liquid projections. It was, in the patois of the moment, mind-blowing. For the gentle dreamers that Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s gossip columnist, had dubbed hippies, the Fillmore and the Avalon were Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic.
Like every young man of my generation, I had to reckon with the draft. I was against the war, of course, but I didn’t think I had the stomach to go to jail over it. I had zero desire to go to any more schools, graduate or otherwise. I was unmarried and childless. Canada was not my country, my country was the United States of America. I wasn’t physically or mentally ill and was too proud to fake it. And I wasn’t a conscientious objector. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get killed either. My solution was the US navy.
I got a haircut and reported to the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, for three months of officer training. From there I asked to be sent to Vietnam, but it wasn’t like it sounds. Unless you were a flier (like John McCain, the future senator), a Seal (like Bob Kerrey, also a future senator) or a member of the Riverine Force (like John Kerry, a future senator, presidential nominee, and secretary of state), being a naval officer in Vietnam, especially a “public affairs” officer like me, posed very little physical risk. Instead, however, the navy, in its wisdom, assigned me to a desk job in lower Manhattan.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenziedI stole away from the office whenever I could, and devoted the time to salving my conscience. I pitched in at the ramshackle headquarters of the War Resisters League. In March, after Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race, I took to hanging around his Manhattan headquarters, doing layouts and writing headlines for the Kennedy Current, the campaign’s weekly tabloid.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenzied: the bloody shock of the Tet Offensive; the electoral abdication of President Lyndon Johnson; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the riots that followed; the murder of Robert Kennedy; the chaotic, riotous Democratic convention in Chicago; Nixon’s hairsbreadth victory over Hubert Humphrey in November. And me? Well, at Christmastime I got the orders to Vietnam (as a “recreation officer” at the US base in Da Nang) I’d hoped for two years earlier. Only this time I didn’t want to go. My antiwar sentiments had hardened to the point that I decided I preferred jail to further military service, and I announced my intention to refuse the orders.
But before I could achieve fame as a martyr for peace an unexpected medical difficulty developed: I had a wisdom tooth pulled, the wound bled for days, and when I was diagnosed with a (relatively mild) form of hemophilia, the navy quickly mustered me out. I had managed to have it both ways: veteran (kind of) and resister (in a way).
Why didn’t I think of that?
In 1968 the sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068.
In one of the most famous stories from antiquity, Croesus, the proverbially rich king of sixth-century BC Lydia, in what is now Turkey, was disturbed by the rise of the Medes and the Persians on his eastern borders. Thinking it might be wise to crush these potential rivals before they became a serious threat, he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, plying it with gifts to ensure a favourable answer. The oracle replied that if he made war on the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus accordingly gathered his armies and attacked, but he was defeated and taken prisoner by Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire.
The oracle had a reputation for accurate yet riddling answers. A half-century after these events, Heraclitus, one of the most brilliant Pre-Socratic thinkers and famous for enigmatic aphorisms, declared: “The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals but signifies.” It is up to us to read the sign he gives, and Croesus had fatally misconstrued that sign in his eagerness to hear what he wanted to hear.
The signs 50 years ago, in 1968, were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
The political protests of May 1968 in Paris were among the most significant events of that year. Although partly emulating earlier student agitation in the US, the French protests were much broader in their implications. The term that the French use for this movement, la contestation, suggests its universal spirit of revolt and its nebulous sense of direction, if not nihilistic disorientation. It was a catastrophic time for many young people caught up in the hysteria and afterwards left to pick up the pieces of interrupted studies and broken careers, in an ambience of cynicism and disenchantment. Ever since the revolution of 1789, the French have been prone to political overexcitement, and throughout much of the 20th century communists continued to believe in their own kind of revolution in the same way Christians believe in the second coming.
The zealots thought 1968 heralded the end of days and the imminence of the dictatorship of the proletariat; but the grassroots movement, spreading from students to workers, was not supported by the Communist Party, which was still committed to a totalitarian and Stalinist model of central control. A few months later, a similar pattern evolved within the communist world: the opening up of Czechoslovakia to greater freedom, democracy and independence — the Prague Spring — was crushed in August when Soviet tanks invaded the country and occupied its capital.
The events of Paris and of Prague dealt a fatal blow to the credibility of communism in the West; the old left began slowly bleeding to death until its collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall 21 years later. Thus May 1968, as in the story of Croesus, did indeed herald the fall of an empire, but not the one the student rioters thought they were going to bring down.
Much else happened in 1968, including the opening of the new National Library in Canberra, whose anniversary is the occasion for this exhibition. As we enter the exhibition, we are confronted by a wall of 21 tabloid bills, in the centre of which is one announcing the opening of the library. The remaining headlines sum up many other momentous events of the year, starting with the mysterious loss of prime minister Harold Holt, who disappeared, presumed drowned, while spearfishing off Portsea in December 1967.
America was shocked by two political assassinations: that of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. Both events are covered in the exhibition by photographs, posters and copies of contemporary news magazines. Particularly interesting, especially today, is an article about the revulsion against gun culture that followed the death of Kennedy, whose brother, president John Kennedy, had been assassinated less than five years earlier. There are pictures of individuals willingly giving up guns at police stations: so many were handed in that the police, as we see in another photograph, ended up disposing of them by dumping them in the sea.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was growing more intense — it was the year of the Tet offensive — and provoking greater opposition at home, mainly because of the draft, of which fatal randomness we are reminded by a set of the wooden balls that were used in the birthday ballots. It was clearly a political mistake to send conscripted soldiers to Vietnam; professional soldiers expect to fight wherever their nation sees fit to send them, but conscripted troops should be reserved for national self-defence.
At the time, however, the spread of communism in Asia looked like a serious menace, which it would be smug to discount with the benefit of hindsight. Communism had only recently been suppressed by the British in the course of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) and, more recently still, by Suharto in Indonesia, in a far bloodier struggle from 1965 onwards. So the threat of violent totalitarian revolution was real. At the same time, there was a prima facie moral justification in helping South Vietnam defend itself against the north. The way that North Vietnamese aggression was turned into a fight for freedom in the eyes of many in the West was one of the first examples of the self-destructive neurosis that has afflicted the Western intelligentsia for the past couple of generations. A map of Vietnam published in the US in 1968 includes an insert labelled “Freedom’s struggle in Asia”, with a pall of black covering Siberia, Mongolia, China and North Vietnam. It is easy to understand the fear of the domino theory in Southeast Asia, and clear that this had serious consequences for Australia.
And to argue that time was running out for the communist dream, and that even China would, within a generation, be starting to build its own unique model, combining capitalist profiteering with communist authoritarianism, would have seemed mere wishful thinking.
For the time being Mao Zedong, after killing 45 million people by starvation during the Great Leap Forward of 1957-62, had launched the almost equally disastrous Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until his death in 1976, and posters showed beaming peasants and workers celebrating the foundation of new socialist regional committees.
This is the great difficulty in anticipating the future: we can imagine plausible scenarios but the really important things are often ones that seem entirely implausible until they happen. It would have seemed far-fetched to suggest that Southeast Asian countries racked with poverty and communist insurrection in 1968 would be booming capitalist economies by the early 20th century, but even more unbelievable that one of the most significant threats to security, freedom and human rights would one day be the rise of fanatical Islamic belief among the populations of several regional countries. Religion in general was assumed to be a long-spent political factor, of marginal relevance in the thinking of left and right.
Even in the Middle East, religion was not yet an important factor. Israel had spectacularly crushed its Arab neighbours in the Six-Day War of 1967 and extended its control over buffer territories in the north and east; its neighbours were angry and humiliated, but were all ruled by secular dictators. Iran was a prosperous, secular and modernising nation under the rule of the shah, even though there was growing opposition to his authoritarian rule. But a map of The Daily Telegraph motor marathon from London to Sydney reminds us how essentially peaceful the region still was: it is many years since such a rally could follow an itinerary from London through Europe to Turkey, then on to Tehran, Kabul and Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), before the cars were ferried to Fremantle for the final legs from Perth to Sydney.
Culturally, the period represented a new level of mass consumption of pop music and other media. At the time, pop groups often seemed to give voice to various forms of social and political dissent, but in retrospect their objective role was to channel and neutralise the malaise, turning it into harmless entertainment. Television had more or less completed its takeover of family life by 1968; people who used to play the piano or talk or read a book after dinner now sat glued to serials and talk shows. TV was a new form of addiction, whose damaging effects we now can begin to understand in the age of far more serious addiction to smartphones and other devices.
The final part of the exhibition is devoted to the conception, planning and building of the new library. Canberra, only 55 years old in 1968, was still in the process of growing into its ambitious urban design. An area from Capital Hill down to the lake had been designated as a special ceremonial triangle, destined to house not only the new Parliament House but also some of the most significant cultural edifices of the new city. These included the National Library on one side and the National Gallery, which was established in 1967 and opened in 1982. The new library was a favourite project of Robert Menzies as prime minister, and the exhibition includes correspondence and his speech in introducing the National Library bill in 1960. Although he retired in January 1966, his successor Holt invited him to lay the foundation stone in March that year.
In his speech on that occasion, Menzies expressed the hope he would live long enough to see the white marble structure reflected in the waters of the lake: this is exactly how Max Dupain photographed the finished structure in 1968. Seeking grandeur in the depth of distance, he takes a view of the new building from across the lake at night, so the library appears as a small but radiant temple-like form, its reflection shimmering silently on the dark waters.
1968: Changing Times. National Library of Australia, Canberra, Until August 12, 2018