A simple explanation of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air.
And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics.Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist Jacqueline Maley nailed it:
“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”
We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?
Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.
“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” remain ironic.”
Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little good governance’.
“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.
The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.
On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”
On the same day, the Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:
“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.
And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”
Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.
When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.
For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under
A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny
Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019
Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.
In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.
And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a courageous and challenging critique of Australia’s capabilities.
In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequences, and the capacity to bend it.
The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integral part of the national lexicon, so too “tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the potency of their thinking remains very alive.
In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”
Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper exploration and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.
Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.
Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” remain ironic.
A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.
Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ambition and outcomes but they are the exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.
Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insouciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.
We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the distance to full connectedness and acceptance.
On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have national policies on how to optimally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, climate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.
A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone delivery, of even modest infrastructure.
Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and inefficiency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.
We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.
Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.
We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.
A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to prevent new sins.
After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.
Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of economic and military security, and despite all the economic and cultural upsides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse populations in the world, with almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not buried latent racism, inequality and bigotry.
Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers were demonised, their religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.
The Cold War 1960s and “yellow peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.
We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact our longest-standing allies and alliances. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South Pacific, few Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.
Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science and reason; opportunistically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.
The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.
So much “government”, so little good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.
Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.
The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.
There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.
If we do not better see and respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.
Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).
“The Uluru Statement From the Heart, with its reasoned call for constitutional recognition, has become such a politicised issue that it is easy to forget what a beautiful piece of writing it is. It is not even 500 words, but within it is a world: the struggle, tragedy and dignity of one of the world’s oldest living cultures. It discusses the ancestral ties of First Nations peoples to the land, unextinguished by colonisation. It talks about children stolen and incarcerated. “This is the torment of our powerlessness,” it reads “.
You’d have thought that the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our constitution would be a no-brainer, and that their participation as stakeholders and advisers in matters of government policy affecting them, much as many other bodies and institutions do, would be a reasonable and worthwhile proposition. It would, one might’ve thought, be simply the right thing to do.
But you’d be disappointed. Not in today’s Australia, it would seem. The things that divide us are greater than those which unite us.
Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney has written a clear and concise response to the naysayers, fear-mongers and purveyors of misinformation. It ought to be required reading, but as it is behind News Ltd’s paywall, I republish it here.
It is followed by an opinion piece by one time journalist and now academic, Stan Grant, on why the plan for a referendum proposed by our new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, may be a forlorn hope (both Grant and Wyatt are indigenous Australians); and after this, an informative article by conservative columnist Chris Kenny.
Kenny is normally a caustic and predictable member of News Corp’s right wing comments racy, but here, he provides a good analysis of the obstacles facing Wyatt and the ambivalent PM Scott Morrison.
“There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate – indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sporting organisations – mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options … (for) constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood. Everyone wants to parade their view … but are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate”.
Malcolm Harrison, an old friend of mine, makes the following observations”:
”The liberal, progressive left, identity politics movement seems to have met some severe headwinds of late, and the growing apprehension about some of its more extreme aspects may halt it for the forseeable future. Various forms of conservatism are definitely gaining ground at least in the short term. The voices of oppressed indigenous peoples, and those colonised like India, are growing louder, and demands for financial compensation are becoming more common. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a very real issue. If I were the government of Australia, I would be making secure deals with what’s left of the indigenous peoples, while I still could. Excluding them from the constitution only strengthens their future case. From the perspective of identity politics, if I were an aboriginal I would be righteously aware that from a human rights perspective, I had a lot to complain about. And sooner or later, the conscience of my society might be forced to acknowledge this in practical ways that at present it is not prepared to countenance or even consider. But, as I imply in the first paragraph, we may not get there in the short term, and indeed we may never get there at all. Indeed, if some of the extreme ideas being privately discussed among our present neoliberal aristocratic elites come to fruition, many more of us might be joining our indigenous brothers on the fringes, beyond the pale”.
There is a darkness at the heart of democracy in the new world “settler colonial” countries like Australia and New Zealand, America and Canada, where for almost all of our history, we’ve confronted the gulf between the ideal of political equality and the reality of indigenous dispossession and exclusion. To a greater or lesser extent, with greater or lessers success, we’ve laboured to close the gap. It’s a slow train coming.
two month’s on, and it would appear that positions have hardened. More like ossified, I would say.
Delivering the 19th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture in early August, Ken Wyatt made explicit, in the strongest terms since becoming Minister for Indigenous Australians, that the Morrison government has decided to dismiss the call for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution.
“I want to be very clear,” he said. “The question we put to the Australian people will not result in what some desire, and that is an enshrined voice to the Parliament – these two matters [constitutional recognition and a Voice to parliament], whilst related, need to be treated separately.”
Whilst carefully choosing how it tackles the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the government’s tactic may be to appear to be doing something, while doing nothing at all.
If the government legislates the Voice without constitutionally enshrining it, it will not only ignore the Uluru Statement and the unprecedented consensus that made it, ii will be setting it up to fail. A First Nations Voice established by an act of parliament alone and not protected by the constitution will one day be diminished or repealed at the whim of a future parliament as has been the fate of all national Indigenous representative bodies. Moreover, Indigenous people do not support mere symbolic constitutional recognition and have dismissed it in regional constitutional dialogues. Those who are to be recognised need to be able determine how they are recognised.
The most remarkable thing about a proposal for an indigenous voice to parliament is how moderate and reasonable it is. It is not a demand to dictate laws. There is no insistence upon a power of veto. There is simply a cry to be recognized — to be listened to with respect.
It means no more than that indigenous views can be channeled into the parliament by a formal mechanism so that they can be taken into account and parliament can be better informed when making laws that affect indigenous Australians.
How many people would prefer that the parliament be poorly informed? Who thinks it is a good idea for parliament to waste money on ineffective programs that achieve nothing?
The proposal is so very reasonable that it has shocked people into imagining hidden conspiracies and conjuring up fright-monsters, because they cannot bring themselves to believe that a proposed change could actually be good.
The best way to dispel fright-monsters is to expose them. The first is the claim that any indigenous voice that could channel its views and advice into the parliament would be a “third house of parliament”.
To state the obvious, it would be a third house only if it was given the power to initiate bills, pass and veto them, and be defined as a constituent part of the parliament in section 1 of the Constitution.
The only people suggesting this are those who are opposing it, so we can strike this off the list of problems.
If the suggestion is that any person or body that formally advises parliament in relation to bills or policies is a third house, then we would have a parliament of very many houses indeed.
Take, for example, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, whose role is to provide independent oversight of national security legislation and make recommendations about it, which are tabled in parliament. The monitor is currently conducting an inquiry into laws that terminate the citizenship of people involved with terrorism. Does this make the monitor a “third house of parliament”?
If so, the monitor would join the Auditor-General, the Productivity Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the many other bodies and people whose job it is to ensure that the parliament is better informed about particular subject matters.
All of these bodies and officers have influence, and should be listened to with respect because of their experience and expertise, but that does not mean they dictate legislation and government policies.
Governments have to take into account broader issues as well, such as the budgetary position and the general wellbeing of the entire country.
There is no greater threat in having an indigenous body advise and influence the parliament than there is in relation to any of these other bodies. Instead, there is a benefit in having a better informed parliament and hopefully better targeted laws and policies.
The next argument is that if this indigenous voice is enshrined in the Constitution, the High Court will get involved and every time indigenous advice is not followed there will be litigation and the High Court will force the parliament to give effect to that advice. This view is misguided. It is part of the principle of the separation of powers that the courts do not intervene in the internal deliberations of the parliament.
The High Court has held that it will not enforce constitutional provisions, such as sections 53 and 54 regarding money bills, because they concern the internal proceedings of the houses. As long as the constitutional provisions concerning an indigenous voice were drafted to make it clear that consideration of its advice was part of the internal proceedings of the houses, the matter would not be one that could be brought before, or enforced by, the courts.
The third argument concerns equality. Some have argued that there is a fundamental principle of equality in the Constitution and that division on the basis of race should not be brought into the Constitution.
First, there is no general provision of equality in the Constitution. For example, Tasmanians have, per head of population, far greater representation in the federal parliament than voters from NSW.
Members of parliament might also be aware by now that section 44 disqualifies them if they are dual nationals.
Second, the Constitution has always provided for distinctions based upon race. From 1901 to 1967 section 127 provided that for certain purposes “aboriginal natives” were not counted in the population.
This did not mean that they weren’t counted in the census. Every census, from the very first, has included detailed information about indigenous Australians. But it did mean that when determining the population for the purpose of calculating how many seats a state had in parliament, indigenous Australians were excluded from the statistics until this provision was repealed in the 1967 referendum.
Section 25 continues to provide that if a state excludes people from voting on the basis of race, it is punished by having its population reduced for the purposes of its representation in the federal parliament. Section 51 (xxvi) continues to allow the federal parliament to make laws with respect to the “people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.
There are good reasons today to remove sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) from the Constitution, but there will still be a need to include some kind of power to make laws with respect to indigenous Australians.
This is not because of race. It is because of indigeneity.
Only indigenous Australians have legal rights that preceded British settlement and continue to apply today.
Only indigenous Australians have a history and culture unique to Australia.
It is not racist, divisive or a breach of principles of equality to enact laws that deal with native title rights or protect indigenous cultural heritage.
Nor is it racist, divisive or in breach of principles of equality to allow the only group about whom special laws are made to be heard about the making of these laws. Indeed, it is only fair, and fairness is a fundamental principle that Australians respect.
Anne Twomey is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.
Ken Wyatt, a man in the cross-hairs of history
Stan Grant, Sydney Morning Herald, 13th July 2019
Ken Wyatt is a man of history. He has defied a history of Indigenous children stolen from their families. He has defied a history that locked Indigenous people out of Australian political life, that for too many years denied Aboriginal people full citizenship. This week he made history, speaking at the National Press Club as the first Aboriginal person to be a cabinet minister in a federal government – an Aboriginal person leading the portfolio for Indigenous Australians.
But when it comes to constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, history is against him. There have been 44 referendums put to the Australian people and only eight carried. It has been more than 40 years since the last yes vote. We set a high bar: change requires a majority of voters in a majority of states. Fifty per cent of the national population plus one is not enough.
The numbers are against him: Indigenous people are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population seeking to win over 97 per cent. Politics is against him: he is in the wrong party; more than half of all referendums have been put by the ALP. Right now, Ken Wyatt cannot even count on the full support of his own side of politics.
If a referendum won’t succeed, there will be no vote, he says. He’s hoping for consensus, bringing together political opposition including influential politicians such as Pauline Hanson. He wants a conversation with the Australian people around barbecues and dinner tables. His hardest conversation will be with Indigenous people.
Black Australia has already spoken. The Uluru Statement from the Heart remains the clearest expression of the aspirations of Indigenous people, emerging out of an exhaustive and emotional process of negotiation and consultation. It is itself a compromise, a conservative position, achieved in spite of understandable hostility from some Indigenous people who have no faith in Australian politics. Now they are being asked to compromise again.
What was all of that for? Where is the trust? The previous Turnbull government rejected the key recommendation of the Uluru Statement, that there be a constitutionally enshrined “voice” – a representative body allowing Indigenous people to advise and inform government policy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was among many who called it a “third chamber” of Parliament. He reportedly has not shifted from that view.
Wyatt has already framed future negotiations by indicating that he may prefer some symbolic words of recognition in the constitution and a legislated statutory voice. He is testing the resolve and agility of Indigenous leadership. Will they walk back their demand for a constitutional voice? Can they accept symbolism? He’s already sought to recast constitutional recognition as the preserve of urban Indigenous elites, disconnected from impoverished remote black communities.
Ken Wyatt is also on a collision course with the Labor opposition. Senior Indigenous ALP figures Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson have reasserted their commitment to the spirit of the Uluru Statement and full constitutional recognition. It sets up a divisive political battle, which would scuttle any hope of a successful referendum.
Constitutional lawyer George Williams knows how difficult referendums are. He has previously laid out a roadmap to a yes vote. It requires political bipartisanship and popular ownership. It cannot be perceived as political self-interest. The public must know what they are voting for, so it requires popular education. Referendums, Williams warns, are a minefield of misinformation.
And there must be a sound and sensible proposal.
Professor Williams has cautioned that the referendum process itself may be out of date – not suited to contemporary Australia. He says referendums should be expected to fail if there is political opposition or if the people feel confused or left out of the process.
On that basis, as it stands right now, an Indigenous constitutional voice looks a forlorn prospect.
But there is a glimmer of hope and it comes from our history. In 1967, Australians voted in overwhelming numbers – more than 90 per cent, the most resounding yes vote ever – to count Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Parliament to make laws for First Peoples.
Ken Wyatt is invoking the spirit of ’67, but he also knows its lesson: it was a victory of fairness over difference. Australians are wary of difference, suspicious of questions of rights. Australia has no bill of rights; our constitution is a rule book, not a rights manifesto. Australia is a triumph of liberalism where people are not defined by their race, religion, ethnicity or culture. Australia is a place where migrants are encouraged to leave their histories and old enmities behind. Nationally we are more comfortable mythologizing our own history than probing its darkest corners.
Indigenous people live with their history; they carry its scars; it defines them. In a country founded on terra nullius – empty land – where the rights of the First Peoples were extinguished, where no treaties have been signed, this – as the Uluru Statement says – is the torment of their powerlessness.
When it comes to Indigenous recognition – symbolism or substance – black and white Australia speak with a very different voice.
Ken Wyatt, a man of history, is now in the cross-hairs of history.
Stan Grant is professor of Global Affairs at Griffith University. He is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man.
The key to an indigenous voice’s success – it must be practical
Chris Kenny, The Australian, 13th July 2019
For all their best intentions, it might have been a mistake for Ken Wyatt and Scott Morrison to put indigenous constitutional recognition back on the agenda and commit to getting it done in this term of government. There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate — indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sporting organisations — mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options, and groups as diverse and seemingly irrelevant as national sporting organisations and major businesses running jingoistic campaigns supporting constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood.
Everyone wants to parade their view and, yes, signal their virtue, but they are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate.
Completely lost in the debate is the genesis of the “voice” proposal as a compromise proffered by conservative thinkers looking to deliver a meaningful outcome for indigenous Australians while preserving the integrity of the Constitution. This concept, first devised by indigenous leader Noel Pearson building on work by now Liberal MP Julian Leeser, conservative philosopher Damien Freeman and others, was assiduously workshopped and then explained and promoted to politicians, commentators and activists.
At the heart of this proposal, and a key to understanding this debate, is the desire to ensure constitutional recognition provides more than a cursory or symbolic mention of Aboriginal people in our nation’s founding document but delivers a practical outcome for indigenous advancement. This would be done by guaranteeing indigenous input into decision-making over their affairs — something that happens informally now but under the plan would be genuinely representative and underpinned in the Constitution.
In return, the Constitution would be protected from more radical change and a statement of national values would make more poetic exclamations about the shared indigenous, British and immigrant strands of our national bounty, outside of the Constitution. Incredibly, all the work devising this approach occurred outside the official channels such as the expert panel and select committee inquiries.
Initially its prospects seemed likely to match those of a snowflake at Uluru. It was attacked as a sop by the activists on the left who argued for a racial non-discrimination clause to be inserted into the Constitution as well as an indigenous affairs power and recognition clause that looked like a broad-ranging, de facto bill of rights. The right branded this voice approach as a divisive attempt to give additional rights and representation to indigenous Australians — an attempt to inject race into the Constitution.
Never mind that race is already embedded in our Constitution and that whatever happens on recognition the detailed constitutional changes are likely to remove those redundant race-based clauses. Never mind that by dint of legislation such as the Native Title Act there already are very specific measures that fall under the constitutional responsibility of the federal government that demand special consideration for indigenous people. And never mind that successive governments, Labor and Liberal, have had informal bodies to provide advice from Aboriginal people on these issues.
Somehow, mainly because of the power of the ideas but also thanks to the persuasiveness of Pearson and his team, the thrust of these ideas was embraced by a summit of indigenous community leaders at Uluru in May 2017. It was a monumental achievement but the grandiloquence of the “Statement from the Heart” would always frighten many horses.
Talk of “first sovereign nations” and spiritual links to the land was anathema to calculated, clinical constitutional change. Having invested some time in comprehending this process, I recall being immediately dismayed by the emotive words of the Uluru statement because I foresaw the political resistance they would trigger. It is a beautiful statement in many ways, and certainly encapsulates a wise position, but constitutional change is no place for emotionalism. Still, at its core are two proposals: “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution” and “a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.
This is now characterized as indigenous people asking too much of their non-indigenous compatriots. It is actually the opposite; these proposals can be seen as a generous offer of compromise from Aboriginal Australia to try to advance reconciliation in a practical but meaningful way.
Instead of demanding a racial non-discrimination clause and direct recognition of their rights in the Constitution, indigenous Australia is merely looking to have a guaranteed, advisory and non-binding input into legislation that affects them. And instead of demanding a treaty, they have come up with a regionally based process of agreements and truth-telling under the Yolngu (Arnhem Land) word of Makarrata, which encompasses conflict resolution but helps to avoid divisive arguments over treaties.
Conservative politicians as different as Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have dismissed the entire voice proposal as a “third chamber” that is too radical to contemplate. This has made the voice a third rail in the debate.
This is disappointing and ultimately dishonest because there are so many options available to arrange the representation and functions of a voice that if anyone has concerns it might be directly elected and wield some kind of informal veto power over parliament then a way to deal with the issue is to propose an acceptable format rather than just create fears over a third chamber. Otherwise, are they really suggesting the Aboriginal advisory councils reporting to Labor and Liberal governments over past decades have operated as third chambers of parliament?
Not all the blame for the emptiness of this debate rests with the conservatives — let me remind you, conservative thinkers were at the genesis of this proposal. The sloganeering on the progressive side has probably created more concern in the community than the scare campaigns from the Right.
People like Marcia Langton have been so aggressive towards their perceived ideological enemies that they burn goodwill faster than others can create it. And when big business and big sport start pushing loosely formed ideas about Recognition or a Voice onto customers and supporters — out of context and without formal proposals even being in existence — they raise the suspicions of voters, if not their hackles.
The most likely avenue for compromise now is for Morrison to prevail, as hinted at in Wyatt’s speech, and have a voice formalised through legislation but not mandated in the Constitution. This will disappoint many indigenous people but might fly.
Another idea worth consideration to assuage the doubters might be some sort of sunset provision. There is a legitimate argument to be made that one race-based grouping should not have separate consideration in our political processes. For reasons I have outlined previously (mainly recognizing historical disadvantage and accepting special status under native title rights), I think an exception should be made for indigenous Australians. But perhaps in the spirit of the Closing the Gap initiative, any changes could recognize that once those crucial gaps in social outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous are closed, then special representation might no longer be required.
That will be a long way off. But it might provide extra emphasis on the need to focus on practical outcomes rather than mere symbolism. Let us see where the debate takes us in coming months. Success for Wyatt would be success for the nation. But he and Morrison need to be wise enough to walk away from their self-imposed time frame if necessary.
This will be worthwhile only if it delivers something practical that can help indigenous advancement and provide closure to decades of debate. A trite phrase dropped into a preamble to make the majority feel good about themselves won’t be worth the effort and could create more trouble than it is worth.
Well we know where we’re going But we don’t know where we’ve been And we know what we’re knowing But we can’t say what we’ve seen And we’re not little children And we know what we want And the future is certain Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads
To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.
The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.
The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.
And so, to the year in review:
During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its watch with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.
In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.
It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in Crisis, Milo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.
There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death ofStalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.
As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Home, and a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.
Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Bluesshone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.
At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practice it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Paul Monk
Every once in a while, The Australian commissions an articulate and respected conservative commentator to pen a piece on a topic dear to its editorial heart. He (these worthy souls are invariably old, white blokes) duly oblige, for kudos or cash or both, and yet are careful not to become ensnared in the NewsCorp echo-chamber that houses the more virulent and predictable of its opinionistas. Historian Geoffrey Blainey recently managed such as arabesque when writing about the controversial Ramsay Centre (see The Oz’s Lonely Crusade). Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson did likewise in a tribute to Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (see Ghosts of the Gulag).
Australian author Paul Monk has done likewise when invited to ruminate on free speech in western universities. Instead of laying into left-wing uni students and the so-called Green Left, the bêtes noir of columnists like Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen, Monk refused to sing their song. Instead, he reminds us of our history and of our responsibility as democrats and reasonable folk to maintain dialogue with and endeavour to understand the reasoning (or its dearth) of our ideological opponents. History has shown us that once the shouting stops, the shooting often starts.
Often, I am disappointed, saddened even, by the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices.
Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation.
Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.
Monk’s piece is a timely reminder as he enjoins is to teach our children well.
Five Rules for Civil Engagement
Paul Monk, The Australian, 8th December 2018
There seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion around these days regarding freedom of speech in our universities and more generally. But civil society and constitutional government require freedom of speech. And freedom of speech requires sound meta-rules regarding the way it is conducted.
Suppress freedom of speech and you move towards authoritarian government. Without sound meta-rules you move towards anarchy and violence.
Around the world right now we can see a disturbing drift in each of these directions.
What do I mean here by “meta-rules”? I mean the overarching political and civil rules that govern the conditions under which debates are conducted and dissent or protest permitted.
Ever since the Greek city-states pioneered democratic government and freedom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long struggle over the nature of the rules and how to uphold them.
Our present debates about freedom of speech, “hate speech”, censorship and “deplatforming” belong squarely within this tradition. It was, after all, the Athenian democracy that condemned Socrates to death for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”; but we tend to admire him rather than those who condemned him.
The meta-rules we need now, in the interests of science as well as democratic governance and civil peace, are five in number. 1. That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilised and patient discourse is to elicit the truth. 2. That, since this may prove difficult and time-consuming, we agree to disagree while the inquiry and discourse are pursued, rather than simply insisting on our prior opinion being the truth. 3. That the search for truth itself be conducted according to workable principles of reason and evidence, not dogma or vehement assertion. 4. That we strive to see the distinction between opinion and truth and accept that truth, once grasped, will generally require that we alter our opinions. 5. That we agree to open contentious subjects up to discussion under the above four rules, not shut them down.
These are pretty basic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be challenged in any 21st-century liberal democracy. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani has written in The Death of Truth, even the first rule — accepting that there is such a thing as truth — is now under challenge from a bewildering variety of sources.
Holding the scientific and philosophical line on this is made more difficult by the fact human beings generally are prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive weaknesses, which obstruct the search for truth even in the best and most important cases.
Anarchic social media exacerbates these problems, creating thought bubbles, viral “road rage” and avenues for the rapid dissemination of confused, mendacious or inflammatory claims.
There are also deliberate attempts to sabotage the factual and philosophical foundations of truth seeking. Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, in his gentle and lucid manner, exposes the institutional vandalism of the Trump administration in this regard. Contempt for or shameless denial of fact and truth is endemic in undemocratic governments around the world in our time: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia.
But our liberal democracies should be bastions of the meta-rules. This is especially so in our universities, which are supposed to be the schools of reason and the havens of open exploration of ideas. George Orwell famously wrote: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
But that gets us only to the starting gate. All too often people insist on telling us things that we do not want to hear for the good reason that it is abusive, ignorant, banal, degraded or otherwise objectionable.
Are we obliged to listen, much less agree? And if we are not disposed to do so, what happens next?
That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be prepared to uphold them and call our interlocutors on them when they are violated. That’s demanding work; but it is the indispensable work of democratic politics and a scientific culture.
It is for this reason and not because one has any sympathy for bigoted or harebrained ideas that many of us are dismayed by the rise of “grievance studies”, the insistence on “safe places”, “trigger warnings” and the suppression of lines of “hate speech” at all too many of our universities.
There seem to be a growing number of things one cannot be allowed to say publicly or teach, or say within teaching, at universities. Is this what the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has come to at universities? Is this the proving ground for well-informed and articulate practitioners of free speech and democratic principles?
I attended university between 1977 and 1987. My purpose was to learn enough to be able to participate intelligently in public discourse about the forces shaping our world. I didn’t go to university to agitate but to inquire, though I was aware of the student radicalism of the 60s.
I encountered people, including teachers, of many different opinions and ideological or religious persuasions and read as widely and deeply as I could concerning where these different beliefs had come from and why anyone would adhere to them. No political correctness or ideological straitjacket was in evidence. That appears to have changed.
I did, however, encounter individuals with strong opinions. I recall a tutorial during the 1979 course Classical Social Theory (on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and other modern social theorists) in which a fellow student declared bluntly and humourlessly that “come the revolution” people who thought as individualists like me “will all be shot”.
He didn’t threaten to assault me on the spot, though, and it never occurred to me to insist that he be expelled from the class or the university for saying such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I disagreed with his politics. I was bemused by what these days one might dub his “hate speech” but not intimidated. I knew perfectly well that my classmate’s attitude was not merely some strange fantasy on his part.
Pol Pot had been overthrown in Cambodia only very recently, after having huge numbers of his country’s educated elite tortured and shot. Deng Xiaoping had just crushed the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing and had Wei Jingsheng imprisoned for — as the trial judge put it — “using so-called freedom of speech to stir up trouble”. The ruthless practice of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies throughout the 20th century was well known to me.
But being at a university in a liberal democracy, I felt safe enough to absorb such violent language in the tutorial room.
This extended to public lectures. In 1980, I attended a forum in the famous Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne, at which several well-known speakers addressed an audience of hundreds on the subject of Malcolm Fraser’s economic policies and the problem of relatively high unemployment.
David Kemp (Liberal), Tom Uren (Labor Left), Don Chipp (Australian Democrats) and Albert Langer (Monash University Marxist radical) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, however, gave a decidedly inflammatory address. The first three had all advocated various competing approaches to macro-economics and unemployment relief. Langer declared openly: “Those are all bourgeois solutions. If you want to do something useful, go and learn how to use a rifle. What this country needs is a revolution.”
There’s freedom of speech for you: used to advocate violence rather than the deepening of inquiry and debate. Langer was not so much a far-right Proud Boy as a Proud Leninist.
Afterwards, I approached him and asked would he care for a coffee. He cheerfully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Student Union, I conducted an exercise in freedom of speech. “Albert,” I said to him, “let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were able to organise the revolution you’ve just called for and seize power in this country. What exactly would you then do?”
“That’s a good question,” Albert responded.
“Sure, it’s a good question,” I replied, “so what’s your answer?” He remained silent. “OK,” I went on, “let’s assume you pursued a standard policy of nationalisation, state planning and indoctrination, but things got gummed up and the economy hit the skids. What would you do then?”
“Oh,” he said airily, “we’d have to have another revolution … And why not? After all, if things worked out, it’d get boring. Revolutions are fun.”
We proceeded to the Student Union and ordered our coffees. He described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist”, which struck me as absurd and objectionable but not sufficiently so as to derail the conversation. I have never since, however, been able to take Langer seriously. He remained at liberty, carrying on with his ratbaggery for years. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t able to organise an armed revolution and I was able to pursue my studies without being purged or shot.
The year after that public forum, curious about student radicals such as Langer, I undertook an honours thesis on the student rebellion and general strike in France in May of 1968. The soixante-huitards (sixty-eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite anarchic ideas about freedom of speech and social change. “All power to the imagination,” was one of their most fetching slogans.
From a conservative point of view, they were assorted imbeciles, suffering from various Castroite or Maoist fantasies and Marcusean delusions. Charles de Gaulle derided them as “bed wetters”.
I was interested in the wellsprings of their revolt and how it played out in advanced industrial society. My inquiry was unhindered and I drew my own conclusions, critically evaluating the full spectrum of ideological opinions about les evenements de Mai. It was a valuable learning experience.
The Free Speech Movement as such had arisen at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964-65 among restive students who had come to believe that learning at university was not enough. Agitation for social change was incumbent upon them and should be accommodated by the academic authorities.
There was a struggle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such activism in the early 60s, not least through the nationwide American movement called Students for a Democratic Society. As the problems of war in Vietnam and racism heated up, elements of the SDS threw the meta-rules of democratic social order overboard and opted to attempt violent revolution. They formed the Weather Underground Organisation, inspired by the insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Carlos Marighella in Latin America. I studied all of this in the 80s when it was still a matter of recent history; during doctoral studies on American counterinsurgency strategy throughout the Cold War.
I identified to some considerable extent with Tom Hayden and the founders of the SDS and empathised with armed rebels in countries such as El Salvador and The Philippines. I was wary of the Marxist-Leninist brand of violent revolution, given its appalling history in the 20th century, but appalled by the death squads that plagued Central and South America in those years. My investigation itself, after all, required the meta-rules of liberal democracy.
Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, starring Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper and Shia LaBeouf, romanticises the Weather Underground and its radical politics. The film’s worth seeing, but it’s not a good introduction to what happened back then.
Brian Burrough did a vastly better job in Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence(2015). Crucially, for our present purposes, he shows how the FSM and SDS struggled with the meta-rules regarding freedom of speech and civil society and how the impatient and “radical” wing threw away those rules and opted for violence of the kind Langer extolled.
Such would-be revolutionaries, like neo-Nazis or violent anarchists or religious fanatics, pose a direct threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, after all, to seek truth in congenial, intelligent, well-informed and professional company. But what do we do when we confront venom, ignorance, hostility, entrenched resistance — when we confront one kind or another of what Churchill called “the fanatic”: someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject?
Well, that’s exactly when defence of the meta-rules, including by police protection if necessary, is most important.
Nadine Strossen, the first female national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of constitutional law at New York University, has just given us a fine reflection on this challenge: Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. She makes a powerful case that when we find ideas objectionable, we need to have the courage to stand up and challenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.
An unimpeachable “liberal” on race, class and gender, she states forthrightly: “On many campuses … students complain that they have been ‘assaulted’ when they are exposed to ideas that offend them, or even if they learn that a provocative speaker has been invited to campus. This false equation between controversial ideas and physical violence fuels unwarranted calls for outlawing and punishing ideas, along with violence.”
For reasoned debate and fruitful inquiry to take place, it is necessary that violence be outlawed, but it is counter-productive for ideas to be outlawed. What’s required is to foster the opportunity for strenuous debate and what may often be painful and difficult learning. If we cannot agree on that, our political and intellectual culture is in trouble.
Unfashionable as it is to state this these days, the ideas of freedom (eleutheria), political equality (isonomia), equality of speech (isegoria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and democracy (demokratia) derive from classical Greece. They were imperfectly realised in the ancient world and the Greek and Roman republics gave way to autocratic rule. But we derive our key modern ideas about freedom and responsible government from those beginnings.
Plato, Aristotle and the School of Athens
As Josiah Ober wrote in The Athenian Revolution: “Some 2500 years after the revolution that made it possible, democracy is widely regarded as the most attractive form of practical (as opposed to utopian) political organisation yet devised. Among democracy’s virtues is its revisability — the potential of the political regime to rethink and to reform itself, while remaining committed to its core values of justice, equality, dignity and freedom.”
At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practise it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Doing these things itself demands that we adhere to the meta-rules that make it possible. And here’s the kicker: so will building any realisable “utopia” be worth striving after? Martin Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faithfully to it, calling for the American republic to live up to its founding meta-rules.
Paul Monk (paulmonk.com.au) is the author of 10 books. The most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas: Uncensored Reflections in an Era of Turmoil (Echo Books, 2018).
“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”.
As an hour of reckoning draws closer with respect to the Ramsay Centre’s intellectual monument to the virtues of Western Civilization, TheAustralian is still battling its demons with its staunch defense of this noblest of causes. None more resolutely than its latter-day Madame Défarge Janet Albrechtsen whose succinct summary of the academic left’s opposition to the course is : “White: bad. West: evil. No learning, no debate but lots of unshakable victim-hood”.
Since the phoney “culture war’ erupted six months ago, clearer heads have outed the motives of the opposing teams. The left thinks members of the Ramsay board, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, are using it as an ideological Trojan horse, a nag that is Anglo-centric, Christian, white, and, predominately, male. The right considers the the opponents’ outrage is yet more more evidence that left-wing group think has overtaken our university campuses. And yet, even without the controversy sparked by the Ramsay board’s perceived politics, there is nevertheless unease among some academics about creating a new course focusing on Western and mainly antique works whilst Australia’s community becomes increasingly multicultural and socially polyglot.
This piece takes up where the last left off …
When negotiations between the Ramsay Centre an the Australian National University down last May, the prestigious University of Sydney entered the ring. In June, one of The Australian’sInquirer’s editors must have thought, “perhaps we ought to get someone with intellectual heft to have a shot at this”, to which another replied, “Hey, why don’t we get the professor to write something?” So they call ‘national treasure’ historian Geoffrey Blainey and ask him to put his epaulette-laden shoulder to the conservative wheel. The good professors thinks, “Blimey! I don’t have much to say about this storm in a tea cup, but to keep The Oz happy and earn some beer money, I’d better rustle something up”.
And so we got another couple of thousand word in defense of the, well, by now tired old debate, as the acclaimed conservative historian weighed in with a longish piece that actually added very little to this bonfire of the inanities. He did, however, make a few interesting but with regard to the subject at hand, irrelevant observations.
“Nothing has done so much to transform the world in the past 400 years as Western civilisation. It is a main cause of the rise of democracy, the spread of education, the dissemination of Christianity to new continents and the flowering of various fine arts. Yet another gift — thanks to Western medicine — is that billions of human lives are enhanced and prolonged. These gains are part of what we call Western civilization. Yet this is the civilization that most Australian universities are ceasing to study in depth or, if they do study it, often reach hostile or unsympathetic conclusions.
“Much of (the ANU’s) income is from Asian parents who attach invisible strings to their financial support. Chinese citizens might not send their sons and daughters to the ANU if it preached worrying messages about China and its history, and various other overseas citizens would be offended if Islam were heavily criticized in ANU lectures … It was little known until this month that one ANU department received large sums from Turkey, Iran and Dubai. Would the same money arrive next year if Israel suddenly became the more favoured nation in ANU books and articles?”
“But Western civilisation is not Eurocentric. Even in origins it owes a heavy debt to the Old and New Testaments — and they are Asian, not European, books in origin…The fact is that science and technology dominate the mainstream of Western civilisation, and they are the dynamic, not conservative, fields of knowledge. A … course in Western civilisation cannot be confined to Europe. Printing as an infant technology came from East Asia to Europe, where it was improved, with dynamic effects. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one of the ultimate mainsprings of democracy, owed much to the printing press. The slow rise of democracy and the rise of mass education owed much to the printing press and cheap paper.
“There are few grounds…for the idea that a Ramsay-type course simply would be preaching the benefits of Western civilisation. It will gain legitimacy only if it weighs on the same scales the defects as well as merits of the changing civilisation in which we live”.
A week later, the cauldron was bubbling stilll. This time, it was the turn of Greg Sheridan, Cardinal Pell admirer, Tony Abbot aficionado, devout Catholic nostalgist, but otherwise competent and cogent veteran writer of foreign affairs. And former NSW premier, ex-foreign minister, American Civil War tragic, and longtime bush-walker Bob Carr, a self-confessed interrogator of “the canon” who surrendered the premiership out of ennui. We publish Sheridan’s artiucle below, after that of the good professor.
But first, welcome reality checks by the Herald’s Jacqueline Maley and Jordan Baker. In short, our hyperventilating culture warriors ought to get out more often and hang out with the oipolloi.
If negotiations succeed, the first of the University of Sydney’s Ramsay scholars will file into their classrooms in February 2020. There will be six to eight of them in each class, mostly fresh-faced 18- and 19-year-olds armed with sky-high ATARs, big dreams, and dog-eared copies of Homer’s Iliad, which is usually the first text dissected in a course on Western tradition.
They’ll chat about their selection interviews, their scholarships – up to 40 of them will get about $30,000 a year – and the other subjects they are studying. They may well talk about the outcry over their course, too, which probably intensified as their first day drew near; everyone they know would have had an opinion on their controversial choice of major.
They will graduate three years later with what the chief executive of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, Simon Haines, believes will be an education “in the old and important sense. What this course is supposed to be teaching you is to be a more thoughtful, more reflective, more articulate, more authentic, more self-possessed citizen, parent, friend, or member of the community.”
Negotiations may not succeed. The University of Sydneylast week revealed the termson which it would accept the Ramsay Centre’s millions, but there’s no guarantee the centre’s board, led by former prime minister John Howard, will agree to them. If it does, the university will begin drawing up a curriculum for the first significant Great Books course in Australia.
Such courses are an American creation, established in the 1920s to revive the concept of a broad education amid increasingly narrow focus on disciplines. Many have survived; there’s Columbia’s Core Curriculum, Yale’s Directed Studies, and Reed College’s Humanities 110. “The great book model was founded on the idea of independent thinking,” says Salvatore Babones, a US-born assistant professor in sociology at Sydney University.
Students discuss the themes that have recurred in great works of literature from “Plato to NATO” across philosophy, history and literature. They might discuss the concept of duty as argued by Aristotle, Cicero and Immanuel Kant; or revenge across The Iliad, Othello and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Their teachers use the Socratic method. “Students are encouraged to disagree with each other with the gentle mediation of an experienced teacher,” says Haines. The classes are intellectually intense and so small that they leave nowhere for students to hide.
Some Great Books courses don’t want specialists teaching texts, and might enlist a philosopher to teach Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, for example, instead of a Greek historian. “A specialist wants to get into discipline-specific debates,” says Babones. “But the idea is not to get the ‘right’ understanding of the book, it’s to explore the book.” St John’s College in Annapolis in the US, which teaches only Great Books, believes that providing historical and social context is ideological, and unnecessarily distorts students’ independent thought.
But like Ramsay’s proposed course, US liberal arts courses have faced controversy. In the late 1980s, protesters argued that Stanford’s Western civilisation courses perpetuated European and male biases. Civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson joined protesters chanting, ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.” Stanford cut the course, and an attempt by conservative students to reinstate it two years ago failed. More recently, students at Reed University protested in Humanities 101 lectures, arguing the course is too white, too male, too Euro-centric, and ignored how the texts might been used to perpetuate violence against people of colour.
Great Books courses are not entirely new in Australia; Sydney University already has one. But it is open only to Dalyell Scholars, elite students who’ve achieved an ATAR of 98 or above. Students can study it for two semesters, reading 12 texts over the year. A Ramsay-funded course would be far more ambitious, says Professor Peter Anstey, a senior advisor to the university during negotiations with the Ramsay Centre
Instead of 12 texts over one year, there would be 30 over three, with the option of an honours year. “What we are proposing is an undergraduate major that is six times the size of that [existing] course,” he says. “If we did get funding, our course in Western tradition would not just be a Great Books course. We would also teach students the skills for analysis and interpretation and so on. It’s a quantum leap from what we are currently doing.” The university would use subject specialists, some of them inter-disciplinary, to run the courses’ tutorials. “However, it might all fall over,” Anstey says. “We don’t know.”
When the Ramsay Centre first invited Australian universities to apply for two or three Western civilisation degrees late last year, funded from part of a $3 billion bequest from late healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay, it posted an example of a potential curriculum on its website. The University Sydney would draw up its own, but Ramsay’s is indicative. Students would begin with Homer, Sappho and Euripides, then move through the classical historians to Chaucer, Augustine and Machiavelli. In later years they would study Marx, W.E. Du Bois, and Patrick White. They would study female writers, but only a handful including Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.
Some Sydney University academics don’t think much of that curriculum. “It’s largely about the conversation between modern English and German writers about the Graeco-Roman classics,” says Bruce Gardiner, a senior lecturer in the Department of English. “However much the university may massage the syllabus, its version would still be measured by the centre against its own version, which is neither cogent nor disinterested.”
Details of a Sydney University-Ramsay partnership are yet to be nutted out and hang on the Ramsay board’s decision, which could be weeks away. But an initial agreement with the Australian National University – before the negotiations broke down in May amid claims from ANU that Ramsay’s demands would interfere with academic independence (a claim denied by the centre) – illustrates what it might look like
Not everyone agrees. Gardiner believes the scholarships are iniquitous. “The fundamental educational principle of equal opportunity would be entirely undermined were some to be treated, in this way, as more equal than others,” he says.
Partly because of the ANU scandal, the proposed partnership between Sydney and Ramsay has become mired in a culture war. The left thinks members of the Ramsay board, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, are using it as an ideological Trojan horse; the right considers their outrage more evidence that left-wing group think has overtaken campuses. But even without the controversy sparked by the Ramsay board’s politics, there is still unease among some academics about creating a new course focusing on Western works while Australia’s community becomes increasingly multicultural.
Ahead of a speech on Australian education in China next week, Dr Nicholas Jose, professor of English at the University of Adelaide, has been thinking about the texts he would include in a Great Books course that reflects the ethnically diverse Australian community of 2018. He would begin with Aboriginal song poetry. “That raises the question of ‘what is a book?'” he says. “This is literature that was oral literature for many centuries before being written down and translated”. He would include texts from the Indian Sanskrit tradition, China’s Confucius, and the world’s first novel, the ancient Japanese Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. “Then there’s the literature of the southern hemisphere more broadly, whether it’s J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or great writers of Latin America,” he says.
An Australian Great Books course should be more ambitious than those on offer in the US, but “also specific to the questions of Australian civilisation in the 21st century,” says Jose. “Of course, the same themes apply in the thinking and literature of these other cultures – ambition, revenge, power, politics, greed, passion, love.”
Sydney’s deal with the Ramsay Centre might never come to pass. Even if the board accepts the university’s conditions – changing the name ‘Western civilisation’ to ‘Western tradition’, and giving Ramsay fewer rights on scholarship and academic appointment committees than other donors to reassure staff of the university’s academic independence – there is no guarantee the arts faculty and academic boards would approve the university’s proposed curriculum.
Professor Haines believes part of the resistance to Ramsay’s proposal is unease about introducing a concept that is unfamiliar to Australia’s academic landscape. But he believes it’s necessary. “We need more diversity, and more variety, and more different approaches in the university sector, as many in the humanities say themselves,” he says. “[We need] to reintroduce this kind of concept of a rounded education at a time when the pressure is ever stronger to make university e
Academic freedom, freedom of speech, the right to be a bigot that former Attorney-General George Brandis so famously advocated – the fight for such liberties is a luxurious hobby for people who have all their basic needs covered.
I have a hunch that the people who have enjoyed the greatest personal freedom the modern world can offer – those with money, freedom of career choice, and few caring responsibilities at home – are the ones most pre-occupied with freedom-based culture wars.
That doesn’t mean these freedoms are unimportant, on the contrary. It just means we need to be hyper-aware that the people with time on their hands to fight for them are highly unlikely to be representative of the mainstream.
Meanwhile, most Australians, preoccupied with paying mortgages, raising children, worrying about looming HECS debts or laughing with incredulity at the impossibility of buying a home have their views consistently misrepresented by people with an ideological agenda.
Recently we have seen this dynamic play out over a few very important issues.
The Ramsay Centre/Australian National University debacle is perhaps the most infuriating example of the gaping chasm between mainstream values and the agenda pushed by cultural warriors. The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, funded by a bequest from the late billionaire Paul Ramsay, had been in talks to finance a Western Civilization degree at the Australian National University.
Then Tony Abbottwrote an article for Quadrantmagazine. The piece is well argued and worth looking up, if only because it reads like Abbott had been binge-watching Dead Poets Society before he wrote it. In it, Abbott explains the Ramsay Centre is not simply “about” Western civilisation but “in favour” of it, and asserts that “respect for our heritage has largely been absent for at least a generation in our premier teaching and academic institutions”. This statement is as false as it is sweeping, and proof, if it was needed, that Abbott is out of touch with what is being taught in iversities.
Crucially, Abbott also wrote that “a management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions” for the new degree, which was wrong, insomuch as it had not been agreed upon. Abbott’s article helped cripple the negotiations, which were at a delicate stage when it was published.
But what truly killed the deal was the imposition that the centre wanted to make on the academic freedom of the university. ANU chancellor Gareth Evans and vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt wrote this week that: “We took our decision for no other reason than the centre’s continued demands for control over the program that were inconsistent with the university’s academic autonomy.” They said the Ramsay Centre had “an extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach to the proposed program” and most extraordinary of all: “the centre has gone so far as to insist on the removal of ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective for the program”.
In his Quadrant piece, Abbott quoted a Tennyson poem on Britain as a land where “freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent”. Such freedom stops when you have the culture police sitting in on tutorials to make sure the professor stays on message.
The 2018 Lowy Institute Pollshowed 84 per centof people agree that “the government should focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”. This is up from 81 per cent last year.
Likewise, the vote of the federal Liberal Party executive to “privatise the ABC”, the latest step in an anti-ABC campaign based on criticisms the broadcaster is a swamp of left-wing bias, only shows how out-of-step the executive is with average Australians.
The Roy Morgan MEDIA Net Trust Survey, published this week, shows the ABC is Australians’ most trusted media brand, followed by fellow public broadcaster SBS, with Fairfax Media, the only commercial publisher in the top three, coming third.
Finally, the campaign to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which occupied the culture warriors for half a decade, was one of the most marginal of their un-Australian causes. A Fairfax-Ipsos poll taken in March 2017, amid the second round of debate over the section, showed78 per cent of Australiansopposed legalising speech that “offends, insults or humiliates” on the basis of race. Most trusted Brandis; 84 per cent; 78 per cent – they are the kinds of polling results politicians can only dream of.
Australian values, mainstream values, the values of Western civilisation that we have been hearing so much about lately: they are too important to be hijacked by men (for it is mostly men) who have too much time on their hands and little care for what most Australians actually believe in.
Let the culture warriors play their Boy’s Own war games over academia, free speech or even climate policy. But not for a minute can they tell us, with a straight face, that their views represent “mainstream Australian values”.
Australia’s universities are themselves creatures of Western civilisation. But many of their leaders refuse to teach or debate the history and the essence of their civilisation.
When some reply that they are independent and cannot possibly handicap themselves by accepting a big sum of Ramsay Centre money, then maybe they should devise their own courses.
Several vice-chancellors convey the strong impression that they are less interested in the vast sweep of Western civilization than in being the king of their own impressive castle. We must have academic autonomy, they say.
Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt seems to be doubting his own civilisation. He is a great scientist, and our nation is lucky to have enticed him away from his fast-moving Arizona-Harvard escalator of fame.
His field is astronomy and astrophysics, and if this year in Canberra his university had been offered a huge Chinese grant for that domain of research, he would have turned on all lights and telescopes to accept it. Obstacles would have been swept aside. But when offered a new course in the humanities and social sciences, and especially in history, he says no.
He is backed so far by several academic heads who say they display already in the ANU a wonderful smorgasbord of courses. But why is there no room for one more plate, a larger plate that tries to fit into one piece many fragments of knowledge?
Nothing has done so much to transform the world in the past 400 years as Western civilization. It is a main cause of the rise of democracy, the spread of education, the dissemination of Christianity to new continents and the flowering of various fine arts. Yet another gift — thanks to Western medicine — is that billions of human lives are enhanced and prolonged.
These gains are part of what we call Western civilization. Yet this is the civilization that most Australian universities are ceasing to study in depth or, if they do study it, often reach hostile or unsympathetic conclusions.
The ANU is said to possess one of the best humanities and social sciences faculties in Australia. Why are its leaders not guiding the debate?
Although they respond enthusiastically to a few media queries, their answers raise fresh questions and doubts.
Where is a thorough academic statement that covers each of the key issues? Does the university already have a wide course that covers Western civilisation and much more? Of course the university has dozens of minor history courses, but is there one that covers the wider world?
Schmidt has been frugal in his public appearances. Interviewed expertly and politely by Stan Grant on ABC television, he cheerfully played a straight bat while giving away scant information. In the end he gave the impression, mistaken of course, that he knew less about the topic than did Grant. He relied almost solely on the argument that the university must be autonomous.
Why does he think the ANU has held such a high reputation in the world? He says it is “based on that academic autonomy we have”. With all respect, this seems slightly far-fetched. There is no evidence that the other 40 or so Australian universities have less academic autonomy than the ANU.
Academic autonomy, while important, can be illusory. Much of a university’s income is from the federal government, with strings sometimes attached.
Much of its income also is from Asian parents who attach invisible strings to their financial support. Chinese citizens might not send their sons and daughters to the ANU if it preached worrying messages about China and its history, and various other overseas citizens would be offended if Islam were heavily criticised in ANU lectures.
It was little known until this month that one ANU department received large sums from Turkey, Iran and Dubai. Would the same money arrive next year if Israel suddenly became the more favoured nation in ANU books and articles? In light of these facts the Ramsay Centre cannot be seen as a unique threat to academic autonomy. It is easy to toss around the hallowed phrase “academic autonomy” because it implies that academics preside over that autonomy. But the council that governs the typical Australian university — and appoints the vice-chancellor, and often has a hand in appointing other high officials and even professors — includes lay members.
Traditionally citizens of some distinction, many have not attended a university but still have a welcome say in its affairs. These council members sometimes prove much superior to certain professors in judging human nature.
The chancellor — the chairman of the governing body — of a new university is appointed usually by the state government and reflects its sympathies. Some of the best known leaders of the oldest universities were retired prime ministers. Sir Robert Menzies was chancellor of the University of Melbourne and EG Whitlam was prominent on the senate of the University of Sydney.
Gareth Evans has been chancellor of the ANU since 2010 and presumably was chairman of the committee that appointed Schmidt. Before beginning his long career as a federal Labor politician and prominent cabinet minister, Evans was an excellent law lecturer at the University of Melbourne, but it was not that area of expertise that won him the honoured post of chancellor of the ANU.
There is indignation that two former Liberal prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, were on the board of the Ramsay Centre and trying to influence the university’s autonomy. But Kim Beazley, former leader of the Labor opposition in the federal parliament, also was on the board during nearly all the months of negotiation. And on the other side of the debate, Evans was perfectly entitled to his say. It is unlikely Schmidt would have made a decision about academic autonomy without close consultation with his chancellor. As I was once the chancellor of a new university, I glimpse the unwritten rules and conventions.
Evans, being overseas, remained out of sight in this debate but his views were briefly and eloquently quoted in The Australian Financial Review: “Great universities are fiercely defensive of their autonomy, and alarm bells properly ring when potential donors refuse, for example, to accept ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective, as was the case here.”
Do alarm bells sometimes ring in your head when you hear the phrase “academic freedom”? A noble phrase and worthy goal, it is sometimes scorned or misused by universities.
Should scholars retain academic freedom (and the high salary and superannuation that goes with it) when their performance as teachers and researchers fails to meet normal academic standards by a large margin? When freedom is venerated but incompetence is tolerated, the university has really lost its autonomy. Moreover, its paying students have been robbed.
The forces so vigorously opposing a new course in Western civilisation have not yet found persuasive arguments. About 100 academics at the University of Sydney, uneasy that their campus might be landed with the course, called the concept “conservative” and “Eurocentric”. Here was “European supremacism writ large”. But Western civilisation is not Eurocentric. Even in origins it owes a heavy debt to the Old and New Testaments — and they are Asian, not European, books in origin.
The Sydney 100 attach the word conservative without thinking. The fact is that science and technology dominate the mainstream of Western civilisation, and they are the dynamic, not conservative, fields of knowledge. A Ramsay Centre course in Western civilisation cannot be confined to Europe. Printing as an infant technology came from East Asia to Europe, where it was improved, with dynamic effects. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one of the ultimate mainsprings of democracy, owed much to the printing press. The slow rise of democracy and the rise of mass education owed much to the printing press and cheap paper.
How can the Sydney 100 view Western civilisation as simply a European phenomenon or a woeful example of white supremacy?
There are few grounds, in any case, for the idea that a Ramsay-type course simply would be preaching the benefits of Western civilisation. It will gain legitimacy only if it weighs on the same scales the defects as well as merits of the changing civilisation in which we live.
I agree that universities have to be cautious. With much to be proud of, they have much to defend. Major earners of export income and supermarkets of knowledge, they closely watch their competitors at home and overseas. Every year they must woo a new procession of customers, from Shanghai to Gundagai.
Like huge corporations, they have to steer clear of the more damaging kinds of controversy. A harsh headline in the morning paper, an exposure on evening television news, the threat of a parliamentary inquiry, all have to be avoided.
Big decisions that were once made by a variety of specialist scholars, after much debate, are now made quickly and defensively on high.
You can bet your life that if this inflammable topic had come up for discussion in the late 1940s, in the small universities of that era, the debate would have been intense in tea rooms and lecture theatres. A surprising facet of the Schmidt debate is that it is taking place less in the ANU than in the media. And the university is not yet winning this debate.
If I understand the contents of the proposed course in Western civilisation, I would suggest that it does not go far enough. Many critics see the proposed course (which they mostly have not read) as a hostile invasion of Canberra on a wide front. But the teaching course proposed by the Ramsay Centre and rejected by the ANU is notable for its modesty. Perhaps that was the wisest path when approaching a university that ultimately has proved to be sceptical.
So many of those who reject Western civilisation are cultural offspring of the 1960s. They deplore the recent history of the environment and they rejoice in the rise of feminism, the campaign against racism and the crusade for civil rights. Especially in the 60s and later decades, they rediscovered the Aborigines and their lost history.
No university in the nation can equal the role of the ANU — and its celebrated researchers such as John Mulvaney, Jim Bowler, Rhys Jones and others — in unveiling the long and often ingenious story of Aborigines.
Without doubt these new teachings revealed weaknesses in Western civilisation, but many present-day scholars exaggerate. They minimise the benefits of Western civilisation and forget the gains.
They forget to report that Australia was sometimes a trailblazer globally. This was the first nation in the world to allow women not only the right to stand for parliament but also the right to vote.
These critics actually enjoy the fruits of the Western civilisation that they deride. Unlike their great-grandparents, they had the chance to study at secondary school and university, largely through dramatic improvements in the standard of living. It was Western civilisation and its genius in multiplying wealth and leisure that gave them this opportunity.
In the 90s I coined the phrase “the black armband view of history”. The phrase is still valid. Too many educated Australians feel guilty or ashamed about their nation’s past. Admittedly there is much to regret but there is far more to be praised.
If the ANU were defending a majority ideology and viewpoint, we might have to pay more attention to its arguments. But an opinion poll conducted this week shows that most Australians, whether Labor or Coalition voters, appreciate Western civilisation. The only major political viewpoint that is often opposed to Western civilisation is that of the Greens.
Until recently, John Warhurst was a professor of political science at the ANU. Discussing the Schmidt affair on the basis of his wide experience of universities and their politics, he concludes pragmatically: “Universities should be left to make their own decisions so long as they are consistent, pluralist, transparent and willing to explain themselves in the public square.”
This is the problem facing the leading university in Canberra. Its leaders have so far been unable “to explain themselves in the public square”.
Australian philanthropists, anyone who has accumulated a little extra money and would like to donate it generously to make a difference, should no longer consider giving any gift to an Australian public university in the field of humanities.
In the physical sciences, and mostly in the learned professions, our public universities are still good. But if you have any interest in or concern for Western civilisation, and all the treasures of human wisdom and insight involved in that vast, sprawling, critical and magnificent tradition, stay away altogether from our public universities.
If this tradition is to be creatively explored, renewed and understood, indeed intelligently criticised, it will happen outside our public universities. Pockets of excellence remain in the humanities in public universities but overall they are on an ideological path of narrowness and anti-intellectualism, and they are getting worse. Their university administrations will certainly never reform them.
This is the inescapable conclusion from the extraordinary opinion piece penned by Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt and chancellor Gareth Evans to explain why they suddenly ended negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which had offered huge donations to set up a degree based on the great books.
Such courses are common in the US. But in Australia only the small Campion College runs such a great-books-based program to an accredited degree level. (Full disclosure: I have been a visiting fellow at Campion, as I have been at sandstone universities.)
Schmidt and Evans made various allegations about Ramsay seeking improper control that were rebutted the next day by the centre’s chief executive, Simon Haines. Haines was at the meetings. Schmidt and Evans were not. Haines, and Ramsay board members John Howard and Tony Abbott, quoted ANU documents on its website to support their case that these disagreements were not serious until ideological political opposition emerged at the ANU. Schmidt and Evans have now offered a counter-narrative that also seems plausible.
However, it is not important to adjudicate who is giving the more accurate account. Schmidt and Evans make one crucial statement: “The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation simply did not trust the ANU to deliver a program acceptable to it.” If it is to succeed with other public universities, Schmidt and Evans argue, “it will have to change its approach”.
I don’t know if the Ramsay people agree with those propositions but I think Schmidt and Evans are right. No vice-chancellor in recent decades has stood up to on-campus far-left pressure. Ramsay is in negotiations with the University of Sydney. I have no doubt that if it embarks on a program there it will effectively be flushing its money down the toilet.
More than 100 Sydney University academics signed a protest letter against the prospect of Ramsay coming to their campus that declared: “The Ramsay programme represents, quite simply, European supremacism writ large.”
If a Ramsay Centre is established at Sydney it will be at best an embattled outpost surrounded by hostility and controversy. It will be at any moment subject to crippling demonstrations. It will wilt and die in the hostility or, more likely, be taken over in time by the educational left, the normal fate of any such conservative effort.
The grotesque inversion of normal standards in allowing the department of peace and conflict studies to be a throbbing principle of political activism, but expressing horror that someone in academe might have some genuine appreciation of Western civilisation, reveals the deep reality of Sydney Uni today.
The educational left is also politically left, but the bigger problem is the pedagogic and epistemological nature of the dominant view in humanities departments. This is not a distinctively Australian phenomenon. As is normal, our left-wing intellectual revolutionaries are completely derivative of US and British trends. Nor is this something conservatives made up to scare innocent children.
Let me offer you three random examples. The Economist, a socially liberal magazine, in its Bagehot column last week commented, entirely in passing, that an Oxbridge education “disposes people to despise their own country”.
Niall Ferguson, one of the great contemporary historians, recently lamented the systematic way the educational and political left have moved through mainstream Western university departments and taken over every new position. They are ruthless about appointing like-minded people who sign up to broadly sympathetic ideological approaches.
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, in a recent Australian interview suggested the effective suppression of the great books has become so ubiquitous and entrenched, yet their appeal is so timeless and magnificent, that they will survive now only through new courses springing up outside traditional departments.
Confronting the stark reality that you can no longer enjoy the prestige of the traditional institutions, no longer rely on them to do the job, that you must support the newer private institutions or undertake the herculean task of creating new institutions, can be bitter, especially if you like the quiet life. But you will never reach your destination if you don’t start your journey from reality.
The ANU says it has more than 150 courses concerned with Western civilisation. Yet as my colleague Rebecca Urban has reported, many of them approach their subject through the cliched lenses of class, race and gender as rendered by contemporary cultural theories.
The Institute of Public Affairs did a simple word search of the course description material and found that none of them mentions Dante Alighieri or Thomas Aquinas. It is not possible to understand the development of Western civilisation without understanding such figures. And of course there is no sense of a coherent integrated exposure to the development of Western civilisation.
There are two fundamental problems with humanities departments in many Western universities now — their content and their intellectual methods. Both have been overwhelmed by critical theory and postmodernism.
Postmodernism regards all traditional historical narrative as false, while critical theory denies the very reality of objective facts. Both are mired in a series of interlocking cliches and dogmatic assertions about gender, class and race. These approaches, far from being radical, hip and relevant, have resulted in massive decline across the Western world of enrolments in humanities.
Partly this is because these approaches render even beautiful texts horrible to read. When your analysis is fixated on a frequently fictional and highly tendentious a priori evaluation of class, gender and race, you don’t really read the books at all. It doesn’t matter whether you’re analysing Shakespeare or a restaurant menu, you can come up with the same theoretical analysis games.
Much that passes for humanities study in Western universities now routinely convicts the West — both Western societies today and the West more broadly throughout all its history — of five capital offences.
One, chronic, structural, irredeemable injustice in the economic order.
Two, always and forever being sexist, patriarchal and, most recently, destructively and oppressively heteronormative.
Three, pervasive racism in every aspect of their power structures.
Four, inherent and intrinsic militarism.
Five, false consciousness, imprisoning a supine public in unjust and wickedly untrue meta-narratives, which are themselves instruments of oppression.
Naturally, in the history of Western civilisation all kinds of crimes and injustices were committed, as in the history of every other civilisation. That is the nature of the human condition. The intellectual dialogue that students would engage in by studying a traditional great books course would be a thrilling journey of humanity trying to come to grips with questions of meaning and justice.
The idea that such a course is inherently triumphalist or all about European supremacism is a grotesque parody, a kind of kindergarten argument of stupefying misrepresentation of the contents of the Western canon itself.
It is not necessary to subject the great books of Western civilisation to the depravity of critical theory to imbue students with critical thinking. The great books do that themselves.
For example, Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in the early 14th century. During the Middle Ages there was a robust dialogue between popes and princes about the limits of political power and spiritual power. Pope Boniface VIII claimed a rather excessive degree of spiritual and temporal authority over all rulers. Partly as a result, Dante rather unkindly puts him in the eighth circle of hell.
If you actually engage with the great books, and read them before consigning them to a sterile theoretical subcategory of mind-numbing tediousness, you will find every critical faculty exercised and challenged. Human rights did not begin with the UN declaration after World War II but were at the centre of a great rolling theological and political dialogue. From the start, the Western tradition, profoundly influenced by Christianity, grappled with the evil of slavery. Many Christians stand rightly accused before the bar of history as slave owners. But many Christians denounced slavery.
Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th-century bishop, delivered a sermon in response to a rich man’s boast that he had bought slaves. Gregory asked: “For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality … If he is in the likeness of God and … has been granted authority over everything from God, who is his buyer, tell me? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For His gifts are irrevocable.”
One of the worst ways to teach Western civilisation is as isolated bits and pieces without ever seeing the integrated, connected nature of Western thought. The West, uniquely, developed experimental science because of its theological views of nature. God was sacred and nature was natural. Nature didn’t embody warring or capricious demons. It was good, as Genesis had proclaimed. And it embodied order, as a reflection of divine order. The desire to discover the secrets of that order led to experimental science.
In an act of vandalism and cruelty, of neglect and foolishness, we are hiding from our young people all the fun and adventure of the great books, all the grandeur and excitement, all the drama and passion of the Western canon.
We will never recover it at our public universities. Better to recognise that, and make a start somewhere else.
Yes. And Ramsay should walk away from the Public Unis and leave them to wallow in their ideological sewers. The left is nothing if it is not railing against something. Leave the academics to rail against themselves as is happening in the feminist movement and amongst the gender warriors where now all men are rapists and all women are victims. Normal people regard this as tiresome and are keen to see it unravel. At Unis before too long the public will demand that the students get an education, not an indoctrination. The Lomberg nonsense was a good start. Now it is Ramsay. Soon it will just unravel when miserable self loathing old lefties like Evans and a few thousand other 60’s and 70’s “revolutionaries” leave the trough.
It is difficult to see what we have understood as ‘western’ civilization lasting for many more decades, for both ideological and demographic reasons. We are now ideologically committed to multi culturalism, by which we mean, not having a plurality of cultures, but equating all cultures as of similar value, therefore forbidding critique. That’s hate speech. The exception is being super critical of our own past, and of the Christian influence within it. This leveling of cultures, is, in my view, non sustainable and illusory. Whilst secularism predominates, it lacks coherence and fails to satisfy deeper human needs. What will rise to the top? Whatever it is, it will be totalitarian in nature.
I am more optimistic. I dont think even the disillusioned millennials want totalitarianism. They are just disappointed with the pathetic leaders recently thrown up by democracy. But I think it is a cycle. There is evidence of the people in the west demanding values based leadership. Some of their choices are experimental and enigmatic and flawed, like Trump, but they presage change. The tired old mixed up sexual revolution generation (like Evans) is dying out literally, and that is great.
Universities should be redefined as “insular institutions for the social conditioning of young people, the propagation of ideas that don’t work and the defence of values-less stupidity.”
The bottom line is that publicly funded institutions HAVE to be accountable to the various Acts that require Universities to have open discussions. They are not there for themselves but for the people of Australia.
An audit to measure compliance is overdue. Funding will have to hinge on whether these institutions are fulfilling their PUBLIC duties and obligations full stop! We pay the taxes that fund these places.
Simply replace ‘Univesities’ with ‘ABC’ and it explains why nothing will change.
What has really annoyed me over the last week or so in reading all the articles & opinion pieces here is the way that the perpetually outraged have reduced this matter to a bomb throwing exercise between the “We love Tony fan club” and “everybody else”. The whole thing has been hijacked by the Abbott fans as another weapon in their war on the Liberal Party. Now I am not a supporter of Abbott as a politician although I freely admit being an admirer of (most of) his religious and family values and I am not sure if in fact he had anything to do with the material content of this course of study. I just wish that the Editor of The Australian had not allowed this matter to be hijacked as a populist political issue for the sake of clickbait, rather that the Editor had encouraged a far more nuanced academic debate such as this article by Mr Sheridan. I don’t pretend that I would have understood the arguments from either side but I would have enjoyed reading and trying to understand them.
Yes Conrad, “it’s time to move on”. When I see that phrase I know its NOT time to move on, unless you like to join the other leemings heading for the cliff of great social equality and diversity utopia. Prepare for the mass destruction mate, you’ll be the first to suffer.
If the post that I have just made is actually posted Barbara, your post is a perfect example of what I have just said.
Perhaps the 100 Sydney academics ensconced in their insular monastic universities would have preferred that Japanese supremacism had dominated in the Second World War rather than European.
I wonder exactly what these academics contribute to our society. I mean they don’t seem to produce anything of quantifiable value as do those engaged in the hard university areas such as medicine, engineering , sciences etc (although recent revelations indicate that some have been infected with the humanities plague and have rejected the scientific method). The 5 capital offences listed: economic injustice in the economic order, sexist, patriarchal and heteronormative, racist, inherent and intrinsic militarism and false consciousness, imprisoning a supine public in unjust and wickedly untrue meta-narratives, which are themselves instruments of oppression; all of these define Middle Eastern Islamic culture, not Western civilisation.
There are other ways of framing this. Let’s assume that HECs is a way of framing Western Civilization.
Here we have the consumers deciding what they want to buy. Here we have consumers making choices. Here we have the market, distorted as all markets are, operating as it ought to operate.
Here we have a University protecting its extremely valuable brand.
Here we have the purchaser unable to debase the that brand by piggybacking on it, replete with a bit of ambush marketing.
Where do all these points come together?
Southern Cross University.
Craven wants the money and would let the Ramsay Centre do what it wants because it would do what he wants.
Abbott could have a sort of St Patrick’s Seminary with some additional ‘canon’ texts added but without the gays, the feminists, the Marxists, the post-modernists, without Indigenous people and without global warming.
Howard could set the seal on a couple of decades of setting back the fight against global warming and a couple of decades of utter denial about the way in which Western Civilization utterly smashed the Indigenous population. Legitimacy at last!
But why will this not happen? Because, as it says in the canon of another domain, ‘Money can’t buy me love’.
Virtue signalling and rank hypocrisy does not buy you a loaf of bread either Pat .
If you and your ilk were in charge long enough , bread would be something only your “ elite “ would know anything about .
The logic of those who view western civilization through the prism of the five points Greg highlights totally escapes me.You could apply those same five prisms totally or in part to all civilizations.Surely an open mind should be maintained in examining all history and placing it in the context of the prevailing views of the time.Same applies to the recent phenomenon of apologizing for past what are now seen as injustices.Being over seventy I lived at the time when these perceived injustices were the prevailing world view and although I won’t be around to see it I will guarantee in fifty years society will look back in horror to the things that we now see as mainstream, and particularly the current post modernists philosophies.
Students doing such Western civilisation courses can learn what others have thought about the West’s 2,500 years of civilisation, and apply to the current age what they’ve learned from the past.
Negotiations have not ended – just mere sabre-rattling.
A very good article. Maybe the most optimistic point is that enrolements in humanities are falling. These remaining students will be the left wing politicians of the future.
Spot on Greg. We need to commence the redesign and new build of all our institutions. The West can do it. We have been in this type of instability before and our young are waiting for new leadership and ‘to go’.
It seems that many are unaware of the fondness for teaching ‘Critical Theory’ amongst left wing academics these days. From Wikipedia:
“Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”.
In sociology and political philosophy, the term critical theory describes the neo-Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which was developed in Germany in the 1930s.”
Most often, what left-wing academics mean by “critical” is *not* critical reasoning, but merely criticising anything that runs counter to Marxist dogmas.
Well said Greg. Schmidt is a great scientist. He should have stuck to that and left university admin to someone who knows about it. As for Evans, well, he is just being his Biggles best.
A very tactful exclusion of your colleague, PVO, who supports the ANU narrow mindedness. You are right, the ANU is beyond redemption until the lefty thinkers see the error of their ways.
Both Schmidt and Evans are men of towering intellect and monumental achievement. But should they be running a university? Surely it is obvious that universities should be run by people who have established their credentials as leaders in tertiary education? Presumably people like Schmidt and Evans are appointed as bridges to the wider world. But part of the problem surely is that people of stature do not rise up through the ranks of tertiary education. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Well one of them is. Wouldn’t rank Grovelling Gareth anywhere near this term.
Just on the Question of Slavery. A classic example of Revisionist Christian History. Christian England was only Second to Christian Portugal in transporting millions of slaves into the New World. Rather than some great moral epiphany, the only reason (not withstanding some isolated moral souls) England abandoned the Slave trade was the colonies had decimated her sugar trade and she sort to economically cripple them. Meanwhile England moved from the slave trade to direct oppression and plundering in India destroying a thriving economy and nation.
Slavery existed long before Western Civilisation (ask how the pyramids were built) and during & by Western Civilisation (as you point out)and finally ended by Western Civilisation (as Peter states).
But the modern Arts student at ANU will of course never hear the full story, courtesy of Evans and Schmidt. Only the Left viewpoint, as you kindly outline, allowed.
Um Oh Russ. Suggest you read up on the history of muslim slave traders before you start ranking societies. But of course that doesn’t fit with your mindset does it.
The Liberal Party has been blind to the decades-long leftist indoctrination going on in our universities. As a student in the 1970s, we truly were taught to despise our culture and civilisation, usually through snide references and cheap mockery. To our juvenile minds, we thought that was the ‘right’ attitude–ie to be unthinkingly left. It’s a training ground for the leftists, who then vote Greens or Labor. Why do the Liberals tolerate it? Surely not on ‘free speech’ grounds? Free speech at universities is only the ‘freedom’ to preach leftist, or worse, Marxist, doctrine.
This is why history is not being pursued. If students were taught real history they would be extremely scared of what is being preached to them by the marxists
I think, however, that there is a serious problem within the Ramsay vision of Western civilisation. Ramsay has a ‘great texts’ focus. This is too limited. It puts (for example) John Locke on the same level as the Bible. The latter is the fundamental ‘great text’ of the West. The truth is that Western civilisation cannot be taught or understood from a position wholly external to the Christian worldview. It cannot in principle be secularised.
What we are seeing today is many advocates of Western civilisation courses, including Simon Haines from Ramsay, but extending into the general public, who are thinking in terms of the Enlightenment. They are progressives, in other words, who see the West as having evolved via John Locke and other ‘greats’, from a benighted religious culture into the wonderful secular culture we have today. This is not going to communicate to students what Western civilisation – the real civilisation – is all about.
I would be disappointed if the Ramsay trust were to renegotiate with ANU. This worthy benefactor has really dodged a bullet. The ANU have been outed as a shameful bunch of left wing politicians that are not interested in anything academic- what is worse, is that we the tax payer fund this garbage institution that purports to be our national university
Yes. Being rejected by ANU is what my mother used to call a “blessing in disguise”.
Every builder knows when termites have infested a building, you knock it down, destroy the infestation, and rebuild with strong defences. The infested structure is irredeemable. Metaphorically, universities and their academies are the same.
Well said Greg. The Ramsay Centre should focus on either private universities or establish its own, or perhaps spend money on public awareness campaigns to counter the biased rubbish being taught in our slipping Education System. Perhaps it should also donate to political parties that strongly defend Western culture and values; Australian Conservatives springs to mind!
Postmodernism projects present grievances onto the past. The objective is to undermine and destroy western civilisation. It has been fueled by the environmentalism that developed in the 60s and the scare mongering that came with global warming catastrophism. Maurice Strong who chaired the 1992 Earth Summit was a Marxist and stated: “Isn’t the only hope of the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?” The survival of Western civilisation faces challenges not only in the social sciences and humanities but in the natural sciences where scientists who question global warming alarmism are sacked or ostracized. Look what happened to Peter Ridd at James Cook.
Unfortunately, in the 1960s/70s, when our children were in primary school, all of this was flushed away. The readers wre replaced by a series about two modern children in the uninspiring series of “Dick and Dora”, intended to make children read about things with which they were already familiar and hence, it was argued, could learn to read more efficiently. This was rubbish of course and did not cause children to become avid readers. (fortunately in our case, their mother did that for them) (John, Nancy’s husband is writing!).
I don’t want to get bogged down in the merits of Western civilisation but to identify why one inherently cannot trust an academic culture that does not recognise the benefits of intellectual diversity. Ideas should be tested from a variety of viewpoints to find truth and bad ideas changed or rejected. Karl Popper said that a theory that cannot be falsified cannot be valid. Yet vast swaths of Left orthodoxy are not allowed to be challenged because they throw up all these alleged principles that are more important than truth. On the Ramsay issue 170 Sydney University academics have now signed a protest letter that Ramsay is at odds with “promoting a society of diversity, inclusiveness, and mutual respect.” Those words are not harmless motherhood statements but the Left’s Trojan horses for Marxism, and they are apparently of a higher order priority to the pursuit of truth. They promote identity diversity at the expense of ideas diversity. The Left has cleverly arranged their ideology and strategies in such a way that all pathways leads back to privileging their ideology irrespective of common sense observations that they are wrong. The Left insists that they know all and that challenging them is evil because the Left also claim to monopolise all lofty morals. This arrogant, unchallenged outlook means for example that social researchers should be suspected of corruption because they are not intellectually curious but merely inventing or massaging ‘facts’ to fit their ideological prejudices. There is nothing new to learn, just a plan to implement. It mocks the core functions of a university. With challenge impossible academic life becomes a virtue signalling contest to be the most extreme and other-worldly. The university becomes a place of ritual like an Islamic Madrassa where they chant dogma and rock back and forth, except at the centre of this religion is worship of oneself for transcending the earthly limits of pesky obstacles like facts and reason to become creatures of pure moral essence. John Stuart Mill said, “he who only knows his side of the case knows little of that.” Antipostmodernism Stephen
Excellent comment on an excellent article. I particularly liked: “With challenge impossible academic life becomes a virtue signalling contest to be the most extreme and other-worldly. The university becomes a place of ritual like an Islamic Madrassa where they chant dogma and rock back and forth, except at the centre of this religion is worship of oneself…”
Is it only six months since the cream of Australia’s intelligentsia, including those famous insider outsiders Mark Latham and Ross Cameron, News Corp flunkies Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtson, Alan Jones (of course), the entire Whine Nation cabal, including the irritating dwarf Malcolm Roberts (now consigned to that limbo where lame ex-pollies languish), and that gruesome twosome Cory Bernadi and George Christiansen rocked up to salute confused libertarian and Alt-Right poster-boy Milo Yiannopoulos?
[Author’s note: this piece was penned (don’t we miss that anachronism!) in a fit of frolic and nostalgia. I found Milo’s adventures in Australia quite entertaining and informative. May he come back soon! Many of the places and personages mentioned herein may be unknown to readers who are unacquainted with the politics of our great southern land. I beg your indulgence.]
That giant can of ‘Milo’ ? ‘Milo’ is a chocolate powder, often served in hot milk, and commonly given to kiddies as a dinkum night-cap (thus guaranteed to keep them up all night long). It is one of many Aussie icons – alongside meat pies, lamington cakes, kangaroos, the late Steve Irwin, and the ABC (our national broadcaster, which many on the right would like to see abolished). And we have many such BIG Things in Australia. Like the Big Merino in Goulburn, the Big Prawn in Ballina, and the Big Banana in my own regional centre, Coffs Harbour]
Did Milo REALLY make such a big impression DownUnder when he was out here last December? At the time, I thought that it was just shock jocks, insider “outsiders” (or is it outsider “insiders”?), a One Nation coven, and a mob of journos who view politics as entertainment, who fawned at the feet of this strange muppet.
I guess we will never really know because the media, forever breathlessly covering our antipodean political blood-sport, generally loses all sense of objectivity and proportion. And in vicariously entertaining and picturesque way, the carnival was quite newsworthy.
There was wide media coverage as demonstrators of all stripes flocked to Milo’s clandestine but well-publicized-Melbourne gig in their tens and proceeded to get stuck into each other, and the police turned out in force to break up the very telegenic brawl. Milo’s myrmidons were sighted sporting Trump flags and red “Make America Great Again” caps (which goes to show what an unoriginal lot we Aussies are). Guy Rundle of e-zine Crikey sent an entertaining dispatch from the Flemington front-line on 4th December 2018 (it is republished below). Damian Costas, the organizer of the event, who also happens to be the publisher of Australian Penthouse, Was billed A$50,000 for the services of the boys in blues, but he has yet to pay up. A case of “free speech, one each”?
it was a gift that kept on giving. Soon afterwards, celebrity sex therapist, Milo-fangirl and occasional News Corp mouthpiece Bettina Arndt spent quality time with Milo (our featured image), and joined the opinionistas of the House of Rupert by writing to a News Corp and Institute of Public Affairs template in an opinion piece in The Australian which echoed a Janet Albrechtsonesque angst about left-wing university group-think into a contrived diatribe against the preponderance of young women in said left-wing ranks. Universities, she says, are brainwashing our damsels and transforming them into latter-day Mesdames Defarge.
And yet, Betty, maybe girls were already left-wing before they enrolled in Uni. And one really can understand why they veer to the left given the example set by the conservative right-wing males who dominate our politics, business, churches and media. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and “the powers that be” do not like it.
They do not like very much, it seems. It is becoming quite predictable that “culture war” opinionistas coopt any contrarian who comes along as a crusader for their conservative cause. Late militant atheist Brit Christopher Hitchens; dissenting Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomberg; Canadian psychologist Jordan Petersen. Even eccentric and useless climate-change denialist Viscount Christopher Walter Monckton. So it was not unusual that Milo got a guernsey from the News Corp chattercrats. As did Milo’s mate, photogenic Canadian Alt Right poster girl Lauren Southern who dropped in on us last month. Laurie canceled her New Zealand speaking tour, however, after the Mayor of Auckland banned her from speaking in his burgh. Yet another example of how the Kiwis are doing things better than its neighbour across the Tasman these days.
The whole Milo mythos is founded upon a world of make-belief, a political world overly determined by rhetoric, fear and loathing, fireworks and fictions. It is driven by false narratives that envelop false hopes and expectations. But, like that big can of chocolate powder, we like big things in Australia, and if they are not as huge as we like them, in the immortal word of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, we make it so …
And so, whenever the likes of Milo and his ilk land on our fatuous shore, they are feted by the right and vilified by the left whilst the affronted at every hand huff and puff in self-righteous indignation, posture and pontificate, vigorously virtue-signaling energetically to their minuscule covens. The chucks cluck, the dogs bark, and the circus leaves town.
As Led Zeppelin once crooned, “Oh, it makes you wonder!”. But, as John Lennon sang: “Strange days indeed! Most peculiar, Mama!”
[I’ve just remembered what Milo’s martial get-up reminds me of – Michael Jackson. As the Donald would say, “Sad”]
Peter Fitzsimmons wrote a highly amusing piece in the SMH recently. Read ithere, or in full at the end of this post, he also reveals that Brexit bon-viveur Nigel Farge will grace our shores shortly. be still my beating heart!
Guy Rundle reminisces in Crikey ,4th December 2018:
Night had fallen on Flemington when your correspondent rocked up to the Milo extravaganza. The houso flats across the road, sheer cliffs of lights, the Citylink overpass glowing green on the other side.
Racecourse Road was blocked off either side of the Milo venue, Melbourne Pavilion, an old art deco hall with a concrete box attached to one end of it. “Weddings Events Functions” reads the sign on the side. All that, and, inevitably, boxing too.
Big cop trucks at each end of the area, flashing red and blue, cop helicopter thrumming overhead.
Cops and cops and cops around. Cops in yellow hi-viz; cops in blue; black-clad ninja-turtle riot squad. Rings and rings of them. Cops in number absurd.
“No place for fascists no place for fascists” or something, shout coming from the grounds beneath the flats. “We live here, fuck off.” The remnant left protesters, hardy anarchists mostly, had been joined by locals, young mainly, African mainly, from the flats.
The Milo late-show crowd were arriving on the other side of the street. They gleamed white in the fluoro and arc lights. A few Mediterranean types, of martial arts/UFC styling, top-crop hair and T-shirted, hard-body man tits. But mostly Anglo, boiled-potato pale.
“They don’t even know what they’re protesting,” they laughed, at the protesters.
“It was easy to get a park, because protestors don’t own cars.” That got a big laugh.
“How can Milo be a racist? He’s married to a black man!”
“I know! I know!”
Heard that exchange six times if once. A sort of alt-right ring tone.
I’d missed the early session argy-bargy, because I’d been to — what else? — a book launch in Fitzroy. The first show crowd were just coming out, the cops directing them down a corridor between temporary barriers, running down a side street.
“Go go go go this way this way this way” — the cops treated it like they were getting the Kurds out of Iraq. The protesters were half a kilometre away.
“Lot of cops to protect one paedophilia advocate,” I said loudly, and one cop on the end of the line winced, visibly. I made a mental note.
The place was in lockdown, yet I was drifting easily back and forth between the lines, threading through the riot cops, my press card in a lanyard. Admirable respect for free activity of the press I thought.
Then I looked at the stage door, where bouncers and tour officials were gathered. Fat men in dark suits and lanyards, they — ah.
The cops thought I was with the tour.
There were 600 in the early show, took a while to get them out. They clutched copies of Dangerous, Milo’s self-published book, and copies of Australian Penthouse, sponsors of the tour, and my sometime publishers (hello, fellows! You still owe me author’s copies of the September and October issues by the way. Send them to the Crikey office, please).
“The show was great,” Trisha told me, without much prompting. Trump-style red baseball cap, bottle-blonde, fake-leather jacket, two copies of Dangerous, two copies of Penthouse. “I just love him, he’s so funny.”
“What do you like in what he’s saying?”
She thought for a long time.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh … well, I mean immigration. Not that we don’t like Muslims! Just not the wrong ones!”
“There anyone in Australia who inspires you like he does?”
“No one! No one!”
“He’s pretty boring.”
‘What about the pro-paedophilia stuff? ‘Thirteen year old boys can consent meaningfully’ …”
Ponytail man came up. There were a lot of ponytails in this crowd. Long, short, ’80s adman, postmodern architect, vegan grindcore maleorexic, Milo’s little ponies.
“I’ve seen Milo four times.” Ponytail man was soft-faced, soft-bodied. Milo men are either hard-body keto warriors, living off bullet coffee enemas and T-gel patches, or they appear to be carved from a giant bar of soap. Ponytail man wore a red tie, and a white cotton suit, over hips that wobbled like an offal tray.
“How was he tonight?”
“Top form, top form.” As if speaking of an employee.
“What’s the most important issue facing Australia today?”
“Oh corporate control. Banks, globalisation …”
“Who do you like politically here-“
“Oh the Citizens Electoral Council make … sense.” (A LaRouchite! I’d found a LaRouchite!)
“We need a state-owned bank, public ownership,” he said.
“But that’s exactly what most of the protesters would say!”
“Well, yes, we’ve got to build bridges …”
“And Milo, well, as far as he has any position at all, he’s sort of a gay Thatcherite.”
Ponytail’s eyes peeped out his puffy face, imploringly: don’t spoil this for me.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a music producer.”
“You make a living from that?”
“Well no,” he laughed, like George Martin between Beatles LPs. “I’m living off savings. And,” voice lowered, “getting some payments from the government.” (“Ah, Mr Ponytail,” the voice said on the phone at midnight, “you are too dangerous not to have on our side. Your fee will be dispatched fortnightly disguised as a Centrelink payment.”)
The helicopter thrummed, the protesters got louder. People were coming out of the flats now, it was getting big. Couple of smoke bombs went off near the tram stop, and the riot squad formed up in a phalanx. This was all piss-weak, yet they looked skittish. The more suited up cops are, the more scared they get.
Late-show arrivals, early-show departures commingled. Ross Cameron, the show MC, was walking around, looking at his notes, like anyone gave a damn what he said.
“You’re going to miss the late show Ross,” I said.
He looked up.
“Oh you’re right, yes, thanks very much,” and scurried in through the stage door. He thought I was security, too. Jesus, six Trots in Target suits and lanyards could have taken this place. It was Stupidolooza.
“Do you want to know what I think?” A large blonde swayed towards me, in big blue comedy shades, Jimmy Buffett fan sans margarita, and said, and I will sign an affidavit to this conversation, “they don’t like us cos we support Trump! Yahhhhhh,” she yelled towards the protestors “we’re lefties”.
“Oh hang on, no, I get those two mixed up.”
Her equally imposing friend turned up. “Stop talking to him.”
“This is my friend Tziporah,” Lefty said. “She knows a lot of stuff.”
Tziporah! Tziporah Malkah! Kate Fischer as was! Last time I’d seen her, I was writing lines for her for an awards night performance. A torturous joke that included the name “Wittgenstein”. It took a long time.
Tziporah had been casting herself as a Milo fan, or Milo-curious, hours earlier, posting a pic of herself kissing his pic on her “access all areas” pass. Now they wouldn’t let her in. Malkah and Lefty tottered back and forth between the entrances, but they’d been barred.
“You want to talk, call my agent,” Malkah said.
“But I don’t want to talk.”
“Call my agent.”
They tottered off.
The crowd was herded in, the old one herded off, the protesters got louder, plastic bottles started flying across the road.
Suddenly there was loud shouting, and a megaphone “back back, leave them alone …” and the riot squad, having demobbed, formed up again, and started coming across Racecourse Road to the flats.
I walked across with a few others. Malkah and Leftie, passes still dangling, had walked across to talk to the protesters, locals now, nearly all African, and appeared to have asked a question about Muslim extremism, and the organisers were having a bit of trouble restraining some of the more rambunctious.
“Back, back … OK OK look,” the organiser glanced around. No TV still around. “Leave the women alone! Leave the women alone!” Yeah. That would not have looked good on the news.
“Why are they holding this here –” one of the kids asked me, “to insult us?”
“It’s a boxing venue. They-“
The last anarchist charged over, white as the moon. “Don’t talk to the media! Don’t talk to the media.”
Big mistake. The kids, seeing his pale face and black hoodie thought he was a Milo-ister and laid into him. The organisers had to wade in and rescue him. It was all sorted out.
At which point, of course, the riot squad began to move, the Behan principle taking over (“no situation so bad, a policeman cannot make it worse,” Brendan Behan said).
Banging on their shields, they came into the flats gardens in a flank that even I could see was far too long. The kids got behind them. There was pelting with empty mineral-water bottles, the equivalent of a stern letter to The Flemington Leader. The squad narrowed their line and charged deep into the gardens. The kids legged it easily.
Piqued, the squad set up camp, holding a corden inside the gardens for 45 minutes, an empty Fanta can from the windows bouncing off a helmet now and again.
I tried the line again.
“Four hundred cops on night shift to defend a paedophile sympathiser. You must feel really proud of your work.” Tried it about half a dozen times. Pretty sure it got a few wobbles. Tease the cops about being agents of the banks, etc, no response. But, overtime aside, I don’t think anyone signed on to defend a Hitler Youth tribute act.
The gardens quietened.
‘Bout 11.30pm a cop car pulled up. A senior cop got out, took a look at the pointless vigil, and said something sharpish to the field commander. The riot squad moved backward slowly, and in 10 minutes they were gone.
Across the road, somewhere inside, a gay man likely to faint at the sight of a visible panty line was adjudicating on which women were and weren’t fuckable. Today, he’s addressing the right at Parliament House. Australian conservatism in our time.
Peter Fitzsimmons, Sydney Morning Herald, 7th August 2018
It remains one of my favourite bits of rugby writing.
In the late 1980s, after a Wallaby of modest repute changed national rugby camps to turn out for the Irish team instead, a writer for the Irish Timescommented: “Why is Ireland importing bad rugby five-eighths? Don’t we have enough bad rugby five-eighths of our own?”
Might I ask a different version of the same question for Australia in 2018?
Why on earth are we importing so many “alt-right” political nutters to Australia on speaking tours? Seriously, don’t we have enough alt-right – whatever that is – nutters of our own?
The most recent visitor to our shores was a 23-year-old Canadian, Lauren Southern, whose schtick seems to be warning about the dangers of Islam, multiculturalism, immigration, political correctness and the left side of politics in general, while also trying to right the many wrongs done to white people just because they are white. I repeat: she is just 23-years-old. From the fine, peaceful, happy country of Canada.
I ask you: how likely is it that this young woman, as fine as she might be, will have some wisdom, some insight into Australian affairs, something she can tell us, warn us about, that our own people of her ilk haven’t been saying around the clock, on the radio, in reams of columns, in parliament, on the street, for years?
Hasn’t Pauline Hanson been doing all of the above for a quarter of a century? Wasn’t our very own Malcolm Roberts a seer on these very issues? And isn’t he planning a comeback? (Where are you, Mr Roberts, by the way? A nation turns its lonely, bemused eyes to you.)
As for paying up to $750 to see Ms Southern, close-up, and speak? Please.
Save your money, my friends. Turn on Sky News After Dark any day of the week. You can watch hours of that kind of stuff, from the comfort of your own home. You can call Bronwyn Bishop “Butter,” ’cos she’s always on a roll, on those very subjects. And don’t forget Ross Cameron. And that other fellow, someone-or-other Hargraves. On Sunday night, and I am not making this up, they even provided a platform for Blair Cottrell – previously notable for his criminality, and for advocating that every Australian classroom should have a portrait of Hitler on the walls – to give his views on immigration. I am not making that up, I said! And tell us, Blair, given your boast about using “violence and terror”, to get what you want from women, your views on feminism?
Yes, Sky News costs a bit, but if you divide the cost of subscribing by the number of cans of Pissed-Off they serve up, it is, seriously, as cheap as chips.
The Brit, Nigel Farage, will also be here shortly, I gather. He, you’ll recall, rose to fame by running the campaign which saw Britain commit to the economic suicide of Brexit and then turned his back on the whole mess, waltzing away on something of a world speaking tour. What, pray tell, can he see, that our own nutters haven’t spotted? In the first place, we don’t have a Brexit situation and in the second place, he’s never lived here, never shared our experience, never had much to do with us at all. So what would he know that, say, Alan Jones doesn’t?
Alan’s great on that kind of thing generally. When he speaks on the radio, there is never a pause, never a nuance to be examined, never a grey area which he is not sure about – he delivers outraged certainty, for a good 15 hours a week. Everything is either right or wrong, it is mostly wrong, and he is the only man who can right the wrongs. All your prejudices will be fed, all the bleak angels in your nature can gorge themselves and you can hit the day roundly pissed off at about 15 things at once. Yes, Alan is, as Paul Keating once described him, a “middle-of-the-road fascist” but he’s our middle-of-the-road fascist and that has to count for something, dammit.
For the Fascist 1500 metre race, our Alan would lap Farage. Not only that, he has endurance. I first heard Alan ranting like that in the Manly rugby dressing sheds, in 1983, and he is still going strong.
Milo Yiannopoulos? I frankly can’t remember what he was all about when he visited earlier in the year – I think it was most of the above, bar ganging up on gays – and only recall that our own Mark Latham delighted in displaying a photo of himself kissing him on the cheek. That would be a fair indication that Latham believes in his views, so if that is the stuff you want, my fellow Australians, if the Yiannopoulos brand of outrage is your thing, buy home-grown, buy Latham. He is producing so much of that highly refined bile – the really good Aussie stuff, not that imported rot – he is giving it away.
I am serious about this.
A consistent theme of the whole alt-Right thing, is to defend Australia, stop the bastards at our borders, say no to foreigners of all descriptions, make Australia great again by putting Australia first, etc.
Can’t the people who espouse all this then, and who want to consume that kind of stuff, start with our own nutters and set a good example?
Support Alan. Support Mark. Support Bronwyn and Pauline. And bring back Malcolm Roberts, the real star of the whole show.
But Blair Cottrell? Actually, no. Even we, have to draw the line somewhere.
An earlier version of this comment was briefly published online last month .
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 email@example.com 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.
“In a fractured society”, writes The Australian’s Paul Kelly, “the Liberals are losing by choosing the wrong battles”. In his article, republlshed below, Kelly reveals the void in the heart and soul of a rudderless, directionless, dysfunctional government, and the loss of an ethos that once bound together the many mansions of the Liberal-National Coalition’s broad but perennially fractious church.
He writes: “The upshot is that the conservative movement in this country has no organisational structure, no agreed agenda or strategic mission.It features rival leadership contenders, crisscrosses the Coalition, pulls in a few celebrities, falls for the false mantra from its media champions and seizes up any grassroots eruptions of support from the suburbs and regions. This is not a winning formula. Conservatives suffer from serious tactical ineptitude and misread public opinion”.
But behind all of this, challenging the Coalition, and haunting the long dark night of Mr Kelly’s tortured conservative soul, is a social and cultural revolution that challenges all mainstream parties, and indeed, mainstream media (if the recent angst-ridden moralizing of the News Corp opinionistas is anything to go by) exemplified in the growth of social media and a new ethos of individual independence and “self-actualization”, accompanied by a decline in the status of and respect for the institutional political, commercial and cultural pillars of the past generations – government, church, family, and business.
Out there on ‘battler’, dinky-di, aspirational and struggle streets, the prevailing attitude is that of ‘a plague on all their self-interested, opportunistic and hypocritical houses!”
Kelly quotes the American conservative writer Yuval Levin: “Our culture has been moved by an increasingly individualistic ideal and so by a drive for greater distinction, more customization and the elevation of personal choice and identity”. To conservatives, this has meant the erosion of a once-unifying moral and cultural consensus, and the loss of comfortable and reassuring certainties.
Many of these old certainties, and the values, perceptions and assumptions that sustained them were actually quite regressive, and indeed, entrenched prejudice, oppression and discrimination, and it was good to see the back of them.
Turnbull Liberals doomed while conservatism in crisis
Paul Kelly, The Australian 10th March 2018
Featured picture: Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull with ousted PM Tony Abbott after the Coalition’s campaign launch in Sydney in 2016.
Conservatives in the Anglo democracies are confused, divided and mainly in retreat. The meaning of conservatism is now riddled with disputation. Conservatives fight over whether Donald Trump is saviour or demon, whether Brexit is a calamity or a liberation and whether the Turnbull government deserves to be saved or denounced.
In Australia there is not a single leader among the six premiers and Prime Minister who is a self-declared conservative. The triumph conservatives enjoyed with Tony Abbott’s 2013 victory has surrendered to frustration under Malcolm Turnbull, who is not a conservative and shuns the label.
President Trump brings the conservative dilemma to a peak. Many applaud him for defeating Hillary Clinton and are seduced by his success — yet Trump champions ideas that violate traditional conservatism. Witness his blowing the US budget deficit by $US1.5 trillion in his tax cut package and this week’s protectionist lurch, with his tariff policy denounced across the world, including by Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe as “highly regrettable and bad”.
What do conservatives believe in 2018? Are they for massive public deficits and debt, or governments that pay their way? Are they for unilateral protectionism or a global free trade order? Do they, like Trump, favour quitting the Paris climate change accords or sticking by this global pact of 175 nations? Do they want a US president capable of extolling the values of liberal democracy and freedom against the rival Chinese model of state capitalism and dictatorial repression? Do they want leadership that respects women and shuns racist wedges, or are they unfazed by insults to women and racist political ploys?
Elected as a Republican, Trump is a pro-business populist nationalist who is a killing agent for traditional conservative norms. His success heralds the rise of a destructive populism that in the guise of revitalisation threatens to poison mainstream conservatism. But it is not just Trump who poses such fundamental questions. They are being put at home across the centre-right of Australian politics.
Turnbull’s 2015 removal of Abbott was driven by electoral alarm and self-interest by MPs, but its progressive character was potent. Conservatives are thinner along the corridors of power, yet their frustration is driving a pent-up ideological purpose. The Liberal Party now suffers the sharpest rivalry for a generation between conservatives and progressives. This risks becoming a dagger at its heart: it damages the Turnbull government and the threat exists of a serious convulsion after any election defeat next year. This is not just about personalities. It goes to rising differences over core Liberal and centre-right belief.
Conservatism is consumed by confusion over its principles and purpose. It is fragmenting in party terms — witness the Coalition bleeding votes to Hanson’s One Nation and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. With John Howard long gone, it is devoid of any authority figure in office able to hold the movement together and retain it within the party. Abbott remains its figurehead with the faithful but his internal standing has nosedived.
The upshot is that the conservative movement in this country has no organisational structure, no agreed agenda or strategic mission, it features rival leadership contenders, crisscrosses the Coalition, pulls in a few celebrities, falls for the false mantra from its media champions and seizes up any grassroots eruptions of support from the suburbs and regions. This is not a winning formula.
Conservatives suffer from serious tactical ineptitude and misread public opinion. The array of prescriptions they demand from the Turnbull government — such as quitting the Paris accords, pitting coal against renewables, ditching Gonski funding, revisiting the National Disability Insurance Scheme and achieving small government with a new round of spending cuts — might delight conservatives but constitutes a package for guaranteed electoral suicide. No government would entertain it.
Many of these issues are legacies from battle that conservatives have already lost with current public opinion. Conservatives in Australia, far more than in the US or Britain, have almost no cultural power, little institutional power and have suffered near-annihilation in schools and universities.
The cultural ascendancy of the progressives has been a long and turbulent 40-year story originating with Gough Whitlam. The personal success of Howard as PM for 11 years merely disguised the extent to which progressives were taking control of institutions.
The three institutions that long sustained conservative sentiment in Australia have been transformed — the church, the family and the business sector. The church, notably the Catholic Church, long the conservative sheet anchor, is discredited, with its influence in eclipse; the traditional family structure with its values has surrendered to the “modern” family on the new norm that one type of family is as valid as another; and the business community, more pluralistic but unpopular, has abandoned financial support for the Coalition and, desperate to purchase credibility, presents as an agent of social and environmental change while singularly inept at selling an economic reform message.
Amid this political and cultural turbulence, former Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane has warned that restoration of unity on the centre-right — the condition that underwrote Howard’s success — is essential for Turnbull’s re-election.
Such unity is unlikely as de facto political warfare between the progressive and conservative rank and file only intensifies. It would be equally wrong, however, to think progressive ideology is the solution for the Liberal Party or Turnbull government. The notion of “modernising” the Liberal Party with progressive ideas only guarantees the fracture of voters on the right, a process now far advanced. Hanson is the beneficiary at present but other breakaways on the right will emerge.
The test for the Liberals is: can such fragmentation be contained or does it inevitably arise from the social and cultural forces being unleashed that have their most powerful demonstration in the Trump presidency? Trump’s success has ignited conservative energy, breakaways and populist revolts around the world.
The Howard formula of a Liberal Party that unites both the conservative and liberal traditions seems lost these days, a victim of turbulence in the political system and social transformation. Put another way, the ultimate question is whether Howard’s successful party model can be reconstructed or whether it has been terminated by social change.
In the US and Australia today the idea of a common culture is eroding. Ultimately, this threatens both sides of both politics — Liberal and Labor — since their ability to hold together a majority coalition of voters across shared values becomes harder if not impossible. It is a bottom-up revolution that has a long way yet to run.
The American conservative writer Yuval Levin described this process in his 2016 book The Fractured Republic: “Our culture has been moved by an increasingly individualistic ideal and so by a drive for greater distinction, more customisation and the elevation of personal choice and identity. “The highest rated television program of the 1950s, I Love Lucy, earned a 67.3 Nielsen rating … in 1953. This meant that roughly 67 per cent of active television sets in the country were tuned to the program. By contrast, the highest rated program of the current decade, Sunday Night Football, maxed out at a 14.8 rating in 2014…The idea that the publication of a new novel by a leading author or the latest production by a noted playwright would be a huge cultural moment … now seems impossibly quaint. Such moments matter to the subcultures in which they emerge, but there is barely a mainstream culture at all to receive them.
“The internet has been developing in our time in ways perfectly suited to advance this process of fragmentation …As each of us is encouraged by our culture, economy and politics to be more like our individual selves, we are naturally inclined to recoil from any demands that we conform to the requirements of some external moral standard — a set of rules that keeps ‘me’ from being ‘the real me’.”
This stretches to breaking point Edmund Burke’s concept of conservatism as a contract to transit time-honoured values and traditions: “It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue … it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to born.”
This cannot apply to a society where individuals practise “living my truth” with as much emotion as possible — emotion now widely accepted as proof of sincerity. As our shared moral culture recedes, it is replaced by individuals being true to themselves and having the “courage” to reveal their authentic self to all and sundry.
The issue for conservatism has been its paralysis before this gobsmacking rise in individual expressionism and its violation of Christian views of human nature. The first warning signs came from the pro-market economic-based individualism of the 1980s and then in the culturally based individualism of the past 20 years.
The crisis of conservatism is a moral crisis. This has been apparent since the 90s in Australia, and the inability of conservatives to recognise and respond has been remarkable. Warning about the unpopularity of necessary economic reform after the loss of the 1993 election dominated by the Liberal Party’s free-market Fightback! agenda, the leader of the “dries” John Hyde said: “What Liberals must do is explain these policies in moral terms: in terms of the liberty of workers, of a fair shake for unprotected industry, of justice for all and compassion for the needy.”
They failed. Reflect 20 years later on the inability of today’s Liberal Party to explain its policies in moral terms. From budget repair to inequality to climate change to same-sex marriage, the progressives win because they make a moral appeal — witness their campaigns around the need for compassion and fairness, egalitarianism, saving the planet and marriage equality. These became moral crusades.
This is to justify neither their policies nor their arguments but to make the essential point that progressives typically tie their stance to a moral position. It is part of their cultural DNA. The conservatives, by contrast, are exposed in moral terms. They lack the intellectual depth and the language to persuade others of the merits of their position.
The irony is that while conservatives obsessed over the decline of religion, progressives devised arguments based on secular morality. Just because the shared culture and religion of the nation is disintegrating doesn’t mean that morality is irrelevant. Morality always matters — the political contest over morality is pivotal and the conservatives mainly lose it.
Conservatives despise what they see as the phony morality of progressives. But that doesn’t count. What counts are the moral arguments conservatives have failed to mount with sufficient persuasion. The list of battles they have lost is impressive or frightening, depending on your viewpoint.
In recent times conservatives have lost out over free speech and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, spending cuts, opposition to creeping higher taxes, smaller government, less state regulation, trade union powers, industrial relations reform and jobs, same-sex marriage, union amalgamation, renewable energy, superannuation fund transparency and resistance to the Gonski model. They may lose the battle over the Adani coalmine and the defining contest over religious freedom.
This is not to deny substantial victories on border protection and national sovereignty, national security laws, the first phase of corporate tax cuts, better policing of the industrial relations system and a series of budget measures to restrain the deficit.
The failure of conservatism today is on vivid display when contrasted with Howard, a ruthless pragmatist. He surprised his opponents and the progressive class by turning his interpretation of conservatism into a weapon of political attack and electoral gain — yes, electoral gain.
The grounds on which he fought told the story — gun laws, national sovereignty by halting unauthorised arrivals, national security, social conservatism seen in family tax benefits, mutual obligation and individual responsibility, consumer choice and middle-class self-improvement, a social concept that popularised the “mainstream mob” against either elites or minorities, depending on the need, and a cultural agenda that spanned the patriotism of the Anzac legend, the bush ethos and monarchical stability.
There are three lessons from the Howard era that remain highly relevant. First, conservatism, like all movements, is lost without a leader whose task is to reinterpret the movement for the times and who delivers by exercising power. Second, it is a mistake to present conservatism as a rigid ideology, since that triggers the scepticism of the Australian public, but rather to frame initiatives as being practical, based in common sense, values and in the public interest.l
Third, conservatism’s success depends on tactical political judgment. Howard, for example, never restored knighthoods as PM nor would he have given a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh.
On the other hand, Howard as PM would have launched a high-profile national campaign against the Safe Schools program promoting gender and sexual diversity in schools, a campaign the current Liberal government declined to launch while insisting on reforms.
In short, don’t fight battles you are destined to lose. By picking battles you can win, your cause wins traction, prestige and more followers. Too many conservatives today break the Howard rules — they run on the wrong issues with implausible arguments, fail to persuade, delude themselves into thinking the silent majority is with them, and get shot down when the contest becomes serious.
The Liberal Party will not succeed while conservatism remains in crisis. Conservatism is too integral to the heart and soul of the party. If Turnbull believes his mission is to prove the Liberal Party can succeed essentially as a progressive entity, that project is doomed to fail as well.
An analysis, however, of Turnbull’s policies suggest that he seeks to govern from the centre; the problem with Turnbull is that he remains a transactional rather than conviction politician, weak in defining the terms of engagement against Labor and in projecting a clear message to middle Australia about living standards and values.
The 2019 election assumes a double meaning. It will determine not only whether the Turnbull government survives into a third term but also the future of the progressive-conservative power balance in the party, and whether the party stabilises or sinks into a full-blown crisis of identity.
The irony is that Labor, if it comes to power, will confront from opening day the demoralising social, economic and cultural forces that have played havoc with the Coalition.
There is no immunity for any government any more. Labor in office will reveal the equally lethal dilemma this time of a trade union/progressive party trying to hold together a fragile coalition of voters in an age of extreme individual self-expression.
The great political lesson of the “black swan” 2016 year of disruption is the tearing apart of the political centre and the rise of radicals, populists and frauds from opposing ends of the political spectrum defying conventional wisdoms and up-ending weary orthodoxies. Continue reading →