The temperature is close to boiling point in the "Western Civilization" debate, but has anything been cooked? It is too early to tell.
For the first time that I can remember, though, we are on the cusp of a sustained national conversation about the place of the humanities in higher education and in Australian culture.
Although occasioned by an unprecedented media attack on universities, and on ANU's stoic vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt in particular, this can only be a salutary development. All players have to justify their assumptions and vision before a curious, if somewhat perplexed, public.
As a result, we are clear about what Chris Kenny, associate editor at The Australian, sees as the role of "Western Civilization" education in universities. It is nothing less than to rescue Australia – and, presumably, "the West" - from its chronic crises caused by lost battles in the cultural war. Quite how inculcating never-defined Western values among a small group of Ramsay Centre-sponsored "cadres" would fix the problems of "[d]eclining educational outcomes, entrenched indigenous disadvantage, parliamentary dysfunction, deep budget deficits and economic sclerosis" is unclear, but the sense of impending doom certainly is.
Kenny's sense of embattlement is equally apparent. Although he works for an extremely powerful, global media empire and has the ear of government ministers, Kenny strikes the pose of the little man battling a powerful array of forces: "The cultural warriors of the left are great in number, supported by vast public funding, cheered by the public broadcasting behemoth, and they play for keeps." What is more, he continues, they "are fully engaged through political parties, academe and public broadcasters in a war aimed at undermining our cultural inheritance and pursuing some vague notion of green-left Utopia."
Kenny's columns, along with those of other writers in The Australian fold, articulate a consistent and cumulative message that our universities are corrupting the youth of Australia by traducing Western civilization ("our cultural inheritance"), and thereby contributing to our ultimate demise. Greg Sheridan went so far as to declare the breakdown of negotiations between the ANU and Ramsay Centre "a pivotal moment in modern Australian history," suggesting that this missed opportunity to re-embed Western Civilization at one university meant the country would continue on its road to perdition. The clouds of this storm have been gathering for sometime in conservative circles, panicked about Australian universities as captive institutions where free speech has withered.
Concerned by this alarmist rhetoric and collective defamation of the Australian academy, I wrote an article on this "flight 93" mood ("charge the cockpit or you die," referring to one of the 9/11 flights), in one sentence comparing - though by no mean equating - it to the apocalyptic visions of Western decline of Steve Bannon and, yes, even to the far-right Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. (Shortly after publication, the ABC decided to remove the reference to Breivik rather than add a brief elaboration) The point was obviously not to suggest that these journalists condoned Breivik's actions or that they were racists.
The vehement indignation expressed by Kenny and company that I thought them akin to a reviled terrorist is a misunderstanding – although quickly cleared up after I answered a request from the newspaper – that allowed them avoid the main point. I should have realized that they would ignore the message that Breivik was driven by a similar sense of political and cultural emergency based on a pre-occupation with "political correctness," a key term in his 1,515-page manifesto. Rather than provoke a shock of recognition, they could resort to outrage to reinforce their claim about the hegemonic political correctness of university academics with their outlandish comparisons. However, despite the ABC's decision to remove the Breivik reference and The Australian's avoidance maneuver, there is no avoiding the question of incitement.
Had I the space in my original article, I would have elaborated how Breivik is aggrieved by what he sees as Europeans' underestimation of a Muslim threat in a postulated "clash of cultures." He consequently denounces the insinuation of Muslim-funded research institutes at Western universities that he thinks leads to an uncritical analysis of Islam and trivialization of serial Islamic genocides of Middle Eastern Christians.
How does Breivik argue that this malaise come about? The answer is the rise of "political correctness." His analysis has a familiar ring:
This generation of [1960s] "Cultural Marxist radicals" has now become the establishment in the vast majority of our institutions of higher learning. As university head masters, deans, and department chairmen, they have set about hiring other ideologues in their own image and have instigated the repressive policies we know as political correctness. These politicised academics will be extremely difficult to dislodge from their current positions of power.
The point of political correctness, he continues, is cultural relativism that attacks what he calls the "Western tradition" based on the following proposition: "Since all cultures are equal, there is no need to preserve Western civilization ..." He elaborates these points in relation to the key flashpoint of higher education:
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