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Western Civilization, the media, and political irresponsibility

By Dirk Moses - posted Monday, 18 June 2018

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:

The proponents of political correctness have concentrated their efforts on the core of a liberal education, the curriculum. Their efforts will radically alter what new generations of Western Europeans and Americans will learn. In this battle the handmaiden of political correctness has been the "multicultural" movement. A number of critics have rightly pointed out that multiculturalism is more than an argument for courses that concentrate on groups that at one time were disadvantaged or oppressed. Rather, multiculturalism involves the systematic restructuring of the curriculum so as to hinder students from learning about the Western tradition.

Throughout his manifesto, Breivik cites mainstream conservatives - including Keith Windschuttle, Cardinal George Pell and John Howard ("one of the most sensible leaders in the Western world") - with approval. He even praises Western civilization for its intrinsic self-critical capacity in the familiar manner we hear today.

These arguments appear regularly on pages of The Australian. For example, its contributing economics editor, Judith Sloan poured scorn on the ANU's argument about the importance of university autonomy in the following way:

The ANU expected the Ramsay Centre to hand over millions of dollars to the university in order for it to trash every aspect of Western civilisation and Paul Ramsay's name, to boot. How naive can you get?

And let's get real about outside funded centres that sit within Australian universities. Do you really think university managers keep a close eye on what these centres get up to? When you are all on the same postmodern, green-left page, there is no need.

The clash of civilizations between Christendom and Islam is central to regular columnist at The Australian, Jennifer Oriel, a political scientist who cites Steve Bannon's Breitbart News site as a reliable and reputable source. Concerned about the West's moral fibre, she complained recently that "After almost half a century of revolutionary leftist rage against the West on campus, Western civilisation is denied due recognition as a continuous historical fact and teachable field of study." In an earlier column in The Australian, she also attacked multiculturalism as the vehicle for "the Jihadist threat" in this country.

The West must accept the myth that all cultures are equal while Islamic and communist states celebrate their unique contribution to world history. Under multicultural ideology, the greatest civilisation of the world, Western civilisation, is held in contempt while theocratic throwbacks and communist barbarism are extolled.

Then there is an article in The Australian by Maurice Newman, which cites Oriel at length and runs the line popular in the European far-right that Jewish financier, philanthropist, and director of the Open Society Foundation, George Soros, is responsible for bringing Muslim refugees to Europe. "Soros is a new breed of anti-Western elite,"he concludes, noting Soros's support for the reviled GetUp! Movement. Linking the Holocaust survivor to the Ramsay controversy, Newman laments that "New 'unlearning' (brain­washing centres) are being established on university cam­puses intended to ensure that once students believe in nothing, they will fall for anything."

Australian universities as "brain­washing centres" breeding an "anti-Western elite" that is anti-Christian and soft on Islam? This rhetoric is now spinning off into a parallel universe of conspiracy and paranoia, from the Fox News playground into the Breitbart swamp. The similarities with Bannon and Breivik in tone (the nightmarish, ideological vision of the decline and looming collapse of Western civilization) and analysis (the fault of politically correct, youth-corrupting universities) are unmistakable.

But it is one thing to share a diagnosis, quite another to propose a remedy. The conservatives whom Breivik admires are not responsible for his decision to engage in mass murder. Nor would the commentators who now sow panic in sections of the population by banging on about political correctness, and who identify the inner enemy culpable for every malaise (wicked leftist academics), be responsible for the actions here of people like Breivik. Shooting dozens of leftist youths like Breivik is not their solution; it is, rather, re-educating them to love Western Civilization via a Ramsay Centre program.

Even so, today's alarmists need to ask themselves whether they contribute to an atmosphere of incitement in which the unhinged might act on those ideas. Some may take the declaration of an existential crisis as calling for action rather than simply words. This is, after all, the logic that I have seen writers for the The Australian apply to Muslim leaders, challenging them to purge Islam of radical potential after a terrorist attack. Keith Windschuttle, editor of the conservative Quadrant rightly apologized when a magazine employee wrote on its site that the Manchester terrorist bomb should have rather "detonated in an Ultimo TV studio"of the ABC. He knew where to draw the line on this occasion.

Online comments posted beneath articles in The Australian routinely cross the line in my view. They indicate the radicalizing potential of the anti-university campaign. Amazingly, they are "moderated before publication," as the newspaper states, suggesting that they are considered acceptable contributions to "lively and civil debate." Consider four comments on an article claiming that the ANU is "Islamized."

Malcolm: "Remove all government funding from the ANU as it has proved itself to be anti Australian to such a degree as to border on treason - or has it crossed the line?"

While Malcolm talks of treason, John worries about Arab "infiltration" and the "eventual Islamisation of our country":

Of course the ANU didn't respond They are the promoters of Islamic studies funded by Arab nations This is all you need to know Our learning centres are being infiltrated These courses are the forest scouts, the pioneers to pave the way forward for the eventual Islamisation of our country Meanwhile, they ENJOY all the benefits of western civilisation

Rick employs military and totalitarian metaphors in his interpretation of the messages he is getting on the pages of The Australian.

These abuses of so-called academic freedom are turning universities into forward operating bases in a psychological war on Western civilization. Brain washing techniques learned from Hitler and Stalin are being employed to achieve inversion, perversion and conversion.

Peter joins the dots: "The enemy is in the camp. It's hand to hand from now on."

Treason, infiltration, Islamisation, the enemy among us, war to the knife: this is Breivikian reasoning, and it need not end well. It only takes one. When will The Australian draw the line?

Kenny's analysis of poor institutional governance is also self-serving. Child sex abuse in churches, the mounting sins committed by banks and the fleecing of wages by businesses cannot be laid at the feet of an undefined "green-left Utopia"; neither can the messes in the Middle East from Libya to Afghanistan. If anything is utopian, it is the conceit that democracy could be exported to these countries by force of arms.

Despite their DLP origins, he and most colleagues at The Australianhave forgotten other kinds of conservative analysis. B.A. Santamaria's political Catholicism, though unapologetically religious and anti-communist, was nonetheless deeply concerned with human and worker rights and shared with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum a sharp critique of both atheistic socialism and unfettered capitalism. There is no telling what Santamaria would have made of the moral collapse we are witnessing in the private sector and sections of the churches, but it seems clear to me that the prevalent lust, cupidity, and greed infesting conservative institutions cannot be attributed to green-left utopianism. These vices predate the 1960s - the beginning of the end of "Western Civilization," according to the culture warriors - and metastasized in the context of the deregulation and privatization since the 1980s.

Compared to Santamaria's conservatism, the political movement of that name is today a thin, materialist creed, constituted by little more than support for mining, climate change scepticism, attacks on unions - Rerum Novarum now long forgotten – and large tax cuts for people with bank accounts in the Bahamas (remember the Panama Papers?). This conservatism offers no vision other than a nationally situated, globalized economy marked by increasing inequality, unmanaged urban growth, rural despair, environmental degradation, new coalmines, and the coarsening of public discourse by the infiltration of Fox News -, even Breitbart-style journalism.

It violates Christian imperatives to care for Creation – “our common home” as Pope Francis puts in his encyclical Laudato Si’and reflects a triumphalist view of Western conquest, more Sepulveda than Las Casas.

By vilifying refugees and Muslims, and by raising the spectre of Chinese influence, the small elite profiting most from the economy can equate its interests with the common good. Is Trump's America the future they want?

To realise this dystopia, it wages a culture war against the two institutions that embody the West's Enlightenment commitment to scientific research and open, public debate: the universities and ABC. As in other countries, public universities and broadcasters are central pillars of the Constitution of Liberty. It is thus no accident that the conservative think tank, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), attacks universities and wants to privatise the ABC. So now, too, does the Liberal Party. Climate change scepticism is a central pillar in the denialist complex, because once global warming is acknowledged, energy production based on coal and gas extraction loses its long-term viability. Powerful interests with tentacles throughout conservative politics naturally resist this recognition. So they say it is political correctness to deny them the right to wilfully ignore hard science. Like in Erdogan's Turkey, academics and the media must be brought to heel so the government's nationalistic and mining-friendly economic policies can be implemented without public scrutiny.

Whether cultural literacy and a humanistic education can solve the litany of problems identified by Chris Kenny ("[d]eclining educational outcomes, entrenched indigenous disadvantage, parliamentary dysfunction, deep budget deficits and economic sclerosis") is an interesting question. This list of problems is surprisingly limited. At any rate, is solving them too much to expect from graduates of a "Western Civilization" program? What did culture, the arts, philosophy and the natural sciences do to prevent Nazism, asked Theodor Adorno and Berthold Brecht after the war. Highly educated people have committed all sorts of crimes throughout history. Human decency does not require a university degree.

Certainly, the humanities have an important role to play, as Joy Damousi, president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, expressed in terms of identifying policy challenges, assessing ethical dilemmas,and engaging in their historical contextualization and evidence-based analysis. The lack of resources for humanities infrastructure, especially digital platforms, is the challenge here. Of course, the IPA and Ramsay Centre entreat a different view of the humanities, one that engages in "positive formation" of young people, a central concept of Roman Catholic education. Because our universities are not seminaries, she sees the hobgoblin of political correctness everywhere. In fact, what she calls positive formation most people would recognize as politicization, namely Tony Abbot's educational philosophy of advocacy over analysis.

For many acaemics, our real problem are university marketing and communications units that dream up vacuous advertising slogans like "unlearn" and refer to our students as customers; that is, a managerialism that runs universities according to market rather than to educational imperatives. Ironically, as Melbourne University historian Trevor Burnard noted, the IPA utopianism of subjecting the world to market principles entails cutting back on the humanities curriculum because of fluctuating "customer" demand. Students are more interested in media studies, global politics, and the history of totalitarian regimes than in a Western Civ canon, and we are forced to fashion the curriculum accordingly. A genuine conservatism would see the dangers of such relentless economic rationalisation of our cherished institutions rather than continue to wage culture struggles from the Cold War.

Some common ground could be found if the right-wing commentariat reconnected with authentic conservative values. It might surprise them to learn that many of us within the humanities are also deeply concerned about students' cultural literacy. It is a brave new world teaching, say, European history, to students with little or no knowledge of Western intellectual and cultural traditions, the Bible, literature and history. I for one would welcome extending the great books program that the University of Sydney already offers for a small cohort of elite students. Columbia University and Yale University are exemplars.

It is noteworthy, though, that they differ from the Ramsay approach. When a donor insisted on hiring input into a Western Civilization course he proposed to Yale, the university wisely declined his millions and established its own autonomous program. Columbia's famed "core curriculum" also supplements the Western canon with a global component. Students study the Koran, and are taught to appreciate that civilizations are not timeless, stable entities but are co-constituted by interaction.

These features of the US approach are lost Bella d'Abrera, director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the IPA, who also extolls the virtues of the core curriculum at the "University of Colombia," as she callsColumbia University in New York. (The [National] University of Colombia is located in Colombia, a country in South America). Singing from the same song sheet as her friends at News Corp, she resorts to the same lazy slogans in assailing Australian universities despite correction from Burnard (so much for her claim that only the IPA embodies the Enlightenment practice of evidence-based rational argument).

These slogans are also empirically wrong. It cannot be plausibly argued, as d'Abrera does, that BA enrolments have declined because of a Marxist curriculum dominated by class, race, and gender themes. Our curriculum has been relatively stable, while history enrolments in Australia, as in the US and Canada, declined dramatically only after the 2008 global financial crisis and the anxiety caused by government's threat of $100,000 degrees. At any rate, race, class, and gender are not the only themes in our teaching and research. (Does she really think they are irrelevant or trivial categories of human experience?) And you won't find much Marx (or class, race, gender) in philosophy departments. As it turns out, enrolments are booming in media studies, international politics, and global studies: students are making choices within the BA away from the traditional humanistic disciplines, driven as they are by their global horizons and employment concerns. But hang the facts. What matters for d'Abrera is whether the Ramsay treasure trove can head her way or to Campion College where a proper academic job may be beckoning. So who is undermining the negotiations between the Ramsay Centre and the University of Sydney?

Notably, these North American Western Civ programs devote significant resources to small class instructions, an investment that is difficult to envisage in our mass, public universities because it makes no economic sense with the current funding model; hence the attraction of Ramsay's money. Were the Ramsay Centre to sign on to the North American approach at, say, the University of Sydney, I suspect internal fears about autonomy and politicization would be significantly allayed. After all, only a minority of its staff signed a petition against the negotiations (so much for the claim about stultifying conformity).

There are few grounds for thinking that Ramsay's board will permit that outcome, however, when The Australian and conservative politicians continue to believe, despite all evidence, that ANU staff and student opposition (ie political correctness) scuttled the deal rather than its violation of the university's autonomy and Tony Abbott's partisan speech. Or when they have convinced themselves the various research centres on China and the Middle East exert a nefarious influence on university priorities; they don't, whatever the partisan views of US national security professionals enlisted when the stocks of local talking heads have been exhausted.

And when the distrust of state universities has reached such hysterical proportions that even the adults in the room at that newspaper, like Greg Sheridan, write there is no point in the Ramsay Centre flushing "its money down the drain of the grossly illiberal and stifling orthodoxy that rules so much of the cultural life of our existing big universities." Give it to the Western Civilization programs at the IPA or the Centre for Independent Studies instead, he says. Retired La Trobe University sociologist John Carroll agrees that the universities are lost to the cause of their integrationist vision of Western Civilization.

So does conservative convert Mark Latham who, with characteristic vituperation, concluded his analysis of the Ramsay controversy by declaring that "Australia urgently needs a government willing to clean out the university system, to place it in the hands of people who believe in the virtues of Western civilisation. Drain the swamp." The frustrated sense of defeat at the hands of an imagined Orwellian university left allows these culture warriors to experience their attacks on the Constitution of Liberty as defiant acts in the defence of liberty.

Finally, there are no indications that rightwing columnists differ in their imagination of political correctness from the extraordinarily broad definition proposed by regular guest at The Australian, the Australian Catholic University research fellow, Kevin Donnelly: namely equal rights and dignity for women, Indigenous people, and other minorities. Promoting them, he writes there, is akin to the strategy of "Big Brother" in restricting "how people think and interact by controlling language and denying free speech." In other words, proscribing racism and sexism is a politically correct, totalitarian policy of cultural engineering and thought policing that denies the West its manifest civilizational superiority.

Analogies with mass-murdering communist regimes are common with these columnists. When journalist Stan Grant suggested last year that plaques on colonial monuments be corrected or augmented, and others argued they should be removed because they celebrated men who ordered massacres or engaged in slavery, conservatives accused them of "Stalinism" and "political correctness on steroids." During the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives blamed Adorno for RAF terrorism.

And Sheridan et al accuse me of inflammatory comparisons.

Clearly, much depends on whether the Ramsay Center buys into this partisan and extremist rhetoric. Some members of its board will doubtless work hard to ensure that it does. The next few weeks will be interesting.

But the bigger question is this: if the government is so concerned about the humanities in Australia, why does it not change the funding model that disadvantages them compared to the social sciences?

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About the Author

A Dirk Moses is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney. He is the author of German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past, the senior editor of the Journal of Genocide Research, and co-editor of The Holocaust in Greece.

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