Politics

ANU's 'Western Civilisation' decision: A reactionary feast for the rabid right

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Nobel Laureate and ANU Vice Chancellor asked to justify rejecting the Ramsey Centre's proposal (screenshot via @abc730).

John Passant discusses whether ANU's rejection of the Ramsay Centre's proposal is evidence that it has sacrificed Western civilisation on the 'Altar of Leftist Warriors'.

IMAGINE THIS: a university rejects a substantial funding proposal because the degree would not have met academic standards of critical thought and enquiry.

Instead, it would have been propaganda for the proponents’ ideas. So it was that Australian National University (ANU) Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt rejected the Ramsay Centre proposal to fund a degree in Western Civilisation.

As Member for Warringah Tony Abbott said in Quadrant in April, the Ramsay Centre proposal for a course on Western Civilisation was ‘not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it’.

Abbott went on to say:

‘Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal and that truth might not be entirely relative.’

Superior cultures, eh? Nudge nudge, wink wink?

The Australian National University (where I studied economics and law, taught tax law and am currently a PhD student) rejected the very well-funded proposal because, as Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt said:

In all cases, we retain, without compromise, our academic integrity, autonomy and freedom, and ensure that any program has academic merit consistent with our status as one of the world's great universities. These core principles drive our research excellence and are key to our outstanding global reputation.

The decision has outraged the reactionary right. It is evidently the end of civilisation as former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott know it. They have gone "full mental jacket".

For example, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) pontificated that the ANU had sacrificed Western Civilisation on the "Altar of Leftist Warriors". Crikey's Emily Watkins has set out the details of the many explosions of confected outrage from the rabids. That was written before The Weekend Australian’s front-page article, a two-page "Culture War" special and an editorial, all angrily condemning the decision. Only moderate Liberal, Peter van Onselen, on another opinion page, backed the ANU’s sensible decision.

Why are the likes of John Howard and Tony Abbott, their conservative backer and big Liberal Party donor, Ramsay Health Care and right-wing mouthpiece The Australian, going apeshit over this decision? It has temporarily stopped a propaganda unit for neoliberal untruths and the denial of history.

Australia is built on the genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Street Islander peoples. The very people who want a centre to celebrate their "civilisation" deny this truth because it contradicts their worldview — that is, their propaganda and the mythical "Australianness" they use to tie workers to employers. The Ramsay Centre would have continued that deliberate ignorance.

The rabids know their neoliberal ideas have lost a lot of support and they and their followers are losing influence. This culture war nonsense – in this case, framed in grandiose terms about Western civilisation, whatever that is – is a rear-guard action designed to defend their last patch of political ground.  

Like the churches in response to their loss of power in the shift from feudalism to capitalism, the rabids, too, are losing their power and influence. In the case of the churches, the loss of power saw a shift to emphasising sexuality and their warped vision of it. Their rants against abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, sex outside marriage and dire warnings of eternal damnation were an attempt to retain some relevance and some power.

It is the same with the rabids and Western civilisation. They have to emphasise something that their rusted-on supporters can cling to and which gives the proselytisers some influence. The plus side is that the greater their outrage, the weaker their power.

The conservatives lost the same-sex marriage poll, overwhelmingly. They are regrouping after that defeat to try and win back some ground for reaction. However, this defence of entrenched power using Western civilisation as its fake flagbearer will not work for most people.

To workers, whose real wages are falling, the issue is not Western civilisation. It is earning enough to feed the kids or pay the rent. For the 116,000 homeless people, the issue is not Western civilisation. It is finding a permanent place to live in safety and economic security. For many pensioners, the issue is not Western civilisation. It is having enough to pay for food, rent or heating. For the 3 million Australians living below the poverty line, the issue is not Western civilisation, it is how to get out of poverty.

John Howard and Tony Abbott are two of the most obvious political architects of falling real wages, homelessness and poverty. They are part of the problem. No amount of irrelevant campaigning around Western civilisation is going to change that.

Brian Schmidt is a Noble Laureate in physics. When it comes to rationality and the scientific method there is no better example. Many believe John Howard, on the other hand, should be on trial at the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Tony Abbott was part of Howard’s cabinet that took us to war in Iraq on a lie. According to Julian Burnside, a number of Government ministers and former politicians also have potentially breached Australian criminal laws as a consequence, but no attorney-general will ever approve a prosecution.

As to truth-telling, Abbott lied to us in the days before the 2013 election, when he told SBS that there would be "no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS". His own colleagues dumped him after just two years as the worst prime minister since Billy McMahon.

Reactionaries (and social democrats) in Australia have a long history of othering. From demonising Aboriginal people to the White Australia policy, to the Russians or Chinese or Reds, the "enemy" can be external or live here. Kevin Donnelly’s new book, How Political Correctness Is Destroying Australia — Enemies Within and Withoutcaptures this perfectly. You and I are their enemies within.

The enemy du jour for some time has been asylum seekers — with Muslims the target for the populist reactionaries. Aboriginal peoples remain the eternal other.

The real enemies of rational thought and discussion are the very people screaming blue murder at the ANU’s rejection of the Ramsay Centre proposal. Howard and Abbott, along with Turnbull and previous Labor governments, have been underfunding universities for decades. Rather than being captured by the Left, universities are institutions increasingly run along neoliberal business lines in order to make a profit to survive. All of this is done at the expense of incredibly overworked staff.  

Given the underfunding, money from rich benefactors like the Ramsay Centre ensures universities will pay attention to them and it is why another university might take the bait.  

Are universities being captured by the left? Of the 36 tax law academic jobs I have applied for, I have had only one interview. My guess is that successfully running international tax reform in the ATO as an assistant commissioner for three years disqualifies me. Or could it be because I'm a socialist?

The barbarians are at the gate in the Trojan horse of Western civilisation. The best way to defend universities from Abbott and the rest of the authoritarian crew is to fight for better funding and to oppose the ongoing neoliberalisation of our universities.  

A good start for that would be a union campaign for a 38-hour week, instead of the reality of an average 52 hours a week for academics, coupled with demands for much more funding, more staff, some democracy, higher real pay and the end of casualisation.

Out of those struggles we can build the fight for free expression and stop the creeping monolithism of thought Tony Abbott’s "Western civilisation" model represents.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant. Signed copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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