Here and there – A Degree in Western Civilisation?

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.  Flaubert to Turgenev.  (Cited by Simon Leys in a speech, The Idea of the University.)

1

Parents, and now grandparents, can well recall the wail from the back seat of the car on a summer’s day – ‘Are we nearly there yet?’  We might ask the same about ‘Western Civilisation’.  But first we might stop to ask what we mean by either ‘civilisation’ or ‘western.’  Most Australians could not give a hoot about either, and that’s just as well, but in a discussion about learning, it may be as well to pause to think, even if just occasionally. 

Set out at the end of this note is an attempt that I made elsewhere to say what the word ‘Civilisation’ may mean. 

What about the word ‘Western’?  West of what?  There is no great consensus except for Europe and the U S.  Russia appears to be out of bounds on most views, but how the U S and some other former parts of the British Empire get to be included in ‘the West’ is a mystery.  What about the West Indies?  What about the America south of the Panama Canal?  What about other European empires?  We may have different views of the impact of France on Egypt or of England upon India, but there is not much room for doubt about how parts of Africa, Asia and South America think about their roles in the Belgian, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish empires – the feeling is generally one of contempt, fear and loathing.  What could the people of the Congo tell us about the civilising instincts of the Belgians?  You don’t see too many European versions of the Commonwealth Games.  

The inference you might draw is that in this context, ‘western’ means ‘white.’  But how can a civilisation, however defined be white, black or brown?

If the civilisation of the West was so calamitous in the East, how civilised was it anywhere?  Is there any part of the East that is better off as a result of the empires of the West?

And if you confine Australian students of civilisation to that of the West, how do you explain a blanket denial of any contribution to our civilisation of the people who were here for 60,000 years or so before the Europeans bothered to show their faces?  Do we Europeans still just prefer to proceed on the footing that the best thing to do with our Aborigines is just to ignore them?

If you went to the beach at Manly or Portsea, and you came across a barrier ‘People from the West to the Left and People from the East to the Right’, you would conclude that the authority who put the sign up wanted to segregate bathing at the beach by reference to whether they came from the West of the world or the East.  Presumably the authority concluded that that is what most people using that beach would want or that that kind of segregation accorded with government policy.  Having determined the sense or purpose, of the segregation, you could then go on to consider its decency.  But before you get to the decency of segregating sources of civilisation between those coming from the West and those coming from the East, what sense or purpose could you give for this form of segregation in sources of learning at a university?

Well, with either the term ‘western’ or ‘civilisation,’ there is a lot smoke and haze.  There is not enough to support a rational rubric.  You may or may not be able to develop a logically defensible construct of something called western civilisation, but it will not be defensible as a criterion for teaching something that is inevitably a construct of both East and West.  When the omelette is made, you cannot reproduce the eggs as they were.

Nor can you fall back on Kenneth Clark’s elephant test – I may not be able to define civilisation, but I know it when I meet it.

As labels go, therefore, ‘western civilisation’ is as misleading and deceptive as the other labels subscribed to by those wedded to this one, like ‘elites’, ‘identity politics’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘virtue signalling.’  We may decently regard each one of those labels as a sign pointing to bullshit.

2

Hardly any nation in the West could even begin to be described as civilised in any tenable sense of that term until near the end of the nineteenth century.  Since that time was followed by two world wars, the depression, the holocaust, and the bomb, we are not looking too solid. 

If civilisation is so hard to come by, and to hold on to, why impose a form of geographic exclusion?  Why impose any form of exclusion?  That, as a Danish prince observed, is the question. 

What decent reason can we in the West offer to those in the East for maintaining that our seats of learning should offer our students a course of study of the world that has as a central premise the assumption that the contribution of the East to the civilisation of our world is not worth teaching or learning?  Can we seriously look people in the eye and say that our exclusion of most of the world is not based on hostility, if not superiority?  In a nation that lies under Asia, is it a good idea to say that Asia not worth the look?  What is it about us that drives us to say that we are different? 

If John says to Betty ‘Mine is different’, he is rarely saying that Betty’s is better.  Au contraire.  John remarks upon the difference in order to assert his superiority.  So it was with Kenneth Clark and the African mask and Apollo.  ‘I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation from the mask’.  Of course not; one is from Europe; the other is not.  It is from Africa, but implicit in the comment of the white man is the premise that the criteria of ‘civilisation’ are universal.  Is that premise itself not just another manifestation of the white man’s conceit?

If you have ten people in a room and you say that you will speak to only five of them, you straight away get off side with the other five.  Division, especially segregation, leads to friction.  And if your chosen five have any brains, your penchant for division will leave them unready to show you their backs.  They doubt whether you can be trusted.  It is not a function of a university to dabble in communal friction.

If the primary goals of education are to teach tolerance and the need to see all sides of any question, how do we answer the suggestion that this proposed exclusion looks set to frustrate both objectives?

3

Part of the problem comes from the mistiness of Kenneth Clarke and Oxbridge.  When it comes to this fancy concept called civilisation, they lose their hard nose for evidence – what we call empiricism.  They just ripple on like Erroll Garner playing Misty.

Empire and slavery alone disqualify Greece and Rome from being described as civilised.  That’s before you look at their failure to respect the sanctity of human life, or their failure to find a decent form of governance – a failure that dogs them even now.  If anything, Greece was worse on governance than Rome, but very few leaders of the republic or empire of Rome died in their beds.  Gibbon said:

Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperors, that, whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same.  A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of treason and murder.

Yes, the Renaissance produced great art, but the republics that produced it were unspeakably cruel, corrupt, unequal, and degenerate; and the David that Kenneth Clark rhapsodised over is for others a gruesome trailer of fascism.  Clark saw in that David ‘a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that we call civilised life….It is the enemy of happiness’ and ‘one of the great events in the history of western man.’  That’s fine for an English aesthete, but I see in that pose the rich man’s Harvey Weinstein.  Recent events in the U S have taught us to look differently upon uppity spoiled brats who want to cast themselves into some heroic mould.

Then, apparently, even some Catholics get dewy eyed about the Reformation, although the continuing failure to reform celibacy still sees horrifying breaches of trust perpetrated on the children of a dying congregation.  People advocating the proposed exclusion of Eastern learning refer to the Reformation as if it were a blessing.  It was not.  Religious schism brought generations of war and misery – as it has and does in the East. 

You don’t need the intellect of Kant to see that any division flowing from doctrinal feuding is the worst.  ‘Heresy’ might just be the most lethal term in our language.  The Germans know this.  In about 1948, they were asked what the worst war the Germans had endured was.  They had two examples from the deepest hell before their living eyes.  A majority went back more than three centuries to cite the Thirty Years War.  That war is a dreadful blot on all our history, a direct product of the division wrought in the Reformation, and a frightful debit in the balance sheet of religion on earth.  And that’s before you get to those crimes against humanity called original sin and predestination.

(We can for the moment put to one side the intellectual schism of longer standing between the rationalism, theory and codes of the Continent, and the empiricism, practice and common law of England – except to note that in any history of the West, that difference is fundamental.)

Other people get misty about the French Revolution.  Yes, some high ideals were proclaimed; the French finally got the Church off their backs; and caste took a hit before coming back in spades as class for Balzac, Flaubert and Proust.  But that’s about it.  The horrors led inexorably to the strong man; Napoleon left five million dead in his wake, plus a nation in ruins; and recent events in Paris suggest that France has still not recovered and may yet bring Europe undone.  About one hundred years before the Holocaust, Carlyle foresaw how the horror of the Terror prefigured another disaster for mankind. 

One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention, and no more:  the blond perukes; the Tannery at Meudon.  Great talkers of these Perruques Blondes: O reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined Women; the locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a cordwainer, her blonde German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald.  Or they may work affectionately, as relics, rendering one suspect?  Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort.  ….  Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; … ‘There was a tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotine as seem worthy flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made; for bleaches and other uses.  The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality of shamoy; that of the women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture …’  Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

There is not much that is civilised in making a chamois from the skin of a decapitated dissident or applying to a scalp some mockery of ‘a rather cannibal sort.’

Then of course there is our darling of the New World, the Declaration of Independence.  It, too, expressed fine ideals, but it led to war crimes in a vicious civil war that reminded Churchill of the agony in Ireland, but which does not feature now on the Fourth.  The Declaration contained two callous lies.  The first was that all men were created equal.  The second is less well known.  No history of America has been given that agrees with Jefferson’s list of the reasons for the rebellion.  The Americans rebelled because they did not like paying tax.  They still don’t.  They believe that public money grows on trees.  It is no accident that the loudest non-payers of tax in the U S call themselves after the Tea Party or that the darling of the motley that they elected as their President (Trump) rejoices in not paying tax.  Yet Jefferson sought to bury this issue deep down in a document of self-serving claptrap that might induce a blush even now in a Californian attorney for a grasping plaintiff.  And even then he lied.  He accused the English king of imposing the tax when the whole point of the English Revolution of 1689 was that only the parliament could impose a tax.  Well, whenever someone proudly announces the discovery of a self-evident truth, we know that bullshit is not far away.

(Australians don’t go in for self-evident truths in politics.  They find it so hard to find any form of truth in politics that any proclamation of a self-evident truth just has to be bullshit.)

Now, we don’t call barbaric people civilised just because they do pretty pictures or make nice speeches.   Even before we white people got to them, our first inhabitants were creating art that sells very well now in New York and Paris, and Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany had fine sounding declarations of rights – but there are obvious issues about seeking to apply any variation of the theme of civilisation to any of those instances.

It was the insight of Thomas Carlyle that civilisation, however defined, is a very thin veneer.  It can dissolve quickly and reveal the barbarian in us all.  Put differently, we are like Hottentots tip-toeing around the rim of a very live volcano.  One false step and that’s it – with extreme prejudice.

4

Now, these failings and fault lines are obvious, and by and large they are accepted by those who wish to inflict segregation at universities by excluding from a degree course the teaching of the wisdom and beauty of the Orient.  But is not the best way to assess our failures – if ‘our’ is the correct term – to compare that experience with what happened elsewhere? 

In looking at the failures of Greece and Rome – and both their crashes were awful – might we not learn from looking at what happened in, say, Egypt or Persia?  In looking at the flowering of art in Italy and Germany, might we not learn from looking at similar effusions in China or India – or our Aborigines?  Might we reflect on the impact of Japanese art on our Impressionists?  In looking at the misery inflicted on humanity by Christianity in the West, might we not learn from the misery inflicted on humanity by Islam in the East – and now in the West as well?  In looking at the damage wrought by the French Revolution, might we not learn from the damage wrought by what is still called the Indian Mutiny or the Russian Revolution?  In looking at the hypocrisy of the Athenian Empire – which they spun as the Delian Confederacy – might we not look at the hypocrisy of the British Empire?  In assessing the grandeur of Lincoln, Churchill or Bonhoeffer, might we not learn from looking at Ghandi, Mandela, or Ho Chi Min?

In short, in trying to assess the ups and downs of that shifting notion called western civilisation, why should we abandon the process of thought – suck it and see, aka empiricism – that underlies our bodies of learning called science and the common law?  At what point in the course does the university apologise for wanton cultural vandalism and intellectual castration?

Let me take a brief look at what the students might miss from China.  A mate who knows China gave a quick thumb sketch.

The finest public service the world has ever known or dreamed about over a period of more than a thousand years.  A foreign policy that spurned invasion of foreign countries or interference in their affairs.  An intellectual life as rich as the Greeks – Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, and so on.  An unmatched artistic life – poetry, calligraphy, painting, novels, and essays.  A belief system centred on family values and no Godcentric nonsense.

He was speaking of China before the intervention of the West, and he later added that he had forgotten tea.  I’m not sure about gunpowder.  Or the distinct cooking on our former gold fields, but which derives from the family values referred to above.

5

It may be that those who seek to promote this constriction of our learning think that we can detect a theme of progress as mankind moves forward.  This proposition is, I gather, firmly contested.

In some ways we can see mankind undergoing a series of ‘progressive’ liberations.  We got free of kings (or at least those of the absolute variety).  We cut free of the supernatural of witch doctors and priests.  We developed sources of knowledge like science and the law that obliterated the monopoly that some kings and priests had lorded over us.  We finally got rid of the aristocracy, although social snobbery is incurable.  It is curious that people who champion western civilisation celebrate what is called the Enlightenment with such passion when that movement was just another phase of our liberation from the supernatural – which for present purposes is represented by that other apple of their eye, Judaeo-Christianity.

Down here, we still think that the best at this were the English because that’s how we were brought up.  They started toilet training their kings, nobles and priests in about 1215 and over the next 700 years they brought them into line.  (In contrast, Russia is still getting over the shock of lighting the fuse in 1917, and the French still invoke the right to revolt that they wrote into their Declaration of Rights in 1789; as mentioned, the American Declaration of 1776 had its own failings.) 

Macaulay said this:

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as a rising up of the human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty.  In both cases, the spirit of innovation was at first encouraged by the class to which it was likely to be most prejudicial….In both cases, the convulsion which had overthrown deeply seated errors shook all the principles on which society rests to their very foundations.  The minds of men were unsettled.

6

These propositions are large, but until recently I sympathised with the notion that we might be moving upwards. 

In the past few years that faith has taken a big hit.  In that time, two pinnacles of what is called western civilisation have succumbed to the tocsin of the gullible and surrendered power to people who are opposed to most of what those invoking the term civilisation are said to stand for.  I am referring to the U K and the U S.  If Nigel Farage or Donald Trump is the product of western civilisation, we are in real strife.  If either is an answer, then the question doesn’t bear thinking about.

Well, accidents can happen in the best of families, but what is deeply troubling is the role played in the descent to the underbelly by those who should know better – those people who had claimed, falsely as we now know, to be conservative. 

The cowardice of the Republicans and the bitchy inanity of the Tories are faintly mirrored in the Antipodes by the impotence of what is called the Coalition.  The three political parties, and their minders in the Murdoch press or Fox or Sky News, have two things in common.  One is an addiction to ideology that is as false to our Anglo-Saxon and common law heritage as you can get.  The other is that their jealous pride in their own ignorance allows them to bet the planet on their prejudices.  Their betrayal of conservatism is now complete.

Angela Merkel said:

Sometimes my greatest fear is that we have somehow lost the inner strength to stand up for our way of life.  To which we can only say: if we have lost that, then we might also lose our prosperity and success.

And we are reminded of the remark of Sebastian Haffner about the failure of the better people to deal with Adolf Hitler.

The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding’.  This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial….  At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed.  They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown….  The Kammergericht [superior court] toed the line.  No Frederick the Great was needed, not even Hitler had to intervene.  All that was required was a few Amtsgerichtsrats [judges] with a deficient knowledge of the law. 

The fear is that what was built up over a millennium may wash away inside one generation.  Have we been unwise enough to build our house upon the sand?

7

Those events have shaken whatever faith I may have had in what is called western civilisation.  But then it gets worse.  The people behind the recent ideological disruptions in this country are aligned with, if not personally a part of, the movement to exclude the teaching of the East and to put blinkers on our universities in the manner under discussion. 

We are speaking of what might be called the radical fringe of the Liberal Party and their well-paid cheer squads in the Murdoch press, Sky News After Dark, and the Institute of Public Affairs.  (Sky News After Dark is the pale rider’s version of Fox News.  Rupert Murdoch really does have a lot to answer for.)  They bang on so interminably about western civilisation that you wonder if it is a Masonic code for something else.  These people forego sensible discussion to make rude and unprofessional remarks about the ABC. Fairfax and CNN, which on a bad day get labelled as the ‘love media.’  The effluent is at its worst when coming from those brought into the media by politicians or think tanks.  And they celebrate their parochialism from afar by championing Brexit to the death.  Gustave Flaubert or George Eliot would have gazed with wonder on their provincialism.

My country does not have a pantheon for prime ministers – or at all.  (Since we currently average about one P M a year, our abstention might be prudent.)  When I spoke of ideologues off side with our historical roots, I had in mind John Howard and Tony Abbott. 

We can put the latter to one side.  Mr Abbott has spent his life in loving subjection to two foreign potentates – the Queen of England and the Pope in the Vatican.  Given that the English Constitution bars any Catholic from wearing the English Crown, that is a remarkable contribution to what John Keats called negative capability.  Unfortunately for him, us, and the Ramsay Centre, Mr Abbott now is a sad unreformed joker who has overstayed his welcome after being fired for knighting a duke – although the damage that he personally has exposed the planet to should not be overlooked or forgiven.  (And when you think of it, is it not rich for someone posing as a statesman to allow his personal prejudice to stand in the way of safeguarding the welfare of the nation?)

Mr John Winston Howard joined George W Bush and Tony Blair in declaring war on a nation that had nothing to do with us, much less than pose a threat us.  They did so on the basis of at least one premise that was false.  It is hard for the leader of a nation to commit a greater sin than to lead their nation into war on a false basis.  We are still paying a fearful price.  As a result George W Bush and Tony Blair are widely rejected if not reviled at home.  Not so with Mr Howard.  Perhaps no-one noticed him.  Perhaps his plain ordinariness saved him.  He might come within the description that Balzac gave to his leading character:

……he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him.  He excited no one’s envy.

There is more.  As I said elsewhere, putting to one side the Tampa and the babies:

Can’t say sorry to the aborigines.  Can’t say goodbye to the British.  Can’t say no to the Americans.  A hemisphere out of place; a century out of date; and not a principle to be seen.  The spiritual heir of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Mr. Howard, is a relic lost among the cobwebs of the colony he cannot escape from. 

That reminds me that Mr Abbott was described as the god-child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop.  Her taste for low flying in helicopters now sees her on Sky News After Dark serenading people who believe people like Hanson or Trump, but who rejoices in the right of the people to protest, at least to the extent that the protests that she led with Tony Abbott saved us from the carbon tax.  (And the godmother shows her title to the team jersey by dropping dark hints on live TV about the deep mystery of George Soros.)

And in between strutting and fretting about the world stage in gold and green pyjamas, and posing as a connoisseur of cricket, and looking righteously concerned under an Akubra hat, Mr Howard appointed his ideological soul mates to the board of the ABC, including Michael Kroger and Janet Albrechtsen.  Mr Howard does not think that this nation can be trusted to survive on its own without the British Crown, but he is prepared to trash a national institution for party political purposes.  What damage might he do then if we let him lay his hands on a decent university?

7

So what? 

The Ramsay Centre put those two Australian politicians on its board of directors.  Its website gushes about their political successes and it does not blush about the political dreams and aspirations of the late Paul Ramsay.  Mr Ramsay had a mission.

He also wanted to create over time a cadre of leaders – Australians whose awareness and appreciation of their country’s Western heritage and values, of the challenges that have confronted leaders and people, with that broad heritage in the past, would help guide their decision making in the future.

Parents may have different views about trusting schools to train their children as ‘leaders,’ but would you want your child trained to be one of a cadre of leaders of this nation’s heritage and values?  ‘Cadre’ has a militant if not military ring to it.  A cadre is there for a cause.  The Compact OED has ‘a small group of people trained for a particular purpose or profession’ and ‘a group of activists in a revolutionary organization.’  Fowler is to a similar effect. 

Good grief, is your son being drafted into the Jesuits?  Of course, not.  We can safely put to one side the word ‘revolutionary’ here – that is emphatically not Mr Howard’s shtick.  But, good heavens – activists!  In the label laden lexicon of the political warriors promoting the Ramsay Centre, you don’t get much lower than activist.  And what does the word ‘Western’ do for the blackfellas?

The word ‘cadre’ there surprised me.  For some reason that word in this context brought to mind some observations about Loyola by the Reverend J M Thompson (in his Lectures on Foreign History, 1494-1789):

….the romantic and crusading spirit of the Spaniard, the fanatical and medieval piety of the Catholic, the soldier’s belief in discipline and organisation.  We find them all in the Constitution of the Order….But if one stops to think, how does the Jesuit training differ, unless perhaps in conscientious intensity, from that of West Point or Saint Cyr?….As for liberty of thought, there is no more room for patriotic agnosticism in West Point than for religious agnosticism in a Jesuit College.

We are talking about two politicians from the same party, not about Victor Trumper or Phar Lap.  These two politicians are both widely seen as failed Prime Ministers.  They are the source of deep division and no little revulsion in our community.  It is hard to think of a better way of getting up the noses of any decent Australian University than by saying, with a straight face, that we come with the blessing of these two politicians – but that there are no politics involved; none at all.  It is just a pure accident of history that your benefactor chose two controversial – perhaps partisan, even – party political people to represent him.  We just want to confer our disinterested benefit on you for the academic benefit of the university and the nation.

Balls. 

Messrs Howard and Abbott are missionaries, people with a cause.  They are out to recruit cadres to that cause.  This is their finale in the cess-pit called Australian politics.   It’s as if all their life up unto this time had been but a preparation for this trial.  Just look at the middle name of John Howard.

Our missionaries could of course have got up the nose of the Chancellor if they simply overturned a truck of snuff on the Chancellor’s desk, or they could have beetled into Cambridge or Oxford waving a wad of cash and saying that it comes with the blessing of the late Mrs Thatcher – and then watched the inmates choose the window for the inevitable defenestration.  (I here speak from personal knowledge.)

So, this tawdry affront to our intellectual heritage looks to be little more than a crass political stunt by a very wealthy man who got some very bad political advice.  Whoever got the idea of launching this ship of state with these two political warriors at the helm was not too bright.  The ship deserved to sink as soon as it hit the water.  Because the project was politically charged, it is intellectually maimed.

And are we not put out by the suggestion that the education of our youth should be left to these two faded relics of a vanished empire?

8

May I go back to my first question?  West of what? 

The Israelis may get shirty because they are on the wrong side of the Bosporus.  They might fairly respond that so were Moses and Jesus, and that therefore the West cannot claim the heritage of any of their teaching.  Moses and Jesus were of, by, and for the East.  They were at least as Asian as Mohammed or Mao Zedong.  Wagner, and many of his ilk, never forgave Jesus for being Jewish – but not many of the painters of Jesus put an uncomfortable level of colour into his visage. 

This may be why the exclusionists are so hot for Augustine and Aquinas.  They took the teaching of a simple Jewish holy man and purged it of every last bit of Asia by drenching it in Plato and Aristotle and locking it safely away beyond the reach of the merely vulgar.  (I may say that any suggestion that Augustine or Aquinas might go into some kind of ‘great books’ selection would be hilarious for many reasons – even for that minority of students that has God.)

Is, then, Russia, or too much of it, on the wrong or east side of the Urals?  Many have problems with describing Russia as civilised, but we know that they would say that that is just our European prejudice for rejecting the high place in the history of mankind of the great people who stopped the two greatest predators – Napoleon and Hitler – known to mankind after Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.  Well, if we still exclude Russia, a list of ‘great books’ that leaves out, say, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov is going to look like a sad bastard mutant.

9

Well, others may say that all that is silly.  I would agree entirely, but it is a silliness that flows from a stated position of an arbitrary and unnecessary division of the world.  It is very hard to split the world into East and West and not have each pooh-pooh the other.  Indeed, the division of the world for the purposes of ‘Western civilisation’ now looks so arbitrary that you cannot help but think that it is driven by a sentiment of exclusion that is at least as old as the Old Testament but which now dares not speak its name.

It is, then, hard to make sense of the term western civilisation.  It is even harder to justify employing that term – in any relevant sense – to exclude from our education sources of knowledge, wonder, and beauty from the East or from our Aborigines.  The process of exclusion or segregation is itself bad because it leads to conflict.  That’s why, for example, many object to clubs that exclude women – or people of colour or a different faith – or people from the East.  Australian universities are not there to close Australian minds or to foster division within and hostility without the nation. 

It follows in my view that those who have had the benefit of an education at an Australian university should regard any attempt to promote a sponsored degree in western civilisation as a threat to the integrity of that university.  In my view, we should actively resist that threat – not least because it is being sponsored by politicians who have a lot of form for engaging in nasty, harmful, and unnecessary ideological bunfights. 

The threat is also sponsored, or at least promoted, by that part of the press that follows two dicta: you must say something different even if it is silly; but it’s OK to be predictable, as long as you stay on a war footing and preach to the faithful.  Those drivers may look to be contradictory to the novice, but they bear a worrying reflection in the proposed degree.  All these sponsors may operate on the fringe, but that fact offers no immunity to the centre.

And many, if not most, supporters of the Ramsay Centre have indulged in a point blank if sulky denial of learning, at least as it is manifested in what we call science.  They have stood squarely against what a university stands for.  Their version of logic was expressed by Donald Trump: ‘I don’t believe it.’  Their version of voodoo is a little more difficult to explain.  Mr Abbott is the very public champion of this denial of learning.  He is not a man that you would want to give any power to in a place of learning.

These people routinely slaughter both language and logic.  Here is a sample.

…citizens and entire nations are judged according to their professed loyalty to PC dogma.  Open borders, multicultural ideology, minority fundamentalism and casual antipathy to Western civilisation are common values of Eurocratic elites….Its cadres denounce democracy when the tide of public opinion is against them…They have so little regard for the truth that politically correct ideology is presented as fact.  They dismiss the Western tradition because its basis in public reason means the peasants can speak truth to power.

That is bullshit.If you take out the clichés, you are left with what Louis XVI put in his diary on 14 July 1789.  Rien.  Thank God for the East.

But what you need to notice is the fear held for Western civilisation or tradition and the consequent resentment.  The sense of victimhood is almost palpable.  Why do we fear broadening our mind, or expanding our intellectual of cultural platform?  Do we not fear and reject regimes who seek to do just that?

10

Norma and Mac, my mum and dad, never got to university.  As was common among those coming of age during the depression, they left school to go to work at about the age of thirteen.  They sent me to a state school and then a private (public) school.  They both worked for that purpose.  The Commonwealth of Australia then picked up the tab for my five years at Melbourne University. 

Like many of my age, I am appalled that a government that consists in large part of men who had the benefit of that kind of funding of universities now turns the tap off for the next generation.  Bugger you, Jack, I’m OK.  That sadly is so very Australian now.  Are we really so poor or so mean?

This conduct of our government defies both logic and decency in a young and wealthy nation that has an obvious interest in staying ahead of the mob.  Now, having converted our universities into common street walkers, like sluts in white boots, the politicians are supplying the procurers to pay them off for selling themselves short in what many would see as little more than debauchery. 

They may well think that those universities that are weak enough to roll over might have some latterday Baden Powell or Cecil Rhodes who may come within the spirit of that old gag that they used to tell on World of Sport ­about a young footballer going out on his first date with Raquel Welch – he thought that something wonderful might happen, but he wasn’t quite sure how.

Well, Mac and Norma may not have had a university education, but they had an earthier grip on the facts of life than a lot of my generation do now.  They knew the truth of the saying that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.  The mighty dollar has eroded the truth of that proposition for far too many of us.

Here we are, in my view,in the territory of Caesar’s wife.  Not only should a university not put its integrity at risk, it should avoid any conduct that might be seen to do that in parts of the community at large 

One way that the beneficiaries of a good university – its former students – might encourage that university to follow that policy would be by making any gift to that university expressly subject to a condition prescribing the failure or withdrawal of the gift if the university later agrees to accept funding in a way or from a source that the person making the gift thinks would compromise the integrity of the university.  That is the course that I propose to follow. 

If that idea were to take hold – if the alumni were to engage in communal action – if they were to become activists – we might see the dollar sign shining brightly on the other side of the ledger as well.  We might hope that the dollar power of past students between them could match the dollar power of Messrs Murdoch and Ramsay. 

11

We might recall that at its birth, the Commonwealth of Australia had as much if not more passion than the Ramsay Centre about preserving its heritage.  Our heritage then was described as our British heritage.  Some blushed at the notion that we would exclude Orientals.  Others were not so coy.  Our first Prime Minister, the jovial and clubby ‘Toss-pot’ Barton, said: ‘The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.’  We Australians would not be trapped in the same lie as the Americans about equality.  We would call a spade a bloody spade, Mate, and a Chinaman a bloody Chow. 

That nice Mr Deakin, another P M, was educated enough to wish different peoples ‘to associate without degradation on either side,’ but he too insisted ‘on a united race’.  In the end we used a cheap and dishonest ploy to discriminate against Orientals, and when the founder of the Liberal Party, ‘Pig-iron’ Bob Menzies, another P M and former Wesley student, was asked to ease the immigration policy because it was discriminatory; he replied with the assurance of a pukka sahib: ‘Good thing too – right sort of discrimination.’  (Sir Robert, as he would later surely become, was prone to inflict high Tory dismissals from under his lofty eyebrows.  When I hear his name now, I think of the glorious line in Henry V of Montjoy, the French herald, before Agincourt: ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial’.)  

To round off on our Liberal P M’s, Mr Howard was wont to say that our level of Asian immigration was too high – he thought that multiculturalism was ‘aimless, divisive.’  But, then, Mr Howard was often eager to wound but afraid to strike, and he would dismiss these musings with a cliché about black armbands; his psyche has no room for either mourning or for saying sorry to the blackfellas.

Well we have got over our hang-ups about British heritage and of excluding coloured migrants under the cover of insisting on migrants having a European heritage.  We as a nation are immeasurably better off as a result.  Are we now to agree to go backwards and seek to preserve our intellectual heritage by excluding learning that is not European?  And are we to do just that in the halls of our higher learning? 

The mere suggestion is revolting – but what decent explanation can be given for another exclusion of the Orientals?

What I may call my university should not, in my view, take any step that might in any way be reasonably seen by some as inviting any form of return of any aspect of the White Australia Policy.  There may be room for argument on that point, but there can be no doubt that the policy of segregation of the Ramsay Centre involves discriminating against the ideas and values of the East. 

I regard that form of discrimination as wrong in itself.  That in my view should be the end of it.  I simply refuse to apply the ultimate denigratory label to discriminating against people and ideas from different parts of the world.  That term is both inflammatory and abused.  Rather, I base my opposition to the Ramsay Centre on two grounds set out above.  First, it is bullshit.  Secondly, it is pernicious.

Excerpt on Civilization

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘civilize’ as ‘to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine’.  People who extol ancient Greece and Rome as ‘civilised’ obviously use the word in this final sense.  They see ‘enlightenment’ and ‘refinement’ as being enough to outweigh the barbarity of slavery or their many-godded naturalistic religions.  They see civilisation even though neither Greece nor Rome had then been blessed with the respect for the dignity of each human life that is at the foundation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and which is elemental to our concept of ‘civilisation’.  Unlike Hamlet, the ancients had not heard the beautiful notion ‘that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’

In his wonderful TV series and book, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark asked what civilisation is.  He said: ‘I don’t know.  I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet.’  He then compared a tribal African mask to a sculpture of the 4th century B C, the Apollo of the Belvedere.  He said ‘I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation from the mask.’  He supported that claim in this way.

There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world.  But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something.  It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself – body and spirit – which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these quantities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.  He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways – through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the physical world.  The children of the imagination are also the expressions of an ideal.

It is curious that Clark made no reference to ‘the arts’, ‘enlightenment’ or the ‘refinement’ of the OED – they are most emphatically what his series and book were all about.  We find there very few references to myths, music, dance, or philosophy.  Instead, we now hear of a quest for ‘an ideal of perfection’ which will apparently do enough to balance ‘the superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world.’

There are at least three issues with the notions identified in the OED or by Kenneth Clark.  First, most people could not give a hoot about and do not appreciate the kinds of enlightenment or refinement referred to; indeed, most people in a pub would have trouble in following just what Clark was saying. 

Then the relative terms are in any event very plastic.  Views may differ on what is art, what is refined, or what is enlightened, or what might be seen as an attempt to reach the ideal of perfection.  What if a member of the tribe represented by the African mask did not think much of the Apollo of the Belvedere?  By what criteria might a product of the Western Establishment say that the black man was wrong?  What might we say about the adverse reaction of a slave from the sweat of whose brow the Apollo was wrought?  I might say that if I were choosing art for my home or place of work, I would much prefer the African mask to the Apollo of the Belvedere; but, then, I like aboriginal art, which would have been foreign to Clark, and pop art, which would have appalled him.  The fact that the Apollo is a ludicrously idealised and stylised portrait of a vain pagan god that Napoleon looted from the Vatican does not add to its charms.

And, finally, it is not much good having a refined ear for Mozart’s Requiem if you can be murdered in your bed, or your having a Ph D for analysing the downward smile of the Mona Lisa of Da Vinci if you can be cast into prison forever on the mere say so of a prince or a bishop – or if you just cannot get enough food or water to live.

In my view, most people in the West now have a different view of what the word ‘civilised’ should mean.  They would, I believe, go along with something like the following.  In my view a nation or people cannot call itself civilised unless each of the following five criteria is met. 

  • It has a moral code that respects the person and the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group. 
  • It has a mature and stable form of democratic government that is willing and reasonably able enforce that respect and those rights, and to preserve its own democratic structure.  (I have opted for democracy because it seems to be the fairest mode of government and to be the best able to deliver the other objectives.)
  • It observes the rule of law and it seeks to protect the legal rights of its members. 
  • Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption. 
  • It seeks to allow its members to be able to subsist and, after providing for their subsistence, to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others. 

Put differently, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that its members are ‘civil’ to others.

You will have seen that my definition makes no reference to refinement or enlightenment or to ‘the arts’ or the ‘ideal’.  This is because I view government much like I view education.  The object of education is to teach people reading, writing, and arithmetic – any grace, taste, or faith they may get from that source will be a bonus.  I see government as there to protect us from each other and from itself – any refinement or enlightenment is, for the most part, a matter for us and not government. 

On the other hand, I can imagine people wanting to refer to religion in their criteria – historically, at least, the first of my criteria is based on religion – and also to some kind of social equality and a refuge or safety net for those who do not do so well, but I am conscious of the difficulty in getting agreement at these edges.  The requirement of ‘legal equality’ does, however, come in under the rule of law.

If a definition like that set out above were to be applied, then no state could have been regarded as civilised until about the beginning of the twentieth century, and then only in the West.  I do not think that such a suggestion would seem odd to men and women in the street today in London, Paris, Berlin, or New York.   I think that public opinion in the West has moved on since the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and that we attach more weight to the protection of human rights and dignity, and from our own annihilation, than some impossibly enlightened and refined works of art whose real secrets are not revealed to the unwashed.

In any event, you can make up your own mind on when in your view any nation ought or ought not to be able to call itself ‘civilised.’  No historian can play God.  But you may wish to bear in mind the different meanings of civilisation, or the weights to be given to its parts, and you might ask this question – did either ancient Athens or ancient Rome satisfy any of the five criteria set out above?  How many do you think that either satisfies now?

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