Thursday, 21 June 2018

Study of western civilisation need not be a bigot’s dream

On 14 April this year I put up a post on this blog titled, ‘We need to study western civilisation again.’ This was long before the brouhaha about the Ramsay Centre began to roil the Twittersphere and raise people’s blood pressure. The Australian National University announced last week that it would not take up the offer of the Ramsay Centre to set up a chair of western civilisation there, but other universities, including my alma mater, Sydney University, are considering it. Academics there have been using social media to gather signatures on a petition designed to ensure that such a project never gets off the ground.

On the ABC’s Q and A program on Monday night there was a question from the audience addressed to the university’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, who was on the panel, about the Ramsay Centre’s proposals. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, which I subscribe to, Spence said:
"We don't think a course that evaluates the contribution of western civilisation makes sense, nor indeed a course that compares civilisations," he said. 
"But there is on the table the opportunity for support for study in the humanities, and we have an extraordinarily rich tradition in the humanities, 147 units of study in what you might call core western civilisations. 
"If there's an opportunity for funding for study in the humanities, that's a conversation we've got to have. The question is, on what terms we can have it."
Other views have emerged as well, including those of Elizabeth Stone, principal of Queenwood girl’s secondary school in Mosman. She said in a story in the same paper on the weekend that while we still have a fair way to go to achieve parity in terms of things like pay and leadership, women in the West are much better off than their counterparts in other places. She says more than this, though.

I think Spence is right in that we need to avoid an ugly, unthinking exceptionalism, but I’m in general agreement with Stone and I think it’s time to take a step back and look at what’s really at stake here. While it’s regrettable that unpleasant characters such as John Howard and Tony Abbott – men with disappointing and socially-conservative views – are associated with the Ramsay Centre, the possibility for fruitful study in this case is actually quite real.

When you look at other places in the world, such as China and Iran, what strikes you as so valuable in the West is our appetite for public argument. In many places, the types of debate that we see emerging around the subject of the teaching of western civilisation in the public sphere would not be tolerated. In China, they could shut down your social media account, put you in jail, or torment your relatives, if you publicly said things critical of the government. In other countries, the government might just shut down Twitter altogether to prevent debate taking place.

So the current debate is prime facie evidence of the vitality of western civilisation. It is par for the course. The roots of our Manichaean disposition go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, where topics were discussed publicly in debates involving free men. (Slaves and women, of course, were not encouraged to participate openly in civic life.) You might even go back further than that to find them, to the pantheon of the ancient Mesopotamians. Their families of gods were the subject of much discussion, forming material for stories that helped the communities that belonged to that civilisation to stay strong and for their people to live meaningful lives together.

Much of the distracting noise currently being generated around this subject centres, of course, on the gigantic legacy of Karl Marx, as though he were somehow an alien suddenly arrived from outer space instead of a German writer with ideas so radical that the only place in Europe where he could safely do his work was England, which had a long history itself of tolerance for intellectual endeavour, learned over centuries of conflict where many people lost their lives, parts of their bodies, or at least their livelihoods because of what they said publicly. Marx is just as much a part of western civilisation as Winston Churchill.

One of the people that Stone referred to in the story where she is quoted is Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and public commentator whose life in the 18th century still provides inspiration for women around the world today. There is even a train station on the Northern Line in Sydney named after her, so we know that this infatuation with her talents has long been shared by people in the broader community here. Wollstonecraft represents one of the best parts of the 18th century, a time when women unfortunately had few legal rights compared to men, and when the dead hand of the state religion was so oppressive that people who did not live their lives within the communion of the Church of England could not even get government jobs.

After she died from complications arising from childbirth, in 1797, her husband William Godwin published a memoir of her life. It appeared in 1798 and was received grimly by the public. It served to tarnish Wollstonecraft’s reputation for generations due to what was portrayed in it: by the standards of the day an unorthodox lifestyle. While the Victorians were by-and-large in favour of social improvement, they were also very much inspired by the more evangelical forms of Christianity, that had previously been embraced mainly by extreme elements in the community.

Wollstonecraft had had a daughter, Fanny, who was born out of wedlock in 1794 and whose father was Gilbert Imlay, a freewheeling American businessman. Godwin accepted little Fanny into his household after Wollstonecraft attempted suicide and they had forged an intimate relationship. The daughter born to the marriage of Godwin and Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley, who published the novel ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818 (200 years ago this year). Young Mary was the wife of the brilliant and iconoclastic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The story of the birth of the monster who has inspired millions of children throughout the world by way of the products of popular culture is exhilarating and could form part of any degree in western civilisation, if one were established at an Australian university next year.

Man-made monsters continue to bedevil people, of course. The separation of church and state is just as important, in many parts of the world, as is the right to choose the method of worship your own conscience dictates. Both represent freedoms that have been fought for over centuries as people have worked to discover how to live together in society at the same time as they respect the freedom of the individual. Who should govern? Under what conditions can the state tax you? What kinds of books can be published? What is art?

At each step in the journey to where we are now – a fragile place we know because of the dead hand of autocracy that lies across much of the world, and because of the equally shocking spectre of demagoguery that is starting to appear in many democracies as economic inequality rises – we see seeds for future growth. Such new beginnings can be good for humanity or they can, perversely, be destructive. The journey is never over, but time (so far as we know) regrettably travels only in one direction.

Returning to that April blogpost, I recommend that you go and read it, it’s full of interesting insights, including an analysis of the process of nominalisation whence everything that we hold dear derives, including the progressive political views that animate so many people in the West, including me. In the end it is not Marx that is the enemy of freedom. The political left has helped the West to remain productive and stable, just as Parliament enabled the royal family in Britain to remain in place well past its logical use-by date, by giving the working classes a legitimate focus for their energies and a rallying point around which they can gather peacefully in order to secure changes in the polis that are in their interests. The political left is democracy’s insurance policy, its safety valve.

Because teaching western civilisation should not be about shutting down the arguments coming from the left of politics in developed countries. That would just be silly (although going by the examples set by such dullards as Tony Abbott and John Howard, that’s probably about all many supporters of the idea aspire to). The real enemies of western civilisation are the two kleptocratic bastard children of Marx – Russia and China – whose leaders stubbornly refuse to give their people the right to choose who leads them. Their influence needs to be combated and teaching western civilisation can be a fruitful way to marshal the forces of good in a battle against autocracy that looms dark on the horizon.

Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June is refugee week in Australia. This is all very well, but as I noted in the April blogpost already referred to, refugees continue to enthusiastically travel to developed countries. Perhaps what we need are soft-power shock troops who can be sent out in the service of good governance, like Mormon elders, young men and women with big hearts and white short-sleeved shirts and black name badges, to transport the methods of democracy and disinterested office-serving to any number of countries around the world that seem intent on surrendering up legions of unwanted citizens as regular as clockwork every month and every year, year-in and year-out, on leaky boats and on rattling train cars. Donald Trump could sign onto the scheme, and import Australian graduates with degrees in western civilisation to help improve the quality of government in developing countries in Central and South America, where they could help to stamp out the corruption that corrodes the social fabric in dozens of otherwise-viable democracies.

Soft-power shock troops would have to be personable and intelligent, of course. The same feelings that keep our societies united and strong also tend to exclude ideas that come from outside them. You’d need to smuggle in the seeds of good governance wrapped in some sort of gaudy cloth, such as economic success, lest they be rejected by natural human impulses fuelled by ugly nationalistic exceptionalism. The same things that make the Communist Party of China dismiss as “Western” the freedoms that its people so desperately crave that in their millions they post their money overseas willy-nilly, so that it can be invested in real estate, a sure bet in stable Australia, because you honestly doubt what the future holds for you and your children at home.

The type of scheme I’m describing would also be good for the arts graduates (Americans, probably motivated by the kind of pedantic hair-splitting that underpins much of their “innovation”, routinely refer to the “humanities”) that would be generated by teachers professing expertise in western civilisation. So often in the past, people with good intentions and BAs have left academia and gone to work in dull desk jobs. A guaranteed job with the challenging soft-power shock troops, an avenue with clear career paths that will be prized globally for the quality of its members, would help make sure the new BA holders get on the ladder to property ownership and the kind of solid superannuation account they can rely on in retirement.

Western countries already send people to countries with developing economies and rudimentary democratic systems in order to scrutinise the conduct of elections, so there are plenty of precedents for the soft-power shock troops I propose to establish on the back of the creation of degrees in western democracy. They could also be sponsored by private enterprise, on the basis that a more robust democracy is better able to foment economic growth and provide new and profitable markets for such companies as Apple, Microsoft, Nestle, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson.


Matt Moore said...

Let me start by nibbling at the edges.

"like Mormon elders" - The Mormons have had limited success in their proselytizing.

"Apple, Microsoft, Nestle, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson" - Corporations see their goals as revenue and profit growth. They don't really care about the political regimes under which they do business. Certainly the multinationals I worked for did not care.

On to the main arguments:

"Soft-power shock troops" - I don't think that dropping Arts grads into developing countries is a good idea - for a number of reasons.

1. Building good governance requires more than just knowledge of Aquinas, Aristotle, Mill and Locke. Have a listen to this talk:
Dr Okonjo-Iweala's biggest achievement was not preaching the gospel of good governance, it was building a finance system that made corruption by officials much harder to hide. It took years. And it was very very hard.

2. In my experience, the world is full of rich, white kids preaching to the poor about how to fix all their problems. But the capabilities to develop and grow and form better must come from within. To quote Jarvis Cocker: "Everybody hates a tourist".

3. We would be better off by stopping the funding and support that we give to tyrannical regimes. This will mean that the Chinese will happily fund them instead. But it's hard to preach the gospel of Western Civilization on the one hand while selling guns to secret police on the other.

Matthew da Silva said...

This blogpost was sort of tongue-in-cheek and it got away from me a bit at the end, where I started to riff on the theme without too much rigour in the argument. But I think that teaching children how to think in new ways can have an impact on them when they reach adulthood. It could be very simple things. And religion might play a part or it might not, it's not really that important. What is more important is giving children opportunities to find where their talents and inclinations lie so that they can be happier adults, and more productive as members of society. School should be a place where children can identify the things that make them who they are. Without these supports, it is very difficult to make the tricky transition to adulthood.