Ram­say of the Right

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Com­ment by Robert Manne

In 2011 Tony Ab­bott be­gan con­ver­sa­tions with his friend Paul Ram­say, a con­ser­va­tive, child­less health­care bil­lion­aire, about the cre­ation of a Western civil­i­sa­tion univer­sity pro­gram based around read­ing “the great books” of the tra­di­tion. Ram­say was con­vinced. He died in 2014, how­ever, be­fore the idea had taken fi­nal shape. A new or­gan­i­sa­tion was cre­ated, the Ram­say Cen­tre for Western Civil­i­sa­tion (here­after Ram­say). A board was formed, chaired by John Howard, in­clud­ing on the right Tony Ab­bott and, for bal­ance, on the “left” Kim Bea­z­ley. The Ram­say be­quest was to be used to fund gen­er­ous schol­ar­ships at three of Aus­tralia’s most pres­ti­gious univer­si­ties, and to em­ploy dozens of aca­demics to teach them in small Oxbridge-like tu­to­ri­als. Si­mon Haines, a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor, was ap­pointed CEO. Haines and his staff took res­i­dence in el­e­gant Mac­quarie Street of­fices. Ram­say called for ex­pres­sions of in­ter­est from the univer­si­ties. The Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity was def­i­nitely in­ter­ested. In early 2018 talks be­gan. If out­stand­ing prob­lems were re­solved, by 2019 ANU would of­fer a de­gree in Western civil­i­sa­tion. Tony Ab­bott was blithely un­con­cerned about th­ese prob­lems. In April our for­mer prime min­is­ter pub­lished an ar­ti­cle in Quad­rant that al­most equalled in po­lit­i­cal in­ep­ti­tude his de­ci­sion to make Prince Philip a knight of Aus­tralia. Ab­bott ar­gued that Ram­say was not “merely about Western civil­i­sa­tion but in favour of it”. It had been formed be­cause of pro­found dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the fate of hu­man­i­ties in Aus­tralian univer­si­ties. Ab­bott also made it clear that Ram­say was a right-wing or­gan­i­sa­tion and would so re­main, cit­ing what he called O’Sullivan’s Law: “ev­ery or­gan­i­sa­tion that’s not ex­plic­itly right-wing, over time be­comes left-wing”. Ab­bott most likely had in mind the tra­jec­tory of the United States Stud­ies Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of Sydney, which had re­ceived con­sid­er­able right-wing money – from the Howard gov­ern­ment, Frank Lowy and Ru­pert Murdoch – but had be­come con­spic­u­ously main­stream, some­thing the cul­tural war­riors in­ter­pret as a drift to the left. Did Ab­bott not re­alise that an ini­tia­tive of the Ram­say kind was cer­tain to face fierce op­po­si­tion at ANU? The op­po­si­tion no longer had to prove Ram­say was a right-wing or­gan­i­sa­tion. It had been so de­scribed by a mem­ber of its board. Ab­bott even made it clear that Ram­say’s am­bi­tions were ul­ti­mately not ed­u­ca­tional but po­lit­i­cal. “[Dif­fer­ences] could be made by small num­bers of com­mit­ted and ca­pa­ble peo­ple … Per­son by per­son, the world does change. A much more in­vig­o­rat­ing long march through our in­sti­tu­tions may be about to be­gin!” Ab­bott’s fan­tasy was that the hun­dreds of Ram­say schol­ars would form a cadre of the right-minded, ca­pa­ble of re­cap­tur­ing th­ese in­sti­tu­tions from the left. At the time Quad­rant pub­lished Ab­bott’s ar­ti­cle, the ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Ram­say and ANU had en­coun­tered cer­tain dif­fi­cul­ties. The ANU team sug­gested that the un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree should be called the Bach­e­lor of Western Civil­i­sa­tion Stud­ies. Ram­say in­sisted on the Bach­e­lor of Western Civil­i­sa­tion. Both sides agreed there needed to be “health checks” on the sub­jects and the teach­ers. Ram­say in­sisted that they in­clude the right to sit in on the tu­to­ri­als and the lec­tures of the teach­ers it was fund­ing, to en­sure that it was not wast­ing its money on those it re­garded as in­suf­fi­ciently en­thu­si­as­tic about the glo­ries of Western civil­i­sa­tion. In the mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing, ANU in­cluded sup­port for the idea of “aca­demic free­dom”. Ram­say re­fused to sign on. An or­gan­i­sa­tion de­voted to restor­ing re­spect for Western civil­i­sa­tion pro­posed spy­ing on the teach­ers it funded and re­jected an idea fun­da­men­tal to the univer­sity, one of the West’s old­est in­sti­tu­tions. Apart from th­ese par­tic­u­lar prob­lems, ANU be­came

ANU fre­quently ac­cepted gifts but none with the kinds of strings at­tached by Ram­say.

con­cerned about the com­plex­ity of the ne­go­ti­a­tions – a 30-page MOU with 40 pages of an­nexes – which were quite un­like its deal­ings with all ear­lier donors. Ram­say was “mi­cro­manag­ing” its gift. That was why Ab­bott’s boast in his Quad­rant es­say – “A man­age­ment com­mit­tee in­clud­ing the Ram­say CEO and also its aca­demic direc­tor will make staffing and cur­ricu­lum de­ci­sions” – con­firmed ANU’s worst fears. ANU be­lieved that in ex­change for an ex­traor­di­nar­ily gen­er­ous of­fer­ing it was be­ing asked to sur­ren­der its “aca­demic au­ton­omy”. Five days af­ter read­ing Ab­bott’s Quad­rant ar­ti­cle, ANU’s vice-chan­cel­lor, the No­bel Prize–win­ning as­tro­physi­cist Brian Sch­midt, sus­pended team ne­go­ti­a­tions and be­gan talk­ing di­rectly with Howard. Ac­cord­ing to Sch­midt, th­ese dis­cus­sions re­solved nothing. On May 24, per­haps aware of trou­ble, The Aus­tralian de­clared its sup­port for the Ram­say Cen­tre on the grounds that it would “dis­rupt the march of cul­tural Marx­ism”. It also re­ported the op­po­si­tion to Ram­say from ANU’s aca­demic union branch pres­i­dent, Matthew King, who was “very con­cerned that this would vi­o­late the core prin­ci­ples of aca­demic free­dom, in­tegrity and in­de­pen­dence” and the stu­dents’ as­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent, Eleanor Kay, who be­lieved that the study of Western civil­i­sa­tion was fre­quently “a rhetor­i­cal tool to con­tinue the racist pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of Western his­tory over other cul­tures”. Th­ese com­ments were re­cy­cled on dozens of oc­ca­sions over the next six weeks. Sev­eral pro-Ram­say ar­ti­cles fol­lowed in The Aus­tralian. All in vain. On June 1, Sch­midt for­mally with­drew from the ne­go­ti­a­tions, de­scrib­ing the Ram­say gift as a “sponsored pro­gram”. Howard told The Aus­tralian’s Greg Sheri­dan that ANU had ab­jectly sur­ren­dered to the left. Sheri­dan an­nounced that ANU’s sur­ren­der was “a piv­otal mo­ment in mod­ern Aus­tralian his­tory”. In the six weeks be­tween May 24 and July 9, The Aus­tralian pub­lished 75 ar­ti­cles on the Ram­say is­sue and 110 let­ters to the ed­i­tor. Al­most all were hos­tile to ANU. Guy Run­dle found the per­fect de­scrip­tion for The Aus­tralian’s reg­u­lar cul­ture-war cam­paigns: “Pravda style borea-thons”. The col­lec­tive case took the fol­low­ing form. The lead­ers of ANU were cow­ards who had ca­pit­u­lated at the first sign of op­po­si­tion. The teach­ing of hu­man­i­ties at Aus­tralian univer­si­ties had fallen to neo-Marx­ists, post­mod­ernists and de­con­struc­tion­ists who dreamt of de­stroy­ing Western civil­i­sa­tion, which they re­garded as nothing more than a sorry tale of slav­ery, geno­cide, class op­pres­sion, racism and sex­ism. The long march of the left through the key in­sti­tu­tions of so­ci­ety had al­most ar­rived at its fi­nal destination. As a con­se­quence, the na­tion faced deadly peril. The Ram­say ex­pe­ri­ence at ANU showed that it might al­ready be too late. Be­cause Sch­midt and his chan­cel­lor, Gareth Evans, be­lieved that the ne­go­ti­a­tions with Ram­say were con­fi­den­tial and that out­lin­ing what had hap­pened might im­peril Ram­say’s dis­cus­sions with other univer­si­ties, they main­tained a month-long gen­tle­manly si­lence. Even­tu­ally, they spoke out. The de­ci­sion to re­ject Ram­say, they ex­plained, had nothing to do with in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion or ide­o­log­i­cal hos­til­ity to a “great books” pro­gram. Claim­ing oth­er­wise a hun­dred times did not make it true. Talks had bro­ken down be­cause no univer­sity wor­thy of the name could ac­cept a gift from a bene­fac­tor who did not trust the ben­e­fi­ciary, who wanted there­fore to mi­cro­man­age its im­ple­men­ta­tion, and who had shown dur­ing dis­cus­sions that it re­spected nei­ther the au­ton­omy of the univer­sity nor the idea of aca­demic free­dom. ANU fre­quently ac­cepted gifts but none with the kinds of strings at­tached by Ram­say. One agenda item of The Aus­tralian cam­paign was the hypocrisy of ANU lead­er­ship that had ac­cepted money from Iran, Dubai and Turkey to sup­port a Cen­tre for Arab and Is­lamic Stud­ies. Evans and Sch­midt made it clear that if Ram­say had of­fered sim­i­lar terms, an agree­ment could have been fi­nalised in 48 hours. De­spite a whim­per or two, their calm in­ter­ven­tion killed the con­tro­versy. The piv­otal mo­ment in mod­ern Aus­tralian his­tory had lasted pre­cisely 34 days. What con­clu­sions can be drawn from this cu­ri­ous episode? There is need for a dis­cus­sion over the teach­ing of the hu­man­i­ties in the con­tem­po­rary Western univer­sity. This dis­cus­sion should draw a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween the place of the­ory – neo-Marx­ism, de­con­struc­tion and post­mod­ernism – and the place of judge­ments of value – the post-’60s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the dark shad­ows of the Western tra­di­tion. Racism, geno­cide, im­pe­ri­al­ism, pa­tri­archy, class op­pres­sion and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion pose pro­foundly dis­turb­ing ques­tions about our civil­i­sa­tion. In this con­tro­versy they were too of­ten re­duced to a shop­ping list af­ford­ing an op­por­tu­nity for the rightwing cul­tural war­riors to sneer. On the other hand, the idea that stud­ies in the hu­man­i­ties in Western univer­si­ties have be­come ide­o­log­i­cally con­form­ist is not empty. De­spite the fact that cul­tural war­riors mis­use the idea of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness daily, it is of­ten an en­emy of the open mind. The dis­cus­sion of the health of the hu­man­i­ties should take place pri­mar­ily within the univer­sity it­self, and in books and jour­nals of opin­ion. In Aus­tralia, the Murdoch news­pa­pers have ruled them­selves out as se­ri­ous or re­spon­si­ble par­tic­i­pants. In the past few years I have taken a rest from the bat­tles on the front­line of the cul­ture wars I once ex­am­ined closely. The ex­trem­ity and stu­pid­ity of the con­tri­bu­tions of some of the Murdoch colum­nists in the course of the Ram­say bore-a-thon took me by sur­prise. Jen­nifer Oriel told her read­ers: “If you want a rea­son to mourn free­dom’s demise, ob­serve Western univer­si­ties de­stroy­ing the Western mind.” Piers Ak­er­man claimed that “to this day” stu­dents wore

T-shirts bear­ing the im­age of Stalin. (The last time I saw an im­age of Stalin at a univer­sity was on an iron­i­cal Labour Club poster in 1968.) Be­cause the univer­sity hosted the Cen­tre for Arab and Is­lamic Stud­ies, the Amer­i­can neo­con Michael Ru­bin pro­nounced: “The ANU is sick”. Janet Al­brecht­sen be­lieved that tax­pay­ers’ money given to the univer­si­ties was “fund­ing our down­fall”. Mau­rice New­man, not to be out­done, be­lieved that be­cause the left had cap­tured not only univer­si­ties but also the ju­di­ciary and the army, Aus­tralia was al­ready “a long way down An­drassy Av­enue”, the Hun­gar­ian site of its fas­cist and Stal­in­ist tor­tur­ers. Many years ago I was in­volved with John Hirst and John Car­roll in the cre­ation of a mod­est bach­e­lor’s de­gree in Western cul­ture (not civil­i­sa­tion) at La Trobe Univer­sity. Lack­ing the Ram­say mil­lions, or in­deed any fund­ing, it be­gan promis­ingly but grad­u­ally col­lapsed. So long as it were not un­der­mined by piety to­wards the “great books”, or by wil­ful blind­ness to the dark chap­ters of Western his­tory, or by an ar­ro­gant hos­til­ity to the present mem­bers of the hu­man­i­ties fac­ul­ties, I still be­lieve that such a de­gree, con­cen­trat­ing on the sem­i­nal texts and arte­facts of the Western tra­di­tion, could be a won­der­ful thing. July 18, 2018

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