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Ramsay’s Groupthink, by Nick Riemer

The stock critiques made by Ramsay and its friends on the Right show how little it actually knows about the humanities

Published: 24 Jul 2019

Does anyone want to hear another word about the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation? Since the ANU rejected Ramsay last year, the centre may, as its ‘chief executive’ Simon Haines acknowledges, have been slower than it anticipated in starting collaborations with Australian universities. But the prospect of Ramsay’s millions has so far managed to steamroll academics’—including Indigenous academics’—opposition at Wollongong and Queensland, which are both enrolling Western Civilisation students for 2020. Given the controversy raging over its politics, Ramsay might have been expected, for tactical reasons, to moderate the inflammatory public positions with which Tony Abbott, in particular, had associated it. Nothing of the sort: so far in 2019, Ramsay has escalated its ideological intervention into society by brazenly hosting a parade of right-wing culture warriors in its public lecture series, many of them dutifully amplified by the media. Amid the broadsides of support for Western Civilisation studies in Quadrant and The Australian, the fight is far from over.

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One thing that hasn’t changed, of course, is the fundamental objection: the Ramsay Centre is still an initiative of the racist Right, designed to divert the course of humanities education for its own political and ideological gain. That goal is built into the concept of ‘Western civilisation’ itself, a term whose political valency in the current context is overwhelmingly reactionary: of the many rubrics under which the intellectual and social histories of Europe could be studied, ‘Western civilisation’ happens to be one that serves as a rallying call for the racist global International currently in the ascendant—the world’s Trumps and Orbáns, its sundry European and Anglo fascist movements, even its Netanyahus. In his talk to Ramsay earlier this year, Greg Sheridan was careful to say that when he spoke admiringly of Western civilisation, he just wasn’t interested in any comparisons, favourable or unfavourable, with China or Islam. Sheridan is pretty much on his own: when Trump describes ‘Western civilisation’ as under threat from terrorism and extremism, he certainly isn’t talking about Western terrorists or extremists; Hungary’s Orbán presents the anti-refugee fence he built on his country’s southern border as a rampart of ‘Western civilisation’; the extremely violent anti-Muslim street-fighting gang the Proud Boys style themselves as ‘Western chauvinists’; in the United Kingdom, a recent YouGov poll found that 60 per cent of Tory voters think Islam is ‘generally a threat to Western civilisation’. In Australia, Islamophobic luminaries of the calibre of Tony Abbott, Mark Latham, Fraser Anning, Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi have all rallied around the Western-civilisation catch cry (for details, see here). Over twenty years after the Keating government promoted the idea that Australia’s future lay with Asia, the local Right feels the need to reassert Australia’s basically Western identity, consolidating our position in a geopolitical bloc pitting the Anglo-American and European nations against both the Islamic world and China. (Simon Haines, it’s worth remembering, is no stranger to geopolitical considerations: in a former life, he worked as an intelligence analyst for the Office of National Assessments in Canberra.)

The case against Ramsay, however, rests on more than just guilt by association. Overtly arguing the supremacy of the West is never something that the Ramsay Centre has to do, but it regularly argues it more subtly and, therefore, effectively—exactly why the entire Right and, sometimes, far Right have leapt to its defence, not just here but also overseas. Ramsay’s critics have repeatedly spelled out the implicit logic: if Western civilisation is so great, it makes sense for governments to continue the militarised intervention against Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory; to brutally prevent mostly Muslim refugees arriving by boat; and to warmonger endlessly in the Middle East, Iran being the latest nation in the crosshairs (‘Iran’s Leaders [are] at War with Western Civilization. Why is the West Putting Up with It?’, the Islamophobic Gatestone Institute in the United States asked last year). Not everyone in the Ramsay project, naturally, is clued in to the centre’s overarching ideological rationale. Faced with the accusation that it serves a sinister political cause, Ramsay has the plausible deniability of saying that all it does is teach Western classics. Among its supporters and, perhaps, even some of its insiders are obtuse naïfs for whom, despite everything, the project of teaching the ‘great books’ of the Western world can only be innocent.

The mere content of the Ramsay curriculum has never been the principal objection to it: what matters more is the social and intellectual capital that Ramsay’s association with universities will bring to its overall mission. One of the most important reasons that universities should have nothing to do with Ramsay is that collaboration would allow Ramsay to claim academic credibility for the propagandising it conducts through its invited-speakers series, its flagship public event and its main vehicle for exerting public influence. So far in 2019, Ramsay’s guest speakers have named ‘school’ and ‘education’ as distinctively Western achievements, told audiences that ‘nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture’ and that it will be hard for ‘Western civilisation to remain recognisably Western civilisation without Christian belief’, and implied that there is nothing distinctively Western about the crimes of European history. Rod Dreher, hosted by Ramsay despite endorsing Germany’s far-right AfD party and writing that ‘everything [the Christchurch gunman] identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilisation is true’, recently told the Sydney audience an instructive anecdote:

On Saturday here in Sydney, I met an immigrant from China, a Christian convert who told me how much he has come to love and appreciate and treasure the sense of justice and mercy, and respect for the individual, that he has discovered in the West. The ideals of Western civilisation came to us through peoples of the Mediterranean and northern Europe, but I believe that anyone who affirms these truths and values is a friend of the West, whatever their ethnic background. It’s very important to recognise that, and state it clearly at a time when some people on the far Right are asserting that Western civilisation is a racial thing. It’s not.

For all the overt disclaimers of racism, in suggesting that justice, mercy and respect for the ‘individual’ are distinctive accomplishments of European societies that other ethnicities have to learn from them, Dreher insinuates that non-Westerners are almost inconceivably lacking in the most basic human qualities. They must, as a result, remain the permanently subaltern beneficiaries of ‘our’ lessons in a better way of being human. The fact that Dreher’s Chinese immigrant has taken on allegedly Western virtues makes him only a ‘friend of the West’, not a member of it: despite his protestations to the contrary, Dreher’s vision remains an ethnically exclusivist one.

The term ‘civilisation’ is inherently political: to describe a community as belonging to a civilisation is a way of validating some—idealised—version of its way of life, typically with reference to an uncivilised, barbaric point of contrast.  Like any sectarian discourse, talk of Western civilisation is also performative: in asserting the existence of a distinct culture for the ‘West’, Ramsay aims at producing a sense of cultural difference in its target audience, with the implicit premise that other cultural traditions are, simply, backward in comparison. This involves an elitist dimension, too: elevating a singular ‘Western civilisation’ into an object of academic enquiry tells people that universities, where ‘civilisation’ can be taught by certified experts, is the true locus of cultural identity. The very idea of culture as fundamentally permeable and hybrid is anathema—‘civilisation’ is, for this point of view, a precious and fragile achievement, typically of elites, and it is threatened, not enriched, when it is brought into contact with difference. The Ramsay Centre’s academic director, Stephen McInerney, has suggested that students’ cultural literacy suffers from not reading texts from the Western canon together: for McInerney, European books belong together, and students’ education is compromised if this does not happen.

When Ramsay talks of Western civilisation, it is really talking about the leading themes of political and economic liberalism—free-market capitalism and its associated norms and institutions. It’s striking, in fact, that ‘market capitalism’ regularly crops up as one of the ‘Western values’ that conservatives see as needing to be studied. Ramsay’s money, after all, was made through private health care, and the Ramsay board is stuffed with business figures. As well as his time as an intelligence analyst, Simon Haines’ impressively varied CV contains spells as a London banker and a three-year term as chairman of the OECD’s Budget Committee. In a context where 58 per cent of people born between 1980 and 1996 think socialism is worth a try, the need for a counter-offensive on the Right must be sorely felt. Outfits like Ramsay oblige.

Confronted with the criticism that its breathless celebration of ‘Western civilisation’ ignores the most basic facts of Europe’s history, Ramsay supporters make a response that is highly characteristic of the contemporary Right. It was perfectly exemplified last month when Ramsay hosted the cultural provocateur Helen Pluckrose, editor of Areo magazine and a perpetrator of the dismal ‘grievance studies’ hoax. It’s useful to analyse what Pluckrose said carefully, since it brings out the subtle ways in which right-wing ideologues reinforce racism, all the while claiming to do the opposite. In her talk, Pluckrose told the audience that

we know that the modern period saw slavery, colonialism, the tyranny of monarchs and the church, war, genocide, famine, racism, sexism and homophobia. So did every other period. Modernity was the one in which we gained the capacity to realise this was wrong. Not all at once and not in a straight line. The progress took hundreds of years, but in terms of human history, it was remarkably fast.

So uncommon to human societies was this, in fact, that the societies that have benefitted from it are referred to as WEIRD societies: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. And we are a new and strange phenomenon. But these are the reason I, an atheist woman from a working-class background, am able to read and develop my own ideas and speak and write them freely. They are also how I travelled across the world in a day to speak to you, having not died in childbirth.

The accomplishments of the modern West, in other words, are distinctive to it, but the numerous crimes of Western societies have nothing, for Pluckrose, to do with the distinctive history of Europe but simply reflect universal human failings. Pluckrose is happy for the West to take all the credit for its achievements but none of the blame for its defects. In its determination to glorify European achievements and excuse European crimes, this is, fundamentally, a supremacist vision.

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From the start, Ramsay has hardly been distinguished by its ideological originality. So it makes sense that it has decided to attack what the Right widely sees as the prevailing culture of university humanities, which it captures with the usual vague, catch-all labels—‘postmodernism’, ‘postcolonialism’, ‘gender studies’, ‘deconstruction’. At her Ramsay talk, Pluckrose targeted exactly these currents of thought, criticising them for illiberalism and relativism.

For all her desire to discredit them, Pluckrose’s knowledge of the contemporary humanities is unimpressive. Her and Ramsay’s complaint of a monolithic and totalitarian groupthink in universities is caricatural. It never acknowledges that the intellectual tendencies constituting the humanities are diverse and embrace a wide variety of divergent philosophical positions: ‘identity politics’, for instance, does not enjoy the unchallenged hegemony on the intellectual Left that right-wing observers like to claim.

This point is worth exemplifying in greater detail, since it significantly damages the Right’s basic case against contemporary universities. Some scholars, for instance, criticise both Western colonialism and its ongoing destruction of Indigenous people’s lives and the kinds of postmodernism and postcolonialism that intellectual reactionaries also deplore. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, ‘Many indigenous intellectuals actively resist participating in any discussion within the discourses of post-coloniality. This is because post-colonialism is viewed as the convenient invention of Western intellectuals which reinscribes their power to define the world’. In suggesting that a critique of colonialism lines up with philosophical commitment to postcolonial theory, conservatives like Pluckrose are distorting the actual state of affairs. Richard Rorty, one of the major figures in the Anglo-American humanities of the second half of the twentieth century, is another example. Rorty is associated with a fundamentally social vision of knowledge and inquiry—knowledge, he says, is about conversation and social practice—and offers a critique of objectivity and representation that crystallises much of what the contemporary Right objects to. But for anyone who believes the Right’s caricatures, the first sentence of Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America—‘National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement’—must come as a shock, as must the critique of certain strands of postmodernism that comes later.

It’s not really, of course, a surprise that work in the humanities fails to conform to the descriptions of it found in right-wing polemicists’ tirades. Nor is the point just about the academic ‘Left’: supposedly conservative thinkers also uncomfortably complicate the Right’s simplistic vision of intellectual debate. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a philosopher deeply invested in the European philosophical tradition, is a case in point. Gadamer’s stress on the canon of Western thinkers, his reverence for the tradition of canonical European thought, his defence of authority and ‘prejudice’—all these qualities distinguish him as a conservative and suit him admirably to the Ramsay Centre’s purposes. But in Truth and Method, his major work, Gadamer also mounts a strong argument against the possibility of objective understanding and against ‘the fundamental presupposition of the Enlightenment’, a commitment to the ‘methodologically disciplined use of reason’ as a safeguard from error. For Gadamer, human understanding can’t be objective because it is historically conditioned: ‘reason,’ he says, ‘exists for us only in concrete, historical terms’, it ‘remains constantly dependent on the given circumstances in which it operates’. This sounds like exactly the kind of relativism that triggers many on the Right. Yet Gadamer is mostly thought of as a basically ‘conservative’ philosopher. 

No serious assessment of the contemporary humanities could reasonably ignore Rorty, Gadamer or Indigenous critics of colonialism. But all three show that the ideological fronts do not lie where the Right places them. Pluckrose is typical of conservatives in setting up a leftist straw man that she sees as dominating work in Arts faculties, shutting her eyes to the complexities of actually existing thought in the fields concerned. It’s the same conception of the humanities dispensed by talkback-radio bullies and apoplectic contributors to the letters page of The Australian, and a sign of the lack of seriousness of the case. The very idea, implicit in conservatives’ denunciation of ‘leftist groupthink’, that the contemporary humanities are free of debate is absurd: all the humanities disciplines of which I have any knowledge, including my own, Linguistics, are fractious. When the Right calls out the conformism of the contemporary humanities, it is objecting to the mere existence of some—loose—regions of consensus on points that displease it. But if such loose consensus is ‘groupthink’, then the alternative, much more doctrinaire intellectual positions that motivate the Ramsay Centre’s activities, accompanied by the express intention to enforce them in its teaching, are far worse.

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The Ramsay Centre is just one front of the wider ideological offensive being conducted by the Right on campuses throughout the Anglosphere. Here, it has also manifested in the bizarre new free-speech code for universities recently designed by the former chief justice of Australia, Robert French, commissioned by the federal government as a response to the fantasy of a left-wing takeover of higher education. Another response to the same imagined takeover is the Heterodox Academy, a US-based organisation established to battle orthodoxy and increase ‘viewpoint diversity’ in universities: one of Heterodox’s founders and a strong critic of the ‘campus Left’, Jonathan Haidt, is a Ramsay invited speaker this year. The Heterodox Academy and Ramsay both want to bring more conservative scholars onto campus. Steven Pinker, who gave a keynote address at the Heterodox Academy’s conference this year, characterised universities as ‘festering in intolerance, dogma and repression’, a situation he particularly blamed on the ‘regressive Left’, throwing in some unimaginative red-baiting for good measure. Another Heterodox member is Eric Kaufmann, author of the much-discussed Whiteshift, who argues for lower immigration into Western countries and advocates political accommodation of ‘white interests’. Whiteshift consistently frames antiracism as a ‘taboo’ and hence as something premodern and irrational; ‘like 75-80 per cent of people across eighteen mainly Western countries, I don’t think a white person who wants reduced immigration to help maintain their group’s share of the population is being racist’, Kaufmann writes. At Sydney University, local members of the Heterodox Academy have argued in favour of the Western Civilisation proposal.

In June, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the existence of a rift between the Ramsay Centre itself and the Ramsay Foundation, the body ultimately in charge of disbursing Ramsay’s money. Appalled by the hullaballoo over the Western Civilisation degree, the foundation has presented the centre with an ultimatum: finalise arrangements with universities, or forget about getting money for any other purposes. This gives Haines a powerful incentive to sign contracts with vice-chancellors. At the time of writing, Ramsay appears to be making overtures to the University of Western Australia; the possibility of collaboration with Sydney remains on the table, the overwhelming and ongoing opposition of staff and students notwithstanding.

Ramsay and its campus supporters have frequently rejected the charges their opponents make against them, but they have never refuted them through detailed argument: in a real sense, the case against Ramsay remains unanswered. In this, as in other respects, the Ramsay episode has given one of the clearest recent illustrations of the irrationality and opportunism of Australia’s underfunded higher-education sector: university administrations’ cavalier disregard of academics’ judgment; the irresponsibility of the fence sitters and those who claim they ‘just don’t see’ Ramsay’s plain-as-day agenda; the double standard of supposedly progressive intellectuals who justify accepting money from the most reactionary sources; the general insulation of academic governance from collegiality, expertise or workplace democracy. This is a bleak picture. In a society where indicators of authoritarianism—loss of press freedom, surveillance, the criminalisation of unions and whistleblowers—are showing red, universities offer scant grounds for optimism.

The views in this article are the author’s own.

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