For some years, the right has been conducting an assault on the university — more particularly the humanities, which are the university. That began in the 1960s, as much of the humanities began to use various critical theories, such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, to analyse culture and everyday life. This period had waned by the 1980s, as the dreaded “post-structuralism” and “deconstruction” took over. The critical theories had argued that it was possible to discover “truth”, and that these truths often exposed oppression and ideology — the idea that “the great books” enforced sexism, racism etc. This was criticised from the right as the era of “tenured radicals”. They should have been relieved when deconstruction, etc, came along, which argued that any grand theory, including Marxism, etc, were founded on contradiction, and no simple big Truth could be stated.

But that only seemed to drive them a bit crazier. In the last 20 years the right has been so infuriated by the stubborn refusal of the university to simply admit the eternal Truth of liberalism and simply shut up shop, they have begun to propose intervention. In the US, the right began to propose that state-funded universities should mandate equal employment between “liberal” and “conservative” thinkers. This bizarre form of affirmative action was comical, but its intent was sinister — to control the process of free thought in a university by means of the state. The relentless assault on the humanities — done locally by Institute of Public Affairs figures such as John Roskam — gives the lie to the claim of “defence of freedom”. The right don’t like the fact that thinking in the humanities does not go in their direction, and they regard defence of the university principle — the place where thought should go where it will, without reference to current political or practical considerations — as unimportant.

The Bjorn Lomborg fiasco can be seen in this light. Having the government ginger up a “dissident” climate unit and attach it to a university isn’t the advance of freedom, it’s a co-option of it. Universities should be funded and then make their own choices of academics and researchers, according to their own standards. Such standards might well rule Lomborg out, since his principal arguments against any notion of catastrophic climate chance are — like all climate change deniers — based on picking one to three year stretches of observation, and expanding them to argue a general case.

The belated decision of UWA to act like a university and reject funding for the centre has sent the right into a frenzy with two op-eds, an editorial and a cartoon in the Oz, and a full column from Andrew Bolt, all speaking with one voice to condemn “groupthink”. What nonsense. The university’s academics have taken a stand against the state trying to directly control inquiry — who does it and how they’re chosen. That is the freedom of the university against the state, something these guys are meant to take seriously. But as we’ve seen numerous times since the election of the Abbott government, when you control the state, you start to be less picky about how much of it you criticise.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey