Boy, the quality of Ramsay Centre propaganda has declined, hasn’t it, since ANU supremos Brian Schmidt and Gareth Evans revealed that the centre wanted a Stasi-like process of commissar-auditors in lectures, as part of the deal. The “moderate” Ramsayites have melted away, leaving only the Catholic Leninists like Greg Sheridan, Baldrick to Tony Abbott’s Blacka– no, that doesn’t work, they’re both Baldricks — to do what they can to try and wreck any possible deal between the Ramsay Centre and Sydney University, so that the centre can be shunted to the taxpayer-supported Australian Catholic University, under the watchful eye of its $1.25 million per year VC Greg Craven.

Trouble is, by now the Ramsay Centre’s reputation has been so trashed by the Ramsay’s Catholic Leninist faction that it may be too hot for the ACU to handle – leaving the Ramsay to be shunted off to an outfit like Notre Dame University in Fremantle and Sydney, a more explicitly Catholic outfit. Well, they can have it if they want. It appears to be all but dead in the public university.

Will that be it, for a while? One hopes so. What has been remarkable about the push for the Ramsay Centre has been the mix of genuine ignorance and utterly cynical nihilism of the right in supporting the Ramsay Centre.

The most important feature of the university as a university — not as the agglomeration of professional schools attached to its core — is that of infinitely reflective free inquiry: the capacity to question any given supposition or value, then to question the questioning and so on. Universities emerge within cultures — actually, the modern one emerges in Islam around the 800s, in the cities of Morocco — but they are not of, any culture. The idea of branding one as an agency of “Western civilisation” is a travesty of the institution entirely. Yes indeed, a university is precisely “relativist” in that, while truths may be discovered, nothing can be taken for granted within the process of inquiry, least of all the “superiority” — by what criteria? — of the host culture.

I suspect that many of the Ramsayites genuinely don’t understand this, or genuinely don’t care. The house view of Western Civ from the Ramsay crowd is an elementary error of reasoning, the teleological view, which sees the meaning of an entity as given by its consequences, or simply by that which succeeded it. For the IPA et al, the whole of ‘Western Civ’ is simply a prelude to Anglo-American classical liberalism. This necessitates a ludicrous, anti-intellectual assessment of the history of ‘the West’ (wherever that starts and ends), which simply ignores or misconstructs most of classical philosophy, art and actual governance, actual Roman Catholicism, Dante, Shakespeare et al, none of whom fit into this simplistic and self-serving narrative.

What is fascinating to try and work out is whether this “teleological” view of Western history is simply a cynical pose for political ends — which must be exhausting to maintain — or genuine stupidity, an expression of the true thickness of the chino-n-pearls crowd, that a university is simply a place whose purpose is to confirm the circular self-satisfied view of the natural right of the order of property, nation and whiteness. That would certainly explain the whininess of the Western Civ crowd: the merely-mouthed “municipal” version of Western Civ that starts with ‘everyone knows that the West has its faults, but….’ And then goes on to defend it in terms of the creation of dog licenses and better drains.

What’s really intriguing about the whiny version of Wester Civ – indulged in even by the Catholic right – is that it shares the moral and political-metaphysical assumptions of the radical left that it purports to oppose. Both share a view of the human – as perfectible, self-forming individuals, capable of generating their own life-meanings through knowing transparent action – that precludes real arguments about values or of what the West might be. The left, allegedly, uses the moral framework created by Western modernity to judge it, without acknowledging that it is so doing, and thus portrays the west as uniquely iniquitous. The whiny Ramsayites want us to say ‘look imperialism was bad, but had some good effects, and anyway, without John Locke and Immanuel Kant we wouldn’t be able to say why it was bad, and that all people should treat each other with equal consideration.’ Each side is actually the other’s loyal opposition.

What the Ramsayites don’t have the courage to defend is the genuinely other position, the counter-enlightenment one which says that it is legitimate and right to prefer one’s own people over others, both morally and socially, or that order may be better than liberty, collectivity essential to shared meaning, and prior to individuality, that war and violence may be necessary to a rich and courageous existence, that human nature may be relatively fixed in character, including and especially its gendered character. Paradoxically, if one were to make the argument made by defenders of the Western ethnos, from Herder to Eliot to Kojeve to Australia’s John Carroll — who has rather weakly thrown in his lot with the Ramsayites — that modernity creates a life of hollowed-out emptiness and is the wreck of Western civilization, then the Ramsayites would assail you as a cynic about the West, and seek to exclude you from their programme!

Fighting this deranged movement has been difficult because it is primarily a cynical political exercise. But the achingly bad circular reasoning it has been premised on was always more interesting, both in itself, and as an example of the right’s intellectual decline, and I’ve been itching to have a go at it.

Still there’s unfinished business, since Sydney Uni’s unseemly grant-lust may persuade them to try and abandon all standards and let the Ramsay in. Since the Catholic-Leninist faction with Ramsay is working hard to stop that, it would seem wise for the entire academic/student activist body on campus to take a month or so to do nothing else but that, and make the administration so terrified of uproar that they don’t dare touch it. Then the materialist left can and should make an alliance with genuine intellectual conservatives and go to war against the identity politics whackos who made the humanities such an easy target in the first place.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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