The miserable words of an online grudge club are not meant to be said aloud. “It is okay to be white” is a motto horrid US teens write down. When a Queensland Senator says it with her voice, she sounds like your embarrassing mum.

When Pauline Hanson warns of an attack “on Western civilisation” she sounds more like Dad. But, how deep is her love for our Western traditions? As deep as a 4chan meme?

This “Western Civilisation” is starting to grate. I just don’t believe its most outspoken admirers like it much.

We shouldn’t bother asking Hanson what this is, because she does tend to speak by negation. She can’t describe Australian without the use of something un-Australian, like that Brisbane schoolkid.

But, those Ramsay Centre boys sure committed to Western Civilisation. Even if its website never committed to a good Western style guide. Then again, the Ramsay Centre is always under attack, as is Western Civilisation. What is Western Civilisation? Well, Board member Tony Abbot wrote that his very Western course was “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”. Nothing could be truer to Western scholarship than its undisguised use as propaganda. You will not merely learn about things but learn to be in favour of them.

This culture war rot is all over the shop. Even Bolt and Blair try it on a bit. Not to be all hoity-toity, but I believe that there’s a decent chance that you, me and them over there honour this West better in a day than your Civilised Ramsay will all year.

Yes, the traditions to which I was born are imperfect. You’ve got your brutal invasions, your colonial massacres, your genders divided into labour categories. You’ve got your failure to address the disasters of the past, your “globalised” present and your imperial bankers and bookkeeping tricks and so on.

Centuries of human suffering made the West a site for knowledge production — no universities without slaves. Even knowing this, I can still say that I admire Western thought. Such a civilising activity.

Do those kids at Quadrant love it, though? I’m sure they’re not thick, but they seem trapped by some old resentment that the left kept up its study and ownership of arts while it went off to do the numbers. I’d have preferred the reverse of this historical arrangement: the Marxists take command of the mode of production, and the Mont Pelerin squad get jobs in galleries.  

They really got the better deal. And, if they’d read some Karl Polanyi instead of his Viennese contemporary, FA Hayek, they would know that the market moves ideas, and that ideas so rarely move the market.

I’m a fool for the thought of the West. I read mid-century white European blokes, too. But even when I read Edward Said or Frantz Fanon, am I not also reading in the tradition of the West that these Ramsay types have forgotten? This civilised tradition in which one great scholar builds upon the work of another.

If these toffs really can’t see that studies in decolonisation or trans-national feminism or queer theory or, for heaven’s sake, Marx are not absolutely entwined in the great exchange of ages they defend, then they have not been reading.

Perhaps they read Paul Virilio.

This month, that philosopher was lost. Perhaps the last French philosopher produced by the events of May, 1968, Virilio died September 10. He was 86.

His work for more than four decades was to consider the glitches intrinsic to every new form of technology. The invention of the train is also the invention of the train accident; the invention of the virtual was also the invention of this and other prescient essays.   

In 1995, Virilio wrote, “And now a new type of dis-information is raising its head, and it is totally different than voluntary censorship. It has to do with some kind of choking of the senses, a loss of control over reason of sorts. Here lies a new and major risk for humanity stemming from multimedia and computers.”

His study of our accelerated present began when he was small. He heard by radio that German troops would soon march through his town. Minutes later, he heard the sound of boots and it was then that “war became my university”. War changed in his lifetime. The speed of war changed in his lifetime. Everything accelerated, and he didn’t do a bad job of taking it down quite fast.

Interesting bloke. An important thinker. A guy who predicted accidents. But his civilised contributions were not commemorated in local press, not even by the caretakers of the West.

Do you think the Ramsay Centre’s backers have got their wires crossed? Let us know by writing to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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