Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 2019. Read the original here.
There has been much discussion since Friday of politicians’ and parts of the media’s responsibility for promoting Islamophobia. But what of the role of institutions like universities?
Since June last year, a heated debate has been underway on whether universities should collaborate with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Many academics have accused Ramsay of being the intellectual face of a Western supremacist politics, and therefore fundamentally incompatible with universities’ obligation to support multiculturalism. After Christchurch, the urgency to accurately identify and obstruct the ideological enablers of racism in society could not be greater.
The controversy has prompted some image-management from Ramsay itself. Michael Easson, a Ramsay board member, has protested that, in fact, Ramsay does not promote any “particular ideological worldview”.
In his manifesto, Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch gunman, describes his aim as opposing the “destruction” of European culture that he sees mass migration causing, as well as fighting the “insanity that has taken control of Western thought”. Tarrant’s intention, then, was not just to indiscriminately murder Muslims, but to reset ideas in Western countries in a way that puts European culture at the centre of national life.
As the self-nominated custodians of Western culture, Ramsay’s academic supporters should pay attention to Tarrant’s words. Like everyone else, they surely abhor Friday’s murders. But this is all the more reason to reflect seriously on how the Ramsay curriculum validates the worldview behind Friday’s massacre.
Ramsay’s executive academic officer recently argued that the centre’s distinct contribution to humanities education is that it “attempts to integrate” the works of Western culture “into a coherent whole” by teaching Plato alongside Shakespeare and Virgil in a single, unified program of study.
This reasoning is worth examining: for the sake of “coherence”, it is claimed, texts of the European canon should be studied together. Texts written by Europeans, that is, should be studied alongside texts written by other Europeans.
If society is to escape from the murderous civilisational hatred displayed on Friday in Christchurch – to say nothing of the West’s longstanding, far more deadly military campaigns against the Muslim world – universities simply must stop legitimising this kind of thinking. There is a clear analogy between thinking that European books belong together and thinking that European people do too.
No one could oppose studying particular intellectual traditions in an “integrated” way. But Ramsay’s insistence that not studying them like this lacks “coherence” represents a separatist cultural essentialism that, after Christchurch, should be deeply alarming.
The kinds of “coherence” we value are highly political. There are many ways to make sense of texts, including by situating them with respect to cultural and intellectual traditions different from their own. There is a coherence in pluralism and hybridity, too – one that it is politically vital to assert.
This is especially true since Ramsay will use its association with universities to give academic credibility to its broader political agenda. It speaks volumes that, despite all its claims of non-partisanship, Ramsay’s 2019 public lecture series overwhelmingly showcases the right.
The Australian’s Greg Sheridan is featured, as is The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher. On Friday, while condemning the Christchurch shooting, Dreher argued that “everything Tarrant identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilisation is true“. Another invitee, Rachel Fulton-Brown, is a Milo Yiannopoulos groupie notorious for her celebration of “white” culture. Further to the centre, Helen Pluckrose, a critic of academic postmodernism, has minimised the problems of racism and sexism, and argues against “Social Justice Activism“.
Ramsay’s reactionary political sympathies could not be clearer. If Australian universities really want to combat Islamophobia after Christchurch, only one course is possible: abandon Ramsay immediately.