Overland, 28 March 2019. Read the original here.
Along with all its other horrors, 15 March was a terrible reminder of the reality of ideology. With the ideas behind the massacre of fifty Christchurch Muslims a click away in the gunman’s manifesto, there was, for once, no shortage of commentators ready to pinpoint how racist hate had been mainstreamed for decades by the Islamophobic policies and ideological interventions of the Australian political and media establishment. For a brief moment, a spotlight was directed in Australian public life onto the deadly connection between world-view and actions – the anti-Muslim ideas lovingly nurtured by politicians, publishers and editors-in-chief, and the murders themselves.
When far-right violence is read into Hansard and viciously feted by the most powerful media organisations in the land, belief in the power of ideas is easy. It’s more of a stretch when we consider universities – institutions rightly seen as standing outside the real circuits of political power. That’s no doubt why some people have always found it a struggle to take the polemics over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation seriously. Ramsay’s dogged attempts to secure a foothold in Australian higher education have certainly been controversial, and far from absent from the news. But part of the controversy’s power, surely, has been a certain fascinated incredulity: can people really be getting themselves so worked up about this?
In arts faculties themselves, the danger posed by the ‘Western Civilisation’ program has been clear to all but a small group of hold-outs. Driving the opposition to Ramsay has, of course, been the self-evident fact that the whole project is an initiative of the racist right, designed to ‘institutionalise a far-right intellectual agenda into Australian higher education’, as Sarah Keenan, who resigned her Wollongong fellowship after that university announced its collaboration with Ramsay, described it. Before Christchurch, the suggestion that the Ramsay Centre had such politically noxious leanings was met, by its supporters, with injured rebuttals. Now, when Ramsay’s opponents restate the centre’s ideological valency in the all-too-fresh reality of the massacre, no condemnation from Ramsay and its supporters is too strong.
Earlier this week, Simon Haines, the Ramsay head, replied in the Sydney Morning Herald to my call for universities to abandon the Western Civilisation collaboration after Christchurch. In 550 words, Haines criticised me for ‘sordid political point-scoring’, responsibility for a ‘monstrous’ ‘smear’, ‘opportunism’, ‘cynicism’ and ‘facile and irresponsible vilification’. Janet Albrechtsen, Miranda Devine, Bella D’Abrera, Greg Sheridan and others, including Frontpage Mag, a US website variously described as right or far-right in orientation, basically agreed: the idea that there might be a line to draw between Ramsay and racist violence is, apparently, a patent absurdity.
Not once in his post-Christchurch defence did Haines mention the most politically significant feature of the gunman’s victims – the most obvious one, the one they all shared: the fact they were Muslim. Haines’ article contained several references to the West and its ‘achievements’, but no trace of the victims’ religion; there was not even any reference to the fact that the murders happened in mosques. Islam was entirely missing from Haines’ account of the massacre, which he described as an ‘appalling evil inflicted on innocent people at prayer’. A reader more remote from the events than us could be excused for wondering who the victims were – Buddhists? Jews? Anglicans?
This silence over the specificity of the Christchurch victims is striking. But it is in keeping with the attitudes of Haines that I have analysed elsewhere. As well as an acknowledgment of the victims’ identity as Muslims, one might have thought that a racist massacre committed by a criminal steeped in the intellectual and political culture of the European far-right might have occasioned at least some acknowledgment of the West’s dark side. Nothing of the sort: Haines did not even find any need to pay lip-service to the issue. No wavering could be detected in the latest iteration he served up to Fairfax readers of his familiar, vacuous hagiography of the West: we ‘are fortunate,’ he wrote, ‘in that we can rely on one of the great pillars of Western civilisation, the rule of law and our justice systems to ensure that the perpetrator of the dreadful crime in Christchurch is brought to justice.’
‘Our cherished freedoms, including those of religion and speech,’ he continued, ‘which need to be respected at all times, are especially important in such crises as this, when they are most under pressure.’ When Ramsay opponents insist on the need for a critical study of the West, as opposed to whitewashing, this is exactly the kind of thing we have in mind.
From the start of the Ramsay debate, commentators, including me, have been pointing out the principal danger in a collaboration between universities and Ramsay: the fact that in partnering with Ramsay, universities will be lending their academic credibility to an organisation that will platform and legitimate the ideas of racists. The Ramsay ‘distinguished speaker’ program for 2019 shows that we were right. Ramsay has so far announced seven of the eight ‘distinguished’ intellectuals whom it will be inviting in 2019 for its public lecture program. Scrutinising them is important because the choice of speakers is determined by Ramsay alone, free of the political constraints introduced by the prospect of collaboration with universities. As a result, it can be taken as an accurate indication of the political sensibility that also inspires the Western Civilisation undergraduate programs.
Of the speakers in 2019 who have an identifiable political agenda, three – The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, and the Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown – are clearly associated with the anti-immigration right. It tells us much about Ramsay’s determination to advance its agenda that, after Christchurch, none of their invitations has been revoked, nor any other effort made to temper the program’s politics.
Sheridan is well known in Australia, and neither his overall orientation, nor his attitude to Islam — ‘the only people who don’t think there is a problem with Islam are those who live on some other planet’, he declared in 2011 – needs any demonstration. Rachel Fulton Brown, on the other hand, is obscure. A Chicago medievalist, she is best known as a fervent academic supporter of the alt-right Islamophobe Milo Yiannopoulos. Among other things, Brown celebrates ‘white men’:
When white women (see Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine) invented chivalry and courtly love, white men agreed that it was better for knights to spend their time protecting women rather than raping them, and even agreed to write songs for them rather than expecting them to want to have sex with them without being forced.
Brown has complained that university students’ minds are ‘being filled with what they are given in place of religion: multiculturalism; race, class, gender; the purportedly secular ideals of socialism and Marxism’. Responding to Christchurch, Brown wrote that ‘the alleged shooter is just as likely to be a left-wing extremist as he is to be on the Right’, denounced ‘handwringing multicultural apologists’, and offered an apologia of the First Crusade ‘as a defensive venture against the expansion of Islam into Christian territories—in order to defend fellow Christians’. In reference to Brown, Macquarie University’s Clare Monagle says, ‘I cannot think of a more provocative figure in the field of medieval studies for the Ramsay Centre to enlist to their cause’.
This is all bad enough, but the most inflammatory Ramsay guest in 2019 is the conservative Christian commentator Rod Dreher (Dreher will speak for Campion College as well as for Ramsay while in Australia). Of course, Dreher criticises racism. But that doesn’t stop him referring to the migrants whom Trump wants to keep out of the US as ‘a peaceful invasion that stands to change the political and cultural balance in this country’, describing migration as threatening European Christians with an ‘existential crisis’, asking on his blog ‘Is Non-White, Non-Christian Germany Still Germany?’, or saying of the political platform of Germany’s far-right AfD that ‘I don’t see anything that much troubles me there’. By partnering with Ramsay, Australian universities are lending their names to an institution that promotes a self-identified sympathiser of the far-right.
In 2015, Dreher wrote that ‘The German village of Sumte (pop. 102) has been told it has to receive 750 asylum seekers. This will, of course, obliterate the village for all intents and purposes.’ Around the same time, he told readers: ‘There are unprecedented masses of both war refugees and economic migrants moving from the Middle East and Africa to Europe in boats. If Europe lets them all in, it will soon no longer be Europe.’ After Christchurch, he asked: ‘Why is it so difficult to imagine that Italians, French, Hungarians, and others in Europe are frightened to see their own native populations rapidly declining? Why is it so hard to imagine their fear in the face of their own population declines – which is their fault for choosing not to have more kids – when immigration into their countries is increasing?’.
Dreher’s posts have more, and plenty of it, on ‘civilizational suicide’, the frightening implications of the drop in church weddings for the ‘demographic nightmare’ (migration) faced by Italy, the ‘horrifying march of transgender ideology through the UK’, the fact that the Christchurch gunman’s manifesto was ‘grounded in both paranoid, racist grievance, and legitimate, realistic concerns’ and that ‘everything [the Christchurch gunman] identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilisation is true’. When I pointed some of this out in the SMH, Simon Haines warned against believing ‘distorting and tendentious snippets’ – Haines thinks that Dreher just says ‘sometimes controversial things’.
Ramsay’s fourth openly political speaker, Helen Pluckrose, describes herself as a ‘left-wing liberal’ (and has been approvingly interviewed on the World Socialist Web Site). ‘Left-wing liberalism’, for Pluckrose, apparently means publicly disidentifying from feminism and going on a high-profile campaign to expose the supposed vacuousness and low standards of left-wing academic journals in fields like feminist social work or feminist philosophy. Pluckrose thinks that racism and sexism are problems, but has denied that people in the West ‘live in an imperialist, heterocentric, white supremacist patriarchy’ (what’s not heterocentric, patriarchal or, yes, white-supremacist about Australia, for instance?), and argued against what she calls ‘Social Justice Activism’. She insists, however that she’s still on the left. The utility of this for the Ramsay Centre’s pretence of ‘balance’ is considerable.
Even Ramsay’s apparently apolitical speakers are framed in unmistakably ideological terms. The other day, the Ramsay Centre hosted its first distinguished speaker talk for 2019, by the Perth surgeon Fiona Wood. John Howard, who introduced Wood’s talk, framed it in the context of her work after the 2002 Bali bombings. Wood’s surgical expertise, that is, was explicitly presented as part of the War on Terror. Wood deserves respect, no doubt, for her contribution to medicine, but she is an embarrassment as a cultural commentator. In the promotional video Wood recorded for Ramsay, she tells us she thinks that ‘ninety percent plus’ of ‘our’ Western Civilisation is ‘positive’ – ‘sharing good news stories’, ‘the sheer volume of energy out there helping each other, helping make the future better’. We give far too much oxygen, she offers, to the ‘negative in our society’. ‘School’ and ‘education’ are, according to her, distinctively Western achievements. This inane glorification should have no place in any serious attempt to improve public understanding of Australia’s cultural heritage.
These speakers are validated and made more authoritative by the fact that they are given a platform by an organisation that partners with universities: along with the Eurocentrism to be dispensed in Ramsay classrooms to a cadre of future leaders, this is what makes Vice-Chancellors’ dalliance with the Ramsay money so politically dangerous.
We are rational creatures and we act on our beliefs, especially when those beliefs relate to our perceived interests. Exactly that is captured in the concept of ideology.
Ideology kills. Not immediately, not atomistically, and not without material support, but it kills. Fostered and sedimented in the body politic, the Islamophobia normalised in parts of Australian society by powerful racists killed people in Christchurch in March. In the light of that crime, the protest that rightwing thinkers’ longstanding campaign against Muslims just has nothing to do with racist violence is, simply, absurd, since it denies a straightforward reality: the fact that people sometimes act on the ideas they are encouraged to adopt.
Universities often claim to care about ideas and their real-world consequences. The fact that, after Christchurch and the revelation of Ramsay’s 2019 speakers, three Australian universities are still negotiating over the Western Civilisation program is a scandalous indictment of those institutions’ failure to do just that, at a time when correctly assessing ideas’ effect in society could not be more urgent.