19 June 2018

Arsey: Seven weaknesses of the Ramsay Centre

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation aims to educate Australians not only in the facts of Western Civilisation, but also in its beauties and wonders and its enduring relevance to Australian life going forward. Can it succeed in those aims? No. The directors of that organisation are wasting the benefactor's money, however much they wax lyrical about him, and they should either desist, or start getting on with it, rather than continue mucking about.


In reporting the fallout between the Ramsay Centre and the Australian National University over their proposed Western Civilisation degree course, traditional media outlets focused on the kerfuffle and the he-said-she-said and the SHOCK CONTROVERSY SHOCK which they (mistakenly) believe sells papers. This is consistent with the unenlightening and tedious way they cover politics and associated culture war issues.

What they did not do, and perhaps could never have done, is examine why the Ramsay Centre might want to partner with a university in the first place. University bureaucracies are large, slow-moving beasts, much criticised over many years by Ramsay Centre board members John Howard and Tony Abbott. Surely the institutions that caused the problem that the Ramsay Centre is seeking to solve (that Western Civilisation is denigrated or underappreciated by university-educated people today) are of limited use in solving it. Surely, the outcome delivered by the ANU was foreseeable by anyone with experience in high-level negotiations of this type.

In recent years, vocational education providers have developed syllabi and offline/online training courses in IT, business, WHS, and other areas using minimal bureaucracy, real estate, or other overheads of large established institutions like ANU. There is no good reason why the Ramsay Centre should not have a complete suite of online/offline courses ready to go, right now, to show ANU and whomever else what they're missing and setting the standard for others to follow. Leave the grizzling to wasters like Nick Cater. Let's be having you, if you're good enough.

One possible indication of the Ramsay Centre's motives can be seen in Chris Berg, an IPA shill who no longer identifies himself as such. He got a PhD from RMIT's economics department, stacked as it is with IPA alumni such as Sinclair Davidson and Steven Kates, and now uses RMIT to sell the cuckoo's egg of IPA policy.

Another is in the image of Ramsay given by Abbott above, someone who liked the idea of a well-stocked mind but who couldn't do it himself. The inaction in Ramsay's name stands in contrast to the more hands-on George Soros (h/t @liamvhogan):
Unlike most of the members of the billionaire class who speak in platitudes and remain withdrawn from serious engagement with civic life - Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg [or perhaps Paul Ramsay] come to mind - Soros is an intellectual. The person who emerges from his popular books and many articles is not an out of touch plutocrat, but a provocative and consistent thinker unambiguously committed to pushing the world in a cosmopolitan direction in which racism, income inequality, American empire, and the alienations of contemporary capitalism would be things of the past. Soros is as comfortable with Wittgenstein as he is with Warren Buffett, which makes him a sui generis figure in American life, someone whose likes we will not see again for quite a while. He is extremely perceptive about the limits of markets and US power in both domestic and international contexts. He is, in short, among the best the meritocracy has produced …

Throughout his career, he has committed himself to writing systematically about social, economic, and political ideas. In particular, he has highlighted Popper’s 1945 classic The Open Society and Its Enemies as key to his worldview.
When Popper wrote about the enemies of the open society, he was referring to people like Tony Abbott. I can't believe they have won.

As an Arts graduate myself, I'm used to the jibes like "airy fairy" and "arty farty" surrounding education in the humanities (not least, it must be said, from people like Howard and Abbott). Richard Denniss must surely have been tongue-in-cheek when writing this article about the utility of Western Civilisation studies. This brings us, however, to another important point.


Public debate, in Australia and elsewhere, is impoverished by a lack of general understanding of science. People who cross the gamut of economics, law, business or other matters come to a crunching halt when confronted with scientific and technical matters: "I'm not a climate scientist", they whimper, "I'm not a tech head", "I'm not a doctor", "I'm not an engineer", etc.

The whole idea of state aid to non-state schools in the 1960s was to forestall this impoverishment of public debate: not simply to head off a shortage of skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM). The great challenges of our age - climate change, the affordances and threats facilitated by ICT and bioengineering - require some understanding of and respect for science. The case for a generalist understanding of the humanities, regardless of the paucity of jobs in the area, has been well made (including by Denniss in his fourth paragraph), but the case for a generalist understanding of STEM issues has been made less well.

If you can draw up a treasury of Western Civilisation that includes (for example) Aristotle, Shakespeare, or Kant, then the same case can be made for Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein. These thinkers influence the way we think and act today. The very demarcation between science and the humanities, much lamented by C P Snow and others, would have puzzled many of the thinkers the Ramsay Centre would have in their canon. Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of helicopters weren't just cutely inventive, they were part of serious work on how to move heavier-than-air objects through the air. His studies of fossilised seashells in the Apennines arose from a resistance to the flippant thinking about their placement by the Great Flood. Rene Descartes came up with the idea of plotting data against two variables on X and Y axes: I'd suggest that is at least as important to Western Civilisation as the aphorism most often attributed to him, cogito ergo sum.

The reason why Western Civ advocates can't and don't include science is because the history of science involves challenges to authority, knocking off one set of certainties and finding a way forward until other certainties coalesce around what is known. Contemporary conservatives are jealous of the authority scientists have in developed societies. They must know how feeble they sound when they simply pooh-pooh lifetimes of study, and underestimate the detriment to their own power in doing so. Creationist science is no more reliable than the Lysenkoism of the Soviet Union. Conservatives assume falsely that their work cannot be brought within the Western canon, as 20th century musicologists couldn't find a place in their discipline for jazz.

It is a weakness of the Ramsay Centre, built on a fortune made possible by Paul Ramsay's father the property developer medical science, that it cannot and will not engage with Western scientific methods and discoveries. The division that frustrated C P Snow looks like a restrictive work practice and a cop-out. This brings us to another important point.


Young conservatives, growing up in an environment hostile to academia, aren't in a rush to become academics. Even so, they still react with puzzlement (as this guy does at 48:55 in the latest episode) that there are so few conservative academics, and hence the deficiency that the Ramsay Centre seeks to address exists and is not their fault but others'.

I've read some of the texts which leftist academics rely upon for their critiques - Foucault, Dworkin (Ronald and Andrea), Zizek, Baudrillard, to name a few - and they're hard work. It's slow boring through hard boards a lot of the time, and I sympathise with those who reject it as not worth doing. I don't blame young conservatives for treating an undergraduate degree as a means toward the end of a job, and that earning money is to be preferred over the vow of poverty that would seem to correlate with academia. The rollicking works of Niall Ferguson or the gentle rambles of Roger Scruton are much easier than the spiky, careening stuff translated from French into stodgy, dense English.

When I was a Young Liberal at uni it shat me no end that the people who were most learned in what I'd been led to believe was the canon of Liberalism - James and John Stuart Mill, Locke, Bentham, Oakeshott - those who knew them best were committed lefties. The academic who has probably studied the Liberal Party in greater depth than any other, Judith Brett, is a committed Labor voter, as was Menzies' biographer Allan Martin. Yet, those are the people who have done the work, and that work is to be respected.

The lack of conservative academics ready to develop and teach Ramsay Centre courses, or even to remedy the defect the Ramsay Centre aims to, can't be simply explained by discriminatory hiring practices across this country's universities. The IPA has a number of Research Fellows sitting around not doing or achieving very much. Conservatives have done this to themselves, and if they really think this is a serious issue they must change their ways. Not only is there no Ramsay Centre canon to work on, there are no scholarships or other means of encouragement for young conservatives to clamber up the sheer north face of the Great Books into the sunlit uplands that conservatives have in mind.

If you want to talk about systematic discrimination and unconscious bias, it takes to the place where feminists and other intersectional sociologists have been operating for years. Where is the conservative who really wants to go there?


But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

- Martin Luther King: speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, 28 August 1963
If you're going to not only study, but exult in, the glories of Western Civilisation - and wonder why not everyone is as enthusiastic about them as you are - then you're only being intellectually honest when you look into why women, dark-skinned people, Freemasons, LGBTIQ and others failed to appreciate and enjoy the freedoms and riches that the Ramsay Centre sees as the rightful inheritance of those who study Western Civ.

I had no idea (well, it's possible I was told by some left-wing student back in the 1990s and have forgotten it) that John Locke was a colonial administrator in British America who was perfectly fine with slavery, and that his famous injunction against "slavery" was really a wish to limit the powers of the King over his Caucasian male subjects. Jamelle Bouie's recent essay on liberty and racism highlights what is, for the Ramsay Centre, and other proponents of Western Civilisation, an unresolved blind spot and an intellectual weakness.

In the article linked earlier, Tony Abbott referred to his own education in history as a narrative of progress, "where 'freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent'". Abbott led a government, and as a backbencher nominally supports a continuation of that government, where freedoms were sacrificed to scaremongering about terrorism. The result of his own education has been to turn on it. Explain that, Ramsay Centre.

John Quiggin's point here is well made: if you believe Western Civilisation is a club anyone can join, it falls to you to be honest about why many haven't, why many shun it, and why only struggle can explain why they have any share in it at all. They can't all be stupid and ungrateful, can they?


A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism.

- Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx is a thinker steeped in the Western tradition. Yes he is. His intellectual antecedents include Hegel, Lycurgus, and (believe it or not) Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Marx wrote and published prolifically around the middle of the nineteenth century. Much of the history of the past 150 years - particularly in Western societies, but also in non-Western societies colonised by Western Civilisation like China and Vietnam - is incomprehensible without reference to Marx, marxism and Marxists.

Marx is a significant thinker in and on Western Civilisation. Yes, he is.

The Ramsay Centre should take Marx seriously as a writer and have its students study his work in detail, and engage with what's there rather than continue wrestling with the spectre Marx himself identified. It won't, though. It can't. Conservatives have looked on in dismay as generations of students have discovered Marx and, if not becoming devotees, then taken him and his works seriously. Like travellers to Solaris in Stanislaw Lem's novel, they are helpless to prevent this and don't really understand why anyone would want to go there. A Ramsay Centre course on Marxism would be like a Rechabite wine-tasting: there'd be nothing there, and nobody would enjoy it.

As for Cultural Marxists, wouldn't it be best to Know The Enemy? Initially, the term "cultural marxism" might have referred to writers like Habermas, Adorno, Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, but it has come to apply to basically any matter that the Murdoch press does not like (and on which those writers referred to in this paragraph, and Marx himself, paid scant attention to), such as women in Liberal Party preselections, critics of the current President of the United States, those who believe Britain should remain in the European Union, the impact of tax cuts on economic activity, or even transgender people using the loo. Good luck finding intellectual consistency in that mess of potage, and teaching it.


The board of the Ramsay Centre is itself a problem. They are timid people frittering away the money over which they are responsible, for the reasons described above: if Paul Ramsay had squealed like a stuck pig every time a deal fell through, he wouldn't have gotten anywhere. The Ramsay Centre has not backed itself, and it has not demonstrated any faith in the richness and appeal of the inheritances of Western Civilisation. They would display artefacts of Western Civilisation like Royal Doulton china (collect the set, get a Bachelor's degree!) rather than put them to work.

Tony Abbott has stuffed up everything he has ever been put in charge of, from the Federal Budget to the expenses of his own office. If you honestly believe this man should remain in any position of governance then you can make no case against Catherine Brenner.


This last point isn't a big deal, but it is indicative that the Ramsay Centre isn't really serious about its stated mission.

Here is an image from the homepage of the Ramsay Centre's website:

(c) The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation

Here is an image of that same painting, 28 July, Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, from the website of the Louvre:

(c) Musée du Louvre

Back when France issued its own currency, they printed the Delacroix image onto banknotes:

(c) Banque du France

Maybe it's just me, but I have noticed that the Ramsay Centre have edited out the nipples on Lady Liberty. When I went to Paris and visited the Louvre and saw that painting, you could say I was paying homage to Western Civilisation. Given that the Ramsay Centre people also love Western Civilisation, why would they do that? Admittedly, it isn't only Western women, or women at all, that have nipples - but even so, is such an impulse consistent, or even compatible, with all that's good about Western Civilisation? As we move into an information age, an age of abundant and easy access to cultural and other inheritances of the Western tradition, is bowdlerisation something to be encouraged? Is it necessary to maintaining and advancing Western Civilisation? Honestly?