Next year is the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of Captain James Cook’s discovery of Australia. The Australian government has announced a program of commemorations, noting the “profound legacy of scientific investigation” from Cook’s voyage, and how he is “revered for his superior seamanship and disciplined leadership.” Notably, the announcement made no mention of Cook’s fundamental role in establishing the country we now call Australia, although one presumes that might be mentioned in some of the exhibitions scheduled for the year, under the auspices of the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, and the Australian National Maritime Museum. High on the list of activities, however, is “a project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to return culturally significant indigenous items from overseas institutions.” This reflects a new sort of cultural cringe by left-minded Australians, based on the idea that while Cook may have been the Westerner who first discovered their country, beginning the process towards the advanced society in which they live today, he was also an invader and an imperialist and, doubtless by modern standards, a racist in his appropriation of the land of peoples deemed of such little consequence that their views on the subject were irrelevant.
In that sense, the circumnavigation of Australia next year by a replica of Cook’s ship Endeavour will be no triumphal progress. Rather, in the government’s words, it “will provide an opportunity for Australians to experience the historic voyage and its legacy for exploration, science, and reconciliation.” The determination to recover items from overseas is, in heritage terms, entirely understandable; it has a parallel with Greece’s constant demand of Britain to return the Elgin Marbles, exhibited for two hundred years at the British Museum in London. There is perhaps an under-appreciation that the Australian artifacts now being sought would long ago have ceased to exist had they not been safely preserved in Western imperialist repositories, as with the Parthenon sculptures. But the return of these items is of huge importance to Australia, particularly a contemporary Australia that feels such embarrassment about its past. “Returning material to Country [sic] for purposes of cultural revitalisation,” the government says, “is a key aspiration of indigenous communities and will strengthen the signal both to the nation and globally that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is respected, celebrated and valued.”
No one disputes that it should be, but there are those who wish to respect, celebrate, and value it at the expense and to the detriment of the culture common to most Australians who live where they do thanks, in the end, to Captain Cook. That culture is Western Civilization. Cook may have left a great scientific legacy from his voyages, but he and all he stood for—extending King George III’s realm around the globe, irrespective of the feelings of those who inhabited the territories being annexed—have become toxic. So, for those marking the anniversary, it is a time for finely calibrated remorse and contrition, not riotous celebration.
As a result, Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has been attacked for earmarking 50 million Australian dollars for the events, including $6.7 million for the Endeavour replica. Australia is a country where one left-wing council last year moved its Australia Day event forward a day from January 26, the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, as it felt the 26th marked “the day the cultural decimation and denigration of the first Australians began.” Morrison has been attacked by Benjamin T. Jones, an academic historian, for an “ideological” motivation to hold the commemorations rather than a “historical” one. For Jones, the issue is the “dispossession and the destruction of indigenous cultures.” The logical next step for Jones and those who think like him would be to repatriate themselves, if possible, to the lands whence their forebears came to Australia, and give up the country to its original inhabitants: no such movement yet seems to exist.
Unfortunately for those who like the idea of “reconciliation,” Australian history is now a field on which the battle of contemporary political attitudes is being fought. Morrison and his three Liberal Party predecessors as prime minister—John Howard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull—all loudly support the Cook project. The Left in Australia, which seems to include the vast majority of university professors, are militantly against it. Jones is actually relatively moderate in that he argues that “increasing social unease with traditional colonial narratives is not based on a desire to deny history, but to expand it and to include the perspective of First Nations.” To some of his confrères, that is unacceptable: they want the cultural heritage common to the majority of Australians anathematized within the university curriculum, to stop it spreading cancer-like through society.
An institution targeted by this argument has been the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, founded in Sydney with a grant from Paul Ramsay, a healthcare billionaire and philanthropist who died in 2014. Ramsay wanted a “great books” course taught in Australian universities of the sort found in some American institutions. So far, the Centre has persuaded only two Australian universities—Queensland and Wollongong—to offer undergraduate degrees in Western Civilization, for which it provides substantial funds for teachers and scholarships for students. It is negotiating with the University of Sydney. Academics in all three institutions have raised a chorus of outrage at what they call “supremacist” behavior. The Ramsay Centre denies all such intent, claiming that all it seeks to do is teach the history of the culture common to most Australians without making value judgments about it; this defense has been argued by two prominent supporters of the Centre, the former prime ministers Howard and Abbott. Sadly for the Centre, it has begun its work just as a loud and unrepresentative group of Australians, with good access to conventional media and an adeptness in the manipulation of social media, has started an assault on the very ideas it seeks to propagate.
In March 2019, Nick Riemer, who teaches linguistics at the University of Sydney but also describes himself as an “activist,” wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald of the “heated debate” about whether Australian universities should collaborate with the Ramsay Centre. “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,” he said. The two assumptions in that statement are remarkable: that Ramsay is a front organization for Western (i.e., white) supremacists, and that universities have an obligation to support multiculturalism. It is quite clear to any objective observer that there is a vast gulf between Ramsay’s raison d’être and that of, say, the Ku Klux Klan. And while universities should be broad enough to support the study of any culture in which its students may be interested, without making judgments or assumptions about its value, shackling them to an obligation to support multiculturalism can be accomplished only by undermining their purpose: to deliver a serious education to their students and satisfy intellectual curiosity however it might manifest itself. Enforced support for multiculturalism makes universities pressure groups rather than seats of learning.
Dr. Riemer was provoked to write by the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15 this year, of fifty-one Muslims attending Friday prayers at a mosque or at an Islamic center nearby; forty-nine others were wounded. The alleged murderer—he has yet to stand trial for the fifty-one killings and forty attempted murders, as well as for terrorism—was Brenton Tarrant, an Australian. Reports after the atrocity described Tarrant as a white supremacist; he was certainly sick enough, and sufficiently politically motivated, to have streamed the mosque killings on Facebook. A former personal trainer, he had visited Europe, had become obsessed with Islamic terrorism, and had come under the influence of various far-right and neo-Nazi groups.
That what happened was abominable is beyond question; whether it merited Dr. Riemer’s breathtaking statement that people ought “to reflect seriously on how the Ramsay curriculum validates the worldview behind Friday’s massacre” is not. Riemer objected to the Ramsay Centre’s claim that it “attempts to integrate” the works of Western culture “into a coherent whole”—teaching, as Riemer put it, “Plato alongside Shakespeare and Virgil in a single, unified program of study.” He was affronted by the idea that “for the sake of ‘coherence’ . . . . texts written by Europeans . . . should be studied alongside texts written by other Europeans”—something many of the world’s greatest universities have done for centuries. This led him to his main point:
If society is to escape from the murderous civilisational hatred displayed on Friday in Christchurch . . . 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.
There is, of course, nothing of the sort, except in the minds of the politically motivated whose form of civilizational hatred is directed principally towards their own. The consequences of legitimizing this sort of thinking for academia, if followed through, would be monumental. There would be no scope to teach the classics at all; the connections between the various European literatures, over many centuries, would be lost. Where would Shakespeare have been without the classical writers and medieval chroniclers who preceded him? How do we properly study Milton if we do not also understand the Bible and some of the Western theology that informed him? And how does one appreciate the genius of Proust without knowing of the French canon in which he wrote, and the developments in modernism then underway in English and German literature? What Riemer and those who think like him seek to do is close minds and restrict knowledge, not open them and propagate it.
Thankfully, not all Australians have bought into this anti-Western attitude. The Australian attacked Western self-hatred in an editorial eighteen months earlier, when the newspaper wrote that the teaching of Western Civilization was being undermined thus:
The typical approach is to apply a series of victimology filters—race, sexuality and post-colonialism, for example—to a distorted sampling from Western civilisation. This is activism in the guise of scholarship and it offers up a sharp contrast between the diversity imperative and a monolithic legacy of dead white males.
The campaign against the Ramsay Centre has, inevitably in the digital age, become international. Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches English at Cambridge, used Skype to deliver a denunciation of the study of Western Civilization. “We must not allow ourselves to become Trojan horses for a political agenda of any kind, least of all supremacist ones,” she said. Gopal has achieved notoriety in Britain for leading a mob on Twitter against the Revd. Professor Nigel Biggar, a highly respected and unquestionably moderate Oxford theologian who made the apparent mistake a few years ago in an article for The Times of London of saying that not everything about the British Empire was bad. So Gopal knows a thing or two about political agendas, having a substantial one herself.
The Ramsay controversy has drawn Australia into a global skirmish not about the supremacy of Western Civilization—for nobody in his or her right mind would start to contend that—but about its legitimacy. And Australia is especially vulnerable in this regard, for all those reasons that go back to Captain Cook. Western Civilization, in the eyes of its opponents, is the civilization of the oppressor, the aggressor, the imperialist, and the conqueror. The anti-Western Australians believe that before Captain Cook came, Australia was a land of happy brown-skinned indigenous people untouched by the ravages of Christianity and the Roman alphabet. Their society may have been primitive by comparison with that of a Europe at the dawn of the industrial revolution, or of the many highly developed civilizations in the Arab world, the Indian sub-continent, or around the Far East, but it was a happy one.
That the indigenous people were at best marginalized, at worst slaughtered, by those who came as “occupiers” to their country cannot be denied. The occupation has proved permanent, as it has in the United States and in Canada, where native people also had to watch their land being taken over by others with superior firepower and resources. All that has been done. That there were tragedies involved is surely true. But whatever the Australian post-colonialists might say, it cannot and will not be undone.
The Australian government has in recent decades gone to enormous lengths, not just in terms of money, but also in a form of re-education, to make what amends it can to the indigenous people, recognizing that in a less humane age they were treated with varying degrees of inhumanity. Similar policies have been followed in the United States and Canada, the United States having the additional historical shame of slavery and the consequent need to ensure fair treatment not just of the descendants of those who inhabited the country before the arrival of Columbus, Vespucci, and the Mayflower, but also of those Africans brought to the continent against their will and subjected to barbaric treatment. None of this, however, merits condemnation of Western Civilization; indeed, if the ideas of that civilization (and particularly of the teachings of Jesus Christ) had been properly understood in centuries past, some of the horrors perpetrated by Westerners when they reached strange lands might have been avoided. Australia is currently a microcosm of this global fight. For the sake of Western Civilization, it is important that those seeking true enlightenment are not defeated.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 3, on page 32
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