On Western Civilisation

EDITORIAL, 22 Oct 2018

#557 | Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

One of the best-known quotes about Western civilisation is the exchange attributed to the Mahatma Gandhi. What did he think of it? he was asked. The great man’s reply – “that would be a good idea” – has passed into legend.

Gandhi’s renown stems, of course, from his leadership role in a successful nonviolent movement to eject the British ruling class from India. How to sum up the experience of the Indian peoples under colonial rule? Westerners working in the subcontinent made some of the most important advances in modern medicine – establishing that malaria is spread by mosquitoes, for instance, or successfully vaccinating against cholera and bubonic plague. They worked with a population that had grown rapidly to apply modern agricultural methods introduced by the British, but paradoxically prone to famines as well as disease. The geographer, Mike Davies, has shown how millions perished in “late Victorian holocausts” when the effect of crop failure due to adverse climate events was worsened by British policies. Land reserved since time immemorial for feeding people in tough times was, instead, given over to inedible cash crops, such as indigo for dyeing European fashions.

At such human cost were the resources assembled that allowed Brit­­ain’s rise to prosperity in the industrial age, finding its iconic form in the great textile mills of northern England. It was also an age of reform, laying down the social and political foundations of liberal democracy: bracketed at one end by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and, at the other, the final extension of the franchise to women, 99 years later. In the process, the spread of literacy from the provision of universal basic schooling, and the revolution in transport, enabled the rise and spread of national newspapers. Trade unions were legalised, thus obliging employers to manage by agreement rather than intimidation and diktat. Britain’s Welfare State was set up by the country’s last majority Liberal government, before the outbreak of World War I.

Why rehearse this well-known history now? Liberal democracy later came to be closely associated with “the West”, a political construct that passed into common parlance during the Cold War, from the 1940s. Its advocates tended to trace a lineage of ideas and values back to classical Greece and Rome, anointing the kind of political regime current in Britain and – with variations both minor and major – other countries allied to the United States, as the product and emblem of “Western civilisation”.

Which brings us up to the present day, and the ambitions of an Australian private foundation, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, to partner with a major research university on an academic programme under the same banner. Endowed by a substantial bequest from the late Paul Ramsay, a psychiatrist who founded a large private healthcare company and a regional television network, its mission is to “educate future generations in the traditions and practices of western civilisation”. The strategic purpose of such activity is “to create over time a cadre of leaders – Australians whose awareness and appreciation of their country’s Western heritage and values, of the challenges that have confronted leaders and people, with that broad heritage in the past, would help guide their decision-making”.

If a distant alarm bell is ringing by now, its tone increases to one of stridency the moment a visitor to the Centre’s website turns to the section given over to its nine-strong Board of Directors. The page positively gleams with whiteness. Of The Nine (any resemblance to the Nazgûl from Lord of the Rings being purely coincidental), only one is a woman, and none is from an ethnic minority. The Board is chaired by one former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, ably assisted by another, Tony Abbott.

Criticism of the Centre and its plans has focused on its orientation towards promoting the claims and virtues of “Western civilisation”, rather than applying the unremitting critical scrutiny, informed by relevant research, to which all other important ideas are routinely subjected. In a nutshell: “The Ramsay Centre will interrupt, by ideological means, international standards of independent scholarship”. The words are those of Linda Connor, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, whose senior management have agreed a “Draft Memorandum of Understanding” with the Centre to develop a degree course. Professor Connor is to speak at a public meeting, called to air concerns over the University’s plans, next Monday (October 29th), ahead of an Academic Board meeting on Wed Oct 31st where the proposal will be voted .

Another distinguished scholar at Sydney, Professor John Keane, has written an Open Letter to the University community, commenting that, “if the themes favoured by the Ramsay Centre were publicly enunciated, their narrow intellectual horizons would be torn to shreds in a hail of rigorous questioning”. He also points out that the draft MoU “outsources potential veto powers” to the Ramsay Centre board over course content and staff appointments. The University’s Vice Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, has rejected this, but the document makes clear that money will continue to flow only if Howard, Abbott & Co. are satisfied with what is being taught, and by whom: “The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, as the vehicle for the donation of funds to support the University’s program in Western Civilisation, will have the right to review the program at an agreed point in time, that review to be conducted by a group of academics proposed by the Centre, to assist the Centre in deciding whether to renew the funding agreement”.

There is yet another and more fundamental objection to this scheme: how did these people come to parade themselves as the advocates and self-styled defenders of western civilisation in the first place? Missing from my thumbnail account (above) of the emergence of liberal democracy in western countries is a crucial element, summarised by the distinguished anti-slavery orator and writer, Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress”. Every gain made – in the United States of the nineteenth-century, where Douglass inspired movements for racial and gender equality; in Victorian Britain, and in the preceding centuries – had to be drawn from the teeth of entrenched opposition by the beneficiaries of an unjust status quo. The same story can be repeated in any other relevant context of time and place.

In that sense, Howard and Abbott, through the policies of their governments and their present-day successor, the Liberal-National Coalition ministry under Scott Morrison, are lineal descendants of those who impeded progress, not those who struggled for it. The technological achievements of the Industrial Revolution were made possible by the earlier Scientific Revolution, which substituted evidence and reason for religious doctrine as the prime source of information about the natural world and how it works. And yet the Coalition parties are known, in Australia, for their denial of science when it proves inexpedient to their members and clients – from human-induced climate change (and its corollary, ending coal-mining) to the need to cull Brumbies, or wild horses, in national parks. In the seventeenth century, the political ancestors of Howard and Abbott were those who locked up Galileo Galilei, for supporting the heliocentric theory first put forward by Nicolaus Copernicus.

In their bullying and budget cuts directed at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, today’s ministers in Canberra stand in a line of shame from British governments’ use of stamp duty to suppress radical newspapers, two hundred years ago. They never miss an opportunity to denigrate trade unions. And Abbott attained extra notoriety when he seemed to endorse misogynistic attacks on his Labor predecessor, Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The Ramsay Centre website is illustrated with Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting of Liberty Leading the People, in the French Revolution. Only try asking asylum seekers on Nauru or Manus Island, in the concentration camps opened under Howard’s so-called “Pacific solution”, how much liberty, equality and fraternity has been extended to them.

The Ramsay agenda, in short, is not to enquire, but to inculcate. Western Civilisation is to be regarded not as a subject to be critically investigated, but an object with which to beat political opponents about the head. Any version likely to gain approval from the Centre will be flat and resonantly empty. We may infer from the all-white composition of its Board that perspectives of enslaved and colonised peoples will be unwelcome – an egregious omission in Australia, of all places. It will be tilted against the very progressive forces that enabled the developed, democratic West to develop and democratise in the first place. Surely, any future Ramsay Professor of Western Civilisation at the University of Sydney, understanding this, would find ways to compensate for it? Unfortunately, the terms of the Draft MoU recall nothing more clearly than an equally famous aperçu, from a contemporary of Gandhi, namely the US writer and political candidate, Upton Sinclair. “It is difficult to get a man (sic) to understand something”, he wrote, “when his salary depends on his not understanding it”.


Associate Professor Jake Lynch chairs the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. His work in this field was recognised with the award of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, having organised its biennial global conference in Sydney, in 2010. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a 17-year career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, for Sky News, and the Sydney Correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as an on-screen presenter for BBC World Television News. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick ‘Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism,’ which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is, A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014).

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Oct 2018.

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