[Marxism] Australians Must Reject a Nationalist Push Into Our Universities

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 29 15:11:37 MDT 2018

NY Times Op-Ed, Oct. 29, 2018
Australians Must Reject a Nationalist Push Into Our Universities
Politicians and activists are shaping nationalist sentiment into pride 
in artificial and ahistoric notions of civilization.
By David Brophy

(Mr. Brophy is a senior lecturer in the Department of History at the 
University of Sydney.)

SYDNEY, Australia — In 1985, the Australian entrepreneur Paul Ramsay 
took a tour of Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana. So impressed was he 
with the luxurious “white castle” mansion and its grounds that he 
decided to buy it right there and then. In Mr. Ramsay’s hands, the 
property became a popular tourist attraction and resort. The resort’s 
website continues to revel in Nottoway’s antebellum glory days, while 
neglecting to make any mention of the slave labor from which it was built.

A similar desire to whitewash the past informs the institution that Paul 
Ramsay has left Australians as his legacy: the Ramsay Center for Western 
Civilization in Sydney.

In the 1990s, Prime Minister John Howard accelerated the privatization 
of Australian health care, introducing a tax rebate for those who took 
out private insurance. During the sell-off of state assets, Mr. Ramsay 
specialized in turning veterans’ hospitals into profit-making 
enterprises, before expanding his interests across the sector. By the 
time he died in 2014, his net worth was likely upward of $2 billion.

Mr. Ramsay’s health care fortune is now being plowed into a second 
sector facing a dire erosion of public funding: higher education. With 
Mr. Howard as chairman of its board of directors, the Ramsay Center is 
in negotiations with multiple Australian universities to fund a new 
program of courses in Western Civilization.

There’s no denying the benefits that philanthropy can bring to a public 
university, but the Ramsay Center is no ordinary donor. Its board 
members have been frank about their political goals: to redress what 
they see as excessive criticism of the West in Australian universities, 
and to cultivate a “new generation of leaders” who will “defend and 
promote” Western civilization, which the chief executive of the center, 
Simon Haines, believes is “arguably the richest of all civilizations.”

The Ramsay Center wants to establish its program alongside, and separate 
from, existing offerings in disciplines like history and philosophy — 
disciplines already heavily weighted toward the West. And it intends to 
privilege “Western civilization” by providing its budding “cadre of 
leaders” with scholarships and learning conditions that outstrip those 
available to their peers.

Ramsay’s push onto campuses marks the next step in a wider campaign to 
roll back the more pluralistic definition of national identity that is 
emerging in today’s multicultural Australia. In the 1990s, Prime 
Minister Howard voiced his hostility to a “black armband view of 
history,” which in his view gave excessive weight to the indigenous 
viewpoint on Australia’s colonization.

Speaking in 2010 at the launch of the Foundations of Western 
Civilization Program, an initiative of the free-market Institute of 
Public Affairs, Mr. Howard railed against the Australian Labor Party’s 
new high-school history curriculum, which he felt belittled European and 
British influences on Australia.

But it is not only Australia’s history wars in which “Western 
civilization” serves as a rallying cry for conservatives. In a 2011 
address entitled “Western civilization must be defended,” Mr. Howard 
argued that same-sex marriage was “an exercise in de-authorizing the 
Judeo-Christian influence in our society.” Another former prime 
minister, and Ramsay Center board member, Tony Abbott, has justified the 
invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of “defending Western 
civilization against the forces of chaos.”

The myth of an embattled “Western civilization” has also been featured 
in a recent series of alarming interventions into the politics of race 
and immigration in Australia. In August, Senator Fraser Anning referred 
to his harsh policy ideas as the “final solution to the immigration 
problem,” arguing that we must not “concede the field to enemies of 
Western civilization.” Earlier this month, the governing 
Liberal-National coalition endorsed Senator Pauline Hanson’s motion 
echoing the alt-right slogan “It’s O.K. to be white,” and deploring 
“attacks on Western civilization.”

Efforts to re-center the university curriculum on more celebratory 
notions of “Western civilization” feed off, and in turn give scholarly 
legitimacy to, interventions such as these. The Ramsay Center’s rhetoric 
may sound more sophisticated than the outright Western chauvinism 
emanating from the Australian Senate, but the kinship they share is obvious.

The Ramsay initiative mirrors a wider global trend in which politicians 
and activists shape nationalist sentiment into pride in artificial and 
ahistoric notions of civilization. Amid growing geopolitical rivalries, 
and widely expressed hostility toward free trade, kindred spirits on the 
global right now seek to divide the world into cultural camps, 
threatening the critical spirit and international exchange that is so 
vital to scholarly work.

In the United States, the conservative National Association of Scholars 
has lobbied to restore “Western civilization” to the centrality it once 
held in America’s college curriculum. This campaign led to the creation 
of Texas Tech’s Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, headed 
by the N.A.S.’s founding chair. Next month, the institute is hosting 
Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State 
University, who will present “the case for colonialism.”

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is introducing a curriculum 
that will inculcate a “new civilization” informed by his definition of 
Ottoman and Islamic values. In China, President Xi Jinping has similarly 
set himself the task of reviving his nation’s confidence in “5,000 years 
of Chinese civilization.”

In some cases in Australia, universities have shown themselves vigilant 
to the dangers inherent in this climate of cultural nationalism. When 
Beijing’s Confucius Institute came knocking at the University of Sydney, 
my colleagues rightly insisted that they have no role in teaching 
Chinese language and culture to our undergraduates.

The Ramsay Center’s first suitor, The Australian National University, 
balked when it realized the constraints the center wished to place on 
its autonomy and the intellectual freedom of its faculty. Yet with much 
of the same proposal still intact, including a periodic review of 
funding and Ramsay participation in hiring decisions, administrators at 
the University of Sydney have been unable to resist the lure of the 
center’s millions and — to the considerable disquiet of staff, including 
me — are plunging into negotiations. More preliminary moves are afoot at 
the University of Queensland.

In the face of administrative intransigence and the erosion of faculty 
governance, staff and students at the University of Sydney have 
mobilized strongly against the Ramsay proposal, and enlisted the support 
of colleagues from around the country and overseas. Several departments 
have issued open letters opposing the partnership, and some faculty have 
threatened to boycott it. An arm wrestle is taking place on our campus, 
and its outcome will have significant consequences for Australian higher 

For universities to fulfill the critical role they were designed for, 
it’s essential that they not simply serve as conduits for the viewpoints 
espoused by the loudest or wealthiest voices in the wider society. The 
values of pluralism and diversity that all Australian universities 
profess to represent shouldn’t be reduced to mere advertising slogans — 
they’re prerequisites for the participatory intellectual climate in 
which scholarly work thrives. It’s time for our universities to live up 
to these promises and to reject Ramsay.

David Brophy is a senior lecturer in the department of history at the 
University of Sydney, and a member of the Staff Against the Ramsay 
Center group.

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