Ramsay course offers stark choice to Australian universities

By Nick Riemer (English and Linguistics)

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald 6/9/2018

Pared down to its essentials, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation course confronts Australian vice-chancellors with a stark choice: are they willing to let their institutions’ authority to be used to bolster xenophobia and national chauvinism in our society?

The entire educational mission of the proposed Ramsay Centre is premised on the “civilisational” inferiority of non-Western cultures – the very ones Australian politicians go to war against in the Middle East, punish with interventions in the Northern Territory, stir up moral panics about and whose members they imprison in island camps when their boats come near our shores.

The Ramsay course has mainly been promoted by John Howard and Tony Abbott, the Ramsay board’s most powerful members. Their enthusiasm for studying the heritage of the West doesn’t spring from any newfound passion for Marcus Aurelius or Rousseau. Instead, the value of the Ramsay Centre to them lies in the intellectual legitimation it would confer on the other political agendas they champion. Tony Abbott, after all, has insisted on the need for the Ramsay Centre to be explicitly “right-wing”.

So far, most academics’ commentary on Ramsay has focused on uniquely academic considerations — what texts and authors would be taught in Ramsay courses, how critically the history of European cultures would be presented to students, how much direct control the Ramsay Centre would exert over university processes. These questions are important, but they are not the central grounds on which Ramsay should be opposed.

Instead of focussing on these internal questions, universities should also be asking what purposes the degree will be used to advance outside their walls. The question is not so much what the Ramsay degree is, but what, in the eyes of its sponsors, it is for.

Everything in the current national and international political context recommends refusing Ramsay’s money. Around the world, the racist right is emboldened. In Australia in 2018, a federal senator can call for a “final solution” to the “problem” of immigrants, a Neo-Nazi can be given a platform on national television, and an influential columnist (Andrew Bolt) can use the supposed undermining of Australian identity to attack ethnic diversity (including the proportion of Jews) in Australian suburbs. Muslim people’s lack of Western “values’”is regularly used, here and abroad, to rationalise the abuse of refugee rights: Hungarian  Prime Minister Viktor Orban explicitly appeals to the need to protect Western civilisation to justify keeping refugees out of Europe.

In this context, universities — supposedly bastions of enlightened pluralism — should not even contemplate starting a course which will be used to strengthen the case in society for the global superiority of “Western civilisation” and the regressive political agendas that trade on it.

Some may believe that, given governments’ unwillingness to fund universities properly, the right thing to do is to say yes to Ramsay’s money but no to its politics. That’s a nice idea, with just one problem: it’s impossible. Universities don’t control the political meaning of accepting Ramsay funding. No one can unsay Abbott’s now notorious comments about the Ramsay Centre being “in favour” of Western Civilisation, with their clear unspoken consequence – the aim of achieving ideological domination for the vision of society that Abbott, Howard and their various allies favour.

Whatever choices are made in curriculum and staffing, and no matter how finely honed the critical acumen of the staff employed to teach the Western civilisation degree, a university decision to collaborate with Ramsay will be seized on by the dominant political forces in Australia as academic endorsement of “Western civilisation” as a superior form of human existence.

This will be a boon to the most divisive tendencies in our society, to say nothing of a threat to students from non-Western backgrounds. Those students need to feel they can study at Australian universities without being implicitly cast as the needy victims of their own cultural backwardness, grateful recipients of the bounty of Anglo-American enlightenment.

Universities should stand up unequivocally to European cultural supremacism. That means saying no to Ramsay. Of course, doing so will draw criticism from the right – but confidently making the rational and progressive responses those criticisms demand and justifying the rejection of Ramsay’s divisive political agenda gives universities the opportunity to be what they so often claim they already are: principled and fearless thought-leaders, committed to defending the values of pluralism, diversity and inclusion.