Saving history from the Ramsay Centre’s warriors

If you want to know how serious the Ramsay Centre is about sharing top-rate knowledge about Western culture, just take a look at their social media pages. They’re a rare, guilty pleasure in these lugubrious, late-stage culture wars. Recently we were treated to an incisive feature on Elvis – ‘Since the beginning of his career, Elvis Presley has had an extensive cultural impact’ – and a Wikipedia-copy-and-paste job on the Nicomachean Ethics. William Wordsworth receives special treatment, with two rather unusual lines included about him copied in (unsourced) from

Although well known for his poems, William Wordsworth’s emotional power, not his breadth of intellect, is what made him famous and influential. Much of his importance comes from statements by such great Victorian thinkers as John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and Leslie Stephen about how much they owed to Wordsworth for his emotional power.

How did we end up here? Where the well-funded public defenders of our ‘embattled civilisation’ put so much energy into the culture wars, and so little into the culture? Where the defenders of free thought want to send operatives in to run ‘health checks’ on free academics? The Ramsay Centre debacle has been almost too tiresome to even engage with: the usual battle lines, the familiar sense of righteous paranoia, that same elite anti-elitism that is tearing up the Anglosphere’s most beloved institutions. As a student of twentieth-century Europe, and of East Germany in particular, I find it especially grim to read the claims that the West is inherently liberal, and the demand that historians and critics celebrate the achievements of the Australian nation.

The limitations and dangers of the Ramsay idea have been argued, and argued well. Against the outrage of the right, defenders of the university have invoked academic independence, their suspicion of philanthropy, and the dubious intellectual use of ‘Western civilisation’ as a separate notion at all. This conservative moment, meanwhile, has shown what it really stands for: a paranoid vision of civilisational struggle, a determination towards martial law in the world of culture.

‘I don’t admit defeat,’ John Howard has said, and one is inclined to believe him. The Ramsay Centre will surely resurface once again in public debate: in another staged argument about the merits of the so-called West and the perils of relativism; another university wantonly defamed. Howard has said he will follow the issue ‘right to the end of the road,’ and he seems to have plenty of time on his hands; so too, for however long, does Tony Abbott.

The Ramsay Centre might only be a cynical political move: an attempt to formally install a model of (right-wing) philanthropy at Australia’s starving public universities; an excuse to wage more culture war on shadowy unnamed traitors, or both. But the battle over it has revealed the cultural right in its familiar double-negative, which is much less interested in the actual material of Australian (or ‘Western’) tradition than in hating its so-called detractors. These are our topsy-turvy times, where conservative elites wage war on institutions and traditions in the name of the people.

The Ramsay bequest meant that after decades of grouching, the right was on the front foot, finally positioned to beat swords into ploughshares. With oodles of money and a vast, coordinated platform, what sort of positive programme could the finest conservative minds come up with? Where are all these dangerous ideas of yours?


The pattern of negativity was set in the Howard era, and it has never really ended. Howard continually complained that elites had been trying to ‘rewrite Australian history’, shifting the conversation around Australia’s past into a campaign against academic historians and progressive commentators. ‘I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history,’ Howard declared to parliament in 1996. ‘I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one.’ The same was ever-present throughout Tony Abbott’s political career, and his prolonged Doctor-No routine even as Prime Minister marked an apex of negativity for a conservative cultural moment that was – to borrow a catchy phrase – deliberately barren.

When Christopher Pyne led a curriculum review in 2014, he worried that the history curriculum was ‘not recognising the legacy of western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia’s history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day’. As he promoted his review, he could not or would not name any other positive elements of Australia’s history – only Gallipoli, only the ANZACs, always Australia under threat. Nick Cater’s much-fêted book of 2013, The Lucky Culture, was described by the author as a ‘shameless celebration of what’s right in this country’. Cater barely managed to rattle off the stump-jump plough and the Ridley stripper, however, before retreating swiftly back to familiar terrain, raging for the remaining 300-odd pages of his book against the Greens, Gough Whitlam and the ABC. Even this highest of conservative minds, in his most optimistic moment, couldn’t find anything much that was positive to say.

Now, too, negativity reigns throughout the myriad different defenses of the Ramsay Centre in the News Limited papers, Quadrant, Spectator and the rest. Greg Sheridan said this would need to be led not by an academic but by a ‘street-fighter’; Abbott insisted the Centre would be ‘not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it’. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) website features a number of articles under its research vertical, ‘Western Civilisation,’ which is overseen by one Bella d’Abrera, who has publicly complained that the Left is treating history as a ‘science’. Some recent headlines include: ‘Universities of the Closed Mind’, ‘The Ramsay Centre and how Our Academic Appeasers Censor Students’ Right to Learn’ and ‘Let’s Honour Our Western Heritage Without Shame’.

The enemies are revealingly vague, here. ‘Despite what many self-appointed dietitians tell you,’ Josh Frydenberg wrote for The Australian, ‘Australia is part of Western civilisation.’ We hear about these scheming West-slanderers, anti-patriotic academics and great works rubbed to dust by glib postmodernism. Which, what, who are they? ‘Name ten,’ you want to shout, ‘Name just ten!’ Either the cultural right doesn’t actually know much at all about Western culture, or they couldn’t possibly get away with admitting what they do love about it. Tony Abbott might pass for a ‘man of the people’ when he’s shirtfronting lefties but the schtick would wear thin if he were to confess that what he really loved about England was the royals and Margaret Thatcher and what a smashing old time he had at Oxford.

The missed opportunity here is tragic. If the problem is a lack of enchantment – that young Australians don’t know how lucky they are – then why not spend that money to enchant us? Where are Gerard Henderson’s column inches dedicated to Ferdinand von Mueller, William Dawes, or Ellis Rowan; to the transported Chartists of Newport, or to Antigone Kefala? So the right doesn’t trust university elites: why not use the Ramsay money to set up a free online lecture series, or a night school in Parramatta so punters can hear David Malouf talk about the classics after work?

It’s one thing to argue with conservative cultural figures, or historians that have an earnest Euro-centric view of the past; an early Geoffrey Blainey, say, at least had a sense of what he wanted to preserve. But it’s another thing altogether to debate against professional wreckers and tabloid street fighters who only take an interest in our past in order to gall or provoke, and who wouldn’t know Herodotus from the Honey Badger.


In amongst all the shouting – what Guy Rundle has called the ‘Pravda-style bore-a-thon’ of the Centre’s proponents – there emerges a vision: the historical and cultural consciousness of a right-wing moment that is anti-progressive rather than conservative. It isn’t just that they’re fighters. It’s that they have congealed into a paranoid ideology from which they cannot escape the fighting, and they are incapable of creating anything constructive at all in the cultural sphere. ‘You can’t win the culture war by pretending it doesn’t exist,’ reads an article on the Australian Conservatives website.

For this brand of wrecker-conservatism, culture is something that is given, not made; it is something essential that must be kept safe from interferers, rather than be nourished by attention, resources, and new thinking. It’s the history of the finishing school, not the modern research university.

This worldview is all wrapped up in that seemingly simple idea of Western Civilisation, and of what these voices mean by it. Simon Haines, the Ramsay CEO, wrote in Quadrant that ‘Western Civilisation’ was so clear and obvious as a concept that it didn’t really need to be defined at all: ‘As Augustine said about time, we all know what it is, we all live with it, even if we can’t say what it is.’

They say Civilisation, not culture, for a reason. Civilisations are separate, competitive, opposed. In the works of Niall Ferguson, a civilisation is always in ascendancy or decline, while Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations imagined a world of continual struggle between fundamentally incompatible cultural groups. (In the traditional French usage, ‘civilisation’ only happens in the singular; you are either civilised or savage.) And while a lot of us have grown accustomed to the idea of participating in multiple cultures at once, you can only really have one civilisation. Haines smuggled this into his Quadrant piece via parentheses, while describing Western civilisation as an orchestra: ‘Yes, of course,’ he writes, ‘there are other orchestras: by all means listen to those too: but how many can one person actually belong to?’

Civilisation also brings to mind the Cold War, which, for those who bought into it, pitted two great civilisations against one another in a zero-sum, all-encompassing conflict. Conservative Australia felt the threat of enemies abroad and traitors at home; each of these would strengthen the other. It was in the Cold-War context that Abbott developed what David Marr called his ‘belief that his God-given mission was to save us from enemies we don’t even realise are there.’ ‘Civilisation’ here merges culture with politics, demanding a one-to-one correspondence between cultural forms and systems of political and economic organisation. Thus, the past is a political battleground. To study other traditions is to weaken your own – hence the Ramsay mob’s fixation with the ANU’s Islamic Studies department – and to perform cultural criticism is an act of national political sabotage.

This view brings to mind Howard’s phrase about the ‘balance sheet’ of Australian history, as if certain ideas and interpretations must be either net-positive or net-negative. In Quadrant, Abbott recalled Paul Ramsay thus: ‘A decent and sensitive man, Paul wasn’t oblivious to the deficiencies, the failures and the blind spots of our civilisation; but he was convinced that, on balance, it had been far more good than bad.’ In our public sphere, there is a dangerous blurring between history and memorialisation – most notably in the ANZAC legend and the outsized role of the War Memorial in Australian schoolrooms. Memorialisation is personal, mythological, and consoling. History, by contrast, takes scientific principles as its guiding force (pace d’Abrera); it seeks not to valorise but to understand. When the past becomes something to mourn or to celebrate – when your culture is either a shame or an achievement – you pay a high price in the pursuit of self-knowledge.

The ‘balance sheet’ is obviously absurd to modern historians or cultural critics. Thinking of my own university years, was it pro- or anti-West when I wrote about Rousseau’s idea of time, Thomas Mann’s reluctance towards democracy, or the Jewish question in George Eliot? So little academic work – including for undergrads – fits onto the ledger at all, and this provokes the political impatience of the right. They want to know where you stand right away, or as Tony Abbott put it to the ABC after Zaky Mallah’s Q&A appearance, ‘Whose side are you on?’


Which side was James Baldwin on? ‘I love America more than any other country in this world,’ he wrote, ‘and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise it endlessly.

When it comes to critical thinking, Ramsay’s defenders find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they want to exclude the dissenters and pessimists of today; on the other hand, they know that openness is one of the key claims they can make on behalf of ‘Western Civilisation’, and that many of the great Western figures they want to invoke were themselves a motley crowd of radicals and grumblers. (One wonders how happily T.S. Eliot or Mark Twain, for instance, would fare as cheerleaders for the Western status quo.)

Bella d’Abrera claims that, ‘Western civilisation is unique because it acknowledges rather than ignores its own “turpitude” and learns, or at least endeavours to learn, from it.’ Haines, meanwhile, wrote: ‘The liberal tolerance they sneer at is what tolerates their sneers, where other civilisations would have imprisoned them, and do. Its openness to the whole world, to new experience, its adventurous spirit of discovery and curiosity, its desire “to strive, to seek, to find”, and yes, its capacity to criticise itself, are what has distinguished this civilisation from others.’ So why the whole culture war? Why all these ‘health checks’ in the name of free thinking?

They can eat their cake and have it thanks to a carefully cultivated sense of paranoia, which allows them to treat themselves to a useful illiberalism. We do of course love free thought, they say, but just not right at the moment, because it’s kind of an emergency. The cultural right has declared perpetual martial law on the culture.

Wolfgang Kasper’s Quadrant essay tried to address this issue, arguing that, ‘we have to distinguish between openness to criticism, which is important to maintaining a society’s cultural vigour, and outright attacks. There is a clear line between selective criticisms of aspects of civilisation and the total rejection of all its aspects. What now characterises the growing attacks on Western, time-tested traditions is not only that they are totalitarian, but also that they are rarely based on facts and rational analysis.’ Among Kasper’s total rejectors, he includes climate scientists and Jacinda Ardern.

Perhaps this apocalyptic loss of scale is strategic. Perhaps it is an honest consequence of the lack of real debate on the Australian right: too much loyalty to the battle lines.

Either way the result is an illiberal paranoia that is of a piece with the ‘paranoid style’ identified by Richard Hofstader in 1960s America. ‘The paranoid spokesman,’ he wrote, ‘sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilisation. He constantly lives at a turning point.’ Compare that to this round-up of real right-wing responses to the Ramsay Affair, courtesy of Robert Manne:

Jennifer Oriel told her readers: “If you want a reason to mourn freedom’s demise, observe Western universities destroying the Western mind.” (…) Janet Albrechtsen believed that taxpayers’ money given to the universities was “funding our downfall”. Maurice Newman, not to be outdone, believed that because the left had captured not only universities but also the judiciary and the army, Australia was already “a long way down Andrassy Avenue”, the Hungarian site of its fascist and Stalinist torturers.

This is the cultural vision of the anti-progressive, the demolition conservative. First, they assume an intangible connection between all of Western culture and our current political system, as if Plato leads inevitably to NATO, as if you can’t read Wordsworth and still be a fascist. Then they sideline free thinking in the name of emergency, enabling the right to claim the triumphs of the West while laying waste to the culture itself: to universities, arts funding and public institutions like the ABC and SBS. Women’s rights, as Chris Hilliard has observed, are to be celebrated, but the fight to achieve them gets mocked. At worst, it is a fairytale for the triumph of neoliberalism. At best it is nostalgia dressed up as history – culture reduced to the lethargy of heritage. Never mind the thinking: man the gates!


All of which leads down a dark, dangerous path. If you want your academics and artists to only do the kind of work that valorises the present, and that justifies the historical triumph of the moment’s political and economic system, then you have to admit you are walking side by side with some of the very worst societies in Western history. As a student of the Cold War, it is hard to read about these ‘health checks’ and not think about the terrible damage wrought by Communist state functionaries on the academic and artistic communities of Central Europe.

Such supervision prohibits anything good from getting done, not just because it refuses dissidence, but because free and original thought refuses to be proven as harmless. So too the modern university. As Nick Reimer has elegantly argued, the critical study of the humanities doesn’t forbid admiration or emulation, but it absolutely does require that ‘critique never be excluded as a mode of intellectual engagement.’ No one wants the state-sponsored kitsch of the late Eastern Bloc, the interminable ‘boy meets girl meets tractor’ (or, for Nick Cater, boy meets girl meets the Ridley stripper). Free thinking needs relief from the balance sheet.

Can we save our history from the culture wars, save our culture from the defenders of civilisation who feel compelled to turn it into a battleground?

The spirit of inquiry in the modern university deserves more than the lip service it receives from the Ramsay Centre’s supporters. At its best, the academy is anathema to the culture warriors for good reason. Ideas can safely be tested, sharpened, brought to their limits, far from the pressure of politics and economics. We might reflect on the many challenges facing our humanities departments in this context. Thinkers do not need to be protected from new thinking; they need space, money, time and respect.

The professionalism of history, for its part, can be stubbornly resistant to the needs of politics. In her Quarterly Essay of 2006, Inga Clendinnen quoted the great British historian E.P. Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, who set out against so much triumphalism to ‘rescue’ the ordinary people of the past from ‘the enormous condescension of history.’ Clendinnen’s image of the history classroom was vitally different indeed from the force-feeding of the Ramsay mob, respecting the process of free thought as a cultural achievement:

I would like students at every level to study Australian history because I believe that one of the best ways to “teach values” is to exercise minds by engaging them in investigation of conflicts between competing values and interests, always with a proper regard for clarity and justice of analysis and the relevance of evidence.

We can also commit to ideas of national identity that reject the whole idea of the balance sheet. Culturally, Paul Keating’s ‘Big Picture’ suggested a deeper level of self-understanding could be its own source of confidence. Germany’s long, complicated process of ‘coming to terms with the past’ has not led it to ruin. Instead, it has become a unifying cultural practice, one deeply linked with many of their greatest twentieth-century cultural achievements, from Heinrich Böll and Christa Wolf to New-Wave film and beyond.

If the Ramsay debacle rumbles on, as one expects it to, we don’t just need to be worried about this plot on our universities. We also need to be wary to defend our culture and our past from the urgencies of political paranoiacs who like to think they’re Hector of Troy but are vibing much more like that big bloke from 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The world of culture, in peacetime, calls for beating swords back into ploughshares. This Ramsay bequest was an opportunity for the cultural right to do so, to leave behind their warring negativity and show they are capable of liking anything at all. It’s clear enough, now, if there was any doubt: these people have no idea what to do with a ploughshare. And you can’t make culture grow with a sword.


Image: John Howard bowling / Cricket Network

Alexander Wells

Alexander Wells is a writer based in Sydney. His work has been published in Homer, Newtown Review of Books and the Harvard Advocate. He also volunteers at the Addison Road Community Centre, where he recently co-curated an exhibition on local peace movements over the last century.

More by Alexander Wells ›

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  1. Perusing the ‘great canons’ of “Western Civilization” as proposed by the late Paul Ramsay and the managers and propagandists for the Ramsay Centre, one cannot help realising how pathetically irrelevant they are to the hundreds of millions of people in the world purportedly the inheritors of this “civilization”. Sad reactionaries in a long-gone colonial outpost.

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