Wankery and Western Civilisation

So, the fading prospect of a few dozen more kiddies quoting Locke and being able to distinguish between Mannerist and Baroque art caused our pundit and political classes to meltdown.

Of course it did.

The ANU withdrawal from the Ramsay Centre-sponsored degree in Western Civilisation was a boon to our opinionators. What could be more engaging for people focused on words, not action, than a conniption over degrees that would change nothing?

Look, I’d love to see a few degrees in Western Civilisation scattered across our university landscape. I’m a Western Civilisation fan. I read; I write; I have a degree in Philosophy, among other things. But this episode has revealed a reworked dividing line for C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures: talkers and doers.

Across Australia, we have had Coalition governments in and out at the Federal and State level since WWII. You know what governments can do? Act. You know what Coalition governments have done for the past 30 years to support Western civilisation and political institutions? Not act.

It’s not just government. We have a pundit class that could demand small, practical acts to protect and enhance the elements of our society that makes the West, the West: equality before the law, for example, or freedom of expression. Freedom of association – without attack from provocative Antifa thugs given the green light by state governments and university administrations. Protection of the private sphere. Keeping government out of civil society. But grand, wordy conflict is so much more appealing to people who want to be grand and wordy.

There are myriad small steps currently within the power of state and federal governments that would do more than a few already-interested students getting exposure to classical thinkers and a literary canon. Most don’t require legislation. Just small administrative directions, funding decisions and policy directives. And a commitment to act.

Then there are larger questions that require legislative change. Those need a political figure to make a case to the people, persist with it, take on vested interests, push through the Twitter mob, and keep going. Like both Keating and Howard on the GST. Can you imagine a single current politician with that commitment to promote and implement a controversial policy?

Instead, within government and our pundit class, we have a parade of talk-scribblers who talk and scribble, and pronounce on Western Civilisation in general terms and fly into a paroxysm of relevance at the latest university stupidity. And do nothing of consequence.

All the words from New South Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are just that. They have the capacity to act – Berejiklian especially on primary and secondary education – and refuse to do so.

Politicians, pundits, they all love it – the chance to scribble and rage and enhance status in the eyes of their peers – while protecting themselves from any real political or social conflict.

And the Ramsay Centre has gone down the same path. It has embraced the same insider-class preferences for talking and scribbling. With $3 billion behind it, the best thing the Centre can come up with is sponsoring a few degrees for people who’d probably end up at the IPA anyway?

It’s as though our bipartisan political class has an implicit deal – you annoy us, and we’ll gee up our base, and we’ll do the same for you, and nothing will change. Meanwhile our political, legal and intellectual culture – one that delivers prosperity and security for ordinary people unprecedented in human history – continues its decline.

There are the practical doers, and the hand-wringing front row kiddies still desperate to win essay prizes and teacher accolades like they did at school. You know, the types who slip in where they went to University when their arguments are challenged. The ones that like the media referring to them as “decent” Liberals. The ones that are petrified someone will say something bad about them on Twitter.

They’re the same Liberals that use “populist” as a spit-word without ever defining what it means or how it differs from constitutional democracy, other than slyly implying bigotry and ignorance.

It’s the essay-prize kiddies that control the party until a crisis drives them to let the doers do something, and even then, it’s a fight. It’s the essay-prize kiddies that dominate think-tanks and opinion pieces. And you wonder why nothing gets done.

Voters see this. It’s part of the great political re-alignment of the twenty-first century. Voters want doers, not talkers. On Western Civilisation, just as on everything else.

This first appeared at Flat White, The Spectator Australia.

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