An introduction to this ACRAWSA Blog Symposium on the ‘Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization’ and the attack on Indigenous and critical race studies in Australia.
Many astute people are perhaps rightly touting the wave of white supremacism sweeping across the US, Europe and now Brazil as due to the impact of social media, trolling and fake news. But why are these fascist messages having such success while it seems the Left is barely able to cut through?
There are those on the ‘white left’ who like to blame what they misname identity politics and excessive sensitivity to ‘political correctness.’ They think that talking too much about race, gender and sexuality is ‘unhelpful’ and try to claim that we can think about class as though it were not cut through with these other axes of domination.
But, in introducing this symposium, I want to suggest that a major reason why the far-right is seeing success is because there is a deep investment in the primacy of whiteness and Europeanness at a time when, as an institution and a structure of domination, whiteness comes to be perceived as being in deep crisis.
As Syed Mustafa Ali notes in the video below, white supremacy is always accompanied by white crisis. Whiteness always tries to shore up its defences and rallies people by overplaying its impending demise at the marauding hands of migrants, asylum seekers, Indigenous peoples, Black people, Muslims, Jews, and so on. The project of whiteness trades in ignorance which, as Charles W. Mills wrote, is not actual ignorance but the false ignorance of those who wish to dictate what is knowable.
Erasing the history of the West through the elevation of ‘western civilization’ cannot be other than a racial-colonial project. The only way it is possible to consider the West as above ‘the rest’ is by rewriting history to exclude the degree to which the very idea of the West is indissociable from supremacist notions of whiteness and Europeanness. Race after all is about the ordering of humanity into Europeanness and non-Europeanness and degrees of proximity and distance between. It is this willful, knowing white ignorance that is abetting contemporary fascism while liberals continue to mindlessly repeat the faith in the ability of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to cleanse the public sphere of bad thoughts and unethical beliefs. The poverty of this argument was revealed by Melbourne lawyer Nyadol Nyuon in her response to Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill’s suggestion that it was antiracist to condone absolute freedom of speech without exception.
Since ACRAWSA put together the idea for this symposium against the backdrop of discussions held at the University of Sydney about whether or not to accept a deal with the Ramsay Centre to teach an undergraduate degree in ‘Western Civilization’, it has come to light that the University of Wollongong has accepted a donation of $50 million to set up such a programme. As announced in the Sydney Morning Herald, students, who will need a 95+ ATAR to be accepted to the degree, will receive a scholarship of around $27,000 each. The indicative curriculum to be offered by the Centre emphasises the classical origins of western thought. Implicit is a denial of the fact that is impossible to conceive of the west without taking into account either its deep imbrication in the fullest of the world’s traditions, knowledges and cultures or its reliance on the domination of the majority of the world’s populations. This has led not only to the genocidal decimation of Indigenous peoples, the theft of their lands, and the appropriation of their cultures but to the erasure of their knowledges.
These points were made very well, in particular by Evelyn Araluen, who emphasised the erosion of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Sydney through the closure of the Koori Centre, at a forum held by Sydney staff in October. And the case against the Ramsay Centre from the perspective of the protection of academic freedom was amply made by the Australian National University Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt in his rejection of the centre’s ‘gift.’ Nonetheless, it was noteworthy that Schmidt was careful to emphasise that the ANU’s objection to the Ramsay Centre was not on ideological grounds:
If ANU had withdrawn from the program simply because some people within our ranks were uncomfortable, for essentially ideological reasons, with the very idea of it, we would deserve all the criticism hurled at us. But that was absolutely not the case. There was, and remains, strong support across the University for a major enhancement of our teaching and research capacity in the area of Western civilisation studies […]
We withdrew from negotiations because there were irreconcilable differences over the governance of the proposed program, not its substance. We were willing to accept the Ramsay Centre having a voice in curriculum design and staff appointments. But only a voice, not a controlling influence.Brian Schmidt
There seems to be a deep gap between the actual concerns of many staff and students, particularly Indigenous and students of color, as well as those committed to thinking about ways in which we can decolonise the curriculum, and those that govern our institutions. While Schmidt’s stand was a principled one, certainly in comparison to his colleagues at Sydney or Wollongong, it does not constitute a defence of the university as it actually exists in Australia. That is to say, the narrow defence on the grounds of academic freedom alone does not represent the concerns or interests of our increasingly diverse and multiracial student body. This of course speaks to the wider problem that the staff and management of our universities do not reflect the make-up of the student body, let alone the population as a whole. But, beyond this, it also speaks to the poverty of an argument that remains narrowly focused on liberal notions of ‘freedom.’
There are many competing understandings of freedom, and only one of them is currently ascendant. That version is not the one advocated by the Combahee River Collective in their incipient call for a politics of identity:
If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.Combahee River Statement
Rather freedom, especially as it relates to the realm of ideas, is dominantly thought of as expressed in terms of a marketplace. Ideas, from this perspective, are seen as free floating, able to be expressed by anyone, in any way, without direct consequence for material conditions, physical or psychological well-being, or the future living together of society. Investment on this marketplace is mostly (though not exclusively) the realm of white men. As they would have it, debate and free expression are in and of themselves the greatest ideals in a liberal society. The contention is that the airing of all views will result, de facto, in the best possible outcome. The most widely heard version of this last point is the notion that refusing to listen to the ideas of even the most extreme fascist ideologues, of racists, transphobes, homophobes or sexists, will lead, not to the eradication of these ideas and the violent practices they engender, but to their proliferation. The best thing that we can do, according to the ‘ideas free marketeers’ is to let a 1000 flowers bloom, to hear everyone out, and may the best argument ultimately win. This point of view, as has been pointed out many times over, disregards the starting position of those engaging in debate. It also denies the access of some to the means of violence, quite literally, and the very real fact that racialised people and sexual minorities on the other side are forced to ‘debate’ issues that concern the very substance of their being – their right to life itself – and do not have the luxury of approaching debate like a parlour game.
The most strident defenders of the Ramsay Centre are equally staunch defenders of the liberal ideas of limitless free speech. Yet, it is clear from Brian Schmidt’s intervention, that the Ramsay Centre itself is not interested in absolute freedom because it took an ‘extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach to the proposed program.’ As Schmidt further notes, ‘the Centre has gone so far as to insist on the removal of “academic freedom” as a shared objective for the program.’ This is why it is incumbent upon us as race critical scholars, committed to antiracist practice, decolonisation and Indigenous sovereignty that we also use this space to critically interrogate the left-wing variant of anti-Identity Politics which, as Carolyn D’Cruz puts it in her contribution to this symposium, dovetails with the ideas about free speech coming from the Right.
There are myriad examples of how this is expressed. A case in point might be that of the left-wing journalist, Glenn Greenwald, who wrote the following tweet:
The problem with such a view is that, as commented upon by Zoe Samudzi, it assumes that racism is about morality rather than about the dominance of whites over Black, Indigenous and other racialised people. The moral view of racism sees it as outside of the ‘normal’ realm of politics, as imposed upon the body politic, rather than as integral to the way power is organised in the colonial power matrix. In this perspective, debate can serve to air the immorality of an individual’s racism and either enlighten him/her to the error of their ways, or at least alert a discerning public to the racist nature of the person’s speech. This apolitical perspective denies the extent to which the structural conditions established in a society such as Australia do not facilitate individuals to adjudicate the racism inherent in such views. For example, the prevailing view encouraged by government, the media and education, is that many Aboriginal people are ‘languishing’ on welfare. A liberal perspective on the matter is that, rather than having access to welfare, people should be ‘encouraged’ to work in order to determine the course of their own lives. Someone expressing this position will not automatically be read as racist because there is an absence of literacy about the history of race and colonialism in society that makes it possible to understand the terms in which such arguments are made; it fails to account for structural discrimination in the employment market, let alone long term injustices that began with invasion.
Another left-wing perspective on Identity Politics and ‘political correctness’ (as antiracism is often dismissively called), is that it dilutes the fight against capitalist domination. This is the perspective taken by the left-wing journalist, Jeff Sparrow, in his latest book, Trigger Warnings: political correctness and the rise of the right. Sparrow opposes the concerns of those who he calls ‘ordinary people’ with elites who he sees as having imposed a language of political correctness from on-high with the result of distracting society from the rampant excesses of neoliberal politics.
Sparrow’s analysis mirrors that of German Marxist economist, Wolfgang Streeck, whose article ‘Trump and the Trumpists‘ argued that the Trump vote was a cry for help by a dishonored white working class. Hillary Clinton, Streeck argued, represented a cosmopolitan urban neoliberal elite who are gleeful that Americans are ‘shortly to become a minority in their own land,’ because they are unaffected by the pressures created by outsourcing and undercutting. Trump was successful because he restored honour to these dishonoured Americans.
Streeck’s analysis has not withstood the test of time given Clinton’s own pronouncement that Europeans should limit immigration lest they befall the same fate as the United States. More broadly, the arguments made by left-wing pundits such as Sparrow and Streeck that less attention to race, sexuality and gender, would serve to unite a mythical left against elites does not stand up to scrutiny given their failure to foreground the imbrication of race in class. As Robbie Shilliam has shown, to talk about race is always to talk about class, because there is no way to imagine a pristine ‘white working class’. The working class, and particularly, the dominated workers of the precarious class, are Black, Brown and undocumented.
The aim of this symposium is to demonstrate how, in order to defeat the rampant incursion of right-wing, Eurocentric and white supremacist agendas into an Australian academy that is already woefully far from decolonising, we must think about how these apparently disparate forces – conservative pundits and think-tanks and left-wings opponents of identity politics – represent two sides of the same coin that is not willing to cede an inch to the people who actual make up the society we live in. In this regard, Robbie Shilliam opens the symposium by reminding us that it is inherent to western thought to consider western civilisation ‘as sui generis – as unique’ and, thus to undertake critical and impartial inquiry as a defense of that uniqueness. Carolyn D’Cruz continues with an incisive reflection on the urgency of responding to the broader attacks against identity politics – to which the controversy over the Ramsay centre is integral – by centering the ‘disjuncture at the heart of the settler state’ in our teaching, research and activism. Victoria Grieves-Williams concludes by positioning the management’s willingness to accept the Ramsay Centre’s ‘gift’ in the University of Sydney’s long history of impairing Indigenous teaching and learning on the one hand, and incorporating Indigenous knowledge into western thinking ‘without attribution’ on the other.
As each contribution touches upon the salient, yet undiscussed, issues at the core of the Ramsay Centre controversy, we hope this symposium will be just the start of a longer conversation on how to decolonise Australian universities. And we invite you all to participate.