“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
For some strange reason that line from Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus seemed appropriate as 320 enthusiastic libertarians shuffled into the auditorium to hear Roger Scruton deliver the keynote address — “Liberty and Democracy in Western Civilisation.” The Institute of Public Affairs organised the event as a ‘symposium’, which to the ancient Greeks was a drinking party where literary works were read. But this symposium was a very sober affair indeed, held against the creepy backdrop of Section 18C and the aftermath of the left’s recasting of the word “liberty” in this, their twitchy, post-modern world.
The second issue, cited in the symposium’s title, ‘Democracy’, never really got off the ground, as it was overshadowed by perhaps our society’s most pressing peril — the threat to Western Civilisation itself. The past, present and future as reconfigured by the left-wing intelligencia. And so it was in this framework that Roger Scruton and the seventeen supporting speakers managed, with their own thoughts and style, to distil the threat that threat is the re-jigging of freedom of speech, education and history into the left’s current version of a ‘stairway to heaven’.
Claudio Veliz’s three minutes of allocated introduction, which he managed to stretch to 12 minutes (to the distress of moderator Chris Berg), caught the crowd’s delight as he skilfully introduced into the debate — can we possibly say it? — ‘positive-racism’, by highlighting what he called the ‘four pillars’ of Western Civilisation as a English construct. This went something like the organic nature of the English language, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Common Law. Viva Britannica!
Then there was Janet Albrechtsen’s class act, which I must say is much better experienced, live-in-concert, than read off the page. There is double the passion. Her extracts from Ronald Reagan’s letters and public broadcasts captured the almost-lost art of the conservative-politician being a master of wisdom-mit-humour — the art of getting a serious proposition reduced to a great one-liner, of making the big idea sink in.
Andrew Bolt substituted for former Prime Minister, John Howard, who could not attend because of the funeral of Paul Ramsay. As he spoke, what stood out was the dead hand of 18C, which controlled what Bolt could actually say. It was an experience for this writer to be in a public forum in Australia and be told that, because of a court judgment, a fellow citizen could not speak about the circumstances and issues involved in that judgment, even why he had been dragged before the court in the first place. As Bolt spoke you could detect the caution, the hesitation, that ever-present awareness of the invisible shackle.
The highlight, of course, was the foremost guardian of Western culture, Professor Roger Scruton. I had hoped that he would sweep on-stage wearing a Greek chiton and clutching a silver cup of hemlock, but his tweed jacket, casual slacks and hair that looked like it had been brushed by the Roaring Forties, worked just as well.
Conservative Australians are well versed in the colonisation of our schools and universities by the left, so it was emotionally uplifting to have our fears and concerns being confirmed by the colourful professor. Indeed his power of reasoning, his skill at presenting ideas and his clarity of thought exposed, perhaps, what we lack in this country: a celebrity-academic who can grab the conscience and attention of the nation by the throat, and give it a bloody great shake.
Roger Scruton’s brief address confirmed that the crisis facing Western Civilisation stems from the humanities departments of our universities and the intellectual constipation that results from a diet of political correctness and undiluted ideology. Political thought that goes no further back that Karl Marx! Oh, that someone would finance hoardings across Australia proclaiming… “There is more to life than Karl Marx!”
A lively panel comprising of journalist Nick Cater, Professor Claudio Veliz and Dr. Jennifer Oriel (of that much loved quote “people who love language should not salute its executioners”) convened after lunch. Nick Cater, the second journalist (unsurprisingly, like Janet Albrechtson, from The Australian), smoothly reminded us that we do not walk alone and that not all journalists are blinkered. His talking-part was as refined as his great book, The Lucky Culture.
A surprise was Jennifer Oriel’s address that clearly enhanced the big question hanging over the symposium — namely the almost total smothering of conservative thought within academic circles and the slow-slow, quick-quick-slow advance of left ideology from our universities to the mainstream life of the nation. Oriel took the sort of fatalistic stance that “all is lost” with political correctness, rights-ism and public discourse under a sort of “master control” (the room in all television stations that controls all output), the place that vets everything just before the public sees or hears it.
Former High Court judge, playwright, author and raconteur Ian Callinan broke the seriousness of the afternoon with a brief insight into the law, the English language and writing, which included the curious case of the snail in the soft-drink bottle — which I’m still trying to fathom. He imparted the free advice that one should “never try to be funny with a judge during a trial”. In all this I was trying to picture Judge Bromberg, former Labor pre-selection candidate and presiding judge at the Bolt trial, hearing the snail case.
The opening panel of the symposium, featuring Ian Harper and Ryan Messmore, started to feel a bit like a Christian fundamentalist meeting until they got to their general point that human progress and Western Civilisation owes most of its present day outlook to Christianity. We are all under the sheltering sky of Christianity whether we realise it or not. A serious question posed to this panel by Philippa Martyr was “why do most leaders of the Christian faith seem to always side with left-wing or authoritarian organisations?” Her question did not receive a satisfactory answer.
The final panel included Richard Allsop, Tim Wilson, David Kemp and the ever-effervescent Professor Greg Melleuish, who would have made an excellent foil for Roger Scruton. The fire and brimstone expected of Tim Wilson didn’t eventuate. His good manners must be an anathema in the corridors of the Human Rights Commission.
Of course the connection between religion and present day conflict is obvious. And this, perhaps, goes to the very heart of the symposium’s topic, “Liberty and Democracy in Western Civilisation”. It is Islam and its incompatibility with Western civilisation that is the stand-out issue today!
Who would ever have though that the time would come when you must not question or criticize people whose beliefs encourage some to blow up civilian aircraft, bomb civilian market-places, kidnap schoolgirls and publicly claim their objective is the destruction of Western Civilisation. We actually have laws in this country that protect from insult or offence the very people who boast that they are out to destroy us.
The added threat to Western Civilisation, particularly in this country, is breed of righteous academics and their determined effort to ignore history and the fruits of over two and a half thousand years of Western thought and culture. The benefits of Western Civilisation not only enrich our lives, but those benefits are eagerly sought by every nations of the world.
To remove the story of Western Civilisation from school lessons and curriculums; from university courses; from books on Australian and world history is censorship and it should be clearly identified as such. Strangely, children in this country learn more about the history of Western Civilisation, not in school or university, but from video games, Hollywood films and TV shows. The thrills and excitement of bygone days should start in the class-room, not with Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Who would have thought Tony Robinson and Time Team would prove a greater source of history and culture for a young mind than school?
Our strongest defence against authoritarian rule, political correctness and attempts to smother our traditions and beliefs and our fundamental rights like freedom of thought and expression, is our history and the events that led us to where we are today. To belittle our history and traditions is bad enough. To deny it from our children is an intellectual crime.
Perhaps the disappointing thing about the symposium was the lack of a call to arms. Some ideas as to how to counter the various threats that we now face. These should have been discussed. Our greatest weakness is our lack of passion — and that is what our enemies both within and without, possess — and seize upon.
Congratulations to John Roskam and his team for a terrific effort.
(* Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus is on a brass plate at the base of the Statue of Liberty.)