“I can’t wait for this protest! I’m so excited!” crowed a senior member of the University of Sydney’s Socialist Alternative (SAlt) camp. “I’m so keen!” This wasn’t directed to me, of course. SAlt branded me “Tory Scum”—in the words of Eleanor Morley, the Student Representative Council’s Education Officer—a few weeks after I arrived on campus. SAlt members are strictly disallowed to approach students who’ve been blacklisted by their hierarchy. This archetypical young radical was addressing a comrade with close-cropped hair and thick-rimmed glasses, an old hand in the university’s protest scene.
What surprised me is that she’d extended that strange greeting with such open vigour, as though it were a perfectly normal response to the circumstances. Whether you see the tragedy in the Spurr case as an elder statesman’s being professionally defamed, or as an influential academic insulting minorities, the appropriate thing to say surely isn’t “I’m so keen”. Sadly, the most unnerving comments were still to come.
When she left, her associate didn’t seem quite as comfortable with her calls to sack Professor Spurr. The gentleman said he’d been taught by Professor Spurr and thought he was a fine lecturer. “Very Judeo-Christian, white-guy poetry,” he said with an indifferent shrug. Another called the good professor “an old school mystic-intellectual”.
A few of his current students came up to me to chat, and when they realised I wasn’t there to lend my support to the protest, they asked me not to tell Professor Spurr I’d seen them there. They’ll call for him to be sacked—destroy his career and potentially ruin him financially—but don’t want to run the risk of doing badly on their Milton essay. To be frank, it never occurred to me to run off and tattle.
The first speaker was, naturally, Ridah Hassan. Ms Hassan is the first half of a sister-brother duo that hops from university to university establishing chapters of the revolutionary Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative. She’s positioned herself as the spokeswoman for the University of Sydney student body, and the thousands of students who sign her petitions and join her protests have allowed her to do so. Ms Hassan’s message was predictable: she called Professor Spurr “racist filth” and a “vile bigot”. What wasn’t so predictable was the rather disturbingly racist language she herself used, condemning Professor Spurr as a “rich white bastard”.
But her speech quickly took a more routine tack, turning her fire on the Liberal government. According to Ms Hassan, Professor Spurr, who consulted the Education Minister Christopher Pyne on the national curriculum, is simply the most outspoken head of the LNP Borg. He “revealed the truth about what the government says” at their “country clubs and cocktail parties”, Ms Hassan insisted. (Whether the Prime Minister calls himself an “Abo-lover” is maybe doubtful.) Then, in a stunning flourish, she condemned Australia for its prejudicial treatment of Muslims and claimed the “Judeo-Christian values” (there’s that phrase again!) defended by Professor Spurr and the Liberal Party are “racist”, “genocidal” values. The Hassans, we should remember, are Palestinian; but that doesn’t quite seem an excuse for the weird accusation of genocide being levied against Jews, or ignoring the ongoing slaughter of Christians at the hands of Muslims in the Middle East. Anyway, that’s old news by now. If they haven’t paid any mind to it yet, it’s doubtful they will in the future.
Kyol Blakeney, the newly-elected SRC President (who, as a bit of a tangent, threatened me and a few friends when we sang “God Save the Queen” at the university’s Manning Bar) declared that, as an aspiring primary school teacher, he “doesn’t feel comfortable teaching how Western society has benefited Australia”. I can’t imagine why not. Surely there’s room to argue that indigenous and poets deserve more attention in the national curriculum, but to move in the opposite direction—abolish all positive references to European civilisation?
Here we have the case, on the one hand, of one white tenured professor supposedly making racist comments in jest, and in private correspondence; on the other, we have any number of Arabic and indigenous students openly using racist language far more earnestly—and in front of SBS cameras. Will any of them be sacked? No. They’ll be re-elected to the SRC and land comfortable jobs in schools and universities across the country. They’ll be doing their best to abolish your children’s racist, genocidal Judeo-Christian values and shame their Western heritage. And your tax dollars will pay them to do it.
The final speaker was Patrick Massarani, outgoing Undergraduate Fellow of the University Senate. (Pat has the distinction of making the only clever reference to Eliot throughout the day: “It’s time for Professor Spurr to decide if he’s going out with a bang or a whimper.”) A couple of years ago Mr Massarani was largely ostracised by his Labor Right fellows for being just a bit too Right. One supposes this is how he bounces back. I’ve known Pat for long enough to say I don’t believe for a moment that he approved of the more extreme rhetoric being spouted by the far Left. He’s even known to crack an insensitive joke or three. Nevertheless, by appearing on the same stage as Ms Hassan, Mr Massarani also allowed any legitimate inter-institutional debate to be framed by SAlt. No one heard Pat Massarani speak for a tolerant learning environment. They heard a big Labor name desperately lending his relatively small weight to a much larger group of extremists. He’s the old silk ascot tucked neatly into their stiff new fatigues.
The rally ended with a march on Professor Spurr’s office in the John Woolley Building. He wasn’t actually in his office; whether the protesters were aware of the fact I’m not sure. Either way, they were happy to scrawl swearwords across his door in permanent marker. And he’d never see the graffiti one way or the other: as soon as the mob dispersed, custodians assembled to pick up the scraps of paper and clean the ink off the walls. The security guards and I pitched in. You could still hear Hassan & Co gloating to the lingering news cameras outside.
Now that’s what I call people power.
The case against Professor Spurr could’ve been just that: the case against Professor Spurr. And for what it’s worth, I believe wholeheartedly that he meant those comments as a joke. No doubt Professor Spurr is, overall, a traditionalist—before his, I’d not had a handwritten exam in years. And he’s what passes for strict these days—he asks students to wear shoes and not eat in his tutorials, oh horror Victorianorum! But surely that’s not enough reason for the radical university Left who, though always eager to spring into protest at a moment’s notice, couldn’t possibly conceive of driving a man into the dirt for telling them to put away their yoghurt cup.
Some of it has nothing to do with Professor Spurr personally at all. For instance, Professor Spurr is an Anglo-Catholic, and may well indulge in the light-hearted contest between High and Low Churchmen for the souls of Christendom. One trusts the Methodists aren’t too cut up about it. But on the numerous occasions we’ve met he’s made sincere comments that entirely contradict the Left’s image of a bigoted dinosaur. He expressed optimism at the election of Barack Obama; planned to organise an alternative, charity-oriented Christian group on campus; and is an outspoken proponent of animal rights, serving as an executive for the university’s Human Animal Research Network.
Far be it from me to contradict the notorious Usyd rent-a-crowd, but are those the sort of casual opinions and consistent actions taken by a closet bigot? Did his colleague-correspondents, most of whom statistically must be Left-leaning, really spend the last two years indulging deadpan racist diatribes because, “Oh, that’s just Barry”? That really doesn’t seem likely. And though it’s not the happy ending to a good public scandal the media’s been moving towards, no explanation pans out … except Professor Spurr’s. We’re seeing the press’s choicest bits of a linguistic game taken out of their proper context: close friends who know they’re making light of serious issues will neither damage the other nor be taken as sincere reflections of one another’s true feelings. We might not quite understand the game; but, then, no one invited us to play.
Though, ultimately, whether or not any of us agree with his sense of humour is beside the point. Its appropriateness has already been determined for us. One commenter on SAlt’s Facebook event, “Rally: Sack Barry Spurr, Professor of Bigotry” admitted:
He could have been just utilising some off-colour humour (that I also enjoy) in personal correspondence. He wasn’t professing racism. Making an off-colour remark doesn’t make one a racist when its intentions are to provoke shock.
There was a bit of tongue-lashing, and yet none of his comrades thought this chap’s sense of humour—by his own admission, much like Professor Spurr’s—was indicative of serious racist sensibilities. What’s the difference between the two humorists? One’s publicly committed to the radical ideological orthodoxy, and the other isn’t. As Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others.” What you and I can see is that Hobbes has no sense of humour. But, sadly, neither does the far Left. For them, so long as you’re on the books as a leftist, you can get your yucks however you like. Sadly Professor Spurr was too discreet about his personal life. The New Matilda’s hacker put an end to that.
The discussion about Professor Spurr’s language is appropriate, and the university has no feasible option but to make a thorough inquiry. But what the university should be reprimanded for is—as always—allowing these singular concerns to be used as a platform for violent, prejudiced radicals to launch attacks on certain racial, religious and cultural groups. Does it matter at all that indigenous Australians and Muslims are a minority in this country? Under what conditions can the Vice-Chancellor and the Fellows of the University of Sydney Senate tolerate an anti-white, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic rally on campus? Who’s going to condemn that hate speech? Who’s going to ensure those prejudices don’t work their way into our schools?
Nor can we fail to return again and again to the fact that this Professor Barry Spurr isn’t just a straw man, a hollow man. He’s a flesh-and-blood human being. That’s who Socialist Alternative and their ally, New South Wales Greens candidate for Newtown Jenny Leong, burned in effigy. Professor Barry Spurr is one of the finest Eliot scholars, frankly, ever. He’s contributed more to the field than perhaps any single intellectual. He’s one of the last professors in any major university still committed to the formal technique of poetry (“poetics”, as it were). And then there are the more nostalgic aspects: he was the last lecturer in Australia to cease wearing academic robes during class. He was a close friend and correspondent of the late Mrs Valerie Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s widow.
Professor Spurr is a living national treasure.
This situation is a double travesty. It’s a tremendous setback for those of us who believe Western civilisation is overall a very good thing, that its novels and verses ought to be shared with our children, and that no one should feel ashamed or guilty for the colour of their skin—even if it’s white. We’re seeing a university, built by Judeo-Christian European-Australians, proffering itself as a forum for anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and anti-white bigotry.
This country’s finest academic institution is happy to let professional rabble-rousers skip class to hijack its campus and insult its most accomplished faculty members. It’s caving in to the efforts of hundreds of caustic twenty-year-olds who insult and abuse a sixty-something-year-old who’s given the better part of his life to that same institution. There would be no University of Sydney without men like Barry Spurr, and there would be no Australia without the Western civilisation he defends. I think both the University of Sydney and Australia could get along just fine without Socialist Alternative.
This is also a very personal tragedy. It’s pitiful to imagine that pack of undergraduates screeching, “I’m so keen for this protest!” as if it’s a free Niki Minaj concert, gloating over the ruin of a man who really never sought public attention at all. There’s an inescapable sadism in the behaviour of the university’s far Left. We’re watching an old-fashioned bear-baiting: they’ll make the grizzly seem nasty, until you see the rope around his neck and the pack of dogs closing in around him.
Everything Barry Spurr’s ever worked for, ever dreamed of, is in these radicals’ sights. Any reasonable individual should find it eerie that there are people in this world who feel that all of this persecution and abuse is not only warranted, but a bit of Friday afternoon sport.
Michael Warren Davis, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, is studying English at the University of Sydney. He edits poetry for the Quarterly Review and is the Australian Monarchist League’s university liaison.