Samuel P. Huntington, over twenty years ago in The Clash of Civilizations, argued, “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” How prescient he was is proven by the fact that Western civilization and the culture it embodies and safeguards are under threat. Islamic terrorism, the impact of the culture wars and postmodernism, the rise of statism, the pervasive influence of celebrity culture and new technologies, to name a few, are all conspiring to undermine certainties and absolutes that, until recently, have stood the test of time.
The violence, death and destruction associated with Islamic terrorism both overseas and on Australian soil not only represents a physical threat; the nihilistic and evil ideology underpinning terrorist acts like 9/11 and the more recent murder of 21 Christians by Islamic state threaten democratic values and beliefs, since Magna Carta, that have evolved to safeguard the peace and prosperity of English speaking nations.
Even worse, apologists for those seeking to destroy our way of life refuse to acknowledge the true nature of Islamic terrorism, preferring to blame Western culture, supposedly, for excluding and marginalizing disaffected groups whose only recourse is to turn to violence. The cultural left, instead of developing a strong and convincing narrative about the strengths and benefits of Western culture (what is worth fighting for) engage in a narrative of self-recrimination and self-doubt. Whereas our universities and our schools were once committed to the pursuit of what Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy describes as “the best which has been thought and said”, given the impact of deconstruction and postmodernism, there are no longer any truths that we can hold in common or consider absolute.
The established disciplines of knowledge, instead of having any inherent meaning or worth, are simply socio-cultural constructs that enforce false consciousness and the hegemony of the ruling class. The purpose of education is not to seek wisdom or truth but to reveal how all relationships are based on power and how capitalist societies enforce inequality and disadvantage.
Such is the ubiquitous and intrusive nature of celebrity culture that generations of young people measure success in terms of how popular they are on social networking sites like YouTube, facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The never ending pursuit of material possessions and physical gratification promoted by the more extreme forms of consumer capitalism add to a superficial and self-centred view of life that, while promising much, delivers little of enduring or transcendent value. Instead of success arising from hard work, ability and application, everyone is entitled to their 15 minutes of fame and their moment in the spotlight. Whereas the printed word requires effort and concentration, the Digital Age embodies an iconographic world of ever-flickering, superficial and transient images and sounds.
The impact of these changes on Western culture is significant and profound. Whereas previous generations acknowledged and celebrated our unique way of life, the cultural left argues that Western civilization is no better than one culture among many. According to the national curriculum, Australia is a multi-cultural, multi-faith society characterized by diversity and difference. A society where, as the curriculum asserts, there is no agreed definition of citizenship:
Individuals may identify with multiple ‘citizenships’ at any one point in time and over a period of time. Citizenship means different things to people at different times and depending on personal perspectives, their social situation and where they live.
Cultural relativism dictates that the way of life associated with our Western heritage and traditions is no longer superior or preferable. If true, one wonders on what basis we can say ‘no’ to child brides, female circumcision and a theocratic form of government.
Many from the cultural-left argue that institutions like the family, the churches, the education system and our political and legal systems are misogynist, Eurocentric, patriarchal, elitist and, worst of all, Christian.
The Australian Education Union in its curriculum policy argues that Australian society and culture are riven with inequality and injustice and, as a result, the school curriculum must acknowledge:
The pronounced inequality in the distribution of social, economic, cultural and political resources and power between social groups, which restricts the life development of many.
Instead of being resilient and capable of overcoming adversity, the high rates of suicide and mental depression and illness are symptomatic of a ‘victim’ mentality where the belief is that whatever goes wrong must be the fault of somebody else. In this brave new world of political correctness, “rights” take precedence over responsibilities, the prevailing ethos is one of entitlements, and the nanny state now intrudes into our public and private lives in a way never dreamed of by Aldous Huxley when he wrote Brave New World.
Complicating matters further for those committed to defending and preserving Western civilisation and its cultural capital is the inability or unwillingess of many conservatives to fight the culture wars and to engage in what John Howard, when prime minister, described as “the battle of ideas”.
As noted by Edwin Dyga, in the October, 2014, edition of Quadrant, — “The Future of Australian Conservatism” — such is the influence of the cultural-left dominated media, educational institutions, entertainment industry and progressive political parties that it takes a brave person to swim against the tide, to question prevailing orthodoxies. Dyga argues, such has been the cultural-left’s success in taking the long march through the institutions, that the situation is one where:
… all discourse is saturated with “progressive” ideology and its assumptions, making authentic challenges to the zeitgeist impossible for fear of reprisal. Political defeat, being ostracized from “polite society”, loss of career and reputation: these are the consequences any individual can expect to suffer to varying degrees for expressing views deemed heretical by contemporary liberal sensibilities.
What’s to be done? Sun Tzu’s aphorism “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat” highlights the necessity of identifying and understanding what motivates the cultural-left in what ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard describes in a 2003 speech as the “culture war”. While always couched in terms of equity and social justice and strengthening the common good, in an attempt to create a utopia on this earth, the reality is that the cultural left’s agenda is driven by the politics of pragmatism, envy and a thirst for power and control. In its more extreme form, and so graphically portrayed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the socialist ideal ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ eventually deteriorates into a cruel, violent and unjust world no different from that which has been overthrown.
The French Revolution’s cry of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, as Edmund Burke predicted, was soon drowned out by the reign of terror, the sound of Madame Guillotine and shouts of the assembled mob. No amount of propaganda, misplaced ideology or double think can disguise the harsh and brutal reality of Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s famines and Pol Pot’s killing fields. More recent strategies used by the cultural left to exert power and control, while not as brutal or violent, are equally as dangerous and effective. Groupthink and indoctrination, ignoring or banishing dissenting voices and taking control of the instruments of public and intellectual discourse are all employed to ensure compliance.
The philosophy is also a leveling-down one which opposes meritocracy, fostering individual effort and restricting the power of government. Especially, in areas like education the belief is that rewarding ability, effort and application is elitist and guilty of reinforcing inequity and social injustice.
Arising from the counter culture movement of the mid-to-late 60s, the philosophy underpinning a cultural-left agenda is inherently hostile to rationality, objectivity and a transcendent sense of life; the very things that underpin Western culture. While old style Marxists believe in an objective reality, more recent manifestations of cultural-left thought argue that how we perceive the world is subjective, that there are no truths that we hold in common and that the academy must be transformed into an engine of social critique and radical change.
In addition to knowing your adversary, it is equally important to know and appreciate what it is you believe in and what you are seeking to defend. The cultural capital associated with Western civilisation, as suggested by Matthew Arnold, embodies “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Culture, while also referring to a way of life, in its deepest and most profound sense deals with wisdom and truth and moral and spiritual values and beliefs. Such knowledge and understanding does not happen intuitively or by accident.
Over some hundreds of years Western culture has become codified into a range of academic disciplines and artistic and creative activities, both theoretical and practical. Western culture is also unique given the historical significance and on-going benefits of university and school education. Each discipline and each activity addresses fundamental truths about the nature of reality, the purpose of life, what it means to be fulfilled, how to decide right from wrong, what constitutes the good life and how best to serve the common good. As argued by George Weigal, in The Cube and the Cathedral, while practical and utilitarian, such a view of culture is transcendent in nature and to be valued for its own sake. It addresses:
… what men and women honor, cherish and worship; by what societies deem to be good and true and noble; by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.
Instead of being ossified and backward-looking this view of culture is also dynamic and subject to revision and change. As noted by Arnold, the intention is to turn “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically”.
Christianity and the Bible are also central to Western culture. Christ’s story and the lessons from the Bible, especially the New Testament, have had, and continue to have, a profound impact on our legal and political systems, ethics and philosophy, the arts, literature and our way of life.
Western culture is also variegated in nature and, while being unique, over some thousands of years has drawn on a range of other cultures and traditions in areas like science, mathematics, architecture, language, literature, music and the arts. The Somalia activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on being asked what can be done to counter Islamic terrorism argued that physical force was not enough. To counter evil beliefs and indoctrination the West had to “inculcate into the minds and hearts of young people an ideology or ideas of life, love, peace and tolerance”. She was describing the very attributes associated with Western civilization that define our culture and that must be defended.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of the Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University