What makes Western culture unique and is it worthwhile defending? Given events, both foreign and domestic, the question is a vital one as the answer will determine whether countries like Australia survive and prosper — or whether, as we currently know them, they cease to exist.
T. S. Eliot in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture defines culture as “a way of life of a particular people living together in one place” and includes a people’s social system, habits, customs and, most importantly, religion. More recently, in his 1996 Boyer Lecture, the Australian academic Pierre Ryckmans describes culture “as the true and unique signature of man” and, in the same way a garden is cultivated, it is vital that society cultivates the young to enable them to preserve and enrich the culture in which they are born. Based on the example of China, Ryckmans goes on to argue it is impossible to understand a foreign culture unless you have a “firm grasp of your own culture” and, as a result, “the luxury which no country can ever afford, in any circumstances… is to dispense with its memory and its imagination”.
One only has to study history or be aware of current events around the world to appreciate that cultures rise and fall and that Western culture, in particular, is under attack by enemies both foreign and domestic. The violence and terror associated with Islamic fundamentalism and illustrated by attacks in London, Paris, Nice, New York, Boston, Melbourne and Sydney represent an external threat that strikes at the heart of our way of life. Indiscriminate and random acts where innocents are killed and maimed, in addition to creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, lead to governments introducing security laws that are in danger of compromising the freedoms and rights so often taken for granted.
As noted by the Somalian activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her recent book Heretic, Islam is not a religion of peace and terrorist groups like ISIS, in addition to waging violent jihad against the West, are committed to establishing an Islamic caliphate where non-believers face conversion, subjugation or death. The mass migration of Muslims from the Middle East and Northern Africa to England and Europe also represents a clear and present danger to the liberties and freedoms central to the West’s way of life. Whether it is Islamic youth rioting in the suburbs of Paris, German women being physically and sexually accosted in Cologne and Hamburg during New Year, the incidence of female genital mutilation in England or the ever increasing incidence of rape in Sweden by Islamic men, the reality is that our way of life is under threat.
As well as the enemy without, Western culture is also facing the enemy within. Instead of acknowledging the strengths and benefits of Western culture dating back to ancient Greece and Rome the cultural-left condemns the West as Eurocentric, misogynist, imperialistic and self-serving. Beginning in the late 1960s and early ’70s, students on American campuses began to chant “Hey-hey, Ho-ho Western Civ has got to go”.
As the result of a rainbow alliance of cultural-left theories, including poststructuralism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-Marxism, feminism and LGBTQI gender theory our universities are no longer committed to objectivity and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and truth.
Feminists argues that the Western concept of rationality is a binary, phallocentric construct employed to dominate and subjugate women. Deconstructionists argue that it is impossible to agree on the referential quality of words and that meaning is both subjective and relative. Post-colonialism, instead of accepting there might be something worthwhile about Western culture, sees it as simply concerned with the subjugation and exploitation of the Third World. Such is the parlous and fraught nature of scholastic endeavour that Pierre Ryckmans in his 1996 lecture argued that “to deny the existence of objective values is to deprive the university of its spiritual means of operation”.
More recently, the Melbourne based academic John Carroll writes, “(the Left’s) carping negativity continues to thrive. Using neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find ‘victims’ of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it – so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality. The tropes endure, with Islam the current exploited and oppressed repository of virtue.”
And the school curriculum is also being subverted by the cultural-left. As noted by the National Curriculum Review that I co-chaired, whether history, civics, art, literature or music, the contribution made by Western culture is ignored in favour of indoctrinating students with the politically correct trinity of indigenous, Asian and environmental cross-curriculum priorities.
Many on the cultural-left also argue that there is nothing superior or preferable about Western science, as it is only one science among many and cannot be considered privileged. Western science and technology, instead of improving the health and well being of millions across the globe, is condemned for polluting and destroying the planet. Ignored are the millions in the Third World who are healthier and better fed because of advances in agriculture and public health as a result of innovations and discoveries brought about by Western science, technology and medicine. The International Food Policy Research Institute measures global hunger according to the proportion of people who are undernourished, the proportion of children under the age of five who are underweight and the mortality rate of children in the same age group (termed the Global Hunger Index or GHI). Instead of doom and gloom the Institute reports:
“Compared to the 1990 GHI score, the 2014 GHI score is 28 percent lower in Africa south of the Sahara, 41 percent lower in South Asia, and 40 percent lower in the Middle East and North Africa. The score for East and Southeast Asia fell by 54 percent and Latin America and the Caribbean saw a drop of 53 percent”.
While many on the left argue that Western culture is oppressive and that victim groups such as women, migrants, working class and LGBTQI people are denied equity and social justice, as proven by an analysis undertaken by the American-based Freedom House, the opposite is the case. In our own region, while Australia and New Zealand are given the highest ratings for protecting civil liberties and political rights, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Vietnam and Cambodia are given a lower rating and are categorised as least free.
What the American Declaration of Independence describes as the right to enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has not happened by accident and is unique to Western culture. Liberty, equality, freedom of speech, the right to vote, the concept of being innocent until proven guilty, the right to a fair trial, to own property and to make a profit can only be understood and valued in the context of Western culture. Beginning with the ancient Greeks’ concept of demos and evolving over hundreds of years and including Magna Carta, the Westminster form of government, common law and the Enlightenment, those lucky enough to live in Western cultures enjoy a legacy of unparalleled freedoms.
In what is an increasingly secular age, it is also important to recognise the historical and on-going significance of Christianity, especially that of the Catholic Church. As detailed by Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Christian concepts such as the sanctity of life, free will and all being equal in the eyes of God underpin Western legal and political systems. The Perth-based academic Augusto Zimmermann also argues that Christianity has had a significant influence on our legal system when he writes:
“It can, at the very least, be said that Judeo-Christian values were so embedded in Australia so as to necessitate the recognition of God in the nation’s founding document. When considered alongside the development of colonial laws, the adoption of the English common-law tradition and American system of federation, it is evident that the foundations of the Australian nation, and its laws, have discernible Christian-philosophical roots.”
While ignored by the Australian National Curriculum, it is also true that to study music, art, literature or architecture without a knowledge and appreciation of Christianity is to be culturally impoverished. Whether it be Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Inferno, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Vivaldi’s Requiem, Michelangelo’s Pietta or the Sistine Chapel, the reality is that Christianity has had, and continues to have, a profound impact. Like the air we breathe, we are surrounded and immersed in Western culture and the danger is, like oxygen, once we discover it is no longer there it is too late.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and his monograph The Culture of Freedom is available from the Institute of Public Affairs