West is home to many who appreciate our values
The protest at the Australian National University over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation shows how utterly oblivious some members of the left are to their own biases.
One group that has started an online petition against the Ramsay Centre says: “We oppose the reductive premises on which the Ramsay Centre is based: the idea of a ‘West’ and the assumption of its superiority.”
Funny, the left rails against the West for being colonialist, oppressive and arrogant, but when someone outside of the leftist tribe wants to self-fund a centre to study exactly what this West is, suddenly “the West” doesn’t really exist.
The protesters from the ANU ought to go share the good news that “the West” doesn’t exist with the Chinese, who seem to think it does. For example, the Chinese Communist Party in 2013 was warning against the infiltration of ideas such as “Western constitutional democracy” or that “Western freedom, democracy and human rights are universal and eternal”.
The Chinese think there is a “West” and that they are not a part of it. Awkward.
And what about the alleged assumption of the West’s superiority that the protesters find so offensive? The message of the Ramsay Centre is not that the West is superior but that the West has highly valuable intellectual heritage worth taking seriously. The problem with those who protest against the Ramsay Centre is that they are so used to hearing the West trashed and demonised in their lecture theatres and books that any suggestion that there might be something to be proud of strikes them as toxic triumphalism.
In other words, their visceral reaction against the proposition that the intellectual tradition of Western civilisation has immense value reveals the extent to which they are the very thing they accuse the Ramsay Centre of being — ideologues.
This brings to mind another awkward little truth: Western ideas and institutions are in demand by the non-West. Niall Ferguson showed in his Civilisation: The West and the Rest that the Ottoman and Chinese empires, which in the middle ages and early-modern period understandably sniffed at the West’s comparative primitiveness, were asking by the 18th century why the West had become so much more powerful and advanced.
One of the reasons was Western medicine, which made people healthier and allowed them to live longer. But Western medicine did not just fall from the sky; it was itself a product of the long scientific revolution that we can trace from the 16th century. Neither did the scientific revolution just fall from the sky; it was built upon a scientific tradition that began in ancient Greece, was nurtured by the medievals and was accelerated by early-modern scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Francis Bacon, culminating in the dazzling genius of Isaac Newton.
All of these scientists also drew on Western philosophical and theological traditions.
No doubt the Muslim world played an important role in this, preserving and translating ancient Greek scientific and philosophical manuscripts. Their brilliance was recognised and envied at the time. But, Ferguson reminds us: “Those who decry ‘Eurocentrism’ as if it were some distasteful prejudice have a problem: the Scientific Revolution was, by any scientific measure, wholly Eurocentric.”
If there is one thing that non-Western countries want — no, need — it is Western science. Nothing has been a greater preservative against illness, early death, the perils of childbirth and famine.
One who signed the online petition against the Ramsay Centre stated her reason: “I am ashamed to be an ANU student when I see my institution proposing a course of study that is not only actively dissuading critical thinking, but is based on a false premise — the assumption of Western superiority.”
The Ramsay Centre is not premised on such an assumption, but let’s think about this.
There are three options to choose from. Western civilisation is better, worse or equal to non-Western civilisations. But are the propositions that the West is worse or equal to the non-West really any more obvious or less contentious than the idea that the West is superior? Is it blatantly obvious that all cultures, all civilisations are of equal worth? This is not the place to answer that question, but the suggestion that they are is at least as controversial as the suggestion that they are not.
People vote with their feet, and the number of people seeking to relocate to countries such as Germany, France, Britain, the US, Canada and Australia vastly outnumbers those who wish to leave those Western countries and live in China, Indonesia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and anywhere in Africa. Do these millions of non-Westerners know something that the protesters against the Ramsay Centre don’t? Of course, the critics of the Ramsay Centre will merely respond with the old Marxist chestnut that every problem in all of those countries was caused by the West. You can’t win.
Ferguson wrote that “we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy”. Our protesters might celebrate this, but they shouldn’t. There is a reason why countries around the world adopted our constitutionalism, religious toleration, economics and science. They work. They make for peaceful countries in which freedom and culture can flourish.
Like Western science, our political, legal, and economic institutions did not fall out of the sky; they were built over hundreds of years and animated by ideas, philosophical and religious. The Ramsay Centre simply wishes to remind Australians of the very ideas that animate the institutions that make Australia so desirable a place to live — except, of course, for middle-class leftists.
The controversy over the Ramsay Centre lends credibility to Ferguson’s fear that “Western civilisation appears to have lost confidence in itself”. In an age when other expressions of civilisation — Islamic and Chinese — seem to be growing increasingly confident, that the civilisation that prioritised science, prosperity, rights and freedom can no longer affirm its own worth ought to cause us to shudder.
John Anderson was deputy prime minister of Australia, 1999-2005.
About John Anderson
When I stepped down from public leadership in 2005 I did so with a clear and optimistic vision of where this country was headed.By and large, politicians then were men and women of character and principle. READ MORE ABOUT JOHN