24 January 2023
Before the Christmas holidays, one of my mates jokingly said something about ‘soon you’ll be writing about the Left’s war on Christmas’.
I hadn’t thought about it until I noticed all of Australia’s universities, apart from two, had ‘happy holidays’ or ‘wishing you a happy festive season’ as their Christmas messages on LinkedIn.
Someone suggested to one of our oldest universities, ‘It’s okay to say Merry Christmas, you know.’
I’m all for celebrating and respecting the various religious holidays, but why is it so difficult to say ‘Merry Christmas’? Christmas, it seems, like much of the great tapestry of Western Civilisation, is routinely demonised. It stems from an emerging academic trend known as ‘decolonising’ and it represents a misguided attempt to undo history and the foundations of the Western tradition. But to what end, exactly?
Critics of Australia’s liberal democracy suggest we should add a whole bunch more public holidays based on the various faiths represented in Australia’s multicultural society. Note that this was not suggested as a flexible arrangement with employers based around one’s faith, but about adding more public holidays because our ‘institutions still feel very much monocultural’. Apparently, this needs to change if ‘Australia does not want to be seen internationally as remnants of British colonialism on the edge of Asia’.
I would argue that you can take the boy out of the booner, but you can’t take the booner out of the boy. I was born in Penrith and no amount of Canberra hoity-toity is going to change that, no matter how much I try to re-write history. But that is what ‘decolonising’ is all about – re-writing history to stop what comedian Bill Maher calls ‘emotional haemophiliacs’ from being offended by the spiky bits of the past. I am not saying that we cannot learn from the past or that we should not allow generations to heal from past atrocities. But flippant and superficial ‘decolonising’ does more harm than good and divides rather than unites our society. It also ignores the very freedoms and other benefits that were part and parcel of the Western tradition that has served us so well.
The tactics of the decolonising movement avoids the need for manners in communication. In response to a recent email that I began with ‘Happy New Year’, I received the reply, ‘Happy Gregorian/Western new year to you too!’ At first I thought it was funny, a bit like Gerard Henderson suggesting that the annoying habit of beginning an email with ‘I hope you are well’ is irritating because ‘someone who is really sick would not be able to read the note – so, what is the point?’ But the point is that manners are essential to the functioning of communication and our society. Even the BIFF approach (brief, informative, friendly, firm) for dealing with high-conflict people incorporates manners as part of the process. Politeness is not weakness, but the decolonising crowd can often be straight-out rude.
Recently published ‘research’ used critical discourse theory to argue that the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is based on a narrative of white supremacy. Such thinking mimics the behaviour of that mythical folk creature, the oozlum bird. The Great Books of the Western World are central to the liberal arts tradition that enabled critical discourse theory in the first place. But anyone who has witnessed decolonisers argue on social media will find that manners are not an option. The barrage of personal attacks on conservative commentators – not their ideas – swirl and grow like a shark-feeding frenzy.
Robert M. Hutchins, the architect of the Great Books series, argued that in liberal democracies, citizens ought to engage in The Great Conversation, or what John Howard refers to as a ‘contest of ideas’. Hutchins claimed that ‘thinking is an arduous and painful process’ and that without strong minds that can appraise issues for themselves, democracy ‘will fall prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists’.
Writing in 1952, Hutchins did ‘not believe that any of the social and political changes which have taken place during the past half-century, or any that now seem imminent, have invalidated, or can invalidate, the tradition, or render it irrelevant for modern man (sic)’. One can only imagine the vitriol Hutchins would be subjected to today. He would probably be cancelled for the gender-specific language that was common at the time – never mind that the liberal arts tradition led to the use of gender-neutral language in the first place.
The late, great, Harold Bloom, literary critic at Yale University, was not a fan of cancel culture. In his tome The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Bloom recognised the importance of ‘other’ civilisations without entering into a war against them. He referred to those groups who want to decolonise literature as The School of Resentment. While not willing to politicise the Canon, Bloom agreed with Anglo-Australian poet-critic Kevin Hart’s observation that ‘all our talk of life and death, of form and design, is marked by relations’ with the Western tradition. Further, Bloom stated that the Western Canon ‘is the true art of memory’ and ‘the authentic foundation for cultural thinking’.
If we apply Western reason to decolonising (which is what decolonisers do to Western Civilisation), then the endpoint is to destroy the very foundations of Western Civilisation and its institutions and cultural memory. Once this is accomplished, there are only a handful of alternative approaches to civilisation that remain, and none of them likely to inspire confidence in the future. Western liberal democracy has its problems, but undoing the system of reasoning that allowed it to be challenged in the first place won’t do any of us any good. If we do follow the decolonising movement, we may very well end up in the same place as the mythical oozlum bird.