A friend of mine argues that the reason old white guys are so anxious about the Fall of Western Civilisation is that there’s no longer much content to it. Whatever culture we had, it has been replaced with the blandest and cheapest form of capitalism. Our education system is about preparing people to exchange their labour for sub-poverty salaries. Our ability to enjoy nature is tempered by our desire to dig up whatever might be profitable underneath. And school children read Harry Potter because they can always watch the movies and buy the merchandise if they struggle with the prose.
So when former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gets up to the podium and praises Western Values, we know — even without hearing the speech — that there is something not serious about his claims. Back in May, Abbott’s account of Western Values somehow necessitated the amendment of s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Apparently, creating a safe haven for people to say the ‘N-word’ is an essential part of our cultural heritage. More recently, he claimed that Indigenous Australia prior to colonisation by the Bristish was ‘prehistory‘.
‘Western Values’ should not be a cloak for racism. One of my concerns, as a conservative, is what conservatism looks like in a multicultural society following the colonial period. How do you reconcile an Anglo-Australian with their cultural heritage when their prosperity depends upon extremely recent atrocities against Indigenous populations? How do you encourage everybody (regardless of cultural background) to connect with the best and most inspirational of their cultural heritage to shape their ongoing identity and contribute to the ongoing development of contemporary multicultural society?
Worse, ‘Western Values’ should not be treated like a monolith of pap liberalism. The same enterprising spirit of individual values was the same motivating force behind the global slave trade. John Locke wrote the Californian Constitution which defended the rights of slave owners against interference from the legislators. It’s the dynamic energy of Western Values — the constant synthesis of theses and antitheses — that makes it a fertile place for innovation and expansion. Sure, our conception of the individual was an interesting creation of Western culture, but our concept of the community is even more interesting. It is the tension and how we — through historical accident — conceptualised them and reconciled them that created our present condition. That’s the bit that’s worth both celebration and critique.
Here are five policies that Abbott would back if he were serious about promoting Western Values.
1: Direct more funding to the humanities at universities.
Both Coalition and Labor governments have been pushing the idea that universities should focus more on ‘practical’ things like STEM research so that we can have a more competitive economy, build better robots to perform labour, and manufacture more widgets. In 1939, Robert Menzies had a very different vision: ‘Let me defend a so-called useless scholarship on the great grounds that it represents a sanity badly needed in an insane world; that it stands for a due proportion in life and living; that it develops the humane and imperishable elements in man; that it points the moral that the mere mechanics of life can never be the sole vocation of the human spirit.’ Menzies thought of universities as ‘civilised and civilising’, an institution which trained character.
But in the push away from traditional values, universities have largely lost this function. How frequently we see people who hold an MBA or a BSc who can’t read, who don’t value reading, who don’t know what to read. These people can’t connect with their own culture because they simply do not value culture. And when they can’t connect with or value their own culture, they cannot appreciate why people from other backgrounds might want to connect with or value their own. They become numb to moral reasoning beyond either gut instinct or, worse, the faux-neutral ’empirical’ ‘evidence-based’ reasoning that suggests that ‘facts are sacred’.
It remains baffling that the party of Menzies is openly hostile to the pure research that he loved and championed.
2: Direct more funding into the arts.
How can anybody champion Western Values if there is insufficient resources for society to immerse itself in the product of those values? The great progresses in Western Civilisation were heralded by dynamic leaps forward in the arts. Art is the way that values are communicated to broader society. Through art, we see performed social norms that shape our intuitions about how the World Should Be: what is just, how politicians should behave, what is fair, how people should treat each other. Even ideas as basic as our identity are shaped by our performed culture and participating in that performance.
But instead of promoting Western Values through its natural medium, Coalition and Labor governments slash not only the funds available for the production of art (which would be bad enough) but also slash funds available to maintain infrastructure for the arts. It is increasingly difficult — in some cases impossible — to access the infrastructure needed to produce fine art. Live music and theatre won’t exist when there are no venues in which to perform.
3: Direct more funding to galleries, libraries, archives, and museums.
Not only do we need the production of culture, we also need its preservation and promulgation. Under Abbott’s government, funding to the National Film & Sound Archive was slashed. Funding to the National Library of Australia was slashed. Bronwyn Bishop requested the removal of the portraits from Old Parliament House. And on and on.
Those who want Western Values celebrated need to support policies which direct more resources into the GLAM sector, and to direct funding into the sector to engage a wider range of people. There is no reason — apart from the lack of funding — for why so much Anglo-Australian cultural history is boxed up on dark shelves and not living new life in remixed culture online.
4: Direct more funding into the ABC and SBS.
The amount of scripted Australian television has dwindled to all but a whisper over my lifetime. It is expensive to produce — much more expensive than reality television or sport. But it is essential to the performance of Australian identity.
But the ABC and SBS also perform another function: soft diplomacy. Through shortwave radio throughout the Pacific region, we were able to articulate Australian values and communicate ideas that would disseminate through other cultural frameworks.
Australia is instead experiencing the reverse. Most Australians get their norms now from American television. The universal norms are increasingly American — the liberalism of fear and adolescent distrust of authority which is the hallmark of American culture which, until comparatively recently, wasn’t prevalent in Australia. A police officer friend of mine tells me that it’s not uncommon for him to find people trying to plead the fifth, performing the norm disseminated on American television shows.
If we want Australians to develop Australian norms, and if we want the rest of the world to emulate our best qualities, we should fund our public broadcasters better.
5: Strengthen anti-discrimination laws.
If we are serious about Australian society aspiring to be the best multicultural community in the world, we need to make sure that everybody is able to participate in it fully and enjoy Western Values. We should not allow other Australians to be attacked, marginalised, intimidated, humiliated, or ridiculed unless there is a good reason for it to happen.
Instead of weakening s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, we should enact legislation to protect other attributes alongside ethnicity and race. We should protect people against outrageous attacks on them based on nothing but their religion, sexuality, gender, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
When people champion Western Values, they’re usually talking shit.