What benefit do we get from engaging with Australia’s right wing columnists about the merits of Western Civilisation? Why is it that we disregard their opinion on practically everything, except when it comes to the definition of contested subjects?
And yet that’s where our public debate has brought us. Whatever discussion we might have about Western Civilisation (its definition, its function, its merits), we can’t have because we’re trapped in this death spiral with Australia’s worst commentators talking steaming garbage instead.
But what sort of conversation could we have instead?
Support for Western Civilisation tends to fall into two categories. In the first, it’s a sort of trivia competition. We complain that young people these days don’t have any awareness of some particular factoid, or that there’s not enough appreciation of some relic of our cultural past. The celebration of Western Culture is less a celebration of Western Culture and more a not-so-humble brag about whatever book the author has happened to read in the last few weeks. Andrew Bolt, perhaps one of the least cultured people in Australia’s commentariat, will drone on at length about how much he loves Van Gogh, for instance.
The second category concerns itself only with market forces. Western Civilisation is synonymous with free market economic reforms. China opened itself up to the West, it is argued, and now it has a successful middle class. Western Civilisation has pulled entire nations out of poverty, it is believed. It’s not poetry or art, but capitalism that defines Western Civilisation.
Both are dopey. But both stem from the same problem: the loudest voices are those who can afford to be the loudest, and there’s no correlation between market power and merit. We aren’t getting an articulation of what Western Civilisation is because the most prominent voices are incapable of articulating it.
What we are missing from the above accounts is a recognition of how we form identity, conventions, and social norms. When my grandfather passed away, I inherited (amongst other things) his copies of Alice in Wonderland, The Dickens Dictionary, and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Our cultural heritages are a mix of exchanges, responses, and syntheses across geographic space and time.
There shouldn’t really be any controversy about what counts as ‘Western Civilisation’. It’s fluid and dynamic, influenced by other cultures and influenced them in turn. It’s also not monolithic, but a product of lots of subcultures and local cultures that contribute to the larger profile. There’s nothing weird about this. Think of Chinese Culture, Buddhist Culture, or Islamic Culture: they aren’t monolithic but they are intelligible as ideas. I really love (and, to no small degree, envy) the extremely long history of Chinese novels — a cultural legacy that continues to sustain cultural products for modern enjoyment. They’re political, informing an understanding among ethnically and linguistically diverse people about China’s place in the modern world and in world history.
But when we turn from Chinese Culture to Western Culture, things go wild in public reactions. Even to acknowledge Western Culture as a thing seems to flirt with white supremacy and imperialism. It only partially makes sense that the basis for that reaction is an acknowledgement of the ongoing suffering of people on the ‘wrong side’ of Western Culture: those who continue to suffer the legacies of colonialism and Western oppression. But the same is true of, for example, Chinese and Japanese Cultures.
Perhaps a better explanation is that, over the past century, Western Culture has encouraged a kind of scepticism about itself and a privileging of the individual who transcends historical and cultural influences. Western Culture is problematic as a concept because those who benefit from it most can deny its existence, and those who have (legitimate) grievances against it have the intellectual space to situate their arguments.
This is more than mere idle musing. One of the serious questions for modern conservatism is what conservatism looks like in a multicultural society. In a country like Australia — a mix of ongoing colonialism and multicultural migration — the puzzle of multicultural conservatism presents itself fairly clearly: people should feel like they can celebrate their cultural diversity without feeling coerced to assimilate to the needs of global capitalism. Trying to strip people of their cultural heritage robs individuals of their identities.
In the case of Western Culture, it’s the lack of engagement with cultural heritage that results in resentment and antipathy towards other people engaging with theirs. Thus — again — Andrew Bolt’s insistence that other people shouldn’t express non-white identities when they have the option of expressing white identities. For Bolt, this is about unity. As a society, he argues, we should try to be unified in identity rather than insisting upon difference. But this is because Bolt devalues — either through ignorance or disinterest — the diversity within his own (Western) cultural heritage. He’s of Dutch heritage, raised within Anglo-Australian culture which was heavily influenced by British norms. It is unclear why he wants to distance himself from the diversity of his own cultural past, and why he would want to distance others from theirs.
Engaging with our cultural pasts is important because it helps us to articulate social norms. It’s the reason we need a healthy and thriving arts scene in Australia to produce scripted television and movies: these cultural products help us to interrogate how we relate to each other, how we understand our society, and how we intuit the norms which govern and regulate us.
We shouldn’t be jingoistic about our cultural heritage. Nobody’s ancestors have clean hands. But the opposite of jingoism is not self-denial. There is a lot to celebrate and, in that celebration, we create the space for others to celebrate their cultural identities as well.