There is an old saying that whoever discovered water, it wasn’t fish. Fish are continually immersed in water and it is so common place to them that they don’t notice it.
In Australia we have a similar problem with democracy. Because, like the fish with water, we are immersed in it, we take it for granted.
But unlike fish in the ocean who have never known anything but water, democracy is, in historical terms, a relatively late arrival. Yet, because our democracy has been reasonably secure now for a generation or two, many give it little thought. Consequently it is greatly undervalued.
Kristian Jenkins, Executive Director of the Page Research Centre warns:
Australia, like the other Western democracies, is heir and benefactor of uniquely Western concepts like the rule of law, popular sovereignty, political and religious freedoms, the right to own property, the free market, the universal provision of health and education, a free and impartial press, human rights and Judeo-Christian ethics including the equality of all people and a commitment to the common good. These concepts have been refined and perfected down through the centuries – hard won, often through blood – and yet they are all now under serious threat.
It is fair to say that under Western liberal democracies citizens have been provided with the greatest freedoms of any human society in the history of the world. Yet many on the left condemn our democracy highlighting the colonialism, racism, paternalism and sometimes even slavery, that our forefathers indulged in along the way. They seek to judge our ancestors by the moral and social standards that exist in our modern democracies and not those that prevailed in the past. In doing so they are reluctant to give credit for the achievements of the past and are quick to create and sustain victimhood in the wake of historical progress.
Alarmingly polls suggest that growing numbers of young people declare that they would prefer other forms of government over democracy. It is easy to conclude that such attitudes arise because they don’t understand the benefits of democracy and can’t comprehend or uninformed on the evils of communism, totalitarianism and other less democratic forms of government.
This growing disrespect for democracy seems due to two societal trends.
The first of these is ignorance of history. A proper study of history indicates that the progress of humanity over the last three millennia or so has culminated in the best form of government that humans have ever experienced, viz liberal democracy. Sure we have run up some dry gullies and often along the way, made mistakes and created injustices. But despite that, as Steven Pinker continues to remind us, we live in the most fortunate circumstances members of the human race have ever experienced. Now this is not some Panglossian fantasy, but readily supported by such statistics as longevity, health, reduced poverty, diminishing levels of interpersonal violence and so on.
Today’s children learn little about this struggle. They need to know about the original concepts of democracy advanced by the ancient Greeks. They need to know how the Christian church has variously impeded progress towards democracy by exercising hierarchical power and insisting on the literal truth of the Bible but finally championing democracy because “all men were created equal”. They need to understand the development of science and how it countered religious fundamentalism. They need to understand the basic beliefs of philosophers like Hume and Mills and others that shaped our understanding of society and how humans related in the collective.
The second societal trend, which contributes to the disrespect of democracy, is closely aligned to the first.
The left have continued to discount our history. They are reluctant to acknowledge the progress that Western democracies have made and instead exaggerate the injustices and excesses that occurred in the process of our developing history. Never mind the fact that many civilisations expanded over the eons and inflicted gross indignities on those they overcame in their expansionary expeditions. But it seems the left are only incensed by the colonial conquests of modern Western countries.
They also like to highlight how Western countries dabbled in slavery and subjected those unfortunates so subjugated to unforgivable indignities. But of course slavery wasn’t merely a Western phenomenon. It has been ubiquitous throughout the world since time immemorial. Islamic slave trade in North Africa and the Mediterranean was far more extensive over a longer period of time than the slave trade initiated by Western countries. And they are loath to mention that the fight against slavery was initiated by European Christians of the ilk of William Wilberforce and others.
The previous education Minister, Alan Tudge, was critical of the proposed national curriculum in particular because of the proposed history curriculum. He argued that it presented “a very negative view about Australia’s modern history”.
(As I mentioned before an alarming number of young people are saying that they would prefer other forms of government to democracy. With the school curricula biased towards socialism it is not a surprising outcome. Unfortunately, with the inherent bias in that curricula, our children are drowned in the mire of historical injustices of democracy’s progress. They are given little information about the failure of socialism. They need to hear of the atrocities of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others.)
This problem is even worse in the United States. Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute at the Gonzaga University. She maintains that a certain kind of anti-Americanism has been dominant in American Universities and colleges for many years. She writes:
What young people need to understand is that there are deep reasons they’re being fed that narrative. They are being deprived of the grandeur of their country’s history and its lessons. And the reason for this are that they are the backbone of a political movement that exploits them, called progressivism.
And of course the same claims could be made in Australia.)
According to educationalist, Kevin Donnelly:
Any objective reading of the national curriculum proves Tudge is correct in his view it lacks credibility and balance. At year 7, for example, while indigenous history and culture are compulsory, the foundation culture of Western civilisation, including Egypt, Greece and Rome can be ignored.
In the foreword to the book Cancel Culture Peta Credlin wrote:
By ordaining that all subjects on the national school curriculum be taught from an indigenous Asian and sustainability perspective, officialdom has exposed its anti-Australian prejudice. Far from being proud of a country that attracts migrants from across the globe, is amongst the freest and fairest societies on earth and has achieved a fine balance between humans and nature, there is a dominant left-establishment view Australia is essentially racist, exploitative, unfair and founded on an act of fundamental injustice.
I will come back to some of these ideas later in this essay, but as far as education is concerned I have no objection and would in fact encourage students to have a knowledge and understanding of indigenous history and culture. It is an important step to a commonality of understanding. But I have two provisos:
- Indigenous history should not be taught at the expense of European history. It is European history that has predominantly shaped our culture, traditions, democratic institutions and way of life. Indeed it is far more influential on our current way of life, whether we are indigenous or non-indigenous, than indigenous history can possibly be.
- Authentic indigenous history needs to be taught and not the idealised, romanticised versions propagated by indigenous apologists and the likes of Bruce Pascoe. Students should be taught indigenous ancestors were also colonists, occupying Australia in a number of waves of migration. Indigenous skills and culture should be celebrated because they allowed indigenous people to survive and sometimes prosper in an environment that that was quite inhospitable to Europeans. But students should also be taught that the existence of Australia’s original inhabitants was difficult and often problematic and nothing like the romanticised version of the “noble savage”.
(It is also true that in recent decades many of the more useful areas of the curriculum have been diluted to make room for dubious “woke” issues relating to social justice, one of which, as we will see later in this essay is Critical Race Theory.)
In the last century sociology and psychology displaced religion, tradition and history as the formative elements of identity (and unfortunately often as the arbiters of morality). The diktats of the left have seen identity politics dominate public debate. As a result in recent decades climate change, gender issues and the ideals of political correctness have begun to dominate.
Much of the more recent social and political debate has been shaped by identity politics. Identity politics is a manifestation of the modern obsession with the self. As Frank Furedi has argued in his fine book 100 Years of Identity Crisis, this obsession with self came to the fore (albeit in a very different context) perhaps in the 1940’s. German psychologist, Erich Fromm in his Escape from Freedom (published in 1941) outlined his concern that totalitarian societies deprived the individual of a unique sense of self.
Furedi also references the work of Marie Moran and in particular her book, Identity and Capitalism. He comments:
Moran offers a compelling case for her argument that identity is a very new idea and that it never “mattered” prior to the 1960’s because it did not in fact exist or operate as a shared political and cultural idea until the 1960’s. She points out that until the 1950’s, or even the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was no discussion of sexual identity, ethnic identity, political identity, national identity, identity crisis or “losing” or “finding” one’s identity.
Furedi also points out that the traditional notion of identity entailed something that had to be worked for or earned. Whereas today, identity is seen as an individual choice or something that can be conferred merely by belonging to a particular group.
The movement to liberate the “self” has resulted in a huge paradox. One would have thought that this movement was about personal liberation. In that regard it should have been promoted as a liberal cause. But the identity politics and the subsequent political correctness that was engendered in its public manifestation ended up curtailing free speech and dictating what was appropriate to say in public discourse.
It is hard to deny that those poor insecure souls who are worried about establishing or manufacturing some sort of sense of identity are largely self-obsessed. As a result they are forced to hold on rigidly to the fragile concepts that they have chosen to anchor their identities with. Consequently they will not admit to having such concepts challenged. And that is how “cancel culture” became established.
True liberals value freedoms, not just for themselves, but for everybody. But the ardent converts to identity politics believe that once they have made up their minds then others must yield to their beliefs without further question. In this way the population is divided between the “in crowd” who toe the line of political correctness and the “outsiders” who are yet to be converted. And because the outsiders see the world differently they must have moral failures. Isn’t it obvious that they are homophobic, misogynist, racist or climate deniers?
To belong to the “in crowd” automatically bestows on you moral infallibility. Therefore it is totally reasonable that you lecture the outsiders on the errors of their ways and the sinfulness of their beliefs. But if you belong to the outsiders you are denied freedom of speech and sometimes freedom of assembly because the morally superior “in crowd” can’t be made to feel uncomfortable by having their principles challenged. Any ideas that run counter to the beliefs of the “in crowd” can be automatically discounted as “hate speech”.
There is much more I could write to highlight the injustices and the assault on freedom that the dogmatic defensiveness of the “in crowd” has caused. But for the sake of brevity I will instance just two.
In the last decade a cause célèbre adopted by the woke “in crowd” has been transgender rights. One of the principal tenets of this cause is that if a biological male wishes to categorise himself as “female” he should be treated as a female and therefore given access to female toilets and changing rooms and allowed to compete as a woman in female sporting competitions. Now I won’t repeat all the logical arguments about how this infringes women’s rights but will merely relate the abysmal treatment of author J K Rowling, the creator of the outstandingly successful Harry Potter series of books.
Rowling made the obvious observation that sexuality is biologically determined and as a result there are only two sexes, male and female, and that under the shield of political correctness allowing biological men pose as women can only lead to an erosion of women’s rights. Now this raised the ire of the transgender activists causing Rowling to be “cancelled” from a number of forums and her books banned.
Not only is Rowling a highly successful author but the attractiveness of her books to children has encouraged many children to take up reading which is a highly desirable outcome. The transgender activists in asserting their rights have grossly interfered with Rowling’s rights. In the spirit of identity politics they are not interested in debating Rowling’s point of view but in silencing her altogether. Now it is not that Rowling has committed a diabolical crime. She has merely stated a view, which millions around the world would agree with- that gender is biologically determined. But of course this flies in the face of the beliefs of the transgender activists that they have the capacity, and indeed the right, to choose their own gender. And because of the prevalence of political correctness many that believe otherwise keep their opinions to themselves.
Another disturbing aspect here is that even though transgender people form a miniscule proportion of the population at large they are successfully impinging on the democratic rights of many more people in progressing their minority cause.
As a second example of the madness of identity politics and how it constrains our freedoms and threatens our democracy I will devote a few paragraphs to racism. In particular I want to show that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is inimical to our democracy.
After the Second World War the left has come to dominate in our institutions, particularly our universities. Gary Marks, eminent sociologist with the University of Melbourne, in an allusion to Mao Tse Tung, has called this “the left’s long march”.
Beginning in Europe but later transported to the USA and subsequently other Western countries neo-Marxism spawned Critical Theory and Post-Modernism. One of the progenitors of these theories was Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer was a director of the Institute for Social Research established at the University of Frankfurt often known colloquially as “the Frankfurt School”. Horkheimer’s political ideals were made evident in this statement:
He who has eyes for the meaningless injustice of the imperialist world, which in no way is to be explained by technical impotence, will regard the events in Russia (ie the Russian Revolution) as the progressive, painful attempt to overcome this injustice.
The Frankfurt School was to become a major force in the revitalisation of Western European Marxism in the postwar years. A prominent figure in the Frankfurt School was Herbert Marcuse who was an advocate of Critical Theory. He became popular in the United States in the 1960’s which in turn saw a wide acceptance of Critical Theory.
In the 1940’s some in the Humanities tried to lead their discipline to be more “scientific” and adopt more quantitative methods that would reduce the qualitative basis and somewhat arbitrary adoption of theories that underpinned the growing body of work. Critical Theory on the other hand eschewed objectivity and relied merely on what “felt right” to its proponents.
Mike Gonzalez, in his book BLM –The Making of a New Marxist Revolution writes:
Under the watchful care of these committed Marxists, Critical Theory became a tool, sometimes sharp, sometimes blunt, with which to constantly either bleed or bludgeon all the institutions of Western society – the family, the church, the capitalist system, and the concept of a nation-state that beckons patriotism. All had to be destroyed , criticized to death, the better to substitute in their place new institutions that would suit the goals of Marxism: central planning, a command economy, the obliteration of the individual, the death of God.
By the 1960’s many of the European Marxists who had followed Marcuse to the United States had become disillusioned and returned to Europe. But Marcuse, ensconced in American academia, persisted. Soon he found more fertile ground to plough. In the United States, disenchanted by the Vietnam War, and stirred by the civil rights movement and the push for sexual liberation, substantial social turmoil erupted.
As a result Marcuse believed he had found a new revolutionary base. He wrote:
Underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours.
Gonzalez made this insightful observation:
Unless the Marxist vanguard came along and instructed these potential revolutionaries into their victimhood, the revolution would remain postponed. (My emphasis.)
It was out of these influences that Critical Race Theory (CRT) was spawned. Proponents of CRT see everything through the lens of race. To them all social disparities are due to race and all our mainstream institutions support and sustain racism. They defend their theory with the circular logic that social disparities are due to racism and to deny this is racist!
Kimberle´ Crenshaw, the CRT scholar wrote:
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists we believe that work must be organised for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profits of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources.
A co-founder of BLM, Patrisse Cullins, said in a video recorded in 2015, that she and her fellow organizers are “trained Marxists”. So rather than having legitimate concern for the disadvantage suffered by coloured people, BLM is more intent on utilising the outrage of such people to further their antidemocratic ends.
And of course CRT is an unsubstantiated set of beliefs. For example it maintains that all “white” people are innately racist towards non-whites. And whether consciously or unconsciously they use their so-called “white privilege” to subjugate and demean people of colour. To my knowledge there has never been any reputable research to support such allegations, but of course emanating from Critical Theory, objectivity is not seen as a legitimate excuse to thwart the beliefs of adherents who “feel” their untested theory explains interrelationships in the world.
Unfortunately the BLM ethos has now been adopted by activists in Australia. Last year after the appalling murder of George Floyd, BLM activists took to the streets in the USA, rioting and causing considerable property damage. Their activities could hardly be said to advance the cause of coloured people. Much of the property damage was inflicted on the coloured population. As well their inane demand to defund the police actually put African/Americans in increased danger because they are over-represented in areas of higher rates of crime which require most police attention.
These events in the USA were soon followed by demonstrations in Australia under the BLM banner. Shamefully, although congregating in any numbers in the streets of our cities was forbidden under covid rules, the police turned a blind eye to the BLM protests. This reluctance for police to intervene was no doubt driven by a fear to confront such a “woke” cause.
Australian BLM protesters leveraged off the death of George Floyd to draw attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody. Yet statistics show that on a percapita basis Aboriginals are less likely to die in custody than non-Aboriginals. The real problem to be addressed here is that disproportionate numbers of indigenous people are incarcerated. But that issue doesn’t suit the activists because it doesn’t grab the attention so easily as stories about indigenous people dying at the hands of the police or prison officers.
[It is reported that indigenous people are about 3% of the population nationally but (depending on the State) somewhere between 12 and 15% of the prison population.]
The BLM protests were just another tool designed to further entrench the notion of victimhood of indigenous people. They wanted to dramatise the extent and impact of racism.
Catholic University researcher, Anthony Dillon has frequently written about racism in Australia. He has concluded it is minimal. He adds:
Contrary to the prevailing politically correct narrative, I believe the majority of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians get along well.
The prevailing political correctness prevents many of us voicing opinions on indigenous affairs. Dillon encourages us to find our voice:
I hope that [I} can help you feel comfortable voicing your opinion on Aboriginal affairs in whatever setting you find yourself. You are entitled to state your opinions on the merits of a voice to parliament or a treaty, what constitutes genuine racism and what doesn’t; what you think the priorities should be. Or any other issue relating to Aboriginal affairs – for the simple reason that Aboriginal affairs is everybody’s business because we are all citizens of one country.
No doubt Anthony is right in what he says, but underlying his plea is still a concern that many will be reluctant to voice their opinions afraid of the opprobrium they will attract from the “woke” gatekeepers.
We need to resist the incursion of CRT into our institutions in order to preserve our freedom of speech. CRT has made far greater inroads into institutions in the USA but even there citizens are starting to rebel. The Minnesota based Upper Midwest Law Centre (UMLC) announced it had filed complaints and lawsuits on behalf of clients who seek “an end to the official propagandising of CRT and the bullying and retaliation which accompany it”.
The President of UMLC, Doug Seaton said in a statement:
I see a racist and divisive ideology of race essentialism taking over our nation and my institution. Further there seems to be a growing intolerance for people with different opinions or ideas and it seems this tribalistic ideology is fostering that kind of intolerance.
He pointed out that the US Constitution, the federal Civil Rights laws and their Minnesota counterparts don’t permit “this race-based discrimination, retaliation, compelled speech, and invasion of privacy”.
Liv Finne is Director of the Centre for Education at the Washington Policy Centre. She has been researching educational outcomes in the USA for the past thirteen years. She is dismayed by the falling levels of numeracy and literacy in students between fourth and twelfth grades. She attributes these falling numbers to lower expectations and “the shift of emphasis from academic excellence in mathematics, science, reading and history toward the implementation of social constructs like Critical Race Theory”.
I have no doubt that Australia’s falling academic standards can be attributed, at least in part, to the same influences. Hence the debate about school curricula that I mentioned earlier in this essay is of crucial importance.
Because of all these issues (and related issues that I haven’t particularly pursued), I believe our democracy is under threat.
If you don’t believe we undervalue our democratic freedoms just pause and think how easily our governments have curtailed them in their muddled response to covid. Perhaps it was necessary or at least prudent to lock us up, curtail our rights of assembly and movement, but most of us complied with little demurral.
If you don’t believe we undervalue our democratic freedoms why then do we yield our rights of free speech to vocal minorities who don’t want us questioning such dubious concepts as transgender rights or Critical Race Theory? Are we always going to allow protests of victimhood to prevent us giving voice to what most of us believe?
Why aren’t we prepared to challenge the notion that our nation is built on injustice and that we should be ashamed of our Western heritage?
Certainly, as we saw earlier, we need to do a better job of educating our young people. But in the end, as I have pleaded before in my essays, it is imperative that more of us stand up to be counted.
Our progress has resulted from a contest of ideas. Surely our capacity to progress in the future is curtailed when ideas are suppressed because their expression offends the confected sensibilities of minorities who rely on victimhood to bolster their identities.