Symbolic fights make sense when you're losing the real ones
By Richard Denniss, Chief Economist at The Australia Institute.
Confidence is silent and insecurities are loud. How else could you explain Sky TV commentator Rowan Dean's need to credit "Western values" for the Thai junior soccer team's successful rescue? In case you missed Dean's comments – because, like most people, you never watch Sky News – it's important to note his enthusiasm for the strength of Western culture was as lengthy as it was bizarre.
According to Dean: "Those kids would not be alive if those pumps had been powered by windmills and solar panels, if they hadn't had Western technology in there, if they hadn't had Western expertise. It wasn't a bunch of gender-fluid divers that went down there. It wasn't a bunch of touchy-feely identity politics, diverse and inclusive, unconscious bias that saved those boys lives. It was solid Western know-how and technology."
The operation the world will never forget - expert divers plunge into Tham Luang cave which encased the trapped boys and their soccer coach for weeks.
It takes a few reads for the banality of such a statement to recede far enough for the insecurity behind it to be visible. Why on earth would a former advertising executive commentating on an heroic rescue on another continent, a rescue that resulted in a volunteer diver's death, fire another little shot in the permanent culture war that is Australian public debate? It's weird, but not uncommon.
And then this week, John Howard shed further light on the pettiness of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation that led the Australian National University to decline an offer of millions of dollars.
Australia's second-longest-serving prime minister, who now sits on the Ramsay Centre's board, confirmed the falling out with ANU was due in part to a disagreement about whether the course should be called a bachelor of Western civilisation or a bachelor of Western civilisation studies. The ANU, which already offers degrees in Islamic studies and Indigenous studies, wanted some consistency in nomenclature, but the man whose word was once enough to send Australia to war had smaller fish to fry. "Without being in any way disrespectful to those studies, I think there's an argument the centrality of Western civilisation in our society warranted a slightly different approach," Howard said.
So what's going on? Why do men on Australian television need to credit "Western know-how and technology" for the bravery of a team of Thai children and mainly Thai rescue workers? Given that the typewriter was an American invention, should we attribute all of the books ever typed down to 'Western know-how'? And why would a former prime minister draw a line in the sand over a word as simple as "studies"?
Ancient Greek myths explored gender fluidity and viewed homosexuality positively.
Insecurities are loud. Disagreements over football codes or brands of car are usually light-hearted but, for those who lack confidence, they can literally be worth fighting over. The need for other people to affirm that your beliefs, belongings or bravado are bigger and better than theirs is as enduring as it is widespread, but picking such symbolic fights only makes sense when you're losing the substantive ones.
Of course, not all fights are symbolic. Michael Livingtone's recent analysis of NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data found that, in the 12 hours "from 6pm to 6am on State of Origin game night, women and children in NSW are almost 40 per cent more likely to become victims of domestic violence". A British study found a similar pattern when England played in World Cup soccer matches, with a 26 per cent increase in reports of domestic abuse when England won or drew, and a 38 per cent increase when England lost.
But in Australia we are now in the midst of a symbolic fight about the very real problem of male violence against women. While some on the right of Australian politics are eager to link the entire Islamic community with terrorism, or the entire Somali community with youth violence, any suggestion that men are disproportionately responsible for violence is met with #notallmen.
Insecurity makes people afraid. It makes it easy for them to see fault in others and hard for them to see fault in themselves. Men who have committed no violence against women, and who are proud of their efforts to call out misogyny when they have seen it, have nothing to fear from the terrible statistics of sexual and domestic violence against women in Australia.
Droning on about Western civilisation's superiority is far easier than studying it.
Like a racist pointing out that they have a black friend, too many men in Australia are too quick to respond to evidence of the overwhelmingly gendered pattern of violence by observing that men are sometimes victims as well. Predictably, David Leyonhjelm decided to defend his slur against Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young on Dean's Sky TV show.
In the 11 years since Howard lost his seat in Parliament, the world has changed a lot, but the Deans of the world haven't. Back in the Howard era, a clique of Australian conservatives decided coal was good, homosexuality was bad and immigrants were to be feared. Twitter was barely a year old and the #MeToo movement was unimaginable for most men.
But while individuals' opinions and prejudices can endure for a lifetime, technology and society are in a permanent state of change. Freedom of speech in Australia ensures that Dean can mock renewable energy's reliability as much as he wants, but the simple fact is that coal-fired power stations broke down 44 times this past summer.
And as for Dean's concern with gender fluidity, it seems his support for Western civilisation runs much deeper than his knowledge of it. The term androgyny comes to us from the Ancient Greek words for both man and woman. Gender fluidity is explored in the ancient Greek myth of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, and homosexuality is viewed positively in Plato's Symposium.
Droning on about Western civilisation's superiority is far easier than studying it, learning from it and improving it. Of course Western culture has had a positive influence on some parts of the world, and of course other cultures have had a positive impact, too. Our "Hindu-Arabic" system of numbers comes to us from the Indians and the Persians. The Chinese invented the gunpowder that England used to colonise much of the world. And while Dean mocks the idea of wind-powered pumps, the kind invented in Afghanistan before and then improved by the Dutch are in wide use across Australian farms.
Australia has much in its past to be both proud and ashamed of. All cultures do. We have much to be proud of in the way Australian citizens helped rescue the brave Thai boys. And if there is a lesson to be learned from this near tragedy, it's that a group of people who are willing to put other people first can achieve remarkable things.
But rather than focus on the selflessness of those who risked and gave their lives in service to others, some would have us instead see the rescue as a triumph of "our culture" over "theirs". Such an approach is not just insecure, it is a misreading of the history of "Western culture", which has been willing to embrace new ideas and old rivals. It seems Australia's culture warriors need to read up on the history of the "Western civilisation" they talk so much about.
Richard Denniss is chief economist for The Australia Institute. His Quarterly Essay, "Dead Right: How neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next", is available now. Twitter: @RDNS_TAI