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Legitimate Thuggery: Reflections on a Cultural (down)Turn

Change is a cultural necessity, but let’s move in the right direction. It is to their shame that Australian public figures can act like thugs and be praised or rewarded.



Recent events in the often disparate worlds of Australian politics and sport reveal that audiences will move quickly to the site of spilt blood, whether it’s internecine ALP political coups or fighting in the NRL. Audiences also love a comeback, and Kevin Rudd’s is proving to be a spectacular one, indeed. The most recent Newspoll has the Coalition and the ALP at 50% each, but Kevin Rudd is soaring in terms of preferred prime minister and satisfaction with job performance. This week has also seen restrictions on the ready availability of the caucus coup – the one that made Rudd both victim and victor.

In interestingly related news, the NRL commission stuck to its ban on fighting in Origin for Game III, parrying off the protests from, well, almost everyone – the players, coaches, teams, and most vocally, the fans.

On June 26th, Rudd’s revenge on Gillard and the sinbinning of four players in Game II clashed slightly with one another in terms of scheduling, yet there was an aspect of thuggery in these events and their consequences, which deserves closer attention.

Politics has been at its bloodiest during the Rudd/Gillard era, and on the question of an upcoming political coup, commentators spoke of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Few would doubt that Rudd had spent much of three years destabilising and campaigning for the top job. Another campaign was simultaneously underway against our first female prime minister, this time directed by thugs in the media, and driven by equal parts stupidity and misogyny. And yet, these kinds of behaviour, Rudd’s and other’s, can produce startlingly positive results for the antagonists: the termination of Gillard’s political career and the resurrection of Rudd’s. Labor’s winning election chances have now entered (or perhaps loomed) into the realm of possibility. Waleed Aly artfully encapsulates how Rudd’s thuggish behaviour has been rewarded: “he held the party to ransom, and ultimately got paid.”

Football is played on similarly blood spattered turf, but here I mean it literally. The skirmish between Nate Myles and Paul Gallen in Game I led to a warning: players who engage in such behaviour in future games would be sinbinned. The warning was serious, the players were not, as four were sent off after a fight broke out in the 54th minute. Game III threatens to overspill with tension, as I’m sure players will continue to resort to their arms before reasoned disputation. For this reason, the ban remains controversial, and the reaction has been consistent and resolute. Players, fans, the NSW and QLD teams have overwhelmingly come out in support of . . the thugs! Apparently, those who try to place limits on injury and brutish behaviour are committing an egregious sin, and carry a heavy burden of explanation. I’m still receiving Facebook invitations to ‘like’ the community fan page entitled, “Stop screwing our game.” The supporters here denounce the recent changes to the code as a violation of the game’s integrity and exhort those in positions of footballing authority to allow the resumption of the thuggery that made the game great in the past. Well, all of this is expressed with a little less eloquence. The page really consists of the slogan ‘BRING BACK THE BIFF!!’ and pictures of Origin players thumping one another in the head.

Despite the formal rule changes in politics and football, where does popular legitimacy reside? I would point to the fans, hungry for violence, and Kevin Rudd, sating his revenge and ambition. To put it mildly, this bothers me, as it reflects the legitimisation of thuggery in two central aspects of Australian culture.

Australians take a certain pride in our self imposed characterisations: our good humoured, lackadaisical nature which is warmly received by foreigners. These images might sit quite comfortably with the events of the last few weeks: we now exhibit a relaxation of outrage towards political and sporting thugs, and for the latter, there is only a rise to criticism when such behaviour is subject to limitations.

ALP politics and the NRL don’t exhaust my criticisms, either. The pervasive social and political rejection of asylum seekers and refugees is reduced to a simplistic and cruel mantra of ‘turning back the boats.’ This is a political platform based on abandonment of the most desperate and vulnerable people, and it is met with approval.

Thuggish policy making is matched in social behaviour, too. I have written elsewhere on the culture of binge drinking in this country, and how it often finds bloody expression in outbreaks of violence in our cities. And yet, the castigation of choosing not to go out and drink excessively finds greater legitimacy than staying in.

Criticism of these issues, especially sport and drinking, leads me into prickly territory, where the term ‘un-Australian’ is thrown around with great vehemence, but little accuracy. I can fend this off. Perhaps the burden of explanation, however, can be shared. Perhaps any football fans, if they are still reading, can bring some clarity to the issue and explain why football’s integrity is dependent on frequent outbreaks of thuggery.

Of course, many football fans simply enjoy watching a game and are indifferent to the game’s rising violence. Fine. But the partisans and defenders who speak are drowning you out, and drowning the game, too.

Change is a cultural necessity, but let’s move in the right direction. It is to their shame that Australian public figures can act like thugs and be praised or rewarded. It is a greater shame that the position which denounces them is the contrarian one.


Divided We Fail: How Individualism is Holding the U.S. Back

The bootstrap mentality is about as American as apple pie. But it’s destroying our already frayed social net and education system. Can we resist our individualistic roots to mobilize and enact progressive policies?



To understand the swampy depths of American individualism is also to acknowledge that we have a serious inability to comprehend looming disaster. In fact, we’re uniquely terrible at it. 

Loosely defined, American individualism is the idea that prosperity and growth is overwhelmingly the result of an individual’s hard work, cleverness, grit, and all that. (It’s both hilarious and fitting that one of our most reviled and economically disastrous presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the main architect behind the notion of American individualism.) 

On one hand, this belief in individualism seems empowering. It tells us we are the captains of our own ships. It tells us we don’t have to be defined by our childhood traumas or underfunded school systems. It tells us that through scrappiness and ingenuity and discipline, we can rise above our circumstances and succeed, no matter what. 

The inverse, of course, is that our failures are also ours alone to bear—with little regard for the systems and circumstances that cause some people to spend lifetimes catching up to where others were simply born. 

American individualism explains so much of what we get wrong as a country, even in 2019. We downplay the systemic racism and violence of our police force through tunnel vision that tells us there are only a “few bad apples” rather than a flawed, oppressive police state. We’re unable to treat things like healthcare or housing as basic human rights, positing instead that those without access to food or shelter probably just haven’t “earned” it. And higher education—often treated as the great equalizer by meritocrats—is so expensive, it’s crippling our economy as a whole. Yet too many students are blaming themselves, and too many people are blaming students.

One is the Lousiest Number

These days, it’s hard to pick what to worry about more in the U.S. The list of societal threats certainly is long—climate change, the impending retirement crisis, the ongoing student debt crisis. These problems have been worsening for decades, and they’re all the result of failures at a systematic level. 

The climate crisis was ramped up by decades of poorly regulated industries that pumped carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The retirement crisis that will likely come full force when Generation X starts leaving the workforce was set into motion by a shrinking pension system and the increasingly uncertain future of Social Security. And higher education became outrageously expensive over years of unchecked soaring tuition and fee increases.

But not everyone recognizes these mass-scale problems for what they are. Instead, too many people are blaming individual choices for giant societal failures. And these arguments are distracting us from collective solutions. Realistically, no one should be arguing that student loan forgiveness is a “half-baked” idea steeped in self-interest. Or that climate change can be reasonably combatted through laudable (yet mostly insignificant) individual actions like going vegetarian.

The numbers prove just how puny our individual actions really are against these larger-than-us problems. For example, even the most generous, self-massaged estimates put a single company like ExxonMobil’s annual carbon emissions in the range of well over 100 million CO2 equivalent metric tons. The average American, through even the most radical lifestyle changes and discipline, would likely only lower their annual emissions from about 20 metric tons to 8 metric tons. It would take millions and millions of people selling their cars and going vegan to equate to just one ExxonMobil. (Spoiler alert: There are way too many companies just like it.) 

As Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently states: “We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations.”

A Way Out and Up

All is not lost, though. There is hope.

While the 2020 presidential pool for the Democrats may be a bit flooded, the makeup of the pool has revealed a trend: the ideas of sweeping economic relief and safety net programs are becoming more mainstream. If the Democratic party can just avoid spending its time strategizing against democratic socialism, we could enact policies that tackle these problems at the level they’re actually at.

Party insiders and centrists aside, it looks like voters are—even if just subtly and slowly—pressuring politicians to stop blaming individual choice for societal woes. The idea of multiple presidential candidates touting competing student loan relief programs would have seemed outrageous even a few election cycles ago—and now Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julián Castro are all on board.

The point is, we’re getting there. And if we can fight against our very American instincts, we can realize—en masse—that our efforts to save our planet might be better spent organizing than remembering to recycle our empty salsa jars. We can take solace in knowing a liberal arts degree isn’t a personal failing that deserves financial punishment. We can accept that, as individuals, we may not be as powerful on our own as we thought, but we also may not be as much to blame for our struggles.

And then, we can mobilize. 

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Ramsay and the Rabble: Miseducation at the University of Queensland

Conservatives should not flee campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight.



For good reason, controversies in higher education are usually of short-term and limited interest to the Australian public, which is undoubtedly much more intelligent than anyone at a typical humanities faculty meeting. Examples abound, but for a measure of proof, look to Dr. Dean Aszkielowicz of Murdoch University, who recently expressed a chirpy contempt for ANZAC soldiers, or, as he called them, murderers unworthy of commemoration. 

Fashionable whinging about a pervasive university rape crisis also comes to mind. The idea that Australian campuses are somehow comparable to the Congo or downtown Mogadishu cannot be believed by a thinking person, which is probably why it’s so popular among feminists of the young and mulish variety.

Such examples of academic mischief dominate the headlines and then disappear. The ongoing debate over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, however, has proven to be an interesting exception.

Put simply, Paul Ramsay, the late businessman and philanthropist, left a sizeable bag of money for any Australian university that wanted it. The funds would go toward the establishment of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Western Civilisation, the hiring of academic staff, and generous scholarships.

The centerpiece is a Great Books program in which small groups of students would read and discuss the imperishable works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. This would provide students with a real liberal education – “the best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it.

That all sounds great, I hear the thoughtful Reader agreeing, and yes, it does. Our universities have centers for the study of China, Islam, and the like; why not establish one devoted to our own intellectual and historical tradition? Ramsay’s goal of promotingan interest in and awareness of Western civilization” should strike any reasonable person as sound and modest.

Against all this must be set the utterly unhinged reaction from university staff and students.       Countless protests, op-eds, and social media denunciations have left the Ramsay Centre homeless and its millions of dollars unspent. To recap: the Australian National University flirted with the idea and then impolitely declined; the University of Wollongong said sure why not and is now facing legal action by the National Tertiary Education Union seeking to reverse the decision; the University of Sydney, led by the indefatigable Dr. Nick Riemer, is sure to reject the proposal. Riemer, who spends an incredible amount of time sniffing about Ramsay and organizing protest conferences, allegedly teaches students in the Linguistics department. He was the academic loon, you may recall, who argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Ramsay curriculum “validates the worldview” of the Christchurch terrorist who murdered innocent Muslims at prayer.

This brings me to the University of Queensland, where there is some interest in setting up Ramsay despite the fact that the humanities board has twice rejected the proposed curriculum. Of course, radical anti-Western zealots desire to be the cause of radical anti-Western zeal in others, so it’s no surprise that the lecturers have corrupted the students.

In an apparent nod to Athenian-style democracy, Student Union president Georgia Millroy organized a meeting in the Schonell theatre, where some five hundred students gathered to debate and vote on whether negotiations with Ramsay should continue, the Brisbane Times reported on May 29.


It must be said that the young toads approached the task with a combination of demagoguery and smugness. With the lecture hall stacked, they loudly asserted their opposition, which was undoubtedly what Ms. Millroy hoped to achieve. Her comrade on the student council, Priya De, described the Ramsay Centre as “racist” without bothering to back up such a claim with evidence, and then she banged on for a bit about white supremacy. Other speakers of similarly limited vocabulary proceeded in a reliably platitudinous manner and added all sorts of nonsense to the Ramsay bill of complaint. In the end, only eight students voted in favor, and the Times should really do its journalistic duty and conduct a second headcount; those brave souls may have been sent off for reeducation.

This incident at UQ and similar ones elsewhere are not mere tussles in Australian higher education, soon to be forgotten. There is much more at risk. The failure to establish the Ramsay Centre would signal the success of “the culture of repudiation”, Roger Scruton’s term for Western culture’s masochistic hatred of itself and its inheritance. One must ask: is a considered appreciation of Western philosophy and history even permissible in its own home, the university? In Australia, the debate over Ramsay will help to settle this question.

For many conservatives, however, the debate is already over, and the losers are on the run. Roger Kimball, writing recently in the New York Post, argued that the Right should give up on trying to change the universities; such institutions are unsalvageable and new ones must be set up in their place. Salvatore Babones, associate professor at the University of Sydney, recently made the same case in relation to the Ramsay Centre. 

This is a tempting path to take, especially for someone like me. I graduated in – good grief, when was it? – 2013, and since then I’ve undertaken the most intellectually liberating experience of my life: the gradual relinquishment of almost all the convictions I held as a university student. This has involved deep reading in a variety of sources, especially the Great Books, and a shuffle to the Right, well ahead of schedule.

That said, I don’t think conservatives should flee the campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight: first, surrendering to the likes of Georgia Millroy and her mob is intolerable to me; and second, I think a kind of victory is possible.

This may be surprising, but I sometimes notice a certain lack of resolve in the anti-Ramsay crowd, despite their vociferousness, and I wonder if their hearts are really in it. Perhaps, deep down, they might even enjoy losing this particular fight. 

How so? Well, the successful establishment of the Ramsay Centre would give many lecturers and their students their favorite thing of all: it would satisfy their desire to feel aggrieved all the time. They’d get quite a kick out of carrying on whinging about their victimhood and oppression. Imagine the safe spaces they’d have to build to protect themselves from those fellow students across campus, the ones who may have a shot at a decent and truly liberal education.

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