In the wake of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death at 87 from a stroke on Monday, debate has reignited on whether or not it is acceptable to speak ill of the dead. Bob Carr’s anecdotal tale of his personal encounter with Thatcher and the racist slur she made has drawn vehement criticism from the opposition party, with Julie Bishop, in particular, stating that Carr has Thatcher’s family and friends to apologize to. She characterized Senator Carr’s comments as inappropriate, saying that ‘his decision to make these claims after her death is a crude attempt to slur the reputation of one of the 20th century’s most outstanding leaders’’.
In comparison the student council at Melbourne University’s actions were far more blithe. They courted controversy in recent days by passing a motion in “celebration” of the controversial Prime Ministers death, going so far as to organise a movie-night party for all those who oppose the policies of the former British Prime Minister, and wish to toast her passing with a few drinks and some popcorn.
Around the world anti-Thatcher sentiment is making itself known, a day after her passing, Judy Garland classic “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead” skyrocketed to number one on the British Amazon Music charts the day after her death, and has reached number one on the iTunes chart. Its popularity on BBC radio has caused the director general, Tony Hall to announce that they will only be playing a 5-second sound bite of the song during their music countdown in respect of her family. When last Monday’s episode of ABC’s Q&A was interrupted in order to announce the death of the “Iron Lady”, Dr. Brooke Magnanti a panelist on the show bemoaned “here’s me with no champagne” to awkward titters from the audience.
Whether you condone the celebratory tone of the unfolding news cycle or not, Thatcher’s neoliberal policies were incredibly divisive and impacted the lives of many millions of people. She ordered the violent crushing of mining strikes, responded aggressively and uncompromisingly to Irish nationalism and the hunger strikes of those she imprisoned.
She supported right-wing dictators who were known to be oppressing, sometimes violently, their own people, and refused to condemn acts of apartheid in South Africa. She played an important part in instigating the Gulf War, campaigned in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and privatized anything that moved. Her leadership was characterized by the disempowerment of the working classes and the championing of individualism.
It is these policies that position her as a figure of condemnation amongst many, and deservedly so. The idealization of public figures upon their death is not a new phenomenon. The conservative party is doing all it can to consecrate Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in history as unequivocally positive, and in light of this, it’s important that voices of dissent are heard and remembered. But it’s hard to see how the gleaning of rapturous joy from the death of a person counts as a legitimate protest.
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.
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 promoting “an 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.