“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children” is a phrase relevant to what’s happening to universities, media organisations, and even to fashionably “woke” comedians. Another apposite phrase is to be “hoist by one’s own petard”.
The demand to remove from public life any acknowledgment of anyone or anything identified as potentially racist has existed in various forms for a number of years but has gained impetus in recent weeks through the Black Lives Matter movement.
The call to remove statues in the United States of Confederate generals, in the UK of slave traders, and in Australia of Captain James Cook is one aspect, and in the scheme of things is just one minor aspect in an intellectual project attempting to do nothing less than refashion our understanding of modern society, and by extension our understanding of ourselves.
In broad terms that project involves replacing the idea that the world we live in is, or should aspire to be, one built upon concepts such as political liberalism, egalitarian democracy and a market economy, with a different idea, namely that differences between people and peoples according to class, race and gender, and the oppression that’s resulted across history because of those differences, have created an irredeemably and fatally flawed society.
Therefore the conclusion that follows from this claim is that only a fundamental restructure of society can eliminate the class conflict, and the racism and the sexism which are the foundations of the modern world. This in a nutshell and without too much exaggeration, is what every undergraduate Arts student at every Australian university is today taught to believe.
The problem with this perspective on the world is that it is created by the very system that the woke view as illegitimate. It is akin to attempting to disentangle the Liar’s paradox of “this sentence is false”.
Another problem with the perspective is that it knows no boundaries and allows no room for the application of judgment, and an understanding of the reality that human history encapsulates both the best and worst of what it is to be human.
Yes – Winston Churchill believed India should be ruled by the British. But 80 years ago he alone was the difference between a Europe of civilisation, or one of Nazism.
It was Jacques Mallet du Pan, an 18th-century Swiss journalist, who in the midst of the French Revolution talked about revolutions consuming their children. Revolutions are rarely things of half-measures.
Until recently few Australian university vice-chancellors would have contemplated the possibility that after years of telling students that Australia is a racist country, eventually someone would take them at their word, as the Chinese government did a few days ago.
If those journalists at The Guardian who cheer the toppling of statues of slave traders were consistent in their beliefs, they would accept the newspaper they work for should be toppled too because it was once financed by profits from spinning slave-picked cotton.
The British philosopher John Gray, who once described himself as of the left, but who now quite correctly argues that in modern politics “left and right” are largely meaningless, a few days ago wrote perceptively about the assault on values of the modern world.
“Woke activists … have no vision of the future. In Leninist terms they are infantile leftists, acting out a revolutionary performance with no strategy or plan for what they would do in power.”
As Gray points out, the rejection of democracy and liberal freedoms “concludes with the tyranny of the righteous mob”.
Mobs are dangerous at the best of times and righteous mobs – whether in the streets or on social media – are the most dangerous of all.
Gray concludes: “As the woke movement spills over into parts of Europe and the UK [and Australia], it should be clear that this is no passing storm. The paroxysm we are witnessing may be remembered as a defining moment in the decline of the liberal West. Perhaps it is time to consider to strengthen the enclaves of free thought and expression that still remain, so they have a chance of surviving in the blank and pitiless world that is being born.”