WESTERN CIVILISATION TEACHES US TO THINK
PARISIAN WOMEN AND THE NAZIS
THE PULL OF DECLUTTERING VERSUS THE DELIGHTS OF MESSY
VIDEO – HOW TO MAKE SURE A BREAK-UP LASTS
HOW TO THINK – A WESTERN PRIMER
The Sydney CBD isn’t designed for wet weather. Public transport within the confines of Liverpool Street to Circular Quay is so cumbersome everyone walks – and gets drenched. Many stretches of street have no cover. And so it’s easy to feel bleak as I did walking home on a Wednesday in early June from the launch of Kevin Donnelly’s book How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia and just after the start of the fracas over the ANU’s rejection of the Ramsay Centre’s offer of philanthropic funding of a proposed arts degree course on Western Civilisation.
I was made more glum by the fact I had wanted to buy a copy of the Times Literary Supplement to see in print what the lively new editor was up to.
I hadn’t looked at it for a while. And it seemed that day that other than by purchasing a print or digital subscription online I still wouldn’t see a copy because none of the specialist newsagents I asked in the city still stocked it.
Nor did they have print copies of the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books. The assistants didn’t even know what I was talking about when I asked about the titles.
It wasn’t that long ago that we could buy the TLS as well as the NRB and the LRB at several such specialty city newsagents. At least I finally managed to find the latter two in a newsagent on lower Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, another in Kings Cross and at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown – but not the TLS.
In a recent interview with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, published in El Pais, Habermas had answered a query about “where have all the intellectuals gone” with the answer that you can’t have committed intellectuals “if you don’t have the readers to address the ideas to”.
It was an echo of what Raymond Bradbury had written in the afterword to Fahrenheit 451, that “you don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners, non-knowers?”
The intellectual, Habermas argued in the interview, along with the idea of a liberal public sphere, depends on “the existence of alert journalism, with newspapers of reference and mass media capable of directing the interest of the majority toward topics that are relevant to the formation of political opinion; and also the existence of a reading population that is interested in politics, educated, accustomed to the conflictive process of forming opinions, and which takes the time to read quality, independent press. Nowadays, this infrastructure is no longer intact …”
No, it has been gradually undermined, then torn into tatters, by a perfect storm of growing illiteracy and ignorance, and divisive identity politics, brought on by first, the way English and reading have been taught so poorly in western schools for the last 20 to 30 years along with the texts that have been chosen; the long march through the institutions of left wing and post-modern orthodoxies, especially in the Humanities and education departments of universities;
the arrival of the internet and then social media and then fake news which has led to the financial undercutting of the traditional mainstream media; and a series of cataclysmic decisions by mainstream media bosses in the west who panicked as the world wide web advanced and Silicon spawned the economic giants Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook. Many bosses and boards virtually surrendered their company’s income streams.
All of these have been disastrous to the western ideal of a society that is well-educated, healthy, democratic, based on reason and devoted to freedom of speech and religion, and the right of the individual to live with respect in his or her community, without oppression and with equality of opportunity.
Disastrous too to the infrastructure which Habermas cites as necessary to the continuation of a liberal public sphere.
What worries so very many – and this is surely seen in the continuing ruckus as the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation hunts for a university home for its degree and academics protest against it*- is that it is the very ideals and ideas of western civilisation that are now under consistent attack. Young people are taught – and the rest of us are lectured endlessly – by those on the progressive left that western civilization is racist, colonialist, sexist, classist, oppressive, privileged, capitalist, xenophobic.
In mid-2016, students at Stanford University in the United States reacted vociferously and negatively to a proposal that the study of WC would be re-introduced after a three decade absence. The Stanford Review which had been behind the proposal, asked rhetorically: “Besides democracy, education, philosophy, logic, mathematics, engineering, literature and theatre, what has Western Civilisation ever done for us?”
One of the reasons cited for the opposition to the Ramsay Centre’s negotiations with the ANU was that former prime minister Tony Abbott, a member of the centre’s board of directors, had written in a Quadrant article that the centre was “in favour” of western civilization.
At the Donnelly launch, Abbott laughed, as did most of the audience, as he said again, “Why wouldn’t you be in favour of western civilization given everything it’s done for us?”
And he has a point doesn’t he? Just because university courses might critically engage with and question the ideas that have propelled WC, that doesn’t mean that overall the courses would or should pan the very basis of our civilization.
Would we expect the teachers at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of Tehran, a collaboration with Canada’s McGill University, to be rejecting the very idea of Islam? (You have to wonder how long they would have their teaching freedom if they did.) Do we expect the 14 Confucius Institutes, now in Australia’s tertiary sector, to be “ in favour” of the Chinese Communist Party? You bet.
In a sharp and lucid essay for the National Review, Dennis Prager argues that the real reason the Left hates WC is because WC demands standards.
“The Left hates standards – moral standards, artistic standards, cultural standards. The West is built on all three, and has excelled in all three. The Left hates standards because when there are standards, there is judgment… And Leftists don’t want to be judged.
“Thus Michelangelo is no better than any contemporary artist, and Rembrandt is no greater than any non-Western artist …”
He’s put his finger on something, and anyone who prizes clarity of thought and expression as well as the hard work and study that goes into achieving that clarity would have known that since postmodernism first snaked its way into our universities delivering a set of belief systems that American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich once complained taught “that the world is just a socially constructed ‘text’ about which you can say just about anything you want, provided you say it murkily enough”.
One question that has to be asked is what can the political leadership do about this nonsense that is draining our country of strength, rigour and reason? It’s true that now various politicians, including NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, have come out to decry the ANU decision and to encourage the University of Sydney to engage with the Ramsay Centre instead – but still!
It’s a bit like watching ineffectual parents remonstrating powerlessly with a toddler who has turned a supermarket into a hell of bad behaviour.
How the hell did we get here?
Of course it’s vital that universities must have their independence and that ties the hands of our poiiticians but we can see enough of what is happening on American campuses, suffocating under post-modernism and political correctness, to guess what is coming our way.
A suggestion this week by Liberal senator James Paterson that universities cop fines if they don’t comply with the legal requirement to “have a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry as a condition of funding” surely has legs.
For the bigger picture, let’s turn to the historian Barbara Tuchman’s 1984 book The March of Folly which so captured America’s agony over the Vietnam War, putting it alongside such other devastating own-goals as the Trojans wheeling in the wooden horse and the British alienating the American colonies with taxes in the 18th century.
Her book begins – and surely these lines must also apply to the western world as it watches the increasing attacks on the very ethics, ideals and culture that produced it, and have sustained it: “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” Later, in the book’s epilogue, Tuchman writes: “If pursuing disadvantage after the disadvantage has become obvious is irrational, then rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly.”
We could also turn to filmmaker Pria Viswalingam whose 2006 SBS television series Decadence, later turned into a feature-length documentary with the subtitle Decline of the Western World, was so prescient in so many areas. He remains passionate about the triumphs of Western Civilisation and now, our need to fight passionately to preserve it.
Born in Malaysia of Sri Linkan Tamil heritage, Viswalingam’s work and life has led him to experience almost every kind of civilization now on earth. He agrees heartily that we might not like some aspects of western civilization but he says with vehemence, “this is about as good as it gets”.
*A spokesperson for the Ramsay Centre says negotiations are continuing “with a significant number of universities”.
PARISIAN WOMEN AND THEIR STORIES OF NAZIS
On July 1, French politician and women’s advocate Simone Veil née Jacob, who died last year at 89, will become the first Jewish woman to be laid to rest in France’s Pantheon mausoleum. She will lie alongside four other women, including Marie Curie, and 76 men.
Veil’s life was shaped by her deportation in 1944, as a teenager, along with her mother, to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen where she survived but her mother didn’t.
Her painful tale is one of many threaded through British historian Anne Sebba’s mesmerising tale of women in Nazi-occupied France, Les Parisiennes: How the women of Paris lived, loved, and died in the 1940s.
It is a story of women forced to make excruciating choices. To send your children away or not, even if the former meant, for their safety, not knowing where they would go? To walk out of a restaurant if Germans walked in, or keep silent? To risk your life distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets or win protection by collaborating?
But as one man, playwright Jean-Claude Grumberg told Sebba harshly, when she asked him about his mother’s choice to send him and his brother away, “La choix, c’est contestable.” That is, he meant, his Romanian Jewish mother, whose husband had been arrested, had no real choice in the matter.
But Sebba insists that “choices, however heart-wrenching, were indeed made by women, especially women”.
When Sebba set out to tell the stories of these women, her inquiries so often were met with the phrase “c’est très compliqué”. Even now, as she writes in the prologue to her fascinating exploration of morals, courage, evil, human nature, ambiguity and fear, the reactions of the French, who refer to those years as les Années Noires, the Dark Years, show that the past is not yet the past in France,
Sebba was originally counselled by a male historian colleague to dive into the diaries of various distinguished men to tell the story of the occupation, but, she writes, “I have tried to find an alternative, often quieter and frequently less well-known set of voices”.
Face to face over coffee at The Twenty-One café in Double Bay, as the chef pounds veal relentlessly in the background, the glamorous historian, who was here recently for a month on a regional tour, is vehement. “Why the hell has no-one told [this story] before!”
“It’s the nuances that intrigue me,” she says later. “Nothing is black and white.”
The real collaborators, she insists, were those who betrayed or denounced, or sneaked to the Gestapo about their Jewish neighbour.” But if someone was getting on with their daily life, Sebba refuses to categorise these as collaborators. “Why don’t you round up all the vegetable sellers!” she says vehemently.
And what so many of us don’t realise is that by the time the Germans marched into Paris, it was a city of women. “There were no young men there. Nearly two million had been taken POW.” The others were dead, called up or – and rather fewer than popular history once made out – had gone underground.
One resistante, Germaine Tillion tells Sebba, “France in 1940 was unbelievable. There were no men left. It was women who started the Resistance.”
Sebba ponders the dilemmas facing the women as the German soldiers, seemingly well-behaved, well-fed, able to provide food and medicines, took over the hungry, frightened city.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘what would I have done?’ I’d like to think if I had been young, a teenager, of course I would have joined the Resistance. But once you have children or elderly parents or both, other factors weigh in.”
Sebba, a former Reuters journalist who has now made her name with a string of biographies with subjects ranging from Mother Teresa to Jennie Churchill, had been interested in this period of French history since she studied at King’s College in London.
“I realized that Wallis was in Paris in 1940. And I found it so intriguing that Edward [who had abdicated as Edward VIII to marry Wallis and who had been assigned to the British Military Mission near Vincennes outside Paris as France tried to fight off Germany] didn’t even go to Dunkirk. He was more interested in going to [the jeweller] Cartier to oversee this state of the art flamingo brooch with a retractable leg for Wallis’ birthday. I thought to myself, ‘What is Cartier doing open in 1940?! Why is the couture industry flourishing?’ All the things that gave Paris its reputation as the City of Light flourished.”
Sebba argues that French women who, unlike their British and American sisters obviously couldn’t wear war uniform, wanted to stamp their sense of self, style, to show the Germans, who finally took Paris on June 14 (the Windsors had headed south), that “whatever you do to us, we’re still going to look smart and elegant”.
She even writes the story of one imprisoned Parisian woman, with “sores on her skin and scars from lashings”, who decided that rather than eat the ounce of fat she was given daily, she’d massage it into her hands instead, reckoning they needed it more than her stomach.
There is heartbreak and tragedy on almost every second page of this compelling book as well as tales of friendship, kindness, nobility and bone-chilling bravery.
Some stories of cowardice and collaboration are horrific and Coco Chanel who spent the war years living at the Paris Ritz with her lover, an aristocratic German officer, gets short shrift from Sebba. But then there’s the French policeman who twice warns ballroom dancer Sadie Rigal, who sheltered Jews and transported weapons as part of an informal resistance network, that her flat is about to be searched.
As Sebba digs into this history tres compliqué, she discovers inconsistencies. Immediately after the war for instance, the French women who had been sent to camps like Ravensbruck for their Resistance activities were treated differently from women who had been deported to the concentration camps like Auschwitz. The former were honoured with state decorations and higher compensation, the latter were seen as victims.
The story of Simone Veil who had been sent to Auschwitz as a Jewish deportee but whose sister, Denise, went to Ravensbruck as a resistante illustrates it perfectly.
Denise was made Commandeur of the Legion d’Honneur and awarded several other grand medals.
But for Simone, who lost her parents and a brother to the Germans, “we were only victims and not heroes. What we experienced mattered little, something people did not fail to tell us in a brutal way …”
“She spoke of ‘being forgotten’ as a second death,” Sebba writes. People then didn’t know what the camps were like. Nor was it clear that they wanted to know. Sebba reports that of the “resisters” who went to Germany, half returned “but only 3 per cent of the Jews (2500 out of 76,000 deported).”
Veil, a philosopher, went on to become a government minister, a champion of women’s rights and first president of an elected European parliament.
But in any case, the stories of all these women in Sebba’s book – resisters, deportees, helpers, special operations volunteers parachuted into France – were pretty much ignored after peacetime set in and as General de Gaulle went out of his way to honour the men and build the mythic story of a massive French resistance movement. The women were encouraged back into their roles as mothers, housewives.
Sebba has finally told their stories.
LESS MESS, NOT NO MESS
Tim Harford, the economist columnist for The Financial Times, who calls himself “the undercover economist”, is one of my favourite writers in this complex field. He’s lucid, sensible and original and so I was delighted when he re-tweeted my recent piece about decluttering for Good Weekend magazine to his 140,000 followers, even if it was to spruik his own excellent book on the subject Messy.
If my article argued that working out what you want to keep in your home and what you want to discard not only clears the head but is how you work out what kind of life you now want to lead, Harford argues something that sounds confounding: that, in the workplace or in places of research and study, mess can force us to be more creative and productive.
Distractions can be grist to the creative mill, he says in one Ted talk. We become ingenious when we have to deal with situations that could be called messy, untidy, random, unplanned, awkward, ambiguous … They force us out of our routine and to think differently.
And, he points out, that we need to be careful about just how much organisation is introduced into businesses because some things that can be a boon in certain situations – a clean desk for instance – can be disastrous if they’re forced onto other situations as a rule for everybody. Harford told the Washington Post in 2016, that we do this because “the messier, less planned, less tidy approach – it just frightens us. It makes us feel anxious”.
But, he points out, messiness can actual signify autonomy – rather than neatness or order or process that is imposed on us – and autonomy is what creativity and ingenuity and yes, productivity, thrive on.
In a similar vein, Eric Abrahamson, a professor management at Columbia Business School and journalist David H. Freedman point out in A Perfect Mess (2006) that “moderately messy systems yield better solutions and use resources more efficiently”.
A perfect example: Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin in September, 1928. The authors write, “If Fleming hadn’t left open petri dishes [containing bacterial cultures] scattered by an open window before going on vacation, the mould that drifted in – possibly from an allergy lab downstairs – most likely wouldn’t have.” In addition, the dish, now with its “antibacterial circular swath” courtesy of that mould, might not have been noticed if it had been neatly stored in a rack. Instead, it was sitting on Fleming’s disordered desk, right under his nose.
Decluttering can certainly be taken too far. And just as hot desking – which means workers can’t keep personal items at work nor can they stockpile items or papers or books that might help their work – has proved to have significant downsides as far as productivity and morale go, so can a relentlessness to imposing organisational systems that lead to a kind mental sterility, as Harford argues so well.
As one Sydney organiser I interviewed, Susanne Thiebe, stresses: the aim is not to have no mess, it’s about less mess.
WHEN IMPERFECTION WINS
An aside to two of the above stories and Harford’s observations on the role of “messy” in creativity, the El Pais interview with Habermas included the observation that the philosopher “had difficulty articulating due to a cleft palate. But it was his struggle with speech that prompted him to think more deeply about communication…”
In an age obsessed with perfection and processes designed to achieve perfection, we should always remember where imperfection can take us.
IT’S CALLED LOSING HEART
As for decluttering, it must be done with an eye to posterity. I have a habit of keeping news clippings for years, all in neat folders. How glad I am I didn’t chuck my “power and ethics” file in my recent clearing out. Here’s the first priceless and unforgettable item in that folder: “The mayor of a major city in Siberia has sparked outrage in Russia after expressing regret in an official meeting that the authorities did not have the power to shoot the homeless.”
HOW TO REALLY END A RELATIONSHIP
If you’ve ever had a break-up, and who hasn’t even if it is now a distant memory, here’s a video to make your heart – or some bit of you at any rate – smile: