February 8

A clash of civilisations

I have been subscribing for many years to The Spectator. I do so because it is an amusing London journal. I am of two minds about the new Australian supplement. Reading several Australian newspapers, do I really need more comment by Australians and only to be read by Australians?   My greatest fear is that some day they will reduce the real Spectator to fit the Australian comment in. It was relieving then to read the assurance by editor Oscar Humphries, son of Barry, that the move of the Australian supplement to the front this week does not mean Australian readers will lose anything. But we do. We have already lost the cover.

I wonder how many extra copies they sell in Australia because of the Australian supplement, whose pages are quaintly numbered in Roman numerals. The Australian market for anything is small and not welcoming, as evidenced by the closure of The Bulletin.

Mark Day recently revealed in the February issue of The Australian Literary Review that the real reason for the launch of The Weekend Australian in 1977 was to provide a fallback position if The Australian had to close. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch’s greatest achievement, the national daily was then losing $100,000 a week, and consideration was being given to its closure. That was when many readers stopped buying because of the paper’s position on the dismissal of the Whitlam government which it had originally championed. (Mark Day incidentally used to be on the republican movement board, until he said in a newspaper column that it was time for Malcolm Turnbull to move on. His dismissal unfortunately did not encourage him to abandon his Roundhead affiliation.)

In any event there is a relevant piece which in The Spectator of 7 February by Tom Switzer, one of the nation’s most interesting young commentators.

Writing of the recent demise of Samuel Huntington, famous for his clash of civilisations thesis, Tom Switzer says that Australian newspaper coverage of Huntington’s demise has glossed over the famous “stoush” between Huntington and Paul Keating which he says provides a revealing insight into how Keating and Howard defined their leaderships and their nation’s place in the world.” 

…Huntington accuses Keating ( click read more below)

Keating says that Huntington accused him of ‘precipitating the fall of a civilisation’. What Huntington said, according to Switzer, is that Keating’s policy  of converting Australia from being Western to being ‘part of Asia’ was not only doomed to fail, but highly dangerous. It would, Huntington argued, end up weakening Australia’s cultural ties with our traditional and culturally compatible Western friends. At the same time it would be a struggle for us to be acceptable to the Confucian and Islamic countries to our north.

“Australia, in Huntington’s phrase, would become a ‘torn country’. But unlike Turkey, Russia and Mexico, whose leaders wanted ‘to make their countries members of the West but whose history, culture and traditions are non-Western’, Australia, if Huntington’s thesis were vindicated, would provide the first example of a historically fully Western country in which a significant section of the elite advocated a move to membership of another, non-Western civilisation. Better for Australia, he suggested, to define itself as a Pacific country and align itself with the US ‘whose values of the Declaration of Independence accord far more with Australian values than do those of any Asian country’,” writes Switzer.

He points out that Keating was calling for Australia to cease being a ‘branch office of empire’, become a republic and aim for ‘enmeshment’ in Asia.  ” Australia, he insisted, ‘cannot represent itself to the world as a multicultural society, engage in Asia, make that link and make it persuasively while in some way, at least in constitutional terms, remaining a derivative society’. As Huntington pointed out, Keating complained that Australia had suffered untold years of ‘anglophilia and torpor’ and warned that continued association with Britain would be ‘debilitating to our national culture, our economic future and our destiny in Asia and the Pacific’.”

Keating said this was a misinterpretation of what he said.   “He was probably right,” says Switzer. “Still, many of the opinion-forming elite in Australia were enthusiastic in their misunderstanding. And, as Howard warned, Keating’s pronouncements coincided with a ‘perpetual seminar about our national identity’ and an ‘extraordinary period of navel-gazing’ in the 1990s about Australia’s place in the world.”



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