October 8th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reaper mows down first child in the Low Countries

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition still gridlocked despite foreign success

EDITORIAL Trump v Clinton: choice between bad and worse

GENERATION RENT The economics behind political unrest

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Kevin Andrews: defend marriage on principles

WA DRUG POLICY Forum told intervention works with cannabis, ice

OPINION "Deconstruction" fosters contempt of its object

POPULATION POLITICS Philanthropy as a weapon of mass destruction

SUPERANNUATION Take away the number you first thought of ...

HISTORY Germany and its long history of immigration

CINEMA The online madding crowd: Nerve

BOOK REVIEW Tale of forestry dynasty not quite pulp quality

BOOK REVIEW Roman refresher


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"Deconstruction" fosters contempt of its object

by Dr Lucy Sullivan

News Weekly, October 8, 2016


As John Kelly writes (News Weekly, July 2, 2016), “deconstruction” is one of the weapons of the Marxist left’s long march through the institutions, exacting that literature be judged according to one criterion only – how far it expresses, or falls short of proselytising, the 20th-century left’s understanding of the rights and wrongs of class, gender and culture. The complexities of human society and behaviour are reduced to a handful of simplistic categories.

Moreover it brainwashes the young into believing that its dogma on these factors, which is essentially a product of the last two centuries’ material conditions and scientific progress, is the unchanging ethical criterion for all times. It cultivates the closed mind.

This approach negates the true worth of the literature of the past, and its potential for broadening our understanding in the different circumstances of the present.

Bertrand Russell puts this well, though from a different standpoint, in his History of Western Philosophy, when advising on a just approach to early Greek science, which, unlike science today, was not so much a matter of empiricism, as a new way of thinking about the readily observable. Most of its conclusions, except in mathematics, are entirely untenable today.

Russell urged that the reverential attitude current among some scholars then was not useful, neither was it fair to dismiss the Greeks as simply ignorant and wrong. Rather, “two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever.

“When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us realise how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.”

Deconstruction often is, unfortunately, a method that teaches contempt, at the same time claiming for itself “complete and final truth”. Pupils in all their ignorance are expected to critique the great historians with a limited battery of simplistic rule of thumb challenges. “History is written by the winners”, therefore biased. (What does this make of our Anzac Day tradition?)

Even the first historian, Herodotus, went to great pains to gather accounts from all sides. The typical kneejerk response came when I recounted a curious observation of Herodotus, surveying an old battlefield in the Middle East, that skulls of one army were much thicker than the other’s. Before I could give Herodotus’ conjectured explanation, that one tribe constantly kept their heads covered, while the thick skulls went bare-headed (that is, an effect of exposure to the sun), out it came – the historian was of the tribe to which he attributed thicker (superior?) skulls. In fact he was of neither.

Far more absolutism is attributed to “pre-postmodern” scholarship than was in fact the case. Rather it was implicit that all knowledge is provisional, built on its past evolution, and therefore only a stage in the ongoing intellectual project. This is clearly seen in the way science was presented in schools. Each new topic was introduced with a review of its origins and the steps of its development up to the present state of knowledge (the bad theories as well as the good), including current uncertainties and inadequacies, so that it was known as an ongoing project, not a terminus.

And consider Jane Austen’s novels. There is scarcely a direct reference to the impact of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars on English social life, and they scarcely move beyond the gentry and upper middle class. Yet they provide a wealth of intelligent examination of human drives and principles of propriety superficially different from their equivalents today – though we do have their equivalents – and following her examinations of trial and error can make us more objective about our own.

The blindness to the complex temporal texture of social ethics induced by the narrowness of deconstruction theory and practice is seen in the recent eruption of iconoclasm in Oxford University students’ demand for the removal of educational benefactor Cecil Rhodes’ statue (because his wealth came from adventurism in Africa), and Georgetown University’s in Washington, DC, and several other American universities’ decisions to remove the names of benefactors whose money was resourced from slavery.

In this context we might rewrite Russell’s observation as follows: “A man whose actions have been thought good in the past may be presumed to have possessed some virtue, and no man is likely to have achieved complete virtue in any activity whatsoever. When a good man has acted in a way that seems to us obviously evil, we should not reject the whole man in contempt, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem admissible, and realise how misplaced many of our cherished illusions of moral perfection will seem to an age which has a different world to comprehend.”

In the Brexit vote, Oxford was one of the few places in favour of Remain, that is, in favour of the beneficiaries of today’s high-finance globalisation, which exploits and disinherits the less advantaged in both developed and undeveloped nations today, much as Rhodes did in the Africa of his day.

And those U.S. universities could be taken more seriously if they embarked on research as to whether the gun lobby claim that free access to firearms protects against, rather than enables, shooting murders. (When knife attacks suddenly escalated on the streets of Sydney in the 1990s, the carrying of knives in public places was promptly made illegal, and they subsided just as promptly).

Their legal and linguistic minds might set themselves to consider whether the right “to bear arms” at the time of the writing of the constitution meant the same thing as the domestic gun toting of today. The lack of gun control in the U.S. is as great a scourge to black families and communities today as slavery was in the past.

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