Once, long ago, I made the mistake of signing a change.org petition. I have received unwanted correspondence from them ever since.
Their latest bit of litter lobbed into my in-tray the other morning, demanding I sign a petition against Sydney University’s plan to confer an honorary doctorate on the ‘racist and war criminal’ John Howard. Howard is an alumnus of Sydney University’s law school. Large numbers of Sydney Uni academics signed it.
‘John Howard is not a fit recipient of the university’s highest honour’ the petition asserts. ‘To confer a doctorate on him is an insult to anyone opposed to war, racism and social exclusion, and committed to multiculturalism, peace and social progress in Ausralia (sic) and in the world’.
The petitioners take particular issue with Howard’s support for invading Iraq, the Northern Territory Intervention, the Tampa, and the ‘History Wars’.
John Howard (who left office in 2007) is apparently also responsible for four One Nation Senate seats (in 2016) and the fact that 49 per cent of Australians — according to Essential, at least — endorse a ban on Muslim immigration.
Apart from an inability to spell the name of their own country, the Sydney Uni academics that wrote and signed this risible document have learnt little about public reason from their time at university. People disagree; this disagreement is managed by something called ‘politics’; politics finds expression in the form of an elected Parliament. Grown-ups are also supposed to understand that politicians with whom they disagree are allowed to receive academic approbation. When this understanding is honoured more in the breach than the observance, the consequences are typically unpleasant.
The foofaraw when Oxford denied Margaret Thatcher the same honour had far reaching implications. In order to preserve the appearance of fairness, Oxford later denied an honorary doctorate to Tony Blair, while a furious Thatcher endowed a £2 million Chair at Cambridge and donated the complete record of her government papers to Churchill College, also in Cambridge.
Both Thatcher and Blair were Oxford alumni. One suspects Cambridge was starting to resemble Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat by this point. Sir Patrick Neill, the Warden of All Souls — Oxford’s famed graduate-only college — was left to issue a quiet lament: ‘We have never given honorary degrees in the past because we approved or disapproved of someone’s policies’.
That the people endorsing this petition don’t understand politics is evidenced by the simple fact that every single assertion in it is arguable. There are arguments both for and against using multiculturalism as a policy to manage high and ethnically diverse immigration. At least at the time — everyone loves wearing their special 20/20 vision in hindsight sunglasses — there were arguments for invading Iraq. There are arguments for and against the Northern Territory Intervention, as well as arguments for stopping the boats (ask Kevin Rudd about that one) and against Australia’s bureaucratised refugee regime. As for the ‘History Wars’, last time I looked history was meant to be contested and, indeed, the argument that Australia’s Aborigines experienced genocide is particularly tenuous.
Ironically, the achievements for which Sydney University conferred the honorary doctorate on Howard are also disputed. Part of the citation is for his ‘world-leading gun law reform, leadership in East Timor and contribution to Australia’s economic reform’.
I disagree with Howard’s treatment of licenced shooters. I think the Howard and Costello double-act succeeded in legitimising Australia’s now unaffordable middle-class welfare. It is one of the ironies of political history that Labor proved more economically prudent by better targeting wealth transfers. Only East Timor emerges as an unalloyed good — except, perhaps, if you’re Indonesian.
I am far from alone in those views, and yet I would not deny John Howard his honorary doctorate.
There’s also the fairly basic point that honorary doctorates are the replica goods of the academic world, far from being their ‘highest honour’. I mean, Kanye West has one, Meryl Streep could probably wallpaper her downstairs loo with hers and — while they were alive —Jimmy Savile and Colonel Gaddafi also donned funny hats and gowns (since posthumously, if not literally, removed). There’s a reason why it’s considered non-U to insist on being called ‘doctor’ on the basis of an honorary doctorate.
This ridiculous moral peacocking is of a piece with campaigns to get people sacked over something they’ve written or drawn (step up, Glen Le Lievre and Bill Leak). About the only consolation is that a petition is fairly benign; attempts to destroy people’s livelihoods as opposed to engaging with their ideas should promote serious reflection on the quality of our civic discourse. In other words, you don’t win the argument when you get someone fired or badger a public institution into saying ‘we agree with you that [Insert Name] is a nasty racist — here, have a biscuit’.
US neuropsychologist Jonathan Haidt has written persuasively about what happens when academic institutions and scholarship lose what he describes as ‘viewpoint diversity’. Haidt’s research outlines how social science in particular is dominated by people on the political left, and not just any sort of left: the centre-left that forms the backbone of Australian Labor is also underrepresented. He also documents how the confirmation bias that arises as a result of this political conformity undermines scholars’ ability to produce reliable findings. Sometimes quality control is so poor major studies can’t be replicated or there is even outright fraud. This feeds into shoddy policy development and ultimately, serious policy failure.
And if anything apart from half-a-million voters indulging in the political equivalent of doing something messy but enjoyable while clutching a stubby pencil in the privacy of the polling booth contributed to the election of four One Nation senators, shoddy policy is it. Not John Howard. If I can learn from (while disagreeing with) E.P. Thompson and Tony Benn, then the great and the good at Sydney University can cope with a little John Howard.
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