By Dr George Venturini*
Testing the thesis (continued)
(Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts)
As Bernard Smith, well known academic and art critic, wrote just after the second world war, “support of rich industrialists, post-war chaos, world depression, rising resentment and radicalism, capitalist crisis were present in Australia as in other countries [after the first world war]. They provided the social basis for an indigenous fascist development in Australia. But, in addition to these local factors, there were overseas influences – the writings of Nietzsche, Spengler and others – who gave a measure of theoretical credence, and the sanction of ‘authorities’ to the local developments, particularly in the realm of art comment. It will be possible to deal only with these attributes of pre-fascist mentality that are in some way connected with art comment and criticism. What are these attributes? … Some of those which are relevant to our purpose here include: the doctrine of racial supremacy, the belief in society as an organism, a hatred of democracy, the fascist praise of rural life, the identification of modern art with Bolshevism and Jewish exploitation. Have these attributes revealed themselves in the ‘culture climate’ of Australia ?”
And he went on: “Nationalism in its heightened forms is usually identified with the dominant ‘race’ of the nation. In this way, nationalism tends to transform itself into racism. We may note symptoms of this transposition in the phrase of [art critic] J. S. MacDonald: ‘the racial expression of others will not be ours’, the supremacy of ‘British-blooded stock’, and similar statements. The same writer gives evidence of his belief in the possible development of an Australian racial élite when, in dealing with the art of Arthur Streeton, he writes: ‘If we so choose, we can yet be the elect of the world, the last of the pastoralists, the thoroughbred Aryans in all their nobility’. Such a statement combines the fascist love of rural life, emphasizes the Aryan myth of racial supremacy, and champions racial purity.”
One of the minor attributes of ‘Fascist thought’ was the idealisation of rural life as compared with the life of the city. Such view was fundamental to the philosophy of B. A. Santamaria, Australian political activist and journalist, and one of the most influential political figures in twentieth century Australian history. As already noted, he was a highly divisive figure with strongly held anti-Communist views and medieval Franco-like Catholicism. His corrosive influence lasted much longer than that of figures such as artist Norman Lindsay, who had occasion to lament that “the lower orders have taken to practicing art themselves” and to belittle ‘The Wharf Lumper in Art’.”
Wharf labourers have been blamed for many things, but only Lindsay would blame them for the art form of, for example, Salvador Dalí. Hitler, of course, felt very much as did Lindsay in the matter of modern art. He passed laws against it, called it Jewish, international, foreign, degenerate. He forced modern artists such as Beckmann, Kandinsky, Klee out of their art schools, and drove them from the country. Their works were removed from museum walls and hidden or sold abroad.
The private view of certain ‘races’ in the Australia of the 1930s was very much close to that of the Fascist and Nazi regimes. Coincidentally, the holders of such views shared the same hatred for democracy as displayed by Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Many of these ‘urbane’ racists had quite a lot in common: hatred for Communism, for Bolshevism, and a ‘discreet’ dislike of the Jews – and all of such social evils as purveyors of ‘Modernism’. ‘Urbane’ racists regard the Enlightenment, Payne’s Age of reason, as the beginning of modern depravity.
Fascism brought with itself two elements: irrationalism, which depends on the cult of action for action’s sake, and decisionism, which could be regarded as the theoretical justification for that action’s cult. In fact, Fascism has an irrational element which rejects modern thought because it conflicts with traditional beliefs of the Christian religion. Evolution is seen as modernist and is rejected in favour of Christian creationism.
This debate re-emerges in present-day Australia’s equivocal attitude to the attempt to give equal value in education to evolution and creationism. The federal government is not concerned about it. Conveniently, it washes its hands of it: education is a state matter. Nevertheless, it assists both state and private schools – and these in larger measure – just as in a ‘both-way bet’. It goes with the possible ‘privatisation’ of everything. It also responds to the figure of the ‘action man’ as a doer and not a thinker – the contrary being the prerogative of females.
All this makes for a populist view of reading and studying as antithetical to sport and athleticism. And that view of life, inevitably, flows into a stolid and determined anti-intellectualism.
Anti-intellectualism in Australia is one of the few activities to which the populace is seriously committed. It manifests with a scorning hostility towards and mistrust of intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science as impractical and contemptible. ‘Intellectual’, ‘impractical’, ‘academic’, and similar words are terms of abuse in Australia. In public discourse, anti-intellectuals usually perceive and publicly present themselves as champions of the common folk – populists against political elitism and academic elitism – proposing that the educated are a social class detached from the everyday concerns of the majority.
As a political adjective, ‘anti-intellectual’ variously describes an ‘education system’ emphasising minimal academic accomplishment, and a government which formulates public policy without the advice of academics and their scholarship. Because ‘anti-intellectual’ can be a pejorative, defining specific cases of anti-intellectualism can be troublesome; one can object to specific facets of intellectualism or the application thereof without being dismissive of intellectual pursuits in general. Moreover, allegations of ‘anti-intellectualism’ can constitute an appeal to authority or an appeal to ridicule which attempts to discredit an opponent rather than specifically addressing her/his arguments.
Anti-intellectualism carries a feeling of ressentissement of, combined with a secret envy for, persons who have obtained a certain degree of formal education and do not relinquish the pleasure of continuing it. It goes with the feeling that the ‘intellectual’ is not ‘one of us’, may be dangerous, and is suspected with having no feeling for the ordinary person. Therefore, an intellectual is by definition arrogant, detached from the common person – not a ‘mate’. Many intellectuals in Australia have foreign background, or education – or both. Often they belong to groups who ‘think otherwise’, are often non-conformist and, therefore, suspected with being atheist, of lose mores, of disapproved sexual behaviour, in the Australian jargon: poofters – who more often than not are Jews. For that ‘reason’ alone, but also because intellectuals encourage discussion, specialise in ‘verbal virtuosity’ rather than leading to tangible, measurable products and services, are ‘secularist’, care about ‘the humanities’, and if given carte blanche would ‘prepare students for life’ but instil in their pupils thoughts and views which are not conducive to ‘making a living’, intellectuals are a ‘race’ apart.
Dictatorial, authoritarian, self-absorbing governments find it convenient to accuse intellectuals of being socially uninvolved – that is of rejecting the one-single-thought view of life, politically-dangerous, unsatisfied with the status quo and received beliefs, hence by definition ‘subversives’.
Some examples will suffice. It was John Thomas Lang – admittedly a Labor ‘apostate’ – who was once heard to admonish a keen young Labor member discovered reading in the Parliamentary Library with the words: “Reading eh? You’ll soon get over that nonsense, son. No time for it, here.” Ignorance of economic theory in no way distinguished him from many, most other political leaders of the day, state and federal. Time? 1930s.
Lang would not be alone. In March 1970, in Melbourne – which likes to put itself about as ‘The Athens of the South’ – Sir Henry Bolte, the ‘Liberal’ longest-serving Premier of Victoria, speaking at a Victorian Parliamentary House dinner, prided himself as follows: “The only place I’ve never been in here is the library, not in twenty-odd years.” He had already said of striking teachers seeking to meet him: “I don’t have a doorstep low enough for them to sit on.”
Tomorrow: Testing the thesis . . . Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts (continued)
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.
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