Uni showed its lack of a moral compass
March 24, 2005
The chances of Keith Windschuttle's following such notables as anti-nuclear zealot Helen Caldicott and environmental activist Peter Garrett on the stage of an Australian university to receive an honorary degree seem to be narrowing by the day. Yet Mr Windschuttle has done more to give the academic pot in Australia a much-needed stirring than either of those worthies, or indeed anybody else in living memory. His latest offence against all that is decent and compassionate in our universities was, on the opposite page last week, to criticise the invitation issued by Sydney University's Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences to the Italian radical writer Antonio Negri. Lining up dutifully alongside his academic critics to castigate Windschuttle, the Sydney Morning Herald described Negri as being ''allegedly linked to radical left-wing political groups in his homeland''. You could put it like that. In the 1970s Negri was the public face of the terrorist Red Brigades. He was arrested and charged with 17 murders, including that of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, and was convicted and sentenced to 30 years' jail, most of which he avoided by fleeing Italy. Finally back in prison where he belonged in Italy in 2000, he became a celebrity among the international academic Left by co-authoring a vast and unreadable book about how we are all controlled by multinational corporations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund.
The response by senior academics at Sydney University to the public revelation that Negri has been invited to a conference at the university has been curious, to say the least. Professor Phillip Jones, head of the RIHSS, wrote to The Australian to say ''there is no invitation . . . for Antonio Negri to visit Australia''. Perhaps not, but there certainly once was, because as recently as March 4 the RIHSS website was announcing Negri would address a conference there on the ''Physiognomy of Origins'' from May 4 to 6. It even told us Negri ''has introduced a materialist perspective into the concept of origin through his investigations of constituents and multitudes'' -- nice work if you can get it. More forthcoming in an interview with the SMH, Professor Jones said Negri has cancelled due to poor health.
The fact of the invitation itself is not the main point. On freedom of speech grounds, in the past The Australian has supported the granting of visas to Holocaust-denier David Irving, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and anti-Semitic US black activist Louis Farrakhan -- although the chances of Negri's gaining a visa in the current security environment were always negligible, a fact that does not appear to have occurred to his local academic sponsors. The main point is the confirmation the invitation provides of the woolly-mindedness of our publicly funded intelligentsia. Having long ago substituted ''critique'' for reason, and even after everything that has happened during the past 3 1/2 years, the intellectuals cannot grasp that the West and its democratic values are under attack from an insidious new fascism. Instead, choosing to make an exception to normal process and blame the victim, they persist with the ''New Left'' worldview of the 1970s that equates the West with fascism, a view Negri embodies. Assume they will be less concerned by the comments of ASIO chief Dennis Richardson, reported in The Australian today, that our terror laws are likely to catch fewer than one in 10 terror operatives than by the fact such laws represent a further intrusion of ''Empire'' -- Negri's favourite word, and always rendered with a capital -- into our lives.
In 2003, former NSW premier Nick Greiner was forced out of a post at Sydney University following protests arising from his ties with the tobacco industry -- an appalling piece of injustice, later ratified by the University Senate. No such protests arose over the invitation to a man sentenced to 30 years for terror offences. By publicly shaming the university over the Negri affair, Mr Windschuttle has saved it from its own folly. Don't they give you an honorary doctorate for that?