Geo-Political Debate in Australia: An American-Australian Relational (Intellectual-Cultural) Reading

March 18, 2023
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s intervention on the Labor Government’s decision on the AUKUS agreement for increasing Australia’s defence capability in the Asia-Pacific region, is as helpful as it (also) muddies the waters of local-regional-national interactional discussions.   ANU’s Mark Kenny is reported in The New York Times as he explained the essential problem:   […]

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s intervention on the Labor Government’s decision on the AUKUS agreement for increasing Australia’s defence capability in the Asia-Pacific region, is as helpful as it (also) muddies the waters of local-regional-national interactional discussions.


ANU’s Mark Kenny is reported in The New York Times as he explained the essential problem:


…Professor Kenny said that Australia should have a cleareyed debate about what kind of threat China realistically posed to the nation.

“The China question needs to be thought through much more clearly, and I don’t see a lot of evidence of that in the way the debate is being mediated at the moment,” he said.

The highly politicized nature of national security debates tends to polarize opinions and leave little room for nuance and equivocation, which could be perceived as appeasement, he added.

“The trouble with that kind of dynamic in a debate is that it clouds the opportunity for proper strategic thinking and clear strategic imagining and scenarios,” he said.


This short blog article makes the point that there is an underlying problem to Professor Kenny’s legitimate concern: how to untangle, and thus destroy, the 1990s culture-history war and its legacy, to be able to have the civil debate in the first place.


The critical issue of education (from K to postdoc) in these debates, and how it has shaped personal outlooks from decision makers, gets too much of a back seat in these debates. Keating may understand the geo-political history, but his own policy-framing (not necessarily specific policy statements in the federal-state education portfolio) in the 1990s set a disinformation on how Australians understood their intellectual history and the intellectual history of other countries. Parochialism was the correct target of Keating at the time, but his arguments entangled and hid the genuine overlap in ideas in the local-regional-national-interaction across arguments. As scholars in the marketplace, we have to act to stop the idiocy of the culture-history wars, and, perhaps, calling persons dumb does not achieve that end. It is a lesson for myself.


The difficulty in the climate of the culture-history war is the ignorance of intellectual-cultural histories, and the framing of policy in certain –and very questionable — historiography. The outrage comes from seeing the intellectual marks of personal judgement within a poor educational bubble. We have been short-changed in this country for the education in the humanities and the social science. Governments have made IT-futurism a despot in educational policies, and full-comprehensive education has become the foul victim of that policy stance. IT-futurism separates the work responsibility of knowing to the task of machine learning, not persons listening and learning from other persons directly and unfiltered by machine-like logic (the machine not having the capacity for ‘charity’ in the human formulation of critical thinking). The result is the dumbing down of the Australian population and the capacity to understand the geo-political debates.


Understanding the use of different logic and the abuses of logic for this exact question of the AUKUS agreement goes to the work of Australian social historians, like Marilyn Lake and her book, “Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform” (2019). It is also revealed by Australian intellectual historians like myself.


Let me repeat several paragraphs of what I wrote on July 16, 2020.


Those of the intellectual traditions of empathy and critical thinking need to work together to push back the forces, of right and left, which has twisted what was once good in an anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-ruling class appeal to the people, as a commitment to some unrefined ideals about individual autonomy and freedom. The populist good, and its once true claims, had erred in its ugly form of populism, and this was well explained, long ago, with Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (1963). In Australia, in the same era, Manning Clark was the historian who saw the value in the intellectual traditions which shaped the cultural life of the country, and how those traditions were being eroded by the modernist conflicts. Donald Horne, as a cultural critic with both conservative and radical outlooks, also fleshed out the story of how populist and progressivist ideas were challenging the Australian identity. The messaging has not changed since the 1960s, despite the shallow spin of contemporary ‘public relations’ thinking. The true savagery and barbarity of the modernist conflict has only increased, doubly dumbed-down and bedazzling in the new world of social media. It is the reason why Nicholas Buccola’s critique in “The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America” (2019) is so important. The 1965 debate between Baldwin and Buckley explains the radical call for racial justice and challenges the neo-conservatives who have taken a far-too accommodating stance with white supremacy. Buckley’s new conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s was wrong, and it is time for true Burkean conservatives –those who can advocate political revolution for social stability – to admit the terrifying and reactionary nature of today’s Republican Party; and admit it as the anti-intellectual distortion of conservative thought (i.e. it betrays itself, betrays the ideas and values).


This claim is true for Australia as well. The American version of populism, after 1945, was engaged in Australia, and often given a new coating in the Australian national mythology. It was what Donald Horne railed against as American commercialism, since mass production become to be populously valued (a new wealth for the masses). Against Horne and Clark was the popular view that we could take our White Australia Policy (white supremacy) and modernise it with an affluent white society, and token gestures to modern cosmopolitanism and compassion for Aboriginal Australia. What Horne and Clark had argued for were bold ideas and policies which meet the human needs of the day, and they shared in R. H. Tawney’s critique of “The Acquisitive Society” (1920). In each of the analysis, of such public intellectuals, there were imperfections, and they each had their own blind-spots. Richard Hofstadter denied the Catholic intellectual tradition as sufficient in American culture, a claim which can be well contested today, and Hofstadter’s claim reflected the faults in the liberal Protestant worldview. However, the broad, mid-century, American Protestant ‘intellectual’ school of thought was self-correcting, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics” (1932) had provided the required political realism. Irrespective of the faults, all of these public intellectuals upheld educative values, and education today is being undermined in the cognitive overreach of both the Right and Left in making ethical claims on what is wrong in our education systems (the ethicist Bernard Williams calls this popular move, ‘one thought too many’). The systems have failed, but the education has not, and the populist’s anti-intellectualism has made a virtue of attacking an educative outlook. Indeed, a contrast ought to be made in the lessons between Donald Horne’s “The Education of Young Donald” (1967) and Mary L. Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” (2020). Think back to Menzies’ claims for family values of the ‘forgotten people’.


Furthermore, progressive valuing is also being undermined, and this is going badly for conservatives, as well as radicals. The history after 1945 was a time of great hope. For 50 years, there have been softer versions of progressivism and anti-commercialism ideologies which have worked through the social institutions, so as to make a political come-back in the early 1990s and into the 21st century today. This can be characterised as Labor Progressivism in Australia, following Ben Chifley’s “The light on the hill” speech, delivered as his Prime Ministerial speech at a 1949 Labor conference speech at the Sydney Trades Hall. The ideals can be so summarized:


1) that only cooperation, not competition, produces success;

2) that one should work together to achieve a fair economy for all;

3) that the core value of those in the Labor movement is an inclusive and democratic process;

4) that it’s hard work existentially that actualizes goals;

5) that progressives aim toward ‘the light on the hill’, toward structural change to society/government and the world, toward welfarism (for the well-being of all, not as mere charity or government handouts);

6) that the machinery of government/state has stewardship over the individuals and has to value them, take care of them; and

7) that to be humanistic is to orient one’s life toward others.


Although it was held off in Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ long reign of the “Forgotten People” (the opposing landmark address delivered on 22 May 1942, as a call to defend the family home as “the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole”), that softer Labor Progressivism did work its way through, and gained power in Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s New Left style government (1972-1975). There was also a softer Liberal Progressivism in the declining governments of Harold Holt (1966-1967), John Gorton (1968-1971), and William McMahon (1971-1972). Electorally progressivist policies ebbed and flowed in the contest with the rise of neo-liberal politics in the governments of Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983) and John Howard (1996-2007). Fraser is interesting in this regard because after his career in politics, and as a humanitarian statesman (very much like the Jimmy Carter in his post-president years), the latter Fraser advocated a liberal Progressivism, not much different (if at all) from the Labor version. As Prime Minister, Frazer famously stated that “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”, only to reject this inference to neo-classical economic individualism. As Hegel stated, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”.


The opposite of Labor and Liberal Progressivism in Australia, in terms of the more popular right, is not progressivism, but the same ideology as Trump’s politics – xenophobic if not outright racism, fear-based reactionary politics in the midst of sweeping cultural change. In terms of a more intellectually stable opposite, a conservative progressivism (perhaps a type of Burkean conservatism in an elite political revolution for social stability) is also possible to locate in the United States and Australia, and elsewhere. It is probably now in the conservative voices of the so-called ‘religious left of centre’, the normally apolitical churches, mosques, synagogues, and (‘secular’) civic centres, which now are finally understanding that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the last progressive move (hopefully) to put to end the legacy of slavery.


Trump and his supporters are populists and are opposed by both the leftist progressives and the establishment (Burkean) conservatives. The libertarian populists fear that the community, with its restrictive civic rules or civil religion, is seeking to take charge of them; they want to be able to say “Merry Christmas!” without fearing a cultural event being cancelled or worrying about offending someone. The irony in this nonsense stance is that the populist is defending the right to express a cultural meme when other socially-oriented individuals (as the community) are well prepared to criticise owned symbolic usages in the cultural-centric thinking. There are many devout Christians who are pissed off with the populist for culturally-defensive nonsense about “Christmas” because it undercuts the very spiritual or religious nature of the message.


With all its faults, Richard Hofstadter still stands well with “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” (1963). One reason is that it offers an American ‘Christian’ perspective that engages with American ‘secularised’ classicism. I say ‘Christian’ and ‘secularised’ cautiously because the lines are entangled in different traditions. The populist arguments are entangled because those who are uneducated cannot see the lines between the intellectual traditions, as well as being blind to uncertain boundaries between ‘Church and State’ and ‘Religion and Politics’. The radical postmodernists have got the whole analysis wrong. The world is not fragmented; it is entangled in confused thinking. We need to return to the broader and inclusive education, and work together towards compatible ends.




Buccola, Nicholas (2019).  The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America, Princeton University Press.

Clark, Manning (1963; fourth revised 2006). A Short History of Australia, Penguin-Random House.

Hofstadter, Richard (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Horne, Donald (1964). The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Horne, Donald (1967). The Education of Young Donald, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Horne, Donald (1976). Death of The Lucky Country, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Lake, Marilyn (2019). Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, Harvard University Press.

Niebuhr, Reinhold (1932). Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Tawney, R. H. (1920). The Acquisitive Society, London: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Trump, Mary L. (2020). Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wolf, Susan. ‘One Thought Too Many’: Love, Morality, and the Ordering of Commitment’ in Ulrike Heuer and Gerald Lang (ed. 2012), Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes From the Ethics of Bernard Williams, Oxford University Press.


Composite Featured Image: Law and justice concept. Against the background of the flag of Australia lies a notebook with the inscription – INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. Photo 215360735 / Intellectual Australia © Dzmitry Skazau |; American history book on display with back light. Photo 4117287 © Anthony Furgison |

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Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
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