Medusa’s hair

Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1610

SYDNEY LORD finds a metaphor for cancel culture in mythology

Medusa, with her famous hair of writhing snakes, has had many metamorphoses over the centuries – so many the Greeks and Romans stopped counting. After World War II, some feminist activists – which I call ‘femocrats’- used Medusa as a mascot. The Gorgon’s gaze, as we know, was enough to strike dead any male (nowadays, preferably a white male) who held back any talented, brilliant, intellectually savvy, sovereign woman. Yet Medusa, who was considered beautiful in one of her guises, is also used by the fashion house, Versace.

To me, Medusa’s hairdo is the perfect mascot for all the quarrelling, snarling and bickering by the Opinionated and the Offended we enjoy in well-to-do democracies. If ever a hairstyle disagreed with itself, it is Medusa’s, and disagreeing with themselves is what democracies do every day – distracting them from their own protection, while their pockets are being systematically picked.

People snarl about sex, which has been dissociated from love and marriage, and rechristened ‘gender’, which until recently was a purely grammatical term. ‘Gender’ enables those with sex-in-the-head (thank you, D. H. Lawrence), often non-medical teachers or school counsellors, to insist there are ever so many sexes or, rather, genders, in some cases necessitating surgery for full realisation. It seems to me that rushing to diagnose a pupil or student, and suggest hormone treatment or even surgery, reeks of ‘social engineering’ and maybe even child abuse. Is this more about asserting power than righting wrongs? (1)

A second area of quarrelling is ‘equality’. What exactly this means is a puzzle. Does it mean equity? Does it mean equal legal rights for all – or that we should all be the same in a mental Mao suit? Doesn’t affirmative action, or quotas, contradict sameness, or equity, or equality? Must inequality, for whatever reason, always be compensated for? Mightn’t affirmative action mean that someone who enters school or university with a lower education than those who enter normally is always running hard to keep in the same place? Why not give everyone of every background such a good education, even if this means extra effort at times, that they will not need affirmative action? Forgive the thought, but who would want an affirmative action brain surgeon? Affirmative action may be fine in Gender Studies, which are unlikely do any harm – unless it is in school counselling. (Shouldn’t school counsellors have a degree in Offence Studies too?)

A propos equality, equity, and sameness, I feel compelled to mention that in Mao’s gift of Marx’s equality to women, women were still given lower wages than men. Educated, CEO-class femocrats in highly developed democracies argue endlessly about getting equal pay for equal work. But this is a wealthy women’s quarrel. Here in Australia, the altruistic professions, generally lowly paid everywhere, have ‘equity of pay’. Those who do really important everyday jobs –  nurses, carers, emergency phone operators, ambulance medicos, police, fire fighters, coastguards and soldiers are given equal pay. (Some want no pay at all, and wish to remain volunteers.) But should equity of pay ever waver, there are unions, plus open, cogent and constructive debate – while the CEO sector bickers over millions of dollars. Recently, University of Sydney management magnanimously gave up 20% of their income – but it turned out to be their bonuses. Such feminists might briefly stop thinking about money, and spare a very deep thought for brave, individually-minded women in some Islamic countries, like the recently shot Afghan woman film director, Saba Sahar.

A third area of bickering is ‘diversity’. This is simultaneously a dull abstraction, and an enforced mantra that sparks all sorts of unpleasantness. I don’t have a definition and have never heard a good one, but I suspect it means diversity of ethnicities. It seems to me to mean something like this – there are too many Anglo-Celts in the world; they should either be equalled in numbers by ‘Others’ or they should be flooded out. Yet highly-paid jobs that rely heavily on appearances, like TV presenting, display oodles of beautiful and professional persons of many ethnicities. So too do the highly educated professions, like law or medicine, and innumerable small businesses. Given all this evidence, no doubt the squabbling over diversity will soon cease…and then all those corporations and universities that have ‘Diversity Toolkits’ (don’t laugh) can put them away for good.

Alas, this leads into a fourth area – racism. This is not a dull abstraction, but one fraught with very loud squabbling, and self-righteous rage of the worst kind, plus oodles of conceit and confected Offence. This is apparently not an improved situation and gives rise nearly every day to both big and small squabbles, and very muddled arguments. Medusa’s vipers are in a downright frenzy over this.

A small example concerned the taxpayer-funded national broadcaster of Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The ABC was utterly abashed and compelled to spend quite a large amount of extra tax money averting a racist disaster in a children’s series, featuring a dog named Bluey. No, Bluey did not offend any blue races. The offence was that a phrase “ooga booga” was used in this children’s series. ‘Someone’ unnamed complained, because ‘ooga booga’ was used in Hollywood movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s to represent ‘traditional cultures’ negatively. This offence was important enough to be reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (2). The ABC suspended the episodes until they could be changed in case any tiny tot film buffs or, indeed, any representatives of ‘traditional cultures’ were in the ABC audience. Embarrassing and expensive silliness occurs repeatedly to avoid varying degrees of guilt imposed by the Perennially Offended, in this case, the certain ‘someone’ who complained. Quite mysterious. I have a vision of a tiny tot or tribesman phoning in their complaint… (To make offence easier, why not have an app?)

Recently, the Australian Senator Matthias Cormann was criticised for joking that the Commonwealth was ditching its white official cars for dark grey, as whiteness was colonial. Should I open the floodgates of squabbling, guilt and offence by revealing that our great Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was chauffeured in a black Bentley? Black and British-made! How could he have been so inept? He obviously did not foresee the offence 70 years hence. Joking aside, we must never lose sight of the ignorance that is necessitated for genuine silly offence. There is a long-established brand of cheddar sold in Australia, called Coon Cheese. Inevitably, overnight this became racially offensive, and now the name is to change. But the first maker of the cheddar was a Mr Coon. So who has race writ large in their empty head space – Mr Coon, or those who saw his name as racist?

Australia is not trivial all the time. It does some egregious acts of trying to retro-right old wrongs. Recently, a Green Party employee, Ms Xiaoran Shi, was charged with vandalism  for spray-painting Captain Cook’s statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park with the message “No Pride in Genocide”. Usually Captain Cook is accused of discovering Australia, in his time called New Holland (whoever by?), when he wended his way along the East Coast. Why he is accused of discovering Australia, I don’t know. (He brilliantly mapped Newfoundland too, but no one has accused him of discovering Newfoundland.) George Collingridge’s classic 1895 account of the discovery of Australia by Europeans is called, reasonably enough, Discovery of Australia. It stops before Captain Cook. Why? Because he did not discover Australia. This worthy book ends with the 17th century, and mainly the Dutch – although the English buccaneer William Dampier is in here too. Dampier luckily has no statue. I am guessing a statue of him would need quite a long explanatory plaque. He was very offensive. He came to Australia more than once. He took a look at the west coast, collected some botanical specimens, and was in contact with what appeared to him near-starving natives. Finally, he gave the land a miss after some investigation near Broome. Think of how one could vandalise his statue for that 400-year insult – ‘Don’t give a Damn for Dampier’.

But it is Cook who cops it all. No one seems dispassionate about him. Cook is supposed to have taken pride in genocide. But he was not on land long enough; nor did he have a Gatling gun which might have enabled him to commit genocide during his short stay. Besides, he did not want to. To Cook, the natives were amazing. There were natural misunderstandings and skirmishes, but Cook avowed “their features are far from disagreeable and their voices soft and tunable” (3). He felt them to be “happier than Europeans”, and clearly respected them. Admittedly, he was shocked at their nudity – and failed to see this was wise dress sense in northern Australian summers (perhaps the vandals of his statues should have written “No Prudity in Nudity”). But this was his own private thought, as an abstemious man. He could not have known what Lord Byron aka Don Juan, later rhymed with great personal understanding:

The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone: 
What men call gallantry, and gods call adultery, 
 Is much more common where the climate’s sultry

Blame such dress sense on the sun. But Cook did not scold the natives like some missionary bore, nor did he take advantage of the climate sultry, surely an overlooked point in his favour.

Most significantly, Cook felt that the natives could not be numerous – a fact that ought to be remembered before levelling wild allegations of mass slaughter. He saw that the natives searched for food over large tracts of land. Not only that, having seen canoes all over the world, Cook deemed the barks he saw of poor quality, which may very well be the reason a people living in this huge land for 60,000 years did not discover Europe first. This observation is surely not to be held against the Captain. So on the whole Cook was a good guy, if not wholly au fait with Aboriginal ways of life. Let’s forgive him for coming to Australia. This great big extraordinary chunk of an island continent was bound to be a curiosity to any thinking being, as it is to the thinking beings already here. Whatever happened, good or bad, after he paddled along the east coast was not his fault. In fact, his visit to Hawaii brought horror upon him rather than the reverse, and few would argue that fate was deserved.

Admittedly, under orders from George III, Cook did ‘plant the flag’. Perhaps that is his real Offence. But one might say he also planted modernity, which grew and thrived eventually, everyone on this land participating in it to some degree or other, as cultures should – borrowing, learning and growing. Perhaps Ms Xiaoran Shi should have vandalised a statue of George III with, say, “No Obsession for Possession”. Unfortunately, George III is hardly ever given a fair press, and anyway he has no statue in Australia.

But before hatred for George III comes into play, spare a kind thought for him. Whatever his failures about “taxation without representation” (his statue in the 13 colonies was vandalised and destroyed), he amazed his courtiers by being faithful to his wife. He also founded the heart of a national library; he was interested in science (his collection of instruments is housed in the Science Museum); he had built the King’s Observatory at Richmond-upon-Thames; and he funded the world’s largest telescope for Herschel.  What’s more, he gave half his income to charity. Not only that – he was interested in the seminary of Maynooth and its founding in 1795 for Irish Catholics, and granted the charter for Dartmouth College in America for the “local Indians” and Anglo “gentlemen”. He was much interested eventually in stopping slavery. Later, the Royal Navy interdicted slave ships from many countries, and in some countries, like Brazil, stopped it completely. As a proud historian of Britain and anti-slavery, Professor Jeremy Black of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, says:

The Royal Navy was still in action against the slave trade in the Red Sea in the 1920s…. the role of the Royal Navy was central to ending the slave trade…. That was a great achievement of imperial Britain, and Britain today remains a key state in the suppression of the vile trade in human misery (5)

So before porphyria so cruelly overtook him, George III did many good deeds that today are unknown or ignored. Disparage him for not doing enough against slavery, if you will, but he did try.

But before I start to discuss my beloved Britain, warts and all, I feel compelled to say something of education in Australia, which applies to universities elsewhere. This is too large an issue to explain in detail, but may I mention that education is generally dumbed down, wherever it is required to make more money, to get more students? Kevin Donnelly demonstrates this clearly in a recent work (6). Dr. Donnelly is Australia’s pre-eminent warrior on education against think-shrink, groupthink, mandated ideology, and the many quislings in educational structures, be they academics, union leaders, or Vice Chancellors. He reminds us that the harm of a poor or dishonest education is incalculable. There is harm to the teachers and to the pupils and students and to the future. 

The most recent spectacle in a long line of Australian spectacles was the treatment of Peter Ridd, a Queensland academic who was sacked after 30 years for disagreeing over his university’s “mandated policy” on the Great Barrier Reef. Drew Pavlou, a university student in Queensland, was also a victim of his university’s wrath, for warning against too much reliance on China. Schools and universities used to mean getting a sense of the interconnectedness of knowledge, knowledge from any and every capable culture, and come to understand the world. Even if, at university level, you decided to specialise in aspects of that knowledge, you could have faith you were learning truth, could debate freely, and engage in significant thought. With lectures one could trust, one could feel able to face the future.

But now universities in Australia have strayed into thinking they are in the corporate world rather than the service sector. They have become ‘useful idiots’ in a cause even they only dimly comprehend. Sydney University actually advertised itself as the “University of Unlearning”. Universities have pushed easy and foolish subjects, while at the same time pleasing China by sharing research and hosting Chinese government-subsidised Confucius Centres (7).

Universities and institutes are not meant for mandated ideas or fixed group-think. Such engineering in education will inevitably make you the obedient owner of that dangerous thing, “a little learning” (thanks, Alexander Pope). Having a fixed ideology makes you the vacuum which nature abhors but a tyrant adores. Knowledge, openness and truth benefit all mankind. It is the duty of every school or university to expand and share knowledge and make sure it is the truth, so that we all may stand on what Isaac Newton famously called “the shoulders of giants” (8), rather than give in to bullies, social media sillies, and cringing quislings. Whether activists or universities like it or not, they are a part of Western Civilization (an antediluvian-sounding term, but now needed more than ever).

As Professor Simon Haines notes,

The very terms …critics use to attack ’Western civilisation’, sceptical, empirical, political, are the terms it has taught them. The …spaces they march in and protest in, the institutions they condemn are the ones it has built and opened and maintained for them. The liberal tolerance they sneer at is what tolerates their sneers, where other civilisations would have imprisoned them, and do. Its openness to the whole world, to new experience, its adventurous spirit of discovery and curiosity, its desire ‘to strive, to seek, to find’, and yes, its capacity to criticise itself, is what has distinguished this civilisation from others. Its very variety of culture and values, so often incompatible and conflicted, has also given it a hybrid toughness, a capacity to adopt and assimilate, to tolerate, and include. Millions of non-Westerners (including some who think it wicked) want nothing more than to live in it, while Westerners lucky enough to have it as a birthright, take it for granted. How we would miss it if it really didn’t exist! It may not be a perfect model for a fully inclusive or genuinely liberal human civilisation, one neither repressive nor prodigal, but truly magnanimous. Still it may be the closest we’ve yet come as a species (9)

A few years ago, what British femocrats did to a genuine old-time learned scholar and scientist, Sir Timothy Hunt, for a jokey remark about women in laboratories, was more despicable, and ominous, than mere bickering. None of them weighed the achievements of this man against their Offence at a passing remark. Medusa could hardly keep her lid on over this.

By contrast, along comes Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. Not long ago, Professor Andrews, although he does write books too, would have been called an ‘airport professor’, but today, with morning TV shows that have to be filled with something, he is a TV professor and fronts many disagreements on these shows – mostly disagreements of his own making. He calls himself an “activist”, apparently seeing no conflict between that and disinterested, deep learning. He got enormous publicity on Good Morning Britain by labelling Winston Churchill a racist, even a man who committed war crimes. He also called ‘whiteness’ a psychosis, referring to all the endeavours of those pinky-beige skinned people.

Not only this, but he took the view that the British Empire was worse than the Nazi regime – because it lasted longer than Nazi Germany, and was similarly based on race. Andrews is an intelligent man, albeit a Johnny-one-note. He knows he is hurting his TV viewers, but that’s activism for you. (A scholar would never strive to hurt.) He ignores the simple fact that Britain was the sole free country in Europe, facing a titanic threat. And at the head of that little country was a brave, brilliant, chubby old man, on whose every word people everywhere hung. I recall his voice coming through the crackling short wave radio, as we crouched in our basement, thousands of miles from the action, wanting his words to help bring home a beloved brother.

Whatever Professor Andrews says, Birmingham City University – mirabile dictu – stands behind him. Whether out of a sense of real guilt or to avoid being sued, it said:

We do recognise that comments such as those you [the complainant] refer to may be considered controversial by some but this does not negate our respect [sic] for the ability of all individuals to exercise freedom of speech within the law

(If only Sir Timothy Hunt had worked for Birmingham City University.) As for the Empire, when all is sorted out, it was of its time and is no more.  The Commonwealth that emerged in its place, with its shared experience, knowledge and values, may prove more globally useful than the UN with its toothless vetoes.

Reckless assertions of racism encourage it from others. Caught up in the excited climate, no less a person than the Chief Librarian of the British Library has said “racism is a creation of white people”. Now why isn’t that a racist remark? Isn’t this ‘reverse racism’? Whatever will she think of herself when she looks back in cooler times on what she said? I cringe for her. She is like the young person who rushes to get a tattoo without thinking what it will look like on aged skin when you try to scrub it off. 

There is a wrecking ball at work, trying to smash all the things the British hold dear.  The BBC wanted to change the end of the Proms, the playing of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia. Classical music culture-cleansers may soon go after Eric Coates’s theme to The Dambusters, because mission commander Guy Gibson’s black Labrador bore the name of a then unobjectionable, but now unspeakable, epithet. Small wonder that persons not normally given to public debate are speaking out against the loss of freedom of speech, the loss of perspective, the conceit of being faux-offended and wanting to punish the offender, whether an offence is hundreds of years old or yesterday. Performers who would not normally take to the podium have been doing so recently – Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Nick Cave, Ricky Gervais, Laurence Fox, and others – performers whose time is money, and who stand to lose their reputation and work by speaking out. Famous performers are presently tops for the tumbrils.

Medusa, Frank Stuck, 1892

How can we avert all this ugliness on TV, in the kindergarten, primary school, university and nearly every institution? How can we gel down Medusa’s hair? May I suggest a few home cures?

We could start by knowing more about Marx, in whose name so many idiocies and crimes are carried out. The awkward truth is that Karl hated utopians. He was essentially of the bourgeoisie, a class many think he held among his many hates. But his father, Heinrich, was a highly successful attorney who mightily valued the Enlightenment, and converted to Protestantism in order to avoid the anti-Jewish tergiversation of the Prussian authorities. Karl was an extraordinarily lucky boy. He received a splendid education up to, and including, his PhD at age 23 – the sort of education we all crave, in noted contrast to that of, say, Abe Lincoln. He married a Prussian aristocrat (of little dowry, alas), Jenny von Westphalen. Today, we would call Karl an upper-class prat or a silvertail, but in those days he was only a misguided youngster and a bit of a disappointment to Daddy, who eventually stopped subsidizing him. By joining the Young Hegelians, Marx was combining revolutionary zeal with a filial resentment about money. Even after he found himself living in considerable poverty in London, Jenny continued to have her writing paper embossed, and Karl aspired to a bourgeois marriage for their daughter Laura.

The great idealist would always gravitate towards people with money. Friedrich Engels was a perfect mark – a revolutionary and a man supported by a wealthy Daddy too, a cotton (think slavery, child labour) manufacturer in Manchester. Karl and Jenny battened on him endlessly, eventually inveigling him into also supporting Laura and her equally improvident husband. Many have written astutely on Karl’s true nature and the failings of his philosophy, but still he exerts a mesmeric influence on people who really should know better (10). The countries that adopted or adapted his ideas do not allow the free play of the intellect, whereas Western democracies do (or, perhaps I should say, did).

Avoid labelling anyone anything. When Dehinde Andrews called Churchill a racist, it didn’t allow him a youthful past, a different present, or any inner growth along the way. The young Churchill in the Khyber Pass in the last years of the 19th century was not the same man as the 65 years-old wartime Prime Minister. Labelling cancels complex knowledge; it is a form of think-shrink. Be fair to others, as you would like them to be fair to you. Steer by your own compass; make your own choices. And of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. You cannot solve an old wrong by committing a new one. Vandalising a reputation, or a statue, or a shop, causing anger in and danger to others, decides nothing, solves nothing. It may even make things worse, by awakening old demons, opening old wounds.

Take advantage of intellectual openness while you can. Think, before you join a mob and wreck a statue, a street or a city. As far as possible, learn the truth of every situation, and allow it to temper your temper. You may not achieve Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light”, but you may avoid a ludicrous wrong, or even achieve good judgement. How would it feel in later life to look back, and see you had been manipulated, an automaton when you could have been an independent thinker? Unfashionable though they are, and terribly difficult at times, freedom of speech and thought are your main protections against having all of the Gorgon in agreement for once, her terrible hair roiling and coiling in laughter at you.

Author’s Notes

  1. Dr John Whitehall, a professor of paediatric surgery at the University of Western Sydney, has made a rare stand against the drive to increase gender/sexual hypochondria, neglecting the fullness of a personality with all the co-morbidities of the situation. This brave doctor has amazingly not lost his job for trying to establish the real facts of cases before children face life-changing hormone treatments, or scalpels
  2. 21st August 2020, p.4
  3. See the Sun-Herald Commemorative Portfolio on Cook, Sydney, no date – and Christopher Allen, “A Shared History Worth Celebrating,” Weekend Australian Review, 29th -30th August 2020, pp. 10-11
  4. Fr. George W. Rutler, Crisis, 30th June 2014
  5. Quadrant, September 2020, pp 12-14
  6. How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia, Wilkinson, Melbourne, 2019
  7. Sydney sociology professor Salvatore Babones is acutely aware of this need for money by the corporate university and its complicity with China; he goes so far as to say Australian universities are a “fifth column”. Newsletter, August 2020
  8. Letter to Robert Hooke, 2nd May 1675, although he was not the first to use the expression, which has been traced as far back as the 6th century Latin grammarian Priscianus Caesariensis
  9. See Reclaiming Education, Renewing Schools and Universities in Contemporary Western Culture, eds. C. Runcie and D. Brooks, Edwin A. Lowe, Sydney, 2018, p.51
  10. Marx’s dismissive ideas about women are summed up in what he writes to Ludwig Kugelman: “Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the female foment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social status of the beautiful sex (the ugly ones included)” (Letters of Karl Marx, Selected and edited by Saul Padower, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1979, p.259). For other works on Marx’s life and his work see The Great Economists by Linda Yueh, Penguin. For a critique and elucidation of Marx by a scholarly economist, try The Development of Economic Thought by Alexander Gray (Longman, Green, and Co., London, 1931.  For the slam-dunk on Marx, one must not miss the great Austrian economist, Joseph A. Schumpeter (Oxford University Press, New York, 1954, edited by his widow, Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter)