Conceding defeat in the culture wars

Not long ago, Tom Switzer (opinion editor for the Oz) was claiming victory in the culture wars at a Quadrant dinner (hat-tip to reader Jason McDonald). Now, Greg Sheridan is conceding defeat, at least on the assumption (now nearly universal) that the Liberals are heading for defeat. Unsurprisingly, both of them focus a lot of attention on the ABC, though Sheridan’s list extends to the media in general (News Limited? PBL?) and (a kind recognition that we still exist) universities.

The most striking feature of both articles is that they seem stuck in the fights of the 1990s, over political correctness, multiculturalism and so on. There’s no mention at all of climate change, and hardly any of Iraq (Switzer notes in passing that he opposed it). Yet if you want to explain the failure of the right wing in the culture wars you can’t go past these two cases. In both cases, having chosen sides, the right treated facts as being either utterly irrelevant or as talking points to be trumpeted or denied according to political need. In both, they hung on, time after time, to positions that had long since ceased to be defensible. These are tactics that worked reasonably well in culture wars and history wars, since there’s rarely any final reckoning. But in the case of Iraq and climate change, reality has a way of obtruding.

Looking at the disagreement between the two, Sheridan is much more focused on the Liberal party, and on control of institutions. He recognises that the attempt to impose control from the top has failed, though he persists with the silly “elite” terminology in which a university lecturer is a member of an elite from which, say, the CEO of a major company is excluded.

The other big difference is in the implied view of Kevin Rudd and, implicitly, of other centrists like Clinton and Blair (or, more relevantly now, Gordon Brown). They are clearly not leftwingers, and in that sense, the culture warriors can declare victory and go home. On the other hand, although their commitment to the social democratic strand of liberalism is so thin as to be almost invisible at times, they are clearly in a different category from the US Republicans who carry the rightwing flag in the global culture wars.

50 thoughts on “Conceding defeat in the culture wars

  1. And another thing! Compulsory voting! If you mustmake it compulsory, at least make it compulsory to teach people about the system.
    Daughter 1. Why should I pay tax? I can’t believe how much they tax me!
    Daughter 2. I’m not joining the union. They take $3.10 out of my pay EVERY week!
    Hmmmm

  2. Andrew: disagreeing with you isn’t the same as missing the point! The major parties, and the majority of folk, still absolutely prioritise having more stuff over pressing ecological issues, notwithstanding the odd verbal fig-leaf. Imagine the electoral catastrophe that would ensue if Rudd publicly admitted anything could be more important than GDP growth. He’d be roasted by the media, and the public would fall in line.

  3. Howard (and even more many of his admirers) had and have sympathy for the view that Australia should be a largely Anglo-Saxon country. However his immigration policies have not supported this goal, defeat on this cultural front was conceded long ago.

  4. Andrew, i think that you have to separate One nation, FF and the Greens.

    One nation, well you are not going to get a lot of argument that they were a monumental waste of time and effort.

    FF, they take their guidence from The Bible, and without going too far into q’s of why those gospels and not the rest of the apocrapha and whether they take every word of The Book as the truth, as some of the louder strands of Christianity do today or adopt a more Augustinian, Calvanistic or Blakian, (doubtful)humility and acceptance of doubt, there is an essential irrationallity at the foundation of their logic system.

    The Greens are children of the enlightenment and their worldview is based on an understanding of cause and effect. sure they have their dark green and pagan adherants but all the aussie parties have supporters that they would rather the rest of us ignored.

    Two examples:
    AGW, the only people banging on about AGW in Australia before the Greens was CSIRO (Special mention ought to go to Senator James Webster, Frazer’s science minister who, in 1976, at least asked the Acadamy of Sciences and CSIRO what might happen with all this extra CO2)

    Illegal Drugs; the Greens illegal drugs policy is essentially a return to the legal regime of the early 1950’s with a greater emphasis on treatment. Normally i don’t like major backward steps in policy, but the irrationality and downright pigheaded indiference to the suffering caused by prohibition exhibited by both the major parties on this issue is breathtaking. and lets not forget the enormous fortunes generated by death worshiping thugs who cheer everytime a major shipment get seized by the authorities, because what they do get through makes a bigger profit.

    Andrew, you want to label and consign the Greens to the fringe. That is where the ALP started, it is also where Menzies found parts of the Liberal Party. it is also where it became possible to live as i do, with my mediterranian and anglo buddist and old school anglo ect neighbores. As you swing between the dinos of oz politics, please be aware of what they have cherry picked from last decades fringe.

    If Howard’s loss in the Culture Wars is accompanied by Howard’s loss of the Govt there may be some chance that we can find some rationality not only in the way we address our history but also our present. but only if we embrace our fringes.

  5. Andrew,
    All of us are trying to work out what to do in the face of a reality that we cannot individually control. I am very well educated, but I feel dumb in the face of such complexity. If you are not, I envy your simplistic view of life.

    Your fringe dwellers can and do play a very important role in keeping debate alive. No need to denigrate them as naive, while you (unthinkingly?) “just get on with life”.

    You didn’t say anything about where the centre lies or has lain in the past. Since I’m quite old, I can remember when it was a good deal to the left of where it is now.

  6. Terge 6

    Unless the internet collapses, your comment is redundent. History is, now, what anyone who asks the question will perceive it to be. All information is available to all.

  7. Melanie 31,

    I be you have some stories to tell.

    I remember reading a quote many years ago (the 50’s) paraphrased:

    “The world of the future will require great complexifiers, not great simplifiers.”

    Today there could be no truer reality. Left or right it is the substance that matters.

  8. Tune in next week when Andrew will be irrationally accused of hating the troops?

    The whole history wars nonsense is something that only the extremists in the ALP and Liberal party have cared about. ‘Ordinary’ Australians see through it like the meaningless cr*p it is.

  9. alpaca: if ‘ordinary’ Australians are so astute in seeing through such silliness, how come whingeing about ‘political correctness’ is so prevalent in my neck of the woods (usually used to explain why it’s OK to blame crime/interest rates/bird flu on Our Indigenous Brothers, or on the most recent Official Outcasts; or to defend sexist abuse of the latest winsome young employee, etc)? Perhaps your (or my) ‘ordinary’ Australians aren’t representative of all?

  10. Crispin: Blaming ‘political correctness’ has become a major pastime, but doesn’t really have any meaning philosophically IMHO.

  11. alpaca: true, it’s just another silly bogeyman pushed out by the right to convince us that there are really scary people out there (some nearly as fearsome as Julia Gillard with her handbag full of knives).

    But I think you’re wrong about ‘ordinary’ Australians, at least from my experience sample. Use by them of culture-war vocabulary is ubiquitous, and its function is generally to justify something that they understand to be vicious, but want to do or say anyway. Thus anything negative said about indigenous people is often very swiftly followed by a reference to “the Black Armband view of history”, by those who have never read a single work on Australian history (yes, I ask).

  12. Crispin: Hmm… not 100% sure about that. I think if you have enough talk-back radio, television and newspapers that use terms like ‘black armband of history’, ‘endless bureaucracy’, ‘political correctness’ etc… then these phrases are going to slip into everyday conversation.

    But just because they’re parroted, it doesn’t mean that people understand, nor subscribe to the tenets of the ‘culture wars’. (Again, IMHO.)

  13. Actually it is not compulsory to vote, it is compulsory to attend a voting station and have your name ticked off.

    What you do after that is nobodies business.

  14. “The world of the future will require great complexifiers, not great simplifiers.�

    I think its the reverse, simplification has brought great wealth to its proponents.

    Bar coding, direct debit, EFTPOS, B-pay, GST, SMS, WIFI – its all so simple.

  15. rog – it is compulsory to vote in Austalia. At present the secret ballot prevents complete enforcement of the law. In future, however, electronic voting systems will make it difficult to not register a valid vote. See also here.

  16. well I have actually worked at a voting booth and it is NOT compulsory to vote in Bennelong.

    It is compulsory to turn up and get registered. what you do with the voting papers is your own business and you do NOT have to hand them back to said officials.

    Rog is correct.

  17. Read the legislation and the court cases Homer. The fact that officials choice to ignore tha law simply reflect on them, and the inappropriateness of compulsory voting.

    I should also point out that you’re not supposed to give the voting papers back to the officials – you’re supposed to put them in the box.

  18. I maintain that the benefits of homemade jam at polling stations outstrips the benefit of not voting, so there’s no welfare loss from maintaining compulsory voting.

    (Sinclair Davidson from RMIT, or am I mistaking you for someone else?)

  19. Sinclair, all the discussions of the Langer case that I’ve seen say that it is not an offence to cast an informal vote, though it is an offence to advocate one. The act to which you point doesn’t explicitly require a formal vote – can you point to court decisions saying that voting informally, for example by submitting a blank ballot, is an offence?

    The impact of electronic systems does raise some interesting issues. I might post on this.

  20. From what I recall of the Langer case, he was imprisoned for contempt of court. The basis for that order was changed after he went to prison. In the Policy piece I linked to we have this paragraph.

    A reading of some of the court cases involving compulsory voting is instructive. The definitive case is Judd v McKeon (1926) 38 CLR 380 where the general principle of ‘valid and sufficient’ was determined to be a ‘personal physical inability to record a vote’. Of course, the court left open the notion that ‘valid and sufficient’ cause was a function of the circumstances, yet it is difficult to understand what these other circumstances could be. They are not, for example, an ideological objection to voting (Judd v McKeon), nor is a lack of preference for any candidate (Faderson v Bridger 1971 126 CLR 271), or even ignorance of the candidates (O’Brien v Warden 1981 37 ACTR 13). The latter cases are quite remarkable. Mr Faderson indicated he had no preference for any of the candidates, and to say he had would constitute a lie. High Court Chief Justice Barwick indicated that voters are not expected to express an opinion of what they want, but merely to indicate, from the choice available to them, what they must have. This neatly sidesteps the issue of voters being forced to lie. The Warden case is even more damning. Here the issue of voters lying is not sidestepped. Mr Warden arrived in the ACT just prior to an election, and was ignorant of the candidates and their policy platforms. Nonetheless, he was found not to have a ‘valid and sufficient’ reason for not voting. In the words of Chief Justice Blackburn of the ACT Supreme Court: ‘In my opinion the Act does not oblige the elector to make a true expression of his preference among the candidates. On one view he must make an expression of apparent preference; on another he need not express himself intelligibly or at all.’

    The section of the Act is titled “Compulsory voting”. The intention is to make voting compulsory. We also write

    Despite the plain language of the Act, many Australians are under the impression that voting per se is not compulsory. Rather it is compulsory to simply turn up to the voting booth, and have your name struck off the register. Whenever compulsory voting is discussed in the media, the letters pages of the newspapers are filled with correspondents claiming voting is not compulsory, while attendance is compulsory. Before discussing this notion in greater detail, consider the case of Krosch v Springell: ex parte Krosch [1974] QdR 107. Mr Springell arrived at a polling booth and handed the electoral officer a note saying he did not wish to vote for any candidate, as he found them all to be unworthy. He was prosecuted, and fined, for not voting despite the fact he had made the effort to turn up on Election Day. In its submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) Inquiry into the 2004 election, the AEC makes the claim ‘Because voting is compulsory in Australia, turnout is regularly in the vicinity of 95%.’[7] Clearly, the AEC takes the view that compulsory voting leads to high turnout, not compulsory turnout leads to high voting.

    The electronic business is very interesting. Voters should have the abiliy to cast a donkey vote if they really want to. By that I mean to arrive at the poll and express dissatisfaction with the choice available to them. But with elctronic voting, I suspect, your vote and being registered as having voted will be recorded simulataneously. That is a problem to my mind, and I hope many others too would be disturbed.

    Alpaca – only during office hours.

  21. Far too many people have a very myopic view of the Culture Wars. They are not merely an obsession of John Howard, nor were they Howard’s creation.

    The Culture Wars started in the 1970s, reaching a peak in the 1980s US campus ‘political correctness’ movement where a large chunk of the humanities and the soft-social sciences, insisted on ‘correct’ readings of history, literature, and politics. The rise of neoconservatism in the late 80s and 90s was the response.

    In Australia, a similar ‘political correctness’ emerged on university campuses, except it was more an adjustment process as Leftists shifted out of Marxism into postmodernism.

    The Australian Culture Wars only went mainstream when Keating became PM. One Nation was the response. It has taken Labor a long time to realise the folly of its cynical hitching of its soul to the Luvvie pomo agenda.

    Still, given that Labor has dropped Socialism, Class, and now multiculturalism, we have to wonder just what role it could possibly play going forward. While it is true, Labor has significant Culture War constituencies and clients, I cannot see Rudd doing their bidding, unless caucus is extremely committed and adamant.

  22. gerard

    The term “chardonnay socialist’ has been around since the 1970s. It was, quite rightly, used to describe the Rosemount Estate-quaffer, Neville “the best thing about the working class is getting out of it” Wran.

  23. John, the political correctness movement of the 1980s is a figment of your imagination. The term “political correctness” (in Australia “ideological soundness”) was used ironically within the left to denote a dogmatic insistence on the kind of thing you are talking about, which was regarded as silly by most leftists.

    As for postmodernism, it’s very much a rightwing phenomenon these days, as witness climate change delusionism, intelligent design and so on.

  24. I’ll grant that PoMo identity politics has had its fair share of the overly self-righteous.

    But frankly I think that in many cases ‘political correctness’ is just another word for ‘good manners’, which Rightwingers greatly resent because they can no longer get away with the type of racism, sexism and homophobia which was totally accepted 50 years ago.

    There is of course another type of ‘political correctness’ upheld by the mainstream, the type that shuts out criticism of the Australian government and its role in the world with the absurd accuasion that it is ‘unAustralian’.

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