What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?

It’s now looking just about as certain as any electoral outcome can be that the Howard government will be defeated, and that the Federal Liberal party will join its state and territory counterparts in opposition, possibly for several terms to come[1]. Given that the economy is doing well, and that the Australian electorate is not obviously in a state of leftwing ferment, this (still putative) outcome needs some explanation.

One striking fact, despite having received an overwhelming mandate in 1996 for a policy of making Australia “relaxed and comfortable”, the Howard government, and, even more, their supporters, see themselves as being engaged in a “culture war”. An even more striking fact is that the other side in this culture war has been just about invisible, particularly in political debate. It’s hard to see either Kevin Rudd or his smooth and scrubbed counterparts at the state level as engaged in a struggle to undermine traditional Australian culture. Even the Greens, led by Bob Brown, don’t fit the bill. And this is consistent with my day-to-day experience. Maybe UQ is riddled with extreme cultural leftists, but if so, I don’t get invited to their parties.

Yet opinion columns, talk radio and the rightwing blogosphere are dominated by diatribes against what appears, in their telling, as an amorphous mass of political correctness, environmentalism, radical feminism and general hostility to ordinary Australians and their values, which supposedly dominates not only the Labor party but all of our major cultural institutions including universities, the legal system, the ABC and even, in many accounts, the commercial mass media in which these bloviators are writing.

The pursuit of the culture war is, in my judgement, one of the main reasons that the conservative parties have become increasingly unelectable.

There are three main reasons for this. First, unlike the US, there is no core constituency for this kind of thing. Although some lefties get worried about the religious right, it’s pretty much non-existent here. The churches as a whole are moderately leftwing on most issues. That includes socially conservative Christians like Family First, who are typically centre-left on most economic issues. Even Hillsong, often see as the aspirational class at prayer, has backed Labor’s call to increase foreign aid. The other potential constituency, successfully mobilised by Pauline Hanson, to whom slogans like “political correctness” appeal, consists mainly of people who are generically unhappy about changes of all kinds, amounting to maybe 15 per cent of the population. That’s enough to provide the talkback shock jocks and their print and net equivalents with an audience, but not the basis of long-term success in politics, especially as much of this group is disengaged from politics much of the time

Second, the vitriolic style associated with the culture wars turns most Australians off. It’s striking given all the talk of looking for a “right-wing Phillip Adams” that hardly anyone on the right tries to emulate Adams’ avuncular style.

Third, and most importantly, the factoid-based, point-scoring, style of argument that goes with the culture wars eventually leads to complete insulation from factual reality. Any proposition, no matter how ridiculous, can be defended in this way, long after the average person has seen through it. This has been most obvious in relation to climate change and Iraq, but there are a whole string of issues where the culture warriors have imprisoned themselves in an orthodoxy every bit as constricting as the largely imaginary monolithic leftism they are supposed to be confronting.

Looking at the commentators who generally support the Coalition, the great majority (virtually everyone at the Oz, Devine pere et fille, Bolt, Akerman, McGuinness, Pearson, the IPA and much of the CIS) are self-proclaimed culture warriors and climate change delusionists, and most of the rest are carried along by this tide. The only pro-government commentators I can think of who are largely free of this kind of thing are Andrew Norton and Harry Clarke (no doubt there are some others – feel free to point them out). As long as the Liberal party gets its intellectual firepower from such sources, it will struggle to connect with Australians in general.

Note: A bunch of other people, including Mark Bahnisch, Guy Rundle (may be paywalled) and Andrew Norton (can’t find it now, but I’m sure I read it) have written useful stuff on this. And Chris Berg of the IPA has a good debunking of fears about the religious right.

80 thoughts on “What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?

  1. “it is the “scholarly consensusâ€? that gave us a billion dead from communism last century and a methodology that rationalises away such inconvenient truths. No, the intellectuals are not communists any more – their multiculturalism/egalitarianism/postmodernism/nihilism is much worse.”

    So multiculturalism is worse than the Gulags?

    Yeah, that sounds extremely realistic.

  2. right, that’s why it was a Bush administration official who gave us the disparaging term “reality-based community�.

    The epithet “reality-based community� comes from an article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times magazine of October 17, 2004 entitled Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. The whole article is worth reading, but below is its most well known paragraph:

    The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    The paragraph below is pretty good too.

    And for those who don’t get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ”You think he’s an idiot, don’t you?” I said, no, I didn’t. ”No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” In this instance, the final ”you,” of course, meant the entire reality-based community.

  3. Katz asks:

    1. What does he think is the most dangerous item of left wing consensus prevalent in our culture?

    Postmodernism.

    2. What has prevented the Right from undermining the grip this consensus on public opinion?

    Entrenched ideology in the university bunkers.

    3. How could the Right do better in future?

    Privatise higher education so that academics have to compete for paying students (or their education vouchers).

  4. Ian Gould asks “So multiculturalism is worse than the Gulags?�

    For the first half of last century the left’s intellectuals argued that evils like the Gulag Archipelago could not result from communism, only from capitalism. Then, as the Gulags were being stocked, they returned home from visits to the USSR praising its “noble experimentâ€? and calling anyone who didn’t like it fascists. If they’d had our host’s way with words they would have called reports of the cattle trains, barbed wire, mass starvations etcetera “factoid based point-scoringâ€? that leads to “insulation from factual reality.â€? When the evidence became overwhelming, they blamed bad leadership, bad weather, bad CIA men, everything but communism – but in every communist country the pattern was the same. Most intellectuals hung onto their pro-communism until the USSR imploded – most hang on to their anti-capitalism still.

    As for multiculturalism, if it meant a melting-pot of sovereign individuals from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, I’d be all for it, but that’s not what it means. In theory it means that every culture is equal to every other, and so no culture is to be judged by those who stand outside it. In practice it means that every culture is equal except the one that is responsible for its own evils and the evils of all the others as well – the Western culture. But is this worse than the Gulags?

    It’s early days, so you can argue that evils like the Gulag Archipelago could not result from multiculturalism, only from capitalism. But, for a start, take a good hard look at the Aboriginal Archipelago of homeland settlements, outstations, and fringe ghettoes. These hell-holes are the product of multicultural premises. But does that make multiculturalism worse than communism?

    At least communism promised that all the blood, privation and degradation would one day produce a gloriously prosperous utopia. Multiculturalism promises nothing, except that that westerners won’t be so arrogant as to judge the blood, privation and degradation of another culture as inferior to its prosperity and progress.

    Yes – I think that’s worse.

  5. 3. How could the Right do better in future?

    Privatise higher education so that academics have to compete for paying students (or their education vouchers).

    But John Dawson, Australian academics operate in a world of academic discourse. What Australian academics say on various topics doesn’t differ much from what similar academics say in other parts of the world.

    This fact has an important impact on your argument, because a large part of this world discourse is to be found in US universities, especially in the best funded US univesities, whose endowments come not from the public purse but from private endowment and from students who are willing to pay a huge sum to attend those universities and to do those course that you see as so damaging to them and to the rest of the world.

    How are these distressing phenomena to be explained?

  6. How are these distressing phenomena to be explained? Ultimately by philosophy. But we have to start somewhere and the real world is a great teacher. If a plumber applied the epistemology of the humanities professors his pipes would leak, but they can get away with it because they are removed from the real world results by decades or centuries, by the common sense of those who have to apply their nonsense, and by their guaranteed tenure and ideological closed shop. Tax-payers should at least do something about the latter. But then we need a new enlightenment.

    http://www.macleaypress.com/Washout.htm?id=SKU004

  7. Tax-payers should at least do something about the latter.

    But John Dawson, as I suggested above, the leading US universities are largely beyond the reach of the taxpayer. And it is a notorious fact that these privately funded US universities have a disproportionately large influence upon academic discourse.

    And it is well known that academics are very keen to further their own careers and their reputations by establishing themselves as leading thinkers in any given field. Thus, even post-modernists debate against each other with self-interested enthusiasm.

    Why is it, then, that so few of them take advantage of the common-sense insights that you have provided in your above comments? It seems on the face of things to be an irrational rejection of a career-building opportunity.

  8. Your argument is a good one Katz. Privatization won’t guarantee better ideas. But at least it would break up the monolithic monopoly we have in this country and give better ideas a chance of getting a foothold. The problem is that too many of the best minds take one look at the humanities in general and philosophy departments in particular and run for their lives to the physical sciences, technologies, or out of the universities. That is understandable, but disastrous; it leaves the whole field to the Left. The secular Right usually put philosophy in the irrelevant nonsense basket. Most of it is nonsense, but it’s by no means irrelevant. Sooner or later it must be dealt with to give a reality based foundation for better ideas. But that’s too big a subject for a blog.

  9. But John Dawson, the problem is that the Australian academy is to a greater or lesser extent a branch office of the world academy.

    This is of enormous importance, because it’s those private US academies that control the most influential referee journals and sponsor the most important seminars and symposia.

    Are you suggesting that Australian academics be discouraged from engaging themselves in these discourses?

    How would such a thing be policed? For example, should foreign postmodernists be denied visas for entry to Australia?

  10. should foreign postmodernists be denied visas for entry to Australia?

    No.

    There should be a free market of ideas. The lecturers who attract the best following should get the best funding. If they teach nonsense, so be it, but nonsense doesn’t work in the real world, so qualifications in nonsense sooner or later loose their cachet and students have to take that into account when choosing their courses.

    You say it’s not working like that because the most prestigious (private US) universities teach the worst nonsense. Maybe so, but notice how quickly they pass from one fad philosophy to another as they are debunked and ridiculed. In any event you have to let ideas run their course; you certainly can’t proscribe them politically (unless they direct or incite violence). Who would judge which ideas are to be proscribed?

    The good news is that good ideas don’t need to be prescribed, they don’t need a “scholarly consensusâ€?, they don’t even need equal time, all they need is a reasonable hearing. The left understands this, that’s why it’s so paranoid about them getting any hearing at all.

  11. You say it’s not working like that because the most prestigious (private US) universities teach the worst nonsense. Maybe so, but notice how quickly they pass from one fad philosophy to another as they are debunked and ridiculed. In any event you have to let ideas run their course

    But John Dawson, this doesn’t explain how the error of postmodernism became such a vogue in the first place.

    And, more worryingly, according to your thesis, you’d expect a constant, iterative rejection of “nonsense” and a return to “good sense”. In fact, that hasn’t happened, even in those prestigious private US universities.

    Generations of students continue to flock to these courses.

    It’s mysterious, yes?

  12. “1. What does he think is the most dangerous item of left wing consensus prevalent in our culture?

    Postmodernism.”

    Indeed. How many are the nights that I have lain awake at night, fretting about how the Postmodernisms are coming to eat my children. I can only lull myself to sleep by visualising the power of Clear Thinking, the kind that got us into, say, Iraq, vanquishing the evil Postmodernisms, shining sword in hand.

    Postmodernism, as much as it is anything, is a technique of analysing ideas. The worst it can be is not useful. Unlike, say, dreams of empire in the hands of powerful American presidents, or the idea that economies exist independently of the environments that sustain them.

  13. Actually, John D, the enemy is within your gates. Postmodernism is passe on the left (postmodernism+passe gets 189 000 Google hits) and rampant within the contemporary right, as evidence by the “reality-based” quote above (right-wing+postmodernism gets 561Kgh).

    For a particularly crude example of the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses at work, you might want to look at the claim that because Tasmanian Aborigines (supposedly) didn’t have a word for “property” they lacked the notion of ownership. As an avowed enemy of postmodernism, I’m sure you’ll agree that such an argument is preposterous..

  14. “It’s early days, so you can argue that evils like the Gulag Archipelago could not result from multiculturalism, only from capitalism. But, for a start, take a good hard look at the Aboriginal Archipelago of homeland settlements, outstations, and fringe ghettoes. These hell-holes are the product of multicultural premises.”

    I hate to break it to you but all the evils you ascribe to multiculturalism were all well-entrenched back in the days of Bob Menzies.

    Cause PRECEDES effect – but maybe that’s just the academic consensus.

  15. jquiggin said: For a particularly crude example of the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses at work, you might want to look at the claim that because Tasmanian Aborigines (supposedly) didn’t have a word for “property� they lacked the notion of ownership. As an avowed enemy of postmodernism, I’m sure you’ll agree that such an argument is preposterous.

    I have looked at it John. The alleged claim was allegedly made by Keith Windschuttle. You obviously swallowed the allegation made by your scholarly consensus without descending to so crude a level as to check the “factoids”, such as Windschuttle’s actual case, which was disgracefully misrepresented by the academics (e.g. Reynolds used slight of hand to imply that Windschuttle denied the Aborigines had a notion of territory, which he didn’t.)

    Windschuttle’s primary case was the Tasmanian Aborigines pattern of behavior, the fact that they had no word for property was only an addendum to it. The Tasmanian Aborigines clearly lacked the notion of ownership as far as land was concerned (in contrast to their game etcetera) – why would any hunter-gatherer ever need the notion of land ownership?

    Windschuttle’s case was not postmodernist but empirical. He wrote a whole book exposing and debunking postmodern history.

  16. “why would any hunter-gatherer ever need the notion of land ownership?”

    And you wonder why the right is losing the culture wars!

  17. JQ, land ownership is as weird to hunter-gatherer cultures as, say, Germans staking claims to beach occupancy is to British tourists. Those cultures do have concepts of property, but in relation to other things, and their approaches to land are not the one we think of as ownership. That is a comment on our culture more than on theirs; it is not to denigrate the genuine encroachment on their approach that is made by applying our approach. It has subtler implications, because even setting up the land as theirs is, ironically, applying our approach; giving or recognising their ownership of land can and has backfired in various times and places, from imposing a cultural shift (as opposed to accommodating a shift that they embrace and adapt to because they drive the pace of adopting it). The hunter-gatherers – tautologically – have to change to accept it, and with the best will in the world (not always present) it can also lead to loss, as in the “allotment movement” as applied to U.S. Indian reservations.

  18. Ian Gould

    I hate to break it to you but all the evils you ascribe to multiculturalism were all well-entrenched back in the days of Bob Menzies.

    Not quite – they can be traced back to Nugget Coombs, but they became entrenched under the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating governments. Admittedly the term “multiculturalismâ€? wasn’t in vogue until the latter; nevertheless the multicultural premise was what inspired the ignoble experiment. W.E.M. Stanner put it this way: “there are no natural scales of better or worse on which we can range the varieties of men, culture and society.”

  19. W.E.M. Stanner put it this way: “there are no natural scales of better or worse on which we can range the varieties of men, culture and society.�

    Exactly, John Dawson.

    All that remains for you to do to prove your case is for you to explain what is “natural” about the scales that you use to weigh the “goodness” of one culture against the “badness” of another.

  20. ‘Windschuttle … wrote a whole book exposing and debunking postmodern history.”

    in which, IIRC, he praised Henry Reynolds for doing empirical history rather than the kind of cultural studies/critical theory that Windschuttle now does in reverse (for example, the idea, which he now plays down, that British, being Christians, were culturally constrained from committing murder.)

  21. Katz said: All that remains for you to do to prove your case is for you to explain what is “natural� about the scales that you use to weigh the “goodness� of one culture against the “badness� of another.

    Nature provides every being with a scale of values, with death at one end and life at the other. Pro-life values are good, anti-life values are bad. But human beings have a unique problem: they must choose their values. They must choose between better or worse actions, lifestyles, ideals, cultures, societies, political and economic systems – and nature, sooner or later, delivers its verdict.

    Contrary to what is taught in most philosophy classrooms, human beings are creatures of a specific nature that live in a world of immutable facts. Consequently, universal judgments about what is good and bad for human beings can be made. Regardless of their ideological rhetoric, everyone who decided that something went terribly wrong in the Aboriginal archipelago has, tacitly at least, made such a judgment.

    The fundamental premise of the architects of the Aboriginal archipelago was wrong. A modern capitalist society is better than a tribal or medieval or communalist society, better for human beings of any ancestry.

    I have not proved my case, you can’t do that in a blog. But it is provable.

  22. jquiggin said: for example, the idea, which [Windschuttle] now plays down, that British, being Christians, were culturally constrained from committing murder.

    You really should read Windschuttle’s books John; rather than just regurgitate the academics’ disgraceful, duplicitous, pack-attack (or my analysis of it http://www.macleaypress.com/Washout.htm?id=SKU004).

    Be that as it may, I want to thank you for allowing me more than my fair share of space on your blog.

  23. human beings are creatures of a specific nature that live in a world of immutable facts. Consequently, universal judgments about what is good and bad for human beings can be made.

    I guess one of the most important immutable facts concerning any society is longevity.

    Japanese live longer than Australians.

    Australians live longer than Americans.

    So, Americans should strive to live more like Australians and Australians should strive to live more like Japanese.

  24. JQ

    For somebody who decries and the Culture Wars, you sure do write a lot of posts on them!

    It is plain philistinism to grant Howard the power of “starting” the Culture Wars. They have been fomenting since the late 1970s, but only reached traction in Australia during the early 1990s. Our late start was basically a reflection of the vast majority of Australians, who are not part of the Luvvie Left, were asleep.

    Keating woke them.

    Guy Rudle argued in Crikey a week or so ago that the Culture Wars were over now that Keating has gone. It is true that the Culture Wars went mainstream under Keating. Keating – needing a new base after grassroots Labor made it quite clear they loathed him – embraced the Luvvies, and eagerly megaphoned for them.

    Labor’s base freaked. Eleven years later, it took Kevin Rudd to openly dissociate Labor from anymore culture warring.

    Part of the reason Howard has been so successful is that he knew – as did Hawke, but Keating could not understand – that the Australian PM has neither the moral nor political capital to usurp identity. Howard’s pact with the electorate was not to lecture them or sneer down to them.

    The Pauline Hanson phenomenon revealed a huge sociological database the Luvvies had supressed for decades. The op-ed writers saw Gold and went for it!

    What Rupert Murdoch understands, but the Luvvies do not, is that the vast majority of people see newspapers and broadcasters as largely “entertainment.” Fairfax finally caught up when it poached Miranda Devine from The Terror, making her Australia’s highest paid journo. The gig has turned out to be money for jam for her. Tens of thousands of Useful Idiots spit, fume, and blog everytime she touches a keyboard!

    The reason they have not moved far from the Luvvie-sphere is that in the parliamentary sphere there has largely been bipartisan rejection of Keating’s very clumsy and naive embrace of the black armband, neomarxist identity anxieties.

    People like Mark Latham, Micahel Costello, Bob Carr, Barry Cohen and Lindsay Tanner, Wayne Swan all rejected the Luvvies’ Culture Wars by the late 1990s. Rudd won’t have a bar of them.

    But they will still be fought. For those who think the Culture Wars are some creation of John Howard, check out how many Australian universities have full departments called “Culture Studies.” I simply cannot believe people do not accept these departments are basically Culture War bunkers, brokers, and distributors. NTTAWWT.

    To wit, those who post almost daily on their blogs about the Culture Wars being “over” are either blind or disingenuous. As many are otherwise very intelligent, well-read, and informed, I tend to go with the latter. 😉

  25. JG, perhaps you’d like to list a dozen or so of these “near-daily” posts. IIRC, I’ve written two posts in the last month or so on this, and even less frequently before that.

  26. JQ

    I said “THOSE who post almost daily….” Sorry, I can see that could rationally mean you, but that was not what I meant. You do post a lot about it, but absolutely not ‘near-daily.’ In fact, I visit your blog precisely because it travels along a much higher road. Don’t throw your economics pearls before the Culture Warrior swine. 😉

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