Both before and since the election, commentators of the centre-left, including me, have pronounced the end of the culture wars that have dominated a large stream of Australian political commentary for the past fifteen years or so (for a further sample, here’s Polemica and LP). These pronouncements have not been well received. Rather, in the manner of this (according to family legend) distant relation of mine, those on the losing side have taken the view that news of their defeat is a deceitful ruse de guerre.
In a tactical sense, this is all to the good. With no share of political power anywhere in the country, the culture warriors can’t do any actual harm, except to the conservative side of politics. So, there’s an argument that they should be encouraged, rather than persuaded to give up the struggle. But it doesn’t seem like a good idea to encourage vitriolic debate about side issues, while letting the big questions be settled by default. In relation to climate change, for example, as long as the delusionist and do-nothingist culture warriors dominate one side of the debate, serious discussion about questions like how best to combine adaption and mitigation will be drowned out.
So, it seems like a good idea to survey the culture war and consider what can be done about it.
There are really two fronts in the culture wars. The first is the global battle of US Republicans, supported by an international ‘coalition of the willing’, against just about everyone else in the world, on just about every topic. The battle starts with the premise that the values and beliefs of the US ‘heartland’ are superior to all others, and should be imposed upon everyone else. The big battlefronts recently have included climate change, the Iraq war, gay marriage, pro-rich (but not particularly pro-market) economic policies, and creationism (aka intelligent design).
For anyone outside the US, this involves the kind of transplanted nationalism analysed by George Orwell in his Notes on Nationalism. In particular, it involves hostility to large elements of Australian culture (all of those wrapped up in the notion of the ‘fair go’, for example). Adherents of this foreign ideology frequently disguise their alienation from themselves with reference to the spurious notion of the ‘Anglosphere’.
From the end of the Cold War to 9/11 and the early days of the Bush Administration, the Republican culture warriors were convinced that they held the Mandate of Heaven. (For the ideological shock-troops, largely ex-Trotskyists, this was a simple shift from one form of dogmatic historicism to another). But, ever since the wheels came off the Iraq venture, they’ve been losing ground on one front after another. On climate change and a whole range of scientific issues, they’ve fought reality and lost. The alliance of fundamentalist Christianity and pro-Mammon economic policy is fracturing. And the spectacular incompetence of the Bush Administration has undermined faith across the board.
The second front is domestic and reflects the hangovers from disputes that took place late last century. The biggest source of fuel was Paul Keating’s brief and opportunistic embrace of a range of ‘progressive’ causes between 1993 and 1996, which only succeeded in attaching his immense personal unpopularity, derived from the ‘recession we had to have’, to these causes, including proposals for a republic and for reconciliation with indigenous Australians.
For the real hardcore, this is wrapped up with a range of resentments going back decades. In its final term, the Howard Cabinet put a lot of energy into ‘voluntary student unionism’, which essentially amounted to settling scores its members had racked up as student politicians in the 1970s. Then there’s the immense resentment against Phillip Adams, someone who’s parlayed a brief stint as a politically influential commentator a few decades ago, into a successful self-created legend, unmatched by any of the vitriol-throwers on the other side (PP McGuinness and Piers Akerman are obvious example). His entire contribution for many years has consisted of a mildly self-indulgent column in the back pages of the Oz, and a late-night radio chat show (quite a good one, but not exactly a bully pulpit) on a network with about 1 per cent market share, yet hostile references to “luvvies” abound among rightwing culture warriors.
The time-warp in which these guys are operating is even more evident in the persistence of terms like “latte leftist” and “chardonnay socialist”, referring, as if they were some sort of elite indulgence, to drinks that are now the subject of Kath & Kim skits. Looking at the current political scene, it’s virtually impossible to find anyone on the Labor side with any resemblance to these caricatures (hence the eagerness with which the warriors have gone after Peter Garrett who is at least a rock star).
As regards the policies themselves, the idea that Australians are brimming with conservative fervour, or any kind of fervour, on these topics is silly in most cases. Most people are vaguely in favour of a republic, but aren’t in any hurry. As regards legal recognition of gay relationships, only a handful of people are aware of the fine distinctions between civil unions and registered relationships, and even fewer care. On refugees, now that the Pacific solution is finally at an end, most people (and especially those panicked into voting for Howard over Tampa) would prefer to forget the entire sorry episode.
There are only three culture war issues where there is any real community concern. On two of them, climate change and the Iraq war, the culture warriors have been comprehensively discredited. The third is the problems of indigenous communities, to which no-one has a satisfactory answer, but which are clearly not helped by the kind of vitriolic pointscoring that characterises culture war rhetoric, on this as on all other issues.
All this doesn’t get us far as regards a settlement. But the best course is probably the one the Rudd government is taking. Get the big symbolic issues that have to be addressed (Kyoto, the Nauru camps, an apology to indigenous Australians) settled once and for all, and as soon as possible. Then try and move forward with substantive policies that will achieve better outcomes. This is pretty much the opposite of the approach taken by John Howard, for whom a resolute refusal to make symbolic gestures came to symbolise the fact that his supposed commitment to practical action was, in most cases, spurious.