The culture war: time to mop up

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.

92 thoughts on “The culture war: time to mop up

  1. Hmm. In my blogospherical ignorance I had assumed Greenfield was a troll. Does he ever put an argument, as opposed to name calling?

  2. melanie

    Oh love, you surely jest. Have a hunt around. I’ve given you enough arguments to make your pretty little head spin on this site. Pick one. Any one. Give it your best shot, coz just quietly, I haven’t seen you kick any goals.

    Oh, and pssssttt…jealous and bitter swipes at women more educated, independent, significant, and successful than yourself – such as Janet Albrechtsen – might be applauded in the Gender Studies common room, but in the real world they are simply bitter miiiaaaows at those more successful than yourself.

    Face it hun, your brain is stuck in the boiler-suited hivemenind of the 1970s. Time to move on.

  3. JG, well done! ‘your pretty little head’, ‘jealous and bitter swipes’, ‘women more educated, independent, significant, and successful than yourself’, ‘the Gender Studies common room’, ‘Face it hun’… wtf.

    I haven’t the faintest idea who you are, if anybody, but one thing you don’t do is argue the point.

  4. melanie

    I will repeat, I have argued many points on this blog. But perhaps you have a different conception of “argument” than the rest of us?

    I thought I’d chuck in a comment about modern-day American imperialists plundering the heritage of Niger. I kind of expected get at least one bite, but I didn’t.

    Or this sophisticated one.

    Probably Albrechtsen, like Murdoch, will simply adjust her tune a little.

    Perhaps this one, which would awe Freud, Jung, and all right-minded opponents of ‘name calling.’

    Hmm. In my blogospherical ignorance I had assumed Greenfield was a troll. Does he ever put an argument, as opposed to name calling?

    Could you do me a favour and explain what you mean by “troll?” It is a word I see used overwhelmingly by Leftist bloggers, whenever somebody has the temerity to post on a blog a position that challenges the leftist hivemind. And they are overwhelmingly women.

    Please Explain.

  5. JQ

    Rather than fighting about who started the culture wars, let’s agree to stop them!

    Looks like you could your wish, sooner rather than later. Time Magazine has just sacked culture warriors extraordinaires Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol. Perhaps Janet and the gang are not far behind?

    http://www.observer.com/2007/kristol-krauthammer-are-out-time

    On Jack Robertson. Who is he? I haven’t been around blogland long enough, but he seems to be quite a blogging demi-god. I’ll say one thing for him; he’s a bloody fiesty little thing once he gets going! 🙂

  6. Looks like you could your wish, sooner rather than later. Time Magazine has just sacked culture warriors extraordinaires Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol. Perhaps Janet and the gang are not far behind?

    Not so much. More a changing of the guard than a change in direction. From the same article:

    And according to two sources familiar with the discussions, Time is in negotiations with National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru to sign him to a contributor contract. Mr. Ponnuru, who in 2006 published The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, has written twice for the magazine over the past month.

    Ramesh Ponnuru makes Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol appear soft, erudite and reasoned in comparison.

    I’d say Janet, Andrew. Piers, Glen, Dennis and the rest of Howard’s Heathers have nothing to worry about.

  7. JG, Could you do me a favour and explain what you mean by “troll?� It is a word I see used overwhelmingly by Leftist bloggers, whenever somebody has the temerity to post on a blog a position that challenges the leftist hivemind. And they are overwhelmingly women.

    I learned the term from John Quiggin who perhaps belongs to what you call the ‘leftist hivemind’, but as far as I know is not a woman. Wikipedia describes a troll thus: “An Internet troll, or simply troll in Internet slang, is someone who intentionally posts controversial messages in an on-line community such as an on-line discussion forum with the intention of baiting other users into an argumentative response.”

    Perhaps the ‘hivemind’ problem arises from the way in which some people refer to shared knowledge. My reference in the dinosaur case, for example, was to the well known arguments between e.g. Italy and the US or Greece and the UK over former imperial plundering of heritage items that have ended up in major western museums. Australian Aborigines have had similar disputes with UK museums. Nothing ad hominem about it at all. No reference to ‘luvvies’, ‘hivemind’, ‘pretty little head’ etc.

    In place of Albrechtson, I could’ve mentioned just about any journalist. A problem for journalists is that they don’t have much freedom of expression and if Murdoch or any of the other bosses wants a change of line, he will get it. Moreover, erudition is not generally a qualification for the job. My only reason for mentioning JA was that some people here seem to be particularly fussed by her.

  8. melanie

    OK. I think we’ve both had an equal right of reply at being snarky to each other, and got stuff off our chests. Can we declare it a draw, start a clean slate? Friends? 🙂

  9. Back in my day, a troll was a woman of dubious appearance, intellect, morals, personal habits and tastes as to pastimes and standard of company kept, who frequented pubs,redlight districts and similar places of ill-repute.
    Unless it was an anti social hairy isolate of ( once again ), poor personal habits, found in recessed geological formations of alpine regions, although understand this is more a Scandinvian definition.

  10. Melanie,
    A troll it appears; as I have just taken the links to the other sites which show that the general put downs of women is a real feature of JG the cultural warrior, ready to take on any woman who dares hold an opinion different to Janet Albrechtson…

    Trolls were originally as described in the Three Billy Goats Gruff – outsmarted in the end because of greed and stupidity.

  11. Jill Rush

    I am not sure what you are criticising me for. Is it for criticising “women,” which is impermissible? I can assure you (as will other bloggers) that I engage with both men and women without fear or favour.

    One problem I do find with a particular type of feminist, particularly those “of a certain age” is that they not only conflate “women” and “feminists” – and thus presume they speak for ‘women’ when in fact they are only speaking as an example of their particular feminist hivemind – but they also demand free speech for themselves, yet freedom FROM speech of others.

    My dear, I shall continue not to acceed to either demand, and whenever I encounter a dopey bint, will continue to inform her of her dopiness.

    It is my way of ‘giving back’ you see. Consider it a form of ‘community service.’

    Anyways, I hope you had a lovely Xmas and happy new year.

  12. Brilliant JG – a perfect exposition of how the cultural wars have been conducted in your post at no. 89.

    First, confusion is expressed, suggesting that the individual or group being derided has no logic in any statement.

    Then a straw man is introduced. Ie I find probems with a certain kind of feminist who won’t allow me freedom of speech. Then hit the straw man with a bit of personal abuse whilst leaving the arguments alone. The answer is then based on assumptions and negative connotations eg “particular type of feminist” “of a certain age” this means that any woman who is a feminist is suspect and any woman will be the wrong age; if young not experienced enough if older then past it.

    Introduce a patronising tone (“My dear”) to indicate superiority. Have a level of internal contradiction eg “I engage with men and women without fear or favour”, contrasted with “whenever I encounter a dopey bint, will continue to inform her of her dopiness”.

    The conclusion is a false concern after the negativity of the previous statements – a little like those who say “No offence” just before being really offensive.

    Certainly it is a way of giving back – in spades which is what the cultural war has been all about.

  13. I have found it a convenient rhetorical trick to preface a rebuttal to a woman I know, and who knows me, with “my dear good woman”. It buys me time to gather my thoughts while slowing her down, even though she knows full well what I am doing and why – not male chauvinism at all, merely not playing fair. But there is no place for it here without the personal connection and no real time interaction.

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