Before the election, I suggested that the incoming Abbott government would make relaunching the culture wars a political priority. That did not entail any great feat of prognostication. Abbott has, after all, a history of symbolic stunts, going back to his student days as a cultural anti-communist. (For all the chatter about putting ‘the adults in charge’, the entire cabinet exudes more than a whiff of a university Liberal Club).
More importantly, Abbott relies upon an uneasy alliance of conservative tendencies, a coalition held together during the campaign by the intensity of the Right’s hatred of Labor. The Liberals won because of disenchantment with the ALP rather than overt support for any particular manifesto, which is why Abbottism remains a very uncertain project, as we have seen in the government’s stammering performance over the last months.
From Abbott’s perspective, the periodical ignition of cultural war flashpoints keeps busy the Tea Party types who are now the pre-eminent activists of Australian conservatism. Abbott knows that if he can keep the bloggers and the Quadranters and the other tin-foil loopers focused on the specifics of the latest battle, he need worry less about delivering the unhinged policies they actually want. A review into bias in the ABC he can deliver; the privatisation of the whole corporation, not so much.
Furthermore, the intensity of culture war skirmishes paper over, at least temporarily, the ideological fault lines in the government, fostering tribal unity in the battle against the Left.
In a sense, Lenore Taylor’s right to say the culture wars are about providing cover for Abbott.
But her Guardian piece also explains how the strategy proves so effective.
Culture wars depend on polemicists, figures that mainstream journalists both distrust and misunderstand. Take Kevin Donnelly. Intellectually, the guy’s a buffoon, an old-school family-values crusader who views modernity as a communist plot foisted on the kiddies by the comrades of the Australian Education Union.
That’s the basis of Taylor’s judgment that the whole affair’s a tempest in a teapot.
[C]ritics shot back that [Donnelly’s appointment] was all an ideological assault on our children’s education.
And so for the moment the war will rage, blunderbusses firing generalised assertions at 10 paces, Twitter ablaze.
[P]olitically inspired curricula wars can quickly turn to routs when they come into contact with facts.
Western civilisation certainly seems to get a reasonable airing in the history curriculum for the primary years on the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority website.
And when Donnelly and his co-reviewer Professor Ken Wiltshire make their recommendations they will be scrutinised by teachers and state governments and experts with reference to both facts and balance. They’ll also have to pass muster with parents, who generally prefer their kids to be taught things that are coherent, useful, interesting and true.
Her response misunderstands how culture war works. Indeed, the centrist dismissal of Pyne’s project illustrates the success he’s already achieved. Note, how, in the passage above, Donnelly and his critics are implicitly presented as equivalents, each side as shrill and unreasonable as the other. The truth, presumably, lies somewhere in the middle. If all the parties compromise, a happy medium can be reached.
Which is, of course, precisely the plan. No-one – probably not even Donnelly himself – imagines that the curriculum will be reshaped along the lines of a NewsWeekly rant. The idea is, instead, to set up a phony debate so that the natural liberal tendency to compromise will shift the centre further to the Right.
That’s why the Australian – Pyne’s key backer – makes almost the same argument as Taylor.
The incessant point-scoring about funding is not the debate we need to hear.
Culture wars might provide a more fruitful discussion if they lead to adjustments that improve results. Changes can’t proceed without endorsement from state governments, and parents will be the ultimate judges.
Down with point-scoring, says the Australian (a paper that exists only to score points). Let’s have a fruitful discussion – a discussion in which, all of a sudden, the ideologue Donnelly is presented as just as legitimate as the teachers who oppose him.
The culture wars might be a distraction but that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore them.
The more astute culture warriors choose their battles precisely on a terrain that gives a particular section of the Left no alternative but to fight, even as it isolates that section from its allies.
Education’s a good example. Donnelly’s correct to identify the influence of teacher militants on the curriculum. Progressive teachers have, quite admirably, fought for years to make schools more welcoming for, say, non-hetero students. Whatever anyone else says, teachers will fight against the vandalism of their courses – because they don’t have any other choice.
That’s why it’s so wrong for progressives to dismiss their concerns with condescending references to a ‘mere culture war’.
But just because you have to fight, that doesn’t mean you have to fight on the terms set by your enemy.
It would be a mistake, for instance, to respond to Pyne’s review by simply negating its allegations. The Left cannot win by claiming the curriculum is (or should be) neutral or unbiased on questions such as homophobia or the dispossession of Indigenous people, since framing the argument in those terms concedes a moral equivalence between the two sides – a moral equivalence that does not exist.
On the contrary, the Left needs to go on the offensive. The polls on same-sex marriage illustrate how much attitudes to sexuality have changed. It’s Donnelly who is championing a minority view, not his critics. All the evidence suggests that both parents and students are far more likely to support, say, a progressive syllabus on sex and gender rather than the fusty social conservatism of a Christian crusader.
Furthermore, if activists have played a role in making schools more tolerant, that’s a good thing – and something of which to be proud. It provides the basis of an argument about the importance of unions; about how, at their best, unions are capable of more than putting dollars in pockets; about how they allow ordinary people to reshape their workplaces and hence improve the conditions that affect all of us.
Responding along those lines puts a culture war in context. It connects it with other debates and other struggles, rather than allowing this particular spat to be seen as a narrowly technical wrangle between rival educationalist tendencies, a matter of no concern to anyone else.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But we need to start thinking about it for there will be plenty more of these provocations to come.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!