New year, new culture war

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.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Jeff, you write: “The culture wars might be a distraction but that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore them.”

    You go on to outline how seriously we on the Left should take engaging with these “distractions”. From reading your article, and perhaps I’ve misunderstood, you seem to be saying that in fact they are distractions from Abbott’s inability to deliver meaningfully for the loopy hard right-wing core of his base (I presume because sensible governance prohibits going along with many of their substantive ideas). That is, they distract from Abbott’s weaknesses by keeping his nutty supporters occupied and tying the Left up in knots in the process.

    So I have a few questions.

    Does this mean the Left should join the battle in all the culture war fronts being opened up by Abbott & co? Or just some? Is there a method by which we can choose which ones are more important and which sections of the Left we should abandoned to “isolation from its allies”?

    Are there other struggles or strategies we should be thinking about? Or do you figure we will have our hands full with all these provocations you’re predicting?

    Given the culture wars are an attempt by Abbott to plaster over real internal problems, will prioritising them help us defeat a government that has real problems, or do you see this as merely the best defensive holding operation we can run (because even if we “go on the offensive”, it seems that the battles will, by their nature, be sectional ones rather than general challenges to the government)?

    1. Tad you make some interesting points. I wonder if you could outline what you think a more useful course of action might be?

  2. Tad’s questions in bold, my answers in roman.
    Does this mean the Left should join the battle in all the culture war fronts being opened up by Abbott & co? Or just some? Is there a method by which we can choose which ones are more important and which sections of the Left we should abandoned to “isolation from its allies”?
    Of course it’s possible to judge which fronts are more important. Why wouldn’t it be?
    Teachers are presumably already in a position to assess how likely it is that this curriculum review is serious. It may turn out to be all rhetoric, with the final document more or less inoffensive, and the govt unwilling or unable to seriously attempt to implement it. In that case, the whole affair will have been more froth than substance, and can be thankfully forgotten.
    On the other hand, if the government genuinely tries to restructure the national curriculum in the manner foreshadowed by that moron Cater in the Oz today, teacher unionists will fight. How could they not?
    All the teachers I know take their profession very seriously (those of us who work in culture tend to think it matters). No matter what you or I say, they will protest against attempts to make them teach, say, homophobia. Are you seriously suggesting they shouldn’t?
    If they have the strength, it’s possible they will implement bans or other forms of industrial action.
    So what then? In terms of the Left’s response, how will that situation be any different from any other (initially localised) industrial dispute?
    My argument is that, under such circumstances, the Left, insofar as it is able, should provide solidarity, help spread the dispute, and so on and so forth. Again, do you seriously disagree with this?

    Are there other struggles or strategies we should be thinking about? Or do you figure we will have our hands full with all these provocations you’re predicting?

    That’s a question for you more than me. Given you are repeatedly and aggressively denouncing the strategic orientation of the existing Left, it’s incumbent on you to present a realistic alternative, otherwise your interventions seem condescending and destructive. I have asked repeatedly about what you think the Left should do; I have no idea what the answer is.
    For my part, I am not claiming to have the magical key to revive the Left’s fortunes. I simply say that the dismissal of culture wars as inherently irrelevant (which is what you were doing the other day) is an untenable position; that the Left often does need to respond to these provocations, and that it should not do so on the terrain set by the Right.
    In any case, the way you pose the question is confused, which is partly why you get into such a mess.
    In Melbourne at the moment there is a lively and ongoing campaign against the construction of an inner city freeway. Many activists have made it a major priority, spending every morning on picket lines, etc. Other activists have not.
    Now, individuals and organisations make an assessment about their individual priorities, based upon their strength, their audience, their existing commitments and so on.
    It’s entirely legitimate for me to decide that, actually, I cannot make the blockade a priority – without thereby implying that I don’t think it a worthwhile campaign. In fact, we all do that, all the time, about a whole variety of issues.
    You seem to think that allocating priorities means ridiculing or dismissing those campaigns in which we cannot be involved. If you cannot attend a particular picket line, you would not tweet about how everyone there is wasting their time. Why should it be any different if, say, teachers put bans on the new curriculum?

    Given the culture wars are an attempt by Abbott to plaster over real internal problems, will prioritising them help us defeat a government that has real problems, or do you see this as merely the best defensive holding operation we can run (because even if we “go on the offensive”, it seems that the battles will, by their nature, be sectional ones rather than general challenges to the government)?
    The Tea Party types, who are now the most vocal conservative activists, may well cause real problems for Abbott in the same way as they have for the Republicans in the US.
    But progressive politics doesn’t mean simply putting a plus where Abbott puts a minus. If Bernardi became a serious political force, he would probably destabilise the Liberal Party. But does that mean we should not fight Islamophobia because by doing so we’ll be solving problems for Abbott? Of course not.
    That’s all for now.

    1. On a slightly different tack, the Conversation has a good piece on how Pyne-style reforms make Australian history unteachable. Teachers hate the focus on jingoistic Aussie history, not just because of its politics, but because the kids loathe it so much. There’s a great quote from Anna Clark’s research on the teaching of history in australia, where a kid says to her, “Australian history just makes me want to cry. It’s so boring and I can’t stand it.”
      The conversation piece is here.

    2. Jeff, you write: “Of course it’s possible to judge which fronts are more important.” Yet the only criterion you seem to provide is whether or not a particular group engages in such a battle. Surely you argued for a more proactive approach to provocations in the OP, or did I misunderstand?

      You use the example of teachers. I have no problem with teachers fighting against reactionary curriculum changes, nor about backing them. But we have to be honest about this: teachers faced a historic attack against them over performance pay in the Rudd-Gillard years and their union bureaucracies caved. Indeed, only limited sections of the Left bothered to take up the cause because, well, most of the Left went along with most of the reactionary stuff that government pushed through. Certainly there was none of the ideological fervour currently being mobilised by the Left and the unions over the curriculum. Indeed much of the Left welcomed (begged for) Gonski with nary a word of criticism of the market-based principles tied to it. Yet there can be little doubt that as a result of these cave-ins over pay and conditions that teachers are in a much weaker position to take on “bans or other forms of industrial action”. Frankly, the engagement with a culture war is more likely a move by the union leaders to make up for their abject lack of fight against the nice ALP government that didn’t launch culture wars, and the ALP to distract from its singular educational achievements.

      Any talk that the Left has no choice but to fight culture war battles set by the enemy is pretty hollow when the last material battle over education quickly ended in meek and deferential surrender… it seems clear that in the case of education much of the Left is more comfortable fighting culture wars than those tawdry fights over “putting dollars in pockets”.

      On my argument about priorities you miss the point. I am arguing that prioritising the culture wars is in general strategically a waste of time that also happens to excite most of what counts for the Left these days. I say this not because there is something good about e.g. curricula being shifted to the Right but because it fails to deal with two types of weakness, both of which you identify but don’t think through.

      The first weakness is Abbott’s. Because culture war provocations are, we both agree, a distraction from Abbott’s problems with the nutbags in his base, treating them in any way but the one D.G. (below) suggests – as a phoney debate deserving our ridicule – actually creates the impression that we are instead dealing with Abbott’s strength. It takes us away from the task of understanding how to exploit Abbott’s weaknesses rather than getting tied up in the smokescreens he erects to obscure those weaknesses.

      Second, there is the weakness of the existing Left, the majority of which has just spent three years tied to the fortunes of the most politically disastrous federal government since WWII. Part of its complicity with that government was to go along with a series of right-wing socioeconomic policies in order to protect the government’s stability. Sure Rudd and Gillard launched few Abbott-style culture wars, but the price enacted from them was the servility of the Left to their “agenda”. Which now leaves the Left very weak, disoriented and its project exhausted. So what’s the answer the Left poses? To take on Abbott’s shadow boxing rather than seriously attack his weak points. This is a recipe for continuing irrelevance.

      It’s hard not to be grumpy about that kind of approach, even harder when most of the population doesn’t take Abbott’s provocations seriously but you tell us to.

      Your last point is the most important. Actually, there is a danger that Bernardi will become more prominent, but it will be because of Abbott’s problems and not because of the inherent strength or appeal of his reactionary message. This will not be a good thing. But the Left cannot simply fight Bernardi unless it has something to say to ordinary people about how to deal with Abbott – not Abbott the smoke & mirrors culture warrior, but Abbott the PM who they mistrust and are quickly becoming convinced is no better than the ALP-Greens mess they just booted out. Bernardi is much more likely to become significant if Abbott’s government falls apart under its own contradictions than if the Left actually takes it on over serious matters.

  3. Seems to me the point about ‘culture war’ is that it is about ‘narratives’of the past and present; it is about how we understand the world, humanity, the possibilities and potentials of both, and about alternatives and how we go about changing things. And it is about not having to reinvent the wheel. Understandings of class and power and everything else in the radical lexicon all come about through the access to and the understanding of ideas; and education, both formal and informal, is at the heart of this. Control of ideas and understandings and education, and control of access to this dimension, goes a long way towards controlling the shape of the future, let alone containing the present. So it seems to me.

  4. I don’t really get this piece. Your outline of a response by a Left ‘on the offensive’, that puts the ‘culture war in context’, is missing any reference to the actual context you highlight at the start. It would be worse for Abbott if the Left pointed out his weakness, and ridiculed these stunts as the meaningless sop to the hard right that they are, rather than taking the bait and legitimising a phony debate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *