Friday, February 15, 2008

We have always been at culture war: Fables of the reconstruction- reconstruction of the fables

Larvatus Prodeo is one of the more livelier, open group blogs on the Web. Largely concerned with Australian federal politics, it also surveys cultural events, low and high, and debates. I'm an avid reader and enjoy the dialogue. There are some hilarous and learned posters here, and some trolls whose provocations bring out the wits and bitchery (or the bits and witchery - don't know what this means, I just like the sound of it).

It sometimes needs to be said, however, that LP is a generator of left populism. This is not a problem, and I'm on board with the project. Indeed, after nearly 11 years of neo-liberal/neo-conservative hybrid leadership in the Australian federal parliament, the battle to generate and disseminate such left populist terms as 'working families', 'mortgage stress', and the 'kitchen table' (where the lived economy is experienced), were part of the verbal-armoury that Rudd's social liberal/ neoliberal team have fought, and mostly won, the public debate with.

This was and contines to be no easy struggle. The hegemony formerly ascendant in the reactionary conservative ex-Government Gazette (as posters at LP named it) was one fought through a right-populism that claimed to speak on behalf of ordinary Australians. The GG's ordinary Australians (aka Howard Battlers), it was claimed, supported Prime Minster Howard in such matters as: joining the COW in Iraq, in turning away the Tampa, and in refusing an apology for the Stolen Generations. Indeed, Howard seemed to often take his tunes from the songbook at the ex-GG: running battlefronts, in this round of the culture wars, along the terrain of High School History and English curricula - especially Australian history.
The loss of government for Howard's coalition, in late 2007, was one which many ordinary Australians, and now Howard Government ministers, attribute to the anti-egalitarian regulations of the Workchoices Industrial Relations legislation introduced, then slightly retuned with the addition of the 'fairness test', during the last parliament. That the GG commentariat, and their bloc in Quadrant, at the CIS and IPA, reaching into the talkback radio waves and others in the News Ltd. fold, were chief spruikers and backers for Workchoices (I & II) must now leave them feeling as though their finely tuned attennae for discerning the feelings and thoughts of ordinary Australians were out of whack. These Howardistas, we now know, were practicing right-wing populism: they weren't speaking for the majority at all - not on Workchoices!
Who were they speaking for then?
Maybe it's less important to talk of constituencies, as groups of citizens that media figures (writers, journalists, TV interviewers and hosts, talkback radio hosts, and, of course, politicians) attempt to persuade, than it is to talk of constituences who are mobilised into identifying themselves as a particular type of citizen because of the appeals made to them through language and signs. Judy Brett, for example, has pointed out that Robert Menzies' use of the radio, as medium for his speeches, and his term 'the forgotten people', which was mobilised within a broader set of terms animated by the morality of the middle-class, together enabled him to draw out the idea of the citizen as private-sphere, homeowning and thrifty. (This argument is influenced by Capling, Considine, Crozier Australian Politics in the Global Era 1998). And if it's language and media that largely constitute politics, then how we communicate what ordinary Australians, in this case, are thinking and feeling is how politics occurs.
Debate and language are important, and this is why threads in the culture wars have been animated over issues of terminology: stolen or rescued generation? The black armband, or white blindfold view of Australian history? And this battle to naturalise terms, the normalization of language, is probably happening less in the broadcast and mainstream media, than on the Web: on sites like Larvatus Prodeo.

On LP the debates and posts are, of course, open to contest, evidence, logical and rhetorical reshaping and it would be reductive to argue that the aim of many of the posts on this blog are driven by a desire to shape public debate only in terms of a demonisation of the enemies of the Labor party and its bloc. There is more to LP than this. But the left populism is certainly there. Which brings me to the culture wars.

It's been odd, to say the least, to have watched Tony Jones, host of ABC1's Lateline, this week in the context of the National Sorry statement. Jones framed significant sections of his panel (with Prof. Henry Reynolds and Gerard Henderson) discussion, and subsequent interview# with Prime Minister Rudd, around the culture wars. Jones asked repeatedly if the Apology signalled that these divisive wars, said to be a phenomenon of the Howard period, were now over? I think this is certainly a question that needs to be asked, but it needs to be qualified: is this round in the current culture wars now resolved?

Mark Bahnisch, Larvatus Prodeo's lead writer, has recently used the findings of a British sociology study on class and taste to argue that charges of cultural elitism, in Australia during the 'culture wars', now, if they ever did, have no basis in fact. The argument for charging people with cultural elitism runs something like this: a taste for chardonnay and lattes is what inner-urban, university educated middle-class, social-liberals who controlled public institutions like the ABC, the humanities departments in Universities, Arts bodies, and the Other broadsheet producers in Australia, have. Such 'tastes', so the imputation went, married class to consumption: the elite controlled public spending by virtue of controlling the judgement of taste. And part of the cultural elite's judgement was their moral judgement on ordinary, tax-paying, hard-working Australians.

Bahnisch is right to point to research in order to argue that the charge of cultural elitism was a right-populist smokescreen. Sure there are examples of university research projects that seem arcane, ABC radio hosts that might stretch political correctness too far - but how arcane research at universities is cannot be judged by reading headline summaries of ARC grant proposals online, and what might seem arcane now might prove to be centrally significant in 10 to 50 years time: that's the nature of research. Similarly, the boundaries of civility, not to mention legality, in talk-radio impose correctness to the kinds of speech permissible. The ridiculousness of the claim of there being a cloak of political correctness which unjustlty censors one's right to voice ignorant, sexist and racist hate, is like arguing that I have a right to offend whoever the fuck I want, and you are being offensively condescending if you try and stop me.

So, the culture wars have been fought on some of this turf. The fabled cultural elites, as Bahnisch argues, is indeed a fable. The smokescreen under which capital has been accruing to the new and old bourgeoisie whose elite power we should be holding up to scrutiny.

But the broader point is that I don't think that the culture wars, per se, are over. There is, as I listed above, a vocabulary of left populism. Who can really argue that the new Industrial Relations legislation is a victory for anything except a more socially concerned neo-liberalism? The culture wars have shifted, and the Apology marks a new affective terrain on which they will be fought. The danger is to fall, at least unknowingly, for any populism: especially from the Left.

# Rudd's posing of a series of his own questions and answering them during an interview needs a new term. I propose 'the intraview': Good to be with me!

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