Culture wars go meta in Oz

by John Quiggin on December 18, 2007

As in the US, the “culture wars” have been a long-running staple of political debate in Australia. The topics are much the same, except that Australian culture warriors tend to be a bit embarrassed about creationism and the more extreme forms of voodoo economics. And of course they’ve gone back and forth in the usual way, going nowhere much. With the departure of the Howard government, though, things have gone meta – we’re now fighting about whether we should fight culture wars.

The broadly unanimous centre/left position, (examples here and here) is “it’s over, no one cares any more, let’s get on with serious business”.

By contrast, the right is united on the view that it’s vitally important to keep on fighting the culture wars, but deeply divided as to the reason. As with Iraq, some say they’re winning and shouldn’t be tricked out of the victory that is rightly theirs, while others say the situation is so dire that only continued struggle will hold back the flood of leftist oppression.

As you can see from this post, we’re on the verge of going meta-meta here, but I suspect that this level of abstraction will be too much for simple Aussies.

{ 27 comments }

1

Gary Lord 12.18.07 at 11:26 pm

This is from Maxine McKew:

I think Paul Keating got it right, you know, this election has wiped away the toxicity. People are smiling, a sort of sense of, we can get on and do things.

And I think we all want to get on and do things in a certain way, in a civil way, in a sensible way, and get rid of perhaps I think that brutishness that has characterised our politics…

I think it’s time to get rid of that horrible absolutism – because it’s just not going to get us through the complex issues we need to solve.

Amen to that.

2

Hattie 12.19.07 at 1:35 am

Good luck.

3

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 12.19.07 at 2:30 am

How the Culture Wars were fought – different cultural responses to Liberal Fascism:

In the US: “Yes, I always thought that about Hillary Clinton. Damn her to hell!”
In Australia: “Yep, I always thought that about John Howard. Let’s have a beer.”

4

floopmeister 12.19.07 at 3:01 am

Since wars over resources are usually fought because a shortage of said resource, I look forward to the day in which a Culture War here in Australia is no longer necessary.

;)

5

Helen 12.19.07 at 3:24 am

Ouch, mate!

6

Tom Lynch 12.19.07 at 4:13 am

It’s too much to expect the warhorses of our newspaper op-ed pages to change their rusty old viewpoints, but it’d be nice if they could be held to a higher standard of evidence.

Lazy blaming, catcalling, trolling and FUD vs anti-FUD are the order of the day. Take the Aurukun statutory rape shitstorm: on that subject I’ve read page after page of poorly researched and argued emotive payouts.

Half the stable of right-wing trolls we have are positively gleeful at being handed what they perceive as a great lever to discredit the Bringing them Home report …

7

reason 12.19.07 at 7:40 am

I like this (from the last link)

The kind of history taught to school students is a political issue that goes to the core of our concept as a nation. That’s precisely why history is so controversial. There’s a big difference between regarding Australia as “settled” or “invaded”. For as long as the government determines and regulates what is taught in classrooms, curriculum will be the legitimate subject of political debate.

ummm… Could it be that Australia was both invaded AND settled by Europeans. I would have thought any intelligent being could see both viewpoints as being valid.

8

idlemind 12.19.07 at 9:08 am

Of course. There is likely very little inhabited land on the planet to which either label cannot be applied. Thus the label one chooses is a shibboleth for ones politics.

Politics, in the main, is a vigorous application of the fallacy of the excluded middle. Those who do not believe this are shunted aside as weak of mind.

9

Tracy W 12.19.07 at 10:22 am

The broadly unanimous centre/left position, (examples here and here) is “it’s over, no one cares any more, let’s get on with serious business”.

I think I’m missing something here. The left/centre now doesn’t care about what gets taught in history classes in Australian schools?

Or were the culture wars truly about insignificant things?

10

Tracy W 12.19.07 at 10:42 am

I may as well add, that, from the point of view of an outsider, the question of what should be taught in school history classes strikes me as the least significant element of what I thought were the Australian culture wars, with other issues, such as the proper relationship between the Australian government and the different Aboriginal groups being far more significant, both symbolically and practically.

Not to denigrate the importance of history classes of course. I think they are an important topic. But a student can always go to the library and read different points of view for themselves, which is trivial compared to the costs faced by, say, an Aboriginal if they want to escape Australian government policy.

11

Hidari 12.19.07 at 11:11 am

Serious question: do these ‘culture war’ issues only arise in countries which were invaded (or ‘invaded’ depending on your point of view) by Europeans (i.e. the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc.)? Because looking at this issue from a very long way away it does seem to be an issue very much about ‘the uses and abuses of history’. Speaking as a Brit, the whole idea of a ‘culture war’ seems bizarre: almost everyone from the centre to the far Right are united in their belief that the British Empire was a prolonged exercise in benevolence and philanthropy, and almost everyone else seems to be under the mysterious misapprehension that the British Empire didn’t exist, or if it did, it didn’t do anything.

And the idea of having a debate about Britain’s imperial past (and almost ALL Britain’s past is imperial) is almost literally incomprehensible: I did history at school until I was 17 and the British Empire was not mentioned at all, at any point: although there was quite a lot about the Corn Laws and how ‘we’ defeated the Nazis.

12

No one 12.19.07 at 11:37 am

I don’t know…I think education is highly significant in ensuring some settler history is shown to be rather one sided history: or at least students can learn how to judge some of the things that are put forth in the public sphere as ‘history’. But I’m probably being naive in hoping that such education might help later generations treat the issue of aboriginal-Crown relations more seriously.

As for ‘invasion’ and ‘settlement’, while reasonably intelligent people might think both were possible, and both did ‘in fact’ happen, isn’t the point that for too long Australian history has treated the settlement’ of Australia as something quite benign and indeed of benefit to the various already settled inhabitants (aborigines) who were in dire need of being civilised, while ignoring the very real damage done to the various already settled inhabitants by later European settlement? Yes, you could say there was both ‘settlement’ and ‘invasion’ but it seems a bit odd to me to treat them in this way, as if the impact of both were morally equivalent.

But then I wouldn’t know, being an outsider. But I imagine some of the arguments are much the same as in NZ or Canada.

13

Tracy W 12.19.07 at 12:50 pm

12. – I do think that schools’ history curriculum are important. This is why John Quiggin’s assertion that the broadly unanimous centre/left position is “it’s over, no one cares any more, let’s get on with serious business” surprised me and makes me think that in the past I have completely misunderstood what the Australian “culture wars” were about. I thought they were about things like the way Australian history should be taught, and things like the relationship between the Australian Government and Aborgines, and economic policy and the like, which are things I can’t see the Australian left and centre suddenly and broadly unanimously deciding are unserious topics that they don’t care about anymore.

14

john b 12.19.07 at 12:58 pm

I did history at school until I was 17 and the British Empire was not mentioned at all, at any point: although there was quite a lot about the Corn Laws and how ‘we’ defeated the Nazis.

When were you at school in the UK? I studied history up to GCSE level between 1990 and 1995, and there was a lot of emphasis on the slave trade and our activities in the Americas (starting it, as well as stopping it) – everyone I’ve asked about it who was at school later has said the same.

Not so much on India or China, but still hardly an uncritical suggestion that Britain never ruled anywhere or did anything bad…

15

Katherine 12.19.07 at 2:28 pm

Did history up to A Level in 1994 in the UK and there was narry a mention of the British Empire. We did the industrial revolution (mostly) at GCSE and up the Second World War (mostly) at A Level. We did quite a bit about Ireland, but America, India, China, anywhere in Africa (apart from a passing mention of the Boer War)? Nope.

16

stuart 12.19.07 at 2:55 pm

History in school in the UK 1985-90 in a public school, subjects covered were (in no particular order): Corn Laws, Enclosure, Battle of Hastings, Roman Britain, Irish Potato Famine, English Civil War, French/American/Russian Revolutions, World Wars, Age of Exploration (mostly British explorers), Boer War, Napoleonic Era, Suez, League of Nations and the mandates after WWI, formation of Israel, Spanish Armada, and no doubt many more I forget about. I don’t remember any explicit discussion of Empire particularly (except maybe a couple of lessons about Victoria and that era), but there were quite a few related topics covered.

17

SamChevre 12.19.07 at 4:14 pm

do these ‘culture war’ issues only arise in countries which were invaded (or ‘invaded’ depending on your point of view) by Europeans

No; Japan and India both have pretty significant culture war issues. (Hindutava in India, remembrance of WWII in Japan.)

18

Hidari 12.19.07 at 4:41 pm

‘When were you at school in the UK? I studied history up to GCSE level between 1990 and 1995, and there was a lot of emphasis on the slave trade and our activities in the Americas (starting it, as well as stopping it) – everyone I’ve asked about it who was at school later has said the same.’

I was in Scotland which had a different curriculum. To back up Katherine and Stuart’s points: yeah ok if you want to stretch a point we did cover a few issues that related, tangentially, to the British Empire. But there were no modules (or the equivalent) devoted to the Empire specifically, at all.

19

john b 12.19.07 at 4:51 pm

Hmm. It wouldn’t surprise me were the Scots curriculum rather different from the English one when it came to mentioning the Empire – the English are (very very slightly) better at admitting that we did it than the Scots are, despite equal culpability.

20

Grand Moff Texan 12.19.07 at 5:56 pm

I recall when the right in the UK attempted to import American style “family values” rhetoric in the early 90’s. One of their rising stars turned up dead on his kitchen table wearing stockings and a garter-belt, a bag over his head.

That sounds about right.
.

21

Chris Stiles 12.19.07 at 6:01 pm

When were you at school in the UK? I studied history up to GCSE level between 1990 and 1995

I studied history between 1985 and 1990 – mostly it was World War II, World War I and the Industrial Revolution.

almost everyone from the centre to the far Right are united in their belief that the British Empire was a prolonged exercise in benevolence and philanthropy,

I would tend to agree – I think this is partly because both (fairly averagely passionate) pro and anti Empire views are more evenly spread between left and right than one might first assume. The really rabid right wing types who see it as a totemistic issue and fairly few and far between in the general population. Even when these views are held they are often combined with oddly (from a polarised point of view) socially-democratic views on other issues.

22

Chris Stiles 12.19.07 at 6:03 pm

It wouldn’t surprise me were the Scots curriculum rather different from the English one when it came to mentioning the Empire – the English are (very very slightly) better at admitting that we did it than the Scots are, despite equal culpability.

Or – from the point of view of Indian – arguably more.

23

Tom Scudder 12.19.07 at 6:21 pm

11, 17 – Lebanon has huge culture war issues (is it an “Arab” country? What does that mean? Is it “Mediterranean”? Ditto. Was the country created artificially by the French in 1920? Or was it only expanded from a core that had a peculiarly Lebanese culture, history, et cetera? Were the precursor kingdoms in the present Lebanon’s territories distinct from other local mini-dynasties that had cropped up over the course of the Ottoman empire’s history? Et cetera.

24

Steve LaBonne 12.19.07 at 6:56 pm

I’ve always liked Bertrand Russell’s suggestion that each country’s history should be taught in its schools exclusively by natives of other countries.

25

John Quiggin 12.19.07 at 8:39 pm

TracyW, if you read the link to my long post on the subject, you’ll get a better idea of what the culture wars are about.

On the points you mention, economic policy in Australia is considered orthogonal to the culture wars. The relationship between the government and Aborigines is a big and horribly difficult question – we’re just sick of it being dealt with in the manner of the culture wars,as my post explains.

On history teaching, the general feeling is indeed that we have spent too long fighting over questions like “Was Australia ‘invaded’ or ‘settled’?’, and that very little remains to be said. If the rightwing culture warriors will shut up about this kind of question, I don’t think many on the left really want to reopen them.

26

Tracy W 12.19.07 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for explaining in more detail. It’s nice to know that I haven’t completely misunderstood what’s happening across the Ditch. Though I do think that what’s taught in schools will be a political football as long as there are schools.

27

Emma 12.19.07 at 11:19 pm

The other thing is that most of the debate in Australian broadsheet newspapers about history teaching is written by people writing about the pronouncements of politicians, none of whom have any idea of what or how history is being taught. Teachers are doing a fine job in the schools I know of teaching interesting, nuanced, complex historical curriculum and emphasising critical, intelligent research by their students. If any of these bozos had ever been in a school or talked to a secondary student, or even downloaded the Year 9 and 10 Australian history syllabus from the NSW Board of Studies website, they’d know that. But that would be journalism. Or research. Or critical thinking. Year 10 students tend to be better at it than journalists or politicians.
If I sound exasperated, that’s exactly the feeling JQ is reporting.

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