Postmodern Conservatism, February 2006. Matthew Sharpe.
Readers who have done a first year course in philosophy will remember the figure of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. Thrasymachus is the figure that butts in angrily as our hero, Socrates, teaches his young friends that it is always better to live justly than to do injustice. Thrasymachus laughs that Socrates is an unrealistic old milksop. His idle chatter might pass with the young, but not with anyone who knows how the real world works. Might makes right, Thrasymachus argues. And the laws are always made by the strongest in order to oppress the weak. Now: nearly all readings of Plato’s Republic agree that, in what follows, Socrates calmly shows the faults of his “wolf-like” friend’s position. But not so Leo Strauss, acknowledged father of the neoconservatives currently enjoying such good favor in today’s American republic. According to Strauss, it is deeply significant that Thrasymachus remains lurking in the wings of Plato’s dialogue. In fact, Strauss claims, Socrates really only “tames” his hot-headed friend, rather than proving him wrong. Indeed, Thrasymachus is very far from being the opponent of a good or just republic, for Strauss. In fact, Strauss says, Thrasymachus stands for “the city itself” in the dialogue – which means the way politics has always and will always be done. How can the wise ever hope to persuade the “unwise many” of the justice of their rule, after all, without enlisting fiery demagogues like Thrasymachus?, Strauss reflects. In the divine Plato’s ideal city, this leading intellectual forbear of Kristol, Perle, Wolfowitz et al thus contends, there will always be a vital place for the “vulgar rhetoric” of the Thrasymachus’ of the world. Homer and the artists, meanwhile, will have to go, and presumably sip their ancient-equivalents-of-café-lattes elsewhere.
Whatever we might say about Strauss, Thrasymachus or the American Straussians, however, anyone who has opened the oped pages of many of the leading dailies in this country in the last five years will have noticed some very strange changes in our own “homeland.” Many of the columns written by our own leading commentators have taken on an almost-apocalyptic, if not Thrasymachian, tone. We all know that the good book says that when the end time approaches, the world will be racked by wars of good against evil, false prophets will multiply, and the wheat will be sorted out from the chaff. Yet in a similar way, if you read many of our new Australian commentators, you will quickly come to appreciate that Australia is really fighting more than one war, or one decisive war on two vastly distant fronts. Australia of course faces the axis of external enemies named by President Bush in 2002, and we must never “appease” the terrorists (take notice Simon “Chamberlain” Crean). But this external war or wars, these voices contend, is only one part of the bigger picture. To quote an Australian editorial dated 10 April 2003:
“...of course there is another war of values [going on today], and it is the culture war being fought within the West.”
The “enemy within” on this second front, these commentators agree, are the “politically correct,” “chattering,” “elites.” And we certainly need to be alert. Unlike the terrorists, the “elites” are at least easily recognizable. They drink chardonnay and café lattes, live in the inner suburbs, and generally work in the Fairfax media, the ABC, what remains of the welfare state, and in the humanities faculties at the universities. But these seemingly benign “elites,” the commentators caution, are not simply “out of touch” with “ordinary Australians,” the “silent majority” of “battlers.” They are ultimately committed – in virtual if not in actual league with the terrorists, as one at least has repeatedly suggested – to the out and out destruction of ordinary Australians’ “values” and their “way of life.” Whether we are strong enough to face up to it or not, the Australian oped continued, the culture war is finally:
“... the war between those who feel that on the whole our values and traditions are sound, and those among the intellectuals who argue that they are simply a cloak for racism and brute power.”
Now, it is tempting to respond with disdain or disbelief to this type of claim, the seemingly wild degree of influence it attributes to “intellectuals” in Australian public life, not to mention the increasingly shrill tone in which it and like claims are repeated nearly daily. In Robert Manne’s words about a leading Melbourne news commentator:
“... reading a column by Andrew Bolt is like being trapped in a small room with an angry, indignant, simple-minded man who believes that the best way of convincing you that he is right, yet again, is to ridicule you and to shout. ...”
What I would suggest is that, nevertheless, no one who cares about the public good in this country has the luxury today of being able to dismiss Bolt, Ackerman, Sheridan, Albrechtson et al, even if their outraged Thrasymachian antics would long have excluded them from anything like what older conservatives called “polite society.” If we are to oppose not simply the culture warriors but also, more deeply, the “us and them” mentality of their unilaterally declared “culture war,” I think we need also to address two questions:
What is a “culture war,” where does it come from, and what if anything fills the “culture warriors” with such holy rage or terror? How did the “culture wars” start in Australia – if we agree with The Australian that it has – why have they emerged now, and what might the culture warriors be hoping to achieve?
“The culture wars are the new and much more difficult cold war. It is a cold war that, for the last twenty-five years, has engaged my attention and energy, and continues to do so. There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers. We have, I do believe, reached a critical turning point in the history of the American democracy. Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over, the real cold war has begun. We are far less prepared for this cold war, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case with our victorious war against a global Communist threat. We are, I sometimes feel, starting from ground zero, and it is a conflict I shall be passing on to my children and grandchildren. But it is a far more interesting cold war – intellectually interesting, spiritually interesting – than the war we have so recently won, and I rather envy those young enough for the opportunities they will have to participate in it.” Irving Kristol.
It is of course false to think that if you can understand where something came from, you have understood everything there is to know about it. Yet in the case of this strange idea that “culture” is not opposed to, but could itself be the site of “war,” we can learn a lot from the first time this concept emerged. The term comes from the German word kulturkampf. It was first coined at the time of Chancellor Bismarck’s struggle to unify Germany in the 1870s. In the name of this nation-building project, Bismarck and his Protestant supporters declared and waged a “kulturkampf” against the Roman Catholics. The stake in this kampf was what we today might call the “hearts and minds” of young Germans. The disputed turf was accordingly what the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser calls the “Ideological State Apparatuses”: particularly the schools and the universities, but also the news and other media. The disputed content in this first kuturkampf, finally, was the role and nature of religion in a modern state, and the constitution of a unified national identity that would transcend the potentially-divisive pluralism of modern civil society.
Now: all of these features – the focus on education, the political question about religion, and the question of a unifying identity in a pluralistic nation – reemerge “front and centre” in the ongoing American culture wars, from whence I am going to suggest our own have hailed, more and more directly. The “culture war” or “wars” in the US date from the late 1960s and the emergence of the new social movements of the “New Left,” the civil rights struggles, and the anti-Vietnam rallies. The emergence and continuing successes of these social and protest movements had two consequences which those who had championed them could hardly have foreseen. Firstly, the key role of students and campus activism in the struggles of the 60s and 70s convinced many on the right side of American politics of the decisive political importance of the university and of education in shaping the ideals and ‘values’ of the young, and their support for the American republic. In line with this, figures within the establishment reacted against the openness of media coverage of the Vietnam campaign, blaming it for the public’s loss of belief in the virtue of the war. Secondly, the success of the new left in politicizing questions of identity, sexuality and traditional gender roles galvanized an ecumenical coalition of religious and social conservatives. As James Hunter argues in Culture Wars – The Struggle to Define America, the only precedent in American life for the post-1960s culture wars were the often-heated disputes between Catholics, Protestants, and to a lesser extent the Jewish community. In the face of the new social movements, however, orthodox believers from across “faith-lines” began to see the need to form a common movement. And hence was born what Evangelical activist Fanky Schaeffer called “an ecumenism of orthodoxy,” or what has come to be better known as the “moral majority.” If the New Left politicized traditional models of family, gender roles, and of private virtue, the emerging religious right in America banded together to combat what they perceived to be an attack on their very way of life and its basic institution: that “citadel of orthodoxy” the family . (Hunter, p.103)
Now: understandably, there has been a lot of focus in recent times on the role of the neoconservatives in shaping the current Bush administration’s adventurous foreign policy. Yet I would contend that the influence of neoconservatives like Daniel Moynihan, William Lipset and Irving Kristol (on whom I will focus here) in shaping the US’s “culture wars,” and making the battle ground an electoral one, is just as important. Emerging themselves from the old left (Kristol was for instance a Trotskyite), what the neoconservatives did in the 1970s was develop a sophisticated political criticism of the “new left.” According to Kristol, the emergence of the new left in the 60s showed that the US was experiencing nothing less than a grave legitimation crisis. With the emergence of the welfare state after the great depression, and as American society generally became increasingly bureaucratized, Kristol argued that a “new class” had emerged whose influence threatened to supplant that of the corporate elites. “The ‘new class’ is not easily defined but may be vaguely described,” Kristol confesses with his characteristic frankness:
“It consists of a goodly proportion of those college-educated people whose skills and vocations proliferate in a ‘post-industrial’ society (to use Daniel Bell’s convenient term). We are talking about scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the governmental bureaucracy, and so on.” (Two Cheers, p.27)
The trouble with this “new class,” for Kristol, is that – unlike other ruling classes in history – its members have shown themselves to be generally hostile to the capitalist society that has given birth to them. It is the students of the “new class”’s professariat, he argues, that issued out into the streets to cripple America’s faith in its civilizing mission in Vietnam. It is the “new class” who promote increasing regulation of corporate capitalism, and threaten to turn the US into a controlled post-capitalistic economy. It is not that the “new class” subscribes to Marxism-Leninism. Kristol takes Marxism to have been economically defeated by liberal economics, and to have never really been a force in the USA. Vitally for us, Kristol argues, the “new class"’s hostility towards capitalism is rather of a different, and specifically “elitist,” kind. It draws its inspiration not from workers’ collectives or the third or fourth international, but from the withering contempt for the materialism of modern bourgeois society you can find in Nietzsche, the avant garde, the romantics and – the great grey grandfather of the “new class” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The question that Krisol beats his head up against for thirty years is what is to be done about this “new class"? In the early 70s, he still holds hope that the legitimation crisis associated with the influence of this class might not be terminal. At this time, he still attributes their imputed “anti-capitalism” to the all-too-human frustration of those who have always had material goods, and who hence cannot relate to the materialism of less well off, more ordinary, people. Perhaps, Kristol wonders, the “new class” might be brought around or even reeducated to support capitalism? Perhaps more writers like Horatio Alger might emerge who can re-glorify America’s corporate leaders, their weighty responsibility, and their beneficent effect on the American republic?
From the mid-70s onwards, however, Kristol changes gear in a way that is very revealing, given his avowed debt to the work of Leo Strauss. Drawing on his own frank doubts about the virtues and democratic appeal of corporate America, Kristol now argues that if that capitalism has not directly dug its own gravediggers, it never really had the cultural spine to prevent them from massing inside the gates of its office buildings and university campuses. Corporate America can hardly complain about the new Left, Kristol observes. For there is finally nothing in its theoretical heroes, Hayek and Friedman, which prevents corporate capitalism from simply treating the “counter-culture” as one more niche market, “just in time” to motivate the next round of targeted advertising and lifestyle-based consumption. Capitalism, Kristol begins to argue from the mid-70s onwards, has been living off the borrowed cultural capital it had received from the religious, and specifically Judaeo-Christian, tradition for two centuries. Now that it has spent this religious capital, it is defenseless against the “relativism” or “nihilism” of the neo-Nietzschean left, and the vanguard of the undergraduates. But if this is so, Kristol further starts to reflect, maybe it is time for America to urgently undertake a sustained program of religious reinvestment.
In the 1990s, then, as the Republicans faced Clinton and the possibility that all of the gains of the Reagan years might come to nothing, Kristol began to argue something of remarkable importance for understanding of the current electoral divide in the US. Kristol still has to concede that neoconservatives themselves are mostly secular intellectuals. Yet, because of their post-Straussian understanding of America’s cultural crisis, he argues, neoconservatives are uniquely able to speak to the concerns of the religious “moral majority.” In short, from the early 1990s onwards, Kristol increasingly sells neoconservatism to the traditional, big business Republican constituency as the force capable of bringing together a new mass electoral “base” – that of the religious right – capable of winning electoral hegemony from the Democrats. As he reflected in the landmark essay “Populism: Not to Worry”:
“Conservative politicians woo the religious conservatives, but only the neoconservatives can really speak to them ... Many of these neoconservatives are not themselves religiously observant in their private lives – although more and more are coming to be.”
To Republicans who might have concerns about the alliance of neo-liberal capitalism with the anti-modern religious and moral views of “orthodoxy,” Kristol counselled that, given the state of emergency facing the party:
“... the Republican Party must embrace the religious if they are to survive. Religious people always create problems since their ardour tends to outrun the limits of politics in a constitutional democracy. But if the Republican Party is to survive, it must work on accommodating these people.” 
This is all well and good. But the question remains: what’s all this got to do with Australia? Judith Brett in her recent Quarterly Essay for example cautions us “against left commentators on Howard” who “notice the reference to the bureaucracy and the new class” in statements by Mr Howard, his ministers, shock jocks and the newspaper columns, but only “hear the imported rhetoric of American populism.” Surely we don’t need to praise or blame America for everything in our own culture and politics. Politically and ethically, given the increasingly extreme tone of Australian public debate, Brett’s plea for moderation is refreshing enough. The idea of Australian independence from the US is arguably as welcome as it has ever been. The problem is that, as the Australian editorial we saw above shows, our new class of Thrasymachian commentators are far from denying that they are fighting an Australian “culture war,” or the wider culture war on the Australian front. What is more, neither do some of these figures even attempt to deny that they have close connections with American neo-conservatism. To take one example, Greg Sheridan, “the most influential foreign affairs analyst in Australian journalism” (The Australian). Sheridan at times positively gloats about his connections with neoconservatives in high places. To quote from Sheridan’s column describing his “dizzying week” in Washington in July 2002:
“There is a core of faith in the Bush administration that the US-led coalition will prevail in Iraq. And I am sitting in the office of Optimism Central, here in the Pentagon where Paul Wolfowitz, the US Secretary of Defense, chief intellectual architect of the Iraq invasion and high priest of the neoconservatives sits.”(my italics)
If it seems obvious that the only thing this staid anti-elitist could have been doing in Wolfowitz’s office was asking the hard questions, Sheridan’s interviews with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage from around the same time don’t inspire such good faith. In Manne’s words:
“Sheridan wrote about Armitage with the kind of uncritical enthusiasm one might expect from a teenager in love. On a number of occasions, he informed his readers that Armitage was the ‘straightest talker’ or ‘straightest shooter’ you could ever meet. He was ‘George Orwell-like in his ability to face hard facts.” You could ‘stake your life’ on the reliability of what he told you.”
Although he confesses himself a good Catholic, indeed, Sheridan seems to have been one inch away from giving it all up to Caesar in his heady week in Washington:
“It is the heart of Washington, this display of US strength and pride ... It is imperial Rome without the vomitoriums, greater than London was at the height of the empire ... [This] is the known universe, the most formidable agglomeration of pure power we have ever seen.”
If we look, more seriously, at the content of the consensus emerging between the commentators on the pages of the Australian and elsewhere, what we see is a series of positions that strikingly reflect the illiberal agendas of America’s culture warriors.
Take for example The Australian’s remarkable opinion page of December 15 last year, the Thursday after the Cronulla riots. Alongside one neutral piece on the spectre of Hansonism, the page featured three further articles. The central feature by Peter Ryan (“Apologise to Blainey”) left aside the questions about Islamophobia and its promotion being asked around the globe in the wake of the riots. The Cronulla riots, Ryan argued, should instead be understood as a startling confirmation of Geoffrey Blainey’s “thoughtful warning” in the 1980s that multiculturalism was always going to lead to trouble. Multiculturalism, not racism, is to blame for the Cronulla beach riots, and Geoffrey Blainey is its victim, not the Lebanese on the beaches. Meanwhile, as debate raged over whether Alan Jones’ behaviour in the week leading up to the riots might have been criminally culpable or seditious, David Flint’s piece informed readers that “the ‘shock jocks’ are in tune with the silent majority.” In the “law and order” vacuum Carr’s labour government had created in NSW, he explained, “the young bloods revolted and chose the only path available to them, that of the vigilante.” If “among the favoured doctrines of the elites in multiculturalism,” Flint counselled that Jones and company provide “one media forum where ordinary people can be heard,” despite the new class’s vice-like hold on Australia’s media establishment. The fourth column by Ted Lapkin, finally, urged Australians that “military justice is critical” for David Hicks if Australia’s “jihadist problem” is not to get worse. Lapkin forthrightly attacked “the hypocritical outrage against the treatment of David Hicks,” “a combat-hardened expat who twice took up arms on behalf of Al Qaida.” Although the elites might rail against a type of “justice” condemned even in our willing ally Britain, the ordinary Australian is in revolt against the possibility that Hicks might be released because of his British parentage.
What does this remarkable snapshot show us? The Australian culture warriors, like their American colleagues, above all champion the idea that a more or less homogenous national culture is necessary if a nihilistic collapse of “law and order” is not to ensue. Because of this, the rage of the Cronulla “vigilantes” can be understood if not condoned. Their rage gives voice to the truth that multiculturalism must be limited, if not rolled back completely. The tell tale attack on nefarious “elites” who imputably support multiculturalism is then counter-posed in a more or less transparently populist way to the silent virtue of “rank-and-file Australians” (Flint’s expression). The real problem at Cronulla was not racism and its at least tacit condoning of it by Jones and figures like him, as a further Australian oped piece rejoined that week. The real problem is bad parenting – which points to the need to defend and promote strong families – and, more surprisingly, elite judges who think that they are “social workers.” Although criminal activity can then be traced back by these warriors to the breakdown of the nuclear family, any attempt to try to explain its emergence with reference to other mitigating social, ethnic or cultural disadvantage in Australian civil society is to be opposed in the name of a “law and order” that at a pinch can even countenance the use of military courts condemned by nearly every government on earth.
How though did this deeply neoconservative consensus amongst Australia’s new class of right-thinking commentators emerge, if we agree that it has arrived?
In their contributions to Hindess and Sawer’s collection on Australia’s new anti-elitists, Us and Them, Damien Cahill and Tim Drymond have documented the importation of many of the terms of the American culture war into Australia, and the direct role of Irving Kristol in the formation of Quadrant magazine. In 1981, in its turn, the Quadrant editorial board avowed Kristol’s Commentary and Encounter magazines as part of Quadrant’s “genealogical tree.” But I think, if we are to comprehend the recent declaration and waging of an Australian culture war, we simply cannot overlook the near-monopolistic presence Rupert Murdoch has in Australia’s newspaper market. Murdoch not only owns the leading Australian newspapers from whence the “culture warriors” almost exclusively send out their literary barrages. Although Murdoch has always supported economic neo-liberalism, at roughly the same time as Irving Kristol started to champion a new, religiously-based Republican party, Murdoch seems to have undergone his own conversion experience to support for a social agenda in line with the Christian moral majority in the US, as well as the Hawkish neoconservative vision of international relations. Murdoch certainly picks up the tab on the leading neoconservative magazine Weekly Standard run by the younger William Kristol and widely reputed to be in high demand in the highest Republican circles. The experience of the Hobart Mercury’s short-lived opposition to the Iraq war in this country also shows that Murdoch is not above a “hands on” editorial approach across his news media empire, if the issue is important enough. Should it then surprise us to note that since 2001, the Courier-Mail, The Australian and other Murdoch dailies in this country have started to directly sample pieces from the Weekly Standard as well as The American Conservative? Today it is possible and even ever-more likely that one will find pieces in the Australian, for example, penned by such shining neoconservative lights as William Kristol, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, John Podhoretz, or David Brooks alongside pieces by the new class of Australian commentators who uncannily echo their sentiments and rhetoric.
If one were feeling cynical, and taking a lead from the PM, we might well call this a new trans-Atlantic “coalition of the willing” in the culture war against the social democratic “elites.”
As I commented in introduction, I think it is both too easy, and a luxury we just can’t afford, to ignore or simply dismiss the culture warriors, however fatuous are arguments that all opponents of the Iraq war were “for tyranny. For murder” (Andrew Bolt) or that “media elites” who question the record of the Howard executive are effectively supporting the type of conspiratorial worldview or the terrorists (Greg Sheridan). What though can be productively said and done, short of a massive rolling back of the Murdoch media empire in this country, if we would oppose not simply much of what they say, but also the snarling Thrasymachian rancor with which they so often say it?
Perhaps the biggest paradox about the culture wars and the culture warriors who are fighting them is that, at the same time as they attack “elites” who see “brute power” at the heart of Western civilization, they also advocate the collapse of the public debate into a battle ground, as if the pen directly was a sword in any case. How can the culture warriors reconcile this apparently barbarous idea with the idea that they stand as the authentic defenders of a threatened morality, law and order, “good” or even “Western civilization"?
The answer, I think, is this. While war is not a complete breakdown of human sociability (in fact, it requires a heightening of social discipline), it is an extreme situation, at the outer limit of human moral life and experience. Soldiers in the line of fire are asked to lay aside the founding prohibitions of ordinary morality, including those against killing and lying. Actions that would be considered both illegal and immoral in peacetime become necessary evils in times of war, justified by the inventiveness or “evil” of the enemy, and the need to preempt and prevent even worse wrongs. You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. Similarly, then, once culture is conceived of as “war” as it is by our new class of commentators, isn’t it clear that the “culture warrior” can feel justified in violating ordinary moral standards, including those governing polite public debate, in order to win contested cultural terrain? Should we then be surprised that Alan Jones sailed so close to sedition at Cronulla beach, or that Bolt or Albrechtson have both been sued for inaccurate reportage, the latter before being promoted to the ABC board? Even acts (like torture) or institutions (like military justice) which we might have thought to be deeply abhorrent to “Western civilization” can, because of the perception of the extreme times in which we supposedly live, be instantly turned by culture warriors into the opposite – examples of the highest virtue. Consider, for example, this testimony of Senator James Itofe (Republican, Oklahoma) concerning the Abu Ghraib affair, whose language so strangely reflects that of the culture warriors who live in the Australian homeland:
“I’m probably not the only one at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment ... I’m also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over the place looking for human rights violations, while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying.”
As their own bitter, persecuted tone implies, that is, it is not difficult to see that the culture warriors’ position is underlain by a very grim vision of the world indeed. This world is a world populated only by friends or enemies, and friends are all those who agree with “us” against the surprising coalition of cosmopolitan Western elites and “Islamofascists.” Consider for example Greg Sheridan’s striking conception of his patriotism, which looks for all the world like he can’t distinguish this idea from its less noble brother, naked jingoism. What is striking about Sheridan’s love of the Australian homeland is that it makes no reference to any ideas, actions or ideals that might have ennobled Australia or which do condemn it, or which could allow us to make any critical assessment of it at all:
“I love [Australia] because, of all the nations on earth, it’s mine. I feel about it exactly as I feel about my family – of all the families in the world, God chose this one for me to be part of and look after. So, too, he chose this nation for me and I accept his choice.”
And here again, to return one final time to neo-conservatism and to Leo Strauss, I think that we simply are in the presence of a distinctly neo-conservative understanding of political community. I started by looking at Strauss’ idiosyncratic reading of Plato’s Republic which defends the belligerent sophist Thrasymachus as a “friend” to the good Republic, and which arguably has launched a thousand culture warriors. However, if there is one thing Strauss is infamous for, it is his apparent defense of Plato’s doctrine of the political need for the rulers to tell “noble lies” to the people. Most of Plato’s political myths, placed at the end of the dialogues, preach that the injustices of this life will be corrected in the next. These are the stories taken up later by the Jewish, Islamic and Christian thinkers. Yet the central myth Socrates recommends to would-be rulers in the Republic is the so-called myth of the metals. And it has a much less elevating message. Amongst other sage things, the myth of the metals recommends to rulers that they tell the silent majority that they have been born from, and so belong “naturally,” to the land of their city. If you can get the many to believe this, Socrates’ pint is, “the many” will defend their land as unquestioningly and vigorously in time of war as if their own family had been attacked.
For such a Platonic-neoconservative vision, then, a liberal commitment to truth-telling and open, critical argument which can even call into question whether everything we do is really the best simply because it is we who did it, is profoundly anathema. In this light also, to take another key battleground in our culture wars, any retelling of “our” history which would roll back our nation’s noble lies, and directly document the violence that founded the homeland is anything but salutary. It actually undermines the very basis for any viable community. As Strauss asks us: “why did the Athenians believe in autocthony, except because they knew that robbing others of their land is not just and because they felt that a self-respecting society cannot become reconciled to the notion that its foundation was laid in crime?”
Furthermore, a culture warrior’s pen is simply tied, or can only turn into a sword, when it comes to anyone who does claim that their politics aims at competing public ideals like truthfulness, social justice, the common good, or moral universalism. Any such pretence can only be perceived by them as at best ignorant foolishness, or – much like Saddam’s (according to Bolt) cunning ruse of letting the arms inspectors in – a “trick” concealing the hidden agenda(s) of their class or tribe. Consider for a final example the new commentator Michael Duffy’s typical, fighting analysis, at the height of the 2002 refugee crisis, of why the social democratic “elites” were apparently so concerned about the new arrivals:
“Although [the elite] claims to be morally superior, [its] members stand to benefit from the immigration of poor people into this country, most immediately by the availability of cheap domestic servants and cheap food in ethnic restaurants, which it enjoys because its members can afford to travel and pick up foreign tastes. More generally the existence of lots of poor refugees and immigrants provides clients for those of the elite who feed professionally off social problems and victims.”
Since it is fairly clear that the new class of commentators will – righteously – only read “their own,” faced with such analyses, probably the best thing we can do is to recommend Irving Kristol’s own analysis of the ills of populism, penned twenty years before he began advocating it to the Republican party:
“... populism ... incarnates ... a Jacobin contempt for the ‘mere’ forms of law and order and civility .... Above all, it is a temper and state of mind that all too easily degenerates into paranoia, with ‘enemies of the people’ being constantly discovered and exorcised and convulsively purged. Populist paranoia is always busy subverting the very institutions and authorities that the democratic republic laboriously creates for the purpose of orderly self-government.”
So is there then nothing good to be said about the culture warriors, for people who don’t agree with idea that society is finally nothing more than an armed camp? Can we learn nothing from their analyses and their influence? In fact, I think we can.
In the Australian context, first of all, the success of the culture warrior’s populist rhetoric indicates that the constituency forged by the ALP in the 60s and 70s from organized labor and left-liberal ‘knowledge workers’ concealed a real divergence in the values and world views of these groups. It is precisely this ‘faultline’ between the two sub-constituencies that Mr Howard has been able to so successfully exploit (in political science circles, this type of thing is called ‘wedge politics). Mr Howard and the culture warriors, like Irving Kristol and his colleagues in the US, gratefully accept the New Left’s bracketing of the economic questions central to the old Left, and the ALPs championing of economic neo-liberalism after 1980. Virtually without a fight, then, they have been able to claim ownership of values like ‘mateship’ and the skepticism towards enshrined privilege which hail from the history of the labor movement in Australia, redirecting anxieties generated by the ongoing structural reforms associated with neo-liberalism and “globalization” into culture wars against social democratic “elites” who – as luck would have it – generally oppose these very reforms.
Nothing turns engages into enrages like hypocrisy, Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1960s. If I have talked here about the apparent tension between the new commentators’ moralism and the idea that culture is a war, the culture warriors’ Thrasymachian antics involve a nest of further contradictions. It is not difficult to suspect that in the repetitive representations of the ABC as being run by David Marr, a few other journos, and their “mates” who have quite incredible access to the corridors of power, what we are in fact reading is something very like an unwitting confession as to how Newscorp operates (minus David Marr, of course). We noted above, with some surprise, that Greg Sheridan has access to the highest offices of the Pentagon. But this is something which we can presume isn’t available to all-comers. When Piers Ackerman or John Laws is invited out on the Murdoch yacht, or when John Howard’s son does a stint of work experience in the White House, we can also wonder whether this is the stuff of the silent majority. And we could of course go on. When Irving Kristol assured the corporate elites in speeches in the 1970s that some intellectuals weren’t all bad, and might be looked to to defend the new Republic, we can presume he left his business card. It is not nihilism but simply common sense to suspect indeed that behind the populist formulae of the new class of Murdoch commentators, one thing that is going on just is an attempt to divert public attention from the vast “market share” Murdoch has in Australia and overseas, and the vast influence his media empire has in the political life of the coalition nations. But, and here’s where I’ll finish, this massive and patent hypocrisy of the culture warriors is only patent hypocrisy if we look at, and re-politicise, the economic dimensions of the phenomenon. One thing that a liberal politics might learn from the wedge politics of the culture warriors, that is, is that political constituencies are never wholly “natural.” Similarly, the alliance of big business and the silent majority that today’s culture warriors are working to secure is just as fragile and vulnerable as the social democratic hegemony that it would replace. If we are to abide by what the PM preaches, and look at the way populism has always functioned in history, we can indeed hazard a guess that today’s anti-elitism is as much about the attempt to supplant one type of elite with another as it is the expression of a newly democratic popular temper. And if the economic dimensions of this cultural battle can be re-politicized, starting with campaigns contesting the democratic credentials of the latest rounds of IR legislation, it may be possible that the wedgers themselves can still be outwedged.
1. In the week following the recent terrorist arrests, for example, amidst widespread doubts about the timing of the police intervention, Greg Sheridan of the Australian did not hesitate to argue that thoughtful Australians can hardly blame the terrorists for their conspiracy theory-type understanding of leaders of the West, when the Greens within Australian parliament, and the majority of the journalistic elites, daily propound a similar understanding of the current government. Andrew Bolt from Murdoch’s Melbourne paper the Herald-Sun hardly needed or needs any such specific pretext to triumphantly dub the parliamentary Greens the “greenshirts” (p.), or to call those who expressed doubts about the still-legally-very-doubtful war 2003 war a “coalition of the whining,” or even to flatly state, in a way that speaks oodles for Greg Sheridan, that all the Australians who criticized the war were positively “for murder. For tyranny. For terror” (p.87). They formed, Bolt confided to his readers:
“... our growing culture of appeasers - groovy priests, apologists for Muslim terrorists, cultural relativists, ageing Marxists, New Age romantics, cause junkies [?] and far Left agitators.” (p.86)
2. Kristol, Neoconservatism, p.368.