Monday, June 19, 2006

Windschuttle, and culture-war retrospectivity

First, let me say briefly, to the Right – Have the ABC, it’s yours. Although I’ve said as much before, this time I really, really mean it. While Andrew Norton is pushing merely for unlimited ads on the ABC, surely a more consistent Right position would be full privatisation; i.e. selling the spectrum licence (and the staff/goodwill also, if anyone wants them) to the highest bidder. If such a sale achieves a few-hundred mill for the taxpayer, without at the same time lining the pockets of Macquarie Bank et al to the tune of a few bill, I’d be delighted, end of story (although I wouldn’t hold my breath on the latter proviso being met).

In any case, what I want to talk about is raising the white flag of defeat in a different context. Specifically, can boomers (and older) please please take ownership of the culture-wars. By this, I mean accept that it is (or more accurately, was) your war/s. And that, even blindly accepting that it is still raging in 2006, it is going to end sometime (at the very latest, the culture-war/s will die with your generation). At which point history, at least as it will be written from then on, will not give a flying fig about your culture-wars for ever more, believe me.

I’ve touched on this phenomenon before; see also here and here.

Unpacked into one sentence, what I’m talking about centres on this: the weird conceit held by people of the Right, who wield/ed real cultural power both decades ago and now, that they have only in the last few years awoken to the scale of it all, meaning that the culture-war now needs to be fought retrospectively, and aggressively so.

Keith Windschuttle is a textbook example here, but he’s by no means unusual. Here’s a recent example of the conceit being exquisitely, thinly hammered over and over again, aka the Shorter Windy:

For the past three decades and more, many of the leading opinion makers in our universities, the media and the arts have . . . To see how decadent these assumptions have become, compare today's relativism to the attitude that prevailed when . . .Since the 1960s, academic historians on the left have . . . Until the 1960s, most people brought up within Western culture believed that . . . . Today, much of the academic debate about the Western literary heritage claims that . . . Today, we live in an age of barbarism and decadence . . . The relentless critique of the West which has engaged our academic left and cultural elite since the 1960s has emboldened our adversaries and at the same time sapped our will to resist.

You get the idea? Pre-1960s was Good. “Today” is Bad. Meanwhile, the not-insignificant 30-to-40 year time-lapse between these dates is a curiously malleable and/or invisible beast, as we shall now see.

This culture-warrior’s conceit gets weirder because it necessarily, but tacitly, involves splitting the 30-to-40 year long (so far) culture-wars in half.

The first half – up until about 1985 – is a “hot” war; i.e. missiles definitely were then being lobbed on all sides, including and especially by latter-day culture-warriors. (I pause to note here that to be a badge-of-conceit wearing culture-warrior in 2006, one needn’t have been as well-documented an Opinionator back then as Windschuttle, nor still less to have changed sides from far-Left to far-Right, as he famously did (c.1990). Thus, simply having a reasonably responsible job pre-1985 will qualify a person as having served in the “hot” part of the war, even if by omission.)

The latter-half of the culture-war’s received time-frame (i.e. 1985 on), meanwhile, is distinctively “cold”. With the possible exception of the last few years, this period of supposed “war” significantly lacks major hostilities. (“Political correctness” certainly came on the scene around the late-80s, but the fact that in 2006 TV shows like “Today Tonight” run weekly stories on Political Correctness Gone Mad means that “PC” has long been as Right/Left sectarian as Parking Inspectors Gone Ludicrously Strict).

With the second-half “coldness” of the four-decade long culture wars comes a crucial “AWOL”-type excuse for the warrior combatants. Thus, while the first half is all about action and agency, the last two decades are quite a blur. All that is clear about them, according to the standard narrative, is that they seamlessly segue with both the earlier half and the present day into one long and very much still-living strand. A cynic, OTOH, could well suggest that the culture wars are a long-dead horse, and that their attempted revival (sorry, continuance) is a fraud of a scale that leaves Darwin’s Larrakia in the amateurs’ outer.

And here’s the crux: Such a cynic can only be an Xer (or younger). The culture wars are (in cased you missed the implications of the above) generational. And “generational” here not in a “job-market/house-prices/HECS (etc)” Old-Fashioned Xer Whinge way (at a stretch, such things can be rebutted by boomer “luck” combined with follow-up political inertia), but “generational” as in from two different and irreconcilable planets.

At this point, it is important to understand that the boomer- (and older) Left, while long-since resigned to mainly playing a defensive “war”, do back-up the received time-frame to the hilt. That is, both boomer-Left and boomer-Right are happy to collusively construct an aporia, which sites the 70s-and-early-80s alongside 2006 as if the former just happened yesterday.

This picture – of a bipartisan but highly age-segmented, ludicrous conceit – is arrived at through simple logic, IMO. If you think that I’m resorting to Xer special pleading, I’ll have a second go at defining the conceit, particularly in terms of the culture wars from a Xer POV.

That there was a sharp ascendancy by the Left decades ago, followed by a relatively-stable period of Left traction is plain, irrefutable fact. Also uncontroversial is that most current-day culture warriors were "officers" (rather than soldiers, much less conscripts or prisoners) at all material times. (That is, loudly Right or Left pre-1985, and conspicuously silent – even about the fact there was a “war”! – for most of the two decades since.)

Unfortunately for my mid-80s-at-uni generation, what seems to be an equally plain fact – that the culture wars became history by the mid-1980s, as a new generation, of “conscientious objectors”, if you like, rose through the ranks – is not widely accepted.

Ironically, Windschuttle himself glimpsed as much in the mid-90s, but he has since back-pedalled from showing any sharp generational edge. Here’s the mid-90s Windy:

What, then, is to be done [re pomo etc infecting journalism courses]? Contra Mark Davis's book Gangland, most of the people I am criticising here are members not of a suppressed younger generation but of an entrenched older one. Most have tenured posts and are aged in their forties or early fifties which means they still have another twenty years of working life left in them, twenty years in which they are most unlikely to change their ways.

And here’s Windy in the Weekend Australian two days ago:

What, then, is to be done [re pomo etc infecting journalism courses]? Most of the people I am criticising here are members not of a suppressed younger generation but of an entrenched older one. Most have tenured posts and are aged in their 40s or early 50s which means they still have another 20 years of working life left in them, 20 years in which they are most unlikely to change their ways”*.

Geddit? A decade since baldly and badly misunderstanding the import of Mark Davis' Gangland, Windschuttle gives Xers less agency still – i.e. precisely zero, with not even a fumbling attempt to address how the Xer-Left might regard the boomer-Left. (He thinks he hates them! Hah!)

But back to elaborating on the culture-war conceit; specifically, what the “cold” part of the war has meant for Xers going to university and then spending their entire working (or not) lives under it.

By the mid-1980s, the Left in academia (and most of the media) was a comfortable status quo, even for young Xer students, up to a point. It was, and remains, foolhardily contrarian to diss the 60s equal rights movement in toto, for example.

But, as history continually shows, when bright young minds don’t “own” the status quo of the day, they will inevitably rebel against it.

Admittedly, historians have universally missed noticing the great Xer youthquake/rebellion of c.1985 for good reason – it was pissweak. While a minority rebelled to the Right, these Xers had little or no impact (plainly, if they had even moderate impact, history would record at least a decisive shift/battle in the culture wars in the mid-80s, but there’s nada). The Xer mass, if anything, jumped (mildly) further to the Left, such as onto the pomo bandwagon.

So why do I call this non-event a “rebellion”? The simple answer is because Xers’ distinctive presence in the culture wars over the two decades since has been piss-weaker still. “1985” is all we’ve got, honey.

Since the mid-80s, the culture wars have raged on around a whole generation, yet without that (= my) generation’s actual participation. We’ve actually been spectators on this into middle-age (which is why I’m quite confident in asserting saying that the non-event of “1985” was unquestionably my generation’s high-point. Sorry honey, we’re not just late developers here).

This matters because, as boomers gird-up in preparation for fighting the culture wars for another four decades (from their retirement homes if necessary, it would seem), several more generations will follow Xers into passive spectatorhood in their intellectual prime.

Terrorism – of the sort that thinks that destroying the world is a just and proportionate response to the grievances at hand – is, as I’ve often said, a strongly Xer phenomenon. While I’m no expert, I suspect that the tipping-point behind Xer terrorism in the Islamic world (and diaspora) is a rage ultimately caused by passive spectatorhood.

As long as the culture wars remain “active”, rather than historical boomer relics then, generational disenfranchisement in the West will only worsen. If Muslim Xers don’t soon destroy humanity, the most intelligent among today’s white Western children will be more than up to this task in two decades, I’m sure.

* "Communication breakdown" Australian 17 June 2006

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