If a Cold Warrior who died a half-century ago were to return today he might be surprised. Two ideologies are currently at war with Western civilisation, but neither of them is Marxism-Leninism. It is the dictatorship of bohemia—not the dictatorship of the proletariat—that is upon us. And while we allow an unreconstructed bohemian-leftist ruling class to call the shots, the West will continue to appease the other great anti-bourgeois movement of our era, Islamic revivalism.
Roger Sandall’s seminal The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays (2000) nominates Jean-Jacques Rousseau as bohemia’s “exemplary original”. According to Sandall, Rousseau’s rejection by French society instigated his hostility towards intellectual virtuosity and the greatest thinkers of the time. Whereas the sophisticated Parisians were false and perverse, asserted Rousseau, the mythical “Noble Savage” was natural and dignified. The revolt of the civilised against civilisation had begun.
Ressentiment also informed the views of the German philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried Herder. Many speak of Herder’s passion for “cultures” as a sign of the man’s open-mindedness and affection for humanity; but not Sandall, who draws the portrait of a provincial intimidated by the erudition of the French philosophes. Herder’s assertion that every last primitive clan has “its own irreplaceable contribution to make to the progress of the human race” was less a celebration of diversity than a tribal dagger aimed at the heart of civilisation. Sandall’s designation of Herder as “the father of multiculturalism” is not intended as a compliment.
The triumph of the bohemian insurgency over the past century can be measured by the near disappearance from academic discourse of the concept Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1868) defined as “civilisation”. Arnold spoke to the British people, extolling the civilisational exemplars contained in the “illustrious traditions of Hellenism, Hebraism, Christianity, none of which are British”. In other words, he was claiming something for “civilisation” that went beyond a Herder-like celebration of what we now label “culture” but in an earlier era called “tribe”.
An argument could be made for rating Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) as a particularly high point in the history of bohemian art and literature; and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) as, well, not so high. Both works, in any case, fit the overarching theme of bohemian art and literature through succeeding generations. This might be summarised as transgression against traditional (meaning bourgeois or Christian) sensibilities, including a preference for the exotic over the familiar, spontaneity over respectability, eccentricity over conventionality, self-expression over propriety, and so on ad infinitum.
The institutionalisation of bohemia, according to Sandall, received an extraordinary boost with Frank Boas’s opening of Colombia University’s anthropology department in the 1920s to the “would-be writers” Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Their new notion of anthropology—“heavily didactic semi-fiction”—went on to shape much of our contemporary world, including American-style liberalism: “The effect on American manners and morals would be to legitimise the bohemian counterculture of Greenwich Village.”
The bohemian standpoint invariably contrasts the multifaceted unnaturalness—or perversity and artifice—of Western civilisation with the unaffected genuineness of pre-modern tribal cultures. Sandall astringently cited Walt Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) as the apotheosis of the “Noble Savage” caricature in which old stereotypes are wholly inverted. Immaculate Powhatan Native Americans exist in a state of sacred harmony until Westerners—“uncivilised” and “ignorant heathens” who are “beasts” and “filthy savages”—descend on paradise like “ravenous wolves” and “devour everything in their path”. The civilisational self-hatred of the Disney writers smacks of unalloyed nihilism.
The indigenous/non-indigenous dichotomy is, in the mind of the bohemian socialist, a zero-sum game in which the inviolable indigenous tribe is either exploited by, or engaged in militant resistance to, Western or capitalist malice. Germaine Greer’s On Rage (2008), as an example, rationalises the documented violence perpetrated by Aboriginal men against Aboriginal women in outback communities as a function of “hunter-gatherer” men’s rage at being dispossessed centuries ago of their land (and women) by “Whitey”. Greer counsels Aboriginal men to form a movement in the name of “hunter-gatherer” resistance. And on the subject of female genital mutilation, Camille Nurka, lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne, was not alone in defending Greer for questioning the “cultural assumptions” of those in the West who criticise the practice.
Greer self-identifies as a Marxist and there is some sense in which her work, starting with The Female Eunuch (1970), borrows from the assertion in Friedrich Engels’s Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) that the wives of workers are exploited in a zero-sum relationship with their proletarian husbands who, in turn, are exploited in a zero-sum relationship with the capitalist class. But if Engels acknowledges that patriarchy and capitalism are inter-connected, he retains the notion of proletarian politics as outlined in The Communist Manifesto (1848)—which was, incontrovertibly, nothing more and nothing less than a bourgeois-versus-proletarian showdown. That is to say, the nemesis of the bourgeoisie could only be the urban proletariat (the industrial working class), and that involved men and women struggling side-by-side for humanity’s emancipation.
Greer’s liberation feminism, then, is a Marxist heresy. It constitutes collectivism of a sort but is, more often than not, at odds with proletarian opinion. Long-time Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens, in his political memoir Hitch-22 (2010), put the matter succinctly when he lamented the jettisoning of proletarian politics in the late 1960s as “the personal became political”. He disparaged the non-Marxian idea that “to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic preference” was to “qualify as a revolutionary”. In Greer’s The Whole Woman (1999), for instance, she speaks of emancipation not in terms of equal opportunity for women or equality between men and women but as “self-definition and self-determination”. Greer, in other words, is a bohemian socialist who endorses yet another “tribe” for inclusion in the Left’s rainbow of discontents.
Marxian socialists often ascribe “false consciousness” as a reason for the working class rejecting their assigned task role to overthrow the bourgeois order. According to bohemian socialists, on the other hand, those who eschew their allocated group or tribal role to demonise “Whitey” are identity traitors. Because the Ngarrindjeri “dissident women”, led by Dorothy Wilson, heroically stepped forward during the 1996 Royal Commission on the Hindmarsh Island bridge to dispute the veracity of the “secret women’s business”, reality eventually won out—but at a personal cost to the truth-tellers. There are, of course, other indigenous Australians, along with individual Muslims, individual women, individual gays and lesbians, individual university undergraduates, individual academics, individual teachers and so on, who assert their intellectual and moral autonomy by courageously rejecting the strictures of group or tribal conformity, and yet it is a risky enterprise.
Moreover, the Great Bohemian Cultural Revolution, if we may label it so, appears to be gaining momentum. In October 2015, hundreds of students at Cardiff University petitioned authorities to ban none other than Germaine Greer from making an address titled “Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century”. The author of The Female Eunuch stood accused of committing the offence of “misogyny”. Declared the Rainbow Guard activist Rachael Melhuish: “Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether.” This righteous anger reminds us of Mallet du Pan’s maxim about the revolution devouring its children.
The irony is that Greer promotes herself as arbiter of what constitutes identity treason. In 2006 she endorsed “The Campaign Against Monica Ali’s Film Brick Lane”. Monica Ali’s acquired “British-ness”, according to Greer, negated her “Bengali-ness”: this “lack of authenticity” meant Ali had no business portraying in dramatic form the Sylhetis of Brick Lane, since Ali’s Anglicised perspective might result in an unsympathetic depiction of the local Sylheti community and undermine its “self-esteem”.
At least Greer did not suggest the producers of Brick Lane invite the Pocahontas screenwriting team in to give the script a Disney makeover. An ever-growing number of identity groups, based on everything from erotic preference to religious deference, do exactly that. They pursue “self-definition and self-determination” but, unlike the more robust Germaine Greer, demand the full Disney culture-wash. People are adopting “identity authenticity” at the cost of their actual identity.
Consider our universities. “Safe spaces” on campuses thrive as reality takes a sabbatical. “Trigger warnings” are provided in literature courses before a student commences reading (say) Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The authorities at Oberlin College in America, notes journalist Jill Filipovic, issue a caution for Things Fall Apart to circumvent potential psychological distress: “It may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more”. One wonders how anyone who has experienced suicide is in a state to be triggered by anything. Leaving that aside for the moment, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, we might recall, is a denunciation of racism, colonialism, religious persecution and violence. We might also remind ourselves that it is, well, a novel.
As Roger Sandall wrote: “Cultures are good: civilisation is bad. Those six words tell you all you need to know about the moral judgement we have inherited from Herder and Rousseau.” Today the “heavily didactic semi-fiction” of Margaret Mead-style anthropology typifies Postcolonial Studies, Education Studies, Peace Studies, Queer Studies, Islamic Studies, Community Care Studies, Indigenous Studies, Gender Studies, and so on ad infinitum. And when students find themselves exhausted from paddling about the shallow end of the intellectual swimming pool they can always relax in the sanctuary of their “gay safe space” or “Islamic safe space”. Literally and metaphorically our institutions of higher learning continue to murder Western civilisation and increasingly they are a microcosm of broader society.
The perpetuation of tribalisation in Australia will lead to a backlash. On university campuses there is already talk, some of it exaggerated perhaps, of the “white safe space”. But there is nothing apocryphal about Reclaim Australia rallies or the populist far-Right United Patriots Front, let alone the Australian Liberty Alliance and its plan to win 20 per cent of the vote in the next federal election. Diaa Mohamed, purportedly in response to the rise of anti-Islam parties, has founded the Australian Muslim Party with the intention of winning a New South Wales Senate seat in 2016 built on Muslim voters in western Sydney. To do so, however, Mohamed will have to overcome the identity politics of the Labor Party, which has its sights set on co-opting those very same voters. I am hoping the Muslims of western Sydney will, as a contrarian such as Dr Tanveer would doubtless advocate, snub both the Labor Party and the Muslim Party.
The French Republic and a dozen other European nations have already charted the sectarian path we are heading down. Back in January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher Delicatessen murders, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, threatened to sue any media outlet that claimed there were “no-go” zones (zones urbaines sensitives) in the City of Love: “The image of Paris has been prejudiced and the honour of Paris has been prejudiced.” In reality there are hundreds of neighbourhoods in Paris and beyond in which the writ of the French Republic no longer runs. Emmanuel Todd’s Who is Charlie? (2015) is an exasperating read, not the least reason being that it blames the two Salafi jihadist massacres that took place in January 2015 on the bigotry of the French themselves. Yet Todd, who is an historian and sociologist at the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris, is an old-school proletarian leftist rather than a bohemian-style socialist, and so he recognises there is only one alternative to civil war in the Republic: consummation of the venerable French revolutionary project of systematic and comprehensive assimilation.
Polyculturalism, as Emmanuel Todd insists, is a crock. The theme of Western civilisation—which is a high point in the upswing of civilisation in general, Walt Disney’s Pocahontas (I and II) notwithstanding—denotes the deliverance of the individual from tribal or feudal subjugation. In the West, at least, I am still free, whatever my ethnicity, class, religious inclination, gender (or transgender) and so on, to settle with humanity and the world as I find it. I am free to enjoy and explore the universe as far as I am humanly able. I do not have to blow up the Buddhas of Bamiyan to accommodate the lunacy of my millennialist madness. I do not have to believe that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. I do not have to spend my university years in a “safe space”.
On Christmas Day in 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved. You could argue that the Cold War (or the Third World War) had concluded at the 1987 Reagan–Gorbachev Washington summit with the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But that would be quibbling. The Fourth World War or the War of Freedom or whatever you want to call it officially commenced on September 11, 2001, when Salafi jihadists struck New York’s Twin Towers. The (allegorically speaking) Powhatan tribe, presently enduring a bout of violent apocalyptic psychosis, has been at war with us ever since—downright confusing considering we are all Powhatans now.
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au.