Duncan Smith writes on his website that we are living in turbulent times, which is bad for society but good for a novelist because conflict is the key to drama. That is not all that a good novel needs, though. While his book, Conquest by Concept: a novel about the culture war, presents the opposing views in what is described as the “culture war” over contemporary identity politics, it is a novel only in name, as the story is a unilineal tracing via argumentative dialogue of the intellectual development of the two main characters, from credulous accepters of woke prejudices to an awakening of their capacity to see left-wing jingoism for what Smith sees it as: a Marxist assault on Western civilisation by means of the Trojan horse of “justice” and “equality” penetrating our institutions to inflict revenge on the patriarchal, white, largely male, imperialism of both the past and present.
“My books don’t fit neatly into one genre,” says Smith on his Goodreads page, and the novel structure here is used as a hook on which to hang what might easily have been a set of political essays. There is not much in the way of plot, compelling characters or dramatic story telling, but the reader will find summarised through the dialogue most of the arguments one needs against the smelly little orthodoxies of our time.
This review appears in the current Quadrant.
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The protagonist who narrates in the first person is John Gilbert, a trainee teacher taking his final practical qualifications in a Sydney state school, Plumston Park High. He is in love with his girlfriend, Angie Gardiner, an ESL teacher and arts law student, and daughter of University of Sydney academic (Frank) and a successful lawyer (Norma), who live wokely and smugly in a large house in Stanmore. Angie is a zealot for the wokery of her class and age group, and a member of Antifa, the anti-fascist protest group. Gilbert is an average, weak-willed guy, a thirty-five-year-old failed actor who has no real commitment to wokery but wants to stay on the right side of his attractive girlfriend and her parents. He is roped into attending an Antifa demonstration against a “Nazi rally” by American YouTube stars Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern at the Darling Harbour Convention Centre. He wimps out of shouting anti-fascist slogans for the purpose of causing disruption inside the lecture hall, but is surprised upon leaving to be assaulted by the very Antifa protesters he was supposed to be helping when they attack an isolated group of attendees in a back laneway.
Gilbert wakes up in a strange flat in the company of two “fascists”, Davo and the mysterious deus ex machina of the book, Edward Hall, who have saved him from the Antifa thugs. Hall, whose age and occupation are never revealed, subjects Gilbert to a searching interrogation as to the basis of his beliefs and their motivations and embarks on a detailed critique of woke politics as applied to multiculturalism, feminism, racism, refugees, globalism, the rise of right-wing extremism, diversity and inclusion policies, men’s rights, decolonisation and the settlement of Australia.
Interspersed between Hall’s speeches deconstructing woke politics are several set pieces which provide further grist to Hall’s mill. Gilbert’s attempt to explain to Angie the hypocrisy of celebrity refugee advocacy leads to Angie installing in her rental house a Chilean “refugee” from her ESL class, Mateo, who soon turns up with a wife and child and fails to pay the rent. Gilbert goes to the Marlborough Hotel in Newtown with Angie and her even more committed and humourless friend, Nina.
“People lie,” Nina said grimly. “They say the right thing to the pollsters, but when no one’s watching, they’ll vote for the white supremacist every time.”
Angie took a sip of beer.
“It’s not fair people are allowed to vote in private,” she grumbled. “Everyone should vote online on a public website, so we can all see it. Then we’ll know who’s voting for fascism so we can kick their arses.”
“I know babe,” said Nina, squeezing Angie’s hand. “Then anyone who voted Trump could be kicked out of uni or have their workplace boycotted. Fascists don’t deserve the right to vote.”
Nina causes a fight with some young guys in the pub because she mistakenly thinks one is wearing a Make America Great Again cap. Later Hall and Gilbert engage in baiting some woke twitterati online.
Hall’s theories are at times somewhat jejune. His attack on multiculturalism is ahistorical and one-dimensional:
This is the work of leftist ideologues, whose brilliant plan in a mixed race society is to make everyone totally obsessed with race. This includes banging on endlessly about diversity quotas. Then, having put a large number of incompatible groups together to compete for the same resources, they act amazed if there are any social problems.
This argument ignores the fact of the enormously successful post-war immigration of people from Europe and other continents and their successful integration into the victor societies, one of the great achievements of both the United States and Australia. He also repeats several times a Darwinian “truth” that each tribe, each racial type, inevitably advances its own interests, as a fixed value in itself, without the important qualification that the essence of Western civilisation is its ability to teach restraint of such raw impulses. Some of the monologues by Hall reflect generational inexperience of historical context and religious belief. Indeed, there is little discussion of religion in the book. Hall also does not make any great distinction between the racial problems which America created for itself through slavery and which it has never properly solved and the quite different Australian situation.
Hall, Angie and Gilbert attend a Whiteness Studies workshop by Helda McGovern, another American activist academic, at Sydney University, with her Five Point Plan for Ending Whiteness. Gilbert and Angie have dinner with her parents, who make them watch a documentary film on the refugee crisis called Human Flow. Gilbert is increasingly appalled at the conformism of the teachers and their lessons at his high school, including his mentor in the classroom, Ms “Beck” Irvine, whom he stalks and trades abuse with under a pseudonym on Twitter. Gilbert attempts to introduce some balance into his class prac discussion on equality, but is suspended by the authorities. Angie posts a song she has written called “Easy With a Peeny” but is mercilessly trolled on social media, and is sacked from her teaching job, because she makes an indirect reference to a John Lennon song of 1972 which used the N-word “rhyming with bigger”. This shocking experience leads her to take instruction from Hall.
These situations create some interesting and entertaining scenes and some good lines, which leads this reviewer to wonder whether a less didactic, more subtle and more amusing book might have been possible if Smith had more imaginative skill: “‘If POC [people of colour] live in the West,’ said Hall, ‘they’re victims of systemic racism, and if they don’t, they want to emigrate here as fast as possible to get their share of it.’”
Helda McGovern introduces a Muslim woman:
“Before I hand over to Yasmin, I just want to check in with her for feedback. I’ve already admitted I am racist—all white people are—but at least I’m trying to get over it. So I want Yasmin to give me some honest criticism. I’m going to ask her directly—Yasmin—have I done anything racist to you today. Or this week?”
“Yes you have, Helda.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry. Please give me some feedback so I can learn from it.”
Gilbert observes at his school:
The different way boys and girls were treated was comically shown by the workshops put on in my second week at Plumston Park. The girls’ workshop was about leadership, while the boys’ workshop was on “Remaking Masculinity”. It turned out the workshop was not about celebrating masculinity, but treating it as some kind of mental disorder to be cured or controlled.
Craig Cookton, the workshop presenter, gets onto a sticky wicket:
A confident hand went up from a boy in my Year Ten class.
“Looking, sir? Looking at girls?”
Craig turned to face him.
“Correct. When you look at girls, you objectify them. Looking at girls is pretty uncool. In fact, it’s harassment, and you know what boys? You can get in a lot of trouble for it these days.”
Tim raised his hand again.
“What if a girl talks to us, sir? Can we look at them then?”
“Yes, but only in the face. Understand? There’s different kinds of looking. When you look into a girl’s face, you can see her personality. Certain other parts of the body are off limits. I guess you know what I’m talking about, right?”
“What about her arms, sir?”
“Arms are OK, but no lower. Definitely not the legs. You can’t see a girl’s personality in her legs, can you?”
Cookton’s leaving message is: “Boys will be boys? No. Boys will be girls.” And Hall’s is: “Wars are fought in the mind as well as on the battlefield. It’s conquest by concept—with an emphasis on the con.”
Gilbert’s ruminations on his ambitions and motivations make for some potentially interesting observation about the psychological needs behind conformism. As a general proposition, human beings, even the best-educated ones, tend to prefer to take the line of least resistance when it comes to politics or anything that might expose them to disapproval or hostility, and not many people see a profit in working out complicated ideas for themselves and expressing their own views.
In today’s society, one is expected to wear one’s heart upon one’s sleeve about almost everything, and it is not surprising that most people prefer just to go along. The concept of politics, sex or religion being a private matter for one’s own conscience has been jettisoned. And, in fact, the more remunerated and prestigious a professional or business person is, the more they have to lose from such disapproval, which goes at least some way to explaining why the “elite” persons in our society, the university-educated, neo-technologico-Benthamite, opinion-disseminating class, are now the most hard-boiled conformists. Gilbert has a moment of reflection:
Even so, I was basking in a warm glow that came from the affluence of the house, my acceptance by Angie’s parents, the wine we’d drunk at dinner, and the presence of Angie herself. There was another factor—the Gardiners’ unquestioned sense of moral rightness and the peace of mind it brought. It was in the very air they breathed. The Gardiners had no doubt they were on Team Good. After the moral ambiguity of Hall’s ideas, the sense of assurance came as a comfort.
Every day in Australia, people in high office are forced to make similar calculations. Dostoevsky would have pursued this very human frailty to its bitter end. Smith does not take the opportunity, for example, to explore the effect on Angie’s father of her disastrous fall from grace, and its personal consequences for him in the university. Perhaps more exposure of the innermost drivers of woke thought-adoption would do more to cause self-reflection and promote tolerance for freedom of speech and ideas than any amount of Edward Hall-style haranguing. The intellectual arguments against woke prognostications are relatively easy, but no one on the other side is listening. It is not about logic any more.
A common complaint is that in the culture wars the two sides display a lack of mutual respect. This problem can, at one level, be simply explained as a failure of manners. No serious commentator now mentions manners because they are associated with class and snobbery, but one should look past these superficial aspects, because an important structural role of manners was the affording to others of a certain respect, including recognition of their autonomous and private selves. If you want to locate the most poisonous effects of cultural Marxism it is in the eradication of any notion of the autonomous self and private conscience, and the persuasion of otherwise reasonably intelligent people that no one, including themselves, is allowed to have such indulgences. It is not the business of catching souls, it is the business of denying they exist, which is why Marx sought to discredit religion as a mere drug. Identity politics is intended to get rid of personal identity and to define people forever by one trait, such as sexual preference, skewering them like butterflies in a Linnaean taxonomy, each new classification more artificial than the last. It is amazing what people will give themselves over to in order to avoid the rigours and responsibility of personal examination.
Given this failure of manners, as I have described it, is it any wonder that our already fragile civic life is often reduced to the standards of the kindergarten, peopled by a race of chadults? The psychology of conformism is where the real front line lies, not in the media slanging-matches or the tawdry political back-biting, and, as we sit in the trenches, absorbed by these diversions, the mines have already been dug and the charges are being laid. A serious effort of counter-mining is required, and Duncan Smith, to his credit, has stuck his shovel in the soil. More please.
Conquest by Concept: a novel about the culture war
by Duncan Smith
Alfadex Books, 2020, 316 pages, $27.45
Matthew White SC is a Sydney barrister