Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— WB Yeats. The Second Coming.
In the mid-90s I first warned about the danger of political correctness after attending a conservative think-tank conference in America and buying a copy of The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide. The dictionary signalled the way cultural-left activists were weaponizing language and enforcing groupthink in their long march to overthrow what they condemned as a Eurocentric, patriarchal, capitalist society riven with structural racism, sexism and inequality.
Examples include DWEMs for dead, white, European males; speciesism for killing and eating animals and “womyn” instead of women. At the same time, as had been foretold by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, student radicals were attacking and undermining a liberal view of education associated with what TS Eliot describes as the “the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom”.
Fast forward to more recent times and it’s obvious political correctness has become even more virulent and widespread. As a result of the culture wars and cancel culture Western nations like Australia are facing an existential threat where what should be most acknowledged and valued is either ignored or condemned as obsolete and oppressive.
Proven by the hundreds of academics opposing the establishment of Ramsay Centres for Western civilisation, the Australian national curriculum placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies centre stage or the Safe Schools program advocating gender fluidity to primary school pupils, the reality is the barbarians are no longer at the gates. They have taken the citadel.
Such has been the success of the cultural-left in infecting the academy that the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans in his 1996 ABC Boyer lectures argued,
The main problem is not so much that the University as Western civilisation knew it, is now dead, but that it’s death has hardly registered in the consciousness of the public, and even the majority of academics.
Merv Bendle, formerly an academic at James Cook University and a Quadrant contributor, also decries the destructive impact of cultural-left ideology; an ideology that enforces a “treasonous, self-lacerating, and nihilistic worldview” that is “institutionalized throughout Western academia”.
How has it come to this? The first thing to note, while political correctness and cancel culture are new the reality, as noted by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies, is that totalitarian forms of domination and control are “just as old or just as young as civilisation itself”. Since time immemorial people have been subject to coercion and oppression and the reality is democratic, liberal forms of government, relatively speaking, are a recent historical phenomenon.
It should also be remembered that while billions around the world live under oppressive, dictatorial regimes those fortunate enough to live in the West experience an unheralded degree of liberty and freedom. Even at a time when governments impose draconian, unfair measures as a result of COVID-19 there is still an underlying bedrock of rights and liberties citizens can call on when governments overreach.
When tracing the origins of the culture wars the British conservative politician Michael Gove in Celsius 7/7 identifies the Frankfurt School established in Germany during the 1920s. Gove writes “In the place of traditional social democracy and conventional communism a variety of new trends drove leftist-thinking. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School revived Marxism as primarily a cultural rather than an economic movement”. The Melbourne-based academic Gary Marks in Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March draws the same conclusion when arguing, “The Left’s march through the institutions originated with the Frankfurt School”. In addition to the academics associated with the Frankfurt School being disillusioned with what was occurring in the Soviet Union they also realised classical Marxism would never lead to a revolution in the West.
Among those academics and revolutionary thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School over a number of years are Max Horkhiemer, Theodor Adorno, Eric Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Jürgen Habermas and Herbert Marcuse. In fields as varied as sociology, politics, psychology, education, sexuality and gender studies, literature and mass culture neo-Marxist ideology and its offshoots infiltrated and now dominate universities across Europe, America, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Associated with the Frankfurt School is the emergence of critical theory – an empowering and liberating ideology dedicated to overthrowing Western, capitalist societies. As argued by Wanda Skowronska in a paper titled ‘1960s psychologists: beguiling ideologues and smiling assassins’, “Critical theory did not aim to tear down the economic base of western society… It aimed rather at tearing down the cultural superstructure which supposedly reflected the powerful controllers of the economic system and this would enable the collapse of Western civilisation”.
One example of critical theory, espoused by Wilhelm Reich in his book The Sexual Revolution, is as capitalist societies reproduce themselves by enforcing a moralistic, repressive view of sexuality there must be a sexual revolution if people are to be fully liberated and empowered. As noted by the Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce in his essay ‘The Ascendence of Erotism’, especially targeted as oppressive and outdated is “the traditional monogamous family” and a heterosexual view of sexuality.
Contemporary radical gender and sexuality theory underpinning the Safe Schools program and the same-sex marriage and transgender movements owes much to critical theory and the pioneering work of Reich. It should not surprise one of the designers of the Safe Schools program, Roz Ward, argues it is not an anti-bullying program. Instead, when justifying the program Ward argues “only Marxism provides the theory and practice of genuine human liberation” and “it will only be through a revitalized class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people”.
Marcuse’s argument that in order to win the revolution activists had to ignore free speech, impartiality and tolerance represents a second example of critical theory. A noted by Jennifer Oriel in her chapter in Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March, in his essay ‘Repressive Tolerance’ Marcuse “justified a new form of inequality that would be made manifest by censoring right-of-centre freethinkers”. Examples include no-platforming speakers such as Bettina Arndt and Germaine Greer, the ABC failing to employ conservative voices and ensuring peer reviewed journals and university appointments are only open to the chosen. Oriel goes on to argue
Marcuse argued for a new form of inequality won by censoring dissent. He wrote that a subversive majority could be established by undemocratic means including the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups that dissented from left-wing politics.
Such is the pervasive and dominating influence of political correctness and cancel culture the American non-binary feminist Camille Paglia writes, “We are plunged once again into an ethical chaos where intolerance masquerades as tolerance and where individual liberty is crushed by the tyranny of the group”.
While not involved with the Frankfurt School the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the author of Selections From The Prison Notebooks, is also a significant figure in the culture wars. Gramsci was general-secretary of the Italian Communist Party and imprisoned by Mussolini during the Second World War. Central to Gramsci’s writings is the concept of cultural hegemony. Capitalist societies reproduce themselves by conditioning citizens, even though they are victims of oppression, to believe all is well and they are not disadvantaged. Hence, the cultural-left’s necessity to infiltrate and take control of institutions like schools, universities, the church, media, intermediary organisations and the family.
Similar to cultural hegemony is the French Marxist Louis Althusser’s concept of the ideological state apparatus. Capitalist states maintain control and reproduce themselves by employing violence and physical force, what is termed the repressive state apparatus, and also by ensuring citizens accept as sensible and natural what is inherently unjust and inequitable. Once again, schools and universities are targeted as institutions guilty of enforcing capitalist ideology. A belief in meritocracy, competitive examinations and the traditional academic curriculum is seen as inherently unjust as only already privileged and materially well-off students achieve success. Two American Marxist academics, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, also argue the way schools are structured and how the curriculum is selected ensure “surplus value” is generated for the owners of the modes and means of production. In Schooling in Capitalist America they write education “serves to perpetuate the social, political and economic conditions through which a portion of the product of labor (sic) is expropriated in the form of profits”.
Those committed to a neo-Marxist view of education believe working-class and migrant students living in low socio-economic status (SES) communities are always disadvantaged and in need of positive discrimination. Such explains the Gonski school funding model championed by Julia Gillard when education minister that involves additional billions being wasted in a fruitless attempt to overcome perceived educational disadvantage. Ignored is the research proving the impact of SES on a student’s performance ranges from 10 to 18 per cent and more important factors include student ability and motivation, the quality of the curriculum, teacher expertise and overall classroom and school environment.
In addition to cultural hegemony and the ideological state apparatus those committed to neo-Marxist critical theory also argue citizens who are happy living in Western, capitalist societies like Australia and who fail to demonstrate the required level of radical fervour are victims of false consciousness. Such is the dominance and power of capitalism that people, if they only knew it, have been indoctrinated to accept and even enjoy their situation in life. Women who are happily married and content with their role as wives and mothers are duped by a patriarchal system that denies them true freedom. Similarly, those small business people and entrepreneurs who believe they have the right to enjoy the benefits of hard work and risk- taking are guilty of participating in and endorsing an oppressive and inequitable economic and financial system.
As significant as the Frankfurt School when detailing the origins of PC and cancel culture is the impact of the late 60s and early 70s cultural revolution. A time of Vietnam moratoriums, hippies and the youth counter-culture movement, the music festival Woodstock and student rebellion epitomised by students from the Sorbonne taking to streets in 1968. This was also a time when critical theory morphed into a rainbow alliance of cultural-left ideologies and movements, including postmodernism, deconstructionism and radical feminist, gender, queer and post-colonial theories. While such ideologies and theories are often in disagreement what they have in common is a deep-seated and radical critique of Western civilisation, Judeo-Christianity and capitalism. This period of radical change, as noted by Roger Kimball in The Long March, is best epitomised by the phrase ‘the long march through the institutions’ attributed to the German Marxist Rudi Dutschke. If the revolution was to succeed the cultural-left needed to infiltrate and take control of the organisations and institutions responsible for maintaining and reproducing the capitalist state.
Those committed to postmodernism argue there are no absolute truths or objective reality as how we perceive and understand ourselves and the world in which we live is subjective and relative. Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind describes this as the belief “The critical search for truth is constrained to be tolerant of ambiguity and pluralism, and its outcome will necessarily be knowledge that is relative and fallible rather than absolute or certain”. Radical gender activists deny the inherent biological nature of sexuality and condemn Western societies and the nuclear family as heteronormative, homophobic and transphobic. Post-colonial theorists argue there is nothing inherently worthwhile or beneficial about Western civilisation and that universities must be purged of ‘whiteness’ and ‘Eurocentric supremacy’. Academics at the University of Sheffield goes as far as telling students European science identified with the Enlightenment is guilty of being “inherently white” and a “fundamental contributor to European imperialism and a major beneficiary of its injustices”.
Schools are a primary focus of cultural-left activists and fellow travellers in the fight to reshape society in their utopian image and the revised Australian national curriculum released earlier this year illustrates how successful they have been. The curriculum adopts what Geoffrey Blainey describes as a black-armband view of Australian history where the arrival of the First Fleet is described as an invasion leading to genocide. Students at Year 9 are told to analyse the “impact of invasion, colonisation and dispossession of lands by Europeans on the First Nations Peoples of Australia such as frontier warfare, genocide, removal from land, relocation to ‘protectorates’, reserves and missions”. The body responsible also prioritises Aboriginal history, culture and spirituality over the significance and debt owed to Judeo-Christianity and describes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social organisation systems, protocols, kinship structures, economies and enterprises as “sophisticated”. The curriculum writers go as far as arguing schools should teach Aboriginal algebra and science. No doubt Bruce Pascoe’s Black Emu will be set for compulsory study.
When mandating what schools should teach the Civics and Citizenship curriculum also reveals evidence of cultural-left thinking by adopting a postmodern, subjective view of citizenship. Students are told Australia is a “multicultural, multi-faith society” where “citizens’ identity transcends geography or political borders and people have the right and responsibilities at the global level”. Diversity and difference reign supreme and instead of valuing what makes Australia unique students are presented with a subjective view of citizenship, one where “A person’s sense of who they are, and conception and expression of their individuality or association with a group culture or to a state or nation, a region or the world regardless of one’s citizenship status” takes priority. So much for nation building at a time totalitarian China is seeking domination and control over the South China sea.
The national curriculum is only one example of how successful the cultural-left has been in its long march through the education system. Whether redefining the purpose of education, the relationship between schools and society more broadly or transforming teacher training and what happens in the classroom education has been radically overhauled. As argued by one-time Victorian education minister and premier Joan Kirner at a Fabian Society meeting in Melbourne in 1985, activists argue education has to be reshaped as “part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system”.
The teacher training textbook Making the Difference published in 1982 also argues schools must become centres for political activism. Australian society is described as “disfigured by class exploitation, sexual and racial oppression, and in chronic danger of war and environmental destruction”. The authors argue “conservative hegemony” is the target and “the only education worth the name is one that forms people capable of taking part in their own liberation”. Such is the all-important and strategic nature of the battle the authors write “Teachers too have to decide whose side they are on”.
The concept of a liberal education involving what Mathew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy describes as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world” gives way to cultural-left ideology, language control and group think.
Teacher professional bodies and associations including the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA), the Australian Education Union (AEU), the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) are also committed to schools and the curriculum being used as vehicles to overthrow the status quo.
The Australian Education Union argues Australian society is riven with inequality and disadvantage and that the education system needs a radical overhaul. The teacher union argues Catholic and independent schools should not be funded by governments, it is wrong to compare and rank students in terms of academic performance and the curriculum must prioritise man-made global warming, LGBTIQ+ and peace studies, multiculturalism and Aboriginal history, culture and spirituality. Not surprisingly, the AEU’s 2003 ‘Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender People’ states “Homophobia and Heterosexism must be included in the content of pre-service training for all teachers”.
In relation to the curriculum an argument is also put “Homosexuality and bisexuality need to be normalised and materials need to be developed which will help combat homophobia”. In relation to controversial issues like Australia’s involvement in the Iraqi war and global warming, instead of teachers being impartial and disinterested, the union argues teachers should encourage students to become “agents of change” and “take direct action”.
Since the mid-to-late 60s academics responsible for teacher training and professional associations including the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) have also been instrumental in championing cultural-left ideology. In its publication Going Public ACSA argues schools must embrace “social democratic values” on the basis society is characterised by “deep-seated prejudices, hatreds and fears that obviously lurk beneath the cosmopolitan veneer of Australian society”.
One chapter, instead of agreeing there is a literacy crisis and detailing what must be done to raise standards, argues media reports are “alarmist and negative” and that governments magnify concerns about literacy standards as a smokescreen to “deflect attention away from material problems such as youth poverty and unemployment”. The chapter concludes by arguing for a new and radical definition of literacy on the basis “what is required in this postmodern, postcolonial globalised context is not a ‘dumbing down’ of the construction of literacy, but an enhancement and rethinking of its very construction”.
Underpinning a cultural-left approach to education is the belief knowledge is a social construct employed by those in control to enforce their dominance. The ‘ACSA Policy Statement’ published in 1996 describes the curriculum as “a social, historical and material construction which typically serves the interest of particular groups at the expense of others”. Teachers are urged to identify and critique “the ideology embedded in all curriculum practice, discourse and organisation” and to “act locally, think globally” as well as endorsing “sustainable global citizenship”.
The AATE is yet another professional body steeped in cultural-left ideology. Associated with the concept of critical theory is an approach to teaching English that champions critical literacy. Drawing on the work of the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire, who’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed was widely set for teacher training courses during the 70s and 80s, the argument is learning to read and write is an intensely political act. Freire, drawing on Marx, Gramsci and Hegel, argues students must be empowered to perceive themselves in “dialectical relationship with their social reality (and) to assume an increasingly critical attitude toward the world and so to transform it”. The AATE has long championed critical literacy arguing the focus of the subject must be on teaching students to deconstruct and critique language and literature (now known as texts) in terms of power relationships involving gender, ethnicity, race and class.
Proven by the way senior school English courses are developed and taught it’s clear critical literacy is the new orthodoxy. A Western Australia senior school English course argues “The concept of the literary is socially and historically constructed, rather than objective or self-evident. Constructions of the literary are embedded in social contexts, reflecting particular knowledge, values, assumptions and power relationships”. So much for the enduring moral and aesthetic value of good literature and the belief worthwhile literature has something enduring and profound to say about human nature and what DH Lawrence describes as “the relation between man and his circumambient universe at the living moment”.
Children’s fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are criticised for favouring heterosexual love, classic novels like Moby Dick for killing whales and To Kill a Mockingbird for being written by a white women. Not to be outdone, according to a Queensland senior school course, students are asked to deconstruct Macbeth as an example of “patriarchal concerns with order and gender” and to undertake “an eco-critical reading of a selection of the poetry of either Wordsworth or Les Murray”. In an issue of the AATE’s journal titled Love in English the argument is put the literary works chosen for years 11 and 12 are guilty of prioritising “heterosexual and cisgender identities as the norms against which to define the other”. The solution is for English teachers to embrace a “queer-inclusive curriculum, one that celebrates “diverse sexualities”. The AATE also tells teachers they should stop teaching pronouns like ‘she’ and ‘he’ in the classroom and instead ensure “Their, they, them are used as alternatives to gendered pronouns”.
In ‘The Second Coming’ WB Yeats writes “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity”. While such a description aptly describes what is a bleak and depressing situation there are positive signs not all is lost. Such is the destructive and unjust nature of cancel culture increasing numbers of those identified as centre-left are going public in their condemnation. The journalist Bari Weiss resigned from the New York Times arguing the paper failed to uphold the values of independent journalism, 152 writers and academics, many considered progressive, signed an open letter arguing cancel culture was enforcing “ideological conformity” and feminists including Germaine Greer oppose radical gender theory arguing men cannot be women. President Obama has also criticised political correctness for often being too “judgemental” and cautioned activists for “throwing stones” instead of engaging in constructive activism.
The popularity of the Canadian based academic Jordan Peterson, whose YouTube videos have millions of hits, the work of British academics including the Douglas Murray and late Roger Scruton and popularity of Greg Sheridan’s books on Christianity also suggest opposition to cancel culture is alive and well. Based on the ABC’s Australia Talks 2019 survey 68% of those surveyed agreed “Political correctness has gone too far in Australia” and one of the factors explaining Scott Morrison’s electoral success in 2019 was because many voters preferred a conservative agenda to Bill Shorten’s centre-left policies on climate change, freedom of speech and LGBTIQ+ policies. The growth of Sydney’s Campion Liberal/Arts College and the work of centre-right think-tanks like the IPA and the Sydney Institute also suggest the battle of ideas is not yet over.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Melbourne-based conservative author and commentator. His website is kevindonnelly.com.au and he is the editor of Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March