Perhaps two things about the contemporary culture wars stand out over and above all else for today’s conservatives. One is the sheer vitriol and uncivilised attitudes of the post-modernist cultural Left, the self-styled “progressives”, and the seeming absence even of the possibility of civil debate. This despite the fact that the Left has achieved almost complete occupation of the commanding heights of Western institutions. For all intents and purposes, they have won!
The second thing that stands out is the sheer reach of the cultural Left, the truly bizarre areas it has colonised and the zany ideas they come up with: Thirty-six genders. Men “marrying” men. Humans pulling policy levers to change the global climate. Banning Shakespeare from the classroom because he was a “whitesplainer”. The battle of the bathrooms. World government.
These campaigns indicate the massive extent and reach of the colonisation by the cultural Left into every last corner of society. Also, the astonishing distance the Left has moved from supporting the rights of the poor and disadvantaged, a cause for which many cultural conservatives could indeed have sympathy.
What sense can be made of these two phenomena? Why on earth cannot people of divergent world views at least debate one another, in the academy, in the halls of power and in the streets, civilly and with room for the acceptance of, if not some of the other side’s key points, then at least of its good will?
Two important recent contributions, from very different sources, remind us of the depth and breadth of our current difficulties, and of the essentially defensive position of conservatives in these existential battles of ideas.
John Carroll in The Australian has reminded us eloquently of the reach of the cultural left’s game plan, with its attempts to heave Shakespeare out of the curriculum once and for all. This, Carroll describes as “cultural masochism”, naturally given a full airing at the ABC’s Q&A program. Carroll ranges widely over the familiar territory of the university culture wars.
What started in the universities has percolated down through schools, and spread even more widely through green-left political culture, if usually in more mellow tones. Generations of students in schools and universities have been subjected to Marxist ideology, taught about the West’s capitalist exploitation of other people, of its own minorities and of the disadvantaged in general. That the West is evil has become the default reading for much of the tertiary-educated upper-middle class.
Over at The Catholic Thing, David Carlin argues that we are in the middle of a clash of worldviews:
For the last week or two, following the bombs in the mail and the mass murder at the Pittsburgh synagogue, the air has been filled with prominent voices, both liberal and conservative, calling for a restoration of national unity.
When former vice-president Joe Biden, a very prominent liberal, added his voice to those deploring division and calling for unity, I said to myself, “Oh good! Oh wonderful! This means that liberals like Biden will stop calling me (a cultural conservative) a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe, and a transphobe.”
But, of course, Biden’s call for national unity doesn’t mean any such thing. It means, “We can have unity in America if only moral dinosaurs like Dave Carlin will get with the program; if only they’ll renounce their hatred and try to get on the right side of history.”
Carlin’s key take away point is that there is no consensus and there is no consensus possible in the large, roiling debates of today’s polity, because one side wants total victory. And this is very clear to the modern conservative.
There seems little doubt that the overall remaining aim of the modern, progressive Left is thought control and the creation of a global ministry of truth, if you will. Total control in all areas of life, with no way back from the achievement of all the key points of the progressive wish list. It is as if George Orwell, who thought he was writing a warning note to the future, ended up actually writing a primer for the bad guys.
Rufus Black, the the University of Tasmania’s polymath Vice-Chancellor – now there is a phrase you don’t see very often – pinpointed in a recent exhilarating address to the Christopher Dawson Centre in Hobart the origins of the modern philosophical malaise, the place and time when the key fissure occurred. He actually identified figures from the medieval world, William of Occam and Duns Scotus, as the authors of what has become the key underpinning doctrine of the modern Left. (Not that any of the functionally illiterate modern leftist academics or agitators would have heard of them or would be able to guess at their significance for their own beliefs). These two, essentially “nominalist”, monks believed that there were no “universals”, only the phenomena we come up with in our own heads. Rough modern relativist translation: there is only your truth and my truth. This is the get-out-of-gaol-free card for any argument that is going pear-shaped.
A dictionary definition of nominalism reads:
… the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality. Only particular objects exist, and properties, numbers, and sets are merely features of the way of considering the things that exist. Important in medieval scholastic thought, nominalism is associated particularly with William of Occam.
The great American southern conservative Richard Weaver came to the same conclusion in the mid-twentieth century, named the same culprits and found the same sources.
Once this mode of thought becomes the basic operating system for argument and debate, in effect all bets are off. If there is no “truth”, if every question can be reduced to “that is only your opinion”, then those who are determined to have their views prevail in every area of modern life, both in the public and now the private spheres, have weapons of philosophical mass destruction at their disposal.
This provides a massive leg-up to the Left. Not only do they have positions and arguments about just about everything, they also get to set the rules of debate for those arguments. And many of the things over which we are now forced to argue are themselves profoundly affected by the new rules of debate. Indeed, the core values of the West – in effect the West’s achievements – such as the rule of law, democracy, the global spread of civilising culture, science and technology, individual freedom from oppression, a literary canon, and so on, are themselves now mightily contested in ways that are loaded in favour of the progressive side through the very victory of the cultural relativists in setting new, no-such-thing-as truth rules for the game. For one of the key claims of “the West” is the idea that there is a truth and that truth is discoverable. Yet as James Bowman has noted in The New Criterion, for the new philosophers all “truth” is political and therefore contingent — in order to even be “truth”, it needs “a constituency”. With followers comes power.
If this explains the origins of the post-modernist disease and the way that twenty-first century cultural leftists think, it still leaves for conservatives a basic, gnawing question about what has happened to the world – to the very possibility of civilised debate and to the stomping march of relativist views all over those areas of formerly (before the Sixties) uncontested spaces. I am thinking in particular of literature, art, family and marriage, sexuality, history and the other humanities, the purposes of education, and so on. These now are the battlegrounds where final victory will be achieved, for one side or the other.
The behaviour of the Left, armed with the Rules for Radicals manual of Saul Alinsky and the blueprints of Habermas, the Frankfurt School and the long-marching eurocommunists, is fundamentally about ideology and power — all-consuming ideology and absolute power. Power that earlier despots could only have dreamed about. Power that is now deployed with force that is often subtle, using both state and non-state institutions, to achieve strategic ideological victories and, ultimately, to change society in fundamental ways. Want an example? Look no further than Victoria, where those attending lectures by speakers of whom the Left disapproves must pay the police to protect them from violence and attack.
The question thus becomes: what motivates the progressive Left, ideology or power? Does the question of a distinction matter?
This leads me to a strange amalgam of historical and current figures who differently illustrate the evolution over time of absolute power and the emergence of ideology as an underpinning motivator of power. What on earth connects King Herod, Peter the Great of Russia and Kerryn Phelps AM? Why should we think of them in the same way? Let me try to explain.
King Herod infamously slaughtered all the male babies of Jerusalem and surrounds in order to kill just one child, Jesus Christ. Herod just didn’t want any other kings on the block. Simple. Kill the threat. Sadly for him, the Holy Family had an escape plan. His murderous edict didn’t work. But his use of power was chilling. Yet it wasn’t motivated by ideology, just a will to rule absolutely.
Edward Rutherford, in his 1991 historical novel Russka, explains the policies of the Tsar Peter the Great. One of the things Peter did was to implement a beard tax in 1698 to get faithful Russian orthodox believers to break centuries of tradition so that he could indulge a modernist whim. He had visited Europe and found the widespread practice of men being clean shaven, and thought that emulating the Europeans would advance Russia into the modern world. This was a weird but cruel use of the state to change the behaviour of private citizens, impacting their rights to practice their religion. If only he had had modern weapons like social media to effect his plans!
He declared that all the men in Russia had to lose their beards—a massively unpopular policy with many, including the Russian Orthodox church, which said going around sans facial hair was blasphemous.
The Smithsonian article concludes that, despite the quirkiness of Peter’s tax, “he did change Russia forever”. His attitude to the sincerely held views of faithful Russians was so what? This was power used to achieve state purposes, in this case international competitiveness.
Fast forward to the recent Wentworth by-election. The eventual winner, lesbetarian activist Kerryn Phelps AM, decided that her first priority – yes, it was at the top of her list – was to have the Margaret Court Arena tennis stadium renamed. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite will recall that Ms Court, an Australian tennis legend and septuagenarian Christian pastor, famously said she would never again fly Qantas after its homosexual activist CEO outrageously used his company as a gay pulpit and took a strident side in the debate. So gay payback time for Margaret Court, also infamously hounded by the international female tennis gay mafia and its fellow travellers. Phelps is now in the position, given the numbers in the House of Representatives, to indulge in a little log rolling in order to implement her own little attempt to help “change Australia forever”.
Phelps’ play in the culture wars, on the face of it simply weird and of minor consequence, is also quite sinister, quite Orwellian, in the light of the arguments of both John Carroll and David Carlin noted above. Phelps’ attempted push for the un-personing of a delightful human being who happens to support real marriage is redolent of the earlier examples of the use of naked power, in this case to use the state to move society closer to her homosexualist vision. The message is clear: Don’t you dare mess with us! Its purpose is all of a piece with the tearing down of statues of the now repugnant figures of history who dared to be on its “wrong” side. Or so it is now deemed by those who now occupy the commanding heights of institutional power. Folks like Captain Cook, Canada’s legendary figure John A Macdonald, Robert E Lee, Cecil Rhodes, and so on. This is right out of Orwell’s classic novel 1984.
Herod’s murderous assault on the innocent, surely one of the most heinous uses of raw power in history, had no discernible ideological content or purpose. Peter the Great’s tax play might seem a very minor matter in view of his country’s many other, more bloody crimes against the Russian people, yet it bespoke an attempt to change its citizens’ behaviour in ways that threatened their freedom of religion, through state power. Phelps’ pursuit, through parliamentary means, of individuals with whom she disagrees is the face of modern ideological power deployed with intent and demonstrates the massive extension of the progressive world view’s reach.
History is replete with crimes against the innocent perpetrated by the state and its rulers. Hundreds more examples could be provided. What has changed in our times of all-but-declared culture war – “the cold civil war” as Angelo Codevilla has termed the current American impasse – is the determination of the progressive forces to win at all costs and using previously unheard of tactics (see under ‘Brett Kavanaugh’; demands that Trump be impeached minus any evidence of wrongdoing, the Deep State’s selective persecution of “troublesome” elements); the massive extension of the reach of leftist ideology into all areas of life; the bizarre new, previously unimagined areas now the subject of public debate (bathrooms, for example); and the weaponisation of everything the Left can get its hands on.
Trumping all, of course, is the cultural Left’s so-far magnificently successful attempt to change the whole set of rules in which debates over public policy are played out. Most sinisterly is the first rule of the dictatorship of relativism – there is no truth, no universals, only what we ourselves make up. Absent truth, one “wins” the spoils of war through raw power. There is no other way to resolve things.
John Carroll sees the attempts to excise Shakespeare and like figures from curricula, the refusal of Sydney University academics to find room for a course on Western civilisation – a course that a mere decade or two ago would have been seen as not remotely controversial – and the broader intrusion of politics into just about every university course, as the actions of the loud few, and all a bit silly. I wish I could be so sanguine. These actions are not isolated, unconnected pieces of leftist whimsy. They are deadly serious, and they aim to win what should be seen, by now as a war.
Like Richard Weaver and Rufus Black, I blame William of Occam and his mates.