05 April 2008

Kulturkrieg under Kevin07

This is the best article yet in The Australian on the lame local cover-versions of the "culture wars". This isn't saying much, as The Australian has rendered itself irrelevant within the national debate with its insistence that "culture wars" matter, and that the witterings of Sheridan and Albrechtsen, Adams and Manne et al, are in some way linked to issues of importance to the lives of Australians and the communities in which they live. The Australian had to run the piece again, in its main news section with a slightly punchier headline, hoping to rouse people to Kulturkreig (and, as it turns out, the responses to the dumbed-down shorter version are not exactly at talkback-radio levels of quantity).

The authors of Dear Mr Rudd are entitled to their opinions. They are entitled to compile them into a book. Rudd's expression in the photo on the front of the book shows a man trying to look interested while at the same time trying to stifle yawns and/or annoyance.

In his review of the book, Megalogenis fails to make the case that Robert Manne and other authors of Dear Mr Rudd are imposing some sort of agenda upon Rudd.
Rudd may be the second leader to win on the other bloke's turf, but he is the first to be greeted with a book advising him how to govern

There was a plethora of books on the Liberal Party and what it should/shouldn't do during its period in Opposition 1983-96. Manne is seeking to play a role similar to that played by Gerard Henderson in the mid-90s. Before that, there was a swag of Labor Essays saying what should happen post-Fraser - many of them written by future ministers in the Hawke/Keating government - with patchy records of implementation.
This is the third in a series of quickie compilations to spring from Manne's pet complaint: that his academic voice wasn't being taken seriously enough while the conservatives ruled in Canberra.

Playing the man rather than the ball, George? Is it possible that Manne's objections to the operation of the Howard government wasn't just a hissy fit? How does this square with Megalogenis' blog comment: "One of things [sic] I don't like about the culture warriors is they make it personal. They need each other to keep their columns ticking over".
"Dear Mr Rudd," [Manne] writes, "hopes to help resume the public conversation between public intellectuals and government, which broke down so badly during the Howard years." The problem with this construct is it repeats the folly of the Right in demanding that only fellow travellers get to talk directly to the government of the day. What partially redeems the book is that many of the contributors are experts in their field, and have less interest in the culture wars than does Manne.

No, it doesn't. Manne complains that Howard simply stopped listening to public academics altogether, and is not talking about any sort of exclusivity. It would be extraordinary if Rudd stopped dealing with everyone on the right of Australian politics; even more so if Manne also called on Rudd to do this, and totally beyond the realms of possibility for Rudd to do so at Manne's behest.
The rush to publish while the Government was still in its infancy may explain why some chapters read like early drafts of ideas that may become bigger with time or which may change with experience.

You gotta get in for your chop, I suppose. Being ignored for so long should mean that ideas are better developed, but the collapse of the Howard government did come in something of a rush. Imagine pitching this book eighteen months ago, the assumption that the Howard government was a goner and that Rudd the next PM would be risible.
At the risk of stooping to the level of culture warrior by broad-brushing an entire subgroup of the community, it must be said that the chest-beaters on the Left and Right of our national discourse are surprisingly naive in the ways of politics. They think governments run nations when, in fact, they manage them as best they can. They mistake the limits of power for cowardice and think the exercise of policy reform is an exact science.

This isn't a comment against individuals, but against a style of writing that assumes only one version of Australia, be it Left or Right, is the true expression of national identity.

I basically agree with all of that, but am not sure how it fits with the book under review.
This level of complexity escapes the cultural warriors because they need caricatures of good and evil. But the pots and the kettles create a din that most Australians, the subject matter of the debate, close their ears to. There is, I think, a message here. If you can't capture the attention of the disengaged, what hope of writing the definitive text of national identity?

The complexity and absence of easy answers would seem to be the point of intelligent, earnest hand-wringing of Manne and others in recent debates, and it would appear this carries through into the book. On Aborigines, policies of segregation and control have demonstrably failed but so have policies of abandonment and permissiveness. On the head of state question, Howard has undermined the fragile construct underpinning the office of Governor-General but the best hope for a republic is not only buried but still reeks of piss.
I suspect the so-called culture wars drew much of their venom from the manner of Howard's ascension. He went into the 1996 election offering bipartisanship on native title, immigration, even a process for testing public support for a republic. Yet he governed from an alternate manual ... In reply, Howard's supporters in the media and in the think tanks celebrated each election as a triumph of everyday Australia against the elites, as if the the ballot paper asked each voter to tick the box marked Them or Us.

Howard's defeat last November of his government and also as the member for Bennelong should have been the cue to wind up the culture wars. But Manne, in his introduction, can't quite break the habit of the past 12 years.

All the culture warriors seem a little lost at the moment. You'd think this would make them a little less bellicose, a little more willing to sit back, watch and reflect. Janet Albrechtsen's squeals that Rudd's moderation is some sort of vindication of Howard is starting to look funny considering her missive that it was time for him to go last year, more so since the apology to the Stolen Generation.
Dear Mr Rudd is a love letter, of course. Yet in places it carries the same tinge of belittlement that those on the Right directed at Howard after the 1996 election

Which places, George? Get down off your high horse and read the book!
Australians are interested in politics again, but not as a morality play.

This doesn't explain why binge drinking is such an issue. What people have tired of is bellicose certainty about things which are doubtful (e.g. the war in Iraq, how to make houses affordable). So far, Rudd has rescued the country from this boofhead ignorance without becoming weak and directionless. The Dear Mr Rudd people seem to be feeling their way through a number of issues that are important to Australian society, yet which have long been ignored by its government. Rather than a "love letter", would it be more appropriate to be a collection of hopes projected onto someone who may give them a hearing?
Rudd has fed the doubt about the meaning of his mandate, perhaps unwittingly, by calling the Australia 2020 Summit, to be held in Melbourne later this month. The future game is fraught for the obvious reason that we can't predict the international forces beyond our small Australian hands, or local shocks to the body politic such as the Port Arthur massacre. This isn't meant as a dig at the Ruddfest.

Calling it "the Ruddfest" is definitely a dig, George. It's true that predicting the future is fraught - nobody in 1908 was predicting the First World War - but is that what Dear Mr Rudd is seeking to do?
The most interesting chapter is Marcia Langton's on indigenous affairs, which is inexplicably shunted to the back of the book alongside other female writers.

Now there's a sly dig.
... the test for Rudd, and for all those who write about his Government, is: "Show us your evidence."

The same could apply to book reviewers. It's too much to expect writers to have extensive experience of the Rudd Government at this point. On the other hand, it ought not be too much to expect for a book reviewer to read the book under review rather than use it as a riff into a "war" which, he claims, bores him. The whole "culture war" thing is a far-left construct, part of the baggage that refugees from Stalinism bring with them in their long march through conservatism. I had expected better of Megalogenis than this.

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