Federal election 2010: The ghost of culture wars past

Gary Sauer-Thompson at Public Opinion has skewered David Burchell’s latest op/ed, which includes a typification of two different types of voters:

In the outer-urban and provincial Australia in which I live, there are hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of people whose tenor of life has not altered to any remarkable degree since their parents’ days. They treasure their ageing V8 utes and winter dinners of fibrous roast beef served with Yorkshire pudding. They know in their hearts that Australia is God’s own country, even if they’ve never left its shores. They still fondly imagine a trade apprenticeship to be a passport to a solid 50 years of the good life, in a cosy life-niche. And they nurture the comfortable conviction that just about everybody else in the country – aside from a few mildly amusing egg-heads who drive through their towns in Audis, Saabs and Subarus – feels more or less the same.

Contrariwise, in the bustling, cosmopolitan and yet still strangely lonely and characterless neighbourhoods of our inner cities, there are tens of thousands of earnest, highly strung folks whose work-lives are their avocation; whose “politics” stem from the innermost sanctum of their souls; and for whom the private economy is not the engine of prosperity, but a moral abomination on the scale of the slave trade.

In between sits ‘Middle Australia’:

Rather, they’re in that vast, uncharted space between these extremes, a space suffused with vaguely nostalgic images of a kinder, simpler nation from a lost era, as well as with the sundry appurtenances of our imagined future – obscure Asian condiments in the kitchen, snatches of modernist decor, a TV the size of a ping-pong table that transmits the world news 24/7. In many respects, indeed, they hanker most of all to be told that these two aspects of our imagination are compatible – that we can remain tied to kith and kin, and to many of the values of our parents and ancestors, all the while cleaving to the promise of a new world that feeds on personal re-invention, endless self-adaption, and only half-glimpsed opportunities.

What’s of interest here is twofold.

First, although both portraits are caricatures, I have a sneaky feeling that they’re caricatures in the minds of politicians, press gallery aficionados, and political strategists, as well as a projection in the mind of the weary Foucauldian urbanite. In truth, neither the suburban nostalgists or the cosmopolitan liberals, to the extent that there are real sociological types corresponding to these pen portraits, think all that much more than anyone else about politics.

The missing element, the third term, in the culture wars dichotomy, is voter disinterest. Yet politicians have to assume that voters are reachable, and classifiable. And the act of naming informs political strategy. It’s only one set of possible cleavages one could imagine, and that accounts for why some issues are given much more prominence than they should be.

Secondly, though, and as Sauer-Thompson observes, this is to his credit, Burchell has put his finger on something sociologically valid. We can’t have a “little Australia” and have a globalised economy, in the manner in which a globalised economy currently operates. “Sustainability” is a deeply ambiguous word which the ALP is deploying to cover over a lot of fissures in our social landscape, as well as in our policy options. Those who take it as code for a more ecologically focused, less growth obsessed future are almost certainly falling into the trap of a very modernist ALP mind set. The tragedy of these attempts not to represent the options as they are, but wish division away, is that our future choices, are already set in stone and we will most probably not be confronting the results of our desire to wish away contradictions in the next parliamentary term.

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Posted in elections, environment, Howardia, immigration, sociology
19 comments on “Federal election 2010: The ghost of culture wars past
  1. Graeme says:

    Goodness. How does Dr Burchell manage simultaneously to live in ‘outer urban’ and ‘provincial’ Australia? I hope he is aware that to the real culture warriors it matters not what he says: he lives off his intellect so he’s a worthless elitist like all academics.

    Still, I salute him for his ongoing ability to reclothe cliches in fair prose.

  2. dj says:

    Yorkshire pudding – wtf? My parents – both blue-collar English migrants living in rural Australia and previously living in outer suburbia – stopped eating it years ago. I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find many younger people in the outer suburbs of many Australian cities who’d even know what it was.

    Burchell always comes across to me as equally clueless as the caricatures of middle-class intellectuals he lambasts. This may well be a function of his own intellectual/political trajectory, the need to self-justify his own shift adding to the vehemence he displays.

  3. Nickws says:

    The one columnist in today’s OO worth reading is Megalogenis on Labor’s ‘We’re against A Big Australia’. Very cynical and thought provoking, and almost certainly a plea to the Greens to drop any connection between migration policy and sustainability lest thay want the ALP taint on them with that particular issue.

    They treasure their ageing V8 utes and winter dinners of fibrous roast beef served with Yorkshire pudding.

    This is either madly out of touch or the work of a writer totally lacking in imagination. Both of which are pretty bad form for someone so in love with how daring they are when analysing _rool Austraya_.

    I’m the son of a British migrant and I’ve never had Yorkshire pudding.

    (When I first came across David Burchill’s work in the Organ I mistakenly thought it was foreign policy academic Scott Burchill, a former guest lecturer in a class I once took.

    Terrible shock, i.e., “wow, must reconsider the value of whatever ideas I took from this guy.”)

  4. jane says:

    Yorkshire pudding, I thought it went out with button up boots.

  5. Pip says:

    At this time of the year roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is to die for. You should all try it at least once. This is the sum of what I’ve taken from Mr. Burchell’s latest effort.

  6. kimberella says:

    @Pip – recipe?

  7. paul walter says:

    To add insult to injury, Piers Ackerman was on QA.
    burchell in stereo!

  8. dj says:

    No thanks Pip. My mum and my Yorkshire-born gran both used to try and get me to eat it when I was a kid and I refused as I didn’t like the taste. The only thing I disliked more was these horrible deserts that they used to serve us at school lunchtimes, which reliably made me feel like vomiting after just a mouthful. 😛

  9. Jacques de Molay says:

    Paul Walter,

    I burst out laughing when Piers on Q&A started raving on about NSW state Labor and then the Wollongong council rorts from a few years ago, seemingly oblivious to the fact this is a federal election. Poor Piers.

    I must admit I have even less respect for Julie Bishop now then what I had earlier tonight too, she was filibustering throughout the whole show. Waleed Aly & Bruce Hawker could barely get a word in all night.

  10. paul walter says:

    Jacques, they were an odd crew tonight. I like Bishop less than before, Waleed Ali seemed dislocated from the process, Hawker and Plibersek were enough on their game to avoid stuff ups and Ackerman repels a sensitive stomach.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Burchell is just another cog in the Murdochian apparatus.More floridly verbose,perhaps,than Glenns Beck or Milne,but just another propaganda apparatchiki. The Murdoch robopaths have one function in life-to protect and defend the system that made their owner rich and powerful, and collect whatever pittance Rupert pays them for their services. The task at hand,apparently, is to see Abbott elected, whereupon there will be a bonfire of the vanities akin to that being inflicted on the Greeks,Irish and the British.Apparently the masters are so confident in their dominance that they are quite happy to strip away most of the social progress of the 20th century, for good, of course, because there is no turning back.Unfortunately,given the state of global ecological collapse,resource depletion,geo-political manoeuvring around the collapse of the Yankee Reich and the rise of China, even when,and if, the serfs wake up to their parlous condition,it will almost certainly be too late. I hope you all appreciate how lucky you are,to be living in an era when a supposedly ‘sapient’ species cuts its own throat. Not many species get to experience that peculiar apotheosis.

  12. akn says:

    Burchell, once a member of the CPA and (I think) with a parental heritage in the CPGB, displays such loathing of the working class that it is easy to understand how Stalinism was able to dispose of entire categories of people. The only group he loathes more are educated people who don’t agree with him which makes it equally easy to understand what motivated Pol Pot. This is a man so filled with self loathing that he can do no else than project it onto entire classes of others.

  13. Ken Lovell says:

    Nice quote from Glenn Greenwald today:

    ‘If you read and write about politics full-time and are thus forced to subject yourself to the political media — as I am — what’s most striking aren’t the outrages and corruptions, but the overwhelming, suffocating, numbing stream of stupidity and triviality that floods the brain. One has to battle the temptation to just turn away and ignore it all.’

    Not being a full-time political tragic, I have succumbed to the temptation which he still battles. I recommend it to everybody … very liberating.

  14. Paul Burns says:

    Sound was out of sinc with the picture on Q &A in New England last night. Watching it wasn’t exact;y a case of cognitive dissonance or sensory deprivation, but it was weird. Or maybe politicians are just unsettling at this time of the electoral cycle.,

  15. Paul Burns says:

    I don’t often enthuse over political journalism, but I think this piece by Annabelle Crabb is brilliant.
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/20/2958550.htm

  16. keiThy says:

    Let us as a nation be seen to fully embrace this quality female touch when we see it or else we are just a mere sloganistic “Clever Country”!

    How’s Kerry last night talking about slogans and thus implying that Julia was another politician treating the electorate as mere mushrooms when he has not asked a decent question for months!??!

    Lol, she cannot be seen as anything other than a cut above all this!

    I see atleast 4 terms for Labor! What do the bookies say I ponder!???!

  17. paul walter says:

    just rereading it, Mark came awfully close to presenting sustainability as oppositional to globalisation, but seem to come out on the side of globalisation.
    but what globalisation?
    The multi cultural version or the neolib one?
    If its the neolib version, I cant see how a decent person can do any thing BUT resist it.
    Sustainabilty is a simple idea, its resisted not because its fanciful, but because it challenges the greedy aspirations of transnational big business and its military wing, the US/Israel alliance, as well as requiringof actioning from local politicians, despite the whining and bullying of the corporates.
    Get rid of fascism, not sustainability, for chrissakes!,

  18. kimberella says:

    @paul, I think it’s the stretch in the meaning of the word that’s at issue.

    IE – Gillard knows that neo-liberal globalisation means importing skills and people, and that big business will continue to demand that. But her “little Australia” stuff suggests the contrary. On the other hand, what would be implicit in sustainability from a green perspective would be a much less economic growth oriented approach, and that we are not going to get from the Labor party.

    So it’s weasel words from the ALP.

  19. paul walter says:

    I guess, a Green would answer, can we afford the costs of consumerism and an economy of excess. I guess Labor is not trustworthy, but neither is Abbott.
    in the meantime we do the equivalent of tossing a winters supply of timber on a fire, for amusement, whilst ignoring like children, the possibility of a long winter without firewood.
    I cant stop it either, all I;ve left is the exercise of my voice, keyboard and pen in protest.

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