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The Culture Wars: Legitimate Battlefield Or Just Another Sneaky Right-Wing Attack

It takes a fair bit to offend me these days but Nick Cater’s new book The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class has done the trick. It is an infuriating and fundamentally dishonest attempt to demolish everything Labor might reasonably stand for this century: action on climate change, support for the Hawke/Keating economic model, ongoing higher education expansion, Whitlamite service delivery and sensible human rights safeguards.

Latham_FBv2Cater’s core proposition is that Labor is part of a new social and political elite, a class of tertiary educated progressives who look down their noses at ‘ordinary Australians’.  I’ve had my arguments with the party’s parliamentary and trade union leadership, but it has never been about snobbery.  The Laborites I talk to are as earthy and grounded as they were 30 years ago.  The only elitists I see in Sydney are the old North Shore and Eastern Suburbs set, the born-to-rule brigade who brush past the workers at the racetrack and other public events like they are trying to avoid typhoid.  It was ever thus.

Cater, in effect, has reignited a class war – a debate as to where snobbery resides Down Under.  He argues when he migrated from England to Australia in 1989 we were an egalitarian utopia, a classless society in which all citizens were given a fair go.  I remember something different.  Friends from Western Sydney who missed out on job applications for no other reason than they listed their addresses as Liverpool and Green Valley.  Newly-arrived migrants who were labelled ‘slopes’ and ‘towel heads’.  Women who were expected to do paperwork and prepare supper for community organisations but not to run for elected office.  Public housing estates which looked like war zones – a world apart from the North Shore, Eastern Suburbs and gentrified inner-city (where Cater eventually settled).

If Cater wants a fuller understanding of social values in Australia in the 1980s, perhaps he should ask Geoffrey Blainey, who is launching The Lucky Culture on May 13 at the Institute for Paid Advocacy (IPA) in Melbourne.  In 1984 Blainey called for the re-introduction of a racially discriminatory immigration program, complaining of the “slow Asian takeover of Australia.”

I don’t want to be too harsh on one of our cultural imports, but Cater’s understanding of Australian egalitarianism is poor.  On pages 92-93 of his book, for instance, he complains about panellists on the ABC’s Q and A program picking on Gina Rinehart because of her looks and apparent inability to “afford a hairdresser”.  This was, in fact, a light-hearted exchange in May last year, involving the irreverent Australian comic Barry Humphries.  Yet for Cater it represented “boorish” behaviour devoid of appropriate “courtesy and a modicum of respect” for “Australia’s most successful mining entrepreneur”.  He opined:

A class that relies for status on cultural rather than financial capital cannot concede that wealth carries virtue, and resorts to attacking Rinehart’s cultural standing in the most personal terms.  It amounts to a crude assertion of cultural refinement … (on) how to handle money and how to arrange their hair.  In a society where net wealth is considered a poor guide to character, the sneer is an assertion of class superiority … In a country where cultural superiority becomes important, belittlement of others is an underhand form of self-aggrandisement, a habit that once adopted becomes almost impossible to break.

Australian culture has always involved mockery.  Our egalitarianism is a social habit, not an economic doctrine.  This means taking the piss out of the rich and powerful, which is exactly what the Q and A panellists did.  They used common, irreverent Australian humour – the type one would hear in pubs, clubs and mateship groups every day.

The Australian way is not to show fawning respect and courtesy for the likes of Rinehart but to rag her silly.  We don’t believe that ‘wealth carries virtue’ – that’s not social egalitarianism.  Most Australians would think Gina got lucky when she inherited big bucks from her dad, that’s the common impression.  It’s not sneering to poke fun at her hairstyle – it’s merely taking the micky out of her extraordinary wealth, bringing her down a peg or two.  If, in every Australian workplace, sporting venue and watering hole, reprimands were issued for slagging off someone’s appearance, we would need a small army of Cater-inspired cultural police to issue the tickets.

The protection of Rinehart is right-wing political correctness.  This was clear from Cater’s appearance on Q and A last Monday.  One moment he was lamenting Australia’s “restricted sort of behaviour, where we are not allowed to make jokes anymore.”  The next he was tut-tutting about how Gina “deserves a bit more respect than she sometimes gets on this program.”  Life, apparently, is a joke-athon for the right, except when it involves the bird’s nest on the big woman’s head.  (Before the devotees of political correctness get too excited, this is not a gender issue.  Like Gina, I’m not an oil painting and if they have cracking jokes to make about my hair or weight, please make them).

Cater is not after a classless society.  He’s after a two-class system, with one set of rules for the conservative establishment and a different set of standards for their political rivals.  In my lifetime, the greatest sneer machine in Australian society has been the Murdoch press.  It relentlessly pursues those who disagree with it, trying to subject them to public ridicule.  The latest iteration of this tendency is The Australian’s Cut and Paste section, compiled by Cater’s partner Rebecca Weisser.  If I understand the News Ltd pecking order correctly, Weisser works for Cater, the paper’s Chief Opinion Editor.  How can someone who publishes a daily dirt-sheet sneering at lefties complain about a few witticisms from the likes of Barry Humphries?

This is the new right hypocrisy.  I experienced it earlier this week when Andrew Bolt argued I should not be allowed to review Andrew Robb’s book Black Dog Daze (2011) in the Australian Financial Review – highlighting the lies and treachery therein – because Robb has battled a mental illness.  Bolt is fanatical in pleading for free speech, mostly for himself.  But when it comes to the legitimate scrutiny of senior Liberal Party figures, he is censorious.  The gatekeeper turns poacher.  In truth, if a government frontbencher had written a book as duplicitous as Robb’s, the right-wing hunting pack (led by Bolt himself) would have written 30 columns on it by now.

Labor faces double standards in most parts of the media.  There is a concerted push from the conservative establishment to turn powerful figures such as Rinehart and Robb into untouchables.  We can’t scrutinise Robb, they say, even if it involves quoting his own words.  So too, we can’t question any aspect of Rinehart’s persona or political influence because she displays the ‘virtues of wealth’.  The media bias against Labor is more extreme now than at any time since the fall of the Whitlam Government.  If there is a new ruling class in Australia it is remarkably similar to the old one: centred on big business, the Murdoch media, elite private schools and the Liberal and National Parties.

****

From a Western Sydney perspective, two of the more aloof institutions in society are corporate boardrooms and the high arts.  Whereas Sydney’s workers commute in trains and traffic jams, the top end of town gets around in helicopters and private planes.  Business executives invariably belong to exclusive clubs, having established a lifestyle by which they avoid the chores of cooking, housekeeping and caring for their children.  This is an existence forged on the anvil of institutionalised wealth and elitism.

The mega-rich also work hard to separate their cultural interests from suburban folk.  By any objective test, classical music, opera and ballet are insufferably boring.  They have no social worth other than in the treatment of sleeping disorders.  But that’s how the elites like it, safe in the knowledge that people below their station in society are unlikely to join them in the jewellery-rattling rows of the Opera House.  Their abstraction from ‘ordinary people’ is secure.

If the business elites have earned their wealth honestly and they choose to live this way, I bear them no envy or ill-will.  My own creed is that no one in the economy should accept more money than they can possibly consume, that too much materialism destroys lives by dragging people away from the bedrock emotions of love and family.  Adele Ferguson’s recent biography of Rinehart is a case study in this dilemma.

I make this point about big business and the high arts to highlight one of the sharp contradictions in Cater’s book.  He claims to have found elitism in Australia’s left-of-centre parties, the ABC and universities but is silent about the arts and the private sector.  That’s because his lifestyle is embedded in these institutions.  His outlook is so condescending he does not contemplate for a moment the possibility of faults in his own cultural genre.

As a senior editor at The Australian, Cater is part of the narrow, intolerant right-wing culture of News Ltd.  His friends and associates, even his partner, are part of the corporate media elite.  Two days before the launch of Cater’s book, it was announced that Rupert Murdoch was receiving a $4 million pay rise, taking his annual remuneration to $28 million.  For Cater, privilege of this kind does not require analysis, it is part of the natural order of things (‘the virtues of wealth’).  In defining most left-wing beliefs as culturally unAustralian, he has no problem with The Australian itself being owned and controlled by an American – someone who thought so little of our country and its culture he renounced his Australian citizenship.

Cater’s biographical profile on the first page of The Lucky Culture is brief – just two sentences.  Thankfully, the Q and A program is more thorough.  When Cater appeared on the show earlier this week, the following information was posted on the ABC’s website:

Nick is a cyclist and a lapsed soccer supporter. He gave up watching the game in 2006 after realising it offered a low return on emotional investment.  He now barracks for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

This says a lot about Cater’s cultural priorities.  The type of exhilaration felt by the fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers this season is below him.  He has turned his back on the simple pleasures of grandstand chanting and a sing-along in support of the working man’s team.  Apparently it offers a low return on emotional investment.  I know of no one in Sydney’s west who talks this way.  Most footy fans would rather cut off their fingers than swap their jerseys and scarves for a seat at the SSO.

While the Labor movement is not without its problems – I have written about them at length – I cannot stand by and watch someone like Cater lecturing the party on the cultural habits of suburban Australia.  He is a prototype of the  ‘cosmopolitan sophistication’ he otherwise condemns: tertiary-educated, widely travelled, mesmerised by the high arts, with a working career in an information industry dealing with abstract concepts.  And now the author of a 361-page book.

The differences between right-wing cosmo-sophisticates and left-wing cosmo-sophisticates are not vast.  They relate solely to politics.  Thus for conservatives, the so-called culture wars (of which Cater’s book is the latest instalment) are a way of entering the political debate from a different angle.  It is an attempt to frame left-of-centre activists as out-of-touch and unworthy, using culture as a veil for party politics.

Cultural analysis is also useful in diverting attention from one of the right-wing’s traditional weaknesses: the elitism of the establishment.  It is not Tony Abbott, the Rhodes Scholar son of a North Shore dental specialist, who has enjoyed a privileged life – or so the argument runs – but Labor MPs who grew up in working class areas and pursued the aloofness of an Australian university education.

There is a strong element of deceit in this tactic.  This was evident in Cater’s appearance on Q and A, in which he claimed his book is “not a left/right argument.”  “I’m not making a left/right argument”, he insisted.  Make no mistake, The Lucky Culture is a long, carefully-structured assault on progressive values and ideas.  Any Labor person who has anything to do with its promotion is fouling his own nest.

Already, the right-wing barrackers are out in force, with Abbott, Miranda Devine and Piers Akerman writing glowing reviews.  It is Abbott’s kind of book: narrow, hypocritical and based on a big lie.  It promotes climate change denialism, winding back mass university access and funding state-led economic development through the construction of dams – a throwback to the failed agrarian ethos of Abbott’s mentor, BA Santamaria.  In the run up to September’s election, Cater has sounded the bugle of the culture wars and unsurprisingly, the right-wing hunting pack is howling in unison.

****

The wrongness of Cater’s critique of the ALP is evident in every chapter.  His portrayal of Whitlamism, however, is particularly egregious.  Over the years, I have read mountains of material on Whitlam but The Lucky Culture is the first account to airbrush the importance of Werriwa: a Labor leader living in Cabramatta on Sydney’s urban fringe, developing policies on schools, health services and cities relevant to the aspirations of suburban Australia.  Whitlam’s goal was to replace Labor’s limited 1950s agenda on industry nationalisation and industrial relations with a contemporary program for improving the quality of life in the suburbs.

Cater was not in Australia during the Whitlam period, so he has relied heavily on second-hand accounts.  Unfortunately, most of these are TV images instead of scholarly, well-researched books.  One of the quirky features of The Lucky Culture is its reliance on video archives: large slabs of analysis devoted to fiction such as Crocodile Dundee, Don’s Party and even Kath and Kim.  The book’s index lists seven pages on the fictional character Barry McKenzie but no entries for Peter Costello or Alexander Downer.  How does someone write a book on Australia’s ruling class with no index references to Liberals who held the positions of Treasurer and Foreign Minister for 11 years?

The political trick in Cater’s three chapters on Whitlam can be readily picked apart.  By ignoring Werriwa and Cabramatta – that is, evidence of Gough’s practical, empirical approach to policy development – Cater hopes to fit up Whitlamism as the equivalent of inner-city, out-of-touch intellectualism, or as he writes on page 154, “the platform of the cognoscenti”.  History tells us Whitlam was never a public intellectual theorising about political ideology.  This was not his methodology or motive.  Rather, he was a highly intelligent and diligent person who used his skills in a practical way, developing a new program for the suburbs.  People like this are a regular part of our society – exposing the flaw in Cater’s jihad against tertiary education (the assumption that university graduates can never be practical in their work habits).

So too, Cater’s depiction of Lance Barnard (“a teacher educated at Launceston Technical College”) as an abstract intellectual is absurd.  Barnard was a hands-on, compassionate person, reflecting the Labor habit of combining educational striving with electorate-based community service.  Essentially, under Cater’s schema, any Laborite who engages in book-learning and self-improvement can be denounced as a cosmopolitan sophisticate.

The Lucky Culture’s account of Labor history is bad history.  This is the problem with the right-wing elites: they arrive at a predetermined ideological conclusion and then thrash around for an argument supporting their position.  Evidence counts for little.  Cater’s methodology is no less flawed than the far-left Green ideologues he denounces towards the end of the book.

Finally, if Cater properly understood Labor history, he would not have described Jim Short as a Labor MP (page 276) and then quoted him at length – as evidence of bipartisanship with the Liberals on cultural policy.  In fact, Short was a minister in the first Howard Government.  Cater’s instance of bipartisanship was actually a Liberal MP agreeing with Liberal policy.

On all things ALP, The Lucky Culture hits the wrong note, in the wrong concerto, in the wrong orchestra.  Or as the Wanderer’s Red and Black Bloc might chant:

Who do we sing for?

Not this book, too right

Who do we sing for?

Not this book, it’s shite

About Mark Latham

Mark Latham

Mark Latham is a former leader of the Labor Party, and now an author, columnist and political commentator.

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