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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

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January 15, 2008

Via Nicholas Gruen at Club Troppo
Guy Rundle adds yet another take on the Australian culture wars at Arena magazine. It's a long essay but worth a read for a version of this ongoing stoush tracing it back long before Howard weighed in and confused everything by getting Australia mixed up with America.

There are quite a few versions of how it all came to this, mostly focused on politicians trying to force cultural change from the top down. Or in Pauline Hanson's case, from the bottom to somewhere even further down.

Rundle gives a clear explanation of the role Murdoch, and The Australian in particular, played in all of this from a longer term view than we are normally offered. He has a go at holding the Murdoch conservatives responsible for political disengagement and it's an interesting argument. What passes for public debate these days is a series of ongoing brawls between a select few in small magazines and The Australian op ed pages. The people who write them don't generally spend a lot of time sinking beers and shooting the breeze with the 'mainstream, ordinary, pragmatic, salt of the earth' people they claim to represent.

I think there's an equally strong case for arguing that it has always been thus, with engagement coming and going depending on what's at stake at any given time, or the introduction of a new novelty. Whatever. We can still enjoy speculating.

Anyhoo, this is Rundle's response to Paul Kelly's spew we discussed a while back.

| Posted by Lyn at 3:08 PM | | Comments (5)


I started reading it last for a possible post on, but Rundle didn't seem to be saying anything other than giving a history of the culture wars and the role of Murdoch's Australian in developing a conservative culture based on a hostility to social liberalism and The Left. He's telling us what we already know, I thought, then nodded off.

Is Rundle saying anything more?

Rundle does end his article by saying that the conservative view, and the way its proponents have conducted the culture wars, has:

rendered intellectual life in this country increasingly cynical, morally corrupt and bitter. It has also made itself uniquely unable to reflect on the broader society as it changes. What successes it has had are from brute financial power. And on what is coming — as various historical processes, and especially climate change, put the fundamental questions of our way of life in question — its proponents will find themselves equally unable to speak analytically or morally on matters of real importance to our lives.

It's an argument about the poverty of Australian conservatism.

He's making a Donald Horne argument about public intellectual life. In the past decade conservatives have made intellectual life into a branch stacking exercise. It's no longer the quality of the argument or value of ideas that matter so much as how many you have on your side.

He uses the stacking of the ABC board as an example, but the climate change "debate" is treated the same way. The facts and arguments don't matter as much as the body count of scientists either for or against.

Hicks also, where questions of law, justice, human rights, citizenship and morality were treated as superfluous. Conservatives didn't even try to make coherent arguments. Instead they tried to get the public onside through fear.

Rundle is arguing that this has changed the way debate is conducted, so it's both the poverty of Australian conservatism and the damage their political strategy has done to intellectual life as a whole.

I wonder if Noel Pearson is the only real intellectual the conservatives have left?

you write in interpreting Rundle's argument:

It's no longer the quality of the argument or value of ideas that matter so much as how many you have on your side.

Not quite. It's a war for the conservative power intellectuals. So it is who wins the cultural war that is crucial, not how it is won. You could do that without the numbers. It's the outcome of the battle that counts not the health of our intellectual culture.

Rundle is right to draw attention to:

... the structural and psychological changes created by new media, global markets, and image cultures have utterly reconstructed the public sphere in which national political conversations were hitherto based and that, barring a huge global developmental reversal, it is not returning.The more fixed relationships within which modern politics was based have been supplanted by more fluid networks of life which make the grasping of a social whole and group identity progressively more difficult.

I've read the thing several times and taken something different from it each time. He seems to have tried to cram too many ideas into one essay and the result is a bit of a mish mash. But then, so is the whole culture war thing.

I hadn't come across the term 'power intellectuals' before. It's useful.

So conservative power intellectuals are a bit like the cricket team - they're not playing within the spirit of the game anymore but have adopted a win-at-all-costs attitude?