Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - culture wars, multiculturalism and change

The post of mine on this blog that continues to draw the greatest traffic by far is a post from November 2008, Sunday Essay - the importance of quiet time in a crowded world. I think that it's a well written post, but it's not the writing that attracts, it's the title. The constant stream of visits shows that it strikes a chord.

The release of former Australian PM John Howard's autobiographical memoir, Lazarus Rising, has attracted considerable Australian media attention (here, here, here for example). While I will buy or borrow the book at some point, I have no desire to revisit some of the things that Mr Howard talks about in other than an historical context.

One of our problems as we grow older is a tendency to re-fight old wars. I am as prone to this as anyone else, yet I have no desire to revisit multiculturalism or indeed Australia's cultural wars in the context of current politics. There is a good book there one day for someone who can properly unpack it all.

I say this because I still remember my sense of mortification from some posts I wrote back in 2007. In December of that year, a post by John Quiggin led me to write Deconstructing the Culture Wars - a personal aide memoire. This was a fairly carefully written post trying to disentangle some of the issues from a personal perspective. Then a comment from Lexcen led me to write another post, Australia's Culture Wars - uniquely Australian? taking a different tack.

In writing the first post I had implicitly accepted what we might call the conventional view, that the Australian culture wars were Australian, but also part of a broader phenomenon that included the transmission to Australia of certain ideas coming from the US. I was trying to unpack this.

Lexcen's comment made me do a preliminary web search trying to investigate the history of the culture wars.  I found that the term "culture wars" seemed to be most prevalent in the US and Australia, but that the Australian culture wars themselves seemed to be a uniquely Australian phenomenon drawing from our own history. I summarised my overall conclusions this way:

    1. While the term culture wars is used in several ways, the term "culture wars" in the way I was describing it appears to exist in only Australia and the US.
    2. Measured by frequency of usage, the great bulk of references to "culture wars" are Australian. Fourteen in the first few Google pages as compared to just 4 from US sources.
    3. There appears to be very little similarity between the "culture wars" in the two countries. As an example, the religious element that appears so important in the US is largely missing in Australia.
    4. I am forced to the conclusion that the Australian "culture wars" are just that, Australian "culture wars". I also begin to suspect that the term was first introduced into and popularised in Australia as a handy pejorative device by one side of the debate.

But why was I mortified? Well, I felt that I had been trapped into a way of thinking, spending time and thought analysing an issue when I should have been asking more basis questions.

As I said, the culture wars will make a good book one day linked not just to politics, but also to the history of Australian thought. In the meantime, I don't want to paddle in Mr Howard's pool.

I suppose that my biggest personal problem is that I have come to reject both sides. The world is simply not composed of just two models, a multi-cultural society on one side as compared to a multi-racial Australia with common values on the other. It is far more complex than that.

It is interesting, but it was Mr Howard's own Government that made me reject the idea that Australia must be a society dominated by common values.

There is a balance issue here. No society can really survive without  common core values. Yet I found myself constantly objecting to the Howard Government expression of this, from its citizenship test through its emphasis on Australia's military history as a unifying device, to its belief that all Australian students must study Australian history and civics as defined whether they liked it or not. This is far too simple for a society that, by its nature, must be pluralist.

On the other side, beyond its historical Fraser context in assisting Australia to adjust to a more complex culturally and racially mixed society, multiculturalism as an ism has limited intellectual content. At its extreme, it appears to deny that a society needs a degree of shared values and history, something that strikes me as plain silly. More moderately, if it simply means that Australia should recognise and tolerate different cultures within a frame set by core values, then it is not especially profound, just common sense.

This has become a bit of a lecture. I apologise for that. Still staying in lecturer mode, I wanted to finish with a brief comment on Angela Merkel since her views have been linked to Mr Howard's comments. Here I quote from the Australian:

His (Mr Howard's) stance gains contemporary relevance from Chancellor Angela Merkel comments last Sunday that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany had "utterly failed."

The German position has little contemporary relevance to Australia. Leaving aside the issue of just what Ms Merkel means when she uses the word multicultural, the two societies are very different.

At the end of the Second World War, over 90% of Australians were locally born. We were, in very broad terms, a culturally homogeneous society. For better or worse and for our own reasons, Australians then decided to support mass migration. Yes, there was a racial basis in the initial immigration selection process, but so large was the migration process that the practical effect was that, by 1975, Australia had moved from a culturally homogeneous society to a multicultural one. The progressive abolition of the White Australia Policy changed the ethic mix of immigrants, the appearance if you like, but did not affect the overall pattern. The adoption of the term multicultural by the Fraser Government was of itself a recognition of this change.

I am not sure when the term multicultural first emerged in a global context. The earliest reference I have found is 1941. I think that the first official expression was in Canada in 1971, then especially influenced by the need to harmonise French and English. However, I stand to be corrected here, the first full expression of multicultural in official policy terms was in Australia during the second half of the 1970s.

There is an enormous difference between Germany today and Canada or Australia of the 1970s. Both Canada and Australia are countries who chose for their own reasons to change. In a sense, we have been there and done that. Like it or not, we have been multicultural for many years.

The position in Europe is different, far more complicated, because of history. There is simply not the same linkage in Australia between ethnicity, culture and the sense of national identity. The idea of Germans = German ethnicity = German language and culture =  defined area = German nationalism is alien to Australia.

The very language that was earlier used in Australia including official documents - Australian people, Australian race -  that now makes modern Australians cringe was, of itself, a sign of the difference. We cringe because we see the idea of building a new but different British race on far shores as racist. Indeed it was, because it was set in the context of nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas of race and ethnicity that would later give rise (among other things) to the holocaust. Yet we forget the idea of newness, of change, of identity.

Today, Germany is, to a degree at least, stuck in the idea of being German. The idea of Australian is far more flexible. It is far easier to delete the concept of being British from the idea of a new Australian people than it is to delete German from the idea of the German people. 

I, for one, may be unhappy at our rejection of the British component of our past. However, I do accept that it is just so much easier to redefine a concept centred on the new than one centred on the old.    

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