Thursday, September 26, 2013

Occupy the narrative: winning the culture wars of the Right

"I certainly believe in her right to say what she said. I thought some of the things she said were an accurate reflection of what people feel."

These words are from former Prime Minister John Howard in 1996, failing to repudiate the independent (former Liberal) MP Pauline Hanson's maiden speech, in which she put forward the view that Australia was being "swamped by Asians".

This changed the political narrative in Australia. While under the previous Keating Government racism was called out, under the Howard Government it was carefully incorporated into policy that played to an undercurrent of racism that exists in Australia.

As Keating himself said: "you change the government, you change the country" and this is precisely what Howard's deliberate failure to repudiate Hanson's racism did. He had given permission for racism and elevated it to an acceptable view, a view which "reflected what people felt" and because it was what people "felt", it no longer needed to be justified. It gave permission for a type of cognitive dissonance that allows someone to spout racist views, but be good mates with their ethnic neighbours. Every challenge to this contradiction can be  met with an accusation of "political correctness".

Fast forward to the Abbott Government. Abbott, through his words and actions, has carefully crafted a similar story for sexism and a similar dissonance for those on the Right to hold those views while still believing themselves not to be sexist. To challenge them is to play the "gender card" or to be "politically correct". This sits nicely with the general conservatism of the populace, which does not see gender politics as any more nuanced than a simple matter of "equality". It is this simplistic view of feminism that enabled the effectiveness of the parade of "Abbott's Women", who by their mere presence proved that he could not be sexist. The more nuanced symbolic arguments of the Left failed to have the resonance of simplistic symbols paraded by the Right.

In his article for the GuardianJeff Sparrow argues that "The challenge for the left is not to abandon symbolism, but rather to fill symbolic reforms with real content" and argues that by doing this the Left will achieve the resonance with the populace that it needs to repudiate Abbott's sexism. Sparrow argues: "If [...] progressives can use debates over sexism in political life to discuss the oppression faced by women who don’t hold positions of prominence and power, Abbott’s persona suddenly pits him irrevocably against him the bulk of the population."

 Although it is true that the Left must "fill symbolic reforms with real content", the achievement of this is not, as Sparrow suggests, a matter of finding this resonance by using relateable examples. It ignores the relativism and cognitive dissonance of views that the Right has given permission for people to hold. If the Left wants to break this type of relativism, its leaders must challenge the contradictions inherent in the Right's ideological narrative.

The job of the Left is to call out these contradictions. For those calls to  resonate, it requires leadership that is not timid. The Left must articulate its own ideological vision.

This is the tragedy of the treatment of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard's "misogyny speech"[video]. Here was an example of a leader repudiating sexism, denying permission, outlining an ideological view. However, by this time it was too late. The ALP was too timid to engage directly with the electorate on gender for fear of Gillard's gender being a defining feature of her Prime Ministership (which it was already). This re-enforced the Right's position and it was hardly surprising that a cynical media amplified the Opposition's "gender card" excuse to fit the narrative of the PM that the ALP had allowed to take hold.

The Left has been too timid to engage in this direct battle of ideas, preferring to console itself with symbolism - arrogantly assuming its symbols are too nuanced for the electorate to engage with directly - or expressing an incoherent middle-class dissatisfaction through movements such as 'Occupy' or disengaging entirely through clicktivism.

The Left must stop ceding ground to the Right and directly engage with the Right's contradictory ideological position. This can not be done by adopting the type of soft-liberal symbolism that divorces their position from the majority of the electorate but with a coherent ideological narrative that articulates the Left's position.

This goes further than Sparrow's "filling symbolic reforms with real content", it is a coherent ideological response to the Right. Sparrow's view encourages the sort of soft-liberal approaches that have been the very reason for the Left's failure to counter the Right's ideological position.

The Right is incoherent and contradictory and  its culture wars are a distraction from its incoherence. An  ideological narrative from the Left will expose the cognitive dissonance inherent in the ideology of the Right.

The occupation of the narrative is the goal of the culture wars and the Left must meet it head on, not through soft-liberalism but through hard-edged ideological vision. It is only then that the narrative can be wrested from the incoherence of the Right.