What did you do in the cul­ture wars, daddy-o?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

As soon as Don­ald Trump un­ex­pect­edly won the White House in 2016, com­men­ta­tors and in­stant ex­perts claimed it was be­cause of eco­nomic anx­i­ety. White, work­ing-class Amer­i­cans voted for the Repub­li­can can­di­date in greater num­bers than Hil­lary Clin­ton, and the nar­ra­tive was set: ig­no­rant and in­se­cure vot­ers re­port­edly had backed the re­al­ity TV star be­cause they feared los­ing their jobs and be­ing dis­carded by glob­al­i­sa­tion and free trade. This the­sis was only partly true.

In April, Stan­ford Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Di­ana Mutz pub­lished a study that de­bunked the myth. “In this elec­tion,” she con­cluded, “ed­u­ca­tion rep­re­sented group sta­tus threat rather than be­ing left be­hind eco­nom­i­cally. Those who felt that the hi­er­ar­chy was be­ing up­ended — with whites dis­crim­i­nated against more than blacks, Chris­tians dis­crim­i­nated against more than Mus­lims, and men dis­crim­i­nated against more than women — were most likely to sup­port Trump.”

Aus­tralian writer Jeff Spar­row suc­cinctly ex­plains in Trig­ger Warn­ings how Trump clev­erly skew­ered his po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies by ap­peal­ing to their anger at the elite po­lit­i­cal and me­dia classes (de­spite be­ing a mem­ber of the elite him­self). By damn­ing po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness with­out ever de­scrib­ing what it meant, Spar­row ex­plains, Trump con­vinced his op­po­nents “into call­ing for deco­rum, at a time when his sup­port­ers wanted to scream their rage”. Trump and his ad­vis­ers read the mood of the coun­try well and rode it to vic­tory.

Trig­ger Warn­ings is a rare book that takes a nec­es­sary scalpel to the left­ist po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion of its author as much as, if not more than, the right-wing agenda he op­poses. Near the be­gin­ning, Spar­row out­lines the bald facts of 21st-cen­tury life. With the “world’s eight rich­est bil­lion­aires con­trol­ling as much as the poor­est half of the planet’s pop­u­la­tion … a his­to­rian of the fu­ture might as­sume that the Left was as­cen­dant: that the in­jus­tice un­der which the planet groaned would be fu­elling rad­i­cal ideas and egal­i­tar­ian al­ter­na­tives to the sta­tus quo. Such a his­to­rian would be wrong.”

What fol­lows is a pot­ted his­tory of how phrases such as “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” and “cul­ture wars” orig­i­nated and how they have been weaponised to­day by the Right in ways that largely have trapped the Left, un­sure how to re­spond. Spar­row writes that although rightwingers “por­tray PC as an Or­wellian scheme to end free­dom of speech, a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy to im­pose a pro­gres­sive or­tho­doxy”, the Left used the term from the 1960s as a gag to mock col­leagues who be­lieved in cen­sor­ship. By the 90s, how­ever, its us­age had mor­phed and the Right claimed that be­ing anti-PC meant “a mi­nor­ity us­ing bu­reau­cratic mea­sures to en­force pro­gres­sive ideas”.

In a post-Cold War world, where the des­ig­nated enemy was no longer clear, right-wing politi­cians and their me­dia cheer­lead­ers cor­rectly be­lieved that by launch­ing mul­ti­ple cul­ture wars over sex­u­al­ity, gen­der, pa­tri­o­tism and moral­ity, the Left would be con­sumed with these de­bates in­stead of chal­leng­ing ne­olib­eral “re­forms” that en­riched big busi­ness at the ex­pense of or­di­nary peo­ple. It worked in many na­tions, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, Bri­tain and the US, but there are signs its ef­fec­tive­ness is break­ing down.

For ex­am­ple, the elec­toral ap­peal of Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour Party in Bri­tain is linked to the fact that years of Con­ser­va­tive Party-pushed aus­ter­ity has led to one-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in poverty. Re­cent at­tempts by Theresa May’s gov­ern­ment and many in the cor­po­rate me­dia to falsely ac­cuse Cor­byn and his team of ram­pant anti-Semitism, a clas­sic “cul­ture war” tac­tic, has done lit­tle to af­fect his pub­lic stand­ing. Whether his pop­u­lar­ity leads to as­sum­ing power as prime min­is­ter re­mains to be seen.

The strong­est sec­tions of Spar­row’s book are his de­mo­li­tion of “smug pol­i­tics” that have been em­ployed by the Left in the past decades.

For co­me­di­ans Stephen Col­bert, Jon Stew­art and Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, any num­ber of per­form­ers who pop­u­late Net­flix and HBO and “new athe­ists” such as Richard Dawkins, the stu­pid­ity of vast swathes of the pop­u­lace was a given. Af­ter all, how else could so many vote for Ge­orge W. Bush or Trump and watch Fox News?

The po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions for show­ing con­tempt of the elec­torate are ob­vi­ous.

“If pro­gres­sives couldn’t in­flu­ence so­ci­ety,” Spar­row ar­gues, “that was the fault of so­ci­ety —

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