Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Culture Wars? Who Cares?

We Want The Australian Renaissance

Endless editorials, opinion pieces and book reviews have filled Australian newspapers in recent months spilling boring, irrelevant twaddle about the Australian 'Culture Wars', and whether or not 'The Left' have outlived their usefulness.

Firing back from 'The Left', whatever that is supposed to be in this day and age of wide ranging, non-traditionally aligned political and social views, comes equally boring and pointless counter-attack and self-defensiveness.

None of it, from 'The Left' or 'The Right' means much to the vast majority of Australians. Few of the people involved in rehashing decades old arguments have any real relevance to the generations moving out of high school into the workforce and those entering their second decade of mortgage payments.

It's all from another age, and it's all so old and tired. You read some of these editorials and it sounds like nothing more than a bunch of 5o-and-60-somethings trying to drag themselves, and their old enemies, back into the spotlight of today's headlines and coffee table chat zones. They're all still stuck there, back in their student days of the 1960s and early 1970s, and they dwell in the illusion zone that the unresolved conflicts from their leisurely free-education days actually mean anything anymore. Something about Marxists, something else about arts grants, something else about commies, something about 'balance' at the ABC.

Like so many of the Howard-era politicos and media, they're used to people sitting up and listening when they get down and get into it. But they caught the national attention, and agenda, in the days when Australia was relatively isolated, and incubated, from the outside world, and when the daily newspaper and the ABC News and current affairs ruled the national attention span.

It's an age already long gone. Few care about their nostalgia trips.

Prime minister John Howard tried to thrust the 'Culture Wars' into the national arena, and the majority attention zone, when he gave a fiery speech at the 50th anniversary of Quadrant magazine. The Culture Wars are worth fighting, Howard said, because Australia needed to be pulled from its Leftie-socialist past, as though he hadn't noticed it happened years ago.

When it suits the Howard government, they will trawl back through three decades old political positions of all-but-forgotten one-time Labor Party heroes, and bore international visitors to the Australian Parliament senseless all the way through Question Time, when they're not demanding praise and attention for doing the jobs they should feel honoured to be doing.

But ask Howard's boys about the lies and distortions that led to the Iraq War, the AWB scandal, or why they didn't tell the voters about Workchoices before the 2004 elections and they will tell you we mustn't dwell in the past, "let's look to the future".

But what is the Howard future? Where is it? All they talk about is the past. Thirty years ago, 12 years ago, nine months ago.

90% of Australians couldn't give a tinkers about the 'Culture Wars'. Most don't even know what it is, or what it is supposed to be a war over. They are concerned about climate change and how much their children are going to be paid, and what sort of conditions they might have to work under, because these are issues about what awaits us in the future.

Australians want to look to the future, and in many ways we can't wait to get there. The fact that Australia's boom economy is based around a two thousand year old power source and we have internet speeds that are laughed at by nine year old kids in South Korea are two examples of how far behind we are in a world rapidly speeding up, and moving ahead. We know we are being left behind, and it's making us edgy.

But we don't get much in the way of vision statements or inspirational future dreaming from the federal government. All we hear about is how they are desperately trying to patch up the holes in all the promises they made, but never delivered on, while their bulldogs shout at us from Parliament via the evening news about how we've "never had it so good."

While many Australian journalists and opinion writers pretend to be mystified as to why the Labor Party remains so high in the polls, long after the Rudd honeymoon was supposed to end and Howard Corp. was to get their supposedly long overdue surge, Australians are anything but confused.

They want to know what the future holds. They want to know what's coming, and not just how good their broadband may or may not be in three years time. They want to feel like somebody is making the big plans, dreaming the big dreams and thinking of the long-term future, not just how to win the next election.

Don't tell me what you've done, Mr Howard. Tell me what kind of Australia we will be living in in ten years time, in twenty years time, in fifty years time.

The Labor Party has won a lot of support in the past eight months because its front benchers, from leader Kevin Rudd, to deputy Julia Gillard to environmental Buddha Peter Garrett, are not shouting about the past, or wailing about how unfair those across the Parliament are being, but because they keep coming out with speeches, interviews and sound bites that talk about where Australia is going, how we can get there and who we can be, if we aren't afraid to undergo some reinvention and vision-making, and are willing to shake off the old prejudices and 1950s-era 'values' thinking.

The latest Labor vision statement comes from Julia Gillard, and it's not a bad one. Why can't Australia have a cultural Renaissance, she asks. Aren't we all due for a creative overhaul? A fresh start on the world stage that continually shakes its collective head in disbelief at the extraordinary quality of the actors, writers, directors, musicians, painters, sculptors and dramatists this country produces, but who are always forced to go overseas to make their dreams come true.

Here's some excerpts from a speech Julia Gillard gave last night :

Instead of leading a culture war, our Government should be leading a great Australian cultural renaissance - one that celebrates excellence and encourages all our people to understand the importance of our culture to our future.

We need to get a real conversation going between our cultural producers and the public. This isn't just about elites; it involves all of us. It's time to end the culture wars.

...this isn't just about governments. It's a challenge to all sorts of cultural decision makers - newspaper editors, radio station managers, heads of our arts and research funding bodies, vice-chancellors and the heads of publishing houses - to invest in cultural production.

There are encouraging signs that outside the Howard Government many Australians are putting their money where their mouths are and backing great cultural ventures.

This great Australian cultural renaissance could be one of the most important national investments we could make, because Australian culture is ideally suited to the challenges of today. As we confront global economic competition and inequalities, our idealism and resourcefulness are what the world needs.

We should never forget Australia's indigenous culture is one of the longest-surviving cultures in the world and we should never forget to be proud of that fact. We can also learn from it. Climate change is giving us an urgent interest in doing so.

We need to develop a new respect for the reality of our harsh physical environment and adapt to its changes. Aborigines were never passive occupiers of the land. As we have, they moulded the land as it moulded them.

Our culture, and the advantages it gives us, is endangered. I find it bizarre that when our culture has so much to offer our country, some want to undermine it through a vindictive, short-sighted and imported culture war.

Their attempts to denigrate such people as our philosophers, artists, writers and even climate scientists as out-of-touch, inner-city elites, and to claim our egalitarian values are unsuited to new economic necessities, risks subsuming us into the blancmange of an emerging global monoculture.

Let me end this call for an Australian cultural renaissance by referring to one of the great contemporary Australian cultural figures: the Academy Award-winning producer, George Miller, who has had a huge effect on world culture, from TV series such as Bodyline to movies such as Mad Max and Babe. Most recently he's given us Happy Feet.

You might think I'm pulling a long bow in drawing conclusions from an animated film about a dancing penguin named Mumble. But Mumble is a man - or should I say, a penguin - for our times. He won't conform. Instead of singing like everyone else, he dances. And along the way he uncovers some important truths about the need to change our ways.

Australians are a bit like Mumble. In terms of world culture, we're unique: young, unusual, at times exotic and usually undermining authority. We can choose our path. We shouldn't feel we have to sing along in harmony with the rest of the world to have a positive effect on it. But we can dance like no one else. The last thing we need is culture warriors trying to force us to conform.

And that's it right there. C0nformity. The Howard-era media and politicians don't want to know what Australia will become, or is already becoming. They want it to stay the way it was, when they were young. They are still fighting to reshape the nation into what they wanted it to be when they were 23 years old. The 'Culture Wars' are locked in an almost forgotten era of Australian history, because that's the only era these 'warriors' really understand.

Whoever wants to declare victory in the 'Culture Wars' may as well go ahead and do it now. Nobody, but the tiniest percentile, will care, and it will be a hollow victory. The rest of Australia has already moved on.

We want to know what's coming. Who will be be in 20 years? Where will be? Who's going to give us the future we're dreaming of now?

A federal election should always be about the future, but right now we're not getting much from Howard & Friends on that front.

Gillard all but gave the federal government a plan to win back some of their lost disciples. But are they visionary enough to realise it?