There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about the so-called culture wars. It’s a fight between the traditional left and right in politics to direct public debate, opinion and institutions in favour of certain ideological viewpoints. The problem is a majority of our society couldn’t care less.
It’s a conflict rooted in the historical ideologies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Many Australians, particularly of my generation and younger, would look quizzically upon these divisions, if at all.
I am a 30-year-old IT worker, a divorced, half-time single parent, who has never joined a political party or studied politics. Our concerns are not rooted in the old tensions between capital and labour, or conservation and revolution. They are more practical, and cut across the paradigms through which our politicians and opinion-makers define and view the major issues.
The very language and terms of debate are framed by these ideologies, perpetrated by warriors of a conflict which is passing and no longer holds as much relevance for a modern population.
This is a war of generals without armies. Each salvo is “right, left, right, left ...”, but very few are marching. It is embodied by an intellectual infantilising of the Australian populace, what I call the politics of the playground. Full of over-generalisations, straw men and name-calling, it is largely irrelevant to a society far more concerned with the outcomes of policy than their ideological origins. Let alone the tough-guy labels of left, soft, wet versus right, hard, dry.
On the right there has been a demonising of the intelligentsia, which presupposes that this group is an exclusive enclave of the left. This conveniently ignores the contribution, particularly over the past decade in politics, academia and the media, of self-identified conservatives, who seem less concerned with conserving traditional institutions than aligning them to a political point of view. It is a substantial contribution, if not dominant in recent times.
In a speech recently the prime minister decried the long march of left-wing ideology through our institutions. Meanwhile the Federal Government’s blue guards have continued their own march through much of our popular media, and in those same institutions. He quoted George Orwell: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool". What’s amusing is that he did so without a hint of irony - as if this doesn’t apply to conservatives, cultural warriors and the political class.
Meanwhile the real things we worry about are the mortgage or rent payments, the cost and availability of health care, child-care and education, crime and conflict in our society, and how much time we can spend with our families and friends. The day-to-day concerns of relationships, work and money. The lack of water and the threat that poses for our future, the cost of petrol and food and what climate change threatens to inflict on us and our children. For many without the mortgage, it’s less a worry than a resignation to a life of renting.
For those of us with children, we worry about the rising cost of quality child-care, schooling and a university education. All those tax cuts are just as well - I’ve all but given up on buying a home for me and my son (I live in Sydney), instead saving my pennies for the hundreds of thousands I’ll need for his education.
Having enjoyed free higher education themselves, our current leaders have slashed public funding and now oversee six-figure bills for degrees. Not like we’re going to need it in the 21st century. Yet it seems the priorities in terms of education are the ideologies behind the type of history taught in our schools and the flying of flags.
Most of us, by the way, actually don’t worry too much at all, despite the constant barrage of concerns we are told to have by the politicians and the media. Often mistaken for apathy, the political disengagement attributed to younger generations is actually a rejection of the politicians and the old divides.
Many friends with no interest in politics have told me they care strongly about some issues but don’t do anything because they don’t see how it will make a difference. They also do not relate at all to most political leaders, left or right. Instead we engage within our own, small sphere of influence. Our concerns are not manifest via activism, protest or anything overtly political - rather through our friends, purchasing choices, popular culture and entertainment.
Australians are smarter, more cynical, sensitive, independent and selfless than the generals of both sides believe.
Two examples - the war in Iraq and climate change - are for us, less issues of right versus left than of right versus wrong. The environment is still seen as an issue of the left despite almost unanimous concern across our society. Most Australians opposed, and still oppose, the Iraq adventure, not because of ideological positions but for the simple beliefs that it was a poor priority in a struggle against Islamic extremism, and an impossible dream.
At the ballot box next election, my concern is not which one to choose but what difference the choice will make. People wonder why our generation seems so disengaged from politics - sometimes ascribed to selfishness and ignorance. I think it’s because we’re waiting for our leaders, and the introspective system of factions and career politicians, to throw up something worth getting excited about.