IT IS WIDELY BELIEVED that as we grow older we tend to look back
on earlier times in a spirit of generally unjustified nostalgia. Yet let
us suppose for a moment that life really was qualitatively better in certain
vital and readily identifiable ways thirty, forty or even fifty years ago.
Why has it become so impossible for us to admit this? The Prime Minister,
John Howard, was widely reviled recently when he suggested that Australia
was possibly a better place to live in the past. Foreseeably, Phillip Adams
was quick to point out that Australians were less prosperous and also more
apparently intolerant thirty years ago, so how could they possibly have
Since I have been living and working in Australia for only five years you may not think I am qualified to comment on this subject at all. But I would maintain that countries become strong and virtuous or weak and confused for much the same reasons wherever they are. The basic factors affecting humanity are much more universal than many people care to suppose.
I have been a cultural commentator now for about twenty-five years. I first came to Australia in 1994 to deliver a lecture entitled “The Meaning of Modern” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. With a title like that it was a wonder that anyone at all turned up, but since I spoke to a full auditorium I concluded that perhaps many knew me already from my writings in the British weekly the Spectator. I wrote every week in that journal from 1984 to 1995, when I took up my present appointment as national art correspondent for the Australian.
During my eleven years with the Spectator the theme to which I returned most often was the fundamental ways in which the phenomenon I described as the “rhetoric of radicalism” affects modern cultures. The rhetoric of radicalism is one of the most potent forces in society today, yet is essentially anti-intellectual. Perhaps its most damaging effect is the way it manages to sell the idea that ill-conceived and destructive initiatives are automatic examples of progress, and all who resist or obstruct them are reactionaries, conservatives or worse. The rhetoric of radicalism permeates so much of contemporary thought that many people have become inured to its essential intellectual dishonesty.
In fact, much of the rhetoric of radicalism can be traced back to a small number of lies and distortions, many of which have largely become hidden from view by the verbiage which has been constructed upon the framework of their basic fallacies.
I am reminded here of Jonathan Swift’s famous flea:
So, naturalists observe, a flea Hath smaller fleas that on him prey; And these have smaller fleas to bite ‘em
And so proceed ad infinitum. In art and culture in general, a whole superstructure can soon be built up on the back of a first, fundamental fallacy—rather like some giant inverted pyramid. The trick, from a progressivist point of view, is to get the first fallacy past the public’s guard while it is not paying proper attention, in order that the superstructure can later be built upon it. The seminal lie of radicalism is that all change is automatically for the better, even though much of our experience of life teaches us otherwise. It was on the basis of this simple lie that self-styled radicals were first able to seize and retain the moral high ground—and to pour hot oil from there on any doubters or dissenters below “If you disagree with us you are obstructing progress,” the radical yells, hoping nobody spots the basic flaw in this statement. For who among us is qualified to decide what constitutes progress? Naturally, self-styled progressives claim such decision-making as their exclusive prerogative. That is why senseless, destructive and otherwise ill-conceived initiatives continue to be sprung on us—in education especially—in the confident and generally justified belief that few will dare to oppose them. After all, who wants to be called a reactionary; a Luddite or a fascist? What makes moral cowards of so many is nothing more than a cultural confidence trick. This is not to say that genuine, professional risks do not exist for those who resist self-styled progressivist fashions. In certain fields such as education and the arts those who speak out against radical excess often pay for such candour with their jobs.
How did Western society allow itself to tumble into such an intellectually dishonest morass? The answer as in so many other cases, has been a general lack of vigilance and vision or will to safeguard our freedoms. By contrast, most of those who have been swept along by cultural fashions and catchphrases fail to foresee the likely consequences of their actions. Frequently they are too young to do so and, lacking knowledge of other political systems—an almost universal problem for young Australians—have no idea of the value of the system they are attempting to destroy. Coupled with this, our current cultural controllers are not always keen to own up to what their hidden agenda may be. Thus the true weight thrown behind supposedly progressivist art forms, say, is often cleverly concealed from us. This was one of the points I made in the first talk I gave in Australia, on “the meaning of modern”.
So here is a question to ask yourselves. Some hundreds of hugely prestigious and influential museums of modern art and modern collections exist in the world. But what exactly does modern mean in such a context? Two definitions are offered by most dictionaries for this much-used adjective: “of the present or recent times” and “new-fashioned, not antiquated”. While the first meaning refers simply to time, the second has to do with style and attitude. So is a major museum of modern art simply a repository for the best national and international art created in a given time span—say the past 100 years—irrespective of that art’s styles and attitudes? Or does the word modem refer here largely to the novelty of the art’s style and character? If, as I believe, museums of modern art are effective showcases for avant-gardist styles, where can we go to see the best non-avant-gardist art of the period?
The truth is that not a single publicly funded museum anywhere is devoted to such a purpose. In visual art, the rhetoric of radicalism holds total sway and we have been persuaded somehow to make novelty almost the sole effective index of quality. In fact, in art, the fundamental fallacy that change is automatically superior to continuity lies like a dead weight at the heart of our official cultures. It will certainly take some shifting.
However, as we can discover by examining all sorts of other areas of human activity, even cursorily, no guarantee truly exists anywhere that newer means better. By foolishly assuming that it does we are, in fact, at least as likely to regress culturally as to create any genuine advance.
Wherever a choice exists between radical and continuous traditions, this should be decided purely on its merits. Regrettably, the empty and intellectually dishonest rhetoric of radicalism usually intervenes here to ensure this does not happen. In a society in which the description “conservative” has become an automatic adjective of abuse, we are increasingly unlikely to conserve even those customs and practices which are of essential value to us. Indeed, the vital qualities necessary for human fulfilment are as likely as any to be sacrificed in a non-stop Gradin rush to achieve some new landmark of unnatural behaviour. Most of us know in our hearts that this is happening yet seem increasingly unable to prevent it.
EVEN BY the distant 1950s, the adjective modern had probably become
the most used—and abused—epithet in any advertiser’s armoury. Admonitions
to modernise our homes and to discard our old possessions and habits filled
almost every magazine, billboard and newspaper.
Since then, however, there has been a long series of reactions, as many people turned away from using modern convenience foods, say, or buying man-made fibres, to quote just two examples. They have turned increasingly to preparing their own food and to sleeping in the kind of linen or fine cotton sheets our great-grandparents might have recognised. More modern did not automatically mean better in these or umpteen other instances after all.
Why, then, have we been so slow to apply this lesson to more crucial areas of our lives, such as culture? Are modern morals and manners really likely to prove better in the long run than their traditional forerunners? While we may all know what traditional courtesy is, we live now in an age where modern courtesy has probably become a contradiction in terms.
So far I have talked largely about modernism rather than its mutant offspring, postmodernism. Yet, in a sense, modernist excess and reliance on rhetoric rather than argument to render such excess acceptable helped pave the way for postmodernism. For one thing, modernism helped reveal how complacent and disorganised a lot of traditionalist thinking had become. The revolutionaries of 1968 could hardly avoid seeing the Western liberal democracies of the time as ripe for the plucking. Thankfully, the baying of slogans still remains insufficient to bring most modern Western governments to their knees.
The unfortunate inhabitants of China were not so lucky, of course, the Red Guards of the time bringing murder, misery and mayhem to millions. The would-be Red Guards of the West ran into more serious obstacles in trying to wreck the democratic institutions they had targeted. People in the West had fought too long and too hard for their freedoms—and many had also witnessed at first hand the disagreeable realities of the Marxist systems which prevailed elsewhere.
But the Marxist-inspired revolutionary initiatives of the late 1960s did not simply go away. Driven by the teachings of influential figures such as the Italian Antonio Gramsci, the would-be subversives in our midst next targeted those more vulnerable areas of Western life which form the soft underbellies of our nations: education and the arts. If these could be subverted successfully from within, corrosion might soon succeed where political confrontation seemed likely to fail. Political programs which would not stand a prayer at the polls thus simply by-passed the inadequate defence mechanisms of democracy and achieved a choke-hold on our cultures instead. I do not think the communist parties in Australia or Britain ever polled even one per cent of the vote n general elections; yet Marxist ideas control much of tour contemporary education and culture. Centrist and right-of-centre governments in general have been too slow in identifying or reacting to this threat and now have a more or less intractable problem on their hands.
Observers like me, who once saw the excesses of late modernism as representing a major threat to Western Cultures could hardly have reckoned with the virulence of its postmodernist successor. To deal with postmodernism is like struggling with a Hydra—and one which constantly mutates. Among the Hydra’s heads we might begin with deconstruction, post-colonialism, revisionist history, gender theory, political correctness, multiculturalism and feminism. All share one basic characteristic, in taking their flavour from neo-Marxist theory, which may be identified clearly from a continuing passion for simplistic groupings, explanations and Would-be solutions. Content no longer with communism versus capitalism nor the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie we are now exhorted to believe that the true solution to all of modern society’s ills lies in warfare between men and women, blacks and whites, homosexuals and straights. An even more traditional, polarised antagonism—evil versus good—has been relegated to the sidelines as a kind of laughable anachronism. By its very age, the conflict between good and evil can be dismissed as irrelevant to contemporary problems. Instead, white heterosexual men are to blame for more or less everything—more especially so if they are British. The only worse-regarded group in Australia is probably the conservative theologians.
BACK IN THE 1970s, some of the earliest manifestations of political
correctness seemed so silly that intelligent people were more inclined
to ignore or laugh at them than bother to answer their allegations. In
the event, the folly was probably ours for failing to foresee how inexorably
political correctness and related movements would grow in stridency if
not in moral force. Perhaps we were guilty of the same strain of shortsightedness
as the French aristocrats who foolishly ignored the vengeful women who
would soon spend their days knitting away happily at the foot of the guillotine.
In postmodern. times, we ignore any example at all of apparent communal
madness at our peril. Next week could see it incorporated into a new by-law
passed by North Sydney or some other similarly militant council. Unwarranted
interference in our lives is no longer confined to culture, of course,
but can occur anywhere.
What at least some aspects of political correctness have done is to enfranchise the talentless, the resentful, and the shouters of slogans. Such folk aim to inherit what remains of our earth as rapidly as possible. Nor will there be any room in their world for even the most reasoned forms of dissent. I fear the land of the fair go may shortly be far gone unless we all wake up very rapidly.
It is not as though we have been short of warnings from excellent sources about the true nature of post-modernism. Typically, the fact that the distinguished American academic and art critic Roger Kimball was speaking in Melbourne about a year ago was not widely reported. Anyone who has not yet read Kimball’s book Tenured Radicals should right that omission straight away. Kimball was writing
about the United States, but parallels with Australian practice are far from difficult to find. Here is Kimball on Marxist teaching:
In good Marxist fashion, culture is denied autonomy and is reduced to being a coefficient of something else: class relations, sexual oppression, racial exploitation etc. Questions of artistic quality are systematically replaced with tests for political relevance, even as the whole realm of aesthetic experience is “demythologised” as an insidious bourgeois fiction designed to consolidate the cultural hegemony of the ruling class. The thought that there might be something uniquely valuable about culture taken on its own terms, that literature, for example, might have its own criteria of achievement and offer its own distinctive satisfactions that are independent of contemporary political battles-none of this seems to matter or indeed to be seriously considered by our multiculturalist radicals.
Far from demythologising anything, Marxist education-.1 radicals are in fact often creators themselves of a series of malignant myths. This is hardly surprising, since communist political regimes as a whole always depended heavily on lies, propaganda and the suppression of truth. However except in a few cases, even these inhuman measures failed to save them.
When I was living in England, a popular cultural joke was that, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the last genuine communist cells were to be found in Beverly Hills, the BBC and the staffrooms of any Western university. Marx remains the true puppet-master behind almost all postmodernist initiatives, including the growing antagonism and contempt for Christianity and organised religion of all kinds.
Basic Christian codes once underpinned society and the law in most Western countries. Sometimes these codes could seem sanctimonious, but much of the fabric of Western society once depended heavily on the cement they provided. When I was a boy, theft was very rare in rural England even though many people did not bother to lock their doors. I gather the same was true of Australia. I believe this was at least partly because a kind of secularised Christian code still prevailed. Certainly Christian fortitude was a major factor in helping Western families survive both the Second World War and the process of rebuilding during the 1950s. However, the 1960s saw a marked dilution of such sterling virtues, as improving prosperity led not to gratitude but to increasingly mindless hedonism. Until the 1960s, drugs were used by only a minute minority in Britain. Today in most Western countries three quarters of all urban crime is connected to drugs. Next time your car or house is ransacked or you are held up at knife point, do please offer a hymn of thanks to the sixties.
Pornography of all kinds also proliferated following the sixties. In its wake has followed the ready availability of hideous, ritualised violence in films, videos and toys even for the very young. That this was the kind of thing the future might hold would not have entered even the worst nightmares of most citizens in the fifties.
So was John Howard’s nostalgia for earlier decades unwarranted? Since the advent of postmodernism almost every worthwhile certainty and traditional virtue has not just been called into question but has come under increasing assault—usually in our centres of further education and supposed enlightenment. When the concepts of truth, honour, objectivity, altruism, justice and religious faith are treated with contempt or scepticism by those who instruct our young, is it any great wonder that some of the young should seek refuge in oblivion or narcolepsy?
Not surprisingly, those in the arts and education who are so keen to destroy Western democracy have nothing worthwhile to recommend in its place. Who, in their right minds, could have been sold the old myths of communism that the events of 1989 finally exposed once and for all? Perhaps what our would-be cultural commissars envisage is a kind of existential void, punctuated by further tightening of politically correct thumbscrews? They have wasted no time in replacing the commandments Moses brought down from the mountain with man-made inventions, such as Thou shalt not smile at nor otherwise flirt with members of the opposite sex in the street or in the workplace, even though in many countries the continuation of the human race has depended largely upon such manoeuvres.
But what about other main planks of postmodernist practice? Perhaps the most insidious of these has been the entirely negative, and largely self-defeating, quasi-academic process known as deconstruction. Deconstruction wilfully fails to see language as an excellent and poetic tool of communication and one in which the listener, also, can play a positive role by trying to perceive meaning even through veils of incoherence. The latter role will be a thoroughly familiar one to psychoanalysts, priests, pedagogues and parents. Deconstruction, which has helped wreck both the teaching of English and the joyful appreciation of literature, is a negative pseudoscience
with no positive end-product. But if you feel I am being over-harsh about the subject, this is what the estimable English philosopher
Roger Scruton, in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modem Culture, has to say about it:
What deconstruction sets before us is a profound mystery, which can be approached only through the incantation of invented words, through a Newspeak which deconstructs. its own meaning in the act of utterance. When at last the veil is lifted, we perceive a wondrous landscape: a world of negations, a world in which, wherever we look for presence we find absence, a world not of people but of vacant idols, offers, in the places where we seek for order, friendship and moral value, only the skeleton of power. There is no creation in this world, though it is full of cleverness—a cleverness actively depl6yed in the cause of Nothing. It is a world of uncreation, without hope or faith or love, since no “text" could possibly mean those transcendental things. It is a world in which negation has been endowed with the supreme instruments—power and intellect—so making absence into the all-embracing presence. It is, in short, the world of the Devil.
MOST ORDINARY PEOPLE remain as confused to this day about what postmodernism is as they do about its aims and origin. They are merely aware that a great number of things with which they disagree totally are slowly changing their lives.
So what is postmodernism? One easy answer is that it is radical relativism gone rampant. But the answer I prefer is that it represents an attempt to usher in a new kind of left-wing totalitarianism via the unlocked back doors of democracies. Postmodernism represents the neo-Marxist conquest of Western cultures by stealth. The profession of journalism in which I work is one of the last outposts of artistic thinking in which independent ideas may still be tolerated.
Determinists like to believe that what we think of as our independent and individual beings are mere products of social and environmental forces: the era and particular circumstances in which we grew up and were educated, for instance. But I do not believe in the inevitability of the consequences of such social processes at all. A number of people undoubtedly exist whose backgrounds are very similar to mine but with whom I do not share a single opinion. Fed roughly the same stimuli, we have somehow reached diametrically opposed views. The determining factor here—or so I believe—lies largely in our propensities to accept or reject fashionable theories. Thus people must exist somewhere who are entirely comfortable with the claim made by our national broadcaster that it is “your ABC”, whereas to me the fact that anyone should make such a claim ought to make us suspicious in itself. In fact, the real meaning of the slogan is clearly, “It’s our ABC. If you don’t like what we do, take a running jump.”
One of the most valuable responses any human being can develop is an instinct for plausibility. Note I do not use the word truth here in case there are tender, postmodernist sensibilities among us. Postmodernists claim that no such thing exists as truth in the singular. Indeed, in occasional moments of despair at the state of the world, I soothe myself by imagining conversations which might take place in post-modernist households: “Cathy and Andrew, we would like you to say who broke your little brother’s space rocket. We want you to tell the truths.”