Australian Books

Winning the Cold War, losing the culture wars

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

Memoirs of a Slow Learner Peter Coleman

Connor Court, pp.190, $29.95, ISBN: 9781925138269

On the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day, many Eastern Europeans boycotted celebrations in Moscow, marking the day with a sombre ceremony in Gdansk, Poland instead.

It is a reminder that although the anti-Communists won the Cold War they did not win the peace. Indeed, the great conundrum of the culture wars is how the communist sympathisers, who comprehensively lost the ideological, economic and moral battles of the Cold War, have not only won the culture wars but won control of our cultural citadels – our universities, our arts funding bodies, our public broadcasters.

Memoirs of a Slow Learner, by Peter Coleman, first published in 1994 at the fulcrum of these two eras, as the Cold War ended and the culture wars began, and now republished with an appendix and a new introduction, gives us important clues as it takes us on a cultural journey through the ideological battles of the 20th century.

‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,’ wrote L.P. Hartley. And the Australia of the 1920s, when the author was born, does seem to be a foreign country. In those days, steel wool could be called Nigger Boy and the Royal Easter Show had dwarfs, freaks and the Mexican Rose, ‘the fattest woman in the world’.

Of course not everything is foreign. The young author is captivated by the coloured lights of Luna Park and the dark shadows of the bridge which shimmer on Sydney harbour while the men at his father’s parties talk of freethinkers and Trotskyists.

These old war stories reverberate with significance. The Australian nationalist and fascist Percy Stephensen, for example, is not only publishing Patrick White but Hitler’s speeches. Yet who of those who wages the culture wars today and celebrates the black armband view of history knows that Stephensen didn’t just call for the ‘de-Pommification’ of Australia, he sponsored a National Day of Mourning in 1938 to commemorate the British ‘invasion’ of Australia and demanded the abolition of imperial honours to be replaced with an Order of Australia?

As the bloody battles between Hitler and the allies are fought in Europe, the bohemians sit in Sherry’s coffee shop at 242 Pitt Street in Sydney discussing things ‘more important than the war’ and the tottering Menzies government chases votes by banning James Joyce’s Ulysses and a Greta Garbo rom-com about a woman who poses as her unmarried twin.

At Sydney University, a controversy surrounding the appointment of the eminent jurist Julius Stone has the whiff of closet anti-Semitism, an earlier incarnation of the same ugly sentiment that erupts these days when anyone on campus defends the Jewish state.

From the coffee shops and the campus revues, tellingly titled ‘I’d rather be Left’, the author takes us inside the fourth estate. We are there for the birth pangs of Encounter, the conception of Quadrant and the founding of the Observer.

There are coups and counter coups. Editors are sacked and reinstated. Awful editorials are written about the Russian threat in Antarctica headed, of course, ‘We warn the Tsar!’

The first edition of the Observer rolls off the press with pages printed upside down and in the wrong order.

Yet these are the publications and voices that speak up for the liberal West when Manning Clark praises the Soviet Union, that record the dispiriting conspiracy of silence when Eugene Goosens is being hounded and expose the anti-Americanism of the bien pensants.

A wonderful pageant of writers, poets, artists, critics, editors and politicians parade before the reader, long before they became famous – Robert Hughes, Bruce Beresford, Bob Hawke, a friend of the author who jokes that he kissed Peter Costello’s wife – the author’s daughter – before Costello, because he kissed her in the cradle.

But an era ‘in which people who disagreed on great issues could still talk to each other civilly’ was giving way to ‘a new period of intolerance.’

As the author writes, prophetically, ‘the inevitable abolition of censorship did not herald a new age of freedom. New battle lines were being drawn, as the old Vice Squad began to withdraw and the new Thought Police took up their positions.’

How true. When the Cold War was finally lost, the Left, far from admitting they were wrong, simply shifted the battleground from economics to the environment. The enemy is still capitalism but now we must sacrifice individual liberty and private enterprise not to achieve the workers’ paradise but to save the planet. The bourgeoisie is despised not for its ownership of private property but because of its carbon emissions. The dictatorship of the proletariat has given way to the dictatorship of climate activists.

And the new dictators are every bit as intolerant of dissent as the Stalinists were of the Trotskyists. For evidence we only have to look at how the University of Western Australia’s Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson was forced by a cabal of climate warriors to withdraw an offer to host a think tank headed by Bjorn Lomborg, the self-confessed sceptical environmentalist.

Lomborg is a statistician and a charismatic champion of cost benefit analysis. And therein lies the problem. It is not enough for the climate orthodoxy that Lomborg accepts the theory of global warming since in measuring the costs and benefits of climate change responses he exposes the profligate waste of the warriors’ pet policies.

In Memoirs of a Slow Learner the author quotes the great poet James McAuley who bemoans ‘this vacant, sly, neurotic world’ where schools and universities have made sure that there is ‘no fear at all the student will find out, what all those wars and poems are about’. In some ways, not much has changed in the 40 years since McAuley’s death. The thought police on the campus collectives are as vigilant as ever.

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Rebecca Weisser is a freelance writer

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