geert lovink on 14 Oct 2000 01:15:03 -0000

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<nettime> Interview with Mark Davis

[First published in Telepolis, reposted with permission
German: ]

Fear and Anxiety between the Generations
Culture Wars in Australia - and Elsewhere
An Interview with Mark Davis
By Geert Lovink

"Young people just can't get it right. They're either full of piercings or
complete prudes. Whatever the case, they just aren't it", writes Mark Davis,
a Melbourne based critic in his "Gangland, Cultural Elites and the New
Generationalism", a book which was widely discussed in Australia. According
to Davis the postwar generation, born between 1945-1960, has gained firm
control over the media. They are using this power, not only debate their own
moralistic elitist topics, but increasing also as a backlash campaign
against youngers. Ecstasy, rave parties, Internet and mobile phone use,
street violence, brand clothes, lack of idealism. There is always something
to complain - and call in the police for. The flower-power generation,
thirty years later on, has gotten obsessed by moral panics and anxieties
that detect a deep-seated fear of change. "Gangland" is full of Australian
names of writers, journalists and scandals, I had not heard of before,
though the patterns are visible throughout the Western world. Douglas
Coupland"s "Generation X" was an earlier, literate attempt to ironize
similar issues. Mark Davis comes with evidence about the dark underbelly of
the political correctness generation. I met Mark Davis, in a café in
Fitzroy, Melbourne, where he arrived by motorcycle. A determined, balanced
personality, dealing with a number of delicate underlying topics of today's

GL: What do you think of the present political situation in Australia, in
this Olympic year?

MD: Australia is like many other Western countries; in the middle of a shift
to the right, and weighed down by an entrenched group of intellectuals who
have been around since the 1970s, and who dominate the media, but who have
very little in the way of new ideas. At the same time, we have our own
particular cross to bear in the shape of the failure of white people to come
to terms with the proper recognition of the rights of Aboriginal
Australians. The right has been very active on this front, too. Especially
the present government, which has steadfastly refused to move towards
reconciliation or a treaty between black and white Australians, mainly on
the basis that it would somehow destabilise "national unity".

GL: How do you think this will change? With a changeover of generations, so
that a new bunch of intellectuals and thinkers takes over?

MD: No, I think it's a mistake to think of the problems as a simple
generational thing. That reduces things to the level of individuals, when in
fact the problems are structural and have something to do with the promotion
of a specific kind of ideas culture within the mainstream media because it
suits vested corporate interests.

GL: In "Gangland" you question the whole idea of generationalism.

MD: Yes, the division of people into generations is a media product that
gets us nowhere. It makes for good copy, but that's about it, "wow, another
article about baby-boomers and gen-x". For me the real interest is in
examining, and putting together a popular history of intellectual
traditions, especially recent traditions of high-culture elitism, white
liberalism and colonialism as they have been practised by a very influential
and well-connected post-1960s liberal elite. It is about counteracting the
insidious aspects of these intellectual traditions - and working towards
creating new traditions with new ideas. Let"s face it. We are living in a
media-saturated society. Lyotard was at least a tiny bit wrong. The grand
narratives have not disappeared. The media is the new transcendental
signifier, the new grand narrative. Along with "culture", which is another
term that has become indispensable to the way people narrate the present.
Given this new situation, what pragmatic solutions can we offer when it
comes to facing the problems of social inequality, justice, access, lack of

GL: The first edition of "Gangland" appeared in 1997. You have added three
new chapters for the 1999 second edition. You felt the urge to answer your

MD: I wanted to bring the book up to date, and to put a bit more edge on it.
The twelve chapters of the first edition were more "writerly" as Roland
Barthes might have said. They were open-ended as a way of making the book
more involving and fun to read, often reading issues-based non-fiction is
like being told to "eat your greens". The alternative media and average
readers seemed to have no trouble whatsoever understanding and enjoying the
book, but a lot of mainstream commentary about the book was reductive and
failed to understand that I was speaking largely about a specific cultural
formation: left leaning liberals who rose to prominence as commentators in
the early seventies, and their roles as members of cultural "gangs" who
police a certain set of ideas, often at the expense of new ideas and younger
people. So the new chapters in the second edition seek to clarify some of
those issues.

Mind you, the fact that some mainstream journalists and reviewers chose to
misrepresent the book might have had something to do with the fact that
their work was discussed in the book.

But one thing that did surprise me about the reception of the first edition
is that so little was said about the book"s tacit emphasis on race issues.
If the seventies soft left has been using generationalism and youth-bashing
as a cultural strategy and the new right has been using generationalism and
youth-bashing as a political strategy, then in the latter case young
Aborigines have borne the brunt of mandatory sentencing and other measures
designed to curb the "youth menace". Yet in all the publicity I did for the
book, nearly 100 interviews, I was asked about race only once, on SBS radio.
One Aboriginal reader told me how refreshing it was to read a "whitefella
book" that naturally assumed that the concerns of young Aborigines were of
general interest, but the media were silent on the race component in
contemporary youth issues. I take it this is because of the wider problems
the book talks about.

The left liberals who I speak about in the book practice a cultural politics
that is remarkably similar to the old white colonial liberalism that they
profess to oppose. They practice what they call "tolerance" but in fact
operate within and perpetuate what is largely a white, middle class cultural
space. We are not talking here about baby boomers keeping young people out
of jobs. We are talking white racist hegemony, the kind of subtle racism
that makes the soft liberal left as bad as the new right.

GL: Would it make sense to blame these leftist liberals for a betrayal of
their own ideas? It is thirty years since they had their revolutionary

MD: I'd like to say two things to them. First of all, you have failed. You
have loomed very large on the cultural landscape, yet, over the last five or
ten years and in spite of all the remedies soft left liberalism pretended to
offer, we have seen an unprecedented growth in hardcore white backlash
racism. Second, hand over your power and access to resources, funding, media
space and so on, and let others speak. You haven't changed or developed your
ideas to cope with the changing geo-political circumstances, to do with,
say, decolonisation and globalisation, so make room for those who know a
little more about these things. That's the sad thing, liberalism might have
preached tolerance, but it never truly opened the door to other voices. It
never practiced inclusiveness. Up until Mabo and Wik made Aboriginal voices
difficult to ignore, mainstream liberals, for example, paid almost no
attention to the black intellectuals that emerged throughout the 1980s and
early 90s. They were too interested in speaking for people, and not
interested enough in letting others" speak.

GL: What is your view on the so-called long march through the institutions?

MD: Conservatives love to talk about how the left supposedly dominates
social institutions, having imposed it's own brand of so-called political
correctness on things, but the facts don't bear the argument out. Most of
the social reforms of the 1970s and 1980s were in fact sponsored by the
mainstream as a common sense response to nagging social justice issues, and
since then many of those reforms have been rolled back. Conservative talk of
the long march through the institutions tends to function as a smokescreen
for the triumphs of the new right, and especially the triumph of free-market
economics, since the mid-1970s. It's true that during the eighties and
nineties the academy functioned as a bit of a haven for the left, as an
engine room for theory and thinking, for instance. For example, universities
are one of the major places where feminist theorising and organising takes
place. But the academy has also been one of the places most clearly under
attack by the right and in the popular media. In the case of feminism,
recanting figures such as Bettina Arndt and Helen Garner have been given the
lion's share of space to dominate mainstream discussions about feminism.
Academic life, too, is increasingly structured in such a way as to
discourage public interventions by academics. Academics gain promotion
through a points system that privileges publications in peer refereed
journals over more clearly public work, such as speaking at festivals or
publishing on the web or in newspapers. So you tend not to hear academic
voices in mainstream discussions about social issues, or else those who do
pop their head up are quickly demonised, like the academic feminists Garner
attacked in "The First Stone".

But I get annoyed with the academic left too. For example, I subscribe to
one of the major academic post-colonial email lists and there wasn"t a
single reference on that list to the human rights disaster in East-Timor.
Not one posting. At about the same time Edward Said was slandered in the
Israeli press and the list exploded. Rightly so, too, but why the emphasis
on academic reputation over more fundamental issues?

GL: How does the particular generation you are writing about relate to the
rise of the new media and the Internet?

MD: In a word, badly. They tend to write about it as if its just been
discovered, and they"re going to be the one to tell everyone all about it.
Moral panic seems to be the order of the day, except for a few who become
baby-boomer techno-evangelists. The conservative journalist Paul Sheehan,
author of the notorious anti-multiculturalism book, "Among the Barbarians",
recently made the "big discovery" and wrote an article about it in the
Sydney Morning Herald. Pornography was his big worry. Most of these people
are patriarchal moralists by habit, so the Internet creates huge anxieties
for them. I suspect that in the internet they see the spectre of the
possibility that they may lose control over the cultural and therefore moral

GL: Why are they not libertarians, free thinkers?

MD: Many of the present day cultural establishment had something to do with
the post-war libertarian culture that flourished mainly in Sydney. Robert
Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James, PP McGuinness and so on all had
walk-ons. One part split off and affected to stay libertarians in one weird
way or another, like Germaine Greer, the others became cold warriors. Except
for Clive James. He became a monarchist. Whatever the case, they lost it
when it came to Libertarianism. The other major Australian cultural centre,
Melbourne, never had much of a libertarian tradition. It's more for your
"get-your-hands-out-of-your-pockets-son" moralist types. Robert Manne and

GL: What effect do you think new media such as the internet will have on
these people in their role as commentators?

MD: I think they're fucked already. Politicians don't bother with them much
any more. Whereas once they used to rely on key columnists for backing,
these days they go straight to the public via talkback radio. And no-one on
the left who is seriously interested in getting things done bothers with the
columnists either. I mean, do you read them without some degree of
skepticism? Do you know anyone who does? Look at the op-ed commentary on
globalisation in the papers, even when their heart is in the right place,
the level of analysis is pathetic. People who want to get things done do
what professional pollies do; we bypass the mainstream media, except that we
use email, not talkback radio. Obviously it's quite possible now to be
well-informed without recourse to the "old" media, but still they plow on,
especially the broadsheet press, as if these are still the glory days,
constantly fiddling with their typefaces and design as if that's the
But I think those of us who are committed to new media such as the web
should also be careful of thinking about the Internet as a virtue in itself.
In talking about the Internet as a space of liberation it pays to also keep
in mind that the most popular website in Australia, NineMSN, is owned by
Australia"s richest man, Kerry Packer. And despite their use of talkback,
politicians have a very old-fashioned media model. Even though the Internet
might be giving the mainstream media a fright, television, radio and print
are still used by politicians as the index of public opinion, not the
Internet. Even Radio-JJJ, a youth radio station with a huge reach is not on
the pollies" map. One problem with the web is that as yet it's not a form of
media that can be used to set a national agenda, which is something that a
newspaper can still do.

GL: How has culture been defined and how did we end up in the "culture

MD: In the first instance, the most recent bout of  "culture wars" is about
what happened in the United States during the eighties, the attacks against
minorities, so-called "political correctness" and so on, sponsored by the
Reagan Republicans and fellow-travellers. When I say "most recent", we need
to remember that there have always been battles over culture and battles
over meaning and resources, which is what the "culture wars" nakedly are in
their most recent guise. In many respects Reagan was building on the "divide
and rule" politics of Thatcher, and Enoch Powell before her, to create a
powerful set of ideas that could be used to set the working-class left
against the middlebrow left, with the suggestion that the former would be
better off voting conservative than letting their jobs and livelihoods be
threatened by the "trendy" minority causes of the latter, "wedge politics",
as it is called. Or wog, women and poofter bashing, to be less polite. But
the difference in the US, and the thing that really kicked off the culture
wars in the 1980s and, were the huge resources poured into the Republican
propaganda effort, most of it corporate money disbursed through right wing
foundations, think-tanks and PR companies.

A major legacy of the culture wars, kindly endowed by those who have been
recipients of so much in the way of foundation grants, Irving Kristol,
Dinesh D'Souza, Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and so on, has really boiled
down to an attempt to attack and redefine the notion of equality. The
economic idea of the "level playing field" has been used to suggest that any
interventionist redistribution of funds to the needy or the dispossessed, is
itself wrong because it shows bias. So, on these grounds, we've recently
seen the outlawing of affirmative action in some US states. These ideas have
filtered through to Australia, too, in the policies of Pauline Hanson and
John Howard. According to Hanson it's racist to offer aid to any particular
group on the basis of ethnic background, specifically Aborigines. Never mind
that the life expectancy of Aborigines is two-thirds that of white
Australians. Howard has won two elections so far by cleverly appealing to
voters in what were formerly Labor party seats, using a rhetoric of race and
cleverly coded white suprematism. Again, this was the great triumph of
figures such as D'Souza, Bloom, and mainstays of the US right such as Pat
Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh, to develop a coded white suprematism that looked
like a rhetoric of equality.
Talk about the "culture wars" always sounds like so much political theory,
but they have had real social effects. In Australia one effect of the
migrant- and Abo-bashing that has gone on has been the creation of a
ghettoized impoverished non-white urban poor, a group you almost never hear
about in the mainstream media. After his 1996 victory one of Howard's first
acts, per a much vaunted campaign promise, was to deny new immigrants access
to welfare for two years. So, if you get sick, or lose your job, you"re
fucked. It"s a sad thing to see in a country that just a few decades ago
used to help immigrants to come out here with assisted passages. Back in the
old days when almost all new immigrants were white, that is. A buyer's
market has sprung up to exploit the desperation of the new immigrant poor. A
few blocks from here there are places where there are people doing piecework
for 70 cents an hour, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, without any social
security, no injury cover, not even a contract for ongoing work. But Howard'
s policy was a popular policy. What it said to white Australian voters is
that migrants were getting too much. After arrival they were going straight
on unemployment benefits. We have to stop this because it is going on the
expense of white Australian mainstream, a mainstream, of course, who were
hurting because of globalisation, downsizing, de-industrialisation and so
on, and vulnerable to political manipulation, all brought to you by our
friends on the new right.

One sad thing about the "culture wars" is how much of the old liberal left
has been co-opted into that attack, having also learned to whinge about "PC"
and so-called "victim-politics", without even realising what happened to
them. They've all got very good at bashing academics, and especially those
who purvey cultural studies and the "new humanities", as they are called,
most of it is just parroting the sorts of epithets you find in the sorts of
books by Bloom or Kimball, that were fashionable in the US in the late 80s
and early 90s.

GL: What strikes me is that, despite all efforts of cultural studies people
to enjoy popular culture, the boundaries between hi and low culture are
still in place.

MD: No, the mainstream media is still right on the case there. For example,
an Australian media theorist, Catharine Lumby, recently wrote a book about
this, called "Gotcha". It deals with the "tabloidization" of news, and why
this is not always a bad thing. Tabloid television has often helped working
class people to get more rights and advantages. But the incredible thing
about the book and Lumby's work in general, is how hostile the reception has
been. Often vehement. And always by people protecting that old high-low
culture divide. Journalists putting on airs have almost queued up to have a
go at her, to defend the idea that broad sheet newspapers is where the real
discourse of society takes place. High culture, you see, is a precious thing
that of itself needs to be protected from any incursion of popular culture,
"the barbarians are at the gates", as one columnist wrote in an attack on
cultural studies. He mentioned "visigoths", which, to my mind, makes the
racist undertone here fairly explicit. They like to speak as if this attack
on high culture comes mainly from within the universities, but really the
barbarians" are the same people they always were, those who the system
excludes, who are locked "outside" it. Non-whites, women. All universities
did, of course, was respond to changing patterns in enrolments, themselves
followed changing social structures, by putting on courses that dealt with
the concerns of their new student bodies. People were starting to ask
embarrassing questions. Again, when you look at books like Bloom"s "Fraying
of the American Mind", alongside its advocacy for a return to a high-culture
oriented humanities, it argues for a rolling back of the affirmative action
programmes that saw so many new black students enter university in the
1980s. "Popular culture", in Bloom, means "black culture". In the Australian
version of the debate, it also means working class and migrant culture, and
the types of media considered more likely to be consumed by women.

GL: How does this elite culture deal with the effect of new media and the
Internet on the high-low divide?

MD: There's a TV-program on the public broadcaster, the ABC, called the Arts
Show. They interview painters or theatre people, and every now and then they
have something on new media, or arts practices that use new media. Pure
tokenism. They know they can't ignore it, but they don't know how to deal
with it either. They always emphasize the newness of it, the novelty, but
then don't know what to say. The show has very low ratings. They back a kind
of pseudo modernist high culture with a dash of pretended diversity, but can
't get the audiences any more. No-one is much interested. But the thing that
amuses me is that the show is on at 10.00 PM, which is one of the busiest
times of day for people surfing the net. People have already started using
alternative technologies but the old-guard of the media doesn"t know what to
do. The ABC actually has a very popular web-site, but from what I hear on
the inside the radio and TV staff tend to treat is as an adjunct; a spot for
filing transcripts. They're still in the business of broadcasting and
educating "the masses", when all the rest of us live in a world adapted to
narrowcasting. The broader problem being, of course, for those of us
interested in social change, that narrow-cast audiences tend to be
fragmented, all of us sitting looking at different web-pages, and cohere
into social movements very unevenly.

GL: One of the obstacles is that we are defending cultural identities, while
being aware that they dividing us too.

MD: In "Gangland" I asked what a post-Fordist democracy might look like. If
the old vertically integrated cultural hierarchies are slowly breaking down
into a horizontally integrated world where people famously have lots of
choices and little in the way of loyalties, then how do you collectively run
a democracy given a society which is at some level broken into
identity-based groups, many of whom are getting different information to
each other? What are the things that unite people? How might difference be
accommodated? It's imperative that difference be put on the broader social
agenda, but important, too, that difference doesn't become a fetish. What
interests do diverse groups share? Cheap nationalism and populism have
tended to be the mainstream political responses to such questions, or else
silence. Yet, taking the longer view, there's not much new here. These are
old questions that strike at the very issues that democracy was designed to
deal with in the first place. Popular nationalism might try to deal with the
problems by resorting to a crude logic of sameness, instead we need to
develop a sophisticated democracy of difference. I don't see the broader
democratic project as being incompatible with identity politics.

GL: How would you, in this respect, respond to the challenges of

MD: The thing to remember about globalisation is that you're paying for it.
You are not powerless. The so-called Third World is paying for it with their
flesh, and the so-called First World are paying for it with cash. Or credit
card, actually, in my case. But no-one here is necessarily without agency.
What we do need, though, is a sense of collectivity, a contemporary theory
of collectivity, and a will to demystify some of the crap that passes for
analysis of globalisation. It needs to be understood that globalisation,
being many things, doesn't only have bad effects. The world academic
community is an interesting globally integrated structure. So is the
internet. So let's not speak of globalization as something monolithic. Like
the Internet it's not one thing. It's open to subversion. Breaking things
down, there's a whole set of smaller, more manageable problems to be dealt
with here, and available strategies, one of which, from my point of view as
a writer, is to demystify how the global economic project has worked at the
level of specific local party-political strategising, so that readers can
dissemble some of the truisms and nonsense they are offered by politicians
and commentators.

GL: Could you say about your research method? Your way of arguing is based
on empirical research, going like a private investigator through clippings
to collect evidence.

MD: A basis in empirical research it makes it harder for critics to dismiss
my work as yet another set of media theories. I also think it's important to
"name names", to make people stand up and accept responsibility for their
work. It's also related to my working-class Labor politics background. Many
of my family have a background as unionists and having been brought up in
that environment I tend to think in terms of concrete outcomes. I don't want
to just produce a bit of theory and send it out into the world. I want to
have targeted effects. I want to influence policy and see changes. But there
is also a strong theoretical underpinning to my work. I see myself as being
in the business of making small tools people can use to demystify things
they come up against in everyday life. That's about it.

GL: What are you working on now?

MD: I'm researching a book on the new right and the emerging political
populism of the eighties and nineties, through to the present. Sounds
boring, I know, but I can promise you, it will be a thriller. It's a great
story. The book will be a kind of secret history of the present. I hope
people will find it useful. That's all I want really. I'm not John Pilger or
Noam Chomsky, the writer as hero-prophet, all I want is for people to
discover something useful. That's it.

Homepage of Mark Davis:
Mark Davis, Gangland, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, Australia, 1997/99

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