A review of Meanjin (Vol 75, No 2)

Buskers_Fremantle_MarketsThe new issue of Meanjin arrives under a winter cloud. In a ‘note on funding’ placed next to his editorial, Jonathan Green announces that from 2017 the magazine will no longer receive financial support from the Australia Council, its application for four years of funding having been rejected in the last round of allocation decisions. Green expresses a hope that Meanjin can continue into the future, but with parallel-import restrictions on books under threat from the current government and publishers and writers feeling the pinch more generally as a result of the rise of digital publishing and widespread availability of free content, one is forced to wonder how many more winters the 75-year-old magazine can survive.

How appropriate, then, that this latest issue should take on the topic of the culture wars. For the administration of the arts has long been a question on which the cultural left and right divide, sometimes over the issue of what kind of magazines get funding from the relevant bodies, sometimes over the issue of whether writers and artists should receive any public money at all. For a certain kind of culture warrior – a conservative kind, obviously – the very idea that a magazine of new writing should a receive a wodge of taxpayers’ cash is prima facie evidence of the existence of a class of intellectuals detached from, and even hostile to, the priorities of the majority. Not only is the new issue of Meanjin concerned to analyse the culture wars; it is also, for this reason, an event within them.

For Mark Davis in ‘At War with Ourselves’ these wars are in their final stages, and it is precisely because they are in their final stages that they have turned so nasty in recent times; for him, Tony Abbott was the storm before the calm.Well, we’ll see: there have been some worrying signs lately, especially from across the Pacific, where ‘political correctness’ is again invoked as the summa as all that is wrong with the West. But whether or not he’s right about this, Davis understands the key point about the culture wars, which is that they are not a fight between identity politics on the one hand (the left hand) and anti-identity politics on the other, but a fight between two kinds of identity politics in which the right is as tribal and as prone to groupthink as it accuses its political enemies of being. Indeed, it is even more culpable, because in order to build its case against the left it both denies its own ‘elite’ status and lays the blame for working and middle-class grievances at the door of the various marginal groups whose causes the left has traditionally championed (not always in the most intelligent way possible). It thus stokes a kind of ‘downward envy’, which can, as Dennis Muller suggests in ‘Immigration, Asylum Seekers and Australia’, come to focus on any number of minorities, from Asians to Muslims to … whoever’s next.That these attitudes can coexist with a widespread celebration of Australian ‘tolerance’ – as Muller’s research for the Social Equity Institute at the University of Melbourne suggests they do – is evidence of just how complicated and fraught this issue is.

It’s fraught because Australia lacks ‘the assuredness of history and habit’ (Green). It is natural for a newish nation to argue about its character, and for its people to argue, as John Howard might have put it, about the circumstances in which they came. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that some of the most enlightening pieces in this issue of Meanjin are on Indigenous affairs. Glyn Davis and Ian Anderson’s survey of Aboriginal intellectuals, ‘The Hard Conversation’, will, I think, prove indispensible to anyone trying to pick their way through the debates on constitutional recognition and an Aboriginal treaty, while Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy’s essay on the origins of Australian football, ‘Marngrook, Tom Wills and the Continuing Denial of Indigenous History’, provides a fascinating and unlikely distillation of the issues and assorted motivations underlying ‘the history wars’, right down to the demands for documentary evidence where none could possibly exist. The idea that footy, or a version of it, might predate European settlement may not sound like a big deal. But the culture wars, as Mark Davis suggests, ‘are like a garden of rhizomatous weeds. Every incident is connected underground to other events, to ideas, to people, to institutions, to processes, as if by tendrils.’

There are weeds on both sides of the culture wars and my feeling is that this Meanjin would have benefited from a bit more analysis of (as opposed to from) the left. This is not a demand for ‘balance’ – an overrated property; it is simply to suggest that not everything conservatives say about the cultural left is wrong. Moreover, there are many people on the left who are uncomfortable with the way identity politics have come to replace economics and class as the principal focus of progressive struggle, and whose analyses are a lot more interesting than anything published in Quadrant (read Helen Razer or Guy Rundle on the Safe Schools controversy and you’ll see what I mean). Notwithstanding Alyx Gorman’s excellent piece, ‘Sexually Harassed on the Way to a Feminist Conference’, which raises some questions about the nature and scope of feminism in the liberal West, the culture wars tend to be treated as a problem of rightwing demagoguery only.

Then again, this review is appearing in the newspaper Mark Davis calls ‘a neoconservative Pravda’, so you can take it with a grain of salt. You can also rest assured that this issue of Meanjin comes packed with the usual dazzling range of poetry, short fiction, memoir and interviews (there is one with Clive James), and that this great magazine, if it doesn’t survive the funding cuts, will leave a gaping hole in Australian letters.

Jonathan Green (ed.), Meanjin: The Culture Wars

MUP; $24.99; 195pp

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This was first published in The Australian.