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  • Theo Naylor Marlow

On Being Boring - The Culture Conflict

The ‘war’ part of ‘culture war’ is starting to seem increasingly apt. In a war, there are two sides. Upon whichever side you find yourself, the other is universally portrayed as evil and the cause for which your alliance is fighting is always considered the paragon of morality. You will not find a war where this is not the case, simply because it must be the case – it becomes harder to ordain murder when the people one wants to command don’t really see the point.

While there is no routine murder in this particular war, as much as many would like there to be, the similarities between culture war and everyday brutal conflict do certainly exist. Most of the issues that are commonly considered party to the culture war are caricatured as being binary, moral, arguments. There is a good side and bad side, or a bad side and good side, depends on who you ask…

Finally, like war, the culture war is unavoidable: it cannot be ignored, and to ignore it is to invite trouble. Unfortunately for those of a leftist disposition in this country, the Labour party appears to have taken it upon itself to shut its eyes to what is losing them votes. The party line has become: Brexit doesn’t matter, and we will never engage in the culture war – this is one such way to dissolve support.

Labour must take notice of the culture war if it is to win for it creates moral outrage, and moral outrage and division are very good at changing or reinforcing a person's vote. Currently, the left is on the losing side as it has become so easy to ‘own the libs’[1] in the media.

This seems to be the most salient reason as to why the left is slipping: left-wing parties are hesitant to engage on the cultural battlefield, and so allow the more ‘out there’ arguments to be subjected to conservative poking and prodding. This doesn’t tend to go well and poking soon turns to ridicule. Thus, what some might describe as the ‘radical left’ is paraded around as the village idiot of politics by rightists. Whether or not you like the ideas of the ‘radical left’ is irrelevant (I myself can find in it a panoply of good ideas) – what matters in a political field like the one we currently inhabit is a combination of how exciting and how sensible ideas can be, The current left-wing movement, at least in Britain is therefore being shafted from two sides: Keir Starmer is about the least exciting thing since Mother’s Pride, and by refusing to be cultural in political battles, he lets the Radical Liberal Democrat Labour Cultural Marxists and all their ‘silly’ ideas represent the progressive movement.

This allows the British acolytes of the diminutive Mr. Shapiro to paint ‘liberals’ as emotional and blinkered troublemakers. The fact is, however, that this is also a highly emotional and moralistic argument. The rightists of the ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ variety also find themselves entangled in their own irrational tirades against seemingly meaningless things (Mr Potato Head springs to mind).

More often than not this will calcify an already stubborn position: the traditional way that the left paints the right as evil bigots, and the contrapuntal view that the left are all stupid simply provokes more anger and contempt. Rather than being opposed on genuinely rational, political grounds, we have become defined instead by emotional positions with a tendency to provoke a kind of fury that few other things can achieve. This creates a set of divisive obsessions that come to define one’s political character: Brexit, racial justice, trans rights, abortion, gun rights …I won’t bore you. All things that are far from irrelevant, but as these issues become obsessional, they also become incredibly rancid cesspools of acrimony, as reactive elements overreact to these movements, they are lent far more importance than they deserve, and division becomes starker. It becomes all too easy to imagine the ‘whiny liberal’ or the ‘virulent racist’ as archetypal of a political persuasion, leading to further conflagration. These battles then eclipse the other, far more boring, parts of politics – I haven’t tried myself, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to rile up a crowd over interest rates[2]. Things such as this are left behind by the culture warriors, who allow economic policy to slip from their hands and into the remit of an existing establishment.

This is one thing that Tony Blair, the man who somehow cannot be exorcized from politics, gets right. His wording in a recent New Statesman article is ‘radical’ and ‘sensible.’ However I think ‘radical’ implies a certain level of thought needs to go into these policies. The recent spate of slightly unhinged popular ideas (border walls, sending refugees to Ascension Island etc.) demonstrates that ‘exciting’ would be a more accurate quotient for voter success. Now, I do doubt Blair’s propounded commitment to radicalism given that his premiership was marked by a remarkable devotion to the consensus and a strange desire for people to forget about politics until it came to voting Labour on polling day. Nevertheless, he represents a large part of those who vote for left-wing parties. These are voters who don’t identify much with the ‘theory’ of leftism and would rather vote for parties that they see bringing real change (as has been shown by Labour’s most recent tumble), and parties that they believe care about their issues – these issues are never purely economic: they are in large part cultural.

Herein lies the problem with Labour’s abject refusal to humour the Conservatives in the culture war. The fact is, it is important, it matters, and it wins votes. Brexit was practically won on emotion alone, even if those emotions may have been created by (with Dominic Cumming’s recent admittance) lies, with no basis in reality – they were, to put it another way, exciting. Preet Gill, the Shadow Secretary for International Development, said rather smugly that Labour would not do any sort of culture-warring. This cringey deployment of the party line (to a load of teenagers, too) perfectly summarises the relative boredom that Labour today engenders. Faced with a Tory party that is on one hand happy to stir up division and on the other is using all Labour’s policies, the party has defaulted to a defensive, stale position while hoping that everything will be alright[3]. Rather than falling back to the old echolalia that the Tories are corrupt, evil bastards, Labour might find some tonic in facing the problem presented to them head-on. This means engaging in culture fights on the behalf of those middling voters who can appreciate the seemingly honest, clowning nature of Boris Johnson, but also the benefits of a coherent Labour economic policy. To win, Labour will need to discredit the baseless optimism of Johnson, and also the cultural obsessions of him and his party on things like Brexit. This cannot be done by saying Brexit doesn’t matter – it must be met with an equally powerful message that is founded in real issues faced by real people[4]. This is the only way that the left will be able to take power and seize the economic initiative from the Conservatives. It will take a little pragmatism, but I think that is better than dying on a hill of principle.

[1] A pursuit which I discovered has its own Wikipedia page…take from that what you will.

[2] Unless, of course, there is some cultural fuel to get people angry in the first place. The culture war can serve as a convenient vehicle for the quotidian workings of democracy.

[3] Reading anything the Labour party releases, they seem positively convinced that Britain really really wants them to be in power, but for some reason doesn’t vote for them – according to Keir Starmer ‘Modern Britain is leaving the Tory party behind.’

[4] What I mean by real is that the left has a habit of becoming fixated on things that don’t matter to anyone outside of city centres – Kim Leadbeater actually used ‘concerns around Palestine’ as a part of her campaign in Batley and Spen, a Northern English town.

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