Interview with Mark Davis

Fear and Anxiety between the Generations. Culture Wars in Australia - and Elsewhere

[First published in Telepolis, German translation: ]

“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 cuture.

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 resources?

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 critics?

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 ideas.

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 agenda.

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 friends.

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 problem. 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 wars”?

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 globalization?

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