Thursday, September 04, 2008

On class, prejudice and the 'culture wars'

Brought up in a good left-wing family as I was, I learned to understand the various positions people took on the political spectrum - and why they held them: we, the left, have reasons for what we believe; they, the right, have prejudices. And prejudice, as we all know, is a Bad Thing.

Then I grew up. I can't chart exactly how and why I was disabused of this childish notion that being left was somehow to be less afflicted with prejudice than the right. Reading Burke was part of it - along with a question my political theory lecturer asked, which unsettled me greatly. He said, "How is democracy justified?" If you're like I was, you never imagined an answer to this question was necessary.

Plus there was a variety of influences. I wouldn't say I was 'mugged by reality' - not least because this is conventionally used to describe a political journey that I haven't actually taken. But in my experience, actually talking to people has a way of denting one's pristine ideological positions. Take abortion. I appreciate it's a controversial issue. In my youth I formulated an impeccably liberal take on the subject. I would like to say I was motivated by an understanding of science, of the right of women to control their own bodies and all that liberal jive - but the truth is, it was largely based on a deep sense of revulsion towards the sort of people who picket abortion clinics and who hector and harass young women who have felt themselves compelled to make this awful decision.

I don't now favour prohibition but my attitude has changed quite substantially. It may be self-deception but the thing that has changed my mind more than anything else is actually talking to women who have had abortions. To say that their account differed slightly to the Guardianista narrative would be something of an understatement, to say no more than that.

My point is that at no time did anyone challenge or dismiss my views on this subject as 'prejudiced', yet undoubtedly they were. One could multiply the examples but I'll pick one that is salient to the whole hoo hah about the selection of Ms Palin as McCain's running mate - and it's the whole issue of gun-ownership. Guns? Don't like them - partly because I have nightmares about what Glasgow would be like were these readily available in the way they are in the US. I also think the 'democratisation of weaponry' argument that is used to defend them is absurd. Buuuuut - I really don't believe that people's attitudes towards this issue in the States, or here for that matter, is decided on evidence alone - or indeed on that much evidence at all. For 'gun-owners' read 'stupid rednecks' and I'm afraid I sense a whiff of a rural-urban divide and, beyond this, more than a little class hatred. I made a comment here, which I stand by: opposition to fox-hunting had many arguments in its favour but those who opposed it were, in my view, often motivated by hatred of toffs. A lot of people may sympathise I dare say - but what we might want to consider here is whether on this issue the class hostility isn't the other way around?

Went to Texas once. Met a few of the sort of people who are not so secretly despised by high ranking Democrats, along with their fans in the British media - who tend to make rather less of a secret about it. Reality again collides with stereotype. Came across people who were church-going, fans of guns - but condemned racism and, to my surprise, were strongly in favour of what the Americans call 'socialised medicine'. But inconsistently liberal so dismissed by the sort of 'liberals' who demand that everyone become replicas of themselves. Which brings me to this from Sunny Hundal:
"The bottom line is - its time for Democrats, and the left in general, to learn how to fight and win the culture wars. Attacking Palin as a religious nut might annoy the hell out of the Republican base, but they’re not the majority of the country. It will rouse the Democrat base and also bring over the Independents - who are the ones deciding the election."
One could take issue at length with the notion that elections in the US are decided on 'cultural issues'. I seem to remember the most successful Democrat in living memory had as the focus of his campaign that "it's the economy, stupid". One could also add that the notion that elections in the US are decided on "cultural issues" is a myth; all the available evidence suggests that Democrat voters are more likely to be working class, favour welfare, "socialised medicine", increases in the minimum wage, trades union rights and so on. But they are let down by a pusillanimous leadership who are afraid to even hint at taking on the neo-liberal consensus. Here's where the "culture wars" comes in: the idea that this is where the "left" should fight is a counsel of despair because it is an acceptance of the narcissism of small differences that is partisan politics in America. Small differences that are a direct result of the Democrats' failure to adopt anything that even resembles a social democratic platform.

But beyond this, even if this were not so, there would be little chance of the Democrats and their British supporters winning any "culture war". Because any such "war" would involve - if I could borrow a rather over-used expression - winning "hearts and minds". How likely are you to be successful when your idea of persuasion lies solely in the notion that while your opponents have the monopoly on prejudice and stupidity, you have it when it comes to rationality and intelligence? Pretty fucking unlikely, I would have thought.

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