OPINION: Culture wars and conspiracy theories: The state of UK in 2020
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So much has happened to the world in 2020... Patrick Ward tries to make sense of it
Over the past year we have been dealing with a world in turmoil. Coronavirus has killed tens of thousands in the UK alone and has left countless people suffering the economic consequences. Meanwhile, Brexit drags on, racial injustice continues to spark protests internationally, scientists warn us with ever increasing urgency about the destruction of the climate and we remain under threat from whatever global catastrophe might result from the US president’s late-night Tweets.
But all too often it is another topic that hogs the national front pages – that of the so-called “culture war”. Sometimes it comes into the areas mentioned above, sometimes it takes on its own importance, but it’s always there, and it’s getting ever more divisive.
The culture war is a slippery subject and difficult to define, but it’s often framed as an ideological battle between those who want to retain certain cultures and traditions and those wanting to trash them all in the name of political correctness (now rebranded as “wokeness”). Artificial tribes have been created, with angry middle-aged Brexiters on one side and avocado-eating millennials on the other.
One of the starkest recent examples has been over Black Lives Matter (BLM). Somehow, a movement led by black and ethnic minority communities for equal treatment by law enforcement and other institutions became a row about pulling down statues and banning Little Britain.
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Minor incidents, like a blogger calling for Winston Churchill’s statue in London’s Parliament Square to be taken down, became amplified by sections of the press and then the prime minister himself. There was also a bizarre non-story earlier in the year, in which it was claimed that BLM activists were demanding that Rule, Brittania! be banned from Last Night of the Proms. In fact, the suggestion that the song should not be sung came from a BBC source – and was due to concerns over coronavirus.
Those original, entirely justifiable, demands for equality were quickly forgotten, as commentators became enraged instead at vastly exaggerated accounts of attempts to “erase history”.
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Of course, it’s all great clickbait in this digital era of news. It also allows politicians, perhaps not coming off so well in other areas, to attempt to elevate themselves to the position of defenders of a somehow threatened heritage.
But there is a dangerous new edge to this culture war, one which was thrown up during a debate on BLM in parliament on Wednesday, October 21, when Ipswich MP Tom Hunt used the phrase “cultural Marxism” to describe the movement’s aims. Little was said of this use of the phrase, but last year former Tory minister Suella Braverman was condemned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Hope Not Hate and others for using the term, which they described as anti-Semitic. Nigel Farage and several others have also used the phrase. As it gains this mainstream momentum, it’s important to know what they are talking about – whether they know it or not.
“Cultural Marxism” is a conspiracy theory based on the idea that a secret elite of Marxists are attempting to overthrown western democracy. It started life in Germany in the 1930s, where the term “Kulturbolshewismus” – “cultural Bolshevism” – was used to attack those said to be pursuing the agenda of “Jewish Bolshevism”. It had a new lease of life in far-right movements in the US in the 1980s, where it was used to encourage resistance to feminists, blacks, homosexuals and others who were said to be taking control of cultural institutions.
Not many people will have heard of “cultural Marxism”, which is, in some ways, the problem. It’s a dog whistle to those who genuinely believe this is how society works. And when people get angry about it, there can be horrific results.
It was cited by Norwegian fascist and mass murderer Anders Breivik in 2011 before he shot dead 69 children at Workers’ Youth League summer camp and killed a further eight people with a car bomb. It was also used by far-right activist Jack Renshaw, who plotted the assassination of a Labour MP in 2017.
But the thing about aspects of the culture war like this is that it’s an irreconcilable battle. You can’t argue for and against cultural Marxism, for example, because only one side believes it exists. It creates an “other” made up of ethnic minorities, women, LGBT people and whoever else happens to be part of it in the mind of the believer.
You only have to look across the Atlantic to see where these culture wars could take us when such conspiracies are embraced by senior politicians. A recent poll suggests that 61% of people in the US see the situation as so intractable that they believe a civil war is on the horizon. Whether that’s true or not, and these days I’d hate to guess, that’s pretty terrifying.