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Humphrey McQueen says we MUST confront nationalism instead of wishing it away - angers the conservative left

NOTE: This is comment, not straight reporting. The thrust of McQueen's call to arms is, I think, represented fairly, and I am consulting my notes taken at the seminar, but a majority of the details in the paragraphs are my interpretations and feelings about tonight.

Humphrey McQueen attacked conservative-left thought on nationalism tonight at the Brisbane Social Forum.

[Conservative-Left - claiming to be Left while opposing most, if not all, change.]

Three speakers who appeared to have emotional stakes in conservative-left positions spoke passionately in favour of their views, but I judge (and I am biased) that they failed to win the hearts of most of the room.

The campaign against nationalism of many of the grouplets on the left is not aimed at changing minds, it is aimed at affirming moral superiority, McQueen contended.

(Not a direct quote, but from my notes made 4 hours ago)

Humphrey McQueen's seminar this afternoon at the Brisbane Social Forum (University of Queensland Student Union, St Lucia, Brisbane, Australia) was called 'Why Nationalism is Necessary' (its a reworking of a Shelley title about athiesm, he said).

McQueen started off by posing the question of how much nationalism the left needs. He takes for granted that we reject fascism, chauvanism, racism and so on, but what about patriotism? What about nativism? What about their historical roots and the fact that many people feel them?

What about the fact that many problems are specific to local conditions and need local solutions? Saying that some problems have a uniquely Australian solution would be common for at least several decades after a revolution.

McQueen spoke of the book 'Imagined Communities', (Amazon) by Benedict Anderson.

Not because he thinks it is a good book, in fact he thinks its message has been dangerously misconstrued leading to the idea that racism is caused by 'bad ideas' that we can just tell people to stop believing. Racism Solved! (Not).

But because he demands the left starts thinking about this:

What sort of imaginings - what ideas about community, society and humanity - will we have to offer people if we do sweep away the culture that stands now before us?

McQueen also insists that, by refusing to come up with a realistic approach to nationalism, we are ceding valuable ground to the Right. McQueen gave two examples of comments that had been made to him by people who identified as left:

1) "Australian nationalism is filth"

2) An activist used the words 'the maggot of racism' at the time of the Cronulla riots.

McQueen suggested that if an ordinary worker in Australia were to hear these comments, there is a good chance that that worker might think that you were calling her 'filth' or a 'maggot'. McQueens opinion seems to be that this might be unhelpful to us, if we are trying to win the culture war. This contention sparked some debate.

In fact McQueen had already stopped for discussion a couple of times. I had already drawn the fire of one of the conservative left by suggesting that any plan we come up with be just a couple of steps forward of where we are now, to allow for the willingness of people to change. I was accused of being elitist, and thinking that workers could not change (No, I said wouldn't actually. Difference).

An activist from the Socialist Action Group, who up till now I had thought was sensible, weighed in, saying that McQueen's argument was 'crap'. McQueen replied, 'You are the first person who has felt the need to swear', and the conservative who had criticised me said 'its not a swear word, its an ancient Anglo-Saxon word'. McQueen decided not to let pedantry stand in the way of scholarship and calmly explained that in our culture and language the word 'crap' has connotations of insult when applied to one's argument. Then the conservative expressed the view that criticising a female (for it was a female who had used the word 'crap') was sexist. Um...

Fortunately, a young woman with a contrary view and a North American accent spoke up soon saying that she was Australian ('despite my accent') and she would find comments such as 'filth' and 'maggot' offensive. It was clear to me to that this young woman's attitude on nationalism was far more likely to be close to the point of view to the average Australian than the attitudes of the conservatives who had spoken. That makes people like her far more useful than the conservative left.

When it came down to it, in a room of roughly 30 people (who had all paid A$40 to be there), only 3 could be found to strongly, passionately argue against McQueen's point of view. They had the floor for as long as they wanted, and they got to say the same things they always say. And they were heard. No one clapped, no one appeared to actively support them. I don't mean to say that every silent person disagreed with them, but nor were they stirring a great deal of enthusiasm amongst those who had come to listen.

There is no room to be smug. No plans were made. No problems were solved. All McQueen did tonight was demand we begin thinking about the cultural battles of Australia. But his call to arms was clear. Everyone in that room knows what he meant. And I am sure I saw people who want to do more than blame John Howard.

After the seminar broke up I told the young woman with the accent that I liked what she had said. To my surprise she said she was worried that the room disagreed with her (I think she misinterpreted the tense silence as everybody held back). But I told her that I thought the majority of the room would have been either on her side (well I meant or at least prepared to take her ideas seriously and respectfully and not shout her down, but that takes a while to say). I encouraged her to keep talking.

McQueen was not the only person at the Brisbane Social Forum whose views were at least not entirely orthodox. Deb Kilroy of Sisters Inside, Kim Pate from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Lillian Holt, a vice chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne, Caroline Lambert of WRANA, Rodney Croome (G) and Gai Lemon all stood out as people with enough different and interesting things to say to be well worth the effort. And they were just the speakers. I saw plenty of curious people - some of them still quite conservative in many ways - who can be argued with usefully.

The field can be ours if we take it.

NOTE: Humphrey McQueen (Amazon) is the author af A New Brittania (Amazon) and many other books.

tags: humphrey.mcqueen politics australia clearthink

NOTE: Comment deleted when new comment system set up to allow trackbacks. Comment linked to this article about Humphrey McQueen


will said...

I like Humphrey.

"For about the last 35 years, McQueen has been a self-employed writer, historian and Marxist intellectual, almost entirely outside both the advantages, fashions and restraints of the academic environment. In this he somewhat resembles Isaac Deutscher in a previous generation and another country, who produced his major work outside universities. In Australian intellectual life, McQueen occupies a niche a bit like that currently occupied in the UK by the impressive Marxist intellectual Terry Eagleton. In the sense that, like Eagleton, McQueen has remained grandly and effectively independent of the lunatic and transitory intellectual fashion of postmodernism and, again, like Eagleton, he has not tried at all (unlike many retreating Marxist intellectuals) to make concessions to the idiom, style or method of these bourgeois academic fashions. He and Eagleton have done something completely different. They have both developed and deepened classical Marxism in particular ways. In Humphrey's case, as part of his own intellectual evolution, he has explored and developed the Marxist method of Antonio Gramsci, without putting Gramsci to the crude opportunist uses that many Eurocommunist intellectuals do as part of their generalised shift to the political right."


David J said...

Thanks Will, I had not heard of Eagleton. I've dropped him into my del.ici.ous clearthink bookmarks