Social psychologists have long noted that a rise in fear of flying – a paradoxical result as flying has become more of a routine event in everyday life and many people become accustomed to it. Subsequent investigation found that frequent flying was the reason, as sudden panic attacks had a significant correlation to the nature of the trip.

As half the office-serf class flies around the country doing powerpoint presentations of the new wet wipes campaign ads to bored execs in Tucson, the thought that there is an infinitesimal chance that one might die screaming doing this, plunging to earth in a silver tube of death, tends to play on the mind a whole lot more than it does if you’re flying to your sick mother’s bedside. It’s not the risk of death, it’s the risk of futile, meaningless death that looses people’s screws.

All of which is an explanation of why I did not go to John Howard’s speech in Washington DC on Wednesday. It would have been a longshot anyway, but even had there been time it seemed to me that to go plunging earthwards somewhere over Kansas, on the way to voluntarily listen to an entire John Howard speech would have been just too much. That final descent would have been longer than my whole life to date, and unraveled it entirely, the sole consolation of dying en route to hear John Howard speak being that you would not actually have to hear John Howard speak.

In the end as the slavering record in The Oz demonstrated, it was the man at his best – laying the boredom like shagpile carpet, reporting back to head office. The speech was for winning the Irving Kristol Award, named after the co-called intellectual godfather of the neocons, partly responsible for taking an isolationist American right off on the frolicsome and disastrous adventures of military intervention and the idea that the world could be turned into a giant shopping-mall. Personal reflections on 10 years in power? Some reflection on changing conservative beliefs, etc etc? No it was boilerplate.

But the most interesting – the interesting – thing was that his take on the culture wars, noting that:

Those who hold to conservative values continue to face a major ideological battle.

The left liberal grip on educational institutions and large, though not all, sections of the media remains intense.

What? So did they win the culture wars or didn’t they? This is bad news. Janet Albrechtsen will be crying over one of those strange amateur-theatre-productions-of-Cabaret outfits she favours.

It’s entirely appropriate that Howard should be speaking to American Enterprise Institute as his first outing because much of his premiership involved a projection onto Australia of a quite different “culture wars” that occupied America through the 1990s. To the degree that the American culture wars weren’t themselves over-rated, they arose from the sharply different directions that two parts of America took – the coasts into sectoral prosperity based on the informations society and the new economy, with a social liberalism and identity politics arising from it, the middle of the country into slow decline, and a resort to traditional values of increasing literalness.

Nothing in Australia has compared to the two decades long fight in the US over abortion, or the belief by a good 30% of the population that they effectively been subject to a judicial coup in the matter of Roe vs Wade. In Australia, the abortion question has been settled in favour of pro-choice for decades, and won’t budge. If there was a cultural war on that, then liberals won it a long time ago. Ditto on a whole lot of issues, from no-fault divorce, censorship, sexual liberation, prison sentences, etc etc.

In many of the areas where the US cultural wars have been most furiously fought over – gay marriage for example – have never really raised themselves to the issue of cause celebres over here. To the frustration of some gay activists, the Australian gay community has never really elevated same-sex marriage to the status of the on-the-streets campaign, full test of liberty, as occurred in the US. The roots of the American culture wars go all the way back to the country’s founding by a movement that was half-Puritan fervour and half-Enlightenment liberalism – nothing like that ever happened in Australia. We are founded on improvisation and ideas of practicality.

And that really goes to the heart of John Howard’s reputation as the “greatest prime minister/worst prime minister” debate – prior to any question of that, what has to be asked is – what did the man fundamentally change, or put beyond change? His IR stuff is gone, the apology has been made, Iraq withdrawal has been announced, the new history syllabus is a dead-letter – and if Rudd keeps his word, the republic question will return again in his virtually certain second-term (made that much easier by the fact that no-one actually seems to want to be the Liberal party at the moment).

Howard will surely go down in history not as a Thatcher-style conservative agenda setter, but simply as a delayer, a ten-year obstruction. He never managed to convince the majority that the republic was a bad idea – he simply split the vote with a slick trick, putting it off for a few years. Armed with a chorus of conservatives calling for a different approach to aboriginal social problems, he pretty much left the existing system in place for 10 years, starved it of funding, and then used radical change as an election wedge at five minutes to midnight.

But that shouldn’t be a surprise – for a movement that comes down relentlessly on identity politics, Howard style conservatism was all that – obsessed with questions of blame, guilt, the verdict of history, the frikkin Don, etc etc etc.

The left loses when it overreaches itself, when it forgets that it is in fact forcing the march of history. Conservatism – American and Australian – stuffs up when it starts to believe its own line that it actually and perfectly represents the silent majority. American conservatism is in such a dire way it could have used a wake-up call from a friendly stranger. Instead it got another cup of Horlicks.

Normal service resumes next week. Nothing happened, except some dude set off a bomb outside a military recruiting centre in Times Square. For a primaries debate update read any previous column.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey