Straight, No Chaser: Culture warriors in the silly season

The summer ‘silly season’ has become the time for political parties and their supporters to roll out inflammatory ideas knowing they will get lots of coverage, as there is precious little other news around except sport.

At present, the comment columns of Denmark’s serious newspapers seem dominated by ‘culture warriors’ determined to combat the sins of ‘wokeness’ and identity politics. 

As might be expected, many of the actual debates have centred around universities and educational institutions. The authors of these polemics, such as Henrik Dahl from Liberal Alliance and Dansk Folkeparti’s Morten Messerschmidt, contend that academic freedom – and indeed, fundamental freedom of expression in general – is being compromised, and that the problems raised by ‘activists’ are vastly exaggerated. 

They also suggest that research work is being halted or not undertaken at all due to the fear of treading on the sensitive toes of ‘snowflakes’.

A Floydian slip
To put things in perspective, George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis was the final spark that unleashed a movement demanding justice for black people and an end to institutionalised racism. However, it soon became clear that it was not only about the United States. Black Lives Matter spread worldwide and became an umbrella organisation that opened up for the possibility of examining colonialism and slavery in more general terms.

At the same time, the #MeToo movement was again sweeping the globe and it was clear that feminists were not going to be fobbed off with the usual platitudes this time. Action was being demanded and offenders outed. In a third stream, LGBTQ+ people have been engaging in heated discussions about gender roles. ‘Identity Politics’ has now entered the mainstream.

Back in November last year, a furore was unleashed when a plaster copy of a bust of King Frederik V was thrown into the harbour by an anonymous group of students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts as a protest against Denmark’s contribution to the slave trade and colonialism. Was this iconoclasm, plain vandalism – or did the students have a point?

Statutory example
The event can certainly be seen in the context of statues of prominent Confederate generals being removed in the US, the battle to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College in Oxford and tipping the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent English slave owner, into the harbour in Bristol.

It’s easy to see how ‘privileged white males’ such as Dahl and Messerschmidt might feel threatened by all this; worrying for them, they may even have to open up a bit to new ideas and examine their own world view. On the other hand they can perhaps take consolation in the fact that a lot of it will blow over in time or remain in the halls of academe.

In the 1960s and 70s, the prevailing narrative purveyed by the right was that universities, educational institutions and the BBC were all hotbeds of Communist propaganda and brainwashing the nation’s youth into becoming virulent Marxists. The same thing was being said in Denmark as well.

No red dawn
However, the UK General Election of 1979 gave Margaret Thatcher a thumping majority of 43 seats and unleashed an unprecedented couple of decades of right-wing economic liberalism, Milton Friedman’s monetarism, the selling off of nationalised industries, the emasculation of trade unions and an increasing wealth-gap between rich and poor that is worse now than ever.

So despite what the prophets of doom and retired colonels said about a Marxist state, it just didn’t happen. Likewise, people discussing reappraisals of history, changing sexual and social roles and ‘identity politics’ are not going to bring down society either.

In fact, it is a sign of a healthy society that these issues are examined and that we learn from the process. True liberalism embraces tolerance and celebrates diversity.