(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., March 7.)
It’s said that when someone once asked the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai about the impact of the French Revolution, he replied that it was too soon to say.
This was in the 1970s, nearly 200 years after the event.
The message from this is that historical patterns emerge slowly and it’s unwise to draw conclusions too soon. Nonetheless I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that 2018 will be recorded as the year when New Zealand was irrevocably drawn into the so-called culture wars – the global contest between neo-Marxists, who view Western civilisation as rotten and oppressive, and the upholders of traditional mainstream values and beliefs.
Consider the following:
It was the year when we had to acquire a new vocabulary to encompass previously unimagined variations of sexuality and gender identity. (I’ve learned that I’m “cisgender”, which means I identify with the gender “assigned” to me at birth, presumably on the flimsy basis that I had male organs.)
We became familiar with the word “transphobic”, for anyone who doesn’t unquestioningly comply with the agenda of transgender activists, and we learned a strange new adjective, “woke”, which denotes someone who has an ideologically correct line on issues such as gender politics, race and class oppression.
It was a year when we were encouraged to believe that far from being biologically determined, gender is a mere social construct, and that we should discard gender-specific pronouns such as “he” and “she” because they are tools of oppression.
It was the year when anyone who dared to dissent from the “woke” consensus on issues such as gender identity, multiculturalism and climate change risked being branded as a far-Right extremist and howled down.
It was the year when the sheer volume of white noise from a tiny but shrill minority of neo-Marxists almost succeeded in dominating the public conversation.
It was the year when the polarising effect of social media was magnified by algorithms that pushed people into extreme positions on both the Left and Right, to the extent that the centre-ground sometimes seemed almost to vanish from sight.
It was a year when universities, which were once places of edgy ideas and intellectual cut and thrust, slipped further into a state of rigid dogmatic conformity.
It was a year when free speech came under sustained attack, but in a highly selective way. Free speech was permissible if you belonged to an aggrieved minority, but not for anyone defending what might be called mainstream values. Then it became hate speech.
It was the year when people in positions of authority who should defend freedom of speech, such as Auckland mayor Phil Goff and Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, tried to prevent New Zealanders from being exposed to ideas that they decided were harmful.
It was the year when a biological accident of birth became the new Original Sin; when anyone who was white, middle-class and heterosexual, women as well as men, was deemed to occupy a position of privilege that disqualified them from expressing an opinion on anything.
It was a year in which that notion of “privilege” became ever broader, even to the extent that thin people were attacked for oppressing those who are overweight.
It was a year in which the once-honourable word “liberal” continued to be used, without a trace of irony, to describe people whose intolerance of differing opinions is the very opposite of liberalism.
It was the year when the New Zealand Left fractured in fascinating ways as the “old” far Left, which still believes in free speech, turned against the precious neo-Marxist Left which insists on the right not to be offended; and when hard-core feminists, who were accustomed to being at the cutting edge of sexual politics, suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being labelled as oppressors by the transgender lobby.
It was the year when anyone rash enough to express even mild scepticism about climate change was equated with the denialists who insist there was no Holocaust. And it was the year when we learned of a phenomenon called presentism, which seeks to deny history by erasing all reminders of our past that don’t align with 21st century moral judgments.
The good news is that the vast majority of New Zealanders, not being susceptible to bizarre political extremes, remained largely untouched by the ideological wars raging around them. If they’re aware of them, their attitude is probably one of mild bemusement at the absurdity of it all.
But the not-so-good news is that while those ordinary New Zealanders get on with their lives, neo-Marxists are seeking to reshape society in profound ways, and they have the ear of the political elites. Zhou Enlai would have found it fascinating.