Windschuttle flips again
Henry Farrell pointed me to this Financial Times report of an interview (over lunch) with Keith Windschuttle, which begins with Windschuttle saying he regrets his involvement in the dispute over Australiaâ€™s Aboriginal history, seeing as a distraction from his ambition to write a polemical defence of Western civilisation, aimed at the US market, and make heaps of money in the process.
â€?If you have a reasonably big hit in America youâ€™re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars,â€? he says. â€œThatâ€™s my aim – to have a couple of big sellers and have a leisurely life.â€?
It is unclear how much of this is intended as tongue-in-cheek affectation, but itâ€™s certainly consistent with notable elements of Windschuttleâ€™s past career, which has been marked by repeated political and methodological somersaults.
Although a lot of attention has been focused on Windschuttleâ€™s political jump from Marxist left to Christian right, Iâ€™ve always been more interested in his shift in methodological stance. Having made his name as a defender of objective truth against politicised history in both left-wing and right-wing varieties, Windschuttle has become a practitioner of an extreme form of politicised history, and now looks ready to abandon any remaining links to the world of fact.
Windschuttle first became prominent with his book Unemployment, published in the 1970s, which was mainly a critique of the way unemployed people and the unemployment issue were presented in the media. He did similar work on the media during the 1980s. The underlying methodological viewpoint was straightforward enough: here is the objective reality and here is the way the media distorts it.
With this background, his 1994 book The Killing of History seemed naturally to fit into the genre of left-wing critiques of postmodernism epitomised by the Sokal hoax. Although Windschuttle went over the top at the end (attacking Popper of all people for being insufficiently attached to objective reality) and gave some indications of his shift to the right, the book as a whole did not seem to represent a big break with his past views. Notably, Windschuttle praised Henry Reynolds for sticking to factual account of conflicts between Aborigines and European settlers in Australia, and avoiding any flirtation with notions of socially constructed reality and so forth.
Whatever its original intent, The Killing of History was taken up enthusiastically by some US rightwingers, notably those associated with the New Criterion, and Windschuttle responded in kind, espousing overtly rightist positions for the first time.
From the viewpoint of Windschuttleâ€™s new admirers, however, objective reality is fine when it can be used a handy stick with which to beat left-wing postmodernists, but it takes second place to the rhetorical needs of the contemporary political struggle. As has become increasingly apparent under the Bush Administration, â€˜factsâ€™ are not of any significance in themselves, but only as they suit or fail to suit the interests of the Republican party at any given point.
This approach is exemplified by Windschuttleâ€™s writing on Australian history, most notably The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Windschuttleâ€™s approach, familiar from the right-wing blogosphere is that of a counsel for the defence of the European occupiers of Australia against any and all accusations of killing the Aboriginal inhabitants. All the usual mechanisms are deployed. Trivial errors on the part of opponents are blown up into causes celebre, witnesses of killings and massacres are slandered, and the victims are blamed for their own misfortune.
Despite its obvious biases though, Fabrication does not overtly depart from the idea of fact-based history. Windschuttle merely selects the facts that suit his case, ignores or seeks to discredit those that do not, and accuses his opponents of bias while denying his own.
In the end, though, even such limited obeisances to objectivity are inconsistent with the kind of mass-market success Windschuttle is seeking. The kind of large-scale claims about the moral and ethical perfection of European Christian civilisation that Windschuttleâ€™s target market wants to read cannot be supported by primary research or footnote-checking, any more than the politically-driven denunciations of â€˜dead white malesâ€™ that Windschuttle criticised in The Killing of History. Polemics of this kind rely on a sympathetic audience, willing to suspend disbelief as they are presented with claims that contradict well-established historical facts.
The basic problem for supporters of the polar positions in this debate is the obvious fact that, like all other civilisations, the European Christian civilisation is responsible for both great achievements and great crimes. It is possible to disagree about the relative balance of the two. But an approach like Windschuttleâ€™s, in which the crimes are absolutely denied is no more credible than the kind of revisionist history in which all the achievements of European civilisation are alleged to have been stolen from Arabs and Africans.