Windschuttle flips again

by John Q on September 13, 2005

Henry pointed me to this Financial Times report of an interview (over lunch) with rightwing Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, which begins with Windschuttle saying he regrets his involvement in the dispute over Australia’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.

”If you have a reasonably big hit in America you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “That’s my aim – to have a couple of big sellers and have a leisurely life.”

It is unclear how much of this is intended as tongue-in-cheek affectation, but it’s certainly consistent with notable elements of Windschuttle’s past career, which has been marked by repeated political and methodological somersaults.

Although a lot of attention has been focused on Windschuttle’s political jump from Marxist left to Christian right, I’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 leading leftwing historian 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 Windschuttle’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, ‘facts’ 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 Windschuttle’s writing on Australian history, most notably The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Windschuttle’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 Windschuttle’s target market wants to read cannot be supported by primary research or footnote-checking, any more than the politically-driven denunciations of ‘dead white males’ 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 Windschuttle’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.



jet 09.13.05 at 7:15 am

When reading a hack job on an author I always like to see a few examples. Just a little salt to lend it credence.

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.


Anatoly 09.13.05 at 7:33 am

Gotta love the obligatory qualification!

an interview (over lunch) with rightwing Australian historian Keith Windschuttle

Lest anyone think that he might be, you know, the proper kind of historian.


Hektor Bim 09.13.05 at 7:43 am

Just as a question: how does he deal with the eradication of the Tasmanians? That seems to be a clear cut case – how does he avoid the obvious implication?


No Matter 09.13.05 at 8:22 am

I don’t know a Windschuttle from a windsock. Sounds like they are one and the same.

But as a member of western civilization’s leisure class — the inheiritocracy you might say — I do know that a few hundred thousand isn’t enough for a civilized life of leisure. That kind of change is sufficient only for, say, a walkabout.


Kevin Donoghue 09.13.05 at 8:24 am

Just as a question: how does he deal with the eradication of the Tasmanians?

I know little about Tasmania and less about this guy, but this may help:


mailer 09.13.05 at 8:42 am

More background on Windschuttle can be obtained from his website:


Ben Alpers 09.13.05 at 9:39 am

re: “obligatory qualification”

It’s not at all clear to me that such qualifications are more commonly applied to the right than the left (which I take it is anatoly’s implicit claim).

Very unscientifically doing Google searches on “‘leftwing historian'”, “‘left-wing historian'”, “‘rightwing historian'” and “‘right-wing historian,'” here’s what I found:

“leftwing historian” received 129 hits
“left-wing historian” received 597 hits
“rightwing historian” received 240 hits
“right-wing historian” received 841 hits

or the totals:
left = 726
right = 1081

This (again unscientifically) might suggest that: 1) people do note historians rightwing leanings somewhat more frequently than their leftwing leanings, but not by a great extent; and 2) based on the very small raw numbers here, these Google searches would suggest that these qualifications are fairly uncommon (and hence far from “obligatory”).

If we add the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” the numbers grow dramatically, but the relative frequency actually flips.

Googling “liberal historian” gets 31,800 hits
Googling “conservative historian” gets 16,500 hits.


Hektor Bim 09.13.05 at 10:23 am

Thanks, Kevin, that was helpful. So he just discounts it – saying the figures were inflated and disputing the historian who worked on it directly.

That is illuminating.


Hogan 09.13.05 at 11:55 am

“If you have a reasonably big hit in America you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “That’s my aim – to have a couple of big sellers and have a leisurely life.”

Yeah, me too. I’m going to start by changing my name to Niall Ferguson.


John Quiggin 09.13.05 at 3:37 pm

I’m always surprised by objections to political descriptions of the kind made by Anatoly. I don’t object to being described as left-wing, and Windschuttle makes no bones about having shifted from left to right.


anatoly 09.13.05 at 5:59 pm

John, the point is not the political description; it’s the implied default or norm. I just don’t think that if you were writing about some other historian as explicitly left-wing as Windschuttle is right-wing that you would describe them as “an interview… with leftwing historian…”


floopmeister 09.14.05 at 12:07 am

John, the point is not the political description; it’s the implied default or norm.

Yeah, that’s why we need to call those extreme leftwing historians ‘black-armband wearing’ so we can tell they’re not of the mainstream.

Oh, except that they’re all-powerful and PC and stifling debate.

Or are they both?

How do they do it?


MFB 09.14.05 at 4:53 am

Are there any historians as left-wing as Windschuttle is right-wing? I mean, historians who write entire books declaring that the Gulag never existed and that the Chinese Communist Party removed landlords by sending them to Jungian therapy sessions?

If Windschuttle were saying “yes, Australians massacred the Aborigines and tried to wipe them out as a race and culture, and that was a damn good thing too” he might be the equivalent of 1930s apologists for Stalinism. As it is, he comes across as an antipodean David Irving.


Ralph Hitchens 09.14.05 at 9:50 am

To answer mfb’s question, there is at least one: my acquaintance from the Vietnam War Discussion List (VWAR-L) Grover Furr, a professor of medieval literature at Montclair State U. in New Jersey whose enthusiastic scholarly sideline is Soviet history. He thinks Stalin was a “great guy” (an exact quote) and the gulag no more than a well-justified prison system for those misguided souls who couldn’t get on board with the benevolent reforms implemented by the Bolsheviks; and by the way, the numbers of prisoners and the degree of their suffering have been greatly exaggerated by anti-communist historians. Grover recently achieved some notoriety in the blogosphere when he was cited by Michael Berube as an embarrassment to the Left.


epoch 09.14.05 at 11:26 pm

The google hits don’t necessarily mean much, social science and humanities practitionars are considered left-wing by default. So their political orientation may only have to be specified when dealing with someone who deviates from the norm.

Further more to the person who asked if there are any historians as leftwing as Windschuttle is rightwing, the left vs right thing is largely based on how you define the center.

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