NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall


Posted in Political Economy by Ian MacDougall on May 28, 2020

By Ian MacDougall

Below is the text of what began as an open letter (perhaps epistle would be a better word) I sent recently (on 16 April 2020) to Keith Windschuttle. He, the reader will recall, is arguably most famous for his controversial book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, which questions the proposition that Aboriginal people in Australia were ever subject to massacre and wholesale elimination by post-1788, mainly white, settler populations.  I used to know Windschuttle personally in the 1960s, when he maintained a position on the political spectrum considerably to the left of where he is now as Editor-in-Chief of the avowedly ‘conservative’ journal, Quadrant.  

My own critique of his Fabrication is right here at the Serpent:  and passim.

The article below was stimulated by a Quadrant article Himmelfarb’s Enlightenment  (to be found online at ) recently authored by Windschuttle and cited and discussed in the text below.

My purpose here was to point out to him a deep philosophical problem of the conservative political position that Himmelfarb’s Enlightenment  (perhaps unwittingly) raises.

For whatever reason, he has left me unanswered on this, with not even a formal acknowledgement of receipt. So I have decided to redraft it into the third person and submit publish it here at this more modest site of my own.  IM


Keith Windschuttle recently published in Quadrant  Online  a piece by Stuart Lindsay, which includes the following statement:

Politicians, CEOs, heads of professional associations and unions, mainstream broadcast and print journalists and editors, bishops, teachers, administrators, professors, police inspectors and judges all speak as one about the magnitude of the risk presented by the Wuhan virus.

I am going to refer to the group of people just described as the clerisy. I prefer that expression, which was invented by Coleridge in the first part of the nineteenth century, to intelligentsia, which is Bolshevik in origin, and to elites, which has a note of envy about it. Whatever the collective noun used, I will assume you know who I am talking about. They are the people through whom the leftist programmes, triumphant in every sphere of our culture, are daily implemented.

Stuart Lindsay, The Express Road to Serfdom

I will refer to these ‘elites’ by the more realistic term Quadrant Target Population.

NB: The Quadrant Target Population, ‘elites’ or clerisy, or intelligentsia or call-them-what-you-will notably does not include the capitalist elite and owners of the principal wealth of the country: the Gina Rineharts, major individual corporate shareholders et al., who favour a low public profile.

Keith Windschuttle quoted Gertrude Himmelfarb in a previous debate with the late Bob Gould, Marxist and prominent Newtown, Sydney bookshop proprietor. (Gould referred to it at  ) So Windschuttle is clearly impressed with her writings. In particular:

The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity. And since then, generations of intelligent students under the guidance of their enlightened professors have looked into the abyss, have contemplated those beasts, and have said, “How interesting, how exciting.”

                  —Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss, 1994

As quoted by Windschuttle in his piece Himmelfarb’s Enlightenment at

By the look of it, if I had a copy of Himmelfarb I would place in on a shelf beside say Barbara Tuchman’s highly acclaimed work The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam. On second thought, perhaps not on the same shelf; perhaps not even in the same bookcase.

Postmodernism (PoMo) is low-hanging fruit, and attacking it is a bit like taking candy from a baby. To try to tar the entire post-WW2 counterculture with the PoMo brush is like condemning the whole of western Christendom for the sins of the Renaissance popes, or the paedophiles of Ballarat, or some polygamist preacher from Utah.

They ‘moralised’ and ‘socialised’ religion, turning its energies into movements for voluntary association, local organisation and, ultimately, the politics of liberty.

In both Britain and America, the Enlightenment was both a theoretical and a practical expression of this outlook.


Well, part of that Enlightenment is the tradition of science, which gives us Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation that fits the facts is best. 

I suggest that the wellspring of the counterculture in the Quadrant Target Population had little to do with philosophy or culture however defined. Rather, it was the degeneration of the United States as it waded, with the confidence of the ignorant, into the quagmire of the war in Vietnam, entering in 1965 and leaving ignominiously in 1975, after a war which terminated the political careers of two US presidents: Johnson and Nixon..

(Jimi Hedricks’ rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, as he played it at the Woodstock Festival (1969) says it all, really. )

But for my own part, my experience on arriving as a fresher at Sydney University (in 1957, aged 16 and not yet old enough for a driver’s licence) frames my own attitude to PoMo.  I found the place abounding in white-coated students, most of them somewhat older than me, and pretty well all of them equipped with slide rules sticking prominently out of their lab-coat pockets. Today, of course, it would be something more electronic.

What interested me was the fact that psychology majors, no doubt keen to remind all and sundry of the scientific claims of their discipline, mostly did the same. (This was particularly true of those in thrall of BF Skinner and his ‘behaviourism’;  less true of the dwindling bands of Freudians, Gestalt theorists, etc.) They were also awed and impressed by the arcane language of mathematicians, physicists, chemists and other natural scientists. This was an important factor heading the humanities towards the gobbledegook, and intellectual mire of PoMo.

Psychology students were in a difficult position somewhere between the sciences and the humanities. (The Psychology Department was part of the Faculty of Arts, not of the Faculty of Science.) But the value of the arcane metatwaddle to those seeking the status of professionals (in anything) was not lost to them. They were among the first cabs off the rank. If postmodernism, when it arrived, was not intended to fill this need, it certainly found a ready market there. Which I think explains why it was taken up so eagerly.

And then there was the bandwagon effect. He who hesitates is lost; publish or perish. And if you are going to publish, make it clear to all that your language is so far above the heads of even the educated population as to be in that stratosphere intelligible only to a fortunate few. Hopefully, they will pay you cash, if not attention.

Postmodernists’ numbers rose exponentially. Whenever we see such phenomena in nature, we look for positive feedback loops. Not hard to find in relation to PoMo. It became an academic feeding frenzy. 

Keith Windschuttle’s title The Killing of History was very well chosen.  What should have been a student’s delight became a swamp to be waded through, and alive with annoying and blood-sucking insects, though strangely enough nothing particularly fearsome like the odd salty crocodile. In private correspondence to me, the noted blogger Ophelia Benson ( co-author with Jeremy Stangroom of The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense ( and Why Truth Matters, opined that The Killing of History was excellent.

But of course, it was only a matter of time before there had to be a Sokal Hoax, and raptors like Richard Dawkins started circling. ( )

As I said, PoMo is low-hanging fruit. My first brush with it was when my friend and mentor Alan Roberts, theoretical physicist, mathematician and thinker extraordinaire handed me the proof copy of an article submitted to Arena, which he was associated with (and with which Windschuttle may be familiar.) So I looked through it. “What do you think?” he said.

“It has to be about the greatest load of codswallop I ever read,” I replied.

And that was a long time ago, around 1964. PoMo was just getting started.

…her [Himmelfarb’s] vision into the abyss also warns us of all we have to lose if we persist in feeding the theoretical beasts that lurk there and are now clawing their way onto our once solid ground.

The central fact never even alluded to in Windschuttle’s whole piece, is that the counterculture and the 1960s youth rebellion in all its forms in the Quadrant Target Population, came as a reaction to the Vietnam War, and specifically to the American 1961-75 phase of it. Though it was from its very beginnings a revolt against the French Empire, it never lost its colonial-war character. Former US Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara came to recognise this only after the American defeat in Vietnam, with millions left dead and maimed and long-term ecological and human-health damage galore. The latter was thanks to the aerial spraying of defoliants; vide his ‘The Fog of War’.

Vietnam was always, from its very outset, a war of national liberation; from French/Japanese/American colonialism, and from French and American imperialism.

(The Japanese in WW2 played the interesting role of busting the mystique of the British, French and Dutch colonialists in Asia, and showing the world that Asians could beat Europeans. The historic importance of that can never be over-estimated. I was told so first-hand by an Indian merchant I stayed with in 1958, in Penang, Malaya, as it was then. He had himself been of the then conventional wisdom until the fall of Singapore, that the British Empire was invincible; and he had a significant and most interesting military background.)

When Donald Trump started quacking on about ‘making America great again’ he never once spoke about what might have made America ‘ungreat’. Of course, only one word was needed to convey all the information required: Vietnam.

So now, Windschuttle, as a radical-turned-conservative, has clearly renounced the pro-Vietnamese position he once held regarding that colonial war. Except he has not written much about it, unless I am mistaken. Because if the counterculture was right then, the Vietnam War that it was in reaction against was wrong.  And the Quadrant Target Population was likewise right.

Windschuttle’s silence on that is indeed deafening. He has already executed a 180-degree turn. Another would make it a full 360 degrees, and set him back on the course he and his leftist comrades were on back in the good old days of  their journal The Old Mole.  It would be a pirouette politique par excellence. (The Australian Ballet might even get inspired by it.)

But more important to me is Windschuttle’s, or any other conservative’s,  answer to this next question: What is it that conservatives are actually out to conserve?

Answer: clearly, the existing social arrangements; ideological, economic and political. A typical Quadrant (on or offline) enthusiast would more likely than not practice some variant of established Christianity; believe firmly if not fervently in free enterprise and trickle-down economics, and also in the existing distribution of wealth,  power and income. That supporter would be for not just the Liberal-National Coalition, but the extreme right wing of it: the one which used to be led by Tony Abbott, and in a way, probably still is via a blend of inspiration and personal example. (Though I might add, the mud stirred up by the recent Pell case has created something of a distraction.)

Naturally, conservatives are against ideological, political and economic developments that stand to change those relationships and the present order.

But here’s the rub: all of today’s established order arose from radicalism in the past, and what modern conservatives work to conserve, consciously or otherwise, are those creations of radicals of decades, centuries and millennia ago.

If that were not true, then Windschuttle and those other modern conservatives would be out there campaigning for the reintroduction of absolute monarchy, votes for nobody (never mind votes for women) feudalism, chattel slavery; and I dare add public hangings, burnings at the stake, public floggings and long prison terms or exile for those seeking to change the existing political and economic arrangements.  And so on. He is in the position of having to maintain on that the following temporal disjunction:  while the positions taken by conservatives in the past are a curate’s egg, only good in small parts, those of present conservatives are OK.

Howard Fast could write his novel Spartacus about a Roman slave and revolutionary, which resonates with modern conservatives and progressives alike. Progressives of today do not have to disown the progressives of the past; quite the contrary.  But today’s conservatives, on the other hand, cannot avoid doing so for one helluva lot of that conservatism of yore. That is, if they want to be taken seriously.

The priority all the way through in Quadrant (on or offline) appears to me to be for business-as-usual. That journal also appears to be in hock and thrall to the coal industry. So it takes a position against anything which appears to threaten either. That it runs articles against the Covid-19 lockdown comes as no surprise. Epidemiology cannot trump economics or said business-as-usual. 1,940 deaths per day is the current price they pay in the US, (May 2020) thanks  largely to Trump’s Neronian attitude. Here in Australia the death rate is a lot lower, thanks to Morrison’s cabinet, and their obvious political vulnerability if it was not.

‘Progressive’ is an expletive in the pages of Quadrant, on and offline, but those so labelled are not so fettered. We are not in the position of having to maintain a counterpart of the proposition that while today’s conservatism is a curate’s egg, past conservatives and their creations are OK. For progressives, every innovation or regression in history is to be judged according to the same criterion. In my own case, that is the principle set out by the Utilitarians: the greatest good for the greatest number.

So we do not have to count fascists of the either the past or present as either radicals or progressives; though they get many a nod and wink from Australian conservatives.

The regime installed in South Vietnam that Australian conscripts fought for and have such difficulty commemorating, and that Windschuttle, Hall Greenland and others associated with The Old Mole worked so valiantly against, was a pretty antidemocratic and rotten one. Windschuttle was right then.

Today, I no longer regard myself as a Marxist per se. I have moved on from the Marxist position I used to hold, though my old self still walks with me, and there is nothing, nor any ideological position I have taken in my past that causes me to regret any of it today. Even if I now camp by a new billabong, I carry that Marxist past in my swag wherever I go, and without regret.

I cannot imagine therefore, what it is like to be in Keith Windschuttle’s present unenviable situation: having of necessity and retrospectively to support a past war he spent so many of his formative years actively opposing. It reminds me of those lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

That apparition in Windschuttle’s case would have to be the indefensible Vietnam War, and the rather brilliant role he played at the time in opposing it.

But it flows from this that if he wants an idea of what the conservatives of tomorrow will be out to conserve, he has only to have a look at what is being advocated by the progressives of today:  like say, Bernie Sanders in the US, Jacinda Ardern in NZ and the Greens in Australia; because time appears to me to be on their side.

That also accords with the central teachings of Judaism, Christianity and probably Buddhism, Animism, Hinduism and other major religions as well; and also the Islam preached and practiced by most, but not all, of the world’s Muslims.

So,  while I am not surprised that Windschuttle did not want to publish the article above, I am quite frankly surprised that he did not deign acknowledge it in any way, even in the shape of a receipt, reject slip or email; if only for auld lang syne.

Ian MacDougall