Sunday, April 27

Sorry I'm late, but I've got a note

I'd promised myself I'd never read another Miranda Devine newspaper column. She sings from the Quadrant songbook (which she helped compile as a Quadrant editorial committee member). You'll find her arguments more carefully presented if you go to her sources.

It's not that I've closed my mind to conservative points of view, but lately I've been overwhelmed by the material I try to get through and I've tried to cull time-wasting rubbish.

For reasons I'll give a little further down, I believe time-wasting rubbish includes Ms Devine's newspaper columns.

Like a management consultant cutting costs, I've slashed my reading – partly because Merry and I were having some terse words about the piles of old papers in our spare bedroom cum study, and partly because I was becoming a little down about my inability to keep up with it all and still have a life.

caricature of museum director Dawn Casey

The other day I allocated several hours to go through the heap before carrying it to the recycling bin. All was going well, until I spotted Sydney Morning Herald artist John Shakespeare's caricature of museum director Dawn Casey (detail, left). It illustrated a Miranda Devine column in the SMH on March 27, Beware new front in culture wars.

Basically, Ms Devine rehashes just about all the accusations the hard right hurled against Ms Casey to get her sacked as director of the National Museum of Australia. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Ms Devine would like to see Ms Casey also sacked from her new role as director of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum.

I wouldn't have bothered with a response to Ms Devine's piece, especially since more than a month has gone by, but on December 24 last year I hailed Dawn Casey's appointment to the Powerhouse Museum with a post headed "Another honour for Howard's 'history wars' victim".

In that post, I said I tried not to be a Howard-hater, but I came closest when the then Prime Minister John Howard sacked (technically, failed to renew the contract of) Dawn Casey after her NMA exhibits enraged conservative commentators including Ms Devine.

In her March 27 diatribe, Ms Devine says Casey "will be forever hailed by legions of Howard-haters as the heroine who gave Howard 'one in the eye' ". Right on, Miranda!

Even only a little of what she's accused of is true, Dawn Casey is the most effective Aboriginal guerilla fighter since Pemulwy.

If Miranda and her mates are to be believed, she'd sneaked her subversive agenda under the noses of the museum's board, mocking the "three cheers for our British heritage" history close to the heart of all right-thinking Australians. Out there in the courtyard, crowds of people were running their fingers along dots on a wall, exclaiming to one another, "Good God! It says 'sorry'."

She almost got away with it, too.

It's true the museum's council was chaired by a Liberal Party elder, but Tony Staley is a moderate with a regrettable tendency to balanced views. It was early days for the Howard government, and the Great Leader still had a long way to go in stacking the nation's cultural institutions (such as the ABC, SBS, the National Museum, various education inquiries, the Public Service, etc.) with reliable men and women.

Still, he had rewarded Christopher Pearson, columnist for the Weekend Australian and speechwriter for both Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and David Barnett, author of an admiring biography of the Great Leader, with seats on the National Museum board.

Luckily for all right-thinking Australians, David Barnett was not to be duped. He compiled a list of thousands of examples of bias in the museum's exhibit labels. Staley and other moderates on the board couldn't see a problem, and an inquiry by Monash University history professor Graeme Davison found only a few minor errors.

Apart from its rehash of old accusations against Dawn Casey, Ms Devine's column is instructive about the Quadrant mindset.


The Quadrant mob profess a commendable commitment to free speech. In the Balmain Town Hall last year, at a function to honour retiring Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness (who died of melanoma cancer not long after), incoming editor Keith Windschuttle spoke of the need to defend free speech and quoted the examples of Geoffrey Blainey and Hans Eysenck. This year, in the first Quadrant under his editorship, he repeated his words.

Blainey we know about. After his 1984 breakfast speech to Warrnambool Rotarians, the prominent historian found himself attacked from the left and cheered from the right because of newspaper reports that he'd attacked Asian immigration.

The attack from the left was inexcusable, but I think that at first Professor Blainey looked at both sides with disdain. His speech had welcomed the diversity and tolerance of Australia's population, although he did go on to warn that Asian immigration was pushing ahead of public acceptance.

As he explained at a Melbourne University history symposium a month later, he did not necessarily find this view palatable, but as an historian he had to report it as he found it.

Eysenck was a pyschology professor in London, the author of two popular Pelican paperbacks, The Uses and Abuses of Pyschology and Sense and Nonsense In Pyschology. Among his many controversial views, those linking IQ to race provoked student protests.

Hasn't Windschuttle got a good memory? If I remember right, Eysenck faced those rowdy students back in the late 1950s or early 60s when I was a very junior journalist and Windschuttle was preaching the wonders of LSD to fellow uni students.

After Keith Windschuttle's noble words, let's see how he and his conservative allies put their defence of free speech into effect.

It seems that in early discussions about the role of the National Museum of Australia, the ultra-conservatives had failed to win their way. Moderate conservatives (these labels are so awkward, aren't they? – but I can't see another way to say it) prevailed.

As the museum opened, with Dawn Casey winning praise for her efforts, the ultras struck back.

Miranda Devine, Keith Windschuttle, David Barnett, Christopher Pearson and Piers Ackerman – all relentless warriors on the conservative side of the history wars – shaped the bullets and loaded the gun, before handing it to Prime Minister John Howard and pointing out his target.

One hopes the target was not more clearly defined by Ms Casey's being Aboriginal.

The Quadrant mob's support for free speech is as believable as was Mao Zedong's when he declared: "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend." When your opponents step forward, gun them down.


Ms Devine is remiss in another way, too. She fails to tell her readers that two inquiries failed to find much wrong with Ms Casey's work. As I wrote last December:

Staley turned to Geoffrey Blainey, the historian most admired by conservatives, who suggested Monash University history professor Graeme Davison review Barnett's allegations. Davison examined them in detail, checked them against historical sources, and said Barnett's criticisms were ill-founded.

Ms Devine doesn't mention this at all. Nor does she say that with the ultra-conservatives still frothing at the mouth, the NMA council decided on an external review. As I wrote in December:

The responsible Howard minister, Rod Kemp, chose as chairman John Carroll, a conservative with connections to the right-wing propaganda organisation (a.k.a. "think tank"), the Institute of Public Affairs. Other members included Philip Jones, a senior curator at the South Australian Museum who had won the conservatives' approval during the Hindmarsh Island affair.

Balancing them were Sydney businessman Richard Longes and a palaeobiologist, Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich. One might ask: Where was the historian? But despite the appearance of a stacked inquiry, the committee, against all expectations, reported no problem with political or cultural bias at the NMA.

Ms Devine doesn't tell her readers this. She does say:

The NMA under Casey was notable, according to the Carroll report of the collection, for its almost complete lack of science, technology and industrial content.

That's her only reference to the Carroll report. Really helpful to her readers, isn't she?


If you'd like to check my assessment of the Carroll findings, go to the museum's report, scroll down and click on the attachment link to bring up the report as a PDF file. Its conclusions may be found in Section 6, particularly on P67 and 68.

To read a more detailed exposition of the conservatives' case against Dawn Casey (and against Professor Davison), Keith Windschuttle's website reprints his Quadrant attack of September 2001. No doubt a search of his website will find others.

Some of my post has taken material from Professor Stuart Macintyre's The History Wars (Melb University Press, 2003), particularly Chapter 10, Working through the museum's labels, but generally I've also checked it out with contemporary press reports. I'm aware Macintyre is on the hate list of some conservatives, but his current appointment as visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard shows he has the respect of his peers.

In the final pages of The museum's labels chapter, Macintyre attacks some of Windschuttle's claims about Professor Davison [made in his Quadrant attack mentioned above], and says: "Windschuttle's misreading of Davison's views is as dishonest as any of the charges of intellectual dishonesty he makes against the historical profession."

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