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Cardinal rules: Keith Windschuttle’s extraordinary defence of George Pell

In 1994, Keith Windschuttle published The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists. The book’s ungainly title conveyed a breathless urgency, implying an impossible present in which the discipline is at once alive and dead (at what precise moment is one being murdered?). Appropriately, it embodied conservatism’s central contradiction – the belief that the Left constitutes an immediate existential threat to societal wellbeing, and that the Right is on the cusp of oblivion and must be saved now or forever lost. Therefore, each battle is to be fought with the desperation and tenacity of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the final act of an Avengers sequel: it must be understood that absolutely everything – which usually means an ahistorical reading of Western Civilisation – is on the line.

In The Killing of History, Windschuttle fears the destructive onset of the ‘new humanities.’ Among this movement’s principles, he writes, is that ‘different intellectual and political movements create their own forms of relative “knowledge”,’ and that ‘truth is also a relative rather than absolute concept.’ It is ironic, then, that on Sunday, Windschuttle published in Quadrant – the magazine of which he is editor-in-chief – an essay premised on the assumption that the quality of a claim to truth depends on its compatibility with a system in which the powerful deserve their power.

The contention of ‘The Borrowed Testimony that Convicted George Pell’ is that the Pell case resembles that of Reverend Charles Engelhardt, a Philadelphia clergyman who died in prison in 2014, before the credibility of the victim and star witness who led to his conviction was thrown into doubt by a 2016 investigative report in Newsweek. Windschuttle lists seven similarities between Pell’s case and the American case, including that in both instances the boys were caught drinking wine in the sacristy, forced to kneel before the accused and perform fellatio, and were the lone witnesses. That these features do not seem especially conspicuous – given that both cases rested on stories of sexual assault by a member of the clergy in a church, and that predation often follows similar patterns – does not appear to bother Windschuttle. He is sufficiently convinced by his own detective work to conclude that ‘the two accounts are so close to being identical that the likelihood of the Australian version being original is most implausible,’ and that therefore, Pell’s accuser was ‘repeating a story he had found in a magazine – or repeating a story someone else had found for him in the media’ (the case had been first covered in 2011 by Rolling Stone, which he helpfully dubs ‘an American magazine dedicated to popular culture, targeted at teenagers and young adults’).

Windschuttle concedes that his conviction that the story of Pell’s sexual assault is ‘a sham’ ‘does not mean the accuser was deliberately making it up.’ This rhetorical manoeuvre brings to mind the arguments made by Republicans during the battle for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Attempting to dodge the appearance of cruelty, they patronised and ignored Christine Blasey Ford rather than stating outright that they disbelieved her. Perhaps, they suggested, she had simply convinced herself that Kavanaugh attacked her. The position evinces a false generosity, contingent on a refusal to commit to the legal tenet that testimony is, in fact, evidence, when such a commitment becomes inconvenient. The testimonies against Justice Kavanaugh and Cardinal Pell are inconvenient because they reveal the fraudulence of the ruling class’s insistence that there can be such a thing as neoliberal meritocracy.

To read Windschuttle’s tempestuous defence of Pell is to witness the conspiratorial logic of contemporary conservatism forcefully deployed. It is increasingly obvious that the ideological ground occupied by Quadrant, Fox News, Quillette, The Australian, Sky News, Infowars et al. is founded on the same essential creed: under the banner of identity politics, the Left is undertaking a deliberate campaign to police speech and behaviour in order to create a society in which conservative dissent is erased (the belief that the Left is currently well-organised enough to accomplish such a task is not the least specious element of this paranoid fantasy). This creed masks a white nationalist vision, concealing frequently racist arguments within a vocabulary of rights and free speech. It’s no coincidence that, in 2002, Windschuttle published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, in which he maintained that Indigenous Australians had no concept of ownership, and that therefore it makes no sense to describe colonised Australia as stolen land. He has also repeatedly argued that there never was a Stolen Generation. These debates tend to return to questions of race because the structure that publications such as Quadrant exist to sanitise and justify is white supremacy.

The safeguarding of Pell’s innocence is another manifestation of this anxious desire to secure the power structures as they are, that is, a world in which old white men can dine with one another in peace, safe from resentment and safe from the law. Those who’ve rallied to Pell’s defence are irked by the revelation that a Cardinal who stalked the halls of the Vatican, consulted with prime ministers and dined with US agency chiefs at Michelin-starred restaurants can be punished like some ordinary citizen. Even more humiliating than being imprisoned is being stripped of one’s emblems of supremacy. What chills Pell’s defenders is the prospect that, very occasionally, the armour of privilege does not provide total immunity.

Of course, juries can get it wrong and the question of whether trial-by-jury should be the predominant system for meting out justice is worthy of debate. But it’s disingenuous for Windschuttle to hold that, in defending Pell, justice is his primary concern. If that were the case, he could have considered what has led to Australia’s police and courts to preside over a prison system in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 28% of the prison population despite accounting for around 3% of the general population. He might have wondered why, as of 2018, all juvenile prisoners in the Northern Territory were Indigenous. Or perhaps he should have contemplated the data showing that only one in ten reports of sexual assault in Australia result in a conviction. But evidently, in the pages of Quadrant, justice is relative.


Image: RubyGoes

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney. He writes regularly for Overland’s online magazine, and has also been published in Meanjin, the Australian Book Review and The Lifted Brow.

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  1. In the case in Philadelphia, the witness, called “Billy” and “Billy Doe” in the Rolling Stone article, and perhaps also “BIlly Doe” in court, was a 24 year old heroin addict.
    He claims that the priest poured more altar wine for him, showed him pornographic magazines, asked if he liked the pictures of the men or women better, and said they would meet again. On two following occasions he assaulted the boy, a 10 year old boy, in a way similar to Milligan’s description of what Pell did.
    Milligan calls the Melbourne witness “The Kid”. This may be a Freudian slip – because of the historical mythological figure Billy The Kid – betraying that Milligan’s mythological account is borrowed from the account that Billy gave, widely believed to be false.
    Three weeks ago an anti-Pell commenter Peter Cribbett blabbed that the Pell witness was a heroin addict when he was 16.
    I thought at first that rabid anti-Pell commenters might be there because a troll farm had been set up by litigation lawyers. I no longer think this is as likely. I now think that a percentage of the population are wired to make vile accusations against people.
    Richard Mullins
    9 April 2019

  2. Don’t know enough about the two cases to draw any conclusion myself, but I will add that just because coincidences occur doesn’t automatically mean that rightful (or wrongful) connections can be drawn between two different cases.

  3. Noam Chomsky once, a long time ago in political climate far far away, defended holocaust denier Robert faurisson’s right to free speech, and was vigorously criticised by some for it at the time. But it is a position I assume he still believes is a cornerstone to a healthy democracy. I doubt many would have the verve to call Chomsky a supporter of white supremacy to his face or even in private. But recently I too have noticed an increasing trend that anyone who voices any criticism toward current left ideas or advocates the right to free speech is some kind of supporter of radical right ideas, white supremacy etc. etc. One certainly could argue that this is a growing movement to silence even moderate voices on he right (without it being a conspiracy theorist), which, are certainly better than the actual radical right voices they have come to be connected to by the left. The issue regarding Cardinal Pell is not really my issue here I don’t have a great deal of sympathy in this matter. The right for both sides to have an opinion without being label somehow completely immoral, less than the other ethically, is. You are right in that there is a certain amount of relativity which is inherent in all things, and this has actually served left views and theory too, I would argue it is intrinsic to them. I myself have always considered myself leaning to the left and still do, but am increasingly seeing inconsistencies in identity politics that don’t altogether make sense and I can’t ignore. I can only imagine middle and right leaning individuals see them all the more strongly. In my humble opinion, it is not a recipe for a balanced coherent system of understanding difference or of governance.

  4. Chris S Friel points out that someone tweeted Milligan in 2015, the day he also tweeted the Rolling Stone article about Billy. They have not tweeted Milligan since. This means there is some likelihood that Milligan saw the Billy story.

    A month later, the police interviewed The Kid about his claim that he was sexually abused by Pell in 1996.

    Friel and I think this means that The Kid was using a script generated from the BIlly story. We don’t know who fed The Kid the script.

    • Happy to let juries hand down verdicts until they hand down one you don’t like Richard?

      The full suite of evidence convinced a jury, and it’s going to appeal. Rule of law and all that. Trying to pick holes in testimony you’ve never seen or heard is just laughable.

      • The evidence looks like dog’s droppings to me. I can’t believe the prosecutor was so stupid as to think Pell was guilty.

  5. A freudian slip about Billy Doe and the Kid, hence Billy the Kid. This is worthy of a Dan Brown novel,another Da Vinci code conspiracy. You are really grabbing at straws, the short straw and the last straw.

  6. ERRATUM. Resent to remove a typing error.
    Not at all, Paula. Chris S Freil, a scholar in Wales, has studied tweets. This is astounding evidence. It makes it likely that there is a connection between the Billy case and TheKid case. Friel says:
    Milligan replied to Farlow in 4 tweets on May 27th On May 28th she makes 1 tweet to Farlow (but never again), and later that day Farlow tweets on Billy. The Kid will make a police statement in the next
    month (that is, one month after Farlow tweeted about a settlement for sexual abuse at St Kevin’s dating from c. 1970).
    See Friel’s “Pell and The Jury” on Academia

  7. Paula, there would not need to be anything malign about a connection between BIlly Doe and The Kid. If there was a connection it might have been hushed up out of embarrassment that it might indicate that The Kid’s story was totally fake.

  8. Have you considered the possibility that a perpetrator may have read the original Rolling Stone article and later enacted the scenario ?

  9. Interesting Dan, your comments on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, and his accuser “Christine Blasey Ford”. I noticed yesterday that Blasey Ford has been reported as involved in studying CIA false memory training. “How much more ‘Deep State’ can you get?”

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