Monday, January 12, 2009

Colebatch, Quadrant, the hoax, and low lame acts

Sweet Hal G. P. Colebatch, tagged below his screed as the winner of the WA Premier's Prize for Poetry, for his book The Light River, takes up a flaming torch of righteous indignation in today's Australian, under the rather unpoetic header Quadrant hoax a low, lame act.

The poor thing starts off in fine style by declaring an interest: "I write for Quadrant frequently and may therefore be prejudiced".

May? Only may? A rather intemperate, uncertain, and ambivalent word, surely, for a rather feeble defence of Quadrant being caught out by publishing a hoax article. Why not say "I write for Quadrant frequently and therefore certainly am prejudiced. But this will not stop me from delivering my humble opinion in defence of the magazine, and its editor, not withstanding the vicious way he has in past lives denigrated other academics for much more trivial academic failings".

But back to the beginning. Allow me to declare an interest. I don't write for Quadrant, I don't read Quadrant (not even if it were available in the Qantas lounge for a five fingered discount), and while I don't give a fig about it or its editor, I am most certainly prejudiced.

I did however read the hoax article, and even I, who have limited interest in this kind of ideologically driven nonsense, thought it showed itself to be both silly and suspect on the basis of a casual read. How much more important then for the actual editor of the rag to look at what he's publishing, with a view to the validity of the work, and with an intensity of inspection that suggests some care and attention (after all the rag's only a monthly and it doesn't publish so many articles that poor possum like Windschuttle would be overwhelmed by the job at hand. He's no slacker. Or is he? Whatever, he's paid to be the editor, he should act like an editor.)

Colebatch toes the party line, and spends most of his time explaining why the Ern Malley hoax was a hoax, as was the Sokal affair, as a way of implicitly downgrading the kind of hoax that afflicted the hoary old magazine in its declining years (let's face it, the vigorous ranting of the CIA funded cold war warrior scribblings of the nineteen sixties now seem to have declined into tepid insularity as the world sweeps on).

But fair dibs. The hoax was a hoax, the editor was caught flat footed in the back court, the ball was close to the line, and no amount of spin could help him get it flying back over the net. (Some might prefer a Warnie googly metaphor, but who knows if Windschuttle knows how to SMS).

After he's explained just how significant the other hoaxes were, Colebatch's chief defence seems to be that Quadrant is a general interest magazine with a small staff, which publishes articles, reviews and opinions on a great variety of subjects and which doesn't claim to submit its articles to learned review.

How's that for friends stepping up to defend you? If we could paraphrase the Colebatch defence, Quadrant is a small, over-diversified, under-personned, under-funded, and under-edited small magazine, run in a rather amateurish, inept way, with little or no quality control, and with only a cursory  level of editorial review of the diversity of writing and opinions published on a great variety of subjects.

I'm beginning to get it now. Colebatch goes on to explain that small magazines such as Quadrant "depend to some extend on trust and cannot employ exhaustive fact-checkers".  Which rather begs the question - why should anyone bother to buy or read a rag that pays little regard to the truth or to critical inspection of its contributions, but rather will publish anybody saying anything if they just front up to head office and say trust me?

What's left then by way of defence? I'm afraid it's a bit like hurling a pawn in front of a Queen, if you think of the Queen as the one portrayed by Lewis Carroll. Yes, it's smear time. The hoax is simply an "ineffectual attempt at a political hatchet job". Better still, try this for a final poetic sounding off: "It is simply squalid and nasty in a petty, Smeagol-like way. Hardly a coup to boast about. It is a feat of derring-do on about the level of stealing books from libraries on busy days."

And there you have it. Humpty Dumpty would be proud - after all, words mean what you want them to mean, and admitting the magazine was hoaxed is so much more painful than taking the easy way out, by calling it an act of five finger evil, like intellectual shoplifting of a vagrant kind from public libraries (but wait, shouldn't councils, the worst kind of small-minded, petty local government be made to get out of the business of supplying books to the public for free, when big business and the marketplace can deliver them to people so much more effectively, except to poor people, who in any case shouldn't read but be made to go work in salt mines so we can all put salt on our tables? What's so bad about stealing from public libraries to bring forward this inevitable outcome? How much longer must we wait for intellectual freedom via big business? And why don't they support the rantings in Quadrant with a decent swag of cash in the paw so the fact checkers can paw the facts?)

Funnily enough I can still remember the drawn, worn look of Max Harris in his later years as he sold books at Mary Martins, and occasionally returned to the Ern Malley hoax like a dog to his vomit.

Unfortunately hoaxes have victims, but often the victims are deserving of their fate, in a Wildean way, and especially if they've been inclined to be boastful, preening and arrogant. Cue Keith Windschuttle from stage right. Cue the hoaxer.

Here's a tip for the vainglorious. Windschuttle and his mates would have been in a much better position if they'd just taken the jab to the chin, laughed it off, and said they'd do better next time. The more they defend the fort, the funnier they sound, and the sillier the arguments get.

Guys, you got done, the middle stump flew out, stump cam went blurry, everybody had a laugh. Get over it.

But let's end with one final Colebatch defense, an even more subtle form of suicide chess. He suggests that the Ern Malley hoax worked because Angry Penguins as hoaxed in its own claimed field of expertise. "Its editors had set themselves up as authorities and arbiters in that precise field". 

I guess this means that in the future Windschuttle should shut up about many, many things he likes to rabbit on about, because they're outside his claimed field of expertise. And Quadrant should shut up shop, or at least stop talking about all the many general interest areas its pundits like to pontificate about, since they won't be fact checked, they won't be edited (in the real meaning of the word), and they won't be able to be read with any sense of trust that they know what the heck their talking about. 

Lordy, lordy could this mean the end of Quadrant as we know it? Sadly I think the real truth of the hoax is that even if this were to happen, nobody would much notice or care. Alternatively maybe they could revert to an anarcho-syndicalist model whereby everybody could publish anything, and Windschuttle would have diddly squat to do. 

Works for me. Now to a little poetry in honor of Colebatch. Hands up if you can remember Sir Henry Newbolt's Vitai Lampada? Golly, you must be an old fart:

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
Ten to make and the match to win --
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

There's another verse, but you get the drift. Come now brave Quadrant, the dawn is always darkest just before the sun rises (or is that the night is always blackest just before the dawn?), but you must rally again, form the square, fight on, for what's at stake here is nothing but the ultimate truth, freedom and way of life of this proud country. Unjam the gatling, get out the willow, play a few strokes through cover, and all will be well. Don't let one silly jape get you down. Smote those lefties, bear through life like a torch in flame, and if you should fall, fling the host behind - play up and play the game.

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