Keith Windschuttle’s elevation to the Quadrant editor’s chair would appear to be the most disappointing announcement on the right side of politics since, well since John Howard announced that he was staying on.

Will Keef do to the old CIA mouthpiece what the tragic appears to be doing to the Natural Party of Government?

The signs are promising. Keef’s first announcement was that he would be focusing on “decadence in the arts”:

Consider Wagner’s Tannhauser, that myth of the sacred and profane now on show at the Sydney Opera House. “There’s a guy painted in gold (who) stands there with a giant erection – symbolises lust or something,” Windschuttle said yesterday. “That kind of gratuitous offensiveness is almost everywhere.”

Oh this is going to be goooood.

A world of China rising, a Middle East quagmire, the greatest transformation in communication since printing, climate change debate, designer genetics, gay marriage, and much much more – and the big problem is a fake gold-plated prick in Sydney. I mean really, who cares about Malcolm Turnbull?

Keef’s remark illustrates three problems with the appointment – one is that editing a topical publication tends to be a younger – ie. under 50 – person’s game, because at some point you just stop taking in new information. Someone should sit Keef down at his 386 (or he can borrow Krudd’s Mac Classic) and type “bukkake” into his Gopher browser, to show him what the year 8 kids are looking at in communications class.

The second is that Quadrant has no reason to exist. Its old anti-communist coalition is now split between social conservatives and free marketeers. The only way you can accomodate both is via an unprincipled mix of social regulation and economic freedom – giving people the “freedom” to buy and sell, but not if it’s naughty pictures, or theatre that was cutting edge in ’73.

That works in day-to-day politics, for a while, but it’s death for real ideas.

Quadrant got a last burst of life in the 90s because Robert Manne made it a more pluralist publication – ie. a mixture of progs, trogs and Tories. Its fellow former CIA stablemate Encounter had taken the other path, and wound itself up soon after the USSR dissolved. That act created a space where new magazines like Prospect and The American Conservative could emerge – framing the debate in ways more relevant to a changed world.

Any attempt to renew Quadrant founders on the third problem – Windschuttle himself. It’s not his “narrowness” as Christian Kerr incorrectly suggests – he’s written on just about everything – it’s his obsessiveness. In the 70s he was a Maoisant believer in peasant revolution (and his concern about decadent art has a whiff of red puritanism about it), now he’s a devotee of the Christian British Empire.

The best editor in this sort of situation is someone who can hold a publication to a certain direction while being “interested in what s/he’s not interested in”, ie. curious and willing to entertain contrariness.

Windschuttle, by contrast, moves, like the Pope, from one state of certainty to the next. Could be goldenrod (a printers pun mlud), next week could be flouridation. Who knows?

Still, we’ve got an interest in them getting it right. As taxpayers we love Quadders so much we’ve slung it a couple of million dollars in grant funding since the 50s – so that it can bravely continue arguing for free markets and against state control of debate. Everything short of buying enough copies for it to pay its own way.

Perhaps not for much longer – if Christian Kerr hasn’t been paid for his 2003 book review then the Q is in breach of its funding agreement, most of which is provided for “prompt payment” of contributors. Maybe an Australia Council audit of the books is long overdue.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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