How ‘brain-sex’ with Robert Doyle led to the Quadrant hoax

Yesterday I went along to a Melbourne Writers Festival session on Australian hoaxes, from Ern Malley to Quadrant (one of the panel was my friend Simon Caterson, whose book on hoaxes is out later this year).

Session chair and Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham began by quoting from an article she had published by Quadrant hoaxer Katherine Wilson, an article I had missed (perhaps because I miss everything that is published in Meanjin).

Wilson briefly rejects a point I made at the time, that this wasn’t a good hoax because it didn’t attack a position associated with Quadrant. In her article as ‘Sharon Gould’, Wilson used her own obsession with GM foods, rather than Quadrant‘s obsession with climate change scepticism.

But another point I made is supported by Wilson’s Meanjin piece. I said that

she wants to discredit Quadrant and Windschuttle in particular not by directly taking issue with what they publish, but by making them look foolish by publishing an article she had booby-trapped with errors and false statements

The real surprise in Wilson’s article is the bizarre source for her political strategy – the English classes of former schoolteacher and Victorian Opposition leader and current Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

If Wilson is to be believed (maybe Sophie Cunningham is being hoaxed?), not only was she once Robert Doyle’s student but that like the other girls in the class found him to be

a corker; a spunky, charismatic idealist who infected his students with passion.

Or something more erotic than passion. Which isn’t to suggest the girls were hot for him in that way, though some may have been (he later married one of his former students). But in Mr Doyle’s classroom, there was a certain eros—that exquisite intimacy described by the American literary scholar William Deresiewicz as a ‘kind of erotic intensity between student and professor’. This intensity ‘begins with the intellect, that suspect faculty and involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship.’

Many of us enjoyed group brain-sex with the splendid Mr Doyle—but it was his humanity, his kindness, that sealed my love for him.

Clearly the Victorian electorate was missing something. But one of the things that Wilson learned from Doyle was ‘show, don’t tell’. In literature, I presume this means that good novels don’t spell out their message; novels convince emotionally via their story rather than through the logic of an argument.

In politics, I presume ‘show, don’t tell’ means that at one level it doesn’t really matter whether Wilson’s hoax makes much sense in itself, since it neverthless successfully embarrassed a man and a magazine to which she is ideologically opposed. She’s certainly right that it was more effective than writing an article criticising Windschuttle’s views.

Compared to journalism, Wilson writes,

a hoax is easier, more playful and more erotic. It’s more literary and revealing; as a spectacle it is more able to speak truth to power. Why? Because it employs, in the purest sense, literature’s ‘show, don’t tell’ principle, first aroused in me by the erotic Mr Doyle. The Windschuttle hoax didn’t tell folks anything, as journalism does, but I’m still holding out hope that it—and the reactions it spawns—showed them plenty.

Indeed, with a vague hoax like this one there were plenty of theories about what it showed. But nobody would have guessed that it showed that Liberal schoolteachers can inspire left-wing pranksters.

27 thoughts on “How ‘brain-sex’ with Robert Doyle led to the Quadrant hoax

  1. Whatever his failings as a Lib Opposition leader Doyle, in person, is certainly a bloodyside more interesting, charming, personable and polite than any random bunch of pollies from either snide of the fence I’ve bumped up against in many a year.

    Sadly people are often judged on their performance on TV these days. TV has its own requirements visually – those requirements don’t reflect on real life much at all.


  2. Legal E:

    That ought to be the least of your concerns. In this pic she’s posed for The Age photographer eerrr sitting on the roof of her home pregnant while holding a pumpkin. Of course it’s a perfectly normal backdrop.


  3. As I remember, Allan Bloom made some incidental remarks in The Closing of the American Mind about the intertwining of eros and intellectual passions that he had felt when he was an undergraduate. And I was once acquainted with a (right-wing) girl who found that her intellectual attraction to a certain male professor at least twice her age spilled over into physical attraction for him. So although the phenomenon of “erotic intensity between student and professor” may not often be talked about in public in Australia, it shouldn’t be dismissed as the exclusive preserve of “left-wing luvvies”.


  4. I have a friend who used to teach at Lauriston. He was pursued by a student after being stupid enough to hand out his mobile phone number. Maybe it’s the lack of single-sex male private schools in the Armadale area.


  5. Alan, there’s ways and ways of writing about the attraction of an intelligent mind. I certainly don’t deny that an intelligent mind can be a very sexy thing, or that students often have crushes on their teachers as a result of this attraction. But somehow Wilson’s piece disturbs me. I’ve decided it’s the phrase “brain-sex”, which is decidedly non-erotic. And group brain sex with the former opposition leader of Victoria? Puts images into my head that I’d rather not have…

    The pumpkin picture is just really odd. In fact – I agree with Jeremy, the whole thing is odd.


  6. The ‘Show, don’t tell’ principle is usually associated with fiction rather than essays, and articles on politics and science. Indeed, there’s an obvious need, when writing essays and pieces on politics and science to ‘tell’ – to state the facts, and to argue for them. Sounds like Wilson is just trying to obfuscate her own mendacity in this case and give a quasi-justification for her actions.


  7. Tim – Admittedly Wilson’s explanation is like the hoax not completely clear, but I think she is referring to the ‘story’ created by the essay, rather than the essay itself.


  8. That reminds me of the controversy over Andre Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ photograph. I think that was the first time I heard the argument ‘the photo isn’t very good, but the important thing is the discussion it provoked’. I found that idea bizarre – the point of art is not to be found in the frames of reference that thge artwork itself constructs, or in the language it deploys, but in the arguments people have about it’s suitability? It seemed to boil down to a contradiction: the point of art is not art.

    If Wilson is trying to say that the ‘story’ that was caused by the essay was the point of the hoax, and not the arguments contained therein – well, maybe. Though the descriptions she deploys – ‘playful’, for instance – seem largely designed to skate around the fact that she lied to Quadrant editors and readers about her intentions.


  9. I don’t think a hoax can have more than an implicit argument, if that. They have to be illogical or untrue, otherwise there is no hoax. The point is always to demonstrate something about the victim of the hoax, not to provide a reasoned case against them. I thought this a sub-optimal hoax, because while it demonstrated some gullibility on Windschuttle’s part, it did not show that this gullibility was ideological or intellectual.

    All it showed to me is that if an editor has to process tens of thousands of words a month with a shoestring staff budget then fact-checking is superficial. To varying degrees, that’s going to be true of most magazines – only a handful can afford fact-checkers. Windschuttle has made things more difficult for himself by adding 30 pages a month to Quadrant when the quality does not warrant it. One hoax demonstrated that more effectively than dozens of mediocre pieces not finished by silent readers.


  10. I think you’re right Andrew. The ‘hoax’ wasn’t a hoax at all, just a nasty trick played on an unsuspecting victim whom the perpetrator didn’t like.

    All the gooey stuff about ‘stories’ and eroticism is merely an attempt at justification. And, not surprisingly, it also fails miserably.

    Don’t let talk of ‘brain sex’ distract you!


  11. you can whine all you like gang – any competent editor would have picked up the article as a farrago with a bit of fact-checking. Windschuttle was so eager to have an article showing conspiracy by the green-left against science that he didn;t bother to check its bona-fides. You sound as desperate to wishi it away as the post-modern editros of Social Text were of the Sokal Hoax.

    Detailed fact-checking wasnt necessary to suss the ‘Gould’ piece – just basic editorial nous. Since Windschuttle’s whole career from Pol Pot Maoist to Quadrant editor has been marked by political fantasy, he was always going to get pinged.

    Bad luck you. You chose him. Now youre stuck with him.


  12. Of course Ern. Aside from the fact this woman gets herself interviewed sitting on her roof while pregnant holding a pumpkin and singing the praises of growing vegetables on one’s roof. What with a solar panels and pumpkins vines growing up there the roof is suddenly turned into human oasis…. a Flinders street or grand central of human activity.

    On a serious note this woman is riling against genetically modified food and the celebration of her science deniialism on the left is pretty telling while Keith is poked with a stick for actually standing up for science. Yep sure makes sense, hey?


  13. ‘Ern’ – While I agree fully that the article should have been spiked (even without fact-checking, since it was badly written) I also know the realities of under-resourced editing, fixed page numbers, and deadlines. Crikey, which broke the original news, runs many rubbish stories for the same reasons.

    As I pointed out at the time, while the science angle may well have been the intention, Quadrant is the least plausible magazine on the right for such a hoax. It itself is under constant attack for rejecting science (in its climate change scepticism), so for obvious reasons it isn’t going to be pushing the line that the views of scientists should be unchalleged. Many conservatives are like greens hostile to genetic modification. It’s only published a very small number of articles on GM, and none under Windschuttle’s editorship. The IPA Review should have been the target for a GM hoax.


  14. The brain sex thing has grossed me out so much I think that perhaps it should be nominated for the Bad Sex in Literature Awards.

    Although it’s not nearly as bad as last year’s winner (purple passages listed here). Deary me, they are very funny.


  15. Given her form, how can we trust even one of the sentences in her rambling ill-advised self-justification? I am afraid this piece deflates any punches she may have landed in the Quadrant article.

    For example, we should not be surprised if ‘Sharon Gould’ actually sent that Quadrant article in good faith, and only concocted the ‘hoax’ ruse later during one of her mother-earth moments or brain orgies with minor political figures or mewlings over the Palestinians.

    As I said, it is not possible to take this woman seriously.


  16. I may not have it right but jc’s reference to the photo taken of Wilson on her roof with the pumpkin and pregnant, does not seem quite accurate. The tag underneath the photo describes it as a picture of KW in her days with Green Roofs Australia. There’s no suggestion in the image that she’s pregnant. It seems to refer to a time in the past.

    I mention it here to make the point that we are sometimes biased in our reading. We see what we want to see, and ignore certain things that we’d rather ignore, according to our preconceived views.

    All this emphasis on Robert Doyle and ‘brain sex’ to me skates away from the issues to which Wilson and here Ern Mallee also refer.

    There’s a great deal going on in this blog that suggests to me some people prefer to shoot messengers than to receive their message.


  17. “There’s a great deal going on in this blog that suggests to me some people prefer to shoot messengers than to receive their message.”

    Of course the messenger could be worth ‘shooting’ even if she has a valid message on some point – she does seem like a rather flakey individual.


  18. Elizabeth:

    She’s sitting on a roof with a silly pumpkin in her hands. If she wasn’t pregnant at the time it makes the whole thing no less stupid looking.

    The brain sex with Doyle shtick makes her appear odd.


  19. Elizabeth, what are those issues to which Katherine Wilson and Ern Malley refer?

    I don’t know about Katherine’s ‘issues’ with Quadrant. What I do know is that she wanted to make the Quadrant team look like fools for accepting a crap piece of writing. She certainly succeeded in this, but only by playing a cruel trick on an unsuspecting victim.

    As for Ern’s issues, what I read him as saying is:

    – Windschuttle’s desire to have a piece showing Green anti-science dulled his critical faculties: Andrew deals with this issue in his response to Ern, and I for one think Andrew is right.

    – Andrew and/or the readers of the blog want to wish this outcome away: I can only speak for myself, but I don’t want to wish it away – it happened, it doesn’t reflect well on anyone involved, but apart from showing up flaws in Quadrant’s editing process it really doesn’t have much significance.

    – basic ‘editing nous’ should have been enough to suss the Gould piece: agreed! Andrew has dealt with this as well.

    – the bad judgement that Windschuttle has always displayed made him a sitting duck for something like this: that may be, I don’t know.

    – ‘you’ people (I presume he means readers of the blog) actually chose Windschuttle and are now stuck with him: this is bizarre. I don’t know Windschuttle, it was the Quadrant board, not Andrew’s readership, who chose him for the job, and I’ll bet a fair whack of the blog’s readership don’t read Quadrant. I do read it, but feel no special affinity to Keith Windschuttle. Ern seems to think that all non-Labourites share a communal brain. This is clearly wrong, as anyone who has spent time reading this blog would realise.

    OK Elizabeth, have I dealt with the issues? Did I miss anything?


  20. Well said Jeremy. Personally I don’t read Quadrant. I read it once and did not like that particular issue at all. I’d say I’m broadly centrist-left (although I dislike those kind of categorisations intensely). I just think Wilson’s arguments were obscured under the self-indulgent waffle.

    It also struck me as a pretty pathetic explanation – “I didn’t do a nice thing but it’s fine because (a) My beliefs are pure and true (b) Other people have done it and (c) The press is rubbish, and any claims of objectivity are bunkum.” People who think their beliefs are pure and true annoy me, whatever those beliefs are. I think sometimes the greatest wrongs have been done by people who think they are doing “the right thing.”

    A discussion of (c) is potentially interesting, just not in this instance from my point of view. I don’t like her writing style at all – maybe that’s just me.


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