Passing bull 191 – The people and the crowd



When people come together to vote for parliament or to serve on a jury – rather similar exercises – we feel good about each other.  But if we see them come together as a lynch mob, we are revolted.  We are revolted because people following the herd instinct are behaving more like animals than human beings.  Most of us are very worried about the crowds behind the gillets jaunes in France.  People have there taken to the streets not just to protest against government but to try to bend the government to do its will.  That is a plain denial of parliamentary democracy.  That kind of government can only work if the overwhelming majority of people accept the decision of a majority.  But ever since 1789, the French have claimed the right to take to the streets to stop government taking a course they do not like.  The result is that France has not been able to push through unpopular reforms in the same way that Germany and England did.  And the result of this triumph of the people is that the people are a lot worse off.  That in turn leads to the gillets jaunes and to the President’s not being able to implement the reforms for which he was elected.  And so the cycle goes on – until one morning the French get up and see a scowling Madame LePen brandishing a stock whip on her new tricoleur dais.  She will have achieved the final vindication of the crowd – the acquisition of real power by real force.

The Bagehot column in The Economist this week is headed ‘The roar of the crowd.’  It begins: ‘The great achievement of parliamentary democracy is to take politics off the streets.’  Well, the English achieved that – but not the French.  The article goes on to refer to street protests being invoked to express ‘the will of the people.’  That bullshit phrase is or should be as alien to the English as it is to us.  It is dangerous nonsense advanced by people over the water like Rousseau – one of most poisonous men who ever lived – Robespierre, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler.

The article also refers to social media –the worst misnomer ever – as ‘virtual crowds online.’  It quotes an 1895 book The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind as saying of crowds that they show ‘impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments’ and says that the crowd debases the ordinary person – ‘isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.’  That is because he has handed over the keys to his own humanity.  All this is just as spot-on for social media as it is to those whom Farage whipped up against Muslims, or those for whom Trump did the same, or those who marched last night in favour of Brexit and did so to a ghastly drum-beat that made them look so much like the English fascists from the 1930’s.

For our system to work, people have to show at least some restraint and toleration.  At least two forces are in my view at work in Australia working against us and in favour of the herd instinct of the crowd.  One is social media.  The other is the Murdoch press.  The first is obvious.  As to the second, a New Zealand observer said there were two reasons for the immoderate restraint and toleration of their government to a crisis of hate – the leadership and empathy of the leader of their government, and the absence of the Murdoch press.  In Australia, Sky News after dark regularly parades Pauline Hanson while Bolt and others defends her and while in The Australian columnists attack Muslims as jihadis in something like a frenzy.  And it was just a matter of time before they spitefully turned on the New Zealand Prime Minister and the ‘Muslimist Aljazeera’ – and of course those middle class pinkos at Fairfax and the ABC.

The people behind social media and the Murdoch press are wont to preach about freedom of speech.  The sad truth is that they go to the gutter for the same reason – for profit.

Two more points.  The current disaster in England started when they went and tested ‘the will of the people’ and got an equivocal answer – yes, leave, but on what terms? – with a majority too slim to permit a simple solution to a difficult problem to be found and implemented.  Now we have the awful and degrading spectacle of parliament behaving worse than the crowd.  And people who got where they are on a vote from the people are with a straight face saying that it would be wrong to ask the people again now that everyone knows what lies were told and who has been the worst behaved.  Indeed, their Prime Minister says a second vote would be a ‘betrayal of democracy.’  Some say an election would be better – when both major parties are hopelessly splintered and there is no reason at all to think that a reconfigured group of those responsible for the present mess might do better.

The real betrayal of democracy has taken place in America.  Trump appealed to the crowd to reject the ‘elites’ – people who know what they are doing.  Neither he nor almost everyone in his government has any idea about governing.  But his betrayal is more elemental.  A President is elected, as Lincoln said ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’  Trump could not care less about the people.  He is only interested in that ghastly minority that is called his ‘base.’  And since he thinks his base wants him to abandon affordable health care, he will try to kill it.  And to hell with the people.

It’s not just that the policies of people like Farage, Hanson and Trump are revolting – it’s the people they get to work with them that are also revolting.

It looks like the hour of the crowd is with us again and it may never have looked worse.


But Trump bends history to his will.  May simply bends under the will of others.

The Weekend Australian, 30-31 March, 2019.  Mr G Sheridan

It is an interesting view of the strong man.  Amazingly, the editorial was even sillier.

Here and there – Manning Clark on Australia

People whose views I respect differ from me on Manning Clark.  I like and admire his work. He was there to tell a story, and he did so by telling us about the lives of persons, not of a people. His story is built like a saga, but over many generations.  And he speaks with the tone of one who looks down from on high, but with pity.

Set out below is my note on the abridgement of his history.  Here are some citations which give the drift of some major themes.

By 1820, these early sentiments of belonging to the country went hand in hand with ideas of exclusive ownership: their passion of patriotism was fed by xenophobia.  For Australian xenophobia had a long history, and its origins might be traced to the passions and aspirations of the convicts.

The whole convict community….continued to be poisoned by a silent deep-rooted hostility to the free settlers and the ‘bloody immigrants.’…Convictism had bred a race of levellers who were only happy when they were laughing cruelly at the misfortunes of others or getting a rise out of the pretentious, and sneering at all mighty men of renown.  Convictism had also bred a race of men who were indifferent to the great creations of the human spirit.

This dependence of the colonial bourgeoisie on London, and their success in educating the working class in their own values laid the firm foundations for conservatism in Australia.

The Argus explained why King should be spared ‘a preposterous glorification’: there was, they said, a broad distinction to be drawn between ‘moral heroism’ and ‘physical endurance’.  King seemed to have owed his preservation to that tenacity of life which characterised some constitutions and which was not a moral quality but a physical accident.  Gentlemen such as Burke and Wills had that moral quality which was outside the reach of a man of the people.

Colonials did not govern themselves entirely: defence and foreign affairs belonged to the Imperial Government.  Colonials had the same prerogatives as the harlot.  They had power but not responsibility.  That was one reason why colonial politics had degenerated into a sordid struggle for power.  Politicians contended not over great questions of principle, or matters of great moment, but rather over how to win the ‘scramble for office.’  Men formed groups in politics not from identity of political conviction but out of some belief that one leader was more likely to win office than another.

In fact, as Alfred Deakin observed, the prospect of federation had failed to arouse public enthusiasm.  The federalists, he wrote, were striving against ‘the inexhaustible inertia of our populace as a whole.’

Some believed in the goal of a co-operative Commonwealth under a democracy of man as declared ages ago by ‘the good revolutionist of Nazareth.’  Others were as pragmatic as Barton…..In March of 1901 the Reverend Mr Edgar electrified his congregation by giving permission to the men during a Melbourne heatwave to remove their coats.  He did not make so bold as to give women permission to remove their hats, because that would have transgressed St Paul’s injunction to women to cover their heads when in church.

He (Deakin) called a ‘Ministry of colourless respectability.’

The theatre-going public put that bland Aussie question to all disturbers of bourgeois complacency: what’s wrong with what we have got?

The emergence of an organised radical working-class movement presented the ALP with a dilemma.  Driven by conservative criticism to disown the revolutionary aims and methods of the Australian Socialist Party, they used the language and tactics which substantiated the verdict that they were a bourgeois party tossing sops and palliatives to the workers.

‘The promising military career of Robert Gordon Menzies’, one student wrote, ‘was cut short by the outbreak of war.’

Lang accepted defeat with the dignity which characterised him on great occasions, but he has paid a terrible price for indulging in the ‘insane folly of faction fighting’, which has killed the soul of Labor.

My own views are these. 

We have never grown up.  We – the white visitors on this great land – started off completely dependent on the English Crown and we still owe allegiance to it as our head of state.  I doubt if any other people is so dependent on its government.  We are so different to the US.  They were started by people opposed to the English Crown and the nation was formed when they revolted against it.  Their migrants came out on their own.  England sponsored ours.  The result is that we are timid and prone to inertia.

But the infection of the class system remains.  The treatment of King by the supporters of ‘the gentlemen’ Burke and Wills may be the most gruesome story in the whole history.  The stain is sustained by two unhappy imports – ‘public schools’ and the religious schism. 

But we also see that ugly levelling and rejection of those who fly too high for our comfort.  We are more at home with the mediocre.  People with big ideas, even big appetites, are suspect.  God help anyone who wants to be radical here.  We have recently seen people leer and jeer at Christian Porter with all the charm of a lynch mob, and the people Clark called mockers waited until he died to give him that treatment.  God we can be petty.  Australians are wont to respond to renown just as the lion responded to Don Quixote – with a large yawn, although few would be prepared to go the extent of baring their arse.

If you look at the characters that drive Manning Clark’s story, there is, to adopt a remark of Gough Whitlam, hardly one engine driver among them.  Then look at the flash points – the Rum rebellion, the Eureka Stockade, Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly, Gallipoli, the dismissal in 1975 – they are all tawdry, if not downright failures.

The reliance of early settlers on convict labour could have led us into a plantation society.  We escaped that, but not the profound conviction that white people were superior to those of colour – and infinitely superior to the local black people whom they brushed aside like pesky blow flies.  White supremacy was an express premise of our federal government, just as it was an implied premise of the whole British Empire – of which we were a part.  That hangover, and our inertia and acceptance of mediocrity, allows us to banish coloured refugees from the town of Biloela in a way that reminds us of the conduct of white Australians that scandalised London and Europe.

The European theft of the land, with the response of the Aborigine to such a theft, and European ideas on the nature of man and his destiny, rushed both groups into a clash which doomed the culture of the Aborigine, condemniung them to destruction or degradation and the whites to peace, security and material success, at the price of a reputation in posterity for infamy.

That’s the kind of strong stuff that unsettles and enrages the readers of Rupert Murdoch, but what part is not warranted by our story?  Those Australians who acquiesce in the banishment of the Tamils of Biloela have no right to ask what the residents of Munich near Dachau were doing in the years following 1933.

Then the reverend minister invited gentlemen to remove their jackets in church.  Not so long ago, a pianist said the same at the Melbourne Club, when the temperature was about 40 degrees.  We may as well have been in bloody nappies.  (A like invitation was not extended to the ladies, because they are not members.)  The folk at what Manning Clark called ‘Yarraside’ did not go to co-ed schools and their continuing adhesion to the English Crown and English ways are holding us back.  When describing the dependence of the colonial bourgeoisie on London, Manning Clark said that it helped to provide a solid basis of ‘conservatism’ in Australia.  He was not I think referring to the conservatism of Edmund Burke, but the comfort that chaps get from staying in the penumbra of other chaps from School or College.  It is so very English, and the Ockers who follow the Pies or the Storm are frankly just a little beyond the pale, old boy.

While I cannot point to one jot of evidence in support of my view, I have a clear conviction that this nation can experience a rebirth when it finally severs the English Crown from its place in our government.  That is, if you like, just a matter of faith.  It is time we got over this infantile attachment to a foreign family.  When the English wanted to celebrate the opening of their bowels over Sydney Cove, the military prison guards drank a toast and fired a feu de joie to an English king.  His Majesty King George III came from a line especially imported into England from Germany to lock out the Catholics from the Crown.  His Majesty was then going through one of his lucid phases, and he was still getting over his role in the creation of the United States.  But he was I think the first of the Hanoverians to speak English fluently.

The separation of the U S from the U K came in less than 200 years.  We are far too tame and mediocre to do anything as rash as declaring our independence.  The myth of the Man from Snowy River is just that.  Even Bradman dipped his lid at Lord’s.  There is a lesion on our psyche that will not go until after I have gone.

My one solace comes from those Catholics – such as one former Prime Minister, named Tony Abbott – who cling so devoutly to the English Crown – our truest royalists.  What a splendid achievement of dual fidelity!  (I resist saying that they serve two masters, because of the biblical injunction against that conduct, and because it looks like Protestant propaganda.)  These Catholics must know that the English Constitution specifically prohibits a person of their faith from becoming our head of state.  England has, I think, changed the constitution so that Kate could not disinherit Bill simply by going to Mass, but Catholics might recall that the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 did not just set in stone the supremacy of Parliament – it was a glorious reaffirmation of the whole Protestant Ascendancy.  Given this contradiction, it is remarkable that Catholic royalists in Australia are happy to give continuing allegiance to both Westminster and the Vatican.  Indeed, at times I wonder if only those who have the benefit of an education from the Jesuits might be capable of the level of intellectual refinement required to sustain this mighty leap of religious and political faith.


Michael Cathcart (abridged)

Melbourne University Press, 1993.  Rebound in quarter vellum with burgundy label, title in silver and marbled boards.

By chance, I picked up a copy of this book for only $10 at the local flea market.  I had trouble putting it down.  I have read the original six volumes – twice.  I am a fan of the author.  He knew his job was to tell a story.  The raw materials are hardly inspiring.  The history of Australia has the same problem as the French Revolution – heroes are hard to come by, but there is plenty there to make you blush, if not hang your head down.

When I reread Strachey’s Eminent Victorians a while ago, I was struck by how much work God had to do with each of those lives.  Manning Clark was concerned with the phenomenon described as the death of God.   His language is frequently biblical, but the whimsy comes with compassion.  For me, the apotheosis of both style and story comes with parts of volumes four and five – the period from, say, 1851 to 1915– that included marks on our canvas like Eureka, Lambing Flat, Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly, White Australia, and Gallipoli.

Let us look at how we got off to a bad start on education and why it has remained a mess ever since.  The problem for the ‘reforms’ of the 1870’s was not so much God, as schism.  The latter is man-made.

The reforms entrenched the sectarian divisions they were designed to overcome, not least because the Catholic Church withdrew its children from the public system.  The question of whether or not the government should subsidise denominational schools remained a bitter source of conflict into the following century.  [And this century.]…..The children of the rich did not meet on common ground either in the classrooms or the playgrounds of the Australian colonies.  In some schools a room was set aside for the children of the rich….In this way the parents of the gentry and the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie ensured that the fine edge of gentility should not be dulled by familiar intercourse with common children, until the time came to attend a private school such as Melbourne Grammar School or the Presbyterian Ladies’College, where the prejudices they had inherited from their parents were consolidated into the habits of a lifetime.

We buggered that right up, and that very English divide is still with us.  We also buggered it up with help from another part of our schizoid mother country.

In the national schools, the children were taught to venerate Her Majesty Queen Victoria; in the Catholic schools the children learned to venerate the Holy Father, and to adore the Holy Mother of God.  In the national schools, the children learned of the glories of British arms, and the spread of a beneficent British civilisation over the whole world….;in the Catholic schools, Ireland was presented as the centre of the universe, and England as a place from which had come the men who had reduced the loveliest island on God’s earth to a land of skulls……In the national schools, the classroom walls were decorated with the likenesses of Queen Victoria, and of civil and military heroes of English history; in the Catholic schools classroom walls were decorated with prints of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin and the Pope.  Yet they had much in common.  Both school systems enforced a strict segregation of the sexes; both urged their pupils to mortify the flesh; both taught a morality pleasing to the ears of men who held the purse strings in the colonial parliaments.

So, we not only inflicted social division on the children; we also gave them religious hate.  The second has evaporated, but the first lives on as a national disgrace.  Have we also allowed a ‘strict segregation of the sexes’ so that ‘the prejudices they had inherited from their parents were consolidated into the habits of a lifetime’?

We are reminded that the poet Henry Kendall thought that Australia belonged to ‘clowns, liars and charlatans.’  Boy, just look at us now.  One local newspaper was ‘Australian because it treated life as a cruel joke.  Its mockery was Australian.’  You find the word ‘mockery’ a lot in Manning Clark.  Clark was not a mocker, but the mockers waited until he was dead to move in on him.  A man who looked on others with an eye of pity was cruelly betrayed by people who should have known better.  Those mean and jealous people foreshadowed the jeerers, sneerers and leerers inflicted on Australia by a Flash Harry who checked out for the United States.

This was just another upswing of that petty mediocrity that so sadly disfigures what passes for our national character.  As Clark remarked, ‘in Australia, the upstart conservative, the mean man, often defeated the generous man and the visionary.’  As it happens, on the next page, we get the ‘money-changers had begun to set the tone of public life in Australia.’  These are truths that have sadly endured, and are not seen by those who best exemplify them.  Well, as Billy Hughes reminded our national parliament, at least Judas had the decency to hang himself – and throw away the thirty pieces of silver.

The Labor movement got off to a mean and rocky Australian start.

Writing and talking as though the love of all mankind distinguished them from all previous political groups, articulate Labor spokesmen inflamed their followers with hatred against the Chinese, the Jews, the English, the Pacific Islanders, and indeed almost all strangers in their midst.  Mouthing the platitudes of the Utopians about a new society in which all hatred would cease, and God’s destroying angels would disappear off the face of the earth, their candidates for election to the colonial parliaments represented themselves to be reformers rather than revolutionaries, preservers rather than destroyers.

We know about those people who love all mankind.  The man that Carlyle called the Evangelist of the French Revolution, Rousseau, loved all mankind – he just abandoned all his children to the Foundling Home.  ‘This arrangement seemed to me so admirable, so rational, and so legitimate, that the only reason I did not boast openly of it was to spare the mother ….All things considered, what I chose for my children was for the best for them, or so I genuinely believed.  I could have wished, and still wish, that I had been reared and brought up in the same fashion.’  Would Stalin have approved of the solicitude for the mother?

Those who came to federation had to deal with ‘the inexhaustible inertia of the people as a whole.’  That’s what we are – inert.  In no colony did more than 46.33% cast a yes vote.  We could also be crudely nationalist.  The Bulletin urged Australians to turn their backs on ‘Queen Victoria’s nigger Empire.’

Our first PM was ‘a middle of the road man, an Australian bourgeois politician.’  Toss-pot Barton believed political issues could be resolved by chaps over Scotch.  Some idiot referred to ‘the good revolutionist of Nazareth.’  Then in March 1901 ‘the Reverend Mr Edgar electrified his congregation by giving permission to the men during a Melbourne heatwave to remove their coats.’

But the Victorian Chief Justice, Sir John Madden, feared that a darker purpose was at work.  Taking his stand on the Bible, he warned that women’s suffrage would abolish soldiers, war, racing, hunting, football and all manly games.  The Bulletin worried that intermarriage with niggers could lower our national type.  Australians ‘had descended from their lofty eminence as a society of peace and goodwill’ and ‘Australia had suddenly acquired notoriety in the civilised world as a centre of human barbarism’.  Was the author of Ecclesiastes right?  Is there nothing new under the sun?

In the 1950’s parents in Melbourne were horrified by the gyrations of Elvis Presley.  How did their forebears handle the sex appeal of Wagner?  ‘Inside the Exhibition Building, society women fanned their faces to hide their response to the sensuous music of Wagner.  Men fidgeted in their seats as a trumpet, bassoon and a big bass drum inflamed their senses.’  Out of doors, politics stayed in the gutter.  Billy Hughes ‘hissed and spat at his opponents like a cat defending its own territory against an invader.’

Here are some passages that go to the core of our political life, that show why we are so different to the United States, and why the words ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ are so very slippery in the context of Australia.

George Turner [Victorian Premier and first Treasurer of the Commonwealth] was also said to have ‘no horizon in his mind, no perspective in his politics, no proud surface upon which he rested.’  But where Reid [News South Wales Premier, later Prime Minister] often flirted with the Bohemian fringe in Sydney, to the scandal of the frowners in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Turner was always a model of British bourgeois propriety.  Balancing the books was his great passion in life.  By his great industry, his zeal and his deep conviction, he helped to raise that criterion into the standard by which politicians came to be judged in Australia.

The liberals wanted a compromise between the conservative insistence that property must enjoy special protection in any colonial federal constitution, and the labour call for one man one vote…..

On the role of the state in economic life, the liberals saw themselves as supporters of the traditional role of government in planting civilisation in the Australian wilderness.  Government had played the major role in the supply, distribution and control of labour in the convict period.  Government had performed a similar role in the selection, transport and distribution of free immigrants.  Government had developed a network of country and suburban railways not on any abstract principle of the role of government, but because in Australian conditions, private or free enterprise could not or would not embark on such activities.  Liberals believed in a continuing partnership between the two.

The Mildura experiment in irrigation was a model of that harmony of interests which the liberals detected between government and free enterprise.  Alfred Deakin had been greatly impressed by the irrigation schemes set up by George and William Chaffey in California when he visited there in 1885.  In 1888……the government of South Australia interested them in a similar scheme in Renmark.  In Los Angeles, the Chaffeys had developed their schemes under the American practice of free enterprise – that, in American experience was what produced the greatest wealth, the greatest efficiency, the greatest service to the consumers and the highest material rewards to the people of initiative, drive and unbounded energy.  That was what generated a lively society, a society with a great pulse of life, a people who were magnificently alive, and not characterised by the dullness and mediocrity of people mollycoddled by governments, churches, charity organisations, or those self-appointed improvers of humanity who made decisions for people, thereby depriving them of the exercise of the right to decide for themselves, a necessary condition for the flowering of the personality.  The Chaffeys built their model villages….to the background of angry exchanges between conservatives very voluble on the evils of government interference and radicals clamouring for more government control.

Here is a warning about treating with barbarians – like Hitler.

The conservatives were in a dilemma.  A barbarian was threatening the very foundations of society, but the barbarian might have his uses.  He was offering to wipe Bolshevism off the map of the world: he was already destroying trade union power: in a most brutal and barbarous fashion, he was rooting out decadence in Germany.  The barbarian has talked of the German need for Lebensraum (living space); perhaps he could find it during his crusade against Bolshevism.  Hitler could be used and then dropped – monsters had their uses.

How different is the dilemma currently (2018) facing Republicans over Trump?

When Bertrand Russell quit our shores in 1950, he said, graciously, some might think:

Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence

Manning Clark was not optimistic, and neither am I.  We have settled for a safe, inert mediocrity.  People who rock the boat make us very nervous.

Carlyle said that history was a collection of biographies.  That is in large part just what this book of Manning Clark is.  It’s not just that history can be entertaining – it does its job better when it is.  I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a very long time – at least as far back as when I last read The French Revolution by Carlyle.  At least we got one thing right.

Here and there – Naivety about Afghanistan

The Wolf and I were very fond of Old Jack, our neighbour at Blackwood.  Jack had flown more than forty missions over Europe in Mosquitoes.  His worst fear was coming down and being lynched.  There would be no control over those doing the lynching.  Jack told me, more than once, that those in Vietnam did it a lot harder.  They never knew who might try to kill them.  The laws governing soldiers were simply irrelevant when women and children were engaged in the killing.  That is why, Old Jack said, those coming back from Vietnam were much worse off than the Rats of Tobruk.

This lawless killing is common when people defend their land against foreign soldiers.  A typical instance was what the Americans call their War of Independence.  In a book written years ago about revolutions, I said the following.

Although the Americans like to see themselves as having been the underdogs, they won the War of Independence, as they call it, and it is not hard to isolate some of the reasons why their position was eventually so much stronger than that of the English.  You can apply the following criteria to the American War of Independence – or to the Vietnam War, the Russian war in Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, or the present military operations in Afghanistan.  The phrases ‘home team’ and ‘away team’ are used for convenience and not to detract from the significance of the wars, or the valour shown and losses taken by those who actually fought them and are fighting the present one.

  1. The away team is the biggest in the world, or as the case may be, the only empire in the world, or the second biggest.
  2. The away team is a regular professional army while the home team consists of amateur irregulars.
  3. The professional soldiers in the away team have no advantage over the amateurs in the other team because they have not been trained for this kind of war and people who fight for the cause are more reliable than those who do it for money.
  4. People defending their own soil are far more motivated than those who cross the world to try to bring them into line.
  5. The away team has massive resources and advantages in population and war matériel (such as the navy) and technology, but the home team has local knowledge. 
  6. The home team can move more quickly, avoid pitched battles, and use guerrilla tactics, which are sometimes referred to as terrorism, and which, as we saw, the British objected to as not being fair play.
  7. The away team has problems with morale and supplies that just get worse as time goes on.
  8. The away team finds that winning requires more than just winning battles – they may beat the army of the other side, but they will not beat the country, which has widespread support among its people (even if the people are otherwise split).
  9. The away team has a hopeless dilemma – it has to hit hard to win, but every time it hits hard it loses more hearts and minds.
  10. The home team finds it is easy to generate heroes and leaders; the away team finds it is easy to sack losers.
  11. The home team out-breeds the others – the result is just a matter of time.
  12. The war becomes one of exhaustion and attrition, which in turn exaggerates the above advantage of the home team.
  13. Because of its felt superiority, its actual ignorance, and its sustained frustration, the away team resorts to atrocious behaviour that it would never be guilty of in a normal war, or against an enemy of its own kind.

In short, the American colonists felt that they were fighting on the moral high ground, a position that they have never surrendered. Appalling crimes were committed on both sides, especially in the civil war in the south between the Patriots and Loyalists. There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’ Professor Gordon S Wood said that the ‘war in the lower south became a series of bloody guerrilla skirmishes with atrocities on both sides’ (like Vietnam). But for the intervention of the French, this civil war – guerrilla war may have gone on for years and degenerated into what would happen in Latin America with ‘Caesarism, military rule, army mutinies and revolts, and every kind of cruelty’ (like the Roman Empire).

As I said, all that goes for Afghanistan – except that there the locals were used to living by the gun, and they were assured of Paradise if they got killed.  For all those reasons, they had seen off Britain and Russia – and they would see off the U S – just about as surely as night follows day.  

The word ‘guerrilla’ comes from the war between Spain and Napoleon.  The atrocities there were perhaps the most appalling of all.  They were depicted by Goya in Los desastres de la Guerra.  Those crimes would turn any stomach.  They were committed on behalf of peoples who claimed to be Christian and civilised. 

The dilemma that I referred to above is shown by Cromwell in Ireland.  He was utterly ruthless in putting down insurgents, but his name is linked with Drogheda and infamy.  It is worth recalling the judgment – that is what it was – of Winston Churchill.

…the conscience of man must recoil from the monster of  a faction-god projected from the mind of an ambitious, interested politician on whose lips the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘mercy’ were mockery.  Cromwell in Ireland, disposing of overwhelming strength and using it with merciless wickedness, debased the standards of human conduct and sensibly darkened the journey of mankind….The consequences of Cromwell’s rule in Ireland have distressed and at times distracted English politics down even to the present day…Upon all of us there still lies ‘the curse of Cromwell.’

Cromwell did it for Christ.  And he and Churchill are the only two leaders the English have erected statues to outside their parliament.

Then there was My Lai and a man having his brains blown out on camera and film of a girl screaming in terror from Napalm – that the U S cavalry officer just loved the smell of in the morning.

Anyone believing that crimes as bad and worse would not be committed in Afghanistan was therefore engaged in wilful blindness.

In the course of his evidence in his defamation trial, the VC winner said: ‘We were out there doing a job you cannot explain to people.’  The same goes for those soldiers who were slaughtered at the Somme or Iwo Jima – but at least they knew what they were doing there.

So, Australian soldiers will be prosecuted for crimes committed in what we call a war.  That is as it should be – except that I would like to see the bastards who sent them there in the dock beside them.

Passing Bull 275 – Political commentary

Our press can be very bad on politics.  The other day a leading daily opened a column on page one about the decline of the PM in the polls as follows.

Scott Morrison has resisted the temptation to take the gloves off with premiers using quarantine failures to mask their own inadequacies.  To do otherwise would be counterproductive as he plays a long game.

The suppressed premise is that the states are mainly responsible.  That is the position of this paper.  It is a fair bet that the writer thought he was being complimentary to the PM.  That is also the position of this paper.  It probably did not occur to the writer that he was drawing attention to the main criticism of the P M – that he is more interested in playing the game – leading in opinion polls and at elections – than governing as a matter of principle.  And it probably did not occur to the writer that in declining to blame the states, the P M was avoiding what people dislike most about our federal structure – the capacity of unprincipled people to pass the buck.

Later, the writer refers to the ALP as ‘the other side.’  That is also the position of this paper.

Labor now has a strategy focussed on bringing Morrison’s numbers down through an agenda derived of grievance politic.

Oh, dear – when you are addicted to cant, you are prone to this kind of ungrammatical grab.  ‘Grievance’ has a long history in our constitutional growth.  The parliament could refuse aid to the Crown until it answered their ‘grievances’.  It is the function of the Opposition to air those grievances and advance ways another government might deal with them.  It is not a matter of bringing down the numbers of one man by an ‘agenda’ plastered with a sticky label.

This kind of reporting is fond of the phrase ‘the Canberra bubble.’  It is not a compliment.  But this kind of reporting shows why people just give up on the whole bloody lot of them.


Indeed, Greene seemed to take the remarkable position that it was somehow self-centered of Congress to be trying to find out why the Capitol was attacked. She began her statement by saying that she opposed the commission ‘because I believe this institution’s duty is to serve the people of this country and not itself’—as if convening a joint session to certify the peaceful transfer of power was a kind of petty indulgence.

The New Yorker, 23 May, 2021.

Even though Macron did explicitly accept French responsibility in relation to the Rwandan genocide, his mea culpa was followed up by an equally explicit exoneration: ‘The killers who stalked the swamps, the hills, the churches, did not have the face of France. France was not an accomplice.’ This was a historic acknowledgment written as a non-liability clause.

Financial Times, 6 June 2021

Here and there – Mr Porter and the ABC

If someone does wrong by you, the law may allow you to recover compensation from the wrongdoer.  If the wrong is serious, the compensation may be large.  One such wrong is where someone says something that damages you by causing others to think less of you.  This wrong is called libel or defamation.  And if the libel is bad, the compensation may be very large.

But I am yet to meet a person who has recovered large – even massive – damages for a wrong who is glad that they were wronged so that they could get this compensation.  Ask Geoffrey Rush or Rebel Wilson.  Or a quadriplegic.  A late partner and friend of mine was cruelly defamed.  He recovered massive verdicts from a vulnerable press and his life was utterly ruined by the lawyers in the process.

The wrong of libel is very difficult in litigation because the whole process serves to rehearse the original publication – that is, to aggravate the wrong.  That is one reason why plaintiffs who clear all the hurdles can recover what looks to be huge damages.  But, again, I am yet to meet the plaintiff who says they are net better off at the end of it all than if the wrong had never happened.

Then in a libel action there is usually argument about the meaning of the publication.  Was the publisher saying that the plaintiff was guilty of a crime?  Or merely that there were grounds for saying so?  That then leads to a very murky area.  The publisher often wants to say: ‘I did not say you did it.  But I did say that there were good grounds to suggest that you did it.  And in that meaning, I say that my words were true.’

Next, the conduct of the parties may let in evidence that would not otherwise be allowed.  For example, the defence of protected political discussion is a wholly judge-made law of recent origin.  To succeed, the publisher has to persuade the court that it acted reasonably – by for example putting to the plaintiff precisely what they alleged.  I am not aware of any publisher who has so persuaded the court.  But this defence may let in evidence of what influenced the beliefs of the publisher – for example, friends of the plaintiff alleging that he admitted that he was wrong.

All these factors look to have been present in a magnified form in the case of Mr Porter v ABC.  If the plaintiff was well advised – and he was – he would have been told that this case was not about money.  It was about stanching the bleeding by ending the growing clamour.  If he could do that, and get on with his life, the action would have served the main purpose – always remembering that no plaintiff ever makes a full recovery from the original wrong.

If the ABC were well advised – and they were – they would have been told that they would find it hard to emerge from this fearful process with their reputation intact.  Mr Porter’s lawyers had made very serious but coherent allegations of grossly unprofessional conduct against the ABC.  The victim is dead and her supporters are very emotional – to the point of litigating against one of Mr Porter’s lawyers personally. 

I am advised by very experienced criminal lawyers that even if the victim had been alive and willing to proceed, the authorities would not have prosecuted.  There were too many obvious problems.  The alleged guilt of Mr Porter could not have been determined by the court.  But the allegations against the ABC were susceptible of proof, and causing great harm to the ABC in the process.

The ABC now accepts that there is no basis for saying that Mr Porter could be found guilty of rape.  When challenged in court, the national broadcaster agreed to settle by, among other things, stating: ‘The ABC did not contend that the serious accusations could be substantiated to the applicable legal standard – criminal or civil.’

The suggestion that there should be a public inquiry into the fitness for office of Mr Porter always looked misconceived to me.  It all comes back to an allegation that cannot be put to the test required before making a relevant finding against someone.  Ours is not a community where you can lose your job because someone is telling tales about you that cannot be tested.  Since the parties to this case have spent about one million dollars on the best lawyers in the land to come up with the statement of the ABC that the serious charges against Mr Porter could not be substantiated, I do not see how any disinterested observer could with a straight face or in good faith push for some form of inquiry.

Any litigation involves a lawful form of gambling.  On those grounds, the settlement yesterday should not surprise us.  It represents a conclusion of a horrendous and hazardous process that both sides can live with. 

Taxpayers should be grateful.  The friends of the deceased may be in mourning.

Here and there – Further thoughts on our present discontents

Generalisations are sloppy, but we do see a malaise in both the U S and the U K that might fairly be described as shocking.  The moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party has been appalling, but I wonder if the acquiescence of so many English people in the gross misdeeds of Boris Johnson leaves them much better off. 

It is a very close run thing about which of Trump and Johnson is the more unfit for high office.  If a majority of Republicans believe that the Democrats stole the election – which is the equivalent of saying that the earth is flat – then the problems with the American education system are a lot worse than we thought.  But then a frightening number of those in Congress are committed to the literal truth of the book of Genesis – which is like saying there is no H or O in water.  And their policy in the Middle East is in some part driven by religious zealots called ‘evangelicals.’  Their contribution to world peace is roughly equivalent to that of the Crusaders – they got their eye in for massacring Muslims by massacring Jews en route. 

How the better people of England – or those that see themselves as such – contemplate the obvious failings of Boris Johnson is beyond me.  He surely could not pass muster for the sturdy readers of Country Life.  It will not have escaped your notice that the worst failures have taken place in those parties that used to call themselves ‘Conservatives.’

Johnson and Trump have at least two things in common.  They thrive on chaos; it follows that each of them gets very uneasy if government does its job and the community is stable.  And each cannot sustain the faith of a wife, but expects to sustain the faith of a nation.  How either could expect anyone who can read or write to believe him is a question that might fairly be put to God.

Not many professors of politics at Manchester University would be card carrying Conservatives.  In Reckless Opportunists, Elites at the end of the Establishment, Aeron Davis gives us fair warning of the direction of the breeze on the first page of chapter 1:

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the leaders of the successful leave campaign, having stabbed Cameron in the back, then stabbed each other.

That looks transcendentally true to me, but I expect that the ‘chaps’ would be expected to apply a gloss – or, in Milton’s language, they could ‘gloze’ like the tempter – the snake in the grass.  But the author does lay out a handy check list of the symptoms of the illness that is infecting England – and, in one form or another, us and others.

Politicians appear to be willing to sacrifice everything to please themselves and to satisfy their own ambition.  ‘All others looked on hopelessly as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson took on David Cameron and George Osborne.  Nothing else mattered more than gaining power over the party – not the voters, not Britain, and not even the party itself.’  Animal acts were committed in public – so reminding us of the observation of Donald Trump about his shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. 

People rightly wondered if David Cameron stood for anything – ‘beyond classic Thatcherism delivered in New Labour–type packaging’ – dolled up by Saatchi and Saatchi.  Cameron looked to me just like Hillary Clinton – they both wanted the job for the same reason that people climb Everest.  Corbyn was instantly recognisable by all Australians – an old time Labor hack devoutly pure, utterly unelectable, and sublimely unfazed by either proposition – a pale old ghost sleep-walking to oblivion.  His type turned Australia into a one party state for thirty years after the last world war.  

Mrs Thatcher is widely loathed.  So is Tony Blair.  If you cross those two off, what is left after Churchill?  Blair is special on three counts.  He has raw animal charm – like Clinton; people were beguiled in the presence of this Western Dalai Lama.  He betrayed his class and then his party.  And he lied his way into war. 

Blair and Cameron did have a lot in common.  Both refashioned their parties to become election winners.  Both were more interested in party management and playing the statesman than policy development.  Both tried to secure the fabled ‘centre ground’.  Both came to spend more time with big funders, media moguls, campaign experts and the more exclusive parts of the Westminster Village than they did their MPs or ordinary supporters.  And in making themselves and their parties ‘winners’, they jettisoned traditional members, voters and core ideologies…The consequences of reinventing themselves as election winners, rather than representative parties, have been predictable.  …the figures for ‘trust’ in politicians and established ‘party identification’ have also continued to decline steadily.  Long-established loyalties to parties have been broken as electoral volatility has grown enormously.

That looks word for word true for us down here.  Who believes that the Liberal or Labor Party here really stands for anything – much less something that separates it from the other, or the ‘centre’, or the prognostications of the guru, or the resident psephology wizard?  Has it all not become just a tedious game of charades played before a bored gallery?

The permanent, independent civil service has been disembowelled.  ‘Traditional functions were outsourced to quangos and opaque multinationals.  With each of these steps, objectivity, impartiality, public accountability and service has been eroded further.’  The civil service is half what it was when Mrs Thatcher came to power.  The loss of respect and direction could be seen when the confusion of the states’ and federal coronavirus response made its masterpiece. 

The author heads this section ‘Civil servants outsource democracy.’  An essential part of the Westminster model has been trashed and we are now confronted by cadres of unworldly acolytes lining up for their go at the greasy pole.  Just as corporates have lost their corporate memory, so have government departments.  And instead of getting short, blunt advice from a trusted adviser of long standing, corporate and government managers resort to panels of advisers who are intent on humouring the client and protecting their bums with windy and glossy folderol that goes nowhere.

We are infatuated with wealth and ‘wealth creators’.  ‘Chief executives are more highly rewarded for raising share prices, cutting jobs, and exploiting monopolies, rather than innovating and making long-term investments.  And the new emerging industries of the hi-tech and gig economies make a lot more money by employing less people and avoiding taxes.’  Fund managers compete for the biggest returns and bonuses lock short-termism into the business cycle.  The individual investor – the Mum and Dad investor – is simply irrelevant.  

Trust in the press is at an all-time low.  Cost cutting has hit journalism hard and the author finds that ‘PR was becoming a very useful means for journalists needing to cut corners in a hurry.’  We get a well deserved raspberry.  ‘In the 2005-9 World Values Survey, the UK had the second lowest trust rating of the countries surveyed (the lowest was Australia, where Rupert Murdoch has reigned supreme for decades).’  As if on cue, the present federal government, in conjunction with Rupert Murdoch, wants to castrate the news source, the ABC, that most Australians trust.

And that’s before you look at the way that ‘social media’ is lobotomising minds and manners, and the way that coal interests have bribed enough think tanks, media and politicians to ensure that we do not act rationally to meet the one universal threat of our time.  So that we fire any party leader who gets seriously sane on the subject.  If necessary, twice.  And the world looks down wanly at this sad little duckpond in the Antipodes.  And New Zealanders get tapped on the shoulder and asked if we could borrow their Prime Minister.

And the descendants of convicts and their warders have imported the Eton model in an effort to impart caste and inequality in education, this on the footing that the diaspora clings to shibboleths that have long since faded in the mother country, and a generation that went to university on the free list now makes universities hawk their wares like tarts to foreigners.

Since the white people arrived here in this big and dangerous land, Australians have clung fast to their governments with the clinging attention of a slow, climbing koala.  The myth of the little Aussie battler is just that – moonshine.  In a nation where it is political suicide to suggest any reduction in reliance upon government, the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have signified nothing for generations now.  The term ‘conservative’ has been turned on its head and trashed.  People who acquiesce in the ghastly label ‘progressive’ are at risk of being consigned to effervescence at the margin and being offered up for target practice for the usual suspects at The Weekend Australian.

It’s not pretty – this preference for me to us, and us to them, and now for later.  The result is a falling off of purpose and of trust.  Good football and cricket teams know the rules and consist of players who trust each other.  We are losing that trust, and the upside or answer has yet to present itself.  In many ways we look like a spoiled child.  If so we deserve their paradigms – Trump and Johnson.  God help our future generations – because we aren’t.

Here and there – Thoughts on our present discontents

In The Age, this morning, an article by Peter Hartcher contained two propositions that caught my eye.  One is that the only quarantine station performing as one should in Australia is that which was controlled by the federal government – although it is now handing over control of the facility to the Northern Territory. 

The other is that the current lockdown in Victoria comes from a failure of a hotel quarantine in another state, South Australia (which of course says the system worked as it should; as does the Prime Minister.)  ‘On one occasion, Case B opened his room door to collect his meal; then 18 seconds later, Case A opened his door to collect his meal.  This was during the time Case B was infectious, but prior to staff knowing.’  It looks like ‘adequate ventilation’ had not had time to flush away the virus-laden air exhaled by Case B.  Case A went to Victoria, and we are now shut down again.

On a good day, that might remind us of Groucho Marx before the mirrors in Freedonia in Duck Soup.  But millions of people are hurting, and businesses are going to the wall.  We are taking that pain because the federal government has not taken the lead in quarantine, and because federal and state governments are haggling about the funding of quarantine.  The pandemic is a huge international threat and we have not yet been able to give a coherent national response. 

It is hard to imagine a more serious yet avoidable breakdown of the federal system.  Those responsible for mocking the very idea of responsible government should be deeply ashamed of themselves. 

If our federal government were responsible within the terms of the Westminster system, we would be looking at least one ministerial resignation.  The silence about this issue shows us that that system is dead.  The NSW Government website is sadly out of date.  It states: The convention of the Westminster system is ministerial responsibility, whereby  ministers administer and bear responsibility for the actions of a department or agency within their control.  Nowadays we don’t even get an apology.

On the facing page in The Age, there is an article ‘The purpose of leadership’ by two professors engaged in dealing with infectious diseases.  They say that we need leadership about the importance of airborne transmission and we must have a national approach to quarantine – ‘We can’t have a piecemeal approach to quarantine across the nation; we are obviously all interconnected as luckless Victorians can attest to.’

Each proposition looks spell-bindingly obvious.  What is the alternative?  Communing with God on the Sabbath at Hillsong?

Underneath that article, there is another headed ‘False prophets fail communities.’  The author looks at Joel Fitzgibbon, a text-book Labor rat, and says that ‘Two-faced politics rarely succeeds.’  The author says that ‘Climate action will be the barometer of leadership this decade, the next and the next….leadership requires levelling with people and working out a plan rather than ducking and punting it.’

This too is so obvious.  But Australia responds by firing leaders who are sensible about this and who are prepared to lead.  That’s how this Prime Minister got where he is.  And that too may explain why he is so obviously not up to the job.  Instead we get what Mr Hartcher says is the complacency of the Prime Minister.

Last night I indulged my little luxury of reading – flicking through – Country Life while soaking in the electric blanket on max.  It is a very sound and warming journal.  I do like its politics – it does not appear to have any, a consummation devoutly to be desired.  In October last year, they handed their government what in AFL terms is called a lacing.

This Government’s greatest mistake is to confuse resolve with obstinacy……What the nation feels instinctively is that this is a government out of its depth…At present, however, they’re strong only in their words and there’s little confidence that they will carry those words through to effective action…They insist that their response to the coronavirus crisis is based on the science, but they refuse to detail the expert advice upon which they claim to act.  Trust us, they say, but don’t hold us to account.  Trust depends on being counted…Agovernment should know what it’s about and communicate that understanding to the nation it leads.  The tougher the times, the clearer must be the signal.  That is the lesson Mr Johnson should learn from his hero, Winston Churchill….Trying to justify mistakes, batting off reasonable criticism and refusing to budge when your argument is ill founded – that is all mere obstinacy…We need neither soundbites nor photo opportunities.  We need leadership.

That looks to me almost word perfect for us down here now.  The reference to Churchill reminds us of the Satanic depth of our Fall.  As a friend of mine observes, what would-be leader would now say ‘The news from France is very bad’? 

The federal government has ceded what cannot be called leadership to the states, and empowered their premiers to strut and fret their hour upon the stage – and orchestrate a lethal disunity within the federation.  As best as I can see, the only premier to avoid glutinous vote chasing is Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales.  What a falling off was here.

The malaise of democracy across the world is evidenced by the weary yawns that greeted Dom Cummings’ account of moral mayhem in Downing Street.  Cummings is the ultimate rat and he is loathed with glee.  But Johnson like Trump must be assessed by the company he keeps, and Cummings was certainly correct on one point.  A nation that offers a choice between Jeremy Corbin and Boris Johnson has real problems.

We need not be smug about that.  How much better off are we with a choice between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese?

Our failure to deal with the virus as well as we could have done is a failure within our federal system that we should have avoided.  It confirms that the two party system only works well if the two parties are doing their job.  At the moment, the Liberal and Labor Parties in New South Wales are neck and neck in proving who is the more viciously inept.

And the moral havoc unleashed by Trump in the U S and Johnson in the U K provide Australian politicians with cover to acquiesce in that course of political conduct that has blighted this nation from the start – a cosy acceptance of bland mediocrity.  Under the benign if wan smile of a fading, foreign head of state.

And behind them all lies Rupert Murdoch and his limpid minions lolling about in their very own bought chasm of vacuity.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


PLAYS (circa 410 BC)

The Franklin Library, 1976.  Nine plays, variously translated.  All green leather, gold embossing, humped spine, god leaf, navy moiré and ribbon, etchings by Quentin Fiore.

They died from a disease they caught from their father.  (Medea)

The Australian artist Tim Storrier, two of whose (numbered) works I have at home likes painting fire and water, and the stars and pyramids.  He has, therefore, a taste and feel for the elemental.  So it was with the drama of the ancient Greeks.  It is as black and white as ‘High Noon’, a little like ‘Neighbours’, but up very close, and very in your face and very, very terminal.  The Greeks liked keeping their murders in house.  Euripides is probably the most accessible on the page or on the stage for modern audiences.

I saw Medea in London played by Diana Rigg – no ordinary avenger.  It was first produced in about 431 BC (during the Peloponnesian War).  It can sound strikingly modern.  Here is how the hero states her condition.

Of all things which are living and can form a judgment

We women are the most unfortunate creatures.

Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required

For us to buy a husband and take for our bodies

A master.  For not to take one is even worse.


A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home,

Goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom

And turns to a friend or companion of his own age.

But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone

What they say of it is that we have a peaceful time

Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.

How wrong they are!

Truly does the Bible say that there is nothing new under the sun.  When her husband rats on her, Sir Paul Harvey in the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (which it is handy to have around when reading or seeing these plays) says: ‘The desertion and ingratitude of the man she loves rouses the savage in Medea, and her rage is outspoken.’  The savage in us all is what Greek drama is largely about.  Since she kills her successor and her father, her children will die:

No!  By Hell’s avenging furies it shall not be –

This shall never be, that I should suffer my children

To be the prey of my enemies’ insolence.

In case you are asking, we hear from the children offstage before they go, and their mother then unloads the mordant pearler that stands at the head of this note.  What we not give to know how audiences reacted to all this all that time ago?

In some ways, The Trojan Women is even tougher.  The women and children are given up to the victors after the fall of Troy.  Their names have been burnt into our consciousness through The Iliad and these plays and opera.  A child is sacrificed over the grave of Achilles.  Cassandra is given to Agamemnon ‘to be joined with him in the dark bed of love.’  Hecuba is to be ‘slave to Odysseus.’

To be given as slave to serve that vile, that slippery man,

Right’s enemy, brute, murderous beast,

That mouth of lies and treachery, that makes void,

Faith in things promised

And that which was beloved turns to hate.  Oh, mourn,

Daughters of Ilium, weep as one for me.

This is like the Old Testament.  Andromache drops these great lines:

Death, I am sure, is like never being born, but death

Is better thus by far than to live a life of pain,

Since the dead with no perception of evil feel no grief…

But the widow Hector comes crashing back to earth as she reflects that she has been given to the son of his killer.  Will she defile Hector’s memory?

Yet they say one night of love suffices to dissolve

A woman’s aversion to share the bed of any man.

The Orestes here is not in the same league as that of Aeschylus.  It is very long, although the dialogue can be crisp, as in this exchange between Menelaus and Orestes.

I am a murderer.  I murdered my mother.

So I have heard.  Kindly spare me your horrors [!]

I spare you – although no god spared me.

What is your sickness?

I call it conscience: The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime.

You speak somewhat obscurely.  What do you mean?

I mean remorse.  I am sick with remorse.

We will return to ‘conscience’, but the play is about the dilemna at the dawn of our law.

Where, I want to know, can this chain

Of murder end?  Can it never end, in fact,

Since the last to kill is doomed to stand

Under permanent sentence of death by revenge.

No, our ancestors handled these matters well

……………….they purged their guilt

By banishment, not death.  And by so doing,

They stopped that endless vicious cycle

Of murder and revenge.

If art reflects on the human condition, these old Greek plays are in at the beginning.  This is their looking at us, tiptoeing around the rim of a volcano, and hoping that we do not fall in.  Have we changed at all?

Passing Bull 273– You don’t have to be dumb to be wrong

Keynes began with outrageously impulsive adventures in art and currency, switched to cyclical equity investments on the theory that he could forecast the business cycle and, finally, abandoned cyclical forecasting in favour of the kind of long-term value investing made famous by Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett.


But the play (Richard III), which featured more than 50 characters, defeated me.  As I lacked knowledge of the text, the long speeches quickly became tiresome.  I left at intermission.

AFR Weekend, 10-11 April, 2021, Aaron Patrick.

This is a curious admission from a journalist who is not receiving a standing ovation for his work on Samantha Maiden.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Albert Einstein

Folio Society, 2010.  Bound in figured boards, with photographs and slip case.

The word Einstein now stands for genius, just as Hoover means vacuum cleaner, but it was Einstein who once and for all put science beyond all but the select.  Before Einstein, people with a good general education could come to grips with the laws of science on which the world revolved.  But they could not do so after Einstein rewrote the whole book.  Now for most of us science is, at bottom, like God or Mozart, something that we must take, if at all, simply on trust.  It would be fair to hazard the assertion that the mind of Einstein has had more effect on the world than any other mind.

Einstein was born of Jewish parents in Ulm, a small city on the Danube in the south of Germany.  He at first attended a Catholic elementary school, and then attended the local Gymnasium.  He was introduced to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the age of about ten – which is like saying that Mozart started composing at the age of five.  He took his tertiary education in Switzerland and got employment as an examiner in the Swiss Patent Office.

The work of Einstein led him to conduct thought experiments about the nature of light and the relation of time and space.  He was crossing the borders of existing knowledge.  In 1905, he published four revolutionary papers, one on special relativity.  He then developed his general theory which was later verified.  He was the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, and a professor at Humboldt University from 1914 to 1932.  He won a Nobel Prize in 1921.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein was in America.  He stayed there – back home they burnt his books and put a bounty on his head.  He then warned the U S that Hitler might be te first to get the Atom bomb.  This led Roosevelt to implement the Manhattan Project.  Einstein later wrote a manifesto with Bertrand Russell on the dangers of nuclear weapons.  His total scientific output was staggering.  It does not bear to think what might have happened had Einstein returned to Germany in 1933 and provided the means for Hitler to be the first to get, and most certainly use, the bomb.

Einstein had a mature view of religion.  Towards the end of his life he said ‘I very rarely think in words at all’.  He thought in pictures, in his thought experiments, and mathematically.  Whereas some people see what they believe to be miracles as evidence of God’s existence, for Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence, and revealed a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.  This is very much like what Kant thought.  When Einstein adhered to this dictum and said that God does not play dice, the rejoinder of Nils Bohr was: ‘Einstein, stop telling God what to do!’

Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were out to get him.  A New York rabbi sent him a telegram: ‘Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  Fifty words.’  The reply was: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind’.  Einstein never felt the need to put down others who believed in a different kind of God: ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’.

In a paper headed The World as I See It, published in 1931, Einstein said:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge, and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.  I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves.  Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts.  I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvellous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

You can see why Einstein poses a challenge to religion as it is usually practised.  It is not just the rejection of a personal God and life after death – he finds a source of wonder and mystery from contemplating the world as he finds it.  In a paper published in Germany in 1930, Einstein had affirmed that man could get by ethically without God.

A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible….Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust.  A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.  Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.

Elsewhere he made a strong allegation: ‘The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods.’

He knew how to take a stand.  Here is his advice on a 1953 inquisition.

What ought the minority of intellectuals do against this evil? Frankly, I can only see the revolutionary way of non-co-operation in the sense of Ghandi’s.  Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i. e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country.

However, this refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution.

If enough people are ready to take this grave step, they will be successful.  If not, then the individuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

That was written by someone proscribed by Nazi Germany.  He could prescribe very high standards.  Here he is on human rights in 1954.

The existence and validity of human rights was not written in the stars…There is however one other human right which is infrequently mentioned, but which seems to be destined to become very important: this is the right or the duty of the individual to abstain from cooperating in activities which he considers wrong or pernicious.  The first place in this respect must be given to the refusal of military service.  I have known instances where individuals of unusual moral strength and integrity have, for that reason, come into conflict with the organs of the state.  The Nuremberg trial of the German war criminals was tacitly based on the recognition of the principle: criminal actions cannot be excused if committed on government orders; conscience supersedes the authority of the law and the state.

The last clause is potent.  Finally, this is what he had to say to Mahatma Ghandi in 1944:

A leader of his people, unsupported by any outward authority: a politician whose success rests not upon the craft nor the mastery of technical devices, but simply on the convincing power of his personality; a victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force; a man of wisdom and humility, armed with resolve and inflexible consistency, who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people and the betterment of their lot; a man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.

Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

Those words were spoken by the man who referred to Jesus of Nazareth as ‘the luminous Nazarene.’  This book is a big clean window into one of the most powerful minds the world has known.

Here and there – Mrs Dalloway


Virginia Woolf

Grafton Books, 1976.

Virginia Woolf was very bright but she led a very tough life, which she ended herself.  How much of her found its way into Mrs Dalloway?

Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred. Devonshire House, Bath House, the house with the china cockatoo, she had seen them all lit up once; and remembered Sylvia, Fred, Sally Seton — such hosts of people; and dancing all night; and the waggons plodding past to market; and driving home across the Park. She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?

Reading Virginia Woolf is like reading poetry in prose – the stream of consciousness of Joyce wrought by the acrid chisel of T S Eliot.  This book came out in 1925.  (Ulysses and The Waste Land were both published in 1922.)  All three flourished at the same time, although hardly with a hymn to happiness.

A car carrying a very important person behind blinds passes before Mrs Dalloway and her florist on the day she is giving a party.

Gliding across Piccadilly, the car turned down St. James’s Street. Tall men, men of robust physique, well-dressed men with their tail-coats and their white slips and their hair raked back who, for reasons difficult to discriminate, were standing in the bow window of Brooks’s with their hands behind the tails of their coats, looking out, perceived instinctively that greatness was passing, and the pale light of the immortal presence fell upon them as it had fallen upon Clarissa Dalloway. At once they stood even straighter, and removed their hands, and seemed ready to attend their Sovereign, if need be, to the cannon’s mouth, as their ancestors had done before them. The white busts and the little tables in the background covered with copies of the Tatler and syphons of soda water seemed to approve; seemed to indicate the flowing corn and the manor houses of England; and to return the frail hum of the motor wheels as the walls of a whispering gallery return a single voice expanded and made sonorous by the might of a whole cathedral. Shawled Moll Pratt with her flowers on the pavement wished the dear boy well (it was the Prince of Wales for certain) and would have tossed the price of a pot of beer — a bunch of roses — into St. James’s Street out of sheer light-heartedness and contempt of poverty had she not seen the constable’s eye upon her, discouraging an old Irishwoman’s loyalty. The sentries at St. James’s saluted; Queen Alexandra’s policeman approved.

My edition has White’s, not Brooks’s.  No matter – any writer who knows either knows the English upper class.  I have never been invited to either (and an American spell-check questioned this rendition of the latter.)

This is a curious novel.  It is a sustained meditation on the state of England after the Great War.  We see the nation through the eyes of many people other than Mrs Dalloway – whose lot does not appear to be any more happy or defined than that of her nation.

The author may or may not have been assured socially, but she was not shy politically.  The ‘rights of women’ (‘that antediluvian topic’) were right in vogue just then. I remarked elsewhere on the consequences of the German execution of Edith Cavell.

Now, here you had a hero, a real hero, the kind of hero that a nation can sustain its faith on.  It was open to the Germans to say to Edith Cavell that if it was good enough for you to aid our enemy then it is good enough for you to be executed under the laws of war.  So could the women of England say to their government that if it is good enough for us to die to see that the country is run properly, it is good enough for us to vote to see that the country is run properly?  That argument is unanswerable; it was unanswerable even by those inbred fops out of Eton who had been sheltered from girls by mummy and daddy, but to whom exclusion came naturally, and who believed that old fairy tale about the battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton. 

That aside, it was the girls who armed the nation.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf said:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

This book is great read, but it can be dense as well as dark, and I was reminded that someone said of Paradise Lost that no one ever wished that it was longer.  And is it possible to be a little too clever?  Sensible lawyers say that it is.