Here and there – Lawless, grasping villains

 

The phrase ‘freedom of speech’ can be as vacuous as the word ‘censor’.  Musos may not have been dying in the gutter, but they were going badly because big tech companies were robbing them of their royalties.  Congress was moved to act.  A bill for the Stop Online Piracy Act got bi-partisan support.  The right people were onside.  Then in 2012 Google flexed its market-honed muscles.  In place of its logo on its search page, it put in a black rectangle: ‘Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the web!’  The resulting traffic overwhelmed the congressional websites.  The cowards went to water, and the bill sank.  Google put out a lie and wiped Congress off like a dirty bum.

Many Australians fear that Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are getting uglier and more threatening by the day.  A new book, World Without Mind, The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer tells why in a crisp, informed and persuasive fashion.  Here are some of the main points.

Power corrupts

We ought to be afraid of these massive concentrations of wealth and power – and masters of dark technology that most of us neither trust nor understand.  Whatever views we might have of the whizz kids who started these outfits, not one of them looks to be equipped to withstand the force of the truth of the maxim that all power corrupts.

It’s not just the power over markets, it’s the power over people, and their minds.  At least three of these corporations look to be de facto monopolies.  Capitalism was built on competition.  These giants of capitalism want to bury it.  One of their champions says competition is a ‘relic of history.’

Google has acquired more than 200 companies.  If you go against these giants you get crushed or bought.  One third of Amazon purchases come from its algorithm derived recommendations.   That shows the power over our minds.  At least this way, we can be conscious of that power in operation.  Amazon sells 65% of e-books and 40% of all books.  Its power over publishing generally is terrifying.  Bricks and mortar shops of all kinds are under threat – just look at Toys R Us.

These people can be brutally predatory.  Bezos said his team should approach small publishers ‘the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.’  Charming.  Could Reinhardt Heydrich have improved on that?  ‘Team Amazon’ punished the New Republic for publishing an article that was disrespectful.  The big techs are committed to freedom of speech, unless they are offended, in which case they retaliate to wound if not to kill.  They remind me very much of the Gestapo or the NKVD.  They are like laws unto themselves.

Zuckerberg said: ‘In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.  We have this large community of people, and more than any other technology companies, we’re really setting policies.’  The Russians used Facebook in manipulating the American election.  All the big tech companies were used for fake news.  Facebook boasted about how it could manipulate voter turnout.  Foer says:

No other company has so precisely boasted about its ability to shape democracy like this – and for good reason.  It’s too much power to entrust to a corporation.

And, as we have just seen, Zuckerberg thought Facebook was more like a government than a traditional company.

Facebook has no qualms about performing experiments on its users.  (There we see the Third Reich again.)  Humans are after all just data, and if Facebook manipulates its users, this will relieve them of the burden of choice.  It was George Bernard Shaw who said that freedom means responsibility – that is why most men fear it.  Foer offers this gloomy judgment.

Donald Trump is the culmination of the era.  He understood how, more than at any other moment in recent history, media needed to give the public what it wants, a circus that exploits subconscious tendencies and biases.  Even if media disdained Trump’s outrages, they built him up as a character and a plausible candidate.  For years, media pumped Trump’s theories about President Obama’s foreign birth into circulation, even though they were built on dunes of crap.  It gave endless attention to his initial smears of immigrants, even though media surely understood how those provocations stoked an atmosphere of paranoia and hate.  Once Trump became a plausible candidate, media had no choice but to cover him.  But media had carried him to that point.  Stories about Trump yielded the sort of traffic that pleased the Gods of data and benefited the bottom line.  Trump began as Cecil the Lion, and then ended up president of the United States.

That is very well said.  The world is looking very dangerous because clever manipulators preyed on vacant minds in angry people.  There again is the analogy with Adolf Hitler.

Degrading knowledge

Apart from tax, that we will come to, these 800 pound gorillas show their contempt for the law in many areas, not least on laws made to protect the rights to property of others – especially intellectual property.  To what extent are these outfits – like YouTube – based on misappropriation of property, that is, theft?  They don’t generate knowledge.  They process it.  They then traffic in the ideas of others.  Government is there to preserve the value of knowledge by granting short term monopolies in the form of patents and copyright.  But Xerox, VCR’s and cassettes made copying, and piracy, the done thing.  Someone said: ‘We can’t stop copying on the Internet because the Internet is a copying machine’.  The Huffington Post picked the eyes out of news stories and gave grudging links to the source.  Google scanned every book it could lay its hands on.  Apple said: ‘Rip, Mix, Burn.  After all, it’s your music.’  Steve Jobs decried digital thievery while enabling piracy.

Foer says that the big techs are presiding over the collapse of the economic value of knowledge, and that by collapsing the value of knowledge, they have diminished its quality.  When newspapers charge readers, Google and Facebook seek to bury them.  They of course don’t pay for any of their stuff.  Foer says:

It’s galling to watch Zuckerberg walk away from the catastrophic collapse of the news business and the degradation of American civic culture, because his site has played such a seminal role in both.  Though Zuckerberg denies it, the process of guiding the public to information is a source of tremendous cultural and political power.

And it has produced the disaster of Trump and his family, and ‘the degradation of American civic culture.’

Silicon Valley is waging war on professional writers.  They attack copyright laws that seek to allow authors to make a living from writing.  This is another instance of what Foer refers to as Silicon Valley’s ‘fake populism’.  (Although, when you look at Trump and Farage, not to mention Mussolini and Hitler, you wonder what ‘authentic populism’ might look like.)

They are like lawless cowboys in the badlands.  Google’s lead lawyer said: ‘Google’s leadership doesn’t care terribly much about precedent or law.’  Foer is to the point.  ‘Google had plotted an intellectual heist of historic proportions.’

The triumphant herd

The author does not deal with the misery that people inflict on each other on Facebook and the like when the herd instinct reaches its logical conclusion.  The lynch mob is the downside of empowering the crowd.  But a recurring theme in the book is the way the big techs operate to destroy the individual.  If you believe that respect for the worth of each one of us is fundamental to what we call civilisation, then organised and mechanised attempts to undermine the individual are attempts to undermine our civilisation.  In the process, they are destroying the very idea of privacy.  So are their addicts, inflicting their iPhone conversations on anyone else on the train or in the café.  Courtesy as well as privacy goes straight out the window.  The assaults on our civilisation look to be succeeding.

Facebook claims to advance the transparency of each of us.  ‘Transparency’ is a weasel word, but what I think it means here is that Facebook wants to look straight through us.  Well, we know what that means.  It is at best demeaning.  ‘The theory holds that the sunshine of sharing our intimate details will disinfect the moral mess of our lives.’  To the extent that that proposition is not pure bullshit, it is as dangerous as it is disingenuous.

When you see people unable to leave their iPhones alone, even while walking against a red light, you wonder what life may hold for them.  They look like addicts and they act like addicts.  And, like Coke and McDonalds, the big techs target kids, especially the spoiled kids.

‘The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation.’  The author quotes Hampshire on Turing – he had ‘a gift for solitary thinking.’  Pascal said: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’  If he was right, we are in big trouble.

Facebook celebrates the crowd – or the herd, or the mob, or the populus.  They have, or affect to have, a ‘faith in the wisdom of crowds.’  Silicon Valley came to power on the basis of its anti-elitism….Silicon Valley views its role in history as that of the disruptive agent that shatters the grip of the sclerotic, self-perpetuating mediocrity that constitutes the American elite.’  That is of course bullshit, but the link with Trump is plain, and the author makes it.  ‘With not quite the same furore as our current president, Silicon Valley came to power on the basis of its anti-elitism.’

‘Elites had a chokehold on the country that prevented the masses from expressing their creativity.’  That’s even worse bullshit, as the blog phenomenon sinks fast.  But some people fell for it, and they elected Trump – whose principal helper was a Judas of the elect, an officer in the navy, a Harvard MBA, and a partner of Goldman Sachs.  This side of heaven, it’s hard to get much more elect than that.

Goodbye to truth

If the stuff they put out is stolen or just second-hand, and people are silly enough to take their ‘news’ from it, what chance does truth have?  The sulky herd just drifts along with whatever is ‘trending.’  ‘Facebook and Google have created a world where old boundaries between fact and falsehood have eroded, where misinformation spreads virally.’  The result, with the help of Facebook and Russia, was Trump – the ultimate threat to truth.

Community spirit

Tax?  They don’t pay it.  Don’t be so silly.  They’re takers, not givers.  The year Facebook went public they recorded $1.1 billion in American profits.  They did not pay one cent of income tax.  They claimed one deduction, the unkindest cut of all.  Facebook wrote off the stock options it had given to the spoiled brats who were its executives.  These cowboys make Gordon Gecko look like a Methodist lay preacher.

Well, it’s not pretty is it?  I gather you will get much of the same from another book, Taplin, Move Fast and Break Things.  According to a review, Mr Taplin says that Google is ‘in the extraction industry.’  Its business is ‘to extract as much personal data from as many people in the world at the lowest possible price and to resell that data to as many companies as possible at the highest possible price.’

There were straws in the wind.  About eight years ago I listened to an expert at Oxford University say that the BBC employed four people to see that its name came up on top on Google.  Why would a government entity need to do that?  About four years ago, I started publishing books on Amazon and Apple.  I was feeling fine until I sampled the wares of some recommended cover designers – they were all into Mills and Boon with heavy breathing (‘bodice-ripping’ is I think the phrase), and third rate science fiction.

There have been some pluses.  Microsoft was brought down when the lies of Bill Gates were revealed by his emails.  The blogosphere should hold no threat to the press – it’s there for authorial wannabes and political nuts.  Quality papers like The New York Times have been given a boost by the disaster called Trump.  The printed page is making a big comeback at least in books.  Sensible people understand the need for our government to answer to a decent press and not just nuts on the Net.  Only the ideologically bereft would seek to undermine government bodies like the ABC or SBS in this challenged climate.

But these other greedy parasites remain, a sinister version of Big Brother, draining our youth, minds, and manners in ways that we can’t detect.  The E U looks to be the only power on earth capable of standing up to the big techs.  Knowing that their propaganda firepower is unlimited, I suggest that we start by installing these big techs as Public Enemies Number One in place of Telstra and the big banks.  We need to get the best minds in the world to work out how to deal with this threat before its various tumours become inoperable.

PS. Amazon has just sent me a monthly royalty notification. A bumper month! $4.26.  US $, old boy!

Passing Bull 121 – God, sex and marriage

 

Sometimes you may ask a court to review a government decision that goes against you.  You can do so if you can show that the relevant government agency had no jurisdiction (in general language, power) to make the decision.  And you may be able to do that if you can show that the agency asked itself the wrong question.  You might think that this would be a cheeky way to allow unelected judges to second-guess agents responsible to an elected government, but it doesn’t take long to see the merit in the suggestion.  For example, a power to answer questions on health is not a power to answer questions about morals or business – and vice versa.  Say that the AFL asks a panel of doctors to advise if its rules should be changed to improve the safety of the players.  The panel says that in their opinion the rules should be changed to make the game safer, but that they advise the AFL not to so do so, as such a change would make the game less entertaining and would therefore be bad for business.  The most polite response of the AFL would be – who asked you?  You have asked yourself the wrong question.

English judges have spent about 900 years formulating rules for issues to be decided or questions to be answered in forensic contests.  We don’t have any such rules for public debate – as the British are finding in their Brexit debates.  We are now facing that problem in our debate about the role of religion in the discussion about marriage equality.  It may help to look at some of the questions that may arise.

What is marriage?

Marriage is a union between two people who intend the union to be binding and which confers, as a matter of law, rights on the parties.  Marriage confers status on a union between two people, just as the grant of citizenship confers status on one person.  Putting God to one side for the moment, on what moral or political ground could heterosexual people deny the conferral of that legal status to homosexual people?  If we deny that status to homosexual people, are we not saying that they are not entitled to all of the benefits of citizenship?  Would we not then be marking homosexual people as second class citizens?  If we say they cannot enjoy equal status with the rest of the community, how do we avoid the conclusion  that they are inferior in status?

This first question – about a kind of legal status – leads to another.  Why do we ask or worry about what people of faith may have to say on this issue?  They don’t have any special rights or interest in how much tax we pay, what kind of submarine we build, or whether we should sell Blue Poles.  Why is there such a fuss about their views on the legal definition of marriage?  I don’t know – for reasons that I will try to give – but many of the questions discussed here overlap.

Is homosexuality against the word of a Christian God?

It’s not my faith, but parts of the bible say that it’s wrong for a man to lie with a man in the same way as he would with a woman.  The penalty is death – by stoning, as I recall.  Well, we couldn’t have that.  Even Daesh might draw the line at death by stoning, whatever the offence.  But, then, how much of the bible should we have?  And, just as importantly, who says so – both for the members of the relevant church, and for the rest of us?

On that or some other ground, should people of the Christian faith decline to recognise or participate in same sex marriages?

It’s rare now for people to seek to impose their religious views on others – or to exclude from their company those people who have different religious views.  A person who says ‘I will not tolerate a person whose views on religion are different to mine’ is a definitively intolerant person – a bigot.

Some religious people seek to avoid this conclusion on the issue of abortion by invoking the category of ‘murder’, and saying that ‘murder’ is non-negotiable in any moral code.  But putting to one side the various defences to acts of homicide, those on the other side say that this mode of labelling is a cheap debating device.  They also wonder about the sincerity of those accusing others of murder if they are content to remain in a community that allows if not promotes this crime.

To what extent, if any, should leaders or elders of that faith seek to impart their views to others of their faith or the world at large?

This question suggests that there are two other questions anterior to those I have put so far.

What business does religion have with sexuality?

That’s a very real question.  And the bigger one may be: who gives the answer?

The Inquisition went after Galileo because his proven views on astronomy contradicted the bible.  So they did.  So what?  Galileo took the view that the bible answered questions about religion, not astronomy.  Should we still subscribe to the literal truth of the book of Genesis?  Of course not.

Many people are very angry with one part of the Christian church.  They say that the views of that church on contraception are causing untold misery around the world.  Why is any church allowed to dictate to anyone – anyone – on any issue of sexuality?  Is it not the case that the church is there to answer questions about religion – and not questions about sexuality?  Put differently, why should we pay any more attention to what a church says about sexuality than we do for what a church says about astronomy?

What business does religion have with marriage?

Well, most religions have something to say about marriage.  There may I think be various models within Christianity, let alone the many other faiths followed in Australia.  But there are also purely civil non-religious forms of marriage.  The Christians can have their model, and the Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists can have their models.  And the secular people can have their model.  What gives one group the right to claim the supremacy of their model – or to deny the right of others to their own model?

There is a particular question here.  If some Christians want to say that marriage should be confined by law to a union between a man and a woman, where do they get the right to claim a nation-wide monopoly of their kind of marriage?  That is a large question.  It is even larger in a nation that has the following in its Constitution.

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. 

It does seem curious that in a nation that outlaws establishing a religion, its people have to endure the efforts of one religion to impose its will and establish its definition on an issue as important to that people as marriage.

The no-sayers have of course gone further than that.  They have deterred our members of parliament from doing what we elect them to do.  And here we may as well identify the rhinoceros in the wine cellar.  But for the Catholic Church, and some of its older, uglier and angrier votaries, we would not be having this discussion, and we would not have had to endure the tawdry farce of this plebiscite.  (And do you remember that hilarious occasion when a former Prime Minister, while still in opposition, said that he would not let his strong Catholic faith interfere with policy choices?  Not even the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, Tony?)

There is an issue of substance here.  We live in a nation that believes firmly in the separation of church and state.  Why do some members of one church want to cross the line and impose their will on their secular brothers and sisters?

But to go back to the question that led to these digressions, it’s a matter for the leaders or elders of a faith to say how they should deal with their own faithful.  The rest of us, however, have a say in how they should deal with us.  And the most polite way of putting it is – don’t.

We are not talking about the legal entitlement of a group of religious people seeking to tie the civil law to their religious view of the world.  We are talking about the moral worth and political decency of their attempting to do that when they know that their actions will divide their community and bring pain and suffering to other members of their community.  It’s one thing to say that religious people have the legal right to try to have their religious view of the world become part of the law of the land.  It’s altogether a different thing to say that in doing so they are acting as decent and responsible members of the community.

There is one very simple way to justify our resistance to people seeking to impose their faith on others as they are doing in the case of marriage equality.  We are for the most part talking about some but not all Christians seeking to impose their faith on others on the subject of marriage.  Can you conceive of the howls of outrage – and from the very same people – if we were talking about Muslims seeking to impose their faith on others on the subject of Sharia Law – or, say, the unilateral divorce pronounced by the husband?  You would be very lucky to escape with a straight-jacket.  Or you might get a group trying to promote polygamy; or the people into Voodoo might have some novel ideas.  Why should we give in to the views of any one faith?  Put differently, it’s fine for religious people to make their leap of faith – but how can they decently ask others to join in the beliefs they hold after they have made that leap?

The philosophical answer was given by Kant, to my mind unanswerably.

We have noted that a church dispenses with the most important mark of truth, namely, a rightful claim to universality, when it bases itself upon a revealed faith.  For such a faith, being historical (even though it be far more widely disseminated and more completely secured for remotest posterity through the agency of Scripture) can never be universally communicated so as to produce conviction.

To return to the theme that we started with, it is the role of the church to answer questions about marriages made within that church, and not about marriage outside that church.  If a church claims the latter right, is it not plainly going outside its power or jurisdiction?

Is it appropriate for people of one faith to seek to impose the consequences of their dogma on the world at large when that faith represents only a part of the community? 

I have largely given my answer, and that of Immanuel Kant, to this question.  Church-going Christians represent only a small proportion of Australians.  To describe Australia as a ‘Christian nation’ is in my view as insulting and dangerous as it is absurd.  But there are those who make that claim, and they just make it all the more desirable for the rest of us to resist having people trying to ram their religion down our throats and to create some form of de facto established religion.

Does it make good sense ‘politically’ for members of one faith to agitate about a change in the law if that agitation will bring bad odour on that faith and its followers?

This, too, is a matter for people of faith.  But it must be obvious that there may be heavy price to pay for associating with people like Abbott and Bernardi and those people in the Murdoch press and Sky television who rely on the intolerance of their audience and who live off the earnings of conflict, and who seek to hold back yesterday by denying equality to a minority of their fellow citizens.

And the no-sayers should at least dissociate themselves from some of the more dishonest posturing about religious freedom.  To the extent that some of the faithful are alarmed that the Commonwealth might use the occasion to make a law for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, they are expressing alarm over the possibility of a law banned by the constitution.  It is, I suppose, par for the Australian political course for a group of people to have us submit to a process that most Australians object to and then assert that they should not give the answer sought by most Australians – because their government has not told them enough!

To my mind, these crab-walkers are saying that we can’t trust this government.  I agree with them entirely, but it just doesn’t lie in their mouth to say so.  That is particularly the case for that little master of dog-whistling and obfuscation – John Howard – who now wants to do to marriage equality what he so squalidly did to the republic.  He has a genius for negative mediocrity.  And no one pretends that this is anything but a doomed holding exercise principally brought about to appease the followers of one fading religion.

Is the answer to that question different because it is asked in a nation that insists on the separation of religion from politics and which has very bad memories of people of one sect infecting its politics?

My answer will be apparent from what I have said.  We may not be as strong as the French on keeping religion out of politics, but this shabby little exercise shows why we should not relax our vigilance.

Is the answer to that question different where opinion within a faith is split on this issue on reasonable grounds? 

We are just weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the start of the great schism in Christianity.  For half a millennium each side has challenged the other’s integrity and accused the other of heresy.  It’s morbidly ironic that some of them now can come together and stand shoulder to shoulder for the purpose of denying the aspirations of others within their community.  Their unity on this issue leads to division within the wider community.  What drives these people to do this?  If the answer is that they are driven to that course by the religious beliefs that they hold, then that answer might give pause to those on all sides.

As I understand it, there is no uniform view on the issue either within Christianity or Judaism.  I may be wrong, but I think that only the Catholic Church has the machinery to set forth a binding view – and that’s not a model that other religious sects are keen to follow.  Some clergy (including rabbis) welcome the possibility of marriage equality and are keen to participate.  Others reject the notion and will opt out.  A Presbyterian minister has just broken the world land speed record for intolerance by refusing to marry a straight couple who were in favour of marriage equality.  This split among the faithful hardly helps the cause of religion on this issue.  If the faithful are split on the question, it’s not one to go to the stake for.  Why then do the rest of us have to be put to this ignominious trouble and expense?

Doesn’t it just come to this?  Religious people should look after religious marriages and allow secular people to look after secular marriages.  In other words, the people of faith should be a bit more careful in framing the question that they are fit to answer.  As matters stand, they look to me to resemble the hypothetical panel of doctors giving gratuitous commercial advice to the AFL.  It’s just none of their bloody business.

And is it not so sad to see the name of the man Einstein called ‘the luminous Nazarene’ being invoked in aid of that cancer of mankind that we call exclusion?  It’s even sadder than watching bishops or the odd cardinal take their breakfast at the Melbourne Club.

When I drive from Malmsbury to Ballarat, I pass many unused churches, stuck on hills in the middle of nowhere.  It’s very sad; they are like sullen artefacts to a lost way of life.  But for better or for worse, those churches had nothing to say to most Australians – that’s why they died.  Our world has changed greatly and it will of course keep on changing.  I suppose that I have a bias as a lapsed straight Protestant, and an admirer of Spinoza and Kant (both of whom were sharply rebuked by their orthodox faithful), but on looking back at how I would answer the questions set out above, I simply can’t understand what all the bloody fuss is about.  And, for the removal of doubt, I’m bloody furious that we have been put to this demeaning and hurtful farce because our members of parliament have allowed a small religious claque to stop them doing their duty.  They should all be deeply ashamed of themselves.

At my age, and with my disposition, it’s very unlikely that I will marry again.  It’s even more unlikely that I would choose to marry a bloke.  But if I did, I would expect my country to honour my right to equality before the law uninfected by the dogma of a faith that even the faithful can’t agree on.  Is that too much to ask for in Australia in the year of Our Lord 2017?

 

Poet of the month: Emily Dickinson

How far is it to Heaven?

As far as Death this way—

Of River or of Ridge beyond

Was no discovery.

How far is it to Hell?

As far as Death this way—

How far left hand the

Sepulchre Defies Topography.

Here and there – Reflections on poetry on a bleak day outside Melbourne

 

On a lousy day at Malmsbury at the beginning of what was supposed to be spring, I wrote to friends along the lines set out below.

I read the Oxford edition of King Lear yesterday.  The editor quoted Keats:

Once again the fierce dispute

Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay

Must I burn through; once more humbly assay

The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.

Keats was in truth a fan.  I wonder how often in his short life Keats read this play – in company, and aloud.  I wonder if he saw it performed. I forget.

My favourite lines – perhaps I should say quotes – were:

so out went the candle and we were left darkling

and

Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.

Both lines were uttered by fools, actual or pretended, and each is so apt for the foolish darkness all around us now in Australia, England, and America – where the fools are in triumph.  Trump in particular does a fair take on Nero, and he loves nothing more than angling in darkness.  And, Boy, can he put out the candles!

Another phrase that caught my eye was in the press.  ‘Intrinsically disordered’ is apparently a line employed by one church to describe homosexuality.  It’s one of those lines that goes clear out of the back of your head as soon as you have heard it – probably in response to a very healthy defence mechanism.   Himmler may have used that line about the Jews.  We could say a lot about it – including that it is utterly impossible to imagine the holy man whose life and teaching gave rise to this church saying anything like it.

What’s wrong with these people?  A friend of mine is a true and decent follower of the man Einstein called ‘the luminous Nazarene’.  (Kant, too, would never use the name.)  My friend compared the response of the institutional church to marriage equality to the behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank generally.  That’s shockingly sad.

There may not be all that much of a gap between foolish darkness and terminal illness.

You will see, then, that with things as they stand, this Shakespearian fruit is much more bitter for me than sweet.

The reference to Keats, and the weather, sent me back to read for the nth time the letters of Keats from his Scottish tour.  It’s a glorious edition from The Grolier Club, with rough edged handmade paper from the Czech Republic, and a tipped facsimile of a letter (over-written vertically to save on postage) and a portrait and a map.  The portrait is different to that which looks down from my fireplace, but both show the doomed poet with his chin on a hand (although with different hands).  I expect that the portrait shown in the book was done from life; mine was not.

But for two things, the reader may not have thought that the letters came from a poet.  One is that when Keats first saw a waterfall, he spoke ‘if I may say so, [of] the intellect, the countenance of such places.’

The space, the magnitude of mountains, and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance.  I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write, more than ever for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that abstract of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, and put into ethereal existence for the benefit of one’s fellows.  I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make man appear little.  I never forgot my stature so completely; I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.

These thoughts and his well-known piece about ‘negative capability’ suggest to me that Keats had an intellect of singular analytical firepower.  Medical science being what it was then, Keats should have chosen law.  He looks to me to have been a born advocate.

The other thing that alerts us to poetry is that Keats keeps breaking into it.  He says ‘I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this – it can’t be helped.’  He climbed the highest mountain.  It nearly killed him. ‘On that account I will never ascend another in this empire.’  Well, he could still write a sonnet ‘on the top of Ben Nevis.’  In it he jotted down or threw off these lines in his windswept exhausted state:

I look into the chasms, and a shroud

Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist

Mankind do know of hell: I look o’erhead,

And there is sullen mist: even so much

Mankind can tell of heaven: mist is spread

Before the earth beneath me; even such,

Even so vague is man’s sight of himself.

It’s just not fair!  The poor little bugger just couldn’t help himself.  And to make good the comparison – if I had attempted that climb up Ben Nevis, an emergency call to the  Intensive Care Unit at Fort William or Inverness would have gone out within, say, ten minutes of the start – if Scots wielding straightjackets hadn’t got to my ‘impassioned clay’ first.

Why history? 9 – Revolutions

In 1765 Watt made a steam engine.  This led to more travel, and the world shrank.  Factories were built.  These required both capital and labour.  The craftsman was on the way out.  Workers were brutally treated.  This was the Industrial Revolution.

The English sought to tax the American colonies without giving them representation.  The Americans reacted to George III as the English had to the Stuarts.  This was the American Revolution.  In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson said that the compact between America and the English Crown had been broken, and that all men were equal.  This was a bare-faced lie because slaves were anything but equal.

The French had supported the American rebels and went broke doing so.  Louis XVI had to convene an ancient assembly to ask for money.  When this process was threatened, the mob stormed the Bastille for arms on 14 July 1789.  This was the start of the French Revolution.  The French king and nobility had not been conditioned to negotiate as they had been in England and they were annihilated.  But the peasants had not been relieved of most of their feudal burdens, as they were now, and the middle class had little experience in government.  There was chaos and a reign of terror.  The way was open for the strong man, but no one could have predicted Napoleon, a military and administrative genius.  Ideals got lost and an emperor replaced the king.  The attempt by Napoleon to force people to be free only ended at Waterloo in 1815.  More than five million had died in wars driven by his ego.  The great poets of the Romantic Revolution – Keats, Shelley, and Byron – had celebrated the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, but Beethoven renounced Napoleon when he became Emperor.  It took France a century to recover.

There were more uprisings and revolutions in 1848.  Garibaldi led the emergence of Italy and Bismarck led the formation of Germany.  Europe at large carved up the continent of Africa while trading in slaves.  Africa still feels the wounds.

It was slavery that led to the American Civil War.  The Southern states depended on it, although it had been declared illegal at common law and trading was outlawed by statute in England.  This was modern war, more lethal than the Napoleonic Wars.  The Americans lost more in it than they have lost in all other wars.  The political genius of Abraham Lincoln saved the union.  At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The Russian Revolution erupted finally in 1917.  Lenin misapplied Marx’s theory and left the succession to Stalin, a grisly dictator who ruled by terror for decades and killed many, many millions of Russians.  In Asia, Japan was awakened from its slumbers and defeated Russia in a war.  China began to throw out European intruders.

The lot of ordinary people improved in Europe and the U S.  Electricity and the phone improved communal life.  Governments accepted responsibility for education.  Workers formed trade unions.  The goal of socialism was to break down the class system and involve government in distributing wealth and looking after ordinary people – from cradle to grave.  The great novelists – like Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy – threw light on our condition.

One Englishman and three German Jews revolutionised the way we think.  Darwin said that all nature was evolving, that man was descended from the ape, and that only the fittest survived.  The Church went mad; people said God was dead; others wondered who were the fittest.  Karl Marx was an anti-Semitic Jew who never set foot in a factory.  He developed an elaborate theory that said that capitalism would end when the workers took control (the dictatorship of the proletariat), private property was abolished, and we all would live happily ever after.  Religion had failed to impose world order – now it was the turn of the atheist.  Just look at Cuba or North Korea.  Sigmund Freud analysed hysterical women and explored the subconscious of bourgeois Vienna.  He saw sex everywhere, but now the analyst could challenge the priest for the confessional.  Albert Einstein rewrote the laws of physics.  His Theory of Relativity rattled science.  His shattering insights put science beyond our reach – as religion had sought to do – and led to the splitting of the atom.  It looked like the future was here. He died in my tenth year.

Passing Bull 120 – An abundance of dogma

 

A dogma is an opinion that is stated with authority and that is held as binding by those who adhere to that authority.  Dogma is big in ‘think tanks’, the current repositories of secular faith.  But also among our scattered fuellers of civil discord.  The Oxford English Dictionary has for dogmatic: ‘Asserting dogmas or opinions in an authoritative or arrogant manner.’  If someone says that you are being dogmatic, they are not paying you a compliment.  Rather, they are suggesting that you are too heavy handed in the way you hand out your views and seek to impose them on others. 

The quote above is from a book I wrote with Chris Wallace-Crabbe called Language, Meaning and Truth.  Dogma may be necessary for faith or football, but it seldom helps thought.  There’s a fair bit of it about at the moment.

The ‘fuellers of civil discord’ are hard at work – on all sides as Mr Trump might say – in the debate, if that’s the word, on marriage equality.  The church relies on dogma, without querying its moral right to inflict its articles of faith on others.  The no-sayers on Sky stand by their trademarks of leering, sneering, and jeering, while handing out coat-hangers.  Mr Bolt says his side is being bullied by the Left.  This is all very sad, because it debases sound secular dogma – that we are all equal under the law.

There is a debate, too, about the spate of hurricanes in the U S.  They appear, to put it softly, to be influenced by an increase in sea temperatures.  But that won’t wash with Mr Trump or his supporters.  This is not so much dogmatism as intellectual blindness induced by tribalism.  If the supporters of Mr Trump share his world view, truth simply doesn’t matter.  Others can prove what they like; they just solemnly keep the faith.  To that extent, the marriage equality and climate change debates have something in common.

There has been a curious failure of dogmatism in Texas, the throne room of capitalism.  People there are compelled by law to insure against flooding through a government body.  That sounds like the ‘socialism’ involved in Medicare, the Antichrist of Ted Cruz and other Republican senators.

But some Republican Senators have stayed true to their dogma.  Some actually voted against government relief to victims of the weather.  There has always been a curious reluctance to legislate for the welfare of the citizens of the United States.  Section 8 of the U S constitution may therefore come as a surprise to many Europeans and Australians.  It provides:  ‘The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises to pay the Debts and to provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.’  The anti-Welfare dogmatism of Republican welfare-deniers strikes not just at sense but decency.

Finally, we have our Prime Minister invoking Stalin because someone complains of an untrue statement about the inscription on a statue, and his government denouncing the Opposition for ‘socialism’, whatever that means.  They are issuing their denunciation while they endeavour to regulate every aspect of the power, energy, and banking sectors.  And they are engaged in seeking to regulate markets and the way trading companies run their businesses because they are incapable of devising much less implementing a political program for our welfare at least on energy and the environment.  Most electors know that the failures of government on energy are driven by dogma on coal and renewable energy.  Sane people are mystified that otherwise intelligent people can get dogmatic about coal or issues of fact that can be tested by accepted empirical means.  What has faith got to do with coal?

Poet of the month: Emily Dickinson

“Houses”—so the Wise Men tell me—

“Mansions”! Mansions must be warm!

Mansions cannot let the tears in,

Mansions must exclude the storm!

“Many Mansions,” by “his Father,”

I don’t know him; snugly built!

Could the Children find the way there—

Some, would even trudge tonight!

Why history? 8 Kings

KINGS

The English had traditions of popular councils and judgment by the people (trial by jury) going back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Their kings also reigned before the Norman Conquest in 1066.  In 1215, the barons extracted a promise from their king to rule by law.  They sought a government of laws rather than of men.  This was the Great Charter or Magna Carta.  It has many meanings, but the English said it meant that as the law made the king, the king was under the law – not above it.  This document is hugely important for the rule of law.

We saw that the Tudor King Henry VIII went to his parliament to be free of the Pope.  The seventeenth century saw a long contest for pre-eminence between the Stuart kings and their parliaments.  Parliament claimed the sole right to raise revenue.  If you control the purse strings, you are in control.  Charles I sought to raise money outside parliament.  This led to Civil War, the execution of the king, in 1649, and to the rise and dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

But England was not ready for a parliamentary republic, especially one led by bigoted Puritans who wanted to shut down pubs.  There was accordingly a peaceful restoration of the Stuart monarchy. But the Stuarts never learned.  James II picked fights with his parliaments – this time over religion.  James was Catholic and he wanted to share the love.  This led to the Glorious Revolution.  The Dutch intervened and installed William of Orange as king and his wife, a daughter of James II, as queen.  The English stitched their new monarchy up under terms of a service agreement like that entered into by a CEO of a public company.  This was the Bill of Rights of 1689, which still forms part of the law of the State of Victoria.  It settled the issue between the Crown and parliament in favour of the parliament.  It is still the basis of England’s parliamentary monarchy.  A few years later the parliament granted life tenure to the judges, and the platform of the English constitution was securely in place.

What did this platform stand on?  It stood on a body of case or judge made law going back to the time of Magna Carta.  If you wanted the court to intervene you had to persuade the court to command your adversary to appear before it.  This command was called a writ.  You had to persuade the court that the facts that you alleged came within the record of a prior intervention by the court.  In other words, you had to find a precedent. These arguments about writs are the start of the judge made law that came to be called the common law.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this development, for it was the common law that eventually would underlie the whole English constitution.  Why?  Because the judges acknowledged that parliament was supreme, and could override the common law.

The development of a strong legal profession and judiciary was essential for the history of England as we know it.  First it challenged the intellectual monopoly of the church.  Then it gave backing to the process and statutes of the parliament.  The Inns of Court that made up the bar became a kind of finishing school for the ruling class.  They supplied king breakers from hell to bring the Stuarts to heel.  Most importantly, they resisted applying Roman law.  All these factors made England very different to Europe.  The English look to go by trial and error, and rationalise it later if they must.  Europeans like to work out a theory and seek to apply it. It’s the empirical against the rationalist approach.  One gives us the common law.  The other gives us the Code Napoléon.  They are as alike as Venus and Mars, as Europe is out finding again.

In France, the divine right of kings went unchallenged.  Louis XIV had far more power than any English king, but he moved his court to Versailles.  The Holy Roman Empire spread over much of Europe as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Its emperors, the Habsburgs at Vienna, also enjoyed supreme power.  So did the Russian Tsars – more so.  Peter the Great tried to move from their Asian past by building St Petersburg and moving his capital there from the Kremlin.

The Church presided over the divvying up of South America by Portugal and Spain.  The Dutch, a powerful trading nation, went into Africa and Indonesia.  Christian Europe traded in slaves from Africa.

Philosophy found new life after Descartes, and it was applied. Authority came to be questioned by people like Voltaire.  The geniuses of Spinoza and Kant sought to build a whole world view, including a complete code of ethics, independently of religion.  Both were reproached.  Rousseau got starry eyed about the social contract and the dream of a noble savage.  This would be called the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment.  Science was respected, and medicine would become respectable.  The classical European sensibility reached its peak with Mozart.  Beethoven struck out on a brave new course.  This was what would be called the Romantic Movement. Little of this mattered to most people who had little power, wealth or knowledge.

English Puritans settled North America.  There they were the majority, and it showed. Through a trading company, the English displaced the Moguls of India.  Russian Cossacks spread east so that Russia reached the Pacific.  Captain Cook opened up the whole Pacific, and the English could empty their jails on the vastness of Australia.  White settlers would start to rob and kill Stone Age people who had been there for a period about 200 times that of white settlement since.

Passing Bull 119 – Two pieces in the AFR compared

 

In last Friday’s AFR Laura Tingle, in my view the preeminent political journalist in the country, and John Roskam had pieces on facing pages that had as much in common as clotted cream and Chateau Yquem.  They give insight into the failure of our politicians.

Laura Tingle reports on items in the news and then offers this inference to be drawn from those facts.

Yet increasingly, what is occupying federal politics is the need for the government to step in and correct market failures, or even just the impact of sheer market greed. In other words, the business community has brought any such ‘reregulation’ on its own head.

Apparently unsatisfied with enjoying one of the longest runs of the highest profit shares of GDP in the post-war period, the government’s sense of obligation to act in the financial and energy markets reflects efforts to stop profit gouging in oligopolistic markets that are a testament to the limits of, or policy failures, of deregulation.

If you compare the performance of ASX sectors against similar international indices, it is instructive that the utilities, finance and energy sectors in Australia – all oligopolistic in nature – wildly outperform global figures.

Equally, if you look at indices covering information technology, consumer staples and discretionary spending, and the industrial sector, the performances reflect an underwhelmingly poor comparison, which raises questions about the calibre of our business leaders…..

My colleague Phil Coorey reported earlier this week that the banking industry had noted that the weight of regulation and taxes imposed on banks over the past 18 months was costing shareholders of the big four almost one-quarter of their returns…..

But most of the other imposts complained of by our banking insiders are responses to actual or looming market failures by the banks themselves. And that’s what governments ultimately should be there to correct or address…..

Lose the moral high ground and you soon start to lose all the arguments – something the business community is increasingly finding to its cost.

This is an engaging analysis of what is going wrong for our political and business leaders.  We need this because people have lost faith in all of them and the old labels and dogma are useless.

By contrast, John Roskam begins with a sententious trombone blast of his tribal allegiance.

The refusal to celebrate Australia Day by a handful out of the more than 500 local councils nationwide represents more than just another example of political correctness run amok.

Once you see that weasel term ‘political correctness’, you know that it’s just a matter of time before you will see ‘political’ or ‘media elites’ (or ‘class’) and ‘populism’.  And sure enough, out they pop.  Those labels are worse than useless.  They are bolt-holes for the intellectually lazy.  Mr Roskam may be aware of this because he refers to some brand new labels invented by a former director of an English ‘centre-left think tank’ – ‘Anywheres and Everywheres’.

Most Anywheres are comfortable with immigration, European integration and the spread of human rights legislation, all of which tend to dilute the claims of national citizenship.

Anywheres are likely to be highly educated with professional jobs who have a commitment to notions of mobility and novelty and who place less emphasis on ‘identity, tradition and national social contracts [faith, flag and family]’.

Somewheres are more rooted and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities – Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife – based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they often find rapid change more unsettling.

A ‘populist’ backlash against ‘elites’ was inevitable. In a democracy it is unsustainable for the interests of the Somewheres to be ignored as they’ve been. Goodhart has a nice summation of populism: ‘If there is a single idea that unites almost all variants it is that the interests of the virtuous, decent people and corrupt, liberal elites are fundamentally opposed.’

What is the point of any of all this abstraction and labelling?  As if to acknowledge the problem, Mr Roskam quotes his source as saying that three bodies have a common emotionless analytical style – ‘corporations, think tanks, consulting firms’.  What nonsense.

Well, Messrs. Roskam and Goodhart remind us with their nice summation of what a weasel word ‘populism’ is.  We might wonder at the differences between ‘decent people’ and ‘liberal elites’, whoever might wash up under those brollies, but it is hardly surprising if there is some opposition between the ‘virtuous’ and the ‘corrupt’- presumably, the good guys and the bad guys, the white hats and the black hats.  And the whole house of cards wobbles over a myth.  This is soul-stirring bullshit.

(It is interesting to learn that some people still use the word ‘virtuous’, although we may be forgiven for doubting if many followers of Hanson, Farage or Trump are addicted to it.  Robespierre, the ultimate terrorist, was very fond of the word ‘virtue’, and that was part of the reason that he lost his head.)

As best as I can follow Mr Roskam’s drift, it is that because the natives are restless, we should lower our sights and our standards.  That seems to me to be the very problem that afflicts both our political and business worlds, so I’m unsure if that is what Mr Roskam had in mind.

Poet of the month: Emily Dickinson

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without the words—

And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—

And sore must be the storm—

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—

And on the strangest Sea—

Yet, never, in Extremity,

It asked a crumb—of Me.

Why history? 7 – Rebirth

At the end of the epoch called the Middle Ages, Europe could have succumbed to the Muslims or the Mongols. It did not.  From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, it went through a period of rebirth (Renaissance) and reformation that for better or worse led Europe to dominate the world.

Medieval thought was closed and religious.  St Augustine and St Aquinas built huge theories on Greek philosophy that had nothing to do with the Sermon on the Mount.  The ancient learning was kept alive in Arab universities and Christian monasteries.  Some religious leaders began to assert rights of the people.  People got more interested in this world than the next.  They sought to live in hope rather than fear.  Paper had been developed in China and by the Arabs and its arrival in Europe, together with that of printing, led to explosions of knowledge.

Copernicus said that the earth moved around the sun.  Galileo proved it.  He destroyed doctrine by observation and experiment.  The world was no longer the centre of the universe.  The Church made Galileo retract.  Some say he said e pur si muove.  In the seventeenth century, the genius of Newton set out the bases of modern physics.

The artistic and scientific rebirth started in large European towns, principally Florence, Venice and Rome. The Medici were vicious and corrupt, but they were patrons of the arts.  Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael revived classical forms and gave the world masterpieces it still marvels at.  Their work would be carried on by artists like Titian and Durer and, much later, Turner. The Divine Comedy of Dante and the remarkably bourgeois Canterbury Tales of Chaucer had ensured that great writing would survive.  Writers like Montaigne and Rabelais created new forms.  Machiavelli wrote of realpolitik.  In Don Quixote, Cervantes gave the world its first novel.  Many think that it is still the best.  No one will ever get near Shakespeare.  The break from narrow ways of thinking dominated by the Church led to claims for human rights summed up under the word ‘humanism’.

As well as being intellectually closed, the Church was hopelessly corrupt and unfaithful to the life and teaching of the son of the carpenter.  Many popes behaved more like princes than priests.  The Renaissance popes were shockingly degenerate.  The Church sold religious rites.  Five hundred years ago this year (2017) a German priest announced his protest against sales meant to fund a rebuilding of St Peter’s.  His protest would split the Church, and his movement would be called the Protestant Church.  Their aim was to go back to the bible and let people go to God without the intervention of a priest.

This reform movement in Europe was religious or spiritual.  In England it was entirely political.  Henry VIII needed a divorce to secure the succession – the first duty of a king.  The Pope could not agree – he had a conflict of interest involving the Holy Roman Empire.  England therefore broke with Rome.  It did so by acts of its parliament, one of which said ‘this realm is an empire.’  This course strengthened the parliament and guaranteed independence to England.

As with most reactions, there was a lot of nastiness.  Luther said too much, and he could be quoted to support actions against the Jews and the peasants.  The Germans were the wrong people to be told to keep religion out of politics.  The cold blooded Swiss Calvin spoke of predestination.  At least Luther was human.  Churches were defaced by Protestant fanatics.  The English locked in the gentry by giving them the confiscated monasteries.  But Macaulay said that only the French Revolution could be compared to the Reformation.  Each was ‘a revolt of reason against Caste.’

Geographic horizons broadened as much as the artistic and intellectual.  Portuguese sailors rounded the horn of Africa, and in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed to America.  Then Magellan sailed around the world.  Spain took the Cross and the sword to the natives in the Americas in search of gold.  Cortez found and looted the Aztecs.  Pizarro found and looted the Incas.  Wherever they went, the Europeans treated the first inhabitants as savages.  This did nothing to alleviate the superiority complex they felt over people less advanced or less fortunate than themselves.  And as often as not, they thought that their superiority was a gift from God.

Here and there – Two Nationalists Compared

 

But of course there are vast differences between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump.  Hitler came to power with brownshirts and only the semblance of legality.  He trashed the constitution and put his secret police in black shirts.  He set out to rule the world and to murder a race.  He betrayed his nation and left it a smoking rubble.  Trump will do no such things.  But the two men still have a lot in common.

Both call themselves ‘nationalists’.  This celebration of the home team leads to a perverted kind of ‘patriotism’ and to nativism – a preference for home grown people over imports.  This is a curious result in a migrant nation.  It leads to conflict and division at home and a loss of respect abroad.

Few educated people in the West call themselves ‘nationalists’.  Those who have failed in life grab their nationalism with both hands.  If they have nothing else, they have their birth certificate.  They must resist their prize asset being soiled by others – like Muslims, or migrants, or refugees.  The losers among us also need to have someone to look down upon.

They want war with those they call the ‘elite’.  That weasel term here means those who have won life’s glittering prizes of wealth and power.  Since it’s the losers against the winners, we should not be surprised if the results aren’t pretty.  There is not much point in talking about ‘populism’.  That’s just a loose label for what follows.

Both leaders came to power on the back of the failure of the international economic order.  For Hitler, it was the Crash of 1929 and the Depression.  For Trump it was the Great Financial Crisis.  Both events undermined confidence in the status quo and created a giant reservoir of hurt below and vulnerability above.

Both leaders appealed to their people who had been most hurt by these world events.  Creating a sense of massive injustice was simple.  The world system hadn’t just failed – it was rotten and evil.

And with this sense of injustice came self-righteousness.  The mob looked like the sans–culottes in Paris in 1793.  They had lost out because of the crimes of others, and they were in no mood to leave vengeance to God.

Both leaders promised their followers that they would utterly cast out the old order.  They would cleanse the stables and restore the nation to the glory of a largely imaginary past.

Their thinking on how they might do this is equally obscure.  Mein Kampf says that Hitler stood for nationalism, hate, and the destruction of the Jews.  There is little else left in these ravings.  Trump doesn’t stand for anything at all.  His self-love is so consuming that there’s no room for any logical policy.

Trump will do or say anything to get power.  That’s all that matters.  A ‘policy’ could only stand in his way.  He and his followers are destroyers not builders.  It’s not what they’re for that matters, it’s what they’re against. 

Both leaders don’t just disregard truth – they look with contempt on those who respect it.  Their followers happily join them in their own world.  The assembly looks like a religious cult with its own language, rites and values, all taken on faith alone.

Trump is not out to trash the Constitution, but he shamelessly shows his ignorance of the rule of law – and his disdain of it.  He routinely scorns the judiciary and Congress.  He has now pardoned a government officer found guilty of contempt for abusing the constitutional rights of others.  This crook routinely sneered at racially different people.  He looks like a true fascist.  Trump likes him, and rewards him.  The world looks on at the old spectre of that frontier love of violence and lawlessness.

Trump stands for all that others fear in America, but he puts more value on throwing a scrap of meat to his crowd than on his sworn task of maintaining the constitution.  In this he resembles Nero and the circus, or Pontius Pilate and Barabbas.  Of one thing we may be sure – neither God nor the oath means anything to Trump.  His ego leaves no room for either.

Trump, too, seeks to rule in part by force and fear. He showed his powers of intimidation in a shameful episode – the self-abasement of his ministers at that first North Korean styled cabinet meeting.  People outside the U S again looked on in horror.  This happened in a nation that had given the world Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.

Both leaders can turn viciously on people they think have let them down, including bunnies who have been loyal to them.  But Hitler maintained his key supporters for twelve years.  Trump has discarded most of his in eight months.  The one thing you mustn’t do with Trump is to hug the spotlight.

Both leaders brought their own scapegoats.  Hitler had the Jews and the banks.  Trump has Muslims, migrants, international trade, and that hold-all of the politically inane – ‘political correctness’.  Neither leader ever said ‘sorry’ in his life, and because neither can do any wrong, each finds scapegoats to cover for his mistakes.

They both know about propaganda.  The American Constitution and press make the Goebbels model unavailable in the U S.  Trump simply brands any statement he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’.  That’s enough for the faithful.  Why interrupt the dream?  And Trump has something Goebbels didn’t – the fantastic reach of Twitter.

Both leaders had trouble with ratbags at the bottom of their base.  Hitler murdered a lot of his in the Night of the Long Knives.  Trump does not have that option.  Hitler was in a murderous class of his own on race, but America has entered a new dark age on the world stage when Trump reneged on his denial of his dregs.

Americans now have to live with the nightmare that they have elected a president who cannot unequivocally repudiate his Nazi and KKK supporters.  Trump sees ‘very fine people’ among them.  They in turn are jubilant and very grateful to their president.  Has America ever stood so low in the world – even during the agony of Nixon and Watergate?

Both leaders seek a kind of religious aura.  They demand that their followers give them faith.  This notion of faith is vital.  The followers must have faith to withstand all opposition.  It also helps them reject any evidence against the leader.  Visceral politics lives on faith.  It’s something that you pledge in your guts.  It is by definition irrational.  People like Hitler or Trump can’t bear rational analysis.

Both leaders also put great value on personal loyalty.  That is what cost the Wehrmacht so dearly with Hitler.  The generals had sold their soul, and given up their selves.

Both leaders are at their happiest when they are ranting to their adoring ‘base’.  Whether either believes any part of their rant is a matter for conjecture or God.  Some independent observers saw glimpses of Germany in 1933 in Trump at Phoenix.  Trump there looked like he may have studied the Führer.  You get someone to work the crowd and then come on – and stand silent.  Hitler would let the tension build, like a guileful lover.  But he was much better at modulating his pace than Trump.

Hitler was a lot more astute than Trump.  Trump just can’t help himself when the spots go on him.  He soaks up the applause while clapping himself, like a spoiled child being commended over nothing.  If only it could last forever, and if only he didn’t have to face Congress, judges, and journalists – or the facts.  At least Hitler knew what the word ‘leader’ entails; Trump has no idea.

Both Hitler and Trump did all they could to warn the whole world of their unfitness for office, but their bond with the faithful is unbreakable.  It derives from an unsettling communion between people who are desperate in different ways.  The leaders are desperate for power, and they will say and do anything to get it.  The faithful are desperate for vengeance, and they will give up almost anything to get a leader who can deliver it.  What you then get is a kind of Faustian pact, where people on both sides burn their bridges.

The upshot is that the followers cannot believe that their chosen champion could betray them.  Their leader can do no wrong.  They have surrendered the right to say otherwise.  The Germans believed this to the end, even when it should have been obvious that Hitler was betraying them.

With his health care and tax policies, Trump has signalled that he will betray his followers.  He will strip them of benefits to give tax cuts to his promoters.  But the mob doesn’t see this.  They don’t want to see it.  They have to believe that their ‘redeemer liveth’.

What, then, do we have?  President Obama is a man of intellect and integrity.  Trump has neither.  Obama gave the nation health care and sought to extricate it from Afghanistan.  Trump promised to repeal health care and to get out of Afghanistan.  He has broken both promises.  He has now committed his country to an indefinite participation in a war it cannot win – in a world that no longer respects America.  Was ever a nation’s fall from grace so swift and so complete?

There is one more difference between Hitler and Trump.  Hitler fought for Germany through the worst war the world has seen.  He was rejected for command, but there was no doubting his courage under fire.  He was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class.

There was never any risk of Trump taking up arms for his country.  That was as likely as his paying his fair share of taxes.  The suggestion that Donald George Trump may be a true American patriot is just another hideous untruth in a life made up of moonshine.  The permanently spoiled brat called Donald Trump is a disaster for America and the world.

Passing bull 118 – Bull about the Commonwealth Bank

The following letter was published in the AFR.

Dear Editor

We discuss CBA in a legal vacuum.  The law says the business of a company is to be managed by or under the direction of its directors.  We talk as if the CEO is responsible for managing the business.  That’s wrong.  The board might delegate some powers – it cannot devolve its responsibility.

If the directors are truly responsible for failures of management of CBA, they should resign.  But our business community lost that moral fibre two generations ago.  And because our discussion is premised on a legal fallacy, the board is allowed to pass the buck to the CEO.  That’s as satisfying morally or intellectually as a footy club firing its coach because of the weakness of the team.

But still, no one goes.  Executives lose bonuses – north of a million each.  But given executive pay levels, this will hurt executives less than a speeding fine would hurt me.  And a fine that is ten times the pay of high school teachers will be defended by those who say there is no problem of inequality of income.

So, we have a shot-duck government that no one believes, and a business community that is spineless at the top, corrupt in the middle, and bitterly deprived and discontented at the bottom.  That’s just the cocktail that gave us Farage, Hanson, and Trump.

It also makes the case for a full inquiry into our banks unanswerable – if only to educate company directors.

Yours truly,

Geoffrey Gibson

The following piece was published, with some amendments, in The Guardian.

Koalas at the tills

If I drive above the speed limit, I may be fined.  I may lose my licence, and therefore my job.  If I kill someone while speeding, I’m liable to go to jail.  In weasel terms, I’m ‘accountable’ or ‘responsible’ for my driving.  The CBA mess raises this question: are its directors legally responsible for that mess?

We talk in a legal vacuum.  The law says that a company’s business is to be managed by or under the direction of its directors – but we talk as if the CEO is responsible instead.  That’s wrong.  Directors can delegate powers – they cannot devolve responsibility.  The CEO is responsible to the board; the board is responsible to shareholders. But armed with a legal fallacy, the directors try to duck for cover.

The banks say their problems are ‘cultural’ and the law can’t fix cultures.  What nonsense!  What if there is a ‘culture’ of greed driven by remuneration schemes put there by the board?  What if a macho culture drives men to intimidate women?  Is the law then powerless?

No, the directors of CBA are responsible for all this mess – and here it’s strike three.  Two generations ago, directors would have been pushed to resign.  But that was when bank managers mowed their nature-strips with Qualcasts on Sunday arvos.  Now we do not respect the City, and it’s left to the regulator to tap the directors’ sense of decency.  Their licences may not be presently at risk, but might not a court rule on their legal responsibility?

The directors relied on management.  In court, they would have to show they made independent assessments of the executives’ advice.  This law is hard.  How many of the CBA directors knew enough about banking to assess independently what their whizz kids were saying?  Did the directors reasonably believe that their powers were always being properly exercised?

Here is the Volkswagen dilemma.  Either the directors knew what was going on or they didn’t.  The malefactors were either working under the directors’ direction or they weren’t.  Which is worse?  If the government was telling CBA that something was wrong, can the directors now say that they thought everything was OK?  Weren’t they at least put on inquiry?  Win, lose, or draw, should we not spend some taxes putting these directors in the witness box so that they can explain to us Australians just what they do for their money?  And as for winning – well, it’s curious, but the banks don’t often win in court.

If you watch The Big Short at the cinema, you will hear groans of resignation at the end – nothing happened to the crooks.  Big corporates never get to face our criminal justice system.  Two teams of ineffably urbane lawyers stitch together an evasive dissemblance of regret – apologies are so demeaning; the corporate pays an agreed sum to government, which would otherwise be called a bribe; the shareholders take the hit; and the executives collect their bonuses and move on to the next fatted calf.

We learned long ago that power corrupts.  We are now learning that wealth – itself a form of power – is even more corrupting.  Have those at CBA been allowed to get away with all their wrongs because so much money slushes around that no one will mind the odd little leak?  Is it possible to imagine a more corrupting sentiment in a bank?

So far as we know, no one has yet gone from CBA.  Some executives have lost bonuses north of a million dollars.  That’s more than ten times what we pay high school teachers.  That will have hurt them less than a speeding fine hurts me – and their ticket hasn’t been at risk.

Very few directors went to jail over the GFC.  We protect them like we protect koala bears.  Company directors’ status appears to put them outside the law.  This apparent privilege deeply upsets the punters.  Our criminal justice system really works over those at the bottom – but we don’t lay a finger on those on high.  Are these koalas, then, untouchable?  More invulnerable even than cardinals?

This class difference is very cancerous.  We should all have the same legal rights.  But, then, this company pays its CEO more than 100 times what it pays its tellers.  Do you see why inequality – in both money and status – is such a loaded word now?

So, we have a PM reduced to a grinning buffoon; a government that gets everything wrong by either instinct or tradition, and that just ignores us; and a business world that is indolent and protected at the top, greedy and corrupted in the middle, and deprived and angry down below.  Those are precisely the forces that generate a sense of caste and that gave us Farage, Hanson, and Trump.

They also make the case for a full inquiry into our banks unanswerable.

Warren Buffett manages differently.  A scandal at American Express left subsidiaries owing $60 million.  Should the parent voluntarily honour those debts?   Buffett said their business depended on trust.  We hear that truism a lot now, but Buffett paid the debts to set ‘standards of financial integrity and responsibility which are far beyond those of the normal commercial enterprise.’  For Buffett, it was not enough just to comply with the law; the CBA can’t even manage that.

And what happened to the good old bank set up to guard our common wealth?

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

A Child Said, What Is The Grass?

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,

Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;

It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps, And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,

Darker than the colorless beards of old men,

Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!

And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

What do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.