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.

Bloopers

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.

Passing Bull 248 – The almost crowd

Many of our commentators thrive on equivocation – and a coyness about what they may or may not stand for.  They often set up a straw man.  You get stuff like the following.  We were right to protect our sovereignty over illegal boat people if necessary by armed force.  The response of Germany was a dangerous over-reaction.  The climate may fluctuate, but the reaction of progressives is alarmist and a threat to the economy.  We are not against gay people, but we saw no need for legislation about same sex marriage.  The police in the U S may have problems, but Black Lives Matter has become an over-reaction that threatens law and order. The issue with Cofid has been blown out of proportion, and the lockdown is an unnecessary blight.  This is just another case of ‘experts’ undermining our freedom.  Cathy Freeman is a star but she brought politics into sport with that flag.  The opposition to Goodes was not racist and he too over-reacted.  We take as our guide the equivocations of the Jesuits in the witch hunts after Guy Fawkes.

There is no restraint or moderation.

In The Weekend Australian, 5 to 6 September, 2020, Terry McCrann said of Cofid:

Of these deaths [Cofid] 650 were in the Stasi state formerly known as Victoria.  And of those 505 were in aged care…..

On the health cost-benefit alone, the costs have and will far outweigh the direct virus benefits.  Then add on the monumental economic and financial costs, and we are still living through the greatest public policy failure in this country’s entire history.

In the column next to that one, Alan Kohler said:

Research …published this week clearly shows that the fewer deaths a country has, the better its economy does and vice versa.  For example, Britain has had 630 deaths per million population and its economy shrank 22 per cent in the June quarter..; Australia has had 27 deaths per million, and the economy shrank 7 per cent, among the least in the world….Pressure on Victoria to open up anyway, and on other states to end border restrictions are pointlessly political and at odds with both evidence and local politics.  Any state that has rising case numbers will go back into lockdown, no matter what Scott Morison says.

In the next weekend, a commentator refers to Biden’s reference to Trump as a ‘climate arsonist.’  That obviously over the top response is labelled feral, unhinged, unscientific, irrational, blatantly false and insane.  And the same commentator says that Trump’s ‘meandering statements’ are tested ‘against a literal standard not applied to other politicians.’

Stand by for an avalanche of bull about the U S Supreme Court.

Bloopers

Another commentator describes an American as ‘the most brilliant younger Catholic now writing.’  What is the significance of the professed faith of the American?  Perhaps it is the reason why ‘he mainly interrogates culture as more important than politics.’

The dreamtime of a ghost-seer – I

A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot

Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn

I

‘Shifty’ may just be the best word for it.  The Cardinal has the power of the Inquisition, but the exercise of that power haunts him.  What happens if that power gets to be used against him?  He is both suspicious and suspect.  Every revolution brings the risk of a counter-revolution.  In the result, El Greco brings you face to face with the magic of art – there is something there that commands our attention, but which we cannot adequately spell out in words.  What, if any, is the difference between this inquisitor and a Communist commissar?  Has this sometime holy man sold out to Mephistopheles?  El Greco is one of my favourite painters.  He comes down to me like Turner – just so far ahead of his time.  His shimmering images reflect the edginess of faith.  But if he was a champion of the Counter-Reformation, what was he doing by investing a prince of the Church with a pained countenance of doubt, if not downright guilt?  I have seen and I am moved by the paintings by El Greco of Christ dealing with the money lenders at the National Gallery in London and the Met in New York.  For me, they are like Mozart in oils on canvass.  (And did El Greco really use his mistress as a model for the Madonna?)  Well, shifty is the word comes to mind whenever I see Vladimir Putin.  It is just as well that he never set out his stall as a used car dealer.

*

Princess Park, the home of Carlton, was, I thought, different as a footy ground for being reputed to be larger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  I have a reasonable recollection of John Lord, a solid six footer who wore number 4 for the Demons (the Melbourne Football Club), kicking a goal from a set shot from inside what would now be the centre square through the goal at the east end – with a drop kick!  Unbelievable.  I think this was in 1965.  (About a generation later, Malcolm Blight would become famous for kicking a goal after the bell at the other end of the ground – from a point not far from the centre of the ground.  Like a certain paint product, it just kept on keeping on.)  The significance of 1965 is that this was the first time Melbourne had met Carlton since Barassi switched from Melbourne to Carlton.  They had won six premierships under Norm Smith before the old brigade at the MCC decided to sack him.  The Demons have not won a flag since then – it is like the curse that descended on the Red Sox – the Demons are the Redlegs –when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.  For people of my generation, the move of Barassi to another club entailed a frightful loss of innocence – and an end to the simple loyalty of boyhood and youth.  God only know what we may have done had he gone to Collingwood.  We had had to endure a similar challenge to faith when national heroes of tennis – like Hoad and Rosewall after Sedgman and McGregor– turned pro.  The Davis Cup was tarnished.  We felt diminished – sold out.  We would feel a worse sense of national betrayal when we learned that our government had taken us to war under false pretences.  Twice.

*

My cooking can, I think, fairly be described as Socratic.  That is, I have a profound grasp of my own limitations and failings.  I therefore stick with the tried and the simple.  A friend told me that the first time he tried a béarnaise sauce was the night a well-known cooking identity came to her place for dinner.  That could not happen to me.  For the most part, I only serve meals for guests that I have prepared a day or so beforehand.  Like lamb shanks or ox-tail slow cooked in a low oven in the French blue Le Creuset pot that is an essential part of my life and not just its furniture.  There is somethinguplifting about taking the pot from the oven and lifting the lid and savouring the effect of the heat, the herbs and the wine on the meat on the bone.  Do vegetarians really want to go without this?  The trickiest thing I do is a cassoulet.  Depending on the season, you may find it hard to get one nowadays in Paris.  It was I think Julian Burnside who said that mine was the best he had had south of Lyons.  Well, from a given point in the evening dinner, barristers are prone to a certain level of romance.

*

Wittgenstein said: ‘If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.’  What if he was right?  Well, as I suspect Wittgenstein may have said: In order to consider that question, you would have to ask what was meant by the terms ‘Christianity’ and ‘the truth’.  Neither question is small.

*

We got to Tel Aviv at dusk and took a car to Jerusalem so that we arrived at the King David Hotel in darkness.  We got up the next morning, took breakfast with the big Jewish mommas and some revolting milk, and asked the cab driver to take us to Gethsemane.  (Can you blaspheme by giving directions to a cab driver?)  I looked out the window and saw the parapets of what looked like a castle wall.  I immediately thought: ‘Look – there is King David’s city.’  The recognition was instantaneous, but it came from nowhere.  It was an unnerving case of déjà vu.  It is curious that I get the same feeling at St James’ Park in London, the Tiergarten in Berlin and Central Park in New York.  They are all names to conjure with, but I get an odd sense of belonging to each when I go into it.  Each is like a beating heart to what is deservedly known as one of the great cities of the world.  For some reason, I do not get the same reaction at the Tuileries in Paris, although my reading probably takes me more often to them than the others.  But to return to the cab driver in Jerusalem, at least when I was there those cabbies were reputed to be rapacious – as some that I found in Rio or Prague.  Which reminds me of the time when Gavin Forrest, a partner of mine, and I took a client to lunch at the Melbourne Club.  He was a charming man – a German lawyer working for a very big Japanese company.  Naturally, we joked about not mentioning the war.  We were later joined by a partner, Charles Brett, who was not a party to that preparation in etiquette.  Something came up about foreign cabbies and I mentioned the trouble I had had at Prague, Rio and Jerusalem.  Charles said: ‘Do you know that there is a hotel in Paris that some cabbies will not go to?’  ‘No – why is that, Charles?’  ‘The Lutetia.  It was the headquarters of the Gestapo during the war.’  Well, there you go.  Your whole life until then flashes before your eyes, and you hope that your frozen wide-eyed immobility masks the fearful din within.  Eat your heart out, John Cleese.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 15

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

Eichmann in Jerusalem,

A Report on the Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt

Penguin, rebound in slip case.

This book was first published in 1963.  It was serialised in The New Yorker.  In it,Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key participant in the Final Solution.  Arendt was a German Jewess of great learning who had fled from Nazi Germany, and Vichy France, and had become something of a rarity in the West – a respected intellectual.  The book is obviously the work of a very fine mind, but its publication caused great controversy – and grief within the Jewish community.  Some said that Arendt was too judgmental and insensitive – especially about the role of Jewish people in their own immolation.  But a huge controversy erupted, and can still be felt, about the subtitle – ‘the banality of evil.’

When Arendt arrived and first looked at the accused, she felt a kind of shock.  The ‘man in the glass booth’ was nicht einmal unheimlich, ‘not even sinister’ – certainly not inhuman or beyond comprehension.  She began to experience what she would later call her cura posterior, her cure after the event.  Her very astute biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, says:

Many people who read her five article series in the New Yorker – and many more who heard about the series secondhand – concluded that Hannah Arendt was soulless, or that she lacked what Gershom Scholem called Herzenstakt, sympathy.  They thought that Arendt felt no emotional involvement with the fate of her people.  She, on the other hand, thought that she had been finally cured of the kind of emotional involvement that precludes good judgment.

Well, her awakening may not have been as blinding as that of Saint Paul or Martin Luther, but she certainly blew the fuses of many people who were open to the suggestion that they were subject to ‘the kind of emotional involvement which precludes good judgment.’

In the book, Arendt said this about the banality of evil.

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace

Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  In other words, Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’. 

The phrase ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ has always seemed to me to be far for more pregnant with meaning than that of ‘the banality of evil,’ even if they are related.  At least as it appears to me, those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose on us some kind of Procrustean bed, and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.  That is what I see as the real point of the book, and that is what I think makes it a great book.  And as with other great books, the reaction to it is almost as instructive as the book itself.

But the suggestion that the war criminal was ‘normal’ was hardly novel.  In looking at reigns of terror during or after the French and Russian revolutions, historians have struggled to understand how ‘ordinary people’ can become mass murderers.  In a book first published in 1941 (The Year of the Terror, Twelve Who Ruled France, 1793-1794, 3rd Ed., 220), the American historian R R Palmer made this observation about Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat-load in the Vendée, and who after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

In what way, if any, was Carrier morally different to Eichmann?  As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

We might also reflect on what Berthold Brecht said of Hitler (in his notes to The Resistible Rise of the Man Arturo Ui, also published in 1941):

The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.  They are not great political criminals, but people who committed great political crimes, which is something entirely different.  The failure of his enterprises does not indicate that Hitler was an idiot and the extent of his enterprises does not make him a great man.  If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history.  That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook, and that what he does has great consequences, does not add to his stature….One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.

These are vital questions.  (And they bear on at least one prominent crook in the U S today.)  But, you might ask, what branch of human knowledge was Carrier, Brecht or Arendt invoking.  Tucked away in a footnote near the end of the biography of Young-Bruehl, we find that in his book Obedience to Authority (New York, 1974) the psychologist Stanley Milgram said:

After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to authority in our experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth that one might dare imagine.  This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

For myself, I don’t know how anyone looking at the mass murders in various reigns of terror can come to a different conclusion.  These regimes have awful corrupting power, but when Arendt saw Eichmann in the flesh, she thought that she had overrated the impact of ideology on the individual.  The conclusion of Arendt about Eichmann looks to me to be consistent with the insight of Carlyle on the worst excesses of the French Terror:

What, then, is this Thing called La Révolution, which, like an Angel of Death, hangs over France, noyading [drowning], fusillading, fighting, gun-boring, tanning human skins?…..It is the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.  In this man, it is, and in that man; as a rage, or as a terror, it is in all men.  Invisible, impalpable; and yet no black Azrael, with wings spread over half a continent, with sword sweeping from sea to sea, could be truer reality. 

After recounting how the French Terror extracted goods to trade in from its dead victims (such as using the skins of the guillotined to produce chamois or their hair to produce wigs), so prefiguring the horror of the Nazis, Carlyle said:

Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

Many good judges wonder what is the point or moral basis of our whole criminal justice system.  What does punishment achieve?  Who but God could aspire to measure it fairly?  Arendt felt the same doubts.  According to her biographer, ‘she did not abandon her opinion that extreme evil, whether thought of as radical or banal, is unpunishable and unforgivable.’  The person she sought to untangle this with was W H Auden.

It is in my view very dangerous to try to come to grips with the greatest lapses in the history of mankind by suggesting that somehow some inherent characteristic of either the evil-doers or their victims was in some way a cause of the relevant crime against humanity.  Saying that some people are marked by birth as different to other people is in my view as close as we can get to the notion of original sin.  And Hannah Arendt was far too acute to think that labels help.

You know that the left think I am conservative and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or a maverick or God knows what.  And I must say I couldn’t care less.  I don’t think the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination from this kind of thing.

Passing Bull 247 – Management speak

A company called Cleanaway Waste Management said this of its CEO, Mr Bansal:

The board of Cleanaway takes allegations of misconduct in the workplace very seriously.  Mr Bansal had some issues with overly assertive behaviour in the workplace and has acknowledged that he needed to address them.  The board is disappointed in the circumstances but has taken appropriate action.  We have noted the committed and sincere manner in which Mr Bansal has responded.  The board will not tolerate any further instances of unacceptable conduct.

After the board was advised of claims made about workplace behaviours involving Mr Bansal, a thorough independent investigation was conducted into the issues raised.  Following this investigation, the board implemented a range of measures including executive leadership mentoring, enhanced reporting and monitoring of the CEO’s conduct.  Mr Bansal has acknowledged that his behaviour should have been better and expressed contrition.  He has discussed this openly with the board and with his colleagues and has embraced changes in his approach.

Mr Bansal said:

I accept the feedback and remain to totally committed to creating a progressive culture at Cleanaway while executing on our strategy and delivering ongoing financial performance.

(The Australian, 15 September, 2020)

The outsider might ask: ‘What the hell was all that about?’  The lawyer might ask: ‘If these statements were made purportedly pursuant to some legal imperative, what is it that triggers the requirement of something being noted pursuant to that imperative, and do these utterances fulfil any such obligation?’  And their author might be informed that for some, including this newspaper, ‘progressive’ is a term of abuse.

Passing Bull 246 – Betting

The Financial Times carried a report:

The Japanese conglomerate had been snapping up options in tech stocks during the past month in huge amounts, fuelling the largest ever trading volumes in contracts linked to individual companies, these people said. One banker described it as a ‘dangerous’ bet.

Most forms of investment involve laying out money in the hope that you will be better off for having done so.  To that extent, investing may be said to involve betting.  If instead of putting my cash under the bed, I deposit it with the bank, I am hoping that the bank will repay that deposit on demand with interest.  I am betting that the bank will not run out of money before I make that call.  If instead of depositing the money as a customer and lender, I buy shares in the bank, I am making a forecast, and backing it up with money, that the bank will carry on business at a level of profit that will give me a greater return on my money as a shareholder than it would give to me as a customer and depositor.  That after all must be the premise on which the directors of the bank manage its business.  Their job is to run the business so that it gives a better return to its shareholders and investors than it gives to its depositors and customers.  That is the very essence of the business.  And most people understand that the greater the rate of return you get, the greater is the risk you take.  So, any investing can be seen as a type of betting.  It is therefore hardly illuminating to describe investing as betting.  It’s a bit like saying that a dog is canine.  But the word ‘dangerous’ does add something.  This bet is thought to carry more risk, and presumably therefore a higher rate of return.

As it happens, the press this morning carried a report that Tom Waterhouse – of betting on horse-racing fame – is going into the business of investing in the stock market – he will have ‘funds under management’ of companies involved in gaming.  If you choose to invest in those funds, you might be looking at three levels of betting.  The first level consists of the gaming companies Mr Waterhouse invests in making a profit; the second consists of Mr Waterhouse making a profit; and the third consists of your ending up better off with this form of investment compared to others. 

There are epithets for those who pursue the last line of investment.  ‘Credulous’ is one of the more polite epithets.  And that’s before you ask if the house always wins or that the business of Mr Waterhouse is likely to be structured on the premise that he gets more out of it than you will.

Bloopers

Trump is a hot but threatening politician, exuding a primitive albeit vicious power.  Biden, by contrast, is a cool politician, a decent man, but, compared with Trump, he looks weak, even fragile.  This election is a civil war over what constitutes virtue.

The Australian, 2 September, 2020, Paul Kelly

The last politician I can think of who used the word ‘virtue’ in  a political context was Robespierre – and he did not meet a good end.  But if this election is between a man who is decent and one who is not, ‘virtue’ could know only one winner.  You might get more sense from Superman.

Passing Bull 246 – Idolatry

Trump’s most devastating line: ‘No one will be safe in Joe Aiden’s America.’  This echoed Pence’s killer line from the night before: ‘You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.’

The Weekend Australian, 29-30 August 2020, Greg Sheridan

The article was captioned: ‘Normalised’ Trump flicks switch to discipline and leaves Biden looking weak. 

Speeches by Donald Trump and Mike Pence marked a very effective Republican convention.

What you got in this Republican convention was a normalised Trump, disciplined and effective, and a normalised Republican Party.

The Australian is on par with Fox News.

Here and there – Caste

In Ancient Law (1861), Sir Henry Maine spoke of occasions where ‘that division into classes which at a particular crisis of social history is necessary for the maintenance of the national existence degenerates into the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions – Caste.  The fate of the Hindoo law is, in fact the measure of the value of the Roman code…..Even now, Hindoo jurisprudence has a substratum of forethought and sound judgment, but irrational imitation has engrafted in it an immense apparatus of cruel absurdities.’  The Oxford English Dictionary gives us ‘a race, stock or breed….one of the hereditary classes into which society in India has long been divided.’

Caste therefore has at least these characteristics: a division of people of a community into classes is effected by criteria and means provided within the community so that it is binding by custom or law or both; that classification is hereditary – you are born into a particular caste; and the distinction carries different rights, privileges and obligations depending on where you are in the hierarchy.

In Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson compares the status of African Americans to those that had caste imposed upon them in India or in Germany under Hitler.  I doubt whether the status of those Americans would warrant the application of the term ‘caste’ in the sense referred to above, but the exploration of that standing provides insights that are as luminous as they are unsettling.

Here are some of the anecdotes.

In southern courtrooms, even the word of God was segregated.  There were two separate Bibles – one for blacks and one for whites to swear to tell the truth on.

The Führer admired America.  He attributed its achievements to its Aryan stock.  He praised the country’s near genocide of native Americans and the exiling of those who survived to reservations.  ‘The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them.  Hitler especially marvelled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass deaths.’’ 

Big crowds would turn up for a lynching.  Sometimes the press gave advanced notice of a lynching.  ‘Lynchings were part carnival, part torture chamber, and attracted thousands of onlookers who collectively became accomplices to public sadism.’  A roaring trade in postcards helped spread the guilt.  ‘This was singularly American.  ‘Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs at Auschwitz,’ wrote Time magazine many years later.’  Singularly American indeed.  When the post refused to carry these post-cards, the sender put them in an envelope.

‘In America, a culture of cruelty crept into the minds, made violence and mockery seem mundane and amusing, built as it was into games of chance at carnivals and public fairs.’  ‘Coon Dip’ involved patrons hurling projectiles at live African Americans.  Hurling baseballs at the head of a black man was great sport.  Baseball, you will recall, is the national sport.

Now for some of the meat.

Those in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis.  To stand on the same rung as those perceived to be of a lower caste is seen as lowering one’s status….The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself; thus equality feels like a demotion.  If the lower-caste person manages actually to rise above an upper-caste person, the natural human response from someone weaned on their caste’s inherent superiority is to perceive a threat to their existence, a heightened sense of unease, of displacement, of fear for their very survival….Who are you if there is no one to be better than?

In explosions in France in 1789, and Russia in 1917, the infighting was about those wanting to be at least close to the top – and certainly not close to the bottom.  This attitude underlay the Nazis’ demonization of the Jews.  It is a sentiment in the air at a MAGA rally.  The torch-bearers at Charlottesville Virginia in August 2017 chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘White lives matter.’  The reaction of the President showed the depth of the problem.  When Trump referred to ‘fine people’ at Charlottesville, the world knew that the problem it had with the White House was worse than we had thought.

As soon as you create a hierarchy that rewards people by their standing in that hierarchy, you give fuel to resentment and jealousy – and the conviction that the unjust treatment you have received is an offence that cries out for revenge.  The question to the aristocrat The Marriage of Figaro was ‘And what did you do except take the trouble to be born?’  But people rising above their levels create their own problems.

It turns out that the greatest threat to a caste system is not lower-caste failure…but lower-caste success… Achievement by those in the lowest caste goes gainst the script handed down to us all….Achievement by marginalised people who step outside the roles expected of them puts things out of order and triggers primeval and often violent backlash.

This looks like the kind of force behind the election of Trump and his irrational drive to reverse anything Obama had achieved:  anything – the achievements of Obama were outside the normal script.  They were unnatural, and Trump was put there by God to set things right.

The author looks at film of the crowd’s adoration of Hitler.  ‘In that moment, you are face-to-face with the force of willing susceptibility to evil.  The Nazis could not have risen to power and done what they did without the support of the masses of people who were open to his spell.  And the author has the same view as Hanna Arendt.  She quotes a philosopher: ‘It’s tempting to imagine that the Germans were (or are) a uniquely cruel and bloodthirsty people.  But these diagnoses are dangerously wrong.  What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.’  This is crucial.  There is a bit of Hitler in all of us.

The author refers to ‘tremors within the dominant caste.  Insecure white people were concerned that minorities were taking jobs from whites.  This was one lever pulled by Trump.  This point is pivotal.  In a chapter on the price we pay for a caste system, the author looks at the failure to adopt the welfare state enjoyed by the rest of the Western world – and to the indifference to mass shootings.  Most Australians think that the U S is decently run except for two things – a failure to provide universal health care, and the embrace of mass murders involving guns that comes from a hopelessly twisted theory of rights according to unelected judges.  This leads the author to say:

A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows.  The result is that the United States, for all its wealth and innovation, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries of the world.

You cannot prove or even measure these propositions, but they do appear to be fundamental.  The nation has never rid itself of the stain of slavery. It is not going too far to suggest that the nation has not attained the maturity claimed by the pronouncements of its founders (who, it may be said, were anything but democrats according to our understanding of that term.)  Robert E Lee was a southern gentleman and a great general.  He told those of his slaves that had escaped that he ‘would teach us a lesson we would never forget.  He personally supervised the whipping of men and women.  He told the county constable to ‘lay it on well.’  Then, not satisfied ‘with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.’  The General believed that ‘how long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise merciful Providence.’  God save us from that wisdom and mercy.  Lee is one of trump’s favourite generals.

The institution of slavery was, for a quarter of a millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to cover an owner’s death or to spite a rival or to settle an estate.  They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them.  Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.

Before there was a United States of America, there was enslavement.  Theirs was a living death passed down for twelve generations.

It may well take a lot longer to settle the treatment of that cancer than we had thought.  This book by a coloured American journalist states a case to be answered.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 14

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

FATHERS AND SONS

Ivan Turgenev, 1862

Franklin Library 1984.  Translated by Constance Garnett.  Illustrations by Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese.    Half navy leather, embossed in gold, with ridged spine; marbled end papers, gold edges to pages, and satin ribbon.

Is Bazarov a worse case than Raskolnikov?  Bazarov is the bane of us all – the young man who knows better than those who came before him.  He has found out the answer – and there can only be one answer.  So sure is his faith, that he knows that to implement his answer and lift the clouds of bondage and ignorance from the eyes of his countrymen, the end justifies the means.  He is, in short, a fanatic, or zealot – and in Russia he prefigures the horror of Communism.  The commentaries say Bazarov was a nihilist.  I looked that term up in Professor Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

A theory promoting the state of believing in nothing, or of having no allegiances and no purposes.

When you think about it, if you subscribe to that theory – that you believe in nothing – you are involved in a contradiction in terms.  ‘I believe that I don’t believe anything.’  That is like repudiating Cogito; ergo sum.  But triumphal hell-raisers are not confined by refinement.

Some writers are described as the writers’ writer or the novelists’ novelist – the latter was the term applied by Henry James to Turgenev.  Turgenev has as good a claim as any to the title.  His writing is easy, graceful and detached.  It is not long before you know that you are in the hands of a master.  It’s like getting into a car and realizing that you are in a Bentley.  It comes as a change from those great Russian writers who could explode into exclamation marks at the drop of a hat. 

This uncommittedness was as important in Russia then as it is today.  At that time, Russian fiction was intensely political.  In his Open Letter to Gogol, written in 1847, Belinsky had given a radical creed for the next generation – for the sons rather than the fathers.  It showed the way to would-be revolutionaries.  Dostoevsky read it to a private gathering and was condemned to death.

Turgenev came from a family that at least pretended to aristocratic roots.  There is more than a whiff of condescension is some of his writing.  But Turgenev was nothing if not urbane, and both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky distanced themselves from a man who looked to prefer Europe to Russia.  For his part, Turgenev was close to Flaubert and thought that the other two Russians were too preoccupied with religion.  That looks to us to be understandable, but things got so bad that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to an uneventful duel.  They did not speak for seventeen years.  Writing in Russia then was combustible.

Turgenev is best remembered, and read, in the west for On the eve and Fathers and Sons.  In the latter, the author, who admired Hamlet, looked again at the inevitable conflict between the generations – that underlies so much of Hamlet.  It is about the personal and political coming of age of two young men – Arkady Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov – and the grief that this brings to their fathers.  A connecting agent in the story – which looks to have been destined for the stage – is an attractive and wealthy widow, Madam Anna Odintsova.  The older generation has what may be called liberal views about the still medieval condition of the serfs in Russia – the Russians were at least six hundred years behind England – but the new generation has lost patience and rejects the lot of them.  As with all annihilators, they are light on about what to put in place after the revolution.  Like our politicians now, they are also shy of hard experience of life in the raw.  Although the author was far from being a radical, the reaction to Fathers and Sons was such that he thought it was as well to leave town for a while.

We are introduced to Bazarov in a sequence that Chekhov would have read.  We are told that he had ‘a special faculty for winning the confidence of the lower orders, though he never pandered to them and indeed was very offhand with them.’ Well, people who profess to love ‘the people’ often go to water or ice if they meet the real thing. 

But Bazarov is not one of those.  He is a young man of science – medicine – and his superiority lies there.  Arkady takes him home to meet his father and uncle.  Before breakfast the next day, Bazarov goes out to collect frogs – for science.  It does not take long for Bazarov to get well and truly under the skin of the uncle.  For Pavel Petrovich, a man who recognises nothing respects nothing.

Pavel Petrovich spoke with studious politeness.  He was secretly beginning to feel irritated.  Bazarov’s complete indifference exasperated his aristocratic nature.  This son of a medico was not only self-assured: he actually returned abrupt and reluctant answers, and there was a churlish, almost insolent note in his voice…… ‘He has no faith in principles, only in frogs.’

This is Madam Odintsova.

Anna Sergeyevna was a rather strange person.  Having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong conviction even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life.  She had clear ideas about many things and a variety of interests; but nothing ever completely satisfied her; indeed, she did really seek satisfaction.  Her mind was at once probing and indifferent; any doubts she entertained were never smoothed into oblivion, nor ever swelled into unrest.  If she had not been rich and independent, she might perhaps have thrown herself into the struggle and experienced passion…..But life was easy for her, though tedious at times, and she continued to pursue her daily round without haste and rarely upsetting herself about anything.  Rainbow-coloured dreams occasionally danced before even her eyes, but she breathed more freely when they faded away, and did not regret them.  Her imagination certainly ranged beyond the bounds of what is considered permissible by conventional morality; but even then her blood flowed as quietly as ever in her fascinatingly graceful, tranquil body….Like all women who have not succeeded in falling in love, she hankered after someone without knowing what it was.  In reality, there was nothing she wanted, though it seemed to her that she wanted everything.

Here then is man at home with you and me – and with his pen.  Could Goya have improved on that portrait?  How would this widow react if one of these virile but unworldly young radicals fell for her?

Underlying all this conflict between the generations is a question that immediately came to the fore in France after 1789, but which is barely touched on in this book.  If you are going to rid yourselves of the caste of serfdom, why not get rid of the caste of royalty and the aristocracy?  That is always the big question.  Where and when will it all end?  And, more importantly, how will I be placed when the carousel comes to rest?  In Russia, the crushing answer came with Lenin.

This novel is a graceful reflection on our humanity, and we are blessed to be able to enjoy it and be enriched – even if it does prefigure the misery we are faced with by the Institute of Public Affairs.

This Franklin edition is a joy to hold and read.

Passing Bull 245 – Responsibility

Kushner said: ‘In the Democratic convention, I’m hearing a lot of lecturing moralists … in this administration, we have a lot of doers, we have businessmen, we have people who are held accountable.’  Accountable?  Facing a burgeoning pandemic back in March, Trump had this to say, ‘I don’t take responsibility at all.’  One of the testimonials on the Build The Wall site is from Don Trump Jr, who said: ‘This is private enterprise at its finest.’  Now Trump is distancing himself. After the news of the arrests broke he said: ‘I disagreed with doing this tiny section of wall in a tricky area by a private group which raised money by ads’.

The words ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ frequently have the same meaning, and equally frequently, it is hard to see what that assertion may entail.  If we say that John is ‘responsible’ for a failure to control people who may be carrying an infectious disease, what does that mean?  What if John says ‘I am sorry for that’?  Is that the end of it?  If there is no relevant mechanism to confirm that there was in fact a failure to control people and that because of the role of John in that failure he is subject to a decision involving consequences that are adverse to him?

If a Minister of the Crown makes an error, he is accountable to the Parliament for that error.  That is part of what we call ‘responsible government’.  But the time has long since passed where a Minister of the Crown would accept responsibility for an error made by a civil servant.  Nowadays you might an expression of regret, or even an apology, but that’s all.  You will have to wait for the next election when you can express your discontent at the ballot box.

If you get hit by a van delivering for a pizza company, the law may impose liability on the company, and in doing so, it will not be making a finding against the company.  Its liability is based on a policy of the law to make employers liable for the faults of its employees. This liability does not depend on a finding of fault against the employer.

During the current epidemic, people engaged – to use a neutral term – in dealing with people who may be carrying a virus made errors of judgment.  The premiers say they are sorry, and that for them is an end to the matter.  They may suffer a loss of votes at the next election, but in what respects are they otherwise said to be ‘responsible’ or ‘accountable’ for the errors made by people engaged by the government?

Bloopers

Our media, dominated by publicly funded progressives, is part of the problem….Our media/political class has eviscerated a self-reliant, robust anti-authority, and egalitarian country.  Our politicians have done far more damage than the coronavirus…..Outside war, we have never suffered so much government.  But there is little leadership.  We are bordering on delusion.

The Weekend Australian, 22 August, 2020. Chris Kenny

Some get fixated on the apocalypse.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 13 – Euripides

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

EURIPIDES

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?