Passing bull 191 – The people and the crowd



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


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 in 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 283 – Madness driven by dogma

Nick Cater is executive director of a think tank called the Menzies Research Centre.  Their dogma are congenial to the commercial taste of Rupert Murdoch – so he gets a regular piece in The Australian.  One recent piece commenced:

The expert class turned out in force last week with pessimistic predictions about the nightmare soon to be visited upon British hospitals and mortuaries because of the Prime Minister’s latest folly.

He referred to a letter to The Lancet signed by‘100 medical experts’ and continued:

Johnson’s courage in defying the experts is a virtue that should be emulated by political leaders closer to home.  In Britain, Johnson revives the Dunkirk spirit, fighting Covid-19 on the beaches, landing grounds, fields and in the streets.  In Australia, premiers call on their subjugated citizens to fight the virus from their couches.

So, in defying in ‘defying the experts,’ Johnson shows courage. 

A doctor advises a man that he will be dead within a month unless he has the recommended surgery.  An engineer advises a builder that if it proceeds to build a bridge as designed, it will fall over and kill many people.  A lawyer advises a businessman that if he proceeds with a tax avoidance scheme, he could be charged and jailed for breaking the law.  A handwriting expert advises the police that a blackmail demand was not written by the accused.  A vulcanologist advises the inhabitants of a town on a Japanese island that its volcano is likely to erupt and that they should evacuate immediately.  An engineer on a jet carrying 400 people advises the pilot that engine problems will prevent the plane from getting to its destination and that they should turn back immediately, or else they will crash.  On the eve of D-day, meteorologists advise Dwight D Eisenhower that doing the best they can to predict weather, it is likely that adverse weather will badly affect the invasion fleet to the point that it will probably fail to effect a landing. 

If the people getting such advice rejected it, would we say that they showed courage?

An expert knows much more about a subject than I do.  Since at least the time of Einstein, a lot of science has got well beyond the reach of most of us.  We have to take a lot on trust.  In the first lockdown, I did an online Oxford course on astronomy.  A lot of it went clean over my head, but what I did learn is that the universe is big – incomprehensibly, unimaginably big; as big as God – incomprehensibly and unimaginably. 

Even a simple but sound process like carbon dating is beyond my understanding.  But that process demonstratesthat the biblical account of creation is physically impossible.  That is not a matter of theory or faith – it is a matter of fact, as certain as the fact that the sun rose this morning.  (The word science comes from the Latin word scire, to know.  It builds knowledge with testable propositions about the universe.  The OED begins ‘The state or fact of knowing’.) 

On some issues, we should stop talking about science and talk about facts.  The floodingin Germany and China is a matter of fact.  As someone in the FT remarked, we no longer call such catastrophes acts of God.  The fact is that the laws of physics state that the hotter the air, the more moisture it carries.  Courage is not the word we apply to those who decline to draw the relevant inferences from such facts.

So, although we may test opinions by experts, there must come a point where they pass our understanding and we have to determine whether we accept their advice.  Then we have to decide if we will act upon it.  Since that advice is likely to involve predicting the future, which is the province of God and the gamblers, we are then talking about the unknown.  Lawyers know all about this.  If someone asks me ‘Who will win this case?’ my first response is ‘Why not ask me who will win the Melbourne Cup?’  You do your best to assess the prospects, but the longer you are at it, the more you know that fate can be both very fickle and cruel.  You acquire caution through pain, but you must retain the courage to form an opinion and to act on it.

And the expert just gives the opinion – the final decision is that of the punter, the person getting the advice.  Lawyers might recall the common law about the role of experts.  They gave their opinion, but not on the ultimate issue before the court.  A psychiatrist could give an opinion about whether the accused knew what he was doing or that it was wrong – but not point blank if the accused was insane.  That is a finding to be made by the jury based on all the evidence before it.  That rule has been affected by statute, but its rationale is obvious.

Now, in the examples given, the answer looks so obvious that it would be perverse, at best, for the person getting the advice not to accept it and act on it.  And those giving the advice would likely have a professional obligation to do their best to get subject to act on it sensibly.  (My own faith in free will has declined with age – I have seen too many punters hit the fence through stupidity, malice, or plain greed.)

How, then, do otherwise apparently sensible people allow political dogma to overrule common sense in dealing with expert advice, as Mr Cater appears to do?  He deals with casualties by statistics, which is no comfort to the families of the dead, and expresses the view that lockdowns are also injurious to health.

Still, the decision-makers remain in splendid isolation, pursuing their zero-case strategy with an almost fanatical zeal.  They remain impassive at the loss of dignity and income being endured by those stuck in lockdown world, incapable of weighing the balance between benefits and risks.  They have become snookered by their own exaggerated rhetoric.  Having insisted that the last three weeks of pain were unavoidable in the face of the apocalypse, it is only human that they should discount the mounting evidence that they have made an error of judgment.

Let us put to one side the gratuitous insults that flow from this exaggerated rhetoric.  In the end, Mr Cater knows as much about this illness and the way to treat it as I do – Sweet Fanny Adams.  He does not know what he is talking about.  We all know about power without responsibility, but what drives political gun-slingers to be so cavalier?

Well, some on Fox or Sky talk rubbish because it sells.  Take Tucker Carlson on the vaccine.  I will not name the leading Australian exponents of this business model because some are trigger happy; especially those who bang on about freedom of speech.  This is not the case with people like the Menzies Research Centre or the IPA.  They have been conditioned or programmed to act in a certain way. 

Before becoming a Labour MP in England, Nick Raynsford had been a local councillor and adviser on housing issues for twenty years.  He fell out with the Blair government.  He thought ministers should know what they were talking about.  He disliked ‘rent-a-mouths.’

The danger is the trivialisation of politics.  And it’s associated with the kind of culture of spin and soundbite, where some politicians have felt it was enough to learn the official line and then repeat it.  Well I regard that as very unsatisfactory, and I think it increasingly shows where people haven’t got a deep understanding of the subject, but they’re simply parroting pre-prepared lines to take.  But that of course will earn them more brownie points than people who genuinely try to give a serious answer.  Because usually serious answers have shades of grey within them, rather than absolute black and white.  And party managers rather prefer black and white.

That looks to me to fit Mr Cater – and the Prime Minister.  

There are two more matters.  Some people dislike experts because experts are smarter and more useful than them.  They are jealous of experts – who make them feel intellectually or professionally naked.  Such people might even refer to the ‘expert class.’

And you notice that Mr Cater gives his final serve to ‘decision-makers’.  This too looks like jealousy.  Those who front think tanks do not make real life decisions affecting the lives of others.  They just comment on decisions made by decision-makers.  Mr Cater does not say what he would do if he were in the position of Gladys Berejiklian or Dan Andrews.  Good grief – that way you might not just get your hands dirty – you might wind up with blood on them.

It might remind you of an acerbic remark of George Bernard Shaw.  ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’.  If you substitute ‘preach’ for ‘teach,’ you have the think tanks’ boys and girls.  When I was a boy, there was a commercial on the wireless that had meaning for my position in life back then:

Boys and girls come out to play,

Happy and well, the Laxettes way.

Passing Bull 282 – The death of responsible government

This shows how far we have fallen.  The federal government directed a civil servant to report on ‘sports rorts’.  He did.  The Minister resigned.  Now the government refuses to release the report.  They say it was given to them.

It is pathetic that Ministers of the Crown ask a civil servant to advise them on whether a Minister has breached standards of conduct.  That would be like my asking my secretary or my clerk if my conduct was unprofessional or misconduct.  It is worse when the Ministers act as if the opinion of the civil servant determines the issue.  That is a matter for them.  They cannot delegate their responsibility.  They cannot outsource government – as they appear to be doing by having a soldier front the most important exercise in administration  by any peace time government in our history.  Then they purport to say that the fault of the Minister was of a technical nature, and not of the gross impropriety that we have come to accept when governments hand out money for their own party political purposes.   (If you want a legal term, try breach of trust – or dishonesty.)  Then the Ministers  refuse to make public the advice on which they acted.  They say that the report was prepared for them.  But they, like the civil servant, are there for us.  They have to account to us for how they have discharged their duty to us.  (If you want a legal comparison, if the Ministers said they had acted on legal advice, they would be liable to be held to have waived any privilege in that advice.)   It is appalling that a government can refuse to be candid with its electors while claiming to rely on an exception to a law meant to expand the rights of electors to find out what really drives government decisions.

There is no difference here between the parties or federal and state governments.  We have people in power who have a problem with what responsible government means.  To the extent that they understand it, they devote themselves to seeking to avoid it.

Here and there – Pushkin and Shakespeare

The Russian ruling class was ravaged by two killers – vodka and duelling.  Duelling accounted for Pushkin, the author of the poetic drama, Boris Godenov.  Vodka took out Mussorgsky, who wrote the opera based on the poem. 

Pushkin was and is at least of the stature of Shakespeare to the Russians – just as Goethe is to the Germans.  Each is venerated as being something close to a god.  (You could add Dante for the Italians and Homer for the Greeks.)  Sadly for us, neither Pushkin nor Goethe travels so well outside their own language*, but with the thumping, soaring, lamenting Russianness of Mussorgsky’s opera, we can get some insight into the Russian agony.

Pushkin disdained ‘the courtly habit’ of the tragedy of Racine.  He said he followed ‘the system of our father, Shakespeare’ (whom he read in the language of the Russian court).  And Boris Godenov is shot through with themes of the plays of Shakespeare.  This is not surprising.  We are looking at universal issues about mankind assuming power over others – and the role of their women and their peoples. 

Boris Godenov kills the heir of the Tsar and assumes the throne.  He is consumed by guilt and at the end, he is replaced by a challenger.  The big difference to Macbeth is that the challenger here is a fraud.  Neither claimant had a valid claim to power.  The people lose both ways – but it is hard to see Pushkin as a fan of the people.  The mob is just the herd.  Some see ‘the People’ as the hero of the poem (as it is in Michelet’s history of the French Revolution.)  They are certainly the victims and are seen as having the insight of the herd.  The picture is not flattering – but I doubt whether Lenin or Stalin felt any more warmth for the masses.  Love of the people is fine for some – until they run into a real person – when they look away and hold their nose.

Well, so far that might seem a reasonable picture of Russia throughout the ages – at least as we see it.  Their rulers have a penchant for murder and gold, and their priests are in it all up to their necks. 

The play now is loved for its poetry in the Russian.  It is very rarely performed on stage.  Pushkin arrived with a bang like Byron.  Here is a reaction to a reading of the poem by its author.

Instead of the high –flown language of the gods, we heard simple, clear,  ordinary, but at the same time poetic and captivating speech…the further it advanced, the stronger our emotions grew…Some were thrown into a sweat, others shivered.  Our hair stood on end.  It was impossible to restrain oneself….Now there was silence, now a burst of exclamations….Embraces began, noise arose, laughter resounded, tears and congratulations flowed……

Well, they don’t make audiences like that anymore.  (The Tsar of that time thought the poem should be remade as a comedy.  That may remind you of the line ‘Too many notes!’  Autocrats are not there for their taste.)

The Pretender is a priest put up to the coup by his church.  To an outsider, the role of the Orthodox Church in Russia has not been fruitful.  Under the Tsars, they routinely ratted on their flock from confession, and having survived their attempted annihilation by Stalin, they now give their aid and blessing to the lethal fraud who is their current President.

The story of Pushkin begins with Boris refusing to accede to the pleas of the people to become their Tsar (a word derived from ‘Caesar’).  This is not as hammed up as it is in Richard III, but the justly famous coronation scene is worth the price of the ticket to the opera.  (The Russians, especially Mussorgsky, are very big on bells – you might therefore go for the Russian (Gergiev) version – although Karajan is always masterly with a choir.)

Boris feels guilty.  He is haunted by apparitions of his victim.  He also feels the insecurity.  If he could get power that way, how could he stop someone doing the same to him?  Every revolution is pregnant with counter-revolution.  (It is why most revolutionaries forget why they are there, and become murderously vindictive.  You can see pale themes of the vicious turnarounds in our own tawdry political coups.)  This is the theme of Richard II, both partsof King Henry IV and Henry V.  

In the liner notes to one of my recordings, the libretto has this for Boris in English translation:

Don’t ask of me by what dark path I came to Russia’s throne…that’s past…you need not know.  You’ll reign henceforth as lawful ruler…

When Henry IV is dying, he tells his true heir in one of this playwright’s most moving scenes:

…….God knows, my son,

By what by-paths and indirect crooked ways

I met this crown, and I myself know well

How troublesome it sat upon my head.

To thee it shall descend with better quiet….(Part II, 4.4.183-187).

Those hopes were better met then, but still the son on the eve of Agincourt felt the need to beseech his God –

….not today, think not upon the fault

My father made in compassing the crown!  (Henry V, 4.1.298-9).

Then a priest from nowhere becomes the Pretender – he claims to be the heir put down by Boris.  Boris is incredulous but unnerved.  We expect him to say ‘We are amazed ….Because we thought ourself thy lawful king’ (Richard II, 3.3.71ff.)  And then, as also in that play, we see the insurgents coming together, and the life and death issues faced by those with Boris – which side should I put my money on? 

Except that here, there are visible grounds for suspecting the claim of the Pretender.  It is one thing to claim to have been wronged by the ruler; it is another thing to claim the title to his throne.  Still, the neighbouring Poles come on board – they are described by the Pretender in the poem as ‘brainless’ when he boasts of deceiving them.  The folks at home may be not much better.

And the Pretender has to deal with the woman he loves.  In both the poem and the opera, on different grounds, Marina is what my daughters used to call ‘a real piece of work.’  Marina could give Lady Macbeth a real challenge for the hard hearted woman ruthlessly ready to manipulate her man to get power.  She could also make Jessica Parker in Sex and the City look downright pedestrian.  She is a Wagnerian denial of humanity, with not one drop in her of the blood of Eva Braun.  When it becomes the turn of Dimitry to sink, Marina will not be there.  Another reminder of Byron comes when Pushkin writes to a friend that Marina is Polish and very beautiful and ‘will get your prick up.’  (And I’m not sure on what ground you might assert that the Stratford playwright would not have talked dirty like that.)

And Mussorgsky sexes up the dossier, as they say, by having a Jesuit priest recruit Marina to convert Moscow to Rome.  Neither the Jesuit nor Marina lacked ambition.

The scene of the handing over of power to the son reminds us of Henry IV, Part II. – but here, the heir never comes to the throne.  In the play, the end comes when the mob are told that the heir and the wife of the Tsar have committed suicide by poison.  That would mean, I think, that they had been murdered on orders from the Pretender.  The play ends: ‘The PEOPLE are silent with horror…..The PEOPLE are speechless.’  Just like the people of Ekaterinburg after the Soviets had liquidated the last of the Romanovs. 

The opera finale is much softer, but much more effective on the stage.  It ends not with a jolt, but so movingly with a lament by a Holy Fool about the fate of the peoples of all the Russias.  The lament is sung to the tune of resignation that permeates the opera.  Pathetic lamentation is part of the Russian soul.

Now, in our time, Russia is ruled not by boyars and a Tsar, but by oligarchs and Vladimir Putin, operating now under the aegis of Russian Orthodox priests, and whose President is happy to leave his fingerprints on the victim so that the world is clear about his message.  While elsewhere, we saw a fraud come to power with fewer votes than Adolph Hitler had, and who sought to hold power by a coup backed in part by people claiming allegiance to God under the name of Evangelicals. 

Anyone who thinks that either Putin or Trump has one iota of space left for God in his ego – neither has a superego – believes in the tooth fairy, the literal truth of Genesis, and the gospel of Rupert Murdoch on the climate and the moral life of capitalism. 

There is an infamous photo of Trump in the White House with his hands folded on his desk and backed by his goons, led by Mike Pence, in what appears to be an act of prayer.  People who cop that kind of stuff are much more silly and vulnerable than the Russian people in Boris Godenov.  They also mock God – a phrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer used on the day that Hitler became Chancellor when he was referring to ‘false leaders’ (before the Gestapo switched him off.)  The only true thing about that photo is that they have all closed their eyes.

The lament in the opera concludes with these words:

Shadows hide the light, dark as darkest night.

Sorrow, sorrow on earth;

Weep, weep Russian folk, poor starving folk.

*While I was writing this note, a new translation of Wagner’s Ring arrivedI wanted a plain translation not tied to the poetic form of the original.  I thought that only the fanatics would read Wagner for poetry.  The translator cites Nietzsche: ‘Wagner’s poetry is all about revelling in the German language…something that cannot be felt in any other German writer except Goethe.’  Well, that may explain why we don’t get the poetry in English.  But who is responsible for the childish banality of the plot in general – and Siegfried in particular?

Passing Bull 280 – Pussy-footing about race

I do not often sympathize with the English when they lose in sport, but I did yesterday morning.  Penalty shoot-outs are brutal on the players, and a perceived failure at this level could scar a player for life.   I am also sceptical of phrases like ‘dog whistling’, but on this occasion, I think it is justified – particularly when it is backed up by police authority at the top level  from the front line.  Finally, I am wary of condemning people who are not so fortunate in life for their behaviour at  public events that savour of nationalism.  But the loathsome reaction to the English loss to Italy in soccer shows the worst of the English caste system – at both ends – and the corrosive effect of modern mass communication.

The response of Johnson and the rest of that Eton crowd  to the protests of players against racism before the game – ‘taking a knee’ – reminds me of the Jesuitical claptrap indulged in by the Murdoch press and others vilifying Adam Goodes for his protest against discrimination based on the colour of a person’s skin.

Those involved should be deeply ashamed of themselves.  They are unwitting victims of caste at the top end.

And I would be interested to know how many players in the English Premier League are black.

Passing Bull 279 – Being dictated to by God

A Catholic mate referred me to an article in favour of assisted dying.  The author, Paul Monk, writes clearly and politely against those who oppose his views on the grounds of their religious convictions.  I write as someone who has a very clear view about this –and also as someone who was diagnosed with terminal melanoma – and who is of an age .when the subject has more than passing interest.

Mr Monk is different to those he responds to.  He is not compelled by dogma and he shows tolerance and restraint.  People who are taught – if that is the word – that abortion is murder cannot deal with that issue with either tolerance or restraint.   It is about the same with assisted dying.

In one way, you can see the movement of mankind as our being freed up from serving the supernatural.   At the risk of getting Groucho Marx wrong, some of my better attachments are to Anglicans and Catholics, and I could not give a hoot about the differences.  I am fine with people who want to celebrate magic or God – I see magic in the stars, Mozart, Shakespeare, blackfellas’ painting or playing footy – but I do not rule my life with it.  And I object to those who want to do just that to me.

It is one thing to tolerate the irrational.  It altogether different to have views forced upon us by people whose position turns ultimately on personal faith – which is by definition beyond proof.  That is happening here on this issue and the views of the majority are being thwarted by the views of a shrinking minority in a ghastly reprise of sectarian aggression that our children know nothing of.

That too will pass, but my turn might come any time.  And when it does, I want to be able to preserve my view of myself in the way I go.  I had no bloody choice in the mode of my arrival here, but I want one for my departure.  I regard that right as inherent in my right to dignity that comes from the mere fact that I am human.  God has nothing to do with it.

In the last few years, I have had a lot to do with doctors and nurses.  The most beautiful sentence in English may just be ‘Are you OK?’  Nurses do it automatically if you make a strange noise.  The other day, I was struggling for air as I walked up an alley to the Greeks for lunch.  A bloke put his hand on my shoulder and asked ‘Are you OK?’  That is simple human decency.  And I expect it to be available if and when I need it most.

If you asked me for the source of my views on our dignity coming from the mere fact that we are human, I might refer to the Enlightenment, and to Kant in particular.  As it happens, Kant expressed views about the practice of religion that accord with mine.

Now, when, as usually happens, a church proclaims itself to be the one church universal (even though it is based upon faith in a special revelation which, being historical can never be required of everyone), he who refuses to acknowledge its (peculiar) ecclesiastical faith is called by it ‘an unbeliever’ and is hated wholeheartedly; he who diverges therefrom only in path (in non-essentials) is called ‘heterodox’ and is at least shunned as a source of infection. But he who avows allegiance to this church and ; diverges from it on essentials of its faith (namely, regarding the practices connected with it), is called, especially if he spreads abroad his false belief, a ‘heretic’ and, as a rebel, such a man is held more culpable than a foreign foe, is expelled from the church with anathema (like that which the Romans pronounced on him who crossed the Rubicon against the Senate’s will) and is given over to all the gods of hell.  Exclusive correctness of belief in matters of ecclesiastical faith claimed by the church’s teachers or heads is called orthodoxy. This could be sub-divided into ‘despotic’ (brutal) or ‘liberal’ orthodoxy. 

He repeated part of that argument.

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.

Macaulay wrote with conviction about the fight for liberation from rule by priests – a body who at one time were prepared to burn people who challenged their monopoly of the road to God and salvation by reading scripture in their own language.

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as the rising up of human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of the laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty.

We can then understand why Macaulay .got political and divisive in a way that is thankfully dead now.

The Reformation had been a national as well as a moral revolt.  It had been not only an insurrection of the laity against the clergy, but also an insurrection of all the branches of the great German race against an alien domination.  It is a most significant circumstance that no large society of which the tongue is not Teutonic has ever turned Protestant, and that, wherever a language derived from that of ancient Rome is spoken, the religion of modern Rome to this day prevails.

It is sufficient to say that the revolt of the English against the universal church turned on what we call sovereignty – and that’s about how I feel when people feel driven by religious conviction want to tell me what I can and cannot do with my life.

So, if I got approached for treatment by a doctor who professed to be a member of the Catholic Medical Association, I would be inclined to ask:  ‘Could you please tell me, Doctor, just how your profession of faith might affect you in your profession while you are treating me?’  And if the answer were not zero, he, she or I would be out of there on the next gurney.  Good grief – imagine you are in a dirty fight and you muscle up to your lawyer who says: ‘By the way – I’m with Tolstoy – I take very seriously those bits in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and not going to law.’

And while we are about it, what about a pinch of Sharia Law in your divorce?

Passing Bull 278 – A boost for liberty

Peter Ridd is a hero for some people.  He holds beliefs that they subscribe to with the passion of an evangelist – or of the Prime Minister at Hillsong.  He thinks that the Barrier Reef is not endangered.  This unsettled his employer, James Cook University.  His position may have seemed uncomfortably close to them to broadcasting political views.  That of course would be anathema, particularly to those in the commentariat who see universities as breeding grounds for some kind of Marxism – whatever that means. 

But the I P A is committed to the position that the orthodox scientific view of climate change is not well founded.  They therefore think Mr Ridd is their man.  This involves – yes, you got it – freedom of speech!  So they accompanied Mr Ridd to the High Court with John Roskam and Bob Katter – and ‘dozens of supporters.’ 

Well, why should I not be free to say that 1 + 1 = 3?  If I am teaching arithmetic at state school?  Why should I not be free to say that the book of Genesis is literally true?  If I am teaching archaeology and carbon dating at university?  The expression of a dissident view by an academic in the course of teaching might seriously undermine that teaching – and the education of the students.  It would be curious if the teaching institution had to put up with that inimical conduct.

According to the press, counsel for Mr Ridd submitted:

Sometimes an academic has to say something is wrong and give the reasons why it is wrong.  The reasons it is wrong may be that the research is fraudulent, the research has a funding bias, that the researcher may have been negligent.  As an operation of the ideas clashing, the truth emerges… but reputations are damaged as one side is proved to be wrong.  That can’t be done in a respectful and courteous way.

Well, the words ‘wrong’ and ‘truth’ might be a little too absolute for a common lawyer, or someone brought up in the tradition of empirical philosophy, but the process described by counsel is not too far away from the forensic process that our courts undertake every day.  I would be surprised if the Court had not been reminded of the well-known remarks of Justice Holmes:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises.

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

And it would be difficult to suggest to Her Majesty’s justices that their work cannot be done in a ‘respectful and courteous way.’

And it is just too bloody rich for the IPA, which inhales coal in its milk, to be associated with the suggestion that views on scientific research might be vitiated by a ‘funding bias’.  Has anyone done more for the IPA than coal and Gina?


The G7 meeting was a genuine success for Scott Morrison and for the West…The only leader who spoke with any realism on climate change was Morrison himself.

The Australian, 17 June, 2021, Greg Sheridan.

Even Mr Ridd might draw the line there.  

Passing Bull 277 – The strange death of responsible government

At a lunch the other day, we had a discussion about government and experts.  Some were surprised that no one could be pinned  – found ‘responsible’ for – the original mess with Covid in Victoria.  We should not be. 

We have been steadily dismantling responsible government for at least two generations.  The Westminster system has an independent civil service that is permanent and apolitical, but for which the relevant ministers are responsible to the parliament.  If a departmental error was bad enough, the minister should resign.  That is what ‘responsible’ used to mean. That has gone with the wind.  We do not even get an apology – on a good day you might just hear the word ‘regret.’ 

We have slowly dismantled the independent civil service – and left ourselves with the black holes like My Gov, My Vic Roads, or Centrelink.  ‘My’ – my Health Card took three visits to Bendigo, three to Castlemaine, and all up twenty hours  – to answer one simple question: ‘Does your income exceed X?’

‘Personal advisers’ have not had a real job, are ambitious and intensely political, and are a complete contradiction of the whole idea of civil service.  Instead we spend a fortune on ‘consultants’, who cannot believe the way this gravy train keeps pulling up at their station, and then the ministers say that they are acting  on ‘expert advice’.  We have succeeded in turning the whole exercise of government on its head.  In the argot of our times, we have outsourced government.

And we have  left ourselves with a bunch of drongos in parliament whose mediocrity is positively  indecent, but who are kept where they are because the other lot are just as bad.  People who grew up in Australia in the 50s and 60s  well know that a two party system of government is only as good as the opposition – which is presently  bloody hopeless in both state and federal spheres. 

The political parties stand for nothing except dislike of each other, and a willingness to let faction feuds and drive-by shootings submerge the national interest.

And with Covid, we have upended federation by handing over a definitively national issue to state premiers, who then bask in a glow of populist acclaim – simply because they have done something  – even if it leaves the rest of us up that well-known creek.  We are reminded of the celebrated injunction of the football coach John Kennedy: ‘Don’t think – just DO something.’

And the closest we get to consolation is that no other bastard appears to be doing much better.

Such, as Ned Kelly said, is life.


The G7 meeting was a genuine success for Scott Morrison and for the West…The only leader who spoke with any realism on climate change was Morrison himself.

The Australian, 17 June, 2021, Greg Sheridan.

The quest for perfect madness goes on.

Here and there – Manning Clark on Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My own views are these. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Michael Cathcart (abridged)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here and there – Naivety about Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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