Terror in Paris VI – The Trouble with Islamophobia


Toward the end of the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past – and when you get that far, it is a moment to savour – a phrase caught my eye. (It is at page 353 in Volume 6 of the Modern Library boxed set.) During one of those endless meditations on character in time, we get from the narrator:

I had seen the vices and courage of the Guermantes recur in Saint-Loup, as also at different times in his life his own strange and ephemeral defects of character, and as in Swann his Semitism.

I cannot recall seeing Semitism without the anti- before. The narrator is saying that he could see the Semitism in the man called Swann. Swann is a Jewish character, and the narrator appears to be saying that he could see those characteristics in Swann that made him or identified him as a Jew.

Before you can be against (anti) something you have to be able to identify what that something is. This, then, is the start of the slippery slope. You have to put people in a box, to brand them. Having identified the person as having the characteristics of a group, you then treat that person by their membership of the group, rather than on their own merit. How long will it be before the narrator or a Vichy gendarme pins a yellow cross on M. Swann?

What struck me as odd about this reference to Semitism only became apparent on reflection. What was it about M. Swann that identified him to the narrator as being Jewish? It is hard to think of a decent answer – of an answer that does not reveal that the narrator uses the types for Semitism that we associate with anti-Semitism. M Swann was not an orthodox Jew – they make themselves as plain by their dress and appearance as a muslem woman wearing the facial veil (niqab).

People who show off their differences can hardly complain if those differences are noticed. And if they want to live separately from the rest of the community, they may not be surprised if the rest of the community treats them differently. If they want to live with their own laws, with their own language, and in a distinct area or ghetto, and with their own garb and customs, then they may not be surprised if others in the wider community get unsettled by their apartness. People who remain determinedly separate do not generally do so because they feel that their way is inferior – they do it because they feel that their way is superior. This is likely to lead to feelings of rejection in others, and to an adverse reaction. People who want to confront others with their differentness may be trespassing dangerously on the tolerance levels of the rest.

It is very bad for supporters of Israel in their conflict with Muslems to accuse their critics of being anti-Semitic. Criticising Israel, for example for its policy on settlements or for its handling of Gaza, has nothing of itself to do with anti-Semitism, any more than my criticising Australia for its treatment of refugees would make me a socialist, racist, or not a patriot, whatever that awful word means. Yet this attack or riposte is too often made or threatened, and every time that happens, those responsible risk making their false assertion come true.

I cannot help feeling that something like that is going on with the curious word Islamophobia. A phobia is a kind of fear. It is perfectly possible for a person to have rational fear of Islam without being subject to an irrational fear of or prejudice against any one Muslem or most of them. A rational fear of what a religion might do to its adherents, or those who do not adhere to their faith, is very different from an irrational rejection of or prejudice against individuals of that faith, or even the religion as a whole.

The word Islamophobia does not appear to have a settled meaning, but it gets loaded and fired often in response to the remarks of people who do not subscribe to Islam about murders committed in the name of Islam that we call terrorism. It sounds a little like what happens when critics of Israel are branded as being anti-Semitic. It is called playing the race card.

Is the fear felt by some about the role of Islam in the world a rational fear?

The main causes of terrorist attacks in the West over the last thirty or so years appear to me to include the following.

  • The conflict between Israel and the Arab world, or between Jews and Muslems in and around Israel. It is hardly possible to see any resolution of that conflict in the foreseeable future. There is no appetite for peace on either side, and some think that the end will only come with the bomb. My sense is that most Australians are fed up with both sides.
  • The schisms in Islam, particularly between Sunni and Shia.
  • The misplaced intervention by the West in the Middle East, in particular the drawing of an imperial map over the Middle East after the Great War, the betrayal of the promises made to Arabs during that war, the failed interventions in Iraq, and Afghanistan – the failure is probably irrelevant: what matters is the invasions – and the current action in Syria and Iraq. The Arab world, and a substantial part of Islam, says that the creation of the state of Israel by western powers is by far the most destabilising and war-provoking act of the West. It is not easy to think of any intervention by the West in the Middle East that has not made things a lot worse there.
  • The complete failures of governance in Muslem countries or areas. Examples are the rise of Boko Haram in and around Nigeria and of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. It looks like all of North Africa will descend at one time or other into this kind of chaos and misery – together with Muslem areas in other parts of Africa – as one state after another fails. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States all look ripe for revolution, and will fall apart as oil loses its power. They are sitting ducks for impoverished puritans. Generations of misery await all those nations, with the possibility of generations of spreading conflict from the outraged oppressed.
  • The failure of Muslem communities in the West to integrate and get on in their host country, and the consequent feelings of failure, rejection or frustration that alienate young Muslems from their host country and lead some of them to go off to a murderous fairy tale of jihad in their spiritual homeland.
  • The failure of Muslem communities properly to educate their young or to shepherd their disaffected members. Host nations like England, America, and Australia do not have these problems with other migrant groups from Asia or from other faiths. France is the most exposed because of its appalling imperial record.

They seem to me to be the main factors behind the worse forms of terrorism facing the West. The problem has got worse for host countries after the London bombings since when it has been apparent that the West faces threats from home-grown terrorists – who profess Islam. The attack on the Twin Towers was mainly made by Saudis organised by an evil man from abroad, but we now have to face and to monitor and be asked to change our laws in a way that we would rather not do in response to native born terrorists who were brought up in the faith of Islam and who claim to kill in the name of that faith.

You can be as critical as you like of the US and the rest of the West, and as critical as you like of the policy and territorial ambitions of their number one client state, Israel, but it is impossible to ignore the role of Islam in each of those elements.

What we do know is that the most dangerous sentiment that you can harbour is that you should expect aggression from those who have been oppressed; it is second only in dangerousness to the sentiment that conflict and bitterness can decently pass from one nation and generation to another.

You might then consider the following about Islam in the world at large.

  • It is difficult to find one Islamic nation to admire. There are so many black holes in Africa and the Middle East. The richest, like Saudi Arabia, are the most backward, brutal and corrupt. The Saudis are more preoccupied with feudalism and royalty than Australia even, and Saudi Arabia ought to be treated as a pariah state. The geographic and spiritual heart of Islam is a viciously intolerant clerical state. Governors and clerics compete in violent repression, and it is the main source of financial support for jihadis around the world. It is of course a trusted ally. Egypt was a post-card Arab Spring nation that has lapsed back into evil military rule that is now bent on standing over Islamic ‘fundamentalists’, and which was holding an Australian journalist after a legal process that would not be admitted here in a cattle auction and on charges that would have made Hitler and Stalin blush. What is happening elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East is unthinkably barbaric to a degree not seen since the Attila the Hun and the Dark Ages. Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia have claims to civilisation, but they differ from most of the West in their corruption, their susceptibility to religious intervention in the affairs of state, and a control of communications that we would find both unacceptable and uncivilised. Malaysia has just jailed an opposition leader for being homosexual and Indonesia is set to execute foreign nationals after a cruel and unconscionable delay.
  • It is difficult to see many nations where the host country is happy with its Muslem minority or where the Muslem migrants are successfully integrating. In many there is actual conflict or political movements against Muslems. That is likely to get worse as terror attacks continue, and the foreign wars involving Muslems continue.
  • Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the positive influence of Islam in the world has waned. It is difficult to point to the Islamic centres of learning, law, science or art that have made any lasting contributions to the civilisation of the world.
  • The Ottoman Empire was a disaster for humanity. Not one former member is in good shape, specifically including Turkey and Greece, each of whom would rather forget or deny it. The notion that there might be another Caliphate is about as attractive as that of another Holy Roman Empire or a Fourth Reich.
  • Islam itself is ill defined and is claimed by warring sects. There is no hierarchy that allows spokespeople to speak on the behalf and bind them. People may not like the Pope or the Vatican, but at least they know who they are dealing with. At least the Vatican can officially disown ratbag sects. People distrust shadowy outfits like the Masons or the CIA who do not want to own up to their past or to show their present.
  • Worst of all is the lack of certification for the Imams. It is unthinkable that the mainstream churches in the West would unleash clerical representatives like these ragamuffin upstarts many of whom are evangelists of violence. This is a huge problem because too often the poison is seen to have been planted by nasty, ignorant, unbalanced men who are crooks or quacks who should never have been allowed any status to purport to teach or preach on behalf of any faith. Even the best of them look unpersuasive. Even after the recent Paris murders, too many Islamic commentators said that it was bad – but….people who play with matches might get their fingers burnt. When the Twin Towers went down, Muslems danced in the street in many parts of the world. The problem of getting good spokespeople for the Arab or Muslem cause has troubled the BBC’s Dateline London – experienced Arab journalists come on and you count down until the rant starts. This is shockingly unhelpful, because it reinforces all of those stereotypes about irrationality in that region.
  • Young men who fight for IS get a spiritual charge from, and they claim a theological basis for, their killings. Other Muslems may say that the faith of the killers is perverted, but the argument about whether the killers are Muslems at all is at best sterile. One issue is that there is no Muslem body that can effectively rule these people out of Islam, and dealing with these terrorists without dealing with spiritual and religious issues is like fighting the Viet Cong without worrying about the hearts and minds of the people. There has to be a theological and spiritual response. This craving for death and the everlasting does not come from social failings.
  • The attitude of Islam to half of the world – women – is not acceptable in the West. The full facial veil is an affront to the beliefs of most people in equality. Muslem educational insitutions do not look encouraging, and they attract, fairly or otherwise, frequent allegations of massive corruption and fraud on the state, and a failure to reach local standards. Sharia law is a ghastly throwback to the Dark Ages that is more alarming than the Old Testament. It is appalling that some seriously suggest it might be allowed here in Australia.
  • The lack of integration and social success brings its own images of failure and foreignness. The Muslem communities look separate and unassimilated and unattractively Asian in ways that the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, for example, do not. Those communities are assimilating while retaining their own traditions, and they are rising to the top in all fields of life. The failure and frustration within Islam in Australia in turn becomes a function of the community’s separatism. And so the cycle goes, and the youth leave for purer devotion, and so, terrorism. If people want to live apart and be seen to live apart, not to say down at heel, they need not be alarmed if they are treated as different; if they want to be exclusive, they need not complain if they get to be excluded.
  • Above all, there is the difference in the space that religion occupies in their lives and in the lives of their nations. For the most part, people in the West are relaxed about religion – even those who adhere to one, who are becoming a minority. Churches and synagogues are used to coming under fire from all directions, and their adherents accept that it is just a matter of luck which faith you are born into, rather like race, and that each of the three faiths to come from the Middle East claims to have the answer, and so is committed to denying a central tenet of the others: this is just one of the hurdles at which many of the unbelievers fall. The state is secular, and the people are relaxed and tolerant. Islam, to put it softly, does not fit well in this scheme. In no part of the world where it has prevailed does it accept the separation of church and state which is fundamental in the West, and has been since the Reformation.
  • You then have to add the fact that the exercise by infidels of their right to express their opinions freely, which is equally fundamental, too often leads to conflict that leads to violence and then to murder. Adherents to Islam hunger for a penal law of blasphemy which they will never get in the West, but which those in the West are revolted to see enforced in the Islamic East by the lash and beheading. The short answer to those Muslems in the West who have these feelings is that they know where they can go – but, as ever, people want to have their cake and eat it. They could go to Bahrain and be in state where a new TV station lasted for only thirty minutes.
  • Finally, while the other faiths are waning perceptibly, Islam is growing overseas and here, and it just as a matter of time before they have the numbers here. You would seriously understate the matter if you said that other people might find this consequence to be a little disturbing. There is the ironic twist that the excesses in the name of Islam is rubbing off on religion generally, and this will help Islam claim the field.

You might then see how the foreign and domestic woes of Islam come together in Australia, and most other host countries in the West.

  • If you add the difficulties that we see in Islam overseas to those we see in Islam as we import it into Australia, you will understand why the host country here, like host countries elsewhere, is looking at the a nightmare for a migrant country – its migrants are not just bringing in conflicts and hatreds from their mother countries or regions, but they are spawning offspring here who return to the old country and refine their hatred and study how to return and murder their hosts.
  • The West sees its civilisation as resting on Judaeo-Christian traditions. You will never see the West claiming Christian-Muslem values. The Jewish communities are assimilated and successful. The natural temper of those communities at large and their host nations is to back Israel against the Arabs. That has been almost obligatory in the U S, and therefore Australia, which follows the US on foreign policy almost blindly. This adherence to Israel is fading in both Australia and the US, because of the territorial ambitions of Israel and its leaning toward becoming a dominant theocratic state, but such movements do not appear to be helping sentiment toward Islam. However that may be, most Australians do not want to see the hatred of the worst flashpoint on the planet reflected in conflict between their own peoples who claim to be Australians. As what passes for the Left gets animated against Israel, what passes for the Right gets animated against Islam, and that split helps nothing. As time goes by, we may see in Australia a tendency to treat conflict between Israel and the Arabs in a similar way to that in which they saw conflicts imported here from the Balkans in the 1950’s, and just regard them all as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The short answer is that we do not need any of it.
  • The blend of failure at home and abroad, whether that failure is real or perceived, leads to true believers reaching out for prophets who have the answer. The answer takes away all doubt and fear, and the price is unquestioning and mindless obedience – life then becomes so simple. The prophets themselves are the product of rejection and frustration – the model of the frustrated reject and angry young man turned fanatic is Adolf Hitler – and the true believers have a cause which brings its own crazy togetherness. The cause offers redemption, here and above. These believers, unlike the secular fascists or communists, are also assured of eternal life, the ultimate gift or prize. That prize easily outweighs any life that stands in the way of these credo killers. How do you deal with an enemy for whom death is the reward and who just gets more dangerous in jail?
  • The enemy is not terrorism, but the beliefs and promises that underwrite it. The contribution of Islam to that result is unique. The faith may be said to be false, but how do you destroy an idea that gives meaning to peoples’ lives? And what do you do to criminals who get worse in jail and who long for martyrdom?

Now, most of the matters raised above are very general, and they all involve questions of degree, but there is in each of them enough to understand why many people in Australia, and other host countries, fear what Islam may do to people, whether they adhere to that faith or not. It is quite impossible to seek to stigmatise and dismiss fears that naturally arise, which are entirely rational, under some pejorative epithet like Islamophobia. Indeed, it is the apparent inability of so many Muslems and their leaders to square up to these sorts of problems that just makes other people more afraid.

In speaking of the murders at Charlie Hebdo, Tariq Ali, the voice of the Godless Left, in the London Review of Books, in a piece headlined The Muslim Response, quoted someone as saying that ‘It didn’t need to be done.’ But what was unnecessary was not the murders, but the action of the journalists in provoking religious people. The personal judgment of Mr Ali was that ‘the radicalisation of a tiny sliver of young Muslims….is a result of US foreign policy over the last decade and a half. Some of these Muslims have been happy to acquire new skills and priorities while fighting in Bosnia and more recently, Syria.’

Well, there you have it – the Americans started it, and the French journalists asked for it. It is not the wanton lack of logic that causes concern – it is the absence or revulsion or pity. And if you are having your head sawed off by an ourangatang gone berserk, it may not be much comfort to your or your children that this mad killer is part of a ‘tiny sliver’ of young Muslems. who refined his sawing in Bosnia or Syria.

The great scourges of mankind have been tribalism, nationalism, and religion – the order you choose will reflect on where you stand. The terror we now face draws on all three, but religion does look to be the worst.

The believers might ponder the following. Five men on death row or in a hospice are doomed to die shortly. There is one each of the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslem, Jewish, and Christian faiths. Each has acquired his faith from his parents and each does his best to live by it. Are we to take it that what happens to each after his death will depend solely upon the lottery of the faith that he was born into, and that each of them follows a faith that decrees that one of them might enter Paradise while the other four are just left for dead – or worse?

It matters not that Christianity in previous times perpetrated much worse crimes against humanity, or if you take the view that the greatest single threat to world peace and terrorism now comes from the territorial ambitions of Israel, or that the United States and its allies have just made everything else so much worse by their imperialism and belligerence – if you allow all those assertions and more, you are still left with the same problems of Islam.

Nor does it reduce the fear of the West that it can show the most remarkable hypocrisy about its role in poisoning Muslems against it. American Sniper is a film about a young American man who specialises in killing Muslems who do not know that he is there. He kills dozens and dozens of them, far, far more than were killed in Paris, on the footing that ‘you kill every male you see.’ He was a disaffected young American who saw people on television being senselessly killed on the other side of the world, and who decided to go and kill those on the wrong side – who just happened to be Muslems. He refers to his victims as ‘savages’.

The picture was nominated for six Oscars and had the best debut in January ever in the U S. This roaring commercial success is not there to build bridges to Islam. It is set to overtake The Passion of Christ, another film that reached out to conservatives. This serial killer is the hero of the crowds in the cinemas. A talking head on Fox news, the voice of the Far Christian Right, thought that Jesus would thank the sniper for dispatching unbelieving Muslems to the lake of fire. And it might be as well just to pass over the obsequies for the recently deceased King of Saudi Arabia.

And to come back to Proust, you might get an idea of what something like Islamism might look like to those who are outside of it, and why that picture is so unattractive beside that which is apparently seen by people inside it. There are in truth many things about Islam that make others very afraid of what it might do to people and it just does not help to say that other religions have the same effect on people, or worse – the problem is the failure of the followers of Islam around the world to come to terms with the rest of the world. Their problem is that they do not see the problem. The main reason for the fear of Islam is that so many Muslems do not see what there is to fear.



I should make a disclosure. I hold some shares in Westfield and Scentre. The credo killers claiming to represent Islam have said that they will kill people attending properties of those companies because of the Jewish connection of the principals of those companies.

An unhappy marriage


Tolstoy famously began a novel by saying that all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In the bad old days, people just endured marriages that were plain bad. Now people are not legally locked in. They are free to separate and divorce. By and large, they and those around them are better off as a result if they choose that option. This is, I suppose, a part of what we call progress.

It looks like we are about to see a similar act of mercy take place between Europe and Greece, at least for the monetary union under the Euro. It is I think widely accepted that the currency union was a mistake – at least in extending to nations in the south that were not capable of living up to such a union. That we know now was plainly the case with Greece. They told some awful lies to get in and people up north just chose to look the other way for their own political reasons. A union so flawed from the beginning was always going to be fraught. I gather that both sides are now coming to the sensible conclusion that the proper thing to do is what other people do with a bad marriage – just call it off and stop the pain. There might be some immediate distress, but ultimately both sides will be better off.

The other day, I spoke to a Liberal MP. I asked her what distinguished the Liberal Party from the Labor Party. She identified her concern for small business. I think that many in small business might hope to do better under the Liberals than Labor. If you translate that, it means that ultimately the Liberals will put the interests of capital over those of labour more often than Labor – say on the issue of penalty rates or termination. But neither political party here will admit to any such distinction, much less proclaim it.

Something like that must underlie the huge difference in the economic performance of northern Europe over that of the south. In the south, the tendency is for labour to be favoured over capital, and one result is that business is not as successful in those countries. We saw this recently with Air France. It is being squeezed between gulf carriers and cheap carriers. The directors therefore planned to start a new cheap airline of their own. That did not suit the French pilots. They like the deal they have, and bugger anyone else. They went on strike and forced management to shelve the idea. Local protectionism had won. The French are famous for this. The pilots are OK, but the company and the nation are worse off. Labour had prevailed over capital.

When people speak of the need for Mediterranean countries to undertake structural reforms, they mean revising labour laws to stop protectionist rackets like this. Too much of industry in the south is run like medieval gilds or sheltered workshops. That is why industry is being drained out of countries like France and Italy that have not been strong enough to break up the protection.

Greece has incurred a chilling level of pain and personal misery in trying to keep up with the north and to keep up payments on their loans. But they have also made, as I understand it, next to no progress on the reforms required to halt their ingrained corruption, tax evasion, and protectionism that comes under the term ‘clientelism’.

The new government says that it will clean all this up. That, like the Arab Spring, may take more than one generation. In the meantime the Greeks are left to bemoan their pain, which they may have incurred for nothing, because they have not been able to change how they live. It is hardly an adequate response to put a bad label on what they are being asked to do by confirming obligations solemnly entered into in their name, demonising their lenders and economic betters, and personally insulting the leader of the most successful of them. Then they vote into government a party that says it will renegotiate a deal with parties who have no interest in renegotiating anything, and when elected the new government tells the other parties that it wants time to formulate a proposal.

It is ironic that a disaster that began by the Greeks making promises that they knew that they could not fulfil looks like being brought to an end by a government that won office in precisely that manner. It is also ironic that those who champion elected governments over technocrats are witnessing the coup de grace delivered by an unelected technocrat.

You could never imagine a man better suited to antagonise to the point of madness the partners and lenders of Greece than Yanis Varoufakis. He is an Australian Greek Marxist academic blogger who has never been involved in running a business or government. Despite all those disqualifications, he has a sublime confidence in his own rectitude which he imparts with manic, nervy jests to the faithful at his side. If you have not caught his act yet – in SS leather great coat and Burberry scarf – do so. He makes Jack Palance look like a neutered weasel, but when he gets on to the word that starts with ‘a’ and ends with ‘y’, he sounds like Hitler on Versailles – although some, like Keynes, may have thought that Hitler had a better case of grievance.

Mr Varoufakis’ speciality is game theory, but when Bloomberg called his bluff, he smiled at his own joke, which he does all the time, and said that there is no plan B – there is only Plan A; therefore he was not playing games. He is altogether terrifying. Imagine the Finance minister of Finland telling his government that Mr Varoufakis would like them to pass a law depriving Finns of their property to accommodate the wishes of this man to avoid an obligation binding on his nation.

For good measure, Mr Varoufakis accused Europe of holding a gun to the head of Greece. That remark must satisfy most criteria of madness. Mr Varoufakis is the ultimate political time bomb – a passionate zealot with no idea of his own huge limitations.

My sense is that the north has had enough, and that they are preparing to do the humane and sensible thing, and dissolve an unhappy marriage, either now or sometime in the next year or so. There is no reasonable ground for believing that Greece will be able to lift its game to the extent needed up north, and unless the right thing is done, they will be just setting the stage for the next showdown along the road. Surely the governments up north have enough to do looking after their own.

But this time I can at least say that it looks like being none of my business. The markets look bored, and unlike four years ago, when I really lost sleep, no one is holding a gun at my head. And Mr Varoufakis might find the politics of the Chinese and Russians more congenial. Certainly, borrowing from them might complete his financial, and that of Greece, in a manner that might fairly come to be called terminal.

Paris and Terror VI – Terror in History


Terror, as we saw, has a long history in the Holy Land – I refer back to the first post in this series.

Terror has featured in the history of Israel since before that nation was born. Terror was an essential part of the process of the birth of Israel. Evelyn Waugh spoke of the British successors to Allenby ‘decamping before a little band of gunmen.’ This led Paul Johnson to refer in his History of the Jews to ‘yet another contribution to the shape of the modern world: the scientific use of terror to break the will of liberal rulers. It was to become a commonplace over the next forty years’ – the book was published in 1987 ‘but in 1945 it was new. It might be called a by-product of the Holocaust, for no lesser phenomenon could have driven even desperate Jews to use it. Its most accomplished practitioner was Menachem Begin.’

Begin came from a Polish town where only ten out of 30,000 were not murdered. Names like the Irgun and Stern Gang were associated with religious fanatics who became serial murderers. ‘It was my faith against his faith.’ The celebrated bombing of the King David Hotel killed twenty-eight British, forty-one Arabs, and seventeen Jews. Was that rate of slippage acceptable? A sixteen year old school-girl gave a warning as part of the plan. Begin mourned the Jewish casualties alone. Begin later saw that two British sergeants were hanged and that their bodies were mined.

The massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948 was greeted by Begin as ‘this splendid act of conquest…..As at Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy. God, God, thou hast chosen us for conquest.’ That is a piece of the book of Joshua and some see it as ‘relevant to the moral credentials of the Jewish state’. More than half a million Arab inhabitants fled Israel. Begin later became Prime Minister, but the Arabs, inside Israel or not, do not see any difference in the policy or practice of various governments, which they see as a policy of merciless expansion at their expense. Religious leaders on each side assure their followers that God is with them. The little area of Jerusalem might be the most accursed on earth.

It was the same with the war of independence that led to the creation of the republic which is the prime protector of Israel – and as the Arabs see it, the prime cause of the prolongation of their agony. The rebels in America who rebelled against their king were liable to be hanged for treason. Appalling atrocities were committed on both sides – as happened when an invading trained army meets guerillas defending their own soil. To see what their troops would meet in Vietnam or Afghanistan, American generals needed only to look at what happened to the British Army around Valley Forge and elsewhere. We are now familiar with the transition from terrorist to freedom fighter to liberator to national hero and founder of the nation – but you have to win. And in the meantime, as one American rebel said, you stick together, or hang separately

The second President of the US, John Adams, was severe early on about what to do with the oppressors: ‘This [the Tea Party] is but an attack on property. Another similar exertion of popular power may produce the destruction of lives. Many persons wish that as many dead carcasses were floating in the harbour as there are chests of tea. A much less number of lives however would remove the causes of all our calamities.’

When the war started, 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 guerilla skirmishes with atrocities on both sides’ (like Vietnam). But for the intervention of the French, this civil war – guerilla 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).

The mention by Churchill of the atrocities in Ireland is interesting because until recently Britain was haunted by the spectre of Ireland and terrorism. Those crimes in turn ultimately derived from outrages committed by the English in Ireland over more than six hundred years. The ethnic cleansing effected by Cromwell at Drogheda and elsewhere was done in the name of God and against a native people that the English saw as racially inferior. Racism in religion is a potent driver of terrorism.

As for France, the use of the word terrorist still takes colour from the Terror that was invoked in self-defence by the young republic. Before the government instituted its own regime with the guillotine and the Law of Suspects, the people – the masses for some – had taken matters into their own hands by massacring suspected enemies like priests in the infamous prison massacres in 1792 remembered as the September Massacres. ‘Let the blood of the traitors flow. That is the only way to save the country’, croaked Marat. At various prisons men broke in to slaughter the inmates. From about a thousand to fifteen hundred people, mainly ordinary criminals were killed. It was common to set up a cruel mockery of a hearing where the suspect could be examined while listening to his or her predecessor being slaughtered behind the door. One survivor of the Abbaye recalled that they used to watch the butchery so as to try and learn how to die with the least pain when their turn came. ‘Man after man is cut down; the sabres need sharpening, the killers refresh themselves from wine-jugs. Onward and onward is the butchery; the loud yells wearying into base growls. A sombre-faced, shifting multitude looks on; in dull approval; in dull approval or dull disapproval; in dull recognition that it is a Necessity.’

The September massacres of 1792 are not just a case of inmates of gaols being no worse than their gaolers, or what might happen when power is given to those who are least to be trusted with power. Nor is it just a case of venomous force of envy and the cruelty of the revenge of the dispossessed. Nor is it just a case of the danger of rule by the people – it is a case of the danger of rule by people. The mainstay of the rule of law is that we are ruled by laws, not men and women. The September Massacres are the jurists’ final nightmare – lynch mobs licensed by a failed state.

France would be convulsed by uprising and terror time and again in the nineteenth century. In 1848, a revolution ended in a bloodbath that disgraces Western civilisation. That very great writer Gustave Flaubert left us an amazing picture of hell on earth that must test our endurance. ‘Nine hundred men were there, crowded together in filth, pell-mell, black with powder and clotted blood, shivering in fever and shouting in frenzy. Those who died were left to lie with the others. Now and then, at the sudden noise of a gun, they thought they were all on the point of being shot, and then flung themselves against the walls, afterwards falling back into their former places. They were so stupefied with suffering that they seemed to be living in a nightmare….Because of a fear of epidemics a commission of inquiry had been appointed. On the first steps, its president flung himself back, appalled by the odour of excrement and corpses. When the prisoners approached a ventilator, the National Guards on sentry duty stuck their bayonets, haphazard, into the crowd to prevent them loosening the bars. The National Guards were in general pitiless. Those who had not been in the fighting wanted to distinguish themselves now, but all was really the reaction of fear. They were avenging themselves for the journals, the clubs, the doctrines, for everything that had provoked them beyond measure for the last three months; and despite their victory, equality (as if for the punishment of its defenders and mockery of its enemies) was triumphantly revealed – an equality of brute beasts on the same level of blood-stained depravity; for the fanaticism of vested interests was on a level with the madness of the needy, the aristocracy exhibited the fury of the basest mob, and the cotton night-cap was no less hideous than the bonnet rouge. The public mind became disordered as after a great natural catastrophe, and men of intelligence were idiots for the rest of their lives.’

After the Paris commune of 1870 – the event that leads to the word Communism – about 20,000 communards were slaughtered. Emile Zola said: ‘The slaughter was atrocious. Our soldiers…meted out implacable justice in the streets. Any man caught with a weapon in his hand was shot. So corpses lay scattered everywhere, thrown into corners, decomposing with astonishing rapidity, which was doubtless due to the drunken state of these men when they were hit. For six days Paris has been nothing but a huge cemetery.’

So, violence, uprisings, and terror are part of the fabric of history of the West, and not just the Third World or failed states. The most august components of what we know as the West have had their share of terrorists. And that is without going to the Christian church – to, say, the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or the brutal murder and repression of natives in every land that western nations brought within their empires.

It will be adequate to refer to some well-known passage of Edward Gibbon on the crusades.

The cold philosophy of modern times is incapable of feeling the impression that was made on a sinful and fanatic world. At the voice of their pastor, the robber, the incendiary, the homicide, arose by thousands to redeem their souls by repeating on the infidels the same deeds which they had exercised against their Christian brethren; and the terms of atonement were eagerly embraced by offenders of every rank and denomination. None were pure; none were exempt from the guilt and penalty of sin; and those who were the least amenable to the justice of God were the best entitled to the temporal and eternal recompense of their pious courage. If they fell, the spirit of the Latin clergy did not hesitate to adorn their tomb with the crown of martyrdom; and should they survive, they could expect without impatience the delay and increase of their heavenly reward.

Gibbon then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit. Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God. In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion. At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian …. The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians: resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease. After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare. …. The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow. Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world; and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption. This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

Yes, the murderers of Muslems were offered the crown of martyrdom and an increase in heavenly reward, but does any of this tale of cruelty and misery have any meaning for terrorism being inflicted in the name of Islam now?

Dog days at Ballarat


The film Fury that I reviewed here was one I saw in Ballarat. I remember stopping at Creswick on the Midland Highway on the way back home for lunch in the sun. I ordered a pie and a milk drink. The drink arrived after five minutes. Five minutes later, I inquired about the pie. ‘We are just warming it up.’ In a take-away café on the Midland Highway? A bloody pie? Woe is Creswick.

Alas, things are worse in the big smoke at Ballarat. When I got back to my car after the movie, it had a parking ticket. I immediately wrote a polite note saying that it had been issued in error. The letter was as follows.

I enclose infringement notice 72083850 given in error today.

I parked in the relevant Bay 3 at about 10.12 and paid into the machine the full three hours. The machine told me it was good until 1.15. I recall it well, because I was going to the movies two blocks away at 10 am, and had driven around a little to find a meter which would safely allow me to see the film. I attach the ticket to the film, showing an end at 12.29. I was back at the car by about 12.40.

I do not know how the error occurred in the machine, but if I had been given a ticket to display, we would not be having this discussion.

The other reason I recall this well is that I had fed another meter $3 before I realised that street had a I hour cap.

I would be glad if you could ensure that the ticket is withdrawn.

I got no response and concluded that the issue was dead – I could not produce the ticket I bought because that machine did not issue them, as the better ones do. Then I got a follow up notice demanding extra fees – unlawfully – so I responded with another note enclosing a copy of that referred to above.

I have now received a polite response delivered with lightning speed – within a week of receipt of my second letter. That response says:

The matter has been reviewed taking into account your written request and a report submitted by the issuing Traffic Officer. The decision to serve the Parking Infringement Notice has been reviewed by the Manager Community Amenity and the Coordinator of Parking Services. The outcome of the review is that the decision to serve the Parking Infringement Notice is confirmed and as such the fine must be paid. Please note the agency fees of $23.80 have been waived.

The letter politely tells me they may take further action, or I might refer the matter to court.

What could be fairer? I have been given a hearing by something like a court of appeal – a manager, a coordinator, and an officer. Well, what would have been fairer for them would have been for them to have given some reasons for their decision, which in substance entails preferring the word of a machine to the word of a citizen. All they do is to say that they have reviewed the matter and come to a decision. They do not say why, or if they thought that I was dreaming or just making it up.

Was there something about what I said that struck them as odd? Is this the way for a government agency to behave when it uses machines that encourage this kind of error when it has access to those machines that make this kind of dispute impossible? I am not criticising the relevant officers – I am criticising every part of a system that makes public servants act judicially when they are not trained for that purpose, and the whole of our constitutional history says that it is wrong.

Well, you might say, I have the option of going to court. This is, if you like, a Magna Carta right. Not before my peers, but someone independent of the triumvirate that has made the present ruling. This right is eight hundred years old this year, and it is important in protecting us against government. Government officers do after all have an interest in protecting the sources of revenue from which they are paid.

So I could go to Ballarat, an hour each way. If I was lucky enough to get on in three hours that would be five hours plus petrol. If I was a tradesman charging $80 and hour, the opportunity cost would be $400 – more than seven times the fine. If I were a heart surgeon, the costs could be a lot higher.

That is the kind of dull oppression that led me some years ago to pen the attached note on how we are surrendering our rights. The easiest thing to do is to pay and tell the people at the Regent Cinema and Scott’s over the road that they have lost a customer. Those governing their city have different views on amenity. They greatly prefer their dollars over the interests of those who wish to visit their city and patronise their merchants. It is after all not unheard of in this country for government to be acting directly contrary to the interests of small business. And Ballarat is famous for officers of the law going after bits of paper and checking that government fees have been paid. A significant part of the city’s revenues comes from people who visit the shrine of the rebellion at Eureka.

Read on for the 2009 note on penalties.

Rupert’s reindeers


After Rupert Murdoch gave the thumbs down to our Prime Minister from New York, the vigour that his lieutenants have shown in implementing the death sentence has been unsettling. Boyhood friendships and years of alliance went clear out the window almost overnight at the croak of His Master’s Voice. It has been a chilling reminder of the truth of the Biblical injunction – put not your trust in princes. The killing ground every night on Sky TV has been revolting. They have been shedding more blood than Fox News.

Dennis Shanahan has been a loyal and imperturbable supporter of Tony Abbott for years, from the time he became leader so heroically, through his glory days as Opposition Leader, and from that wonderful day when government of the nation was returned to its true owners. The endurance of the fidelity has been remarkable. In today’s Australian, we get this.

Abbott’s attitude since becoming opposition leader in 2009, by one vote, then failing to get the support of two independent MPs to form government in 2010 and finally defeating a reheated Kevin Rudd in 2013, has been one of an almost accidental leader uncomfortable in the job.

It takes your breath away. Someone has gone through an overnight change of total reversal – either the writer or his subject. The two are entirely unrecognisable. Jekyll and Hyde.

Mr Shanahan then goes on to compare the PM with Prince Hal, who found friendship among rough mates. He says that ‘Even after becoming king, Henry V, Shakespeare’s character retains a warmth for his old mates until forced to endorse Bardolph’s hanging for looting.’ Now, it may not be wise to sully Shakespeare with the latrine of our politics. That is not how it happened. The reversal of Prince Hal comes immediately after he accepts the crown when he repudiates and as good as kills his would-be mate Falstaff in the coldest line in literature. Prince Hal is a rat. Besides, if the analogy were to be pressed, who is the undesirable that the PM might now be advised to repudiate – if necessary in cold blood?

Still, the PM has as yet some memories of support among Rupert’s reindeers. Mr Chris Kenny is a former Liberal Party staffer who has been swinging the lead about his sometime mate on Sky, but in today’s Oz, there is a most moving return to form and to the fold.

For all the Coalition’s failings and missteps, it is surely incontestable that Tony Abbott has provided the best 16 months of government Australia has seen in more than seven years.

Now, here truly we behold a miracle! The government seen by most Australians and many of its backbench as incurably stupid and unreliable is incontestably the best that this country has had for seven years – incontestably.

After that shell-burst of revelation, we get the following damnation of demons and a catechism for the faithful:

Nor is it a surprise that the ABC, Fairfax Media and most of the press gallery have been ferociously attacking Abbott – [as has Mr Kenny and his colleagues on Sky]; he is anathema to the love media. They are diametrically opposed to his views on climate, borders, gay marriage, even national security.

Can’t you imagine being at a pub or a barbecue and expressing views different to those of our PM on climate, borders, or gay marriage and being dismissed as part of the love media?

Now you can see why this country is buggered. We are surrounded by politicians and people from the press who are just wall to wall bullshit. They roll around and glory in pure bullshit.

A model of confection


Although labels are demeaning and dangerous, you might be able to discern two different kinds of politicians. There are conviction politicians. They believe in something and they stand for it. And then there are confection politicians. They do not believe in much and they stand for even less – they just follow the pack and the polls. A confection is a ‘making by mixture of ingredients’ – the advisers and pollsters just mix the ingredients up in a vessel that is close to empty, and lo! you have a confection politician straight off the shelf.

We do not see many conviction politicians now. Margaret Thatcher and Paul Keating believed in something and stood up for it, and I admired each of them greatly for doing just that. They disdained populism, and swimming against the tide was a badge of honour for them. You don’t see their kind now. The strength of Angela Markel is different – as someone remarked, she just takes the politics out of politics. Angela Merkel makes politics decent. That is a heroic achievement.

People generally, here and elsewhere, are sick of politicians who just keep turning out as if they were made up as actors in a show. They are talking heads who go through their unlovely routines in their unlovely parliaments with their unlovely accomplices in the press. The whole confected lot are neither liked nor respected by the voters, and that does not look like changing. The people of conviction are seen to be dangerous zealots who are electoral poison. It is a curio of history that these puritanical party-killers and vote-losers were mostly on the Left two generations ago, and now they sit exclusively on the Right. It is now the conservative side that can be infected by cranks.

Before going to the present Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, let me refer to two politicians that I see as models of decency. Lindsay Thompson and John Cain were Premiers of this State about thirty years ago. Each was incorruptible. We take that for granted in Victoria, but no other state can. Each was a loyal member of his party but each was aware of the limitations of himself and his party. Each had a sense of decency that kept him at a distance from the press. Each remained grounded, even in the top job. Neither was marked by apparent personal ambition; to the contrary, both appeared to accept that in its essence, their job was to be a servant of the public.

I suppose that that view might have become a little roseate with age, but it looks right. Each man is I think fondly remembered – and now, the type of each is badly missed. We do not see people with those solid but modest attributes trying to reach the top in the cess-pit of Canberra. Mr Thompson may be better remembered now as an economic manager, but Mr Cain was attended by fools, and an inept opposition was unable to terminate his rule after one term.

You do not see the attributes of a model politician in Tony Abbott. What you do see are the attributes of a model confection politician. This was immediately apparent to Mr Matthew Parris of The Times of London.

Muscled, tanned, sharpshooting, God-fearing, straight-talking, climate-change-mocking and tough on immigration.

He’s the Right’s dream: the kind of guy Tory-toddlers could paint by numbers, a politician who focus-groupers could have stitched together with canvas returns, polling data and steel wire.

Well, here’s news for them. There’s no need to dream. This populist paragon lives and breathes and was elected to lead in 2013. And, this weekend, after only 17 months, he’s tanking……

I sense….a conflicted man, but a man of immoderate ambition and only modest ability; a leader who wanted to be smiled on by the Deity and roared on by the people, and hoped he might marry the people’s instincts with his own….

The general lesson is this. You cannot construct winning positions simply by summing together the things voters tell pollsters they want.

Once you see Tony Abbott as a confection politician or made-up job, things become clear.

His weaknesses were concealed as Leader of the Opposition because all that he had to do was destroy, and his target was self-destructing in slow motion and in technicolour. Mr Abbott was a disaster in opposition. Doctor No. He was programmed by his minders and an all-powerful personal staff to block everything. It was close to an abuse of office – we see it in the US – but he never bothered to formulate positive policies, which is what oppositions are for, and he arrived in government without policies – and without women. He looked forlorn and irrelevant from the start.

Because he performed so badly and was so unloved, he did not win enough seats to implement such policies as he did have, and he has looked impotent ever since. This does not stop him abusing the word ‘mandate’ – he had hardly won one. All he can do is blame the Opposition – and make the hilarious claim that they are being unduly obstructive. It was not their fault or doing that he campaigned so badly that we let in real and not just make-believe galahs.

But even though he could not lose, he made promises that he knew he could not keep. This comes from his insecurity – I will come back to this.

Then he made two mistakes that you would expect from a confection politician. He failed to change his make-up between opposition and government. He thought that the Hit Squad that served him in opposition might run the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing. This is perhaps the biggest curse of his whole debacle. The failure to move from opposition mode was spotted immediately by a Liberal premier, and I don’t think that this man has ever grown into the job or seen his awful limitations in it.

This relates to his other great mistake at this time. Confection politicians thrive on praise and support – that is, after all, all that they have. Mr Abbott believed the bullshit coming from his own cheer squad in the press. He really did believe that he had not been a disaster – he thought that he and his team had been great, and he was happy to pose in the sun under his laurels. The Canberra press gallery has a lot to answer for in the uncomely circus of Canberra, but none more unsettling than this fevered anointing of the duffer named Tony Abbott. Most of them have recently dropped him like a hot scone, and pointed the bone at him in a most unattractive way, as if on cue, but that is another story. The damage to Mr Abbott and the country had been done.

Now, you can see why he clings so desperately to his advisers and his pollsters, and his personal team. They are part of him. They made him. This is why he is content to flout his personal association with confected front-men of the Right like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, in a manner precisely calculated to alienate the whole East Coast Establishment, and why he is prepared to embrace the program of the Institute of Public Affairs, in a manner designed to estrange his rank and file. The IPA is fast moving to the level of toxic electoral demonology for years claimed by the League of Rights. It is a good example of how the Looney Tunes of the Right have become the best allies of the Labor Party. Indeed, the Labor people now pray that Mr Abbott can hang on indefinitely.

Now you see why Mr Abbott promoted and clung on to a policy that his party loathed and that floated around him like a loaded jellyfish. He was trying to tell as that he could really stand for something.

Now you can see why Mr Abbott keeps saying things that are so silly. These mouthings do not come from deep or even personal conviction, apart from trivia, but from how the team says he should go the cameras with the day’s bon mot. These offerings are at best boring and banal, but too often they suffer in transition. Some, like the shirtfront, have passed into the lexicon, but it is embarrassing to go back.

I want to say that we have made a good start, that the adults are back in charge, and that strong, stable, methodical and purposeful government is once more the rule in our national capital.   Yes, we will speak when we need to speak. But we won’t speak for the sake of speaking, and we won’t bang on things for the purposes of a PR gesture….The Afghan War ends not with victory, not with defeat, but with hope…..Australian troops do not fight wars of conquest; we fight wars of freedom…..I regret to say that not every Australian is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist…..You might expect with the ABC that it might show some basic affection for the home side….Australia is a land of droughts and flooding rains. Always has been. Always will be.Jesus knew that there was a place for everything, and it is not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.     We admired the skill and sense of honour that they [Japanese servicemen ] brought to their task, although we disagreed with what they did.   Gallipoli was a magnificent defeat.     World War I was in one sense a tragic waste but it was for a good cause…My position is that everyone has to be on Team Australia…..What the Scots do is a matter for the Scots…. I think the people who would like to see the break-up of the United Kingdom are not the friends of justice, not the friends of freedom….The arrival of the first fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent….Modern Australia has an important and indigenous multicultural character. Still, it’s British settlement that has most profoundly shaped the country that we are….There was a holocaust of jobs in defence industries under the members opposite….I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I withdraw…there was a decimation of jobs.

‘Decimation’ was wrong, too. Mr Abbott keeps making these appalling errors because under the confection, there is no conviction. It is as if he mocks himself, and he does. And he does it in front of the world. We just never know what he might say or do next. We should all go down on knees and thank God that we do not have the bomb.

Curiously, the want of bedrock, and this fixation with slogans, appears to be a reason that Mr Abbott also has the worst failure of a politician. He cannot negotiate. Before the last election, the absolutist said he would not negotiate with minority parties. Nowadays, that is political death. It was this disability or childishness of Mr Abbott that allowed Julia Gillard to form a minority government in the first place. She had what it took; he did not. It is curious that his claim to fame is that he killed off a PM who was only there because he dropped the ball. But, as ever, he would not see that.

And it is this absence of conviction that makes Mr Abbott look so insecure, looking as if his mum had done his hair, and sent a note for the teacher. This is how he always comes out programmed by his handlers and it is why Mr Turnbull looks ever so much more polished and urbane. And he is. It is why no one wants to listen to the PM any more. He is at best irrelevant, and he is so completely out of touch with his time and place.

And this lack of conviction and consequent insecurity are behind three of his worse failings. He does not understand how far behind he has got, and he still gets shocked to find that he has been left behind. Then, he fails under stress. We saw this when he went weak at the knees and made rash promises on election eve; he was at it again the other day when he started offering submarines for a vote, and when he got his mate Alan Jones to cold call the party. He was also making seriously wrong statements about our governance and refusing to back away, while taking cover under verbal sandbags like ‘distraction’ and ‘chaos’. It was like the Praetorian Guard auctioning the purple. Finally, and most damagingly for the country, this Prime Minister has put his own interests over those of the country by refusing to put the best man in the job of Treasurer. His Treasurer now commands as much confidence in the nation as the Prime Minister himself, and that is a disaster for all of us, who are being made to pay for the failings of others.

This confection man is not in the same league as the decent politicians I mentioned. He is manifestly not up to the job that he fell into by one vote, and the job now before us is to bring this simple truth home. In the meantime, we just wait for the make-up to fail again before the next mistake. In light of the croaks tweeted from the lonely old man in New York, it is just a matter of time, but that will be an ugly time that will not be good for any of us.

If it matters, I see no real prospect of anything better from Mr Shorten. He also stands for mannered insincerity, a kind of conviction deficit. This is not surprising, as neither party stands for anything that the other does not – with the possible exception that the Labor Party is not overtly Neanderthal about the environment and the Liberal Party favours capital over labour in what they call small business. Funnily enough, people do not see that is why our politics are so presidential – the leaders may be uninspiring, but their parties are no better. Just imagine if the bastards we get as leaders were footballers – you would not cross the road to watch either of them.


This is a movie by a brilliant director about the other side of the lights on Broadway.  We are going through a phase of movies ‘based on real stories’.  Another phase is about actors on the skids, including actors who can just drop in and who know the lines already (Venus in a Fur), or who have diverting personal lives.  As well as Birdman, there is one on the way with Al Pacino.  If you like your humour blacker than pitch, and if you like the supernatural at full throttle in the Latin American mode, so that the hero literally takes wing and  flies out the window, you might enjoy this movie.  If you don’t, you won’t.  You will see it as silly, precious, pretentious self-indulgence.  Sadly I fall into the second group, so I did my dough.  I think many who claim to be in the first group are like those who acclaim minimalism – they are scared to stand up for themselves.  At least we get an insight into why the West End is different.

East West


There is a Greek if not Byzantine twist to the controversy about a large Victorian government project called East West. I have not seen one document or opened one book, but you know something is badly wrong when a government enters into a secret deal to frustrate the decision of the courts and the verdict of the electorate. My very limited understanding is as follows.

  • A government and a builder enter into a contract.
  • The contract is hugely controversial and it becomes an election issue.  The opposition threatens to cancel it, if, as is likely, it wins government.
  • Opponents of the project also see a process issue on which to get the courts to say that the contract is invalid.  The government did not go through the right process to test the project, and the courts may well say the deal is bad.
  • With knowledge of all this, a representative of the government enters into what is called a side deal with the builder to honour the contract even if the court says that it is unenforceable.  They keep this deal secret from the public who only find out about it after the election and the new government sets about to cancel the deal.
  • If a representative of a corporation or trust purported to enter into a secret deal with a builder binding on stakeholders to honour a deal even if the courts say it should not be honoured, I think those running the corporation or trust would be obliged to do all that they could to relieve stakeholders of any liability that might flow from the secret transaction.
  • The builder looks to lack merit.  Why did it enter into the secret deal?  Was it told that it would get nothing unless it did?  Did it just chance its arm on a process that looks as desperate as it is grubby?  Above all, what in equity can it say that it has done or outlaid in reliance upon a secret deal after the event with a sinking government?  Is this just not a scheme to make taxpayers liable even though the courts say that in law they are not liable?
  • I think it is quite open to the government of Victoria to say that the previous government secretly entered into a deal purporting to say that the merry-go-round for the builder will stop for the benefit of the builders and at the expense of the taxpayers as if the courts had not ruled on the contract – now, the new government will by statute say that the merry-go- round for the builder will stop for the benefit of the taxpayers and so as to deprive the builder of unjust enrichment as if that side-deal had not been made, and as if the courts had ruled against the contract. You just extinguish a covert executive act with an overt legislative instrument. It is no contest.
  • I would have thought that such a course was not just open to the government but one the like of which it was it was obliged to undertake.
  • The rest it tactics.  The government could test the planning issue in the courts.  The previous government and the builder evidently thought that they were on a loser. Then or subsequently, they could test the validity of a deal done by a government in secret to bind taxpayers to an expense and to award a builder a gain  contrary to the ruling of the Supreme Court of Victoria.  The critical point would be the cross-examination of the signatories.  That would take place before a court whose authority they have sought to deny and whose protection of the community and the rule of law thay have clandestinely sought to avoid. Sane politicians and business people do not subject themselves to this kind of ritual humiliation. The government would have the fall-back of legislating in a case that would not attract the opprobrium such a course usually does. As I say, these are just tactical issues.
  • I would be surprised if the builder went the distance.  They are without merit or friends.  They have come by their title by underhand means. Doubtless the parties had oodles of expensive and high-powered legal advice. So did the directors of James Hardie before they sought to shaft their workers, and they were lucky not to go to jail. Grubby deals and their makers usually fall apart in the glare of daylight.

Liberalism and education


The Economist is a newspaper that I trust. It also espouses liberalism in a way that no political party does, because it is honest and to the point. The paper uses no by-lines, but in the current issue, we learn that Mr John Micklethwait (quel nom Anglais!) is completing his term as editor that started in 2006 – when Twitter was ten days old.

The editor refers to his ‘only true master’ – the liberal credo of open markets and individual freedom. He surveys the world scene. ‘Democracy is no longer the presumed dimension….Western democracy, too, looks even less exemplary….The only way to feel good about American democracy is to set it beside Brussels.’ The political graveyard or playground in Westminster is not apparently worth mentioning.

One issue facing liberalism is inequality. As global markets give more rewards to talent, inequality gets worse and more entrenched. The paper resists the calls from the Left to punish the talented and ‘somehow mandate equality’. (Did the editor really say ‘mandate’?) It advocates attacking privilege and waging war on ‘crony capitalism’, recalling the great liberals of the 19th century who waged war on the ‘old corruption’ of aristocratic patronage and protection for the rich – he might have added Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in the twentieth century with the People’s Budget and the acknowledgement that the sick and the aged are part of the business of the state. Four times as much public money goes to the wealthiest 20% of Americans in mortgage interest deductions than is spent on social housing for the poorest fifth. Those tax laws favour landlords over tenants, the wealthy over the not so wealthy.

The other great issue facing liberalism is the extent of state intervention. The great liberals were progressives who also sought a smaller state but –

….although this newspaper wants government’s role to be limited, some of the remedies for inequality involve the state doing more, not less.

That is the political issue of our time. The editor quotes an example of education – only 28% of American four-year-olds attend state-funded pre-school; China is hoping to put 70% of its children through pre-school by 2020. And we do not need reminding of the economic power of China.

Australia is not giving an equal opportunity to its children to be educated. Those children with wealthy parents get a better opportunity by being sent to expensive private schools which a majority of parents see as better than government schools. This split in schooling, which you do not see in most of Europe, mocks our commitment to equality and serves to entrench inequality. Class might pass into caste.

There is one thing that economists agree on – inequality of wealth is bad for the economy. We as a young nation have an interest in seeing that our young are educated and trained to take part in the competition of all the talents and share in the rewards on offer in global markets. Whether or not we as a people get our money back that way, it seems to me only fair that those who have done well out of a system should give something back to it. I take that as something like a moral given. That is how good clubs and companies, and schools, work.

We need to learn from the good economies how giving back works for them. Just look at German technical education for example, or at the role of universities in Israel in developing information technology. Why should not we be trying to join the world’s best in these and other spheres? Are we looking too hard at the wrong games?

Forty years ago, I paid a lot more tax, but university was free back then. It is offensive to me to hear people say that this country cannot afford to educate its own young, but must get them to pay for it. If this nation is to come anywhere near its potential, it needs to even out education between public and private, and to help as many as possible with free tertiary training and education.

To help the nation and the economy grow, we should be spending a lot more effort and money on educating and training our girls and boys in an attempt to catch up to, say, France, Germany, or China in education. We should just get more tax from the better off to educate those who are worse off. You encourage a cycle of take and give back. The scheme has the primal mark of fairness and therefore justice – symmetry.

The editor of The Economist may not have had precisely that end in view, but it is in any event one that is quite beyond our politicians. We do, after all, have other things to worry about. Like the royal family. The local press has been priming a forthcoming biography of Charles. It says that both he and Diana panicked on the eve of their wedding. We can see why. Poor Diana in desperation told her sister that the marriage was ‘absolutely unbelievable.’ The answer? ‘Your face is already on the tea towels.’

There you have it. We are more interested in princes and duchesses in England than the education of our children. If I were young and fit, and that way inclined, I would run for election on a platform of two policies – an equal opportunity for all Australian children in education, and self-government for all Australians; and it would be a fair bet that my hardest opponents on each would be equally hard on both.

American football

The Superbowl aptly showcases, as they say, American football.  It is unapologetically violent – life threateningly, and life ruiningly.  It is incandescent with money on a stage that we call obscene.  It sees the  loudest displays of egoism available in this galaxy.  It is macho male to a degree that is as revolting as the violence.  It is longer and more self-centred than a Wagner opera – and that is a huge statement at each end – and people who watch it live even once increase their prospects of succumbing to alcohol.  Above all, it is the most structured , segmented, guarded, and hierarchical affair you can get outside the Roman Catholic Church, and its premise also is that every player out there, bar one, is a moron who is incapable of doing more than one thing at once, like chewing gum and walking – and that one person is therefore almost never black.  I doubt whether any of those over-paid  egomaniacal brain-dead brickheads could get a run for the Melbourne Storm thirds.  That is why one dude is being ensainted for catching a ball thrown to him at the distance of a cricket pitch.  No wonder they do not know what to do with one of our players who can kick, pass, tackle, withstand assault, and sprint – and think.

And the winners were Patriots.