Origin and Lincoln

The first Origin game was a bit tentative, but as tough as you would expect.  The Maroons’whole score was registered by Storm players.  Chambers (5) scored a try from the wing and was rated by some as BOG.  The game was largely directed by the captain Cameron Smith (9), Billy Slater (1) and Cooper Cronk (7).  They play in the same position for the Storm and Australia.  Our greatest ex, Greg Inglis (3 or 4, I think), had a quiet night.  (We lost him because the NRL did not accept our version of double entry accounting.)

In spite of the obvious attraction of my own players, the two I like watching most are blackfellas, Sam Thaiday (11 or 12) and the other great play-maker Jonathon Thurston (6).  Thaiday is a brick dunny that moves.  Failure or weakness is not in him.  If anyone gets cheeky, they have Mr Thaiday in their face instanter.  That would settle anyone down.  He is what we used to call, and admire, the Enforcer.  Thurston is one of the most complete footballers I have been privileged to watch.  He is a dedicated professional who never stops giving.  He is made of some kind of wire that means that he cannot be killed.  To see him assessing and confronting the entire enemy line is a prize in Australian sport.  He could wear my colours anywhere.

The second match will be at the MCG in front of about 90,000.  Apart from the AFL Grand Final, it could be our sporting event of the year.

I got from the Folio Society another collection of the works of Abraham Lincoln.  Quite by chance, it fell open at the following letter to the daughter of an American statesman.  It was written while Lincoln was President, and when the Civil War had shown how deadly it was.  It was written by a man with a whole nation on his back.

Dear Fanny

It is with deep regret that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases.  In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares.  The older have learned ever to expect it.  I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress.  Perfect relief is not possible except with time.  You cannot now realise that you will ever feel better.  Is not this so?  And yet it is a mistake.  You are sure to be happy again.  To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now.  I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.  The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.  Your sincere friend,

Abraham Lincoln.

There you have the great man – honesty, sense, and compassion.  Lincoln had all three, as if from God.  The current lot have Sweet Fanny Adams – from anywhere.

What has this to do with Origin?  Some can lead; most cannot.  I simply cannot envisage a finer leader of a nation than Abraham Lincoln.  The film The great poets’ society made famous that poem by Walt Whitman about Lincoln ‘O Captain, my Captain.’  We get to see leadership of different sorts in our various sports in this country.  If you can find a finer captain of a sporting team than Cameron Smith, I would be glad if you could let me know.

Verdi and Monaco

The music of Don Carlos is pure Verdi.  Sadly, the plot is as ratty as that of Il Trovatore.  There are two love triangles, which is one too many, and every now and then some bastard pops up and asks ‘What about the Belgians?’, and we get a close run contest between an ugly king and an uglier inquisitor.  The basses generate high drama and the tenor and baritone have a duet that is matched in popularity only by that from the Pearl Fishers.  Any number of footy drunks have well-worn recordings of the late great Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill doing both that they put on to drown their grief at another kicking.  But Don Carlos has a lot more throughout its very great length.

The current AO job is sound.  The principals have the necessary fire power but even they got drowned once or twice by an orchestra that reminded me of Charlotte Corday after she had stabbed that rotter Marat: ‘I have always been a republican and I have never lacked energy.’  It was a very good show, but this might be one of those operas that some are happier with on disc at home – preferably without the aggravation of seeing your team get hammered again beforehand.

I went home after the matinee to watch the practice runs of the Monaco Grand Prix.  What do opera and F1 have in common?  At least three things.  They are both in the entertainment business, and they both like to see themselves as high-end, although the opera houses do not emphasise that too much when they have their hands are out for public money.  They are both hugely expensive, full of history, mystique and bullshit, all dotty over the latest technology, and claiming very great and high patronage – but in the end some dude has to get out there and lay their courage, talent, training, and self on the line – and it can get very ugly if they bugger it up.  (This is the part I like about both – I admire the courage, the moral or intellectual courage, as much as anything else.)  And they both have limited repertoires.  If you took out the top four of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, the rest get a limited run, and we are just not making it any more (a problem we do not have with theatre or literature).  The competition in F1 is far too restricted, at the moment life threateningly so.  If Ford, BMW and Toyota cannot go the distance, who can?

One big difference is that F1 like any sport is unpredictable.  The manageable variables are fuel, tyres and brakes.  They make a Grand Prix like a chess game played at 300kph.  The two jokers in the pack are the weather – God, I like it when it rains – and driver error or engine failure.  Either can knock out a blameless driver, or lead to the safety car coming out – which can reconfigure the whole race.

On Sunday, everything was going to plan for the too dominant Mercedes team with their drivers at 1 and 2.  The commentators were just saying that everything might change if the safety car came out when a brilliant seventeen year-old driver got just a fraction too ambitious in overtaking, touched wheels, and crashed into the barrier head-on at sickening heart-stopping speed.  He was OK but the safety car came out, and Mercedes called in their number 1 to pit.  This commonly happens, and they wanted him on fresh tires for the remainder of the race.  But they did not have to bring him in, and they were horrified to see him come back out at number 3.  They had cost the world champion the race.

It would be unfair to call this hubris on the part of the current ruler of the paddock.  But they had forgotten my version of Occam’s razor.  If you have simple solution, don’t buggerize around trying to find that is more refined or elegant.  That just does not make sense.  And Mercedes instantly confessed their error and apologised – both team bosses did so immediately.  They said that there were too many people with too many opinions and that as a result there had been a simple failure of management.  And I instantly knew just what they were talking about.  I see it so often in rooms full of lawyers.

Now, if you got a cock-up like that at the opera, you would want your money back.  But in that kind of entertainment that used to be called sport, the human drama is all part of the show, and I am glad that we don’t always run like clockwork.

The novel as opera: dramatic truth

In the post yesterday, I suggested that you might want to treat a novel such as Crime and Punishment like an opera.  By chance, I picked up Les Miserables again, and my eye fell on the following by Peter Washington, who was the General Editor of the Everyman Library, and who I see wrote a book called Literary Theory and the End of English.  His Introduction deals with another problem I have had with great nineteenth century novels – the role of coincidence.  Mr Washington says this:

In European literature up to the later eighteenth century, coincidence is a synonym for the workings of Divine Grace in the world.  By Hugo’s time, few writers subscribed to this view, though we can still find it in novels by George Eliot where the language and symbolism of Christianity survive the metaphysical reality.  For most nineteenth century novelists and librettists, coincidence is simply a lazy way of jazzing up the plot or moving things forward, but in Hugo it seems to take on a genuine dramatic and philosophical value.  Like Dickens at his best, he uses coincidence to articulate a sense of order and inevitability amidst the terrifying flux of modern life.  Even as we recognise how unlikely it is that Valjean should encounter Javert in the street, or that Marius and the Thenardiers should settle in the same house, we accept the dramatic truth of events which are superficially unrealistic.  This is the essence of great opera, the deployment of preposterous artifice to express unavoidable reality.

That is put so well.  We do not go to great art for a snapshot of the physical world.  We are sick of it.  We go to get some insight into life, and some relief from the ordinariness and pain of so much of it.  And some of us at least get the greatest of such insight or relief from high theatre – in tragedy, opera, or however.  To be put off by some departure from surface reality in a novel or opera is like rejecting the Pieta of Michelangelo because the Madonna is obviously too young to be the mother of the executed Christ, or to reject El Greco’s painting of Christ’s Cleansing of the Temple because his legs are too long, the background is medieval Italy, and young tearaways do not look so rhythmically serene when they are signing their own death warrant.  Or, if you prefer, the coyote perpetually eluded by the Road Runner has unbelievable recuperative powers.

This notion of dramatic truth is terribly important – although insight or enlightenment may be safer terms than truth.  I know something of the French Revolution.  I have read the major works by French and other historians.  If someone asked me how to come to grips with these earth-moving events, I would point them in two directions.

Carlyle’s history is likely to give them far more insight than any other written work simply because of the almost biblical power of his language and the journalistic structure of the work.  The other source would be two great movies.  La nuit de Varennes gives you the spirit of the uprising as you follow the king and queen on their fated and failed escape that stopped at Varennes – you never see them, but you know their fate.  Danton is a film from a flawless play about the two leading figures in the Terror – and the guy playing Robespierre is up to Depardieu as Danton.  These two movies will give you better insight – dramatic insight – than a shelf of books.

As an example, very early in Les Miserables, a most unusual man, a saintly bishop, comes across a man despised because he had been a member of the National Convention that condemned Louis XVI.  (It starts in 1815.)  The dying revolutionary says ‘The French revolution is the consecration of humanity.’  The bishop murmurs ‘Yes, ’93!’ (the year of the Great Terror.)  ‘Ah! You are there! ’93!  I was expecting that.  A cloud had been forming for fifteen hundred years; at the end of fifteen centuries it burst.  You condemn the thunderbolt.’  The novelist, the artist, can open different windows into our minds.  Every now and then, as with Carlyle, you get a historian with the same capacity, and the result is ravishing, and you get a different kind of insight or enlightenment.

I shall come back to this, but below is an attempt I made to show the magic of Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution.  I can give you an assurance.  It is hoary, but here absolute.  They don’t make them like that anymore.



Thomas Carlyle (1837)

J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.

The Art of Insurrection.  It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.

How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’?  At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV.  If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way.  So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line.  We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism.  But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.

As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses.  It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?

The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental.  The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage.  When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama.  ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine?  O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue de Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’

You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris.  It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France.  Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honore, and then ended up on the left Bank.  What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way?  Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris?  That the Louvre was then, as it is now, on the Right Bank?

The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night.  Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’  There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn.  ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.  Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levees, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’  This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.

Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency.  They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light.  At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’  This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris.  The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles.  Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’  That will be his trip to the scaffold.

Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution.  Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take.  The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre.  (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.)  When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?”  O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’  After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!”  All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic.  The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into.  At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’

And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet.  He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity.  And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.

The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror.  In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon.  (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use).  There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.

Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’  That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.  We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man.  Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth.  Does history hold a more important lesson for us?  Has the story been told this well elsewhere?

So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes.  (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.)  If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history.  The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit.  You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.

Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive.  In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’  He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix.  The graph-makers can stick with their graphs.  The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.

When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime.  When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done so in their sleek official way.  There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there that we can all bank on.

And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.

Passing bull 1

This is the first note of an intermittent and possibly eternal series on the failure of public language.

The executive education program of the Melbourne Business School has moved up to number 32 in the world list of the Financial Times.  The Dean of the School, Zeger Degraeve, said that the move was the result of creating impact and value for clients.  ‘This reflects the outcome of a consistent strategy pursued over a number of years – deep engagement in partnerships with our clients to understand their needs, and leverage our expertise in collaborative design and delivery.’

It does not look like they teach English or logic at that school.

Crime and punishment

The first time I read this novel – about fifty years ago – I thought that I should think that it was good, so I did – but I found it a bit of a drag.  Since then I have read all the major novels of Dostoevsky, and I have read The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Demons twice.  Only the first of them kept its charm for me; the other two crashed.  The problem seemed to me to be too many exclamation marks, and too much hysteria, or as Eliot said of Hamlet, emotion in excess of the facts as they appear.  None of these books made it into my top fifty, although War and Peace is up there with only two challengers for numero uno.

I have just had the opposite experience with Crime and Punishment.  It was so much better the second time.  The trick for me is to treat it like an opera, or at least a work or art, on a different plane, and just let it wash over you.  If you do, it can be ravishing.

A young man, Raskolnikov, who thinks too much, develops a Napoleon complex – Tony Blair did not read this novel – and decides to kill a mean old woman to give himself a start and to bring relief to his family.  ‘A single evil and a hundred good deeds….I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless nasty, pernicious louse.’  Here is the author’s version of probably the two most murderous lines known to mankind.  Having accepted his own dare, he finds that there is more to being a murderer than meets the eye.  He unravels in a way that looks logically determined but which is dramatically alive.

The book has a real plot – and a thrashing Act Five that I did not see coming.  (You might say it ends with a bang.)  And some of the interrogation scenes, where a wily cop plays cat and mouse with the murderer, reminded me strongly of that wonderful film Une pure formalite with Depardieu and Polanski.  (It too starts with a murder and focuses on the interrogation; I could never work it out, but it is a truly great movie.)

A lot of the characters and scenes are right over the top – you must treat it like an opera – but two women carry the back story (if that is the phrase) – Dunya, the straight talking sister of the hero who shrugs off a mean and uppity lawyer and whose palpable virtue drives men mad with sexual desire; and Sonya, the hooker who has God, the poor daughter of a drunk who gets a yellow card (goes on the game) to sustain her family, and whose transcendent spirituality becomes the only thing that stands between the hero and the hellish consequences of his crime.  (There is more than a touch of both Fantine and Cosette in Sonya.)  Theatre cannot rise any higher than these two women.  And you get renewed insight into the dark side of the Russians.

Somerset Maugham, who knew something about writing, thought that Dostoevsky was a jerk.  He said: ‘Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant.’  Well, none of us is perfect, but Maugham thought it was the badness of Dostoevsky that made him ‘one of the supreme novelists of the world.’  Interesting, but I want to refer to what Maugham said about the characters of this great novelist.

They are constituted of a desire to dominate and a desire to submit themselves, of love devoid of tenderness and hate charged with malice.  They are strangely lacking in the attributes of normal human beings.  They only have passions.  They have neither self-control or self-respect.  Their evil instincts are not mitigated by education, the experience of life or that sense of decency that prevents a man from disgracing himself.  That is why to common sense their activities seem wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential….They are devoid of culture.  They have atrocious manners.  They take a malignant pleasure in being rude to one another in order to wound and humiliate….They are an outrageous lot.  But they are extraordinarily interesting.  Raskolnikov, Stavrogin Ivan Karamazov are of the same breed as Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Captain Ahab.  They palpitate with life.

And they are like characters in an opera.  The point of this most extraordinary insight in literary criticism is that we are talking about works of art in Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, and Moby Dick – and masterpieces at that.

This mighty book is a cracker of a read – and I am not surprised that Hitchcock thought that it was too great a novel – or work of art – for him to chance his arm on with a film.  God willing, I will read it again at least once more before I go.

More on Freedom Boy

Perhaps I did Mr Wilson a disservice in my post yesterday.  His position may indeed be heroic.  I looked up the Copenhagen Consensus Centre.  I found the following.

The objects of the body:

About us

Expert advice to do the most good

The Copenhagen Consensus Centre is a think tank that researches the smartest solutions for the world’s biggest problems, advising policy makers and philanthropists how to spend their money most effectively.

Its governance:

Board and directors

Bjorn Lomborg, President and Founder
Roland Mathiasson, Executive Vice President, Secretary, and Assistant Treasurer
Scott Calahan, Treasurer, Member of Compensation Committee, and Independent Director
Loretta Michaels, Member of Compensation Committee and Independent Director

Executive Assistant, Zsuzsa Horvath +1 347 903 0979

Advisory panel

Professor Henrik Lando, Copenhagen Business School
Spence T. Olin, Professor
Douglass C. North, Washington University in St. Louis
Professor Martin Paldam, COMMA

That does not look to be the most august academic or scientific body on the planet.  Mr Calahan looks to have the plum job.  A number of questions may arise.  One is: what makes a director ‘independent’?

Under the heading, ‘Cutting carbon emissions’, I find this:

Climate economist Prof Dr Richard Tol examines the costs and benefits of cutting carbon under different scenarios.

He finds: ‘A well-designed gradual policy of carbon cuts could substantially reduce emissions at low cost to society.  Ill-designed policies, or policies that seek to do too much too soon can be orders of magnitude more expensive.  While the academic literature has focussed on the former, policy makers have opted.’

Unfortunately, the think tank cuts out there, and we are left to dangle.  Their introduction to the subject is, however, a bit of a tease:

Climate change is real and man-made.  It will come as a big surprise that climate change from 1900 to 2025 has mostly been a net benefit, rising to increase welfare about 1.5% GDP per year.

The people at the CCC were obviously thrilled to bits to sign up a ‘global top-ranked university’ WA.  The website, however, has not caught up with the news that the university has realised that it has been sold a pup.  The link to the sign-up page – with a photo of the moving hand and, I suspect, the besieged Vice-Chancellor who is coming to terms with the phrase ‘due diligence’ – has this.

Do good vs feel good

The consensus methodology engages economists and sector experts to identify solutions that actually work and do the most social good for every dollar spent.

I cannot find on the site a statement of the academic credentials of Dr Lomborg, apart from a reference to Ph D.  In fact I cannot find any academic credentials for anyone on the site.  All I can find for COMMA is that it is a punctuation mark.

As bullshit goes, this is world class – indeed, it is out of this world.

Just think what the ‘Do good vs feel good’ crowd could do in a bull session with our Human Rights Commissioner.  You may recall his view is that policy is not about evidence and that the direction of policy is primarily decided by the questions you ask.  Lawyers are right on to this.  There are some questions you never ask, but some naughty lawyers frame their question so as to attract a certain answer – from their own client.

And this mode of policy formation may not, in truth, be sound.  Imagine a parent advising a teenage child on their first hit of booze, sex, or ice.  ‘Well, dear, it depends on the question you ask.  If you only ask whether that will make the night go off with a bang, go for it.  If you want to be here and look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow, drop it.’  That may just be too open-ended for some parents and all children.  Was part of the problem that Dr Lomborg knew which questions not to ask, and how to frame questions that would please him and his backers?

And we might be wary of Mr Wilson’s view that there is no one correct answer in public policy.  That may or may not be the case.  It may again depend on how you frame the question.  But there may be any number of bad answers.  I dare say that even Mr Wilson’s famous tolerance would draw the line at the resolutions on policy of IS.

The difficulty in which the UWA got itself can be understood by looking at other possible manifestations.  Say that Julia Gillard while PM appointed a former adviser to herself on climate change to head a think tank at Melbourne University through a body that her government funded and the function of which will be to give advice on policy issues on climate change.  Mr Abbott appoints an ecclesiastical adviser to head up a think tank at a Catholic University that is not shy of monumental controversy to provide advice funded by his government on mild uncontroversial issues like abortion and euthanasia.  The Southern Evangelical Baptist Church persuades a cash-strapped Latrobe University to host a think tank on creationism – when they are accused of selling out to people who deny science, they invoke freedom of speech, the glorious roles of universities in dissent, and Socrates, and Aristotle, and Galileo, and anyone else who swam against the tide and paid for it.  The idiots and frauds become heroes.

The short point is that we do not want our universities to prostitute themselves in the hands of bullshit artists.  Even Mr Wilson might understand that.

Mr Wilson again

There has been a dispute within the University of WA about a centre to study policy issues to be directed by a Danish economist called Dr Bjorn Lomborg.  The idea came from the Commonwealth who put up four million dollars.  Dr Lomborg had been an adviser to the PM and the project was supported by the PM and Mr Pyne, the Education Minister.  The name of the centre was a mistake.  It was to be called the Australian Consensus Centre.  There was no consensus at all.  The opposition to it was intense.  Dr Lomborg’s standing and the objects of the Centre were said by opponents to be inappropriate.  The University was persuaded by these arguments and the certain controversy and possible damage to the University if they went on with it.  They dropped the idea.  Dr Lomborg knows something of our politics.  He blamed the university’s decision on ‘toxic politics, ad hominem attacks and premature judgment’ and said the centre had been used as a ‘political football’.

Mr Wilson, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, is saddened by this result.  He says that the decision is ‘disturbing for its validation of a culture of soft censorship.’  What on earth is that?  No one is forbidding Dr Lomborg to propagate his views – all that has happened is that this university has said that they would rather that he did not do it over their name.

You might think that what has occurred is a triumph for freedom of speech.  Messrs Abbott and Pyne used their freedom to float the idea.  Members of the university and the public used their freedom to oppose it.  The university used its freedom to say no.  Is this not the result sought for by those who like to see the competition of ideas? Well, not if you are a supporter of the government like Mr Wilson, or Mr Henry Ergas in the column next to him.

But Mr Wilson gives grounds for rejecting the Centre at any university.

Lomborg’s views are not about science, they’re about public policy.

Public policy is a debate about competing priorities for government.  Everyone is entitled to their views on public policy.  There is no one correct answer in public policy.

Nor is policy about evidence.  Evidence informs policy development.  The direction of policy is primarily decided by the questions you ask.  The questions asked are heavily informed by values and political priorities.

This sounds like Voodoo, but if you take at face value the statement that policy is not about evidence, then no university would want to have anything to do with it.

It is hard to follow Mr Wilson.  He says that this case is different to that of Mr McIntyre and SBS because McIntyre ‘slurred a large section of the public and broke the terms of a voluntarily agreed employment contract that led to his dismissal.’  Are we to take it that our freedom to offend cuts out if we slur a large section of the public’ and that the Gestapo had every right to turn off Dietrich Bonhoeffer for slurring a large section of the German public by warning of false leaders?  And does not the second point just beg the question – should our law enforce a contractual term that permits an employer to sack someone for saying something offensive?

Is it curious to hear a negative answer to that question from our Human Rights Commissioner?  Perhaps not – Mr Wilson was content in that capacity to describe as stupid and offensive and despicable the opinions of a blackfella who exercised his freedom of speech to express a view on a matter of social policy that did not harmonise with those of Mr Wilson.  Perhaps the crime of the blackfella was to slur a large section of the public.

And if someone tries a political stunt like this at my university, I will march.

Poor show at the BBC

A few weeks ago, I was watching the rugby from New Zealand.  The home side had been in a bad run and was losing.  A commentator I like said that if they lose this one, the only sound you will hear will be that of knives being sharpened.

I thought of that when switching from the BBC to CNN to Bloomberg to Al Jazeera near the end of the counting for the English election yesterday.  I never watch these things – what’s the point of speculating when the results are in and we are just waiting for the counting house to announce? – but I watched this lot for an hour or two because the Poms are much better at politics than us – after all, they invented this version, and they have at least some people whom you would not be ashamed to let through your front door.

I was appalled at the rudeness and downright cruelty of a couple of the BBC operatives.  They were part of a grizzly apparatus that had got things badly wrong about what might happen at this election.  The results were tsunami like for two or three parties, and three leaders fell on their swords.  All those who were defeated spoke with calm decency.  One appalling jerk of a commentator was salivating at the prospect of rubbing it in, especially to the Lib Dems.  This would have been about 5 or 6 am, and I don’t know whether the problem was that that is the time he normally takes his first G and T.  Another on-site anchor rudely brushed aside another Lib-Dem grandee.  It was revolting to watch – it was not just unprofessional, but maliciously cruel.

I had thought that there was a convention that on these occasions people behave and forget the rough-house bullshit that we normally get.  Well, not so for some at the BBC yesterday.  This is a very public kind of judgment day.  The course of peoples’ lives is changed as are their hopes for the nation.  You are going bad when politicians put you to shame.  And they were mocking people from two parties who at least some may have thought were being punished for having acted in the national interest – the Lib Dems for going into government and getting some of what they wanted, and the Labour Party for joining in the opposition to northern secession.  The Liberal Party there has a very long and strong name and history – they are so much better than the drongos here – but all that meant nothing to one or two of the hyenas on show yesterday on the BBC.  The British may be more forgiving when they get used to multi-party coalitions.

As it is, the PM has a wafer-thin majority for a party that is loathed north of the border and he just got one seat there – and he will have about fifty Scots at Westminster who do not want to be there at all, and a great deal more in his party who do not want to be in Europe.  The Scots look to be seeking the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages – all power and no responsibility.  Some of these issues of substance were touched on at the BBC, but the blood and guts held a lot more attention.  Mr Cameron now faces a difficult holding process after a bitter campaign of fear and division.  Did we lend him one of our political hit-men?

There were some very nasty moments, and the BBC should be ashamed of itself.  If the English politics and press fall to Australian levels, they are in deep trouble.

Honouring the dead – again

The responses to the posts on Anzac Day revealed deep misgivings about the way we celebrate that day.  There was however one dissent.  One correspondent wrote that I had dishonoured the dead by misrepresenting history.  That correspondence follows, on notice to the correspondent.


I do not consider that you are “honouring the dead” by misrepresenting the circumstances in which they fought and died.  In 1914, Australia’s trade and defence were, for good or ill, inextricably bound up with Britain and Her Empire.  It would have been a disaster for Australia had the Germans won, and Britain lost, the First World War.  The two major Australian political parties were accordingly entirely correct in their identification of our national interest with that of Great Britain at that time.  Britain (and Australia) did not have any choice but to go to war in August 1914.  The British and French Governments, in particular the heroic and underrated Sir Edward Grey, did everything they could and more to prevent the War.  This included strong-arming the Serbian Government into agreeing to all 20 of the German and Austrian demands, which included the permanent stationing of troops on Serbian soil.  The Kaiser and the Emperor did not know what to do after these demands (the rejection of which was intended by them as a ‘casus belli’) were accepted, so they invaded anyway. 

Even so, Great Britain did not declare war until the Germans had also invaded Belgium, a country against which the Germans had no grudge, legitimate or otherwise, and whose independence had been a basic English/British Foreign policy demand for many centuries.  As Grey said to the Parliament at the time, once Belgium was invaded, Britain had no choice but to go to war in 1914.  Anyone who says otherwise is misrepresenting what actually happened, and is recorded in the contemporary inter-Government communications and other documents.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”.  In your latest post, you seem to be entitling yourself to your own, counter historical, version of the facts. 

I agree with you that many aspects of Anzac Day (and in particular its 100th anniversary) have been rather overdone, but that does not hide the facts that the peace and prosperity in which you and I have been privileged to grow up and grow old was won by Australians (including several members of my family) and others who risked and gave their lives in the two World Wars, and several other Wars, in which this country has fought.  I am aware that ‘wishy washy’ revisionist history and cultural relativism sell books, but they should not blind us to the reality that liberal democracy has required, and will continue to require, brave people to fight for it.  In dishonouring and misrepresenting what these people fought – and in many cases died – for, I think you are dishonouring their sacrifice.  I disagree with you in this. 


Thanks.  You are right.  We are apart.

On Vietnam? Iraq? Afghanistan? Iraq again?  Or the Boer War?

Was the Gallipoli Campaign well designed or just badly executed?

Was Haig a hero?

Off to the NZ rugby – on TV.


Thanks; answering your queries on your order:

  1. Each of the first three was an inevitable consequence of Australia’s post 1942 defence (and trade) strategy of sheltering behind the USA rather than GB.  The fourth was a consequence of our pre 1942 strategy of sheltering behind GB. 
  2. The Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign was in my opinion a brilliant idea, but very poorly executed.  Had it been implemented competently, the campaign would have taken Turkey and its Empire out of the War 3 years early and saved many thousands of lives.  Even with the ‘cock up’ which resulted from the incompetence of Sir Ian Hamilton and others, it still kept hundreds of thousands of Turkish and Ottoman Empire troops away from France for nearly a year at a relatively modest cost (compared to the losses in France).  In a war of attrition, that gave the Allies an advantage. 
  3. I think Haig was incompetent and should have been replaced earlier, though he as not as incompetent as French (whom he replaced) or other WW1 generals.  Haig’s incompetence does not mean he was not a ‘hero’, and his concern for the welfare of his troops during and after the war should not be understated.  That is so notwithstanding that, had Haig been a cleverer general (for example, of the calibre of Wellington or Patton), many of those soldiers might not have been killed and injured.  Haig’s real tragedy was that like most other Allied generals and all other German ones he was just not up to fighting a modern mechanised war in the early 20th century, when the offensive power of modern rifles, explosives, artillery etc. had so much outstripped the defensive capabilities of armour, helmets, fortifications, trenches, etc.  Haig’s situation was in some ways analogous to that of Grant, Sherman and Lee half a century earlier.  Though all decent, brave and competent, they between them lost an appallingly large proportion of the lives of their men (about 4% of the male population of the US at the time). 
  4. I hope you enjoy the rugby and have a good weekend.


Thanks.  The rugby was boring and I will try the AFL.

I looked at what I said.

‘We and the English and the Americans can be proud of what our service people did to win a war that they did not seek but which they had to win in World War II.  The civilian population of England, and especially London, were nothing short of heroic. In that war we fought for our own lives, and against evil regimes bent on world dominion.

That is not the case with any of our other wars.  It is too late to talk of why we went to war with the Empire in 1914, but I have the clear view that we should not have gone to war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or now Iraq again.  These are matters on which opinions might differ, but not many now say that the Middle East or we are better off because we went to war there. .. ….I would prefer to focus on those who saved us while we were directly threatened, and on our appalling treatment of those who served us in Vietnam.’

Given that I have spent time on honouring our dead all over the world, how do you get from what I have said that I am dishonouring our dead by misrepresenting our history? 


Because, after saying that WW2 was a war where “we fought for our own lives, and against evil regimes bent on world domination”, you went on to say “That is not the case with any of our other wars”.  By this, you were presumably including WW1, as well as Vietnam, Korea etc.  Yours is a common, but in my opinion, a facile and a-historical view.  The fact that Philip Adams expressed the same opinion in his column in ‘The Australian’ a few weeks ago strengthens my lack of regard for it.  I prefer the arguments and conclusion of Geoffrey Blainey in his recent piece about the origins of WW 1 which was (in an edited version) reprinted in ‘The Australian’ last weekend.  GB explained the true position much better than I can.  That is no doubt one reason why he is an historian of international reputation and I am not. 


I do not want to treat myself as an act of parliament, for a variety of reasons, but I did say that it is too late to argue about why we went to war with the Empire in 1914, but that in that war we were not fighting for our own lives and against an evil regime bent on world dominion, or in a war where we were directly threatened.

Do you say that the Kaiser – like Hitler and Hirohito – led an evil regime bent on world dominion, and that we were directly threatened by the Kaiser in 1914?

I could not give a bugger what Philip Adams or revisionists might say – I am just curious to know how I misrepresented what our troops fought for and how I dishonoured their sacrifice.

The BBC news led with the Armenian centenary.  It was very moving.  They also dealt equally with the Turkish commemoration.  I saw sculptures there that I did not see on my visit.


The Kaiser and his Government were bent on European domination, hence their carefully worked out invasion plans.  They were prepared to cause millions of people to be killed in order to achieve it.  If you do not think that made them ‘evil’, you must have a different understanding of that concept to mine.  Australia was not “directly threatened” in WW2 until after December 1941, but I’ve never met any rational person who says we should not have gone to war in 1939, or that Australians should not have fought and died in Europe and the Middle East.  The same things were true (though in a different situation) in 1914. 


Do I take it therefore that you maintain your position that I have dishonoured the sacrifice of our troops by misrepresenting history?


Yes.  The flippant and mocking tone of sentences like “There is an Englishness about this nostalgia for Australians dying for King and Country in 1915 that must be foreign to most in this decently multinational country, and which shows that we are nowhere near independence or maturity” is, in my view, insufficiently respectful of some very brave people, as well as being just plain wrong.  For me, the point of Anzac Day is that to prevent future wars, it is important to remember correctly what happened in previous wars, and why. 


Could you remind me of my misrepresentations?  You could treat this as a request for particulars, if you like.

May I ask if you use this style of argument in court?


I think full particulars have already been provided.


As you may have guessed, the correspondence then got personal, and terminal.  It speaks for itself, but I make one comment.

As I said in the post there is not much point in discussing now why we went to war in WWI.  That is the kind of thing that those who enjoy what are called ‘culture wars’ go in for.  Our entry into that war was in truth inevitable.  As Geoffrey Blainey says:

Some historians now express their puzzlement that Australia, once the war began in Europe, should almost unthinkingly see herself as bound to go to war.  Why did not Australia pause, they ask, before making this momentous decision to fight vigorously on the far side of the world?  Australians did not need to pause.  The decision to fight on Britain’s side, come what may, was unconsciously made years earlier, and made with massive support from public opinion.  Australia was emotionally and culturally tied to Britain.  Her trade was largely with Britain.  Her naval defences depended on Britain.  She even entrusted, in most matters, her foreign policy to Britain.  Without doubt, self-interest as well as emotion knotted her to Britain.

This is to me obvious.  The country was not yet fifteen years of age.  But that total and natural reliance on the mother country makes the failure of her ruling class and military class at Gallipoli and on the Western front all the more tragic.  It also makes it hard for me to see that failure by our parent as signalling our birth as a nation – quite apart from the fact that we lost 8000 men at Gallipoli for nothing – or as something to celebrate.

We went to the second war with the same attitude but that was from its inception a world war and on no view did we have any option.

Later wars are very different, yet we have shown a similar dependency and unquestioning readiness to fall into line.  That is why I do not think we have grown up.  It’s just that after the fall of Singapore, we had to change parents.  On that point at least, my correspondent and I are agreed.

Bitter and twisted

People are being morally lynched all the time on the Internet.  Lynchings are very unattractive.  People surrender their selves to the mob and give themselves up to darkness and malice.  The man they called Christ was lynched, but we now play with the lives of people in a Godless way that might take us back to the dark age seen in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport.’  Casting people as villains and then punishing them – vilification – does not evidence a happy and healthy people.  It does in truth suggest a people in decline.

The head of a school is observed – spied on – watching porn on his computer.  He is photographed, and informed on – dobbed – by being publicly exposed.  His life is ruined – and his family suffers pain that cannot be measured.  A radio personality makes a bad joke at the footy.  He gets dobbed, so he gets to spend his time in the stocks.  (I make a disclaimer.  He is a mate of sixty years standing and he and I have both said – indeed, shouted – a lot worse than that at the footy over that time.  That was one of the reasons that we went.)  A champion footy coach brushes aside a drunk – who dobs him – and then the person accosted – the innocent one – has to explain himself.  A footy commentator on a public broadcaster makes some odd comments about Anzac Day that offend people, and he gets sacked after being publicly vilified by the minister on Twitter.  Mr Turnbull had practised as a lawyer but his idea of due process or natural justice looks to have gone clean out of the window.

Each of these incidents may have been more or less unsavoury or unfortunate depending on your postcode.  But it is not easy to see any good coming from any of it.  The level of publicity looks ridiculous, and this very publicity has a big effect on the results.  Too many people have too much time for chatter, or they make a living from it, and this leads to what is little more than gossip and the evils that we associate with idle hands.  We have a new understanding of the phrase ‘chattering classes.’

Since two incidents involved footy, they were subject to the massive over-servicing of the entertainment industry called footy in what passes for sports journalism – there must be more people employed by the footy media than are employed to play football, and the consequent mindlessness is very bloody unhealthy.

In the other two cases, the employer moved to protect its ‘brand’.  The publicity may have left it with no choice.  The sackings are seen to be generally acceptable.  But protecting their brand is precisely what got the churches into trouble over child abuse, and it was heavily involved in the lynching of Jesus of Nazareth.  It ultimately rests on the notion that ‘I am bigger and more important than you.’  You will not find that sentiment in the Sermon on the Mount, but the strident egoism of our commercial world leaves little or no room for what is called Christian charity.  If anyone could be sacked for this kind of lapse, none of us would be safe.

In our world now, the school may have had no real option once the issue had been made public, but the man who was said to be offensive about our dead does seem to have been motivated by moral outrage about war rather than any wish to hurt people.  Was no thought given to asking him to withdraw and apologise, or had the bullying gate-crashing of the minister put compassion out of court?  Given the wholesale commercial profanation and political exploitation of Anzac Day, the whole reaction looks like a human landslide of moral hypocrisy.

Two cases involved dobbing.  No one likes a dobber.  No people in history that I am aware of has favoured informants.  Those who follow two of our major faiths have firm views about dobbers.

There is no pattern here, but the events are unsettling.  They suggest that we have no moral bedrock and that such standards as we do profess are shallow and negotiable.  Perhaps those smug, rowdy God deniers are responsible.  They are good at knocking down but not too good at giving back.  We see a lot of that now.  The times are bitter and twisted.  As a mate of mine memorably remarked, we were not born a moment too soon.