A duke of dark corners


Last night I watched again Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, and the 2006 film of Measure for Measure.  The latter is, among other things, a play about bad government, by a duke of dark corners, and someone he gets to do the job in his reputed absence.  He has not done his job as ruler for a long time, a very long time:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws,

The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,

Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,

Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,

That goes not out to prey.

The result?   There ‘goes all decorum.’  But when the substitute mounts a drastic crackdown, then, in the words of Milton, ‘all hell breaks loose.’  But this paragon of ice-cold virtue – when he makes water, it is ‘congealed ice’ – is in turn corrupted.  He seeks to suborn a subject.  The protest contains these lines:

O, it is excellent

To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.

And –

… But man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep; who with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.

The film is not for the purist.  It is pared back to the bone to raise the issues with the pungency we associate with Greek tragedy. The play is notoriously difficult to put on.  The comedy sits very edgily with the drama.  The film deals with that problem by deleting almost all the comedy, and leaving out Barnardine and most of Lucio (who was hilariously played by Richard Piper in an MTC production years ago.)

I have forgotten what a whack this play can give, and how instructive it is about what happens when the law is not applied or abused.

For those who might be interested, which should include all lawyers, I said the following about the work elsewhere.



Sweet sister, let me live.

More than our brother is our chastity.


The most morally charged of the plays of Shakespeare is Measure for Measure.  It keeps putting up moral questions for the judgment of the jury constituted by the audience.  It is therefore ironic that the title of the play comes from that part of the Sermon on the Mount that instructs us not to judge lest we be judged.

The ruler of Vienna has not enforced its strict laws relating to sex for fourteen years.  Sexual licence is rife, with the consequent diseases.  The ruler decides to stage an absence and appoints a strict, ‘precise’ deputy to enforce the laws.  The ruler, the Duke, looks on disguised as a friar.  The deputy, Angelo, sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for getting a young woman pregnant.  The crime is fornication.  The sentence is legal but inequitable.  The sister of the condemned man, Isabella, pleads for his life.  Angelo becomes infatuated with her, and offers to spare Claudio if she goes to bed with him.  She is revolted, the more so when Claudio thinks that this may not be too high a price for his life.  The disguised Duke somehow manages to save the day by deceiving Angelo into believing that he has bedded Isabella and executed Claudio when neither is the case.

The play is said to be a ‘problem play’.  These plays give us an uneasy and unvarnished look at our dark side, our mean side, our low side – our ordinarily low side, not our tragically failed low side.  If this play were a painting, we would say it was a painting with ‘edge’.  If properly performed, which it rarely is, it is as entertaining a play as this author has left us.

The most obvious political lesson of this play is one that we did not need Shakespeare to teach us.  All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The Duke invests power in Angelo as a kind of test or experiment:

… Hence we shall see

If power changes purpose what our seemers be (1.3.53-4).

The Duke gives his deputy ‘absolute power’ (1.3.13) and Angelo is corrupted absolutely.  This is corruption in the pure sense, because Angelo uses his position to extort personal advantage, or at least he tries to do so, and in so doing betrays the confidence placed in him and acts against the interests of those whom it is his duty to protect.  By offering to spare a criminal in return for a night of lust, Angelo betrays his own view of justice which requires him to:

… pity those I do not know

Which a dismissed offence would after gall (2.2.101-2).

Justice is for sale.  Within days of his appointment, Angelo is reduced to the level of a judge in Indonesia or Russia.  He also reminds us of those US politicians, and J Edgar Hoover, who launch crusades against gays while propositioning young male members of their staff.

Nor should the Duke have been dismayed.  Angelo could have been carved out of stone.  (Lucio is a little more crass.  He  says that when Angelo makes water ‘his urine is congealed ice’:3.2.113.)  Angelo is a man of ‘stricture and firm abstinence’ (1.3.12), a ‘precise’ man who ‘scarce confesses that his blood flows’ (1.3.51-2).

This, then, is a cruel experiment on the part of the Duke, to get this precise, prim piece of work to bring the boom down on the gay blades and knock-shops of the suburbs of Vienna.  It would be like sending a lay Baptist preacher to clean up a speakeasy in Chicago in the twenties, or the principal of St. Catherine’s to correct the language of drinkers on the terrace at The Storm.  They would be lucky to be offered the alternative of a brown paper bag or a baseball bat.

When the Duke told Angelo of his appointment, he said that ‘mortality and mercy in Vienna’ lived in his ‘tongue and his heart’ (1.1.44-45).  The Duke was more than flirting with veracity here, since he knew very well that Angelo, the precise Angelo, would always be longer on mortality than mercy.

The failure of governance, as we would now call it, which gave rise to this problem in Vienna was twofold.  First, Vienna had made laws relating to morals – in particular, sex –  that were too strict or ‘biting’ to be adhered to by a large part of the people.  We have seen this in our time with laws on abortion.  The result is that the laws are not enforced according to their terms.  The result then is that the operation of the law depends not on its own terms, but on the workings of functionaries.  That is, the laws become political questions rather than legal solutions.  We can see this when a Bill of Rights is stated so absolutely that its meaning and effect has to be determined by an unelected body, the judges.

We saw this also in Australia with capital punishment.  The law imposed the death penalty for murder, but for about fourteen years – the lapse of time referred to in the play (1.3.21) – the sentence was commuted.  When a government broke that custom and went ahead with an execution on the grounds of its own dictation, and not those of the law, it was in the eyes of many guilty of murder.

And so it would have been in Vienna.  The Duke knew that it would go badly for him if he just sought to enforce the laws out of the blue – this would be seen as ‘tyranny’ (1.3.36) – which is precisely what it would have been, a capricious reversal of fortune at the whim of the government, unfounded in the laws of the city as custom had rendered them.  It does not cease to be tyranny merely because the governor, wanting the courage of his own convictions, ducks for cover and appoints a deputy.  And not just any deputy.  Old Escalus would have been shrewd and warm enough to have been malleable, but the precise Angelo was going to be anything but malleable.  He was always going to be ‘absolute’.

And so Angelo finds that it is his turn to play the part of that most dreadful threat to a sane and sensible judiciary – the tyro judge who will be the new broom and clean out the stables, which he looks down upon so absolutely, according to his own preconceived ideas – his agenda, if you prefer – and to hell with the consequences.  These interruptions happen about once in a generation – this is our doom – and the crowd correctly says that the people responsible are mad.


This threat of government by men rather than government by laws pervades the play.  The corruption of Angelo leads him not to apply the law.  He had resisted the pleas for mercy by Isabella, saying that it was not he but the law that condemned Claudio (2.2.80).  That simply begs the question on the power to commute or reprieve, in the same murderous way that Sir Henry Bolte did when he refused to commute the sentence on our last hanged convict in Victoria.  Isabella correctly observes that Angelo could pardon the prisoner ‘and neither Heaven nor man grieve at the mercy’ (2.2.50) and all Angelo can do is to say – again pointlessly – that the plea comes too late.

Isabella then warns Angelo against abusing his strength by abusing his power (2.2.108).

Now, laws are administered by people – laws do not administer themselves.  But people administering the laws must act according to the laws.  It may be that the only safe way to neutralise the corrupting effect of judicial power is by having a jury of people selected at random from off the street (and we are in the process of getting rid of the jury).  Otherwise you are left with the problem of every ‘pelting petty officer’ using ‘Heaven for his thunder’.  While Angelo is behaving like a swine, the author puts pearls before him.

… But man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured –

His glassy essence – like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven

As make the angels weep … (2.2.117-122)

These deathless words should be cast in marble in every court in the country.

The fall of Angelo might be a tragedy in the traditional sense.  As a result of his ‘firm abstinence’, he has wondered how men might fall for women (2.2.186).  Now he knows, and he finds himself on a knife edge.  Having sat on his humanity and suppressed his nature, he found it was time to unlock the gorilla.  We are now sickeningly familiar with the sequence and the consequence.  Whatever else strict abstinence has done for Angelo, it has not left him well balanced.  He is a victim of his own flight from life – of his own virginity.  Are we still so unbalanced – so prejudiced – that we do not say the same for Isabella?

So, the play has touched on two problems that arise when we sit in judgment on others.  What right do we have to set ourselves up to judge others when we are all afflicted with the same frailties?  How do we protect ourselves from the title of one source of this play, The Corrupt Magistrate?

The fault of this Duke has not been just that he has not enforced the laws for a generation.  When he has sat as a judge, he has been one of the two-speed sort – nought and flat out.  With the Duke, it was all or nothing – freedom or death (4.2.136).  This is the worst kind of judge.  There is no law, only the digestion or humour of the official posing as a judge.  Appearing in front of a judge like this is like hitting a tennis ball against a brick wall that is divided by a Plimsoll line – except that the line is invisible.  This is the type of judge who betrays the law – they do not discharge their duty to decide cases according to the law.  They are guilty of moral cowardice. They are also bone lazy.

Vienna has another problem.  There appears to be one law for the city and one for the suburbs – one law for the better people, and another for the rest; authority against anarchy, nuns against punks, chapels against brothels.  Lucio flits between the two and his frank assessment of each is probably as embarrassing to one as to the other.  But the only connecting link lies in that part of human life that we now denominate by the three letter word ‘sex’.  As Tony Tanner remarked, sex is at least potentially ‘a great leveller’.  If you had to choose between the rank flesh and sweat of the knock-shop and the heartless hysterical rigidity of a chapel, you might pause.


That brings us to the Ice Maiden, Isabella.  We are told that the founder of her Order, Saint Clare, decided to put herself in the hands of God when her parents asked her to marry.  We do not know what sent Isabella to the Order, a very strict one according to the books, but when we first meet her she is one of those painfully deluded soi-disant believers whose warped minds lead them to believe that it is easier and safer to get close to God by denying their own humanity than by facing and embracing the humanity of themselves and others.  It is the kind of retreat from the world, itself a kind of moral cowardice, that Gibbon railed at.  Ascetics, he said, ‘obeyed and abused the rigid precepts of the Gospel, and were inspired by the savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal and God as a tyrant’; for them, ‘pleasure and guilt are synonymous terms’.

And not just Gibbon.  Measure for Measure is about the conflict of law and equity, earthly rule and the Sermon on the Mount: but it is also about the conflict between the Church or the clergy and the Sermon on the Mount.  If a decree of the clergy is contrary to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, which is to prevail?  Kant had no doubt at all, and shaped much of his thinking, and got into trouble, to assert the primacy of the word of God over the word of man.  ‘Rule by clergy [pfaffentum or clericalism] therefore is the constitution of a church to the extent to which a fetish-worship dominates it, and this condition is always found wherever instead of principles and morality, statutory commands, rules of faith, and observances constitute the basis and essence of the church’.

In the film Chariots of Fire, the professional coach told his neurotic acolyte that the 100 metres sprint was tailor-made for neurotics.  Isabella and Angelo are neurotics who are tailor-made for each other.  They are both virgins, heading for a bonfire of virginity.  They are what we would now call control freaks (and so is the Duke).  They might also be called absolutists.  Isabella sees this.  She refers to someone ‘as absolute as Angelo’ (5.1.54-5).  (Perhaps her own absolutism is one of the things that attracts Angelo to her.)

We see what we would now call the repressed nature of each of these characters almost immediately they appear on the stage.  In the fourth line that Angelo utters (1.1.48), he asks for some more tests to be made of his mettle before he is promoted.  In her third line (1.4.4), Isabella is seeking a ‘more strict restraint’ than apparently then offered by the sisterhood of St. Clare.  They are both, in the common phrase, buggers for punishment.

Isabella must have had something.  This cold-hearted refugee from the world spends about half an hour with each of the two leading men of the State, and each of them propositions her as a result – one for a one night stand, and the other for life.  Was it that she was a novice?  A nun?  That she could give as good as she got?  That she had a mind as well as a body?  That she was just innocent?  That she may have appeared to be out of reach?  Or that she was just one of those unhappy creatures who seem to call for violation?  Were the men maddened at the thought of this woman becoming a bride of Christ?  Was she terrified that if she gave in to Angelo to save the life of her brother, she might be disqualified from that race, even though her own Saviour had consorted with prostitutes?

It is a measure of his sex driven madness that Angelo tells Isabella that if he cannot have her, he will torture her brother to death (2.4.166).  All this in the city that gave us Sigmund Freud. Angelo and the Duke are examples of those characters who are mesmerised by innocence.  (Pontius Pilate may well have been another.)

Now, it is fair to say that the conduct of Isabella toward her brother may have been better received in 1604 than it is in 2009.  But it must have been hard even then.  Claudio remarks, not unnaturally, that ‘death is a fearful thing’ (3.1.117) and prays:

Sweet sister, let me live (3.1.133).

For that he gets called a beast, has his parenthood questioned, and is told to die quickly.

Then, Isabella, live chaste, and, brother die.

More than our brother is our chastity. (2.4.184-5)

Question answered.  Equation denied.  Irrefutably.  As someone said elsewhere, ‘Yours in the ranks of death’.  There are dark and carnal secrets here. Isabella comes near to rapture when her brother says that if he has to die, he ‘will encounter darkness as a bride’ and hug it in his arms (3.1.84).  A brother becomes a bride of death so that his sister may become a bride of Christ.

Isabella is confident that Claudio will die a martyr’s death.  Heaven awaits him.  In the nature of things, the martyr is not so enthusiastic.  He would prefer another two generations to elapse before he ascends to God.  He is after all facing death for giving life.

This, then, is an appalling example of how wrong we can be when man-made doctrine is allowed to overrule the simple greatness of the Sermon on the Mount.  Tony Tanner has a beautiful line from Langland.  ‘Chastity without charity is chained in hell.’  In truth, in her fall, Isabella mirrors Angelo in his fall – these two fanatics are both prepared to put their adherence to their calling to a strict test – the need to enforce the law to the letter, or to preserve a rule regardless – over the life or decency of another.  In so acting, each is guilty of that moral failing that is perhaps our ultimate threat – the readiness to sacrifice humanity – real people – for a mere idea.

When Isabella is induced to break her moral code by lying, her extenuation is merely that ‘the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof’ (3.1.263-4).  The ends, for Isabella, therefore justify the means.  If it took a saint to catch a saint, it would also take a thief to catch a thief.  Two things.  This rule does not apply where her own physical or moral condition is concerned.  The loss of the head of her brother does not warrant the loss of her spotlessness.  His losing his life does not warrant her going into sin.  Secondly, the maxim that the means are justified by the ends can lead to unpleasant consequences in the hands of people like Napoleon or Hitler.

Doubtless Isabella still has her champions.  Her champions would be of the ‘Be absolute for death party’ (3.1.5).  This is one of those maxims that is easier said than done – unless someone else does the dying.  Geoffrey Bullough says that the argument of Claudio that nature dispenses with a sin to save a life has ‘a specious plausibility’.  He argues that the law Isabella ‘serves is one above Nature; and she conquers in the struggle between natural affection and supernatural injunctions’.

An invocation of the defence of superior orders does not become any more attractive than the version rejected at Nuremberg just because you invoke the supernatural.  At least the Wermacht and the SS knew that Hitler was there.  The contrary is the case now. People who drive planes into tall buildings are not heard to justify their actions by saying that they were acting under orders from God – some supernatural injunction..  And it would certainly inflame the sentencing court if they described the result of their struggle between natural affection and obedience to God as a ‘conquest’ for God.  But if the point is that the tenet of the church that Isabella was asked to contravene is non-negotiable, this would be in character for her as an ‘absolutist’ of a very heartless kind.

One of Bullough’s sources is Augustine De Sermone Domini in Monte (the Sermon on the Mount).  Augustine appears to countenance a woman giving up her body to a cruel governor in order to save the life of her husband.  The passage of the centuries means that the reasoning of the Saint may not now command the universal assent in every part of every household.  He appears to have countenanced the surrender of the wife if the husband asked her to do so since ‘the conjugal master of her body to whom all her chastity was owed’ could proceed on the footing that he was ‘disposing of a matter properly his own’.  Geoffrey Bullough thought the reasoning somewhat dubious but said that in any event ‘no brother could rightfully demand the ‘monstrous ransom’ of a sister’.

However that may be, it is the absence of a guilty motive that makes baseless the fear of Isabella that she ‘by redeeming him / Should die forever’ (2.4.107-8).  Was there a God ever conceived, let alone this one, who could so punish a human being for an act of redemption?

It follows that insofar as Isabella denied Angelo because her acceding to him would lead to her dying forever, she was impaling herself on a false dilemma.  After all, even our law has sufficient charity generally to require the finding of a guilty mind before it finds that someone has committed a crime against its laws; and a moral law that lags behind the strict law faces serious problems.  And if we are wrong there, which is a real possibility, we may find it hard not to follow Gibbon in concluding that the God of this ascetic – Isabella – is indeed a tyrant.  And that just may be a true dilemma for Isabella.

But let the divines say and the ecclesiasts rule as they may, we may stay with the text that the author has left to us.  We might merely reflect that when our law has to resolve moral questions, it tends to refer the issue to the conscience of the court, or the general verdict of an inscrutable jury.  (We are, after all, the product of the Protestant Ascendancy.)  The first is what the lawyers call equity.  If Isabella were to proceed on the basis that she should act according to her conscience, she may not take long to decide.  She has to live with her decision, and her brother might have to die because of it.  For what it is worth, that proposition may not leave all that much room or need for juggling.

(The play does refer to our other method of resolving moral issues.  Habsburg Vienna would not have had much time for juries, and Angelo was expressing an English view when he said that a jury of twelve would have one or two ‘Guiltier than him they try’ (2.1.21).  The same may go for judges.)

Isabella prefers the gloss of the commentators to the words of the text. This problem  bedevils our law.  Common lawyers feel uneasy when they stand before a naked act (statute).  They need to baptize it into their tradition and then drench it in their gloss.

How stands it, then, with the Duke, the character perfectly described by Lucio as ‘the Duke of dark corners’ (4.3.159-160)?  Born to reign, rather than to rule, the Duke lets his state go to waste; then he refuses to apply the correction himself; then he chooses the wrong deputy in an experiment on live subjects that goes badly wrong; then he enjoys himself playing puppet-master –he is a real live boss at last! – while posing as a priest and deceiving his subjects with news that is both false and hurtful.  Meanwhile, he cannot get either Lucio or Barnadine to obey him.

It is silly to compare this Duke with Prospero.  Prospero is out to avenge his ‘high wrongs’.  This Duke meddles about while mired in his own mediocrity.  He is another control freak, but a badly failed one, and a worse hypocrite than either Angelo or Isabella.  That, you might think, is a very large statement, but the Duke pretends to adopt the high moral ground even though the whole problem has arisen only because of his gormlessness.

Then, while fraudulently imposing himself on believers as a priest, he takes confession and then boasts of having done so (5.1.530).  It is hard, off hand, to think of a more complete or despicable betrayal of faith or a breach of trust, and this in a city that was to give such a warm welcome back to Adolph Hitler.

And then, suffused – no flushed – with his own goodness, he propositions the novice nun.  Is this an abuse of office?  Of course it is.  It is the abuse of two offices.  He has won the confidence of Isabella while posing as a priest.  (We do not know if he took the confession of Isabella as well as that of Mariana, but if he had been asked to, he would not have hesitated – he was into that kind of game, a kind of loaded charades.)  Then he seeks to benefit from using his power to save the brother of his target.

The difference between Angelo and the Duke is that Angelo promised to save Claudio after Isabella has gone to bed with him; the Duke saves the brother, and then seeks his reward in the form of a more permanent coming across – from someone young enough to be his daughter.  It is conduct in a public office of such an awful kind that it would warrant the promotion of its holder to the highest rank in politics.

That is why the author left open the response of Isabella to the limp-wristed proposals of the Duke, and why the best productions show her giving the Duke the cold shoulder. The RSC, it is said, shocked its audience in 1970 when it showed Isabella rejecting the Duke.  Forty years later, assuming that women have raised themselves above the status of serfs in the Russia of Ivan the Terrible, it might come as a serious shock to the sensibilities of audiences now to see Isabella accept the proposition.

The final delinquency of the Duke is his failure to execute due process of law on Angelo.  If you are going to have a death penalty, and if it is to be applied by due process rather than personal decree, Angelo had to suffer it.  (Remember that Claudio was sentenced to death for ‘fornication’).  Angelo traduced the office of a judge.  He attempted to rape Isabella – and that is undoubtedly what it was, an attempted rape.  He then attempted to murder Claudio.

The Duke lets all of this go, and not for reasons that are light years away from those that corrupted Angelo.  He, too, is infatuated with Isabella – he must be if he is asking her to marry him – and he wants to impress her.  Opinions might differ on whether this abuse of power is worse than Angelo’s. Some think  that it is, since the consequences of his abuse of power may be more terminal.

Two things might be said in extenuation of the failure to execute Angelo.  First, everyone appears to have been very sensitive about executing people.  You have to be certain that the condemned are ready to die.  (Remember the ghost in Hamlet?)  This was urged on behalf of Claudio (2.2.83-4) and, hilariously, by the self-confessed murderer and drunk, Barnardine.  He simply declines to die because he had been drinking all night and peremptorily shuts the Duke up when the Duke dares to suggest the contrary (4.3.54-63).  (Barnardine, like Lucio, has a clear-headed view of the world, and looks sane by comparison to the three heroes.  It is part of the high dramatic technique of this playwright that their outlook comes out in scenes of surrealist comedy that might remind you of the Goon Show or the brothel scene in the Ulysses of Joyce.)

Secondly, as John Fletcher remarked, the idea of tragi-comedy is to bring none to death but some near it.  But, of course, only for the author is this an excuse.

The year before this play was put on, 1603, James I came to the throne and observed:

Laws are ordained as rules of virtuous and social living, and not to be snares to trap your good subjects: and therefore the law must be interpreted according to the meaning and not the literal sense. 

These conflicting impulses run through the law and equity of both Rome and England.  They led to a dog’s breakfast in the Vienna of our play.  Two people to come out of the play enhanced are the Provost and Mariana.  When asking Isabella to plead for the life of her then husband, Angelo, Mariana says:

They say, best men are molded out of faults:

And, for the most, become much more the better

For being a little bad. (5.1.442-4)

Well, as someone said in another play, for this relief much thanks; nor may it hurt to be a little mad as well as being a little bad.

The modern film set in a  British base in post-war Germany is well worth a look, but the performance by Kate Nelligan for the BBC is both riveting and peerless.

Measure for Measure shows  us what Milton called ‘darkness visible’.   The problem then is that these characters seem to us in some way so much more real than those that paddle about in our own little duck pond.  This effect of this play on us, and its insight into our dark corners, are an enduring testimony to the matchless humanity of its creator. The play continues to reveal to us truths about us and our laws, when we seek to apply the laws too hard or too softly, or when we let people put themselves above the law – or when we put the laws too far above people.


Tanner                       Comedies, Vol 2, p clxvi

Gibbon                         See, S P Foster, Melancholy Duty, Kluwer, 1997, pp 191, 213                

Kant                           Religion within the Boundaries of Reason, Hlisaarp, 1960, p 167-8

Tanner (Langland)   above, p clxiv

Bullough                     Vol.2, p 408

Milton                         Paradise Lost, 1.63

Passing Bull 44 – Outstanding hypocrisy in the Press


Politics and politicians are on the nose all around the world.  There is a savage reaction in the West against political parties and political elites.  Since the system as we know it has been worked by political parties run by elites, the results may be disastrous, if not terminal.  Corbyn was bad enough, but Trump is a genuine nightmare.

In Australia there is a very unhappy union between politicians and journalists.  There is much to be said for the view that our press is in large part responsible for the awfulness of our politicians.  They are far too cliquey and close to their subjects; the worst kinds of would-be journalists are tribal, and feed themselves on hits from other followers of the cult on the Internet.  The real disasters are former political staffers who then want to pose as journalists.  Instead, they become boring and loaded cheerleaders.

Two of the worst examples are Chris Kenny and Niki Savva.  They could not hope to pose as being objective, but they sadly think that that they are intelligent.  They live in confined echo chambers quite cut off from the world, just like the politicians in Canberra.  They are part of a useless but self-appointed elite that is quite out of touch with what they call the mainstream.

It was therefore quite a surprise to read the following from Chris Kenny in The Australian last Saturday:

There is a great and pernicious divide in Australia.  It is not between the eastern seaboard and the western plains, or between the rich and poor, city and country, black and white, or even between established citizens and refugees.  The divide is between the political/media class and the mainstream.

There is a gulf between those who consider themselves superior to the masses and want to use the nation’s status to parade their post-material concerns, and those who do the work and raise the families that make the nation what it is.

That is a reasonable statement of the problem, even if it comes from one of the worst examples of those who give rise to the problem.  And what on earth is a former Liberal staffer – attached to Lord Downer; no wonder his syntax is shot – and employed by The Australian and Sky doing referring to ‘the masses’.  Has Mr Kenny ever met one of them?  But then it all becomes clear when we get this:

In this election we are seeing the chasm open up, like a parting of the seas, as the media elites and their preferred left-of-centre politicians seek to determine what issues should be decisive.  They lecture and hector the mainstream.  Worse, they try to dictate what facts can even be discussed.  They seek to silence dissent.  They have compiled an informal list of unmentionables, facts that should not be outed: the truths whose name we dare not speak.

And then Mr Kenny goes on to ‘lecture and hector’ those poor souls who share his echo chamber, the true believers who know that Satan masquerades as the ABC and the Fairfax press.

This is all as boring and predictable as anything said by Mr Kenny in The Australian or one of those ghastly Sky chat shows that demonstrate that the chattering classes, the former chardonnay socialists, have long ago swapped sides graphically and terminally.  We reached a new all-time low recently when Peta Credlin joined Andrew Bolt for a nocturnal tryst on Sky that will be sure to upset at least three dinners a night.  It might all be boring, but the hypocrisy of Mr Kenny takes your breath away.

We get some idea of the problem from the article immediately beneath that of Mr Kenny.  It comes from the paper’s former editor, Chris Mitchell.  Mr Mitchell looks like he may be as unattractive in the flesh as he is in print.  On the same day, Mr Coorey in the AFR – part of the Anti-Christ and my paper of choice – referred to those journalists who scramble like Spitfire pilots when someone says something rude about the Liberals.  Mr Mitchell gives us a roll call of those he invokes to defend that brute Dutton – Paul Murray, Judith Sloan, Mark Latham, Andrew Bolt, Peter van Onselen, Paul Kelly, Chris Kenny, and other pilots in The Oz or Sky squadrons, the usual suspects.  There is apparently honour among sellers because Mr Mitchell informs us that Peta told Andrew that she would not criticise Niki over her bestselling book.  Here surely was grace that passeth all understanding.  And guess what – Peta’s ‘appearances throughout the week were sure-footed and incisive.’  Has tribalism got any lower than this?

And Mr Mitchell gives us an insight into the light years between him and the ‘masses’ when he says:

Latham sees Labor being trapped in a world in which the Left rejects the notion of observable truths, but ordinary voters see Safe Schools as an extreme attempt to reconstruct gender.

In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, is there any bastard outside the Canberra bubble who knows what ‘reconstructing gender’ might mean?  Does any decent Australian give a bugger about the alleged Left/Right divide or any other of those profoundly stupid chat shows called ‘culture wars’?  Have they not yet seen that everyone else rejects all this bullshit and all those who want to wallow in it?  Does the press just not get that they are an essential part of the package that people are rejecting all around the world?

Then there is poor sad Gerard Henderson who looks like he has never smiled, let alone laughed.  Gerry must be the text-book example of a man who preaches – and, like Mr Kenny, and most of these cave-dwellers, he does preach – only to the converted.  It looks like the lawyers may have been at Gerry’s piece, because he wants to say that the Royal Commission is loaded against our George, but he concludes by saying that their behaviour raises issues of fairness.  His sub-editor said the Commission ‘fails the test of fairness.’

And Gerry has come up with some hard evidence.  Someone on the Commission staff had worked for the ABC!  Worse, Gerry had followed that person’s journalism – no ABC journalist ever escapes the gaze of either Gerry or God – and Gerry ‘happened to know that he was a vehement critic of the theological conservatives in the Catholic Church, such as Pell, layman B A Santamaria and more besides’.  Just think of it – an ABC journalist being a critic of Bob!  But the case is even worse!  Gerry just happened to run into this one-time journalist in the street – the corner of Phillip and Bent streets.  For some reason, Gerry was surprised to see the man.

Crittenden was dressed in a fine suit, well-pressed shirt and tasteful tie.  I asked him how it came to pass that a one-time left wing ABC journalist [really, Gerry, the left-wing part was otiose – we and God know they all are left-wing at Auntie] looking so CBDish so early in the morning.

Good heavens – an uppity socialist!  And what in heaven has the earliness of the morning got to do with this dastardly conspiracy?  But Satan can be devious with his disguises – just look at that unfortunate incident in the garden when he got us all damned, and one half of humanity proscribed for the ages; it was a bugger of a day for the girls.

Having mounted this massive case about his surprise ‘that a Pell critic such as Crittenden had been appointed to a senior position at the royal commission’, Gerry delivers the coup de grâce.

It would have been like appointing Andrew Bolt to a senior management position at the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption.

Poor, sad Gerry – he does not understand, and he never will, that very many Australians, including me, think that his mate Tony Abbott did a lot worse than that in appointing his mate Dyson Heydon to run that royal commission.

And Gerry – that other royal commission can say what it likes about George, but nothing they say will come anywhere near to causing the damage that George has brought on himself and his church.

And finally, Gerry – in addition to harbouring Bolshie views, I’m a ghastly snob; I only wear shirts from Jermyn Street; I only wear ties by Hermès or Ferragamo; and I have just acquired a Zegna scarf to add to the Hermès number – so you can put me down as a card carrying communist who should go straight to the head of the Watch Lists maintained by Opus Dei and the Society of Jesus.

A Big Thank You…

….to the person who kindly sent me that wonderful hamper.  Your graceful note did not disclose your identity.  I recall some reference to being saved from the communists.  Was it, you, perhaps, Gerry?  God does after all work in mysterious ways.

Poet of the month: A D Hope

The Apotolesm of W B Yeats

Such a grand story

Of Willy Yeats,

Keeping his warm bed

Under the slates

To a tale of milkmaids

His friend relates:


‘At churns in Sligo

The wenches hum:

Come butter, Come butter,

Come butter,


Every lump as

Big as my bum!’


A milkmaid mounting

The poet’s stair;

A blackbird trilling

His country air;

Butter and bottom,

The muse was there.


Sheep in the meadow,

Cows in the corn;

Come Willy Butler

Blow up your horn!

Out of such moments

Beauty is born.

Red cards


During an AFL game on the weekend, a Port Adelaide player struck a West Coast Eagles player to the rear of the head.  In the year of Our Lord 2016, it was sickening to watch.  A Fox commentator later said that it was a throwback to the 80s.  He was too young to know what happened in the 50s and 60s.  Then we used to smile about these things, but thank God things have changed in the last three generations, and we have grown up.

My views started to change firmly in the early 70s when I heard two coaches of two teams of public-school old boys calmly discussing whether or not they might have to ‘put to sleep’ a player destined for the VFL and one that neither could handle.  If this brutality was happening with amateurs, what might it be like if there was money on the table?  Not long after that, a Collingwood player called Greening suffered very serious injuries when he fell on his head.  The problem with these attacks is often not the original blow but the consequences in the resulting fall to the ground.

The blow on the weekend was struck with the elbow or forearm and it made contact with the back of the head of the victim – in about that area where Philip Hughes was struck and killed.  The victim was not, I think from the replays, in the air at the time of the impact, but he was quite off-balance, with his back turned, in the act of completing a mark, and I think with only one foot on the ground as he was falling toward the earth.  He was carried off in a neck brace with concussion.  It is not absurd to say that the effect of the blow, either immediately, or consequently on impact with the ground, could have been fatal.  There was of course strong reaction from the players, and what is called a melee.

The attack was late, deliberate, vicious, and cowardly.  It was the definitive foul – it was dangerous and as unsportsmanlike as you can get.  Under the laws of the game as they stand, the culprit played on – and, as it happens, his side got a run on – while the victim was carried off and his medical advisers considered having him taken to hospital.

That is a revolting consequence.  It puts the game to shame.  There is no doubt that under the rules of rugby as they are played and administered, at least at the top level, the culprit would have been given a red card and sent off for the match – and his team would not have been able to replace him for that match.

The AFL needs to get its act together on yellow and red cards.  Rugby was an English invention, from which our AFL derives, that was used to implant what was called character in boys and young men.  It is absurd to suggest that such a game, or any derivative of it, should in the year 2016 be a vehicle for this kind of brutality being inflicted without some form of immediate response from authority on the ground.  They have done it in rugby for as long as I can remember, in part, I think, because the game is better administered on issues of discipline at the top level, and more independently administered without having to suffer being importuned by the clubs, and in part because rugby justifiably has more confidence in its referees than the AFL or the NRL does.

We can presently put to one side yellow cards, and ten minutes in the sin bin for lesser offences or ‘cynical’ abuses of the rules, and just look at a terminal send-off under a red card.  In rugby, if the referee has any doubt he will look with other officials at the big screen replay and then make an immediate decision.  In a match in New Zealand about three weeks ago, one player flew very high and an opposing player came underneath him so that he fell very dangerously – he could have broken his neck.  In rugby, there is an absolute ban on tackling a man in the air, and although both the TV referee and the referee on the ground said that the tackle was not malicious, there was no doubt that the offender would be sent off for the match, and this was very early in the match, for what was a dangerous tackle.  His team played the whole of the rest of the match one down – there was no malice, but the safety of the player is paramount.

The AFL is not discharging its obligations to its players by failing to institute similar disciplinary responses.  The AFL is self-evidently not making the safety of the player paramount by adopting a tried and proven response used all around the world.

If the AFL needs it, there are market reasons why it should implement the red card.  Mums and dads watching this game and wondering what their kids might do, need assurance that the highest level the safety of players is the first concern of the authorities of all codes.  And they might find that it adds to the theatre of the game, and also that it might defuse some of the lunatics on the other side.

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching the great Jonathan Thurston play in the NRL.  He was hit after he had passed the ball.  He was therefore in a similar position of unreadiness as the West Coast Eagle victim.  Thurston spends a great deal of his professional life facing thirteen bruisers who could, on a bad day, do him most serious injury.  But when he does so most of the time, he is braced and ready for them – and he wears a head-guard for the same purpose.  But, as the commentators pointed out, he is obviously not in that state of readiness after he has just passed the ball – he is open and vulnerable, and that is just what makes these attacks so cowardly and so dangerous.

It was the same on the weekend, and it is time that the AFL matured, and got respectable, and does what it has to in order to protect the players – who, as it happens, are just about the only asset of worth that the AFL has.  The AFL should know this – at least one other code does it better, and they already look down their noses at you.

And that is before we get to the sword of justice.

Passing bull 43 – Bullshit about insults


Election time is a very bad time to be an Australian.  We are now squarely in the world-wide pattern of rejecting major parties.  I would prefer to avoid politics, and observe that most of our first white boat people in the First Fleet were illiterate, and undesirable, but some ideologues refuse to lie down.

More than twenty years ago, I attended an IBA conference in New York.  It had been scheduled for Nairobi, but the venue was changed to New York because of terrorist unrest in Kenya.  (The Kenyans said this was all a CIA plot.)  Our media law section was to have a session with the editor of The Kenya Times.  My American colleagues were First Amendment lawyers and ‘free speech’ fanatics.  I, not being a fanatic, was asked to look after the editor in the debate on the rostrum.  The room was packed with coloured people, and it soon became obvious that my man, the editor, who was coloured, had the numbers on his side.

The editor produced that day’s morning edition of the Murdoch tabloid of New York. The front page had a crude, full-on full-page swipe at the love life of the then wife of a crude lout called Donald Trump.  The back page hurled abuse in giant headlines at the Yankees and said: ‘Stick a fork in them.’  The front and back pages were therefore colossal and provocative insults.  They were standard fare for New York but the editor said, entirely credibly, that if he had published either of those pages in his paper, there would have been blood on the streets of Nairobi before the sun had set.

This was a sobering reminder that our tolerance of insults varies from place to place and time to time.  There are still many places in the world where I could be executed for saying that God does not exist.

Any society that has laws will have laws against killing people or physically hurting them.  We have laws, civil and criminal, about assault.  What about when the assault is verbal?  Do we have laws against insulting language?  Yes – at least where the insult is made in public.

What is involved when one person insults another?  The key meaning in the OED is ‘to assail with scornful abuse or offensive disrespect; to offer indignity to; to affront, outrage.’  If you look at the OED, for both the noun and the verb, you will see the link between ‘insult’ and ‘assault’.  An insult is a verbal kind of assault or attack by one person on another.   To ‘outrage’ someone is to do something they resent so much that they are enraged.  The usual reaction of the victim is to seek revenge.

We have laws against verbal assaults called insults because we realise that verbal assaults can be just as wounding as physical assaults.  We also know that one of the primary objects of the law is to keep the peace, and that one easy way to produce a breach of the peace is for one person to insult another, just as it is for one person to strike another.  In many cultures, an insult could lead to a duel and death.  In many cultures, a religious insult, or an insult to a family, will lead to death without the formality of a duel, much less a trial.

So, if in Australia one person approaches another in public and says ‘Your father is a coward and your mother is a slut’, that person has committed a criminal offence.  It would be silly to say that the father and mother should be left to a civil action in defamation, if they have one, or that the person directly insulted, and outraged, might inquire of a lawyer whether he or she has any form of action at all.  We think that the police should have the power to make an immediate arrest in order to keep the peace.  And it would be just as silly to say that such a law affects something called ‘freedom of speech’.  Most laws do, especially if the law expressly refers to speech.  It adds nothing to this conversation to state that inevitable result.  The question is whether such a law is warranted.  Very few people think that such a law is not warranted.

Most see such a law as essential to keeping the peace in a civilised community.  Similarly, most people think they should be able to walk down the street or go the football with their family without having to listen to or read obscenities.  There is no great issue of policy much less ideology here – we are just talking about keeping the peace.  Most people know what that is and what we should do to achieve it.

We in Australia therefore have these laws about insulting people in public.  We are much more sceptical about any suggestion that we should outlaw insulting religion or the nation.  But that scepticism need not disturb our dealing with what we regard as plain cases of insult that the law must deal with.

Similarly, laws against insulting or offensive language have been abused before.  If the coppers could not think of anything else to charge a protester with, they used to produce a ‘sheet of language.’  They don’t do that now, and abolishing a law may be an extreme way to deal with the abuse of it.

So, the Australian states have various laws about insulting or offensive behaviour in public.  Well, then, what if an insult or offence is directed at someone because of their race?  In addition to our general state laws, there is a federal law for insults based on race.  That law says that you must not publicly insult or humiliate people because of their race (Racial Discrimination act, 1975, s. 18C).  Unlike the state act, the federal act does not create a criminal offence.  You can go to jail for insulting behaviour without more under the state law, but if you insult a person on the ground of their race, you cannot be imprisoned or even charged with a breach of the law under the federal act.  The remedy for a breach of this law is a complaint to a government agency.

We are then left with an intellectual curio.  People do not complain about a law that makes publishing insulting words a crime, but they do campaign against a law that doesn’t make such an act a crime, and is confined to cases where the insult is made on the grounds of race.  That qualification if anything would make the insult more wounding, provocative, and dangerous.  What is the explanation of this puzzle?

You cannot help wondering whether an obsession with ideology distorts people’s views so that they lose contact not just with how ordinary people think, but with reality.

Just think of the laws covered by the following exercises involving speech.

I steal your Ph D thesis and claim it as my own.

A man telephones the mother of a child to tell her, falsely, that he has just seen the child run over on the way to school and killed.  He does so purely to hurt the mother.  She miscarries and loses her next child.

A man at a huge religious rally in the Punjab seeks to cause panic by shouting that religious opponents are attacking from another quarter.  He does so merely to test his power and to observe the chaos and death.  Hundreds, foreseeably, die.

A young man tells his best mate in strict confidence that he is gay but that he does not propose to come out in the near future.  His mate immediately goes online to tell the world.  He says that he is doing so to save his mate from cowardice and hypocrisy, and because he believes in freedom of speech.

Someone offers you a fortune to bomb the P M.

A man approaches a husband and wife in the street and abuses the wife and says she is an Asian slut.

A woman approaches the same husband and wife and says that the husband has been having an affair with her for years but she is going to terminate it because he is lousy in bed and has issues with personal hygiene, false teeth, and prostheses.

A man walks around a muslem wedding ceremony with a sign saying that the ceremony is as fake as the faith of its participants.

A man having a dispute with a highly strung Sikh neighbour calls him over to the fence to tell him in front of his family that his culture is intellectually, morally, and spiritually bankrupt.  He does so with the purpose of causing the Sikh to retaliate and so lose face in the neighbourhood, and enable him to go to law against his adversary.

A politician deliberately fans racial division to get elected.  At one rally, he says that the coloured people are the missing link with the apes.  He succeeds, but the banlieues are in flames

A blackfella goes into a bar in Alice Springs and quietly and methodically and soberly begins to insult both white and coloured people at the bar by reference to their race.

In each case, the person making the statement is intending to cause harm to another person.  Is there any moral or political difference in those cases of insult where the insult is based on race?  Has the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ any application in any example?  Should the law be silent for any of these cases?

The French Declaration of Rights of 1789 said in article 4: ‘Liberty consists of the power to do whatever is not injurious to others.’  Some principle like that must underlie any legal system of a nation that says that its citizens are free.  My freedom of speech does not give me a licence to hurt others.  It does not override my liability for using speech to break a contract, commit a crime, make a nuisance, breach the peace, or defame someone else – or for any other form of speech that the law makes unlawful or illegal.

We can argue about the extent to which any crime or civil wrong may impinge on our right to freedom of speech, but singing a hymn to that ‘freedom’, or proclaiming yourself a warrior in its defence, does not advance the argument.  The warrior is left to declaim loudly to the birds – if you seek to settle the differences that arise from conflicts between people by reference to some grand ideological prescription, the most polite word for your world view is bullshit.

If I got booked for speeding between Wodonga and Albury, and I complained that this ticket infringed my right to the absolute freedom of trade and intercourse conferred by s. 92 of the Constitution, I would be making much more sense than if I said that proceedings against me for insulting or offensive words in public infringe my right to freedom of speech.  They would both be bullshit, but there are, after all, degrees of bullshit.

So, when recently someone put out a banner up at the footy that was offensive to people of one faith, there was a general and quick display of anger and a popular wish that the law be enforced to remove the offensive banner.  And the ideologues sensibly said nothing.

Poet of the month: A D Hope

The Sleeper

Our birth is but a sleeping and a forgetting

When the night comes, I get

Into my coffin; set

The soul’s brutal alarm;

Pull the green coverlet

Over my face; lie warm,

Deaf to the black storm.


Ah, but the truce is vain;

Then Chaos comes again;

The Mind’s insatiate eye

Opens on its insane

Landscape of misery,

And will not let me die.


A gunshot tears the brain –

That one quick crash of pain

Pays for a lasting sleep.

Be finished with it then!

What argument can keep

You from that step?


The argument of fear,

A whisper that I hear

A voice that haunts my bed:

‘The only sleep is here;

Suffer your nightmare; dread

The daylight of the dead.’

Passing Bull 42 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Refugees and Us


Many people outside Australia want to come to it because they are threatened or oppressed in their own country.  They are prepared to risk death to do so.  We say that their attempts to come here are illegal – unless they can afford to fly – and we use our navy to stop them.  We then justify our stopping them by saying that we have saved them from the risks of the voyage.  We are doing these people a favour.  Then we lock them up in lands that are brutal or corrupt or both.  We employ private institutions to do our SS work.  And we wait for the refugees to start burning themselves to death.

Have I missed something or is this why I will be again reminded in Cambridge that Australians are pariahs in Europe?  This is not just bullshit.  It is not just an offence against the mind.  The offence is against humanity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the following remarks at the beginning of 1943 after he had been many years in a Nazi jail.  They look to me to apply to Australia word for word in its attitudes to refugees in 2016.  Has ever such a rich country been so utterly mean?

There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity.  We know quite well that we have no right to do so, and that it would lead us into the most sterile relation to our fellow men.  The following thoughts may keep us from such a temptation.  It means that we at once fall into the worst of blunders of our opponents.  The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him.  Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves.  We often expect from others more than we are willing to do ourselves.  Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability?  We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer…..

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.  Are we still of any use?  What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.  Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

When I look with disgust on the sloganeering dope and the dull thug who have been in charge of this cruelty to people worse off than us, I am deeply ashamed of my own complicity.  What is the difference between me and the citizen of Munich who preferred to look the other way when Dachau was mentioned?

Poet of the Month: A D Hope

The Pleasure of Princes

What pleasures have great princes?  These: to know

Themselves reputed mad with pride or power;

To speak few words – few words and short bring low

This ancient house, that city with flame devour;


To make old men, their father’s enemies,

Drunk on the vintage of the former age;

To have great painters show their mistresses

Naked to the succeeding time; engage


The cunning of able, treacherous ministers

To serve, despite themselves, the cause they hate,

And leave a prosperous kingdom to their heirs

Nursed by the caterpillars of the state;


To keep their spies in good men’s hearts: to read

The malice of the wise, and act betimes;

To hear the Grand Remonstrances of greed,

Led by the pure; cheat justice of her crimes;


To beget worthless sons and, being old,

By starlight climb the battlements, and while

The pacing century hugs himself for cold,

Keep vigil like a lover, muse and smile,


And to think, to see from the grim castle steep

The midnight city below rejoice and shine:

‘There my great demon grumbles in his sleep

And dreams of his destruction, and of mine.’

Why is Telstra so cruel? Another capitalist nightmare


I am writing this on my third attempt to tell Telstra that their service has failed yet again.  I am without email or the internet.  I tried late last night but after twenty minutes the connection – with Telstra – just failed.  I tried again at 6.30 this morning.  The computer said that the wait time was fourteen minutes.  After forty three I had to give up to keep an appointment.  This time, the third, the computer said that the wait time was more than twenty minutes.  At least the computer has given up lying.  It is more honest than the dreadful bastards who run this rogue outfit.  Telstra has succeeded in being ruder to its customers than Qantas.  That is a fearful indictment.

As the butcher at Castlemaine said, if we ran a business like this, we would not have a business.  It is not just a business matter – decent people would not inflict this kind of vulgarity if not cruelty on other people because that kind of conduct is just plain immoral.

How are Telstra permitted to get away with a cruel indifference to people that reminds me so much of the cruel indifference that Communist regimes show to their people?  The only answer I can think of is that they have inherited a virtual monopoly that enables them to do what they like.  And overpay themselves massively.  They are the archetypal 800 pound gorilla.

Those dreadful galahs that pose as directors of this rogue outfit, and line their pockets as they go, should be required to make at least one of these calls a day.  They would then cure themselves of their own criminality within a week.

You have to wonder what it is about Australia that allows us to breed and raise people who are prepared to be so rude and cruel to other Australians.  Our love affair with mediocrity is one thing – but this is downright bastardry.  And what happens to people who have to be able to rely on these crooks to run their own business – as I do?  Must we all just get sucked down into their gutter?

And now here is the worst part.  I own shares in these bastards – I therefore get ripped off at both ends.

If you ever get to read this note, normal service will have been restored.  This call – the third – is past twenty minutes and climbing.  If we stay on the graph, it could be well over an hour – or I may just be despatched to oblivion.

Why ever did we give up those decent honest people at the PMG?  At least then we could complain to our local member.

PS After about thirty minutes, I got through on the third attempt.  I will not reflect on the man who sounded a long way away – gone are the days when NBN calls were taken at Townsville – for fear of reprisals, but he said a technician would have to call.  I explained I needed to be connected urgently for business reasons, and after another unconscionably long delay, he said that a technician would arrive this afternoon in a four hour window.  He would ring first.

Well, how silly would you have to be to believe anything these bludgers said?  I had mentioned to my overseas consultant, whose English was as shaky as his grasp of technology, that there had been grievous delays in my getting help.  He apologised and gave me a reference number to quote and said that he would enable me to duck the queue if I needed any more help.  My heart sank a bit when he said he would email me – my inability to get emails was the reason I was speaking to him. That might give rise to what some might call an ontological dilemma, or existential quandary.  We agreed that SMS might be more efficacious.  Things were looking up.

In fairness to Telstra, they rang at 4.25 – 35 minutes before the window closed – to say that because this was the weekend, they would not be able to get someone to me today, but would I like to see one tonight or Monday?  I explained that I had just fixed the problem.

How had I pulled that miracle off?  I recalled that I had made a note in my little black telephone book of a technique taught to me, I think, by the people in Townsville.  Even idiots like me start by switching everything off.  They had told me, as I found I had noted, to switch off the NBN connection at the wall, turn it back on, then insert a pin into the reset access point at the rear of the modem until all of the lights go out – and then go to your knees and pray.  Fervently.  I did that and – Lo!  After some Hithcockian sputtering, it spun into life, and I was back in touch with the world!

It would of course be silly to suggest that that simple advice should have been given to me shortly into my first call by someone whose tone commands confidence.  No – first the mug buyer has to endure another nightmare.  Alternatively, why as a shareholder should I have to foot the bill for a technician to call after hours when the problem could and should have been dealt with on the phone within ten minutes of my picking it up?

Perhaps we might set up a charitable refuge –


Passing Bull 41 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Folly, Donald Trump, and not a few locals


My compliments to the Commissioner of the NYPD who commented on the call by Senator Cruz ‘to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods.’  The Commissioner said: ‘We don’t need a President that doesn’t respect the values that form the foundation of this country.  There are more than 900 Muslim offices in the NYPD, many of whom also serve in the US military in combat – something that Cruz has never done.’  That is what I expect from New York’s finest – giving the bird to a bumptious Texan senator.

Well, Cruz has gone, tearily enough for a Strong Man, unloved by most, and loathed by those that knew him best in his own party.  If Trump revolts most people, Cruz frightens those best placed to assess him.

The apparent accession of Donald Trump to the position of nominee for the Presidency of the United States will do irreparable damage to the standing of that nation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent many years in Nazi jails before the Nazis hanged him just before the end of the war.  He was a man of ferocious moral courage and an intellect to match that spirit.  In a series of notes headed ‘After Ten Years’ made for New Year in 1943, Bonhoeffer made observations about the state of the nation of Germany – at the beginning of 1943 – and himself.  In the part headed ‘Of folly’, Bonhoeffer made observations that apply word for word to Donald Trump.

‘Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil.  One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force.  Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable.  Against folly we have no defence.  Neither protest nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved – indeed, the fool can counter by criticising them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions.  So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive.  A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.

If we are to deal adequately with folly, we must try to understand its nature.  This much is certain, that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect.  There are people who are mentally agile but foolish, and people who are mentally slow but very far from foolish – a discovery that we make to our surprise as a result of particular situations.  We thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them.  We notice further that this defect is less common in the unsociable and solitary than in individuals or groups that are inclined or condemned to sociability.  It seems, then, that folly is a sociological rather than a psychological problem, and that it is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances on people, a psychological by-product of definite external factors.  If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others.  It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacity for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgement, and – more or less unconsciously – give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.  The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent.  One feels in fact when talking to him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him.  He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited.  Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.  Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the authority to make those observations, and we have the obligation to listen to them, because he was a man of spellbinding courage and he paid for it very dearly.  On the day that Hitler became Chancellor, Bonhoeffer gave a public address about the dangers of false leaders.  The Gestapo turned off the sound.  Bonhoeffer, a man of God, gave his life to resisting a false leader.

Poet of the month: A D Hope

Easter Hymn

Make no mistake; there will be no forgiveness;

No voice can harm you and no hand will save;

Fenced by the magic of deliberate darkness

You walk on the sharp edges of the wave;


Trouble with soul again the putrefaction

Where Lazarus three days rotten lies content.

Your human tears will be the seed of faction,

Murder the sequel to your sacrament.


The City of God is built like other cities:

Judas negotiates the loans you float;

You will meet Caiaphas upon committees;

You will be glad of Pilate’s casting vote.


Your truest lovers still the foolish virgins,

Your heart will sicken at the marriage feasts

Knowing they watch you from the darkened gardens

Being polite to your official guests.

Americans at War

[This extract comes from the same chapter of A Tale of Two Nations as the post on Australians at war.]

‘I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong’.  President Abraham Lincoln to his successor, General Ulysses S Grant.

The turning point in the battle of Gettysburg came on its second day.  Lee was determined on staking the fortunes of the South on a major battle – he thought that the North was just too strong to lose the war.  He was intent on taking the North by its flank on his right, near a hill called Little Round Top.  His men charged again and again.  The southern boys were not used to losing straight fights.  The casualties were, as usual, appalling.  The end of the northern line was commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (who taught Rhetoric at Maine.)  Chamberlain saw that his men were nearly out of ammunition and the will to resist.  He gave orders to them to perform a manouevre that is hard on the parade ground.  They were in part to retire at an angle behind the end of the line and then advance in a sweeping movement around the enemy.  In the movie, Jeff Daniels plays Chamberlain, and when he gives the order for ‘Bayonets’, you can see the whites of his eyes, and he is staring straight into eternity.  He is, as they say, running on adrenalin – and upbringing.

The manouevre was perfectly and successfully executed.  The southern boys were thrown back by the charge.  The northern line held.  The next day Lee saw his army smashed in Pickett’s charge.  The proud Army of Virginia would never be the same threat again.  Had that battle been lost, Lincoln may have had to sue for peace, and the Union may have been lost.  God only knows how Europe may have responded to Germany – twice – without aid from the nation that we know as the United States.  All those consequences turned on the extraordinary valour and coolness of a lecturer in Rhetoric from the State of Maine.  It is on such slim and personal threads that history hangs.

We saw that the war of independence was a frightful guerilla war with atrocities on either side.  The Civil War would be a more orthodox war, a war of attrition, with casualty rates piled up by a mode of warfare that would offer a ghastly premonition of the Great War.  Once the colonies decided to revolt, it was victory or death for the leaders of the colonies seceding from the crown.  That threat was not so real for those seceding from the Union, but in that war, both sides were equally charged morally.  In the first war, the rebels never lost the moral high ground, and motivating English or Scots or Irish soldiers to fight against Britons on foreign soil cannot have been simple.  We have tried to list in this book the military advantages of the home side.  Because of the course that events took, the first war was a precondition of the birth of the Union; the second war was a precondition of the survival of the union.  From Paul Revere to George Washington, the war of independence was mythologised in a way that looks completely American.  There was no need to mythologise the Civil War.  It had its own stark grandeur that would be given precise expression by the greatest American of them all.  For some people outside America, this was the real birth of the nation that they so admire.

George Washington was pompous and patrician, a vain old Tory.  He was in many ways definitively Un-American.  As a general turned politician, Eisenhower would be everything that Washington was not.  But the new nation needed more than a hero; it needed something like a cult.  The very shortness of American history led to almost indecent haste in making Washington a saint.  As Daniel Boorstin said, ‘Never was there a better example of the special potency of the Will to Believe in this New World.  A deification which in European history might have required centuries was accomplished here in decades.’  Might perhaps the Americans have a propensity to talk themselves up?

Never did a more incongruous pair than Davey Crockett and George Washington live together in a national Valhalla.  Idolised by the new nation, the legendary Washington was a kind of anti-Crockett.  The bluster, the crudity, the vulgarity, the monstrous boosterism of Crockett and his fellow supermen of the subliterature were all qualities which Washington most conspicuously lacked.  At the same time, the dignity, the reverence for God, the sober judgment, the sense of destiny and the vision of the distant future, for all of which Washington was proverbial, were unknown to the ring-tailed Roarers of the West.  Yet both Washington and Crockett were popular heroes, and both emerged into legendary fame during the first half of the 19th century.

The Civil War was so much more bloody and destructive than that fought in England more than two centuries before.  It was fought over four years after southern states, with nearly half their population enslaved, wanted to secede from the union on issues of the extension of slavery into the new territories.  About 620,000 Americans died in the conflict.  Names like Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Shiloh (‘Place of Peace’), Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Appomattox would lie deep in the national consciousness, and become well known outside because of the outstanding TV documentary by Ken Burn.

It was a mechanised and industrial war.  The northern economy was so much stronger, and they had the numbers to win, but dreadfully inept military leadership against a brilliant southern general prolonged the war until the North produced two generals that were as good.  In the meantime, the emancipation of the slaves had been proclaimed, and the nation is still picking up the pieces.  The whole people of the United States had paid a most fearful price for that lesion in the Declaration of Independence on the equality of all men.

Not the least of the pain and tragedy of this war came from the hold that the States held over men of ‘honour’, a term of elevated content in the South.  Nearly one hundred years after the Union was born, there were many who saw their paternity and therefore loyalty in their home states, something that most Australians now, one hundred years after federation, find very odd.  There is no doubt that state loyalty is still much stronger in the US.  It strikes people as odd that a man could be Virginian first, and American second.

Robert E Lee had served the Union for thirty-two years, but he could not raise his hand against his family in Virginia, and he resigned his commission.  God knows how many other families would mourn that decision.  Lee was a great commander, and he was not scared to take risks.  He had the stamina to go on to win and not just to avoid defeat.  He was brilliant in manouevre.  Those were all qualities that his early opponents did not have.  He developed an aura of invincibility, and his later trumpeted virtues led to a reaction.  This is the balanced assessment of a British military historian:

Lee’s victories were won against the odds….This is an unusual experience for American commanders, who usually enjoy the benefits of plenty…His victories remain among the greatest humiliations ever inflicted on the armies of the United States.  None the less, the link with the other American commander, George Washington, who battled against the odds, is a just one.  For this reason, Lee still ranks among the very finest of American generals, for like his hero, Washington, he managed to achieve much with the most meagre resources.

What other general on the losing side, including Hannibal and Rommel, ever inflicted so much loss and damage on the enemy?

Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman had been failures before the war; Grant had hit the bottle, and Sherman was deeply unstable, too wobbly to command.  After the horrendous first day of Shiloh, when Grant had lost about ten thousand men, Sherman sought him out to discuss withdrawal.  He found Grant under a tree, hurt and leaning on a crutch, rain dripping from his hat, and chewing on a cigar.  Sherman decided against withdrawal, and the next day they won the biggest Northern victory so far.

Grant was a gift from God to his president, and Sherman held the same place for Grant.  Grant had force of character and military intuition; Sherman was an intellectual and widely read in history and theory (as Patton was).  They both had the iron nerve and steely determination required of commanders in a bloody civil war.  Their comradeship was sustaining.  Sherman wrote to Grant: ‘We cannot change the hearts of the people of the South, but we can make war so terrible that they will realize the fact that however brave and gallant and devoted to their country, still they are mortal….’Sherman and Grant were facts of life men.  ‘They cannot be made to love us, but may be made to fear us.’  Grant said this of Sherman: ‘I know him well as one of the greatest and purest of men.  He is poor and always will be.’

Best of all, Sherman said of Grant: ‘He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by each other always.’  You may not find that in the Iliad of Homer, but it is a thing of great beauty.  Grant and Sherman are, like Lee, assuredly American heroes.

The Americans were latecomers to both world wars, but their intervention was decisive, especially in the Second World War, both in Europe and in the Pacific.  In the Second War, America was directly attacked and its military and industrial mobilization left it the most powerful nation in the world.  Wilson and America failed at Versailles, but so did other Allies.  America produced more real military heroes in Bradley and Patton, and the future President Eisenhower.  The Marshall Plan was statesmanlike and humane, and by crushing Germany and Japan militarily and then being generous in victory, the U S avoided the awful errors of Versailles.  Korea was at best a draw; Vietnam was a moral and strategic black hole; and whatever else might be said about the perceived failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the memory of them is not inducing America to try that kind of thing again.  America has retired hurt as the world police officer.

The defining war for the U S, at least to one outsider, is the Civil War, and its enduring legacy not just for America but the whole world is Abraham Lincoln. What might be called the original sin of the young republic was a blood libel that would have to be redeemed in blood.  Abraham Lincoln was the chosen instrument of the redemption of the United States.

Born poor and low down in the back blocks, Lincoln learnt English through the King James Bible and Shakespeare.  While doing labouring jobs, he largely taught himself law, often reading with his long legs up a tree.  He was also a crack shot.  He practised rough and tough law before rough and tough juries, commonly sleeping head to toe fully clothed with his opponent when on circuit.  He rose up through state politics and came to national renown in great debates on the poisonous issue of slavery.  His marriage was difficult and he knew personal tragedy.  His election as President effectively signalled the beginning of the Civil War.  He had a God given ability to get to the heart of the matter and then express himself in language that will not die.  He also had the political gifts of being forever underestimated, and of having immense personal appeal and humour right up close.

But under that rustic open charm lay a mind of rat cunning and political genius.  He had to endure awful generals and awful defeats.  It is very doubtful if any lesser person could have held the nation together.  But in Grant and Sherman, he found generals who could and did win the war for him.  Lincoln had seen his job as being to preserve the Union, and he did so.  It is impossible to imagine what might have happened if he had failed.  He also emancipated the slaves.  He was assassinated at the end of the war.

Here is the full text of the Gettysburg Address.

Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on the great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract.  The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause or which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here is the full text of a letter to Grant.

Not expecting to see you again before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this way my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it.  The particulars of your plans I neither know nor seek to know.  You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon them.  While I am very anxious that any great disaster or capture of our men in great numbers shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine.  If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know.  And now, with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.

Here is the text of a telegram to Grant.

I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are.  Neither am I willing.  Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.

The second inaugural contained the following.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and sustaining.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us not judge that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

There follows a passage of remarkable Biblical intensity to a people raised on the Old Testament, in which Lincoln says that the scourge of war might continue ‘until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’.  And then, as in Wotan’s farewell, we reach distilled peace at the end.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all that which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

Lincoln was a colossal achievement for the humanity in us all. When Lincoln left us from the wounds received at the Ford Theatre, a member of his cabinet said ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’  He certainly does, and we stand in awe of him.

Between the two world wars, the U S faced a more direct threat to it that saw another authentic hero arise.   The Oyster Bay Roosevelts were the tops in up-market clannishness.  The old New York families addressed each other as ‘Cousin’ in a way that caused the late Roy Jenkins to reflect on the story about the Armenian family which claimed to be so old that they always spoke of the virgin as ‘Cousin Mary’.  When F D Roosevelt introduced to his mother a young lady from the best Boston society, his mother said: ‘I understand your father is a surgeon – surgeons always remind me of my butcher.’  Those upper East Coast toffs really were the best – they could hold their own with the English in the snobbery stakes (although the French might pose an even stiffer challenge).

Roosevelt overcame that background to be elected President four times.  He understood the remark of Alexander Hamilton that ‘energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.’  From 1932 until his death in 1945, Roosevelt led the U S through the Great Depression and the Second World War.  No other president – not even Lincoln – has had to face and to overcome such threats to his people.