Passing bull 52 – Problems with labels


One of Andy Warhol’s more confronting works was a painting of a can of Campbell’s soup.  Was that art?  Well, it depends on the criteria you apply to fix that label.  And that reminds us of the remark of George Bush Senior that labels are what you stick on cans of soup.

Here in Cambridge for a Summer School on revolutions, you see historical labels used in the conventional way that they are applied by historians.  But we must remember that there was in fact no such thing as ‘the French Revolution’ or ‘the English Revolution’.  Those terms are merely labels that we apply to series of events – and there is great disagreement about which events satisfy that label for the French case, and where it, the revolution, started and finished – let alone how and why.

The purist might therefore be unsettled to read that he is doing a week’s course on ‘John Milton and the English Revolution’ when the same tutor is giving a lecture on the Friday on ‘Was there a revolution in 17th century England.’  Well, most historians would say that there were at least two series of events that would warrant that label, but what if the lecturer answers no?  Have we been walking on quicksand all week?

Similarly, one essay topic is ‘Did the Terror save or betray the Revolution?’  ‘Terror’ is another label for a series of events, and current events show just how slippery it is.  How does one label ‘save or betray’ anything, let alone another label?

Playing with abstractions is an occupational hazard at any university – or indeed in any profession.

Poet of the month: Keats

Ode on a Grecian Urn (41-50)

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!


When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Cambridge –a big night out


It was like a Breughel painting.  A graphic Hades.

The last time I came to Cambridge for one of these summer schools, people were invited to arrive on the Sunday, since courses start at 9 am on Monday, and some bastard forgot to open the bar.  There was ill feeling.  There was serious ill feeling, and some very rude remarks about the English.

Today, Sunday evening, I was assured by the porter at Selwyn College that the bar would be open at 6 pm.  A Presbyterian sense of determinism led me to the off licence to buy some insurance.

Sure enough, as I got near the bar at the appointed time, the porter told me that the bar would not be open tonight.  She suggested that I show for dinner at half six.  I repaired to my room and consoled myself with the insurance of the bottle shop.  I was annoyed.  One of the reasons I have gone to Oxford and Cambridge – the choice of tense is not accidental – was to enjoy the company of people who know they have a lot to learn.  I have done about half of a dozen at each, and I know something of what is on offer.

So, at half six, I approached the appointed place at the college hall not expecting grace in Latin, or at all, as I used to get at Maddingley Hall, but a reasonable meal with reasonable wine in good company.  My heart miss-gave as I heard a racket emerging from the hall.  I could recall eating in the hall.  It is one of those stately halls garbed in timber, but it has some modern portraits of people who look frankly fascist, and a column embraced proscenium where you think some impeccably dressed white gentleman might do something unfortunate to a goat.  Tonight the hall could have hosted a pregame function for Man-U.

It was choc-full, like a footy crowd, with cafeteria service.  Start with the pudding, Dear, then choose between ravioli and roast chicken, and you can add chips, and one of those little bottles of sham red with little round glasses that you used to get on TAA in the fifties.  Which you pay extra for – remember, Ducky, the bar’s shut.

I bore my tray to a spot where I spied some room for my plate, and wine, as unworthy as they both were, and I sat down.  When one of a group of aquiline matrons told me that there was no cutlery in my spot.  I recall now it was the end of the table.  I was – really – minded to ask whether she had adored Jefferson to utter such a self-evident truth, but I was morbidly preoccupied by wondering whether the excision under her bottom lip had been transposed to the top of the nose.  Before she moved away – not without ostentation – she told me that that since I had been to Cambridge before, she might tell me that people had previously been seated in the hall by reference to their standing, or words to that effect, but that that rule had been recently relaxed.  She just wanted me to know that I was in a state of grace.  But that I should know better.

I fled.

Now, this kind of balls-up happens.  And we chuckle about it after a few drinks, and we try to put the outrage to good use.  That which does not kill us makes us better, some say.

The whole overturn now going on in the West refutes that silly saying.  As does the decline and fall of the Roman Empire – or anybody that whose time is up.

This balls-up at Selwyn College was an outrage.  This insolence of office is not good enough.  And it is a terrible symptom of our times.  People who should know better are just failing us – and the revenge of the losers looks frightful.  If this kind of insult can be put on us at Selwyn College, Cambridge, what hope have we?

My late father – God bless him – told me that he was used to being insulted, but that he preferred to be insulted by experts.  Tonight I learned again what Mac meant.

Passing  bull 52 – Asking the wrong question


A simple way to go off the rails and descend into bullshit is to ask the wrong question.  As it happens, the law applied this technique to allow courts to interfere with administrative decisions of government.  Judges can’t override government just because they disagree with the decision, but they can set aside a decision if the government department did not have the power to make such a decision – and if the judges thought that the department had asked the wrong question, then they might find that it had acted beyond its powers in reaching its answer to that question.  On that ground, the court could set aside the original decision.

The FBI has just decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge Hillary Clinton over her emails.  They plainly had power to make that decision.  They then added that she had been careless.  Where did they get the power – some might say ‘right ‘ – to ask a question that could lead them to decide to make and publish that judgment?

There is a clear trend away from the traditional two party system in Australia and the UK, and to a lesser extent the U S.  That being so, you might very well be asking yourself the wrong questions if you analyse current election results in two party terms.  Yet that is what most commentators have been doing after the federal election just concluded.  So many seats turned on the role of small parties and independents, and one major party is rejoicing even though it barely secured a little more than a third of the overall vote.

So far as I know, Laura Tingle of the AFR, who is in my view our best commentator, is the only one to have said so.

What happened in Eden-Monaro on Saturday night is once again a talisman for this election campaign, but not in the traditional sense.

For, like almost every other seat that has definitively changed hands so far in this election, the real story was not about a swing from one major party to the other but a complex story of shifting minor party votes and preferences.

Understanding what has happened in these seats – and we obviously won’t have a complete picture until the count is complete – is important to understand the lessons of the election.

But it also makes much of the commentary about the strengths and weaknesses of both major parties’ campaigns in recent days fairly farcical…….

What the primary votes suggest is that what was noted throughout the campaign – that neither side of politics had really been able to engage a lot of swinging voters – proved true on polling day; that a myriad of other, often very local factors, had as much of a role in determining the outcome as any national message, and that disillusioned voters turned very deliberately to minor parties instead.

Winning and losing candidates from both major parties report seeing an unprecedented level of local issues affecting votes from booth to booth, whether it be council amalgamations, mobile phone towers and in some smaller centres the ‘Mediscare’…….

Both sides – and both winners and losers – talk of all the voters who quite knowingly voted for minor parties in a vacuum of trust of either leader, and a vacuum which also extended to the Greens…….

In this environment, the election outcome became more of a lottery than normal as the differing preferences of minor parties played out, often against each other.

…….. much of the post-election discussion continues to be conducted as if it were a two horse race.

Poet of the month: Keats

Ode to a Nightingale – Part VIII

Forlorn!  the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu!  the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintiff anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?

Passing bull 51 – Addition


Since John Howard says that he was right in 2003, perhaps I might be forgiven for making the same claim.  In a note about Howard in 2003, I said the following.

Take foreign policy.  I was balloted out of Vietnam.  I did not go.  Nor did any member of this Government go.  Although I did not go, I learned a big lesson about believing my government or following someone else’s.  I did not think that at least one of those lessons would be forgotten, but it apparently has been.  We have gone back to fighting the wars of our master.  How many of its young does a nation have to lose before its government learns? Mr. Howard is ready to follow the U S in a war that will demonstrate to the Muslim world that the U S can mount a unilateral crusade in the name of God against a Muslim state to overturn its government and to Asia that we are the sheep-dog of the U S, and a very well disciplined one at that. How would we like it if a Muslim nation unilaterally started a war to change the government of a Christian nation or the Jewish nation? We might be leaving a legacy of poison that outlives my grandchildren. That is our best result even if every man Mr. Howard sends comes back and all because of the felt need of Mr. Howard to fawn on someone who has been too much fawned upon already.  As for our posturing of military or diplomatic significance, I am reminded of the local paper in Launceston which, in the 1850s, shortly before the Crimean war, said at the start of its editorial, “This newspaper warns the Czar of Russia.”

I append, for those who are interested, the whole note.  It does show, I think, why our faith in our politicians has ebbed away so much.


In his last speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill wondered what would happen “if God wearied of mankind.” In responding to the extracts of the Quadrant paper published in The Australian of 10 January 2003 (“All Hail the Unlikely Savior”) by my friend Peter Ryan, I want to suggest that the answer is that if God had wearied of mankind, God would have given John Winston Howard to Australia. In my view, Mr. Howard was given to Australia to bring out the worst in Australians, and he is at his heart’s ease when he is doing just that.

Take our refusal to apologise to the aborigines.  There is, apparently, some debate in this country about the level or incidence of genocide (as there is in Turkey and Israel about the mass deaths of Armenians). Personally I prefer the evidence of the aborigines not to mention the circumstantial evidence to the advocacy of the Europeans. But some things are clear. The aborigines did not invite the Europeans to take over the country. The Europeans did so. As a result, countless aborigines died and their people are immeasurably worse off, at least in their eyes. If a gentlemen’s club found itself in a similar case, it its present members would apologise. Courtesy would call for nothing else.

But it goes further than that for us. Australia as a nation has to accept responsibility for what happened when it was being built. Just as we celebrate the Anzacs at Gallipoli and Bradman at Lords all generations before most living Australians so we have to accept that others of our forebears behaved with revolting inhumanity in dispossessing the aborigines to make possible the development of Australia as we know it.

Australians used to be smug about the racist attitudes that prevailed in Germany and South Africa. We should not be. They are way ahead of us in truth and reconciliation for their racist histories. As Hannah Arendt made clear (on the final page of Eichmann in Jerusalem) it has nothing to do with collective guilt.

“Every government assumes political responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors and every nation for the deeds and misdeeds of the past.”

Since there is no generational statute of limitations for offences against humanity, this is what we expect from the German nation for what Germans of past generations did to another race. It is what others expect from the Australian nation for what Australians of past generations did to another race. Does the Australian government seriously suggest that the Australian survivors of the Burma Road or Changi, or their families, are now out of time to ask for acknowledgment from the government of Japan, the nation in whose name the relevant offences against humanity were committed? Do we say that since the changing of the guard the German nation is home scot free from Auschwitz? Does anyone who does say that at the risk  of being  called  morally insane state our moral claim to possession of the Ashes  in terms of the exploits  of the present generation of Australian cricketers and nothing more?

Why does Mr. Howard insist on being so mean and petty about squaring off with these other Australians?

Take the republic. We are talking about the future now, not the past.  Did the Prime Minister show leadership? Did the Prime Minister show vision? No all we got was mere politicking designed to preserve the status quo. It was in truth a filibuster­ designed to last a lifetime.  Here was an opportunity to reformulate the nation when it and its world had changed completely since we received our current dispensation in a schedule to an act of Queen Victoria and the Imperial Parliament. Instead we have to tell Asia and our other trading partners that we cannot carry on our affairs without intervention from the English royal family.  Our standing in Asia as a colonial relic has been reinstated, and at a time when we are winning back our reputation as racists.  Australian judges, not our most radical group, began cutting loose from the authority of British courts two generations ago. It was part of our growing up.  What is it with this fetish of Mr. Howard with the British?

All this takes place against the most public and tawdry dissolution of the royal family. There is apparently some convention that we should not mix family and political matters. Why not? That is just what a monarchy does. The top job is hereditary.  It stays in the family. This family is no longer up to it. The heir and his chosen queen have shown that they cannot maintain the most basic oath of fidelity and yet people on this side of the world are expected to honour oaths of allegiance to them.  Is this the best that we can leave our children?

Take the flag. I would like my country to have its own.  I have been to Gallipoli, the Somme and Ypres. I have grieved at each. I have grieved not just because of the Australians who died there, but because of the heartlessness and mindlessness of those who caused the carnage for the most part, not Australians.  I would have thought that each of these memorials is a powerful lesson about being too attached to a flag.  No sane person dies for a flag but each of these places is now part of Australia’s heritage. It is natural to carry the flag there. I would rather do so with Australia’s own flag and not one dominated by the flag of the imperial power responsible for these losses en masse. The standing of that power was not increased by the moral failure of Mr. Jardine, the physical failure of Singapore, or the absorption of Great Britain into Europe.

It is one thing to celebrate a history in terms of loss or failure; we love that here; it is altogether a different thing to venerate those responsible, foreigners or not.  To continue to insist on the maintenance of relics is not to respect the fallen but to refuse their gift.  We may proceed on the footing that they died that Australia might live, not that it might be mummified.

There is some irony in our devotion to a flag that is said to reflect our history. Those who are most fervently for the current flag because of its history are often those most fervently against accepting responsibility for other things that happened in that history. In truth, the flag is a political issue and both sides might usefully consider not invoking Australian dead on their side, if for no other reason than that it is vulgar.  In any event, I cannot believe that my father’s father fought in Flanders so that his grandchildren might be subjected to claptrap about saluting the Union Jack.

Take refugees.  None of that “huddled masses” or “wretched refuse” jazz for us.  We are committed to fight them on the beaches.  Churchill sat there with Dad’s Army waiting for the whole might of the Wehrmacht to be unleashed.  We sent our elite SAS to storm a boat full of unarmed Afghans.  People seeking shelter from Australia are offered a choice they can be held in some slophouse of the Pacific eager to turn a coin in this trade in human misery, or we can jail them indefinitely in a concentration camp in the desert.  Try jailing an Australian indefinitely on the mere say-so of a copper or a politician. All this came to a head in an election campaign in which it is now clear that senior members of the Australian government suborned senior officers of the armed forces.  We as a nation have acquired the ethics of the tobacco companies.  First you harm people, then you lie about it, and then you deal with the evidence to put yourself beyond the reach of the judges -the electorate, or the courts, as the case may be – and if the system goes to plan, you have a sporting chance of getting away with it.

Take foreign policy.  I was balloted out of Vietnam.  I did not go.  Nor did any member of this Government go.  Although I did not go, I learned a big lesson about believing my government or following someone else’s.  I did not think that at least one of those lessons would be forgotten, but it apparently has been.  We have gone back to fighting the wars of our master.  How many of its young does a nation have to lose before its government learns? Mr. Howard is ready to follow the US in a war that will demonstrate to the Muslim world that the U S can mount a unilateral crusade in the name of God against a Muslim state to overturn its government and to Asia that we are the sheep-dog of the U S, and a very well disciplined one at that. How would we like it if a Muslim nation unilaterally started a war to change the government of a Christian nation or the Jewish nation? We might be leaving a legacy of poison that outlives my grandchildren. That is our best result even if every man Mr. Howard sends comes back and all because of the felt need of Mr. Howard to fawn on someone who has been too much fawned upon already.  As for our posturing of military or diplomatic significance, I am reminded of the local paper in Launceston which, in the 1850s, shortly before the Crimean war, said at the start of its editorial, “This newspaper warns the Czar of Russia.”

What do these things say about our government?  It is mean.  It has no imagination.  It does not lead.  If there is any vision, it is bleak. I have seen Australian governments arouse serious hostility, but I cannot recall one making so many Australians feel ashamed to be Australian.  A nation that finished the last century trying to get rid of its mean, timid, colonial, white Australia streak, is reinventing itself in the first part of this century: a country not just of the triumph, but the triumphalism of mediocrity.  While this is the antithesis of the conservatism of Disraeli or Churchill, a comparison with other conservatives may be misleading and unfair. Disraeli had to deal with Bismarck; Churchill had to deal with Hitler and Stalin; Mr. Howard has to deal, on a daily basis, with Gary Morgan, John Laws, and Jana Wendt.  Not for us “those broad sunlit uplands”; we have to stick with the irredeemably prosaic.

Two appointments show a personal animus of Mr. Howard behind these flaws.  The Archbishop of the Church of England not the Church of Thailand or the Church of Iran; one does not play those chaps at cricket – was appointed Governor-General when it was apparent that there were likely to be problems. Trouble did follow the Archbishop to the detriment of the office of Governor-General. He is, however, still there, although irrelevant and an embarrassment to everyone. Mr. Howard has remained obdurate. We have gone from a man who could unite the nation, and who was respected, to one who reminds many of its cruelest moments, and who is not trusted.

Take the appointment of the successor to Justice Gaudron. It would not have taken much to have made an appointment that would not have told half the country that they are not up to it.  No, Justice Heydon was appointed with the ludicrous statement that the appointment was apolitical.  Of course it was political. The government wanted a dead-set conservative it thought it could rely on. (It was presumably this ideology that underlay the gruesome kamikaze attack on “the gadfly” (Justice Kirby) by Mr. Howard’s friend.)  Extensive interviews were conducted to ensure compatibility.  Justice Heydon revealed his thinking on the High Court in what might fairly be described as a polemic.  It is apparently to be published in Quadrant.  Peter Ryan, also  a contributor to Quadrant, is well pleased that “that august tribunal will finally resume its former status of universal esteem” (unless, I suppose, the person forming the estimation is a woman, or an admirer of Justice Gaudron, or had views about income  tax becoming optional under the Barwick court).  Heaven knows the country needs a respectable intelligentsia of the right, but an appointment to the High Court of a conservative lawyer by a conservative government is hardly a seemly occasion for a congratulatory confraternity of contributors to Quadrant.  Just think what the stink would have been like if a couple of the true believers had got one of their own up, and had skited about it in one of their journals. (Who could forget the reaction at the Melbourne Bar when the late Justice Murphy was appointed?  Some wanted to cancel courtesy and boycott the welcome, at a time when the Court was wilfully distorting the law to suit the supporters of the parties that had appointed every other member of the Court.)  In the end, we have lost an Australian success story for the drab uniformity of seven pin-striped eggheads.  This was indeed a signature appointment by Mr. Howard.

Can’t say sorry to the aborigines.  Can’t say goodbye to the British.  Can’t say no to the Americans. A hemisphere out of place; a century out of date; and not a principle to be seen. The spiritual heir of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Mr. Howard, is a relic lost among the cobwebs of the colony he cannot escape from. 

Do these attitudes of the Prime Minister have something in common? There is the visceral insecurity of the kind you associate with a serial loser.  There is obviously a belief that Australia as a nation cannot stand on its own two feet – it is not grown up yet.  We have in this Prime Minister a natural retardant.  More worryingly, there is a distrust of the ordinary Australian which has for too long been the inarticulate premise of what passes for the conservative side of politics in this country. As a result, while there is not much on the left, there is even less on the right.  We have arrived at bleakness visible, and at least one generation of Australians is about ready to give up.

Passing bull 51 Missing the point – or answering the wrong charge


If you are charged with rape, there is not much point in saying that you’re not guilty of murder.  Socrates tried that on and took hemlock.  But Blair and Howard are doing exactly the same.  They say that although they took their nation into a war on a false premise, they were not guilty of lying.

Let us give them the benefit of the doubt on lying.  They are on any view guilty of having taken their nation into a war on a false premise.  It goes much further than that.  As I have sought to show elsewhere, they were guilty of misrepresentation.  Leaders cannot reveal the nature of their advice on intelligence.  We just have to take them on trust.  When they recommend war on the basis of secret intelligence, they are telling us that their intelligence is sufficient to warrant that decision.  In the case of Iraq, that representation was false.  And Sir John Chilcot offers them no comfort.  (Is it not surprising how quickly people can unpick a report of 2.6 million words?)

And do you remember that time under the Westminster system when we made such a fuss about misleading parliament?  And when it was not enough for a minister to say the civil service had badly advised him?

Now Howard has made it worse.  According to him, our problems with terrorism do not derive from the decision of Blair, Bush, and Howard to start the war on false premises. They derive from the decision of President Obama to end the war – which he was elected to do.

There is a view, which I think has a lot of merit, that if the process or the aftermath of the surge had been reinforced by a greater continuing Western, particularly American, presence, the situation would have been lot more stable.

Howard’s successor as the Australian PM took us out of Iraq, too, but notwithstanding the terms on which President Obama was elected, he should have continued to shed American blood in defiance of the military maxim that you don’t reinforce a losing position.  The presumption of Little Johnnie passes belief.

Another problem for Blair was like that of another Boy Napoleon, Boris Johnson.  He got all dressed up and then found that he did not know where to go.  The target nation fell apart, and it is madness to suggest that the people of Iraq and the rest of the world are not so much worse off as a result.  Madness.

But Howard’s mates stay loyal.  Mr Greg Sheridan says:

Listening to Tony Blair’s epic press conference and John Howard’s shorter but no less commanding performance, I was struck by just what master politicians these two men were, and how far they tower over all their successors from both sides of politics in either country.

Thirteen years after the events, these two giants are still masters of all the detail, picking their way through the fog of war in real time. 

The most important conclusion arising out of Chilcot is that there is nothing of substance that is new……Chilcot establishes yet again that the intelligence agencies didn’t lie and Blair, Howard and George W Bush didn’t lie about the intelligence agencies.

Chilcot rightly concludes that Blair oversold the intelligence, giving the impression that it was much more certain than it was.

What worse fault can a prime minister commit than to mislead his nation about going to war?  Then we get this:

Howard yesterday was on his strongest ground in arguing that it is utterly intellectually dishonest to attribute the terrible instability and conflict in the Middle East today to Iraq.

Islamic State emerged out of Syria….

As it happens, of the facing page of The Australian today there is a detailed analysis from The Times headed ‘How Islamic State rose up from the ashes of Iraq conflict.’  The analysis warrants the headline.

The reactions of Blair and Howard, and the bullshit of their supporters, show why people have lost all faith in the political system.

Poet of the month: Keats

Ode to a Nightingale – Part VIII

Forlorn!  the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu!  the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintiff anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?

Passing bull 50 – Shoving it up the elite

With the political rise of ghastly people like Farage, Trump, and Hanson, and the rejection of the two party system of government – the only kind of democracy we’ve known here or the in the U K or the U S – there has been a lot of bullshit about ordinary people shoving it up the elite.  You will get different takes on what the phrase ‘ordinary people’ might mean – we no longer speak of the common people, and only Marxists ever embraced the ‘masses’.  In the current context, it tends to be applied to people who are missing out on the benefits of globalisation, technology, and immigration, and are at the lower end of an increasingly unequal spread of wealth and income.  My own view is that inequality is the biggest problem of our time.  I’m fortified in that conclusion by the fierceness with which doctrinaire reactionaries dispute it.

I wish to say four things about the current fashion of shoving it up the elite.

The first is that ‘elite’ means ‘chosen’.  The OED has ‘the choice part or flower (of society, etc.).’  Well, we don’t dislike people because they’ve been chosen, or elected, to play for the Wallabies or the All Blacks, and so have become part of their nation’s sporting elite.  Nor do we ordinarily react to people good enough to be the captain or dux of a school, and so part of the elite or flower of the school.  But some react against people getting into Eton, or Melbourne Grammar.  The relevant emotion is called envy.   People can be put out when they see some much better off than them.  This timeless tension between the haves and have-nots – it’s what got Eve thrown out of Eden – is reflected in two clichés: ‘the tall poppy syndrome’ and ‘having a chip a chip on your shoulder.’  We are world class exponents of each down here.

The second point is that if some people are objecting to others for being better off, we may want to ask in what ways the objectors are worse off.  Well, they may obviously be worse off in wealth and income.  And they may also be worse off in upbringing and manners.  We all tend to feel differences between creeds and peoples, but those who are well brought up usually have the manners that prevent those feelings hurting others and creating division in the community.  People fortunate enough to have come from good homes or to have gone to good schools are less likely to allow any innate bigotry to give offence.  But it is the people who are not so fortunate who are appealed to by the likes of Trump, Farage, and Hanson.  They go straight to the gutter.  You will not find many supporters of Farage who went to Eton or many supporters of Hanson who went to Melbourne Grammar.  We have seen what people like Hanson can do in Australia – aided by people like Jones and Bolt – and we are now seeing just how hateful bigotry can be when it is unleashed by someone like Farage.  And when did you last hear a well educated person saying that they subscribe to the views of Bolt or Jones?

Now, the hardline reactionaries respond to this simple observation by invoking the label of snobbery.  Well, perhaps we’ve got something to be snobbish about.  I don’t know anyone who would allow anyone like Trump, Farage or Hanson into their home – much less their deluded acolytes.  In the name of Heaven, is it not plain that these people are invoking a stratagem that is as old as the Bible and as infected as Hitler and Stalin – the scapegoat?  And we certainly have got things to be snobbish about with the mainstream politicians.  We now have in Victoria our first unclean state government and the (former) leader of the federal opposition has earned the title of Billy Liar.

The third thing is that when members of the press celebrate this rejection of the elite, they don’t realise, or they just decline to accept, that they are an integral part of what people are rejecting.  Our press here in particular has failed to monitor and analyse our politics.  The commentary is short-term and partisan.  If you fail in politics you get a job with Murdoch or Sky.  Just look at the bitchy and witchy backbiting and infighting going on between former Liberal staffers on Sky.  They are not commentators – they are fighters; they are parties to the cleavage.  It is not so much that people are rebelling or revolting against an elite – they are appalled by the whole bloody system, of which the press is an essential part.  The hypocrisy of the press more than matches that of our politicians.

The fourth thing is that it doesn’t add much to say that when people like Farage, Trump, or Hanson, enjoy electoral success, this is democracy at work, and we should be heartened to know that we have ascertained the will of the people.  All judges, juries, and peoples can make mistakes.  Those who lose on a plebiscite may or may not have to live with the answer, but they don’t have to agree to it.  This expensive form of opinion poll may have legal consequences, but it is unlikely to have moral consequences.  The instrument can of course be abused.  Some, including me, think that the proposed plebiscite on same sex marriage is an odious consequence of a factional split among conservatives – as was the recent plebiscite in the U K.  The will or voice of the people has no claim to moral endorsement.  Napoleon and Hitler knew how to get overwhelming endorsement from the vox populi- the voice of the people.  When that voice belongs to people like Farage, Trump, or Hanson, it is both envenomed and venomous.

Poet of the month: Keats

This living hand, now warm and capable

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And that thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –

I hold it towards you.

Passing bull 49 – Et tu, Gove, and Nordic noir


There is so much bull in the UK fiasco, but Dante would have to have created a new circle at the very bottom of hell to accommodate Michael Gove.  It is too distressing to talk about, so I will mention some bull of a lighter nature.

Nordic noir is fashionable.  One competent exponent is Anne Holt.  She lives in Oslo.  I just read her thriller Dead Joker.  The lead character is a woman in the police of high rank who lives with her partner.  At a critical time in an investigation, and in the lives of various parties, she goes to bed with one of her officers – who happens to be a man.  He has already generated a number of bastards from prior unions, but he is about to marry the most recent mother – who is also a police officer.  His boss was slated to give the speech of the best woman.  It may have caused something of a stir if she had had to confess that she had been made pregnant by the groom.

They apparently got themselves into this frightful fix when at least one of them became entranced by music.  It was a piano concerto.  It was said to be by Schubert.  The trouble is that so far as I know, Schubert never wrote a piano concerto.  I bet that the author was thinking of Brahms’ second piano concerto, the third movement.  It is as beautiful a piece of music as I have heard.

Whether it is powerful enough to achieve the effects here described might I suppose be an accident of history.  But if you want to test the issue get the version by Claudio Arrau with Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  It is a recording of surpassing beauty.  I’m due to visit Stockholm and Oslo shortly, but I will leave that recording home, for fear of unsettling the natives.

Poet of the month: Keats

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific – and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise –

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Finally, the people of Victoria get a chance to vote tomorrow for the CFA in what is clearly a federal issue.  I urge all people – whether in the bush or not – to vote to save the CFA.  And like the O’Connells of old in Richmond – vote early, vote hard, and vote often.