Passing Bull 70 – What’s wrong with being an activist?

Activists are people who are active about trying to change the world to make it better.  They are rebels with a cause.  What’s wrong with that?  I was once diagnosed as being prone to rebellion, and that is one diagnosis that I am proud of.  (There are a few that I’m not.)

Well, some activists make some people tetchy.  A lot of animal rights people do that for me – a bunch of drama queens who would prefer to see me get killed by a roo, snake or a shark – the first may be the most lethal if you live and drive in the bush – rather than undertake the necessary cull.  They have a view of creation that I find very odd, especially in a people most of whom eat killed meat or fish.

But of late, ‘activist’ has become a term of abuse in the mouths of some.  The main targets are those who bring to our conscience our treatment of refugees.  Most Australians don’t want to know the cruelty being done to others in their name, so the silencers have a ready audience for their facile labels.  For the silencers, the whole of the ABC is just one heaving mass of activists.

In the name of heaven, the mere sight or sound of Peter Dutton would be enough to drive the quietest person to the most frenetic activism.

Let me reflect on some of the better known activists.  Take Jesus of Nazareth and Socrates.  Well, we fixed each of them up for their troubles.  Take Kant and Spinoza.  The first got warned off by the King of Prussia; the latter got excommunicated, something a lot of Jews will say is impossible.  Take Muhammad Ali – well, Uncle Sam fixed him up.  Above all, take those who led the campaign to abolish slavery in England. Here was the first orchestrated political campaign to change public opinion.  This was a colossal triumph for civilisation and Christianity, in particular the Church of England and the Quakers.  The latter knew what it was like to be on the outer, both in England and in America.  Why were they on the outer?  Because they refused to conform.

May blessings be upon those who are ready to stand up and be counted.

Poet of the month: Verlaine

The Innocents

High heels fought with their long dresses,

So that, a question of slopes and breezes,

Ankles sometimes glimmered to please us,

Ah, intercepted! – Dear foolishnesses!


Sometimes a jealous insect’s sting

Troubled necks of beauties under the branches,

White napes revealed in sudden flashes

A feast for our young eyes’ wild gazing.


Evening fell, ambiguous autumn evening:

The beauties, dreamers who leaned on our arms,

Whispered soft words, so deceptive, such charms,

That our souls were left quivering and singing.


Hillary Clinton

T S Eliot once made a remark to the effect that Hamlet shows a level of emotion beyond what the evidence dictates.  The same goes for Hillary Clinton.  Like everyone else, she has her faults, but flirting with truth and a hunger for power are not disqualifiers for a politician; the contrary is the case.  Why is she loathed, and why does that loathing lead people to refuse to vote against the lowest form of life ever to have crawled out from under a rock, and the greatest threat to world order since Adolf Hitler?  I ran into an American woman who told me that women could not forgive Hillary for not ditching Bill.  Since this woman was full of God, this seemed a curious view of the sacrament of marriage.  It confirmed my suspicion that the loathing was irrational.

That is the view of a very well-reasoned piece in The Economist.  It goes over all the evidence.  On the emails, it refers to Michael Chertoff, the lead Republican counsel in one of the many probes into Mrs Clinton.  He has endorsed her and said that the emails are ‘very, very insignificant compared to the fundamental issue of how to protect the country.’  It is very, very hard to formulate the contrary view.  The Economist concludes that ‘it is hard not to conclude that latent sexism is a bigger reason for her struggles.’  We know something about that here, but even we didn’t wear T-shirts  saying ‘Trump that bitch’ or ‘Hillary sucks but not like Monica.’  As the paper says ‘the first baby-boomer president and his pushy wife presented a cultural shift that much of America feared.’  We have spent eight years watching precisely the same reaction to the first black president.  Anyone who believes a word that Trump utters is not too bright – the paper quotes a recent poll that says that 73% of Republicans say the election could be ‘stolen’.

The American press has a lot to answer for. ‘Mrs Clinton’s strengths, including the most detailed platform of any candidate, do not make interesting news.’  It is worse than that.  Research at Harvard of eight mainstream outlets, including CBS, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, found that they were more critical of Mrs Clinton than any other candidate on either side.  For six months, she got three cons for every pro; for Trump, it was two to one the other way.  ‘Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton.’

Propaganda playing on prejudice not adequately scrutinised by the press leaves us on the brink.

Frauke Petry

The New Yorker has a piece on Frauke Petry the leader of AfD, the far right party in Germany.  She attracts the names ‘Adolfina’ and ‘die Führerin’ and placards ‘Voting AfD is so 1933’, but she is appallingly bright and good looking, and therefore very different to our model.  Interestingly, and worryingly, the membership is 85% male.  I wonder what the figure is here, but you might read this note with the one above.

George Brandis

To a lawyer who has spent about equal time on each side of the profession, the latest blunder of the man they call Bookshelves derives from his wanting to be able to shop around for politically congenial legal advice.  Justin Gleeson is obviously very bright, an excellent lawyer, and a truly independent professional.  Brandis is none of those things.  Naturally, Laura Tingle got it right in the AFR, but the folks at The Australian got it hopelessly wrong, in the case of Chris Kenny, hilariously so.

Even by Bookshelves’ standards, this is bloody serious.  Too many soi disant leaders of my profession just sing the club song and fail to give independent professional advice.  Quite possibly the worst Law Officer in our history is now lending his considerable weight to that decline.

As political train wrecks go, Brandis is up there with Dutton.  God help us.

Passing Bull 69 – Secrecy and Camps

In The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (2005), Richard Evans says of concentration camps in the Reich that officers and guards were banned from talking about their work:

Communication between inmates and their relatives or friends was restricted; officers and guards were banned from talking about their work to outsiders.  What happened in the camps was meant to be shrouded in mystery.  Attempts by the regular police and prosecution authorities to investigate murders that took place there in the early years were generally rebuffed.  By 1936, the concentration camps had become institutions beyond the law.  On the other hand, however, the regime made no secret at all of the basic fact of their existence.  The opening of Dachau in 1933 was widely reported in the press, and further stories told how Communist, and Reichsbanner and ‘Marxist’ functionaries who endangered state security were being sent there; how numbers of inmates grew rapidly into the hundreds; how they were being set to work; and how lurid atrocity stories of what went on inside were incorrect.  The fact that people were publicly warned in the press not to try and peer into the camp, and would be shot if they tried to climb the walls, only served to increase the general fear and apprehension that these stories must have spread.  What happened in the camps was a nameless horror that was all the more potent because its reality could only be guessed at from the broken bodies and spirits of inmates when they were released.  There could be few more frightening indications of what would happen to people who engaged in political opposition or expressed political dissent, or, by 1938 – 9, deviated from the norms of behaviour to which the citizen of the Third  Reich was supposed to adhere. 

Well, that kind of evil madness could only happen in a totalitarian state like Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s USSR, could it not?  No.  It is happening here.  The Australian Border Force Act 2015 is presumably part of what Tony Abbott calls his legacy.  S 42 provides for secrecy in terms that Stalin and Hitler would have gazed on in wonder.


             (1)  A person commits an offence if:

                     (a)  the person is, or has been, an entrusted person; and

                     (b)  the person makes a record of, or discloses, information; and

                     (c)  the information is protected information.

Penalty:  Imprisonment for 2 years.


             (2)  Subsection (1) does not apply if:

                     (a)  the making of the record or disclosure is authorised by section 43, 44, 45, 47, 48 or 49; or

                     (b)  the making of the record or disclosure is in the course of the person’s employment or service as an entrusted person; or

                     (c)  the making of the record or disclosure is required or authorised by or under a law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory; or

                     (d)  the making of the record or disclosure is required by an order or direction of a court or tribunal.

Note:          A defendant bears an evidential burden in relation to a matter in subsection (2) (see subsection 13.3(3) of the Criminal Code).

The relevant terms are of course defined in cascading rainbows or snow jobs, but doing the best I can to apply this law – which like most contemporary legislation is just about indecipherable – a person employed in one of our offshore camps would breach this law if she told her husband that a colleague at work had broken wind after biting into a bad mandarin.

This law is a confession of our shame at the highest and most formal level.  No wonder people look on us so darkly in Europe.  We should all be ashamed.  Instead, we just shoot the messenger.

Poet of the Month: Verlaine

Through Interminable Land…

Through interminable land

Ennui of the plain,

Vague snow once again

Gleams like sand.

The sky is copper

Devoid of any light,

You might almost gather

The moon had lived and died.

Floating clouds

Grey oak-trees lift

In near-by woods

Among the mists.

The sky is copper

Devoid of any light,

You might almost gather

The moon had lived and died.

Wheezing crow

You gaunt wolves too,

When north winds blow

How do you do?

Through interminable land

Ennui of the plain,

Vague snow once again

Gleams like sand.

Passing Bull 58 – Madness at Medicare

My local clinic is pursuing me to collect a debt of less than $100 that has been outstanding for six months.  I sent my second or third query to Medicare on line.  I got an automated response saying that the issue could not be resolved by email, but that I should ring them.  I made the call a few minutes ago, and sent the following email to my shy correspondent at the other department of Medicare.


I waited fifteen minutes on my first attempt.  I spoke to someone on the second attempt – at 3.40 am – but you had not passed on my inquiry to that department, and I had deleted my copy.  The person I was dealing with could tell me that the file showed I had been sent a letter about my inquiry in April – which I do not recall – but she could not arrange to send another.  Since she was not told by you of your inquiry, she could go no further in answering it, even though someone had been able to write a letter about it six months.  Your left hand is forbidden to know what your right hand is doing, and I remain threatened by a law suit.

Basil Fawlty could not have bettered this.  I shall wearily take the matter further.  I don’t need callous nonsense from my own government when dealing with a flak-catcher before dawn.

This could drive citizens clean out of their minds.

Poet of the Month: Verlaine

Sadness, The Bodily Weariness…

Sadness, the bodily weariness of man,

Have moved me, swayed me, made me pity.

Ah, most when dark slumbers take me,

When sheets score the skin, oppress the hand.

And how weak in tomorrow’s fever

Still warm from the bath that withers

Like a bird on a rooftop that shivers!

And feet, in pain from the road forever,

And the chest, bruised by a double-blow,

And the mouth, still a bleeding wound,

And the trembling flesh, a fragile mound,

And the eyes, poor eyes, so lovely that so

Hint at the sorrow of seeing the end! …

Sad body! So frail, so tormented a friend!

Passing Bull 67 – Nonsense about Rome

Rubicon by Tom Holland has been handsomely republished by the Folio Society.  It is a work of popular history that leaves you frequently wondering how long it has been since you read a statement of verifiable fact.  The style is racy.  We are told for example that Cleopatra was ‘not given to sleeping around; far from it.  Her favours were the most exclusive in the world.’  How would we know how many men or women Cleopatra slept with?

We are also told:

Roman morality did not look kindly on female forwardness.  Fragility was the ultimate marital ideal.  It was taken for granted, for instance, that ‘a matron has no need of lascivious squirmings’ – anything more than a rigid, dignified immobility was regarded as the mark of a prostitute.

But fifteen pages later we are told:

Early every December, women from the noblest families in the Republic would gather to celebrate the mysterious rights of the Good Goddess.  The festival was strictly off-limits to men.  Even their statues had to be veiled for the occasion.  Such secrecy fuelled any number of prurient male fantasies.  Every citizen knew that women were depraved and promiscuous by nature.

Those statements about the sex lives of women in ancient Rome have three things in common.  They are general.  They are not supported by evidence.  And they are not consistent.  How would we know?  It is a long time since I studied Catullus, but his erotic poetry doesn’t suggest that the heavy breathing was all male, and why did Ovid bother with The Art of Love if the boys were puckering up to cardboard cut-outs?  And what about human nature?  As the man said in that funny play, the world must be peopled.

The myth that ancient Athens and Rome were civilised dies hard.  Western civilisation is premised on the dignity of the individual.  If you want chapter and verse it is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, 1-17), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 70), and the Enlightenment (Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, par.4.435).

Neither Athens nor Rome accepted that premise.  The wealth of each was based on slavery and empire.  Gibbon began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misère des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’  Mr Holland appears to find nobility in the exploitation of slaves by the Romans.

This exploitation was what underpinned everything that was noblest about the Republic – its culture and citizenship, its passion for freedom, its dread of disgrace and shame.  It was not merely that the leisure which enabled a citizen to devote himself to the Republic was dependent upon the forced labour of others.  Slaves also satisfied a subtler, more baneful need.  ‘Gain cannot be made without loss to someone else’: so every Roman took for granted.  All status was relative.  What value would freedom have in a world where everyone was free?  Even the poorest citizen could know himself to be immeasurably the superior of even the best-treated slave.  Death was preferable to a life without liberty: so the entire history of the Republic had gloriously served to prove.  If a man permitted himself to be enslaved, that he thoroughly deserved his fate.  Such was the harsh logic that prevented anyone from even questioning the cruelties the slaves suffered, let alone the legitimacy of slavery itself.

What part of that would not apply to the Third Reich?  On the next page we are reminded of the practice of decimation: if a Roman general did not like the way his soldiers were performing, he would take out by lot every tenth man and have him publicly beaten to death as an example to the rest.

Here is another windy statement about the Republic.  ‘A Republic ruled by violence would hardly be a Republic at all.’  Violence was everywhere throughout the history of the Republic.  Only one of the big hitters in the last century of the Republic died in his bed.  It was the same with the Empire.  Gibbon said:

Such was the unhappy fate of the Roman emperors, that whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same. A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of slavery and murder.

For about 700 years, ancient Rome made a modern banana republic look stable.

Julius Caesar was a mass murderer.  He was at his worst in France (then known as Gaul) during election times.  He would massacre hundreds of thousands in wars he engineered for that purpose in order to improve his electoral standing in Rome.  Mr Holland tells us:

In Caesar’s energy there was something demonic and sublime.  Touched by boldness, perseverance and a yearning to be the best, it was the spirit of the Republic at its most inspiring and lethal.  No wonder that his men worshipped him, for they too were Roman, and felt privileged to be sharing in their general’s great adventure.  Battle-hardened by years of campaigning, they were in no mood to panic now at the peril of the situation.  Their faith in Caesar and their own invincibility held good.

Doubtless Hitler felt this way when he entered Paris. Mr Holland then tells us that the ancient authors – it is Plutarch – estimated that the conquest of Gaul had cost one million dead, one million more enslaved, and 800 cities taken by storm.  If Plutarch was right, Hitler let the French off lightly.  ‘Demonic’ would be an understatement: but how on earth could this be sublime?

To the Romans, no truer measure of a man could be found than his capacity to withstand grim ordeals of exhaustion and blood.  By such a reckoning, Caesar had proved himself the foremost man in the Republic.

But a little further on we are told in the context of a discussion of the libido of Caesar:

Even to men who had followed their general through unbelievable hardships, his sexual prowess spelled effeminacy.  Great though Caesar had proved himself, steel-hard in body and mind, the moral codes of the Republic were unforgiving.  A citizen could never afford to slip.  Dirt on a toga would always show.

So, we again have large statements about attitudes to sex that just ignore human nature. Are we to believe that Caesar’s soldiers thought less of him as a man because he enjoyed giving it to women as much as he enjoyed killing men?

Cicero may be the most overrated windbag in all history.  His death was pathetic.  It came with the proscription of Augustus.

After all, as Cato had taught him, there were nightmares worse than death.  Trapped by his executioners at last, Cicero leaned out from his litter and bared his throat to the sword.  This was the gesture of a gladiator, and one he had always admired.  Defeated in the greatest and deadliest of all games, he unflinchingly accepted his fate.  He died as he would surely have wished: bravely, a martyr to freedom and to freedom of speech.

That is pure bullshit.  I wonder if perhaps Mr Holland is a libertarian?

Poet of the Month: Verlaine


This is no moonstruck dreamer of tales

Mocking ancestral portraits overhead;

His gaiety, alas, is, like his candle, dead –

And his spectre haunts us now, thin as a rail.

There, in the terror of endless lightning,

His pale blouse, a cold wind blows, takes shape

Like a winding sheet, and his mouth agape

Seems to howl at the blind worms’ gnawing.

With the sound of a night-bird’s passing grace,

His white sleeves mark out vaguely in space

Wild foolish signs to which no one replies.

His eyes are vast holes where phosphorus burns,

And his make-up renders more frightful in turn

The bloodless face, the sharp nose, of one who dies.

Passing bull 67 – The school choir, gibberish, and hypocrisy at The Australian

In The Australian of  24 September, three writers sang as a choir after the Prime Minister made a speech in New York that they liked on a subject that has many Australians very upset.

Greg Sheridan

Malcolm hits his stride with refugee barriers

Turnbull’s clear, strong statements in New York in defence of the Howard – Abbott – Turnbull policies on immigration and asylum seeker policy represent vindication of the distinctive Australian approach.

The effective conversion of the British and German leaders, Theresa May and Angela Merkel, to a similar approach demonstrates the soundness of our policy.

Turnbull sounded this week like the self-confident leader of a centre – right government, moderately conservative but tough-minded, pragmatic and compassionate, who has come to grips with one of the most wicked policy dilemmas in contemporary life.

That is his best register.  It is the hope of his government and to some extent of Australian politics.  It represents a Turnbull liberation from the gruesome shackles of political correctness.

Chris Kenny

Promising signs of good governance as Turnbull’s team sharpens its performance

The split-second volatility of modern political commentary – like the computer-driven peaks and troughs of modern markets – has an ill-defined but undeniable influence on outcomes.  One of the reasons political leadership has been so unstable in recent years is that the media has jumped en masse to polls and prodding, and this has spooked impressionable politicians…

After seizing the job a year ago he [Turnbull] invited upon himself  four significant burdens: a lack of legitimacy because of how he attained the job; inflated expectations as the public and the media invested their hopes in him; the imperative to deliver on economic reform; and the need to retain power by winning an election.……

Post-election, the legitimacy issue no longer lingers (although many conservatives will never forgive his treachery)…

Certainly his rhetoric on border protection in New York this week suggests the Prime Minister is no longer worried about sounding like an Eastern suburbs version of his predecessor…[There is a clear message from Turnbull regarding ‘people smugglers.’]   Staying strong on such issues reassures not only the public but also the conservative MPs in his own party.

To assert leadership and offer comfort to the broader electorate he is also going to have to speak more openly about the issues of domestic Islamic extremism and Muslim integration.

Dennis Shanahan

Look who has rediscovered his mojo in words of unabashed conservatism

Across time, Turnbull has learned to balance his natural lesson-than-conservative nature and real commitment to encouraging social harmony with the hard words that reassure the broader public on border protection and the threat of Islamist terror.…

‘The public are entitled to expect their government will control their borders’, he said after he publicly adopted John Howard’s fundamental line on determining ‘who comes to our country’ as the basis for a strong humanitarian program.

Turnbull doesn’t see the apparent development and correctly says he was always comfortable with the policy of tough border protection.  Of course, and he acknowledged this past week in Parliament, the present success stands on the achievements of Howard and Tony Abbott.

Well, guess which team these boys play for. There is no doubt about what faction of the Liberal Party these three subscribe to, but what do they mean by the word ‘conservative’?  Where did we get this obsession with border protection and Islam and political correctness?  And does anyone on this earth really believe that people like Angela Merkel or Theresa May are influenced by John Howard or Tony Abbott?

All this may be bullshit, but that can hardly be said of these two extracts from Jennifer Oriel.



There is something rather dangerous about the gay marriage debate – and it is not homosexuality or marriage.

It is the view widely held by our political Left that liberal democratic precepts can be overridden whenever they interfere with politically correct ideology.

Not content merely to deny the democratic mandate of millions who endorsed the same-sex marriage plebiscite by voting the coalition into power, Labor is sowing civil hatred as social order.

The abysmal and divisive new ethos of Labor is the audacity of hate.…

It is reframing the plebiscite debate by exploiting fear and manipulating emotion.  In one short week, labour has succeeded in reframing the founding principles of liberal democracy as manifestations of hatred – all in the name of love, of course.

In Labor’s grand lexicon of doublespeak, public reason, active citizenship, and the human right to free thought and speech, freedom of association and religion are mistranslated into forms of hatred.  And the citizen who seeks active participation in democracy by advocating for the same–sex marriage plebiscite is, by extension, hatred personified.

Increasingly it is the case that whenever a question of social reform arises, the political Left reverts to the audacity of hate to coerce people into conformity.

Its default position is to mob and vilify dissenters.

It acts as though Australia were a country under democratic socialism rather than liberal democracy…

During the last week, the Socialist Left position on gay marriage has been promulgated by Labor, the Greens and the state media institutions that consistently prosecute the Left party line: SBS and ABC.


The US presidential race is a tale of two philistines whose common promise is a descent into darkness.  Each has rejected the animating spirit of the traditional Left and Right – the God of reason and the God of grace – whose unity gave birth to the modern West and the free world.

In the place of enlightenment, Hillary Clinton champions emotionalism, unreason and the barbarian fetish for supernatural rule over the sovereignty of liberal democratic people.  Donald Trump rises on a reactionary platform typified by an oppositional stance to anything establishment.  Neither champions reason.  Neither champions the form of freedom.  Neither promises the redemption that America so desperately needs.…

Rather, Trump’s America is a counter-revolution in waiting.  We know what has preceded it: the neo-Marxist march against Western civilisation whose gross dilation finds form in state-sanctified minority supremacy and the political correctness that sustains it.  But no one knows what might proceed from a Trump presidency except a counter-revolution against P C Left culture by the progressive dismantling of its government agencies, the media, the activist judiciary and universities…

Neither Trump nor Clinton augurs the restoration of American greatness.  But Trump is brash and arrogant enough to lead a counter-revolution on the premise of American exceptionalism.  The brutal lesson of Trump’s ascendancy is that to battle the philistines, sometimes you have to act like one.

That is just gibberish.

But the prize for bullshit in hypocrisy goes to Janet Albrechtsen.  She says that an American commentator on Trump ‘understood what so many conceited commentators don’t get.’

Chatting among like-minded people is the surest way to close your mind to reasoned debate.  It inhibits the gathering of knowledge and intellectual honesty.

It fairly takes your breath away.

Poet of the Month: Verlaine




The moon is red on the misted horizon;

In a fog that dances, the meadow

Sleeps in the smoke, frogs bellow

In green reeds through which frissons run;

The lilies close their shutters,

The poplars stretch far away,

Tall and serried, their spectres stray;

Among bushes the fireflies flicker;

The owls are awake, in soundless flight

They row through the air on heavy wings,

The zenith fills, sombrely glowing.

Pale Venus emerges, and it is Night.

Passing bull 66 – Fallacies in debate

When I started in defamation trials more than forty years ago, there was a fallacy that there was a defence to defamation of ‘gross and vulgar abuse’ – ‘I was full and I didn’t really mean to go over the top like that.’  There was of course no such defence.  The most that you could argue is that in all the circumstances, the words complained of did not bear the meaning contended for by the plaintiff.  Decades later, a young woman starting in politics came to me complaining that on election night her opponent had called her a ‘fucking whore’ in the presence of others.  I suggested that she might cop a lot worse than that before she was finished and that it might be better to get on with her life.  She rang back, and said that she felt affronted as a human being and wanted to sue.  When we did, the other side said he was drunk and that this was merely ‘gross and vulgar abuse.’  The client and I thought this made the libel worse.  So did the court.

Trump has sought to use the same fallacy to excuse his vile sex tape.  You just change the label on the box – a libel becomes mere vulgar abuse; an affront to women becomes mere locker room banter.  It doesn’t work; it makes the original offence worse.  What is ‘locker room banter’?  It’s what men say when there are no women present.  That’s when they are frank, and let their hair down.  That’s when the truth comes out.  Like when they’re full.  In vino veritas.  It is decades since I was in a locker room but the relevant sayings then included: ‘They’re all the same height horizontal.’  ‘They’re all pink inside.’ ‘Hang them upside down and they’re all sisters.’ ‘A rising prick has no conscience.’  So, if this was a locker-room banter, we know that it expresses true feelings.  They are of course absolutely in character here.  What was said was not just offensive to women, but an affront to humanity.  The man is a pig.  And the worst part was the sniggering sycophancy of a member of the Bush family.

A second fallacy was also typical.  The ad hominem response.  ‘She says I’m guilty; she’s more guilty; her husband’s the worst of the lot’.  There was a grotesque parade of complainants.  This fallacy reached the level of insanity.  ‘Yes I exploited a tax loop-hole, but she is also to blame because she was a member of the Senate that failed to block the loop-hole.’  This type of mutual personal abuse is what is killing politics.

The worst fallacy was in calling this televised bullfight or TV ringside a debate.  In a debate, people use rational arguments to try to persuade others of their argument.  A presidential debate would involve trying to persuade others that you have the character, training, and experience to be President.  You hardly see any of that.  All you get is a brawl as part of reality TV.  And the TV stations are up to their necks in promoting it as such.  Why not?  That’s their business.  The result is that there is no meaning to the question who ‘won’ the ‘debate’ because there was no such thing.  If you had a real debate between these two, Trump could never win.  He is morally and intellectually incapable of sustaining a rational argument.  It follows that when people say Trump ‘won’, they are saying that he was the better showman on the reality TV show.  That is of course his real trade.

And that is why Andrew Bolt celebrated Trump’s comeback and denounced the liberal press for not saying enough about the crimes of the Clintons.

Save Our Souls.

Poet of the Month: Verlaine


The moon is red on the misted horizon;

In a fog that dances, the meadow

Sleeps in the smoke, frogs bellow

In green reeds through which frissons run;

The lilies close their shutters,

The poplars stretch far away,

Tall and serried, their spectres stray;

Among bushes the fireflies flicker;

The owls are awake, in soundless flight

They row through the air on heavy wings,

The zenith fills, sombrely glowing.

Pale Venus emerges, and it is Night.

A libertine

The mythical figure of Don Juan is a man who would do anything to get what he wants from others, especially women.  He has no conscience at all.  He is what we call a libertine.  The Oxford English Dictionary says: ‘A man (rarely a woman) who is not restrained by moral law; one who leads a licentious life.’  The editors quote Ophelia’s response to the inherited moralising of her brother:

Whiles like a puffed up reckless libertine

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads.

The libertine is like a badly spoiled child who has never been taught manners.  He is transfixed by his own image and he cannot think beyond himself.  His speciality is loveless sex.  He is not just frank but boastful of what he sees as his conquests, but he would tell any lie to get what he wants.  His very existence mocks God and affronts humanity.  Yet for too many, he holds some magnetic attraction.  He betrays all those who fall for him, and he instantly drops and forgets them, but somehow they never learn.  Indeed, the more he offends, the more some people fall for him.

The Don Giovanni of Mozart is our nightmare of Rousseau realised – an individual infatuated with liberty.  Toward the end of the first act Giovanni proclaims ‘Viva la libertà’.  He belts it out with manic drive.  The counterpoise comes with some plain dances and a trio of surpassing beauty.  ‘Liberty’ for this Don Juan is the same for all of them – the power to do what he wants with impunity.  Mozart was a good Catholic and a worthy Mason.  For him, Giovanni mocked God, and the only answer was divine retribution.  When Giovanni’s preposterous ego stops him from recanting, he must go to Hell.  His damnation is prefigured in the title ‘Il dissolute punito.’

So, this opera, perhaps the most weighty that this genius left us, shows how libertines take liberties, and how an espousal of ‘liberty’ may be just a veil for a grab for power or immunity.  But we are also warned of the magnetism of false leaders and our capacity for self-delusion that leads to the truism relied on by all deceivers that there is one born every minute.

Would Mozart, then, have been as shocked as we are that in a nation that has not favoured mocking God, a libertine is nominated to stand for the presidency by a conservative party that gave the world the sublime Abraham Lincoln?

Passing bull 65 – Murdoch and Fairfax

During a time of great conflict in England between the Crown and the Parliament, John Dunning had carried a famous motion in the House of Commons (in 1780) – ‘that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’  We see the same issue in relations between the government and the press in Australia.

A lot of Passing Bull draws on the Murdoch press.  I have been asked whether I thought that The Age had a left wing bias.  My answer is as follows.

I have trouble with the premise.  The left and right split started in Paris after 1789.  The left came to stand for terrorism.  Since then it has been associated with socialism.  The right was associated with fascism and various other ‘isms’.  I sought elsewhere to see the difference.

The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions.  The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution.  The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change.  The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it.  The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it.  The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it.  These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous.  Either can be authoritarian.  On the left, that may lead to communism.  On the right, you may get fascism.

In the result, I don’t think that this outworn terminology helps to throw any light on any current political issue in Australia or elsewhere.  The ‘left’ is a word generally applied as a term pf abuse by people who would not be happy to be called ‘right’ wing.  Writers for The Australian are serial abusers.

Nor do I think that the Liberal and Labor parties stand for any doctrinal differences.  Take for example the economy, taxation, education, health, and the aged – what differences in policy driven by the different platforms of the two parties do you see?

If I’m right about this, and most people agree with me, our party politics look unprincipled.  This is one reason why people are going off political parties.  The politicians scrabble around for the middle ground.  They are too scared to take a stand on principle – just look at the invasion of Iraq and offshore detention.  Principled opposition across the community on each issue got almost no reflection in Parliament.  In the eyes of many, this nation stands diminished as a result.  That is a reason why people have gone off politics as a whole.

I don’t read The Age for politics.  The only people in the mainstream press that I read on our politics are Laura Tingle and Philip Coorey in the AFR.  They are in my view both professional and sensible in ways that I don’t see in The Australian.  Anyone who says that they are left wing is mad.  (Anyone who says that the editorial is left is beyond madness.)  I don’t regard The Age political reporters as unprofessional.  They just seem to me to be anaemic or bland and predictable.  If anything, I don’t think The Age goes in hard enough.  I may be quite unfair in saying that.

But I do get the impression that writers and readers of The Age are more willing to confront the Coalition than those at The Australian.  That is not saying much.  The readers of The Australian who write to it overwhelmingly support the Coalition and the status quo.  And they do so with fervour. (Two litmus tests of the different attitudes of readers of the two papers are John Howard and renewable energy.  I see no ideological link there.)

But to some extent, I suppose that The Age may be said to be partisan.  I don’t see it that way.  I see the role of the press as being to watch and criticise government, and I don’t see The Age as being inhibited in discharging that function when Labor is in office.  Indeed, I have friends in that party who never forgave that paper for savaging it at both state and federal levels during various phases of my maturity.  One thing you won’t hear alleged is that the Murdoch press has a more principled position on Australian political parties than the Fairfax press.

But let us say that The Age may strike some as partisan.  The difference remains.  It does not suffer any of the three defects or vices that run through contributors to The Australian and which provide such a ripe source of bullshit.  As I have remarked: ‘The political commentators in The Australian fall into three categories – former staffers, mainly Liberals or defectors; people who subscribe to think tanks; and journalists who are close personal friends of Tony Abbott.’  Those factors appear to me to drive the failures of professionalism in the journalism of that paper.  Do they not all come together in Mr Mitchell’s breathtaking accounts of confidential discussions between a Murdoch editor and our fawning and insecure prime ministers?  What could be better guaranteed to nauseate us against our leaders and our press?

The ABC is commonly referred to as a fellow traveller of Fairfax.  I have a bias here.  I acted for the ABC for more than 25 years.  I did not see political bias.  On the contrary, they were terrified of such an allegation.  They went of their way to present both sides.  The ABC is a very large body that has no commanding editorial voice.  It is unthinkable that it could openly endorse a political party as organs of the media run for profit do as of course.  The notion that the ABC is somehow left wing, whatever that means, has always told me more about the accuser than the accused.

People in the Murdoch press are wont to say that the ABC is taxpayer funded.  That adds as much to the discussion as saying that the Murdoch press is funded by capitalists.  Both rely on funding by the public, but there is always likely to be a massive difference in culture between those who own and work for the ABC and those who own and work for News or Sky.  That is a fact of life for which we all may fairly thank heaven.  If the national broadcaster were one quarter as partisan as the Murdoch press, it would have been wound up decades ago.  And when will we get a poll that tells us which of the ABC and Murdoch press most Australians put more faith in?  To my mind, it is just silly to suggest that Aunty might be as slippery as Rupert.

The attributes of the writers for The Australian that I have referred to make that paper susceptible to bullshit that in many quarters makes it just laughable.  The nostrums about ‘classical liberalism’ that they salute are pure bullshit.  The tendency to descend to ideology is of itself enough to put off most Australians.

Currently, there are three aggravating factors.  First, those on the side of reaction are fixated on four issues that they find it hard to discuss rationally – climate change (their reaction to the South Australian blackout has been hilarious), gay marriage, extremism in Islam, and s 18C.  On each issue, they look like bad losers and it is hard to see history smiling on them.  It is hard to see any ideological foundation for their obsession.

Secondly, the personal relationships that some writers have with Tony Abbott and the failed rump of the Liberal Party produce exactly the same effect.  As a result, they now threaten to do to the Liberal Party what the DLP did to Labor – with the keen support of a loaded press.

There is a third aggravating factor.  The constant harping and bitching about the ABC and Fairfax is grossly unprofessional.  Grossly.  I have never seen Q&A but The Australian can claim credit for putting its ratings through the roof.  If a doctor or lawyer spent so much time slagging off at others, you would fire them.

You can see all these factors in play to a degree that is comical on various programs on Sky twenty-four hours a day.  It is like listening to a Magpie supporter after another losing Grand Final.  It would be childish to suggest that these cheerleaders are behaving like professional journalists.  They must get sick of hearing the same old tune as soon as the needle settles into the groove.  And they love talking about the ordinary bloke of the street being alienated from the system when they are an integral part of both the system and the alienation.  Some of the Abbott mourners on Sky still keep re-enacting their own passion play every night.  You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

That is why I think that the Looney Tunes have in the last generation moved from Labor to Liberal, and that is why the Liberal Party is now suffering more internally than Labor.  Paradoxically, Murdoch is undermining Australian conservatives.

And that’s also why I’m so bloody glad that most Australians think that all this is just so much bullshit.  The downside is that we put up with it.

Poet of the Month: Verlaine


 me your hand, still your breath, let’s rest

Under this great tree where the breeze dies

Beneath grey branches, in broken sighs,

The soft, tender rays of the moon caress.

Motionless, and lowering our eyes,

Not thinking, dreaming. Let love that tires

Have its moment, and happiness that expires,

Our hair brushed by the owl as it flies.

Let’s forget to hope. Discreet, content,

So the soul of each of us stays intent

On this calm, this quiet death of the sun.

We’ll rest, silent, in a peaceful nocturne:

It’s wrong to disturb his sleep, this one,

Nature, the god, fierce and taciturn.

Passing Bull 64 – Doing nothing


We don’t like being left in doubt or uncertainty.  We feel exposed or somehow guilty if we face a problem and elect to do nothing in response.  One simple rule is that if you have nothing to say, it’s best to shut up – but we have trouble in extending that maxim into the realm of action.  We tend to be biased in favour of action over inaction.  One maxim might be that if you can’t predict the outcome of a proposed course of action, but it is one that may hurt you or others, hold your hand, unless circumstances dictate that you have no reasonable alternative but to pursue that option.

An Israeli researcher into psychology evaluated penalty shoot-outs in soccer.  The ball takes a fraction of a second to go from boot to goal.  The goalkeeper can’t assess the trajectory and then decide which way to go.  He has to commit before the ball is kicked.  Strikers opt for three options more or less equally – go to the left, go to the right, or shoot straight at the centre.  Staying in the middle would be a reasonable option for the goalkeeper, since that is where about one third of shots go, and where they have the best option of blocking the shot.  But most dive to the right or left.  Why?  Because you look stupid if you are seen to do nothing and just watch the ball sail past.  The study confirmed that goalkeepers are biased in favour of action.

This bias is the bane of small shareholders.  They keep thinking that they should do something when their best strategy is to acquire stakes in good businesses and just collect the dividends and watch the market go up and down – volatility is different to risk.  But there are buildings full of people whose whole   livelihood depends on people not being content to sit on their investments – their business depends on other people’s trading in shares.  Their business depends on people being busy.

In his book, The art of thinking clearly, Rolf Dobelli quotes the main adviser to Warren Buffett: ‘We’ve got discipline in avoiding just doing any damn thing because you can’t stand inactivity.’  In the Epilogue, Dobelli says that ‘Negative knowledge (what not to do) is much more important than positive knowledge (what to do).’  And he again refers to the Buffett adviser: ‘Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems.  What we have learned is to avoid them.’  We just find it hard to resist the suggestion that doing something is better than doing nothing.  That position is commonly dead wrong.  The French philosopher Blaise Pascal memorably said: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’  Investors should remember that advice of Pascal.  Its proof lies in Donald Trump.  Warren Buffett says: ‘Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behaviour.

Keats found the answer in Shakespeare:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

The need to do something – anything – is behind most of the mistakes the west has made in intervening in the Middle East.  A parliamentary committee has just condemned David Cameron for deciding to bomb Libya.  The English parliament refused to endorse action in Syria.  The problem of intervention is obvious – when can you leave?

As I follow it, we are engaged in bombing Syria.  Putin and Assad are targeting civilians and hospitals.  We are aiding them.  The evidence coming out of Aleppo is beyond horror.  Put to one side whether we are accessories to war crimes including ethnic cleansing, common humanity demands that we get out of Syria.  Whatever interest we may have had in our own self-defence, it cannot stand up against the horror of Aleppo.  We cannot be a party to the greatest failure of humanity since the Third Reich.


Poet of the month: Paul Verlaine


 It rains in my heart


It rains in my heart

As it rains on the town,

What languor so dark

That soaks to my heart?


Oh sweet sound of the rain

On the earth and the roofs!

For the dull heart again,

Oh the song of the rain!


It rains for no reason

In this heart lacking heart.

What? And no treason?

It’s grief without reason.


By far the worst pain,

Without hatred, or love,

Yet no way to explain

Why my heart feels such pain!