Passing Bull 84 – Why does Sheridan hate Obama?

Even by our appalling standards, our press hit a new low yesterday with a piece by Greg Sheridan headed ‘Obama delivers last-minute hit to democracy.’

Barack Obama’s presidency is ending with a fine contempt for democracy as he exhibits every trait of hubris, arrogance and disregard for the messy business of elections and democratic mandates in his efforts to tie the hands of his successor on policy that Obama was never willing to take to the electorate, or put before congress.

On two contentious issues – Israeli settlements and off-shore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and the Artic – Obama is taking actions directly gainst the spirit and practice of democracy by using bureaucratic and legal manouevres to try to put policy decisions beyond democratic revision.  Obama chose to wait until after the presidential election to take these steps.  Obama, with Hillary Clinton, was always the best advertisement for Donald Trump, even more so now, for Obama, at the extreme end of lame duckery, demonstrates a peerless elite disregard for democratic process and the messy and inconvenient business of electoral results.

It is Obama, and not Trump, who pioneered American weakness and retreat from leadership…… 

Let’s be quite clear about this.  Obama, with extreme irresponsibility, is licensing a new wave of global anti-Semitism.  And he knows exactly what he is doing….

Obama cannot leave office a day too soon, though God alone knows what other harm he might accomplish before January 20.

What evil demon could have caused all this foul bile?  What could cause a newspaper with some pretence to liberal values to look forward to a man of intellect and integrity being succeeded as the President of the United States by a lying bully who prefers the word of a former KGB operative to that of the CIA and who sets out to spook the world by tweeting about his nuclear ambitions?

It is hard off hand to see what is anti-democratic about a democratically elected President instructing his UN Ambassador not to veto a UN resolution that expresses the views of a majority of the UN and that is consistent, as the Ambassador said, with warnings given by the President to Mr Netanyahu, both in public and in private, over eight years.  The President’s view is that the attitude of the Israeli government to settlements is not consistent with their preferred two state solution.  It is not hard to see how the President came to that view.  As one Israeli commentator (in Haaretz) said:

The U.S. warned Netanyahu for eight years that his policy would have a price, but he preferred pacifying the settler lobby instead of making a plan of action. He has only himself to blame.

Well, I suppose that if you were of a casuistic caste of mind, you could argue about this.  You may want to choose a different advocate to Mr Netanyahu – his intervention on behalf of Trump against the Democrats was even more blatant and improper than that of Mr Putin – and he has now changed from a lying bully to a little boy playing with matches – who thinks it is a good idea to deny the Sermon the Mount before his Christian godfather.

But what you cannot argue is that this failure to veto a UN resolution means that Mr Obama is consciously licensing ‘a new wave of global anti-Semitism’.  It is not just that the proposition is an obvious non sequitur.  It is not just that this is an infamous lie.  It is both of those things.  It is that this intolerant lashing out at a contrary opinion with group labels of hate is precisely the kind of pathology of the mind that is ruining public life, and yielding up false leaders like Trump.  It is hard to imagine a more insidious and inflammatory lie than that which says that if you oppose the government of Israel, you despise Jews.

Truth no longer matters now; only venom counts.

Poet of the Month: Vergil

So all things are fated

to slide towards the worst, and revert by slipping back:

just as if one who can hardly drive his boat with oars

against the stream, should slacken his arms,

and the channel sweep it away downstream.

Dickens and America – and Christmas Greetings

(Dickens frequently gets a run at this time of year, but not in this context.  If the note conveys a small part of the pleasure I got from the novel, then I may have contributed to Christmas.  I’m aware that tomorrow will be hard for those who have taken a hit since last Christmas, and Wolf and I offer our best wishes to you.)

The hero of Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit goes to America, frequently described in the book as the ‘U-nited States’.  The book was published in 1843-4 – after Dickens had visited America and nearly twenty years before the Union fractured into civil war over slavery.  The picture painted of the U S is very far from being pretty.

On the day that Martin first lands in New York, he meets a colonel, who he later ascertains is a conman, who runs a journal that he describes as ‘the organ of our aristocracy in this city.’

‘Oh!  There is an aristocracy here, then?’  said Martin.  ‘Of what is it composed?’

‘Of intelligence, sir,’ replied the colonel; ‘of intelligence and virtue.  And of their necessary consequence in this republic.  Dollars, sir.’

A bit later, there is another backhander.  One American says that he hoped the word ‘master’ was ‘never heard in our country… There are no masters here.’

‘All ‘owners’ are they?’ said Martin.

After describing a lunch in a New York hotel where the men are segregated from the women, Dickens describes the atmosphere among the men.

It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word.  Dollars.  All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars.  Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars.  Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars.  The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end.  The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars.  Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft.  Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier.  Do anything for dollars!  What is a flag to them!

Then, still on his first day in this place in the land of Liberty, Martin is forced to disclose to his hosts (the Norrises) at dinner that he had come over in steerage – the worst part of the ship that was reserved for the poorest migrants.

A deathlike stillness fell upon the Norrises.  If this story should get wind, their country relation had, by his imprudence, for ever disgraced them.  They were the bright particular stars of an exalted New York sphere.  There were other fashionable spheres above them, and other fashionable spheres below, and none of the stars in any of these spheres had anything to say to the stars in any other of these spheres.  But, through all the spheres it would go forth that the Norrises, deceived by gentlemanly manners and appearances, had, falling from their high estate, ‘received’ a dollarless and unknown man.  O guardian eagle of the pure Republic, had they lived for this!

It looks as if Dickens had seen what others see on the east coast of the U S – that snobbery based on the dollar can be far, far more venomous than snobbery based on birth.

Later we get a full polemic on slavery.

Again this happy chronicle has Liberty and Moral Sensibility for its high companions.  Again it breathes the blessed air of Independence; again it contemplates with pious awe that moral sense which renders unto Caesar nothing that is his; again inhales that sacred atmosphere which was the life of him – oh noble patriot, with many followers!  – who dreamed of Freedom in a slave’s embrace, and waking sold her offspring and his own in public markets.

How the wheels clank and rattle, and the tram-road shakes, as the train rushes on!  And now the engine yells, as it were lashed and tortured like a living labourer, and writhed in agony.  A poor fancy; for steel and iron are of infinitely greater account, in this commonwealth, than flesh and blood.  If the cunning work of man be urged beyond its power of endurance, it has within it the elements of its own revenge; whereas the wretched mechanism of the Divine Hand is dangerous with no such property, but may be tampered with, and crushed, and broken, at the driver’s pleasure.  Look at that engine!  It shall cost a man more dollars in the way of penalty and fine, and satisfaction of the outraged law, to deface in wantonness that senseless mass of metal, than to take the lives of twenty human creatures.  Thus the stars wink upon the bloody stripes; and Liberty pulls down her cap upon her eyes, and owns oppression in its vilest aspect, for her sister.

That is the second insult to the flag – in a nation which does not take kindly to that kind of insult.  The hero then gets into a train which is divided into three carriages – one for the gentlemen, one for ladies, and one for negroes.  The editor tells me that the reference to the ‘noble patriot’ is a reference to Jefferson who, a local poet said, returned ‘fresh from freedom’s councils to whip or seduce his black slaves’.  The word ‘seduce’ is surely wrong there.

All this takes place in a comic novel.  There is an absurd body called the Watertoast Association that appears to have no function other than to celebrate Freedom, a word used and abused ad nauseam.  But a meeting of the Association is brought to a halt by the most ghastly intelligence.  The presiding General tells the meeting that they have been seriously mistaken in a man apparently crucial to the founding of the Association.  The General has just received intelligence that the man has been and is the advocate of ‘Nigger emancipation’.

If anything beneath the sky be real, those Sons of Freedom would have pistolled, stabbed – in some way slain – that man by coward hands and murderous violence, if he had stood among them at that time.  The most confiding of their countrymen would not have wagered then; no, nor would they ever peril one dunghill straw, upon the life of any man in such a strait.  They tore the letter, cast the fragments in the air, trod down the pieces as they fell; and yelled, and groaned, and hissed, till they could cry no longer.

They immediately vote to disband the Association and decide to disburse its funds to appropriate sources – a certain constitutional judge ‘who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man’; a Patriot who had declared from his high place in the Legislature that he and his friends would hang without trial any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit; and to aid the enforcement of those free and equal laws which render it much more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write than to roast him alive in a public city.

Presumably, this novel has not enjoyed its best sales in the South.  This is how Mark Tapley, the faithful follower of the hero, states his views about the Americans after they find out that they have been conned into buying into a swamp.

‘There’s one good thing in this place, sir,’ said Mr Tapley, scrubbing away at the linen, ‘as disposed as me to be jolly; and that is that it’s a reg’lar United States in itself.  There’s  two or three American settlers left; and they coolly comes over one, even here, sir, as if it was the wholesomest and loveliest spot in the world.  But there like the cock that went and hid itself to save his life, and was found out by the noise he made.  They can’t help crowing.  They was born to do it, and do it they must, whatever comes of it.

This is followed by a conversation between Martin and a proud local.

‘How do you like our country, sir?’ he enquired, looking at Martin.

‘Not at all.’

Chollop continued to smoke without the least appearance of emotion, until he felt disposed to speak again.  That time at length arriving, he took his pipe in his mouth and said: ‘I am not surprised to hear you say so.  It re-quires An age elevation and A preparation of the intellect.  The mind of man must be prepared for Freedom, Mr Co.’

Later, Martin has an exchange with a worthy senator.

‘What are extraordinary people you are!…  Are Mr Chollop and the class he represents an Institution here?  Are pistols with revolving barrels, sword-sticks, bowie-knives, and such things Institutions  on which you pride yourselves?  Are bloody jewels, brutal combats, savage assaults, shooting down and stabbing in the streets your Institutions!  Why, I shall hear next that Dishonour and Fraud are among the institutions of the great Republic!’

The response?

This morbid hatred of our Institutions is quite a study for the psychological observer.

There is really nothing new under the sun.  Here is how Martin and Mark comment on the United States as they leave them.

Why, I was a-thinking, sir, that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?’

‘Paint it as like an eagle as you could, I suppose.’

No.  That wouldn’t do for me, sir, I would want to draw it like a Bat for its shortsightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for it is vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thanking nobody sees it – ’

‘And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices and soaring up anew into the sky.  Well, Mark.  Let us hope so.’

These views are commonly felt by visitors to the States.  They see a certain defensive preppiness; a certain false pride – and a dangerous pride; a continuing obsession with the violence of the frontier and the power of the gun; but ultimately, an engaging candour about their own freshness.

But there is a kind of fetish about patriotism.  We don’t talk much about patriotism here in Australia. The feelings of Dickens were echoed by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville who went to the U S at about the same time as Dickens made his first visit there.  I set out his views elsewhere.

But for whatever reason, patriotism is and has been a continuing subject of interest in America.  It was brilliantly depicted by De Tocqueville in 1838 in terms which can be set out at length because they still ring true.  (We should make allowance for the fact that this is translation and that the notion of a ‘patriot’ had been strained in France after the revolution.)

‘There is one sort of patriotic attachment which principally arises from that instinctive disinterested and undefinable feeling which connects the affections of man with his birthplace.  This natural fondness is united to a taste for ancient customs, and to a reverence for ancestral traditions of the past; those who cherish it love their country as they love the mansion of their fathers.  They enjoy the tranquillity which it affords them; they cling to the peaceful habits which they have contacted within its bosom; they are attached to the reminiscences which it awakens, and they are even pleased by the state of obedience in which they are placed.  This patriotism is sometimes stimulated by religious enthusiasm, and then it is capable of making the most prodigious efforts.  It is in itself a kind of religion; it does not reason, but it acts from the impulse of faith and of sentiment.’

We can follow all this.  The author then says that in some countries the monarch was recognized as personifying the country.  This was so in France – hence the problem when there was no monarch.  This also shows the glittering respect shown to the President in the U S.  But what about the considered type of patriotism, that of someone ‘who exerts himself to promote the well-being of his country’?  This comes with the spread of knowledge – ‘it is nurtured by the laws, it grows by the exercize of civil rights, and, in the end, it is confounded with the personal interest of the citizen.’

‘But I maintain that the most powerful, and perhaps the only means of interesting men in the welfare of their country, which we still possess, is to make them partakers in the Government…….in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity.’

Cupidity might, for the lack of a better word, be greed, as in the famous ‘Greed is good’ of Gordon Gekko – which you choose might be a matter of taste or grace.

‘As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself.’

The French observer has then set us up for this bell-ringer:

‘Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans’.

There is something close to the heart of America here.  The upside is ambition, drive, and personal and communal responsibility; the downside is Salem, McCarthy, and Gordon Gekko – and that nonsense about the lapel pin of Barack Obama.  In some sense, the feeling of communal responsibility and participation does seem to rest well with American patriotism; so does their prickliness if you happen to query in passing something close to American hearts.  The Americans tend to be more committed and involved in America.  The film The Godfather begins with a product of Italian immigration saying ‘I believe in America.’  Australians are not so serious about all this kind of thing, and open discussion, much less profession, is not encouraged.  If they see it in Americans, they might mumble something about people wearing their hearts on their sleeve.

Those observations of America still hold good.  What Dickens saw as an obsession with the dollar, and a readiness to keep whole peoples in subjection may well become manifest in the next President.

The anger of Dickens over slavery and what he saw as their hypocrisy is not hard to follow.  Lord Mansfield had effectively outlawed slavery at common law in the previous century.  In the current century, the British parliament had heroically banned the trade by statute in one unimpeachable crusade by Christianity.  The trade would only be ended in the U S by the deaths of more than half a million white people in the Civil War.

This is how the greatest American of all described the redemption in an address, his second, inaugural, that is now one of the title deeds of Western civilisation.  It was given not long before the speaker was gunned down in public by a vile nutter disporting his Second Amendment rights.

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 astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and prayed 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 bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

As I have said elsewhere:

Lincoln then went on to say that the ‘scourge of war’ would ‘continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bondsmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …’.   The nation that started with the Puritans was therefore redeeming itself from the sin of slavery with its own blood.  Lincoln concluded that inaugural address with the famous passage that begins:  ‘With malice toward none ….’

We might finish on a lighter note.  Seth Pecknsiff is one of the greatest shits in our letters.  When Anthony Chuzzlewit calls him a hypocrite, the latter says this to his daughter Charity:

Charity my dear, when I take my chamber candlestick tonight, remind me to be more than usually particular in praying for Mr Anthony Chuzzlewit; who has done me an injustice.

Toward the end of the novel, there is something of a showdown.  Mark Tapley is the hero’s faithful and sensible follower.  He is very much in the model of Sancho Panza.  During the showdown, Mark had blocked a door to hold in the revolting Pecksniff.

‘A short interview after such an absence!’  said Martin, sorrowfully.  ‘But we are well out of the house.  We might have placed ourselves in a false position by remaining there, even so long, Mark.’

‘I don’t know about ourselves, sir,’ he returned; ‘but somebody else would have got into a false position, if he had happened to come back again, while we was there.  I had the door already, sir.  If Pecksniff had showed his head, or had only so much as listened  behind it, I would have caught him like a walnut.  He is the sort of man,’ added Mr Tapley, musing, ‘as would squeeze soft, I know.’

The phrase ‘the sort of man as would squeeze soft’ is worth the price of the book – and a bloody expensive edition at that.

Passing Bull 83 –  Some fallacies about freedom of speech


Many laws restrict what we can say, at least in public.  Examples are laws about confidentiality, consumer protection, contempt of court, copyright, corporate regulation, defamation, electoral laws, fraud, nuisance, obscenity, perjury, privacy, sexual harassment, terrorism, and treason.  All these laws – and there are lots more – are justified.  And it would be silly to object to them because they impair our freedom to say what we like – each law is meant to do just that.  The objection would mistake an inane mantra for a logical argument. The question is not whether the law impairs freedom of speech, but whether that impairment is justified.

Most cultures have had laws about insulting or offensive speech.  The Code of Hammurabi banned ‘pointing the finger’ at someone’s wife.  The Twelve Tables of Rome penalised anyone ‘who publicly abuses another in a loud voice.’  The Sermon on the Mount forbids ‘speaking contemptuously’ against a brother. Each of these laws impairs freedom of speech, but the only question is whether the impairment is justified.

These laws have two obvious justifications.  Words can hurt as much as knives and guns, and verbal attacks can lead to fights – and it is the first duty of the law to preserve the peace.  There is nothing new-fangled about this.  In a book written nearly 800 years ago, an English judge called Bracton said:

An ‘inuria’ is committed not only when a man is struck with a fist or beaten with clubs but when he has been insulted or victimised by defamatory verses or the like.

It is hard to think of a civilised nation thinking or acting differently. And civilised nations also have laws to defend the dignity of individuals against group smears.

Take two laws in Victoria that deal with insulting or offensive language. A Victorian act forbids ‘indecent or obscene language or threatening, abusive, or insulting words’ in public, or behaving in an ‘indecent, offensive, or insulting manner’ (Summary Offences Act, 1966, s 17).  You can go to jail for that misbehaviour.  (Other states have similar laws.)

Then a federal act says that you must not publicly insult or humiliate people because of their race (Racial Discrimination Act, 1975, s. 18C).  That law leads only to regulatory action.

Although the laws cover a lot of common ground – racial abuse in public might attract both – there are two obvious differences.  The federal law is limited to language grounded on race, and it does not lead to criminal liability.

People complaining about this part of the law only refer to the federal law.  Perhaps the reason is that the state law allows the police to intervene where someone says in public to a man and his wife, ‘You are a coward and your wife is a black slut’ – either inside the Australian Club or outside a boozer at Alice Springs. Only a lunatic could object to that kind of law.  It would be justified in the exceptions to the right to freedom of expression in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That right is expressly subject to ‘such… restrictions or penalties prescribed by law and… are necessary in a democratic society…for the prevention of disorder or crime.’ A government that repealed such a law might find itself without coppers on the beat the next day.

But if the state law is so obviously justified, why is not the federal law? It does not lead to jail, but it adds the requirement that the offending words be published because of the race of the victim.  If the verbal attack is shown to be racist, does that not make it worse – will it not be more hurtful to the victim and more likely to start a fight?

Again, it is pointless to complain that either law impairs freedom of speech.  That is the very object of the law.  Is the impairment justified?

Perhaps we can look at it from the point of view of the objectors.  They want to be free of this law.  ‘Freedom’ in this context is ‘a faculty or power to do as one likes’.  So, if people want to be free from this law, they want to be free to do what this law presently prohibits them from doing.  That means that they want to be free to insult or offend others on the ground of race.  Why would any sane decent person want to do that?  Would you entrust anyone with such power?

So, the first fallacy of the opponents of the present law is that they think that impairment of freedom of speech on its own answers the question.  The second is their failure to deal with the penal offences which are obviously essential and which are not complained of.

The third is that they attach an absolute value to the notion of freedom of speech that is not warranted.  My freedom ends when it hurts you.  There will of course be arguments at the edge.  There are with all of our laws.  But the principle is basic.  It was recognised by the French in the Declaration of Rights shortly after the fall of the Bastille.  ‘Liberty consists of the power to do whatever does not hurt others….The law has the right to forbid only actions that are harmful to society…. No one is to be disturbed because of his opinions, even religious, provided that their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law…’ The notion that we might do whatever we like might be too much even for Donald Trump – or Rupert Murdoch.

So, why do some people in the media want to repeal the federal law?  So that people who thrive on conflict can make more money?  They work for people who publish for profit.  The more power they have, the more profits they can make.  They want you and me to give up rights so that they can insult and offend us with immunity from the law – and make more money to our cost.  We are talking of people who live off the earnings of conflict.  They are not pretty.

It is appalling that some politicians seem ready to listen to them.  But then you go back to 2004 when the press engineered from their politicians changes to the laws of defamation across the whole of Australia which were all in their favour and all against you and me. They bleated about the ‘chilling effect’ of the law after the High Court had exploded that nonsense.  The law is meant to chill.

But the press and politicians have always made an unattractive bunch of bastards when they get into bed together.  As a result, you will not be surprised to learn that both Fairfax and Murdoch declined to publish a softer version of what is set put above.  They are a selfish bunch.

The notion that these trading corporations should be trusted to act in the public interest is at best hilarious.  Take for example this bullshit from the editorial of the AFR of 17 December glorying in the conviction of Obeid and the role of the press in having him put down.

But it was not without obstacles. Fairfax Media paid out $160,000 settling complaints made by Obeid. While there is rightly concern about free speech curbs in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the libel laws also let the powerful hide from proper inquiry. It is a disgrace that media organisations such as Fairfax Media have been penalised by the state for damaging the reputation of a politician now adjudged to have abused the trust placed in him. The defamation industry and the legal profession that sustains it should be ashamed of maintaining this conspiracy against the public interest. Personal reputations should be determined by the marketplace of free and open discussion.

This breathtaking bullshit could only have been composed by someone with a very sad history with the law – perhaps someone who lost custody of the money.  (If that is the case, condolences, but I think this paper may have form here.)  The fact that a plaintiff has subsequently been convicted on other charges throws no light on his prior civil actions for defamation – unless the paper says the man should be outlawed retrospectively.  The suggestion that libel laws let the powerful hide from proper inquiry is as silly as saying that they and 18C have a chilling effect – and does Fairfax want to join the Murdoch pogrom on this?  If Fairfax paid out that money by settlement, they doubtless did so because their lawyers advised them that their relevant publishing history warranted those payments.  If they want to bleat like this, they will go down as bad losers, as bad as Andrew Bolt and the tragically embittered Bill Leak.  It is absurd to say that a newspaper’s settling libel claims constitutes being ‘penalised by the state’: and it would be even sillier to say that of a judgment of a court.  So far, it is empiricism without the benefit of evidence.  Then we move to metaphysics without the benefit of logic.  Well, if you are murdering language, meaning and truth, why not be Catholic in your choice of arms?  The second last sentence is raw paranoia, of Trumpian inanity, and the last sentence is pure ideological cant that would make the IPA dream of great expectations.  Surely the newspaper that publishes Jennifer Hewitt, Laura Tingle and Philip Coorey knows that Australians don’t like or trust ideologues?

How could a quality newspaper pack in so many boo boos and symptoms – so much bullshit – into a mere 112 words?  But these are the people asking you and me to give up some of our rights against them.

If we here were prone to that sort of silly talk, we might say that they ‘should be ashamed of maintaining this conspiracy against the public interest.’

And a happy Christmas and a better new year – we’ll be going bad to do worse.

Poet of the Month: Vergil

Soon the crops began to suffer and the stalks

were badly blighted, and useless thistles flourish in the fields:

the harvest is lost and a savage growth springs up,

goose-grass and star-thistles, and, amongst the bright corn,

wretched darnel and barren oats proliferate.

So that unless you continually attack weeds with your hoe,

and scare the birds with noise, and cut back the shade

from the dark soil with your knife, and call up rain

with prayers, alas, you’ll view others’ vast hayricks in vain,

and stave off hunger in the woods, shaking the oak-branches.


Passing Bull 82 – Bull about opposition

Compare and contrast, as university examiners used to say, two points of view.

The law says that if you enter into a contract with someone, you should co-operate with them to allow them to get the benefit of the bargain – or at least you should refrain from conduct that would deny them that benefit.

When it came to the race laws of Hitler in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the exact opposite of that position.  He challenged these immoral laws and called on churches ‘not just to bandage victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.’  Bonhoeffer did not just seek to spike the machine – he sought to kill its driver.  He was executed for his part in plots against Hitler.  (His church doesn’t go for saints, but he would be at the top of their list if they did.)

So, there are two completely opposed positions – you try to make the arrangement work, or you try to frustrate it, and you destroy the other side.

The recent failures of the political system here and in the US have been in large part caused by the failure of our politicians when in opposition to adhere to the first position – instead they have opted for the second.  The role of the opposition is to check the government and its policies and proposed laws.  It is not the role of the opposition to make government impossible or to seek to block everything that a government does.  There is one hell of a difference.

We could see this most clearly in Senator Cruz, a man more loathed by Republicans than Donald Trump.  Cruz unashamedly sought to bring Washington to a halt by blocking what we call supply.  We saw it again with the refusal of Republicans to cooperate to replace Justice Scalia.  The Supreme Court had to proceed a man down, and Americans may get new abortion laws from a court rigged by this unconstitutional means.  We saw the same universal negativity from Tony Abbott in his guise as Doctor No.  We are now seeing something very like it from Bill Shorten, who at least doesn’t try to hide his insincerity.  In truth, Cruz and Abbott behaved like fanatics, and wearing their faith all over their fronts didn’t help.

The idea is to create a paralysis that will reflect badly on government.  People will say that a government that can’t act is a bad government.  The scheme has been defined with precision by President Obama.

Some of this is really simple, and it’s the thing that Mitch McConnell figured out on Day One of my presidency, which is people aren’t playing close attention to how Washington works.  They know there are lobbyists, special interests, gridlock; that the powerful have more access than they do.  And if things aren’t working, if there’s gridlock, then the only guy they know is supposed to be in charge and is supposed to be helping them is the President.  And so the very deliberate strategy that Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party employed during the course of my Presidency was effective.  What they understood was that if you embraced old-fashioned dealing, trading, horse-trading, bipartisan achievement, people feel better.  And if people feel better, they feel better about the President’s party, and the President’s party continues.  And if it feels broken, stuck, and everybody is angry, then that hurts the President or the President’s party……The President-elect, I think, was able to make an argument that he would blow this place up.

In short, the Republicans jammed a spoke in the wheel in order to make the machine seize up.  This is bad faith made manifest.  It is worse than strike action – it is sabotage.  For short term political gain, the Republicans were prepared to inflict lasting damage on the system as a whole, including the Supreme Court.  That causes more distrust and contempt, and you get disasters like Trump, or the cruel farce of the last two weeks of our parliament and insanity about the environment.   Abbott the wrecking ball was a disaster in government, and Trump promises to be even worse.

And so the downward spiral goes on. People lose faith in a stalled system. There is a sense of stagnation, and a sense that politicians are at best useless.  People feel helpless; they are certainly leaderless; and they feel more insecure for themselves and their children; the system has let them down.  The main media don’t help – they have hardly noticed this sabotage, and the press just rabbit on about issues that most people couldn’t give a damn about.  When Trump claimed that the system was rigged, he struck chords with the dispossessed, but it is a little hard for a billionaire to bang on about inequality.

And writing this, I can fear another disaster for me flowing from what I see as a disaster for the US.  Garrison Keillor wrote a piece in which he expressed fear for the effect of Trump on children – Trump does everything that we tell children not to do.  My fear is that Trump will set back the republican movement here.  I don’t think much of that inbred, jug-eared Charlie Windsor, but he is a saint compared to that stupid pussy-groping pig who is about to become President of the United States.  The monarchists can say that if we give up the hereditary Crown, we might end up with a jerk like Trump as our Head of State.

And who would say that that could never happen in this sad billabong?

Poet of the month: Vergil (Georgics)

Before Jupiter’s time no farmers worked the land:

it was wrong to even mark the fields or divide them

with boundaries: men foraged in common, and the earth

herself gave everything more freely, unasked.

He added the deadly venom to shadowy snakes,

made the wolves predators, and stirred the seas,

shook honey from the trees, concealed fire,

and curbed the wine that ran everywhere in streams,

so that thoughtful practice might develop various skills,

little by little, and search out shoots of grain in the furrows,

and strike hidden fire from veins of flint.

Dickens on crowd pullers


The rise of demagogues like Farage and Trump has greatly discomforted people like me who are scared of demagogues and the forces that empower them – or, perhaps I should say, the forces that unleash them.  People who succumb to seduction that contains its own contradictions and evidences its own falsity are at best gullible – which means ‘ready to be gulled’ or, if you prefer, conned.

The phenomenon is critically analysed by Charles Dickens in his novel Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty.  The second part of the book is largely taken up by accounts of what are known as the Gordon Riots in London in 1780.

An unbalanced Scottish lord named Lord George Gordon claimed to belong to ‘the party of the people’.  He whipped up mass hysteria in the London mob against Catholics.  The problem was not just antagonism between sects, although that had been explosive enough under both the Tudors and the Stuarts.  Many of the London poor resented Irish immigrants.  Why?  Not because they were Catholic, but because they accepted lower wages and put the locals out of work.  Or so it was felt or alleged.  Some things don’t change.

The mind and character of Gordon and his abettors are looked at in detail by Dickens, as is the terrifying progress of the riots.  They were as bad as any experienced in Paris in and after 1789, with the exception of the September Massacres. The violence was not limited to action against Catholics. These riots conditioned the English against popular intervention, and they stalled the movement for reform for about two generations.  

The hero of the novel is an idiot.  He is therefore inherently gullible.  Although there is not an ounce of evil in Barnaby, he is gulled into taking part in the carnage at London. Barnaby gets apprehended and he is convicted.  There is only one penalty.  Is it right that an idiot should hang for taking part in a riot?

It is hard to dissect what moves people to follow demagogues like Gordon or Farage or Trump.  It is hard enough to see what might go through the mind of you or me – to attempt to guess what may have gone through tens of millions of minds is absurd.  It doesn’t help much to talk about elites or insiders or the better educated or the well off.  But here is a description of the Tory squire in Georgian England given by Dickens in full flight.

Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends.  By some he was called ‘country gentlemen of the true school’, by some ‘a fine old country gentlemen’, by some ‘a sporting gentleman’, by some ‘a thorough–bred gentleman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull’; but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day.  He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, and could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county.  In knowledge of horse flesh, he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him.  He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands.  He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter.  He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason’, that her father’s property joined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself.  In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip [a pet raven] a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.

An agent of Lord Gordon, Gashford, puts a charm on Barnaby to get him to join the movement.  His widowed mother is horrified.  When she tries to restrain Barnaby, we get this:

‘Leave the young man to his choice; he’s old enough to make it, and snap your apron-strings.  He knows, without your telling, whether he wears the sign of a loyal Englishman or not’.

There’s that rotten notion of patriotism again. (Since Trump refused both military service and the payment of tax, it would be impossible, even by his mad standards, for him to claim that he was a patriot.)

Then comes a passage that brings us straight to the USA in December 2016 with Trump’s denial of the intervention in the election of his friend and admirer Vladimir Putin.  (It would be idle for Trump to deny, again even by his own mad standards, the lethal intervention of the FBI.)

‘My good woman’, said Gashford, ‘how can you!  –Dear me!  – What do you mean by tempting, and by danger?  Do you think his lordship is a roaring lion, going about and seeking whom he may devour?  God bless me!’

‘No, no, my Lord, forgive me,’ implored the widow, lying both her hands upon his breast, and scarcely knowing what she said, or did, in the earnestness of her supplication, ‘but there are reasons why you should hear my earnest, mother’s prayer, and leave my son with me.  Oh do.  He is not in his right senses, he is not, indeed.’

‘It is a bad sign of the wickedness of these times’ said Lord George, evading her touch and colouring deeply, ‘that those who cling to the truth and support the right cause, are set down as mad.  Have you the heart to say this of your own son, unnatural mother!’

‘I am astonished at you!’  said Gashford, with a kind of meek severity.  ‘This is a very sad picture of female depravity.’

‘He has surely no appearance,’ said Lord George, glancing at Barnaby, and whispering in his secretary’s ear, ‘of being deranged?  And even if he had, we must not construe any trifling peculiarity into madness.  Which of us’ – and here he turned red again – ‘would be safe if that were made the law!

Dickens leaves us in no doubt about his view of the mob in action, ‘composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London’, just as Carlyle leaves us in no doubt about the September Massacres in Paris.  Dickens says:

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city.  Where it comes from, or whither it goes, few men can tell.  Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself; nor does the parallel stop here, for the ocean is not more fickle and uncertain, more terrible when roused, more unreasonable, or more cruel.

And members of the mob tend to lock themselves in.  ‘Indeed, the sense of having gone too far to be forgiven, held the timid together no less than the bold.’  And the ultimate analogy is again made:

The more the fire crackled and raged, the wilder and more cruel the men grew; as though moving in that element, they became fiends, and change their earthly nature for the qualities that give delight in hell.

It is not hard to see the affinity between Dickens and Carlyle, but then comes the banality of the retribution.

Two cripples – both mere boys – one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square.  As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied.  Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town.  For wretched women, too, were put to death.  In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them.  It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

The irony was that those who witnessed the executions were as unattractive as those who had taken part in the riots.  Dickens had been against capital punishment, and he was certainly against public executions.  In 1860, he described the spectators coming from the execution of a murderer as ‘such a tide of ruffians as never could have flowed from any point but the Gallows.  Without any figure of speech, it turned one white and sick to behold them.’  After another hanging, Dickens regarded the conduct of the people as so ‘indescribably frightful, that I felt for some time afterwards almost as if I were living in a city of devils.’  That was the analogy that he made in Barnaby Rudge.

In his enlightening book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg says:

Lord George, the mad visionary, and Gashford, the cunning mercenary, provide the spark which ignites the incendiary mob.  Barnaby, the imbecile, is an implicit comment on Gordon, the political fool, and Dickens originally planned to have the riot led by three escaped lunatics from Bedlam.  Thus the Gordon riots are seen as an ‘explosion of madness and nothing more’…

There was of course a good deal more involved in the events we know as the French Revolution and the analogy with the US today has ended by now on other grounds.  Trump may well be a political fool, but Farage is not.  And in a representative democracy, the mob finds expression in the ballot box rather than behind the barricades – although the French from time to time like to take to the streets for old times’ sake.

Whether you now see other analogies in the novel will depend on how you read it, and how you see the world now.  If Dickens had sought to characterise people like Malcolm Roberts or Rod Culleton in this novel, I dare say some of us may have thought that he had taken his penchant for caricature and coincidence right over the top.

Someone – I forget who – said that we go to great writers for the truth, and for my part, I think we get a fair bit of it in Barnaby Rudge.

And what of Lord Gordon?  He beat the rap for the riots in a trial presided over by the great Lord Mansfield. Mansfield’s house was burned down in the riots.   The mob was incensed against him because they thought he had given too fair a trial to a priest charged with celebrating mass.  He had directed the jury that they ‘must not infer that he is a priest because he said mass, and that he said mass because he was a priest.’   Lord George would also get a fair trial.

They conducted trials more expeditiously then, and no judge has ever been more expeditious than Mansfield.  The charge was high treason, the most serious in the book.  The penalty was death.  More than thirty witnesses were called.  Erskine made what was called ‘a very long speech’ for the defence.  The court convened at eight on Monday morning.  The jury retired at quarter to five on Tuesday morning.  They gave their verdict half an hour later.  As I said, they were more expeditious then.  At the end of the first week, we would still be listening to the opening.

Before Gordon died, the man who had instigated what we would call a pogrom against Catholics converted to Judaism.  It might make you feel for the members of the synagogue who had to live with that conversion.  But he was later convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette, and he died of typhoid fever in Newgate prison.

Lord George had befriended a con man named Cagliostro (who did a nice line in ‘an elixir of immortal youth’). This crook got tied up in the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair in France and he made an enemy of Marie Antoinette.  Lord Gordon had been appalled by the inequality he saw in France and he charged the French queen with persecuting his mate.  He was then charged with libelling her and British judges.  Erskine was not available, and Lord George conducted his own defence.  He did so with what one commentator called ‘a display of disarming ineptitude.’  When the Attorney spoke of a ‘wise and illustrious princess’, Lord George said in a stage-whisper fashion: ‘Everybody knows she is a very convenient lady.’  That might fairly be described as a high risk gambit.

His lordship was nothing if not different.  Horace Walpole said of the family: ‘They were, and are, all mad.’  A fellow MP said: ‘The noble lord has got a twist in his head, a certain whirligig which runs away with him if anything relative to religion is mentioned.’  Well, his lordship was not alone there, and it could be very dangerous to say that such a whirligig might be evidence of insanity.

Except for the disease that killed him, Lord George lived in comfort at Newgate.  He regularly gave dinners, and he gave balls once a fortnight.  After about 1791, the balls always ended with the Marseillaise.  Lord George had been circumcised and he allowed his hair to grow.  He was well liked at Newgate, even loved, but Lord George Gordon may be the only orthodox Jew in all history to have annoyed other cellmates in his slammer by the playing of the bagpipes.

Lord George passed away on 1 November 1793 after giving a final, faltering rendition of the revolutionary refrain so often described by Carlyle, ça ira.  The romance of the Scots for the French was very strong back then – and it may come back as the English turn their backs on the Continent.

Passing Bull 81  –  A Portrait of an Idiot

In a book soon to be published called Language, Meaning, and Truth, you will find something like what follows.

Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the obvious problems we have just referred to, labelling is not just common but mandatory in far too much political discussion in the press, and certainly for shock jocks and those who make a career out of working TV chat shows.  While some people naturally thrive on conflict – Napoleon and Hitler are two bad cases – some people in the press engage in conflict for a living.  These people rarely have a financial motive to respond reasonably, much less to resolve the conflict.  To the contrary, they have a direct financial interest in keeping the conflict as explosive as possible.  It is notorious that controversy feeds ratings and that bad news sells newspapers.

If you put up an argument to one of these people who live of the earnings of conflict, the response will very commonly involve two limbs – a personal attack  on you (the Latin tag for which is ad hominem), followed by some labels, which are never meant as compliments.  So, for example if someone, were to query the rigour of the policies of the government toward refugees, a predictable response would be ‘What else would you expect from someone who subscribes to the ABC?  How would you like these people to move in next door?’  There is no argument – just vulgar abuse.

The CIA reported that Russia had intervened in the US presidential election.  That report did not please Donald Trump.  In trashing his own intelligence community, the president elect gave a text- book example of the response referred to above – a personal attack followed by some labels – no argument – just vulgar abuse.

These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’

This is what we must expect as we go from a president of intellect and integrity to a buffoon and bully who has neither.  This is the reaction of an uneducated spoiled child – which is what Trump is.

Poet of the Month: Vergil (Eclogues)

Need I mention him who, having sown the seed,

follows closely, and flattens the heaps of barren sand,

then diverts the stream and its accompanying brooks to his crops,

and see, when the scorched land burns, the grasses withering,

he draws water, in channels, from the brow of the hill.

Or him who grazes his luxuriant crop in the tender shoot,

as soon as the new corn’s level with the furrow,

lest the stalks bend down with over-heavy ears.

Or him who soaks out a marsh’s gathered water with thirsty sand,

especially in changeable seasons when rivers overflow

and cover everything far and wide with a coat of mud,

so the hollow ditches exude steamy vapours?

Passing Bull 80 – He’s at it again


Greg Sheridan has excelled himself in the last few days.  On Saturday, his piece began:

François Hollande is Donald Trump’s first big casualty in Europe.

The bland French president, who only a few days ago looked every inch his country’s Hillary Clinton, has made the shock announcement that he will not seek re-election.

Trump-style populist insurrection is roiling Europe as strongly as it roiled the US.  Europe’s professional political class is under as widespread and sustained attack from the continent’s own populists as the American political class has been from the Trumpers.

… France has now had two presidential terms of unequivocal failure, one from the centre-right, one from the centre-left.  This is an almost perfect analogue to the conditions that brought Trump to power in the US.  They are tailor made for the National Front’s Marine le Pen.

It is, frankly, a bit hard to see how Trump could have brought down the French president – whose approval rating had fallen to 4% before Trump was elected.  And you notice we still get those references to the ‘professional political class’  – of which Mr Sheridan is certainly a member.

Then a few days later on the front page of the newspaper we got this:

US president-elect Donald Trump was absolutely right to take a phone call from Taiwan’s President….

By this one 10-minute call he has done something that was utterly beyond Barack Obama in eight feckless years in the White House – he has put the Chinese leadership off balance.

How would he know how China is reacting, and if he is correct, how does it help the US – or us – will to put China off balance?

But the prize for bullshit on the weekend, and a strong contender for bullshit of the year, goes to Chris Kenny.  He has a very different view of the significance of the election of Trump for Australians.  The heading of the piece is Trump’s triumph vindicates Abbott.  It starts as follows:

Our political/media class –[Look, Mum, no hands!] – seems to have conveniently overlooked the most telling domestic lesson from the Trump ascendancy.  Perhaps they worry it exposes their lack of judgement. 

Donald Trump’s election triumph buttresses the argument that Tony Abbott’s overthrow was unnecessary – that he would have won this year’s election.  It gives weight to the claim his poor mid-term polling was meaningless and that his known strengths were electorally compelling.

Those of us who have long made this case believe that, for all his faults, Abbott’s strong positions on border protection, national security, climate caution [!], union corruption and budget discipline would contrast sharply with Labor.  The political/media class, however, declared Abbott an embarrassment and barracked for a coup.

We will never know.  But everything that has transpired since Abbott’s knifing tends to bolster the position: from the way Malcolm Turnbull has struggled to display certitude to how Bill shorten hasn’t had to duck a punch; from the Prime Minister’s own polling and near defeat to Britain’s clear statement of faith in sovereignty through Brexit; and from Trump’s focus on borders and disdain for the dominant media narrative to his victory despite the polling consensus.

This flight from reality is truly unnerving.  The bullshit is mind blasting.  What on earth do we understand from ‘Britain’s clear statement of faith in sovereignty through Brexit’?  They have been like bunnies under a spotlight since they realised that they got sold a pup by two crooks who are almost as bad as Donald Trump.

These people who are so happy with Trump – yes the political/media class or part of it – are riding for a big gutser.  It is a shame this newspaper is so infested with Liberal rejects and Labor rats.  When the government announced a review of policy, the paper launched an editorial and three columnists.  They are helping the reactionaries to ensure a Labor win.  One of the cavemen said of the proposed review: ‘It was a clear attempt to reintroduce a price on hot air to satisfy the extreme greens and others seduced by the socialist alarmism of anthropogenic climate change.’  Goebbels would have been in awe.  So would Freud.

Poet of the month: Vergil (Eclogues)

Here, wheat, there, vines, flourish more happily:

trees elsewhere, and grasses, shoot up unasked for.

See how Tmolus sends us saffron fragrance,

India, ivory, the gentle Sabeans, their incense,

while the naked Chalybes send iron, Pontus rank

beaver-oil, Epirus the glories of her mares from Elis.

Nature has necessarily imposed these rules, eternal laws,

on certain places, since ancient times, when Deucalion

hurled stones out into the empty world,

from which a tough race of men was born.

Come: and let your strong oxen turn the earth’s rich soil,

right away, in the first months of the year,

and let the clods lie for dusty summer to bake them in full sun:

but if the earth has not been fertile it’s enough to lift it

in shallow furrows, beneath Arcturus: in the first case

so that the weeds don’t harm the rich crops, in the other,

so what little moisture there is doesn’t leave the barren sand.

Imagination and courage – and Paul Keating

Paul Keating said that Winston Churchill inspired him to go into public life.  ‘If that’s the business he’s in, I’d love to be in that business.…  I was attracted to him for his braveness, sense of adventure, compulsion, and moral clarity.’  That last phrase, ‘moral clarity’, is an interesting proposition to come from one politician talking about another. ‘Leadership, after all, is as I have so often remarked, about two things: imagination and courage… Churchill had these qualities in spades.’   Keating admired his open ‘swashbuckling’ and ‘risk – taking’ approach to politics.  ‘He was the one who was not prepared to cede Western Europe to Hitler in order to save Britain, and it was on that moral point that I always found him to be so attractive a character.’  Well, there we have the word ‘moral’ again, and Churchill was, if nothing else, a big–picture leader, the phrase in the subtitle to the book Paul Keating by Troy Bramston.

Keating found an interest in music early in his life.  ‘The arts give expression to inner feelings and impulses in a way that I think sport, with all its greatness, can’t do.’  That remark is about as un-Australian as could ever have fallen from the mouth of any politician in Australia.  But the following remark of Keating is dead true: ‘One of the sad things about my colleagues is that few of them had an inner life.’  Sadly, their outer life isn’t too bloody flash either.

Music would always play a big part in Keating’s life.  ‘Music for the mind is like electricity for a motor. Later in life when he was at his busiest, he would spend forty-five minutes charging his motor up on say Brahms or Shostakovich.  ‘I would always go down to the office in a bigger spirit.  You’ve always got to walk in the door with your imagination working.’  That, too, is a very Keating remark.

During the time of the moratorium about the Vietnam War, Jim Cairns met Keating standing at the loo in Parliament House. He expressed regret that Paul wasn’t wearing his moratorium badge.  ‘Look, Jim, that’s the difference between you and me.  I’m not here to protest; I’m here to be in charge.’  There you have a very radical difference in perspective on the role of the Labor Party – on one side, one of Labor’s great successes; on the other, one of its quintessential tragedies.

Whitlam was something of a snob intellectually.  Someone close to him said that Gough believed that you could not make it without a degree.  He was always on to Keating to get a degree.  ‘Why?  Then I’d be just like you.’  On the other hand, Kim Beazley Senior looked at Keating and said: ‘You see that man.  Watch him, because he’s a political killer.’

At the first meeting of the caucus of the Whitlam Government in December 1972, 94 men assembled – there was not one woman.  The government may have looked radical to a lot of Australians who had been anaesthetised by Menzies, but it looks Neanderthal to us.  We forget now that the opposition to Medibank was such that it had to be put before a joint sitting.

It did not take long for Keating to establish his own profile.  In 1981, Jennifer Hewett described Keating as a ‘Hell’s Angel in a suit… Keating is so sharp it hurts.  Thought, speech, dress.  He’s never had much time for half measures, for wavering.  The lines are always clear, the intensity is always dazzling.  The overriding presence is of cool, supercool, leavened by a tongue that can strike like a snake’s and claws that can scratch like a tomcat’s.’

When Hawke got elected, there was some fear that Hawke might deny Keating the Treasury portfolio.  Keating told Graham Richardson: ‘You had better tell Hawke that if he wants to remove me from the Treasury portfolio, it will be the Harry Truman doctrine of massive retaliation.  And I do mean ‘massive”.  That is an authentically Keating position: and the reference is not to Harry Truman the man, but to the nuclear bombs he released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Keating was referring to what others would later describe as the Hiroshima option.  The Labor Party has always had more than its share of good haters, and political assassins.

The first Hawke government had a very strong ministry.  Hewson would say it was probably the best front bench since World War II.  The cabinet of the workers’ party only had two members without a university education – Keating and Mick Young.  Keating was nervous at his first stint as Treasurer. He told Max Walsh: ‘You should be here, not me’.  Andrew Peacock could recall seeing the papers shaking in Keating’s hand as he stood at the dispatch box.  That bear pit is no place for boys or girls.  Especially if you had to face Keating on a bad day.

Charm is important in politics.  When Keating met Reagan he realised immediately why Reagan was so successful.  ‘He was a completely charming individual.  Only after you saw him actually doing what he did best, you realised what personal qualities he had used to get as far as he had got.  They were not intellectual qualities, but they were gentlemanly, gregarious, and humorous.’  This respect for Reagan, with the respect for Churchill, shows that Keating was not into typing or labelling, but rather dealing with individuals on their own merits.  That, some might think, is the mark of maturity.

A fundamental part of the success of the Hawke government was the way it worked with the unions.  Bill Kelty played a major part.  He said: ‘This is a fundamental period of restructuring in the economy.  These changes are going to be better for the country, but it’s not necessarily going to make it easier for you,’ he said to the unions.  ‘The majority of the unions accepted that argument.’  As Troy Bramston remarks: ‘This is a notion foreign to most contemporary union leaders’.  You bet – and to most oppositions.

The book is littered with references to Keating filing and commenting on items in the press.  This is not something that you could imagine Churchill doing.  It does suggest some kind of insecurity in the face of what might now be loosely referred to as the establishment or the elite.  The author notes the dislike for Murdoch within the Labor Party for its role in the fall of Whitlam, but says that at about the time when Keating made his reference to the banana republic, Keating reserved a particular disdain for Fairfax.

Keating got very close to the Australian historian Manning Clark.  His newspaper archive contains several of Clark’s essays that are heavily underlined.  He greatly admired Clark’s six volume A History of Australia.  Toward the end, Clark had written: ‘With the end of the domination by the straighteners, the enlargers of life now have their chance.’  Keating would frequently pick up a bundle of CDs and head over to Clark’s house where they would listen to music.  ‘I wanted to get a handle on Manning’s personality.  I wanted to understand how he had impacted on the country, what motivated him, what drove him.  I was interested in the resonances of his personality.’  It is not easy, offhand, to think of any other Australian politician doing anything remotely like that.

When Keating reached his famous agreement with Hawke about succession at Kirribilli House, Keating asked Kelty as they left the meeting whether he thought Hawke would keep the agreement.  ‘I doubt it.  It didn’t come naturally.  It didn’t come out of a negotiated process.  Hawke’s a negotiator.  You actually keep agreements out of a negotiated settlement.  But this wasn’t negotiated.  It was almost given flippantly as a statement.’  Well, at least Keating was on notice from the start that Hawke might welch, which he subsequently did.

When Keating finally moved on Hawke, those close to Hawke begged him to stand down.  Hawke gave the fatuous response that he would not give in to ‘terrorism’.  He may have forgotten what had happened to Hayden when he got deposed.  When the faction gathered in the office of Richardson, Stephen Loosely thought they looked like a group of rebels preparing for battle.  ‘People cleaning their rifles, checking the sites, and putting extra ammunition …… It’s a little bit like that scene in The Magnificent Seven where the bandits arrive at the village to find the seven ensconced and heavily armed.  I said if Hawkie walked in the door now, it would be like Eli Wallach saying ‘Who are you and why have you come?’  One of us would have to be Steve McQueen, mate, and look up and say, ‘We deal in lead, friend.”  Keating burst out laughing.

Keating won and Hawke cried.  Hawke promised not to ‘utter one word to harm Paul or his government.’  Other caucus members sobbed.  But unlike others who would be deposed in similar passion plays, Hawke by and large did keep that promise.

It is at this point that the author summarises the achievement of Keating as Treasurer.

In May 1991, Keating surpassed Ben Chifley’s record as a Labor treasurer.  His legacy as the most significant treasurer in the post-war era, if not since Federation, was secure.  No treasurer has presided over more significant economic reforms: the float of the dollar and the deregulation of the financial system; six iterations of the Accord that moderated wage increases and helped to contain inflation; fundamental change to the taxation system, including cutting marginal income – tax rates ( from 60% to 47%), slashing company tax (from 49% to 39%) and abolishing the double taxing of dividends by introducing imputation; industry – sector deregulation, reducing tariffs, and selling government assets; introducing compulsory superannuation; and delivering for surplus budgets – the first since the early 1950s – and decreasing expenditure in real terms.  Although the recession detracted from this scorecard, the economy was to emerge from it with a record 25 years of uninterrupted growth and low inflation.  And no treasurer had been more instrumental in the delivery of a government’s political messages, its overall narrative, and thus in its electoral successes.

That seems to me to be a very fair summary, but I am biased.  Prior to that reform of the tax system, I had been paying tax at about 66%, and provisional tax on that.  Since I was taxed on receipts, then if my receipts went up, I would have to pay about a $1.30 for every dollar I received over the level of the previous financial year.  This sort of madness led people into schemes to avoid paying tax which developed into a different level of madness.  But for reasons I have never understood, I had to wait for a Labor government to do something about either sort of madness that people who falsely called themselves conservatives had simply sat and watched over like bored tomcats.  And if you look at the efforts of our treasurers since Keating, it is hard to see anyone who might come even close.

We tend to forget now how important was the part played by Keating in developing the APEC conferences.  Keating floated the idea with Clinton and then developed it as part of his intense concentration on Asia.  Greg Sheridan wrote in The Australian: ‘It was a masterful and effective performance by Keating and must be one of the few occasions in Australian diplomatic history when an Australian Prime Minister has engaged in effective shuttle diplomacy.’  When the 18 APEC leaders met, they represented more than half the world’s GDP.  In his memoirs, Clinton would claim responsibility for what Keating had done.

We tend to forget now how backward those we refer to as the Coalition could be.  Do you recall that paranoid furore when Keating guided the Queen through a door?  The Queen was so disturbed by the hysteria of the tabloid press that she raised the matter directly with Keating.  She said: ‘Take no notice of them.’  ‘Your Majesty, a British tabloid editor is a particularly low form of human life.’  Her Majesty laughed.

But when Keating took exception to having a British flag in ours, Hewson and the rest of the opposition expressed outrage.  When Parliament resumed, they ringed their desks with small plastic flags.  John Howard had referred to the golden age of the 1950’s.  This led to the signature annihilation of all that Howard stood for then and later.  You can get it on You Tube as the cultural cringe speech.  After bursts of comedy that are serene, we get:

I was told that I did not learn respect at school.  I learned one thing: I learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia – not about some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsular, not to worry about Singapore, and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination.  This was the country that you people tethered yourselves too, and even as it walked out on you and joined the Common Market, you are still looking for your MBEs and your knighthoods and all the rest of the regalia that comes with it.  You could take Australia right back down the time tunnel to the cultural cringe where you have always come from… These are the same old fogies who doffed their heads and tug the forelock to the British establishment; they now try to grind down Australian kids by denying them a technical school education and want to put a tax on the back of the poor.  The same old sterile ideology, the same old fogeyism  of the 1950s that produced the Thatcherite policies of the late 1970s is going to produce Fightback!  We will not have a bar of it.  You can go back to the 50s to your nostalgia, your Menzies, the Caseys, and the whole lot.  They were not aggressively Australian, they were not aggressively proud of our culture, and we will have no bar of you or your sterile ideology.

It was pure mayhem, and it says a lot for the magical powers of Shostakovich.  When Hewson asked Keating why he wouldn’t call an election, he got the celebrated reply: ‘The answer is, mate, I want to do you slowly.  There has to be a bit of sport in this for all of us.  In the psychological battle stakes, we are stripped down and ready to go.  I want to see those ashen-faced performances; I want more of them.’  It is a blood sport. The nastiness went both ways.  Hewson was intent on smearing Keating over the famous piggery.

The ultimate political goal is to inflict fatal damage on P K’s credibility in the eyes of the voting public (if this is what the merits of the matter justify).  We are seeking to expose a conflict of interest in circumstances that give rise to a grave suspicion that there may have been improper or reprehensible conduct on the part of PK.  We are not alleging actual impropriety, only the possibility of impropriety.

Well, if you going to do a knife job, you might at least have the courtesy to be honest about it.  This is just weasel gutlessness.

In the campaign, Keating lacerated Hewson and Howard.  ‘Even Marie Antoinette didn’t put GST on a cake’.  In the end, Keating enjoyed his sweetest triumph, the triumph for the true believers.  Later he would get to taunt Downer.  ‘How are you going over there Curly’….or old darling or Shirley Temple?

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is in its treatment of Keating’s efforts on behalf of indigenous Australians.  The Redfern speech is treated at length.  More importantly, the author makes it plain that Keating used all his political capital and political experience to get through legislation on native title against the opposition, the mining industry, most of primary industry, the states, and a lack of interest in parts of his own party.  He was careful in selecting the correct allies. One asked Keating what his attitude was.  ‘Well, basically, I reckon for 200 years we’ve been sneaking around in someone else’s backyard.’  ‘Shit, that sounds alright then.  You’re on my wavelength.’  The author says this:

No other Prime Minister had ever paid such a high priority on indigenous issues.  It was more than just a priority.  Keating was so involved in native-title negotiations that he effectively micro-managed it.  This was not design, but by necessity.  It was the High Court that made the Mabo judgement and it demanded a response from government.  But for this response to prove durable, it had to win broad acceptance from stakeholders and then passage through the Senate.  This required prime ministerial authority, and Keating set about using it.  He engaged directly with indigenous leaders, farmers, and miners.  He ran a cabinet process.  He carried the debate in the media.  And he negotiated directly with the states and the Senate cross bench, while fighting a protracted battle against the Coalition.  The odds were stacked against him, but Keating worked the political system to produce an outcome.  This was achieved while diminishing Keating’s political capital, and was of nil political benefit.  Keating brought indigenous issues from the margins of politics to the centre of government, where it has remained in the decades since.

The key here is the observation that this heroic exercise diminished Keating’s political capital and ‘was of nil political benefit’.  If that assessment is fair – and it looks fair to me – Keating stands well above other political leaders of our time in this country.   There is blue sky between him and them.

But Labor had been on power too long.  It gave way to a man who would redefine our ideas of mediocrity.  Keating was hurt by the loss, but more hurt by the separation from his wife.  After the election loss, he invited Howard to the Lodge for a cup tea.  No outgoing prime minster had shown that courtesy. ‘I thought it was important for the sake of the country, and the polity, that the Prime Minister who is leaving The Lodge doesn’t leave it as some sort of vacant possession.  I wanted the country to see and witness a generous and healthy change of government.  I showed him around, and I said some things to him which I thought were important to say.’  It is both curious and sad that no former Prime Minister had apparently thought of this.

What is the biggest regret of Keating for Labor leaders after him?  ‘While ever we borrow the monarch of another country as our head of state, we will never be as great as we are entitled to be.  It has always been a matter of wonderment to me that my colleagues could not see that.  They don’t think it is important, because they do not get the spiritual essence of what the change to a republic meant.  It means that we will be a society to our self.’

What other Australian politician speaks of the spiritual essence of a society to our self?

Passing Bull 79 – What is populism?

There has been a lot of chatter – some call it white noise – about populists. What are they?  One of the problems with this word is that people who use it rarely say what they mean by it.  For example in today’s AFR, John Roskam of the IPA says that the reaction of the ‘elites’ to wins by ‘populists’ amount to threats to democracy.  The IPA rarely misses an opportunity to miss the point.  The author does not define any of those three terms, but it is hard to imagine any definition of ‘elite’ that would not embrace the IPA and AFR.

The OED, at least in my version is no help.  (The OED on line gives this citation for ‘populism’:  ‘your populism identifies with the folks on the bottom of the ladder’; and for ‘populist’: ‘she is something of a populist—her views on immigration resemble those of the right-wing tabloid press’.  The two are not the same.) If you go elsewhere on the Web, you will find references to ‘ordinary’ or ‘regular’ or ‘common’ people against political insiders or a wealthy elite.  These vague terms don’t help – to the contrary.  What do they mean? Is dividing people into classes a good idea in Australia now – or anywhere at any time?  And if it is simply a matter of the ‘common people’ wresting control from a ‘wealthy elite’, who could decently object?  Would this not be just democracy triumphing over oligarchy?  Or is the world perhaps not quite so simple, or quite so black and white?

Populus is the Latin word for ‘people,’ with pretty much the same connotations as that word in English.  Do populists therefore appeal to the people for their vote?  Well, anyone standing for office in a democracy does just that.  The most famous political speech in history concludes with the words ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’.

But the word populist is not used to describe anyone standing for office.  It is used to refer to only some of those, and the difference seems to be in the parts of the people that are appealed to and the way in which that appeal is made.

So, what kind of people do populists appeal to?  Well, the people who use this word say that the people appealed to are anything but the ‘elite’ – those who have got on well in life because of their background or education, or both.  In both the UK and the US this feeling about the elite – which might look like simple envy to some – is linked to a suspicion of or contempt for ‘experts’.  People do, however, tend to get choosy about which experts they reject. This rejection does not extend to experts who may save their life or their liberty, but it may explain the curious intellectual lesion that many people of a reactionary turn of mind have about science and the environment.

Another attribute of people appealed to by populists is said to be that they have missed out on the increase in wealth brought about by globalised free trade and changes in technology.  These movements obviously have cost people jobs and are thought by some experts to be likely to cost another 40% of current jobs over the next ten years.

A third attribute of people appealed to by populists is said to be that in their reduced condition, they value their citizenship above all else, and they are not willing to share it.  They are therefore against taking refugees or people whose faith or colour threatens their idea of their national identity.

Now, if people who use the word populist are describing politicians who appeal to people with those attributes, they may want to be careful about what pub they are standing in before they articulate that meaning.  The picture that emerges is one of a backward, angry, and mean chauvinist, the loser with the definitive chip on the shoulder.  That picture is seriously derogatory, but in my view it adds warmth and not light to the discussion.  If that is what people mean when they refer to populists, then it’s just a loose label that unfairly smears a large part of the population.  The term does then suffer from the vice of labelling that we have identified.

In truth, this meaning calls up another Latin term vulgus.  This means the mob or herd or ‘the folks on the bottom of the ladder’, who are very commonly people whose ‘views on immigration resemble those of the right-wing tabloid press’.  These sorts of people have been typed for the ages by Shakespeare in Coriolanus, and the inability of the hero to bend his knee to the mob costs him his life.  It is from here that we get our word vulgar, and that is a seriously insulting term.

It may be more helpful and honest to identify the opinions that some politicians appeal to and then comment on the reactions, rather than trying to lump a large and diverse group of the populace under the one pigeon-hole.  Then you might get something like this: People who believe in the promises of Farage or Trump are not too bright.  People who support Farage or Trump in venting spleen against those who are not so well off on the ground of colour or faith are not very nice – at best they are ungenerous.  And any American who believes that there may be one iota of communion between Donald Trump and Jesus of Nazareth is hopelessly deluded to the point of being diagnosably insane.

And if you think that any nation can be governed other than by reliance on ‘experts’ and ‘insiders’, then you are in Fantasyland.  Do you recall when Mao unleashed the Red Guards in the maternity wards?   Or just look at the mayhem in federal parliament caused by idiots, amateurs, and ego-primers that are all hopelessly out of their depth.  Have we ever seen a more depressing circus than the display over backpackers’ tax?

I would myself prefer to drop the word ‘populist’.  In whatever meaning it is used in, it will provoke the routine incantation of inane mantras like identity politics or class warfare or elitist snobbery – that are all just bullshit.

This discussion is I think correct, or at least, arguable as far as it goes.  But it does not deal with the principal fear of people about those who are called populists. The fear is hinted at in the two OED online citations.  Let us look at two dead ones – Mussolini and Hitler.  What frightens and repels us about these terrible people is that they directed their powers of persuasion to vulnerable people in order to bring out the reverse of the ‘better angels’ of those people and entrust the persuaders with power (which would never be given back).  They went straight for the gutter and they stayed there. The ‘liberal elites’ who thought that the ‘populists’ could be reined in later were cruelly deluding themselves.

What might be described as the failure of the better people of Italy has been described by a biographer of Mussolini in terms that could be transposed word for word to the Germans and Hitler.

Mussolini still needed their [the moderates’] help, for most of the liberal parliamentarians would look to them for a lead.  He also took careful note that chaos had been caused in Russia when representatives of the old order were defenestrated en masse during the revolution:  fascism could hardly have survived if the police, the magistrates, the army leaders and the civil service had not continued to work just as before, and the complicity of these older politicians was eagerly sought and helped to preserve the important illusion that nothing had changed.

The liberals failed to use the leverage afforded by his need for their approbation.  Most of them saw some good in fascism as a way of defending social order and thought Italians too intelligent and civilised to permit the establishment of a complete dictatorship.  Above all, there was the very persuasive argument that the only alternative was to return to the anarchy and parliamentary stalemate they remembered….Mussolini had convincingly proved that he was the most effective politician of them all: he alone could have asked parliament for full powers and been given what he asked; he alone provided a defence against, and an alternative to, socialism.  And of course the old parliamentarians still hoped to capture and absorb him into their own system in the long run; their optimism was encouraged by the fact that his fascist collaborators were so second-rate. 

How is that relevant to recent events?  That is a matter of opinion, but Mussolini was, rather like Berlusconi, seen as an ‘absurd little man’, a ‘second-rate cinema actor and someone who could not continue in power for long’, a ‘César de carnaval’, a ‘braggart and an actor’, and possibly ‘slightly off his head.’  The only difference to the next President of the US is that he is ‘an absurd big man.’

Perhaps two generalizations may be offered about populists.  Their reign may be short. They don’t know what they are doing; they are untrustworthy; and they are much bigger on protesting than on governing.  And the possibilities of breakdown of trust at either end between them and their supporters look to be endless.

Poet of the Month: Vergil (Georgics)

In the early Spring, when icy waters flow from snowy hills,

and the crumbling soil loosens in a westerly breeze,

then I’d first have my oxen groaning over the driven plough,

and the blade gleaming, polished by the furrow.

The field that’s twice felt sun, and twice felt frost,

answers to the eager farmer’s prayer:

from it boundless harvest bursts the barns.

But before our iron ploughshare slices the untried levels,

let’s first know the winds, and the varying mood of the sky,

and note our native fields, and the qualities of the place,

and what each region grows and what it rejects.

Passing Bull 78 –  The evil of labelling

Some years ago, a lady at Oxford, en route from the reading room to the dining room for breakfast, was heard to say: ‘I have just been described as a typical Guardian reader, and I’m trying to work out whether I should feel insulted.’  A discussion about the meaning of the word ‘presumptuous’ then followed.

There is no law or custom that says that we should apply a label to people – or put them in boxes, or in a file, or give them a codename.  There is no law that we should not. But most of us can’t help ourselves.  So what?

Well, most of us don’t like being put into boxes.  That is how we tend to see governments or Telstra or a big bank behaving toward us.  Nor do most of us want to be typed.   When someone says that an opinion or act of yours is ‘typical’ of you or your like, they are very rarely trying to be pleasant to you.

Most of us just want to be what we are.  You don’t have to have a university degree specialising in the philosophy of Kant to believe that each of us has his or her own dignity merely because we are human.  We are in a different league to rats and flies.  So, if I am singled out as a Muslim, a Jew, or an Aboriginal, what does that label add to or take away from my humanity?  It is often not easy to see anything positive coming from someone else subtracting from my humanity by labelling me in that way.

So, the first problem with labelling is that it is likely to be demeaning to the target, and presumptuous on the part of the labeller.  We are detracting from a person’s dignity.  We put registration numbers on dog collars, and we brand cattle, but we should afford humans the courtesy – no, the dignity – of their humanity. After all, we can scarcely bring ourselves to think of that time when some people were tattooing identifying numbers on the bodies of other human beings.

The second problem with labelling is that it is both loose and lazy.  If you say of someone that they are a typical Conservative or Tory, that immediately raises two questions.  What do the labels Conservative and Tory mean?  What are the characteristics of the target that might warrant the application of the label?

In this country, at the moment, the terms Left and Right hardly mean anything at all – except as terms of abuse (which is how the words Tory and Whig started in England).  These terms are now generally only applied by one side to the other.  Not many people are happy to have either of those labels applied to themselves. They are just too plastic and fluid.

There is one curious distinction in the way that these terms are applied in this country at the moment.  The Murdoch press is happy to call followers of the Fairfax press or the ABC ‘the Left’ (or ‘the P C Left’ or ‘the Love Media’), but those members of the press very rarely respond by calling readers of the Murdoch press Right wing  (or Far Right, or worse).  Is the difference one of custom or courtesy – or don’t we know or don’t we care?  Just how many people are left who could give a hoot for these outmoded terms?

Similarly, the labels Liberal and Labour hardly stand for any difference in principle any more.  At the time of writing, on any of the major issues in Australian politics, what were the differences in the policies of those parties that derived from their platform?  The old forms of name-calling between Liberal and Labour mean nothing to my children – absolutely nothing.  These old ways are as outmoded as name-calling between Catholics and Protestants.  And there is some common ground in the two shifts – very many people have lost faith in both religion and politics.  The old tensions or rivalries just don’t seem to matter anymore.

Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the obvious problems we have just referred to, labelling is not just common but mandatory in far too much political discussion in the press, and certainly for shock jocks and those who make a career out of working TV chat shows.  While some people naturally thrive on conflict – Napoleon and Hitler are two bad cases – some people in the press engage in conflict for a living. These people rarely have a financial motive to respond reasonably, much less to resolve the conflict.  To the contrary, they have a direct financial interest in keeping the conflict as explosive as possible.  It is notorious that controversy feeds ratings and that bad news sells newspapers.

If you put up an argument to one of these people who live off the earnings of conflict, the response will very commonly involve two limbs – a personal attack  on you (the Latin tag for which is ad hominem), followed by some labels, which are never meant as compliments.  So, for example if someone, were to query the rigour of the policies of the government toward refugees, a predictable response would be ‘What else would you expect from someone who subscribes to the ABC?  How would you like these people to move in next door?’  There is no argument – just vulgar abuse.

The disintegration of thought is palpable, but a lot of people are making a handy living out of it – and not in any way that does the rest of us any good.  So, when someone I know was described as a typical ‘Julia Gillard Labor lawyer,’ he expressed some interest at what that might mean, particularly since he has expressed the views set out above about the lack of difference between Labor and Liberal, and since he also had said that he had voted for Malcolm Turnbull (professedly a conservative) at the last election.    Since the label as a whole hardly looked to have been intended to flatter, he was also interested to know what our first female prime minister had done to be loaded into the shotgun.  The response was sadly of the shirtfront plus label variety.

What does a labor lawyer look like?
Take a look in the mirror.
You will likely see someone who feels superior to the masses.
Who knows best
Struggles to entertain concepts outside of their bubble.
Hugs up to socialism.
Likely not understanding that sooner or later the cash runs out.
You can only squeeze a lemon so far.

Good grief, who are ‘the masses’ outside the dreams of 1948 Marxists? What on earth could ‘hugs up to socialism’ mean in Malmsbury 2016?  That the person being abused believes in Medicare?  Does the complainant actually look like a squeezed lemon?

This example shows the third problem with labelling – it generally tells you a lot more about the labeller – some would say the sniper – than the target, and the answer is rarely pretty.  (Have you noticed that people who use labels and who abuse abstractions expect that others will do the same?  Is this what Freud called ‘projection’?) And if you pile cliché upon label, and venom upon petulance, the result is as sad as it is predictable.  You disappear up your own bum – publicly, and painfully.

So, I would leave labels with George Bush senior, who said that labels are what you put on soup cans.

Poet of the Month: Vergil: Georgics

I’ll begin to sing of what keeps the wheat fields happy,

under what stars to plough the earth, and fasten vines to elms,

what care the oxen need, what tending cattle require,

Maecenas, and how much skill’s required for the thrifty bees.

O you brightest lights of the universe

that lead the passing year through the skies,

Bacchus and kindly Ceres, since by your gifts

fat wheat ears replaced Chaonian acorns,

and mixed Achelous’s water with newly-discovered wine,

and you, Fauns, the farmer’s local gods,

(come dance, together, Fauns and Dryad girls!)

your gifts I sing. And you, O Neptune, for whom

earth at the blow of your mighty trident first produced

whinnying horses: and you Aristaeus, planter of the groves,

for whom three hundred snowy cattle graze Cea’s rich thickets:

you, O Tegean Pan, if you care for your own Maenalus,

leaving your native Lycaean woods and glades, guardian

of the flocks, favour us: and Minerva bringer of the olive:

and you Triptolemus, boy who revealed the curving plough,

and Silvanus carrying a tender cypress by the roots:

and all you gods and goddesses, whose care guards our fields,

you who nurture the fresh fruits of the unsown earth….