An occasional series on the new nationalists –  dingoes and drongos like Trump, Farage, and Bernardi – and other Oz twerps.


A bad start

The assault on truth started instantaneously.  The new president swore on the bible.  The suggestion that this man might have room for God is childish.   Then came the bullshit, and very partisan bullshit.  There is an old and wise saying about courts – the most important person there is the loser.  The same might be said for elections.  But not by this president.  He only talks to the winners.  His maxim is winners are grinners.  Winning is his only value, his only faith.  But, oh, the bullshit.

You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.

Well, I’m not sure about how the tens of millions came by, but the suggestion that this crucial conviction – that a nation exists to serve its citizens – has never been seen before is preposterous.  That is exactly what the French Revolution was all about. The Declaration of Rights recognises in a way that Trump’s  Russian friends would never be able to that the State is not an end in itself:  its purpose is only to preserve the citizens in their rights.  Article 2 says: ‘The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man.’  Still, what would Trump know about the French Revolution – or the American Revolution, or the Russian Revolution – or any history?  An essential part of his psyche is that he never notices anything that doesn’t revolve around him.  And he is after all rewriting the Industrial Revolution.

I had thought it was bullshit to say he wrote his own bullshit, but then came this:

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

We believe the exact opposite down here.  Only a Bible belt septic tank, real or imaginary, could mouth that appalling nonsense.

Then came the revolting Ms Conway to renege on the first promise.  Trump would not produce his tax returns.  She did so with two lies.

We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care.

In the meantime, the new Press Secretary made a fool of himself defending his boss’s wounded vanity about crowd size.

This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period ….These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.

It’s hard to see the poor bastard ever getting over this Hitler-like tantrum, and then Ms Conway reached instant immortality by saying that Spicer was offering ‘alternative facts.’  There in one phrase was the fraud at the heart of the whole campaign.   Poor Mr Spicer was suffering from shell shock after one outing.

I believe that we have to be honest with the American people but I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out, but our intention is never to lie to you.

This might be called the Idiot’s Gambit.  The poor man had not learnt a thing, but in only two days, the new President had set up the Saddam fallacy.  That was, as you recall, that he was such an inveterate liar, you should believe the opposite of whatever he said.  So, people were confident, relying on this fallacy, that Trump would not keep any promise at all.  It then came as a surprise to some that he might actually keep some.

The next day, his minders made a terrible blunder. They let him out unscripted with people he had been bad mouthing.  Well he got over that in his trademark fashion – he lied.  He said it was the press who had been bad mouthing them.  And he launched into yet another attack on them and the wounds to his ego about crowd size.  All that meant so much more to him than the memorial to the CIA fallen he was showing off in front of in such a ghastly way.   And he tried to schmooze like an illiterate teenager on real life TV.

And we really appreciate what you’ve done in terms of showing us something very special.  And your whole group, these are really special, amazing people.  Very, very few people could do the job you people do.  And I want to just let you know, I am so behind you.  And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted, and you’re going to get so much backing.  Maybe you’re going to say, please don’t give us so much backing.  (Laughter.)  Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.  (Laughter.)  But you’re going to have that.  And I think everybody in this room knows it.

It is nauseating drivel, but he keeps having to bring it back to the only thing that matters – Donald Trump.

You know, the military and the law enforcement, generally speaking, but all of it — but the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes.  We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military.  And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did.  (Laughter.)  But I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks.  (Applause.)  We’re all on the same wavelength, right? 

The constant applause for this rubbish adds weight to the suggestion that he brought his own claque.  Then he gets diverted by a reference to Time magazine, and he falls right into the illiterate ‘like’ mode.

So a reporter for Time magazine — and I have been on there cover, like, 14 or 15 times.  I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time Magazine.  Like, if Tom Brady is on the cover, it’s one time, because he won the Super Bowl or something, right?  (Laughter.)  I’ve been on it for 15 times this year.  I don’t think that’s a record, Mike, that can ever be broken.  Do you agree with that?  What do you think? 

After this disaster, Trump then went off to his mates at Fox News to display his immodesty again.

My CIA speech was a 10 and everybody loved it.  I had a standing ovation like you wouldn’t believe.  Everybody and it was such a success.

This was all despicable self-aggrandizement and not surprisingly a former CIA head said so, and equally unsurprisingly, Greg Sheridan got upset.

If you want to know how dangerously unbalanced Trump is, read the whole text of the CIA speech.

Now, I know a lot about West Point.  I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics.  In fact, every time I say I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years who did a fantastic job in so many different ways, academically — was an academic genius — and then they say, is Donald Trump an intellectual?  Trust me, I’m like a smart persona.  (Laughter.)  And I recognized immediately.  So he was number one at West Point, and he was also essentially number one at Harvard Law School.  And then he decided to go into the military.  And he ran for Congress.  And everything he’s done has been a homerun.  People like him, but much more importantly to me, everybody respects him.

If medical science does not have a diagnosis and treatment for this condition, it is time it caught up with history.  No one can stay a spoiled five year old child forever.

Finally, the English outlawed torture about 700 years ago.  Trump is in favour of it.

Foreign leaders are lining up to take candy from this baby before he learns better.  Theresa May, the reluctant nationalist, got in first.  It was oh so easy to verbal trump on NATO.  One hundred per cent!  Well, you can’t take him at his word, but she at least had something to help her in the quagmire left by some of the best liars in the world.

Meanwhile, back in Oz, that awful galah Bernardi was counting his marbles – or those he had not lost – ‘his feline eyes excellent in the twilight’, as Carlyle said of another devout plotter.  And at the other end, that awful woman Rhiannon was plotting.  Here is a real poser.  Who revolts you more, Senator Bernardi or Senator Rhiannon?  Or is it just that they come from what Bernardi’s idol calls the swamp?

As a mate said yesterday at breakfast, we can’t live four years with this.

So, here then is the first Trump gag I have heard.  A plane gets in difficulties.  There are five passengers and four chutes.

I am the greatest basketballer ever with 20 million fans.  I have to go.


I am the greatest violinist ever with 40 million fans.  I have to go.


I am the President of the greatest country in the world voted in with the greatest majority ever.  I am the smartest person in the world.  My people need me and I must go.


That leaves the Pope and a ten year old schoolboy.

My son, I am old and have had a full life. I am ready to meet my Maker.  You are young and have everything before you.  You take the last chute.

That is very good of you, Holy Father, but there are in truth two chutes left – the smartest person in the world just took off with my school bag.

The Nationalists

An occasional series on the new nationalists –  dingoes and drongos like Trump, Farage, and Bernardi – and other Oz twerps.


A Prototype?

He has a lust for power and his ambition is gluttonous.  He was undistinguished at school, and he is only ever at ease when talking to other mediocrities.  He rose up primarily talking to those who had failed in life.  He did so by addressing those people in their own terms.   He is scarcely literate if he puts pen to paper, but in front of a crowd, he loses all control.  He loves crowds and cameras – they are his mirrors. He loves hand signals too. He can be very childish.  He doesn’t have real friends.  He affects to show emotion but he dissembles and he is a manipulator. He is not really a liar – it is just that he has only contempt for truth.  He became popular, massively so with those who were not doing so well. He came to power after a huge shift in world economics that allowed him to despise what he calls the elites.  He hammers his scapegoats all the time – shamelessly.  He said it was the elites who had caused the economic failures of his nation and the world.  He himself is very elitist, except for the things that matter.  He rarely seeks to articulate a program, but proceeds by slogans, incantations, and rants.  He loves labels, but plays more on nationalism than socialism.  He contradicts himself and he talks nonsense – but what does it matter if truth is irrelevant?   He has no conscience that we can see. He is loathed by the liberal establishment and he and his followers loathe them – he really is so jealous. He feeds on conflict and confrontation – if he is not fighting, he may have to stop and think.  He is not there to bring people together – he is there to crunch anyone standing in the way – because winning is everything.  He and the faithful sense that against all the odds, their time in the sun is at hand, and for that chance of elevation, they will cancel any doubt and suppress all decency.  He promises them the world, and it matters not that his promises are impossible to keep – their blood and their lust are both up, and they have turned out the lights in their heads.  He gives them their dignity by telling them that they are members of the greatest nation on earth – even if he and they had done little or nothing to make it so, and even if that ‘greatness’ derived from very different people. He knows that they have their citizenship which they see as threatened by outsiders.  He hates intellectuals, or just people who have been well educated.  He has a romantic view of his own history and the history of his nation – it is a history that is either imaginary or faked.  He revels in the word ‘patriot’, even though aspects of his past show an utter want of devotion to his country. He has a limited lexicon that does not extend to ‘No’ – unless out of his mouth in response to a request from his nation that he pay tax or serve in the army – see the previous sentence.  He may on a bad day refer to some mystic writer and then ramble on about drive and energy.  His magic words are struggle, rich, and power – and of course me.  He is corrupted by victory more than by power.  He and his followers are not about to share the greatness of their nation with outsiders.  He loathes foreigners and those of different faiths, even though he has no religious faith at all. (He certainly has no room in his ego for anything as inconsequential as God.)  He is remarkable for his lack of tolerance generally.  He is hopeless with women, and in company generally.  He wants to dominate all conversation, and he can rant on about the failure of the world to grasp his greatness.  He is only contradicted or even queried by others at their peril.  He is therefore surrounded by sycophants and he cannot let a person of quality get too close to him and deflect his grandeur.  He has appalling manners, a foul mouth, and an evil temper – he might perhaps be invited as a guest at a gentlemen’s club, but he would never be admitted as a member. He may be the most selfish and self-centred person ever born.  He has no interest at all in the life or fate of others unless it connects directly with his own. He will disregard all the rules to get what he wants.  He has never had limits effectively set for him, and he has never seen, much less acknowledged, his own limitations, which are immediately apparent to all but the faithful.  He has no interest in equality – he is, after all, so very different in himself. He projects his ego on to the nation – it should disregard all rules to get where it wants, and not give a damn about what any other person or nation thinks.  He gets enraged by any criticism, and provoked into making even more bizarre claims.  He goes berserk if someone questions his legitimacy – his paranoia makes the misgivings of Henry IV and Henry V about their legitimacy look trifling.  He is driven to magnify his achievements in ways that insult the intelligence of everyone else.  He becomes enraged if anyone queries the numbers at his rallies. He is at his worst when he drops his voice, gives his manual salute, and enters into a rote incantation where everything is very.  His colossal self-love leads to a very sick suspicion of anyone who is against him.  His preoccupation with face shows a deeply flawed and insecure psyche.  He has zero capacity to be left in doubt or uncertainty and he could go totally mad if asked to sit alone in a room for an hour and think. He could also go mad if he opened a newspaper and could not find his face anywhere on it.  He of course never has to say he’s sorry; among other things he never is, and he rarely has to do anything.  He will spend fortunes on the military to better the standing of his great nation in the world as he sees it – even though he dislikes if not despises the rest of the world.  He will build mighty airports and freeways and he will make the trains run on time.  He is untroubled about how to fund these mighty projects. He manipulates public opinion.  He will collapse all differences between fact and fiction.  He will in truth have ‘alternative facts’ and so confute the whole basis of Aristotelian logic. He has his own reality in his own world – it’s all just his, and it’s so bonzer, and – sotto voce – so very, very, very – patriotic.  He can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He glories in the heroic view of history because he is its ultimate hero, the most powerful man alive since Achilles. Had he been a Roman, he would have become a god ages ago.

He says that he will make his nation great again.

And some poor bastards believe him.

Am I speaking of Donald Trump or Adolf Hitler?  That’s a matter for you.

The Press v James Hird


May I offer three comments on recent developments in the press about the tragedy of James Hird?  And it is a tragedy – a typical Australian tragedy, of greatness brought low by ashen mediocrity.

First, the pain and suffering of Hird was in my view a foreseeable consequence of the actions of the press against him.  ‘Foreseeable’ is a word used in the law, but I do not intend it to have any legal consequences in what I have just said.  Rather, I refer to what Nathan Buckley, who seems a very decent man, meant when he said that footballers were not bullet-proof against personal attacks.  No one is.  In my view, the severity and venom of the attacks of the press on Hird were such that it was foreseeable that he would be hurt to an extent that could be life-threatening, or at least require treatment in hospital.

Secondly, since about 1975, I have been involved as a lawyer in acting for or against the press in libel and contempt matters.  I have written a book on law for journalists, and I am now retained to advise one publisher before publication.  I have acted both for and against the ABC, Murdoch, and Fairfax, on many occasions, although for more than 20 years I acted for the ABC.  I have a clear and settled view about where the balance of power lies between the press and those who claim to be hurt by it – and it lies with the money and the corporate political clout.  The press had little trouble in getting all state governments to change the laws to suit them.

Thirdly, the organs of the press that helped to put Hird in hospital are now waging a political campaign – in the case of the Murdoch press, an all-out political campaign – to get the federal government to make it lawful for them to insult or offend others on the ground of their race. That is the freedom they seek when they ask for the repeal of section 18 C. They do so under the preposterous mantra of freedom of speech. If these bullies could do the harm they did to James Hird, and get away with it, what might they do to a poor punch drunk blackfella?

The press went out to get Hird, and they succeeded, with the nauseating results that they and we could foresee. Some agents of the attacks are notorious for mocking failure and for kicking people when they’re down. Will we ever get an apology?  Not on your bloody Nellie, Mate.

Passing Bull 89 – The glory of alternative facts

The Trump administration is not shy about its mission to annihilate truth.  The President of the United States does not understand or respect the notion of truth.  Ms Kellyanne Conway does understand it, but she flouts it brutally.  When people talk about ‘spin’ they are engaging in euphemism.  Spin is deception wrought by evasion, equivocation, and deliberate untruth.  Ms Conway favours the last.  When the new Press Secretary harangued the press, he told a lie.  Ms Conway defended him.  She said that he had merely offered ‘alternative facts.’

You can have alternative versions, or allegations, or arguments, but how do you have alternative facts?  If I say that there are three people in this room, and you say that that there are five in the next room, that may I suppose be called ‘an alternative fact’.  But if you say that there are five people in this room, there is no basis for that curious label – you have directly contradicted me.  We both can’t be right – there are either three or five people in the room.

As it happens, shortly after I read of Ms Conway’s contribution to modern languages, I was reading The Moro Affair by Leonard Sciascia.  The writer  introducing the book said that the Italian political system was ‘drenched in a rhetoric that gave Italian political prose a horrible, ornate quality of dishonesty and meaningless incantation.’  That looks to be a fair description of what Trump intends for politics in the U S.  Later on Sciascia introduces us to the notion of a real true fact.

The White House Press Secretary was not content with polemics and lies.  He was out to murder our language.  ‘This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.  These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong’.  The first statement was false.  The second was nonsense – an inauguration consists of a series of events – how can they have an ‘enthusiasm’?

Ms Conway then went on TV with other whoppers.  The President had promised to hand over his tax returns – as is the custom there.   ‘We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care.’  Each of those statements is false, and neither affords a foundation for Trump to welch on his promise.

It is sad to see real Republicans not blush at all this raw insolence.  One stupid Congressman said that Trump was ‘having a good time.’

The commentary in The Australian was alarming.  Janet Albrechtsen gushed over the jingoism of the speech and the roars of the crowd.  Rush Limbaugh laughs.  ‘So do I.  What a four years it’s going to be.’  Chris Kenny is the most petulant man in our press and he denounced the protests as ‘mass petulance.’  Greg Sheridan showed how little there is between inanity and insanity.  He compared Trump to the Pope in their capacity to unsettle their staff by shooting their mouths off.  I don’t think you have be Catholic to be unsettled by this.  Trump made a rank ‘stump speech’ (Sheridan’s words) before a CIA memorial in which he lied and boasted in full.  He infuriated and offended many in the intelligence community, and when one of them responded, Sheridan took offence.

That Trump style is not uplifting, but nor is it a moral offence in itself.  Trump has said plenty of offensive things, but for senior and responsible people to take offence where none is intended is absurd.

Brennan’s public attack on Trump, calling his speech ‘despicable self-aggrandizement’, will do more to damage the faith of ordinary Americans, and people round the world, in the CIA’s impartiality than anything Trump has said.

All that is so wrong it takes your breath away.  Of course Trump’s behaviour before the memorial was morally offensive and despicable self-promotion.  That’s how he got the gig.

The failure of this nation to develop a decent conservative newspaper is so depressing.  The Wall Street Journal is a quality conservative paper.  It ran a piece by Peggy Noonan, who knows something about speeches by real Republicans.

He [Trump] presented himself not as Republican or a conservative, but as a populist independent.  The essential message: remember those things I said in the campaign ?  I meant them……

The Trump Wars of the past eighteen months do not now go away.  Now it becomes the Trump Civil War, every day with democrats trying to get rid of him and half the country pushing back.  To reduce it to the essentials: as long as Trump’s party hold the house, it will be stand-off.  If the Democrats take the house they will move to oust him.

The last point depends on Trump holding the Republicans – which will be hard when the subject of money comes up.  But how sane does Peggy Noonan look compared to Greg Sheridan?

A lot of the criticism of his inaugural address was wildly overblown.  There are two paths to unity – the soothing platitude or prosecuting the case and winning the argument.  Trump’s brand is always the latter.

There is a fearfully false dilemma there, a text-book case, but where the Australian sees a path to unity, the American sees Civil War.  

Poet of the month: Chris Wallace-Crabbe


Experience was only

what you lose every day,

huge, blown-away clouds

which memory may

think to have drawn back

live to you

but those images

are all untrue

The only trick

is to write them out,

replacing moribund life

with phrases about

what verdantly might

have sprouted again

till amber clouds float up

from your table again

Passing Bull 88 – A new political fallacy

The syllogism is the skeleton of any argument.  (It is explained fully in a forthcoming book Language, Meaning, and Truth, by Chris Wallace-Crabbe and me.)

All men are mortal.  (The major premise.)

Obama is man. (The minor premise.)

Therefore Obama is mortal.  (The conclusion.)

Unless you can reduce any argument to that form, it is no good.  That’s one indicator that Trump has problems with the notion of rational thought.

Now check this failed attempt at a syllogism.

Bob did something that surprised me and others.

Bob therefore made me and others look foolish.

Therefore I should say of Bob………what?

The first premise does not say whether what Bob did was good or bad.  Did Bob surprise people by blowing up a convent or by endowing hospital?  The second premise does not seek to apply part of the first – rather it goes to the effect of something Bob did on other people.  That premise is unlikely therefore to be any use for predicting what Bob might do in the future, much less lead to any inference about whether that future conduct may be good or bad.

It would therefore be a fallacy to argue that the first two premises warrant a conclusion that Bob will do good things in the future or is otherwise entitled to our respect.

If there is an argument at all, it looks like one that says because we were wrong in predicting what Bob did in the past, we are less credible in predicting what he might do in the future.  But that conclusion does not follow.  It is a case of branding or, if you prefer, smearing – ‘You were wrong before.  You are therefore liable to be wrong again.’  Any prediction is wholly fallible, and one failure does not make the next one more fallible.

Michael Gove, the man who betrayed Boris Johnson, interviewed Trump.  The interview and its aftermath were nauseating.  Gove was like a cheesy, flatulent poodle, begging for scraps, and too timid to ask a pointed question of the biggest political target of all.  Gove has the difficulty of all conservatives in trying to explain how a once reasonable conservative party came to be led by such a man.  It forces Gove to mangle truth as much as his subject does. ‘….but in his conversation with us, he was at pains to be gracious and generous.’  The office had ‘framed magazine covers festooned over every wall, chronicling his business achievements; Trump’s office is an echo chamber of his achievements.’  Gove does mention that the son-in-law is a trusted adviser – of man whose idea of banishing conflicts of interest is to have his sons run the business and his son-in-law run the country – or at least the Middle East.  They are some of the reasons why Gove says ‘much of the rest of the world is frankly terrified.’  Then we get this.

There is no guarantee that he will follow the best advice he gets, but before any of us are too quick to pass judgment on how successful he may be in office, we should at least acknowledge that he made fools of many of us in winning the presidential prize in the first place.

You will see that Gove does not try articulating his conclusion. This is because there is none.  In the dishonest argot of our politics now, this is just a throwaway line to get people off the point.  Our being surprised at the election says nothing about Trump, but lots about those who were persuaded to vote for a candidate who many see as incorrigibly nasty, arrogant, stupid and dishonest, and therefore a man of whom ‘the rest of the world is frankly terrified.’

I’m not into labels, but I propose one for this bullshit – the Trump fallacy.

Poet pf the month: Chris Wallace-Crabbe


A phone is ringing in the cemetery A

loud enough to be from the Resurrection.


You can hear it over busy morning traffic

where the living drive on to work, or merely shopping:


not a soul appears to have heard the summons,

but maybe they’re all sick to death of phonecalls.


It’s very loud; probably needs to be.

The majority have slept there for a while.


Still, what if this were a long-distance call,

God calling collect from paradise?


Through cypress fingers and elegant ironbarks

it keeps on ringing, grossly magnified


so that nobody fails to get the point.

It surely disturbed those paint-bright lorikeets


and brand-name kids dragging across to school.

The call might just have been from grandma,


or even for her.

Hello?  Hello?

There’s nobody awake.

Passing Bull 87 – Cheats who prosper

People who hold positions of trust – like Rupert Murdoch or the paper boy – have to act honestly and in good faith.  They must act in the interests of those putting trust in them and not in their own interests.

Politicians cheating on travel allowances behave as if that precept was dead.  They have not acted honestly or in good faith.  They have acted in their own interests.  What really gets up our noses is that their sense of entitlement – do you remember that word whose age had ended? – so blinds them that they treat us as if we had come down in the last shower.

Part of the problem is that there are too many rules and regulations.  These small minded greedy people then say that they are within the rules.  Even where their conduct stinks – or, as the press say, even where it fails the pub test.  (Tony Abbott or his publisher had to hand back $14,000 claimed to promote a book.)  You see a similar problem with directors and so much black letter law, and it gets hellish when industrial lawyers legislate for the workplace.  Then all sense of individual responsibility goes clean out the window.  Lawyers have a lot to answer for in the decline of our moral fabric.

In a book called Law for Directors, I said:

Of course, the obligations of directors derive from the fact that they have accepted responsibility for looking after the affairs of others – but this is also the case with members of the committee of a club, union organisers, or the elders of the church – or the person who agrees to hold the keys to his neighbour’s house or to sell his friend’s Nolan – or get me a copy of The Herald.  Nor should it shock our egalitarian  sensibilities to be told that a paper boy shares the same moral plain as the Chair of Telstra or that the meat-pie vendors at the MCG and the Chair of the ANZ Bank are both equally subject to the decrees of the Georgian Lord Chancellors and the subsequent divinations of their Antipodean acolytes.

A complete train wreck exists in the form of a man named Culleton.  His position in the Senate is in issue because of a conviction for a criminal offence and his bankruptcy.  He asked that the Senate be reconvened to consider is position.  Just think how much that exercise in futility would have cost you and me!  He said that he is not insolvent.  It’s about 40 years since I did bankruptcy cases, but I don’t think you have to be an insolvency expert or even a lawyer to know a reasonable test of solvency.  If you say that you are able to pay their debts as they fall due, the simplest way to establish that proposition is by paying them.

But more fundamentally, why should we have to wait for a court to make a formal order before this drongo is disqualified from sitting in our parliament?  Is it not enough that he has defaulted on his obligations to other Australians?  If he is that hopeless in looking after his own affairs, what possible right has a got to claim to look after mine?

Here again we have a fetish about rules that undermines ordinary decency.

What was the first move of the new regime in Washington?  To seek to abolish a committee of ethics for Congress – possibly on the ground that the next president could not spell the word.  And don’t forget that this crowd in Canberra in its last manifestation was determined to relax the general precept I started with for financial advisers.

As I say, our politicians keep treating us as if they think we came down in the last shower.

Poet of the month: Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Do I Sleep or am I Slept?

At morning there came the dream that includes all dreams,

its detail unclear, but mastery quite profound;

with no visible character

it owned all the pigeonholes:

the future was eaten away.



Perhaps it was the Word.

Needing no breath of syntax it reached out,

imposing domination on the first

half of my ordinary Sunday.


Clearly it had prejudged

parking spot, dates, tennis booking, proper names

just when that bill was due.

Design! Design!



On top of my questions, the answer lay

like an old cat.



Celestial timber, silent joinery,

the universe had been fitted out with shelves

on my behalf.

Passing Bull 86 –  Government, privacy, and madness

You may recall that I had a sad experience with Medicare.  I emailed a query about an unpaid doctor’s bill.  A machined response said they would not discuss private matters by email.  I should ring.  I did and I gave up after 20 minutes.  I tried again at 3.30 am.  I got straight through.  But Lo!  I had to have my file ready.  Not so fast, Sunshine!

After a decent interval, I emailed again.  I referred to my prior sad case and asked if they could write to me or ring and I authorised them to email me.  Silly me.  I got the standard response.  The law, Sunshine, is the law; and the machine is the machine.  No deus ex machina here, Sportsman.

The sender was and it was ‘Re’ my Medicare number (SEC: UNCLASSIFIED).  Its text went:


Thank you for contacting the Australian Government Department of Human Services (DHS).

Accessing personal information from an email is restricted to protect your privacy and the integrity of Medicare records. 

Our phone line is also open Saturday and Sunday to assist you.

Please call the Medicare public line on 132 011, 24/7 and, subject to a security check, a service officer will assist you with your enquiry.

I trust this information will be of assistance.


Yours sincerely


Enquiry Resolution Team – P18236

Health Support & Business Services Division

Australian Government Department of Human Services

I have two comments on the response – one of form and one more substantial.

How could Team P18236 be sincere?  For that matter, who, how, and where does ‘I’ fit into Team P18236? It is the quintessence of impersonal anonymity. Or, does the DHS know I’m a republican and automatically switch from the royal plural to the republican singular – the smooth-talking bastard of a machine?  And why bother to define ‘DHS’ when it does not appear again in the message?  Why bother to define it all?

Now for the substance.  When I screwed up the courage to ring again, I got through after not much of a wait, and a helpful lady soon ascertained that the refund had been sent to my bank in May last year.  In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, couldn’t someone have sent an email saying that their records suggested that the refund had been credited with my bank and that I might take it up with them?  What’s so bloody private about that?

And does anyone believe that there is such a thing as privacy when you entrust your soul to the Net?  If you do, ask Vladimir Putin.

We might compare our civil service to that of the English.  I recently directed a question by email to Cambridge University.  I got back the following response.

Good Morning Geoffrey,

Thank you ever so much for your recent enquiry regarding our short courses at ICE.

Unfortunately our last set of short courses will take place between 7-9th July and then restart in September.  I do apologise for any disappointment this may cause. However, if you are interested in joining our International Summer Programme you can find further information here.

If you have any further questions or queries please do not hesitate to ask.

With best wishes,


Emily Wells
Programmes Assistant
Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge
Madingley Hall, Madingley, Cambridge CB23 8AQ


Don’t you just love that ‘ever so much’?  It’s so English that it could almost be sexy.  (How would you be if Julie Christie raised her eyes and said ‘thanks ever so much?’)

We’re going bad if the convicts have to ask the screws for lessons in civility.

Poet of the Month: Chris Wallace-Crabbe


Sternly avoiding the asphalt, treading on grass

I pick my pernickety way across

this common urban transliteration of landscape,

the oddly broadcast parks and median-strips,

saluting the god of grass with the rub of my feet:



feet which are held at bay by animal-skins,

tanned, sewn, polished, and frequently scuffed.

Whitman wrote about your multiplicity

as leaves, and yet those thousands of blades are you,

 rather. Bland in your closepacked greenness,



your number exceeds those from whose fate you sprout.

Lushly after rain or wispily blond in summer,

bowing briefly you offer a carpet’s welcome

still to the odd with

 Lightly arriving

at a roundabout, I would choose the diagonal,



taking note of kikuyu, buffalo, bent and sedge,

feeling in touch, treading a kind of worship

or else, playing with language, my worship of kind.

Old Whitman thought you the hair of young dead men

but you whisper at my feet

 that something will survive.

Passing Bull 85 – The evil of banality


The citation that follows shows why this author and this book are so popular, still.

During dinner, Mr. Bennet scarcely spoke at all; but when the servants were withdrawn, he thought it time to have some conversation with his guest, and therefore started a subject in which he expected him to shine, by observing that he seemed very fortunate in his patroness. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s attention to his wishes, and consideration for his comfort, appeared very remarkable. Mr. Bennet could not have chosen better. Mr. Collins was eloquent in her praise. The subject elevated him to more than usual solemnity of manner, and with a most important aspect he protested that he had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank – such affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine. She had been graciously pleased to approve of both the discourses, which he had already had the honour of preaching before her. She had also asked him twice to dine at Rosings, and had sent for him only the Saturday before, to make up her pool of quadrille in the evening. Lady Catherine was reckoned proud by many people he knew, but he had never seen anything but affability in her. She had always spoken to him as she would to any other gentleman; she made not the smallest objection to his joining in the society of the neighbourhood, nor to his leaving his parish occasionally for a week or two, to visit his relations. She had even condescended to advise him to marry as soon as he could, provided he chose with discretion; and had once paid him a visit in his humble parsonage; where she had perfectly approved all the alterations he had been making, and had even vouchsafed to suggest some herself,- some shelves in the closets upstairs.

It is the same in the movie, or at least in the Olivier/Garson version.  Mr Collins positively wallows in the condescension of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  This is not just class – it is caste.  Only the French were worse.

Now let us look at some of the responses of Donald Trump to the actions of his President based on findings of all the nation’s intelligence agencies – and the conclusions accepted by those who lead what Trump claims to be his party.

Take two tweets:

  Great move on delay (by V Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!

Russians are playing CNN and NBC for such fools – funny to watch, they don’t have clue!  Fox News totally gets it!

Here he is in an interview:

I think computers have complicated our lives very greatly.  The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on.  And we have speed – we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind of security we need.

Well, that all just tells us what we already knew.  This man is stupid, completely stupid.  His gluttony for publicity leaves him a conflict freak – he must start fights to hold the cameras on him – even fights within his own staff and party – on issues of national security.  And it is just a matter of time before his cosying up to duplicitous thugs like Putin and Netanyahu comes back to haunt him.  They are just as brutal and devious as Trump is – but they are far, far smarter.

Both of them now look to be playing Trump like a violin – on Twitter.  (Please, God, tell me it ain’t so.)  Russia has never been well governed; it has never known democracy, let alone the rule of law; it is not fit for anything than other than autocracy. If Trump believes one word that Putin utters, he will be compared to Chamberlain with Hitler. Putin is not there to make America great again. At best Trump will wind up with the problem of the Andrews government in Victoria – no-one can think of a polite or decent reason for their having acted in the way they did – in Victoria, by doing a deal with the UFU that was plainly not in the public interest and left them utterly on the nose in the bush.

We can now see that not only was Trump brought up so that he has no manners at all, so that he has been set no limits, but that also he has never before been held accountable at all – he has not held any office or served in a public company.  And his age is not a good one to be putting on L-plates.  The consensus seems to be that Trump and his cabinet of generals and billionaires will cut taxes for the rich, reduce benefits to those not so well off, but throw money around like Keynes.  Fox News will be delirious – but what about the dispossessed and the real Republicans?  If you get stuck on labels, you will see nationalism and socialism; the last thing you will see would be conservatism.

Now let us look at the terms of a considered press release:

It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.  Nevertheless, in the interests of our country and its great people – you’ve all been so very, very good –  I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation. 

All the banality is there – if a kid in grade three said it was time to move on after getting caught cheating, you would know you had a problem.  But do you see what I see?  Condescension – loftier, far, far loftier than anything reigned down on Mr Collins by Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  ‘I, Donald Trump, your chosen President, have reached my conclusion on this little matter – but in the national interest, and since you are a great people, I will condescend to go out of my way and talk to the people who have the evidence, and who know what to do.  You will understand the magnitude of my condescension when you recall that I have dispensed with security briefings because I am so smart – and of course I have the dispensing power that the Stuarts didn’t.  We’ve moved on.’

It reminded me of that part of Richard II when the usurper suggested that the king descend to ‘the base court’ – ‘We are amazed!’  And John Gielgud fills the air with the sheer horror of lèse majesté.

It takes your breath away.  God help us all.  In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt upset some people when she referred to the ‘banality of evil.’  We now have to live with the evil of banality.

Poet of the month: Chris Wallace-Crabbe


Your philosophical moth

flutters against the glass

with hardly more than a shadow

of coarse doubt:


these nimble skipping images

are they, perhaps not even

reflected jags and fragments of

kaleidoscopic glassware


while anything tear-shaped

runs terribly slowly

down the sheer


Happy New Year – and a Note on Art

The Art of Mark Rothko

(Some comments from and on the book ‘Mark Rothko, From the Inside Out’, Christopher Rothko, Yale University Press, 2015.)

The quest for meaning was at the root of all Mark Rothko’s  work.  What he sought was to express the human condition.  He sought to speak as directly as possible to us, in our inner selves.  He wanted passion dampened by as few mediators as possible.  ‘Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create state of intimacy – an immediate transaction.’

Rothko kept returning to the physical relationship between art and the viewer.  He said that form and proportion were dominant, but for us, it is likely to be the colours that seduce us.  Rothko said that sensuality was his essential way of getting the painter’s message across.  In his writing, Rothko expressed sadness that abstraction in modern art had been ‘at great sacrifice in the expression of human passion….and a tragic abnegation of the human spirit.’  He thought perspective had drained the impact of colour.  His hero was Giotto who had no interest in creating visual space.

Rothko spoke of his paintings as dramas. ‘The paintings are a stage for human concerns and human dialogue as drama, unlike narrative, inherently involves interaction.’  We speak of psychological dramas, and what we hear from people who love Rothko’s work is that they find the paintings to be moving.   Some are moved to tears (just as some react in that way to Casablanca)

The tears tell us that that viewer has been moved, and that some see tragic content in the work.  Something on the canvas strikes a chord with the viewer.  Rothko saw not just drama but tragic drama – ‘the tragedy of the human condition.’  Mozart was by far Rothko’s favourite composer.  His son tells us this:

Mozart generally wears a genial face, his music so tuneful it is frequently canned into packages of background music, much as my father’s work is often reduced to decorative wall covering.  But listening to Mozart carefully and openly, one becomes aware of the sadness, the longing, the ache of human suffering.  Mozart was ‘smiling through tears’, my father would often say.  Perhaps, I would suggest, the same was true for him.

(An English music critic said that the glorious tenor voice of the tragic Swedish drunk Jussi Bjorling was ‘full of unshed tears.’)  Mozart, too, expressed complex themes in the simplest way, and most of his music is nothing if not sensuous.

In his Poetics, Rothko’s son reminds us, Aristotle says that the best tragedies arouse ‘pity and fear’.  Aristotle said that pity is our response to ‘undeserved misfortune’ and our fear comes from seeing this suffering ‘in one like ourselves.’ (‘There but for the grace of God go I.’) Tragedy then may be the ultimate expression of the common experience of mankind – or just our humanity – and art becomes the lyrical reflection of humanity.

When Rothko offers us a painting, he is making an overture to us.  He is saying: ‘We’re not so different, you and I’.  He is inviting us to take a journey to explore the tragic drama of human life.  In his artistic development, he sought to strip away layers to achieve simplicity and clarity and to achieve the simple expression of something complex.  Quite by chance, Rothko’s son, who is a psychologist, stumbled on a formula: content + impact = contact.

And thank heaven, Rothko scotched one rotten myth:

I never thought that painting has anything to do with self-expression.  It is a communication about the world to someone else…..You may communicate about yourself; I prefer to communicate a view about the world that is not at all of myself.

Rothko reaches pure abstraction where he is unfettered by tradition and the viewer is unfettered by social context.

The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer….To achieve this clarity is, inevitably to be understood.

That last proposition might be safer, or less optimistic, when applied to writing rather than painting, but the stand taken by the painter is fundamental to understanding his work.  Rothko was not a religious Jew; a major commission was for a Catholic chapel; but his insistence on clearing away blocks between artist and his viewer has a Protestant air about it.

Compared to the forms, the colours suggest a type of abandon.  The end result is the painted expression of what it is to be human – ‘This is what it feels like to feel this way.’  He is looking for a chemistry between us and him, ‘a primal, preverbal communication’ conveyed by the painting.  He wants to get across to us feelings that can’t be put into words.  So did Mozart. (And if you put to one side porn and hookers, so does sex.)  And as his son remarks, ‘if Rothko’s works still make us uncomfortable, then perhaps it is not comfort we should be seeking.’

But even in the early figurative paintings, a similar drive to embrace humanity can be seen.  Rothko was a socialist painting during the Great Depression, but he was not painting the suffering of the ‘masses’.  He was looking at the individual struggling for air.  He was the reverse of the ideologue – he was looking at you and me, and not ‘the proletariat’.  What Christopher Rothko calls these ‘framed, cramped figures’ look to be trying to break free, to be liberated, and we are reminded of Kafka as he was writing at about the same time.  Aristotle also said that ‘Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life.’  Yes, but we get there by looking at persons, not by looking at abstractions.

So, when Christopher Rothko says his father wanted to express the inexpressible, what he was saying is that his father sought to express emotions – or, if you prefer, sentiments or ideas – in paint that he could not express in words – and which we may be at best presumptuous if we try to express in words.  The son does refer to the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  But one of his father’s better known remarks is:

I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.

And whatever else you may say of Rothko’s paintings, he did compose them (and, for my part, I don’t get the sense that that composition came without a fight).  Christopher says:

The paintings are, in fact, my father’s abstracted notion of reality – his generalisation of the truth – communicated through emotional, sensual experience.

If, that is right, then for once a label – Abstract Expressionism – may have some merit.