Here and there – Past Political Principles


In 1926, a series of eight lectures was given at King’s College, London on the political principles of notable prime ministers of the nineteenth century.  Learned people spoke of politicians from a different time.  The essays were edited by F Hearnshaw and published by Macmillan and Co under the title Prime Ministers of the Nineteenth Century.  The lectures make fascinating reading – not least at a time when it is not easy to detect principle in politics anywhere.

Before looking at some of the PMs, one commentator recalled that in Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith spoke of ‘that crafty and insidious animal vulgarly called a statesman or politician.’  Well, we all have a fair idea of what it takes to be a politician.  What is a statesman?

There are many politicians; there are few statesmen.  A statesman, I take it, is a man who performs some constructive work, who guides a country through a difficult crisis, who restores its prosperity and self-confidence after a period of disaster or distress, whose career marks an epoch in its history.

That seems fair enough, although the ‘epoch’ barrier may be too high.  But as the same speaker said, a person can hardly aspire to that status before serving an apprenticeship, generally a long one, in party politics.

In other words, he must be an insidious and crafty animal before he can become something greater and better.  He may have all the qualities of a great statesman, but he has little chance of showing them unless he also has the support which the party machine alone can give him, and which he must earn by party service.

The trouble is that a lot of decent people don’t want to be seen getting their hands dirty – they are reluctant to set foot in the swamp, and some get out of it too soon after they have sampled it.  These remarks also remind us that although we have electoral laws that deal with political parties, for the most part the parties run their affairs as they see fit.  The system of ‘party government which Great Britain has given to the world’ is in large part beyond the control of government.  How could it be otherwise?

The first of the PMs is George Canning.  He had a disability – his mother.  One future Whig PM ‘regarded the son of an actress as de facto incapacitated from being Prime Minister of England.’  His mother, it was said, raised a ‘brood of illegitimate children, but Canning’s uncle sent him to Eton and Oxford.

Canning was brilliant and vain, but he got on.  He went over the heads of the party and appealed to the people.  The Times demurred.  Mr Canning, it said, was ‘acting very improperly in rubbing shoulders with business men, and in exciting the clamours of the crowd.’  You must remember that democracy was a dirty word then, but Canning was seen ‘to be wielding the thunderbolts of an enormous popularity….He had not relied on or made use of the party machine as such.  He had smashed it, and that is not an easy thing to do then or now.’

Well we don’t to reflect on a recent U S example, but Disraeli ‘never saw Canning but once’ and never forgot ‘the melody of that voice….the tumult of that ethereal brow.’  Gladstone as a child literally sat at Canning’s feet and said ‘I was bred under the shadow of the great name of Canning.’  We don’t hear talk like that now.  Canning’s liberalism shaped English foreign policy until the end of the century.  Metternich said Canning was ‘a whole revolution in himself alone’ and Coleridge said that Canning ‘flashed such a light about the constitution that it was difficult to see the ruins of the fabric through it.’

His Grace the Duke of Wellington could not stoop to the swamp.  He was ‘suspicious, autocratic, sparing of thanks, possessed of a very long memory for offences, and a very short memory for services….the Duke had an intellectual contempt for his social equals, and a social contempt for his intellectual equals.’  He believed that ‘all reform is bad because all Reform ends up being Radical.’  In short, his Grace was a one man political landslide.  But it was in some part his intervention that allowed the great Reform Act to pass, and avert a possible civil war.  The English aristocracy would intervene to similar effect again in 1869 and 1911.

Sir Robert Peel is remembered as the man who gave England its police – Bobbies or Peelers – and the man who repealed the protectionist Corn Laws.  He had along political career, and an intense sense of duty – national duty, not party commitment.  He showed his sense of principal while in opposition.  He disclaimed ‘factious’ opposition, and as a Tory he claimed it was necessary to support a Whig government when it espoused Conservative principles.  He detested ‘anti-governmental principles’ for their own sake and he preferred the claims of public authority to those of political doctrine.  As a corollary, he refused to flirt with Radicals or try to outbid the Whigs and restate the Tory case in radical terms.

A man of principle indeed!  We could do with some Orange Peel, as he was of course known, around here.  As a result, one colleague described him as ‘an iceberg with a slight thaw on the surface’; another compared his smile to the gleam of the silver plate of a coffin lid.  He would be dismembered in the House of Commons by Disraeli.

Lord Palmerston was something of a ladies’ man and was welcomed by the English public as a jingoist.  Again, contemporary events are uncomfortable.  His lecture is becomingly droll.  We forget that ‘though history is about dead men, they were not always dead.’  One critic had described Palmerston in a way that made him look like ‘a cross between a successful bookmaker and Carmen.’  The lecturer then makes the point ‘that it is always easier to find a man’s principles at the beginning of his career than at the end, because in the later stages principles are so lamentably apt to become obscured by practice.’  We are warned of the danger of studying a person’s career from the wrong end – by staring at the end rather than the beginning.  And we are reminded of the perennial danger of hindsight with an anecdote from a novel of M. Maurois.  ‘Let us remember, we men of the Middle Ages, that tomorrow we start for the Hundred Years War.’

The lecturer has a great line on the statesman’s upbringing:

His formal education, conducted with becoming pomp at Harrow and Cambridge, was of the type that lends dignity to a man’s obituary without unduly modifying his attainments.

A later PM made a similar remark about the impact of Oxford on her career, and a few at Oxford haven’t forgotten it.  Palmerston spent a lot of time in the War Office, and he was known to conduct serious controversies with cheery gusto.  He once officially informed the Military Secretary that ‘the war will be carried on with as much courtesy as a State of Contest in its nature admits.’

The cornerstone of his foreign policy was national interest.  ‘We have no eternal allies and no permanent enemies.  Our interests are eternal, and those interests, it is our duty to follow.’  The Americans could learn from this man.  He wanted England to be ‘the champion of justice and right’ – provided that she – England – was the sole ruler of what that task might entail.

Here is an anecdote from another source.  In his late seventies, Palmerston, the ladies’ man, was cited a co-respondent in a divorce.  He was accused of adultery.  The aggrieved husband was Mr O’Kane.  Polite society had a new gag: ‘While the lady was certainly Kane, was Palmerston able?’

Lord John Russell was another survivor.  His portrait reveals an aesthete and man of enlightenment.  He could be very prosaic.  ‘My dear Melbourne, I am afraid you do not take exercise enough or eat and drink more than enough.  One of the two may do, but not both together.’  That’s not the kind of stuff to get men walking over hot coals for you.  His greatest achievement, more than thirty years before he became PM for the second time, was to pilot through the great Reform Act of 1832.  But for that legislation, the whole course of British history may have been very different.  His father, the ninth Duke of Bedford, once reproved him for ‘giving great offence to your followers in the House of Commons by not being courteous to them, by treating them superciliously, and de haut en bas, by not listening with sufficient patience to their solicitations or remonstrances.’  The lecturer says that by ‘study, by diligent attendance, and by frequent and fearless intervention in debate, he had made himself a House of Commons man of the best type.’  But doubtless parts of the swamp repelled him.

Now we come to the first of two undisputed titans.  The grandfather of the next PM in these lectures had migrated to England sixty years before he was born.  Benjamin Disraeli, the grandson of an Italian Jew, was the leader of the Tory Party, the Prime Minister of England, and he would become the closest confidant and adviser to the most powerful monarch in the entire world, and whom he, Disraeli, would anoint as the Empress of India.  It is a truly remarkable story.

It had not always been so smooth.  Disraeli had been a frightful dandy, and he had an acid tongue.  The queen had called him ‘detestable, unprincipled, reckless & not respectable.’  Her husband had dismissed him as ‘having not one single element of the gentleman in his composition.’  Well, Her Majesty and His Royal Highness may have had held strong views, but they were free to change their mind.  And Disraeli could ‘work’ the queen.  He said that with her, you had to ‘lay it on with a trowel’ – and he did so, ever so shamelessly; and he was always careful to heap honour and praise on the late Prince.  Her Majesty loved it, and she loathed poor Mr Gladstone.  She felt like he addressed her like he was addressing a public meeting.

And besides, having a PM with a background in finance might be useful.  In 1875, the bankruptcy of the Sultan of Turkey left the Khedive of Egypt wanting to sell his shares in the Suez Canal.  The French were in the market.  Disraeli was determined to get this stake in the Canal.  He could not get the money from Parliament as it was in recess.  He sent his private secretary to ask Baron Rothschild for a loan of 4,000,000 pounds.  Baron Rothschild asked two questions:  ‘When?’, and after eating a grape and spitting out a grape skin, ‘What is your security?’  (The crown jewels?)  The money was available next day to the British government at 2 ½ %, and a one-off fee of 100,000 pounds.  Disraeli wrote: ‘It is just settled: you have it Madam.’  The Queen was ‘in ecstasies,’ but she was keen to hear how her Prime Minister had got the ‘great sum.’

These were the days of great debates with Gladstone and others about affairs in Europe and elsewhere.  They really were titans the like of which we have not seen.  Disraeli was instrumental in settling the affairs of Europe – and Bismarck greatly admired him at the Congress of Berlin.  ‘Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.’

Not long after this, the French nation would be convulsed by controversy over the fate of a Jewish officer named Dreyfus, and it is more than a little difficult to imagine the third generation of a migrant Jewish family becoming Prime Minister of any country in Europe at that time.

As a baptised Jew, Disraeli had a mature view of religion.  He saw his religion as a fusion of two faiths and had a definition of the Church that appeals to me immensely – ‘a sacred corporation for the promotion and maintenance in Europe of certain Asian principles’.  I wonder how that went down in drawing rooms in Bath.

The lecturer drily observes that Disraeli ‘escaped the permanent infantile paralysis which is often the consequence of a public school curriculum.’  (These lectures were given in 1926 – it looks like the Great War had shattered faith in the English education system.)  He once said that ‘we put our money on the wrong horse’.  As the lecturer, the editor, says ‘he perhaps did not sufficiently realise that in the Balkans all horses are wrong horses.  The pitiful victims of atrocities lack nothing but opportunity in order themselves to become atrocious.  That is a truth which the painful experiences of the last half century have taught us.’  Too many have not learned that truth about the Middle East even after the painful experiences of the last half century.’

Disraeli also comes down to us as the Tory who effectively brought democracy to England with the ‘leap in the dark’ of the reform laws in 1869.  The Tories were becoming Conservatives.

Gladstone was different in so many ways.  The Whigs were becoming Liberals.  All this was before the Labor Party was thought of.  Gladstone was a man of the most formidable intellect, integrity and industry.  He had one very English trait.  The Spectator said of him: ‘Mr Gladstone has done less to lay down any systematised course of action than almost any man of his political standing.’  As the lecture says, ‘He was essentially an empiric, docile to the teachings of experience.’  That is precisely the instinct of the common law – don’t look at questions in the abstract; wait until the issue arises on the evidence.

He started off opposing reform in 1832 and defended slavery, but conscience and intellect led him to radical change, and, as the lecture said, ‘his courage forced him to accept the teachings of his conscience, at whatever cost to himself.’  There is the key to the man.  This intensely religious man came to the view that the enforcement of a State religion was not right in a modern state.  He advocated the removal of Jewish disabilities.  ‘I am deeply convinced that all systems, whether religious or political, which rest on a principle of absolutism, must of necessity be feeble and ineffective.’  That I think is a liberal way of thought.  But he repudiated laissez-faire and he would not ‘hesitate to apply the full powers of the State to ameliorate social anomalies.’  How does that square with our Liberals?  Or his wish to nationalise the railways?  He was never a Little Englander, and he learned to appeal straight to the people, saying that he preferred liberty to authority.

On foreign policy, he challenged he challenged Turkish rule ‘not on the ground of national interest, but in the name of justice to the oppressed.’  The lecturer said: ‘There cannot be much doubt that, but for Gladstone, the England of the seventies would have accepted the Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria as placidly as we have accepted those in Armenia.’

The last of these PMs, the Marquess of Salisbury, is the model of a true and decent Conservative politician – and statesman.  Unusually in English politics, Salisbury was an intellectual.  He survived the brutality of Eton, but he never lost his horror of the mob.  ‘First-rate men will not canvass mobs; and mobs will not elect first-rate men.’  That is archetypal Victorian snobbery – until you look at people like Farage, Hanson, and Trump, and the people who vote for them.

Salisbury had the attitudes of the by-gone squire.  He distrusted book learning and experts.  He was another matter-of-fact man.  ‘I would not be too much impressed by what the soldiers tell you about the strategic importance of these places.  It is their way.  If they were allowed full scope, they would insist on the importance of garrisoning the Moon in order to protect us from Mars.’  The stain comes from the Conservative contribution to the Irish tragedy, and their fixated opposition to change by Home Rule.

So, there is the twentieth century looking back to the nineteenth.  The urbane style of the lectures is something we miss; indeed, we just about miss all style now in this kind of discussion.  The story of the emergence of the parties known as Conservatives and Liberals may tell us a lot at a time when those parties no longer stand for much at all.  There was a focus on character and leadership that we don’t feel now.  The competition for the top job is there throughout, as is the disdain of theory or ideology, but the job of climbing the greasy pole does not seem to have annihilated statesmanship as much then as it does now.  Why that may be so is a proper subject of inquiry.  You can almost hear the rush of the cascade of clichés.  In truth, you can almost see them on your television as we speak.

Passing Bull 109– Structural problems in U S politics

The chaos and bullshit that are engulfing government in the United States reveal differences between our two constitutions and systems of government.  By and large, we adhere to the Westminster model.  We have jettisoned most of the idea of responsible government – ministers being liable for the actions of civil servants – and we have made deep inroads on the need for a politically neutral executive.  But we are closer to Westminster than Washington.  Some of the differences are as follows, not in any real order.

1.     The head of our government, the P M, is answerable in and to our parliament when it is sitting.  The ability of the leader to respond to questions without notice on a daily basis is one of the key factors that the party takes into account in choosing that person for P M.  The candidate must have real parliamentary experience.  This is not so with the President of the U S.  It was hard to imagine someone like George W Bush getting the job here.  It is impossible to imagine someone like Trump doing so.

2.     Nor are other Cabinet members answerable to Congress.  Some of the absurd appointments Trump has made simply could not happen here.  Like the Barbie Doll daughter and her visible husband.

3.     The opposition party has no recognised office of Leader of the Opposition.  This leads to irresponsibility in opposition, and it facilitates a wrecking opposition.  An opposition should not be heard unless it pledges to implement a different policy or platform.  I am not sure how far this practice feeds the custom that the outgoing president lays low (while making a fortune).  Who better to critique and oppose the incoming president?

4.     The President speaks through others – in the White House – in a way that encourages irresponsibility and incoherence.  Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway would be inconceivable here.  Trump has slow or slippery front people whom he then contradicts on Twitter.  The Marx Brothers White House show is not funny anymore.

5.     There is a much greater infection of partisanship in the U S executive.  Departments suffer wholesale reconstituting when the party in power in Congress changes.  The Department of State has been mutilated.  It has suffered political purges.  Sally Yates was attacked for being a Democrat.

6.     A lot of these issues derive from an ideological embrace of the separation of powers.  We follow the English.  We ask not whether a scheme or proposal conforms to theory, but whether it works.  The U S division of powers leaves them like the Stuarts on war powers – the executive declares the wars, but only the legislature can fund them.  We and the English want our ministry to be members of parliament and at least to that extent to be both elected to and answerable to the parliament.

7.     The process of finding nominees for the parties and then electing the president allows for the election of someone who is not just not qualified, but who ought to be disqualified.

8.     That process is hideously long and expensive.  It is as notorious for its inefficiency as their health system.

9.     The Supreme Court is and has been split along ideological fault lines that would be anathema here.

10.                        The Bill of Rights has a constitutional effect in the U S and is far too ideological for our tastes.  It gives unelected judges far too much law making power, and it is prone to debase the currency of the independence of the judiciary.

11.                        Apart from their gun laws, the crassest example of the sad triumph of theory over sense in the U S is their failure to make voting compulsory.  That to us makes as much sense as not insisting on a secret ballot, or making jury service optional, or giving a green light to going through a red light.  This absurd obsession does not fulfil democracy, it mocks democracy.  And, if it matters, some say that it sits on a sad throwback to racism.

12.                        The President is the head of state in the US.  Our Prime Minister is not.  Americans invest much more faith in their President than we place in our PM.  We expect more from the system than Americans do, but we place far less faith in the people actually in office.  At least Australian republicans have a model to avoid.

13.                        Finally, it is too hard to get rid of a dud president.  None has ever been removed by a completed process of impeachment.  Here, we just leave it to the party room.  It has happened too often here recently, and it’s never pretty, but the alternative looks awful.

That’s not a good report card, and it is not just Americans who are paying the price.

Confucius says:

A gentleman makes friends through being cultivated, but looks to friends for support in benevolence.

Analects 12.24

From the next Passing Bull, we shall cease our protest at ‘Western values’ and return to Poet of the Month.

Why opera? Chapter 2

[This chapter may seem prosaic to some, but from now on, it will be all systems go.]


Sources and courses

Would you be surprised to hear that the Greeks were toying with what might be called a version of opera centuries before the birth of Christ?  Aristotle had something to say about everything.  He commented on the Greek use of music in drama:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of some action that is important, entire and of a proper magnitude – by language rendered pleasurable… language that has the embellishments of rhythm, melody and meter… In some parts, meter alone is employed, in others, melody.

About two thousand years later, Greek scholars had fled west after the fall of Istanbul in 1453.  They sought to recreate Greek drama and they worked on this in the late 1500s.  A group of these scholars in Florence looked closely at the use of music and drama.  So, we have people in Italy, and indeed especially in Florence, going back to the ancients to see how an art form might be revived – in other words, we have an example of the Italian Renaissance in action, and one that is not often noticed.

During the period of what we call the Renaissance – about, say 1400 to 1600 – we can see two strands in western music – the glorification of God, and the celebration of the harmony of the spheres.  During the period that we describe as the Baroque – about, say, 1600 to 1750 – we see the emergence and development of opera.  The actual birthplace was Venice.

The progress involved both the sacred and the profane.  Music was vital to the Mediaeval and Renaissance church.  Music had spilled out of the church into the town or village square, but then the church banned biblical representations from musical exposition.  One source of opera was removed, but there was among the profane in Europe a very strong tradition of commedia dell’arte, a stage presentation of stock figures like Harlequin and Columbine ad-libing a kind of farce, and there was a strong tradition of masques in England and of ballet in France that provided sources for the development of music drama in those countries.  (My tutorial notes for Harlequin read ‘twisted wit and the cunning of an amoral child.’)

What we now know as opera first appeared in Venice at the end of the 16th century.  A piece called Dafne was performed there before Orfeo by Monteverdi was staged at Padua in 1607.  That opera is still performed and recorded.

People also began to write oratorios after the church had taken biblical themes from the stage.  The movement crossed the channel, and in about 1689 Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell was performed in England.  The French continued to be more influenced by the dance, while in Germany Bach wrote countless cantatas and two of the great monuments of Western civilisation, the St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion.  His work for piano, The Well-Tempered Clavier, liberated the keyboard.

In Italy, they were discovering what it was for material to be musicabile – with experience, they found that for material to be capable of being set to music, they needed three things: a certain ambience, striking characters, and strong scenes.  In very broad terms, music went from moving feelings to expressing them, and in what we call the classical phase, we get orchestral colouring and the contrasts of chiaroscuro.

Now we get our first composer who is still celebrated in the opera house and the concert house, Handel, the German who settled in England.  Handel was undoubtedly a great composer, and he wrote many operas, but those operas have not commanded the same following and respect as his oratorios and orchestral works.  Mozart would free up the structure, but the profligate Handel has left us some of our most beautiful songs.

Throughout his career, Handel borrowed freely from himself.  Before the opening of the opera Rinaldo, his first London opera, Handel and his backers let it out that he had composed it in only fourteen days.  The opening at the Haymarket in 1711 was a sensation.  The Spectator said: ‘The opera of Rinaldo is filled with Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations and Fireworks.’  The composer was, as many of them had to be back then, something of an impresario.

Haydn wrote some opera, but it is hardly heard of.

Until now, the role of the singer was just to sing, with perhaps a gesture or two – acting was not yet part of the deal.  The structures of the arias and the recitative were formal and observed.  It was more like watching tableaux of gods or heroes.  Mozart would change all that, and would give us the emotions of real people.  Gluck provided a bridge, and his Alceste and Orpheus and Eurydice are still played.  Some say that Gluck’s emphasis on emotional truth could be compared to Rousseau’s view of naturalness.  Nature was coming into its own then in poetry and painting.

The Australian Opera went through a purple patch in the 1990s.  Their production of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1993 (David Hobson and Miriam Gormley) and Handel’s Julius Caesar in 1994 (Graham Pushee and Yvonne Kenny) were huge hits, and justifiably so.  The National Library holds videos of each of them.  The sets and the ballets are adventurous but wonderfully entertaining.  And you can get to see David Hobson suspended over a dancing horde climbing up a wall and Yvonne Kenny as Cleopatra taking a bath in milk.  It is hard to imagine a better night out at the theatre than either of these great AO productions.

Well, if you go to Orfeo by Monteverdi, and start at the beginning with the Toccata, you will hear the music that Kenneth Clark used for at least one episode of Civilisation.  Then in the Ritornello you get a kind of chorus called ‘Music’ who acts as a kind of prologue to set the opera up.  The music is the sound of the Renaissance.  It is tightly disciplined.

The Saint Matthew Passion is not an opera, but it is like an opera performed in concert.  As a music drama, it has never been surpassed for either drama or music.  The Evangelist acts as a kind of MC, or, if you prefer, he fulfils the role played by Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret.  Some people will recognise tunes of Lutheran hymns, but there is absolutely no religious test for this masterpiece, which is one of the title deeds of our civilisation.  If you want to feel the awful power of a choir in music drama get the famous Chorus ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden’.  It is an eruption of outrage at the arrest of Christ.  ‘Have lightning, has thunder vanished in clouds?’  In his magisterial work Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, the conductor and musicologist John Eliot Gardiner agrees with the proposition that this is ‘one of the most violent and grandiose descriptions of unloosed passion produced in the Baroque era.’

You may feel the passion if you see Nicholas Harnoncourt conduct this work in rehearsal.’  You may compare it to the previous Chorus with Duet, ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ ‘So is my Jesus captured now.’  It is very hard to imagine more intense moments in music drama.  Then go to near the end of the work for a recitative with Chorus ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Rach Gebracht/ Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!’ ‘Now the Lord is brought to rest. /My Jesus, good night!’  Try the Herreweghe version (which I have) and then go to the final chorus.  It’s like a Negro spiritual.

Now try ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo.  Try Cecilia Bartoli.  (The castrato sings it in Farinelli, but that makes some of us nervous.   I forget whether the film shows the audience shouting ‘Long live the blade!’)

Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) is famous for the aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ which comes early in the opera and is known as ‘Handel’s Largo.’  The Caruso recording is scratchy, but this song is one of the most popular in the repertoire, and Caruso is said by many to have been the greatest tenor ever.  And you can compare him head to head on this with Bjorling.  You might also try Franco Corelli, if only to see the film star good looks.  There are buckets of choice.

Finally, try ‘Che faro senza Eurydice’ from Orpheus and Eurydice.  You can choose between two great mezzos, Janet Baker from England or Marilyn Horne from America, or you can hear Callas sing it in French.  And don’t forget the terrific AO production.

Well, there are the stately and ordered songs of the baroque.  We now move to when that world is exploded, like a planet being hit by a shooting star.

Passing Bull 108 – Timbo back and in form

Tim Wilson just oozes bullshit. As you plough through the following, ask yourself what part is worse.

Menzies knew there was no contradiction between the values his party embraced…

Monday’s 75th anniversary of the “Forgotten People” speeches, understandably, has prompted nostalgia in Liberal ranks.

In a column in this newspaper on Monday, former prime minister Tony Abbott argued that there were three lessons from Menzies’ work — to “know who you represent”, “your values” and “never shirk a fight in a good cause”. On those he is right, but Abbott’s observations represent only the conservative chorus.

Completion requires the liberal verse — know where you want to take Australia. Menzies’ exceptionalism comes from understanding that successfully prosecuting a political message follows from commanding the context of choices before a country, not just the answers….

His solution was to frame Australia as a nation with an organic society born of individuals, forming families, building community as the foundation for nationhood. It is a citizen-up approach from the middle class to slay the easy temptation of Canberra-down government planning.

He then built a modern, forward-looking Liberal Party to ensure “in a country like Australia the class war must always be a false war”.

In doing so he also knew it was not the only “false war”. So was the debate about whether his party was liberal or conservative, because such a debate starts from a falsehood.

It cannot be a debate about competing or different political philosophies for one very simple reason: conservatism is not a political philosophy. It’s a disposition. A temperament. An approach to bring the best of the past forward with incremental change.

In his memoir Afternoon Light Menzies wrote of taking “the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea…

After all, a person can be socialist and conservative. They’re called Fabians. Conservatism is the virtue. Liberalism is the vision.

Yet liberalism alone is not a solution. Liberalism is the force of water through a loose garden hose that flaps around indiscriminately after the tap has been turned on. Conservatism is the calming hand that directs the hose towards the plants needing hydration….

Today the symptoms of what must be rejected are obvious, from identity politics, increased dependence on taxpayer-financed welfare, rising public debt, placing the needs of government before households and the corrosion of our culture.

But recharging the nation’s course requires analysing the disease. The disease is the shift of the centre of gravity that was, as Menzies described it, anchored in the ambitions of “homes material, homes human, and homes spiritual” that built the foundations of our society from the citizen up.

In place of the home and family life has been a centre more closely anchored to the ambitions of the academy, state capitals and Canberra, driving a vision of a nation from bureaucracies and institutions down…

The consequence is people of “the left” and “the right” are turning to populism to break the system in an attempt to regain the certainty that comes from being in control of their lives.

For left-progressives the turn to popular brings a silver lining because it creates the opportunity to tear down the institutions that underpin liberal democracy and remake them to achieve their ends…..

You may have noticed that Timbo falls for the cliché ‘left-progressives’ although he quotes Menzies as ‘taking “the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party’.  But the two prize-winners – world-beaters – for pure bullshit are ‘Conservatism is the virtue. Liberalism is the vision’ and ‘Conservatism is not a political philosophy. It’s a disposition’ – although the ‘loose garden hose’ deserves a Palme d’Or on its own.

Let’s look at three problems with ‘Conservatism is not a political philosophy. It’s a disposition’.  First, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy does not agree.  It gives two versions of conservative ‘ideology.’  Its comments are extracted below.  Secondly, if it is hard to define a political philosophy, it is even harder to define a state of mind.  How then do you frame a coherent argument on such loose premises?  (I think the common law can be a state of mind – but I’m careful of where I say that.)  Finally, is this not just a false dichotomy?  Of course a political philosophy can be a state of mind.  How can it – say, Fascism – not be?  Was the man from Quadrant who wanted to bomb the ABC deranged or depraved?  Why do we have to choose?  He is probably both and more – and he’s still got a job.

And when did you last see a Fenian?  At about the time you saw Father Christmas going down the chimney?  And do we think that Timbo has the same feeling about ‘virtue’ as Robespierre?

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has the following.

conservatism Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions.  In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclass.  By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally.  The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.

liberalism A political ideology centred upon the individual thought of as possessing rights against the government, including rights of due process under the law, equality of respect, freedom of expression and action, and freedom from religious and ideological restraint.

The author then goes on to describe how that ideology is attacked from both ‘left’ and ‘right’, as defined, showing that all those terms are now exhausted and worthless.


Confucius says:

The gentleman agrees with others without being an echo.  The small man echoes without being in agreement.

Analects 13.23.

Passing Bull 107 – Bull about journalism

Last Friday, the press carried two worrying pieces about the crisis facing our journalism.  Adam Creighton in The Australian said:

High-profile job losses at Fairfax in recent weeks are part of a worrying trend. More than 2500 journalists have been laid off by Australia’s media companies since 2011, about a quarter of the total.

Meanwhile, the ranks of public relations, advertising and corporate affairs professionals have swollen by around 19,000 to 91,000, according to ABS statistics. That leaves about 12 PR people for every journalist in the country — and it certainly feels that way when I open my inbox each morning.  These figures exclude the thousands of political advisers working for state and federal governments too.

Unless this army of spinners is entirely useless, such an onslaught must have compromised the quality of what journalists write and say, quite apart from their reduced numbers…..

Journalists are the only effective check on government and large corporations, whose information about, and power over, citizens and customers is probably greater than at any time in history. Their incentives — to call out vested interests — are naturally aligned with the public interest more than any other job.

The author referred to reports that half the populace take their news from Facebook.  The horror of the fading of journalism under inanity and the internet becomes apparent from a piece by Edward Luce from the US in The AFR. 

If America’s political system were working as it should, Donald Trump would be in serious trouble. Either Congress would be taking steps that could ultimately lead to impeachment, or people around the President would have concluded him unfit for office.

But Mr Trump retains an ace up his sleeve. No elected Republican dares cross him. Any who think of standing up to him know they would risk an electronic lynching that could finish their career. Just ask Jeb Bush.

America’s government is at a dangerous impasse. Most people know Mr Trump is unfit to be commander in-chief. But nobody with the power to redress it has found the courage to act.

The tragedy for America – and the world – is that this is likely to persist at least until next year’s US midterm elections. Even overt signs that Mr Trump is trying to obstruct justice, which was the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon, are glossed over. Between a quarter and a third of Americans are diehard Trump supporters. They have the power to eject rebel Republicans in primary elections.

Trumpians are stoked by a closed ecosystem of news sites that presents the world in a radically different light to the rest of the media. Thus Mr Trump did not fire James Comey last week. The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation resigned, according to Fox News. Likewise, Mr Trump did not disclose vital intelligence to Russia’s foreign minister. Nor did he put pressure on Mr Comey to shut down the investigation into Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s first national security adviser. These are fake stories.

Most of the sites ignored this week’s revelations and focused on the shooting of Seth Rich, a Democratic staffer who had apparently forwarded thousands of emails to WikiLeaks last summer. Readers were left in no doubt that Hillary Clinton, or people close to her, were involved in MrRich’s murder.

We should not underestimate the power Mr Trump draws from these alternative narratives. Whenever the elites express outrage at his actions, his supporters take pleasure in their anguish. Mr Trump knows how to cater to his base. If that means passing secrets to the Russians the day after firing the man investigating his campaign’s alleged Russia collusion, all the better. Scholars call this ‘‘negative partisanship’’. People no longer join a party because they believe in its agenda but because they despise the other one. By mocking his opponents, Mr Trump is literally delivering on what he promised. It is a mandate for nihilism.

Everything in those two pieces looks to me to be self-evidently true.  Now we know that when people hand over what brains they have to Facebook, we get people like Farage, Le Pen, Hanson, and Trump.  It’s no wonder that Hitler was so popular.  He backed up his seduction and fraud with murder and terrorism.

But the decline is not all down to the internet.  Bruce Guthrie came through the ranks to be fired from top positions with both Fairfax and Murdoch.  His book Man Bites Murdoch (2010) offers sad insights into a world of pettiness, bitchiness, triviality, greasy poles, gossip, jealousy, ambition, deceit, and downright bastardry.

On the evidence of this book, there is not much to choose between Murdoch and Fairfax.  The first suffers from an ethics deficit, but it is better run because it is run like an African dictatorship.  Its attitude to staff could be described as feudal, although many medieval barons probably felt more loyalty to their vassals than Murdoch feels to his serfs.  Fairfax has not been satisfactorily owned or managed.  Its board is currently paying a former journalist about $7 million a year to fire as many of his former colleagues as possible.  There is no prospect of his handing back any of those pieces of silver.

No sane person would wish to work for either Fairfax or Murdoch.  The insecurity just gets passed down the chain brutally.  Some bullies posing as executives talk nonsense about ‘creative anxiety.’  The distrust is massive and mutual.  Loyalty is at best suspect and at worst dirty.  The atmosphere reminds me of that in Paris near the end of the Terror.  They finally got up the nerve to bring down Robespierre after someone bustled about saying ‘they say he has got a list, and I hear that your name’s on it.’  It was a very dark and nasty place.

This is a tragedy for Australia as well as for its journalists.  Only ideological fanatics deny that journalism is essential to the rule of law.  Just look at what is happening in the U S now – and what was not permitted to happen in Germany in the 1930’s.  We are looking at a threat to journalism that has already found itself sitting on shifty and seedy marshes.

Let me take a few examples from the book.

Murdoch’s capos met at Aspen in 1988.  These must be like party meetings under Stalin.  All eyes are on the boss.  The pall of possible death is everywhere.  The revolting editor of the revolting paper The Sun boasted ‘We don’t report the news, we make it.’  Guthrie thought the speech was appalling.  He then made a serious tactical mistake.  ‘Tom.  Do you have any ethical framework at all at the London Sun?’  The whole place erupted with hilarity, revulsion, or amazement.  The answer was no.  The boss was not amused.  There would be no more talk about ethics (which Guthrie says later was thought in the Murdoch empire to refer to the county of Essex).  ‘I would have thought it’s news if the captain of the England cricket team is taking barmaids up to his room the night before a Test match.’  Later the boss said about that stupid question to one of his capos: ‘I see we have a Fairfax wanker in our midst.’

I despaired of getting any moral or intellectual sense out of The Australian years ago, but there in that anecdote you can see the cancer that has infected Australian journalism.  The whole outfit is coarse, venal, inbred, tribal, brainless and vicious.

Then you have the politicians.  Their closeness to the press has been incestuous, and incest is not tolerated by any human tribe.  Hawke and Keating were each notorious for ringing editors and abusing them with that fruity language that such people associate with machismo.  The unseemly memoirs of Chris Mitchell showed just how demeaning those relations would be with a later generation.

Kennett prefigured Abbott by loathing Fairfax and the ABC with a passion.  (It’s ironic that he brought himself undone by suing Murdoch and losing the unlosable libel action – presumably because the jury thought as little of him as did the electorate.)  Kennett was backed by Murdoch and 3AW.  He was so close to 3AW that he thought he had exclusive rights.  Kennett was outraged when 3AW gave the opposition leader air time.  Kennett grabbed the program director Steve Price in a corridor, pushed him into a room, slapped his face, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and demanded ‘What about loyalty, mate?’

It’s just revolting, isn’t it?  Later when Guthrie and Kennett were in a shitfight of correspondence, the Premier of Victoria though to dignify his office by writing ‘your mighty organ is very limp indeed.’  (Indeed, as you read this, Kennett starts to look more and more like that ghastly oaf Trump.)

It looks like more of the editors’ time is spent worrying about business and profits than news and journalism.  The partners of large law firms will recognise this dilemma.

Finally there are the corporate partners – back scratching for profit, and an inducement to go soft on an issue that may annoy someone you are in bed with.  Partners of law firms know about this, too.  But when Fairfax let Michael West go, it was hard to resist the inference that he was silenced because his insights into the underside of big shots at the big end of town had become intolerable.

The book has a splendid vignette on the managerial incompetence and gutlessness of Fairfax.  The board appointed Zelman Cowen as Chairman.  Why would any sane business entity want a garrulous know-all law professor at the helm?  Guthrie briefed the board.  He sensed unease.  Cowen asked Guthrie if he wanted to restore the paper’s reputation for scrutiny.  ‘Yes.’  ‘That’s all very well, but it will be positive scrutiny, won’t it?  We don’t want any of this negative stuff.’

That bullshit could have made Goebbels blush.  When I was seeking to adopt a child, a church agency asked me if I had a positive attitude to religion.  That was the end of that application.

Through The Australian, Murdoch is at risk of doing to conservatism in Australia what he did to conservatism in America through fox News.  This is the view of The New York Times.

….nobody did more than Ailes [the late head of Fox news] to broaden the reach of conservative ideas among the American public, at least nobody since Ronald Reagan.  Except in this respect: If Ailes broadened, he also debased.  The man who did so much to engineer the ascendancy of conservative media paved the way to its moral and intellectual decline…..

Nor does the network have any fixed set of ideas that it seeks to champion or disseminate, other than an ostentatious patriotism that has the distinct feel of a marketing campaign.

What Fox is mainly in the business of doing is hating the left. In the manner of Ailes himself, its convictions stem from its resentments – and shift accordingly. It is sympathetic to military intervention when the left is against it (Iraq) and hostile when the left is for it (Libya); anti-Russia when President Barack Obama was reaching out to Russia, pro-Russia when Obama started getting tough on the Kremlin.

….Populism is not conservatism, which by definition entails resistance to public whims. Conservatives who use populism for their own ends make a Faustian bargain.

We are now living with the consequences of that bargain in the form of Donald Trump’s presidency. ..No network has put itself so wholly in the service of a candidate and the resentments he espouses as Fox.

No president has done more to harm the reputation of conservative ideas as this one. This, too, is Ailes’ legacy, unintended but fateful.

God save us – and our journalists – from idiots, crooks, ratbags, and real dead shits.

Confucius says:

When a man in office finds that he can more than cope with his duties, then he studies; when a student finds that he can more  than cope with his studies, he takes office.

Analects 19.13

Why Opera?

[This is the first of nine extracts from a book Why Opera – An introduction to an art form – Opera in nine easy pieces.]



Just over twenty years ago, a Melbourne restauranteur and wine maker, Rinaldo di Stasio, got together with two cooking writers, Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack, to write a book about Italian cooking called Allegro Al Dente, Pasta & Opera.  The authors believed that opera and Italian cooking went together.  They were dead right, even if the French composer, Hector Berlioz made what Banjo Paterson may have described as a ‘rude remark’ about Italian cooking and opera.

Music for the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more.  For this noble expression of the mind, they have hardly more respect than for the art of cooking.  They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.

Now, we’ll have to confront snobbery and bitchiness in various forms on our journey in this book, but, among other things, it is odd to see a French man putting down the art or role of cooking.

The authors of Allegro al Dente put out a CD with the book.  It has fifteen of the biggest hits of opera delivered by a shining gaggle of its biggest hitters back then.  The sleeve notes said:

Here is the polished power of Carlo Bergonzi, the seductive charm of Giuseppe di Stefano, the radiant brilliance of Dame Joan Sutherland, the heroic emotion of Mario del Monaco, the sweet honey of Mirella Freni and Cecilia Bartoli, the warmth and colour of Renata Tebaldi, and the state of the art performance that is Luciano Pavarotti.

What a great idea – even if they missed out on my two heroes.  I was still engaged in taking my daughters to the opera about five times a year, and wondered if I might write an introduction to opera for them – and anyone else who might be interested.  (I had written a short outline of a history of the world for them.)

Until very recently, I wondered how I could write an introduction to opera without knowing what works – such as the arias on that CD – that members of the reading audience might have.  You see, I’m a bit slow on the internet.  I plead age.  But I now find that anyone can access a vast range of opera on the internet for nothing, on sites like YouTube, so that anyone could have access to the equivalent of as many of those CD’s as they like.  (Is that why op shops are loaded with CD’s?)

From that discovery comes this little book.  It is written on the basis that the reader will accept the invitation to listen to or watch the works of opera that are referred to.

So, roll out the red and white check tablecloth, get out the pasta or the bread and cheese, open the Chianti or Coonawarra Cabernet or Grampians Shiraz, and, as a sports commentator used to say just before the start of a Grand Prix, pump up the volume!

But, rather than ask what opera is, we might ask what art is.  You can look up the dictionaries if you like, but to my mind they miss the point.  If I ask what Milton, Turner and Tchaikovsky have in common, my answer is that their art is a lyrical reflection of the human condition.  The key word there is ‘lyrical’ – their art is the imaginative and appealing way that they bring us to their reflection.  ‘To be or not to be’ is a very different proposition to ‘Why don’t I just top myself?’  A sonnet by Shakespeare does carry more clout than a Phantom comic.  To use the jargon of the advertiser, the art is the hook that draws us in to get the message.

Well, opera is theatre or drama set to music – so there may be two avenues of lyrical reflection – the drama, or theatre, and the music.  When you think about it, you could say the same of most songs.  Take the poetry of Robert Burns.  You can read it on the page; you can hear it read aloud, or recited from memory; or you can hear it sung to music by, say, Kenneth McKellar.  The effect may well be very different.  Would the poet be offended if many said that they thought that the last mode of performance was the most lyrical?

Let us look first at music.  It is clear that song and dance respond to deep needs in the human condition.  Indeed, our music may be one of the critical things that distinguish us from our primate ancestors.  Music and dance appear to cross all borders of time and space in mankind.  In my kitchen, there is a framed photo of a man with no apparent clothing, very pierced ears, and a very odd haircut.  His eyes are shut, and he looks concentrated, but to be at peace.  The inscription reads: ‘Photograph of a Maquiritare Indian of Northern Brazil in the 1950s, listening to a gramophone record of Mozart’s music played by the French explorer Alain Gheerbrant during an expedition to the Amazon.’  If you find that to be moving, you will see why I framed the photo.

Let us look then at drama or theatre.  More than 2,500 years ago, the Greeks reached a very high stage of development in both tragedy and comedy as modes of theatre that helped them to see their world.  The works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes are still read and performed.  Sigmund Freud was greatly interested in their insights into our psyche, although some would say that symbolism has necessary limits in science.  Curiously enough, the Greeks found that the sound of the words carried further when they were sung.

Nearly two thousand years later, a professional English playwright began writing and performing in plays that would lay the foundation of modern theatre, and in which Europe reached well beyond its ancient sources.  The shell-bursts of the genius of William Shakespeare have altered not just how we see drama, but how we see ourselves.  Shakespeare was vital to the development of the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (‘Joe Green’), so much so that he wrote three operas based on three leading plays of Shakespeare.  With that fusion of poetic and musical genius, what insights might we get from that lyrical reflection upon our condition?

We might add something more on drama.  In a book published in 1949, Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, by John Danby, the first sentence reads: ‘We go to great writers for the truth.’  Later, the author unloads this zinger:

It is only dramatically that the manner of living thought can be adequately expressed.  A discursive philosopher is tied to the script of his single part.

This is a precious insight for our purposes.  Later, Danby referred to the well‑known aphorism of Thomas Hobbes that the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.  Some may take that view of life, but where do you think you might better seek enlightenment on the nature of life –Hobbes’ Leviathan or Shakespeare’s King Lear?

So, drama set to music is an obvious candidate for an art form.  This book will follow the opera houses’ current practice and focus on four composers – Mozart (1756-1791), Verdi (1813-1901), Wagner (1813-1893) and Puccini (1858-1924).  The main operas looked at will be for Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, Cossi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute; for Verdi, La Traviata, Rigoletto, A Masked Ball, Don Carlos and Falstaff; for Puccini, La Bohême, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, and Turandot.  Wagner is a different proposition.  Together with The Barber of Seville and Carmen, these operas would all vie today for position in the top bracket for box office or recordings.  There will be additional chapters on sources and directions, bel canto, and the twentieth century.

In each chapter references, will be made to extracts from operas that are freely available on sites on the internet – ‘freely’ there including at no cost.  This will enable readers to be introduced to the greatest performers that have lit up our stages and enriched the western world – and to the hot shots of now.

Just how you take to opera is a matter for your own taste and capacity.  All of the operas that we will look at were composed to be performed live on stage with a live orchestra and no mechanical assistance for the voices.  Many opera fans would prefer to take their opera live at the theatre.  Presently in Australia, you can generally get a cheap seat at the opera for less than what you pay for a lot of pop concerts or for some seats at AFL home and away games.

On the live stage, you get the suspense of any live performance.  Will they pull it off?  Or will this soprano buckle under the weight of that big aria in Turandot – as some say happened to Maria Callas?  Opera is a bit like Formula 1 – there is complicated technology; big amounts of money; bigger amounts of ego; and huge amounts of bullshit.  But – in the end, someone has to get out there on the day or on the night and pull it off – and come mortally close to their limits while doing so – when failure is very, very public, and they have no place to hide.

But, we are so well treated by both recordings and films now.  Some years ago, I was watching Pavarotti in a free concert in Central Park.  The camera zoomed in as he reached down to hit the high note, and I could see a look of white terror in his eyes that reminded me immediately of the look in Humphrey Bogart’s eyes when he realised that Ingrid Bergman had chosen his gin joint to walk back into his life – and it’s something you only get on the big screen.  Then there is the sound quality, both contemporary and reconstructed.  I have never seen Victor Trumper bat, but I have seen and heard Enrico Caruso and Maria Ponselle and Nellie Melba sing.  I can witness history.

And with opera, as with Shakespeare, and any drama, there are some pieces that you would rather just sit in comfort and listen to rather than go and see it on stage or film.  For example, there are problems with staging King Lear – most directors over-cook the storm scene; plucking out eyes is not fun to watch, especially with this script; the fall at the beach is tricky; and this is a play where the cast has to bat right down the order, and some companies outside of England can find that hard.  I have seen this play butchered – butchered – in Melbourne, London, and Chicago, and I would need serious provocation to try my luck again – especially if I can hear Paul Scofield or Ian Holm in the comfort of the hearth.  You can find similar issues with most of Wagner – before you get to their back-breaking length.  And there is an amazing range of material on film.  A couple of years ago, I paid less than $100 for a set of 33 disks showing 22 operas of Mozart performed at Salzburg – premium performances of his whole oeuvre for the cost of a reasonable seat for a Figaro at the Australian Opera.

Whether you want to go to the opera or not bears on another issue.  Many of the operas we see were composed with the assistance of patronage.  Most are now performed with the backing of patrons.  But no opera that that I know of was created for the benefit of the aristocracy or establishment.  But that sadly is not the impression that a lot of people have of opera.  They see it as an establishment toy, rather like polo or an exclusive school.  This is bloody sad.  A leading guide to opera says that many people are put off it by ‘the social exclusivity cultivated by many opera houses, especially in the English-speaking world.’  The guide (Opera the Rough Guide) is English.  That proposition would hold for Glyndebourne, but if it holds for Covent Garden, that is not the fault of those now running that house.  In Opera, A Penguin Anthology, Stephen Brook says that ‘the duchesses have been replaced by the dispiriting bosses whose companies donate money to the opera house.’  Boy, did he get that right – and not just for England.  You can see bank managers shuffling around with their triumphantly defiant wives – at the expense of the shareholders.

The snootiness problem is not so acute in Australia.  There I think the issue may lie in uncomely phrases like ‘cringe’, ‘sheilahs’ stuff’ or ‘toffs’.  We might hope that by now we might have gone past such hang-ups.  Can we proceed in this book on the footing that in order to enjoy opera, in whatever form you like, you do not have to be a toff, a smart-arse, or a fairy?  You don’t even have to wear a tie.  There is no reason why you cannot go to both the opera and the Melbourne Storm on the same day – although experience suggests that if alcohol is to be consumed, some prudence might be shown about the order of the performances.

So, let’s hear no more of that bullshit about class.  Among other things it’s said not to be Australian.  Let’s look kindly on those who need to put people in boxes and label their attitudes, and hope that these poor souls find both enlightenment and liberation.

Two points of what might be called housekeeping.  You don’t need to know a note of music to enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth – or opera.  I suspect that most people who go the opera will have my level of musical literacy – nil, nix, nought, and nothing.  For the musically trained, this is a tale told by an idiot – but I’ll lay off the sound and the fury.  I started a course on reading music nearly twenty years ago in preparation for a summer school at Oxford.  To the consternation of the tutor and myself, I failed – badly.  Fortunately, that course was abandoned – and we looked instead at Shakespeare in Verdi – much more to my taste and capacity.  (So emboldened, I later took a course on Bach’s orchestral suites at Cambridge – the demons people fear about some subjects that they are in awe of tend to disappear in the daylight.)

Then, if you want a good book-length companion, I recommend the Rough Guide.  You can pick it up for a song second hand.  It is as complete as it is brilliant.  The English are the best at this kind of thing and at dry put-downs.  You get a biography of the composers and then for each major opera, there is a synopsis, a commentary, and a recording guide.  At the end there are helpful lists of houses, performers and conductors, and a glossary, all written by people who know their stuff.  You want to know about Franco Corelli?  ‘One of the loudest and most exciting singers of the twentieth century – and almost certainly the most intoxicatingly vulgar.’  (That is not necessarily a put down.)  Domingo?  ‘The most versatile and most recorded tenor in history.’  What about our Joan?  ‘Her large physique highlighted her poor acting, and she was criticised for her poor diction, but no one ever went to hear Sutherland sing to listen to the words.’  This guide is remarkably good, in a market that sees a lot of rubbish.

Let us, then, turn to our first two samples – the duet ‘Io l’ho perduta’ from Don Carlos by Verdi, sung by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill, and the aria ‘Ebben?  Ne andro lontan’ from La Wally by Catalani sung, by Maria Callas.

Now, we all know that Verdi was Italian, and it’s a fair bet that Catalani was also Italian – but few people have heard of Catalani, and very few have ever seen or heard La Wally.  But many people will soon be at home with the soft pathos of the Callas aria – especially if they have seen the French movie Diva, where this aria is the centrepiece.  (And watching the film Diva may be as good a way as any to see the mystique of drama performed to music.)  You can feel the dramatic tension build up to the duet, but when it unfolds, it does so with a melodic lilt that you might catch from a rotunda in Sicily on a warm summer day.  That is very typical of this composer.

And both these pieces remind us that at heart opera is nothing if not Italian.  What do I mean by that?  The composers that we admire were not afraid to express emotion and they were not shy of style.  They had what footy coaches liked to describe as ‘attitude.’  They come straight at us like Ferrari, Ferragamo, or Maserati.  Or pasta al dente and the check table cloth.  They are rakishly in your face.

And you have just been exposed to two of the greatest voices that the opera stage has ever heard – and two of the saddest tragedies.  Bjorling came from a good musical family, but he was, perhaps like Bret Whiteley, daunted and almost crushed by the weight of his own genius, and he became a helpless drunk.  (Bjorling and Merrill have another famous duet, ‘Au fond du temple saint’, from The Pearl Fishers by Bizet.  I have seen a grown man cry over that performance after another bad day at the footy.)  Callas was adored.  She was looked on with awe.  She had no peer on the stage.  She had the power of Muhammad Ali to change the way that people saw their world.  But her personal life got messy, her voice cracked, and she was monstered by a dirty rotten rich pig.  In his wonderful DVD, Three Legendary Tenors, Nigel Douglas quoted someone saying of Bjorling that his voice was ‘heavy with unshed tear.’  That beautiful line goes for Callas too, and what you have here in their purest form are the dignity of the human voice and the majesty of drama in music.

And, yes, for the removal of doubt, I am not just a fan or acolyte of Bjorling and Callas – I am an addict.  Either can render me lachrymose at the drop of a hat – irrespective of what happened at the footy, and with not a drop of red in sight.

May I then go back to the Indians in the Amazon?  The book that the photo came from, Mozart and his operas, by David Cairns, says that when the French explorers approached the Indians with various records on their portable gramophone, there was at first no response.  They stayed shyly but stubbornly inside.  Then the French put on ‘their beloved Mozart’, and out came the Indians immediately, as the author says ‘compelled – like man and beast in The Magic Flute – by the Orphic power of the sounds.’  David Cairns concluded his Prologue this way.

We too are under the spell.  A contemporary of Mozart said that his music would ‘speak to unborn generations when the bones of kings have long since crumbled to dust.’  More than two centuries after his death, it speaks as never before.  Precisely how it does so we cannot, finally, say.  But it speaks, surely, not so much through the charm of its perfect patterns as through its comprehension of life, its penetrating knowledge of women and men, its profound humanity.

Does it not look to be the case that people who go to God without having drunk freely from this cup have sold themselves short – sadly and badly?

Passing Bull 106 – Bull about the budget

Last week, the French elected a president who said that the old Left/Right divide was bullshit.  Then the Australian government announced a budget that said that the old Labor/Liberal divide was bullshit.  The parties in government finally worked out the punishing the banks would make them less unpopular – that is, would lose them less votes – than punishing the poor, the sick, or the aged.  (Although the government gave the poor a spray for the sake of old times.)

This was all too much for the usual suspects at The Australian.  Common sense could put the Liberal flops, Labor rats, and IPA clowns out of business.

If you can bring yourself to read some of it, you might think that you are reading about what the Masons are doing in their Lodge, or what churchgoers are doing in their parish.  It is frighteningly tribal and predictable.  Out come the same old labels and war cries – the Green Left, polls, populism, and the political class.

We will just have to scrap the word ‘populist’.  In a democracy you win government by appealing to the people and becoming popular.  You lose government when you don’t appeal to the people and you become unpopular.  It’s a bit rich for journalists who live on polls and rumours of coups – and who promote both – to accuse politicians of being populists without principles.  It’s even richer to accuse them of moving on from their Liberal past.  It’s not just that the world has moved on, or that Bob Menzies gets cited to support any political position short of Communism – no, it’s that the other Liberal leader they invoke – Little Johnnie Howard – was the greatest disponor of political patronage in the form of middle class welfare in the short history of this nation.  He could have given Walpole, the first British Prime Minister, and the Duke of Newcastle a real run for their money in buying votes from a venal populace.

Leap to the Left and a nasty new battle

Paul Kelly

This week may go down in history as a turning point in Australian politics

Australia is undergoing a decisive change in its political values — Malcolm Turnbull has reinvented his government as a pragmatic, populist, public investment vehicle and Bill Shorten in reply has taken Labor even further to the populist, ideological left.

The edifices of Australia’s aspirational politics and market-based reforms are being torched in an end-of-generation bonfire. Occasionally in a nation’s history you can identify a point of transformation and it is likely that this week is such a marker.

Politics is now a contest about the nature of tax increases, the scope of monumental social spending initiatives and the type of government intervention. Australia is becoming yet another Western-world laboratory for the antimarket, populist revolution fuelled by resentment towards finance and corporates, the breakdown of the social contract, big-spending social democratic reforms and a drumbeat for redistribution and equality.

All eyes will be on the next Newspoll

Dennis Shanahan

The PM and Treasurer will soon find out whether their gamble has paid off

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison can’t take the credit for producing such a “very political document” — as John Howard described the budget — and for dumping traditional Liberal principles without taking the responsibility if it doesn’t work.

Bill Shorten has called for them and the government to be dumped if the banks “pass on a single dollar of this tax to Australian families”, which seems harsh given he has backed the $6.2 billion levy and trousered the receipts already. But the essence of the Opposition Leader’s demand is legitimate.

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer in the 2017 budget have broken with decades of Liberal Party principles and economic precepts. They have gambled all on this budget because they knew they were in deep trouble.

Underlying principles, longterm outlooks for reducing debt, and savings measures have all been abandoned or sidelined.

There is no doubt the Coalition’s aim is to get the Newspoll two-party preferred figure back to at least 50-50 as soon as possible, hopefully with an immediate improvement on the existing 52-48 per cent in Labor’s favour.

This is Turnbull’s last opportunity; if there is no improvement in government fortunes, speculation about leadership change will return with a vengeance.

Ignore grandchildren’s peril, does anyone care?

Chris Kenny

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison clearly have shifted to the green left

As George Orwell noted, the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it. Our political class has surrendered on fiscal repair, ending the war against debt and deficits.

Our politicians, en masse, have shown they are not up to the task. After milling around like a mob of bewildered sheep for a decade, they have trundled off along the path of least resistance……

Every indulgence we have allowed ourselves under a string of deficit budgets has been rung up as debt for future taxpayers. We have given ourselves paid parental leave, expanded childcare, school halls, pink batts, extra funds for all schools, a National Disability Insurance Scheme, more public servants, renewable energy projects, an expanded public broadcaster and goodies from stadiums to virtue-signalling overseas junkets; but we have not paid for them…..

After delivering a budget that Wayne Swan would have been proud of (extra spending, increased taxation, nods to fairness and significant infrastructure investment) Scott Morrison delivered the traditional address to the National Press Club. It is worth unpicking an important section of the speech: “Australians are tired of the politics. They want the politicians they elect to get things done. That’s what matters. Not the ideology and the politics and the personalities and all the things so many people in this place focus on endlessly. But outside of here (Parliament House) they don’t. They want to know what we’re doing here to get things done for them and increasingly that means in this parliament, wherever we can, meet in the middle to make sure that happens.

“That means many of us have to move from positions we’ve been holding previously. We have to. Otherwise we all just run around this building making excuses as to why nothing has happened, and that won’t cut it in this new reality of Australian politics.”

This is a positive spin on what the government will claim as a new pragmatism. But it means the Coalition is presenting only policies that are acceptable to Labor and the Greens. This is a shift, but not to the centre. It is a shift to the green left. Rather than produce a centrist consensus, it triggered The Rocky Horror Picture Show response from Bill Shorten: just a jump to the left. This is the main hope for the Coalition; that Labor puts itself way out on a leftist time warp. Labor and the Greens like the bank levy. Shorten’s only quibble with the Medicare levy is to limit it to the top two tax brackets. Labor welcomes the government’s Gonski funding but wants to go $22bn further while mocking and blocking corporate tax cuts.

We remain sickened by the stale banal hypocrisy of it all.  In truth, it is as hard to distil traditional Liberal Values as it is traditional Labor values – especially when you look at politically and intellectually amorphous types like Little Johnnie Howard or Little Bill Shorten.  They could swap platforms, and not know the difference.

And then the feu de joie.  The rival papers had blaring headlines yesterday about the polls.  With completely contrasted results.  And then – may God have mercy on their souls – Tony and Peta separately warned us that government based on polling is bad.  Even by our standards, that is very rarefied bullshit.

Confucius says:

When a man is not influenced by slanders which are assiduously repeated or by complaints for which he feels a direct sympathy, he can be said to be wise.  He can at the same time be said to be far-sighted.

Analects 12.6.

The Nationalists


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


A hit, a palpable hit!

It is hard to see the French election as anything but a hit for Marine Le Pen – and Mrs Theresa May.  A two to one result does suggest real and lasting antipathy to this so called right wing nationalism in France.  Does that hostility really go back to Vichy France and the collaboration with the Germans?

It’s certainly a bad result for Britain, because Europe will now have its tail up.  The right is faltering in Germany, and Frau Merkel looks to be in charge there.  And you cannot help wondering about the extent to which the frightful squalor of the Trump presidency and the fractured aimlessness of the English is putting people off flirting with the gutter.

Apart from giving a big check on nationalism, the result in France does two things.  First, we have now seen a major election won by a literate candidate who correctly says that all that stuff about Left and Right has gone out with hessian drawers.  It’s bullshit.  Secondly, it shows that you can elect someone who is not aligned to either mainstream party, but who is not an idiot or a bully.

Speaking of an idiotic bully, here are four tweets that Trump issued after a former Acting Attorney-General gave sworn evidence that she warned the White House that its Director of Security was a security risk and susceptible to Russian blackmail.

“Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is ‘no evidence’ of collusion w/ Russia and Trump.”

“Sally Yates made the fake media extremely unhappy today — she said nothing but old news!”

“The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”

“Biggest story today between Clapper & Yates is on surveillance. Why doesn’t the media report on this? #FakeNews!”

It is idle to suggest that such an idiot and bully might manage the corner store, much less be President of the United States.

People are collecting empirical evidence on the educational levels of people who follow nationalists.  I suspect that similar trends will be found in the U S, France, Britain and Australia.  But Trump supporters may be the worst off.  Polling shows that 96% of his supporters think that he is doing a good job.  Those figures are very worrying, and show problems above and beyond intellect.  It’s under this masque that Trump can maintain his assault on liberal values and honesty.

Now I see that Trump has fired the FBI head who was investigating him in part on the advice of an Attorney General who had to stand down because of his ineptitude.  This was a typical Trump job – misconceived, no judgment, and worse taste.  The Trump letter was hideously self-serving, ungrammatical and full of lies.  The war between the President and his law enforcers will get worse.  The notion that this administration could fire someone for ‘miss-speaking’ is hilarious, but not as hilarious as the notion that Comey was fired because of what he did to Clinton.  The real reason is probably that Trump was jealous of Comey’s air time on TV.  Do people in America see how low their star has fallen?

Still, it looks like Trump is now a bored captive of generals and billionaires, and – like Kim Jon Ung – that he is only at peace when he is applauding himself in front of the adoring mob.  Given that nationalism now appears to be in check in Europe also, and that Britain may have to wait years to find out the cost of her frumpy defenestration, we might suspend this column for a while.

The immediate successor will be a nine part introduction to opera that I have had much pleasure in preparing.  The first part will be with you soon.

Passing Bull 105 – More on Australian values

Having someone head the Australian Olympic Committee for longer than an African tyrant is emphatically an Australian value.  It symbolises our distaste for busy bodies that get on the gravy train.  The AOC has shown itself to be incurably corrupt.  In the name of God, they want another Olympic Games here.  How corrupt do you have to get?  John Coates now ranks with Kevin Gosper in the unpopularity stakes.

But the loathsome Abbott, the prince of snipers, has trumped them all, and is now more loathed than Kevin Rudd.  The poor man sees ‘cultural cowardice’.  Presumably this means that some people are afraid to speak for fear of offending others.  He said that our leaders had failed to promote the ‘virtues and benefits’ of western civilisation.  It was this kind of parochial bullshit that led us to put Confucius at the end of these posts.  (We will shortly revert to the poet of the month.)  Those ‘virtues and benefits’ include ‘Gospel values and free speech.’  What if you don’t subscribe to the Gospels?  How many Australians do?  What if you are a Muslem, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a card-carrying atheist?  And we now know that free speech stops at offending Australian values.  The hypocrisy of the free speech crowd is as nauseating as it is preposterous.

Here is the sniper.

Whether it’s official persecution of Queensland students for a bit of justified sarcasm, state governments promoting gender fluidity programs in schools, or a federal-government approved activist being disrespectful of Anzac Day, there’s this pervasive ambivalence verging on hostility to our country and its values from people who should know better.  Overwhelmingly our people believe in our country – but it’s hard for them to have faith in politicians when the politicians and those they promote don’t believe in the things they do.  If you are an Australian, you have to believe in Australia.  This is what most of us believe.  But only some of those in authority believe it; and those that do, don’t state it nearly often enough.

Well, there is the political love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop groping his way back to 1984.  What is more worrying – its inanity or its sickness?  It has all the coherence of a dictatorial rant.

And as for not respecting Anzac Day, some of us remember the appalling way that we treated our soldiers returning from one of our failed wars.  (Abbott voted for another one.)  One Vietnam veteran got spat on in St Kilda Road – twice.  He was in a wheel chair because of war wounds.  And who led this revolting unkindness?  The RSL.  Most RSL branches refused or discouraged admission and membership to Vietnam veterans.  ‘Yours wasn’t a war, mate!  You didn’t fight in the trenches.  You were on a twelve-month holiday.’   It took about a generation for these men to march on Anzac Day and when they did, many grown men wept compulsively.  Our conduct to these men was a crime against humanity, and the worst culprits were our self-appointed heroes.  When did we abandon these Australian values?  Let us bury that term forever.

As for faith in politicians, we might recover some when we forget that we were led into the failed wars in Vietnam and Iraq by their lies.

Confucius says

The Master said ‘Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others and to be trustworthy in what you say…..When you make a mistake, do not be afraid of mending your ways’

Analects 9.25.