Passing Bull 126 – Being rational about religion


We take a lot of things on faith – the balance in our bank account, the state of our health, the sense of our doctors, the faithfulness of our partners, and the magic and mystery of giants like Leonardo, Shakespeare and Mozart.  Faith doesn’t only apply to religion then.  To that extent I agree with Greg Sheridan in his piece ‘Idea of God is perfectly logical’ in The Saturday Australian.

My position about God is that of a God-fearing doubter.  I simply don’t know.  I don’t believe anyone knows about God, either way.  While I have lost any belief in God, at least as that term in generally understood, I don’t seek to persuade others either way.  That, frankly, would be none of my business.

It follows therefore that I too, with Mr Sheridan, don’t like Dawkins or Hitchens, although I must confess that I have not read either in depth.  I don’t believe that any proposition about the existence of God is capable of rational proof.  As I gather that both of these men thought that they had proved that God does not exist, they are in my view talking bullshit.  And I don’t think I could be persuaded to the contrary.  And certainly not by arrogant and insulting people like those two.  They are to me nasty intellectual bullies, who think that they can work over people who overtly pledge their faith in that which cannot be proven.

People like Dawkins and Hitchens look to me to be evangelists of a nasty and bigoted kind.  Kant knew that bigots of denial were often worse than bigots of belief, and Carlyle showed his disdain for Rousseau by calling him the ‘Evangelist.’  What right or interest do these people have in seeking to undermine the religious faith of others – a lot of whom may not have the same intellectual horsepower, but very many of whom will be far better off for taste and judgment?  For that matter, why should they seek to deny to all of us the place of magic and mystery in the world – with some variety of rationalist double entry accounting?

So, I agree with Mr Sheridan that belief in God is rational.  To suggest the contrary seems to me to be as silly as it is rude.

But belief in what kind of God?   And how do we express it?  Mr Sheridan refers to ‘the thousands of years of intellectual effort on matters of faith and belief by the best minds humanity has produced.’  The best minds would include Spinoza, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Einstein.  They all professed to believe in God, but their God would be unrecognisable as such to most believers.  (And both Spinoza and Kant were persecuted because their God did not conform.)

Take Einstein.  Whereas some people see what they believe to be miracles as evidence of God’s existence, for Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence, and revealed a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.  This is very much like what Kant thought.  Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were trying to trap him.  A New York rabbi sent him a telegram: ‘Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  Fifty words.’  The reply was: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind’.  Einstein never felt the need to put down others who believed in a different kind of God: ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’.

So, are we talking about the intellectual model of God, or the personal model?  The personal model, which is that favoured by most believers, is that revealed by scripture.  Here is another and more biting division.  Which scripture?  The Old Testament, the New Testament, Confucius, the Koran, and so on?

So, of course a belief in God is rational – but putting meat on the bones of ‘God’ is another matter.  And that takes us to the second question.  The belief is rational, but to what extent can it be expressed in words and be justified in logic?

Mr Sheridan refers to Aquinas, ‘the greatest of the Christian philosophers and theologians.’  Augustine and Aquinas took the teaching of an unlettered holy man from Asia and drenched it in the European philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  I was brought up in a Protestant sect, and on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the eruption of Martin Luther, I may be forgiven for saying that this intellectualising of the teaching of Christ may appeal to some more than others.

It is in truth no small part of why I lost my faith.  God is limitless – Christ is too – and I have never understood the presumption of mere men seeking to lock God in behind the bars of a syllogism, a construct of human thought.  This is, if you like, an article of faith for me.  I can’t jump six feet; I can’t conceive of a thing being and not being at the same time; but I don’t say that God can’t do either.  What gives us the right to say that God cannot transcend our limitations?  Why can’t God be better than us?

But this intellectual elevation put up by Augustine and others, which can only be understood by about a thousand people in the world at any one time, looks to me to be part of reserving the mystery of it all to the clerics – and that is bad.  This monopoly of understanding was at the heart of Luther’s protest.  And the Church made a great gift to people like Dawkins and Hitchens.  The people of faith were offering to play the people of logic on their own home ground.  It would be like the New York Yankees offering to play the MCC at cricket at Lords.  No bloody contest, mate.

In sum, there are limits to both our logic and language, and you have as much hope of explaining or justifying your faith in God as you do of explaining or justifying your faith in Leonardo, Shakespeare or Mozart – or, I may add, the divine Catherine Deneuve.  Wittgenstein said:

I believe that one of the things that Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless.  That you have to change your life. 

His biographer said:

‘Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm, infinite harm.’  [Wittgenstein wrote.]  Why pair Russell and the parsons in the one condemnation? Because both have encouraged the idea that a philosophical justification for religious beliefs is necessary for those beliefs to be given any credence.  Both the atheist who scorns religion because he has found no evidence for its tenets, and the believer, who attempts to prove the existence of God, have fallen to the ‘other’ – to the idle worship of the scientific style of thinking.  Religious beliefs are not analogous to scientific theories, and should not be accepted or rejected using the same evidential criteria.

That looks obvious to me.  And if you want to return to the beginnings, I see that Plato believed that no philosophical truth could be communicated in writing at all – it was only by some sort of immediate contact that one soul might kindle a light in another.  Good grief – from what ashram did that come?  But then we recall that Einstein said that he rarely thought in words.  And the great physicist Niels Bohr said:

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.  The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.

It was therefore sad to see that Mr Sheridan began his piece by saying: ‘It is more rational to believe in God than to believe there is no God.’  What might that entail?  It is idle to contend that my belief in God is as secure as my belief in my parentage, and it is plain wrong to say that Mr Sheridan’s ancestry is ‘certainly not rationally proven.’ (Otherwise our judges would have to pick up their bongos).  And then we get the call to arms: ‘the high points of our elite and popular culture have been colonised by a militant and intolerant atheism.’

May I suggest that making warlike claims to rational superiority about religion is not the best way to deal with intolerance?  When we talk of God, those who think they have the best arguments are those who are likely to lose the war.  There is a lot to be said for live, and let live.

Poet of the month: Henry Lawson

A prouder man than you

If you fancy that your people came of better stock than mine,

If you hint of higher breeding by a word or by a sign,

If you’re proud because of fortune or the clever things you do —

Then I’ll play no second fiddle: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you think that your profession has the more gentility,

And that you are condescending to be seen along with me;

If you notice that I’m shabby while your clothes are spruce and new —

You have only got to hint it: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you have a swell companion when you see me on the street,

And you think that I’m too common for your toney friend to meet,

So that I, in passing closely, fail to come within your view —

Then be blind to me for ever: I’m a prouder man than you!

If your character be blameless, if your outward past be clean,

While ’tis known my antecedents are not what they should have been,

Do not risk contamination, save your name whate’er you do — `

Birds o’ feather fly together’: I’m a prouder bird than you!

Keep your patronage for others! Gold and station cannot hide

Friendship that can laugh at fortune, friendship that can conquer pride!

Offer this as to an equal — let me see that you are true,

And my wall of pride is shattered: I am not so proud as you!




[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]

4 Goodbye to law

Before the English went into their century of change, they had experienced three phases of revolution or evolution in the previous four centuries that had not occurred in France.  First, the then aristocracy, the barons, had effectively put the English crown under contract with the Great Charter of 1215.  This was the foundation of the rule of law, because the king too was said to be under the law.  Secondly, the English had terminated their ties to Rome.  They declared religious Home Rule and repatriated their church.  They did so through the king speaking through the Parliament, so that the royal succession and the headship of the English church derived from the Parliament.  When they came to settle with their king, their aristocracy was on side, and they did not have to worry about Rome or priests.  Thirdly, the English were able to deal with their king through their parliament, which did represent all orders in the nation, and had had hundreds of years’ experience.  When Louis summoned the Estates General, it had not met for a century, and it was moribund.  The French nobles and bishops, and indeed the crown itself, were not used to negotiating about their place, and they were unwilling and unable to do so.  Fourthly, the English had developed a fiercely independent group of lawyers and judges who were capable of acting against the crown, and as often as not, were more than happy to do so.  Landed squires were trained in the law in the Inns of Court, proficient in the political arts required in the House of Commons, capable of translating political gains into binding legal compacts, ready to lead a citizen army if required, and religious fanatics who were utterly incorruptible and prepared to die rather than to give in to royal power.

Those promoting the Terror in France could at least claim to come from the moral high ground.  That is very difficult with the Russian version and impossible with the German.  The Nazi Party was made of thugs, by thugs and for thugs, and terror was part of what we would now call its DNA.  The Russian Communists may not have started out that way, but they got there soon enough by the ineluctable logic of the proposition that all power corrupts.

Until the declaration of the republic in France, there was a more or less recognisable structure of government, even if it was tied up and inept.  When you destroy an absolute monarchy, you may get an absolute void.  There had been nothing like our police force or standing army.  The driving political force of the revolution came from clubs like the Jacobins and Cordeliers in Paris, and their affiliates outside.  There would be tension between Paris and the provinces and lethal civil wars with major centres like Lyons, and the Vendée.  There were divisions in the priesthood before and after the Vatican revealed a hostility to the revolution that matched that of other foreign powers.  The Commune in Paris was what we might call the Paris City Council and it claimed to exercise powers and give commands.  Then each Section in Paris claimed its own rights.  The National Guard was not as powerful politically as the Praetorian Guard in Rome or the SS in Nazi Germany, but the centre of armed force always attracts adherents.  There was no real tradition of independent legislators or judges in the English model, and a time of crisis of threats from outside and inside was not a time to learn how to live with factions.  (Since a faction indicated dissent, they were proscribed in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany, but some of the coldest killings in the French Terror were the final acts of factional feuds and vendettas.)  The very absence of a complete and authoritative central power contributed to the general sense of insecurity and unease that made something like the Terror seem inevitable.

Some of the key phases of the descent of legal civilisation in France are as follows.  The Assembly announces the state of emergency – the Fatherland is in danger.  An insurrectionary commune is established in Paris – power to the people (or the mob or la foule).  The Convention abolishes the monarchy.  The king is executed.  The Revolutionary Tribunal is established, with no review or appeal.  Committees of Surveillance are established – an essential part of the police state.  Deputies (our MPs) lose their immunity – faction fighting gets terminal.  The mob demands the death of a whole faction in the Convention.  Representatives on mission are given dictatorial powers.  Military service becomes general.  The Law of Suspects is introduced.  All government is revolutionary – all under the Committee of Public Safety.  A series of laws obliterate the rights of the accused.  The ‘trials’ are mockeries.  Government is an instrument of factional and personal revenge.  The Terror ends when Deputies work up the courage to kill Robespierre before he kills them.

A small revolutionary tribunal will, almost by definition, contradict every part of the rule of law.  One of the great objections to the old regime was that the king could take some action – like issuing a lettre de cachet (a royal command to detain someone) – and, when asked why, say ‘reasons of state’, raison d’état.  The revolutionary government soon had the same process – and worse.  The Convention slipped slowly into a cycle of factional vendettas and the Committees and the Tribunal executed the judgment of the ruling clique from time to time until the vicious circular regress ran out of willing blood, and the nation of France heaved a sigh of relief and disgust.

Adolf Hitler came to power with less than half the vote, but once he got his foot in the door, he kicked the door out and remade the house to suit him.  He had never sought to conceal his ambition to clear away the trappings of a failed state.  In 1931, the then Chancellor had said to Hitler with complete truth: ‘When a man declares that once he has achieved power by legal means, he will break through the barriers, he is not really adhering to legality’.  Hitler responded with equal truth: ‘Herr Chancellor, if the German Nation once empowers the National Socialist Movement to introduce a constitution other than that which we have today, you cannot stop it….When a constitution proves itself to be useless for its life, the nation does not die – the constitution is altered.’

Part of the deal was that the new government would consent to an enabling act giving Hitler Emergency Powers.  This was Peisistratus in overdrive.  The day he was appointed, Hitler alerted the Berlin Brownshirts to go on to the streets.  He then assembled the Cabinet and told them that the Reichstag would be dissolved and new elections held to give him the emergency powers necessary to deal with the crisis.  Two days later, General Ludendorff wrote to the aged President: ‘I solemnly prophesy to you that this damnable man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and bring inconceivable misery down upon our nation.  Coming generations will curse you in your grave because of this action.’

The people of Russia have had only fleeting contact with the rule of law or civil rights since that nation came to be known under that name.  Those who would become revolutionaries were brought up to deal with the vicious police state of the Tsars.  They were trained in and by it.  The first leader of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, had spent most of his adult life in exile or prison.  They were seasoned haters, drained of humanity, but competent in their methods of degradation and torture.  Flaubert once remarked that ‘inside every revolutionary, there is a policeman.’  If the Tsars were not troubled by questions of legality, Lenin was even less troubled, and Stalin had a preference for murder plain and simple

Here and there – Evil á la mode; and Iago


Last year Fox News, a part of the Murdoch Empire and an aider and abettor of Donald Trump, paid out huge amounts of money to settle sexual harassment claims against their CEO – and to settle with him.  Such is the evil of our times that, as I recall, both settlements ran to tens of millions of dollars.  Earlier this year, Fox News was forced by public opinion to sack its number one attraction, and Trump’s biggest fan and supporter, Bill O’Reilly.  He, too, was a serial abuser, and the undisputed world champion of hypocrisy.  He too handed over many millions of dollars to the victims of his abuse.  Such is the contempt for truth now in public life that O’Reilly was suffered to say that there was no truth in the allegations against him – he was just paying out all those millions to protect his children from bad publicity that had no foundation.  I don’t know whether O’Reilly, too, employs the lie ‘fake news.’

On the weekend, The New York Times reported that O’Reilly had agreed to pay one of the victims of his abuse more than $30,000,000.  That was the cost of her silence – but someone has ratted.  And now it gets worse.  With knowledge of that deal, the Murdoch family offered O’Reilly a renewal of contract at $25,000,000 a year.  Does anyone get to say grace at the start of these lucre-shovelling sessions?

There is evil all around here.  We have monopoly money figures that of themselves corrupt the recipients.  Just look at the spectacle that our bankers have made of themselves.  But there is a vicious disparity in status as well as wealth and income.  The case of that rutting pig Weinstein shows just how corrupted these people can become, and how moguls get to believe that they are untouchable.

But it also showed how vulnerable to predators are those at the bottom.  It’s as if we were reinstituting serfdom of a quite medieval kind – a form of rightlessness deriving not from contract but from status.

As I see it, this is evil, very evil.  And it is just these rents in our communal fabric that lead to cancers like Hanson, Farage, and Trump, so that they can spread their own kind of evil.  It’s all very depressing, and it prompts reflection on the nature of evil.

Roger Scruton – Sir Roger if you go in for that kind of thing – is an English philosopher who gets up people’s noses big time on some issues.  He calls it as he sees it, and tact or social nous may not be his strong suits.  He is however an urbane man with wide interests who is capable of speaking plain English.  I think that he subscribes to the Church of England, and I know that he is an opera fan, and that he wrote a book called I Drink, Therefore I Am.  It’s hard to dislike such a bloke, and he represents a full blooded defence of religion that both God and we badly need.

Scruton’s book On Human Nature has a lot of university type language, but there are some insights there for people who are not familiar with the ontological argument for the existence of God, or Kant’s celebrated refutation of that argument.  (Yes, of course – existence is not a predicate.)

The book is a revolt against the notion that we humans can be defined biologically, genetically, or even, I think, scientifically.  It may even be a reaction against Bryan Cox.

Wait a minute: science is not the only way to pursue knowledge.  There is moral knowledge too, which is the province of practical reason; there is emotional knowledge, which is the province of art, literature, and music.  And just possibly there is transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion.  Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world?  Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world and so help us to be at home in it?

Scruton seeks to explain our humanity by looking at our capacity to reflect on ourselves.  He refers to an Islamic teacher, al Fārābī, who offers us the insight that ‘the truths furnished to the intellect by philosophy are made available to the imagination by religious faith.’  Scruton’s opening lecture on ‘Human Kind’ has a ringing finale:

Take away religion, however, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness.  Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead.  Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’, which is why people so readily fall for it.  It makes cynicism respectable, and degeneracy chic.  It abolishes our kind – and with it our kindness.

It’s been quite some time since anything like that was taught at university under the heading of Philosophy.

It is the subject of evil that is of interest to us now.  Bad people, Scruton says, are like you or me, but evil people are visitors from another sphere, incarnations of the Devil.  ‘Even their charm – and it is a recognised fact that evil people are often charming – is only further proof of their Otherness.  They are, in some sense, the negation of humanity, wholly and unnaturally at ease with the thing that they seek to destroy.’

That seems to be about right.  Scruton reminds us that Goethe gives to Mephistopheles the line: ‘I am the spirit that forever negates.’  We’re not just talking of the person who sucks the oxygen out of a room.  Bad people tend to ignore others because they are guided by self-interest – just look at Trump – but the evil person ‘is profoundly interested in others, has almost selfless designs on them.’

The aim is not to use them, as Faust uses Gretchen, but to rob them of themselves.  Mephistopheles hopes to steal and destroy Faust’s soul and, en route to that end, to destroy the soul of Gretchen.  Nowadays we might use the word ‘self’ instead of ‘soul’, in order to avoid religious connotations.  But this word is only another name for the same metaphysical mystery around which our lives are built – the mystery of the subjective viewpoint.  Evil people are not necessarily threats to your body; but they are threats to yourself.

The relevance of all this to Iago is obvious and Scruton makes the link himself.  In watching the play, we are quickly shocked to find that Iago really intends to destroy Othello.

Peering into Iago’s soul we find a void, a nothingness; like Mephistopheles, he is a great negation, a soul composed of anti-spirit, as a body might be composed of antimatter.  The evil person is like a fracture in our human world, through which we catch glimpses of the void.

These insights, which are strong, lead Scruton to refer to ‘the banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in the bureaucratic mindset of Adolf Eichmann.  And he powerfully reminds us that concentration camps ‘were designed not merely to destroy human beings, but also to deprive them of their humanity.’  He then goes on to refer to what he sees as the ‘paradigm of evil – namely, the attempt or desire to destroy the soul of another so that his or her value and meaning are rubbed out.’

The book concludes with some comments on faith, and the notion that religion ‘is a dedication of one’s being’ and concludes with a reference ‘ to the two great works of art that have attempted to show what redemption means for us, in the world of modern scepticism: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.  In the wake of these two great aesthetic achievements, it seems to me, the perspective of philosophy is of no great significance.’

Would that others of us could be so modest (even if he lost me on Parsifal).  But as ever, we needn’t press the labels or categories too hard.  (George Bush Senior said that ‘labels are what you put on soup cans.’)  Nor should we forget another remark of Hannah Arendt.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.

This may be hard to square with Scruton, but people who choose to demonise Stalin and Hitler want to run away from history and they demean their victims.

Iago has these lines:

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly… (5.1.18-20)

There is a primal, Garden of Evil, feeling about that type of envy, and it calls to mind the visceral description by the same writer of the type of person who sucks the air out of a room, the common garden smiling assassin.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous…

…..He reads much,

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men …

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

Whilst they behold a greater than themselves.

And therefore are they very dangerous.

(Julius Caesar, 1.2.200-215)

You would not want to stake your house on spotting the difference between the badness of Cassius and the evil of Iago – or, for that matter, what category you might reserve for Eichmann.  It may be best to leave all that stuff to God.  Those issues are certainly way above my pay level.

But let us go back to Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill O’Reilly.  A friend of mine – as it happens, the one who attends mass in a cathedral – astutely observed of the problems of Fox that ‘a large part of tabloid journalism involves the exploitation of human misery’ – or at least, I may add, misfortune.  It is therefore ironic that O’Reilly lies that he is paying out protection money just to avoid exploitation from the gutter.  The exploitation of the gutter is the business model of Fox News, and the modus operandi of President Donald Trump.

Are we then tip-toeing ever closer to the rim of the volcano that we have always sensed lies below us?

Why did the Roman Empire fall?  Edward Gibbon, the great historian, said:

The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind.  But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of its immoderate greatness.  Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it subsisted so long.  The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple.  The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.

The United States is not there yet – but Gibbon looks to me to have diagnosed precisely the condition of the actual decline and coming fall of the Murdoch Empire.

Passing Bull 125 – The collapse of restraint


A mate of mine is a Catholic who likes to attend Mass in a Cathedral.  When I passed on to him a note by David Marr about the bishops’ going quiet about their attitude to homosexuality – are they doomed to burn in hell? – he said that the Church had lost credibility on issues like marriage equality, and that he thought that that was a shame because they may have had something useful to say about easing the passing.  Well, they haven’t.  They have shot their bolt.  They showed a lack of restraint, and, rightly or wrongly, they sounded as dishonest as they sounded mean, with this libertarian nonsense about freedom of conscience.

I am afraid that I take a very old fashioned view about religious people seeking to impose their views on others.  I think all that went out the window with Henry VIII and the Act of Supremacy.   I’m sure I would be supported on that point if the proposal was to set up Sharia Law in Australia of for us to follow Myanmar and build a bridge of bones against Islam.

If you publish a weekly bullshit column, The Weekend Australian becomes tax deductible.  Our failure to get a decent conservative paper here is very sad. The lack of restraint we see in the contemporary political discussion was on full show today.  Paul Kelly began his piece:

This is a sad and profoundly worrying moment for our country.  The virtues and ethics that bind families and loved ones have been disrupted by a misguided Victorian lower house.

An Australian jurisdiction is close to crossing a threshold that constitutes a fundamental departure in our attitudes to human life – and has acted under the misguided logic that safeguards can be effective.

There you have it – one policy shift, and the end of the world is nigh – and announced like by the village elder patronising eight year olds.  Sorry, kids, but you got it wrong.  That happens in childhood.  You get it demonstrably wrong.

With Janet Albrechtsen, you get a mixture of a preppy undergraduate tone and Apocalypse Now.

This intellectual regression has its roots in postmodernism, and identity politics has become its political arm.  Under the dishonest rubric of ‘progressive’ politics, postmodernism cemented into universities the notion that history and language are corrupted by those who hold power.  Ergo, history needs to be told through the lens of oppression and language needs to be proscribed to protect victims of the oppressors……

Determined to police words and speech, proponents of identity politics label opponents as racists, sexists, misogynists, homophobes and Nazis…..

And let’s not mince words.  When the heritage of Western civilisation is devalued in Australian schools and university history departments, debased by our political parties and human rights bureaucracies, and snubbed by sections of the media, too, it becomes a numbers game.  I joined the IPA years ago because the voices of freedom need critical mass so that the virtues of freedom can be nurtured, defended and passed on to the next generation to do the same.  The way forward is to instil in each generation an understanding that our great inheritance comes from the story of Western civilisation.  That’s why Roskam and his team at the IPA are engaged in this critical contest of ideas that must not be dismantled by the self-loathing politics of identity.

Do you think that Janet may have found her vocation better in the Salvo’s?  It’s all just a game of shadow-boxing by tribes and labels; the white hats against the black hats; with not even a nod to restraint.  It’s as if they have never left university.

And I’m never quite sure what ‘identity politics’ is, except that I believe that nationalists like Trump and Farage are in it up to their necks – and that Janet Albrechtsen and others at the IPA are disposed to cosy up to people like Trump and Farage.

Well, I suppose the IPA has done something for the bishops in our public life – they provide another sounding board for bullshit that we don’t need.  And notwithstanding the self-assurance – to use the soft phrase – with which they all hand down their tablets of the laws, you do get the impression that the IPA and the bishops want to cast themselves a s victims.  Do they have a name for that kind of political gambit?

The truth is that we don’t go for ideology.  For that matter, I’m not sure what post-modernism is – although I did smile when someone at Oxford said it was like playing tennis with the net down.  That sounded about right to me.

Poet of the month: Henry Lawson

After all

The brooding ghosts of Australian night have gone from the bush and town;

My spirit revives in the morning breeze, though it died when the sun went down;

The river is high and the stream is strong, and the grass is green and tall,

And I fain would think that this world of ours is a good world after all.

The light of passion in dreamy eyes, and a page of truth well read,

The glorious thrill in a heart grown cold of the spirit I thought was dead,

A song that goes to a comrade’s heart, and a tear of pride let fall —

And my soul is strong! and the world to me is a grand world after all!

Let our enemies go by their old dull tracks, and theirs be the fault or shame

(The man is bitter against the world who has only himself to blame);

Let the darkest side of the past be dark, and only the good recall;

For I must believe that the world, my dear, is a kind world after all. It well may be that I saw too plain, and it may be I was blind;

But I’ll keep my face to the dawning light, though the devil may stand behind!

Though the devil may stand behind my back, I’ll not see his shadow fall,

But read the signs in the morning stars of a good world after all.

Rest, for your eyes are weary, girl — you have driven the worst away –

The ghost of the man that I might have been is gone from my heart to-day;

We’ll live for life and the best it brings till our twilight shadows fall;

My heart grows brave, and the world, my girl, is a good world after all.

Terror and the Police State – Chapter 3

[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]



Great wrongs are often done to secure what are seen as great rights.  If you subscribe to that lethal view that the ends justify the means, then you may invoke righteousness to justify terrorism.  Just think of the righteousness of John brown on slavery.  The problem then is – how do you distinguish the righteousness of John Wilkes Booth on slavery?

The French Revolution was supported and applauded from the beginning by people like Kant, Beethoven, and Wordsworth – and the majority of the enlightened people and uncrowned or unrobed heads in all Europe.  It was a colossal blow against caste and privilege, and an elevating insight into the claims of the rights of man.  Macaulay said that the only event to compare to the Reformation was the French Revolution.  Both involved people rising up against caste.  The Terror and Napoleon would put many off – Napoleon for his imperial throne and his aristocracy as much as for his wars – but the massive sense of liberation would endure.  Those championing the revolution claimed the moral high ground at the start, and they have never relinquished it.

Their decision to go to war to defend the revolution was a large part of what produced the Terror, but it did a lot more than merely change the face of war.  The old regimes of Europe, with their kings and nobles, would never have armed the people.  There was a change in the ideas of change in politics.  Professor Doyle said:

In other words, it was a profound cultural transformation.  The writers of the Enlightenment, so revered by the intelligentsia who made the Revolution, had always believed it could be done if men dared to seize control of their own destiny.  The men of 1789 did so, in a rare moment of courage, altruism, and idealism which took away the breath of educated Europe.

Righteousness is not a term to endear people to those professing to have it, and the moving forces in this revolution were full of it.  There was the sense that so many in the nation had suffered too long under a just sense of grievance caused by privilege, and this privilege was the foundation of the inequality against which the revolutionaries were fighting.  Being a champion of liberty and equality was to be a moral hero.  This is precisely the moral ground claimed today by the champions of civil or human rights, although not as many have to put their lives on the line as the men and women of 1789.

The essential dignity of each of us is the notion that crowns Kant’s moral philosophy.  He held that dignity (or worthiness) is beyond price, and that humanity so far as it is capable of morality alone has dignity.  A friend of Kant said this of his reaction to the French Revolution: ‘He lived and moved in it; and, in spite of all the terror, he held on to his hopes so much that when he heard the declaration of the republic, he called out with excitement: ‘Now let your servant go in peace to his grave, for I have seen the glory of the world.’’

Then the righteousness of the revolutionaries showed itself in the way that they defended their gains, and their nation.  There was of course faction and rebellion and civil war, and foreign nations that were intent on restoring the monarchy and punishing those who had reviled and then killed their king.  The French only had to look at what happened to the killers of Charles I in England when Charles II was restored – after an interregnum of almost a generation.  So, political idealism became fused with personal courage and love for the nation.  True revolutionaries were true patriots – who else could be?

It is hardly surprising that in extremis people took to extreme measures whether they were part of government or not.  What we call the Terror was the culmination of those forces.  The people of France were going where no one had been before.  They were trying to build a system of government after the old one had collapsed under the weight of its own inanity and brutality.  They had not had much if any experience of either governing or trying to build government.  At the same time, foreign enemies and their supporters within were threatening this young new nation with death and destruction.  You cannot just step out and go and buy a text-book that tells you what to do in a case like that.

Arthur Young was a man of birth, property, and position who knew what it meant to farm the land.  He was uniquely placed to give a balanced view on the excesses of the revolution.

It is impossible to justify the excesses of the people in their taking up arms; they were certainly guilty of cruelties; it is idle to deny the facts, for they have been proved too clearly to admit of a doubt.  But is it really the people to whom we are to impute the whole? – Or to their oppressors who had kept them so long in a state of bondage?  He who chooses to be served by slaves, and by ill-treated slaves, must know that he holds both his property and life by a tenure far different from those who prefer the service of well-treated freemen; and he who dines to the music of groaning sufferers must not, in the moment of insurrection, complain that his daughters are ravished and then destroyed, and that his sons’ throats are cut.  When such evils happen, they are surely more imputable to the tyranny of the master than to the cruelty of the servant. 

The wish to see like cases treated alike underwrites all our notions of justice.  If you contend that people are equal, and that they should be treated equally, the old caste system was a very cruel travesty and a very unjust imposition.  The hatred of the aristocracy – the owners of the burnt chateaux – was fuelled by the revulsion of privilege, and privilege is by definition in contempt of the rule of law as we know it, since one essential principle is that all people are equal before the law.

There is little point in looking for anything like righteousness behind the police states or terror practised in Germany or Russia.  The German nation had a just grievance at the behaviour of the Allies after the Great War.  No one stated that grievance better than John Maynard Keynes, but neither Versailles nor anything else could justify the Nazi revolution or terror.

The suffering of the Russian people from oppression at the bottom in about 1917 was probably not significantly less than that of the French people in 1789, but the Bolsheviks (Communists) lived in a moral and political world all of their own.  The Russian people would have to pay for the intellectual conceit of Marx in thinking that his mind was powerful enough to dictate logically verifiable answers to the human condition, and the insatiable craving for power of Lenin led him to insist on departing from the blueprint of Marx to suit his own ego and timetable.  The Russian police state now seems to us to be an inevitable product of a totalitarian kind of government that Communism prescribed, but the full ghastly flowering of the terror in Russia owed much to the personal insecurity and cruelty of Stalin.

The French would spend the next century in learning that it is hard to legislate ideals into law, but in committing itself to the Rights of Man in 1789, France was adopting as a nation a faith or aspiration that would be utterly contradicted by those regimes that we least admire, such as those of Russia or Germany when they generated their reigns of terror.

Here and there – Getting a fright – and feeling desperately mortal


The wonderful film Dunkirk shows young men knowing real fear.  They may be shot and wounded or killed.  They may be shot in the worst possible way.  In the back –retreating.  So that if they get back home, it will be as part of defeated army.  (We know about that here in Australia.  This movie is at its most moving when it shows some men getting back home and fearing their rejection as losers.)  We see young men dying – it’s all down to chance.  Randomness is all about them.  Their fate is out of their hands.  There is a sense of helplessness.  Is this the ultimate insult to our human dignity – that we become powerless in the hands of others?

Last Saturday morning, I was working here at this desk in the way I am now – typing and looking out over meadows and gumtrees.  I had experienced some shortness of breath that morning and the previous morning, but nothing much.  (This is about my condition of emphysema, not lung cancer.)  At about 11.20, I started, to feel a chill.  Then I felt aches in the legs.  Then I got short of breath changing rooms.  I felt even chillier and suspected an onset of flue.  When I went to put a large log on the fire, I fell to one knee, and seemed to lose my breathing completely.  This all happened so fast.

At about 11.45, I rang the clinic at Kyneton and said I was very distressed and on my way.  I cannot recall thinking about ringing 000 then.  I do recall thinking the trip to Kyneton – about ten k’s on the freeway – might be tricky for me, but that if I had collapsed, I could have rung 000 from there.  It’s hard reconstructing these things after the event.  The trouble is that you feel like you are running out of time – but you don’t know how much time is left.  It’s like being on time-on in the last quarter.

I made it to the clinic.  I just presented my bedraggled self and was soon on oxygen.  I can recall the fever was so bad that when they pulled a sleeve up, I pulled it down again because the chill to the exposed skin was physically painful.  (Is this what Don Giovanni felt at the end?  )I was looked after by a young doctor who is an extremely competent professional person.  The nursing staff acted on my instructions to get some good neighbours to look after Wolf.  I was taken by ambulance to Bendigo.  The paramedics were also very professional and kind.

After about four hours in casualty – monitored to the hilt – I was cleared of influenza, X-rayed, and told I wasn’t go to die – at least from this infection of the lung.  After a long delay caused by a bus crash outside Ballarat, I was taken to St John of God.  I had a long discussion with Lilly, a 48 year old Malaysian lady, about cooking and climate.  (‘It’s bloody hot there all the time, Mate.’)  I had similarly diverting discussion with many members of a dedicated staff, and after only minimal untruths, I secured my release after two nights.  The kind neighbour who looks after my garden had looked after Wolf.  She collected me and drove me back with him.  I’m determinedly resilient one day later.

But for about thirty minutes on Saturday, I knew real fear.  It was that sense of randomness of helplessness, that fear of the unknown, and loss of dignity.  The image that came to mind was of a fly on its back heading in diminishing oval slurries to the bath plug hole.  There does after all obviously have to be an end sometime.  Timing is all.

I think I can say that death itself doesn’t worry me.  What’s the point?  It has to happen.  Wittgenstein taught me years ago that you don’t live to see your own death.  That is axiomatic.  (Someone at Oxford told me a Greek had said just this 2,500 years ago.)  Descartes started modern philosophy by saying ‘I think, therefore I am.’  At about 4.30 this morning I thought for the first time of a kind of obverse.  ‘I’m dead, therefore I don’t think.’  (If you think that’s silly, it may suggest a problem in the first proposition.)

When the lights go out, that’s it.  There are no replays or appeals to the third umpire.  But we may wish to have some say in how the lights get turned off.

I hadn’t thought I had ever been so scared.  But when I thought about it, I recalled one time in the ‘60s.  During each vacation I worked with a small outfit called C & I Cleaning.  (That stood for ‘Commercial and Industrial’ – you can imagine the men’s version.)  The work was dirty and often dangerous.  Employers got away with things that would now draw jail time – big jail time.  There was no union involved.  It was never even discussed.  I used to think about it, but instinctively felt I would not have a job if I did anything about it.  More importantly, the permanents had families to support, and they were not interested.

We used to do jobs that these people were not qualified to do.  We did a job cleaning the outside of what was the Graham Hotel in Swanston Street between Flinders Street and Collins Street.  We did our own rigging of what were called needles, that is, girders, over the top of the building from which to suspend the slings, called painters’ slings.  These needles went over the parapet under a steel fence and then had concrete davits holding them down.  The whole arrangement looked to me to be amateurish.  I was involved in setting it up.  You may as well have asked me to do surgery. There was no Department of Labour and Industry inspection.  In truth, the needles were wrongly set.

At about midnight, we started winching up the slings.  There were three of us on each of two slings.  I was winching one, at the end nearest the Town Hall.  The site beside me was vacant and there was a north wind giving a bit of a sway to the sling as we went up.  About every ten feet or so my ratchet would give a slight click and just drop.  It was very, very unnerving.  It was also damned hard work.

We got to the top of the sixth floor and the little click became a run and the thing went down so that we were sort of hanging there with the sling at a 60 degree angle.  Someone or others of us were shaking so much that the whole sling was shaking.  It was seven minutes to four in the morning according to the Town Hall clock.  I can remember saying to Dickie Roberts that we were up a bit.  Dickie was an Englishman (who lived with a hooker who did interesting things with Cadbury’s chocolates).  I liked Dickie.  He said ‘You don’t fucking bounce’ in an accent that was thick for more than one reason.

A young night porter came to the window and turned white.  He said he could not handle the window.  We told him to kick the fucking thing in – and the air conditioner as well.  We made our escape at about 4am.  About seven minutes of swaying terror.  When I first read Measure for Measure, years later I thought I knew just what Shakespeare meant by the phrase ‘desperately mortal’.

Someone gave me a brandy.  It was a huge balloon glass.  I drained it and did not feel a thing.  I was blind with anger.  I wanted to get my hands on those management bastards who had been standing down there looking up hopefully with their feet on the ground.  When we got to them they asked if we would go up on the other sling.  Looking back on it, I think it may have been as well if one or another of us had hit one of them.  Dickie could have been just the boy for the job – he was brawny and he had pictures and I was sure he had been inside.  It is not so much that those men were greedy – it was that they did not care: they were worse than careless.  They were in truth bloody dangerous.

None of this came to me last Saturday.  The two cases are very different – not least because of my age.  But there was the same sense of randomness and helplessness – and fear of the unknown.

At least three things are clear to me after two trips to casualty by ambulance.

First, while we have mostly lost the old independent civil service we used to know, we are very well provided for by our doctors, nurses and paramedics.  I spent a lot time in the last few days talking to many of them, including many trainees and Latrobe students.  All of them – all of them – impressed me by their professionalism.  If you spend time in casualty, and see what life’s like at the bottom, you know that these people are not there for the money.  This is vocation, and God bless them.

And God bless their variety.  The last nurse I spoke to was a student from Zimbabwe called Lana.  She had the natural dignity of tall African women, and speaking to her, I realised the advantage that black women have over whites – their eyes flash naturally.

Secondly, there is another group who should spend time in casualty in a public hospital.  Those vicious idiots who want to loosen our gun laws should listen to people screaming obscene hate in public – whether through drugs, including alcohol, or dementia – in hospitals that now employ permanent security staff, and where PA’s announce impending mayhem by ‘Code Grey’, and their end by ‘Stand down.’  It is straight out of Nineteen Eighty-four.  It is worse than madness to suggest that we should loosen gun laws in pursuit of a vane mantra about ‘freedom.’  We will have to learn better how to deal with these nasty, cruel, cranks – I’m talking about the ratbag politicians, not the poor bastards in casualty.

Thirdly, I don’t want to go into labels about dying, but I may have to look again at some of the issues.  The trick, as it seems to me, is to be allowed to go out with as much dignity as possible and as little pain to those close to you.  Can we not manage to set up such a regime?  The issue looks to me a bit like that of marriage equality.  People should be left free to do as they decently want to as long as they don’t hurt others.  Isn’t that what we are supposed to be about?

Let me then go back to Dunkirk.  I hardly saw any TV at St John of God.  But I turned on SBS to watch their Sunday news.  I got the end of the Battle of Jutland.  This was the great naval battle of the Great War.  It was at best a draw.  Neither side risked its whole fleet.  It is still very controversial.  But many ships went down and thousands died.  The horror came as some British ships limped home – to be met by people heaving coal at them from bridges.  The fearfully uninformed were abusing their servicemen for cowardice.  This is sickening to see.  Have ever men been worse treated?  As I said, we know all about that here.  In the name of God, we are such awkward boxes of good and bad.

Passing Bull 124 – Bull about respect


If, having fetched a pale of water, Jack said to Jill ‘I respect you’, what might he mean?  The Oxford English Dictionary has for the verb ‘to treat or regard with deference, esteem or honour; to feel or show respect for; to esteem, prize or value a thing’, or person.  Jack is saying that he has a good opinion of Jill, or that he thinks well of her.

What if Jack says that he respects the flag?  Well, he is not talking about the cloth that is the symbol.  He is talking about the people, nation, or political entity for which the flag is a symbol.  And all those entities, involving tens of millions of people, all of whom are entitled to their own respect, are far more abstract than the little girl called Jill.  And there may be a lot more room to discuss just what are the aspects of, say, the nation that causes Jack to respect it.  Jack may not be of the ‘my nation right or wrong’ faction.  To use the distinctions of the OED, the question may also arise whether Jack regards the nation with deference, or whether he merely treats it that way; whether Jack feels respect for the nation, or whether he just shows it.

We are talking about a ritual performed before a symbol – like a lawyer bowing in court, or a believer genuflecting in church.  There may be many shades of meaning behind the ritual or the belief of the person making it to the ideas of those for whom the symbol represents.

Some American footballers chose a different form of that ritual to protest about one aspect of the governance of the nation.  That was their right.  Their president claimed the right to abuse them.  He wanted them punished by being fired.  He did not specify what law or contract had been broken.  He would be equally ignorant of both.  But he showed his lack of respect for his fellow citizens when he offended and insulted them by the vulgar locker room banter that is his stock in verbal trade.  Well, we are used to that with Trump.  He is a bad stupid man who thrives on conflict.

But his unctuous vice-president – who, unlike the president, has God, and has Him written all over his face –feigned a tantrum, and staged a walk-out, at God knows what expense to the American taxpayer.  Mr Pence said:

I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag, or our national anthem.

What would Jack and Jill know about the concluding trinity?  It’s hard to say something good about  a nation that seeks to cast out anyone who does not think well of it.  It’s just as hard to think of anything good to say of a leader of such a nation who turns his back on someone who does not think well of it.  They are marks of regimes that we least respect.

We are having this discussion while looking at a massive lack of respect in the best known industry of the U S – Hollywood.  Mr Weinstein sounds evil to the core.  He reminds me of Mr Strauss-Kahn.  Their vice is identical.  They are predatory bullies who abuse their power to exploit those beneath them in pursuit of their own self-gratification.

So does Donald Trump.  He shows no respect for those beneath him.  He shows no respect for what the flag or anthem stand for – the Constitution, Congress, the judiciary, or the office of President.  The President has no idea about the Bill of Rights, except for the current fallacies about guns.  He is a true abuser of power, and not just because of his celebrated curbside opinion about pussy-grabbing.  The difference between Trump and people like Strauss-Kahn and Weinstein is one of degree.

These thoughts came up as I read an article in the Financial Times.  It referred to an article entitled Why the assholes are winning.  Its author, a Stanford professor, said that leaders who create ‘toxic and hellish work environments’ are often admired nonetheless: ‘It seemingly doesn’t matter what an individual or a company does … as long as they are sufficiently rich and successful.’

The Financial Times went on:

In ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’, his book about Miramax, Peter Biskind described the Weinstein brothers’ reputation ‘for brilliance but also for malice and brutality’.

Another study of the traits of dominant people noted that greater power triggers ‘disinhibited behaviour’. In other words, leaders who are allowed to do whatever they want can end up behaving very badly. The powerful ‘more frequently act on their desires in a socially inappropriate way’, the authors concluded.

Over-eating, over-aggression and predatory sexual behaviour were among syndromes they described for ‘high status, powerful individuals’ whose moods swing from irritability into mania.  When personal patronage is the surest route from obscurity to glamour, danger lurks.

The references to ‘disinhibited behaviour’ and ‘personal patronage’ may or may not reflect what happens in the Murdoch empire, but the whole piece looks to describe the current white House – word for word.  Leaders who get away with doing what they want end up behaving badly – very badly.

Poet of the Month

Andy’s gone with cattle

Our Andy’s gone to battle now

‘Gainst Drought, the red marauder;

Our Andy’s gone with cattle now

Across the Queensland border.

He’s left us in dejection now;

Our hearts with him are roving.

It’s dull on this selection now,

Since Andy went a-droving.

Who now shall wear the cheerful face

In times when things are slackest?

And who shall whistle round the place

When Fortune frowns her blackest?

Oh, who shall cheek the squatter now

When he comes round us snarling?

His tongue is growing hotter now

Since Andy cross’d the Darling. T

he gates are out of order now,

In storms the `riders’ rattle;

For far across the border now Our Andy’s gone with cattle.

Poor Aunty’s looking thin and white;

And Uncle’s cross with worry;

And poor old Blucher howls all night

Since Andy left Macquarie.

Oh, may the showers in torrents fall,

And all the tanks run over;

And may the grass grow green and tall

In pathways of the drover;

And may good angels send the rain

On desert stretches sandy;

And when the summer comes again

God grant ’twill bring us Andy.

Terror and the Police State: II

[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]


Enduring Emergency

During the seventh century before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, at a time of economic strife and depression, Solon was appointed arbiter and given the job of restructuring the constitution of Athens.  He annulled debts, but he could not ban envy or greed.  Those primal emotions translate into faction in politics.  A man called Peisistratus had been a friend of Solon.  He organised a faction of the Hill, mostly poorer people and others who had lost out under Solon, although Peisistratus himself was aristocratic.  Peisistratus wanted to take over as the ruler of Athens, to become what we call a tyrant.  Peisistratus made himself tyrant of Athens by a stunt that might fairly be called textbook.  It is described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus as follows.

Gathering together a band of partisans, and giving himself out for the protector of the Highlanders, he contrived the following stratagem.  He wounded himself and his mules, and then drove his chariot into the market-place, professing just to have escaped an attack of his enemies, who had attempted his life as he was on his way to the country.  He besought the people to assign him a guard to protect his person … The Athenians, deceived by his story, appointed him a band of citizens to serve as a guard who were to carry clubs instead of spears, and to accompany him wherever he went.  So strengthened, Peisistratus broke into revolt and seized the citadel.  In this way, he acquired the sovereignty of Athens …

There in microcosm you see the rise of many later tyrants, such as Mussolini and Hitler – an exaggerated threat; an ‘emergency’ response; and the seizure of power, which is not relinquished.  The notion of emergency or crisis or threat to personal or general security that was so glibly exploited more than two thousand five hundred years ago is close to the centre of the reigns of terror in France, Russia, and Germany.

The sense of emergency was real throughout the five years in France from July 1789 to July 1794.  A lot happened during this time, but three things did not happen:  France did not achieve a settled constitution; France did not establish a settled and adequate food supply for all her people; and France was never freed of the threat from inside and out from people who wanted to deprive France of the benefits of the revolution so far.  For the most part, people were living in anarchy, and many of them lived in constant fear and hunger.  We have to bear these things steadily in mind as we watch the nation descend into a cycle of violence and vendetta, and then a degradation of the human spirit that may come when all legal order is gone, and the lid is lifted off to reveal all of the worst that humanity can show or do.

The fall of the Bastille was followed by the Great Fear – the whole nation lived in dark fear of robbers and brigands as the violence of the uprising launched the French people into the political unknown.  The foreign reactions soon began to harden.  Aristocrats plotted from abroad.  The Pope condemned the reorganisation of the French church.  Then the king and his family tried to escape, and were brought back to Paris, effectively as prisoners.  In 1792, the National Assembly issued a declaration, ‘La Patrie est en dangère’.  A state of emergency was proclaimed.  All Frenchmen capable of bearing arms were called up for national service.  This emergency was real.

Europe threatened the ‘total destruction’ of Paris if the royal family were not respected and protected.  Five hundred patriots marched from Marseilles to Paris.  They sang a song written for the army of the Rhine by a man called Rouget de Lisle.  This is probably the best known anthem in the world, but not many people know just how ferocious the lyrics are.  The danger facing France was the reason for the ferocity.  In August 1792, there was a further revolution, when the commune of Paris was set up.  The king was not deposed but merely suspended.  Government was fragmented even further.  The sense that the patrie was really en dangère – which risks the heads of those found on the wrong side – led to the ghastly eruptions known as the September Massacres.  The Paris mob gave a frightening glimpse of Hell.

In March 1793, the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety were set up.  The period from then to July 1794 when Robespierre fell is generally seen as the time of the Terror in France.

In short, for the whole of the time of the main events of what we call the French Revolution, France went from one violent episode to another while it had no effective central government and when it was entering into wars which would when extended under Napoleon consume Europe for a generation.  There was a general and continuing sense of crisis and emergency before Napoleon; he pacified France and then he detonated the world.

Government under the Tsars had broken down, but after the revolution in 1917, there was worse anarchy and civil war than even France had experienced.  Stalin was in power for decades.  The party had the machinery for a police state from the beginning, and one that might be structured on lines that some might call scientific, but for the most part the Terror under Stalin was not practised in any sense of crisis or emergency, but because some very cruel people had never been educated to see any other way.  Stalin and his aides were also morally empty.

Hitler would be another emperor-like figure for whom war would be eternal, but the process to get to that result was very different.  The reign of Terror was commenced in France when those leading and defending the revolution had good reason to fear for the survival of the political results that had been obtained, and the freedom that had been earned, and many of them had fear for their very lives if the Monarchists returned.  The existence of the nation itself was threatened.  This was never the case for the Nazis.

Hitler and the Nazis never got fifty per cent of the vote.  They came to power in 1933 by a combination of terror, deceit, and seduction.  The terror came at first with the rough-house bullying of the Brownshirts which when they got into power would become the lethal brutality of the Blackshirts – the Gestapo and the SS.  The steps between Kristallnacht and Auschwitz were not that great or steep.  The deception did not come in holding back on their long term aims.  Hitler in Mein Kampf was open about his intention of eliminating the Jews and enslaving the Poles and the Russians, even if he had a confused way of saying things, and a manner that would put any sane person off reading the book – or, perhaps, taking it seriously.

The deception came because Hitler and his aides were morally empty.  They had no principles or decency, none at all.  They could not be taken at their word, or trusted in anything.  The Terror was with Hitler and his Nazis from the beginning to the end.  The only contribution to a sense of emergency from outside came with the burning down of the Reichstag which led to a propaganda extravaganza which is still exercising historians and scholars.  It was this incident that gave the Nazis the pretext to scrap what was left of the rule of law and turn Germany, which fifty years ago had been the foremost liberal democracy on the planet, into a police state that was far more powerful and horrific than anything seen before.

Here and there – Is any nation civilised?


If you read Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, you will probably find more references to Italy than any other nation.  He was not talking about what some call the glory of ancient Rome.  Clark started after the fall of Rome.  But he dwelt lovingly on Italy, which did not then exist as nation, in the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation – even if governance in Italy stank and governance in the Church of Rome was so bad that it led to the unending schism.  There would be general agreement that Italy is a civilised nation, or at least as much entitled to make that claim as others.  Who wouldn’t say that of a people that gave the world Dante, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Verdi?

In 2012, the Italians unveiled a monument built with public money on a picturesque village near Rome.  The monument was to a general, Rodolfo Graziani.  Well, the nation that gave us Michelangelo and Bernini may wish to celebrate one of its heroes.  But to a general of Mussolini, such a stupid and cruel duce that the Italians killed and hung upside down?  Well, some might see here an error of taste or judgment, but hardly evidence in itself of a failure of civilisation.

General Graziani was a dedicated fascist and a lifelong supporter of Mussolini.  He commanded some of the Italian troops who invaded Ethiopia after 1935 under the reported slogan ‘Il Duce will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians.’  He became the Viceroy of Ethiopia in Mussolini’s pathetic attempt to create an empire.  What follows is mostly taken from a review in The Economist of the book The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame, by Ian Campbell.

The Ethiopians did not wish to be invaded.  Few people do.  One of them tried to kill the leader of the invasion.  The bloody revenge of the Blackshirts lasted three days.  Mussolini’s paramilitaries were officially given carta blanca.  They were joined by regular soldiers, carabinieri, and the local Italian community.  In this frightful massacre, witnesses reported crushed babies, disembowelled pregnant women and the burning of whole families.  Graziani became known as ‘the butcher.’  Mr Campbell says 20,000 may have died.  Italy puts the figure at 600 to 2000.  Ethiopia says 30,000 died.  On any view, it makes the German annihilation of Lidice, in response to the assassination of Heydrich, look meek.  Doubtless most of the murderers saw themselves as good Christian inheritors of the civilisation of the West.

Mr Campbell says Graziani was personally responsible and that he was seeking to eliminate the Ethiopian nobility and intelligentsia.  The term is ethnic cleansing.  Two of the many black holes in Africa, Ethiopia and Libya, are the products of Mussolini’s mindless imperialism.  Italy has a lot to answer for.

What say the Italians?  This was no more than a typical European colonial atrocity – no worse than the British slaughter at Amritsar.  Few historians have looked at it.  Those who did were denounced as unpatriotic.  The film Lion in the Desert was banned for ‘damaging the honour of the Italian army.’  It had no honour, and this stupid pretense goes to the heart of the problem.  School children are not taught of the massacre.

Graziani evaded prosecution for war crimes.  They were blocked by Italy and, I’m sorry to say, England.  An Italian court sentenced him to 19 years for collaborating with the Nazis, but in the best traditions of Italian justice and governance, he served only four months.  Some say his lawyers said he had ‘received orders.’  Haven’t the Italians heard of the precedent set at Nuremberg?  No, the butcher now has his own monument.

Germany has come to terms with its past.  Italy, Japan, and Turkey have not.  The cancer of fascism is still alive in Italy.  While it remains so, and while Italy stays blind to its crimes, Italy may claim some mantle from its past of civilisation, but it is hard to see it as either a mature or decent nation.

Passing Bull 123 – Freedom and guns


To most people outside the U S, it sounds at best silly to say that the failure of the U S to make sane laws about guns is a necessary incident of freedom. .  Thousands die each year in America, including thousands of veterans, because of this ideological glitch.  It is fed by the corruption of the NRA, the gullibility of its supporters, a Hollywood view of America’s attachment to violence, and an American preference for self-help over sensible government intervention.

In the result, you get bullshit like this from the disgraced Bill O’Reilly, late of Fox News.

Once again, the big downside of American freedom is on gruesome display. A psychotic gunman in Las Vegas has committed the worst mass murder in US history.  Public safety demands logical gun laws but the issue is so polarising and emotional that little will be accomplished as there is no common ground.  The NRA and its supporters want easy access to weapons, while the left wants them banned.  This is the price of freedom.  Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.

For us, that is odious rubbish.  But the NRA parrots it.  They said some of their members were shot and killed in Las Vegas.

Any law affects our freedom.  To oppose a law on the ground that it limits our freedom is to miss the point.  We have laws prohibiting your using a gun to hurt or threaten someone.  We have laws prohibiting carrying guns in public.  It would be absurd to oppose those laws on the ground that they limit our freedom.  To repeat, all laws affect our freedom.  The issue is whether that inevitable result is warranted in the public interest.  Do the benefits of these laws warrant their restrictions on our freedom?  Who wants to be free to walk up Collins Street with a rifle that can kill someone at the MCG?  If there are some people who feel aggrieved at this loss of ‘freedom’, that’s their bad luck, because the numbers are squarely against them.

Clearly, then, we are not ‘free’ to aim bullets at people to hurt them.  Should we be free to aim words at people to hurt them?  Some people object to these laws on the ground that they limit our freedom.  For the reasons given, that does not advance the discussion at all.

Take a law that prohibits one person from publicly insulting another person on the ground of their race.  That law was made to stop people inflicting one form of harm on other people, and because the prohibited behaviour can lead to a breach of the peace – which the law is there to protect.  Those are valid considerations in the public interest.  What ‘freedom’ does this law limit?  The freedom to publicly insult another person on the ground of their race.

Again, if there are some people who feel aggrieved at this loss of ‘freedom’, that’s their bad luck, because the numbers are squarely against them.

But in either case, it’s just bullshit to complain that the law affects our freedoms.

Poet of the month: Emily Dickinson

How fits his Umber Coat

The Tailor of the Nut?

Combined without a seam

Like Raiment of a Dream –

Who spun the Auburn Cloth?

Computed how the girth?

The Chestnut aged grows

In those primeval Clothes –

We know that we are wise –

Accomplished in Surprise –

Yet by this Countryman –

This nature – how undone!