Passing Bull 130 – Religion and nuts


The Roy Moore fiasco brought the term ‘evangelical’ to a new low, at least in the U S.  Sadly, the disease is not limited to the U S.  The Murdoch press went into a funk over marriage equality.  Here is some vintage bull from Jennifer Oriel.  She denounced ‘the Smith bill’ as being too short.

In a two-party system, the left is expected to promote equality while the right prioritises freedom.  The freedom of the political right is distinctive.  It is not anarchy.  It is the form of freedom that provides the spiritual, social, economic and political foundations for the flourishing of Western civilisation…..

The Smith bill represents the worst of conservatism and progressivism; it reserves freedom for the clergy while binding freethinkers under a state regime of political correctness.  There is no substantive protection for freedom of speech.

There is no protection against the lawfare used internationally to silence dissenters and purge them from public life.  There is no protection from the state forcing people’s speech to conform to central tenets of queer ideology.  And this is a bill for queer marriage, not same-sex marriage….

Dear, dear, dear.  Just think of all those demons, all those tigers out there with their eyes burning bright in the forest of the night, while the IPA stokes its paranoia about Stalinist queers.

On the same page, Greg Sheridan, who rarely misses a chance to get it wrong, hymned a mate.

Australia is very fortunate that Tony Abbott insisted on a plebiscite.

The paranoia is not confined to the IPA.  The Australian reeks of secular antagonism that died half a century ago.  In one column, Angela Shanahan said:

The political landscape is verging on chaos because of the ambition of Malcolm Turnbull and his lefty acolytes in the Liberal Party.

In their desire to prop up a failed government and a hubristic Prime Minister who wants to make his mark on history, they have proved, by opposing the amendments for religious liberty in relation to the introduction of same-sex marriage, that they are small political creatures who know no history.  They leave conservative voters nowhere to go.

That’s not quite right.  There is always Cory Bernardi, and the hard core reactionaries on Sky News and The Australian – not to mention Greg Sheridan’s mate.

But in another column, Ms Shanahan showed her grasp of history.  The Reformation was a serious mistake.

Christendom, which had existed beyond and above the state, was no more.  Kings, who like all baptised people great or small had been subject to the teaching and law of the church and part of the body of Christ, elevated themselves as the ultimate authority…..

The so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 was really a product of religious antagonism to see a Catholic off the throne and remove Catholics from public life……

Freedom of religion – of thought, of conscience – must be based on an informed conscience, which is not just for the elite….Today, ironically, it is threatened by the secularism sparked by that Reformation.

It reminds you of the time a guest and psychiatrist looked Basil Fawlty right in the eye and said ‘We could devote a whole seminar to you.’

To the extent that you can see something that Jennifer Oriel calls ‘Western civilisation,’ it depends in large part on the separation of Church and State.  The English got there largely through the Reformation and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, both of which Ms Shanahan regrets.  The French got there by more messy means.  The Americans thought they had got there, but Roy Moore and Donald Trump show that they have missed.

We are many centuries past the time where the State could be viewed as ‘subject to the teaching and law of the church and part of the body of Christ.’  Such an idea now could best be described as madness.

We are also well passed the time when a religion can claim a veto over either the parliament or the people.  If the plebiscite celebrated by Greg Sheridan established anything, it showed that a clear majority of Australian regard the separation of Church and State as fundamental to our way of life.  The suggested issue about religious freedom was always a furphy from the start.  The issue was always about the power of the Church to stick its nose in where it doesn’t belong – the way we make our laws and govern ourselves.

You might expect that those of a reactionary cast of thought might understand all this.  The opposite result – where religion remains paramount, or at least claims a right of veto – is that which obtains in nations subject to their ultimate bête noire – Islam.

On another point about religion, one correspondent to The Sunday Age reminded us that the infant Jesus spent time as a refugee in Egypt.  How would his parents have got on if they had knocked on the door of Mr Morrison, who is bewailing the ill treatment of Christians in this country, or Mr Dutton?

Anyway, to the extent that a God-fearing lapsed Prot has any standing to say so – have a very happy Christmas and all best wishes for the New Year.

Here and there – The Third Man and Shakespeare


A few weeks ago, on a desultory whim, I watched The Third Man for the nth time.  I realised I had never read the book, so I ordered a copy.  Graham Greene wrote the screenplay too, but there are some differences in the two versions.  The cuckoo clock didn’t get a look-in in the book, but the book’s account of the lecture given to the British reading group in Vienna is different and hilarious – and loaded.

You will recall that Rollo Martins (Joseph Cotton) is a bashed up American writer of cheap westerns.  He is in Vienna to check up on his mate Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  A member of the British Council named Crabbin thinks that Martins is the distinguished novelist named B Dexter.  Crabbin invites Martins to address a meeting of the local British literati.  When Martins is more under the weather than usual, he gets picked up and delivered to the meeting.  He is very sore and terse.  But after a while, he realises that he is making ‘an enormous impression’, least of all when he said that he had never heard of James Joyce.  Graham Greene was having a lot of fun, and settling some old scores.

A kind-faced woman in a hand-knitted jumper said wistfully, ‘Don’t you agree, Mr Dexter, that no one, no one has written about feelings so poetically as Virginia Woolf?  In prose, I mean.’

Crabbin whispered, ‘You might say something about the stream of consciousness.’

‘Stream of what?’

\A note of despair came into Crabbin’s voice……

Martins ends up signing books by Dexter ‘From B Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe.’  He is trying to make his escape via the dunny when Sergeant Paine patiently collects him to have a word with Colonel Calloway (Trevor Howard).

As condescension goes, Mr Crabbin is a direct descendant of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  For many, the highlight of the night, which was not in the film, had come as follows.

‘Mr Dexter, could you tell us what author has chiefly influenced you?’

Martins, without thinking, said, ‘Grey.’  He meant of course the author of ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’, and he was pleased to find his reply gave general satisfaction – to all save an elderly Austrian who asked ‘Grey.  What Grey?  I do not know the name.’

Martins felt he was safe now and said, ‘Zane Grey – I don’t know any other,’ and was mystified at the low subservient laughter from the English colony.

Crabbin interposed quickly for the sake of the Austrians, ‘That is a little joke of Mr Dexter’s.  He meant the poet Gray – a gentle, mild, subtle genius – one can see the affinity.’

‘And is he called Zane Grey?’

‘That was Mr Dexter’s joke.  Zane Grey wrote what we call Westerns – cheap popular novelettes about bandits and cowboys.’

‘He is not a great writer?’

‘No, no.  Far from it,’ Mr Crabbin said.  ‘In the strict sense I would not call him a writer at all.’  Martins told me that he felt the first stirrings of revolt at that statement.  He had never regarded himself before as a writer, but Crabbin’s self-confidence irritated him – even the way the light flashed back from Crabbin’s spectacles was another cause of vexation.  Crabbin said, ‘He was just a popular entertainer.’

‘Why the hell not?’ Martins said fiercely.

‘Oh, well, I merely meant – ’

‘What was Shakespeare?’

Somebody said with great daring ‘A poet.’

Now, all this is hilarious and beyond price.  It is a Falstaffian swipe at the snobs of the literary establishment who want to turn the popular entertainer called Shakespeare into a god, who helped to propel poor John Keats into the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and who still so meanly and sadly turns up their noses at the wonderful writing of Graham Greene.  Off the top of your head, what writer wrote novels that people enjoy reading more than those of Graham Greene?

It’s as if Greene foresaw his doom.  The establishment wouldn’t give him a Nobel Prize – but they would give one to Bob Dylan.  Well, at least there’s no bloody doubt about his being a popular entertainer.

It’s idle to compare artists, and it is arrogant to purport to rank them, but this extract from The Third Man suggests to me that Greene may have had one thing in common with Shakespeare – just, say, in the wistful remark of the kind-faced woman in the hand-knitted jumper.  You get the impression that it’s just a matter of waiting for some bastard to pull the plug out – and down it all comes.  It’s as if, somehow, God gets in on the act.  Either way, we have been blessed.




[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.]



The proposition ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’ has become justly famous since the luminous mind and the graphic pen of George Orwell depicted the totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  It is an essential part of that sense of entrapment, powerlessness, enclosedeness, inevitability and hopelessness which, together with the prevalence of informers and denouncers, and a feeling of randomness, leaves mere objects of a police state feeling utterly helpless – and that is in large part the object of the exercise – to sterilise the individual.

We have seen that the Nazi regime did not just threaten those in a minority – this colossal machine rose up and brooded over every single person in the Reich.  The threat of arrest and detention, and dismissal and disgrace, hung over everyone except the Leader, and no one knew when it might come or how it might fall.  The collective fear within the nation left in a kind of submission or acquiescence those who had not been seduced by the glitter and the lies – and the successes, at home, and across borders.

In Nazi Germany, every group of houses had a ‘Block Warden.’  These were at the bottom of the hierarchy, neither respected nor loved.  Every local branch of the Party had an average of eight cells with about fifty households in each.  The Blockwart was responsible for what might be called the political supervision of about fifty households.  He was in charge of seeing that flags and bunting were put out, and that his people ‘voluntarily’ attended parades, but he was also an access point for informers, and a source of information in his own right.  He was commonly a very minor party functionary, doubtless with the social scars to prove it, and he was concerned with both propaganda and the maintenance of order.  Those who had been bombed out or who had issues with ration cards would go to him first, but he was also a reporting post.

Like any good German, he had to report dangerous or suspicious behaviour, and when he did, the suspect could expect a visit from the Gestapo.  He was therefore what might be called an ‘officious bystander’, and he was loathed accordingly.  In many cases, he was called simply der Braune, ‘the brown one’, after the brownshirt that many of his ilk commonly wore.  They were also called Political Leaders, and by 1935, there were perhaps 200,000 of them.  Richard Evans makes the remarkable assertion that ‘including their helpers there were almost two million Block Wardens by the beginning of the war.’  They must have been like a sinister and all pervasive Dad’s Army, and since a majority were middle class, they may have been even more unpopular in working class areas.

Professor Evans describes this level of surveillance as follows: ‘They were often the first port of call for denouncers, and they exercised close surveillance over known dissenters, Jews and those who made contact with them, and ‘politically unreliable’ people, usually former opponents of the Nazis.  Known derisively as ‘golden pheasants’ from their brown-gold uniforms with their red collar epaulettes, they were required to report ‘rumour-mongers’ and anyone who failed to conform to the district Party organisation, which would pass on their names and misdemeanours to the Gestapo.  Those who fell foul of the Block Wardens could also be denied state benefits and welfare payments….. In factories and work places, officials of the Labour Front, the employers, the foremen and the Nazi Security Service took over the functions of the Block Warden.  Those workers who did not toe the line were singled out for discriminatory treatment, denial of promotion, transfer to less congenial duties, or even dismissal.  ‘You couldn’t say anything,’ recalled one worker in the Krupp engineering factory later: ‘the foreman was always standing behind you, nobody could risk it.’’

During the time of the French Terror, France was hardly a police state, at least in the sense that we understand the term now.  But, in and from March 1793, France found itself facing mortal threats from within and without, and to help it to survive those threats, it passed a series of emergency measures, such as the creation of the Committee of Public Safety and the Declaration of Revolutionary Government (in October), that were bona fide emergency measures.  It was time to take the gloves off, and what we know as surveillance was an essential part of the package, and one that would see those at the bottom – the sans-culottesgiven direct power to control events in the revolution.  This would be, for better or worse, people power in action.

On 21 March 1793, the National Convention made a law to set up Surveillance or Watch Committees.  The recital said that the Convention considered that ‘at a time when the allied despots threaten the Republic still more by the efforts of their intrigues than by the success of their arms, it is its duty to prevent liberticide plots.’  Propaganda is rarely either pretty or sensible, but every commune, and each section in a larger commune, was to have a committee of twelve citizens elected by ballot – former priests and nobles were excluded.  They were to take ‘declarations’ from foreigners in each arrondissement, but their work came to be directed against all suspected persons, French as well as foreign.  They came to be known as ‘revolutionary committees’ in the Parisian sections.  They had a role of general surveillance that was utterly inhibited by forms and equally uninhibited by legality.  These committees would be in charge of ‘Civic Certificates’ or ‘Civic Cards’, certificats de civisme.  These attested to the patriotism of the bearer, and would be essential to anyone wishing to move around France if they were not to be treated as suspect where they arrived.  Every citizen was required to certify before the commune or the committee his place of birth, his means of livelihood, and ‘the performance of his civic duties.’  This gave ordinary people the chance to terrify other ordinary people.  In parts of Paris there was a concerted effort to spread the sans-culotte zeal into less ardent arrondissements.  Anyone with any experience of politics at the most local or grass-roots level will understand the power that bodies like these would possess, not least in a revolutionary state at war.

In September, the Paris Commune set out even broader grounds on which Civic Cards might be refused, some of which might now afford grounds to smile to those who struggle with the concept of patriotism at the best of times – ‘Those who pity the farmers and the greedy merchants against whom the law is obliged to take measures, … those who in assemblies of the people arrest their energy by crafty discourses, turbulent cries and threats, … those who speak mysteriously of the misfortunes of the Republic, are full of pity for the lot of the people, and are always ready to spread the bad news with an affected grief, … those who received the republican constitution with indifference and have given credence to false fears concerning its establishment and duration…’  What might fairly be described as the clincher was, ‘Those who having done nothing against liberty but have also done nothing for it.’

It is in its way a telling list of demons, but it would have been difficult to have opened your mouth without risking what may even then have been described as political incorrectness.  What we do know is that the more insecure a regime is, the more it wants to know everything that you do and the more that it worries about anything you do that is somehow different.  It is for that reason hostile to any reasonable conception of personal freedom.  You could not afford to deviate, or even to be seen to combine, since, as Saint-Just said, ‘Any faction is criminal, since it tends to divide the citizens.’

Here and there – Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is not just admired.  He is revered.  He was decent, shrewd and sensible.  He had immense moral and intellectual courage.  Out of the humblest origins, he schooled himself on the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and then the law, and he carved out in marble his written understanding of his nation.  He was a consummate politician while remaining a decent human being – something we sadly find it hard to comprehend now.  He may be the only known exception to the rule that all power corrupts.  He held the United States together by the force of his being.  It would be neither silly nor blasphemous to see in his life and death a replay of the redemption story.  Lincoln gave his life to redeem his people from the original sin of slavery.

Historical novels are not my scene.  I prefer one or the other, and not an ersatz combination of both.  An exception is Lincoln by Gore Vidal.  I have just read it for the third time.  I was first referred to it thirty years ago by a friend in politics.  He said that this book precisely captures the factional strife of party politics.  He was surely dead right.  Some of the plots and conspiracies would make Le Carré jealous and make Yes Minister look tame.  Vidal precisely pictures not just Lincoln, but each member of his cabinet – none of whom thought he was up to the job when he started, and most of whom would plot against him.  It required political genius of the highest order for Lincoln to survive the incompetence if not cowardice of his generals, and the disloyalty or corruption of his cabinet.

The book starts with Lincoln travelling secretly to Washington for what would be his first inauguration.  At the same time, the novel starts to track those would be involved in his assassination.  The issue of the war remains apparently open until near the end.

Here is a scene about halfway through the book.  It is before the battle of Gettysburg, and the emergence of the two generals that would bring Lincoln home, Grant and Sherman.  (Sherman said that he looked after Grant when he was drunk, and that Grant looked after him when he was mad.)  Lincoln goes to the front.  He passes what he is a told is a facility for southern boys who have been wounded.  Over the protests of security, Lincoln insists on going in to see these young men.  Any one of them would have been proud to have killed Lincoln in cold blood.  The sight and stench, even the sounds, inside the tent would have been unbearable to anyone reading this note.  Remember that Lincoln’s portrait was on the greenback.

When the colonel started to call the men to attention, the President stopped him with a gesture.  Then Lincoln walked the length of the room, very slowly, looking to left and right, with his dreamy smile.  At the end of the room, he turned and faced the wounded men; then, slowly, he removed his hat.  All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognised him.

When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet-voice was muted; even intimate.  ‘I am Abraham Lincoln.’  There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of…..?  Washburne [a Congressman and friend] had never heard a sound quite like it.  ‘I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that I honour you, and for your wounds so honourably gained.  I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me.  That is why I am here.  That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.’

The same long sigh, like a rising wind, began, and still no one spoke.  Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand.  Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.

At the end, as Lincoln made his way between the beds, stopping to talk to those who could not move, half of the men were in tears, as was Washburne himself.

In the last bed by the door, a young officer turned his back on the President, who touched his shoulder and murmured, ‘My son, we shall all be the same at the end.’  Then the President was gone.

Now, that passage might stand for the dilemma of the historical novel.  How do we know this happened?  Is it true of Lincoln?  Having read the replies of Vidal to his critics, I am confident of the answer to each question.  The book was scrupulously sourced, and vetted by one of Lincoln’s best biographers, and this incident is consistent with all we know of Lincoln.

It’s also consistent with our experience.  We know that some people – some heroes – are of such obviously strong character, and such proven fine history, that their mere physical presence can have an effect on total strangers that is as unreal as it is uplifting.  I have seen this with my own eyes with people touched by merely being in the presence of Muhammad Ali, in a mysterious way that they thought might change their lives.  I have heard about from those who were in the presence of Nelson Mandela.  Some people, a very tiny few, have this magical power.  Some of them, like Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King, would pay the ultimate price for challenging the status quo.

So, in a way, did Lincoln.  His story is one of the great epics of mankind, and in my view it is wonderfully unfolded in this book by Gore Vidal.

Curiously, the attractive power of innocence was explored by Herman Melville in his novella called Billy Budd.  The hero embodies innocence.  Claggart, the villain, embodies evil.  The book is another redemption story.  Melville began his story by describing how sailors when they went ashore gathered around one who was the ‘Handsome Sailor’.  ‘With no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of natural regality, he seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates.’  That is a reasonable description of Lincoln and his government – when they got to know him.

Here is my note on Lincoln from another publication (Men of Genius).



The problem of slavery was resolved by force of arms and the effect of what might be seen as a failed revolution was stated in terms that still today can produce a tremble in the bottom lip of people who have never even set foot in America.

Abraham Lincoln did not come from the middle class or higher.  He was born in the backblocks in a log cabin in Kentucky.  He learned his law lying on his back with his feet up a tree.  This largely self-taught lawyer practised in Illinois and rode on horseback on circuit when he slept fully clothed head to toe with opposing counsel.

He had one supreme advantage over most of us.  He was better educated.  He was brought up on the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and his young mind was unsullied by tripe or trivia.  Lincoln may well be the most consummate politician who has ever lived, and he may also be one of the very few in all history who was not corrupted by power.  He had, of course, no time for political theory.  It was by the force of his character that the union that we know as the United States of America was held together and then defined afresh.  Without Abraham Lincoln, our world in the West would be very different.  He is the supreme political genius in the history of the world.

To go a little out of order, Lincoln in his second inaugural address left no doubt that the Union was redeeming itself in the course of the Civil War.  He said that at the start of the war, one eighth of the population were coloured slaves.  He went on with some very direct statements about religion:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

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

Less than four months before his re-inauguration, Abraham Lincoln had stated his vision for his nation at the dedication of a cemetery at the site of a three-day battle, one of the bloodiest of a very bloody war, the battle of Gettysburg.  People who have seen the TV documentary, The Civil War, may recall that the late Shelby Foote said that after Lincoln had read his address ‘in his thin piping voice,’ he was worried about it.  He said that it did not ‘scour’.  For good reason, that address is now chiselled into the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D.C., and it is an essential part of the fabric not just of the American nation, but of western civilization.

Lincoln had a well-oiled logical machine in his mind.  He would as a matter of course build the premises of his argument into the structure of his prose.  There is just one thing to note about that process here.  He starts by referring to ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.  We know that statement was false when it was first made.  Lincoln goes on immediately to say that the Civil War is to test ‘whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure’. The Civil War was therefore being fought to make good the original declaration of equality.  It is the same redemptive vision, almost a biblical redemptive vision.  The great republic would redeem its original sin with its own blood.

Here then is how the great Abraham Lincoln defined his vision of the free republic of the United States:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note nor long remember what we may say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us –that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 




[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.]


Secret police

Police are people employed by government to enforce the law.  Secret police are police whose work and identities are kept as secret as possible.  They might sometimes be described as ‘under cover.’  The word Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret State Police) is now used throughout the world to signify the most terrifying form of secret police.  The word Stasi, from the DDR, is less well known, but stands for a police that is forbidding, intrusive, repressive, and everywhere.

The ‘police’ at large in the French Revolution played a very minor part in the Terror compared to the part played by secret police in Communist (or Bolshevik) Russia and Nazi Germany.  Those two regimes are models of the police state and the totalitarian state, and it is not surprising then that their police agencies, especially the secret police, were at the very top of the pyramid of power, second only to the dictator.  In France, there was no police force as we understand that term during the revolution, and we only get to see police operating at anything like that level under Fouché and Napoleon.

Fouché survived the revolution and Napoleon, and he showed amazing versatility to do so – Napoleon made Fouché his chief of police and later ennobled him, but he never trusted him.  Fouché, like Talleyrand, betrayed Napoleon and lived.  Like Talleyrand, he had a rat cunning bordering on greatness.  Georges Lefebvre says that ‘what really put an end to the attempts on his [Napoleon’s] life was the terror and the perfection of police surveillance.’

Stalin and Hitler ran totalitarian states – everything is controlled by the state.  Power comes from the force realised by channelling numbers.  Stalin saw all government as a ‘transmission belt connecting the party with the people.’  He believed that Soviet greatness came from the ‘cadres’ of the party – the police.  The secret police were the elite of the Party and they were only drawn from the ranks of the party.  Hitler said that sixty thousand men ‘have outwardly become almost a unit, that actually these men are uniform not only in ideas, but that even the facial expression is almost the same.  Look at these laughing eyes, this fanatical enthusiasm and you will discover… a hundred thousand men in a movement become a single type.’  This is a horrifying glimpse of the SS, and Hitler only committed suicide after he concluded that the SS had failed him and could no longer be relied on – the ‘best’ of them were blowing their brains out all around him.

The object of the secret police is to eliminate the enemies of the state.  All dictators rely on their secret services and for that reason they may be vulnerable to them, as was the case with the Roman Emperors and the Praetorian Guard.  Himmler’s position as Reichsfuhrer-SS and head of German police effectively put the police in the hands of the SS and achieved some kind of unity of party and state.  The SS was the new Praetorian Guard, and the sole armed branch of the party, the elite from which the future leadership would be drawn.  Totalitarian dictatorships invariably become police states.

Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism distinguished between suspects – those who are suspected of breaking the law or of being an actual threat to the regime – and ‘objective enemies’.  People come within the class of objective enemies not because they want to overthrow the regime, but because of a policy of the government to exclude or condemn them simply because they are members of a class – like kulaks for Stalin, or Jews or Gypsies or homosexuals for Hitler.

These targets are not individuals whose dangerous thoughts might be provoked or whose individual histories warrants suspicion, but members of a class who are like ‘carriers of tendencies’, like a carrier of a disease.  The Nazis frequently invoked the analogy of disease when speaking of Jews or Gypsies.  Hans Frank distinguished between those ‘dangerous to the state’ and those ‘hostile to the state.’  A lawyer who went over to the SS said in an obituary of Heydrich that he regarded his opponents not ‘as individuals but as carriers of tendencies endangering the state and therefore beyond the pale of the national community.’    Hannah Arendt expressed this mordant view:  ‘Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defence.  This certainly is a little crude, but it works – as everybody will know whoever watched how certain successful careerists eliminate competitors’.

A French historian of the Tsarist Okhrana said that provocation was ‘the foundation stone’ of the secret police.  After 1848 in Europe it may be hard to find much anti-government action for some time that was not inspired, or provoked, by the secret police.  But they hardly have to resort to provocation if they can put people away on suspicion.  And what happens if the agents eliminate any apparent threats and then look like they may have disposed of the objective enemies?

Most civil servants are seasoned at concealing any basis for suggesting that they are superfluous.  Secret police, like arms manufacturers, find ways to generate demand for their services, but the secret police may become entirely dependent on government to identify sufficient targets to keep them in work.  It looks like Hitler was thinking of turning on Germans who were not physically good enough, and that Stalin was looking to turn on the Jews, perhaps as a comradely gesture to his satellites who were predisposed in that direction.

Fouché was if nothing else flexible and financially adept, and during his time and later, secret police would seek to profit from their victims.  A simple way would be to go into partnership in illegal activities like prostitution and gambling.  In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cadres of ‘chastity commissars’ lived off the earnings of blackmail.  The NKVD lived off the exploitation of slave labour: the labour in the gulag paid for the apparatus that got people inside in the first place.  Himmler first financed his SS through the confiscation of Jewish property.  The SS raised funds the way political parties and cultural institutions do – people who became ‘Friends of the SS’ might ‘volunteer’ donations in return for benefits that might not be so easily defined – perhaps what we call a ‘get out of jail card.’

Stalin’s need for purges extended to the secret police.  People got improved positions when others got shot.  Informers are offered incentives.  Each jobholder becomes complicit in the system, a conscious accomplice of Stalin.  This is likely to turn them into more ardent supporters of the regime.  The wielders of the highest power get to understand the nature of caprice and arbitrariness, and this in no way abates their professional inhumanity and dedicated cruelty.  It is just this randomness that tears away by the roots the very humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Yet the all-embracing secrecy leaves people with a capacity for denial.  They all know that people disappear, and that they do not come back, and they suspect many of these may be ‘innocent’, if there is such a thing, but they also know that the one way to end up the same is by talking about this kind of thing.  The one thing that you do not talk about is anything that is ‘secret’.  Even a child knows that.

Passing Bull 129 – Fake conservatives


The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked.  Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  The English preferred evolution to revolution.  They relished their history and traditions; they revelled in their own mystique.  They suspected change.  Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations…’  And the French?  ‘You set up your trade without…capital.’

Now, that is very English.  Our state of mind comes from our experience of history.  ‘Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta.’  And the big reformation secured the separation of Church and State in a typically perverse English fashion.  All this was in aid of ‘liberty’ – ‘Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.’

An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta.

…..everything which has power to win the obedience and respect of men must have its roots deep in the past, and the more slowly institutions have grown, so much the more enduring are they likely to prove.

Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’  Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’.  Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.

These views flow naturally from the Anglo-American legal tradition.  We are looking at a certain type or cast of legal or political thought.  How, then, would a ‘conservative’, so described look at some of our main political issues?

Take our handling of refugees.  History is not a good guide.  Historically, Australians have not acted well toward people of a different faith or colour, and the present government recently flirted with one of the more obnoxious disguises used in the White Australia policy.  But putting to one side plain human decency, our treatment of refugees flouts Magna Carta and legal obligations undertaken to the world community.  To that extent, a conservative must condemn our policy.

Take marriage equality.  A conservative would argue that allowing same sex marriage expands the notion of liberty that underlies our whole dispensation.  There are problems with that contention, but there are more problems with the very idea that the proposal might be opposed on the ground of religion.  Our separation of church and state is recognised in our constitution in a way that is the direct opposite of the English version.

Yes, marriage has been between a man and a woman since Biblical times, but while antiquity may appeal to conservatives, it cannot rule them.  Slavery has a history as long as that of marriage.  As Burke said: ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’  That in my view is the real lesson of the French Revolution, but of one thing we may be sure – Burke would have been horrified and Disraeli would have been mortified by the suggestion that the Parliament refer the issue to the plebs.  That to them would have been a fatal abdication.  Labels have limits – Burke was a conservative Whig and Disraeli was a radical Tory.

Take our reaction to climate change.  It’s now common ground that we have made a mess of it, and fools of ourselves.  It’s hard to see how the issue could have become political, much less ideological.  It would be tart, but not ridiculous, to suggest that the first job of a conservative is to conserve the planet, but you struggle to find any principle to the opposition to the findings of science.  All you get are populist diversions about the price or reliability of power.  It’s what we used to call the ‘hip-pocket nerve.’

Now, you will know that some in parliament and in the Murdoch press who call themselves ‘conservatives’ hold views opposite to those set out above.  Some do it out of malice; others do it for money.  Either way, it’s hard to see any underlying political principle.  But it’s easy to see a surrender to the mob.  What you don’t see is anything like the compromise, moderation or temperaments described by Burke or the self-restraint described by Guthrie.  None of these parliamentarians is temperamentally given to compromise, moderation or self-restraint.

What you have is a repudiation of conservatism.  It’s time these people were called out.  They are not of the right sort of mind.




[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.]



According to Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, the first person singular pronoun meant nothing to his principal targets, the Communists in Russia.  There the secret police say that the word ‘I’ is ‘a grammatical fiction.’

It is not surprising to hear this asserted in a totalitarian state.  The whole object of such a state is to ensure that the individual – the owner and the professor of the word ‘I’ – does not get in the way of the state.  For them, the state is everything, and the individual – the ‘I’ – is nothing.  The sense of self, or a person’s sense of worth – their dignity – is degraded in so many ways.  Representatives of the state or the party belittle people.  The very emptiness of the system and its slogans and symbols reduces people in their own eyes.  Do decent people, even the most incurable addicts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, really want to bow down before a broken cross, lightning runes, or a death’s head?

And people hear of or see things which debase or degrade them further.  They hear of things that revolt them, and they go into blank denial.  But they see or hear of things that make them complicit in a denial of truth, decency, and even life.  A combination of terror and propaganda plays very ugly games with their minds, and they feel altered and demeaned.  This in turn lowers their inclination to object, and so the downward cycle progresses, sometimes to the finite regress of suicide if the state does not get there first.  By then they have bought into or they have been locked into crimes against humanity that would previously have been unthinkable to them. These regimes have to reduce their people to their level.

We associate the grosser forms of that cycle with Communist Russia under Stalin and with Nazi Germany under Hitler.  It can give you a jolt to see the same forces at work in France during the Terror in 1793.  In Les Deux Amis (Two Friends), a primary source much relied on by Carlyle, there is a long firsthand account of man returning to Paris and after being away for ten months and confronting life under the Terror in Paris.

He is surrounded by ‘sinister faces’ and in a binary or black and white world, only two types of one group matter – revolutionaries or government agents.  He is full of apprehension in this strange, hard new world.  He feels guilty for leaving his family.  Will he ever see them again?  How different is Paris – muted, sombre, deserted at night; even the street names have changed (and they are named after some awful people).  He reads that a friend has been executed – most cruelly, and for nothing.  He calls on another friend who has become a terrorist (Jacobin) for ‘insurance’ and who is terrified to be seen with him and who cannot get rid of him soon enough – the agents raid homes and make arrests at night.  He sees that everyone has been frightened into showing support for the terrorist regime, and he reflects on the mindless banality – the spectral hypocrisy! – of their slogans.  He has to deal with regulations that make Kafka look easy.  You cannot comply with these Byzantine laws.  No one will give him a bed.  Everyone is scared.  He sees police patrols in action – he has been warned not to get picked up – and he hears the anguish of a mother with a child who is another victim of the Great Terror.  It is a random and capricious world of heartless and mindless cruelty to people.  How did France come to this?

Then he has to come face to face with the regime, dirty, rotten people way above their station wreaking frightful revenge on their betters.  Now he feels the full weight of Hamlet’s insolence of office, the proud man’s contumely and the oppressor’s wrong – all those things that Hamlet thought of when contemplating suicide.  He is offered a corrupt out – most police states are rotten to the core, and give an out to those who can afford it.  A person will attest to him for a fee.  But this man keeps laughing about the entertainment offered before the daily batch of the guillotine (only twenty-five, so small a batch that his wife did not think that it was worth his time to go).  He reflects on the public beheading – sneeze into the sack – of a blithe seventeen year old girl.

All this takes place at the end of a century of what we are pleased to call the Enlightenment in Paris, perhaps the most civilized city in the world.  Even allowing for some journalistic licence, how did the people of Paris become so degraded?  How is it that a civilized French couple could sit down for dinner and happily swap notes about peoples’ heads being cut off in public and dropped into a bucket of blood, splashing the pavement?  Was Dickens’ picture of the Terror and the Tricoteuses underdone?

Most people reading this will have experienced countless examples of rudeness and nastiness of people in power, but very few will have experienced it under a regime that has no conception of the rule of law, due process, or basic human rights.  It is precisely that void, which seems to bring with it a general moral vacuum, that is of the essence of a police state.  It is that which makes such a state so frightening and revolting – and degrading.

There is a hideous photo of a kind of crucifixion practised in the Russian civil war.  The Reds have taken a Polish officer, stripped him, hanged him naked upside down, and then beaten, cut and tortured him until death.  About twenty red soldiers are standing around looking sedate and only mildly interested.  In the catalogue of the museum Topography of Terror at what used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo, there is a photo taken from a distance in the market square at Ulm in 1940.  A nineteen year old woman was being publicly shaved because of a relationship with a French P O W.  She was later sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and two years’ loss of civil rights.  Someone had objected to this brutal humiliation.  The caption in the press was ‘Thousands of faces expressed mockery and disgust.’  In fact the photo up close shows people laughing and smiling as if their team had just won in football.  It may be the most appalling photo in the book.  You are watching people degrading themselves.

There is also a photo of SS guards and female administrative personnel at Neuengamme concentration camp in December 1943.  There are more than a hundred seated at well laden tables under the runic slashes of the SS in what the SS called a ‘Yule celebration’.  With all the red and white wines and the holly and the napkins on the tables, there were ‘Yule lights’ produced by the inmates.  This photo, too, is appalling in its own way.  Not one person is smiling.  They might as well be dead.  Their degradation has brought them to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

Degradation by its nature tends to occur over time and often so that people are not aware of how they are being changed for the worse.  The career of a man called Simonov took off during the Great Terror of 1937-1938.  On his death-bed in 1979, Simonov dictated a testimonial that was remarkable for its candour and insight.  ‘To be honest about those times, it is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself.  It is not that you did something bad – maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it – but that you became accustomed to evil. …You lived in the midst of these events, blind and deaf to everything, you saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared’.

People becoming ‘accustomed to evil’ might be close to the heart of the darkness confronting us here.