Us and the U S – Chapter 6

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



In America, unlike England, the Puritan had his own way.  He was in the majority and he made institutions to his own liking.  The great American jurist, Roscoe Pound, said that ‘we are and long have been more thoroughly a common law country than England herself…..A fundamental proposition from which the Puritan proceeded was the doctrine of ‘a willing covenant of conscious faith’ made by the individual judgment in the first place.  No authority might rightfully coerce them; but everyone must assume and abide the consequences of the choice he made’.  Pound saw ‘an uncompromising insistence upon individual property as the focal point’ of the nation’s laws.

The notion of contracts between people does loom larger in America.  ‘The precedent of the covenant which made Abraham and the children of Israel the people of God, furnished the religious basis for the doctrine….’  One result was to favour individual choice over some feudal relationship.  This view brings to mind that Sir Henry Maine had said that ‘the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from status to contract.’  In the Old World – feudal Europe – your rights mainly depended on the box that you had been put in by superiors in your hierarchy.  You stood or fell on your status.   A noble was worth more than free man who was worth more than a serf.  In the New World, your rights mainly depended on what you had agreed to.  You stood or fell on your contract. 

The Puritans did not want to relax laws to allow fools to be relieved of their bargains.  If you were silly enough to enter into a bad deal, you would just have to live with the consequences.  There would be less sympathy for the loser.  They did not want government interfering with freedom of contract to look after those who should have looked after themselves.

Pound was writing in 1921, but his views still resonate in a nation that is slow to pass laws to help those who falter in the great race of life.  ‘Entitlement’ is potentially at least a loaded and dirty word in the U S.  Dispensations that elsewhere in the West are facts of life have in America become grounds for threatening insurrection, and this difference comes at least in part from an American determination to maintain a felt primacy of each one of us over government.

‘Conservative’ is a label given to people who want to keep government as spare as possible so that government has as little as possible to do with them.  They do not think that they should lose any rights unless they personally have agreed to the relevant change.  They see laws that are meant to help the less fortunate as going backwards and making people depend on their status rather than their contract.  At least in theory, people would rather stand on their own two feet than be allocated a seat in a drab government bus.

The pioneers were inevitably jealous of any government action, and Pound saw a ‘frontier repugnance to scientific law and the insistence of the pioneer that his judges decide offhand without study of what other judges may have done in European monarchies or in effete communities to the eastward.’  The customs of the times also led to a kind of starring role for the advocate, and that he be given as free a rein as possible.  To this day American judges’ charges to juries are so much shorter than in Australia where suspicion or underrating of the jury has led to incomprehensible minefields for trial judges and an entirely unacceptable rated of aborted trials and retrials.  You can still see this respect for the role of the jury everywhere in the U S today.  They think little of putting a brawl about intellectual property between Apple and Samsung in front of a jury – it would be unthinkable anywhere else.

Empanelling a jury is like calling a parliament – you are calling on the people to give a decision and to express their will on issues that are central to their government.  It is the primary safeguard that we have against abuse of power by any arm of government – legislative, executive, or judicial.  It is the Americans who realise and practise this the best.

Another major difference with the Americans is the role of the Bill of Rights, and the consequently more political role played by the United States Supreme Court.  Otherwise, as befits a common law country, the differences come from different rules and customs in the conduct of trials.  The Americans have tended to avoid the rule that says that the loser pays, and they have been using contingent fees much longer than others.  The rule about parties relates to class actions in which the Americans have been undoubtedly the pioneers.  The Americans see litigation as a function of government and an exercise in social engineering.

Sir Lewis Namier said that the U S is ‘a refrigerator in which British ideas and institutions are preferred long after they have been forgotten in this country’.


The progress of the laws of Australia has been rather more sedate, as you might expect from a process that has remained determinedly English and that has eschewed experimentation and innovation.  Right from the start, the Australian colonies were very different to the American in the way that their legal systems developed.  The English brought to Australia a fully developed body of common law and constitutional law and an official whose duty it was to administer justice according to the rule of law.  Given that Australia started as a British jail, it is not surprising that this was a strictly government job.

The authority of Phillip and Collins and others was set out in their commissions from the government on behalf of His Majesty King George III.  The English parliament would then create legislative bodies in the colonies and courts to interpret or enforce the laws made in London or by colonial councils or parliaments.  Then the English parliament made laws giving independence to the colonies.  When the colonies decided to federate, they asked the mother parliament to pass a statute to that effect.  The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia is contained in a schedule to an act of parliament in Westminster.  Then the Imperial Parliament freed its former colonies from the power of intervention from London.

The jurisdictions of state superior courts are commonly defined by reference to those of the Royal Courts of Justice under Queen Victoria as adopted by English legislation, which is now in legislation of the states.  The profession is still divided like the English between barristers and solicitors and wigs and gowns, and Father Christmas suits are still worn in crime.  It would be hard to devise a more prosaic story.

But, prosaic though it may be, the legal system inherited by the Australians is in broad terms doing the job required of it – in large part because it is prosaic.  It may be that Australians do not have the same taste for fireworks or theatre in the law that Americans do.

Another major difference comes in the attitude in the highest courts to issues that might fairly be described as political, and to what might for the want of a better word be called tone.  Australian judges, by and large, are like the English in one respect.  They understand that the most important person in court is the loser.  Both sides, but especially the loser, must think that they have been given a fair go.  If the Americans have done better in preserving trial by jury, and achieving political movement through the courts, the Australians have done better controlling the political heat in court and respect for the judiciary.

Here and there – A feminine view of Shakespeare


Have you ever wondered if Macbeth wanted to kill his own soul?  Well, the phrase does have a ring to it.  And what about his wife?  If killing your soul means wiping out your humanity, Lady Macbeth went at it full bottle in one of the most chilling speeches of our stage.  And if we don’t think that Macbeth succeeded, it looks like his wife may have – although she had enough soul left to go mad at what she had done.  In the end, Macbeth himself is reduced to a deluded chorus and his wife has collapsed trying to hold his husk together.  Life for him is a tale told by an idiot that means nothing.  Does, then, his evil savour of the banality that caught the eye of Hannah Arendt?

Germaine Greer made that remark about Macbeth in her book Shakespeare, A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.  Greer had got a Ph D at Cambridge on Shakespeare.  The book is maddeningly academic at times and too abstract or remote for the series it is part of.  The chapter headings are, after Life – Poetics, Ethics, Politics, Teleology and Sociology.  The part on King Lear is headed ‘A vision of entropy.’  I looked up ‘entropy’ and I am no wiser; nor am I clear why the comedies come under Sociology.  But when Greer speaks plainly, we can get provocative insights – as with that remark about Macbeth.  Let us look at some others.

There is a fearful amount of manipulation going on in The Tempest.  It goes on at many levels – even the idiot drunks get someone to work over – they get poor Caliban on the bottle.  (It’s as hilarious as the scene in Die Entfuhrung.)  But have you thought that at the end of the show the great manipulator may be little more than a pitiful wreck?  Greer comments on the ‘doggerel’ of the Epilogue.

Prospero is now so feeble that he cannot get himself off the stage… His helplessness could not be more remorselessly conveyed.  Neither Prospero nor Shakespeare is so much bidding farewell to the stage as begging to be released from it and pardoned for any evil done during his reign.  The grandeur of this act of utter humility is staggering; the vein of anxiety running through the play, about the roughness of the magic, the fragility of innocence, the godlike power of the creators of illusory worlds, the irresistible tendency of man to debauchery rather than improvement, the blindness and self-indulgence of intellectuals, has cropped out, as the defrocked hierophant begs our intercession to save his soul.

(You, too, can look up ‘hierophant’ – is it a kind of ailment that leads some people to show off like this?)

When we get to Othello, we get ‘the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated and inconsistent.’  That seems to me to be hopelessly wide and abstract, and dangerously close to that ‘motiveless malignity’ that another critic has been unfairly rubbished for.  But Greer is surely right to comment on the kind of ‘complicity’ that develops between Iago and the audience (that is expressly invited by Richard III and the Bastards) and his ‘mad inventiveness in luring Rodrigo and Cassio to their doom.’  We are reminded that like Don Giovanni, Iago is not selfish – he is prepared to spread his nastiness around.

The author is also right to observe that ‘because he is entertaining, scholars persist in finding excuses for Falstaff, forgetting perhaps that the Vice was always an ingratiating, lively and amusing fellow.’  Sir Anthony Quayle knew more about Falstaff than most, and described him as ‘frankly vicious.’

Have you noticed how much spying and deception goes on in Hamlet?  It may be a play for our time – what Greer calls ‘a guided tour through a lying world.’  Elsinore looks like one big masked ball, albeit with a Stalinist air, and our hero tells us immediately that he is not there just for show or to play their games.  He doesn’t want to ‘seem’ anything.  He is there to bring healing to a sick nation.  Must he die to do so?  Is this a redemption story – like, say, Billy Budd, where we see Claggart’s ‘disdain of innocence’?  After Hamlet learns of his father’s murder by the man now sleeping with his mother, does the playwright prefigure The Last Temptation of Christ?

The time is out of joint.  O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

The hero has forsworn personal revenge, we gather, but Greer says that ‘he goes towards his death in a Christian spirit of resignation.’ Well, he didn’t know he was going to die, but just what do we think lay behind the providence in the fall of this sparrow?  If this all sounds fanciful, reflect on what my favourite critic, Tony Tanner, said in introducing the big four tragedies:

I think the problem of violence is central to tragedy and that, in some tentative sense, we can think of the tragic drama as a form of ritual sacrifice, and the tragic hero or protagonist who goes to his death as bearing some relationship to the figure of the scapegoat or surrogate victim.

In the course of her diverting discussion, Greer refers to the ‘heroic’ doubting of Hamlet and says: ‘The drama of Protestantism in its finest hour was the heroism of insisting upon the sovereignty of the individual conscience’.  Well, ‘sovereignty’ has now been taken up by snake oil salesmen, who prey on the gullible, and ‘heroic’ in this context reminds me of its use by Kenneth Clark about the David of Michelangelo – another figure that I find to be frankly vicious.

Greer sees Lear as raging against the dying of the light and says that ‘King Lear becomes heroic when he is reduced to naked tramphood, tottering about the bare stage talking at cross purposes like Vladimir to Estragon….  Lear stands at the head of a line of nobodies simply struggling to survive…’ On Richard II, she refers to the famous remark of Queen Elizabeth I, ‘I am Richard, know ye not,’ and acutely observes:

He conducts his own deposition from centre stage, reducing Bolingbroke, whose heroic stature has dominated the play so far, to a Pilate figure… He dies heroically, while the erstwhile hero of the play is reduced to equivocation and cowardice by the demands of policy.

But let us go back to Macbeth, because he might be another hero for our time.  Greer says of Macbeth that ‘his self-delusion is wilful’.

The consequence of his terrible deed is that now, even when he tells the truth, he has to be lying.

Had I but died an hour before this chance,

I had liv’d a blessed  time; for, from this instant,

There’s nothing serious in mortality;

All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;

The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees

Is left this vault to brag of.

This is Macbeth’s feigned lament for the death of Duncan: he says it hypocritically, but every word of it is true.

Well there is an awful lot of wilful self-delusion in this world now, a terrifying amount of lying, and a frontal assault on the very idea of truth.  In that frightful prison called Denmark, we are not sure what state of mind Hamlet claimed to be in when he proclaimed his love for a woman, whom he would drive mad, with the words ‘Doubt truth to be a liar.’  But we do know that Hamlet did, although again while feigning madness, say ‘To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand’.

That sad Danish nightmare – dreamed up by an Elizabethan playwright – now darkens the whole of the Western world. And do we see any who look fit to ‘set it right’?

And since we speak of salesmen, liars, and the death of truth, remember this – the witches sold Macbeth a pup, as dud a pup as the one that Satan sold to Eve.

Passing Bull 151 – Civilisation of the West


You can stand by for a tsunami of bullshit about ‘western civilisation’ following the efforts of private patrons to stimulate the study of that subject at tertiary level.  A devotion to western civilisation has become popular if not de rigeur to those on one side of what are called culture wars.

Civilisation is a bit like an elephant – you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it.  Well, that used to be the case, but I doubt it now.  Elsewhere I said:

In my view a nation or people cannot call itself civilised unless each of the following five criteria is met. 

  • It has a moral code that respects the person and the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group.
  • It has a mature and stable form of democratic government that is willing and reasonably able enforce that respect and those rights, and to preserve its own democratic structure. (I have opted for democracy because it seems to be the fairest mode of government and to be the best able to deliver the other objectives.)
  • It observes the rule of law, including the proposition that all are equal before the law, and it seeks to protect the legal rights of its members.
  • Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption.
  • It seeks to allow its members to be able to subsist and, after providing for their subsistence, to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others.

All that would have been Greek to Kenneth Clark.  There is no mention of religion, art, beauty, courtesy or refinement.  (Just imagine if you sought to apply any of those five criteria to the current White House.)  If Clark ever spoke about the rule of law or corruption I missed it.

Most of Asia, Africa and South America have trouble on each heading and face disqualification on each of the middle three.  But when you look at the rest – referred to as ‘the western world’ – you get little cause for comfort.  One Oxbridge version of civilisation was said to have been born in ancient Greece and Rome.  I regard that suggestion as silly – slavery and empire alone are two disqualifiers – but modern Greece and Italy do not offer good government and they pose as big a threat to the European Union as the U K.  Poland and Hungary look equally unattractive for other reasons.  Spain may recover and survive.  That leaves France and northern (Protestant) Europe.  The U K and the U S are sharply divided on issues that affect how their historical inheritance of good government and economic management may pass on to the next generation.  Their moral and intellectual collapse has appalled their friends.  It would be idle to suggest that Donald Trump understands much less respects ‘western civilisation’.  His supporter, Nigel Farage, is not much better.  The U S is forfeiting its status as leader of the western world.

The people who are called ‘populists’ are driven by those with a chip on their shoulder who want to throw over the establishment and inherited traditions.  They are not there to promote civilisation in any of its forms.  The glue that held together the old view of western civilisation – Christianity – is dissolving.  It and other major institutions have ceased to command respect.  Philosophy died years ago and has not left much treasure.  Inequalities of wealth and income are getting worse and do not look like getting better.  And that’s before we recall that the unimaginably rich tyros of technology are providing us with toys that dull minds and abolish manners.

It will therefore be interesting to see how the champions of western civilisation tout its values during the next rounds of the culture wars.  It’s probably just as well that most people frankly couldn’t give a damn.  Indeed, that may just be the foundation of their claim to be civilised.


Politicians, like the rest of us, need to get back to the basics. If they can prioritise the core tasks and responsibilities, and implement them efficiently while ignoring the white noise, they may be surprised by how much voter support they will garner.

Chris Kenny, The Australian, 5 May, 2018.

A banal homily from one who makes a living from white noise.


President Trump’s peace through strength policies are working and bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula,’ Messer wrote in his letter.  ‘We can think of no one more deserving of the Committee’s recognition in 2019 than President Trump for his tireless work to bring peace to our world.’

The Guardian, 15 May, 2018

For some reason, ‘peace through strength’ reminded me of Arbeit macht frei.

Us and the US – Chapter 5


[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



The word frontier means that part of a country that ‘fronts, faces, or borders on another country.’  The Oxford English Dictionary offers a U S variation: ‘That part of a country which forms the border of its settled or inhabited regions.’  A frontiersman is ‘one who lives on the frontier, or in the outlying districts of civilisation’.  The areas inside of the frontier are described in one definition as ‘settled’ or ‘inhabited’ and in the other as ‘civilisation’ – the subjects of our story regarded the three terms as identical.  Both America and Australia were huge expanses of land that were occupied by natives and then settled by white people, and people in both countries had a sense of moving frontiers, but the whole notion of ‘frontier’, of being a pioneer, looms much larger in the American consciousness.

The issue is linked in America to the notion of the pioneer, someone who goes before to prepare the way, someone who starts an enterprise.  In business, we speak of the entrepreneur, but both of the terms pioneer and enterprise are more prominent in the life of America.  Pilgrims are by definition wanderers.  The passengers on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims and from the moment that they stepped ashore, they were facing a frontier.

It was life and death stuff.  The savages, as they were called, were savage in a fight.  They were adept with a bow and arrow or a tomahawk – part of the emblem of –the Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey team – and they taught the white man the art of scalping.  (Scalping is not encouraged in ice hockey, which gratifies those who cannot imagine a more violent form of sport – apart from American football.)  The wars fought by and against the Indians were fought off and on for three centuries.  They were nothing like European wars.  They were more like what we now call guerrilla wars, and they are the most savage wars of all – just ask any American who made it back from Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

For much of its history, therefore, the Americans were frequently exposed to the violence of war in its most acute form.  Did Americans become addicted to violence?  The survival of the Indians depended upon their skill in bushcraft, and hunting, and killing – quite apart from the wars between Indian peoples.  They believed in massacre and torture in war, so that to Cotton Mather, the Indians were ‘unkennell’d wolves’.  The white men responded in kind.  And early on, there was always the threat of invasion by the French, Dutch, or Spanish.  The American colonists therefore learned to make major improvements to the rifle.  So began the American romance of the gun that so dismays and appals the rest of the western world.

Hunting in Europe was a jealously regarded privilege of the better people.  But the American gun was not for sport – it was for sustenance and protection.  The need for food and self-defence made ownership of and expertise with guns an inevitable fact of life.  So, the wagon trains of the pioneers went on under cover of the gun.  The bloody violence has been endlessly celebrated, glossed, and mythologised by Hollywood, Walt Disney and television.  It was in the West that the marriage of God and the dollar reached its apotheosis in the Mormons in Utah.

The English common law had not encouraged the duel, the logical climax of so many westerns.  The Americans have always preferred to answer fire with fire.  The violent phase in the West lasted about four generations.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that in Texas ‘a man is not born to run away.’  Paul Johnson said that the ruling was ‘to put it mildly, robust’.  Mr Johnson may not have been aware that his Honour stopped three bullets during the Civil War, but the gunfighting – the violence of self-help – did have some kind of legal underlay that distinguishes the U S from the U K and Australia to this day.

The lawless violence of the West would be sustained by such charmers as Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Godfather.  Europeans think that a primitive frontier streak of violence can be seen behind even the most urbane contemporary American.  This is a part of the frontier that just will not die, and it is an altar on which groups of schoolchildren are shot and killed each year.


The experience of Australian settlers in opening up the land for farming is described by Patrick White in The Tree of Man, and the story of the deep outback – the ‘Never Never’ – is told in Voss, but Australia has nothing like the history of the frontier that the U S has.  Nor does it have an affinity for the gun or the celebration of lawless violence that others fear in America.

Australians associate the names of Burke and Wills with the annihilation of frontiers by being the first to cross the country from south to north, and dying on the way back.  This was tragedy mixed with farce – something that Australians are rather good at.

America offered a lot more rich country to farmers than did Australia.  The soil and climate and water and plant-life were all so much more amenable.  Once you get out of the coastal fringe there, the going is hard.  The landscape can be threatening, and lethal, in summer or winter.  Sensible Australians maintained a healthy fear of the real outback.  It is just too easy for white people to die out there.  Some Australians have a kind of nostalgia for the mythical ‘bush’, but they are serious and sane about guns and violence.

A large part of the history of rural Australia involved trying to ‘unlock the land’ seized by squatters.  They became unloved in Australia in a way that distinguishes them from American pioneers.  The shearers were ruthlessly exploited by squatters and publicans.  They said they believed in ‘mateship’, a very dicey word in AustraliaGood mates were good haters.  They formed unions that fought battles, close to civil war, against the pastoralists, mine owners, and ship owners.  They were defeated by money, police, scabs, and the mantra of ‘freedom of contract’.  The shearers’ strikes contributed a lot to class warfare in Australia.  They were also part of the history of the Labor Party.  It would espouse a doctrine that is the purest heresy for a majority of Americans today – socialism – but an essential part of the Australian way of life.  No Australian politician would dare interfere with our health care laws.

An American observer said that the U S frontier was ‘productive of individualism,’ that ‘the tax gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression’, that there was ‘antipathy to control’, and that ‘the tendency is anti-social’.  An Australian observer conceded that ‘the most discreditable and dangerous component of the [Australian] legend is its racism’, but he took concluding comfort from the view that ‘nothing could be more thoroughly within the tradition than to give it a go.’  To both, we might give the answer of the American general at Bastogne – ‘Nuts’.

Here and there – The faith of Ali


The life of Muhammad Ali reminds me of the life of Miles Davis.  They both show that we here in Australia have never understood how poisonous the problem of race is in America.  In his new biography Ali, A Life, Jonathan Eig quotes an author in Ebony saying of the words ‘I am the greatest’:

Lingering behind those words is the bitter sarcasm of Dick Gregory, the shrill defiance of Miles Davis, the utter contempt of Malcolm X.  He smiles easily, but, behind it all….is a blast furnace of race pride.

That about sums it up.  People talked a lot about three things that got up their noses about Ali: his loud mouthed boasting and his cruel taunting of his opponents; his embrace of another faith, in the very unattractive Nation of Islam; and his evasion of military service and his opposition to America’s war in Vietnam.

There was one thing that got up people’s noses that they didn’t talk so much about – the incredulity and jealousy of a large part of the white population that a black man was better than any white man – and was happily sticking it right up them.  That was, I think, the biggest problem facing President Obama – as now evidenced by the horrific fruit of the white backlash and the election of a president who unashamedly believes that white people are superior to black people.  (I may have added that Ali’s hopeless promiscuity may have upset some – but that’s a relative issue in a nation that turns out presidents as unfaithful as many of those in the U S.)

The taunting was part of the circus act, and, I think, part of the way for the young man to mask his fear in confronting men who could kill him.  It was also meant to unbalance or unnerve his opponent.  Ali saw himself – correctly – as being in the entertainment industry.  He invited aggravation toward himself to sell tickets.  Who wants to see a brawl between friends?  The author freely concedes his view that Ali often went over the top – especially with Joe Frazier.  There is a record of a conversation between the two before any of their three fights.  They were joking, bragging, and singing.

Ali: We don’t wanna be seen too much together, you know.

Frazier: Yeah.  They’ll think we’re buddies.  That’ll be bad for the gate.

Ali: Yeah.  Ain’t nobody gonna pay nothing to see two buddies.

Later the relationship soured.  Both suffered lasting damage from their three bouts – Frazier spent nearly two weeks in hospital after winning the first.  Ali would apologise to Foreman for calling him an Uncle Tom.

Ali thought differently to most of us.  In many ways, he had the mind of a child.  He didn’t want to go to L A for the trials for the Rome Olympics.  He was afraid of flying.  He was persuaded to take the chance.   So he went to a disposals store to buy a parachute – which he wore on the plane.  His graduation from high school was an act of charity, and he flunked the army IQ test.  He could see some big pictures with great clarity, but logic was not his go.

Ali was therefore the perfect dupe for crooks and odd-balls like the Nation of Islam.  And they milked him for all he was worth, and then they denounced and betrayed him.  He nevertheless maintained his faith.  Mr Eig does not doubt the sincerity of that faith, and nor do I.  While most fighters sought refuge and protection from the Mob, Ali found it in a religious sect.  A lot of Americans would have been more at home if he had stuck with the Mob.

As for Vietnam – well, supporters of that war are as thinly spaced now as supporters of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria.  Ali’s position may well have affected that of Dr Martin Luther King.  He said that America could only be saved with ‘radical moral surgery’ and ‘I can’t segregate my conscience.’  Mr Eig says:

Ali’s stand against Vietnam made him a symbol of protest against a war in which black men were dying at a wildly disproportionate rate.  Black men accounted for 22% of all battle deaths when the black population in America was only 10%.  Why was America spending money and tossing away lives in the name of freedom in a distant land while resisting the cause of freedom at home?  Why, yet again, did the interests of black Americans seem to diverge from the interests of the nation as a whole?  Ali raised these troubling questions as opposition to the war rapidly spread.

Ali based his opposition to the war on his religious beliefs.

Many great men have been tested for their religious belief.  If I pass this test, I will come out stronger than ever…..All I want is justice.  Will I have to get that from history?

When he said that, Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world.  He had staggered that world by beating Sonny Liston – twice (although some thought both were fixed).  Ali was at the height of his powers, the prime of American manhood, but the white establishment was now bent on taking out this uppity nigger.

When Ali declined to accept induction, the commissioners of the most corrupt sport on earth moved to ban him.

Never mind that they had long tolerated the mafia and professional gamblers in their sport.  Never mind that Ali had not yet been convicted of a crime.  Never mind that boxing’s rules contained no requirement that its champion be a Christian or an American or a supporter of America’s wars.  None of that mattered.  Guided by anger, prejudice, or patriotism, boxing’s rulers decided that Muhammad Ali was unfit to wear the sport’s crown because he was a Muslim who refused to fight for his country.

Ali had been fortunate early in his career in being managed by a group of right minded business people from home.  They arranged very fair contracts and helped him with tax and saving for the future. But he was like a child with money.  He liked the feel of cash, and he threw it away.  Later he would come under the control of a promoter who had been convicted of murder.

Now a group of very senior black athletes met with Ali for hours to try to get him to change his mind about the army.  President Johnson had offered him the deal given to Joe Louis – he could just put on the uniform, and fight exhibition matches.  He could play down his religion in public, and remind the Nation of Islam, who had dropped him, that he was no good to them serving his term of five years – which was the maximum, that he got.  ‘Everybody had a chance to ask him all the questions they wanted to.  Eventually, everybody was satisfied that his stand was genuine based on his religion and that we should back him.’  Given what was involved, Ali must have had real faith.

More than four years later, Ali’s appeal against his conviction and sentence came on before the Supreme Court.  The government argued that Ali was not a pacifist – he had merely said he did not want to fight the Viet Cong – ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger’- or for a country that treated him as a second class citizen.  He was just making political statements.  That argument prevailed five: three.

Justice Harlan was to write the decision.  His clerk had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and was persuaded of the sincere pacifism of this sect.  His judge then changed his mind: four: four.  The decision would stand, and Ali would do five years.

But this would not look too good.  Then another judge came up with a technical point.  The appeal board that rejected Ali’s claim had not given any basis for its finding – without knowing why his claim had been rejected, how could they have given him a fair hearing?  Well, that does look thin – there is no authority except the decision referred to in the footnotes* – but the justices thought this was better than an all-white court jailing a champion on a split vote.  And they did so unanimously.  Ali found out about his release as he was buying orange juice at a small grocery shop in Chicago.  He shouted the store.

Most of us know all about the fight against Foreman, the Rumble in the Jungle.  I saw it live in the basement of a near blood-house pub in Elizabeth Street.  I was amazed and enthralled – as was a large part of the world.  It was a massive achievement.  On reflection, both Liston and Foreman lost to Ali for similar reasons – he was able to survive and score well for seven rounds – they were used to crushing their opposition in two, and they were not equipped to go anything like the distance.

After that, you may wish to skim read.  It’s mostly downhill.  Dirty fights; whoring (he was in bed with two whores on the afternoon of a big fight); brain damage; corruption; theft; waste; and an uneasy peace.  We were moved by the lighting of the flame at Atlanta, by the film Once Were Kings, and by the funeral.

Ali was fortunate to die when the U S still had a literate and honourable man in the White House.  This is what President Obama said.

‘I am America’, he once declared.  ‘I am the part that you won’t recognise.  But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own.  Get used to me.’  That’s the Ali I came to know as I came of age – not just as skilled a poet on the mic, as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right.  A man who fought for us.  He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.  His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and public standing.  It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled and nearly send him to jail.  And his victory helped us to get used to the America we recognise today… Muhammad Ali shook up the world.  And the world is better for it.  We are all better for it.

What a giant!  Muhammad Ali had the clout and the gifts of Babe Ruth; he had the courage and the devotion to his people of Jackie Robinson; he may have lacked that aura of saintliness that we see in Mandela, Ghandi, and, yes, Lincoln; but because of Muhammad Ali, his nation, however defined, has changed forever, and for the better.

The book had another message for me.  We should ban professional boxing.  It is a cruel and unusual punishment, and we should not pay men to beat up other man and shorten their lives.  This is a denial of civilisation.

*According to Wikipedia, the likely source was the book The Brethren by Woodward and Armstrong.  In 2013, A TV film was released, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.  Christopher Plummer played Justice Harlan.

Passing Bull 150 – Religious freedom


Jennifer Oriel included the following in a piece in The Australian on Monday.


The fix is in. Queer activists will use fear of sharia to create a moral panic about freedom of religion. Suddenly laissez-faire liberals have developed a distaste for pluralism. They claim that codifying freedom of religion will result in sharia. They fail to comprehend fundamental freedoms in context.

In the context of Western culture, religious freedom is anathema to political Islam. The best guarantee against sharia is Eurocentricity: a cultural agenda that comprises secure borders, the legal protection of fundamental freedoms, and education on the Christian foundations of Western civilisation……

Much concern about sharia in respect of the religious freedom review is artificial. It’s a beat up to prevent dissenters from queer ideology enjoying reasonable protections from militant activists……

One would expect the Ruddock review not to recommend sharia as a model of religious freedom. In the Western context, religious freedom has a particular meaning rooted in Christian scripture that supports the secular state, free will and forgiveness.

Christian religious freedom empowers the secular state. It also embodies a limited state according to Christ’s instruction: ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). By contrast, much of the Islamic world is theocratic.

One of the more potent examples of the difference between religious freedom in the Christian and Islamic traditions is their comparative tolerance for it. While Christ exhorts people to come to God and issues numerous warnings to those who turn away from Him, free will is permitted and sin is forgiven. In the Koran, Muslims are taught that non-Muslims are evil and enemies. Muslims are instructed not to ‘seek the friendship of the infidels’. Jews and Christians are considered abominable.

People often assume that the 21st century jihad against America and Israel is a consequence of colonialism or interventionist foreign policy. But hatred of Christians and Jews is rooted in the Koran…..The Western conception of religious freedom incorporates pluralism. In its most basic form, pluralism is tolerance for diverse beliefs limited by the principle of no harm. A historical benefit of the Christian scriptural belief in limited state authority is that it removes the state’s incentive to monopolise religion. As such, it empowers the flourishing of diverse faiths. Consequently, violent monotheism is fundamentally incompatible with the modern West. Yet the Koran prescribes it……

Freedom of religion is not possible where that freedom is singular. Nor is the Western conception of religious freedom possible where individual liberty, including the freedom to exercise religious belief, is subjected to state control…..

The legalisation of same-sex marriage has created an unintended consequence of potentially widening the scope for state interference in personal faith matters. Australia has some of the weakest protections for religious freedom in the free world while international precedent demonstrates the use of lawfare against Christians is becoming something of a blood sport…..

Australia’s approach to religious freedom should reflect the best of the Western tradition. We believe in free will. We believe in the secular state. We believe in the inherent worth of each and every individual. We want a future where freedom of religion can animate the soul of the free world. Neither militant atheism nor hardline Islamism will light the way to liberty.

Well, there you are.  Queer or militant activists have put the fix in to use fear of Islam to suggest that some people may fear Christianity – and so stand in the way of religious freedom.  How this relates to the ‘21st century jihad against America and Israel’ is not explained.  Nor for that matter is religious freedom explained.  Israel Folau is legally free to express his religious opinion that gay people are doomed to burn in eternal flames.  What more freedom does he need?

The contention underlying this seamless rant appears to be that while we can tolerate ‘extreme’ or ‘hardline’ views in Christianity, whatever those terms may mean, we should not do so for Islam.  This apparently follows from the role of Christianity in western civilisation.  So much for pluralism.  And as to theocratic states that favour one religion over another, how does Israel shape up?  In fact, how do we shape up when our head of state has to be in communion with the Church of England?

And as for parts of scripture that are on the nose, the bible is shot through with endorsements of ethnic cleansing.  That God did after all choose one people over others.  It is sufficient to refer to Deuteronomy 20:16, Joshua 1:1-9, 6:17-25; and 8:24-30.  For that matter, Genesis 3 has not done much for women in western civilisation.  Or men.

Ms Oriel has at least two things in common with Donald Trump.  She is pursued by demons – in her case, political correctness and jihadis; in Trump’s case, the deep state and witch-hunters – and moderation is not her go.  She and Trump exemplify the extremism and fantasy of our time.


In the note from Steele to Greg Miller, the head of NAB’s wealth advice, Steele complained: ‘In terms of the broader leadership team, I am concerned about the cultural impact to both overall engagement and the potential reluctance of team members to raise future issues which could contravene NAB’s whistleblower policy given the likely perceived unfairness of the consequences and corresponding lack of trust in senior leadership to support our people.’

The Guardian, 25 April, 2018

A banker complains about a drop in bonuses.  They certainly don’t get paid to speak plainly.

Us and the US – Chapter 4


[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



The American Indians were not subjected to the same kind of annihilation as the Aztecs or Incas had been, but then the English had thought that the Spanish treatment of natives was cruel.  One Elizabethan commentator thought that the Spanish were morally inferior ‘because with all cruel inhumanity…they subdued a naked and yielding people, whom they sought for gain….’ Were the English and then the American and Australian colonisers any better?

The American colonists found themselves in wars with the Indians without getting much help from England.  The colonists long thought that London was far too tender toward the Indians.  The line of the ‘frontier’ of white settlement kept getting pushed westwards until it finally disappeared about two hundred years later.  One American mightily stirred by a royal proclamation limiting white expansion was a man named George Washington.  He was a soldier and big-hitting landowner who had no time at all for the Indians – ‘a cruel and bloodthirsty enemy on our backs.’

The Founding Fathers had views in common about slavery and the Indians – the Indians must not be allowed to get in the way of the growth of America.  When Jefferson submitted his draft Declaration of Independence to Congress, they struck out that inane clause about Negroes but they let stand a clause that referred to ‘the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages sexes and conditions’.

Well, the Indians need not have expected any mercy from that quarter, and for that reason, while both sides sought Indian help during the Revolutionary War, it was generally the British who got it.   The Indians knew that the American hunger for land could never be satisfied.  Any protection that they had had from England evaporated with the Declaration of Independence.  Gunboats, and not just Gunboat Diplomacy, would be used to push the Indians across the Mississippi.  The killing grounds under Andrew Jackson were blood-curdling.  The well-known adventurer and sharpshooter David Crockett said simply: ‘We shot them like dogs’.  This was ‘undistinguished destruction of all ages sexes and conditions’ that the whites had charged the Indians with in the Declaration of Independence.  It was a form of bestiality that can only be explained on the footing that the white people regarded the Indians as having no more significance than being part of a hostile landscape that had to be cleared for white settlement.

It is hard to find a humane view, even a civilised one.  Abraham Lincoln was the first to refer to Indians as ‘Native Americans’.  Treaties were made, but not kept.  In the end there was no land left to seize and no tribe left to betray.  After the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn in the Great Sioux War, the massive reaction ended with the slaughter at Wounded Knee in 1890.  A poet named Helen Hunt Jackson produced an itemised account of white breaches of treaties called A Century of Dishonour.  In 1877, President Hayes had said: ‘Many, if not most of our Indian wars have had their origin in broken promises and acts of injustice on our part.’

We are talking about a ‘civilised’ nation depriving an ‘uncivilised’ people of their rights, of their very being as a people.  The American Indians never resolved the dilemma of assimilation, and a kind of cultural death, or staying separate.  Neither have our aboriginals.


It is as well to remember that the Europeans that the Australian Aborigines were to confront were not the flower of the Enlightenment.  Most of these white people had been cast out of their own community.  And they were held in line by a brutal and inhuman regime maintained by troops not far from the bottom of their own barrel.

The instructions of Governor Phillip were silent on treating with the natives about what we might call ownership or land rights.  His instructions were predicated on the assumption that title to the land had vested in the Crown.  The English at Botany Bay in and after 1788 proceeded on the footing that the land that they were now occupying had belonged to no one.  The Latin term is terra nullius (‘land of no one’).  In 1992, the High Court of Australia said that all this was wrong, and that it was simply false to say that in 1788 Australia belonged to no one.

But for more than a century after 1788, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia were deprived of their rights by a sustained course of conduct by the governments in London and Australia that was based on an expressly racist premise.  The High Court of Australia said that the Aboriginal people of the continent came to be treated as ‘a different and lower form of life whose very existence could be ignored.’  From time to time, London expressed horror at what was going on, but it was easy to be pious at that distance.  The Aborigines never had the power in combat that the Maoris showed in New Zealand, and they were never offered treaties of the substantive kind offered to the Maoris – and, it might be added, that the Maoris got more return from their treaties than the American Indians ever would.

A Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said: ‘We took the traditional lands and smashed the original way of life.  We brought the diseases.  The alcohol.  We committed the murders.  We took the children from their mothers.  We practised discrimination and exclusion.’  In 2008, the Parliament apologised.  Many Australians were opposed to giving such an apology, and many others still mock it now.

Two things at least are clear.  First, the Aborigines did not ask the white people to occupy this country and they did not consent to that course.  Secondly, the Aborigines have suffered immense pain and loss as a result of the white occupation.  What is there left to argue about?  In both America and Australia, the white people came and took the land from the weaker native peoples who were already there and both God and humanity went clean out the window.  The natives were, one American general said, just ‘destined to disappear with the forests.’

But moral outrage over sustained hypocrisy should not lead us to forget that de Tocqueville thought that whatever ‘we consider the destinies of the aborigines of North America, their calamities appear to be irremediable’, or that more recently Paul Johnson thought that the alternative to assimilation in the U S was ‘continuing friction, extravagant expectations, and new forms of exploitation by white radical intellectuals.’

How different was the American or Australian experience to that of the Boers in South Africa?  They saw themselves as successors to the Hebrew Patriarch.  They were the children of God in the Wilderness, and Jean Calvin had taught them that they were the elect ordained by God to rule over the land and all the natives that they found on it.  Was a Bantu any more appalled by a Calvinist than an Iroquois was by a Lutheran or than a blackfella was by an Anglican?

In both America and Australia, a race that saw itself as superior annihilated whole tribes and cultures of what it saw as an inferior race; the one difference is that the American natives offered stronger resistance and that led to government responding with more armed force and duplicity.

Here and there – Two leaders – to whom do I refer?


He views the world as revolving around himself.  He has no interest in anything that does not concern him personally.

He thrives on conflict.

He is better at tearing down than building up.

He is immensely vain.

But he is also very insecure.  There was a flaw in his upbringing, and his education was at best suspect.

He cannot stand any slight on his character or upbringing.  He is likely to react irrationally and violently.  People doubt whether once he has got to the top he will be able to restrain himself.

He therefore hates the press, and sadly for him, his nation has plenty of quality press.

He adores being adored.  He thinks that it is only natural that he should be adored.

He is therefore at his best before an adoring crowd.  You can see him drawing support and relief from the adoration.

He loves rallies, parades, and ceremonies – anything to do with the military is terrific.  He likes dressing up as a member of the military, and mixing with them – although deep down, he does not like or trust them.

He prefers being adored to governing.

His government program is driven by a need for revenge.  One is less coy than the other about what is being avenged.

He is barely literate.  His written utterances would ill become a ten year old boy.  But for those who want to see, those utterances show a very bent and nasty man who could do you a lot of harm.  Some people see him as being so unhinged as to be mad.  The written communications of both are scarcely literate, but one unloaded one long endless tirades, while the other issues short bitchy pouts after dawn.

He knows nothing about trade, economics, international diplomacy or the law.  He is the most undiplomatic person ever born.  He had had little or no experience in government before getting the top job.  And it shows; and just before dawn, he knows that it shows.  This feeds his insecurity and anger.  And it makes him worse at governing.

But his supporters say that his very inexperience is a blessing.  He is untainted by the old regime that it is his mission to destroy.

Notwithstanding his ignorance of government, he occasionally indulges in micro-management when in the mood.  The results are awful.

He loves to proclaim his love for his country – in part in the hope that this will fuel his country’s love for him.

But in truth his love of himself is so great that there is little room left for love of country, and none for love of God.

One relies on others wanting to appease him; the other is keen to appease his strongest opponent.

He lies all the time.  That is to say, he is fundamentally dishonest.  ‘Conscience’ is a word that could not be applied to him.  Such a thing could only get in the way of his ego.

He therefore has no understanding or respect for the principles of decency that underlie his position.

He is therefore open to fraud and corruption, although one of them, for family reasons, is far more into nepotism than the other.

In truth, he has little respect for decency and no time or room for truth.

His propaganda team therefore has carte blanche.  They may or may not accept that their dealings with people reveal that they hold other people in contempt.

He pursues scapegoats relentlessly.  One premise of that pursuit is that he can do no wrong.  Another premise is his capacity to lump people together and regard them as inferior – and therefore ripe for target practice.

One is more reticent than the other about identifying his scapegoats but their cadres pursue them relentlessly – and smile while they do so.  This only unsettles a small number of their followers, and any dissent is brushed aside.

There is another term that could never be applied to him – tolerance.  If you think that tolerance is the fine fruit and the vital root of western civilisation, he is therefore a threat of the kind that some are wont to call existential.

Another term that could never be applied to him is contemplation.  He looks like he might have a nervous breakdown if he was locked in a room on his own in order to meditate.

Because of his character flaws, he has no friends, and his relations with women are fraught.  Each of the three women who got close to one committed suicide, or tried to, and for one of the suicides, it was her second attempt.  The other has not been able to keep his hands off women, and his third marriage is obviously stressed – his third wife stalks about like a startled POW.  (Perhaps she is.)

He doesn’t drink but his taste for food is very odd.

They have different views on military service.  Although one was knocked back for officer training – twice – he was rightly decorated for bravery in battle.  The other evaded military service with the same dedication with which he would later evade paying tax.  Another word you could never apply to him is patriot – at least if being a patriot means doing the right thing by your country where you could evade such service by a mix of cowardice and deceit.

He would like life tenure – but only one gets it.

Because of those defects in his make-up, he is the worst possible person to lead his country.  But he manages – just – to persuade enough people to support him to enable him to get the top job.  On one view, neither of them ever got a majority vote, and the same people who supported each of them must know that when the end comes, he will turn on them – viciously.

Passing Bull 149 – Books that are too long


More than fifty years ago, I was trying to get to understand what we know as classical music.  I have the clearest recollection of reading that Mendelssohn had referred to something written by Mozart as the most beautiful music he had heard.  That is hardly surprising, but it might be handy to know just what piece he had in mind.  Over the years I have somehow narrowed the field of inquiry to the opera Don Giovanni.  There is a gorgeous trio near the end of the first act.  Could this be it?

I am reading Mendelssohn, A Life in Music, by R Larry Todd (Oxford University Press, 2003).  It runs to 683 pages, which is a lot for one who died so young.  Surely it will have the answer?  We get flirtatiously close.  We get a reference on one page to Mozart’s ‘celebrated minuet’ and on another a reference to Goethe asking the young Felix to play a minuet that was ‘the most beautiful in the world.’  That may be enough for the cognoscenti, but it is not enough for me, a mere amateur.  The author knows what he is referring to, and so will at least some of his readers.  But not I.

The author has devoted his life to the study of Mendelssohn.  The blurb says The New York Times hailed him as ‘the dean of Mendelssohn scholars in the United States.’  The text of the book runs to 569 pages.  The notes, bibliography and index exceed 110 pages.  That ratio will give some idea of the challenge this work poses to the general reader.  It is far, far too long.  It is also far, far too technical for people like me.  You get the impression that if something, however unimportant, has come to the attention of the author over the decades, then it is going in the book.  The result is a shapeless mass that does not leave you with a clear picture of its subject.  You start to skim read, and you miss whatever point the author is trying to make.  Whatever may be the worth of the book as scholarship, as a biography it is a failure – and a long, frustrating and expensive failure.

You get most of the same problems with Harvey Sachs Toscanini, Musician of Conscience (W Norton & Co, 2017).  Again, the author has devoted his life to the subject   One blurb refers to the ‘unbelievable detail in the book.’  What’s good about that?  Who wants to read a train timetable?  There are no notes, but the text runs to 864 pages.  That’s not bad for a conductor.  The result is the same – you skim read and miss what you might have enjoyed.

I looked up what the great critic Neville Cardus had to say about Toscanini.  I’m tempted to say that he said as much in eight pages as Mr Sachs said in 800, but that would be as unfair as it would be unkind.  But the truth is that we – the ordinary readers – would have been better served by a book at most half that length.  Too many books of history and biography look like Wagner’s Ring Cycle – remembering that Gough Whitlam said that Wagner badly needed an editor.

Let me give an example of an anecdote given by Neville Cardus.  When rehearsing in New York in the 1950’s, Toscanini invited a viola player home for dinner.  The man was entranced – he would get to hear the secrets of music from the maestro in the temple.  They were admitted by a butler.  The maestro wolfed down his pasta and red wine and moved to the TV room.  To watch TV wrestling – with fruity and ungrammatical exhortations from the world’s greatest conductor.  The subject of music never arose.  That anecdote is revealing in many ways.  The great man relaxed by hurling abuse at overpaid charlatans and thugs.  But I may have missed it in the snow storm of ‘unbelievable detail.’

May our editors live long lives and be readmitted to gainful employment.  Publishers have fallen into the trap of judges with lawyers.  They let them bang on too long, and they have misplaced the guillotine.


Headlines Monday 14 May 2018

The Australian Financial Review

Labour gains on ‘fair’ budget: poll.

The Age

Coalition on slide despite tax cuts.

The Guardian

Coalition budget fails to turn around Turnbull government’s fortunes.

The Australian

Turnbull rating soars as voters back tax cuts.

Guess who Rupert barracks for.

Here and there – Going Green with a Tory Intellectual


We have seen before that Roger Scruton, the Conservative English philosopher, is like a refreshing breeze in a foetid room.  He is an English rarity – an intellectual.  What we badly need in Australia is someone who can stand up for Conservatism in a manner that is intellectually responsible – and, for that matter, honest.  I am not aware of any valid claimant to that role in this country.

In his 2012 book Green Philosophy, how to think seriously about the planet, Scruton seeks to make the case that conservatives are better placed to deal with problems of the environment, like climate change, than those on the other side of politics.  God only knows what he thinks about those who call themselves conservatives here who are still reluctant to acknowledge the problem, and whose peeved retardation has left us up the proverbial creek.

The book is I think twice as long as it needs to be, and there is a fetish for footnotes that borders on the North American.  (And what’s the point of a footnote that says ‘See Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832’, or ‘See F W Maitland, Equity, Cambridge, 1909’?  They are both very big books and very dangerous in the hands of the amateur.)

Scruton was heavily and publicly involved in the fight over fox hunting in England.  His side lost, and you can see some scars.  In talking about a fund for animal welfare, Scruton says:

…the Political Animal Lobby gave £1 million pound to the Labour Party in exchange for a promise to instigate the ban.  It is worth noting that this kind of corruption of the political process elicits no cries of outrage when donor and recipient, are both ‘on the left’.

Dear me – it is not corrupt for a lobby or ginger group to advance money to a political party in return for a promise that the party will support the objectives of the group.  And the suggestion that those ‘on the left’ might get better treatment suggests that the author might be afflicted with some of the resentment that so disfigures so much commentary in a paper like The Australian.  And he should be aware of the problem, since he spends a lot of time speaking of the resentment of those ‘on the left.’  He even quotes Nietzsche on ressentiment.

Two pages later we get:

Shareholders rarely ask questions, and certainly not about the environmental consequences of actions that are bringing them a return on their investment.

Well, things have changed since 2012.  Shareholders do ask questions.  Rio Tinto has just sold all its coal holdings.  At least some analysts say that one motive was not to upset conscientious fundholders.  But then Scruton makes amends.

It is one of the weaknesses of the conservative position, as this has expressed itself in America, that its reasonable enthusiasm for free enterprise is seldom tempered by any recognition that free enterprise among citizens of a single nation state is very different from free enterprise conducted by a multinational company, in places to which the company and its shareholders have no civic tie.

The author argues that the problems can best be met by local action, rather than grand international schemes, and by people, including those in the markets, coming together voluntarily for that purpose, rather than by being driven there by government.

The premises of the argument may be ideological, but their justification is empirical.  I will not rehearse the argument, which trips into many meadows, but I will comment on a few items.  I merely say here that after the Great Financial Crisis, anyone arguing that the great currents in our lives might best be left to the markets is standing at the foot of a very high mountain that is plagued by lethal avalanches.

There is a related problem with the phrase ‘people who pursue politics of top-down control’.  The phrase ‘top-down control’ is favoured by those who get uneasy about the reach of government.  But the essence of any government is precisely to achieve top-down control.  That’s what ‘ruling’ entails.  The name for the alternative is anarchy.  You don’t alter the nature of an apple by calling it a pear.

As we remarked previously, we in Australia are committed to what is called the Welfare State.  It is suicide for any politician of any colour to suggest the contrary.  It will therefore be difficult to argue about the role or reach of government a priori. 

Take the way we try to look after the role of the poor.  We do so through bodies known as charities and through government agencies.  The law relating to charities was founded, and still is in some part, on laws made during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – before the U S or Australia were ever thought of.  The English government then intervened on behalf of the poor in ways that really surprise us – and would revolt many Republicans in the U S.  The Elizabethans prefigured, by three centuries, the famous statement by Lloyd George in 1908:

These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal. They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.  

The role of charities today is the subject of heated argument.  They don’t pay tax, and to that extent they lean on us.  But their role in the system is fundamental.  Scruton is I think on very thin ice in trying to put charities and NGOs in different boxes.  He cannot sustain the proposition that ‘many of the best-known NGOs steer clear of politics.’  Their mere existence is the subject of political contention.  It’s the same with charities.  When speaking of charities, the author says:

English law has acknowledged their social significance and granted exemption from taxes that might otherwise have impeded their work.  Indeed, we rarely use the ‘NGO’ label in describing this kind of institution, for the very reason that we do not see them as competing with government or as pressing for political results.  They are active but not activists.

To repeat, an apple does not cease to be an apple just because you change its epithet, or label.  And that last proposition is a shocker.  (An ‘activist’ is a person whose being ‘active’ irritates the person bestowing the epithet.  If you turn on Sky News any one night you will hear one load of activists complaining about the activities of other loads of activists.  We could expect more from the Professor.)  And if you think that a charity like Red Cross has nothing to do with politics, have a look at their website; or suggest that they pay tax.

The field of inquiry is so wide, that the author is constantly at risk either of going in above his head, or revealing that he has taken his opinions on matters in which he has no expertise from very loaded sources.  One example is his treatment of class actions in the U S.  I am not qualified as an American lawyer, but I have considered the main issues at many ABA Conferences in the U S and at a summer school at Harvard.  I think I know enough to say that on this issue, Scruton has hitched his horses to a wagon that was only ever headed in one direction.

Such problems have become abundantly apparent in America, where the English law of tort [a civil wrong like an action for negligence] has encountered a formidable accumulation of greed and vindictiveness, and lost out in the fight.  In the American courts, tort cases are decided by a jury – a right guaranteed by the seventh amendment of the U S Constitution – and the jury also assesses damages.  Predatory lawyers, taking advantage of ‘class-action suits’, and of the procedure whereby jury members can be challenged and removed prior to the trial, have been able to ensure that the one who can pay is the one who does pay, regardless of fault.

There’s a lot there that is misleading, but it is at best unprofessional of the author to suggest that a significant branch of the jurisprudence of America has been distorted by greedy, vindictive and predatory lawyers – and, presumably, by juries of the same temper.  That is the kind of abuse or invective that we have some to expect from our soi disant conservatives – and which we go to people like Professor Scruton to avoid.

Unlike me, Scruton does see some meaning in the terms ‘left’ and ‘right.’  We are apparently talking about a state of mind.  Elsewhere I said:

Left and right

I do not like and I try to avoid these terms, which come from the French Revolution, but I shall set out my understanding.  The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions.  The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution.  The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change.  The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it.  The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it.  The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it.  These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous.  Either can be authoritarian.  On the left, that may lead to communism.  On the right, you may get fascism.

That discussion shows how shaky such a label is in the premise of an argument that claims to be logically tight.  But Scruton refers to something known as ‘cultural theory’ on the footing that it ‘captures tendencies within social and political thinking that help to show why there is a real, lasting and rooted difference between ‘left’ and ‘right’’. This is worrying, not least because Scruton says ‘I put no trust in its scientific credentials’ and that the relevant terms ‘do not describe theories or goals, but identities, revealed in the structure of collective choice.’  Talk like that may have unhinged Wittgenstein.

Still, the author is good enough to come clean about the lack of contribution from his professional colleagues.

What I have read of ‘practical ethics’ has not persuaded me that professional philosophers today are any good at giving advice….And I doubt that there can be such a thing as a moral expert.

I have no doubt about the latter, but if the former holds good, would it be rude to ask what we might hope to gain from this discussion?

So, while we now have access to a sensible conservative response to climate change, the scars of the old wars of ideology are still sadly apparent.  For some reason it remains an issue that continues to suck in even sensible people like Roger Scruton.