Passing Bull 167 –False choices


The other day, I was discussing with a friend the decline in public life here and in the U S and the U K.  The question arose whether people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson were causes of the malaise or symptoms of it.  I wondered why they could not be considered as both causes and symptoms if we were looking at one version of the chicken and egg conundrum.

A dilemma occurs in an argument when one party is driven to a position of having to choose between two courses that are equally unattractive.  It is like having two pieces attacked by one in chess – being forked – or being snookered: whichever way you try to get out, you are in trouble.

A dilemma is false if it says that there are only two choices when there are more.  What you generally get is that if you do not do A, you will have to go with B, which will be truly awful.  The truth is that there are other possibilities, but you face an attempt to induce you to believe that you have no real choice.  Naturally, it is a weapon of choice among politicians.

As often as not, people say that you have to choose between two factors when you do not.  In his history, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun says ‘True opera is a kind of music rather than a kind of play …’  Putting to one side the question of what a false opera might look or sound like, opera is both music and drama.  The joining of the music and drama defines what opera is.  We do not have to make a choice about what we like more or regard as the more important.  This is one occasion when you might truly say that it all depends on how it goes on the night.

This fallacy – that is what it is – might be compared to one that we might call that of ‘unnecessary choice.’  In a promo on CNN, Christiane Amanpour says that she insists on being ‘truthful, not neutral’.  That is plain silly.  Any journalist should aspire to be both.  Our Code of Ethics speaks of ‘scrupulous honesty’ and not allowing ‘personal interests to influence them in their professional duties.’  If the converse of ‘neutral’ is ‘passionate’ ‘committed’ or ‘partisan’, Ms Amanpour is in deep trouble.

These things matter when we get told that you are either for us or against us.  That is bullshit’ of a repellent tribal variety.


There’s an old political slogan you might remember … the public get the politicians they deserve. Through all the political turmoil over the past decade I can’t help but draw your attention to your own culpability. It’s at least partly your fault. And there’s every danger you are about to make the whole situation worse.

That sounds tough. Our political narrative assumes the public is always right. No elected official should blame the public for an adverse election outcome. When Hillary Clinton described the Trump voters as the ‘deplorables’ we all knew she was finished. You can’t say that in public life.

But still, the collective electorate can be wrong. They can make decisions that make governance harder, not easier. Let me give you a couple of examples.

First, let’s take our old friend climate change. The public overwhelmingly want Australia to contribute to lowering greenhouse emissions. At the very least they want us to make a proportional contribution to the global task of CO2 mitigation.

Alexander Downer, Australian Financial Review, 24 September, 2018.

What is terrifying is that the writer believes it.

My Top Shelf 4


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1945)

Folio Society, Enlarged Edition, edited by Eberhard Bethge, 2000; rebound with marbled boards, quarter in biscuit leather with sage label with gilt lettering.

Are we still of any use?

If the Almighty and I were to get back on first-name terms, it would most likely be through the agency – or grace, perhaps – of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  What a man!

Bonhoeffer was born, with a twin sister, to a family of culture and privilege that knew that the things that count come from the home.  His father was a doctor who became a professor of psychiatry; his mother was a teacher who became the nerve centre of a family of eight children and seven servants.  The family performed simple rites at home, but they were not regular church-goers.  When Dietrich found God and decided to go into theology, his family warned him against ‘a poor feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’

Dietrich became involved in the ecumenical movement and he had his eyes opened in the UK and the US.  He heard the black Christ preached with ‘rapturous passion’.  But also, ‘not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant with a Negro, I was refused service.’  Karl Barth called him back home in 1933:  ‘You are a German…the house of our church is on fire.’

When Hitler came, Bonhoeffer said that the church had to stand up for victims whether they were baptized or not.  When the Nuremberg Laws came, he proclaimed that ‘only those who shout for the Jews are permitted to sing Gregorian chants.’  The role of those who followed Jesus was not ‘just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.’  He preached that the church had the right to engage in direct action against the state.  That is a complete repudiation of the relevant teaching of Martin Luther.  Bonhoeffer took his moral stand on the Sermon on the Mount.

On 1 February 1933, he was on the microphone at the Potsdammerstrasse Voxhaus in Berlin.  He was speaking of ‘The Concept of the Führer’.  Two days after Hitler came to power – a calamity for the Bonhoeffer family – Dietrich Bonhoeffer told the German people that a leader could be a misleader.  ‘This is a leader who makes an idol of himself and his office, and who thus mocks God.’  Before he could get these words out, they had switched the microphone off.  Here, then, was courage to take your breath away.  Bonhoeffer was 26 years old.

This man of God, this pacifist, was true to his word.  He was in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.  He wanted to put a spoke in the wheel.  He was arrested, and imprisoned in various places, like Buchenwald and Tegel, after first being taken to the Gestapo Headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht Strasse.  (At this site, you can now visit a frighteningly moving museum called the Topography of Terror.)  Our book comes from his time in prison.

This book is on my shelf because of what the man did more than for what he said – as is the case with some others who are there.  We know what history tells us of the Nazis, but we can have no idea of what it was like to live under their Terror.  They regarded the church with the kind of contempt that they felt for non-Aryans.  They put Mein Kampf in place of the Bible, and the sword in place of the cross.  Hitler told Goebbels: ‘Let the churchmen dig their own grave.  They will surrender their kind little deity to us.  They will give up anything just to preserve their pitiful junk, rank, and incomes.’

We have debased privacy with a welter of laws and bureaucrats and wall-eyed zombies telling the whole carriage the awful story of their lives.  Bonhoeffer saw it coming.  He spoke of ‘respect for reticence’, ‘of a willingness to observe people more or less cautiously from the outside, but not from the inside’.  He referred to a ‘revolution from below…Anything clothed, veiled, pure and chaste is presumed to be deceitful, disguised, and impure; people here simply show their own impurity.  A basic anti-social attitude of mistrust and suspicion is the revolt of inferiority.’

We have become scared to face up to inferiority, and we are in thrall to mediocrity.  Bonhoeffer, as ever, resisted.  He was prepared to take on those ‘below’ as well as those ‘above’.  He could do so with a smile.  ‘Don Quixote is the symbol of resistance carried to the point of absurdity, even lunacy…Sancho Panza is the type of complacent and artful accommodation to things as they are.’

He knew our limits. ‘Uneducated people find it very difficult to decide things objectively and they will allow some more or less fortuitous circumstance to turn the scales.’  Did he only learn this in jail?  No.  He saw something that Keats famously remarked on in one of his letters – ‘how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time.’  While he feared that ‘man becomes radically religionless’, he was fond of reading Kant (‘a very rationalist rococo psychology’) and Spinoza (‘emotions are only expelled by stronger emotions, and not the mind’).  Standing by the Sermon on the Mount, he observed that ‘unlike the other oriental religions, the faith of the Old Testament is not a religion of redemption.’

At Easter 1944, Bonhoeffer spoke of Bach and Beethoven, and went on: ‘Easter?  We’re paying more attention to dying than to death.  We’re more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death.  Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the last enemy…There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities: the other means resurrection.’  The previous year, Bonhoeffer had said: ‘We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and stopped us being truthful and open…Are we still of any use?’

At Flossenberg at dawn on 9 April 1945, the SS hanged Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It was a round-up before liberation.  The Fatherland stripped one of its greatest sons of his clothing so that it could put him to death naked, but they used hemp rather than piano-wire.  They burned his corpse.  He was as guilty of a capital crime as was the man whose life and teaching he had sought to follow.  It might fairly be said to have been an accident of history that one crime was defined as treason and the other as blasphemy – it was nigh on inevitable that the mission of each would end in his execution.

Perhaps Bonhoeffer inherited his great strength and power of resistance.  His mother, Paula, wrote to him in jail: ‘I have always been proud of my eight children and I am now, more than ever when I see the dignity and respect they maintain in such an indescribable situation.’  She signed off: ‘All the best, my good boy.  Your old Mother.’  Her last letter added after those words: ‘We are staying in Berlin, come what may.’’  The whole family was tough.

Paula’s mother Julie had died in 1936.  She was a resister, too.  She just walked passed the Brownshirts to shop at Jewish shops.  On the way out she gave them that in-your-face attitude that we see in people in New York and Berlin – ‘I shop where I always shop!’  When Dietrich spoke at Grandma Julie’s burial, he used words of surpassing beauty that keep coming back to us.  ‘She came out of a different time, out of a different spiritual world, and this world will not shrink into the grave with her.  This heritage, for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation.’

What a family!  Other members were in the resistance and they too were executed.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great hero of resistance, is as good case of noblesse oblige as you will see.

Here and there – A war book: The Fighters


When people criticise President Barack Obama for failing to commit American troops in conflicts in the Middle East, they often forget that the President was giving effect to the wishes of the people of the United States at the time.  They had had enough of American death and destruction overseas with no apparent purpose or benefit.  And even if Americans had not learned the lesson that you do not go into a war unless you have a good plan for getting out of it, their president had.  You need to have an ‘off’ button.  The US is still looking for one in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the world generally is worse off; a whole new threat became manifest; as a result, Syria is a disgrace to humanity; and no one has the faintest idea how to even start trying to fix the mess – humanitarian and strategic – in Iraq or Afghanistan.  And we don’t look to have heard anything like an apology from those leaders in the western world that are responsible for bringing all this destruction and misery.  Nor do we even look like learning from the mistakes – of a kind that have been repeated so often in history.

All this is made wrenchingly clear in the book The Fighters by C J Chivers published this year by Simon and Schuster.  Chivers is a New York Times correspondent who has served in the army in the Middle East.

This book traces the history of six American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their story is told in immense detail and in a manner that commands, among other things, trust.  It is therefore a very hard, wearing book to read – like revisiting the scene of a horrible war crime.  The detail compels conviction – as it did for Michael Herr in Dispatches and Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front.  Those books are classics that have helped to shape our horror of war.  In my view, the book The Fighters is of that ilk.

Before looking at some of this wonderful book, can we reflect on two elementary lessons from the history of the world?

First, when the Persians invaded Greece, when Spain invaded Holland, when England invaded America, when Napoleon invaded Spain and then Russia, and when America invaded Vietnam, all the invaders soon came to the same conclusion.  They were on the losing side – militarily and morally – from the start.  I will look at some of the reasons for this obvious fact, but let me now mention the second lesson.

When both royalists and republicans (or, perhaps, democrats) each for their own reasons wanted France to go to war on Austria, Maximilien Robespierre, seen by many as the Father of Modern Terrorism, swam bravely, intelligently, and vigorously against the tide.  He said this to the feverish Jacobins Club.

Our generals are to be missionaries of the Constitution; our camps are to be schools of public law; and the satellites of foreign princes, far from putting obstacles in the way of this plan, will fly to meet us, not to repel us by force, but to sit at our feet.  No one likes an armed missionary, and no more extravagant idea has ever sprang from the  head of a politician than to suppose that one people has only to enter another’s territory with arms in its hands to make the latter adopt its laws and its Constitution.

Napoleon would spread the bones of five million dead over Europe to affirm that simple truth.  It is – word for word – the error relied on by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard when they decided to go to war on Iraq, and it should be engraved on their headstones.  Was a man or woman ever born who, while being bayoneted or raped by an invading soldier, stopped to ask that soldier what ideological mission had driven him to commit this crime against humanity?

To go back to the first point, I sought elsewhere to list the problems facing the British when they took on the American colonists on their own soil.

Although the Americans like to see themselves as having been the underdogs, they won the War of Independence, as they call it, and it is not hard to isolate some of the reasons why their position was eventually so much stronger than that of the English.  You can apply the following criteria to the American War of Independence – or to the Vietnam War, the Russian war in Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, or the present military operations in Afghanistan.  The phrases ‘home team’ and ‘away team’ are used for convenience and not to detract from the significance of the wars, or the valour shown and losses taken by those who actually fought them and are fighting the present one.

  1. The away team is the biggest in the world, or as the case may be, the only empire in the world, or the second biggest.
  2. The away team is a regular professional army while the home team consists of amateur irregulars.
  3. The professional soldiers in the away team have no advantage over the amateurs in the other team because they have not been trained for this kind of war and people who fight for the cause are more reliable than those who do it for money.
  4. People defending their own soil are far more motivated than those who cross the world to try to bring them into line.
  5. The away team has massive resources and advantages in population and war matériel (such as the navy) and technology, but the home team has local knowledge.
  6. The home team can move more quickly, avoid pitched battles, and use guerrilla tactics, which are sometimes referred to as terrorism, and which, as we saw, the British objected to as not being fair play.
  7. The away team has problems with morale and supplies that just get worse as time goes on.
  8. The away team finds that winning requires more than just winning battles – they may beat the army of the other side, but they will not beat the country, which has widespread support among its people (even if the people are otherwise split).
  9. The away team has a hopeless dilemma – it has to hit hard to win, but every time it hits hard it loses more hearts and minds.
  10. The home team finds it is easy to generate heroes and leaders; the away team finds it is easy to sack losers.
  11. The home team out-breeds the others – the result is just a matter of time.

12 The war becomes one of exhaustion and attrition, which in turn exaggerates the above advantage of the home team.

  1. Because of its felt superiority, its actual ignorance, and its sustained frustration, the away team resorts to atrocious behaviour that it would never be guilty of in a normal war, or against an enemy of its own kind.

In short, the American colonists felt that they were fighting on the moral high ground, a position that they have never surrendered. Appalling crimes were committed on both sides, especially in the civil war in the south between the Patriots and Loyalists. There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’

The family of Dustin Kirby, later called ‘Doc’, lived in Powder Springs, Georgia.  They were ‘unflinchingly patriotic and unshakably Christian’ – and God bless them for both.  After the attack on the twin towers, young Kirby wanted to fight for his country.  He joined the navy.  His mum told him he would be safe there.  To get more action, Dusty tried out for the Marines.  Sailors wanting to go the Marines were first put through medical training – well, at least they would not go into battle not knowing the worst.  The Doc became what Americans call a corpsman – a medic, whose job it was to be what we call ‘the first responder’ to badly wounded Marines.  You might think it would be hard to get a more brutal, dangerous and testing job.

In Iraq, Doc attended a Marine who had been shot in the back while talking to a little boy – who most probably had been used as a decoy.  Then in a substantial engagement, Doc had to look after a Marine named Smith who had been shot clean through the head.  Doc tended Smith whose brains were dripping over Doc.  By a combination of valour, grit and luck, Doc got Smith to a medical helicopter.  There was at least a chance that radical surgery might save Smith’s life.  But what kind of life?  Doc fretted over this.

Some weeks later Petty Officer Kirby was asked to take a phone call at his base.  The father of Smith was on the line from the Naval Hospital at Bethesda.

The voice on the other end was breaking.  Bob Smith was talking through tears.  He pushed on.  ‘My son would not be alive if not for you,’ Smith said. ‘As long as I am breathing, you will have a father in Ohio.’

Later it would be Doc’s turn.  He got shot full in the face.  By a similar combination of valour, grit and luck, they kept him going until surgery saved his life.  Then there was surgery after surgery.  Doc was sent home.  This was the return of a hero to the U S from the war in Iraq.

It had been almost four years since Bush left office and nearly seven since Kirby had been shot.  Time had been kinder to the former commander in chief than to the corpsman.  Kirby had endured more than two dozen surgeries.  His jaw had been rebuilt with a bone graft, screws and plates.  The work had not set him right.  His bottom teeth did not align with those on top, and a section of his mouth was a food trap that he often had to clear with his index finger when he ate.  He was in constant pain and self-conscious about his appearance.  He had gained fifty pounds.  He was medically retired, unemployed, divorced, and disfigured.  He was also on probation in the state of Georgia for a reckless driving conviction.  Years of drinking had left their mark.

The family was invited to the home of the former president.  By this time, Doc had tried to kill himself while driving a car.  Gail Kirby, Doc’s mum, was determined to let Mr Bush know of the agony that she had endured as a mother.

She stared at the president, and held his gaze.  He looked back.  She plunged on.

‘Now picture that baby [the grandchild of Mr Bush] being out in a car seat and put in the middle of a highway, with hundreds of cars that are zooming past him all day long.

You know in your heart that that baby will be safe as long as no cars swerve even just a little bit.  You pray every minute of every day that those cars stay away from that yellow line….But to make it harder, we will put you in an office with a TV that is playing the footage of those cars driving past your baby every minute of every day, for weeks on end.’……

Gail did not care.  Her son had been shot.  She had not come here for ceremony, or to be denied her agency or right to speak.

Bush’s demeanour was gentle.  He leaned forward.

‘That’s quite an analogy’, he said.

‘I am sorry,’ he said.  ‘I am responsible, I know.  I sent him there.’

That is only a part of one of the seven stories in this book.  The only other story I will mention is Commander Layne McDowell.  He flew an F/A-18 Super Hornet from a carrier on bombing missions over Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.  He got his wish.  He never dropped a bomb over Afghanistan.

I can’t bear the thought of injuring anyone who doesn’t deserve it, especially if a child were injured during an attack.  I think back to the house I accidentally bombed in Kosovo and wonder who was in it…I hope no one.  But I don’t want that kind of haunting anymore.  I’m glad it is over.  I hope my days of flying in combat are over.

I mean no disrespect to the Commander when I say that the first sentence may beg the question.  Which Afghans ‘deserved to die’ because Osama got lucky with the twin towers?  The ‘enemy’ of the Americans in Afghanistan is throughout the book referred to as the Taliban.  Most of them probably were.  But were not all of them also probably Afghans responding to a foreign, and infidel, invasion in exactly the manner that Robespierre had predicted?  Why don’t we see the Afghans as fighting their own war of independence against invading foreigners?

The question raises two other truths identified by the author.  ‘The battlefield did not care about reputations, appearances or wishes.’  And, the ‘Taliban could fight as it pleased, but the Americans were bound by rules.’

Earlier, I referred to two other classic books on war.  I hope I have said enough to show why I think this book belongs in that group.

Three other books on war occurred to me throughout.  You get the same relentless but arbitrary bloodletting that you get in the Iliad.  And you get the same aimlessness.  You also get brought back to earth by the effect on the families.  The spirit of the plea of Priam to Achilles underlies so much of this book – so little has changed in the intervening millennia.

Then there was the comment of John Keegan in The Face of Battle about studies undertaken in the U S about behaviour in combat.  They found a truth long known to football coaches, and hammered home in the book of Mr Chivers.

Foremost among them was the revelation that ordinary soldiers do not think of themselves, in life and death situations, as subordinate members of whatever formal military organisation it is to which authority has assigned them, but as equals within a very tiny group – perhaps no more than six or seven men.

What is the relevance of Catch 22?  When looking at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, how do you avoid the notion of madness wherever you look?  There is something timeless and universal about soldiers saying ‘We’re here because we’re here.’  Doubtless, the Achaean warriors said the same as they paced between their boats and the walls of Troy; and just as Australian diggers said so thousands of years later just across the water at Gallipoli.

May I then come back to the analogy of the redoubtable Gail Kirby?  It would have made Dostoyevsky weep.  Doc’s mum did Powder Springs, Georgia proud, and she did all of us parents and grandparents proud.  Could we not ask the Almighty to grant us a universal law that before any politician sends any of our children or grandchildren off to war, they must read through that analogy in public and in full, and then with their hands on their heart say that they personally will accept full responsibility for every baby that gets run over as a result of their decision?

Finally, may I say that that anecdote has caused me to think better of Mr Bush?  He actually said that he was sorry.  That made Doc’s mum think that Mr Bush was ‘not like so many people.  He respects us.’  That’s what saying sorry does for you.  ‘Sorry’ is not a word that I have heard from any of the others who were also responsible for sending all those men to die in those God forsaken holes in the earth – and all for nothing.

Passing Bull 166 –Nothing at the top


There is real concern at the revolving door of federal politics.  The people in Canberra are not up to it – morally or intellectually.  But has it occurred to you that there may be nothing there at all?

Do you know that we have a federal Minister for Energy?  The federal Constitution says nothing about energy – but that doesn’t stop the Commonwealth having a ministry.  How does the Minister see his function?  To keep down prices.

There will be no ideology in what I do.  My goal, the goal of my department and the goal of the electricity sector, must be simple and unambiguous – get prices down while keeping the lights on.

Well, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia may not have the power to make laws about energy, but as a minister advising Her Majesty the Queen of Australia, the Minister believes that he can do something to keep prices down.  What can he do?  And what can he decently do as a member of a government that likes to call itself conservative, and to believe in the invisible hand of the free market?

If electricity is supplied by corporations, won’t their directors be managing their business to return profits to shareholders (including super funds), and might not this obvious fact of life lead them to increase rather than lower the price of their product?  In truth, asking a minister of this government to do anything sane about the environment or energy is like asking the Grand Chief Wizard of the Lodge to conduct Mass.

The National Party claims to represent farmers.  Desperate drought affected farmers have now joined with a conservation group to put on an ad:

We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy.

Each of those propositions is anathema to those in power federally.

Well, the Commonwealth has power to make laws about corporations.  It has legislated about them – at mind-crippling length.  It has also appointed a body to enforce those laws.  The scandalous ineptitude of that body is just one of the unsettling revelations of the Royal Commission that this government was so keen to avoid.

You get the impression that some members of the government think that the buck stops with the regulator.  That is wrong.  The government cannot shed its responsibility for enforcing its laws by appointing a regulator any more than a board of directors can do so by appointing a CEO.  This government remains responsible for its failure to enforce its own laws.

The Treasurer appears to favour giving the regulator power to order a corporation to pay compensation ‘within a set timeframe, thus avoiding ASIC needing to take legal action.’  On its face, that looks like giving the executive of the government the power to deprive people of their property without intervention by the judiciary – that is to say, without due process.  That will be an interesting exercise – especially for a government claiming the character referred to above.  But whatever else is involved, we will get masses of regulation – and highly remunerative work for lawyers, accountants, and other advisers.

What then is the major aim of the Treasurer?

The big focus for me is going to be on the productivity agenda and…cutting regulation.

If you put all this with the blooper below, it is hard to imagine any body of people more completely losing their way.  Is there anyone home at all?


Brown is a fourth-generation grazier whose family property has been affected by drought.

In the clip, she calls for ‘politicians to stop dancing around the issue and help us to do something about this’.

‘We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy,’ she says.

The campaign comes after the prime minister, Scott Morrison, described the drought as his highest priority but said the conversation about the connection between drought and climate change should be ‘left  to another day.’

The Guardian, 16 September, 2018

This might remind you of the standard response of Donald Trump or the NRL to the latest mass murder in the U S.  ‘This is not the time to talk about the answer to the problem – our rotten gun laws.  In the meantime’ – as David Rowe remarked some time ago in the AFR –‘take a few boxes of thoughts and prayers – on the house.’



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



John Milton (1667)

Oxford Library of the World’s Great Books, OUP, 1984, illustrated Gustave Dore; quarter bound in blue leather, with gold letters and ridges on the spine, with cloth boards embossed with gold, and marbled endpapers.

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour

Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:

Earth felt the wound……

John Milton knew so much and was so wise that it is a wonder that he could write any poetry at all.  Anyone who tracked down every allusion in Paradise Lost would have earned the best classical education possible with which to spend what was left of their life.

Milton was brought up in the Puritan tradition and is still remembered at Cambridge University.  Difficulties with his marriage led him to very modern views on the subject.  He would become a champion of liberty, at least as he understood that term, and the mouthpiece of the Puritan Revolution and Oliver Cromwell.  He was lucky not to be executed in the Restoration.  Now, only Shakespeare stands taller in English letters.

Paradise Lost is at least in part a war story.  All is well in heaven until God announces that he has a son.  Satan is stricken with envy.  The unthinkable happens: there is war in heaven.  Satan loses and he and his defectors are cast into utter darkness – into hell.  For revenge, he visits earth in the form of a serpent and seduces Eve into taking a bite of the apple of the forbidden tree of knowledge.  Adam follows Eve.  They have hot guilty sex as they come to grips with sin, shame and guilt.  Then they put up the fig leaves.  The father gives judgment on his disobedient children.  They are cast out of paradise, and are told of the miseries to come, but they are promised that redemption will come to them from the son of God.

Paradise Lost and The Iliad have at least two things in common.  First, each epic is dominated by the wrath of a hero – the wrath of Achilles against his king and the Greeks, and the wrath of Satan against God and his son.  Secondly, redemption is either given or promised in each.  In The Iliad it is given by the father, Priam, when he submits to his enemy to ask for mercy for his son.  In Paradise Lost, it is promised on behalf of the son, who later gives himself to redeem fallen man.

But their gods are different.  The gods of The Iliad may be immortal, but they are many, and they are divided against each other.  Each smells of mortality. The God of Paradise Lost and the Old Testament is very different.  He is the only One.  He is omnipotent and omniscient.  But he is not impersonal.  He has intimations not of mortality, but of humanity.  He did, after all, say that he made Adam in his own image.

The Iliad is about war and peace.  Paradise Lost is about heaven and hell.  But war and peace we can see; heaven and hell we cannot.  It is knowledge against belief.  The knowledge may be primitive and the belief may be fervent, but the difference is obvious.

The Godhead of Paradise Lost is split when Satan revolts.  Milton may or may not have intended Satan to be the hero of his poem, but that is what he got for a lot of readers.  (C S Lewis was scandalized.)  The father and son are out on the grounds of their divinity.  Adam and Eve are out on the grounds of their humanity.  They are – thank heaven – utterly, incurably, and irredeemably human.  The rest of the host just do what they are told, or fall in behind Satan, and squabble and hiss at him if they do not like his work.

That leaves Satan.  The more Milton dislikes Satan as a being, the more we like him as a character.  He has a lot going for him as hero.  (I put to one side his modernist sin of fathering a child and forgetting the mother.)  He ends up outcast by everyone.  Well, we tend to take a shine to outcasts.  Satan does have a mind of his own, and he is the only one openly to stand up to authority, to offer defiance.  He is the one character in each epic, excepting Priam, who refuses to toe the line.  He is a born insurrectionary, our primal hell-raiser.  It looks like he had been stewing on status for a while.  He talks of knee tribute:

Too much to one, but double, how endured (5.783)

He is wildly and immediately successful in executing his plan to corrupt the whole order of creation.  When ‘the enemy of mankind’ got to work, Eve fell immediately, and ‘Earth felt the wound’ (9.782).  Adam followed quickly next, and as a result the lord of hosts, the lord of all creation, would have to give up his only begotten son to undo the work of Satan.

This is not a bad return on the handiwork of a day or two; not a bad return for an outcast doomed to be blasted in eternal fires.  Thrown out of heaven; hissed at in hell; but a complete winner on earth.

And Satan has a point.  His envy knows no bounds when he sees Adam and Eve in Eden ‘imparadised in one another’s arms’, but he immediately sees their limitation and weakness as his way to strike at God.… …..knowledge forbidden?

Suspicion, reasonless: Why should the Lord
Envy them that?  Can it be sin to know,
Can it be death?  And so they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state?

Yes, Satan does impute envy to God, but we all know people who ‘only stand by ignorance’ – some of the happiest lawyers and the most successful politicians on earth.  But ‘knowledge forbidden’?  Can it be a ‘sin to know’?  Surely not.  What is the answer to this question of Satan?  Are we doomed to be cocooned in ignorance or to face the everlasting bonfire?

The pride of Satan leads him to ambition to ‘set himself in glory above his peers’, but one thing Satan never was – a quitter.  And when Satan told his crew that they could by their warlike effort claim ‘Honour, dominion, glory, and renown’, he was simply giving them the mission statement of Achilles and the other blood-drenched heroes of Homer.

In The Iliad, there were two acts of pride – hubris – that led ultimately to nemesis.  First, Helen and Paris took off knowing the consequences.  Secondly, the Greek king refused to hand back his prisoner to the gods, knowing that this would lead to divine retribution.  Paradise Lost reaches its climax with our first sin, the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, by Adam and Eve.  But two acts of disobedience born out of pride had happened first.  When God took a son to share his power, knowing at least the potential of the problem of what we call sibling rivalry, Satan then decided that he could not stand competition from a newcomer.  His paramount sin was envy, but what Satan felt was an affront to his honour.  Then Eve refused to obey Adam, although she knew very well that for her the power of Adam was absolute.  But now, only the most wilfully morbid self-flagellant believes any of that moonshine about Eve being the author of our original sin.

When the father announces the arrival of a son, the poet describes the reaction of Satan in terms of envy, honour, pride and malice.  Here is real envy.  When Milton wrote that Satan ‘thought himself impaired’ he may have had in mind that chilling remark about Cassio made by Iago, that most evil predator on another’s honour:

He has a kind of beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.

Milton said he wrote this wonderful epic ‘to justify the ways of God to men.’  He will not often get that result now, but what he has given us, like the Sistine Chapel, is a picture of us in terms that are beyond our understanding.  The theme is desperately mortal.

The best way to take Paradise Lost is to listen to it.  (Make sure that you get the version where Eve is played by a woman, and not just by the narrator.)  Then you can, as with Shakespeare, just laugh at the sheer blinding throwaway brilliance and magic of it all.  They were both drunk on words and language, and they both shared their passion with us.

John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost.

Here and there – Reformation

Europe’s House Divided, 1490 – 1700

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2003

One benefit of doing Summer Schools at Cambridge, Harvard, or Oxford, is to hear dedicated people in seats of learning enjoying the act of teaching.  That was comparatively rare for me when I attended Melbourne University a long time ago.  Well, one benefit of reading this book is to experience Diarmaid MacCulloch doing just that.  The subject is tricky and beset with land-mines, but the author navigates his way patiently and with justified authority.  I had read the book in Penguin form when I was writing on the subject.  The print there was too small to read in comfort.  Now, in this large, and expensive, version, you can take your time and get the full benefit of the author’s learning and application.

Most people brought up in the West will have their own biases.  I am a lapsed Protestant who has an incurably firm view about the impact upon humanity of the prodigious learning of Augustine and Aquinas.  In addition to his primary degree, the author took the Oxford Diploma of Theology.  He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, but he broke with the Church over its attitude to homosexuality.  In the Introduction to this book he says ‘I do not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma (although I do remember with some affection what it was like to do so).’  In 2001, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University.  He has also accepted a gong.  Perhaps because any prejudice that he may have may simply reflect my own, I see no lesion of bias in this book.  If I am right about that, it is a very significant achievement.

Permit me another general observation.  In the current debate, if that is the term, about teaching Western civilisation, reference is often made to the Reformation as if it were some unalloyed blessing.  It was anything but that.  It brought generations of war and misery promoted wholly by this schism.  You don’t need the intellect of Kant to see that division flowing from doctrinal feuding is the worst.  Heresy may be the most lethal term in our language.  The Germans know this.  After World War II, they were asked what the worst war they had endured was.  They had two examples from hell before their living eyes.  A majority went back more than three centuries to cite the Thirty Years War.  That war is a dreadful blot on all our history, a direct product of the division wrought in the Reformation, and a frightful debit in the balance sheet of religion on earth.

The author patiently explains how the theory of transubstantiation was not made official in the medieval church, but got weighty backing before Aquinas.  We are looking at a medieval – pre-Renaissance – reliance on Aristotle – and his discussion of the nature of existence and the essential difference between substance and accidents.  In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, how many of the flock were up for that gig?  There was a related issue of the exclusive (privative) intellectual snobbery of the clergy (priesthood).  ‘Their professionalism was expressed by their possession of an information technology – literacy (the ability to read and write).’  And the priests were bent on maintaining their monopoly – if necessary by burning to death people who had the temerity to want the gospel in their own language.  (One significance of the rise of lawyers in the Inns of Court was that they also challenged this monopoly.)

And then the author goes straight on to another disaster that is still wreaking misery for so many in and out of the church.

Clergy were increasingly differentiated from the laity by the official attempt to make the clergy celibate for the whole of their careers, thus separating them from the sexuality which is the most intimate mark of an ordinary human being.  This was a requirement borrowed by the clergy from a separate and distinctive section of the Church’s life – monasticism.

Does one of the great cancers on our community come down to us still from the monastery?

The author is particularly good on two doctrines that in my view have blighted mankind – original sin and predestination.  (OK – here are my prejudices – Augustine and Aquinas took the simple teaching of a Jewish Hasid (holy man) and drenched it in the chilling but pretentious logic of Aristotle and Plato – and it’s a fair bet that the son of the carpenter had never heard of either – and so armed generations of priests with the power to put down you and me for the benefit of their God; it was a bizarre and cruel form of religious authoritarianism that lasted for centuries – and makes the balance sheet look even worse for religion.)

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul gave an extended commentary on the biblical story of Adam and Eve as they committed the first act of disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden: the first sin.  Augustine saw this corruption – original sin – as passed down from Adam to all humanity like a hereditary disease, and he linked heredity to sex, because like all heredity, sin was embodied in the act of procreation….All sin was thus Adam’s first sin, and no human being could escape it…..Augustine’s intellectual formation had been in a late form of Plato’s philosophy: Plato’s deity was perfect, individual and incapable of suffering, because suffering involves change which implies imperfection.  Since the perfect deity cannot change his mind, his decision about whom he chooses from humanity must be made only once.  All the saved must be predestined to salvation (and though Augustine rarely said this explicitly, all the dammed to damnation)….One can easily sympathise with the dry observation of the modern theologian Horton Davies that a God who cannot suffer is insufferable.

Well, people who say that a people as a whole are cursed with a hereditary disease have at least one very ugly fellow traveller.

Just what was it that gave these whizz kids the right to seek to wedge the infinity of God or the mercy of Christ between their paltry syllogisms?  And how do you seek to get someone into a church when at the back of your head is a song that says ‘Tough banana, your number’s already up, Sport’?  And in getting faith to take on logic with no runs or goals in, were they being any smarter than the Marylebone Cricket Club offering to take on the Yankees at baseball?

The thinking of the medieval church on indulgences being sold out of a ‘treasury of merit’ was as attractive as the thinking underlying derivatives that gave us the GFC.  Luther?

In any century in which he was born, Luther would have guaranteed a richly memorable night out, whether hilariously entertaining or infuriatingly quarrelsome.  Yet Freud is of little help in understanding Luther, whereas Augustine….is of central importance.

Although Luther rejected Aristotle, he could not break out of the gloom of Augustine.  Or the intellectualism – Luther came up with his own incantation that you won’t find in the bits in red – justification by faith alone.  Is that any more intelligible than transubstantiation?  Well, what got to Luther about indulgences was that they were dead against his own doctrine.  Logic then led him to deny the worth of good works.  ‘This was the parting blow of his book, and it was the very heart of the Reformation’s reassertion of the darkest side of Augustine: a proclamation that the humanist project of reasonable reform was redundant.’

And logic also led to division and death among the revolutionaries.  In 1526 four were solemnly drowned for being too progressive about baptism.  The community following Zwingli ‘committed itself to a policy of coercing and punishing fellow reformers whose crime was to be too radical.’ This is inevitable in revolutions.  And Luther would find out, with Lindy Chamberlin, that if you open your mouth often enough, you will put your foot in it.  The Peasants’ War was put down with the torture and death of thousands who had survived the battlefield.  ‘Luther, the champion of the ordinary Christian, had been transformed into an apologist for official savagery…’

The author deals briskly with Calvin.  Perhaps I might refer to what I said elsewhere after referring to MacCulloch.

God lets out the odds to make the winners feel better.  What kind of God would want to do that to his creation?  This kind of thing may have got by when Calvinists were a minority faith.  They could look at the masses outside for the damned.  But what if everyone came inside, and there was no one outside to look down on?  A minister addresses a congregation of 100 people.  Only one will be saved.  And guess who everyone thinks that will be….. In truth, there was more than just a touch of the soulless doctrinaire Lenin in Calvin.  These smug, dour killers of joy have probably done far more damage to the cause of religion than the Renaissance Popes.

The English reformation had nothing to do with God or religion and everything to do with Henry VIII and politics.  MacCulloch – charitably, perhaps – says that Harry believed his first marriage was bad, but he mentions that this king ‘cruelly emphasised his commitment to his personally devised religious ‘middle way’ by executing three papal loyalists and three evangelicals.’  That’s more Stalin than Lenin.  One evangelical observed that Harry liked to celebrate a new wedding by burning someone at the stake.

What about the Counter-Reformation?

Luther’s parallel solitary struggles with God led him ultimately to a sense that his salvation was an unconditional gift of God, making him free of all his natural bonds; this freedom empowered him to defy what he saw as worldly powers of bondage in the medieval western church.  Inigo [Loyola] found that his encounter with God was best expressed in forms drawn from the Iberian society which had created the most triumphant form of that same church: chivalric expressions of duty and service.  The contrasting conversion experiences thus led respectively to rebellion and obedience.  It was a momentous symbol of what came to separate Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.

And could we see different developments in the civil polities on either side of that fault-line?

We are about half way through the book – near the end of Volume I.  The second part covers the bloody aftermath, including the Thirty Years’ War.  It may drag for some.

The final part refers to the Enlightenment and, as published in 2003, says this:

….the revelation of child abuse by certain clergy and religious of the Church….has had a catastrophic effect on the perception of the Church hierarchy in the English-speaking Catholic world, and if Catholics in other cultural settings react in the same way when they begin to take notice of what has happened, the effects on Roman Catholicism are likely to be profound.  The crisis places a question mark against the imposition of compulsory celibacy on the Church’s ministry as formidable as any posed by Protestants in the first decades of the Reformation.

That is an example of the insight and clear exposition of this model book of history.

Passing Bull 165 – It’s everywhere

Wherever you look, the bullshit in politics is so ripe that comment is unnecessary.  It speaks for itself.


‘I have no truck with bullying or intimidation in whatever form it is,’ Mr Morrison said. ‘‘I am the father of two young daughters and I have no truck with that sort of behaviour.

‘One of the things we are moving quickly to do is restore the strong culture in the Liberal Party and bring the party together and show the stability and unity that is necessary.’

Australian Financial Review 30 August, 2018

A  senior Liberal source familiar with the situation said when the police came investigating, Senator Cash ‘was asked to co-operate and she didn’t’.

She instead referred the police to her public statements on the issue, telling them, ‘I said everything I know at Senate estimates, I have nothing to add,’ the source claimed.

She was subsequently subpoenaed by the AWU as a witness. She instructed her lawyers to fight the subpoena.

Sources close to the senator rejected the assertion she was unco-operative. They say her reference to her public statements was the equivalent of giving a voluntary statement and the police were satisfied because ‘there was no follow-up by the AFP’.

Senator Cash declined to comment on the matter, saying her focus was about moving past the events of last week.

Australian Financial Review 31 August, 2018

Former Liberal Senator Helen Kroger, who chairs the party’s women committee, says, however, that the party does not have a bullying problem, although she acknowledged that it should have more female representation.  ‘I feel deeply sorry for Julia Banks’, Kroger told the ABC.  ‘But politics is a career not for everyone.  That’s the bottom line.

Australian Financial Review, 1-2 September, 2018

Cue West Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, who on Friday turned up at a rally of striking members of the Australian Workers’ Union rally, 31 days into an industrial dispute with aluminium maker Alcoa. Mr Hastie – a so-called ‘‘conservative’’ Liberal MP – told the striking workers from a labour collective once led by Labor leader Bill Shorten that he supported their demands for better redundancy payouts and for minimum staffing levels. The former SAS officer blamed irresponsible climate policy for driving up power prices so much that it was forcing companies to screw down workers’ conditions.

Australian Financial Review 10 September 2018

An outspoken critic of subsidies for renewable forms of energy like wind farms and solar panels, Taylor said: ‘There will be no ideology in what I do.  My goal, the goal of my department and the goal of the electricity sector, must be simple and unambiguous – get prices down while keeping the lights on.’

The Guardian, 10 September, 2018

The premier and several senior colleagues acknowledged that Turnbull’s knifing had deterred some voters in Wagga but the federal senator Jim Molan dismissed those concerns, saying it ‘wasn’t a factor.

‘People were very disappointed that we were spending time taking about ourselves and to ourselves but it’s something that every now and again that you’ve got to go through,’ Molan said. ‘We don’t go through leadership spill for fun, I can tell you that.’

The Guardian, 10 September, 2018


I did say that comment was unnecessary, but the AFR did publish the following letter.

Dear Editor,

The evil of banality

Phillip Coorey had a destabilising effect on my breakfast this morning.  He said (‘Keystone coup’) that Tony Abbott may be the last one left standing in the fallout of the latest disaster in the Liberal Party.  But I was soon returned to that trance-like torpor that Australians fall into when confronted with the sheer banality of their politicians (‘Cash declined to give statement to the police’).  When asked about her role in another self-incurred fiasco, Senator Cash declined to comment.  She said ‘her focus was about moving past the events of last week.’

This is a world record for inanity.

The tragedy is that that is just what most Australians want Tony Abbott and Michaelia Cash to do – move on.  For citations you could have your pick of Dickens ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done,’ or Shakespeare, ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it’.

But, then, did some dolorous soul raise the question of employability?

Yours truly

Geoffrey Gibson

My Top Shelf – Chapter 2


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Thomas Carlyle (1837)

J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.

The Art of Insurrection.  It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.

How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’?  At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV.  If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way.  So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line.  We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism.  But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.

As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses.  It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?

The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental.  The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage.  When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama.  ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine?  O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’

You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris.  It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France.  Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honoré, and then ended up on the left Bank.  What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way?  Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris?  That the Louvre was then as it is now on the Right Bank?

The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night.  Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’  There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn.  ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.  Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levées, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’  This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.

Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency.  They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light.  At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’  This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris.  The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles.  Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’

Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution.  Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take.  The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre.  (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.)  When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?”  O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’  After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!”  All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic.  The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into.  At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’

And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet.  He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity.  And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.

The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror.  In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon.  (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use).  There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.

Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’  That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.  We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man.  Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth.  Does history hold a more important lesson for us?  Has the story been told this well elsewhere?

So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes.  (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.)  If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history.  The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit.  You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.

Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive.  In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’  He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix.  The graph-makers can stick with their graphs.  The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.

When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime.  When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done do in their sleek official way.  There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there.

And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.

Here and there – An unsurprising Royal Commission


The most surprising thing about the Royal Commission into banking is the amount of surprise people feel.  What did they expect?

In 1983, a very old and respectable trustee company – Trustees Executors and Agency – failed and went into liquidation.  A very un-trustee like general manager had flirted with property development and short term money.  This collapse was a huge shock.  The Victorian Premier wanted the directors to surrender their passports.  (A few years later there were worse crashes.  Do you recall Tricontinental and Pyramid?)  ANZ acquired the business of the trustee by act of parliament.  One of the older trustee managers was heard to groan that bankers ‘don’t understand trusts – they only know debits and credits.’

There is a world of difference.  If you deposit money with a bank, it becomes theirs, and they have to pay you back an equivalent amount later.  But if you ask them to hold your BHP shares on trust for you, they become subject to much more onerous obligations and you get much more generous remedies.  In the first case, they get your money; in the second, the shares remain yours.  The relationship between creditor and debtor is very different to that between a trustee and beneficiary.  A trustee may have to account to a beneficiary for a profit taken innocently in the transaction.

Some think that the law has nothing to do with morals or ethics.  They are dead wrong.  So much of our law turns on whether people have been careful, honest, or conscientious.  If someone puts their confidence in me, the law says that I have to act toward that person in good faith, and take care that I do not have an interest or become subject to a duty that conflicts with my obligation to honour the confidence put in me.  These duties are called fiduciary.  If I get sued, the court might even inquire whether my opponent’s hands are clean.  So, moral or ethical issues abound in the law.

The banks probably educate their staff about bankers’ obligations of secrecy or confidentiality (which sit uncomfortably with the aversion of bankers to being called fiduciaries).  But plain and simple moral obligations tend to get forgotten in the blizzard of government intervention. They do however remain, and these obligations that are called equitable tend to be sternly enforced by the courts.

What education do the banks give their staff who act as trustees?  What do they get taught about that mystical word ‘fiduciary’?

That is one fault line on show.  Another relates to management.  The law says that ‘the business of a company is to be managed by or under the direction of the directors.’  At the risk of sounding like the late Bud Tingwell in The Castle, what do those words mean?

Very experienced directors, managers, and lawyers answer this question very differently.  The directors of a bank are not there to act as tellers, but how much direction do they have to give to managing the bank’s business?  Those words are elastic.  Does it matter that the law describes directors’ duties as fiduciary?  What are the directors of banks told about their obligations under the law?

Can you recall a time when we actually dealt with bank managers?  I grew up living beside one.  Alf had come up the hard way.  Alf could be rough and tough, but two things were certain.  Dishonesty never entered his head; and if he thought a would-be borrower was being stupid or greedy, Alf would let them have it – right down the bloody front.

Alf was not into equitable or fiduciary obligations.  He just did his job by the bank and its customers.  Both sides were content, in a way that we don’t see much of now.  If, as I suspect, there is doubt about the management of banks at the top, there is at least as much doubt about how they manage you and me – their customers.

Passing Bull 164 –Pride in race


The word ‘racist’ is loaded and abused.  The term ‘dog whistling’ is headed in the same direction.  I would prefer to avoid using either.  By the term ‘racist’,  I understand a person who believes that he or she is superior to people of a different race and who is content to say so.  The feeling of superiority is not in my view enough.  Many people deep down feel superior, if only because many people feel a difference between them and people of a different race, and very few escape making a judgment in their favour on the result of that difference.  The critical part is the readiness of some people to convey their sense of superiority to others including those whom they regard as inferior.  ‘Dog whistling’ is the name given to those who are ready to express that sense of superiority without getting caught.  The expression of superiority is disguised or ambivalent.  Such an activity is therefore the product of both malice and cowardice.  The superior people are, as the saying goes, eager to wound but afraid to strike.  Keeping any sense of superiority to yourself is by contrast the product of upbringing and manners.

The grosser part of the id of Donald Trump is Stephen Bannon.  Manigault Newman asked Bannon if rumours of his being a racist were true.

He said no.  He explained, ‘The same way you are a proud African-American woman, I am a proud white man.  What’s the difference between my pride and your pride?’

Bannon is proud to be white.  (Let us put to one side the silly ad hominem argument that his protagonist has the same belief and emotion – but for a different colour of skin.)  What is ‘pride’?

  1. A high or overweening opinion of one’s own qualities, attainments, or estate; inordinate self-esteem. 2. The exhibition of this quality in attitude, bearing, conduct; arrogance, haughtiness.

Well, Donald trump is obviously full of it.  But, if we put the Oxford English Dictionary to one side, things don’t get better in the Bible.  Pride goes before the fall and the meek shall inherit the earth.  But it is very hard to think of any meaning of the word ‘pride’ that does not entail that Bannon believes that as a white man, he is superior to people who are not white.  Given the context in which he makes that statement, it is also clear that he is content to say so, and to say as much to people who are not white.  Bannon therefore comes within my criteria for the word ‘racist’.

Bannon may or may not agree.  He would certainly deny ‘dog-whistling’.  He probably thinks his sophistry is clever.  It may be clever enough for Trump and those who attend his rallies, but it lacks all conviction for people who can see.  And by projecting his own arrogance or haughtiness on to others, he imagines a world where all people feel superior to people of a different race.  The resulting hatred and conflict might give a fair preview of hell.

You may or may not agree with that, but one thing is clear.  Mr Bannon believes that he as a white man is different to people who are black – if there were no difference –if black people were relevantly the same as white people – there would be nothing for either side to be proud of.  That then leads to at least three questions.  What exactly is the relevant difference between a white person and a black person?  What is it about that difference that leads Mr Bannon to be happy or proud that he is white and not black?  And why does Mr Bannon feel the need to tell people that he is proud of being white?

Say that I have hazel eyes, short hair, and flat stomach, but you have blue eyes, long hair and a pot.  So what?  What is the point of any difference?  Well, then, let’s get to the real point – why does it matter if my racial ancestry is different to yours?

And what is there about that difference that makes you proud to have your ancestry rather than mine – while you are presumably left to wonder if I could give a hoot?

Why, then, do you feel the need to raise any issue flowing from any difference?  If a blackfella walked into a pub at Halls Creek, or if a white governor walked into his governor’s mansion in Alabama, and said that he was proud that he was black or white, how peaceful do you think that the reaction might be?  If you remain so far unruffled, how would you be if you were Jewish and your best friend announced that he or she was proud to be Aryan?

Finally, what is there for you to be proud of about the fact that you are white when, to quote Beaumarchais, all that you have relevantly done is to have taken the trouble to be born?  Saying that you are proud to be white makes as much sense as saying that you are proud that you won Tatt’s.  It’s just the luck of the bloody draw, Mate.

Perhaps, then, Mr Bannon has done us a service by being so tart.  His is the dark arena of people like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.  They like the dagger, but they also like to muffle it with a cloak; and, like Mr Bannon, they are frankly vicious.


Writing on her social media presence earlier this summer, [Lara Trump] noted that her Instagram feed is ‘an achievement in blandness’ highlighting her ‘commitment to her kid, her dogs and her father-in-law without ever betraying a hint of personality’.

‘Woman to woman, I shared a connection with Omarosa as a friend and a campaign sister, and I am absolutely shocked and saddened by her betrayal and violation on a deeply personal level.’

The Guardian, 18 August 2018.

Once you have adapted to the notion that a member of the Trump family might be bland, you might ask how a connection woman to woman – either as a friend or as a campaign sister – might differ from a connection man to man or man to woman.