[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.]



William Shakespeare (1609)

The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Ed A Douglas, Martin Secker 1933; rebound in half red Morocco and cloth, with gilt label and humped spine.

Love is too young to know what conscience is;

Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?

This volume stands on this shelf for all the work of Shakespeare, but in particular the plays.  They have had more effect on me than any other source of literature.  I have written about them separately.  This note can then be brief.

This very handsome book was presented to me by an English friend and colleague after we had finished a long hard case.  My friend has a dry sense of humour.  He was aware of my infatuation with the playwright, and he thought that this edition was just right for me.  It was compiled by Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie to Oscar Wilde.  His Lordship was moved to effect the compilation for this purpose:

The present writer, while accepting it as perfectly obvious and indisputable that the great majority of Shakespeare’s incomparable Sonnets (which comprise among them the finest poetry that has ever been written in this or any language) were written to, or about, a boy whom Shakespeare adored, utterly rejects the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexualist.

Now, some Loony Tunes think that Shakespeare was a spook, or a fairy at the bottom of the garden; here he is defended by Bosie against charges that he was queer.  I wonder whether the playwright shared these views of Bosie:

Any honest man who has been at public school or university must know perfectly well that young men and boys are liable to fall in love with other young men and boys, and they must also know equally well that some of these relationships are innocent and some are not…..If Shakespeare is to be convicted of homosexuality on the evidence of his sonnets to Mr W H, then David, the Psalmist, who is venerated by Catholics as a Saint and one of the precursors of Christ, must be equally convicted on the strength of his lament for Jonathon.  Would anyone in his senses make such a contention, unless he were an ‘eminent counsel’ speaking for his brief.

Well, whatever else it was that lured Wilde to Bosie, it was not the refinement of his intellect.

Here are some typical lines.

When to sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:

Then can I drown an eye unus’d to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long-since cancell’d woe,

And moan the expense of many a banish’d sight.

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’


Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 3


[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

8 The priest and the confessions

Father Garnet was a distinguished scholar, and he comes down to us now as a decent man trapped in a vice put together by a haughty hierarchy and a rogue flock.  He showed astonishing composure and compassion during the trial  – and on the scaffold when the agents of the government were still pursuing him and trying to break him down morally before cutting him up physically.  Some would even later regard his conduct as saintly.

In the course of the trial, the leading government minister, Salisbury, had put it to the priest that he could not have absolved Catesby ‘because he professed no penitency, and therefore you could not absolve him.’  (We hear echoes of that discussion now on the issue of abuse by clerics.)  Father Garnet had maintained that he was obliged to respect the confessional and not report the confessor.

It looks likely that Father Garnet may have accepted that the law of England would go hard on him in carrying out what he saw was his duty as a priest.  When on trial for his life, Father Garnet was directly asked by Salisbury whether Catesby had told him of ‘the Powder Treason’, he calmly responded: ‘That my lord I may not answer.’  But he also said this:

But I allow that the laws made against such concealing are just and necessary, for it is not fit that the safety of the state should depend upon any man’s particular conscience.

It may be that such a concession related only to the knowledge that he had acquired outside of the confessional.  That would appear to have been the view of G M Trevelyan who said that Garnet had obtained ‘a general knowledge of Mr Catesby’s intention’ not in confession and that he saw himself as ‘highly guilty and to have offended God’ in not revealing it; Trevelyan also said that Garnet got the same knowledge from another source outside confession.

The depth of Garnet’s knowledge of the plot itself, and the source of such knowledge, are very controversial.  It is not easy to come to a conclusion even when you go back to State Trials – which is as close as we will get to a primary source.  (And the account there is as incomplete as it is evidently loaded against the accused.)

Garnet had said at first that Catesby had told him that ‘he had some great thing in hand for the good of Catholics.  I much disliked it and dissuaded him.’  On the scaffold, the Recorder challenged Garnet’s assertion that he only had general knowledge from Catesby.  He alleged that Garnet admitted getting ‘particulars of the Powder Plot’ from Tesimond at a meeting in Essex.  It was then said that Garnet acknowledged this to be true and said that ‘inasmuch as he had not declared the knowledge of the plot which had been generally imported to him, he owned himself to be justly condemned, and he asked pardon of the king.’  But Garnet had contended throughout that everything Tesimond said to him was said in confession.  That in itself was controversial – the discussion constituting the alleged confession took place in a walk in an Essex garden.

The great German historian Ranke said that Garnet had been asked to advise on a scheme to blow up parliament and the queen in the previous reign, and that he had said that such a scheme was ‘lawful’ – he cannot have been referring to the laws of England.  He said that the conspirators would have had a duty to spare as many of the ‘innocent’ as possible.  (By what criteria were the victims to be denied their ‘innocence’?)

The scheme which had been started under Elizabeth was resumed under King James, when men saw that his accession to the throne did not produce the hoped-for change.  On this occasion also scruples were felt on the ground that many a Catholic would perish at the same time.  To a question on the subject submitted to him without closer description of the case, Garnet answered in the spirit of a mufti delivering his fettah [fatwa?] that if an end were indubitably a good one, and could be accomplished in no other way, it was lawful to destroy even some of the innocent with the guilty.  Catesby had no compassion even for the innocent: he regarded the lords generally as only poltroons and atheists, whose place would be better filled by vigorous men.

If this assessment is well founded, it is frightening.  This discussion shows how alarmingly inhuman we can get if we allow religious schism to guide our moral judgment.  Here is a man of God contemplating indiscriminate slaughter on the footing that members of one sect are somehow ‘innocent’ in a way that members of another sect are not.  Kant was plainly right.  Heresy is a killer.  Offending God is far worse than offending man.  As Kant said, a heretic is like a rebel.  Heresy was religion’s version of rebellion – at least in those propagating the affront to authority.  Both involve a challenge to the existing order.

At least, as Ranke implies, this learned priest should have followed the maxim of seasoned lawyers – never give advice in the round, or on broad hypotheticals.  That way, two people can fall right off a cliff.  Father Garnet on any view was playing with fire – during his trial, it was alleged that Catesby had also sought to fish from Garnet some abstract ground of ‘lawfulness’ in respect of the deaths of innocent people.

When Father Garnet was pursued on the scaffold to confess to treason, he maintained his innocence in a manner that is for me persuasive.

I consider the late treason and conspiracy against the state to be cruel and detestable; and for my part all designs and endeavours against our king were ever disliked by me.  If this attempt had been perfected as it was designed, I think it would have been altogether damnable, and I pray for all prosperity to the king, the queen, and the royal family.

That was, after all, the teaching of his church and the inevitable consequence of the mission of its founder.  When, still on the scaffold, Father Garnet was asked if he sought pardon from the king, he responded:

I do so as far as I have sinned against him; namely, in that I did not reveal that whereof I had a general knowledge from Mr Catesby – but not otherwise.

There, then, was a decent man in dreadful plight.  The evidence is not complete, but doing the best I can, the finding of treason against Father Garnet looks to me to be about as sound as the same finding against Jesus of Nazareth nearly sixteen centuries beforehand.  Garnet would I think have been fairly convicted and executed on the misprision charge on its own, but in my view, he did not deserve the verdict or mode of death that he got.

9 Abuse of process

One source says that on the discovery of the plot, ‘the government seems to have fallen into a wild state of terror.’  That is just what the terrorists had sought, and we know what happened in the U S in 2001.  The USA Patriot Act of 2001 does not lack colour or warmth.

Possibly as a result of this ‘wild state of terror’, the trials did not reflect well on the English legal system.  Most of what Coke said or tendered in evidence would not be permitted in court today.  In his introduction to Volume I of the Folio Society Notable Historical Trials, the late John Mortimer, the creator of Rumpole, said of the conduct of Coke toward Ralegh that that was ‘the sort of cross-examination which demotes an attorney-general from an advocate to an accomplice in murder.’  Mr Mortimer concluded his Introduction:

So, reading these trials is as good a way as any of understanding history.  Sometimes the best people are in the dock, the most corrupt on the prosecutors and judges’ benches. Our Western civilisation is, after all, the product of a religion founded by someone who was tried, sentenced and executed as a criminal, in a trial of which a focus group of the citizens of Jerusalem thoroughly approved.

We can see aspects of a show trial.  For example, during the hearing, Salisbury (Cecil) had rather given the game away.

Alas, Mr Garnet.  Why should we be troubled all this day with you, were it not to make the cause appear as it deserveth?

Most lawyers know that feeling.  Sometimes when the train leaves the station, you are in no doubt about where your journey is going to end – why then are we here?

10 Punishment

Death, then, was the inevitable penalty.  The only question was how degrading and painful that death would be.  That meant that the English then were less exposed to the problems that come when you lock up religious fanatics together.  The Catholics who refused to toe the line were called recusants.  Elizabethan prisons were full of recusants.  Among other things, they could more easily attend mass in a place loaded with priests.

One of these slammers was named ‘the Clink’ – what else? – in Southwark.  It was always loaded with recusants and was seen as a ‘propaganda cell for the whole capital.’  This mirrors the experience in France and other jurisdictions where they now know that putting Muslim fanatics together unsurprisingly makes them worse.  No one appears to have the faintest idea of an answer.

11 The evil that zealots do – to priests

So, even in its hell-raising and mind-numbing scope, there was nothing new in the attack on the twin towers in 2001.  These attempts to raise hell on earth are meant to destabilise us by terrifying us.  They are especially evil when driven by what is said to be faith, because the fanaticism goes up a notch, and the stakes go up by far more than a notch – they go up to eternity.  One of the conspirators with a nice sense of understatement confessed that their object had been to ‘breed a confusion fit to beget new alterations.’

These zealots are also evil because they involve a prostitution, perversion and betrayal of the faith that they claim to represent while doing evil.  And by doing that, they are laying up trouble on earth for those that we may call the true believers.

To the extent that we disintegrate and drop our guard, we are handing the prize to the terrorists.  In my view, we do that by rashly abandoning long held rights, such as the ban on torture.  In that I think that we should follow the teaching of the military and police people who, as I understand it, follow the advice of the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor – don’t poke your enemy in the eye if he may come back and poke both of yours.

12 Protecting criminals

On the other hand, the time must be long past when adherents to one faith can allow their dogma to stand in the way of their saving the lives of others.  You may have thought that the claim of the clergy to be above the law had been put to bed more than 800 years ago after that unfortunate misunderstanding in the cathedral with Thomas Becket.  The effort to resuscitate it now shows not merely what Americans refer to as a tin ear, but a worryingly heartless preference for dogma over human life.  Whatever Father Garnet had in mind, he was plainly right when he said that ‘it is not fit that the safety of the state should depend upon any man’s particular conscience’.  It is revolting to think that the life or welfare of one man, woman or child might depend wholly on how the conscience of another man requires him to perform some part of a religious rite.

We read at times of priests claiming the protection of the seal of confession, and of some even offering to go to jail rather than adhere to the law, if law it be.  If such priests think that such a course might be a form of martyrdom, we might hope that they are deluded.  It is hard to think of anyone in our community, and certainly not anyone who has brought up children, who would accept such a view.  And before any cleric seeks to go down that path, he should carefully consider the hell that Father Garnet brought down upon himself and others.  The truest words that Father Garnet ever spoke may have been this response to Salisbury: ‘My lord, I would to God I had never known of the Powder Treason.’  Any priest who wants to allow any chance of being put in the life or death quandary of Father Garnet will look at best a brick shy of a full load.

It is sufficient here to refer to two subsidiary arguments of Coke that would have held attraction then and which could embarrass a cleric now.  Coke urged that Garnet could have revealed the identities of those who were not ‘confitents.’  His alternative submission may have had more attraction – Garnet ‘might and ought to have discovered the mischief for the preservation of the state though he had concealed the persons.’  These points are arguable but we do not provide our courts to settle disputes about religious dogma or rites.  Whose back would rise higher – that of the judge, or that of the jury?

And while we are talking about clerics giving succour to members of their flock who are contemplating doing evil to others, they may want to get some mature legal advice about the crimes of aiding and abetting.  In the humour of our time now, they need not expect warm sympathy from a jury.  And certainly any cleric offering a comforting view to a would be criminal about the ‘lawfulness’ of a proposed crime might look to receive full retribution at the hands of the law.  Preserving the peace is after all the law’s prime reason for existence.

As it happens, Guy Fawkes had correctly identified the nature and extent of the evil of the Gunpowder Plot in two answers that he gave directly to the king when he was arrested (with a watch, slow matches and touchwood on his person).

Why would you have killed me?

Because you are excommunicated by the pope.

How could you conspire against my children and so many innocent souls?

Dangerous diseases require a desperate remedy.

Passing bull 172 – Accepting responsibility


When people say that they are accepting responsibility, they are commonly either talking nonsense or just being evasive.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has not got there yet.  He prefers bare faced lies.  He says that he knew nothing about it.  No one believes that.  Not even the world’s greatest liar.

You often hear another weasel word – accountability.  What does being ‘responsible’ mean?  ‘Answerable, accountable (to another for something); liable to be called to account.’  Well, the trouble with that is that when you look up ‘accountable’, you get ‘responsible.’  We are going round in circles.

And too often when people say that they are accountable or responsible, they are saying that the buck stops here, or at least that the bus stops at this stop.  Et praeterea nihil.  And no more.  So, if the teacher asks who made that rude noise in class, and Little Johnnie puts his hand up, is that the end of the matter?  Of course not.  The question then is what should be done by or to Little Johnnie to protect and enforce discipline within and the standards of the school.

What is called the ball tampering scandal was a matter of national concern if not disgrace.  Something had to be done.  Three players put their hands up.  Was that enough?  Of course not.  The question then was what should be done by or to those three players to protect and enforce discipline within and standards of Australian cricket.

The Chairman of the board now says that he accepts responsibility.  He has put his hand up.  And he stays there.  Et praeterea nihil.  There is no more to be done.  The superior responds for the faults of the inferiors, but he is immune from suffering the consequences as they did.

Given the punishment of the three players, the board cannot say that they are accepting responsibility merely by saying that they do so.  The position of David Peever is morally and intellectually untenable.  It defies all sense and decency.  He cannot say that he accepts responsibility for this national scandal as chairman of the board while retaining that office.  Sometimes you see that a man is unfit for an office merely because he does not understand when he should stand down from that office.  That is the case with this man.

And that’s before you look at the disgraceful way that Peever engineered his reappointment, and the appointment of others responsible for the scandal, before releasing the report.  Peever gives every indication of not even being able to spell the word ‘fiduciary.’  He is a low flying ‘win at all costs’ mediocrity, the embodiment of our worst fears about sports administrators – the Panama hat brigade – in this duck pond.

Do you know what is the worst thing about this world after Trump?  It is the brazen way that they are insult our intelligence.  When Dylan Thomas died, his death certificate said the cause was ‘insult to the brain.’  His biographer said there was no such disease.  There is now.

Who do you think is the most brazen – the Chairman of Cricket Australia or the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia?


As the university’s management considers whether and on what terms it should enter into an agreement with the Ramsay Centre to fund the degree, a staff survey on the terms of a draft  memorandum of understanding has revealed deep divisions among the university’s academics.

But the vice-chancellor of the university, Michael Spence, has defended the proposal, saying the degree would not be undertaken on the basis of a “presumed superiority” of the west, but rather “contextualise and problematise” the subject if it goes ahead.

The Guardian, 13 October, 2018

If that is the way that any university teaches English, God save us

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 2


[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

4  Two plots compared

The first thing to notice is that there was something like a state of war between two Christian sects in 1605.  We know that some Muslim clerics have issued fatwas, but none of those clerics had the standing or authority of a pope, and none of those fatwas was a direct attack on the sovereign government of a nation.  No fatwa that I am aware of gave spiritual licence to the murder of a head of state – on spiritual grounds.

Although the terrorists were seeking to topple a regime, their motivation was to serve their faith throughout.  From the time that the pope excommunicated and in effect deposed Queen Elizabeth, there was at least the risk that Catholics might think that any attack on the English Crown had the implicit blessing of their Church.  In the meanwhile, Spain had made war on England in the name of God.  France was harbouring the training of Jesuit opponents of the English Crown at Douai.  The Jesuits would provide what we know as the Fifth Column.

The forces behind those in the Gunpowder Plot therefore look to have been stronger and more highly backed than those in the attacks of 2001.  And their aim was correspondingly much higher.  They were after all intent on more than the death of the king.  They planned the annihilation of the entire parliament, and the top of the judiciary, and the incitement of a religious civil war that would have given new and awful meaning to Milton’s phrase ‘all hell broke loose.’

The object of the Catholic conspirators was to spread fear and alarm, and had they succeeded in at least their first objective, it is hard to imagine that fear and alarm not exceeding that which grabbed the United States after the attack on the twin towers.  The effects of the foreign wars commenced by the U S after that attack are still being felt.

5  The reaction – and torture

The attacks in the U S in 2001 led to calls for torture.  There is in my view little doubt that the U S engaged in torture, and that its allies looked the other way.  Torture was not permitted under the common law of England, but the king claimed the prerogative to use it at least in the case of Guy Fawkes.  Fawkes was the first to be taken, and his captors felt that they needed to torture him to identify the others.

It is hard to imagine a different course being taken in England in 1605.  But it is as like as not that those calling for torture in 1605 or 2001 were not recalling the role that torture played in the miscarriage of justice that led to the cruel death of the founder of their faith.  (The man called Jesus was found guilty of a religious offence (blasphemy) by the local authority and then executed by the imperial authority for an alleged breach of the secular criminal law (treason) for which there was no evidence at all.  The imperial authority committed the ultimate crime of handing the indigenous accused over to the mob.)

There was, however, other conduct in England that savours of hysteria.  Many in the parliament wanted to give the conspirators a ‘more sharp death.’  A bill was put forward in parliament for that purpose.  The bill was defeated, but as a fine American biographer of Sir Edward Coke (pronounced ‘Cook’) says:

Yet its very proposal gave indication of the ferocity with which the plotters were looked on – indication also of the time-honored propensity of legislators to proclaim their loyalty and save their skins by flaying alive the nearest vulnerable neighbour.

Yes, we do see that – and we did see some of it in the U S after 2001 – but these legislators were doubtless impressed by the fact that the conspirators had been trying to blow them to kingdom come – every last one of them.

6  The confessional

During the investigation and the trials following the Gunpowder Plot another issue arose that we now meet in a different context.  One of the conspirators, Catesby, confessed to a priest (Tesimond) during confession.  Catesby did not spell the plot out, but he made it clear that he and others would ignore the plea of the pope to leave matters to Providence.  The priest Tesimond in turn confessed this incident, again in confession, he said, to another priest, Father Henry Garnet, S J.  Both priests were horrified, but they felt precluded by the teaching of their church from notifying the government.  All they could do was to seek to prevent the crime by counselling against it.

Father Garnet was the leader of the Jesuits in England.  He was known as the English Provincial.  Putting to one side that he was said to be ‘a genial, easy-tempered man who loved his wine second only to his religion’, Garnet was always likely be a prime target of the Crown.  They were after the Jesuits as a body.

7 The trial

The prosecution was led by the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke.  He would go on to the bench and be a doughty defender of the common law, by standing right up in the face of James I for example, and he would be as a light unto the nations.  But as a prosecutor he could be like a dog with rabies.  (His conduct with Garnet was for our time appalling; with Ralegh, he was revolting.)

For Coke the phrase ‘English Catholic’ was close to being a contradiction in terms.  One of the conspirators had previously written that for Coke merely being a Catholic was sufficient to qualify a man as a traitor – a man is not English who gives his first allegiance elsewhere.  (Before you dismiss that notion as just ugly prejudice, you might recall that it would be very much that kind of that issue that led – fairly or otherwise – to the end of the Stuarts.  James II never got the point.)

Coke did not charge Garnet with not reporting evidence of treason – called then misprision of felony.  Coke charged the Jesuit with being a party to the plot – indeed, its mastermind.  And Coke performed with venom and frightful colour.  He said that the whole conspiracy had been dominated by the priests.  ‘I will name it the Jesuits’ treason, as belonging to them.’  Their doctrines of ‘King-killing’ and ‘Queen-killing’ were vital.  Garnet had had his finger in every treason since 1586.  It was the Jesuits who plotted to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.  (All the worst fears of the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor were now fulfilled.)  Coke said that this Jesuit doctor was a doctor of – ‘Dissimulation, Deposing of princes, Disposing of kingdoms, Daunting and Deterring of subjects, and Destruction.’  For good measure, the man from Cambridge added: ‘And I never knew any priest of Cambridge to be arraigned in court.’

When Coke read transcriptions of eavesdropped entrapment conversations, he adopted the practice of the time and edited out those parts that were favourable to the accused.  As G M Trevelyan coolly observed, this was ‘an age when the rules of evidence were the rules of probability interpreted by prejudice.’

Coke was not being forensic.  His denunciations were not even Protestant.  This exercise was wholly political, and the whole trial bears an unhealthy likeness to the proceedings before Senator McCarthy.  It is said that the Earl of Salisbury (formerly the all-powerful Sir Robert Cecil) later conceded that the object of Garnet’s trial had not been so much to convict the Jesuit as ‘to make a public and visible anatomy of Popish doctrine and practice.’  There is the risk of such contamination in all treason trials; it is inevitable in a show trial.  Show trials are just graphic political statements on behalf of the government.  They are propaganda.

Coke did refer the jury to canon law which he argued allowed Garnet to report on ‘a future thing to be done, not then already executed.’  He also attacked the Jesuits on their practice or technique of ‘equivocation’ in responding evasively to questions touching them in the profession of their faith.  (Shakespeare would pick up on this in Macbeth, which came out shortly after and which was heavily influenced by these events.)  Coke also alleged that at common law a person was bound to ‘discover’ (reveal) a treason against the king as soon as it came to his knowledge – even if it came to a priest during confession.  In that, Coke was on stronger ground.

The jury only took fifteen minutes.  (You might think that that was quick, but the practice in treason trials then was to do them in a day.  You may not smile if you consider the contemporary alternative.)  The sentence was the appalling one for treason, but a sympathetic crowd moved by this man’s spiritual demeanour ensured that he was as good as dead when he came off the scaffold to be disembowelled.  (Another source says that by express command of the king, Garnet remained hanging from the gallows until he was ‘quite dead.’  This would be one of the grounds of dispute later between Protestants and Catholics, some of whom believed his death was attended later by a miracle.  And the official version does smack of propaganda.)

Passing bull 171 – Bull about confessing


Not being Catholic, my understanding of the role of confession in religion is limited.  But Catholic friends whose judgment I trust tell me that in their view the debate over compulsory reporting of crimes admitted in confession is pointless.  They say that it is quite unlikely that a priest guilty of illegal sexual abuse would confess his guilt in confession.  It would be even more unlikely if he were a serial offender not offering genuine contrition and not truly committed to abstaining.  And only a mad priest would confess to a crime if he knew that the law required the person to whom he had confessed to report this confession to the police.

It is surprising then that the Catholic Church refuses to bend on this issue.  In The Australian on Saturday, a priest made the following arguments.

Without the surety of confidentiality no one would come to confession and speak about their deepest, darkest faults for fear of this being used against them by others….If those seeking confession know that anything they confess may be reported to police, why wouldn’t they go directly to police and report it themselves?

This is empiricism without the benefit of evidence.  And it sounds badly wrong.  Is it seriously suggested that members of the flock are so criminal and neurotic that they will not go to confession if they believe that the admission of a serious crime has to be reported to the police?

…in seeking to break the seal on confession, the government, by essentially making priests agents of the state, fundamentally would breach the separation of power between state and the church.

Well, I have to report to government often – for tax, licensing, or electoral purposes, for example – but it would be silly to say that I then become an agent of the state or that that silly proposition may have some forensic consequences.  If you want to frame the argument in large terms, what this church is seeking to say is that it ought to be above or outside the law, and is therefore seeking to undermine the rule of law.

In my view, therefore, those arguments go nowhere.   It is worrying that their author is an archbishop.  And anyone who thinks that this is a good time for a priest to say that he should be outside the law is crackers.


This is where climate change emerges as a classic post-material concern.  It is cost-free virtue-signalling.  The arguments are mainly emotive and any politician attempting to run against the tide by introducing facts and realism would be worried about the backlash in social and mainstream media….Apart from obvious risks in meddling with foreign policy settings for domestic political gain, the trouble with this sort of superficial campaigning is that it assumes blocks of voters can be picked off here and there with policies and giveaways, it tends to insult the intelligence of those same voters.  Rather than win votes, it may fuel disdain for the major parties and their tactics…..It is as though our political media class is focussed on the half-time entertainment….They ought to have more faith in the electorate….The enduring criticism of Labor and Liberal prime ministers across this lost decade has been too much focus on politics over policy, spin over substance or popularity over respect….Now Scott Morrison has inherited a broken Coalition, rescued from its lurch to the Left…..

The Australian, 20 October 2018

And so it goes – on and on and on.  It’s as if Mr Kenny keeps two A4 pages in a drawer and just re-orders the catch-phrases.  But it shows clearly why people in Wentworth rejected both major parties, and why every night the leaders of the ALP and the Greens go down on their knees to thank the Almighty for the blessings bestowed on them by Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, the IPA and The Australian.

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: I

[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

1  The scene

They are all male.  They may not be young, but they are of a fighting age.  They are certainly of an age to plot.  Their community is proud of them.  They are deeply religious, too deeply.  They are in truth fanatics – religious fanatics.  The old word was ‘zealots.’  Their religious zeal is their tragic flaw.  They are so zealous that they are ready to kill and die for the cause of their faith.  The mainstream members and clerics of their faith say that their zeal and readiness to kill are contrary to the express tenets of their faith, but the zealots have more faith in their own zeal than in the teaching and discipline of their elders.  Their faith has a high place for martyrs and if they die in defence of their faith, they will do so in the firm belief that paradise awaits them.  Their clerics are not involved, at least directly, with their plans and plots, but they are there to give general guidance to the zealots, such that some others believe that the clerics are behind all actions undertaken in the name of their faith.

The zealots want to attack a ruling power that they believe is insulting to their religion, and cruel to those who practise it.  At least some of their clerics condemn the regime.  In truth, the zealots wish to bring down the whole order.  For that purpose they are ready to kill or wound men, women, and children who are on any view innocent – ‘innocent’ at least in the sense that they have done nothing to deserve to die.  The zealots do not acknowledge that acting out of hate rarely ends well.  They are tunnel visioned.

To start their campaign they want to strike terror into the regime by a strike that is so daring and so vengeful that it will give the zealots a complete propaganda victory and provoke division and despair in their enemy.  They are ultimately driven back to the maxim that was the first refuge of the fascist and of lawless, godless and cruel dictators like Stalin and Hitler – the ends justify the means.  In short, they are terrorists – exemplary terrorists – the worst and most frightening kinds of terrorists.  They commit their acts of terror in the name of and on behalf of God.  Their claim is nothing less than that they act in the service of God.

Are we speaking of Muslims who attacked the twin towers in New York in 2001?  Yes.  Are we speaking also of the Catholics who attempted to blow up the English House of Parliament in 1605?  Yes.  And the comparison is instructive.

2  The background

The movement known to history as the Reformation involved a schism in the religion called Christianity.  The Catholic Church was no longer the one church.  Kant would later say that wars between different versions of the one faith were far worse than wars between those of different faiths.  Heresy is lethal.  The Reformation caused untold evil and misery for centuries – something that tends to be forgotten by those who want to teach or preach about the place of the Reformation in the ‘values’ of western civilisation.

The split in Germany was mainly about religion.  It led to the Thirty Years War that laid waste to so much of Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century.  The split in England was mainly about politics.  It led to vicious persecution and recrimination on both sides.  It also led to a foreign invasion, the Spanish Armada.  England’s defeat of Spain left the Protestants in control, and it left the Catholics subject to persecution and suspicion.

On the death of Henry VIII, Queen Mary had taken the Church of England back to Rome and she had burnt Protestants as heretics.  On her death, Queen Elizabeth took the Church back to the Protestants and executed Catholics.  Her schismatic death toll was far smaller than that of her half-sister (a point made in the trial we are coming to).

But the loathing that many English felt for Rome led to a split among Protestants.  The people we know as Puritans wanted to put the Church of England further away from Rome.  The purity of their consciences, and their God-driven sanctimony, would help to lead England into the agony of its Civil War.  Before the English tired of the lot of them, the Puritans would reach their frightful apotheosis in the bloodbath conducted by their champion in Ireland – Oliver Cromwell.

The Society of Jesus was formed by a former captain in the Spanish army.  It was to be part of the Church militant.  The level of its ambition is evident from its calling itself after Jesus, something that gave offence to many.  Membership was open to those wishing to serve as soldiers of God and for the defence and propagation of the faith.  The Society came to the fore in opposing the Protestants, and in the movement known as the Counter Reformation.  It started in Spain, the nation that invaded England in order to bring it back to the Catholic faith.  Protestants would therefore not trust the Jesuits, as they were called, and Jesuits had been banned from England and they would come to be expelled from France and other countries.  The Jesuits enjoyed an aura of secrecy that the Masons would copy.  They also exuded intellectual self-satisfaction.

An idle if mordant observer in London who had a sane view of the place of God may have thought at this time that the Puritans and the Jesuits deserved each other.  On any view, they were supremely well equipped to get up each other’s noses – and so to wreak havoc on the rest of us.  (And the worldly triumph of the Puritans in America would be testimony to the proposition that men who are assured that they are to inherit heaven usually find ways of presently taking possession of the earth.)

The cornerstone of the English reformation was the Act of Supremacy of 1559.  In 1570, the pope published a document (a bull) in which he excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and absolved her subjects from paying allegiance to her.  The bull declared ‘Elizabeth to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown’.  English sovereignty is in the news now, but it is hard to imagine a more open violation of it than this act of the Holy See – short of invasion.

The King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor disagreed with the pope.  They believed that the English would react against Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular.  They were dead right.  But a dissident English cardinal, the founder of the Douai seminary in France, wrote of the ‘filthy lust’ of ‘an incestuous bastard, begotten and borne of an infamous courtesan.’  In Douai, the missionaries were imbued with a sense of martyrdom – it was glorious to die trying to wrest England from the grip of heresy.  The English government became alarmed at the numbers fleeing overseas and legislated against it.  Douai would have been a much softer spot for what we now call radicalisation than those of the caliphate.  The Oxford History of England says:

The via dolorosa that led from Douai to Tyburn [the Golgotha of London] could not have been trod by men who were not profoundly imbued with the spiritual character of their worth….under the guise of saving souls, the priests were really acting as executors of the bull.

In 1580, the papal secretary told English Jesuits that ‘whosoever sends her [Elizabeth] out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin but gains merit.’  This was not a time for calmness.  Their pope had impaled the Catholics of England on a hopeless conflict of interest and ensured that religion would remain at the forefront of English politics.  English Catholics would pay a dreadful price over many generations.

3 Disaffected Catholics and the plot

The accession of James I on the death of Elizabeth led to hopes that things might get better for Catholics.  They did not.  James I had a personal interest in keeping the peace – his father, the unlamented Lord Darnley, had been taken out by an explosion that made a revolting form of assassination – even by Scottish standards.  For that matter, the mother of James I was a Catholic queen who was beheaded for trying to kill the Protestant queen that James succeeded.  These were fraught times.

A group of Catholic gentry, who were described by one observer as ‘gentlemen hunger-starved for innovation,’ came up with a scheme of ‘devastating insurrection’.  They sought to vindicate their faith and the adherents of their faith.  They planned to overthrow the government by blowing up Parliament with the royal family in it, and leading an uprising from the Midlands after kidnapping a young member of the royal family.  They wanted to start a civil war.  Each conspirator resolved to die rather than be taken; there was more than a whiff of suicide in the venture from the start.  They had collected more than enough gun-powder under the parliament to achieve that result, but the plot was uncovered.

There were thirteen in the plot.  They were led by a man called Catesby, but the best known now is Guy Fawkes.  (His continuance in his appointed role after he was on notice that they had been discovered is very hard to distinguish from suicide; it at least looks like a faith-driven embrace of death.)  Those terrorists, for that is what they plainly were, that were not killed in the pursuit were executed.  For the most part, they did not repent.  Indeed, one observer reported that during the trial, the ‘defendants were taking tobacco as if hanging were no trouble to them.’  Some cracked and asked for mercy at the end.  Not so, Catesby – his sword was engraved with the passion and death of Christ.

Immediately after the plot was revealed, the Catholic clergy denounced it as ‘intolerable, uncharitable, scandalous and desperate.’  It was clearly against Catholic doctrine for ‘private subjects, by private authority, to take arms against their lawful king’, even if he was a tyrant.  Private violent attempts could never be justified.  Catholics must not support them in any way.


Passing bull 170 – Religion and politics


At least two prime ministers have said that they would not allow their religion, or faith, to interfere with their politics.  What nonsense.  Politics is about how we get on with each other.  So are morals.  It would be absurd to say your morals are irrelevant to your politics.

But people who are religious commonly draw heavily on their religion for their moral views.   Indeed, some people of religion have been heard to say that is difficult to envisage a biding moral code without the backing of a religion (putting to one side the difficulty of settling on which one?)  If a person’s religion is vital to their morals, it is equally vital to their politics.  Next time you hear some people say that their faith does not affect their politics, ask them whether that means that they can put to one side the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.  It is pure bullshit.

Although, to be frank, some people worry that some politicians ignore the demands of their faith far too much.  Some take that view about the way we deal with refugees.  They say, for example, that everything we do on Nauru violates almost every part of the Sermon on the Mount.  That position is gaining support – from at least 6000 doctors who have their own moral position to advance. For them, there is nothing new about finding a position adopted by both major parties to be immoral.

Now, it is suggested that our current prime minister is considering getting us to join Guatemala in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the moral lightweight championship of the world.  He will abandon principle to seek a vote.  How much lower do we have to sink before something snaps?

Then there is the reaction of President Trump to the apparent murder of a journalist by Saudi Arabia.  He says that any sanction will not include limiting the sale arms (that are used for the butchery in Yemen).  He says that such a sanction would cost the U S too much in money and jobs.  The Great Republic, it seems, cannot afford to be decent.  How is Trump’s position different to that of a bank robber who tells the judge that he needed the money to feed and clothe his children?

There may then be something to be said for the proposition that politicians do not give full faith and credit to their religion.  But, then you look at the Kavanagh catastrophe, and you call for the bucket.


Readers must be in turn fascinated, confused and astounded by the increasingly lurid fiasco surrounding the US Supreme Court confirmation hearing of judge Brett Kavanaugh. When I read that this 53-year-old man with a seemingly unblemished character and all the right credentials in jurisprudence had suddenly been accused by a woman of molestation when he was 17 and she 15, and that despite years “recovering” her memory of the incident, she still couldn’t remember any concrete facts about it, and what’s more, no one else could confirm her accusation, I laughed. Not the standard feminist response but this episode had turned into the theatre of the absurd.

Angela Shanahan, The Australian, 29 September.

Well, at least the contributors to that paper never claim that their faith does not affect their politics.  But it is sad when someone claiming adherence to the Beatitudes laughs off attempted rape.  That is worse than bullshit.  It is cruel.

Passing bull 169 – The myth of religious freedom


If I say that I want the freedom to do something, I mean that I want there to be no law against my doing it.  But if I want to be able to do something that is against the law as it is, I am asking for something more.  I want my case to be excluded from the law – like when a charity is exempted from paying tax.  What I am asking for is a privilege – ‘A right advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person, or class of persons, beyond the common advantages of others.’(Shorter O E D.)  The two notions are very different, and obviously different, but this difference is usually ignored, especially in The Australian, when people talk about some chimera called ‘religious freedom.’

Generally speaking, Australians can follow what religion they like, but not in a way that is against the law.  A cleric gets no immunity from the laws of libel, racial discrimination, or treason just because he is speaking in a pulpit.

There are laws against discriminating against people on the ground of their sexuality.  There is a suggestion that some religious schools should be exempted from complying with this law to the extent that it makes it unlawful for a school to send a child away because of his or her sexuality.  A religious group seeking to acquire such a right is seeking a form of privilege.  But they prefer the word freedom because it is harder to deny a claim to be free as opposed to a claim for a privilege that puts someone above and beyond the law.  This is one time when labels matter.  We are not talking about freedom of religion but privileges of churches.

The law allows certain kinds of clubs exemption from some laws about sexual discrimination.  It is lawful for the Melbourne Club not to allow female members.  Different considerations of policy would arise for the Melbourne Cricket Club or Victorian Racing Club because of their standing in public life.

There are at least two grounds of policy difference when considering exempting a school from obeying the law relating to sexual discrimination.  One is that the Melbourne Club consists of consenting adults.  That is not so with a school.  Schools are there to benefit children who have not reached the age of consent.  The other difference is that one way or another, a private school is likely to receive public money.  In my view those two differences distinguish the case of a school from that of a club, and entail a rejection of the claim for privilege.

At the very least, any government agreeing to grant such a privilege should make it transcendentally clear that any such school will never receive one cent of my taxes.

Finally, may I say that in the present climate of opinion, any religious group seeking to put itself above the law is showing a level of hardihood and obtuseness that verges on the sublime.


Now the enthusiasm gap has disappeared. Republicans are as intense as Democrats. This mutual loathing, by the way, is very bad for America.

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 11 October 2018

The headline referred to ‘Kavanagh persecution.’  Two things.  It would be as hard to imagine a clearer instance of a spoiled child who is a flower of the Establishment, or of a man more unsuited for the judiciary because of his political views and failure of temperament – leaving Doctor Ford out of the question altogether.  American senators should dress in character and turn up in togas.



[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.]



T S Eliot (1968)

We had the experience but missed the meaning.

Folio Society, 1968, printed by permission of Mrs T S Eliot and Faber and Faber Limited; bound in natural canvas small f’scap quarto with titles superimposed on parchment labels on spine and upper board (with spare title label) and matching ribbon, in card slip-case.

There is something unavoidably intellectual, antiseptic even, about T S Eliot.  You wonder at times if the problem is worse in the poetry or the prose.  What do you say of a writer who prefaces a book of poetry with the following, in upper case: ‘I wish to acknowledge my obligation to friends for their criticism, and particularly to Mr John Hayward for improvements of phrase and construction’?  And he then follows that with fragments in ancient Greek from Heraclitus (in the old Greek spelling) from a German source, Die Fragmente der Versokratiker.   What do you say of a poem that has these lines?

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it.  And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Don’t tell me your problems, Digger – you are supposed to be the bloody poet.  This is about as moving as watching a desiccated Anglican prelate treat himself for constipation with castor oil.  In the name of heaven, how precise is his feeling, or how undisciplined is his emotion, when he is on the nest?  Could a man like this give himself to a woman or to God?  It comes over you with all the charm of an etherized hand upon a table.  Bring your own scalpel.  And what happens to the ‘inarticulate’ after it has been raided?

Why is this book there then?  This is a beautiful edition to read.  This book would not be there in another form – another reason for doubting that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

Then, the author stands for me as a warning of our withering imagination and that Anglo-Saxon aversion to emotional giving, much less surrender.  Twentieth century writing can be far too intellectual.  Eliot and Joyce can look like show-offs.  Someone wisely said that Milton had so much learning that it was a miracle that his imaginative drive had not been crushed.  It is ironical that Eliot, whose imagination barely survived, should have led a reaction against Milton – to whose literary and political genius Eliot could not hold a candle.  (And they both had trouble with women.)

But, then, like a Wagner opera, some light breaks through and you think that the effort may have been worthwhile.  It is a book to be taken with an aperitif on an autumn evening, or, better, before a fire in winter with a bottle of red and the book read by the incomparable Paul Scofield.

From East Coker:

……………..There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

…………..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

………………………..They all go into the dark,

The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant

The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,

The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,

Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,

Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,

And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha,

And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,

And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,

Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God.

This is from The Dry Salvages.

We had the experience but missed he meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form beyond any meaning

We assign to happiness.  I have said before

That the past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations – not forgetting

Something that is probably quite ineffable:

The backward look behind the assurance

Of recorded history, the backward half-look

Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.

I thought enough of the lines from East Coker to use them on the face page of a book.  It was not a wildly romantic book.  It was a book about the law – for company directors.  The poet had earned a living working for a bank.  He said:  ‘The end is where we start from.’

Passing bull 168 – Sense about the ABC


The dismissal of the CEO of the ABC raises issues of governance.  Are the directors and journalists at the ABC subject to different obligations to those at Fairfax or News?

The ABC is funded by public money.  So are News (Murdoch) and Fairfax.  There are at least two differences.  First, all citizens contribute in one way or another to the ABC and all have rights to get the services provided by the ABC for free.  They do not have to acquire shares in News or Fairfax or pay for any of their products.  Secondly, the functions of the ABC are set out in an act of parliament.  Those of News and Fairfax are set out in the constituent documents of the relevant corporations and the history of the role of a free press in a democracy like ours.

When considering that role, two questions may arise.  Are the journalists allowed to practise their profession independently?  What professional standards must those journalists apply?  The answers to those questions reflect the integrity of the corporation as a member of the press.  If you look at the two differences between the ABC on one hand and News and Fairfax on the other hand, is there anything there that may dictate different answers to either of those two questions?

Some people refer to the charter of the ABC in its act (section 6).  It contains motherhood statements, but three things can be said.  First, the obligation to ‘contribute to a sense of national identity’ might make people other than me feel queasy.  (Is that not the precise mission of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Pauline Hanson?)  Secondly, the words ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’ appear in the context of broadcasting programs that are specialised or of wide appeal.  Thirdly, the obligation in broadcasting overseas to ‘encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs’ is one of straight propaganda.

Another provision (section 8) provides that the board must ‘maintain the independence and integrity’ of the ABC and ‘ensure that the gathering and presentation…of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.’

But the same obligations attach to the directors of News and Fairfax.  In neither provision – section 6 or 8 – do I see any basis for saying that there is any difference between the ABC, News and Fairfax on their need to preserve editorial independence or their standards of journalism – that is, their integrity.  If that is right, much of the commentary on the ABC is based on false premises.

The essential difference is that the ABC is susceptible to political interference in a way that News and Fairfax are not.  As part of the free press, the ABC has to investigate and report on government.  In other words, it has to do things the government will not like.  You have only to look at the role of the press in investigating and reporting on our finance industry to see how fundamental this function of the press is to our democracy.  But for the reporting by the ABC and Fairfax, the Royal Commission, which was opposed to the last by government and News, would never have taken place, and we would be far, far worse off.  The press had to be good because government was so bad.

So, the ABC has to get stuck into government, and government must keep its hands off the ABC.  There must, therefore, be conflict.  In my view, the ABC generally handles that conflict much better than the government.

In The Australian, a News publication, Chris Kenny, a former Liberal Party staffer, said of the fracas about the ABC chairman:

And anyone with knowledge and experience of journalism, politics and public broadcasting should realise how unwise and improper it is to convey even the perception of political interference.

May I make two comments about The Australian?  First, in my view, too many of its journalists accept instructions to attack the ABC.  That conduct is unprofessional and it directly contradicts the need for editorial independence.  Secondly, too many of those journalists are too close to people in government.  The friendship between Messrs Abbott and Sheridan is just one example – and it shows, at both ends.  Journalists generally might follow the example of judges and steer clear of politicians.  A fortiori, they should not be pawns in political coups.  People at News go out of their way to suggest that they do just that.

What is the upshot?  Any suggestion that for either editorial independence or the standards of journalism or integrity generally the ABC is in some way inferior to, say, News, is at best just bloody laughable.


What’s your leadership style?

Collaborative, decisive, authentic and passionate. Leadership requires tremendous amounts of positive energy. Energy to inspire your people to be their best, to drive change in a rapidly evolving world, and to ensure we deliver superior outcomes.

Cindy Hook of Deloitte.  Australian Financial Review 18 September, 2018