Here and there – Catherine Fieschi on Populism.


A short while ago I quoted the Financial Times on Catherine Fieschi’s book on populism called Populocracy.

The fundamental organising principle of populism is a divide between the people and the elite. The ‘commonality of people’ have an innate sense of what is right, which helps to explain ‘why so much populist politics will short-circuit discussion or examination: because the people’s preferences are innate. And because they are innate, they are just and cannot be argued with.’

The second important component, Fieschi says, is betrayal by an elite, typically one that has a greater sense of allegiance to its own members than to the people or the nation.

The third is authenticity, the leitmotif of Fieschi’s book.  By authenticity she does not mean an unvarnished image or consistent beliefs — the magic dust for all modern politicians — but a politics rooted in instinct rather than reason, ‘the politics of the gut’. It allows the populist to dismiss opponents as hypocrites and provides licence to speak one’s mind without limits, to be direct to the point of shamelessness. 

Fieschi combines conceptual analysis with real examples to chart the historic evolution of populism. Mr Le Pen was a prototype who began to write the populist manual with his use of the ‘calculated provocation’. ‘Lying as a demonstration of one’s irrepressibly authentic nature: what could be more sincere than that?’ Fieschi asks.

Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, she writes, pioneered ‘entrepreneurial’ but non-ideological populism. Anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo broke ground with his blog and web-based ‘democracy’. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s hard right League, is always available, always accessible, seemingly unstoppable. 

…. Her thesis is that digital technology has made us receptive to populism by exalting immediacy, simplicity and transparency. Without complexity, delay and frustration we do not pause for reflection.

I would add seven comments to that helpful summary.  ‘Populism’ does not just emerge as a result of a crisis, but…its logic is also to create a crisis.’  (Trump does this on a daily basis; shock jocks live off it.  In the old language, they are anti-social; and ‘social’ media encourages them to be anti-social.)   As well as being against elites, populists are against diversity or pluralism.  They relish their shamelessness.  (Just look at Berlusconi or Trump – or Bolsonaro’s promotion of his son.)  They look for simple answers and go heavily on scapegoats.  They have to face a quandary – how do you drain the swamp without becoming a part of it?  They are jealous and distrustful of experts.  And finally, the author does not disguise her opinion.

Yet populism’s reliance on disruption, on simplification, on a debased form of authenticity (that is shameless rather than genuine) means that it is inherently corrosive of politics….We are encouraged to leave expertise behind and embrace common sense, to deny complexity, to reject diversity and to choose the short cut of instinct – just as things are possibly more plural, more complex and more delicately balanced than ever before.

The book is very instructive – even for someone who gets unsettled by the term ‘political science.’

There is little that is new in the phenomenon.  Pisistratus was an early model in Athens and the Gracchi followed in Rome.   The great German historian Mommsen said of Caius Gracchus.  ‘On the very threshold of his despotism, he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to hold his ground as a captain of robbers, and to lead the state as its first citizen – a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon also had to make dangerous sacrifices.’  That is so ripe for most of the jerks discussed in this book.

Catherine Fieschi discusses the role of tabloids in England.  Here we have shock jocks who appeal to the same audience – with all the decency of sluts in white boots.  Complete ignorance is no barrier. Shock jocks will comment on a trial when they do not know the law and have not seen or heard the evidence.  Logic they have not. But they have plenty of front.  Hitler was the world champion of the betrayal conspiracy with the knife in the back of 1918, and the followers of Jesus of Nazareth face a different kind of quandary.  How can you sustain an Establishment, and a very rich and powerful one at that, on the basis of the life and teaching of a convicted tearaway whose mission it was to collapse the Establishment?

The key trait of the followers appears to me to be insecurity.  They cannot stand doubt.  They lack what Keats called negative capability

At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Pascal memorably said that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’  (Trump, yet again.)  This form of immaturity underlies their intolerance of people outside their tribe, and their blind tolerance of and trust for their leader.  Their sense of inferiority leads them to reject experts (unless they need one personally).  They get jumpy if you call them out, but if they are represented by those at Trump rallies chanting ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send her back’, they are as unpleasant as they are stupid.  They are nothing if not gullible.  Gulling them is as hard as taking candy from a baby.  They remind you of those simple minded investors whose greed allows them to be seduced by silly promises of wealth and forget the obvious – that risk rises with returns.  This insecurity, this felt lack of status, also underlies their jealous exclusivity about membership of the nation.  You can see all of this on show during the French Revolution, especially in the different ways that Robespierre and Marat manipulated the sansculottes.

The result is a kind of blindness and deafness among the faithful.  The followers do not see that their Messiah is not one of them.  As often as not, he is a paradigm example of the elite, who could not give a bugger about any of them and is there simply for himself.  They don’t even complain when the leader looks after his people at their cost.  I cannot resist citing Carlyle.

Think also if the private Sansculotte has not his difficulties in a time of dearth!…How the Poor Man continues living, and so seldom starves; by miracle!  Happily, in these days, he can enlist, and have himself shot by the Austrians, in an unusually satisfactory manner – for the Rights of Man.

Trump knows precisely how docile and stupid his followers are.  He expresses his contempt to their face.   ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’  Only God knows just how true that is.

There is something sordid about all these Pied Pipers.  The current tenant of Number 10 may have gone to Eton and Cambridge, but the mistress he is taking to Number 10 enjoys a relationship that has required the attention of the rozzers, and when he is not engaging in a domestic, he is spreading his seed in a way that may vex the editors at Debret.  Any democracy is at risk of succumbing to the lowest common denominator – not least when snake-oil salesmen – and they are all men – gull those with a chip on their shoulder with the aid of sponsored cowardice on social media.

Finally, at least in Australia, there is the added insult of people who applaud or defend populism claiming to be ‘conservative’- one of the most abused terms in our language.  Populists are a direct negation of conservatism.  They are out to destroy or disrupt, and not conserve.  The problem with using the term ‘conservative’ is highlighted by Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

conservatism  Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions.  In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclass.  By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally.  The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.

It is not possible to apply either of those usages to the criteria of populism identified by Catherine Fieschi.  And, to the extent that any decent or useful meaning can be given to the label ‘libertarian’, the same goes for it.  And all that is without looking at courtesy, decency or integrity, or what Sir Lewis Namier called ‘restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies.’  Restraint is as essential to conservatives as it is entirely absent from populists.  The spoiled child syndrome looms large in their chosen ones.  Sordid people are beyond restraint.

This book is a very good contribution.  It will be fun watching the boys from Eton and Cambridge hopping into the ‘elites’.  One objection to them is that while they can afford the cost of their disruption, most of those they lied to can’t.  Suckers of the world unite – you have everything to lose, including your brains.  And, sadly, there is one born every minute.



[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.]



Honoré de Balzac

Easton Press, Famous Editions, 1993; translated by Ellen Marriage; illustrated by Renee Ben Sussan; bound in grey leather with gold embossing and label, and humped spine; gold leaf pages; moiré end papers and ribbon.

Goriot had raised the two girls to the level of angels; and, quite naturally, he himself was left beneath them.  Poor man!  He loved them even for the pain that they gave him.

This volume on the shelf is a wonderful presentation of a wickedly good book.

Stories about ungrateful daughters and ugly sisters go back thousands of years in Europe and Asia.  In the Mahabharata in India, there are stories about good and bad children’s treatment of aged parents.  In Grimm, we have the story of the Goose-girl Princess who told her father that she ‘loved him like salt’.  The most famous example in Europe is the story from Celtic legend that we know as King Lear.  An aging king decided to give away his kingdom to his three daughters.  His good daughter is too honest to feign the protestations of love of her two sisters.  In a fit of anger that leads him to madness and his kingdom to destruction, Lear gives all to the two bad daughters.

The old father in Père Goriot (that we know as Old Goriot) of Balzac has at least three things in common with King Lear – he gives everything to his daughters (just two for Goriot); they repay him with ingratitude and they reject him; and in so doing they kill him.

Old Goriot is about the forty-first of ninety four novels that Balzac labelled La Comédie Humaine.  It is set in Paris in 1819, just thirty years after the fall of the Bastille, and four years after the fall of Napoleon.  France had been turned upside down – first they had killed their King; then they had killed their God.  Where would they find bedrock?  The answer of Balzac in this novel is: Nowhere.  Balzac was to say: ‘Reading those dry and rebarbative listings of facts called histories, who has not noticed that writers have forgotten, in all ages, in Egypt, in Persia, in Greece, and in Rome, to give us a history of how life is lived?’

Almost all of the action is set either in a boarding house (a pension bourgeoise) of Madame Vouquer on the Rue Neuve Saint-Geneviève in the Latin Quarter, or in a salon of a hôtel (home) of titled ladies.  The first setting is emphatically lower middle class, with a dingy smell that might never leave you.  The salons are on the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the Chausée d’Antin.  The first is the more elevated, and occupants of the second will do anything to be invited into the first – anything.  The salons might be represented today by the townhouses of merchant bankers in Knightsbridge, and their motto would be the same.  Greed is good; success is all; in truth, as one character says, ‘success is virtue’.

The pension, like the ship The Indomitable in Billy Budd, is a world of its own.  The author says there ‘is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty…’

When his wife died, Goriot transferred all his love to his daughters, Anastasie and Delphine.  He spoiled them in every sense of the word ‘spoiled’.  He allowed them to marry the men they wanted to marry – they therefore went for money and titles and their husbands, having taken the dowries, insisted on keeping old Goriot out of sight ‑ in the name of God, he represented trade.  Then the girls take everything from Goriot and his standing with Madame Vouquer and others becomes contemptible.  If a daughter is seen near him, she is thought to be the fancy of a dirty old man.

Eugène de Rastignac comes from a respectable family in the South.  He comes to Paris to study law.  He is young and good looking.  He gets seduced by Paris and by titled money.  Vautrin is a striking figure of mystery with a dyed beard and a hairpiece, and an evidently strong frame.  In some ways he is like the hero of Les Misérables because he is an ex-convict.  But Vautrin is an escaped convict.  He has a gaze that can both pierce and defile.  He is, unlike Claggart, a truly satanic figure.  He holds charms for the motley.  It is he who will tempt young Rastignac.  .

The author is comfortable in discussing the whole gamut of human relations.  This is how he describes how Goriot made his money.

It was during these years [1789] that citizen Goriot made the money which, at a later time, was to give him all the advantage of the great capitalist over the small buyer; he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him.  He excited no one’s envy

When Goriot is telling Eugène what he is feels for his daughters, Balzac gives him these unforgettable lines:

Well, then, since I have been a father, I have come to understand God.  He is everywhere in the world, because the whole world comes from Him.  And it is just the same with my children, Monsieur, only I love my daughters better than God loves the world, for the world is not so beautiful as God Himself is, but my children are more beautiful than I am.

It is a remarkable passage.  The entrapped Goriot, like Lear, only lives to strangle himself.  His vision is so distorted, he is near madness.

Eugène is sickened by the stony-hearted bitch, Delphine, this worthless moll of a daughter.  He could see that Delphine was ‘capable of stepping over her father’s corpse to go to a ball’, but Eugène cannot help himself.  He just goes along with her, as he had with Vautrin:

… Eugene was too horror stricken by this elegant parricide to resist … The world of Paris was like an ocean of mud for him just then; and it seemed that whoever set foot in that black mire must needs sink into it up to the chin.

Now that Eugène has seen the sewer in the form of this ‘elegant parricide’ he sees ‘society in its three great phases: Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’.  Eugène and a medical student, Bianchon, arrange for the burial of old Goriot, having been cheated on the price of the shroud by Madame Vouquer.  The daughters send their two carriages with their armorial bearings.  Eugène is obliged to borrow five francs from the errand boy, Christophe, to pay the grave diggers taking part in a third class funeral at Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

The ending of this novel comes upon us like a cataract, a bravura point d’exclamation of the entire Romantic Movement.

It was growing dusk, the damp twilight fretted his nerves; he gazed down into the grave, and the tears he shed were drawn from him by the sacred emotion, a single‑hearted sorrow.  When such tears fall on earth, their radiance reaches Heaven.  And with that tear that fell on old Goriot’s grave, Eugène de Rastignac’s youth ended.  He folded his arms and gazed at the clouded sky.  And Christophe, after a glance at him, turned and went – although Rastignac was left alone.

He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river.  His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendôme and Cupola of the Invalides.  There lay a great world that he had longed to penetrate.  He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently: ‘We’ll fight this out, you and I.’ 

Then, as a first challenge to society, Rastignac went to dine with Madame Nucinen.  (Delphine)

There is, therefore, no place for God in The Human Comedy.  Every teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is first mocked and then violated.  We are left with hell on earth, and our young hero can see no way out.  The medical student, Bianchon, was later in the series to become a great physician, and it is said that Balzac cried out for Bianchon during his own death agony.  Well, Balzac was not, like Lear or Goriot, reduced to the ‘thing itself’, ‘unaccommodated man’.  We are left in Old Goriot with what Geoffrey Bullough in his Introduction to King Lear described as ‘the tragedy of Machiavellian atheism’ and ‘pathos too deep to analyse’.

As Eugène grows into manhood and acquires knowledge, Goriot slips into dotage and oblivion, and his lights go out.  His daughters prey on Goriot for his money, but Rastignac does exactly the same to his sisters and his mother – and any piece of upper-class Parisienne skirt he can lay his hands on.  The glitter of the final ball blazes beside the emptiness of the garret in which the squeezed lemon peel has been left.  We are left with what T.S. Elliot called The Waste Land.  By its end Anastasie and Delphine are consumed by a loathing for themselves and each other that is almost as corrosive as that felt by Goneril and Regan.

Goriot leaves the world not so much like Lear, but more like Othello – ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’.  Rastignac is down at the end – he has to pawn the Bréguet watch given to him by his moll to pay for the funeral – but we know that he will rise again, at least according to his own lights, in further instalments of The Human Comedy.  This novel is in large part about the education of young Rastignac.  It is far from being a sentimental education.  This indictment of the bourgeoisie is every bit as coruscating as the plays of Henrik Ibsen such as The Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler.

In his book Ten Novels and their Authors, Somerset Maugham said of Balzac, ‘It is generally conceded that he wrote badly… Balzac was a vulgar man… and his prose was vulgar.  It was prolix, portentous and too often incorrect.’  Of Balzac himself, Maugham said that ‘I think it better to admit that he was selfish, unscrupulous, and dishonest’.  He also had a voracious appetite for food and women.  But Maugham began on Old Goriot by saying, ‘Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world, Balzac is to my mind the greatest.  He is the only one to whom I would without hesitation ascribe genius’.  All of those remarks are borne out by the wonderful novel that is Old Goriot.  It is a novel of a genius in his prime.  It is as good a read as I have on this shelf.



Passing Bull 211 – Empty noise about Pell


A Jewish friend once remarked to me that when a pope dies, everyone becomes an expert on papal elections.  We now see a similar reaction when a cardinal goes to jail.  The press is full of nonsense written by people who do not know the law and have not seen the evidence, but who rely on named academics or practising lawyers who are generally not named.  Two of the worst instances in The Australian on Saturday led me to write the following letter to its editor.

It is not surprising that Peter Van Onselen is ‘staggered’ by the certainty of opinion of some commentators. 

Paul Kelly is not a lawyer and has not seen the evidence, but he says that Pell ‘should not have been brought to trial on the second incident let alone convicted.’ 

Mr Kelly also says that the word of the victim was ‘accepted over that of Pell.’  That is at best misleading.  Pell denied the allegations to the police.  He did not give evidence at the trial.  The victim gave evidence on oath and was cross-examined at length.  The accused chose not to allow the court to hear and test his sworn evidence.

Gerard Henderson says that the argument for the option of a trial by judge alone ‘is never more evident than in this case.’  While Mr Henderson may not say so in terms, the premise of the argument appears to be that Pell ‘could not be guaranteed a fair trial if [his] guilt was assessed by a jury.’  The necessary implication is that the jury here did not discharge their oath and give a fair verdict.  Does Mr Henderson wish to extend that condemnation to the two justices of appeal who agreed with the jury?

My understanding of the majority judgment is set out in the note that follows below.  Much has been made of the fact that the minority judgment was written by a lawyer who practised in criminal law.  The assumption appears to be that that fact makes him better equipped to deal with this kind of appeal.  Even in The Australian Financial Review, we find its Legal Editor saying:

A leading criminal barrister speaking on background describes its reasoning as impeccable.  ‘You would be on pretty safe ground following Weinberg,’ says another.

The most common observation by those concerned about the verdict – and its sole reliance on testimony by a victim 20 years after the event – is that Weinberg got it right because he had the most experience in criminal law.

It’s unfair on his fellow judges – Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Court of Appeal president Chris Maxwell – but it’s also true.

Put to one side the reference to ‘sole reliance.’  Generalisations about any form of governance are at best shaky, but if the suggestion is that criminal lawyers make better appellate judges in crime than others, the suggestion is not consistent with the legal history of Australia – or England.  Which may be just as well in the present case, since, as I understand it, of the seven justices presently on the High Court, only two have directed juries in crime, and the last epithet you would apply to one of those is ‘specialising in the criminal law.’

It is very distressing to see a sectarian divide that for most of us died a generation ago now being fanned into flame again.  The judges are used to copping flak, even when loaded with impertinence and ignorance, but you might spare a thought for the jurors in this case.  They sat through a long and hard trial and then wrestled for days with their decision.  They are now mocked and derided by people whose prejudice is manifest and who know not what they do.

One thing seems clear.  People have, for better or worse, made up their minds, and nothing the High Court does will change them.


Majority Judgment in Pell

  1. I have read the judgment, but not word for word. It is very long and involved.  I make three general observations.  First, all this is so far removed from my practice in the law that it is quite possible that everything I say is entirely unfounded.  Secondly, the complexity of our procedure is shocking.  The trial judge plainly earned the praise of the appellate judges. (Par. 17: ‘As the parties acknowledged during the hearing, his Honour’s charge was exemplary. Like his conduct of the entire trial, it was clear, balanced and scrupulously fair’. )  Our trial process is close to being unmanageable.  I am surprised more trial judges don’t break down under the load.  (Nor are appellate judges free of stress – see the discussion of ‘deference to the jury’ at pars. 105 – 109.)  Thirdly, some of the discussion about assessing witnesses suggests that I may not always have done it by the book in thirty years of trying issues of fact.
  2. Subject to those disclaimers, I comment as follows.
  3. The extracts of the evidence of the complainant suggests that he was a devastatingly articulate witness. And a brave one.  Potentially – and, actually – lethal.
  4. The response of the defence was in the alternative. The complainant’s story was either invented or a fantasy.  And in any event, it was impossible.
  5. There is a difference between an imagined account and an invented one, a deliberate lie and a fantasy (pars 68-73). As I see it – and I may be wrong – the problem with this defence is that the defence did not suggest a motive for the lie and did not explain the hallmarks of a ‘fantasy’ to the jury or the Court of Appeal.  (My shorter OED has: ‘Imagination; the process, the faculty, or the result of forming representations of things not actually present.’)  Even allowing that the onus remains on the Crown throughout, it is hard to see how a tribunal of fact might deal with this argument when each part has a doubtful footing.
  6. On the impossibility ground, it looks to me like Walker wanted to back away (116) but the majority (126) held him to it saying ‘the defence had made a considered forensic decision to express this part of the defence case in the language of impossibility.’
  7. The majority thought the Crown therefore had to prove a negative – that its case was not impossible – and that the evidence and submissions of the defence revealed only uncertainty and imprecision. The difficulty then can be seen here:

‘171 The point is, we think, powerfully illustrated by the fact that both parties filed substantial summaries of evidence in support of their respective appeal submissions. The schedule attached to Cardinal Pell’s written case ran to some 44 pages, summarising the evidence said to reinforce the ‘obstacles’ identified in the written case. The Crown’s responding table ran to some 32 pages. Shortly before the hearing, Cardinal Pell’s representatives filed nine individually-bound volumes which incorporated, with respect to each topic, both sides’ contentions and the relevant transcript extracts. The Crown responded with a document of its own, running to some 37 pages, which senior counsel handed up during oral argument.

172 Having reviewed this extensive documentation, we make two points about it. First, it demonstrated that on almost every point both applicant and respondent could find one or more statements in the transcript which supported their respective contentions in the appeal. Given what we have already said about ‘ebb and flow’, this is unsurprising.

173 Secondly, the fact that each side could call in aid such a substantial body of material drawn from the evidence reinforces our conclusion that the jury were not compelled to have a doubt. That is, there was room for debate about the effect of the evidence — both of individuals and as a whole — on almost every point. More importantly, there was always a well-founded and proper basis for rejecting evidence that conflicted with the central elements of A’s account of the offending.

174 Having reviewed all of the schedules of evidence and material placed before us on this appeal and having reviewed the evidence for ourselves, we are not persuaded that the jury must have had a reasonable doubt about the guilt of Cardinal Pell.’

  1. That does not look like High Court material to me.
  2. I noticed that the Court of Appeal had previously considered an offence committed in ‘circumstances of remarkable brazenness’ (101). The defence to me at times sounded a little like a scattergun – ‘we have so many bullets to fire that one of them must be lethal; alternatively, the enemy cannot survive their cumulative effect.’  (For some reason, I am reminded of the trial of the Earl of Strafford – I will look it up.* Things were simpler and quicker back then.)
  3. I was amazed to read that Pell in his prepared statement to the police, was permitted by his lawyers to say:

‘They’re[the charges are] made against me knowing that I was the first person in the Western world to create a church structure to recognise, compensate and help to heal the wounds inflicted by sexual abuse of children at the hands of some in the Catholic church.’

It takes your breath away, and it is precisely the kind of response that would have animated the discussion about whether the accused should give evidence.  Pell may as well have plastered a target down his front and pointed at the bull’s eye.  My suspicion – and it is no more than an a suspicion of a lay amateur for this purpose – is that this failure of the accused to stand up may have lead the jury – which, we are told, included a church pastor, a mathematician and a tram driver: a group of people who would not be likely to think in the same way as senior judges – to think that this was a case of honesty and innocence against money, power and ingenuity.  But that of course is the most idle speculation – and thank God juries do not have to give reasons.

  1. In any event, Pell’s lawyers have a hard road ahead.

*Strafford was impeached and charged with treason.  The Crown – which did not lose many of these treason cases then – alleged many instances of conduct adverse, they said, to the Crown.  Strafford argued that no one instance constituted treason.  With what Miss C V Wedgwood described as ‘wearisome reiteration’, Pym asked the peers to ignore what Strafford said about single articles and look on the charge as one of ‘constructive treason.’  But Strafford was winning the argument, and the Crown – I should say Strafford’s enemies – proceeded against him by a bill of attainder.  Then it got really ugly.  Oliver St John spoke in a ‘viciously vindictive manner’.  Honourable game was protected by rules of sportsmanship, but ‘it was never accounted either cruelty or foul play to knock foxes and wolves on the head…because they be beasts of prey.’  Strafford lost his head and even Macaulay and Churchill said that this was not cricket.


Later on Thursday Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that Mr. Netanyahu had decided to deny entry to the two American lawmakers, on grounds of their ‘boycott activities against Israel’ and in accordance with the country’s anti-boycott law.

New York Times, 15 August, 2019.

A law against boycotts is an interesting defence of a boycott.


‘We’re in favor of trade peace on the whole,’ Mr. Johnson told the president, in a mild-mannered rebuke of Mr. Trump’s embrace of tariffs as a bludgeon against allies and adversaries alike.

The New York Times, 26 August, 2019

Outside ‘the whole’ is a different matter.


Some sense in The Australian:

It’s not a matter of whether it’s ‘virtue signalling’ or which side of politics you’re on, but it’s a matter of insurance, and risk, both at a global and individual level.

At some point soon, insurance will become expensive and hard to buy.  Governments and companies need to move from trying to prevent climate change to dealing with it, and that should probably begin with thinking through what happens if we lose the insurance industry entirely.

Alan Kohler, The Australian, 20 August, 2019.

The rest know that Kohler is therefore an ‘alarmist.’

The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity

The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound.  (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.)  The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar.  He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten.  (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.)  The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head.  We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).

Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil.  The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity.  How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning?  The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).

The two questions are simple enough.  What is it to be human?  What is it to be evil?  If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.

How did this come about?   Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes.  This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through.  It happens in most families at Christmas lunch.  (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?)  These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth.  Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.

I remarked elsewhere:

Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press.  For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom.  But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’.  This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons.  Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life.  People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.

We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.

The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character.  It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong.  Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable.  In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’

The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley.  Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’  I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved.  Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’.  That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.

Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism.  ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’  That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside.  (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people.  No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)

This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life.  There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy.  We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy.  It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones.  The ceremony of courtesy is drowned.  Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?  Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them?  It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall.  They have no interest in any world without them.  When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play.  It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances.  The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:

The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.

That is why King Lear is our Everest.  Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  They lack discretion.  They are low on judgement.  (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)

Prometheus had the same problem – big time.  I remarked elsewhere:

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. 

Lear loses all the props of mankind.  Prometheus had sought to restore them.  The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion.  It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him.  ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’  ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’  Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:

You are a colt new broken, with the bit

Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,

And bolting.  You are far too strong and confident

In your weak cleverness.  For obstinacy

Standing alone is the weakest of all things

In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.

‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.

This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with

Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.

Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power.  (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).

Prometheus was chained upon a rock.  King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire.  One took on God.  The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton.  Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.

These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation.  It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.

MY TOP SHELF: 33 – Keynes


[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 Maynard Keynes (1919)

Reprint Macmillan and Co., 1920; rebound in quarter vellum with cloth boards, and red label with gold letters.

The glory of the nation you love is a desirable end, – but generally to be obtained at your neighbour’s expense.

Even those who do not believe that economics is no more than voodoo with figures complain that economists are much longer on explanation after the event than they were on prediction before the event.  These complaints were very loud in the Great Financial Crisis.  But you could not sustain that charge against John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge.  He was very, very bright.  He went through the apparently required gay phase while he was a member of that frightfully precious crowd called ‘The Apostles.’  Later he settled down completely and for life with a distinguished Russian ballerina.  She could divert the dons with her views on homosexuality.  She said it was okay with boys – they have something to hang on to; but how could you have an affair between two insides?

Keynes was coming toward his prime at the age of 35 when he went to Paris as part of the British delegation to negotiate the peace to end the Great War.  He was revolted by the meanness and short-sightedness of France and Britain, and the weakness and ineptness of President Wilson. He left the delegation and went home to write The Economic Consequences of the Peace in something like white heat.  It is a beautifully composed polemic that was an instant smash hit.  But those in charge – not one of whom had the intellectual horsepower of Keynes – did not want to listen, and we are still paying the price.

Keynes set out to show that the Treaty was aimed at the ‘systematic destruction of all three’ pillars of the German economy and that this would lead to hyper-inflation, German bankruptcy, and German revenge.  He was dead right, and about 20 million would die.  France wanted to go back to 1870, but this ‘Carthaginian peace’ was neither ‘right nor possible’.

Keynes gives brief portraits of the main players.  Clemenceau, ‘dry of soul and empty of hope, very old and tired’ just sat there on his brocade chair with his grey suede gloves.  ‘He had one illusion – France; and one disillusion – mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least…’His guiding star was that Germans only understood intimidation.  You must not negotiate with a German – you just dictate to him.

Lloyd George had ‘an unerring, almost medium-like, sensibility’ to everyone around him; he had ‘six or seven senses not available to ordinary men.’  He was the best of ‘the subtle and dangerous spellbinders’.  What chance had the aging Presbyterian Wilson against him?  When Lloyd George was speaking, he would go over to nobble the President while it was being translated.  Wilson lacked ‘that dominating intellectual equipment’ and his collapse was ‘one of the most decisive moral events of history.’

The point of the book is to demonstrate that the Treaty was economically misconceived, but Keynes does not withhold moral judgment.  ‘The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness, should be abhorrent and detestable – abhorrent and detestable even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe.  Some preach it in the name of justice.  In the great events of man’s history, in the unwinding of the complex fates of nations, Justice is not so simple.  And if it were, nations are not authorized, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.’  These are not small notions.

Keynes said that the leaders in Paris knew that they could not deliver and had lied to their own peoples back home about their capacity to extract money from a bankrupt Germany in the future.  He says that the want of sincerity was palpable.  ‘Then began the weaving of that web of sophistry and Jesuitical exegesis that was finally to clothe with insincerity the language and substance of the whole treaty.’  It was worse than that – the Treaty was negotiated in bad faith and outside the terms on which Germany had laid down its arms.  ‘There are few episodes in history which posterity will have less reason to condone – a war ostensibly waged in defence of the sanctity of international engagements ending in a definite breach of one of the most sacred possible of such engagements on the part of the victorious champions of these ideals.’  Elsewhere, Keynes brands the Treaty ‘one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history.’

The hottest invective is reserved for his own Prime Minister.  On no grounds of public interest, the ‘popular victor’ allowed ‘the claims of private ambition’ to have him call an election.  This cranked up the rhetoric against Germany and made a decent peace even harder to get.  The diagnosis of Keynes is alarmingly recognizable to those governed by no principle past the last opinion poll.  ‘The progress of the General Election of 1918 affords a sad, dramatic history of the essential weakness of one who draws his chief inspiration not from his own true impulses, but from the grosser effluxions of the atmosphere which momentarily surrounds him.’  The book is worth reading just for that one line.

Did the victors really think that they could screw the Germans for the sweat of their brow for a generation?  How did they answer this proposition?  ‘The entrepreneur and the inventor will not contrive, the trader and shopkeeper will not save, the labourer will not toil, if the fruits of their industry are set aside, not for the benefit of their children, their old age, their pride, or their position, but for the enjoyment of a foreign conqueror.’

Why, asks Keynes, ‘has the world been so credulous of the unveracities of politicians’?  The French would acknowledge his logic but they would always come back to the position:  ‘But Germany must pay; otherwise, what is to happen to France?’  It was not a convenient time for the truth.

Lenin said that the best way to destroy capitalism was by debauching the currency.  He was right.  Inflation involves a secret confiscation of wealth.  ‘Perhaps it is historically true that no order of society ever perishes save by its own hand.’

Where would it all end?  ‘If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp.  Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and progress of our generation.’

The fulfilment of that prophecy would be a ghastly tragedy.  Because a few small-minded power crazed men in Paris wanted to punish the children of the vanquished, they paved the way for a worse war to punish their own children.

This book holds many lessons about not putting your trust in princes, and about not understanding that if you drive too hard on a deal, you may wind up with worse than nothing.  Agreements are only as good as the wishes of their parties.  The attack in this book was brought home by a 35 year-old economist from King’s College, Cambridge against his own government and the other victors in Europe.  It is a remarkable testament not just to the intellect but to the courage of one man.

Keynes would later go on to serve his country further by helping it to finance the war he foresaw, and then work out how to make repayment.  The effort was finally two much for him.  It is because of what Keynes did rather than what he said that this book is on this shelf.  It is not too much to say that John Maynard Keynes, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave his life for his country.

Passing Bull 210 – Angry church goers


According to the press, people of the church of the religion, if not the denomination, espoused by our head of state have opposed the proposed legislative provisions relating to murder in New South Wales by making provision for abortion.  A reasonable provision to that effect would I think be supported by a comfortable majority of people in that state.  But some people of faith take the view that they have no room to move on the moral issue of murder.   It is in my view sad when debate on a political issue of some nicety is shut down for some by religious dogma.  If people of another faith sought to produce that result, the outrage would be deafening.  That is something to be borne in mind by people of one faith – perhaps of one denomination of one faith – seeking to flex their muscles on the political stage.  But it is preposterous to argue, as some reportedly do, that the relevant laws should be left alone because they are not enforced.  People who embrace that form of inanity may wish to revisit Measure for Measure.

There is a similar flight from reality on requiring priests to report confessions of paedophiles.  My Catholic friends say that this is a non-issue because guilty priests do not confess.  They will be even less likely to confess if that confession must be reported to the police.  So, what is the problem?  Gerard Henderson says this is ‘symbolic politics’:

The Victorian government is giving comfort to the anti-Catholic sectarians in our midst without bringing about a situation where a paedophile is likely to be identified or a child protected.

Sworn evidence that a priest had reportedly confessed to these crimes over many years is dismissed on the footing that the ‘claim was not taken seriously.’  If there is some feeling against that denomination, it can be put down to the horror of the crimes committed in its name and this cold, blind refusal to accept responsibility for those crimes by doing all they can to ensure they will stop.

The notion that a church should or could be above the law is not on.  At this time in our history, the suggestion is revolting.  We need a secular society to monitor the claims, privileges and standing of bodies claiming to be religious.


They [the views of Tim Costello on refugees and ‘our hostility to boat people] matter, in part, because of the policy debate and the constant risk that this nation might again think, as it did in 2008, that it can relax its policies, and therefore, inadvertently, trigger resurgence in human drama.

But they matter also, and perhaps more importantly, because I think they misunderstand and slander mainstream Australians.

Chris Kenny, The Weekend Australian, 3-4 August, 2019.

Does anyone really believe that to comment on our hostility to boat people defames Australians?  To defame someone is to say something about them that causes ordinary people to think less of them.  Is that what a comment about our hostility to boat people does?  Is it possible that the policy of both major parties defames God?


When asked about the observation by Banking Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne that the use of slogans is undermining institutions in the place of policy debate, the PM said: ‘Well, I did stop the boats and people who do have a go get a go under my policies, so I think that’s a pretty good plan.  Cheers.’

Australian Financial Review, 10-11 August, 2019 (Laura Tingle).

Quod erat demonstrandum.



[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.]



F Gray Griswold (1930)

Privately printed, 1930; edition of 300 copies; signed by the author; quarter bound in vellum with gold title, and year of publication;;rough cut pages with sepia toned plates covered with tissue; rebound in quarter black morocco with gold title, and lemon cloth boards.

I hold the imitation of colour to be the greatest difficulty of art.

As with any kind of artist, it is not possible to describe the genius of El Greco in words.  You can only see it in the paintings.  Since I have not been to Toledo, and it is more than forty years since I visited the Prado in Madrid, I will confine myself in the first instance to those paintings I have seen on a number of occasions elsewhere.

The Metropolitan in New York has four paintings of El Greco, a man born in Crete who trained in Venice and Rome, and who did most of his painting in Spain, a servant of the Counter-Reformation, and a man about whose life we know as much as we do about that of Cervantes – practically nothing.

The painting of the Cardinal-Inquisitor is, aptly enough, about the most arresting portrait ever painted.  The Inquisitor, in all his red finery, is seated but he looks like he may take off.  His right side is secure, but the left is not, and it grips the chair.  But look at the face – behind those glasses – and all that you see are tension, anxiety, hesitancy, and suspicion.  Is this what the artist really wanted us to see?  The Catalogue for the 2003-2004 Exhibition at the Met and the National Gallery London contains these observations:

This celebrated picture – a landmark in the history of European portraiture –has become synonymous not only with El Greco but with Spain and the Spanish Inquisition.  His finely wrought features framed by a manicured greying beard and crimson biretta, the sitter is perched like some magnificent bird of prey in a gold-fringed chair, his dazzling watered-silk robes, mozzetta and lace-trimmed rochet flaring out like exotic plumage.  The round-rimmed glasses confer on his gaze a frightening hawkish intensity, as he examines the viewer with an air of implacable, even cruel detachment, his right hand impatiently – almost convulsively – grasping the arm rest.  (That should be left arm, as it was in the Titian preview.)

There has been some debate about whether the subject was the Inquisitor, but one conclusion is inescapable – this subject did not terrorize this artist.  In a very bland Greek film about El Greco, the movie starts with the Inquisitor visiting a dying El Greco to tell him that he would like him to do it again.  That part of the film had verismo.  This portrait is endlessly intriguing.

What is thought to be an older self-portrait is more orthodox, but it is a picture of a tired frail old man whose eyes are not straight.  The oval head is characteristically accented.  Elongation of form would become a hallmark.  The Adoration of the Shepherds has the light and colour and movement of later work, but the well-known view of Toledo has spooky kind of coloured life of its own as well as a sense of torment.  It also prefigures Cezanne, as does a lot of the work.

The National Gallery in London has three.  Christ on the Mount of Olives has a kind of exuberant freedom within measured geometric forms.  The figures of El Greco seem to have their own internal source of light.  The portrait of St Jerome is not one of a man seeking power – his hesitancy has a different origin to that of the Inquisitor.

But it is the other painting in London that is my favourite El Greco – and there is another in the Frick in New York.  It is the Cleansing of the Temple, the time when the young holy man and rebel from Nazareth took to the money dealers in the temple with a lash, and so probably sealed his own death warrant.  Almost all the figures are distorted in the way that became the trade mark of this great artist.  The Christ figure is a man on a mission and flowing with energy to that end.  The whole thing has the movement of Mozart, and behind the head of Christ is an Italian Renaissance background.  This is what one scholar says.  ‘The money-changers, panic-stricken more by the sudden revelation of power in the suave Christ than by the punishment itself, try to escape, but they cannot.   Brilliant is the planned confusion of the detail.  The upward-catapulted figures…make a frantic explosive series, away from the Christ and diagonally back into the picture space.’  It is very rare for a picture to be charged with so much energy and movement and rhythm.

As best we can tell, El Greco had a similar effect on his contemporaries as the Impressionists would have on theirs.  They had trouble just seeing the picture, much less accepting the style.  He was on any view ahead of his time, and he appears to have seen the artist as hero, having what Fry described as ‘a complete indifference to what effect the right expression might have on the public.’  A German scholar would maintain that there was a greater difference between Titian and El Greco than between him and Cezanne, and we can readily see how that is put.

The connection with the Church of Rome must have had issues.  Scholars think that El Greco was raised in the Orthodox Church in Greece.  The firm and clear teaching of the Counter-Reformation was that content was to be paramount over style, and this painter would have been about the last to kneel to that proposition.  Tact may not have been his strong suit – he is said to have observed that Michelangelo was a good person but could not paint, before he offered to paint over the Sistine Chapel.  We do not know if he married Jeronima de las Cuevas, the mother of his son, but one very attractive model appears to feature in a number of the paintings.  And it is a little hard to envisage the Cardinal Inquisitor being any more thrilled by his portrait than Winston Churchill was of the portrait that his widow burnt after his death.

Why, then, is this book on this shelf?  I greatly admire the work and what I may call attitude of El Greco.  He seems to me to come plainly within that remark of Henrik Ibsen about having the courage to commit a little madness now and then.  The book Report to Greco by Kazantzakis carries a real message.  This is a beautifully presented book that comes to me from Berlin, my favourite city, and carries these reminders of New York and London, two other favourite cities.  And then there is Mozart in the painting of the rebel taking to the money men – swinging Mozart in colour.

I cannot vouch for the scholasticity of the text.  Mr Griswold begins by saying: ‘I am not an art critic nor do I pretend to be a connoisseur of art.  This book is simply an appreciation of my friend, El Greco.’  A bit later we get: ‘Christianity is emotional, paganism was intellectual.’  To mix sporting metaphors, that is straight out of left field, and we can let it go straight through to the keeper.


Here and there – George Will: The Conservative Sensibility


You get some idea of the tone and gist of this book from the following extracts from the Introduction.

Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and–soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism.  American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking….The label ‘liberal’ was minted to identify those whose primary concern was not the protection of community solidarity or traditional hierarchies, but rather was the expansion and protection of individual liberty.  Liberals were then those who considered the state the primary threat to this…..In Europe today, the too few people who think the way American conservatives do are commonly called liberals, and people who think as American progressives do are called social democrats….Progressivism represents the overthrow of the Founders’ classical liberalism.

Later on, we get this – those who believe, as the Founders did, that first come the rights and then comes government, are adherents of the Republican Constitution; while those who believe, as progressives do, that first comes government and then come rights are the Democratic Constitution.  The difference comes down to whether ‘We the people’ is a collective entity or ‘We the people as individuals.’

A number of things follow.  First, this book is about theories and labels.  (I agree with the late G H W Bush – labels belong on soup cans.)  Secondly, it will offer little to the rest of the world because this conservatism is uniquely American and different to that of the rest of the West.  Thirdly, the book will be completely foreign to Anglo-Australians because we prefer experience to theory, results to ideology.  Finally some of the discussion will be as penetrable as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Real Presence, and provoke the question: What contemporary political issue might be enlightened by the application of these theories or labels?

But let us take the mission of this book on its terms.  We are to seek the Founders’ thinking by going back to what they said.  Lawyers are familiar with this process (and avoiding dogmatism in this context will be very tricky).

Let us put to one side that the Founders knew division – between, say, the focus of Jefferson on you and me, and the focus of Hamilton on Uncle Sam.  The Founders had some things in common.  They owned and traded in slaves.  They might fairly be labelled patrician and they were horrified at the thought of what we call democracy.  Alexander Hamilton spoke of the ‘unthinking populace’ and John Adams referred to ‘the common herd of mankind’.  George Washington referred to the common people as ‘the grazing multitude’.  He had the High Tory view that ‘the discerning part of the community’ must govern and ‘the ignorant and designing’ must follow.  His successors now practise the reverse.

As a result, the Declaration contained two outright lies.  The one about all men being equal is well known.  Perhaps I may then refer to what I said in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

Well, this evasion, if that is the term, on the subject of slavery might be expected from a slave-owner from the largest slave-owning state.  But what was not to be expected was the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.

The American Declaration of Independence follows the form of the English Declaration of Rights.  It records the conduct complained of to justify the termination of the relationship.  (This is what lawyers call ‘accepting a repudiation’ of a contract.)  The English did so in short, crisp allegations that were for the most part devoid of oratorical colour in the Declaration of Rights.  The allegations are expressed in simple enough terms and were not phrased so as to encourage an evasive form of denial. 

How does the American Declaration of Independence go about this process?  Before it gets to an allegation that the king maintains standing armies, which is a relatively specific charge, it made ten allegations of misconduct that were so general that they would not be permitted to stand today as an allegation of a breach of the law on a conviction for which a person might lose their liberty.  The fourteenth allegation, which is hopeless, but which appears to be an attempt to invoke the English precedent, is that:  ‘He [King George III] has abdicated government here.’  Then there is the fifteenth allegation:  ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’  If that allegation of plunder and murder – the old word was ‘rapine’ – had been seriously put, you might have expected to see it before an allegation of abdication – and before every other allegation.  The eighteenth allegation relates to the Indians. The nineteenth was the allegation relating to slavery and which was struck out.  Those drafting the Declaration were not evidently keen to get down to the subject of people of another race.  Or tax.

Let us put to one side that all these allegations are made against the Crown, and not the government, and that none of these allegations refers to any statute of the British government.  There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence.  The primary reason that history gives for the revolt of the colonists was the imposition, or purported imposition, of taxes upon them by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax.  Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different. 

But British taxation is only mentioned once in the Declaration of Independence.  That reference is fallacious.  It is against the King.  The Glorious Revolution made it plain that he could not impose a tax.  The only reference to the English legislature comes when those drafting the documents scold the English for ‘attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us’.  Given that the 1688 revolution secured the supremacy of the English parliament over the English Crown and made it transcendentally clear that only the English parliament could levy a tax on its subjects, it may have seemed a little odd for Jefferson to be suggesting that the American colonies were somehow subject to the English Crown, but not to the English parliament.  ‘Jurisdiction’ is a word that has come to bedevil American jurisprudence, and it looks like the problem may have started very early.

‘For imposing Taxes upon us without our Consent’ comes in near the end of charges against England.  This Declaration is then a very dicey basis for any political theory or catechism.  It’s not much of a rock to build a church on.  And the descendants of the colonists are still skittish about tax.  They are better at spending than paying.  An endorsement of deceit, racial superiority and fiscal irresponsibility may be okay for the current president, but surely not for a Republican, much less a bona fide conservative.

The rest of the West think that the U S has been driven to at least two disastrous political failures by the application of the kind of theories discussed in this book by Mr Will  – free universal health care and gun control.

If you think an ounce of evidence is worth a ton of theory, try this.  In June 1908, David Lloyd George told the House of Commons:

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

That proposition is still heresy for those to whom Mr Will appeals. For them, the State has no business in dealing with such problems.  But Lloyd George and Churchill drove through this reform – as they called it – which would be the foundation of what we know as the Welfare State, and the start of the provision of a system of affordable health care that is taken for granted in every country in the West – except America.  England was following the example set by Bismarck in Germany.  Well over a hundred years later, Americans were still mouthing silly labels like ‘Socialist’.

What do Americans get for their primitive and puritanical purity?  Not just the worst health system in the Western world, but the most expensive.  And they get something from between pity and contempt from the rest of us who regard free universal health care as non-negotiable in a society that likes to call itself civilised.  You can quote Plato and Hegel till the cows come home – decent health care provided by government is for us an inescapable part of our social fabric.

The same goes for gun control.  Americans pay a frightful sacrifice in human life in obedience to what we see as a hideously loaded ideological reading of a clause in their Bill of Rights that had nothing to do with the cruel aspirations of the NRA. .  The same Bill of Rights is part of our legal dispensation, but only a lunatic would assert that it has the same lethal consequences for us.

You get some idea of the depth of the gulf separating us when you read ‘So, constitutional lawyers are America’s practitioners of political philosophy.’  That is not our way here.  English and Australian jurists would be horrified at the notion that they should engage in political philosophy while on the job.  And we worry about Mr Will’s grip on reality when we read: ‘most Americans want altars kept apart from the state’s business.’  Is all that stuff we read about Evangelicals just fake news?

The Index to the book makes no mention of Trump, or, in a book riddled with –isms, populism.  As best I can see, the book contains no discussion of the current status of ‘conservatism’ for Republicans in America.  If they are the two main issues facing America today, then tossing intellectual playthings about like shuttlecocks makes Nero’s fiddling look while Rome burned positively sane.  If this book correctly reflects a ‘conservative’ spectrum in America today, then we may better understand what many see as the moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party and any reasonable application of ‘conservatism’ to the U S in 2019.

By contrast, near the end of Jefferson and Hamilton, John Ferling said:

Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics and government, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

Well, that was way back in 2103, and since then the abhorrence of Jefferson has got so much worse as the United States has fallen flat on its face in the gutter.  And, yes, Hamilton was killed in a duel.  And the rest of the world looks on in sadness as the United States increasingly looks more like its current president – the spoiled child who never grew up.

None of this would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville.

… America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity…As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself…Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.’

And ‘irritable patriot’ is a reasonable title for the current incumbent at the White House.

Passing Bull 209 – Alarmists


In one tribunal where I sat, the internal loo had a sign on the door: ‘This door is alarmed.’  I had to stop asking myself who had done what to alarm it.  Have you noticed that people who accuse others of being ‘activists’ are also prone to accuse others of being ‘alarmists’?  I say ‘accuse’ because the word is used as one of denigration.  Well, for much of the 1930’s Winston Churchill was alarmed about the rise of Nazi Germany, and he was widely dismissed as being ‘alarmist.’  The consequences of that dismissal could well have been fatal – because there was something to be alarmed about.

The problem came in the sixties when people invoked that history to shrug off suggestions that they were being ‘alarmists’ when the warned of the Yellow Peril and the ‘domino effect’ and we got locked into a losing war.  So ‘alarmist’ is like ‘activist’ – it all depends on the object of the alarm or activity.  ‘Alarmist’ is now used by those who lost the argument on climate change and are now seeking to cover their retreat with such dignity as they may command.  It will continue to be invoked as a banal label by those who accuse others of ‘groupthink’ and who give every appearance of being incapable of any other kind of thought.


The woman I went to hear confirmed that personal desks had indeed disappeared at her firm after an office move, as is so often the case. A small alarm went off in my head as she began to list the alleged benefits of ditching dedicated desks: employees could ‘work fast and more agilely’ to give a ‘better experience to customers’.  The alarm grew louder when she revealed the phoney slogan her company had used to describe the new system. ‘We didn’t call it agile working, we called it ‘fresh working’.’  Most regrettable of all, though, were signs of a mentality I can only describe as correctional.  Hot-desking apparently goes cold when workers try to cling on to a desk by sticking a family photo on it or draping a coat over a chair, moves she described as ‘signs of encampment’.

Financial Times, 29 July, 2019

The writer showed uncommon kindness in describing the mentality as ‘correctional’.  To describe an employee as showing ‘signs of encampment’ summons up images of the S S.

Here and there – A different kind of president

Here and there – A different kind of president

Harry S Truman was substantially raised in a farm in Missouri.  His family were simple decent people who shared in the life of their community.  His mother would live to see him become President.  He was educated at the local school in an undistinguished way, except that very poor eyesight meant that he wore glasses, and the he was taught to play the piano.

Then, when Harry was about seventeen, his father went broke after risky trading.  (Young Harry won on a horse at 25 to 1 and did not bet on a horse again for 25 years.)  Harry had to go to work to support the family.  One job was in construction on the railroad – ten hours a day, six days a week, $30 a month plus board.  He learned about all kinds of profanity from altogether a different class of person.  ‘A very-down-to earth education.’  He learned how to get on with the men, and they responded in kind.  ‘He’s all right from his asshole out in every direction.’  He learned to keep it simple.  One night groping in the dark he ran right into a pump.  The next day, he painted the pump white.

When the U S got into the Great War, Harry was medically unfit and his family relied on him.  He was about to marry.  He memorised the sight test and joined up.  His troops elected him as an officer.  He told Bess she would wait for him to come back to marry in case he did not.  Harry put duty above personal interest.  Always.  This was ‘a job somebody had to do.’

In four months on the Somme, the Germans lost more than both sides in the entire U S civil war.  Harry received intense training which he had to pass on.  He was terrified when he first had to address his troops.  But he was the boss.  ‘I didn’t come here to get along with you.  You’ve got to get along with me.’  For their first engagement, they arrived in pitch dark at 3 am, the rain pouring down, and men and horses exhausted.  Harry lost twenty pounds when learning how to lead and look after men in the horror of war.

When he got back home, Harry went into business selling high end men’s wear, and he became heavily involved with the Masons.  That business went broke, and he had to pay off its debts.  The local Missouri Democrat machine was run by the Prendergasts – like English lords of the 18th century.  With their patronage, Harry went into politics and got into the Senate.  His personal loyalty meant that he felt obliged to stand by his patrons even when that did not suit him politically –as when their chief drew heavy jail time. Then Harry felt that his career was over – but he hung on and recovered.  Harry had not ducked for cover.  (His opponent took a hit when it was learned that his chauffeur was required to give him a military salute.)

Harry made his name in the Senate inquiring into corrupt practices.  He attacked Wall Street and the larger danger of money worship.  He told Bess: ‘It will probably catalogue me as a radical, but it will be what I think.’  He was repelled by ‘wild greed’ and showed the traditional Missouri suspicion of concentrated power and the East.

How these gentlemen, the highest of the high hats in the legal profession resort to tricks that would make an ambulance chaser in a coroner’s court blush with shame?…..We worship money instead of honour.  A billionaire, in our estimation, is much greater in these days in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works for public interest.  It makes no difference if the billionaire rode to the wealth on the sweat of little children and the blood of underpaid labour.  No one ever considered Carnegie libraries steeped in the blood of the Homestead steel-workers, but they are.  We do not remember that the Rockefeller is founded on the dead miners of Colorado Fuel & Iron….People can only stand so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement….

Had the world heard anything like this since Lloyd George in 1909?  We hear nothing like it now.  Even if you could find someone who had those beliefs, they would be too scared to voice them.

When World War II came to the U S, Harry wanted to volunteer.  Marshall told him he was too old.  Harry admired Marshall above all others.

Truman hated McCarthy – as did Ike – but he refused to play dirty.

You must not ask the President of the United  States to get down in the gutter with a guttersnipe.  Nobody, not even the President of the United States, can approach too close to a skunk, in skunk territory, and expect to get anything out of it except a bad smell.

When Roosevelt died, Churchill was saddened, but he soon came to appreciate Truman.  ‘He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.’  He had no trouble dropping the bomb – to save American lives.  He surrounded himself with men of the highest calibre – Marshall, Acheson and implementing the Marshall Plan, this veteran of the First World War reversed the two deadliest mistakes of the Allies at the end of the First.  He repudiated nationalism, embraced and saved Europe, and helped secure three generations of comparative peace under a rules based order anchored on the stability and integrity of the United States.

By applying immense concentration and diligence, Truman made decisions such as those, and on Israel, Korea and Macarthur that others may have ducked.  He did not seek personal praise.  David McCullough said that more ‘than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn’t care who received the credit.’

In January 1952, when I was six years of age, Churchill dined with Truman and leading members of his government.

The last time you and I sat across the conference table was at Potsdam, Mr President.  I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard then.  I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt.  I misjudged you badly.  Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilisation.

Well, if you are a bona fide big hitter – and these two plainly were – you are entitled to make statements as large as that one.

Two of the biggest decisions this great man took were the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the decision to fire Macarthur.  The two may be related.  Macarthur had wanted to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on Manchuria and the mainland cities of China.  If Truman had not prevailed, we might not be here.

But the comparison with the present White House is enough to make a man cry.