Here and there -Hunter Biden, Donald Trump – and Clive of India

 

In discussing the colossal good fortune of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine, a friend quoted the delicious remark of Sam Goldwyn: ‘The son also rises.’  (Yes, the computer did query this.)  We don’t like seeing people in public office on the take.  They should be in it for us – not themselves.  Diverting the profit to the family does not achieve deliverance – at least for those who did not come down in the last shower.

Putting someone in office under obligation inevitably creates conflicts of interest.  And the risk of the donee, the recipient of the gift, being, or appearing, compromised.  It is of course worse if someone is obviously appointed above their pay level.  They are some of the reasons decent people are nauseated by the gifts showered by Trump on his daughter and son-in-law.  (The claim of Jared Kushner, to advise on jails appears to rest on the fact that his dad went one up on his dad-in-law by doing time for fraud.)

Writing in The Guardian, a writer from New York said:

When you are the son of a famous and powerful politician, you are showered with opportunity, whether you deserve it or not.  This is nepotism, but it is also, if we are being direct, a form of corruption.  Moral corruption.  Not only because these prestigious positions are not earned, and because these celebukids are taking something that rightly should have gone to someone more deserving; but also because, even though there is rarely anything so crude as a direct quid pro quo, this undeserved largesse is always motivated to some extent by a desire by some powerful interest to take advantage of the halo of influence cast by the parents.  That influence should properly accrue to the public, who their parents work for.  The lavish lives afforded to famous kids are, in effect, stolen from the American people.  Each coveted job handed to a president’s kid represents a small quantity of subversion of the spirit of the democratic process.

This particular form of injustice is often waved off as just be the way of the world.  Seven-foot-tall people get to be in the NBA, and the children of presidents and vice-presidents get sweet, lucrative gigs whether they’re qualified for them or not.  We shouldn’t take this so lightly.  We should, in fact, be enraged by it.  Politics is not just another way to get rich.  It is a public service field, and the more important the position, the more stringent the ethical requirements it should carry.

The next three generations of a president’s family should have to work the checkout line at Family Dollar.  What better way to stay in touch with the pulse of America?  What better way to demonstrate how much they value hard work, and the gargantuan struggle to join the middle class? 

All this reminded me that England, the home of our parliamentary democracy, ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption during for most of the 18th century.  The story was luminously illustrated by Sir Lewis Namier in something of a revolution in the writing and teaching of history.

The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.  ….Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…

Richard Pares referred to the difficulty of one MP on a conscience vote: ‘It will hurt my preferment to tell.’  There you see the conflict of interest.  He quoted the advice of one MP who would be called an ‘old lag’ in another context:

Get into Parliament, make tiresome speeches; you will have great offers; do not accept them at first, – then do; then make great provision for yourself and family, and then call yourself an independent country gentleman.

What, old boy, could be simpler – or fairer?  If you read any biography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that on the eve of war, the incoming president had to spend days rewarding those who put him there.  It’s as rewarding as giving Christmas presents to sisters – God preserve you from any seen inequality.

Now, ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours underlay’ feudalism and the Mafia; Napoleon was shockingly greedy in looking after his family – with thrones; the Nazis were as corrupt as the Spartans.

But we are now shocked to see the establishment looking after its own when anyone with a modicum of ability can make their way up the bourgeois ladder on their own.  As I recall, one act of nepotism came back to slap George W Bush square in the face after Katrina, but Ivanka and Jared are as in your face as any other aspect of the present White House.

All this occurred to me reading again the luminous East India Company in Eighteenth Century Politics by Lucy Sutherland.*

Clive of India was unlovely – largely for the same reason as Trump – you get the same combination of greed and banality – and without shame.  Although to be fair, Clive was anything but downright stupid.

With Clive you get the corruption of Georgian politics with the corruption of the English doing business – committing something like daylight robbery – in India.  The engine of the business was the company of the title of the book.  It was a magnificent edifice that so beautifully delineates the ruling class of England at the time and their innate capacity to bulldust their way out of the gutter with some affable condescension of the kind that would have propelled Mr Collins to the feet of Greer Garson.  As Dame Lucy Sutherland drily remarks early on: ‘The Company was very unsuccessful in checking corruption even when it was discovered.’

To make a comfortable fortune in the public service and to establish those dependent on him in situations of profit was the major (and to contemporaries) the legitimate ambition of the ordinary politician…As a result, there emerged, not an orgy of corruption, but a fragile balance between public and private interests expressed in the system of ‘political connection’ and ‘political management.’

Clive was a latterday proconsul.  The Company was ripping off the natives – ‘gifts’ – and its servants were making their fortune on the side.  Here is Clive on gifts.

When presents are received as the price of services to the Nation, to the Company and to that Prince who bestowed those presents; when they are not extracted from him by compulsion; when he is in a state of independence and can do with his money what he pleases; and when they are not received to the disadvantage of the Company, he holds presents so received not dishonourable.

What is the word price doing in there?  That suggests that the ‘gift’ has been bought.  That is a contradiction in terms.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done for the Company, then the Company is being deprived of an entitlement.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done by an agent of the Company on the side, then the chances are the Company is not getting the full benefit of the promise of that agent to work in good faith in the interests of the Company.  Either way, the gift is ‘received to the disadvantage of the Company.’  And if the gift is large, is not the agent’s ‘independence’ impugned?  It is one thing for bank manager to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch; but a whole new vista unfolds if the gift is a first class return ticket to Monaco for the Grand Prix.

The truth is that while people may refer to the transactions as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents,’ they are for most part not made from any spirit of benevolence, but as an attempt to acquire, or buy, influence.  In that, they are just like most donations to political parties – and, on the same ground, fair game for the epithet of ‘corrupt’.

For instance, a person of interest in the Ukrainian–Trump corruption scandal is the U S Ambassador to the E U.  He appears to have three qualifications for that position – like the man who appointed him, his business is in boozers; he gave his wife a signed copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and, most importantly, he is a big donor to the Republican Party.  Indeed, it does appear that he bought this ambassadorship for a snip – a mere one million dollars (on which, we may be sure, he has paid no tax).  The notion that he might be a disinterested diplomat is fanciful.  Like everyone else appointed by this President, he is there to do the bidding of the appointer – and if he doesn’t, he will be sacked loudly on Twitter.

Clive’s defence of ‘presents’, then, does not hold up.  As it happens, our law is, now at least, clear that the agent would have to account for that gift to the Company.  It does not matter if the agent acted in good faith – or in a criminal way.  A member of the armed forces who used one of their trucks in smuggling was found to hold his resulting profit on trust for the Crown.

In my judgment, it is a principle of law that if a servant takes advantage of his service by violating his duty of honesty and good faith, to make a profit for himself, in this sense, that the assets of which he has control, or the facilities which he enjoys, or the position which he occupies, are the real cause of his obtaining the money, as distinct from being the mere opportunity for getting it, that is to say, if they play the predominant part in his obtaining the money, then he is accountable for it to the master. It matters not that the master has not lost any profit, nor suffered any damage. Nor does it matter that the master could not have done the act himself.  (Denning, J, upheld on appeal to the House of Lords: Reading v A-G [1951] A C 507.)

Nor did Clive feel any need to pussyfoot about using wealth to increase his political power.  (On a bad day he may have resembled Mr Kurtz in A Heart of Darkness.)

…a large fortune honourably acquired will be the source of great honours and advantages….believe me, there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions, and if after the Battle of Placis I had stayed in India for myself as well as the Company and acquired the fortune I might have done, by this time I might have been an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon instead of an Irish Peer (with the promise of a Red One).  However the receipt of the Jaggeer [jagir – an annuity paid by an Indian Prince] money for a few years will do great things.

As soulless materialism goes, Trump could hardly improve on that – but at least Clive had put on the uniform and put himself in harm’s way.

The jagir was worth £25,000 a year.  That puts the windfall of Hunter Biden (US $ 600,000) in the shade.  But common jealousy did its work and the struggle to retain that benefit, which the law would not I think now tolerate, dominated the life of Clive and the Company.  When he lost the benefit, he consulted Lord Hardwicke, a master of Equity, who said Clive and his father ‘either could not or were not willing to tell me what pretence of right was alleged for this proceeding.’  Later on, Horace Walpole, the first prime minister, said: ‘The Ministry have bought off Lord Clive with a bribe that would frighten the King of France himself; they have given him back his £25,000 a year.’  That does give new meaning to the word mercenary.  Walpole did say ‘that [Clive] owed his indemnity neither to innocence nor eloquence.’  And Dame Lucy did not exonerate Clive from guilt on the more modern charge ‘of using his inside information to gain profit on the market.’  (Clive did not buy the stock in his own name.)

Mind you, Clive gave good consideration to get his fortune back.  He promised the Government:

…..my poor services, such as they are, shall be dedicated for the rest of my days to the King, and my obligations to you always acknowledged, whether in or out of power….If these conditions are fulfilled, I do promise, Sir, that I never will give any opposition to the present or any other Court of Directors, and never will interfere in any of their affairs directly, or indirectly.

It’s ‘peace in our time’ all over again.  And is it not inherently vulgar for a subject of the King to make his loyalty to the King conditional upon the execution of a promise?

In the just released book, The Anarchy, The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple says that Clive was a ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’  He was also an utterly fearless guerrilla fighter.  Calcutta should have suited him: ‘one of the most wicked places in the Universe….Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’

Dalrymple says the jagir would now be worth £3,000,000 a year – and income tax had not been invented.  In addition, this swashbuckling buccaneer took plunder – called prize.  ‘Not since Cortés had Europe seen an adventurer return with so much treasure from distant conquests.’  And now the financial rape got serious.  The English called it ‘the shaking of the pagoda tree.’

And of course the white man did to the coloured man things he would never do to one of his own.  Dame Lucy records that Clive’s English attorney said the question ‘was this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.’  And of course, in the tropics on the wrong side of the world, all decency had gone clean overboard.  Macaulay was up for it.

A succession of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons.  A succession of ferocious invaders [Persians and Afghans] descended through the Western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of Hindostan…

Before them, Alexander.  After, them, the English and Clive.  And, yes, Mr Kurtz.

Well, well, well …..Clive’s men kept the doctors busy.  Now Trump’s men keep the lawyers busy.  The one difference is that you would have known you were going bad if you had run into your doctor in a Calcutta knock shop.  Manhattan’s slammers are filling up with Trump’s lawyers.

*F.n.: Lucy was a Geelong Girl educated in South Africa and Oxford.  According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman undergraduate to address the Union there.  She was the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for more than a quarter of a century.  She was an acolyte of Namier – and it shows – to her benefit.  (I am a Namier fan.)  God bless her – but I do fear that Lucy may have gone to God without having once seen in action the Mighty Cats of Geelong – let alone the late, great Polly Farmer, a blackfella who could punch a footy through the window of a moving car.

MY TOP SHELF – 39 – CHEKHOV

 

[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.]

39

THREE PLAYS

Anton Chekhov (1904)

Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966.  Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud.  Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.

A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life.  Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.

Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters.  But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty.  For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard.  The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company.  The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm.  Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose.  The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.

Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays.  The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre.  His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.

The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations.  It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896.  It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors   Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age.  (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.)  The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope.  The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order.  It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.

The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904.  Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.  And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’  People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.

In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:

In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation.  He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..

The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.

In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts.  Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter.  Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems.  Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future.  Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture.  Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker.  Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood.  The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world.  They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them.  The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.

Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under.  This régime was not just ancien, but defunct.  This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it.  Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.

The Three Sisters can be hard work.  Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood.  Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married.  Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all.  A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience.  The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house.  He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone.  All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha).  A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means.  No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.

Let us conclude where we began.  When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket.  They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’  Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy.  All his life he had contended with it.  It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’  Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.

Passing Bull 217 – Hearsay

 

Passing on what others say is called gossip.  Donald Trump is addicted to it.

‘They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,’ the president said.

‘CrowdStrike?’ the surprised reporter asked, referring to the California cybersecurity company that investigated how Russian government hackers had stolen and leaked Democratic emails, disrupting Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

‘That’s what I heard,’ Mr. Trump resumed. ‘I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian; that’s what I heard.’

More than two years later, Mr. Trump was still holding on to this false conspiracy theory. (The Guardian, 5 October, 2019)

That’s right, Trump said four times that he had heard something.  Hearsay.

It’s therefore odd to see his loyal lieutenants in the Senate condemning a whistleblower statement as hearsay.  (As it happens, it is far more literate than anything Trump has said – ever.)

It is hard for some – including me – to understand what the whistleblower added to the White House record of the now famous telephone call.  But it is wholly absurd to suggest that the business of government could only be conducted according to the laws that govern what a witness in court might lawfully say in giving evidence.  You cannot, if objection is taken, tender a statement by a witness that another person told him he saw Bob shoot the deceased as evidence of the truth of that assertion made out of court.

But we, including government, all the time act on the basis of the truth of what we are told by others.  For example, it is only hearsay that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Imagine this.  The head of the FBI rings the President to tell him that he has a credible source saying that terrorists are intent on blowing up the White House and killing the President and five world leaders – and the President responds by saying that he is not accustomed to acting on mere hearsay.

And yet – some parts of the infamous base continue to lap up this nonsense.

Bloopers
If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,’ Mr Trump tweeted — sending the Turkish lira down 2 per cent.

Financial Times, 8 October, 2019.

He added he had done it before.

MY TOP SHELF – 38 – War and Peace

 

[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.]

38

WAR AND PEACE

Lev Tolstoy

 

London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, Oxford University Press, 1943; subsequently recovered in half morocco in red with gold title and humps on spine, and cloth boards.

You die and find it all out or you cease asking

With a phrase unusually pregnant with meaning even for Shakespeare, a character in Measure for Measure is described as ‘desperately mortal’.  The characters of War and Peace come down to us in the same way – but, more: somehow they come to us as desperately human.  This novel of about 1,300 pages has two leading characters, but most of the action comes from three Russian families.  Although we are occasionally let in on the French side, and Napoleon himself has a substantial role, this is a Russian novel where the author refers to the Russians as ‘we’.

The three families of Russians are aristocrats.  We meet one peasant at the end, but no merchants or professionals.  When it comes to leading or expounding a point of view, we hear only from the men.  We are therefore looking only at a tiny part of the Russian nation, perhaps not one in a thousand.  Tolstoy was a Russian count and most of this novel is about Russian counts (or countesses) or better.  To adopt an observation of another author, the second title of this book may have been: ‘All aristocrats are spoiled; some are more spoiled than others’.  But for all that we see a pageant of all humanity unfurling before our eyes in a way that may only ever have been matched in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

Count Pierre Bezuhov is the central figure in the novel.  He moves among the three families and across the lines of the two armies.  In many ways he is like a one-man Greek chorus.  He was the illegitimate child of an old rake who was legitimated at the very end so that he could inherit a very wealthy estate.  That is how the novel begins.  Pierre was not raised in or for the purple.  He is gauche, but acute of mind; he cares little about the social niceties that everyone else cares very greatly about; and you might say the same about money.  He has a very simple faith, but for most of the novel he lives under the impression that he can by the power of his mind arrive at the answers to life’s questions.  His quest for such an answer is at the base of the novel.

Pierre, like Prince Andrey, talks a lot to himself.  These speeches are their soliloquies.  In the BBC production, they are voice-overs.  They are as integral to the novel as the soliloquies are to Hamlet.

Let us refer to some of the problems of the novel.  Tolstoy the writer had a lot of form for going on at length about what would then have been called ‘philosophical’ issues.  In this novel he goes on a lot about the determining factors of military movements.  Most of this seems to be undertaken with a view to belittling Napoleon.  The fashion one hundred years ago for engaging in this kind of ‘philosophising’ was much more in favour then than it would be now.  Most of this kind of talk will be likely to bore people now, and readers are advised to skip through it.  Flaubert complained to Turgenev about the essays of Tolstoy: ‘He repeats himself!  He philosophises!’  That hectoring tone has crept into the novel.

There is perhaps something of a similar problem with Natasha.  She tends to be altogether too gushing for modern tastes (as might Anya be in The Cherry Orchard).  But we do need to remember that she does start off as a closeted fifteen year old child who is expected, at least in some respects, to play the part of an adult.  The novel also has some of the attributes of 19th century novels, like two bad guys who are really just caricatures of bounders or cads, and a liking for coincidence.

For all that, the novel in spite of its length is extremely readable.  It does not have anything like the boring excursions that you come across in Les Misérables, or Moby Dick, or that some even find in Don Quixote.  With a modicum of application, the ordinary reader should not have much difficulty in completing reading this book in, say, a fortnight.  When they have done so, they will know that they have read what many people in the world regard as the greatest novel ever written.

Let us remember that we are dealing with a world that is completely beyond our comprehension.  The Tsar had absolute power.  The Russian people had no history of trying to contain that power.  The doctrine of the divine right of kings was well and truly alive and well.  It follows that they were still living with serfs, or white slaves.  Serfs could be worth less than dogs.  In the course of a hunt, Nikolay Rostov enquired after a black and tan bitch owned by another hunter.  The hunter said he had acquired the bitch a year before for three families of house serfs.

So, the world of Russia then – during the wars against Napoleon – is utterly unlike any world that we have known.  The Russian aristocracy was trying to ape European civilisation, and particularly that of France, by speaking French, but in many ways their customs will seem as comprehensible to us as the customs of the blackfellas that were practised in this country one or two thousand years before the white people arrived here.  To make the comparison more local, Russia in 1812 had much more in common with Persia than with France or Germany.

The book has set pieces dealing with both war and peace: the two major battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are covered in great detail; there are two famous ballroom scenes; a scene at the opera; an extended account of a wolf hunt; and, for action between war and peace, a duel.

At times, the commentary has an El Greco lightning-strike scale of illumination.  While Moscow was waiting for the French, the population descended to animal lawlessness with scenes like those in Paris at the height of the terror.  In one of them, Tolstoy reflects unmistakably on the Passion.  The Governor of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, hands one suspected traitor over the mob.  ‘You shall deal with him as you think fit!  I hand him over to you!’  The resulting massacre is bestial, and resembles in part the September Massacres in Paris twenty or so years before.  As the Governor goes home in his carriage, an asylum spills out its lunatics:

Tottering on his long, thin legs, in his fluttering dressing-gown, this madman ran at headlong speed, with his eyes fixed on Rastoptchin, shouting something to him in a husky voice, and making signs to him to stop.  The gloomy and triumphant face of the madman was thin and yellow, with irregular clumps of beard growing on it.  The black agate-like pupils of his eyes moved restlessly, showing the saffron-yellow whites above.  ‘Stay!  Stop, I tell you!’ he shouted shrilly, and again breathlessly fell to shouting something with emphatic gestures and intonations. 

He reached the carriage and ran alongside it.

‘Three times they slew me; three times I rose again from the dead.  They stoned me, they crucified me  …  I shall rise again  …  I shall rise again  … I shall rise again.  My body they tore to pieces.  The Kingdom of Heaven will be overthrown  …  Three times I will overthrow it, and three times I will set it up again’, he screamed, his voice growing shriller and shriller.  Count Rastoptchin suddenly turned white, as he had turned white when the crowd fell upon [the victim of the mob].  He turned away.  ‘Go, go on, faster!’ he cried in a trembling voice to his coachman.

We read novels for the insight we get from writing like that, not to read tracts about theology or politics.

War?  No sane person writes a book about war that is pro-war.  Sane books about war are anti-war.  Homer began the tradition with the Iliad and War and Peace is its apogee.  The novel is an attack on everything that Napoleon stood for – his doctrinaire aggression and his doctrine that one man – a hero – can create history.  Here is the most polite thing that Tolstoy ever said about Napoleon:

A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions, no name, not even a Frenchman, by the strangest freaks of chance, as it seems, rises above the seething parties of France, and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position.

Bulky, slow, modest, determined, devout, one-eyed old Kutuzov is the real hero of the novel.  Kutuzov has God, but he is down to earth.  He is not into theory or even strategy.  On the eve of Austerlitz, Kutuzov addresses his staff:

‘Gentlemen, the dispositions of tomorrow, for today indeed (for it’s going on for one o’clock), can’t be altered now’, he said.  ‘You have heard it, and we will all do our duty.  And before a battle nothing is of so much importance …’ (he paused) ‘as a good night’s rest.’

We may be confident that Kutuzov had the view of the impossibility of military science that Tolstoy attributed to Prince Andrey.  ‘How can there be a science of war in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be definite, and everything depends on countless conditions, the influence of which becomes manifest all in a moment, and no one can know when that moment is coming.’

This plain view of soldiering is like the view that Pierre came to hold over our understanding of what matters most.  It is attained not ‘by reason, but by life’.  That view in turn is very much like the view of the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that ‘the life of the law has not been logic but experience’.  General Kutuzov was no theorist.

Above all, Kutuzov looked after his men.  This wise old soldier knew that the geography and climate could see Napoleon off (just as they would see Hitler off).  Why spill Russian blood for the sake of it to supplement the work of God?  A commander of the German school wanted Kutuzov to take a stand at Moscow.  This is how the good old man dealt with the bullshit.

‘The holy and ancient capital of Russia!’ he cried, suddenly, in a wrathful voice, repeating Bennigsen’s words, and thereby underlining the false note in them, ‘Allow me to tell your Excellency that that question has no meaning to a Russian.’  (He lurched his unwieldy figure forward.)  ‘Such a question cannot be put; there is no sense in such a question.  The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is the question of the war. The question is: the safety of Russia lies in her army.  Is it better to risk the loss of the army and of Moscow by giving battle, or to abandon Moscow without a battle?  That is the question on which I desire to learn your opinion.’  He lurched back into his low chair again.

The role of Kutusov should be studied by all those commanders who believe that they have the brains and the toys that take them beyond the reach of the eternal verities.  Kutusov was a supremely good, lovable hero.  Accordingly, to show the gratitude of Mother Russia, he was in victory stripped of his command by an inbred fop who could not have fought his way out of a wet paper bag.  This is irony.  It may not be irony of the tragic kind, but Tolstoy revels in it, as well he may, and he lays it on with a trowel.

Prince Andrey was hardened by the battle of Austerlitz where he was badly wounded.  On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrey has a remarkable conversation with Count Pierre.  Sporting coaches might wish to commit parts of it to memory.

‘But you know they say’, he said, ‘that war is like a game of chess.’

‘Yes’, said Prince Andrey, ‘only with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, that you are not limited as to time, and with the spirited difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division, and sometimes weaker than a company.  No one can ever be certain of the relative strength of armies.  Believe me’, he said, ‘if anything did depend on the arrangements made by the staff, I would be there, and helping to make them, but instead of that I have the honour of serving here in the regiment with these gentlemen here, and I consider that the day really depends upon us tomorrow and not on them…  Success never has depended, and never will depend on position, on arms, nor even numbers; and, least of all, on position’.

‘On what then?’

‘On the feeling that is in me and him’, he indicated Timohin [his Major] ‘and every soldier.’

Prince Andrey glanced at Timohin, who was staring in alarm and bewilderment at his Colonel….‘The battle is won by the side that has firmly resolved to win …’

What counts is the feeling that is in me and in him.

Two other comments on the war.  When standing outside Moscow – this ‘Asiatic city’ – Napoleon observed that ‘a city occupied by the enemy is like a girl who has lost her honour.’  As the French soldiers dispersed in the city, they went from being an active menacing army to being marauders.  If Mr Bush and Mr Blair had taken notice of these two simple truths before sending their armies into Baghdad, they may have saved their armies a lot of lives, and themselves a lot of embarrassment.  Nor did Napoleon pause to explain why he was surprised that he was not welcomed in Moscow – it is, after all, rare for a girl to welcome the man who has just raped her.

Prince Andrey sure knew how to unsettle his friend Count Pierre.  When, near the end, Pierre asked one of his old retainers if he still wanted freedom, the answer was in substance: ‘What on earth for?’  But the answer of course would have been different if the question had been put by old Prince Vassily Bolkonsky.  Tolstoy, too, was an abiding liberal.  He could afford to be having been born a Count into a family of 800 serfs.

Well, what then of Pierre and his quest for the one logical answer to all of life’s mysteries?  Pierre had formed a view that he should kill Napoleon.  He did not reach that position in the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he resolved to try to kill Adolf Hitler.  Pierre had devised some bizarre formula in a naïve belief that there must be a given logical or even mathematical answer.  He eventually came to rest with the simple view that God is everywhere and that we must take life as it comes.

In accordance with the text, Pierre learns his lesson not from logic but from life.  Ostensibly it comes to him in talking with a peasant, Platon Karataev, but the truth is that it comes to him during his imprisonment.  Over a period of time, he actually gets to live with the unwashed.  It would be like someone brought up in the landed aristocracy in England and kept on the estate or at an elite boarding school and then being dumped in the ranks in the navy.  You may as well land him on Mars.

In the course of his journey, Pierre delivered himself of an observation which for many is their favourite part in the book.  ‘You die and it’s all over.  You die and find it all out or you cease asking.’  Pierre thought that this proposition was illogical, but it appears to us to be spellbindingly logical, one of the very few propositions about the afterlife that is sane, sensible and apparently logical.  If you combine with it the insight of the ancient Greeks that you do not live to see your own death, you have the basis of a tolerant view of the meaning of life, or at least one that suggests that we should be tolerant of the views of others.  Bravo, therefore, Pierre!

Kutuzov was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Napoleon.  Zhukov, greatly admired by Eisenhower, was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Hitler.  At the end of that war, which the Russians refer to the Great Patriotic War, Zhukov was stripped of his position as commander-in-chief.  The man responsible was called Stalin.  He had more power than any of the Tsars had and Stalin killed more peasants than any Tsar did.  Millions more.

If you go to Moscow now, you will see why they refer to the Great Patriotic War.  On the way in from the airport, there is a monument to ‘where we stopped the fascists.’  It is not far from the Kremlin.  If you visit the Kremlin you may get a guide who will say, without mentioning any names – ‘That is the gate he came in on’ and ‘That is the gate he went out of.’

I want to end this note on this wonderful book by looking at one of its more famous incidents, one so faithfully shown in the BBC series.  It is in Book 12 Chapter 3.  Napoleon’s army is occupying Moscow.  It is executing Russian trouble-makers.  A group is marched to a field.  Pierre hears officers talking of whether the prisoners would be shot separately or two at a time.  Pierre listens and watches in horror as the prisoner are shot in pairs.  ‘On the faces of all the Russians, and of the French soldiers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror and conflict that were in his own heart….The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak.  The moment they laid hands on him, he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre.  (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free).  The lad was unable to walk….When he understood that screaming was useless, he took his stand at the post….and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.’  He was not dead when he went into the pit.  A French sharpshooter lingered over it.  ‘This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired.  He swayed a like a drunken man, taking steps forward and back to save himself from falling’  An old NCO dragged the soldier off.  The crowd dispersed. ‘That will teach them to start fires,’ said one of the Frenchmen.’

I said that I would come back to the way that the German occupying army shot the French historian Marc Bloch during World War II.  According to the very complete biography of Bloch by Carole Fink, on the night of 16 June 1944, at about 8 o’clock, 28 prisoners of Montluc at Lyon were assembled from various cells and hand-cuffed two-by-two in an open truck that was escorted by German officers and subofficers with aimed tommy guns.  They went to the Place Bellecour which was then the Gestapo HQ.  They were there insulted by a drunken German officer who bragged that London would be destroyed by the V-1.  They then drove along the Saone to a meadow surrounded by trees at a place called La Rousille.  They were then unloaded in batches of two-by-two and shot at close range by uniformed soldiers with machine guns.  A survivor said that Bloch at the last moment comforted a frightened young man by telling him that the bullets would not hurt.  Bloch was reported to be the first victim to fall.  As he did, he cried ‘Vive la France!’

According to Carole Fink, there were two main differences in the executions imagined by Tolstoy and those recorded in history.  The Germans circulated and delivered the final fatal shots to the head, but they did not bury the evidence – they just destroyed the evidence of identity, and hurried off.  Tolstoy had said: ‘They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.’  Tolstoy could say that of his murderers because he was their creator.  We do not know what was in the minds of the German murderers because we are not God.

As it seems to me, we have in Tolstoy a writer with a genius for artistic imagination and an insight into the human condition that we do not expect to see outside of God.

Passing Bull 216 – Malicious allegations

 

There is plenty of malice about in London and Washington.  Canberra has always showed some infection.  Politics involves contests, and they can get dirty.

If I see someone disposing of litter illegally, I would not normally be disposed to do much about – in despite of those road signs inviting me to snitch.  But if I saw someone I really had it in for doing it, I might be disposed to dob him in.  My motive would not be to help the law keep the place tidy, but to hurt my enemy.  I would be acting maliciously.  But that says nothing about the worth of the allegation itself.

If the evidence shows a breach of the law, then my motive for setting the law in action is irrelevant.  Socrates ran this argument – and paid the price.  (The law does know of a wrong called ‘malicious prosecution,’ but we can put that to one side.  It is, like ‘conspiracy’, a kind of fool’s gold invoked by silly people who have crawled out of the lions’ den, and want to go back for more.)

Consider then the following.

‘Allegations have been brought to the attention of the monitoring officer that Boris Johnson maintained a friendship with Jennifer Arcuri and as a result of that friendship allowed Ms Arcuri to participate in trade missions and receive sponsorship monies in circumstances when she and her companies could not have expected otherwise to receive those benefits,’ a GLA statement said.

Theresa Villiers, environment secretary, said the allegations were politically motivated. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday morning, she said: ‘I think this whole thing has been blown out of all proportion’.  (Financial Times, 29 September, 2019)

This is serious bullshit.  There is not even an allegation of malice.  The motivation is ‘political’.  What other motivation would there be for a political act?  Impeachment is a political act.  Does that mean its invocation is necessarily flawed?

Yet, on the weekend journalists who know nothing of the law lined up to criticize the U K Supreme Court for making a decision in a ‘political matter.’  If a government could avoid scrutiny by the courts just by saying ‘political’, you could kiss good bye to administrative law and indeed the rule of law.

Still, the erstwhile associate of the Prime Minister was up to it.

In a statement last week, Ms Arcuri said: ‘Any grants received by my companies and any trade mission I joined were purely in respect of my role as a legitimate businesswoman.’ (Financial Times, 3o September, 2019)

I wonder why the lady felt the need to qualify the final noun in that way – or at all.  Of course the transaction was merely commercial.

Bloopers

The idea that Trump’s conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart justifies this [impeachment], uniquely in the annals of all US presidential history, is utterly ridiculous.

The Saturday Australian, 28-29 September, 2019, Greg Sheridan.

Mr Sheridan evidently shares the inability of Mr Trump to perceive that the abuse of a public office for personal gain is a serious breach of the duty of good faith.  You wonder whether some had the same view of the priesthood.  You also wonder what Mr Trump has on Mr Murdoch.  But, then, Mr Sheridan was one of those getting into British judges.  That suited his current songbook.