[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]


Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880

Folio Society, 1964; bound in illustrated boards with slipcase; drawings by Nigel Lambourne

Wagner and Dostoevsky had a lot in common.  Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither improved as result.  Both were prone to go over the top.  You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both.  And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us.  They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere.  The Brothers Karamazov, is a case in point. In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.

The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook.  The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you.  I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’  The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.   We are familiar with Ivan’s biggest problem.

And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.  A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows.  It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it ….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.

Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia.  Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.

Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.  All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…I don’t want any more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony.  We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha.  I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

That is very strong stuff.  There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.

‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

‘Rebellion?  I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling.  One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.’

‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.

Nor would any other sane person.  So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary.  He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle.  He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics.  But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man.  ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’  The crowd loves him.  A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’  The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’.  And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’  The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’

He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM.  And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.

That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so.  The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

Do not answer, be silent.  And, indeed, what can you say?  I know too well what you would say.  Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old.  Why then did you come to meddle with us?  For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.

Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’.  Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view.  The Cardinal went on.

It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men.  Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy?  You were warned.  There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them.  You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.

Then comes the bell-ringer.

You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship.  But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…

Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ.  It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.

There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles.  And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…

How will it end?

But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good.  Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created.  We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves.  And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them.  For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.

The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.

A swipe at one church by an adherent of another?  A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic?  A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin?  A frightful preview of 1984?  It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition.  It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers.  They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.

Here and there – Dignity in Kant and Shakespeare

In any community, two questions always arise.  How should I treat my neighbour?  (Or, and this question may evoke the same answer, how would I like my neighbour to treat me?) And, are my neighbour and I equal in our rights?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote a great deal and most of it is beyond the understanding of most of the rest of us.  He did however have something to say about dignity or worth or value that we can follow.  For some people – including me – what he says can be taken as offering an axiom on which we might base our view of the moral world.

Here is part of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

….all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves….In the kingdom of ends, everything has a price or dignity.  What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; that which, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, that is with a delight in the mere purposeless play of our mental powers, has a fancy price; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not really a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is dignity.

Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends.  Hence, morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of humanity, is that alone which has dignity.  Skill and diligence in work have a market place; wit, lively imagination and humour have a fancy price; on the other hand, fidelity of promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth.

In another paper (On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory), Kant said this about equality:

Whoever is subject to laws is subject within a state and is thus subjected to coercive right equally with all other members of the commonwealth…in terms of right…they are nevertheless equal to one another as subjects; for no one of them can coerce any other except through public law….From this idea of the equality of human beings as subjects within a commonwealth there also issues the following formula: Every member of a commonwealth  must be allowed  to attain any level of which his talent, industry or luck can take him….

(This was written after the fall of the Bastille, but before the Terror became known to the world.)

In another text (Critique of Judgment, par.60), Kant said that humanity signifies the universal feeling of sympathy – although we might feel a little more at home with a reference to a capacity for a kind of sympathy that may or may not be found in gorillas.

Shakespeare touched on the issue of dignity in one of his plays that I find very heavy going, Troilus and Cressida.  Paris the Trojan has eloped with Helen the Greek wife of a Greek king.  This affront to Greek honour leads them to declare war against Troy.  Not surprisingly, at least some Trojans ask whether this insult, if that is what it was, warrants men being killed in their thousands. 

Helen and Paris have not had a good press.  (You may fairly ask who of this motley warrants one?)  A Greek soldier says of Helen:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins

A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple

Of her contaminated carrion weight

A Trojan hath been slain.  (4.1.69-72)

Hector may be the only decent person on the stage – the rest are a parade of human frailty or nastiness – and Paris and Troilus are among the worst.  Hector lines Paris up with a shirt-front:

… ..or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause

Can qualify the same? (2.2.115 – 118)

(Fear of ‘bad success in a bad cause’ might be said of us in every war since 1945.) 

Ulysses is even more damning about Cressida.

…….Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body….

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56-63)

(The last line has its modern reading.)

But the passage we are interested in is as follows.


Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost
The holding.


What is aught, but as ’tis valued?


But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.   (2.2.51ff)

So, Troilus has the view that value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder – ‘the prizer’ (the person making the appraisal).  Value is whatever the market will bear.  But Hector says that the dignity of a person ‘is precious of itself.’  Some might say that Troilus is on the side of relativism, the moral cancer of our time – there are no intrinsic values, only those that are attributed by others.  But for Hector human dignity is inherent in a human being – it comes with humanity.  This was the view of Kant.

Hector says that some truths are beyond matters of opinion.

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion
Is this in way of truth….(2.2.180-186)

But then Hector flips and says that he will just go with the flow – and that is part of the reason this play is so hard to grapple with.

The notion of dignity inherent in humanity underlies the self-evident truths of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and the first article of the Rights of Man: ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’.  If you look at a random cross-section of world slayers like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry VIII, Calvin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lenin, or Donald Trump, you see immediately how important are the views of Kant and Hector.  These people have no regard at all for the dignity of other people.  For them, other people exist only as means to an end, and in acting that way they reject out of hand the rationale of Kant for his primary rule.  And of course their celebration of their own egos leaves any conception of equality as illusory as a thing writ on water.  For any of them, you would be talking into air to offer them the plea that a Danish prince offered on behalf of travelling players – to ‘use them after your own honor and dignity’ (Hamlet, 2.2.54—542) – that is not what they were built for.

For others, this assertion of human dignity from two of our most famous minds is a real comforter in a time of need – especially at a time of epidemic when some people, who appear to me to be close to being morally insane, think that it might be a good idea to put a dollar value on my human life.

Passing Bull 240 – After/Because

A well-known fallacy has a Latin tag- Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  ‘After something and therefore because of it’.  If I am driving under the influence, it does not follow that any accident I have is caused by my condition.  I may have stopped very appropriately before someone ran into the back of me.  Some cities have seen massive protests.  It does not follow that any spike in the virus follows from that fact.  You can see how bad the reasoning is – the White House used it to justify a Trump rally.

One newspaper has questioned whether the High Court allowed due process to Dyson Heydon.  One academic was concerned that the Chief Justice accepted findings before they were tested in court.  That is plain silly.  It gets worse.  The academic is reported to have said ‘this could give rise to a perception of bias if the Heydon affair ever went to the High Court.’

An article by a legal reporter began:

The inquiry that found Dyson Heydon sexually harassed female associates reached its decision without hearing one word from the former High Court judge.

That would be an obvious failure of due process – unless:

While Dr Thom had invited Mr Heydon to provide his side of the affair, he is believed to have declined that invitation out of concern that the allegations against him could not be tested, but that anything he said could be used against him in further proceedings.

It is preposterous to envisage a senior professional person refuse to answer a complaint of abuse of power by some rag tag version of the Fifth.  If Mr Heydon did refuse to answer his accusers, people will assess his conduct accordingly.

It may or may not assist people to understand the claims against Mr Heydon if I set out the terms of some posts in 2014 and 2015.

Dyson and Rupert again

Yes, I hate it, too, when someone says that I told you so, so I can only ask forgiveness for setting out below parts of a post about Dyson Heydon and Rupert Murdoch in December 2014.  Eighteen months and, say, $40 million or so ago.

Dyson Heydon has now in my opinion made a fool of himself with remarks about two Labor leaders.

The dinner address farce does not prove the point – it just illustrates it.  If you want to know the full extent of the poison for our judges, just look at the beginning of the piece on the front page of The Australian by one of Abbott’s closest supporters, Dennis Shanahan:

Tony Abbott’s sharpest weapon against Bill Shorten has been blunted.  Any findings of the trade union royal commission which reflect badly on the Opposition Leader’s behaviour while running the AWU have been tainted.

If you missed the point, you have the headline on page 6:

Bad judgment leaves the PM shooting blanks.

The sheer vulgarity and nastiness of it all defies belief.  And I cannot see why there is all the fuss about a fundraiser.  Is it  not enough that he is accepting invitations from the political party that got him to shaft the political party opposite them? The Attorney as usual got it all wrong.  He has some experience here.  He presented the address in 2010.  And billed us $1000 expenses for the privilege.

So what next? 


Bomb  more Muslems – bomb Syria.  That should take us out of ourselves. 

(If you want to know what the PM thinks about foreign policy, go to Greg Sheridan:

The PM has a strong inclination to confront and defeat Islamic State, but he also has a deeper strategic purpose.  That is to stiffen the resolve of the Americans.  This is a common strategic view among Western leaders, that the Americans need to do more and be more decisive, but that they cannot be easily persuaded to do more.

So, that is what our leader seeks to achieve by bombing Muslims – to put some steel into Uncle Sam.  This is pure Alice in Wonderland.)

And now we see another reason why Heydon should not have got involved in this political hit job.  He might get sued.  While conducting various proceedings over nearly thirty years, I have been sued in most courts in the land – I am not talking of appeals but of being taken to court to get my process stopped – and it is water off a duck’s back.  But I have never had the backing of the Act of Settlement, and I have never worn ermine.  If I go down, I do so alone. 

That is not the case here.  The government is still trumpeting Heydon’s High Court credentials.  Well, there are plenty out there with standing to sue him.  For all I know, Heydon presently has before him a letter alleging bias and asking for an undertaking that proceedings before the Commission will cease until the issue has been determined by the courts – including, perhaps, the High Court.  Heydon is one name that you would not want mention up there just now.

The nature of the problem, that is way over the pay level of this government, is further discussed below.

When Dyson met Rupert – and the High Court of Australia beheld the gutter


It is not likely that Mr John Setka of the CFMEU has ever felt the need to tell a journalist that that he has often felt the need to express his dissent in the minutes of the union because he did not like the writing style of the other organizers and officers of the union – that he does, for example, have a real aversion to split infinitives, dangling participles, or a perceptible but unwarranted variation in the number of a noun that some others tolerate to avoid treading on the toes of those who get exercised over what is called sexism. These are some of the things that Mr Dyson Heydon, QC discussed on the ABC when reflecting on his time as a justice of the High Court of Australia. That court is our highest court, and by and large its members have served us well. It is a reputation devoutly to be preserved.

There was always going to be a problem in Mr Heydon continuing to do just that when he accepted the invitation of the current Prime Minister to go down into the world of Mr Setka and the phantoms of the enemies of Julia Gillard, the outgoing PM, and our first woman PM. Julia Gillard had been targeted by members of the press, especially the Murdoch press, about allegations of what had passed between her as a solicitor and a boyfriend twenty years ago. Yes, you heard – twenty years ago; more than three times longer than the standard limitation period fixed by the law for permitting civil claims to be raised.

The employees of Mr Murdoch, and their unattractive political sponsors like Senators Abetz and Brandis, to this day put their hands on their heart and say that they have pursued this issue in the public interest because what Julia Gillard did twenty years ago reflects on her fitness to hold office as Prime Minister. Well, if they are prepared to say that with a straight face, they will also be the shrillest in objecting to any suggestion that this kind of personal denigration could only have been wrought on a woman. However that may be, the attack on Julia Gillard, especially after she had lost office, appeared to many Australians to reach new lows, even by our standards, of partisan political bitchiness and moral vacuity in Canberra.

The CFMEU is what is called a militant trade union. It has succeeded to the position of the BLF as the Aunt Sally of choice for hardened and unlovely champions of the class war like Senators Abetz and Brandis. The public inquiry headed by Mr Heydon, and named after him, was predictably branded as a witch hunt, and we have no problem in imagining what the reprisals will be like, but it was always hard to see how anyone like Mr Heydon could get down into this gutter and come out with a reputation enhanced, or even preserved.

Mr Heydon has impeccable credentials as a member of the Establishment, or at least as close as Sydney can get to any such thing. He was educated at Shore School before going on to win the University Medal at Sydney University. He was a Rhodes Scholar – well the whole nation is coming to terms with the fool’s gold that that distinction may hide – but his winning the Vinerian Prize at Oxford is a good sign of a very bright and concentrated academic mind, if not a driven one.

Whether that can translate into good judgment and common sense is another question, especially when those early academic prizes are followed by the active pursuit of an academic career. Mr Heydon was a Fellow of Keble College Oxford before becoming a professor in Sydney and the Dean of the Law School. He is the author of works in the wantonly superior and acerbic style that some elevated lawyers in Sydney appear to find satisfying. He never sat as a trial judge, being appointed straight to a court of appeal and then to the High Court. I do not know if he ever appeared in a criminal trial or before a jury.

Mr Heydon was happy to tell those listening to the ABC that he wears as a badge of honour the title of conservative black letter lawyer. He acknowledged that others regard that term as an insult. Mr Heydon is not therefore averse to taking sides, and being seen to do so. South of the Murray, the Sydney black letter lawyers, the ‘whisperers’, are thought to have tickets on themselves and to be too brittle for their own good. Some of the sniping that they engage in looks downright bitchy, and you can see it in print, and in works that assert claims to scholarly merit. They can engage in behaviour that looks anything but conservative.


By the time his time on High Court had expired, Justice Heydon had become a compulsive dissenter, and he could express his views in language that was at best curious. In the case about packaging cigarettes, his Honour said:

After a ‘great’ constitutional case, the tumult and the shouting dies. The captains and the kings depart. Or at least the captains do; the Queen in Parliament remains forever. Solicitors-General go. New Solicitors-General come. This world is transitory. But some things never change. The flame of the Commonwealth’s hatred for that beneficial constitutional guarantee, s. 51 (xxxi) , may flicker, but it will not die. That is why it is eternally important to ensure that that flame does not start a destructive blaze.

Putting to one side the imputation to a polity of a visceral emotion, which would have entertained medieval Schoolmen, is this what we expect from the justices in our ultimate constitutional court – to speak of the hatred of the Commonwealth of a part of the Commonwealth Constitution? What do these people do to each other up there is that bleak suburban fastness of Canberra? What sort of masonry lies buried here? Where is the calm repose of the dispassionate jurist?

Mr Heydon was appointed to the High Court by Prime Minister John Howard, who is the mentor of the Prime Minister who appointed him to conduct this royal commission. This could be called keeping it in the family, although few Australians will reflect with equanimity on the suggestion of Mr Abbott that he is the political love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop.

The government was aware that its bona fides were in issue – to put it softly – in this royal commission. They had to find a safe pair of hands, a man beyond reproach. How could you do better and more safely than with a former High Court judge who glories in his black letter conservatism? All that would have been enough for a government that puts slogans where thinking should be, and which puts political advantage over principle.

Well, it was never likely that Mr Heydon would, like Sir Garfield Barwick, be described as the hit man of the Establishment, but there were obvious difficulties in his appointment to this political task. With the best will in the world, Mr Heydon would have no idea of the world of people like Mr John Setka or Ms Kathy Jackson of the Health Services Union. You do not learn about them at Shore or Keble College, Oxford. You might as well ask Mr Setka to give advice to Mr Heydon’s club in Sydney, the Australian Club, on the etiquette surrounding the inviting of ladies to lunch at that club. (You don’t.) It is not as if Mr Heydon has spent time knocking back beers at a South Sydney boozer talking to people with pictures on their arms and with a bit of previous in their cupboards about the contribution of the blackfellas to the latest flag of the Bunnies. This is one factor in appearances when appearances count. It rather savours of two of the chaps from Oxford getting together to advance the interests of those who share their view of the world over the interests of those who are not so well off. Put differently, what member of the CFMEU or any other union target could give a bugger what somebody like Dyson Heydon, QC said about them? This is not just class that we speak of – it is caste.

But it was not just the sheltered, cloistered upbringing of Mr Heydon that made this appointment inappropriate – it was his lack of experience as a trial judge. Royal commissioners are not judges and they do not exercise a judicial function. They are part-time public servants conducting an inquiry and they are anything but independent of those who give them the job. But it is useful in many contentious inquiries to appoint someone who has judicial or at least forensic experience in determining issues of fact arising from conflicts between witnesses, and to do so with a person who is as distant from the fray as possible. Neither of those ends was achieved here.

Nor would Mr Heydon have the faintest idea of what might be involved in running the office of a solicitor, which was at the heart of the query about Julia Gillard and her boyfriend. Had Mr Heydon ever practised as a solicitor, it is inherently unlikely that a firm of which he was a member would have acted for a union, let alone one as punchy as the CFMEU. But even if he had acted as a solicitor for the big end of town, he would have been able to smile in a more informed way on some of the more banal suggestions about the conduct of Julia Gillard as a solicitor. They were and are being made by people who do not know what they are talking about.

When judges are sitting in court, they observe a fiction that says that they are not affected by what they read in newspapers, but it must have been apparent to Mr Heydon that the job he was being asked to do had more wrinkles than my aging kelpy cross. Most Australian lawyers know the kind of juristic mayhem that can flow when the industrial and criminal laws combine. There are two words that cause veils to descend over people’s eyes when they are mentioned in an Australian court – one is tax; the other is industrial.

The BLF kept fighting lawyers (including me) in feed for more than a generation. A rogue outfit like the BLF pushes the legal system beyond its snapping point. Judges find themselves saying things that they instantly regret, but they feel provoked and pushed. The BLF provoked a Labor government to pass a law of proscription and annihilation that would have made Adolf Hitler blush. But what appeared to be the case to someone who had got to act on both sides of a long running kind of civil war was that the more that governments lashed out at those in charge of these outfits, the more thoroughly were their members locked in behind them. You get a similar reaction if you say something rude about the Collingwood Football Club. Class and faith (bigotry) are as thick as blood.

And was there not something just downright bloody unseemly about getting a former High Court judge to inquire into the conduct of a former Prime Minister as a solicitor more than twenty years ago, and after her time in office had expired? Is this really all that the people of Australia can expect from those who claim the right to run this bloody country?


A royal commission, as the name suggests, is a manifestation of royal power. Her Majesty, through her advisers and officers, good monarchists all down here, is proceeding against her Australian subjects, named or otherwise, to achieve a political objective. The Domesday Book was a good case. The Queen is in a way going against or sending against some of her subjects. All of her ancestors have promised not to do that ‘except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’ since clause 39 appeared in Magna Carta in 1215, but ancient rights must give way to current grubby political imperatives.

So, the Vinerian Scholar entered into this royal commission and into territory that would be less familiar to him than Mars – or the home of the South Sydney bunnies. He also came with a propensity to pedantic dissent from the mainstream, and a capacity to say things that put your teeth on edge. He looks like an unsettling nerd out of sync with the rest of us, a flat white made flesh, the lone Ranger sans Tonto, more of a protected species than a living national treasure.

And the main attack failed; the pursuit of Julia Gillard has been finally pronounced to have been what all but the bent or demented always believed it to have been. Mr Heydon said:

Findings are made that Julia Gillard did not commit any crime and was not aware of any criminality on the part of these union officials.

There was a time when a good trial judge would have just stopped there because he or she had just disposed of the relevant issue. But Mr Heydon went on to opine that part of her legal work ‘must be regarded as a lapse of professional judgment, but nothing more sinister.’

The introduction of the degree of comparison might suggest that in the opinion of the author, the error of judgment was in itself ‘sinister’. If you look that word up, you will get ‘prejudicial, unfavourable, darkly suspicious.’ Mr Heydon also used the lesser epithet of ‘questionable.’ Could it be that this long quest would just end with a question? How would it have gone down if a lesser lawyer, say a solicitor, had dared to question, en passant, Mr Heydon’s professional judgment as a barrister or judge?


Now all that kind of stuff is the staple of what passes for politics and journalism in this country – a less than elevating rough and ready blow by blow account of a shit fight. But that ugliness has been fed here by the lack of experience of this commissioner in trying controverted issues of fact. Mr Heydon is quoted in the press as saying:

Normally cross-examination of a non-expert witness is a contest between a professional expert who is familiar with every detail of the case and a relatively unwary member of the public who is not. But Julia Gillard had twenty years’ knowledge of the case and immense determination to vindicate her position. She was, so to speak, a professional expert on her own case.

Two reports in The Age quoted the same words, as if there was something wrong about them. There was. Mr Heydon, that is not how trial courts work. It may look that way to those in the proverbial ivory tower of Keble College Oxford or the High Court of Australia, but it is not what happens day to grinding day in any court in the land. The mystique of cross-examination is grossly over-rated, and as an artful technique it is nearly dead. You grope your way hoping not to get smacked or ambushed. The days when you are ‘familiar with every detail of the case’ do not happen often, if at all. If you have to listen to others do it, you try to help them reach the point, and sometimes just watch as people go over the precipice; you have to help them reach the point, because other litigants are waiting their chance to get this job done so that they can get on with their lives. Sir John Starke was the leading cross-examiner of his day, and he told me, more than once, that he always felt relief if when he sat down he was no worse off than when he started.

All that, apparently, has not been the experience of Mr Heydon, QC. We are not talking about what some call the sporting theory of justice. Rather, Mr Heydon looks on cross-examination as a kind of dressage contest where points are awarded for form, deportment, and style. The problem with treating the witness box as the scene of sport or even a contest is that the white hats may not do as well as the black hats. The black hats normally have the money behind them.

What Mr Heydon appears to be talking about is not cross-examination but the ghastly ersatz routine that is killing it. Counsel charge a fortune to read anything they can lay their hands on. They then bring their computer or wheelbarrow to court, smile wanly at the witness, and say; ‘Now, Sunshine, you and I are going on a little journey.’ They then proceed to circumnavigate the world, mostly to no effect, except to enhance their bank balance. Documents are flagged or tabbed to act as prompts or cues, and you neither see nor hear any real cross-examination at all. The process is tailor-made for the novice at one end and the truth-dodger and game-player at the other. We saw it all on live TV at the Leveson Inquiry. It was a boring as it was fruitless. I wonder if in truth Mr Heydon has ever seen a witness cross-examined at all.

I have tried to set out the reasons why I do not think that Mr Heydon was the right lawyer to conduct this inquiry, quite apart from his previous position as a High Court judge. He is too remote from the world and he has not had enough experience in resolving issues at first hand. These reasons were apparent to those advising the government, but they nevertheless went ahead, and Mr Heydon, perhaps from a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige, acceded to their request. It is difficult to avoid the inference that the government chose to go ahead with the appointment in spite of all the difficulties because they were set upon giving to their inquiry the gloss of the seal – the cachet, if you prefer – of the High Court of Australia – and there you have the whole bloody problem. We have drawn the courts, and our best one, into the political gutter.

A distinguished English judge was the late Lord Devlin. (He was also considered to be the Rolls Royce of trial judges, and it was said that he retired early because he was sick of the dry sodality of appellate work.) Lord Devlin once made a remark to the effect that English governments forever showed the very high regard that they and the English people had for their judges by their so frequent attempts to impose upon the judges to help them out of a political spot by giving their name and office to the conduct of a sensitive public inquiry*. This is why sensible and decent courts forbid that practice. That ban should extend to retired judges because the danger of communal reputational damage is just the same.

It would be tart to say that mistakes of professional judgment have been made here, and of a quite sinister kind, but is not the ordinary Australian, perhaps if you like ‘the relatively unwary member of the public’, not just a little ashamed at what is going on here? An Australian, as it happens a woman, has reached the highest form of electoral office that this nation can bestow; she is then made the subject of a sustained scheme by one of the world’s most powerful press head-kickers to blacken her name and run her out of office; she then has to face the indignity of being subjected to a public trial and humiliation at the instance of political opponents whose want of principle and character, and commitment to our basic political tenets, are becoming daily more apparent; and then their nominated inquisitor acquits her of the charges gainst her, but just gives her a backhander to go on with? Why would any sane Australian tell their children or grandchildren to do anything other than stay as far away from that cess-pit as possible? What can we say to these people, apart from what that now famous Boston attorney said to Senator McCarthy: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’

What did we Australians do to deserve this smutty little fiasco; more signally, what have we done to deserve these truly awful people who so truly believe that they are our ruling class?

*The actual words of Lord Devlin (The Judge, OUP, 1979, 9) were: ‘In our own country, the reputation of the judiciary for independence and impartiality is a national asset of such richness that one government after another tries to plunder it. This is a danger about which the judiciary itself has been too easy-going.’

Here and there -Dombey and Son again

Dombey and Son is a novel about a man who thinks that money and standing are all, so that he murders affection and attachment.  If you have a mortal dread of morning TV – and what sane patron of a public hospital waiting room does not? – you will instantly recognise the bad guy in this novel.  His teeth fairly gleam at you.

Something too deep for a partner, and much too deep for an adversary, Mr Carker the Manager sat in the rays of the sun that came down slanting on him through the skylight, playing his game alone.

And although it is not among the instincts wild or domestic of the cat tribe to play at cards, feline from sole to crown was Mr Carker the Manager, as he basked in the strip of summer-light and warmth that shone upon his table and the ground as if they were a crooked dial-plate, and himself the only figure on it. With hair and whiskers deficient in colour at all times, but feebler than common in the rich sunshine, and more like the coat of a sandy tortoise-shell cat; with long nails, nicely pared and sharpened; with a natural antipathy to any speck of dirt, which made him pause sometimes and watch the falling motes of dust, and rub them off his smooth white hand or glossy linen: Mr Carker the Manager, sly of manner, sharp of tooth, soft of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, nice of habit, sat with a dainty steadfastness and patience at his work, as if he were waiting at a mouse’s hole.

Elsewhere we get:

Mr Carker bowed his head, and rising from the table, and standing thoughtfully before the fire, with his hand to his smooth chin, looked down at Mr Dombey with the evil slyness of some monkish carving, half human and half brute; or like a leering face on an old water-spout. Mr Dombey, recovering his composure by degrees, or cooling his emotion in his sense of having taken a high position, sat gradually stiffening again, and looking at the parrot as she swung to and fro, in her great wedding ring.

Carker is one character who comes up against the ‘towering supremacy’ of Dombey Senior.  The other is Edith, his second wife.  She is a perfect amalgam of Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler.  She is ‘imperious and proud’ and ‘disdainful and defiant’ – and alarmingly modern.  Her tragic relationship with Dombey makes The Forsyte Saga look a little prosaic and there is a lot more edge to her than we are accustomed with this author.

To the moody, stubborn, sullen demon, that possessed him, his wife opposed her different pride in its full force. They never could have led a happy life together; but nothing could have made it more unhappy, than the wilful and determined warfare of such elements. His pride was set upon maintaining his magnificent supremacy, and forcing recognition of it from her. She would have been racked to death, and turned but her haughty glance of calm inflexible disdain upon him, to the last. Such recognition from Edith! He little knew through what a storm and struggle she had been driven onward to the crowning honour of his hand. He little knew how much she thought she had conceded, when she suffered him to call her wife.

Mr Dombey was resolved to show her that he was supreme. There must be no will but his. Proud he desired that she should be, but she must be proud for, not against him. As he sat alone, hardening, he would often hear her go out and come home, treading the round of London life with no more heed of his liking or disliking, pleasure or displeasure, than if he had been her groom. Her cold supreme indifference—his own unquestioned attribute usurped—stung him more than any other kind of treatment could have done; and he determined to bend her to his magnificent and stately will.

He had been long communing with these thoughts, when one night he sought her in her own apartment, after he had heard her return home late. She was alone, in her brilliant dress, and had but that moment come from her mother’s room. Her face was melancholy and pensive, when he came upon her; but it marked him at the door; for, glancing at the mirror before it, he saw immediately, as in a picture-frame, the knitted brow, and darkened beauty that he knew so well.

‘Mrs Dombey,’ he said, entering, ‘I must beg leave to have a few words with you.’

‘To-morrow,’ she replied.

‘There is no time like the present, Madam,’ he returned. ‘You mistake your position. I am used to choose my own times; not to have them chosen for me. I think you scarcely understand who and what I am, Mrs Dombey.’

‘I think,’ she answered, ‘that I understand you very well.’

She looked upon him as she said so, and folding her white arms, sparkling with gold and gems, upon her swelling breast, turned away her eyes.

If she had been less handsome, and less stately in her cold composure, she might not have had the power of impressing him with the sense of disadvantage that penetrated through his utmost pride. But she had the power, and he felt it keenly

With the daughter, Florence, the atmosphere is that of King Lear.

But this is sure; he does not think that he has lost her. He has no suspicion of the truth. He has lived too long shut up in his towering supremacy, seeing her, a patient gentle creature, in the path below it, to have any fear of that. Shaken as he is by his disgrace, he is not yet humbled to the level earth. The root is broad and deep, and in the course of years its fibres have spread out and gathered nourishment from everything around it. The tree is struck, but not down.

Though he hide the world within him from the world without—which he believes has but one purpose for the time, and that, to watch him eagerly wherever he goes—he cannot hide those rebel traces of it, which escape in hollow eyes and cheeks, a haggard forehead, and a moody, brooding air. Impenetrable as before, he is still an altered man; and, proud as ever, he is humbled, or those marks would not be there.

You do not expect to find in Dickens a husband striking his wife in an attempt to restore dominance, but it happens here and it comes as a shock when it does.

But one thing is clear.  Dickens knew dogs and loved them.  If I get another dog, I will call him Diogenes.

But Florence bloomed there, like the king’s fair daughter in the story. Her books, her music, and her daily teachers, were her only real companions, Susan Nipper and Diogenes excepted: of whom the former, in her attendance on the studies of her young mistress, began to grow quite learned herself, while the latter, softened possibly by the same influences, would lay his head upon the window-ledge, and placidly open and shut his eyes upon the street, all through a summer morning; sometimes pricking up his head to look with great significance after some noisy dog in a cart, who was barking his way along, and sometimes, with an exasperated and unaccountable recollection of his supposed enemy in the neighbourhood, rushing to the door, whence, after a deafening disturbance, he would come jogging back with a ridiculous complacency that belonged to him, and lay his jaw upon the window-ledge again, with the air of a dog who had done a public service.

Only someone who knows dogs could have written that.

Here and there – Fascism now?


‘Fascist’ is a term I used to think that I used too often.  Now I am not sure.  I fear that fascism may be in the air again.

Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale.  He has written a book called How Fascism Works, The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018).  At first I wondered if this was just another product of North American academe that gorges itself on –isms and other abstractions.  But I find that the author has the sense and discipline to make his point and move on.  That is the calling card of an advocate.

Professor Stanley’s catalogue of the hallmarks of fascism is very unsettling because so many appear of them to be surfacing now all around us.  Before I list those hallmarks, and in his order, I may set out a definition of the word that I wrote elsewhere some years ago now.  (Curiously, I am not sure that this book may not offer a definition of ‘fascism’ – that might be said to be the purpose of the whole book.)


What do I mean by ‘fascism’?  I mean a commitment to the strongest kind of government of a people along overtly militarist and nationalist lines; a government that puts itself above the interests of any or indeed all of its members; a commitment that is driven by faith rather than logic; with an aversion to or hatred of equality, minorities, strangers, women and other deviants; a contempt for liberalism or even mercy; and a government that is prone to symbolism in weapons, uniforms, or its own charms or runes, and to a belief in a charismatic leader. 

The word came originally from the Latin word fasces, the bundle of rods and axe carried before Roman consuls as emblems of authority, and was first applied to the followers of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, and then to the followers of Il Caudillo, Generalissimo Franco, and the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.  Fascists are thick-skinned, thick-headed, and brutal.  They despise intellectuals – who are after all deviants – but they may have an untutored and irrational rat cunning.

As Professor Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University tersely remarks: ‘The whole cocktail is animated by a belief in regeneration through energy and struggle’ (kampf).  To an outsider, it looks like pure moonshine that is the first refuge of a ratbag and a bully, a brilliant and seductive toy for the intellectually and morally deprived, and an eternal warning of the danger of patriotism to people of good sense and good will.  But while that ‘cocktail’ may look la bit much for Plato, it looks fair for Sparta.

Now, here are the headings of Professor Stanley.

The mythic past

We know this well – the intentionally mythical past.  The nostalgia harnesses emotion to the main tenets of the fascist creed – authoritarianism, hierarchy, purity and struggle.  ‘The strategic aim of these hierarchal constructions of history is to displace truth, and the invention of a glorious past includes the erasure of inconvenient realities.’  And sorry, boys, but the leader is like the father in the old patriarchal family.  That comes with the package when you go backwards.  And nations make odd laws to protect the myth – like the ban on ‘insulting Turkishness’ in Turkey or royalty in Thailand.  And then there is America’s fetish about its bloody flag.  Who wants to die for a bit of cloth?


‘Fascist movements have been ‘draining swamps’ for generations’.  The propaganda puts up a balloon of purity that can only be sullied by outsiders – like migrants, Muslims, or queers.

To many white Americans, President Obama must have been corrupt, because his very occupation of the White House was a kind of corruption of the traditional order.  When women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption.

That is in my view fundamental.

Anti – intellectual

Education, expertise and language are devalued to make intelligent debate impossible.  At the same time, they say that culture and truth are to be found only in the West.  Rejecting expertise makes sophisticated debate impossible.  Indeed, ‘sophistication’ like ‘restraint’ or ‘moderation’ is the opposite of fascism.  It is as if they were born in fear of what Keats called ‘negative capability’ – the capacity to discern and assess conflicting ideas without getting snaky.

In fascist politics, universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise, represented as radical ‘Marxists’ or ‘feminists’ spreading a leftish ideological agenda under the guise of research.  By debasing institutions of higher learning and impoverishing our joint vocabulary, fascist politics reduces debate to ideological conflict.

You can get as much of all that as you want in The Spectator and other like publications in Australia.


Reality is replaced by the pronouncements of one man.  (It is I think always a bloke.)  ‘A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence.’  And you get a nauseating deluge of conspiracy theories that are designed to abolish reality.  ‘The function of conspiracy theories is to impugn and malign their targets, but not necessarily convincing their audience that they are true.’  These theories, if that is the term, set aside reality and the basis of sensible discussion.  People look for tribal identification and entertainment.  ‘When news becomes sports, the strongman achieves a certain measure of popularity.’

The author here looks at inequality – ‘dramatic inequality poses a mortal danger to the shared reality required for a healthy liberal democracy.’  This is important.  Inequality undermines an implied basis of fairness or reasonableness in our community.  ‘Those who benefit from large inequalities are inclined to believe that they have earned their privilege, a delusion that prevents them from seeing reality as it is.’  And: ‘Equality, according to the fascist, is the Trojan horse of liberalism.’


People who feel inadequate need others to grade their place on the ladder.  They need to ‘belong.’  Like boy scouts, girl guides, or the inmates of our prisons –or members of parliament or the judiciary. The risk is that you do not just get class – you get the curse of caste.  People in the American South espoused the ‘great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’

The notion of ‘original sin’ is in my view abhorrent, and an insult to our humanity.  But If I had to nominate our original sin, it would be caste.  And on a bleak winter day, I might see it starting in Genesis rather more clearly than I can see Eve take the apple.  At least we know that that could not have happened.

Fascism clearly thrives on perceived threats of loss of status or reduction of felt worth.  Like most of these markers, it is a balm for insecurity – or one who felt as rejected unfairly as Adolf Hitler.  You just need to look at how the scum, like Marat, came to the surface during the French revolution.  They still seek in vain for a hero.


Science teaches us that increased representation of minorities is seen by those in the dominant majority as threatening.  (During the French revolution, those at the bottom were the most lethal – because they felt the most threatened.)  According to the professor, 45% of supporters of Trump believe that whites are discriminated against and 54% believe that Christians are the most persecuted religion – in America.  And as our author remarks: ‘Rectifying unjust inequalities will always bring pain to those who benefited from such injustices.  The pain will inevitably be experienced by some as oppression.’  That is very astute.  We saw precisely that here after Mabo.  Our squatters felt as jilted as the French nobles did after 1789.

Nationalism is at the core of fascism.  The fascist leader enjoys a sense of collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity that is by its nature opposed to the cosmopolitan ethos and individualism of liberal democracy.

And yet our front lines in the culture wars don’t know how close to home is their bogey of ‘identity politics.’

Law and order

Well, this has been around at least since Pisistratus seized power in Athens about 2,500 years ago on the footing that the state was in danger.  Nixon, for one, made an art form of it.  It is now getting another airing there.

Sexual anxiety

When traditional male roles are threatened by economics or migration, a kind of sexual anxiety may arise.  If you subscribe to the role of the traditional patriarchal family, then you might panic when threatened by people of a different sexuality.  Some of the conspiracy theories are sickeningly mad.  Hitler thought that Jews were behind a conspiracy to use black soldiers to rape pure Aryan women as a means to destroy ‘the white race.’  A fear of rape by blacks underlay many lynchings.  If Freud had not been born, we would have had to invent him.

It is not hard to see how men can feel threatened.  ‘When equality is granted to women, the role of men as sole providers for their families is threatened.’

Sodom and Gomorrah

Part of the myth of the past is the celebration of country over town.  Hitler loathed Vienna because it had rejected him, and he was disgusted by its cosmopolitanism – its mixture of different racial and cultural groups.  Tolerance of diversity – tolerance itself – is alien to fascism.  And the city is the home of the loathed ‘elites’, financial or otherwise.  People who glorify this rural idyll have not often been blasted by bush fire or mortally threatened by drought.  But these people rest on illusion, or delusion, rather than reality.

Arbeit macht frei

That is a label from hell, but fascism espies laziness in its enemies – such as Jews or people of colour.

Why do Americans resist what the rest of the western world embraces as the basic requirements of the welfare state?  It is as well to remember that when Churchill and Lloyd George started Britain on that path with the People’s Budget, they were doing so in part in response to the huge reforms that Bismarck put in place in Germany more than twenty years before.  Yet in the year 2020, a People’s Budget is still anathema in the United States.

Most often American opposition to welfare is represented as a manifestation of a commitment to individualism….And yet a dominant theme emerging from research on white Americans’ attitude is that the single largest predictor of white Americans’ attitude toward programs described as ‘welfare’ is their attitude toward the judgment that black people are lazy.

If that is right, the lagging of the United States behind Germany in 1890 is another by product of the Original Sin of slavery.  The curse that Lincoln descried in his second inaugural still blights the Union.

Here the author quotes Hannah Arendt: ‘It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying, but deliberately proposed to transform its lies into reality.’  Or, as Professor Stanley remarks: ‘The ‘hard work’ versus ‘laziness’ dichotomy is, like the ‘law-abiding’ versus ‘criminal’, at the heart of the fascist division between ‘us’ and ‘them’.’  And an influx of refugees might represent the ultimate threat.

And labour unions are also evil.

Labor unions create mutual bonds along lines of class rather than those of race and religion.  That is the fundamental reason why labor unions are such a target in fascist ideology.

It is curious how much all kinds of regimes have been scared by associations, expressions of community.  The French moved against such associations when celebrating all that they had undone during their revolution.  Generosity so quickly turns to selfishness.

The disabled were of course seen as lacking in value – because value for fascists lies in a person’s contribution to society through work.  And in my view, we are seeing a very ugly echo of that thought in this pandemic, when some hard heads suggest, some more openly than others, that the welfare of the old and useless is expendable in aligning the economy to supply work to those who can work.  Is that not just eugenics by another name?  (Disclosure: My disabilities are such that I would be discarded in the first batch.  ‘Straight to the morgue, Driver.  Forget the hospital.’)

Well, there is Professor Stanley’s list of ten indicia of fascism.  On the last page, he concludes his book this way:

In the direct targets of fascist politics – refugees, feminism, labor unions, racial, religious, and sexual minorities – we can see the methods used to divide us.  But we must never forget that the chief target of fascist politics is its intended audience, those it seeks to ensnare in its illusory grip, to enrol in a state where everyone deemed ‘worthy’ of human status is increasingly subjugated by mass delusion.  Those not included in that audience and status wait in the camps of the world, straw men and women ready to be cast into the roles of rapists, murderers, terrorists.  By refusing to be bewitched by fascist myths, we remain free to engage one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding, but none of us demons.

At times I wondered whether this book was just another excursus on labels, but I think not.  Let us put to one side the word ‘fascist’.  One sort of person now threatens our peace and wellbeing.  That is the person who thrives on our division and conflict, and who cares not for tolerance or restraint.  In my view Professor Stanley has done us a very good turn by arming us to see and meet our enemy.  This is a very important book, even if it says nothing new.  Placement is all.

Finally, to illustrate his theme, throughout the book Professor Stanley refers us to regimes that we least admire – like Hungary, Poland, Myanmar, Turkey and Russia.  Does anyone else come to mind?  Someone who might, perhaps, score a perfect ten on every dive?

Passing Bull 239 – Evasion


The litigation around the attempted takeover of BHP in 1985 was as fierce as I have seen.  I acted for Robert Holmes a Court.  He was the coolest business man I have known – so cool, that you never knew what might happen next.  (Some lawyers wondered if they should seek instructions from the newspapers.)  When asked what he thought of his opposite number, the CEO of BHP, Brian Loton, Holmes a Court said that he was ‘basically honest.’  Imagine a circular playing field.  Within it is another circle.  What happens if you land in the outer area?  What happens with the honesty of Mr Loton if he is outside his ‘basic’ part?

There you see language used to allow what we call ‘wriggle room’.  We can see a similar possibility of doubt about the reach of a denial.  If someone claims I owe him $10, and I believe I am only liable to pay $5, do I acknowledge a debt of $5 or do I simply deny that I owe $10 or any part of that amount?   The rules of our civil procedure seek to encourage candour by seeking to bar evasive denials, but the timidity of lawyers usually leads to a blanket denial.

There is controversy about the behaviour of police in the U S.  They are close to a crisis in looking at how police respond to people of colour.  The President and others have denied that there is ‘systemic racism.’  Do you see the capacity for an evasive denial?  Are you denying that there is any racism or are you saying that any such racism is not ‘systemic’?

The problem is worse here because both the terms ‘racism’ and ‘systemic’ are so slippery.  ‘Racism’ here probably means something like – because white police officers think that black people are inferior to white people, they treat black people with less respect for their civil rights than they treat white people.  But if that is alleged against white police officers at large, then it does look like such attitudes come from the ‘system’ of the police.  How then could any such ‘racism’ be anything other than ‘systemic’?

With so much of what passes for public discourse now, you do wonder if people get slippery by design or habit.  Good grief, might the problem be systemic?


‘Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night – or look at what just happened in Louisville with 7 people shot. I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,’ Trump said.

The president added, ‘It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement.’

The Guardian, 30 May 2020.

In particular, you know what also makes a major contribution to the quality of life? Not dying.

New York Times, 30 May, 2020

Here and there – A Dream, the Storm and a Swan

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Mid Summer Night’s Dream in Melbourne in about 1971 caused quite a stir.  We were coming to the end of the time when we stood in awe of older foreign productions – and the RSC had rolled gold éclat.  Bright young things in the colonies could bank some cultural respectability by seeing Shakespeare performed by the people who invented him.  A little bit of snootiness in the night.

The snootiness went the other way when the Storm, a rugby league, team hit Melbourne in 1998.  ‘My dear boy.  You don’t understand.  Rugby, as played at School, is de rigeur.  But League is there for the diversion of thugs.’  Mining types in the north west of England, and working class Micks in the western suburbs of Sydney.  The snobbery was a wonder to behold.  ‘Wouldn’t do to mention it at the Club, old boy.’  In truth, there were some in Melbourne who wondered if anything warranting snobbery could come out of Sydney.

Well, I enjoyed it and I took to it – in part provoked by the snootiness of others.  The game had a simplicity and shortness that the AFL was losing.  And people outside Victoria don’t realise how many players were lost to interstate to help new AFL clubs open up.  I was at most home games of the Storm, and was rewarded with a flag in only our second year.  Since then there have been others, although officialdom did not appreciate our version of double entry accounting.

The club has been very well managed.  Its recruiting is such that we now act as a kind of feeder to rugby clubs.  But, among other things, I have had the benefit of watching three of the best footballers this country has produced – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, and Greg Inglis.  And a Greek restaurant on Swan Street was perfect for before or after – or, as happened on one very long day, both.

You may need to make certain adjustments to meet the terms of the new milieu.  I once committed the faux pas of appearing on the terrace with a glass of wine in my hand.  The abuse was sufficient to get me to reverse course after a few steps.  At a mediation once, I was discussing matters of etiquette with John Brumby when he was Leader of the Opposition.  He said that he was going to the game and in a few hours’ time, he would have a glass of chardonnay in his hand.  I cautioned him.  ‘Don’t drink plonk, drink beer; if you have to drink plonk, get red; if you have to drink white, don’t in the name of Heaven call it chardonnay – you might start a bloody riot’.

It does you good to seek new outlets.  At about the time I started following the Storm, I got interested, vitally interested, in Formula One.  One reason was that I could see that Michael Schumacher was one of those once in a generation sportsmen who just tower over the rest.

But let me go back the Dream.  This RSC production helped me to slough off that resentment to texts that can be left over from having them forced down your neck at school.  The process began in the sixties when I sat up for two consecutive Sunday nights starting at 11 pm listening to Richard Burton as Hamlet have a Broadway crowd eating out of his hand.  For that and other reasons Richard Burton came to mean as much to me as Ronald Barassi – which is no small praise.  And as I had bought Bradley to consider Macbeth, I now did so for Hamlet.  And I have maintained my interest in that kind of scholarship – only Tony Tanner in my view matches Bradley.

It was at about the time I was starting to load up on Shakespeare that I came into contact with ballet.  For some reason, I went to see a small Russian company (from Novosibirsk) put on Swan Lake.  I fell for the theatre of it all, although there is a lot that could make a bloke very mawkish.  Then I saw a Russian group perform at the Palais de Danse in St Kilda.   Moisieva did The Dying Swan.  But people were there to see the man touted as the next Nureyev.  Mikael Baryshnikov came out.  And he ascended – and for a moment Newton’s laws of gravity were suspended.  The gasp of the whole audience was remarkable.  (I heard an echo of it last year for Anne-Sophie Mutter and, later, Jonas Kaufman – each a super nova.)

We used to take the girls to rehearsals of the Australian Ballet.  Then my interest was dampened by trips to Essendon each Saturday for ballet school.  I wrote many decisions in tax cases sitting in a Commodore, with Essendon supporters drifting by, while trying to juggle a dictaphone and a sausage roll.  When that all ended, so did my regular attendance at the theatre to see ballet.  Its place was taken by opera, but if I had to name my ten best nights at the theatre, I would want to include the ballets of Hunchback of Notre Dame that I saw in Paris and the Anna Karenin that I saw in Budapest.

A lot of this came back to me the other night in what has sometimes felt like a desolate isolation.  I watched a full Storm game for the first time in a while.  It was against the Rabbitohs – than whom it would hard to envisage a more NRL side.  Slater and Inglis are long gone, but Smith is still there, and there is a guy called Cameron Munster, who is up there with the best.  He is wiry and incredibly strong and resilient.  He was, according to the press, a rough nut who had a problem with the bottle.  The Storm does not put up with that kind of stuff, and Munster looks now to be the complete package.  If I had to nominate an AFL equivalent, it would be Diesel Williams.  Munster was involved in two tries each of which was worth the price of admission.  He is very, very hard to stop.

The game fell between two sides of the CD set of Benjamin Britten’s Dream.  The CDs had just arrived.  I could recall seeing it in rehearsal at the AO with my older daughter when she was still at school.  We had thought that the music was a bit strong – modern – for us, but we had nearly had a seizure laughing at the mechanicals doing their play.  This was a time when the Australian Opera was taking risks and putting on great shows.  The play was set in the Raj and the orchestra was on stage in a rotunda.  This was one of the best shows I have seen.

Since then I have become very at home with Britten’s music and I have seen and listened to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd on many occasions.  I had rung the OA artistic director, Moffatt Oxenbould, to ask him which opera I should see on a trip to London, and he had recommended Billy Budd.  He said it was a good idea to hear an opera in my own language for a change.  That was very good advice, and Billy Budd is now among my favourite operas.  So is Peter Grimes.  So, on this hearing, I had no trouble adjusting to the style of music.  It is a very engaging opera to listen to.   After all, the guy who wrote the original script did know how to put on a show.

A musical starring fairies may not be every Storm supporter’s go, but there you are.  (And the countertenor may be a bit much for the boys on the terraces.  Especially those who saw Farinelli.   And heard the crowd shout ‘Long live the blade!’)   As it happened, a DVD of Swan Lake starring Natalia Makarova had arrived at my home on the same day.  I just played Act II, and that part of Act III where she does the fouettés.  There must be something in the make-up or training of Russian ballerinas that enables them to radiate that supple sinuousness from the midpoint of their shoulder blades to the tips of their fingers.  It is as if they are taking flight.  It is very eerie theatre.  It is now nearly fifty years since I saw and marvelled at Moisieva, but that magic still hangs in the air.  (Although I did incline to the view that the second cygnet on the left did look to be verging on the plump.)

Well, there may seem to be worlds of difference between Munster, Bottom and Makarova – but I am entertained by all of them, and they have at least one thing in common – after all the bluster, puffing, money and hype – someone has to get out there and lay it all on the line.  It’s then that you get the alchemy of live drama and established ritual.  And community – or, if you prefer, communion.

While putting this note together, two boxes finally arrived after I had ordered them at the start of the lock-down.  One was a box of ten instalments of Ken Burns on Jazz.  The other was the complete Arkangel set of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays.  When I was living in South Yarra, and working at 101 Collins Street, the half hour walk each way would let me get through all the plays in about four months.  The process was edifying.

It’s sad that so many people are cowed by their ignorance or by the felt shadow of hierarchy or, God help us, blokiness, into not at least trying to come to terms with so much that is on offer and available at home for next to nothing and with a level of performance and reproduction that our parents could barely have dreamed of.  Without Shakespeare or football, cricket or opera, golf or theatre, the Olympics or the novel, I cannot think what my life may have been like.  And that’s before we get to wine and food.

It’s as if we all lived in a house that had rear windows with their blinds down behind which you could see Everest, Iguazzu Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Bungle Bungles – and people are too frightened to step outside.  They are even too scared just to lift up the bloody blinds.  If I might use an epithet that is comfortably within the spelling range of the President of the United States, that is SAD.  Downright bloody sad.

Passing Bull 238 – Abstractions – again


There was such a thing as the Declaration of Independence.  It was a lengthy written statement signed by many people.  There was no such thing as the French Revolution.  Rather that is the name – or label or category or description – applied to a series of events in France over a period of time, for the duration of which there is no agreement, as a result of which the whole structure of government in France was destroyed with violence and differently put back together again – and again, and again.

On 14 July 1789, the bourgeoisie of Paris did nothing that we can relate.  The most we can say is that some citizens who may or may not have answered that description – and there is no agreement on the criteria by which that term may be applied – engaged in a riot that led to the fall of the Bastille – an event that many take to symbolise the series of events to which we apply the label of the French Revolution.

Similarly, there is no such thing as socialism, fascism, or capitalism –or liberalism, conservatism, or progressivism.  Each of those words stands for a name, label, category or description for some kinds of social, political or economic aspiration or behaviour.  And the criteria, such as they are, for the first three boxes are far more settled than that for the last three.  The position is even more obscure with that old left/right distinction.

We are speaking of abstractions.  The concrete is material and specific.  The abstract is the ideal and general.  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy says:

Many philosophies are nervous of a realm of abstract entities…Friends of abstract objects say that there is nothing wrong with referring to them, but we must not make the mistake of imagining them to be especially large or spread-out kinds of concrete object.

Bertrand Russell came close to making that kind of mistake.

If we ask ourselves what justice is, it is natural to proceed by considering this, that and the other just act with a view to discovering what they have in common.  They must all, in some sense, partake of a common nature, which will be found in whatever is just and nothing else.

If I want a blue table, I can go and buy a can of Dulux and paint it.  But I cannot do anything like that to get a fair (just) result in a dispute I have to decide.  Fairness is an epithet to be applied by looking at how that assessment has been made or justified in the past.

So, if we find words like ‘socialism’ or ‘liberalism’ being applied as if they were some kind of thing that has a life or force of its own, then we may be looking at thinking that is at best sloppy.

Consider then the headings and final paragraphs of pieces by Paul Kelly, Greg Sheridan and Chris Kenny in The Weekend Australian (6 June, 2020.)


The Uncivil War Killing Liberalism

The US riots are symptomatic of a disease spreading across the West.

Twenty years [after 1999] it is obvious that those shared values are gravely undermined and equally obvious that liberal democracy is no longer working properly.  History, however, suggests liberalism has been in worse trouble at various times in the past.  Its demise has been frequently predicted but such predictions always misjudged its immense recuperative ability.


US protests not about race but disadvantage

The liberal media has got it all wrong on America

The U S is not systemically racist.  Despite its history, it is systemically anti-racist.  If the liberal elites, who more or less hate the U S on principle, push the systemic racism line long enough and hysterically enough, they may create the reality they claim to oppose.


Trump attackers as ignorant and shallow as he is

Millennials, fuelled by the media, are trying to blame centuries of division on just one man

Democrat activists are now proudly cheering ‘defund the police’ along with lawless mobs.  The liberal left and the media/political class might realise all too late, that they are fostering a clear-cut law-and-order debate in an election year and putting themselves on the wrong side of it.

May the Lord have mercy on those infected with the liberalism espied by these commentators.  They put me in mind of a song of Anne Murray that my daughters grew up with: ‘Hey Daddy…. there’s a hippo in my bathtub.’  (She also does a fine Teddy Bears’ Picnic and, I think, Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte.)  It is as if the three commentators are competing to allow abstractions to drive their commentary and go for as long as possible without committing to one verifiable statement of fact.

Just what any of them may have had in mind is not easy to pick.  Mr Kelly says ‘liberalism means equality before the law regardless of race, equal access to health care and education on the principle of universalism.’  Over the page we get: ‘The essence of liberalism has been treating people as people regardless of race, gender or sex, religion age and ethnicity.’  Who would oppose that essence?  But equal access to health care does not exist in the US, whereas the quickest way to commit political suicide in Australia would be to call universal health into question or to seek to impose universal education provided by government.

Yet we get a citation of an American observer: ‘The thesis is that liberalism is to blame for the decline of religious faith and the destruction wrought by progressive morality….In practice (it) generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity, fosters material and spiritual degradation and undermines freedom.’  Golly.  Mr Sheridan sees hysteria; so does Mr Kenny.  ‘The hysterical obsession with Trump and the endless hyperbole about him demeans those spewing it and distracts from the central issues.’ Yes, ‘spewing’ is the word.

For the reasons given, the articles that I have set out above do not in my view make sense.  And there is something ineffably patronising about the reaction of these people to both climate change and Trump.  ‘Yes, yes, Dear Boy, there is a problem….. but don’t go over the top.  If you do, you will be consigned to join the ‘liberal elites’ or ‘the media/political class’.  And then you might be branded as a Guardian reader.  You can trust us.  We’ve been around longer than the liberals and progressives. We have seen it all before and we will continue to call it just as we see it.’

It is not ideas or labels that make history – our story.  It is people who make history.  That proposition is as simple as it is inevitable, but people, who should know better, either forget it or choose to ignore it.  Sir Lewis Namier knew as much about writing history as anyone.  He said this:

The basic elements of the Imperial Problem during the American Revolution must be sought not so much in conscious opinions and professed views bearing directly on it, as in the very structure and life of the Empire; and in doing that, the words of Danton should be remembered – ‘on ne fait pas le procès aux révolutions’ [There is no fixed process for revolutions].  Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motoring accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

So, the next time someone lobs an –ism at you, ask them if it was wearing blue suede shoes.  If it was, the imperative of Elvis may or may not have been honoured.


The MP in question is George Christensen, the Queensland National. It’s no great insight to observe George blows hard. George talks a big game, and here he is, talking a big game on the reddest, hottest, political issue of the moment – Australia’s fraying relationship with our largest trading partner. George has given the matter some reflection, and he thinks ‘we can keep giving in to China’s threats, and selling off our country, or we can make a stand for our sovereignty’ – and he’d very much like you to write him and take his survey.

The Guardian, 23 May, 2020                                       

Community takes precedence over the individualistic liberalistic atomising tendencies of the egoism of the individual.

Hans Frank, cited in East West Street.

Well, did you know that they do a nice line in sovereignty at Manila?

Top shelf – Dombey and Son

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]


Charles Dickens, 1848

Folio Society, 1984.  Bound in illustrated boards and slipcased.  Illustrated by Charles Keeping.  Introduction by Christopher Hibbert.

When I completed my reading of Dickens’ fourteen novels some time ago, I placed my preferences in five categories: First, Tale of Two Cities.  Second, Barnaby Rudge, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend.  Third, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Nicolas Nickleby, and Oliver Twist.  Fourth, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Pickwick Papers.  Fifth, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and Old Curiosity Shop.  That list may look eccentric, and it may change according to the time of day, but it does say that not only was Dickens prolific, but that he had a wide range of subjects and the capacity to appeal to very different tastes.

Paul Dombey suffers from the delusion that success in business might lead to a rise up the social ladder.  (Not so – trade, old boy, just trade.)  His single-minded pursuit of money and fame leads him to neglect his daughter, Florence, and then impose a regime on his son and heir that kills him.  His second marriage is just a financial transaction and it fails for that reason.  Nemesis and ruin come in the form of a trusted manager, James Carker – he of the ‘white teeth’, a demonic jerk, straight into the silent movies.  Dombey survives his ruin to be reconciled to Florence in a scene that might resemble the end of King Lear.  All this takes place with a cavalcade of characters some of whom show how a simple life may be the good life.

The novel begins.

Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution was analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.  Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age.  Son about eight-and-forty minutes.

Here is a writer, then, at the top of his game.  The novel ends with Dombey and grad-daughter Florence.

‘Dear grandpapa, why do you cry when you kiss me?’

He only answers, ‘Little Florence!  Little Florence!’ and smooths away the curls that shade her earnest eyes.

The novel is shot through with the ideas and demons of Dickens’ friend Thomas Carlyle (The French Revolution), especially as found in Past and Present, and the objections to ‘Mammon-Gospel’.

We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation….Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under laws-of-war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility.  We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man…

Hell had become the terror of not succeeding, of not making money….

Oh, it is frightful when a whole Nation ….had ‘forgotten God; has remembered only Mammon and what Mammon leads to….Supply-and-demand, Competition, Laissez-faire, and Devil take the hindmost….Moral philosophies sanctioned by able computations of Profit and Loss.

In his illuminating book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg said:

Dombey and Son is a sustained and powerful attack on Victorian Mammonism.  It embodies the nightmare vision that Dickens was coming to have of nineteenth century capitalism and his early recognition of its inborn cruelties, its incompatibility with virtue, and its inherent contradictions.  Dickens courageously places at the novel’s centre one of the new financial tycoons and traces the withering effects of business ethics on his sentiments and his humanity.  In the death of his son, as in the moral bankruptcy of Mr Dombey himself, Dickens presents a stark Carlylean parable on the sacrifice of humanity demanded by the money fetish….Finally he uses the corrective values which Polly Toodle, Captain Cuttle,   and Sol Gills offer to the sophisticated sterilities of the Dombey world, to bathe the novel in the gentler perspectives of the New Testament.

To my taste, Dickens is too sloppy with love scenes but wonderful with death scenes.  He is on any view superbly gifted at the crunch.

‘Papa, what’s money?’

The abrupt question had such immediate reference to the subject of Mr Dombey’s thoughts, that Mr Dombey was quite disconcerted.

‘What is money, Paul?’ he answered.  ‘Money?’…

Mr Dombey was in a difficulty.  He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth; but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: ‘Gold and silver, and copper.  Guineas, shillings, half-pence.  You know what they are?’

‘Oh yes, I know what they are,’ said Paul.  ‘I don’t mean that Papa.  I mean what’s money after all?’

‘I mean, Papa, what can it do?’ returned Paul folding his arms…

‘Money, Paul, can do anything.’

‘Anything, Papa?’

‘Yes.  Anything – almost,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Anything means everything, don’t it, Papa?’ asked his son.

‘It includes it, yes,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Why didn’t money save me my mama? returned the child.  ‘It isn’t cruel, is it?’

You can’t beat writing like that.  Thackeray threw the book down in exasperation.  ‘There’s no writing against such power as this…It is unsurpassed.  It is stupendous.’

This is a book for the ages – but especially the age when Mammon stomps all over God, and the pinnacle of capitalism surrenders to the Golden Calf.


Here and there – A populist


In a book about Kissinger, I find the following remarks about a populist.  I will refer to him as ‘Smith’ as I think a comparison may be instructive.

Smith was quick-witted, able to deal handily with hecklers, of whom there were many in the early years.  He was so attuned to his audience that he could adapt to any moods.  As a speaker he lived intensely in the moment – and what else does ‘presence’ mean?…..After he had gained sufficient renown, he could afford the pomp and circumstance that kept his audiences in a state of anticipatory excitation until his strategically delayed arrival on stage.  There were colourful banners, peppy march music, fiery introductory speeches to warm up the crowd – and then the main event, the attraction everyone had awaited so eagerly….

It was less what he said than how he said it…..Part of the magic was that Smith told people what they wanted to hear.  His pronouncements were not a challenge, but a confirmation of his followers’ assumptions and preconceptions, an incitement to cast off the dreary restrictions of civility and rationality and allow their emotions full Dionysiac release, above all a permission to maintain hope in the face of obdurate reality and to hate anyone or anything that was perceived to undermine that hope…..He appealed to a devastated populace that ….that had lost everything, including their established beliefs, felt a profound sense of grievance, and found consolation in a [nationalism] that was part sentimentality, and part utopianism, a sort of forward looking nostalgia…

Because he dwelled on longings instead of facts, he preferred abstractions to specifics, emphasizing honour, nation, family, loyalty.  What distinguished him was the totality of his commitment……He employed neither logic nor reason, but sheer passion…Smith didn’t need ideas.  He had the conviction of a convert….

More than one commentator has observed that Smith rallies were like religious revivals, where the crowds went not for articulation of policy positions, but for the release of unbridled emotion….Smith understood that his audiences wanted not only to be saved but also to enjoy themselves in the process…Smith rallies may have suggested prayer meetings; they also resemble Bruce Springsteen concerts.  Whoever imagined that salvation could be so much fun? 

Whatever else he might have been, Smith was a performer, dealing in mass entertainment.  He was no good in intimate settings….but put him on a stage and he was in his element. He knew how to work a crowd and how to package himself as a celebrity.  It didn’t matter what the press said   ‘The main thing is that they mention us.’

Weber said that someone who possessed passion but not a realistic sense of responsibility was little more than a political dilettante consumed by sterile excitements or by a romanticism that, in Weber’s words, ‘runs away to nothing.’  The demagogue in particular was unsuited to the vocation of politics because he runs a constant risk of becoming a play actor, making light of the responsibility for the consequences of his actions and asking only what ‘impression’ he is making…

Smith’s facility for dealing in dreams was enough to gain him a steadily growing following that was serious in its numbers yet fundamentally unserious in its ideas, substituting the lightness of desire for the concreteness of policy….The appeals to violence and the flouting of the law only increased his popularity among his admirers.

A ‘forward looking nostalgia’ is a useful notion.

Does the picture above best describe (1) Mussolini (2) Franco (3) Hitler (4) Tito (5) Kim Jong-Un (6) Erdogan (7) Orban (8) Johnson (9) Bolsonaro (10) Trump or (11) all of the above?

The book quotes a great definition of ‘diplomacy’ that judges and mediators might bear in mind: ‘It is the task of statesmanship to settle disputes in such a way as to minimise the damage to the prestige of the parties involved.’  ‘Face’ can be everything.

As for Kissinger, it is bad if you are too clever.