MRG and Religion

A text on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arrived yesterday.  I put it down after one page.  I have been down here so often before.  But on that page was a phrase I will keep.  It is in the Preface to the Second Edition – which is not in my leather-bound version.  Kant said that the history of metaphysics had come down to ‘merely random groping.’  How very true – of all philosophy both before and since.  And of so much nonsense in politics, business, and the law.

And religion.  My tolerance of so many people claiming to be ‘religious’ runs more thinly by the day.  Claims for religious ‘freedom’ are for the most part moonshine.  As Kant said, no power on earth can come between a person and God.  But when people seek a dispensation from the law to give effect to their view of religion in what they do in public, they are usually seeking a licence to hurt others.

The decision by some footballers to object to wearing a gay pride jumper on what are said to be ‘religious’ grounds borders on lunacy.  But only if lunacy is not seen as a defence to an allegation that they are seeking to use religion as a reason for inflicting pain on others.  They should be ashamed of themselves – but twisted dogma will get in the way.  And as one correspondent to The Age said, it is a curious God who forbids their wearing that kind of jumper – but who smiles upon them when they wear another jumper.  Which has a logo for gambling.  That they wear on the Sabbath.  While playing football.  For lucre.

It is impossible to take these galahs seriously.

But that awful group of people called the Australian Christian Lobby does just that.  They really are degenerate – and hurtful.

Seven Rugby League players created a significant cultural moment this week when they chose faith over football.

When faced with the choice to either wear a ‘pride’ rainbow jersey or stand down from one of their most important matches, these men did not waver in following their conscience.   

The Manly Sea Eagles coach has apologised for their controversial decision to introduce a ‘pride’ Jersey for the ‘Women in League’ round, but the players will not be allowed to play unless they agree to wear it. They have effectively been excluded by the club’s actions.

There has been a lot of negative press surrounding the men’s decision not to play and they have been under significant pressure. It would be great to take the opportunity to send some encouragement their way.

Let’s thank them for bucking the ‘woke’ trend and daring to be a Daniel!  

That is a lot worse than ‘merely random groping’ (MRG).  It is insidious and hurtful – and they know it.

We should do all we can to ensure that these nasty people get no dispensation from any of our laws – tax or otherwise – but are left in the ditch they dig for themselves.

Kant – merely random groping – ACL – hate – tax -freedom of religion.

The Honeymooners

After my TV was replaced and I got access to YouTube on it, I stumbled last night on one episode of The Honeymooners.  The series was made in 1955-6 on a simple set with a small cast.  Jackie Gleason is the over-sized bus driver, the Common Man that commedia dell’arte never really got – grumbling short-tempered humanity who just manages to fall into line eventually each time.  His wife, Alice, is up to it – and exquisitely cast.  ‘Peanuts.  What do I do with peanuts?’ ‘Eat ‘em.  Like any other elephant.’ 

The show is nearly seventy years old. now  It now has its own sense of ritual.  Ralph is as big a character as Falstaff, but the series savours of both Don Quixote and Waiting for Godot.  It does feel that elemental.  I don’t think the Americans have made anything like I since.  The English, yes – the U S, no.

In America, now, there does not appear to be any appetite for or capacity to create a show about the tribulations of the ordinary bloke – who ultimately accepts his lot because he is in God’s country.  Now the not so well off  go out and vote for a crooked property developer who evades military service and paying tax, and who wants to tear the whole place down.  And they invent a world of their own that is so much more unreal than anything we might see in a seventy year old television show.

What a falling off was there.

TV – US – The Common Man – Trump – theatre.

Passing Bull 322 – We need new stories

You will want to get the book by Nesrine Malik, We Need New Stories.  Nesrine writes for The Guardian, and she is super bright – the brightest commentator I have seen or read for a while.  I used to see her often on the panel of Dateline London on the BBC.  She just oozes authority.  She is Sudanese and her presence would make Cleopatra look like a streetwalker.    (After reading this book, I understand better the politics of panel selection on such shows.  They are very unattractive.)

The book looks at six myths.  You can see them all on any Saturday in The Weekend Australian.  Or hear them any night from Andrew Bolt and company on Sky After Dark.   Nesrine dissects all that nonsense about ‘political correctness’ or ‘identity politics’ – I have never understood what either is – with a precision I would describe as surgical – if a quondam barrister may be allowed that phrase.

This is how Nesrine starts her chapter on The myth of virtuous origin.

There is no mainstream account of a country’s history that is not a collective delusion.  The present cannot be celebrated without the past being edited.  If the United Kingdom is to have a sense of pride in its contemporary self, there is no way it can be acknowledged that the country was built on global expansion, resource extraction and slavery.

That is true – but the people I refer to will dismiss it with a slogan – about black arm bands.

If the United States’ large fault-line is race, in the UK it is immigration.

That is so here, too – at least since a soi-disant Conservative government put it there in terms that were as mindless as they were cruel.  And we as a people let both parties keep it there with moonshine about People Smugglers that made as much sense as the threat of the Yellow Peril or the Domino Effect in the 50’s and 60’s.

But there is no necessary distinction between hostility driven by considerations of colour, religion, or race and the politics of immigration.  The plain truth is that both we and the English did things to aspiring immigrants of colour or the Muslim faith that we would not have done to white people of any faith.  Possibly the most egregious example was the Farage ad with a throng of coloured immigrants marked BREAKING POINT.  I do not like the worst ‘racist’, but people who sink that low are not to be forgotten.  Farage would make a taipan look homely.

And we came a close second – and we have yet to come clean.  My firm suspicion is that all our blather about immigration is just a screen to enable us to walk over those we regard as inferior.  And the worst culprits are often those leading the charge to describe the nation as ‘Christian’ or the civilisation as ‘western’.

We know that we have a problem with the commentariat.  It is not as bad as in the US, but Rupert Murdoch is working on it.

…the impunity of Iraq War peddlers points especially to a media oligarchy.  Whether it was the Iraq War, Brexit or Donald Trump’s election, what has never really been reckoned with is the media’s role in reproducing the very myths that, when they finally took shape, bewildered its own members.  The media wrote all the stories that led to our age of discontent.

That last allusion to Burke occurred to me when writing of our present troubles.  But the comment applies to us in bloody spades.  There is hardly a worse sin a government can commit than to commit its people to a war on false premises.  Blair and Bush have paid a price.  The first flew too high.  The second never left the ground.  But our contribution to mediocrity just beetles on and about our little duckpond.

The author gives chapter and verse.  About two journalists I had had time for.  But David Aaronovitch comes across as a snitchy, spoiled sook, and Bret Stephens always looked to me to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Medicine for having an attitude to paling fences that could lead to a much-needed breakthrough on surgery for piles.  (This is from a victim.)

Then there is Niall Ferguson.  I was and am happy to defend the author of that wonderful book, Kim.  He was a man of his time.  Ferguson does not have that excuse.  He is a golden boy throwback who puts his paw out to collect the moulah from the fat cats he keeps purring. 

But the bullshit is far from harmless.  Ferguson said of Iraq, that in the interests of capitalism and democracy, ‘the proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary …by military force.’  The arrogance is incandescent.  The bullshit equals that of the Evangelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau – who said that people could be forced to be free – which is up there with fornicating for virginity.

But neither Blair, nor Bush, nor our little bloke, nor Ferguson was reminded of the remark of Robespierre a propos of exporting the glory of the revolution throughout Europe by French arms – no one likes an armed missionary. 

Has the person been born who could rationally deny that? If a Russian peasant is being bayoneted or raped by a foreign invader, does it matter if the war criminal was sent by Napoleon or Hitler – for liberation or extermination?  (Which do you think Putin has in mind for the Ukraine?  He actually says it is a liberation – and he may as well claim the authority of Rousseau and Ferguson for the proposition that consent is irrelevant.))

It is therefore right that Ferguson gets the line of the book.  ‘He complained about white men being unfashionable while owning the catwalk.’  It reminded me of a remark by Tony Tanner.  It may have been about Richard II – he began to see the writing on the wall; the problem was – he had done most of the writing.

We see this all the time in the people I referred to at the start – like Andrew Bolt.  The poor buggers see themselves as victims – they have been misunderstood, either as members of think tanks, or the Roman Catholic Church, or as failed party hacks, or turncoats or Uncle Toms.  They live in the safest and richest country in the world and are paid a fortune to wrap themselves up in their cocoons and talk bullshit to the fading faithful – and play the part of victims!  For all I know they may say that Rupert is a victim of Jerry.

These label-floggers or standard-bearers tend to come in two varieties.  There are those who don’t really care, but who go along with the herd because that is safe and puts food on the table; and those who care deeply and believe what they say.  The first are boring but harmless enough – a kind of opiate for the masses.  The second are also boring, but potentially harmful – their minds tend to be warped by God, the cadres of think tanks (like latterday Jesuits), or the rich lady with all the coal who fills their coffers with her cash – and becomes a Life Member.  But they all mock the notion of journalism as a profession – and that is very sad.

This book is terrific.  We need as much of this as we can take.  But we also need to recall that most of the book is about myths – and a myth is a story about something that never happened.  The Oxford English Dictionary is prolix:

A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historic phenomena.  Often used vaguely to include any narrative having fictitious elements.

God did not create the world in the manner described in Genesis.  That we know as a matter of fact – unless we are one of those American zealots called creationists who prefer the romance of a myth to the proofs of science (until they get on the gurney for life saving heart surgery). 

Satan did not fall from heaven.  Eve did not bite the apple.  Achilles did not sulk in his tent.  Don Quixote did not shoot the breeze with Sancho Panza.  Don Giovanni did not wreak havoc.  Hamlet did not have it out with his mum.  But, for whatever reason, we in our human frailty go to those stories for a kind of comfort – or for a kind of truth.

The evidence is sufficient to allow us to say that we know that a Jewish man answering the description of Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans.  The circumstances are muddy because of the nature and content of the gospels.  But what then happened is not a matter of evidence but faith.  That is the basis of any religion.  Only a small part of the world’s peoples believe that the executed man arose from the dead.  But that is the case for the faith-based beliefs of all religions.  

Most people believe that the stories underlying all religions are false.  There is only one difference between me and a believer – the believer believes all religions are groundless in fact – except one.  I don’t allow the exception.  But that does not stop most people pledging their faith to the myth they have grown up with.

Human nature therefore looks to have a need for fantasy – an ‘illusory appearance’ or ‘a supposition resting on no solid grounds.’  That would entail that our attachment to the value of truth gets wobbly.  And that is what bad people prey on.  And that is why we need books like this.

Nesrine Malik – Murdoch News Corporation – myths – logic.

Passing Bull 321 – The Craven Men’s Club

The Vatican is probably the oldest and biggest men’s club in the world.  The problem started in Genesis but got much, much worse with Augustine – after he had had his fill.  To an outsider, the refusal of the church to allow equal standing to half of its adherents or humanity is a prime driver of its decline to the status of a relic.

A piece in the press recently told of the disappointment of women to a decision adverse to them being taken by a plenary council in the church.  A lot of delegates left the meeting in a silent protest.  Many were obviously distressed.  How would you be if those in control of your church said because of your sex, you were not equal in the eyes of God?

Greg Craven, a former vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, said this was ‘a carefully managed political exercise.’  A spokesman for the ladies appeared to think this was a rebuke.

Why?  This was an intensely ‘political event’.  There were different views about how people should deal with each other in a community.  Doubtless people collected in groups according to their opinions.  They took sides – and saw what we call factions.  That is what politics are all about.  Nothing comes out of the Vatican that is not the result of a ‘carefully managed political exercise.’  We see too much of this.  People being put down by a label.

Speaking of which – what does the word ‘Catholic’ add to ‘University’?  What does a Catholic university do or offer to do that other universities don’t?  More importantly, what sane person would want to study medicine or law in a university where the teaching is influenced by the teaching of the religion of those running the faculty?

Finally, Greg Craven was wont to call himself a lawyer.  There is a big difference between one who practises in a profession and one who teaches those who wish to enter it.

Passing Bull 321 – The Craven Men’s Club

The Vatican is probably the oldest and biggest men’s club in the world.  The problem started in Genesis but got much, much worse with Augustine – after he had had his fill.  To an outsider, the refusal of the church to allow equal standing to half of its adherents or humanity is a prime driver of its decline to the status of a relic.

A piece in the press recently told of the disappointment of women to a decision adverse to them being taken by a plenary council in the church.  A lot of delegates left the meeting in a silent protest.  Many were obviously distressed.  How would you be if those in control of your church said because of your sex, you were not equal in the eyes of God?

Greg Craven, a former vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, said this was ‘a carefully managed political exercise.’  A spokesman for the ladies appeared to think this was a rebuke.

Why?  This was an intensely ‘political event’.  There were different views about how people should deal with each other in a community.  Doubtless people collected in groups according to their opinions.  They took sides – and saw what we call factions.  That is what politics are all about.  Nothing comes out of the Vatican that is not the result of a ‘carefully managed political exercise.’  We see too much of this.  People being put down by a label.

Speaking of which – what does the word ‘Catholic’ add to ‘University’?  What does a Catholic university do or offer to do that other universities don’t?  More importantly, what sane person would want to study medicine or law in a university where the teaching is influenced by the teaching of the religion of those running the faculty?

Finally, Greg Craven was wont to call himself a lawyer.  There is a big difference between one who practises in a profession and one who teaches those who wish to enter it.

Politics – Vatican – Gender – Greg Craven

Passing Bull 320 – The failure of the U S

The letter below was not published by The New York Times, which is sad, because I think it is correct.  And that is before you get to health care and abortion

Dear Editor,

The primary function of a king is to keep the peace to protect his subjects.  Our common law started with a command from the king (a writ) alleging a breach of the king’s peace ‘by force and arms.’

That function in your republic is: ‘to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…’

A citizen bearing arms threatens peace and tranquility.

By allowing and encouraging citizens to bear arms, the Supreme Court is preventing government from properly performing its function to ‘insure domestic Tranquility.’

The Union is therefore in terms a failed state.

And the court did this in Heller in rude, partisan and triumphal language that is now mirrored in Dobbs.  Those justices never learned the ancient wisdom that the most important person in court is the loser.

You will not find anything remotely like this anywhere else in the common law world.

It is all so sad.

What’s Wrong?

The book What’s Wrong?  written with Chris Wallace-Crabbe is out now and in a bookshop near you.  Here are some extracts

7       The problems with dogma

There was a famous experiment in the US that you can get on YouTube.  A group of students are working out in passing at basketball.  Some are in white and some are in black.  You are asked to count how many times the ball is passed between those in white.  It takes about a minute.  Very few people who carry out that task notice a gorilla walking right across the middle of the set.  The gorilla is in black, but that may not make much difference – the observer is concentrating on the movement of the balls between those in white.  Following the bouncing ball produces a kind of tunnel vision.  You are so focussed on what you see as the whole point of the exercise that you miss the blindingly obvious. 

We see something very similar every day with people who are dogmatic.  They can get so focussed that they are like one‑eyed football supporters.  We are speaking of a species of prejudice, but it is worth looking at it in its own right.

A dogma is an opinion that is stated with authority and that is held as binding by those who adhere to that authority.  Dogma is big in ‘think tanks’, the current repositories of secular faith.  But also among our scattered fuellers of civil discord.  The Oxford English Dictionary has for dogmatic: ‘Asserting dogmas or opinions in an authoritative or arrogant manner.’  If someone says that you are being dogmatic, they are not paying you a compliment.  Rather, they are suggesting that you are too heavy handed in the way you hand out your views and seek to impose them on others. 

It is something we run into often in arguments about football, religion – especially sectarian issues – and politics.  An argument on politics between a North and South Korean would soon founder on dogmatism.  But dogmatism is not confined to Communists, Fascists, or those who subscribe to the teaching of a church.  It is all around us.  It inheres in every profession.  The trick is to be able to determine where it is legitimate and required, and where it just leads to debilitating short‑sightedness.  Passionate believers, like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and some animal rights groups, are very prone to dogmatism. 

People who hold on to dogma are by definition dogmatic.  One example occurs when some who subscribe to a right to life assert that, as a consequence, no form of abortion can be tolerated because it involves the taking of a life, which is murder.  A person who is a dedicated pacifist must adopt the role of conscientious objector in a war, but if the whole populace did that, the nation would be undefended. 

Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher who was a lapsed Pietist, wrote a paper called What is Enlightenment?  It began with the answer:  ‘Man’s emergence from his self‑incurred immaturity.’  What is immaturity?  It is ‘the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another.’  Kant concluded by saying that an enlightened government finds it can profit by treating man ‘who is more than a machine in a manner appropriate to his dignity’.  In the meantime, he had said:

Dogmas and formulas, those mechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of its natural endowments are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity. 

Dogmatism is not only the prerogative of people of faith.  It is, of course, the case that those who deny God are likely to be at least as dogmatic as those who affirm God. 

But Kant was also aware that conflicts about dogma between people of faith tend to get lethal.

Now, when, as usually happens, a church proclaims itself to be the one church universal (even though it is based upon faith in a special revelation which, being historical can never be required of everyone), he who refuses to acknowledge its (peculiar) ecclesiastical faith is called by it ‘an unbeliever’ and is hated wholeheartedly; he who diverges therefrom only in path (in non‑essentials) is called ‘heterodox’ and is at least shunned as a source of infection.  But he who avows allegiance to this church and diverges from it on essentials of its faith (namely, regarding the practices connected with it), is called, especially if he spreads abroad his false belief, a ‘heretic’ and, as a rebel, such a man is held more culpable than a foreign foe, is expelled from the church with anathema (like that which the Romans pronounced on him who crossed the Rubicon against the Senate’s will) and is given over to all the gods of hell.  Exclusive correctness of belief in matters of ecclesiastical faith claimed by the church’s teachers or heads is called orthodoxy. This could be sub‑divided into ‘despotic’ (brutal) or ‘liberal’ orthodoxy. 

This is strong stuff, but we are reminded that the higher the stakes are on dogma, the greater the risk of being caught on the wrong side.

11     The vice of labelling

Some years ago, a lady at Oxford, en route from the reading room to the dining room for breakfast, was heard to say: ‘I have just been described as a typical Guardian reader, and I’m trying to work out whether I should feel insulted.’  A discussion about the meaning of the word ‘presumptuous’ then followed.

There is no law or custom that says that we should apply a label to people – or put them in boxes, or in a file, or give them a codename.  There is no law that we should not.  But most of us can’t help ourselves.  So what?

Well, most of us don’t like being put into boxes.  That is how we tend to see governments or Telstra or a big bank behaving toward us.  Nor do most of us want to be typed.  When someone says that an opinion or act of yours is ‘typical’ of you or your like, they are very rarely trying to be pleasant to you.

Most of us just want to be what we are.  You don’t have to have a university degree specialising in the philosophy of Kant to believe that each of us has his or her own dignity, merely because we are human.  We are in a different league to camels and gnats.  So, if I am singled out as a Muslim, a Jew, or an Aboriginal, what does that label add to or take away from my humanity?  What good can come from subtracting from my humanity by labelling me in that way?

So, the first problem with labelling is that it is likely to be demeaning to the target, and presumptuous on the part of the labeller.  We are detracting from a person’s dignity.  We put registration numbers on dog collars, and we brand cattle, but we should afford humans the courtesy – no, the dignity – of their own humanity.  After all, we can scarcely bring ourselves to think of that time when some people were tattooing identifying numbers on the bodies of other human beings. 

The second problem with labelling is that it is both loose and lazy.  If you say of someone that they are a typical Conservative or Tory, that immediately raises two questions.  What do the labels Conservative and Tory mean?  What are the characteristics of the target that might warrant the application of the label? 

In this country, at the moment, the terms Left and Right hardly mean anything at all – except as terms of abuse – which is how the words Tory and Whig started in England.  These terms are now generally only applied by one side to the other.  Not many people are happy to have either of those labels applied to themselves.  The categories are just too plastic and fluid.

There is one curious distinction in the way that these terms are applied in this country at the moment.  The Murdoch press is happy to call followers of the Fairfax press or the ABC ‘the Left’ (or ‘the PC Left’ or ‘the Love Media’), but those members of the press very rarely respond by calling readers of the Murdoch press Right Wing (or Far Right, or worse).  Is the difference one of custom or courtesy – or don’t we know or don’t we care?

Similarly, the labels Liberal and Labour hardly stand for any difference in principle any more.  At the time of writing, on any of the major issues in Australian politics, what were the differences in the policies of those parties that derived from their platform?  (We will come back to this point later, too.) The old forms of name‑calling between Liberal and Labour mean nothing to our children – absolutely nothing.  These old ways are as outmoded as name‑calling between Catholics and Protestants.  And there is some common ground in the two shifts – very many people have lost faith in both religion and politics.  The old tensions or rivalries just don’t seem to matter anymore.

Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the obvious problems we have just referred to, labelling is not just common but mandatory in far too much political discussion in the press, and certainly for shock jocks or those who make a career out of working TV chat shows.  While some people naturally thrive on conflict – Napoleon and Hitler are two bad cases – some journalists in the press engage in conflict, for a living.  These people rarely have a financial motive to respond reasonably, much less to resolve the conflict.  To the contrary, they have a direct financial interest in keeping the conflict as explosive as possible.  It is notorious that controversy feeds ratings and that bad news sells newspapers.

If you put up an argument to one of these people who live of the earnings of conflict, the response will very commonly involve two limbs – a personal attack  on you (the Latin tag for which is ad hominem), followed by some labels, which are never meant as compliments.  So, for example if someone, were to query the rigour of the government’s policies  toward refugees, a predictable response would be ‘What else would you expect from someone who subscribes to the ABC?  How would you like these people to move in next door?’  There is no argument – just vulgar abuse.

The disintegration of thought is palpable, but a lot of people are making a handy living out of it – and not in ways that do the rest of us any good.

There is commonly a third problem with labelling – it generally tells you a lot more about the labeller – some would say the sniper – than the target, and the answer is rarely pretty.  And if you pile cliché upon label, and venom upon petulance, the result is as sad as it is predictable.  You disappear up your own bum. 

Let us take one label that became prominent in 2016 – right across the western world.  There has been a lot of chatter – some call it white noise – about populists.  Who are they?  One of the problems with this word is that people who use it rarely say what they mean by it.  If you go to the Web, you will find references to ordinary or regular or common people against political insiders or a wealthy elite.  These vague terms don’t help – to the contrary.  What do they mean? Is dividing people into classes a good idea in Australia now – or anywhere at any time?  And if it is simply a matter of the common people wresting control from a wealthy elite, who could decently object?  Is this not just democracy triumphing over oligarchy?

Populus is the Latin word for ‘people,’ with pretty much the same connotations as that word in English.  Do populists, therefore, appeal to the people for their vote?  Well, anyone standing for office in a democracy does just that.  The most famous political speech in history concludes with the words ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’.

But the word populist is not used to describe anyone standing for office.  It is used to refer to only some of those, and the difference seems to be in the parts of the people that are appealed to and the way in which that appeal is made.

So, what kind of public do populists appeal to?  Well, those who use this word say that the people appealed to are anything but the ‘elite’ – those who have got on well in life because of their background or education, or both.  In both the UK and the US this feeling about the elite – which might look like simple envy to some – is linked to a suspicion of or contempt for ‘experts’.  People do, however, tend to get choosy about which experts they reject.  This rejection does not extend to experts who may save their life (in the surgery, or at 30,000 feet) or their liberty, but it may explain the curious intellectual lesion that many people of a reactionary turn of mind have about science and the environment.

Another attribute of the public appealed to by populists is that they have often missed out on the increase in wealth brought about by free trade around the world and by advances in technology.  These movements obviously have cost people jobs and are thought by some experts to be likely to cost another 40% over the next ten years.

A third attribute of those appealed to by populists is said to be that, in their reduced condition, they value their citizenship above all else, and they are not willing to share it.  They are therefore against taking refugees or people whose faith or colour threatens the idea of their national identity. 

Now, if folk who use the word populist are describing politicians who appeal to people with those attributes, they may want to be careful about where they say so.  The picture that emerges is one of a backward, angry, and mean chauvinist.  That picture is seriously derogatory, but it adds warmth and not light to the discussion.  If that is what people mean when they refer to populists, then it is just a loose label that unfairly smears a large part of the population.  The term does then itself suffer from the vice of labelling that we have identified. 

So, we would leave labels with George Bush senior, who said that labels are what you put on soup cans

12     Tribalism

We started this chapter on the subject of prejudice as the main corrupter of thought, and near the end of it we come to a common source of prejudice – you might call it tribalism or clannishness, or just the herd instinct.  It is our tendency to surrender our judgment, and therefore our dignity, to the crowd, or the mob.  In its most terrifying form, it is the lynch mob, which the French reached on a national scale during the Great Terror of the French Revolution in 1794.  The surrender was more complete, and the consequences more financially severe, during the Great Crash in 1929, but we see it all round us every day, and as often as not we do not notice when we have switched into the mode of group control. 

A harmless form is the one‑eyed Collingwood supporter.  Indeed, one reason why people enjoy that part of the entertainment industry called sport is that this is just the area, either in the stands or on the terraces or around the firm’s coffee machine, where independent judgment can be suspended and blind prejudice masquerading as loyalty can be safely put on show.  (You might from time to time graciously applaud someone from the other side, but you may want to watch who you do that in front of.)  You can even blow the ref a raspberry without going to the slammer.

One worrying form of clannishness is the tendency of some groups to form their own language, and retreat behind it when they come under attack, when they feel insecure, or when they just feel like being pompous.  Lawyers and doctors used to be notorious for this, but both have improved.  It is no longer smart or clever to be obscure; the contrary is the case. 

A clannish corruption of thought is dangerous because it obscures meaning – it makes the author harder to pin down – and it masks a crude self‑interest in protecting the relevant group as the proper or even the sole repository of truth.  This is very worrying when they are unable to spell out a verifiable meaning for the benefit of the uninitiated.  Secular thinkers for many centuries have accused priests of doing just this – of denying ordinary people access to the truth, or, if you prefer, the light, by refusing to give them the keys to the codes.  You might recall that, before the Reformation, you could be burnt at the stake in England if you dared to translate the Bible into the native language of the believers.  That must be the ultimate example of people being asked to take articles of faith on trust.

We see examples of this form of clannish or tribal protectionism, and the consequent mutilation of language and logic, in the newer social sciences – which some think is a phrase that contradicts itself – and in marketing, among ideologues, especially think tanks and their acolytes, political advisers, and also in some parts of academia.  We tend to see the problem at its worst with the political ideologues – the advisers tend to be hard‑headed people who hardly believe anything, whereas the ideologues bring commitment and passion, and so are likely to invoke that most dangerous ingredient in rational discussion called sincerity.  (We will come back to sincerity in the next section.) 

The problem now is that you are dealing with people with a position and with a patch to defend.  Helen Garner referred to people ‘who have an agenda’.  You are dealing with someone who subscribes to articles of faith, and they may not realise or accept that articles of faith lie outside the borders of rational debate.  You might therefore be talking to a zealot.  Zealots are people whose zeal has infected their judgment.  They become like one‑eyed Collingwood supporters, but much, much worse, because they believe that the stakes are so big.  In the language of the stock market, they have their own skin in the game. 

Unable to see the world from the other person’s point of view,  they are very likely to think that they have uncovered the logical answer – that is, the answer, and there can only be one of those.  They become progressively less able to see that reasonable people might differ on almost any question relating to human behaviour or belief.  That is to say, they get less and less tolerant, and intolerance is the cancer of sensible discussion. 

Agenda bearers tend to look on disputes not as debates about ideas but as conflicts between the kinds of people who hold various ideas.  They become emotionally attached to their own side and emotionally opposed to the others.  We saw that the writer in The Australian who is obsessed with PC correctness said  it was unfair that ‘we’ did not have the same remedies as her adversaries.  With agenda bearers, judgment goes clean out the window.  They are ready to argue about things that they know little or nothing about, and that must end up in bullshit.  They then get ready to attack almost anything said by the other side, and to defend almost anything that has come out of their side.  They become driven by and to conflict.

They therefore pick fights that they do not have to pick, and so they ignore the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up with a dud; if you don’t have a good point, shut up.

Agenda bearers are heavily into mockery, and into nodding and winking among themselves.  They are not beyond leering or even jeering, and they may have an obsession about sneering: one of those cases where they project their own feelings and reactions onto their opponents.  They often accuse others of being dogmatic or feeling morally or intellectually superior because they have right on their side.

They disdain experts, but that disdain tends to get wobbly at 30,000 feet in an electrical storm, or if they need urgent heart surgery, or if they get framed for a murder they did not commit – or even if their super fund goes down the tube. 

They are long on conspiracies, especially when it comes to the newspapers or television consulted by the other side.  Indeed, they stereotype people by reference to their chosen media – readers of Fairfax or viewers of the ABC must be like readers of The New York Times or The Guardian, and must oppose the Murdoch press, or Fox News.  (Would you be insulted if described as a typical Age reader or an adherent to Fox News?  Or would you just think that the author of the remark was thick and presumptuous?) 

If you are not into these nuances, a word that people known as culture warriors may be fond of, you are not part of the game.  Indeed, there are times when they seem unable to choose their cheerleader – the Famous Five or Kim, Enid Blyton or Rudyard Kipling.

Ideologues are very defensive about their own culture or faith – words broad enough to mean or contain just what they want them to mean or contain – and very suspicious of those who want to share the good life, or who threaten to change its underlying fabric.  For this purpose, they may allow a shock jock or some other gutter‑rat to put up kites for them, but the sensible ones always preserve deniability and a distance from the overtly vulgar.  (These gradations were very carefully measured during the French Revolution.  The punctilious Robespierre could benefit from the work of Marat in stirring people up, without adopting his squalid venom.) 

Their arguments are mainly aimed at the man – ad hominem – in part because of the innate or acquired hostility of those advancing the arguments,, and in part because they tend not to play by the rules, and in part again because they have lost control of their moral or intellectual compass.  They always accuse the other side of hypocrisy, of which they are World’s Best Practice exponents, and of utter indifference to the consequences of their ideology – which they are past noticing in themselves.  Even when they set out their own contradictions in black and white, they cannot see them for what they are.  They are not just biased or unbalanced – they are wilfully beyond persuasion.  In ordinary terms, they are crippled by the chips on their shoulders. 

You will recognise here many of the attributes of a bush lawyer and of far too many of our politicians.  It will only get worse – as people subscribe to internet sites for the true believers, and commune in language‑killing terms on what are preposterously described as social media, and banish the anxiety that comes with uncertainty by cocooning themselves in their own echo chambers.

13     Bullshit

There might be residual categories of falsity which are commonly described, and not just in Australia, as bullshit.  Lest it be thought that that word is too common for a book directed to professional people, let us refer you to a priceless little monograph by Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, On Bullshit.  As we set out on the inscription page, the professor said

It is just this lack of a connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit … Bullshit is unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.

Being fake does not, of itself, mean that you are wrong.  Since we have referred to politicians, we have already seen that Professor Frankfurt cites a remark that is the credo of politicians: ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’  He says that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff, and that it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements that people make do not necessarily reveal what they in fact believe or feel.  And since it may be objected that we have taken objection to things done in all sincerity, especially the ideologues referred to in the last section, we may say what  Professor Frankfurt also says at the very end of this little book, ‘Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.’ 

At his first press conference, the Press Secretary for President Trump was caught lying.  A White House staffer called Kellyanne Conway then lit up the world with her defence.  The Press Secretary, we were assured, was merely offering ‘alternative facts.’  She may have just been getting into her stride.  The President issued an executive order aimed at certain immigrants.  There was worldwide condemnation of the order as a ban on people of one faith, Islam.   The targets were identified by their citizenship of nations that were Muslim.  Conway said that the ban could not be called a Muslim ban because it did not extend to all Muslim countries.  And she did so with a straight face.   Conway either believed what she said — or she did not.  Which do you find the more discomfiting?  And do you notice how the President gets to maintain deniability by multiplying the links in the chain of his advisers?  It’s all just part of a very squalid game.

These emphases on people being unconstrained by a concern with truth and on bullshit being phony, rather than merely false, are central this book.  They are also very instructive on the links between bluff merchants, bull artists, and con men. 

We will come back to the subject of bullshit later in this book.  It is a proper subject of study, and a reminder that the headings for the ways we can go off the rails are not terms of art, and are very far from being a comprehensive account of how we can go wrong in fact.  It is the same for the failures of logic described in the next chapter that are commonly called fallacies.  Is there any hope that in the future the West will look back on the year 2016as that in which bullshit reached its peak?

Musing on history

A History of England, Principally in the Seventeenth Century, by the German historian Leopold Von Ranke is a great read.  Ranke had two great arts – he knew that the work of an advocate or judicial assessor is to make the point clearly and simply and cut out the waste.  You don’t spoil a good point with a dud – or with incontinence.  And he also knew that the job of a narrator is to tell a story.  This is a sadly rare double.  Those in the academy who don’t have it – the majority – can get snaky.

But Ranke also had a fine eye for the illuminating example or illustration.  He is one of the few – Gibbon was another – who used footnotes to good effect.  It is no surprise that in writing his history of England, this great German scholar cited as a major source the archives of the ancient Republic of Venice.  You might get that European vision from the French or the Dutch – but not from the English.

And because we know that Ranke burrows down in remote primary sources, we listen when he makes statements that are large.  Like – the glory of their arms abroad lay nearest to the heart of the French nation, and the legal settlement of their home affairs to that of the English.  Or – in the 16th century, the part of England in emancipating the world from the rule of the western hierarchy directly influenced the religious revolution throughout Europe as well as its own constitution.  The sacerdotal reaction was directed at England – and its successful resistance was of great service to Europe.  It’s as well that both such comments came from a German –that level of sweep is not smiled on in England as it is in Europe.

We get nervous now about talking about ‘progress’ in history after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Sarajevo.  But it does seem to me that we can see two themes in perhaps a maturing among us in the course of our history.  One is the emancipation from magic and the supernatural – like religion.  Another is the movement to have our standing determined by what we do rather than what our ancestors did – this is what Maine called the movement from status to contract; merit rather than pedigree.

The history of England is full of both.  But its major contribution has been to work out a way that the people could control their government – in their case, their king.  No other country ever got close to what they were doing when the English were at it.  And only a few have since caught up.

As it seems to me, there were three great peaks in the long constitutional journey of the English – Magna Carta in 1215; the Act of Supremacy of 1534; and the Declaration of Rights of 1689.  Ranke focuses on the last – which effectively settled the constitution of England – and therefore ours – after a century of grinding conflict that forever denoted, often in blood, the political character of the nation.

In my view, the English are prone to underestimating the legal effect of Magna Carta and the political consequences of the Reformation – which in England had almost nothing to do with God or faith.

At Runnymede, the barons had the whip hand – and they applied it in the enforcement clause.  If the king ratted – and they knew he would – they could appoint their version of receivers and managers.  Its terms would make Putin blush, and it was Exhibit A in King John’s submission to the pope that he had sealed the charter under duress. 

Ranke had qualms about the finality of that contract between the king and the people.  (The barons expressly stipulated that those down the line should have the benefit of the Great Charter.)  But at least Ranke saw it for what it was – a contract.  The English are curiously coy about this.  It does matter.  The tribes of Israel had a covenant with God.  So did west bound English Puritans.  But you won’t find deals like that among the Medes, or Persians, or subjects of the Pharaohs.  Or between Hitler and the Wehrmacht – or between Putin and the rulers of Russia – the oligarchs.

The pope quashed Magna Carta as King John offered Rome an appalling deal.  There had to come to a time when the English would lock out a foreign potentate from preventing them governing their realm as they wished.

That time came when a different pope could not meet the request of an English king to allow him to settle the succession to the English throne by remarrying.  The pope could not do that because of a conflict of interest.  The loyalty of the Vatican to the Holy Roman Empire cost it the Church of England – and put a very big hole in the reach of Rome in Europe.

How did the English underestimate the impact of their grasp of religious Home Rule?  The short answer is – look at what happened to nations that never got it until it was too late – like France, Spain, Italy and Russia.

As nations matured, their peoples did not just seek to reduce the place of the supernatural, or magic, in their lives – they wanted to reduce the role of the middle man, the priest.  They were coming to the view that the church might be causing more trouble than it was worth.  The protest of Luther was about faith and the church.  The English revolt had next to nothing to do with either

The English effected the divorce not by royal proclamation, but by a series of acts of parliament.  By doing that, the Crown tacitly acknowledged that ultimately sovereignty in England rested in the Crown in parliament – or at least, that is what the parliament and its champions would argue. 

Here was a real accretion of power.  Among other things, the title of the Crown, and the government of the church, all derived from the parliament.  The church became in substance a department of state.  The Crown was at the head of both, and by and large the Anglican church has behaved itself since, and not caused any trouble to the Crown or the nation.

The Act of Supremacy followed an act that had a recital of complacent self-satisfaction that Jefferson would later mimic – ‘Where, by diverse sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire….’  There is just a little laxity with veracity there.

But here, then, was a declaration of independence which the English had to defend against a Spanish invasion.  The soldiers of the Vatican would certainly have burnt Elizabeth at the stake as a heretic; would-be assassins had already been offered Paradise.  After that speech at Tilbury from their queen, England was about to flower as a nation.  Ranke observes all this with the eye of eternity.

In the next century, the English would finally come to terms with their king.  But now they had dealt with God and his church.  After they had fixed things with their king, they could turn their full attention to the aristocracy. 

The history of Ranke is ‘principally’ about the role of the four inept Stuart kings who provoked the English through their parliament in curtailing the power of the king in the settlement after what they call the Glorious Revolution.  (And not many English people now recall, or ever knew, that an essential part of that revolution was performed by an invading Dutch army that patrolled the streets of London.)

Magna Carta said the king was under the law.  The Act of Supremacy said the Church of England was under the law.  The Declaration of Rights said that both were under parliament.  Game, set, and match.  Enlarging the franchise would take time, but not blood.

There was, then, another employment contract with the Crown.  This time, they did not use a receiver and manager as enforcer.  They said to the king ‘You can’t have an army unless we agree.  But we remain armed.’  That was enough.  The English of course have never invoked this right to bear arms.  The Americans just get it horribly wrong, through a sad mix of credulity and venality.  And a shocking ignorance of their constitutional antecedents.

The narrative of Ranke is so good to follow about the Stuarts, God’s gift to parliamentary democracy.  None of them was up to it, but the worst were Charles I and James II.  The English executed the first.  They just ran the other out of town.  On the way, he threw the seals into the Thames.

James I put silly ideas about Divine Right into the head of his son Charles I.  Ranke describes Charles as lawyer-like and priest-like.

His strict propriety of demeanour bordered on male bashfulness; a serious and temperate soul spoke from his calm eyes…All the world had been wearied by the frequent proofs which his father had given of his untrustworthiness, and by the unfathomable mystery in which he enveloped his over-wavering intentions: they expected from the son more openness, uprightness and consistency.  They asked if he could not also be more decidedly Protestant.

The first part is word perfect for the role of Alec Guinness as Charles in the film Cromwell.  The second part about the father perfectly fits the son.  The English could not trust him.  We have recently seen a Prime Minister achieve the same status – with a less terminal conclusion.

The problem set in when, for dynastic reasons, Charles married Henrietta, the sister of a French king, by proxy before Notre Dame.  To get the deal done with approval from Rome, the future king had to make promises about the treatment of English Catholics that directly put him in conflict with his duties as the head of the Church of England.  He did not recall how a such a conflict had cost Rome the loss of England – and he could not foresee that a worse conflict with James II would see the end of the Stuart line.  Part of the marriage compact was secret, and Charles II would enter into a secret pledge about Catholicism with France –the cash was worth a Mass – that in a subject would be the highest form of treason on in the books. 

Ranke reports on the trial of Strafford – moments of high theatre.  Strafford put the wind up the English like no other.  This man of great gifts had changed sides, joined the king, and commanded an army in Ireland.  The English had to get him before he got them.  In persuading the Commons, St John produced one of those lines an advocate would die for.  This is one of those brick wall moments in history.  Say what you like – he had to go.  (A similar wall would have arisen if Hitler had not killed himself.  He could in no way have been allowed to live.  Churchill did not fancy any trial of the major war criminals.)  It is a riveting story.  (Miss Wedgwood tells it wonderfully.  The academy doesn’t like her either.) 

And in the middle of the 17th century, the role of the English people in the choice of their governors was fundamental.  Charles I would not sign the law that warranted the execution of Strafford.  But he had to.  His advisers could not guarantee his personal safety from the people if he did not.  Nowadays we would give that sort of revolution a colour.

In an age that is not at all religious, it is easy to forget the pervasive force of faith and liturgy in other times and places.  At one time or another, it has sent most nations off the rails, and led to the worst of our wars.  God brings out the grizzlies in us.  After the two world wars, a majority of Germans said that the worst war in their history was the Thirty Years War in the 17th century – a direct product of the Reformation.

To understand that English history from say 1215 to 1689, you only need to look elsewhere.  The French were centuries behind when they tried to do it all in one big bang, and they had to endure a century of misery as a result – after the ego of a Corsican upstart accounted for the lives of five million people.  The French were still dealing with feudalism in 1789.  The German nation was only brought together by Bismarck, who led a liberal state, but something in their psyche led to the one of the most evil regimes the world has known and to two world wars. 

Spain, Italy and Greece still do not have their act together, and the Church has been a curse in each of them.  The Dutch and Nordic states alone look calm and stable.  The Baltic states have endured agony and the Balkans are case studies in every form of political failure or evil.  The Celtic fringe in the U K now looks very ready to pull out – the eight hundred years of race-driven misrule of Ireland is a frightful blot on England.  (And that peace even now is in hazard because an unprincipled caste betrayed almost every plank of the English platform that Ranke describes.)  Poland and Hungary are not up with Europe yet. 

That leaves Russia.  It has never been decently governed.  The Orthodox Church is now sponsoring a war by Russia against a nation whose people pray to the God of the same Church.  It may just be the most inept and evil ecclesiastical body ever.  Russia liberated its serfs in the same year that Lincoln emancipated the slaves (1863).  Russia is neither European nor Asian.  It is yet to have anything like its 1215 moment with its rulers.  It is the black hole of the world. 

The United States has also not been able to deal with the corrupting stain of slavery, and its deviations from the English model.  Its failure to house train God, or Trump, mean that only very generous people continue to describe it as civilised.

Let us look further at those two nations.  If we go back to the movement away from the supernatural and toward merit counting more than pedigree, then, in a state that claims to be civilised, we should be looking to find people having an equal opportunity of their own individual worth being determined by their own actions rather than those of their parents or people they know.  The French 1789 ideal of equality may have been realised there as a matter of law, but they are nowhere near ironing out differences that arise from class, colour or faith.  And the dreadful inequalities in wealth and income bedevil not just western countries.

Slavery, or serfdom, in any form is a direct repudiation of equality.  That and empire are two reasons why it was silly for Oxbridge to call ancient Greece or Rome civilised.

Slavery, or serfdom, has not been an issue in England since way back in the Middle Ages.  Well before the white people settled here in this continent, the English courts had ruled that slavery was not recognised at common law.  It was of such a nature – ‘so odious’ – that it could only be supported by positive law.  The English parliament outlawed the slave trade in the first part of the next century.  If you look at when the Russians liberated their serfs – or claimed to have done so – the difference in the time-line with the English is about half a millennium.

Both Russia and America remain victims of caste.  Russia has only ever been ruled by force.  It has never known anything like the rule of law – which is fundamental to our notion of civilisation.  Slavery split the American union once, and it still hangs heavy over the land now.  It looks to me that the sort of people who support Trump have never forgiven others for putting a black man in the White House.  They now fear they will be overrun by people of colour – who, in their eyes, are inferior people.

History teaches that these are the sorts of self-righteously aggrieved people that rise to the surface in any revolution.  They were in full and hideous display in the attack on the Capitol – which is still ignored or allowed by a large part of what used to be the American establishment.  What a falling off have we seen there?

A similar although much wealthier class in Russia use their power and wealth to control the organs of power and confine power and wealth to a select few.  ‘Equality’ may as well be a meteorite from Mars.  In the result, we have the abomination of Putin and the crime of the war against the Ukraine – and a murder of truth that makes Trump look like a choir boy.

There is a sad kicker.  The end of slavery in England was in large part due to agents of Christianity – in particular, the Church of England and the maligned Quakers.  Here was a mighty achievement – and the first real basis of our claim to be civilised.  Sadly, corrupt versions of that faith are heavily implicated in the damage done to their people and the world by Trump and Putin.

So, in both America and Russia, we are looking at a failure of a whole people to attain the first level of maturity – a liberation from magic or the supernatural – like religion.  And in both countries what is there called ‘religion’ is in the hands of people you would not wish to break bread with.  The Russian Orthodox Church has a frightful record of collusion with the Tsars and the KGB – and now Putin.  In the best of all possible worlds, the first three people to be prosecuted for war crimes in the Ukraine would be Putin, Lavrov, and the Patriarch of Moscow.

It is deeply worrying that neither America nor Russia has been able to tame the demons of superstition.  And now one organ of government in the Union, whose members are appointed for life, is pronouncing death dealing edicts about abortion and guns that are driven by venality and the supernatural.  

There must be something seriously wrong with in a nation that has an education system that allows so many people to put up with a man who is so obviously a fool, a crook, and a coward.  But in a time when science allows us to look back through billions of years, a large part of the American Congress believes that is impossible.  They would not accept voodoo from their heart surgeon, but they allow their superstition to dictate how we deal with our bodies and our planet.

Who in all conscience could describe such a state as civilised?

Well, some of those statements are large, and I doubt whether Ranke would have accepted them – at least at the lectern.  But we need to recall not just our story, but those of other peoples. 

Very few tell it as well as Leopold Von Ranke.  My set of six volumes is the original Oxford University leather-bound set in English of 1875.  You can get online an Indian company’s rebinding of a facsimile edition in handsome leather in your choice of colour for about $A50 a volume delivered. 

My recollection is that at one time some at Oxford decided that Ranke’s work should be set for students in place of Macaulay.  A fly on the wall may have had to duck buckets of blood that night.

Ranke – civilisation – English constitution – America – Russia.

Passing Bull 319 – Untrustworthy accountants

Some of the nonsense coming from big accounting firms passes belief.  A lot of people at KPMG were found to have cheated in exams.  About 1100 were accused.  Of cheating between 2016 and 2020.  Many were found guilty.  A complicated process by a body having some regulatory function took a long time on it.  Some were fired.  Others cautioned.  The AFR says the watchdog is keeping the names and penalties secret. 

Obviously, public confidence in what used to be a profession does not rank with that watchdog – a very somnolent poodle.

I used the past tense because this report is one of those that suggests that these big firms are not professional.  If you are found to have cheated in an exam, you cannot be trusted. That being so, you would be a danger to the public.  You cannot therefore be or remain in the profession.  There is high authority for the proposition that these regulators are there to protect the public – not to punish the wrongdoer.

Instead we get this from KPMG.

Our integrity is not up for negotiation.  We have implemented a comprehensive remediation plan designed to respond to this matter, and we continue to strengthen our ethical culture.

That bullshit alone show that we are not dealing with professional people.

Ethics – accounting – KPMG – regulators.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF 40

Manning Clark

Abridged History of Australia

By chance, I picked up a copy of Manning Clark’s History of Australia as abridged by Michael Cathcart.  I paid only $10 for it at the local flea market, but I had trouble putting it down.  I have read the original six volumes – twice.  I am a fan of the author.  He knew his job was to tell a story.  The raw materials are hardly inspiring.  The history of Australia has the same problem as the French Revolution – heroes are hard to come by, but there is plenty there to make you blush, if not hang your head down.

When I reread Strachey’s Eminent Victorians a while ago, I was struck by how much work God had to do with each of those lives.  Manning Clark was concerned with the phenomenon described as the death of God.  His language is frequently biblical, but the whimsy comes with compassion.  For me, the apotheosis of both style and story comes with parts of volumes four and five – the period from, say, 1851 to 1915– that included marks on our canvas like Eureka, Lambing Flat, Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly, White Australia, and Gallipoli.

Let us look at how we got off to a bad start on education and why it has remained a mess ever since.  The problem for the ‘reforms’ of the 1870’s was not so much God, as schism.  The latter is man-made.

The reforms entrenched the sectarian divisions they were designed to overcome, not least because the Catholic Church withdrew its children from the public system.  The question of whether or not the government should subsidise denominational schools remained a bitter source of conflict into the following century.  [And this century.]…..The children of the rich did not meet on common ground either in the classrooms or the playgrounds of the Australian colonies.  In some schools a room was set aside for the children of the rich….In this way the parents of the gentry and the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie ensured that the fine edge of gentility should not be dulled by familiar intercourse with common children, until the time came to attend a private school such as Melbourne Grammar School or the Presbyterian Ladies’College, where the prejudices they had inherited from their parents were consolidated into the habits of a lifetime.

We buggered that right up, and that very English divide is still with us.  We also buggered it up with help from another part of our schizoid mother country.

In the national schools, the children were taught to venerate Her Majesty Queen Victoria; in the Catholic schools the children learned to venerate the Holy Father, and to adore the Holy Mother of God.  In the national schools, the children learned of the glories of British arms, and the spread of a beneficent British civilisation over the whole world….;in the Catholic schools, Ireland was presented as the centre of the universe, and England as a place from which had come the men who had reduced the loveliest island on God’s earth to a land of skulls……In the national schools, the classroom walls were decorated with the likenesses of Queen Victoria, and of civil and military heroes of English history; in the Catholic schools classroom walls were decorated with prints of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin and the Pope.  Yet they had much in common.  Both school systems enforced a strict segregation of the sexes; both urged their pupils to mortify the flesh; both taught a morality pleasing to the ears of men who held the purse strings in the colonial parliaments.

So, we not only inflicted social division on the children; we also gave them religious hate.  The second has evaporated, but the first lives on as a national disgrace.  Have we also allowed a ‘strict segregation of the sexes’ so that ‘the prejudices they had inherited from their parents were consolidated into the habits of a lifetime’?

We are reminded that the poet Henry Kendall thought that Australia belonged to ‘clowns, liars and charlatans.’  Boy, just look at us now.  One local newspaper was ‘Australian because it treated life as a cruel joke.  Its mockery was Australian.’  You find the word ‘mockery’ a lot in Manning Clark.  Clark was not a mocker, but the mockers waited until he was dead to move in on him.  A man who looked on others with an eye of pity was cruelly betrayed by people who should have known better.  Those mean and jealous people cruelly foreshadowed the jeerers, sneerers and leerers inflicted on Australia by a Flash Harry who checked out for the United States.

This was just another upswing of that petty mediocrity that so sadly disfigures what passes for our national character.  As Clark remarked, ‘in Australia, the upstart conservative, the mean man, often defeated the generous man and the visionary.’  As it happens, on the next page, we get the ‘money-changers had begun to set the tone of public life in Australia.’  These are truths that have sadly endured, and are not seen by those who best exemplify them.  Well, as Billy Hughes reminded our national parliament, at least Judas had the decency to hang himself – and throw away the thirty pieces of silver.

The Labor movement got off to a mean and rocky Australian start.

Writing and talking as though the love of all mankind distinguished them from all previous political groups, articulate Labor spokesmen inflamed their followers with hatred against the Chinese, the Jews, the English, the Pacific Islanders, and indeed almost all strangers in their midst.  Mouthing the platitudes of the Utopians about a new society in which all hatred would cease, and God’s destroying angels would disappear off the face of the earth, their candidates for election to the colonial parliaments represented themselves to be reformers rather than revolutionaries, preservers rather than destroyers.

We know about those people who love all mankind.  The man that Carlyle called the Evangelist of the French Revolution, Rousseau, loved all mankind – he just abandoned all his children to the Foundling Home.  ‘This arrangement seemed to me so admirable, so rational, and so legitimate, that the only reason I did not boast openly of it was to spare the mother ….All things considered, what I chose for my children was for the best for them, or so I genuinely believed.  I could have wished, and still wish, that I had been reared and brought up in the same fashion.’  Would Stalin have approved of the solicitude for the mother?

Those who came to federation had to deal with ‘the inexhaustible inertia of the people as a whole.’  That’s what we are – inert.  In no colony did more than 46.33% cast a yes vote.  We could also be crudely nationalist.  The Bulletin urged Australians to turn their backs on ‘Queen Victoria’s nigger Empire.’

Our first PM was ‘a middle of the road man, an Australian bourgeois politician.’  Toss-pot Barton believed political issues could be resolved by chaps over Scotch.  Some idiot referred to ‘the good revolutionist of Nazareth.’  Then in March 1901’the Reverend Mr Edgar electrified his congregation by giving permission to the men during a Melbourne heatwave to remove their coats.’

But the Victorian Chief Justice, Sir John Madden, feared that a darker purpose was at work.  Taking his stand on the Bible, he warned that women’s suffrage would abolish soldiers, war, racing, hunting, football and all manly games.  The Bulletin worried that intermarriage with niggers could lower our national type.  Australians ‘had descended from their lofty eminence as a society of peace and goodwill’ and ‘Australia had suddenly acquired notoriety in the civilised world as a centre of human barbarism’.  Was the author of Ecclesiastes right?  Is there nothing new under the sun?

In the 1950’s parents in Melbourne were horrified by the gyrations of Elvis Presley.  How did their forebears handle the sex appeal of Wagner?  ‘Inside the Exhibition Building, society women fanned their faces to hide their response to the sensuous music of Wagner.  Men fidgeted in their seats as a trumpet, bassoon and a big bass drum inflamed their senses.’  Out of doors, politics stayed in the gutter.  Billy Hughes ‘hissed and spat at his opponents like a cat defending its own territory against an invader.’

Here are some passages that go to the core of our political life, that show why we are so different to the United States, and why the words ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ are so very slippery in the context of Australia.

George Turner [Victorian Premier and first Treasurer of the Commonwealth] was also said to have ‘no horizon in his mind, no perspective in his politics, no proud surface upon which he rested.’  But where Reid [News South Wales Premier, later Prime Minister] often flirted with the Bohemian fringe in Sydney, to the scandal of the frowners in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Turner was always a model of British bourgeois propriety.  Balancing the books was his great passion in life.  By his great industry, his zeal and his deep conviction, he helped to raise that criterion into the standard by which politicians came to be judged in Australia.

The liberals wanted a compromise between the conservative insistence that property must enjoy special protection in any colonial federal constitution, and the labour call for one man one vote…..

On the role of the state in economic life, the liberals saw themselves as supporters of the traditional role of government in planting civilisation in the Australian wilderness.  Government had played the major role in the supply, distribution and control of labour in the convict period.  Government had performed a similar role in the selection, transport and distribution of free immigrants.  Government had developed a network of country and suburban railways not on any abstract principle of the role of government, but because in Australian conditions, private or free enterprise could not or would not embark on such activities.  Liberals believed in a continuing partnership between the two.

The Mildura experiment in irrigation was a model of that harmony of interests which the liberals detected between government and free enterprise.  Alfred Deakin had been greatly impressed by the irrigation schemes set up by George and William Chaffey in California when he visited there in 1885.  In 1888……the government of South Australia interested them in a similar scheme in Renmark.  In Los Angeles, the Chaffeys had developed their schemes under the American practice of free enterprise – that, in American experience was what produced the greatest wealth, the greatest efficiency, the greatest service to the consumers and the highest material rewards to the people of initiative, drive and unbounded energy.  That was what generated a lively society, a society with a great pulse of life, a people who were magnificently alive, and not characterised by the dullness and mediocrity of people mollycoddled by governments, churches, charity organisations, or those self-appointed improvers of humanity who made decisions for people, thereby depriving them of the exercise of the right to decide for themselves, a necessary condition for the flowering of the personality.  The Chaffeys built their model villages….to the background of angry exchanges between conservatives very voluble on the evils of government interference and radicals clamouring for more government control.

Here is a warning about treating with barbarians – like Hitler.

The conservatives were in a dilemma.  A barbarian was threatening the very foundations of society, but the barbarian might have his uses.  He was offering to wipe Bolshevism off the map of the world: he was already destroying trade union power: in a most brutal and barbarous fashion, he was rooting out decadence in Germany.  The barbarian has talked of the German need for Lebensraum (living space); perhaps he could find it during his crusade against Bolshevism.  Hitler could be used and then dropped – monsters had their uses.

How different is the dilemma currently facing Republicans over Trump?

When Bertrand Russell quit our shores in 1950, he said, graciously, some might think:

Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence

Manning Clark was not optimistic, and neither am I.  We have settled for a safe, inert mediocrity.  People who rock the boat make us very nervous.

Carlyle said that history was a collection of biographies.  That is in large part just what this book of Manning Clark is.  It’s not just that history can be entertaining – it does its job better when it is.  I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a very long time – at least as far back as when I last read The French Revolution by Carlyle.  At least we got one thing right.

Passing Bull 318 – Trump and Johnson

Gideon Rachman wrote a piece in the FT comparing Johnson with Trump.  I sent him the note below, to which he graciously responded.  I may add another difference.  It is very hard to foresee any circumstances in which Johnson might seek to exercise any control over the Conservative Party – or stand again for the top position.  In truth, it is impossible.

I understand the point that MPs may be slow to move against a bad leader until they feel that their seat is threatened, but the power of Trump over so called Republicans appears to have a different basis.  He threatens to get his minions to take seats off his opponents in his own party.  It is one thing to be voted out.  It is another to be kicked out by a thug.  I do not see that in England, and I would not expect to see the raw cowardice of Republicans if I did.

One reason is that the amorphous English establishment is much older and much more entrenched – by caste as well as class.  They have been at it for so much longer.  They invented this game.

Another reason is that the English system is not presidential – which Boris did not understand – and their party system, to which the leader is responsible, is so much stronger.  They invented that too.  On the morning after two big resignations, PMQ, and a speech by a resigning minister, the PM had to face something harder – a Committee of his own party.  Who showed no sympathy.  The first question was : ‘How’s your week been so far?’  The chances of that happening in the US with anyone – let alone Trump – would be one of the following – nil, nix, nought, and zero.  As would any Tory MP falling for the notion of a stolen election or glossing over an armed rebellion.

The monarchy is another difference.  It is fundamental that the queen can only act on the advice of her ministers.  But my understanding is that there are three grounds on which she could refuse an election sought by a PM.  All three were in play here.  And one thing a Tory PM could never be forgiven for is putting the Crown in hazard – especially this ageing lady.

So, the UK is worlds apart in dealing with this kind of spoiled brat.

As it happens I picked up Ranke’s History of England todayto read of Charles I.  One delight of that work is the judicious use of footnotes.  A pamphlet for the election of the Long Parliament said : ‘We elected such as were not known to us by any virtue, but only by crossness to superiors’.

What a gorgeous line!

Crossness to superiors – there ought to be more of it.