Us and the U S – Chapter 9

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



The Declaration of Independence was of, by, and for, white men.  Opinions were asserted in 1776 that would find no place in America more than two hundred years later.  We have seen that the Indians were written off as savage mass murderers.  The statement that ‘all men are created equal’ was, to the certain knowledge of the authors, untrue – unless a black man is not a man.  That is one count of dishonesty.  The second count is the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.

There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence.  The primary reason for the revolt of was the imposition of taxes by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax.  But British taxation is only referred to once in the Declaration of Independence and then in false terms.  They say the King imposed the tax.  The Glorious Revolution had put paid to that.    Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different.  American historians are silent or coy about this.  So, the Declaration was infected by two counts of deceit, which you can still see at work today.

The American Declaration of Independence is therefore of limited historical value in explaining why the Americans proceeded as they did, or what values of humanity they proposed to pursue for their future.  The tragic truth is that the barefaced lie about slavery would haunt the young republic until it was expunged by the death of more than six hundred thousand Americans in the Civil War and by the moral courage and intellectual genius of Abraham Lincoln, the one unquestionable gift of the United States to humanity.

The United States Constitution is an altogether more prosaic affair.  It has served the needs of the nation reasonably well.  It was designed to permit the working of government consistently with the rights of its citizens.  It was not designed to be an ideological platform, although the amendments that are collectively called the Bill of Rights inevitably invite political, if not ideological, debate.

Perhaps because the U S was moving away from a monarchical government, its constitution invests much more power in its president than do similar constitutions where the monarchy is retained.  But a rigidly doctrinal adherence to the separation of powers has produced what for others appear to be unfortunate results.  A president may be confronted by a hostile Congress which is bad for both the efficiency of government and the faith of its citizens in the workability of government; and the president is not accountable to Congress in the sense that he can be examined in Congress, as is, say, the prime minister of England every day of the parliamentary year.  There is a related problem of the president not being in the parliament – neither is the leader of the opposition, because there is no such office.  This does not conduce to honesty or sense from the party not holding presidential office.  The result is a sustained divorce from reality that is not healthy and that cannot last.  Other difficulties in the Constitution and party system are being fully tested in 2017.  Just as tax was hardly spoken of in the Declaration, so no one speaks of it in U S government today.

The First Amendment begins: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’  England still is the direct opposite.  It has an established church of which the queen is the head and it has a constitution that bars Catholics from sitting on the throne.  Yet religion at least appears to be far more prominent in U S political life than in, say, England, France or Germany where it is almost entirely irrelevant.  That is the difference between a doctrinaire American and a pragmatic Englishman.

And the one shot that was heard around the world came in 1831 when the British Parliament outlawed slavery.  That very significant act of political and moral courage was brought about after an inspired campaign to change and direct public opinion in Britain that was organised and directed by the established church, the Church of England, and a group of religious fanatics who had been hardly done by in America, the Quakers.

The picture of the United States that emerges from a comparison of the beneficiaries of the English and French Revolutions, is one of a conservative, staid and risk-averse political backwater.  There are times when sadly the Americans just resemble a God-happy, gun-happy and flag-happy people still in search of a lost king.


The institutions of government in Australia were built by middle class people with at least some education, but the progress was less eventful or momentous.  It is about as riveting as the story of the merger of a few town councils.  The Australian colonies adopted the Westminster system for each government, and considered the American example in adjusting powers between the states, as the colonies became the Commonwealth of Australia.  The federal body was given specific powers, and the states kept the rest.

Allowing for two world wars and the Great Depression, the Commonwealth did what it was appointed to do.  Largely as a result of tax decisions of the High Court during the second war, the Commonwealth became preeminent in income tax and therefore political power to an extent not reflected in the Constitution itself.  State functions like education, health and transport are de facto run out of Canberra, because it has the money, and this has been a buck-passing Godsend to politicians of all colours at all levels.  The average voter, at least in the cities, feels no closer to government in Melbourne or Sydney than Canberra, and the states in America have more impact on life at large than in Australia.

The party that became the conservative party – the Liberal Party – took its time to emerge, but the Labor Party almost from its inception developed a capacity for publicly blowing its brains out by having leaders rat or by self-immolation in a split after World War II that disenfranchised a generation.  As a result, it may have provided soul food to its own faithful, but it badly let the people down by failing to provide an electable alternative to the Pontius Pilates opposite them, and the nation drifted into a mindless conservative mediocrity – or, at least, that is how some saw it.

America and Australia now both have a serious problem getting the party model of parliamentary democracy to work.  Government is no longer small, and never will be again; taxes are no longer small, and never will be again.  We know that we have too much government and too much law.  We also know that no one will try to fix it even if they could.  It is no good for a political party to remain ideologically pure if it will lock itself out of government for a generation.  The government has to govern for the people, and an opposition has to offer an electable alternative.  Both nations need to see political parties offer a rational choice on how to go forward – but neither offers grounds for optimism.

Passing Bull 153 – Punishing universities


The Australian today had a piece by Senator James Patterson.  The headline was:


It included the following.

The Australian National University’s decision to cancel plans for a bachelor of Western civilisation has highlighted the rampant anti-Western bias that exists at many Australian universities.

But the administration’s decision to cave in to internal pressure should have surprised no one. It is merely the latest in a long line of incidents that expose the perverse incentive structure Australian universities face. Because of this, universities will almost always abandon intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity whenever it brings them into conflict with the vocal minority of ideological enforcers who believe our universities belong to them.

Clearly, the existence of this requirement isn’t enough to counteract the pressure that university administrators face from an angry minority hell-bent on enforcing its ideological hegemony. In order to strengthen their hand, the government should directly tie funding to compliance with the requirement to uphold the fundamental values of free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity.

Only imposing real, financial consequences will bring an end to the kind administrative cowardice that was epitomised by the ANU’s decision to cancel its proposed course on Western civilisation.

The article may or may not have warranted the headline.  But it certainly says that the government should impose ‘real financial consequences’ if universities fail ‘to uphold the fundamental values of free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity.’  It would be idle to contend that this adverse financial result’ does not involve a form of fine, penalty or punishment.  The Senator wants this adverse financial result to deter universities from a certain kind of conduct.  And the conduct that the senator wants the government to deter universities from is failing to toe the government line on ‘free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity.’

The senator doesn’t say what form of process should be followed to impose or enforce such a deterrent.  Presumably, he does not envisage a criminal sanction imposed after a hearing before a judge with or without a jury.  But I expect that he would allow that any adverse administrative decision would have to be made after due process – that is to say, after a hearing of the allegation by the government and the response to that allegation by the university – and subject to judicial review or review on the merits by the AAT.  As recipes for corporate seizure go, that will be hard to beat.  And what a birthday for lawyers and bull-artists.

The more fundamental issue is that to preserve what the senator calls ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom,’ he wants the government to penalise a university that chooses to speak freely and to preserve academic freedom – if the university acts in such a way that the government does not approve of.

It is arrant, childish nonsense to say that to preserve free speech we must penalise it.  Even the great evangelist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, would have ducked that one.  The senator takes as his text the decision of the ANU on ‘western civilisation.’  Presumably, he would also like to deter universities who do not wish to follow the party line on another bête noire of the IPA, s 18C.  The reaction of the ideologically committed to the decision of the ANU proves – at least to my mind – that they acted correctly in seeking to keep their university free of the type of propaganda advocated by these zealots – who choose to boast of their zeal for propaganda in Quadrant.

The senator has been there for about five minutes.  He could do us all a big favour by going off to get a real job for twenty years or so and coming back when he has grown up.  If our universities are to be criticised, it is for unleashing on us people like the senator, and the lady with the piece above his, Jennifer Oriel.  Her piece is at once as disturbing but predictable as that of the senator.


Premier Daniel Andrews posted a series of tweets yesterday in which he said women were not responsible for the decisions of men who attacked them.

His comments came after a senior Victoria Police officer was criticised for suggesting women had to take responsibility for their own protection.

‘Eurydice died because of her attacker’s decisions — not because of her own,’ Mr Andrews wrote. ‘And we need to accept that fact … We’ll never change a thing until we do.’

‘We’ll never change this culture of violence against women’.

‘Stay home. Or don’t. Go out with friends at night. Or don’t. Go about your day exactly as you intend, on your terms. Because women don’t need to change their behaviour — men do.

The Australian, 16 June, 2018.

The Premier is indulging the either/or fallacy – if there are two possible causes of an event, you have to choose one to the exclusion of the other.  He also appears to think that we can change human nature.  That’s as silly as saying that we have the right to walk home safely.

Us and the U S – Chapter 8

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



The nations that we know as America and Australia still see themselves as predominantly white.  They got to be that way with laws that each passed to preserve its racial integrity, although they may not have used that language. Before they could get to that stage, white people had to be introduced on to lands previously used or occupied by people whose skins were coloured.  The colonies had to be settled and then peopled.  Without white migrants, the whites would not have gained supremacy.  It is therefore obvious that migration is essential to the history of each of these two nations.

There is an essential difference to the course of migration into each country.  For the most part migrants to America arrived under their own sail or steam, or by dropping down from Canada.  For the most part migrants to Australia arrived with the help of government.

We saw that the first settlers did not come to America under the aegis of the government of England.  They were either quitting England for religious purposes – these were in truth refugees from persecution on the grounds of religion – or they were going out in ventures of what we would call venture capitalism, intent on making a new life – and profits.  The Americans soon learned how to combine a pious love of God with a pious regard for wealth.  The Puritans back home had never had any problems on this.  Any espousal of poverty would have been as sure a sign of madness as an espousal of democracy.  Their place as God’s elect justified them in this world and the next.  Their success on earth here was proof of their acceptance in heaven.

Four years before the colony at Botany Bay started, Benjamin Franklin had said that America was a good place to get rich and that ‘nowhere else are the labouring poor so well fed, well lodged, well clothed and well paid as in the United States of America.’  This was a land, he said, ‘where a general happy mediocrity prevails.’

The population in 1800 was north of five million, but it was close to doubling in twenty years.  Napoleon needed to fund his war – and more agony for Europe – and the Louisiana Purchase and the brutality of President Andrew Jackson on the Indians opened up vast areas of new land when the population in Europe was exploding.  Immigrant ships dared the Atlantic, and more than 30,000 arrived each year.

Naturalization Acts had acted as a colour bar since 1790, but the inflow from Europe was colossal.  In the century after 1815, about thirty million crossed over, and it ran at about one million a year during World War I.  The California Rush for gold in and after 1849 put before the world the dazzling promise of America, and public and private money was spent on selling America.

There were other things beside the huge wages.  Liberty.  The vote.  No political police.  No conscription or aristocracy.  No censorship.  No arbitrary arrest.  No secret police.  No legalized class distinctions – except those based on colour.  (American Negroes did not go into the melting pot.)  There was no state church or any tithes backed by the state.  Since there were few poor, there were no poor rates.  After the Depression, the epoch of unrestricted mass immigration had come to an end.  Now politicians are competing to show who can slam the door the hardest.


There is likely to be a great difference in outlook between someone going to the New World to glorify God and to make their fortune and someone who is expelled from home because he has got seven years for theft – or the troopers that have been sent to act as prison wardens for the refuse of their nation at the other end of the world where Tiger snakes and trap-door spiders kill people and sharks eat them.

It was not until after 1830 that free migrants to Australia exceeded convicts.  The U S was closer and the voyage was shorter and cheaper.  Australia competed by paying the fares of British migrants.  This was funded from the sale of land which in turn made land much dearer than in the U S.  Well over half of the migrants coming to Australia up until, say, 1970 had all or most of their fare paid for them, and they might look to being looked after on arrival.

The founders of Australia had a very different attitude to government than Americans – one government that had encouraged them to go and another government that paid their way and showed what it had to offer when they arrived.  As a result, Australia remained much more firmly British and, for a very long time, a lot less cosmopolitan, than the U S – and a lot more staid.  Geoffrey Blainey said: ‘Here was one of the mainsprings of the welfare state which emerged so clearly in Australia and New Zealand.  As most migrants were subsidised, they tended to lean on the government that initially cared for them.  Self-help dominated American attitudes, but ‘lean on the government’ was common amongst Australian attitudes….Nothing did more to give Australia an ethnic unity than the practice of selecting and subsidising the migrants.  This sense of unity was to encourage later generations of Australians to fight on Britain’s wars on the far side of the world.  In contrast, in the United States the ethnic disunity helped to deter that nation from fighting in foreign wars.’

We might add that the U S attracted more people of means, more middle class settlers, in its formative years.  These differences still run very deep indeed.  Among other things, telling Australians that they will have to lose their entitlements may not fall far short of telling them that you will take away the air that they breathe.  It is likely to sound downright silly.

After the colonies federated and became States, all of them adopted a policy of subsidising migrants from Britain before 1914.  The whole scheme was determinedly ‘White Australian’, a label then used with no blushing at all.  Indeed, in some quarters there was antipathy to Italians on the ground that they were not quite white.  After World War I, those on the Labor side began to be hostile to open-ended immigration.  It was ‘Populate or Perish’ against ‘Save Our Jobs.’  But the closeness of the savage Japanese invasion, after the fall of Singapore, revealed the vulnerability of that vast empty nation.

It was a Labor Government, followed by a conservative government uninterrupted for a generation, which saw a massive increase in assisted migration after World War II, and a much broader migrant pool including European refugees.  This time it would be European migrants like Greeks or Italians who would feel the brunt of the natives’ blunt insularity.  The wave of post–war immigration helped to put aside the old Anglo sombreness, and the waves of Asian and African immigration after the Vietnam War have helped even further – until the rednecks got restive about colour and refugees, and their leaders toed the line.

Here and there – The faith of Felix Mendelssohn


When I told a friend of mine, an Anglican vicar, that I was reading a big biography of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, he asked me to tell him what the views of the author were about the religious faith of the great composer. As it happens, the book, R Larry Todd, Mendelssohn, A Life in Music (OUP, 2003), merely confirmed what I already believed – that Mendelssohn was a devout Christian of the Lutheran variety.

Apart from the music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the overture to which Mendelssohn wrote at the age of nineteen) and the violin concerto, Mendelssohn may be best known to concert-goers for his five symphonies.  Two of those have choral movements squarely within the Lutheran tradition.  The second symphony is called the Hymn of Praise, and the choral part features the hymn Nun danket alle Gott (‘Now Thank We All Our God’)The fifth symphony is called the Reformation, and the choral part features Luther’s own hymn Ein’ feste Berg ist unser Gott (‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’)This is sacred music – its spark is obviously felt to be divine.  It could only have been written by a very devout Lutheran, and one intent upon glorying in his faith – or by the greatest imposter unhanged.  There is not the slightest basis for suggesting any bad faith against Mendelssohn.

Mr Todd informs us that the composer was a practising Lutheran all his mature life, and that he frequently began messages with the initials of a prayer.  But Mr Todd also discusses the question of the faith of Mendelssohn in the context of his Jewish background.

Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg to Jewish parents – his father was the son of the distinguished philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.  His parents, Abraham and Lea, did not have Felix circumcised, and they would renounce their faith, and accept baptism.  Felix was baptised into the Reformed Church in 1816.  The family also adopted the name Bartholdy – Abraham wanted his break with his past to be complete.  ‘There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than a Jewish Confucius.’  Well, that may depend on your adherence to tribalism, but I am not aware of any ground – at least any decent ground – for suggesting that Mendelssohn’s conduct as a German Lutheran was somehow different to that of other German Lutherans.  To suggest that Felix may have been different because of his Jewish ancestry would in my view be to take a step on the path that leads straight to Gehenna (Hell).

And yet toward the end of this long book, Mr Todd tells us:

What are we to make of Felix’s pairing, in the last year of his life, of Elijah and Christus, the Old and New Testaments, the faith of his grandfather and his own professed Christianity?  The conclusion, developed by Sposato in the epilogue of his study, is that Felix’s attitude toward the oratorio….shifted during his career as he struggled with issues of his Jewish ancestry and adopted Christian faith….Though all the evidence suggests Felix was a sincere, devout Protestant, in the eyes of his contemporaries at some level a ‘Jewish identity had been etched indelibly into his being, character and life.’

This to me is speculative hogwash, and it gets no better because it is referred speculative hogwash.  It is worse than that.  To suggest that a man may be indelibly etched or branded by his racial history is plain evil.  We are not talking about a conversion.  According to the sources, Abraham and Lea never introduced Felix to the Jewish faith.  His first faith was his last – he just came to it later than most kids.

But even if Felix were a convert, what does it matter if his ancestry was Jewish, German, Irish, Blackfella or Hottentot?  And what do we make of the catty epithet ‘sincere’?  I am aware that Jews turning to Christ in Germany then, or elsewhere at other times, may have been seeking a change of civil status – but that obvious fact does not authorise speculation of the most pernicious kind.

And what’s with this concern about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?  When Christians take the oath on the bible, they swear on both testaments.  A lot of the New Testament is there to show that the new dispensation was foreseen or authorised by the Old Testament.  A form of Christianity that sought to annihilate or annul the Old Testament would, to put it softly, be unlike anything we have ever known.  And the best known religious work of musical art, the Messiah of Handel, is largely based on the text of the Old Testament.

If anyone has any doubt about the Lutheran inspiration of this composer’s art, they should acquire a disk by a French choral and instrumental group called Accentus Ensemble Orchestral de Paris – the disk is called Christus, Cantates, Chorales.  It consists of an oratorio, Christus, that was unfinished at the death of the composer.  It is an invocation of the Saint Matthew Passion of Bach, which Mendelssohn had revived at the age of about twenty.  (Had he done nothing else, this would have earned him immortality.)  In addition there are two short cantatas.  The second is based on wording of Luther, and celebrates the great hymn O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (which many know as ‘O sacred head sore wounded’).  People who can listen to any of this art unmoved have been dealt a heavy blow by providence.  Yes, the inspiration is God, but this art is of the highest – with or without God.

But even in the sleeve notes to this wonderful recording, we get:

The first full chorus [of Christus] sets a prophecy from the Book of Numbers, ‘Es wird ein Stern aus Jacob aufgehen’, that must have appealed to Mendelssohn, who, though Lutheran by baptism and confirmation had not forgotten his Jewish heritage and sought frequently to ally the two faiths.

Has this learned commentator also forgotten that the bible of the Christians comes in two parts?  If so, the omission is not insubstantial.

If you run into someone coming out of St Peter’s in Rome who says that he did not even look at the Pieta of Michelangelo because this was Catholic art and he was not Catholic, you would know that you had a five star nut on your hands.  It is, or should be the same, with all those ‘religious’ artists.  Take El Greco, my favourite.  He and his great art were dedicated to the Counter Reformation.  What effect does that have on me?  Nil, nix, nought, and nothing.  Zilch.  Rien.  

The art of Bach and Mendelssohn, whether inspired by or devoted to the celebration of God, are part of the title deeds of civilisation and the comfort of mankind.  The Saint Matthew Passion of Bach is up there with the Iliad, Divine Comedy, and King Lear in the Alps of the West.  The works of Mendelssohn I have referred to are not in the valleys.  Regardless of our faith or ancestry, they are part of the heritage of all of us.  Those who wish to obscure that simple faith do us no good service.

Passing Bull 152 – Civility and civilisation


In commenting on the current White House, a friend of mine said: ‘Civility, a basis for any form of good human relations, is completely absent from their dealings with everybody’.  That struck me as true.  I looked up ‘civility’.  The Compact OED has ‘politeness and courtesy’.  The OED itself says ‘The state of being civilised’ is archaic, but offers ‘Behaviour proper to the intercourse of civilised people; politeness…Seemliness.’

The last reference reminds us of the word ‘unseemly’, a word we use all the time to describe the conduct of Donald Trump.  In discussing ‘civilisation’ elsewhere, I said that ‘Put shortly, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that its members are ‘civil’ to others.’  I see no reason to change that view – indeed, the havoc being wrought by the present White House reinforces it.

Most Australians could not give a hoot about the current debate about teaching western civilisation at universities, but, for the entertainment of at least some of us, it is really getting worked up the usual suspects at the IPA, The Australian, and Sky News.

For example, today’s Australian has a piece rubbishing the ANU and extolling the virtues of western civilisation.  One of its best selling points is, apparently, the Reformation.  Since this affirmation came from Kevin Donnelly, the champion of Catholicism, it made a substantial contribution to my enjoyment of my weeties – but, then, as I recall, Tony Abbott had made a similar claim in describing what he saw as a failure of Islam – and I thought that was hilarious, too.

It is I think fair to say that historically universities have made a hash of talking about the civilisation of the west.  Cambridge and Oxford are still hopelessly imbued with idea that ancient Greece and Rome were civilised.  Elsewhere, I said:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘civilize’ as ‘to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine’.  People who extol ancient Greece and Rome as ‘civilised’ obviously use the word in this final sense.  They see ‘enlightenment’ and ‘refinement’ as being enough to outweigh the barbarity of slavery or their many-godded naturalistic religions.  They see civilisation even though neither Greece nor Rome had then been blessed with the respect for the dignity of each human life that is at the foundation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and which is elemental to our concept of ‘civilisation’.  Unlike Hamlet, the ancients had not heard the beautiful notion ‘that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’

The reference to the dignity of each human life is important.  In his piece this morning, Mr Donnelly referred to ‘the inherent dignity of the person’.  The notion comes not just from religion, but from Kant and other leaders of the movement called the Enlightenment (to which Mr Donnelly also refers).

But let us go back to the connection between civility and civilisation – and the unseemliness of the White House.  No one would say that Donald Trump represents whatever we might mean by western civilisation.  No one would say that he represents civility.  He is the antithesis of both.  Worst of all, no one would say that Donald Trump believes in ‘the inherent dignity of the person.’  He is dedicating his presidency to the obliteration of that dignity.

All that makes it curious that those who are loudest in supporting the teaching of western civilisation are often those who support Donald Trump.  For example, in this morning’s Australian, we find Mr Greg Sheridan saying:

Now, it should be remarked straight away, if Kim lives up to this commitment, then Trump will go down in history as a great statesman. But while we must remain open to that possibility, there is no real indication that it is likely.

If there was any doubt that Trump is a disgrace to his nation and his office, it was blown away by the appalling lack of civility that Trump and his ministers showed last weekend to his allies – and, if it matters, the leaders of those nations that truly represent what might called the flowering of that evanescent thing called western civilisation.  In order to qualify as a statesman, you have to be skilled in the management of public affairs – and you have to be civil.  Trump is disqualified on both counts.

Another disqualification for Trump is that any view of western civilisation must entail a subscription to the rule of law.  Trump treats the rule of law with contempt.

This discussion suggests that those who wish to promote the teaching of western civilisation need to refine what they may have in mind.  It may help to remember in this and other discussions that being ‘civilised’ entails being civil.

Then there is the epithet ‘western’ – presumably, as opposed to ‘eastern.’  At least one problem then is that when we say that we are inherently different to other people, we rarely think that the other people got the best deal – we nearly always think we are better off than them.  That is not the path that we want our university students to tread.  On one view, it is the root of intellectual evil.  What I have not seen in any of this discussion is any claim that western civilisation is in some way inferior to the eastern variety.  That would be like saying that you can get a better feed from a Chinese take-away than at the Tour d’Argent.

Here and there – The problem with inquisitions


On one visit to the Inquisition, Galileo got a swine of a question.  ‘Why do you think you’re here?’  I’m afraid that from time to time I could be worse.  ‘As you sit there in the witness box today, do you think what you did was right (honest, sensible, careful, conscionable, or whatever)?’

Either form of teasing dilemma summons up the Hampton Fair in the 50’s – firing an air-rifle at moving ducks.  You just waited until the head of the duck moved into your sights.  Then you pulled the trigger – and knocked over the duck.  Shooting sitting ducks was child’s play.

The banks knew they were in big trouble when the present commission began.  First, the failed efforts by their friends in government and the press to protect them from public inquiry meant that the latter-day tricoteuses could smell a cover-up and would be out for blood.  Secondly, there is hardly any presumption of innocence.  The website refers to the ‘Royal Commission into Misconduct’.  Given the banks’ confessional tone in trying to avoid any inquiry, the commission is merely stating a fact, but imagine asking the Israelis to be examined about the ‘massacres’ at their border.  Thirdly, the government petulantly locked the inquiry into a time-scale that some feared might castrate it.  That meant that some procedural niceties would have to go.

For whatever reason, witness statements were ordered.   I think that practice is pernicious, and on reasonable grounds, I suspect that this commissioner has the same view.  It is unfair to the witness – especially the honest witness – and it leads to game-playing and concoction.  Many good judges condemn this process.

What we then get is not so much cross-examination, but what normally comes at the end of cross-examination – counsel puts to the witness the substance of the allegation against their side.  This is required by common sense and ordinary decency – and therefore by the law.

But when the inquiry is at large, the result can bear an ugly resemblance to a one-sided debating bout that becomes an exercise in ritual humiliation.  Counsel has access to apparently unlimited documentation compulsorily acquired from the target – something that the accused in an ordinary criminal trial would never be exposed to.  The witness then has a choice – they either bag their mates, or they dissemble.  That’s a nasty dilemma.

And this contest, or duel, doesn’t take place before a judge who Maitland said should act like a cricket umpire, but before a representative of the executive government – who is appointed to report back to government after inquiring into that mystical thing called truth.

So, these inquisitions make common lawyers very queasy.  I rarely lost that queasiness in performing similar functions in tax and other tribunals or a public inquiry over thirty years.

But someone is feeding some in the press some dud lines on these issues.  One is that the banks are denied due process.  If the banks and their nominated witnesses do not yet know the case they have to meet, they have been living on Mars, and giving their shareholders – of whom I am one – further evidence that their executives are grossly overpaid.

Then it is said that the laws of evidence don’t apply.  Sadly, most lawyers and judges have not properly applied those laws for years.  (One reason is those accursed witness statements.)  The present commissioner knows these laws.  Most of them relate to logic, fairness, or relevance.  It is plain silly to suggest that this commission might ignore those requirements.  Each of those suggestions of unfairness is therefore groundless.

If I am wrong about that, and the unfairness is, as suggested, both harmful, and unlawful, the victims can afford to go to court for redress.  If therefore anyone pushing this line is prepared to surface – so far their number is zero – they can put up or shut up.  We know they have the money.

Anglo-American lawyers well know the perils of the inquisition.  Maitland saw the medieval difference between a procedure ‘to inquire of’ and one ‘to hear and determine’ criminal causes.  England just avoided ‘that too easy path which the church chose and which led to the everlasting bonfire.’  We also know the risks of asking judges or former judges to do dirty jobs for government.  Lord Devlin said that English governments showed their respect for judges by asking them to dig them out of political holes.

But we most agree that we need this inquiry badly.  The banks are doing it hard, partly because of their original misconduct; partly because of their ill-advised efforts to remain under cover; and partly because of the sulky and inept way that the government repented and ceased being an ostrich.

The relationship between government and banks has gone bad and will not get better.  That is not bad news.  But sometimes you have to endure misery to get better.  I know that well.  Try having surgery for piles.

And whatever you might say about banks, there is not one Galileo among them.

Us and the U S: Chapter 7

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



By1763, Britain controlled the eastern part of America.  The French authority had effectively ended in Canada, and the Spanish risk had gone from the south.  Someone had to pay for the war and for servicing the security of the colonies.  After Cromwell, the English feared standing armies, but they decided to maintain one in America.  The British war debt had to be serviced, and the American population was about one-fifth of the British and Irish populations combined.  The government wanted to spread the financial burden to the colonies – and spread the burden more equitably among taxpayers of the Crown. The Americans said that they should not be taxed by the British government unless they had a direct say in that government.  Their slogan was ‘No Taxation Without Representation’.  That issue led to the American Revolution.

The colonial opposition erupted in Vesuvial proportions when the English parliament passed the Stamp Act.  Although the colonists targeted George III, they knew very well that the only source of power to make a tax law was the British parliament.  George III did not have the power to levy taxes.  That was the whole point of the two English revolutions of the seventeenth century of which the Americans were the beneficiaries.

George III was, as the head of the executive, obliged to enforce statutes against those who chose to secede – just as President Lincoln would be.  But the king’s ministers, Townshend and Grenville, were not up to it.  Grenville was silly enough to ask when the colonies had become ‘emancipated’.  Meanwhile, the colonies were uniting in a way that had seemed to be beyond them before they found a common oppressor.  The language on both sides got more heated.

No one could say that the American Revolution was democratic.  Its leading figures included Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.  They were people of wealth, the local nobility.  The role of the people was more than a little too plebeian for some of the better secessionists. Washington referred to the common people as ‘the grazing multitude’.  Hamilton spoke of the ‘unthinking populace’.  Adams referred to ‘the common herd of mankind’.  Some thought that a third of the colonists favoured secession; a third favoured the mother country; and the other third thought they would wait to see who was winning.

In response to a tax on tea, a group of patriots made up as Indians dumped £10,000 worth of tea in Boston Harbour.  It is therefore only right that America today has a political association called the Tea Party whose platform consists primarily of a deep love of God and a deeper aversion to government and paying taxes.  The colonists were now in insurgency against their king and his government.  They, or some of them, engaged in acts of terror to achieve a political end, namely their independence from the mother country.  They were therefore political terrorists and insurgents, like the Jewish terrorists who blew up the King David Hotel to kill British troops in Palestine when it came under the aegis of Great Britain.

The war was a vicious guerrilla war and civil war.  The home side had great advantages, as the U S would find in Vietnam and Afghanistan.  The American colonists felt that they were fighting on the moral high ground, a position that they have never surrendered.  Appalling crimes were committed on both sides, especially in the civil war in the south between the Patriots and Loyalists.  There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’  But for the intervention of the French, this war may have gone on for years and degenerated into what would happen in Latin America with ‘Caesarism, military rule, army mutinies and revolts, and every kind of cruelty’.


Australia never had a revolution, but it experienced three tawdry revolts or rebellions that produced no clear winners.

The Rum Rebellion, as it is called, involved a conflict between a man who had form for being expelled from the penal colony, and a man with form for being cruel and mutinied against.  Bligh had his supporters; John Macarthur, the arrogant squatter, had many enemies.  But this was not some South American putsch, or even an American revolt.  Both sides were punctilious about legal forms, and both claimed to have the law on their side.  All parties submitted to the rulings of a legal authority that buried the issue.  There was something quite English about this battle for power.  ‘Australia’ had not yet been invented.  You could not see a coup unfold in the way that this one did in, say, Russia.

The source of the Eureka rebellion might be found in the failure of two thirsty diggers to get a drink at a pub.  The gold diggers went into revolt over mining licences.  Grog was again involved, heavily.  The governor, Sir Charles Hotham, was British navy, and, like Bligh, he was capable of the most frightening rage.  The Commissioner, Robert Rede, was a younger man who came from a good English family, and who had trouble concealing his contempt for the diggers.  Here was the stuff of class war.  Some of the diggers excitedly used words like ‘tyranny’ and even slogans like ‘no taxation without representation.’  They assembled under the Southern Cross.  They would not be treated like felons or hunted down like kangaroos.

Licences were burned.  The diggers took an oath.  ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’  It was all over in fifteen minutes.  As usual, the coppers, or troops, killed more than they lost.  At least twenty-two diggers lay dead against five troops.  The Eureka Stockade was nothing like a revolution, but it may have given Australians a lasting lesson.  The genie of armed rebellion had been let out of the bottle, and the people did not like what they saw.  The Australian middle class would become timid.  Manning Clark said that ‘This dependence of the colonial bourgeoisie on London and their success in educating the working class in their own values laid the firm foundations for conservatism in Australia.’  The Eureka Stockade may or may not have been un-British, but it certainly now looks to have been un-Australian.

The attempts to romanticise the Kelly gang have largely failed – except for Sid Nolan, and some wistful descendants of one ethnic group.  The American rebellion succeeded, and it became a revolution.  None of these three Australian acts of rebellion ever looked like succeeding.  There was simply not the backing in the country for any of these rebels to carry the day, at least while they were outlaws.  Most of the other colonists were far too law abiding and intent on their own future to go along with that kind of thing.  The best that the rebels could hope for from posterity is that they would be prized for their very failure. That is something that Australians are prone to do, from failed and dead explorers, like Burke and Wills, to gallant failed and dead soldiers, like the many thousands left at Gallipoli whose chances of coming back had never looked too good.  And while Americans revere their patrician founders, few Australians had a good word for John Macarthur.  That bastard was far too big for his boots.

Passing Bull 151 – Politically motivated charges


If I see the man who ran over my dog shoot his wife, I may be happy to report him to the police – not out of respect for his wife, or the law, but because I have it in for him for what he did to my dog, and I want to see him suffer.  You might then say that I was moved to report the man out of what the law calls malice. 

Very few lawyers, even libel lawyers, know what that word means, but Oliver Wendell Holmes defined it in a way that meets our case – ‘when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.’  A finding of malice may have consequences in both our civil law and criminal law, but in the example I have given above, what effect could or would such a finding have?  If I have in truth seen the man shoot his wife, and I report that to the police, what difference does it make if I am happy to report him because I hate him?  My state of mind is not relevant to the validity of the steps the police will take in acting on the information that I provide to them.

Attacking the prosecution may well therefore involve a fallacy if the attack is said to reflect on the validity of the charge that is the subject of the prosecution.  In Plato’s Apology, the author purports to set out the response or defence of Socrates to the charges brought against him before an Athenian jury.  The document is almost scandalously fallacious from start to finish.  Socrates says that he has become unpopular because he is a good philosopher.  You do not destroy the validity of a charge by impugning the motives of those who lay it.  A charge is not invalid because it is brought with malice (although there may be avenues of attack).  Nor for that matter must it fail just because the informant does not believe it.  Its validity is the question for the court, not the parties. So, when Socrates says that his accuser Meletus does not care about the substance of the charges, this, too, is irrelevant – at least in our procedure.  All these responses are spurious – they are in truth just common garden examples of the ad hominem fallacy.  The attack is on the man, and not the argument.

In order to make good a suggestion that a prosecution is infected by political motivation, you would need to show that not just the original charge, but the whole process of the criminal law, was politically bent against the accused, so that he or she was denied due process.  We now believe that to have been the case for the witch hunts at Salem or those conducted by Senator McCarthy.  It was clearly the case in the show trials conducted by Stalin and Hitler.  In a performance that was hilarious even by its standards, the IPA levelled that charge on Friday against the Royal Commission into Banks.

But the most outrageous instance of the fallacy comes with the response of Donald Trump to the investigation by the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.  Trump does not just attack Mueller personally.  He intones parrot-like, as is his wont, that the inquiry is a witch hunt.  The irony is that although Trump would not have the faintest idea what a witch hunt is, that is precisely what he is engaging in against his own FBI and Department of Justice.  There are Reds under every bed, and the deep state is everywhere against him.  The conspiracy theory is nearly perfect – we have trouble seeing the evidence because the malefactors are so cunning and their arts and crimes are so dark.

That was just about the response that Don Quixote gave to Sancho Panza from time to time.

Be quiet, friend Sancho.  Such are the fortunes of war, which more than any other are subject to constant change.  What is more, when I come to think of it, I am sure this must be the work of that magician Frestón, the one who robbed me of my study and my books, and who has since changed those giants into windmills in order to deprive me of the glory of overcoming them, so great is the enmity that he bears me; but in the end, his evil arts shall not prevail against this trusty sword of mine.

Substitute the Deep State for Frestón, and there you have the Donald.  The Don was of course quite mad.  Trump may or may not be mad, but the faith of his supporters knows few bounds.  They were after all prepared to join in the mindless chant ‘Lock her up’ in response to the invitation from a bemedalled ourangatang who is now on his way to the slammer – unless he rats on his Commander in Chief.

What do I think of witch hunts?  I was very taken by the remark of an English judge way back in 1712.  His Lordship was moved to observe that there was no law gainst flying.


If I hear about culture, leadership or trust one more time I think I’m going to tear my hair out. The royal commission into financial misconduct has unleashed a barrage of calls for better, stronger and more resilient leadership and culture at the nation’s major financial institutions.

The new chief of the corporate regulator, James Shipton, gave a speech on Thursday emblematic of this trend, suggesting the ‘trust deficit’ in finance could be improved by ‘rebuilding culture from deep within’, more ‘sustained engagement’ and ‘active stewardship of assets by investors’, alongside ‘more intensive and dedicated supervision’.

‘It’s time for Australia’s financial services sector to remember its purpose’ he declared, in words unlikely to ruffle a feather anywhere.

Adam Creighton, The Australian, 19 May, 2018.

Bullshit is an occupational hazard for some positions – almost any at ASIC.

Us and the U S – Chapter 6

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



In America, unlike England, the Puritan had his own way.  He was in the majority and he made institutions to his own liking.  The great American jurist, Roscoe Pound, said that ‘we are and long have been more thoroughly a common law country than England herself…..A fundamental proposition from which the Puritan proceeded was the doctrine of ‘a willing covenant of conscious faith’ made by the individual judgment in the first place.  No authority might rightfully coerce them; but everyone must assume and abide the consequences of the choice he made’.  Pound saw ‘an uncompromising insistence upon individual property as the focal point’ of the nation’s laws.

The notion of contracts between people does loom larger in America.  ‘The precedent of the covenant which made Abraham and the children of Israel the people of God, furnished the religious basis for the doctrine….’  One result was to favour individual choice over some feudal relationship.  This view brings to mind that Sir Henry Maine had said that ‘the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from status to contract.’  In the Old World – feudal Europe – your rights mainly depended on the box that you had been put in by superiors in your hierarchy.  You stood or fell on your status.   A noble was worth more than free man who was worth more than a serf.  In the New World, your rights mainly depended on what you had agreed to.  You stood or fell on your contract. 

The Puritans did not want to relax laws to allow fools to be relieved of their bargains.  If you were silly enough to enter into a bad deal, you would just have to live with the consequences.  There would be less sympathy for the loser.  They did not want government interfering with freedom of contract to look after those who should have looked after themselves.

Pound was writing in 1921, but his views still resonate in a nation that is slow to pass laws to help those who falter in the great race of life.  ‘Entitlement’ is potentially at least a loaded and dirty word in the U S.  Dispensations that elsewhere in the West are facts of life have in America become grounds for threatening insurrection, and this difference comes at least in part from an American determination to maintain a felt primacy of each one of us over government.

‘Conservative’ is a label given to people who want to keep government as spare as possible so that government has as little as possible to do with them.  They do not think that they should lose any rights unless they personally have agreed to the relevant change.  They see laws that are meant to help the less fortunate as going backwards and making people depend on their status rather than their contract.  At least in theory, people would rather stand on their own two feet than be allocated a seat in a drab government bus.

The pioneers were inevitably jealous of any government action, and Pound saw a ‘frontier repugnance to scientific law and the insistence of the pioneer that his judges decide offhand without study of what other judges may have done in European monarchies or in effete communities to the eastward.’  The customs of the times also led to a kind of starring role for the advocate, and that he be given as free a rein as possible.  To this day American judges’ charges to juries are so much shorter than in Australia where suspicion or underrating of the jury has led to incomprehensible minefields for trial judges and an entirely unacceptable rated of aborted trials and retrials.  You can still see this respect for the role of the jury everywhere in the U S today.  They think little of putting a brawl about intellectual property between Apple and Samsung in front of a jury – it would be unthinkable anywhere else.

Empanelling a jury is like calling a parliament – you are calling on the people to give a decision and to express their will on issues that are central to their government.  It is the primary safeguard that we have against abuse of power by any arm of government – legislative, executive, or judicial.  It is the Americans who realise and practise this the best.

Another major difference with the Americans is the role of the Bill of Rights, and the consequently more political role played by the United States Supreme Court.  Otherwise, as befits a common law country, the differences come from different rules and customs in the conduct of trials.  The Americans have tended to avoid the rule that says that the loser pays, and they have been using contingent fees much longer than others.  The rule about parties relates to class actions in which the Americans have been undoubtedly the pioneers.  The Americans see litigation as a function of government and an exercise in social engineering.

Sir Lewis Namier said that the U S is ‘a refrigerator in which British ideas and institutions are preferred long after they have been forgotten in this country’.


The progress of the laws of Australia has been rather more sedate, as you might expect from a process that has remained determinedly English and that has eschewed experimentation and innovation.  Right from the start, the Australian colonies were very different to the American in the way that their legal systems developed.  The English brought to Australia a fully developed body of common law and constitutional law and an official whose duty it was to administer justice according to the rule of law.  Given that Australia started as a British jail, it is not surprising that this was a strictly government job.

The authority of Phillip and Collins and others was set out in their commissions from the government on behalf of His Majesty King George III.  The English parliament would then create legislative bodies in the colonies and courts to interpret or enforce the laws made in London or by colonial councils or parliaments.  Then the English parliament made laws giving independence to the colonies.  When the colonies decided to federate, they asked the mother parliament to pass a statute to that effect.  The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia is contained in a schedule to an act of parliament in Westminster.  Then the Imperial Parliament freed its former colonies from the power of intervention from London.

The jurisdictions of state superior courts are commonly defined by reference to those of the Royal Courts of Justice under Queen Victoria as adopted by English legislation, which is now in legislation of the states.  The profession is still divided like the English between barristers and solicitors and wigs and gowns, and Father Christmas suits are still worn in crime.  It would be hard to devise a more prosaic story.

But, prosaic though it may be, the legal system inherited by the Australians is in broad terms doing the job required of it – in large part because it is prosaic.  It may be that Australians do not have the same taste for fireworks or theatre in the law that Americans do.

Another major difference comes in the attitude in the highest courts to issues that might fairly be described as political, and to what might for the want of a better word be called tone.  Australian judges, by and large, are like the English in one respect.  They understand that the most important person in court is the loser.  Both sides, but especially the loser, must think that they have been given a fair go.  If the Americans have done better in preserving trial by jury, and achieving political movement through the courts, the Australians have done better controlling the political heat in court and respect for the judiciary.

Here and there – A feminine view of Shakespeare


Have you ever wondered if Macbeth wanted to kill his own soul?  Well, the phrase does have a ring to it.  And what about his wife?  If killing your soul means wiping out your humanity, Lady Macbeth went at it full bottle in one of the most chilling speeches of our stage.  And if we don’t think that Macbeth succeeded, it looks like his wife may have – although she had enough soul left to go mad at what she had done.  In the end, Macbeth himself is reduced to a deluded chorus and his wife has collapsed trying to hold his husk together.  Life for him is a tale told by an idiot that means nothing.  Does, then, his evil savour of the banality that caught the eye of Hannah Arendt?

Germaine Greer made that remark about Macbeth in her book Shakespeare, A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.  Greer had got a Ph D at Cambridge on Shakespeare.  The book is maddeningly academic at times and too abstract or remote for the series it is part of.  The chapter headings are, after Life – Poetics, Ethics, Politics, Teleology and Sociology.  The part on King Lear is headed ‘A vision of entropy.’  I looked up ‘entropy’ and I am no wiser; nor am I clear why the comedies come under Sociology.  But when Greer speaks plainly, we can get provocative insights – as with that remark about Macbeth.  Let us look at some others.

There is a fearful amount of manipulation going on in The Tempest.  It goes on at many levels – even the idiot drunks get someone to work over – they get poor Caliban on the bottle.  (It’s as hilarious as the scene in Die Entfuhrung.)  But have you thought that at the end of the show the great manipulator may be little more than a pitiful wreck?  Greer comments on the ‘doggerel’ of the Epilogue.

Prospero is now so feeble that he cannot get himself off the stage… His helplessness could not be more remorselessly conveyed.  Neither Prospero nor Shakespeare is so much bidding farewell to the stage as begging to be released from it and pardoned for any evil done during his reign.  The grandeur of this act of utter humility is staggering; the vein of anxiety running through the play, about the roughness of the magic, the fragility of innocence, the godlike power of the creators of illusory worlds, the irresistible tendency of man to debauchery rather than improvement, the blindness and self-indulgence of intellectuals, has cropped out, as the defrocked hierophant begs our intercession to save his soul.

(You, too, can look up ‘hierophant’ – is it a kind of ailment that leads some people to show off like this?)

When we get to Othello, we get ‘the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated and inconsistent.’  That seems to me to be hopelessly wide and abstract, and dangerously close to that ‘motiveless malignity’ that another critic has been unfairly rubbished for.  But Greer is surely right to comment on the kind of ‘complicity’ that develops between Iago and the audience (that is expressly invited by Richard III and the Bastards) and his ‘mad inventiveness in luring Rodrigo and Cassio to their doom.’  We are reminded that like Don Giovanni, Iago is not selfish – he is prepared to spread his nastiness around.

The author is also right to observe that ‘because he is entertaining, scholars persist in finding excuses for Falstaff, forgetting perhaps that the Vice was always an ingratiating, lively and amusing fellow.’  Sir Anthony Quayle knew more about Falstaff than most, and described him as ‘frankly vicious.’

Have you noticed how much spying and deception goes on in Hamlet?  It may be a play for our time – what Greer calls ‘a guided tour through a lying world.’  Elsinore looks like one big masked ball, albeit with a Stalinist air, and our hero tells us immediately that he is not there just for show or to play their games.  He doesn’t want to ‘seem’ anything.  He is there to bring healing to a sick nation.  Must he die to do so?  Is this a redemption story – like, say, Billy Budd, where we see Claggart’s ‘disdain of innocence’?  After Hamlet learns of his father’s murder by the man now sleeping with his mother, does the playwright prefigure The Last Temptation of Christ?

The time is out of joint.  O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

The hero has forsworn personal revenge, we gather, but Greer says that ‘he goes towards his death in a Christian spirit of resignation.’ Well, he didn’t know he was going to die, but just what do we think lay behind the providence in the fall of this sparrow?  If this all sounds fanciful, reflect on what my favourite critic, Tony Tanner, said in introducing the big four tragedies:

I think the problem of violence is central to tragedy and that, in some tentative sense, we can think of the tragic drama as a form of ritual sacrifice, and the tragic hero or protagonist who goes to his death as bearing some relationship to the figure of the scapegoat or surrogate victim.

In the course of her diverting discussion, Greer refers to the ‘heroic’ doubting of Hamlet and says: ‘The drama of Protestantism in its finest hour was the heroism of insisting upon the sovereignty of the individual conscience’.  Well, ‘sovereignty’ has now been taken up by snake oil salesmen, who prey on the gullible, and ‘heroic’ in this context reminds me of its use by Kenneth Clark about the David of Michelangelo – another figure that I find to be frankly vicious.

Greer sees Lear as raging against the dying of the light and says that ‘King Lear becomes heroic when he is reduced to naked tramphood, tottering about the bare stage talking at cross purposes like Vladimir to Estragon….  Lear stands at the head of a line of nobodies simply struggling to survive…’ On Richard II, she refers to the famous remark of Queen Elizabeth I, ‘I am Richard, know ye not,’ and acutely observes:

He conducts his own deposition from centre stage, reducing Bolingbroke, whose heroic stature has dominated the play so far, to a Pilate figure… He dies heroically, while the erstwhile hero of the play is reduced to equivocation and cowardice by the demands of policy.

But let us go back to Macbeth, because he might be another hero for our time.  Greer says of Macbeth that ‘his self-delusion is wilful’.

The consequence of his terrible deed is that now, even when he tells the truth, he has to be lying.

Had I but died an hour before this chance,

I had liv’d a blessed  time; for, from this instant,

There’s nothing serious in mortality;

All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;

The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees

Is left this vault to brag of.

This is Macbeth’s feigned lament for the death of Duncan: he says it hypocritically, but every word of it is true.

Well there is an awful lot of wilful self-delusion in this world now, a terrifying amount of lying, and a frontal assault on the very idea of truth.  In that frightful prison called Denmark, we are not sure what state of mind Hamlet claimed to be in when he proclaimed his love for a woman, whom he would drive mad, with the words ‘Doubt truth to be a liar.’  But we do know that Hamlet did, although again while feigning madness, say ‘To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand’.

That sad Danish nightmare – dreamed up by an Elizabethan playwright – now darkens the whole of the Western world. And do we see any who look fit to ‘set it right’?

And since we speak of salesmen, liars, and the death of truth, remember this – the witches sold Macbeth a pup, as dud a pup as the one that Satan sold to Eve.