Here and there – MFB

(Extract from a memoire.  The MFB sued over others. They won’t now).

Some of the cases at the Fire Brigade were out of this world.  A fire truck on display at a charity day for kids dying of cancer rolled over on TV and there was embarrassment and anger at Brigade HQ.  They charged the man driving – who had surrendered the wheel to a mate – and the officer in charge – who was nowhere near the vehicle when it fell over.  I saw no case against him and I dismissed that charge at the close of the evidence of the Brigade.  I had to give a suspension to the man who should have been driving – his name was Whelan.  During the hearing, I got them to take me for a ride on one of these vehicles with both counsel.  As we got going, we passed a handsome woman who had been in the tribunal room.  I was told that she was the wife of the officer who had been charged – and the mother of nine children!  When the hearing resumed, I asked counsel for the Brigade what penalty he would seek if the charges were proved.  Dismissal.  For both?  Yes.  I wondered how this would go down in the people’s daily – a fire brigade officer, with a stainless record after 20 years, and the father of nine children, had been fired for giving of his spare time to attend a charity for kids dying of cancer, for an accident that he had nothing to do with.  I also wondered how long it would be before the comrades returned to work.  The case of Mr Whelan was hardly less interesting.  He had grown up with the guy that he gave the wheel to.  They had been garbos together.  They had both therefore had experience in driving large heavy vehicles.  But while Whelan went from being garbo to firie, his mate went into business and became very successful and very rich.  He also became committed to charities.  He gave evidence before me, and he was very impressive.  I met both these guys twice later.  One was at a football presentation that the union had invited me to.  (It was a VFL function; the comrades are not toffs.)  The secretary was late – as usual.  I was directed to a table.  The guy next to me asked if I knew who he was.  ‘No, mate’.  It was Mr Whelan!  I cursed the secretary for being late, but Mr Whelan and his mate (the charitable ex-garbo) and I got on very well.  The second meeting was at the greatly favoured San Remo.  (Well, the union could not be accused of being duchessed.)  It was a packed house.  It was a living wake held in honour of Mr Whelan before his expected death from cancer.  I told him that I was honoured to have been invited, and I meant it.  It was a very generous and decent gesture of both Mr Whelan and his mate – and the union.  But the UFU decided that it did not want any more of this disciplinary process.  And it was allowed to die.  From time to time, I would tell management that they could get in trouble for doing nothing.  But there was a high turnover of CEOs.  After some years of silence, management got the courage to charge a firefighter with having obscene material on an MFB computer.  The material was vile for its abuse of other races and faiths – including Islam.  There was no defence.  It should have been disposed of in two hours.  It dragged on for days as the government intervened.  The accused did not turn up on day one.  On day two, senior counsel for the accused said the accused had not been there because he had a message from the minister’s chief of staff saying that the matter would be adjourned.  It’s just that no-one asked the tribunal or was told of its hostility to any kind of adjournment.  No-one seemed to question the propriety of this kind of political interference in a statutory process that was meant to be both public and independent.  They all just looked serenely stupefied.  At one stage I asked a simple question of those in charge of the prosecution – six lawyers left the hearing to consult – for quite some time.  This was an appalling fiasco in an essential service.  No one seemed to understand just how serious the offence was relating to Islam.  They seemed more interested in the offence to Nicky Winmar.  (I was sufficiently troubled to refer the issue to ASIO, but when they referred me to the federal police, I gave up.)  The man should have been fired, but I thought that would mean he was paying the price of dreadful incompetence on both sides.  Instead, I was fired.  I then had to sue to recover my retainer, which I did with interest and costs, but only after the Brigade had spent taxpayers’ money in taking every dead point that vacuity could unearth as they trashed any possible suggestion that the Crown should behave properly in litigating with one of its subjects.  Then they had complained that I had acted unethically.  That too was groundless, but it took those responsible about two and a half years to get round to dismissing it.  The whole aura of lassitude and incompetence was very unsettling and demeaning.  By what I saw of the MFB, it must be one of the worst run statutory bodies in the nation.  At one point in the last case a lawyer rang me one night saying that he was ‘a trusted adviser’ of the board of the Brigade.  That was interesting.  Until then, I had not heard of it.  For about twelve years, I was vested with the powers of the CEO over discipline in a statutory corporation of an essential service and not once did any member of the board feel the need to talk to me.

Passing Bull – 284 – Hypocrisy writ large

Some years back I did an online course in religion on God – is there one?  I was struck by the venom in the discussion.  The worst came from the faithful.  God fearing doubters like me were more relaxed.  One episode caused great disquiet on all sides.  Pascal had suggested that doubters might pray to God just in case he was there.  That looks like offensive hypocritical nonsense to me.  To our horror, the tutor appeared to support the idea.  That brought to my mind the remark of Groucho Marx- he would want to join any club that would have him as a member.  And that is how I see the discussion about the Lord’s Prayer in parliament.  A leading Catholic apologist, Kevin Donnelly, supports retaining the ritual.  He says we do it for the blackfellas and we should do it for the most popular religious figure among the white people.  The problem is that most of those taking part do not believe one word of any of it.  For them it is bullshit.  For the rest of us it is pure hypocrisy.  For Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, it is a sad colonial relic.  It is a mystery why the people who claim to front for God want so badly to defile him.

Here and there – Shakespeare’s Promethean Fire

According to the massive Concordance that Barbara Sharpe referred me to, and which hourly stress tests an Ikea plank here at home, Shakespeare made four references to Prometheus.  Here is one of them.

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:

They are the ground, the books the academes,

From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.

(Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.3.301 ff)

So, the fire that Prometheus stole from heaven is what lights our minds – not back then in those days what distinguishes us from the apes, but what precludes us from being mindless drones in a hive.  Shakespeare, or more likely Berowne, was so attracted to the idea that he rehashed it fifty or so lines later almost word for word.  This time we are told that the sources of learning ‘show, contain and nourish all the world.’  (One of Shakespeare’s characters would speak of stealing from heaven – but this time it was courtesy, as a father lectures his son on being a king: I Henry IV, Part 1, 3.2.50.)

Here then is a large notion – Prometheus is our great liberator, if not our protector and father.

Someone once remarked that ‘The Melbourne Club I have no problem with.  It’s just the members I can’t stand.’  That’s about where I stand now with religion – all or any of it.  God is fine, if that’s your go.  It’s just the people who claim to represent him that I have trouble with.  The clerics, preachers, priests, pastors, mullahs, Brahmins, and shamans – the whole dusty and shady lot of them. 

Two sorts really get to me – the so called evangelicals who support Donald Trump, and those who say that the dogma of their faith take some issues – like abortion or assisted dying – right off the political table.  But if I had to choose between those and a mullah who sanctions the ‘honour’ murder of a girl in Afghanistan, that would be above my pay level.  And they are all now joined by blind sectarian zealots who want to defile God each morning in our parliament by having people go through a mindless ritual in the name of God – which most of them don’t believe in.  And while sectarian differences have mostly vanished here, they or ecclesiastic issues lie behind so many wars, including those we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And the real die-hards now seek to impose their cruel, medieval views on sexuality upon all of us.

Kant said this about ‘priestcraft’:

Between a shaman of the Tunguses and the European prelate who rules over both church and state…between the wholly sensuous Wogulite, who in the morning lays the paw of a bearskin over his head with the short prayer, ‘Strike me not dead!,’ and the sublimated Puritan and Independent in Connecticut, there certainly is a tremendous difference in the style of faith, but not in the principle….The one aim which they all have in common is to steer to their advantage the invisible power which presides over human destiny…..

That seems spot on to me – and although the issue of clerical power did not present quite like that to Homer or Prometheus, that thought of Kant would have appealed to them, too.  The sad truth is that most people of faith think that their creed is somehow different, somehow better – when most of the rest of the world think that they are away with the birds.  It follows that most people of faith are held back by fetters that most of the rest of the world believe to be illusory and self-inflicted.  And what are we to say of creeds that gave the world caste, the Taliban, or ethnic cleansing in Myanmar?

If then you see the progress of mankind as lying in its liberation not from the supernatural, but from those who claim to be the gatekeepers – and generally the exclusive gatekeepers – of the road to human fulfilment – then we might look again at what Prometheus did for us. 

In considering Prometheus as the bearer of enlightenment, we might recall what Kant said:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another…religious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonourable variety of all.

There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that looks like our local state faction fighters at play.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to relieve the fate of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look very unjealous, just won’t cop this.  He binds Prometheus to a rock during his pleasure.

Zeus is a dead-set shocker.  As the hero in the Aeschylus version says, ‘I know that Zeus measures what is just by his interest.’  We have just had sickening reminders of that kind of ratbag.  Prometheus also says: ‘This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.’  Ditto.  And the arrogance is constant.  When Prometheus exclaims ‘Alas!’, Hermes says ‘That is a word Zeus does not understand.’  Like our politicians and kryptonite – or the word ‘sorry’. 

‘Now, first, when the gods entered upon their anger, when they split into parties, and strife rose among them’, Zeus exercised his will ‘to make the whole human race extinct, and to form another race instead.’  So, when Prometheus applies the power of his mind to ease our lot, he has to face the wrath of a very personal god.  (And you wonder why other models of God remain so stubbornly personal – so utterly less than divine.)

The Aeschylus play – and it is a play – ends in a fiery exchange between Hermes and the hero.  Insults are exchanged that Kim would have warmly saluted.  The conflict is alarmingly modern.  (It reminds me of the immortal Ralph Gleeson in The Honeymooners.)  Hermes accuses Prometheus of ‘self-conceit’ and says ‘you the clever one’ are ‘too sharp in your sharpness.’  He is like a colt before being broken in.  Prometheus says Zeus will never find out how he Prometheus will overthrow the dictator.  (‘Tyrant’ was a loaded word in ancient Greece.)  Hermes says Prometheus will remain in agony until ‘a god appears to take upon himself your load of suffering.’  The blood stays bad right until the end.

There you have two views of this myth – the contest between enlightenment and the darkness of mindless oppression; or divine intervention to bring redemption and to free mankind from a fate brought on after spite in the godhead.  The second is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The first is dominant in Aeschylus – and, we will see, Shelley and Byron.

If the gods ran the ancient world, the Church claimed total governance in the medieval world.  There were then three types of people – those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked.  And the Church dictated the terms for all of them.  Trust in the Church was mandated and total.  They could burn you at the stake for daring to want to read Scripture in your own language.  You just had to take their word for the whole lot.  And they had the power over life and death – for eternity.

Achieving liberation from this mindless servitude was the work of the movements known as the Renaissance and Reformation.  It was in truth a job for Prometheus.  Macaulay wrote:

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as a rising up of the human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty. 

Prometheus was, then, a rebel; but unlike Jimmy Dean, he had a cause.  So did our other great rebel, Satan.  (The great mystery in our letters for me is – how did Milton not think that we would be bored to death by the Father and Son, mildly diverted by Adam and Eve, and completely seduced by Satan?)  Let’s take the views of two other poets who cast themselves as rebels – even if we think they may have been a bit twee in doing so.

Shelley got all fired up about all this in Prometheus Unbound, and humility is not the term that comes first to mind with this version of titan.

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest…. Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

He should have stuck with the poetry.  Is it any wonder these guys were called ‘Romantic’?  This is the kind of stuff that idealists in Germany were then mooning over.  And Shelley keeps on going to the end of the Preface to Prometheus Unbound.

My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

Percy Bysshe Shelley sounds like a fop not cut out for the terraces of Melbourne Storm.  But Jupiter is the bad guy needing to be tamed by Prometheus, and Shelley gives the hero some lines of raw majesty:

Evil minds

Change good to their own nature.  I gave all

He has; and in return he chains me here

Years, ages, night and day…

Whilst my beloved race is trampled down

By his thought-executing ministers….

Kindness to such is keen reproach, which breaks

With bitter stings the light sleep of Revenge.

Submission, thou dost know I cannot try:

For what submission but that fatal word,

The death-seal of mankind’s captivity,

Like the Sicilian’s hair suspended sword,

Which trembles o’er his crown, would he accept,

Or could I yield?  Which yet I will not yield.

Let others flatter Crime, where it sits throned

In brief Omnipotence…

What would Churchill have made of that?  We are a world away from Gethsemane, but it is all drop-dead gorgeous – and ‘thought-executing ministers’ is so apt for Mr Zuckerberg and all of his frightful ilk.

We get another picture from a poet with a clearer title to the status of fop – Lord Byron.  This is from his Prometheus:

Titan! To thee the strife was given

Between the suffering and the will

Which torture where they cannot kill;

And the inexorable Heaven

And the deaf tyranny of Fate

The ruling principle of Hate

Which for its pleasure does create

The things it may annihilate,

Refused thee even the boon to die

The wretched gift eternity

Was thine – and thou has borne it well.

So, the carrot of immortality has become the stick of eternity.  But Byron then gives us a walloping celebration of humanity for the sake of it.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,

To render with thy precepts less

The sum of human wretchedness,

And strengthen man with his own mind…

The poem ends with themes we grapple with in King Lear – ‘unaccommodated man’.

….And Man in portions can foresee

His own funereal destiny;

His wretchedness and his resistance,

And his sad unallied existence;

To which his Spirit may oppose

Itself and equal to all woes,

And a firm will and a deep sense,

Which even in torture can descry

Its own concenter’d recompense,

Triumphant where it does defy,

And making Death a Victory.

This is all very large, indeed.  We are what we are and we need no snake oil salesman or voodoo purveyor to tell us otherwise.  We can make it on our own.  The humanity of our ‘unallied existence’ is good enough in and of itself.  And it took a theatrical impresario from Stratford, the son of a glover, to teach us to see the light of the mind of man in the eyes of a woman.

And is that not so much more fit for our purpose than all that old guff about Eve and the bloody apple?  What a fearful sword did the Holy Men then wreak, not just for the subjugation of women, but for the subjection of all mankind?  Prometheus stuck it right up all those big hitters in religion with tickets on themselves.  He asked for nothing and he promised nothing.  He just did it for us. 

Well – that’s enough already of our creeping guiltily around the dark garden behind our fig leaves for fear of offending the Holy Men.  We want a champion who will steal fire from the whole bloody lot of them.  We want a trust-buster to blow up the monopoly.  Whose team would you rather be on?  Milton’s, where we cringe at our humanity because we are taught that God was just in punishing a woman because she dared to seek knowledge that was reserved for God and denied to us?  Or Shakespeare’s, where we walk taller because our hero dared to defy the gods to give us knowledge so that we can see the light of the mind of man in the eyes of a woman?

MY SECOND TOP SHELF 29 –FATHERS AND SONS

Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf

FATHERS AND SONS

Ivan Turgenev, 1862

Franklin Library 1984.  Translated by Constance Garnett.  Illustrations by Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese.    Half navy leather, embossed in gold, with ridged spine; marbled end papers, gold edges to pages, and satin ribbon.

Is Bazarov a worse case than Raskolnikov?  Bazarov is the bane of us all – the young man who knows better than those who came before him.  He has found out the answer – and there can only be one answer.  So sure is his faith, that he knows that to implement his answer and lift the clouds of bondage and ignorance from the eyes of his countrymen, the end justifies the means.  He is, in short, a fanatic, or zealot – and in Russia he prefigures the horror of Communism.  The commentaries say Bazarov was a nihilist.  I looked that term up in Professor Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

A theory promoting the state of believing in nothing, or of having no allegiances and no purposes.

When you think about it, if you subscribe to that theory – that you believe in nothing – you are involved in a contradiction in terms.  ‘I believe that I don’t believe anything.’  That is like repudiating Cogito; ergo sum.  But triumphal hell-raisers are not confined by refinement.

Some writers are described as the writers’ writer or the novelists’ novelist – the latter was the term applied by Henry James to Turgenev.  Turgenev has as good a claim as any to the title.  His writing is easy, graceful and detached.  It is not long before you know that you are in the hands of a master.  It’s like getting into a car and realizing that you are in a Bentley.  It comes as a change from those great Russian writers who could explode into exclamation marks at the drop of a hat. 

This uncommittedness was as important in Russia then as it is today.  At that time, Russian fiction was intensely political.  In his Open Letter to Gogol, written in 1847, Belinsky had given a radical creed for the next generation – for the sons rather than the fathers.  It showed the way to would-be revolutionaries.  Dostoevsky read it to a private gathering and was condemned to death.

Turgenev came from a family that at least pretended to aristocratic roots.  There is more than a whiff of condescension in some of his writing.  But Turgenev was nothing if not urbane, and both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky distanced themselves from a man who looked to prefer Europe to Russia.  For his part, Turgenev was close to Flaubert and thought that the other two Russians were too preoccupied with religion.  That looks to us to be understandable, but things got so bad that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to an uneventful duel.  They did not speak for seventeen years.  Writing in Russia then was combustible.

Turgenev is best remembered, and read, in the west for On the eve and Fathers and Sons.  In the latter, the author, who admired Hamlet, looked again at the inevitable conflict between the generations – that underlies so much of Hamlet.  It is about the personal and political coming of age of two young men – Arkady Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov – and the grief that this brings to their fathers.  A connecting agent in the story – which looks to have been destined for the stage – is an attractive and wealthy widow, Madam Anna Odintsova.  The older generation has what may be called liberal views about the still medieval condition of the serfs in Russia – the Russians were at least six hundred years behind England – but the new generation has lost patience and rejects the lot of them.  As with all annihilators, they are light on about what to put in place after the revolution.  Like our politicians now, they are also shy of hard experience of life in the raw.  Although the author was far from being a radical, the reaction to Fathers and Sons was such that he thought it was as well to leave town for a while.

We are introduced to Bazarov in a sequence that Chekhov would have read.  We are told that he had ‘a special faculty for winning the confidence of the lower orders, though he never pandered to them and indeed was very offhand with them.’ Well, people who profess to love ‘the people’ often go to water or ice if they meet the real thing. 

But Bazarov is not one of those.  He is a young man of science – medicine – and his superiority lies there.  Arkady takes him home to meet his father and uncle.  Before breakfast the next day, Bazarov goes out to collect frogs – for science.  It does not take long for Bazarov to get well and truly under the skin of the uncle.  For Pavel Petrovich, a man who recognises nothing respects nothing.

Pavel Petrovich spoke with studious politeness.  He was secretly beginning to feel irritated.  Bazarov’s complete indifference exasperated his aristocratic nature.  This son of a medico was not only self-assured: he actually returned abrupt and reluctant answers, and there was a churlish, almost insolent note in his voice…… ‘He has no faith in principles, only in frogs.’

This is Madam Odintsova.

Anna Sergeyevna was a rather strange person.  Having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong conviction even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life.  She had clear ideas about many things and a variety of interests; but nothing ever completely satisfied her; indeed, she did really seek satisfaction.  Her mind was at once probing and indifferent; any doubts she entertained were never smoothed into oblivion, nor ever swelled into unrest.  If she had not been rich and independent, she might perhaps have thrown herself into the struggle and experienced passion…..But life was easy for her, though tedious at times, and she continued to pursue her daily round without haste and rarely upsetting herself about anything.  Rainbow-coloured dreams occasionally danced before even her eyes, but she breathed more freely when they faded away, and did not regret them.  Her imagination certainly ranged beyond the bounds of what is considered permissible by conventional morality; but even then her blood flowed as quietly as ever in her fascinatingly graceful, tranquil body….Like all women who have not succeeded in falling in love, she hankered after someone without knowing what it was.  In reality, there was nothing she wanted, though it seemed to her that she wanted everything.

Here then is man at home with you and me – and with his pen.  Could Goya have improved on that portrait?  How would this widow react if one of these virile but unworldly young radicals fell for her?

Underlying all this conflict between the generations is a question that immediately came to the fore in France after 1789, but which is barely touched on in this book.  If you are going to rid yourselves of the caste of serfdom, why not get rid of the caste of royalty and the aristocracy?  That is always the big question.  Where and when will it all end?  And, more importantly, how will I be placed when the carousel comes to rest?  In Russia, the crushing answer came with Lenin.

This novel is a graceful reflection on our humanity, and we are blessed to be able to enjoy it and be enriched – even if it does prefigure the misery we are faced with by the Institute of Public Affairs.

This Franklin edition is a joy to hold and read.

Passing Bull 283 – Madness driven by dogma

Nick Cater is executive director of a think tank called the Menzies Research Centre.  Their dogma are congenial to the commercial taste of Rupert Murdoch – so he gets a regular piece in The Australian.  One recent piece commenced:

The expert class turned out in force last week with pessimistic predictions about the nightmare soon to be visited upon British hospitals and mortuaries because of the Prime Minister’s latest folly.

He referred to a letter to The Lancet signed by‘100 medical experts’ and continued:

Johnson’s courage in defying the experts is a virtue that should be emulated by political leaders closer to home.  In Britain, Johnson revives the Dunkirk spirit, fighting Covid-19 on the beaches, landing grounds, fields and in the streets.  In Australia, premiers call on their subjugated citizens to fight the virus from their couches.

So, in defying in ‘defying the experts,’ Johnson shows courage. 

A doctor advises a man that he will be dead within a month unless he has the recommended surgery.  An engineer advises a builder that if it proceeds to build a bridge as designed, it will fall over and kill many people.  A lawyer advises a businessman that if he proceeds with a tax avoidance scheme, he could be charged and jailed for breaking the law.  A handwriting expert advises the police that a blackmail demand was not written by the accused.  A vulcanologist advises the inhabitants of a town on a Japanese island that its volcano is likely to erupt and that they should evacuate immediately.  An engineer on a jet carrying 400 people advises the pilot that engine problems will prevent the plane from getting to its destination and that they should turn back immediately, or else they will crash.  On the eve of D-day, meteorologists advise Dwight D Eisenhower that doing the best they can to predict weather, it is likely that adverse weather will badly affect the invasion fleet to the point that it will probably fail to effect a landing. 

If the people getting such advice rejected it, would we say that they showed courage?

An expert knows much more about a subject than I do.  Since at least the time of Einstein, a lot of science has got well beyond the reach of most of us.  We have to take a lot on trust.  In the first lockdown, I did an online Oxford course on astronomy.  A lot of it went clean over my head, but what I did learn is that the universe is big – incomprehensibly, unimaginably big; as big as God – incomprehensibly and unimaginably. 

Even a simple but sound process like carbon dating is beyond my understanding.  But that process demonstratesthat the biblical account of creation is physically impossible.  That is not a matter of theory or faith – it is a matter of fact, as certain as the fact that the sun rose this morning.  (The word science comes from the Latin word scire, to know.  It builds knowledge with testable propositions about the universe.  The OED begins ‘The state or fact of knowing’.) 

On some issues, we should stop talking about science and talk about facts.  The floodingin Germany and China is a matter of fact.  As someone in the FT remarked, we no longer call such catastrophes acts of God.  The fact is that the laws of physics state that the hotter the air, the more moisture it carries.  Courage is not the word we apply to those who decline to draw the relevant inferences from such facts.

So, although we may test opinions by experts, there must come a point where they pass our understanding and we have to determine whether we accept their advice.  Then we have to decide if we will act upon it.  Since that advice is likely to involve predicting the future, which is the province of God and the gamblers, we are then talking about the unknown.  Lawyers know all about this.  If someone asks me ‘Who will win this case?’ my first response is ‘Why not ask me who will win the Melbourne Cup?’  You do your best to assess the prospects, but the longer you are at it, the more you know that fate can be both very fickle and cruel.  You acquire caution through pain, but you must retain the courage to form an opinion and to act on it.

And the expert just gives the opinion – the final decision is that of the punter, the person getting the advice.  Lawyers might recall the common law about the role of experts.  They gave their opinion, but not on the ultimate issue before the court.  A psychiatrist could give an opinion about whether the accused knew what he was doing or that it was wrong – but not point blank if the accused was insane.  That is a finding to be made by the jury based on all the evidence before it.  That rule has been affected by statute, but its rationale is obvious.

Now, in the examples given, the answer looks so obvious that it would be perverse, at best, for the person getting the advice not to accept it and act on it.  And those giving the advice would likely have a professional obligation to do their best to get subject to act on it sensibly.  (My own faith in free will has declined with age – I have seen too many punters hit the fence through stupidity, malice, or plain greed.)

How, then, do otherwise apparently sensible people allow political dogma to overrule common sense in dealing with expert advice, as Mr Cater appears to do?  He deals with casualties by statistics, which is no comfort to the families of the dead, and expresses the view that lockdowns are also injurious to health.

Still, the decision-makers remain in splendid isolation, pursuing their zero-case strategy with an almost fanatical zeal.  They remain impassive at the loss of dignity and income being endured by those stuck in lockdown world, incapable of weighing the balance between benefits and risks.  They have become snookered by their own exaggerated rhetoric.  Having insisted that the last three weeks of pain were unavoidable in the face of the apocalypse, it is only human that they should discount the mounting evidence that they have made an error of judgment.

Let us put to one side the gratuitous insults that flow from this exaggerated rhetoric.  In the end, Mr Cater knows as much about this illness and the way to treat it as I do – Sweet Fanny Adams.  He does not know what he is talking about.  We all know about power without responsibility, but what drives political gun-slingers to be so cavalier?

Well, some on Fox or Sky talk rubbish because it sells.  Take Tucker Carlson on the vaccine.  I will not name the leading Australian exponents of this business model because some are trigger happy; especially those who bang on about freedom of speech.  This is not the case with people like the Menzies Research Centre or the IPA.  They have been conditioned or programmed to act in a certain way. 

Before becoming a Labour MP in England, Nick Raynsford had been a local councillor and adviser on housing issues for twenty years.  He fell out with the Blair government.  He thought ministers should know what they were talking about.  He disliked ‘rent-a-mouths.’

The danger is the trivialisation of politics.  And it’s associated with the kind of culture of spin and soundbite, where some politicians have felt it was enough to learn the official line and then repeat it.  Well I regard that as very unsatisfactory, and I think it increasingly shows where people haven’t got a deep understanding of the subject, but they’re simply parroting pre-prepared lines to take.  But that of course will earn them more brownie points than people who genuinely try to give a serious answer.  Because usually serious answers have shades of grey within them, rather than absolute black and white.  And party managers rather prefer black and white.

That looks to me to fit Mr Cater – and the Prime Minister.  

There are two more matters.  Some people dislike experts because experts are smarter and more useful than them.  They are jealous of experts – who make them feel intellectually or professionally naked.  Such people might even refer to the ‘expert class.’

And you notice that Mr Cater gives his final serve to ‘decision-makers’.  This too looks like jealousy.  Those who front think tanks do not make real life decisions affecting the lives of others.  They just comment on decisions made by decision-makers.  Mr Cater does not say what he would do if he were in the position of Gladys Berejiklian or Dan Andrews.  Good grief – that way you might not just get your hands dirty – you might wind up with blood on them.

It might remind you of an acerbic remark of George Bernard Shaw.  ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’.  If you substitute ‘preach’ for ‘teach,’ you have the think tanks’ boys and girls.  When I was a boy, there was a commercial on the wireless that had meaning for my position in life back then:

Boys and girls come out to play,

Happy and well, the Laxettes way.

Passing Bull 282 – The death of responsible government

This shows how far we have fallen.  The federal government directed a civil servant to report on ‘sports rorts’.  He did.  The Minister resigned.  Now the government refuses to release the report.  They say it was given to them.

It is pathetic that Ministers of the Crown ask a civil servant to advise them on whether a Minister has breached standards of conduct.  That would be like my asking my secretary or my clerk if my conduct was unprofessional or misconduct.  It is worse when the Ministers act as if the opinion of the civil servant determines the issue.  That is a matter for them.  They cannot delegate their responsibility.  They cannot outsource government – as they appear to be doing by having a soldier front the most important exercise in administration  by any peace time government in our history.  Then they purport to say that the fault of the Minister was of a technical nature, and not of the gross impropriety that we have come to accept when governments hand out money for their own party political purposes.   (If you want a legal term, try breach of trust – or dishonesty.)  Then the Ministers  refuse to make public the advice on which they acted.  They say that the report was prepared for them.  But they, like the civil servant, are there for us.  They have to account to us for how they have discharged their duty to us.  (If you want a legal comparison, if the Ministers said they had acted on legal advice, they would be liable to be held to have waived any privilege in that advice.)   It is appalling that a government can refuse to be candid with its electors while claiming to rely on an exception to a law meant to expand the rights of electors to find out what really drives government decisions.

There is no difference here between the parties or federal and state governments.  We have people in power who have a problem with what responsible government means.  To the extent that they understand it, they devote themselves to seeking to avoid it.

Here and there – Pushkin and Shakespeare

The Russian ruling class was ravaged by two killers – vodka and duelling.  Duelling accounted for Pushkin, the author of the poetic drama, Boris Godenov.  Vodka took out Mussorgsky, who wrote the opera based on the poem. 

Pushkin was and is at least of the stature of Shakespeare to the Russians – just as Goethe is to the Germans.  Each is venerated as being something close to a god.  (You could add Dante for the Italians and Homer for the Greeks.)  Sadly for us, neither Pushkin nor Goethe travels so well outside their own language*, but with the thumping, soaring, lamenting Russianness of Mussorgsky’s opera, we can get some insight into the Russian agony.

Pushkin disdained ‘the courtly habit’ of the tragedy of Racine.  He said he followed ‘the system of our father, Shakespeare’ (whom he read in the language of the Russian court).  And Boris Godenov is shot through with themes of the plays of Shakespeare.  This is not surprising.  We are looking at universal issues about mankind assuming power over others – and the role of their women and their peoples. 

Boris Godenov kills the heir of the Tsar and assumes the throne.  He is consumed by guilt and at the end, he is replaced by a challenger.  The big difference to Macbeth is that the challenger here is a fraud.  Neither claimant had a valid claim to power.  The people lose both ways – but it is hard to see Pushkin as a fan of the people.  The mob is just the herd.  Some see ‘the People’ as the hero of the poem (as it is in Michelet’s history of the French Revolution.)  They are certainly the victims and are seen as having the insight of the herd.  The picture is not flattering – but I doubt whether Lenin or Stalin felt any more warmth for the masses.  Love of the people is fine for some – until they run into a real person – when they look away and hold their nose.

Well, so far that might seem a reasonable picture of Russia throughout the ages – at least as we see it.  Their rulers have a penchant for murder and gold, and their priests are in it all up to their necks. 

The play now is loved for its poetry in the Russian.  It is very rarely performed on stage.  Pushkin arrived with a bang like Byron.  Here is a reaction to a reading of the poem by its author.

Instead of the high –flown language of the gods, we heard simple, clear,  ordinary, but at the same time poetic and captivating speech…the further it advanced, the stronger our emotions grew…Some were thrown into a sweat, others shivered.  Our hair stood on end.  It was impossible to restrain oneself….Now there was silence, now a burst of exclamations….Embraces began, noise arose, laughter resounded, tears and congratulations flowed……

Well, they don’t make audiences like that anymore.  (The Tsar of that time thought the poem should be remade as a comedy.  That may remind you of the line ‘Too many notes!’  Autocrats are not there for their taste.)

The Pretender is a priest put up to the coup by his church.  To an outsider, the role of the Orthodox Church in Russia has not been fruitful.  Under the Tsars, they routinely ratted on their flock from confession, and having survived their attempted annihilation by Stalin, they now give their aid and blessing to the lethal fraud who is their current President.

The story of Pushkin begins with Boris refusing to accede to the pleas of the people to become their Tsar (a word derived from ‘Caesar’).  This is not as hammed up as it is in Richard III, but the justly famous coronation scene is worth the price of the ticket to the opera.  (The Russians, especially Mussorgsky, are very big on bells – you might therefore go for the Russian (Gergiev) version – although Karajan is always masterly with a choir.)

Boris feels guilty.  He is haunted by apparitions of his victim.  He also feels the insecurity.  If he could get power that way, how could he stop someone doing the same to him?  Every revolution is pregnant with counter-revolution.  (It is why most revolutionaries forget why they are there, and become murderously vindictive.  You can see pale themes of the vicious turnarounds in our own tawdry political coups.)  This is the theme of Richard II, both partsof King Henry IV and Henry V.  

In the liner notes to one of my recordings, the libretto has this for Boris in English translation:

Don’t ask of me by what dark path I came to Russia’s throne…that’s past…you need not know.  You’ll reign henceforth as lawful ruler…

When Henry IV is dying, he tells his true heir in one of this playwright’s most moving scenes:

…….God knows, my son,

By what by-paths and indirect crooked ways

I met this crown, and I myself know well

How troublesome it sat upon my head.

To thee it shall descend with better quiet….(Part II, 4.4.183-187).

Those hopes were better met then, but still the son on the eve of Agincourt felt the need to beseech his God –

….not today, think not upon the fault

My father made in compassing the crown!  (Henry V, 4.1.298-9).

Then a priest from nowhere becomes the Pretender – he claims to be the heir put down by Boris.  Boris is incredulous but unnerved.  We expect him to say ‘We are amazed ….Because we thought ourself thy lawful king’ (Richard II, 3.3.71ff.)  And then, as also in that play, we see the insurgents coming together, and the life and death issues faced by those with Boris – which side should I put my money on? 

Except that here, there are visible grounds for suspecting the claim of the Pretender.  It is one thing to claim to have been wronged by the ruler; it is another thing to claim the title to his throne.  Still, the neighbouring Poles come on board – they are described by the Pretender in the poem as ‘brainless’ when he boasts of deceiving them.  The folks at home may be not much better.

And the Pretender has to deal with the woman he loves.  In both the poem and the opera, on different grounds, Marina is what my daughters used to call ‘a real piece of work.’  Marina could give Lady Macbeth a real challenge for the hard hearted woman ruthlessly ready to manipulate her man to get power.  She could also make Jessica Parker in Sex and the City look downright pedestrian.  She is a Wagnerian denial of humanity, with not one drop in her of the blood of Eva Braun.  When it becomes the turn of Dimitry to sink, Marina will not be there.  Another reminder of Byron comes when Pushkin writes to a friend that Marina is Polish and very beautiful and ‘will get your prick up.’  (And I’m not sure on what ground you might assert that the Stratford playwright would not have talked dirty like that.)

And Mussorgsky sexes up the dossier, as they say, by having a Jesuit priest recruit Marina to convert Moscow to Rome.  Neither the Jesuit nor Marina lacked ambition.

The scene of the handing over of power to the son reminds us of Henry IV, Part II. – but here, the heir never comes to the throne.  In the play, the end comes when the mob are told that the heir and the wife of the Tsar have committed suicide by poison.  That would mean, I think, that they had been murdered on orders from the Pretender.  The play ends: ‘The PEOPLE are silent with horror…..The PEOPLE are speechless.’  Just like the people of Ekaterinburg after the Soviets had liquidated the last of the Romanovs. 

The opera finale is much softer, but much more effective on the stage.  It ends not with a jolt, but so movingly with a lament by a Holy Fool about the fate of the peoples of all the Russias.  The lament is sung to the tune of resignation that permeates the opera.  Pathetic lamentation is part of the Russian soul.

Now, in our time, Russia is ruled not by boyars and a Tsar, but by oligarchs and Vladimir Putin, operating now under the aegis of Russian Orthodox priests, and whose President is happy to leave his fingerprints on the victim so that the world is clear about his message.  While elsewhere, we saw a fraud come to power with fewer votes than Adolph Hitler had, and who sought to hold power by a coup backed in part by people claiming allegiance to God under the name of Evangelicals. 

Anyone who thinks that either Putin or Trump has one iota of space left for God in his ego – neither has a superego – believes in the tooth fairy, the literal truth of Genesis, and the gospel of Rupert Murdoch on the climate and the moral life of capitalism. 

There is an infamous photo of Trump in the White House with his hands folded on his desk and backed by his goons, led by Mike Pence, in what appears to be an act of prayer.  People who cop that kind of stuff are much more silly and vulnerable than the Russian people in Boris Godenov.  They also mock God – a phrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer used on the day that Hitler became Chancellor when he was referring to ‘false leaders’ (before the Gestapo switched him off.)  The only true thing about that photo is that they have all closed their eyes.

The lament in the opera concludes with these words:

Shadows hide the light, dark as darkest night.

Sorrow, sorrow on earth;

Weep, weep Russian folk, poor starving folk.

*While I was writing this note, a new translation of Wagner’s Ring arrivedI wanted a plain translation not tied to the poetic form of the original.  I thought that only the fanatics would read Wagner for poetry.  The translator cites Nietzsche: ‘Wagner’s poetry is all about revelling in the German language…something that cannot be felt in any other German writer except Goethe.’  Well, that may explain why we don’t get the poetry in English.  But who is responsible for the childish banality of the plot in general – and Siegfried in particular?

Passing Bull 280 – Pussy-footing about race

I do not often sympathize with the English when they lose in sport, but I did yesterday morning.  Penalty shoot-outs are brutal on the players, and a perceived failure at this level could scar a player for life.   I am also sceptical of phrases like ‘dog whistling’, but on this occasion, I think it is justified – particularly when it is backed up by police authority at the top level  from the front line.  Finally, I am wary of condemning people who are not so fortunate in life for their behaviour at  public events that savour of nationalism.  But the loathsome reaction to the English loss to Italy in soccer shows the worst of the English caste system – at both ends – and the corrosive effect of modern mass communication.

The response of Johnson and the rest of that Eton crowd  to the protests of players against racism before the game – ‘taking a knee’ – reminds me of the Jesuitical claptrap indulged in by the Murdoch press and others vilifying Adam Goodes for his protest against discrimination based on the colour of a person’s skin.

Those involved should be deeply ashamed of themselves.  They are unwitting victims of caste at the top end.

And I would be interested to know how many players in the English Premier League are black.

Passing Bull 279 – Being dictated to by God

A Catholic mate referred me to an article in favour of assisted dying.  The author, Paul Monk, writes clearly and politely against those who oppose his views on the grounds of their religious convictions.  I write as someone who has a very clear view about this –and also as someone who was diagnosed with terminal melanoma – and who is of an age .when the subject has more than passing interest.

Mr Monk is different to those he responds to.  He is not compelled by dogma and he shows tolerance and restraint.  People who are taught – if that is the word – that abortion is murder cannot deal with that issue with either tolerance or restraint.   It is about the same with assisted dying.

In one way, you can see the movement of mankind as our being freed up from serving the supernatural.   At the risk of getting Groucho Marx wrong, some of my better attachments are to Anglicans and Catholics, and I could not give a hoot about the differences.  I am fine with people who want to celebrate magic or God – I see magic in the stars, Mozart, Shakespeare, blackfellas’ painting or playing footy – but I do not rule my life with it.  And I object to those who want to do just that to me.

It is one thing to tolerate the irrational.  It altogether different to have views forced upon us by people whose position turns ultimately on personal faith – which is by definition beyond proof.  That is happening here on this issue and the views of the majority are being thwarted by the views of a shrinking minority in a ghastly reprise of sectarian aggression that our children know nothing of.

That too will pass, but my turn might come any time.  And when it does, I want to be able to preserve my view of myself in the way I go.  I had no bloody choice in the mode of my arrival here, but I want one for my departure.  I regard that right as inherent in my right to dignity that comes from the mere fact that I am human.  God has nothing to do with it.

In the last few years, I have had a lot to do with doctors and nurses.  The most beautiful sentence in English may just be ‘Are you OK?’  Nurses do it automatically if you make a strange noise.  The other day, I was struggling for air as I walked up an alley to the Greeks for lunch.  A bloke put his hand on my shoulder and asked ‘Are you OK?’  That is simple human decency.  And I expect it to be available if and when I need it most.

If you asked me for the source of my views on our dignity coming from the mere fact that we are human, I might refer to the Enlightenment, and to Kant in particular.  As it happens, Kant expressed views about the practice of religion that accord with mine.

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. 

He repeated part of that argument.

We have noted that a church dispenses with the most important mark of truth, namely, a rightful claim to universality, when it bases itself upon a revealed faith.  For such a faith, being historical (even though it be far more widely disseminated and more completely secured for remotest posterity through the agency of Scripture) can never be universally communicated so as to produce conviction.

Macaulay wrote with conviction about the fight for liberation from rule by priests – a body who at one time were prepared to burn people who challenged their monopoly of the road to God and salvation by reading scripture in their own language.

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as the rising up of human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of the laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty.

We can then understand why Macaulay .got political and divisive in a way that is thankfully dead now.

The Reformation had been a national as well as a moral revolt.  It had been not only an insurrection of the laity against the clergy, but also an insurrection of all the branches of the great German race against an alien domination.  It is a most significant circumstance that no large society of which the tongue is not Teutonic has ever turned Protestant, and that, wherever a language derived from that of ancient Rome is spoken, the religion of modern Rome to this day prevails.

It is sufficient to say that the revolt of the English against the universal church turned on what we call sovereignty – and that’s about how I feel when people feel driven by religious conviction want to tell me what I can and cannot do with my life.

So, if I got approached for treatment by a doctor who professed to be a member of the Catholic Medical Association, I would be inclined to ask:  ‘Could you please tell me, Doctor, just how your profession of faith might affect you in your profession while you are treating me?’  And if the answer were not zero, he, she or I would be out of there on the next gurney.  Good grief – imagine you are in a dirty fight and you muscle up to your lawyer who says: ‘By the way – I’m with Tolstoy – I take very seriously those bits in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and not going to law.’

And while we are about it, what about a pinch of Sharia Law in your divorce?

Passing Bull 278 – A boost for liberty

Peter Ridd is a hero for some people.  He holds beliefs that they subscribe to with the passion of an evangelist – or of the Prime Minister at Hillsong.  He thinks that the Barrier Reef is not endangered.  This unsettled his employer, James Cook University.  His position may have seemed uncomfortably close to them to broadcasting political views.  That of course would be anathema, particularly to those in the commentariat who see universities as breeding grounds for some kind of Marxism – whatever that means. 

But the I P A is committed to the position that the orthodox scientific view of climate change is not well founded.  They therefore think Mr Ridd is their man.  This involves – yes, you got it – freedom of speech!  So they accompanied Mr Ridd to the High Court with John Roskam and Bob Katter – and ‘dozens of supporters.’ 

Well, why should I not be free to say that 1 + 1 = 3?  If I am teaching arithmetic at state school?  Why should I not be free to say that the book of Genesis is literally true?  If I am teaching archaeology and carbon dating at university?  The expression of a dissident view by an academic in the course of teaching might seriously undermine that teaching – and the education of the students.  It would be curious if the teaching institution had to put up with that inimical conduct.

According to the press, counsel for Mr Ridd submitted:

Sometimes an academic has to say something is wrong and give the reasons why it is wrong.  The reasons it is wrong may be that the research is fraudulent, the research has a funding bias, that the researcher may have been negligent.  As an operation of the ideas clashing, the truth emerges… but reputations are damaged as one side is proved to be wrong.  That can’t be done in a respectful and courteous way.

Well, the words ‘wrong’ and ‘truth’ might be a little too absolute for a common lawyer, or someone brought up in the tradition of empirical philosophy, but the process described by counsel is not too far away from the forensic process that our courts undertake every day.  I would be surprised if the Court had not been reminded of the well-known remarks of Justice Holmes:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises.

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

And it would be difficult to suggest to Her Majesty’s justices that their work cannot be done in a ‘respectful and courteous way.’

And it is just too bloody rich for the IPA, which inhales coal in its milk, to be associated with the suggestion that views on scientific research might be vitiated by a ‘funding bias’.  Has anyone done more for the IPA than coal and Gina?

Bloopers

The G7 meeting was a genuine success for Scott Morrison and for the West…The only leader who spoke with any realism on climate change was Morrison himself.

The Australian, 17 June, 2021, Greg Sheridan.

Even Mr Ridd might draw the line there.