Passing Bull 233 – Am I a mere statistic?


In the discussion about the virus that threatens the world, we can see two sides forming.  One wants all possible steps to be taken by government now to stop the spread and reduce the risk.  The other favours less intervention with a view to keeping the economy going for as long as decently possible.  If you put it that way, a lot depends on the scope of the term ‘decently.’

Those on the side of the economy – if I can put it that way – are fond of quoting statistics.  They refer to other causes of death.  Death from this virus may or may not be excelled by deaths by influenza, pneumonia, road accident, or gun use, in the United States.  But how is that a reference to one cause of death might logically affect the way that we deal with another cause of death?

I have to confess a personal interest.  By reason of my age and health – especially the heart and the lungs – I would be a luscious target for the virus, and one of the first to be thrown overboard if those in control determined that the life boats were insufficient and that they had to decide who should be saved – which is, as I understand it, the position in at least Italy right now.  While it may be possible to envisage such a phase of death-sentencing triage, allowing people to play God over the lives of other people is abhorrent to any reasonable notion about the rule of law, or, for that matter, civilisation.  In the fullness of time, I will be a statistic.  But it is appalling to think that other people might see themselves as empowered to say when my humanity should succumb to arithmetic.

Some colour is given to the argument for the economy by saying that we are at ‘war’ with the virus.  The short answer is that government cannot claim new rights or powers, that affect our rights and powers, merely by claiming to affix a different label.  And we should remember not just the hollowness but the danger of the term ‘war on terror.’  The results were not pretty.

And while I am about it, the Second World War was a real war, but for the most part parliament kept its normal routine. There is something than worse than odd in suggesting that this crisis makes parliament unnecessary.

In a book about Terror and the Police State, I said:

In his book Bloodlands, Professor Snyder estimates that Hitler and Stalin murdered more than fourteen million people between Berlin and Moscow in twelve years.  While it may be within the power of the human mind to plan murder on such a scale, it is hardly within our power to comprehend the human evil that is required – or of the injury to mankind…….

If you accept as an article of faith that each of us has our own dignity or worth just because we are human, then it is wrong for anyone to treat anyone else as a mere number.  We are at risk of doing just that when we seek to compile numbers of the victims of the three regimes that we have been looking at. 

The essential crime of both Hitler and Stalin was that they degraded humanity by denying the right to dignity, by denying the very humanity, of people beyond count – by denying the humanity of one man, woman, and child multiplied to our version of infinity.  Every one of those victims – every one – had a life and a worth that came with that life that was damaged or extinguished.  …..Professor Richard Snyder endorsed the proposition that ‘the key to both National Socialism and Stalinism was their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human,’ and when we descend to statistics, we might do the same. 

In short, a government that treats me or anyone else as a disposable statistic resembles those governments that we least admire.


But if the present crisis does not convince our leaders of the dangers of big government, nothing will.

The Australian, 27 March, 2029, Maurice Newman

It is a terrible time to be a small government ideologue.

The Guardian, 28 March 2020, Katherine Murphy

Those quotes might stand for the difference between two media groups on the current crisis.  It is frankly hard to see our present trials as an ad for less government.  And it is appalling to think that a government appointed Mr Newman as Chair of the ABC.

Passing Bull 232 – What happened to the focus on Western Civilisation?


Donations to promote the study of civilisation provided it could be labelled as western did not get a warm response from the target market.  Some of its sponsors had been regrettably candid about what they had in mind.  While re‑reading Volume 5 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, I came across a passage where he reflected on the risks inherent in shutting out the learning of others.  I will set it out in full.

But the Moslems deprived themselves of the principal benefits of a familiar intercourse with Greece and Rome, the knowledge of antiquity, the purity of taste, and the freedom of thought.  Confident in the riches of their native tongue, the Arabians disdained the study of any foreign idiom.  The Greek interpreters were chosen among their Christian subjects; they formed their translations, sometimes on the original text, more frequently perhaps on a Syriac version; and in the crowd of astronomers and physicians, there is no example of a poet, an orator, or even an historian, being taught to speak the language of the Saracens.  The mythology of Homer would have provoked the abhorrence of those stern fanatics: they possessed in lazy ignorance the colonies of the Macedonians, and the provinces of Carthage and Rome: the heroes of Plutarch and Livy were buried in oblivion; and the history of the world before Mahomet was reduced to a short legend of the patriarchs, the prophets, and the Persian kings.  Our education in the Greek and Latin schools may have fixed in our minds a standard of exclusive taste; and I am not forward to condemn the literature and judgment of nations, of whose language I am ignorant.  Yet I know that the classics have much to teach, and I believe that the Orientals have much to learn; the temperate dignity of style, the graceful proportions of art, the forms of visible and intellectual beauty, the just delineation of character and passion, the rhetoric of narrative and argument, the regular fabric of epic and dramatic poetry.  The influence of truth and reason is of a less ambiguous complexion.  The philosophers of Athens and Rome enjoyed the blessings, and asserted the rights, of civil and religious freedom.  Their moral and political writings might have gradually unlocked the fetters of Eastern despotism, diffused a liberal spirit of inquiry and toleration, and encouraged the Arabian sages to suspect that their caliph was a tyrant, and their prophet an impostor.

It does seem to me that only the most determined defender of the local learning could deny that however you define or describe the relevant highway, the traffic is two‑way, and that if you were to presume to make it one‑way only, you might be invoking serious trouble.

Nor would we wish to emulate China in sealing ourselves off behind a wall – a notion that is not getting a good press because of one particularly inane advocate of such exclusion. The claim that a university might open minds – but only from one direction, seems to be at best quaint.


Leadership solidarity vital in coronavirus challenge.

Premiers have been exposed as unreliable and reckless

The Australian, 24 March, 2020.

The headline to an editorial reveals a factional fracture in a quest for solidarity.  It is also arrogant.  And the notion that the federal government is doing better than the states in this crisis is bizarre.  Not surprisingly, there are areas where reasonable minds may differ.  An attempt to conjure up some kind of cabinet solidarity is a reflection on the inability of some to tolerate uncertainty.

Passing Bull 231 – Tripe about sovereignty


And faced with the prospect of a deal on World Trade Organization terms that would mean a sharp rise in tariffs and border disruption, the EU hopes Mr Johnson and Mr Gove will eventually blink.

But this runs entirely counter to the hardening of the language from Mr Johnson’s government, which has placed sovereignty above the interests of business.

Financial Times, 3 March, 2020

When England broke with Rome and achieved a Home Rule for its church, you could have had a meaningful chat about sovereignty.  The pope could no longer law lawfully seek to assert authority over a subject of King Henry VIII.  The English, for better or worse, applied that maxim in the New Testament that a man cannot have two masters.

You see how large this shift was when you recall that after the English struck their deal with their king in Magna Carta, the pope purported to annul what the English came to call their first statute.  John, who was a rat, had purported to turn England into a vassal state of the Vatican.  That shows how large the notion of sovereignty loomed in the Middle Ages.  But is it anything other than grandstanding waffle to talk about a loss of sovereignty when talking about the obligations a nation assumes when it enters into binding treaties about trade or the environment?  Every time I enter into a binding contract, I limit my freedom in some way – but it would be silly to suggest that it follows that I have therefore undergone a change of status.

I remarked elsewhere:

When the French herald, Montjoy, came to deliver the message of his king to King Henry V of England before the battle of Agincourt, he said that the French could have dealt with Harry at Harfleur, but that ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial: England shall repent his folly.’ (In those days, it seems, kings used to address each other by the name of their kingdom – a little bit of mutual vanity in the union of royals.)  A little later that night, Harry moved among the sad and depleted English troops in disguise – ‘a little touch of Harry in the night,’ comments the playwright.  ‘What are you?’ the king asks.  Pistol – a swaggering drunk – replies ‘As good a gentleman as the emperor’.  This leads the king to say: ‘Then you are better than the king.’

So, if Shakespeare knew the English language – and there are problems in asserting the negative – an emperor was above a king.  This might upset an English king, who might then be moved to assert a supremacy, and one of a distinctly imperial hue.  The notion would sorely upset one English king who was a defender of the faith, the eighth of the name, Harry.  The result would be what we call the English Reformation. 

Before we come to that, we need to understand the means by which Harry and England sought to assert the sovereignty of the English nation, but can we make one thing clear at the outset?  The Reformation had little to do with religion, even less to do with God, and nothing at all to do with the Sermon on the Mount, or any other teaching of the tearaway friend of the meek who had started out from a Jewish carpentry shop.  It was a brawl – a nasty brawl – between State and Church, and little else besides.  It was about power and jurisdiction, not doctrine or faith.

When Henry IV, dies, Prince Hal, before he is crowned King Henry V, seeks to reassure some very nervy subjects, including the Chief Justice who had brought the law down weightily on the prince.  He said ‘This is the English, not the Turkish, court.’  Later he said:

Now call we our high court of parliament

And let us choose such limb of noble counsel

That the great body of our state may go

In equal rank with the best governed nation.

Shakespeare was reminding his audience that an English king was under the law, and that when he wanted to move strongly, he would call together a body that he called ‘our high court of parliament’.  Having done that, the government of England would have no superior in the world – in truth, a large part of the audience probably thought that the ‘Turks’ started at Calais.

If ‘sovereignty’ says anything, it says something about supremacy.  The English Crown in Parliament was supreme before the English subscribed to the Treaty of Rome and the like and it was supreme after that.  Invocations of sovereignty in this context better resemble a footy club war cry or the haka than a political or constitutional argument.

If you want to flirt with terms like that, you might descend into the error of the French in 1793 who put parts of their ideological dreamtime into words in their Constitution – ‘Sovereignty resides in the people: it is one and indivisible, imprescriptible and inalienable…..Any individual who usurps the sovereignty may at once be put to death.’  You might as well try to legislate for the Trinity or Real Presence – but it was a bit rich for people to lay down the death sentence for usurping sovereignty when they had to come to power by doing just that.  The Bastille stood for everything rotten in sovereignty in France when it fell.

And did they really want the gillets jaunes?


The text says that any trade deal must contain “robust” policy commitments “to ensure a level playing field”. The UK insists that the EU’s interpretation of this idea, which includes keeping Britain within the EU’s state-aid regime and limiting divergence in key policy areas, amounts to vassalage.

Financial Times, 28 February, 2020.

The reference to ‘vassalage’ is just lazy labelling at the other end.

Passing Bull 230 –Minding your own business


There is some discussion about the extent to which business should concern itself with the political or social concerns of its community.  For example, some criticise BHP for its stance on climate change.  I own shares in BHP and I firmly support its position.  If it matters, so I think do analysts and the market.  The criticism tends to come from people with two things in common.  First, they have no idea about running a business.  Secondly, they have no idea about climate change.  The IPA is a good example.  They also go on about freedom of speech.  Except what they disagree with.

BHP fired someone for conduct involving, but not limited to, a bad joke that I will not repeat.  The tribunal said the joke was not enough to warrant dismissal, but that other conduct was sufficient.  The CEO of BHP says he disagrees.  He wants the world to know that BHP will not put up with this sort of conduct.  Good on him.  That in my view is a sound business judgment on his part.

On the other hand, Channel Nine is being castigated for showing the cricket final last night on its second channel.  This is said to have involved some kind of insult or lack of respect to those interested in women in cricket.

The directors of Channel Nine are there to conduct the business of the company for the benefit of the shareholders.  If in doing that they fail to support the social dreams or political aspirations of others, and that has adverse consequences for shareholders or other stakeholders, so be it.  Otherwise, the critics should mind their own business.


The High Court’s decision in February that Australians should be treated differently in the Constitution because of their racial identity was the most radical judgment in Australian history.  It destroyed the idea that Australians have about multiculturalism that there was one law in Australia and that everyone was subject to the law in the same way….

The decision distorted the common law to import a new and incomprehensible legal principle that has fundamentally reshaped the relationship Australians have with each other and with the Australian Constitution…..

The cultural left has (in Australia) or had (in the U S) an uncontested stranglehold on the legal establishment, and is eager to retain that control…..

The Australian, 9 March, 2020.  (Morgan Begg, IPA)

The IPA rarely misses an opportunity to show how fine is the line between ignorance and arrogance on the one hand, and madness on the other.  I may shout them a copy of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer by Immanuel Kant.  Or, perhaps, his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.

Passing Bull 229 –Pure bull about ‘conservatives’


You may be aware  that I regard the term ‘conservative’ as being as vacuous – empty, at best – as ‘left’ or ‘right’.  It is at least open to serial abuse. I simply have no idea what those terms might denote in Australia now.  You might say the same for ‘socialist’.  Since England followed Germany into the Welfare State in and after 1909, and we followed them, we  – in common now with all of Western Europe – embrace a form of government that Americans would regard as ‘socialist,’ but which we regard as the minimum of government intervention in our lives that is consistent with what we call ‘civilisation.’    A denial of compulsory Medicare in the U S now may be seen as a repudiation of socialism.  Here it would be public political suicide.  What then is left of the term ‘socialism’ here?  And if the denial of Medicare were to be made by a self-styled conservative here or there, what do they think that the label ‘conservative’ may denote?

This is how Professor Simon Blackburn sees it in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions.  In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclass.  By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally.  The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.

It is hard to apply any of that here.  Politics now is defined by what people are against, rather than what they are for.  If we take Cory Bernardi and Tony Abbott as examples of people here who call themselves – fairly or otherwise – ‘conservatives’, they appear to be against the following: the ABC; any kind of sense about climate change, and on a bad  day, any form of expertise at all (a quality that is intrinsically alien to them); the republic; common sense about freedom of speech; anything remotely connected to organised labour; anything remotely opposed to organised primary production and marketing; a sensible federal anti-corruption body; any restriction on their God-given right to award public money for party political purposes; abolishing plastic bags; any failure to ban thongs at naturalization  ceremonies; any application of the Sermon on the Mount to any political issue, but above all, to applying any of  that teaching to refugees; and any celebration of the end of Empire or of  Gongs.  Such is the blindness of their tribal devotion on high that they idolise the Queen and the Pope in simultaneous and equal measure even though the Queen could be disqualified from holding the Crown if she took communion from the Church of Rome.  Now, that is what I call getting the most out of your history.

You can therefore imagine my surprise when I read:

Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has attacked Australia’s domestic intelligence chief for using the term ‘rightwing’ while warning of the growing threat of rightwing extremism, saying it offended conservatives……

But the comments appear to have caused offence among some sections of the Liberal party. Fierravanti-Wells confronted Burgess during a Senate estimates hearing on Monday, complaining of the use of the word ‘right’.

She said: “I am concerned about this and concerned about the use of terminology of ‘right’. ‘Right’ is associated with conservatism in this country and there are many people of conservative background who take exception with being charred [sic] with the same brush.

 ‘I think that you do understand that your comments, particularly when you refer to them solely as ‘right wing’, has the potential to offend a lot of Australians.’

Let us put to one side the rape of the English language.  This is such awful bullshit that further comment may be otiose.  Can you imagine the affront that a genuine conservative – if there is any such thing in our land – might feel if compared to this lady or to a commentator on Sky After Dark or The Australian?

And is the lady now discovering that the use of these terms reflects badly not just on the intelligence of the speaker, but on their courtesy?  People use the term ‘Left’ commonly as one of abuse.  But if they are against the Left, does not that man that they are attached to the Right?  If you revile ‘the love media’ – and some of these soi disant conservatives say that they do – where does that leave you with ‘the hate media’?  As when the First Lady Melania trump anointed Rush Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom before an awed congress and a nauseated world?  And if a member of the National Party advocates that government undertake the marketing of primary production and a celebration of patriotism, will they bask in the union of Nationalism and Socialism?  After all, at least since the fascism of Sparta two and a half millennia ago, those regimes have been veritable models of corruption.

Well, of course any such ascription would be as mindless as it is vulgar.  But at least this lady now has some insight that when it comes to applying labels to Australian politics, there is now a two way street in vulgarity and mindlessness.  And, for that matter, sheer pettiness.


Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, defended the attack on Friday by saying, ‘It was time to take this action so that we could disrupt this plot, deter further aggression from Qassim Suleimani and the Iranian regime, as well as to attempt to de-escalate the situation.’

The New York Times, 6 January, 2020

Interesting exercise in  de-escalation – murdering a top man.  Could Pompeo be as thick as he looks?

With standards such as these it came as a shock when Woman’s Day was rapped over the nuckles by the media watchdog last week for publishing a headline about Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, which it said was ‘blatantly incorrect’.

Dr Megan Le Masurier, a media academic from the University of Sydney, says when she saw the reports she was stumped.

‘When I read this story I just thought you could pick any copy of New Idea or Woman’s Day any week and they are doing headlines like this,’ Le Masurier, a former ACP magazine editor herself, says.

‘This is not journalism; it was never meant to be journalism. And I’ve got a term for it: ‘fabulous reportage’.

‘The way it works is they get the pictures in and then they make shit up. It’s just fantasy and all they’re trying to do is get clicks or sales in a dying market.’

So why did the press council, which usually takes aim at articles in the Herald Sun or the Sydney Morning Herald, sit in judgment of a Woman’s Day cover story which said the royal family had confirmed Prince Harry and his wife Meghan’s marriage was over?

The short answer is someone – not the royal family – complained about the article, and the council saw merit in the complaint and investigated because the magazine’s owner, Bauer Media, is a member of the press council.

The Guardian, 26 February, 2020

The good doctor may have been stumped, but so am I.  If the Press Council were not required to rule on issues from sources that specialise in purveying tripe, or, if you prefer, made up shit, they may not have much jurisdiction left at all.

Passing Bull 228 –Bull about paying the price


We don’t like paying tax but we don’t like bad roads or long waits to get into hospital or insufficient protection from the police.  It is the job of government to balance those impulses.  Most of the time, we get by, although some hiccups annoy us.  But for many reasons – including massive bribery – we can’t even get started sensibly on climate change.  Yes, people will lose money or jobs on restraining fossil fuel sources, but all the evidence is that the probabilities are that we will all be a lot worse off- especially those coming after us – unless we bite the bullet.  Most of Europe – including England – know this and are reacting.  But not us or the U S.  We cannot afford to pay the price. Indeed we elected a government that had expressly promised not to pay the price.  But balancing these contrary impulses is the first function of government.  No wonder our children and grand-children are in despair.

And the failure looks to be a failure of democracy.  MP’s from coal areas have far too much influence.  Some say the same about Christianity and abortion and assisted dying.

These failings came home to me reading about the abolition of the slave trade in England.  There was a massive cost to the English economy, and that was the basis of the opposition.  The parallel seems apposite.  But the English, driven by Evangelicals and Quakers, went ahead and prevailed.  Why?   Because that was the right thing to do.

We do look to be going backwards, and the backlash from those coming after us will be ferocious.


The low level of harm and the apology made by the Minister… to the Mayor…., along with the significant level of resources required to investigate were also factored in the decision [of the AFP not to investigate] not to pursue this matter.

AFR, 7 February 2020.

You know you are going bad when the rozzers say that there is only ‘a low level of harm’ when one politician alters a document to smear another politician.

Here and there – Evading the question


People in public life are trained to evade answering questions.  They practise it.  It becomes second nature.  You might think that people in positions of trust should be obliged to answer questions about their discharge of that trust candidly and in good faith.  The law and I would agree with you.  But that is not what happens.  What we get are evasion, equivocation and half-truths.  The idea is never to give a straight answer.  Even if you are just asked to say what time it is.

Here are some of the most popular techniques.

  1. Restate or reframe the question so that you can answer it favourably to yourself. Mediators are trained to do this in a good way to try to take some heat out of the dispute.  It is notorious that opinion polls can be slanted by the way the question is framed.  ‘Do you think that it is in the public interest for the media to have more protection – more freedom of speech, if you like – in reporting on political issues?’  That is very different to: ‘Should we give Rupert Murdoch carte blanche to walk all over us in political cat fights?’  Instead of saying what your party has done, say what its policy is.  This is very common – offering motherhood in place of fact.  Alternatively, instead of talking about policy, say what your party has in fact done.  This simple if blatant evasion is standard.  For question A you have response X; for question B you have response Y; and so on.
  2. Challenge a premise of the question. ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ is objectionable as it assumes that you do beat your wife.  What about: ‘Why do you call this informant a whistle-blower?  He is just a common garden snitch and liar.’  ‘I object to your labelling this man as a conservative.  He is a closet lefty…anarchist ….alarmist’ …..and so on.
  3. If you get a chance to say that the question is ambiguous, think about saying so. (Some lawyers think that if their opponent looks clumsy, it may be best to leave them to try to dog paddle to shore on their own.)
  4. Brand the question as hypothetical and say that you don’t answer hypothetical questions. This may sometimes be true.
  5. Or invoke some other trite label. ‘I don’t engage in the Canberra bubble’, ‘water cooler gossip’, ‘locker room banter’, ‘hearsay’, ‘bloviations of the elites’, ‘virtue signalling’, ‘politically motivated’, ‘fake news’ or ‘deep state’……  Or, I speak to ‘quiet Australians’ (who never answer back).  You can get the full range of this nonsense every Saturday in The Weekend Australian.  Seasoned operatives take the view that the more meaningless and inflammatory the label is, the better off is the response.  It may depend on the acuity of the audience.
  6. If asked about the past say that you are focussed on the future. One Australian Minister, whose sense is matched by their deportment – the avoidance of gender is deliberate – always ‘looks to move on.’  (Walking backwards for Christmas does not enjoy a good pedigree.)  Then, when asked about the future, you decline to speculate on the suppositious or academic.  The golden template is in these immortal lines from the greatest movie ever made.

YVONNE: Where were you last night?

RICK: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.

YVONNE: Will I see you tonight?

RICK: I never make plans that far ahead.

But, alas, that kind of spark is missing from those who bring coals into our parliament.  (On a good day, they remind me of a bus driver from Box Hill in the Fifties.)

  1. If the matter is sensitive – say gun control or climate change – say that current or recent events make it in bade taste to allow ‘political point scoring’ to cloud delicate and personal issues. You can use the word ‘opportunistic’ – and hope that you are not asked to say what you mean.  In this country at least, this is a dead horse – except for followers of Sky After Dark or The Australian.
  2. A primary object is to keep onside that part of the audience that fears doubt and is made insecure by a want of finality. (This is sometimes called ‘the base’ – a useful double entendre.)  That sadly is a large part of the audience (although not as large as in the U S).  For that purpose, keep serving up the same old platitudes.  The simpler, the better.  But be careful about mixing escalation and increase in volume with repetition.  (The leading modern exponent of that technique is currently – in November, 2019 – heading for a gutser.)
  3. Be like a good poker player. Just bluff hard and big and look them dead in the eye and dare them to call you out.  After all, this is all about saving   You could model this aspect on President Xi.  (Who would play poker with that sphinx?)
  4. Blind them with science or big words. This is mandatory in any discussion of science or economics.  (The two are very different things.)  Remember the immortal advice cited by Professor Frankfurt in On Bullshit – ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’  It’s like throwing sand in your protagonist’s eyes.  But this response, too, requires care.  Your supporters take offence if they think you are deliberately aiming to go above their heads (which it is alarmingly easy to do).
  5. Bury them with detail. ‘Yes, in order to deal with that issue in the manner it deserves, I need to take you to some of the figures……’  This is called a snow job.  It is very common in legal and commercial negotiations.  You may look aggrieved if you are called on to get to the point.  ‘This is not a matter to be entered into lightly or ill-advisedly.’  You could then give the Andrew Bolt look of dolour – with appropriate hand gestures.
  6. Alternatively, you may say that the question calls for an opinion that you are not qualified to give. You must apply this technique with extreme care –especially if you devote most of your time to doing just that (which is the case for many lawyers and most politicians).
  7. A similar caution goes for slowing down the process by taking an inordinate time to answer the question – or, more properly, to respond to the question. This technique can be useful in dealing with tyro journalists or barristers in cross-examination, but it may not fit your schtick – this is no place for modesty – and it may not appeal to that ghastly mirage called your ‘base.’  They are happy with front and bluff, and not impressed by a devotion to care; or, for that matter, by fidelity of any colour.
  8. Depending on the forum, you may choose to be pleasant – you should always at least look polite and courteous and under control. If you are prepared to resort to flattery, leave aside the trowel.  And ‘That’s a very good question’ is badly overdone.  And don’t ramble.  You might convict yourself out of your own mouth.  And avoid traps like ‘sincerely’ or ‘honestly.’  (What is your condition when you do not expressly adopt that position?)
  9. An alternative is to belittle the questioner. This too requires care and skill.  Many people don’t like bullies.  (That proposition is just one of those that is refuted by the current rise of two worst leaders in the West.)  Cajolery may be better.  (Blackmail of course should not be undertaken in public, and then only under total and detachable and renounceable cover in private – witness aid to the Ukraine.)
  10. Attack the questioner head on. ‘Well, that’s just the kind of bias I would expect from the ABC.’  (Compare: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands at last?’)
  11. The Latin tag for playing the man is ad hominem ( ‘to the man’). It is repellently overused by diverting attention to the other side.  ‘Well, we are not perfect.  We are realists.  But just have a look at the mess that our opponents left for us – and for you, the people.’  This is intellectual trash, but you get truckloads of it every day, and the people out of doors don’t hear the sighs or groans.
  12. If in doubt, start a fight. This has been the resort of lawyers and business people from time out of mind.  It comes ever so naturally to those who appeal to the gutter, because they know that the gutter enjoys a good fight.
  13. The alternative to a fight is just to walk out. That may be easier to live with than an admission of guilt – and the whole point of the exercise is to avoid precisely that.

They are some of the more common techniques.  The questioner must recall one of the major rules of cross-examination.  Make sure that the witness answers the question.  If you get a snow job or some other windy evasion, bring them back to the point.  ‘Well, are you quite finished?  Are you sure?  Did you understand the question?  Well then, could you now please answer it?’  It’s about even money that they will say that they forget what the question was – and sometimes that may be the case.

Professor Frankfurt cites two definitions of ‘bull’: ‘Talk which is not to the purpose; ‘hot air’; ‘slang term for a combination of bluff, bravado, ‘hot air’ and what we used to call in the Army ‘kidding the troops’’.  He spoke of people ‘unconstrained by a concern with truth.’

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit…..For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony….The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong….Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

That book was published in 2005.  Since then, bull has become an art form and reached its apotheosis in Messrs Trump and Johnson.

Now, you may well think that whatever else we have been talking about, it is not honesty.  I agree with you.  But that is where we are now.

Passing Bull 227 – What’s wrong with activists?


Many people of the Murdoch press, especially Sky News after Dark, are fond of sneering at activists.  In truth, they are fond of leering, jeering and sneering at large.  They do more than sneer at young Greta – they snarl, roll their eyes, and froth at the mouth.  It has not yet occurred to them that their behaviour is of itself her vindication.  A friend and colleague of mine, Julian Burnside, is routinely shellacked for being an activist on behalf of refugees.  (Although, there, jealousy of one sort or another is well to the fore.)  But some people seem to think that there is something inherently objectionable about activism – especially about the environment – or the climate.  Why is this so?

An activist is a person who actively seeks to change the world for the better.  Outstanding examples are Ghandi, Bonhoeffer and Mandela – all as near to sainthood as a secular world might conceive.  All through the 1930’s, Winston Churchill was the supreme activist in warning the world of the rise of Hitler.  His activism then failed, with consequences that could well have been terminal.  Keynes was an activist in looking after institutions that had taught him.  After the Second World War, two of the greatest minds of that century – Bertrand Russell and Einstein – were activists about disarmament.  Not many people sneer at Ghandi, Bonhoeffer, Mandela, Churchill, Keynes, Russell or Einstein.  Sneering at any of them would be like a gnat straining at a camel (if I may invoke Shelley).  And that’s before you get to religious activists.  Or people in charities, or sports, or clubs, or churches, or unions – or, for that matter, political parties.

If you believe, as I do, that no state that allows slavery can be called civilised, then civilisation did not arrive until the early nineteenth century.  It came with one of the most remarkable exercises in self-denial that the world has ever seen – or is ever likely to see again.  It came when the English abolished slavery.  And who was it who actually drove this almost miraculous confiscation of property and denial of wealth?  You got it – activists.  They were led by Evangelical Anglicans, but they were driven by the Society of Friends – the Quakers.  God, therefore, was in this up to His neck, and the achievement of these people of faith is one unquestionable gift of that faith to the world.

The Quakers had been pitifully persecuted on each side of the Atlantic.  As happens to victims of persecution, they were very sensitive to the persecution of others.  They set out to mould public opinion.  They door-knocked and they petitioned and they signed people up in the first great PR campaign the world has seen.  They showed a determination that some would now deride as fanatical.  And they succeeded by winning over the establishment and the public and the parliament.  They had shifted from quietism to activism.

In his book Moral Capital, Christopher Brown describes the foundations of British abolitionism.  He said this of the Quakers.

In addition to adhering to vows to do no harm, Quakers would have to commit themselves to the more difficult mission of stopping harms performed by others.  For a program of this kind, Friends in England had few precedents.  Never before in the eighteenth century had they tried as a group to shape national legislation through a public crusade.  Indeed, taking a stand on moral questions broke with their established habit of leaving sinful neighbours to their devices.  And standing forth publicly deviated from their scruples against political activism.

Here then was what Edward Gibbon may have called a ‘singular prodigy.’  And their success came in the face of one great unwritten law of the politics of the Western world.  When there is money on the table, this is an issue for mature adults, and there is no need to complicate matters with the Sermon on the Mount.  There are, after all, some things in there that are simply impossible in dealings between nations.  (Good grief, Karl Marx himself may have said that the meek shall inherit the earth.)  The Quakers had shouted a loud affirmative to the questions: Can you be a serious Christian and retain public standing?  Can a serious Christian act in the world without compromising faith?

Mr Brown refers to this issue as Lord Dartmouth’s predicament.  What do you do when your conscience does not permit you to live as others do?  When Mr Romney dissented on the impeachment, he said, as Hamlet may have said, that not to do so would ‘expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience’.  The sorry failure of other Republican senators to think of history or their conscience looks to have been driven by cowardice born out of pettiness.  This was a failure that will scar America for a very long time.

The Quakers were committed to the proposition that all men are equal.  By including the Negro in the term ‘all men’, the Quakers repudiated the great lie of Jefferson and the other Founders of the United States – so many of them being the owners of slaves.

And of course they had God.  They found it indefensible to preach the Golden Rule and yet withhold security and justice from those most in need.  Can anyone seriously maintain that the founder of their faith would have acted differently?  And the Quakers excoriated slave owners ‘toiling years after years, enriching themselves, and thus getting fuel for our children’s vanity and corruption.’  Well, they were prophets too.

The Friends thought of themselves as a ‘spiritual remnant…among the unconvinced’ and ‘as bearers of truths and ideals for which this world was not ready.’  One Friend saw his church ‘as encamped in the wide extended plain of the world, under the direction and command of the great Captain and Leader and surrounded as it were in their tents with the impregnable walls of their discipline.’  Let dogmatic atheists sneer at that.

Mr Brown says:

The sum of Quaker efforts between 1783 and 1787, from the canvassing of the elite to the dissemination of antislavery literature, profoundly affected the political and cultural landscape.

So, those who deride activism in and of itself combine two errors that infect public life – they fall back on a label to express their intolerance of people who think differently to them.  And as a perceptive correspondent to The Age remarked, those who celebrate quietism, as our Prime Minister apparently does, may wish to reflect on the contribution that such people made to the horror of Auschwitz.  It is after all far easier just to look the other way.

If you wanted to look for activists who don’t do much for the common good, look for those commentators who actively seek the demolition of the ABC or to prevent the election of any government tied to Labor.  The hypocrisy, as ever, is breathtaking.

And except for the repudiation of quietism by the Quakers, we might still be buying and selling human souls as chattels, and claiming to do so under the aegis of Almighty God after the manner of our various ancestors.


On Twitter, Trump lashed out at the magazine, labelling it a ‘far left’ publication that ‘has been doing poorly.’ Graham’s eldest son, Franklin, who became the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association after his father’s death, in 2018, claimed that his father would have been ‘very disappointed’ by the piece and had, in fact, voted for Trump in the 2016 election. ‘It’s obvious that Christianity Today has moved to the left and is representing the elitist liberal wing of evangelicalism,’ Franklin wrote … On Sunday, Timothy Dalrymple, Christianity Today’s president and chief executive officer, issued a statement defending the editorial and reaffirming one of Galli’s assertions: that ‘the alliance of American evangelicalism with this presidency has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness’—the heart of believers’ evangelistic mission.

The New Yorker, 22 December, 2019

All those labels – and all for nothing.   Sadly, American ‘evangelicals’ are trashing that term by claiming that they can live with Trump and not compromise their faith.  Only God knows what damage they do to that faith as a result.

Passing Bull 226 – An unmoored prime minister


It was, I think Lord Denning, who spoke of man who had been accused of being a war criminal and of not going to church on Sundays – he only sued on the latter, being unwilling to join issue about whether he was a war criminal.

That case came to my mind when it appeared that the Prime Minister had finally got the gumption to fire his Minister who had applied public money for an improper purpose.  He did so on the suggestion of a civil servant that the Minister may have breached a standard or protocol – and he claims that the civil servant has exonerated the Minister – and Prime Minister – on the substantive charge.

There is a general consensus that Morrison should have fired the Minister, and that he should not have asked a civil servant to advise on ministerial conduct.  That is like my asking my secretary if I had breached a duty I owed as a lawyer.  Now the Prime Minister even refuses to release the report.

It is, therefore, apparently the view of this Prime Minister that it is in order for a Minister to use public money to achieve a party political objective. That is very close to the essence of the impeachment case against Donald Trump.  The only difference is that one withheld public money for a party political purpose – the other paid it out.

At least Mr Morrison is consistent.  One response to his reaction to bush fires was to put out a hilarious ad for the Liberal Party.  Now he is using the work of a civil servant to protect the Liberal Party.  That report does not belong to the P M – it belongs to you and me.

There is another comparison with Trump.  Mr Morrison is now on a regular basis making errors of judgment that would see the CEO of a public company straight out the door.  It is clear that the man does not have what it takes for this position.


Contributions to the pre-conference blog claimed ecosystems could be a silver bullet, they ought to have a value chain — or possibly even be part of one — they should be ‘leveraged’ to ‘maximise value and achieve competitive advantage’ or ‘populated with new addressable customers’. ‘If you orchestrate it and tie the ecosystem on to a platform, you’re really resolving the customer problem holistically,’ enthused one panellist.

Financial Times, 3 December, 2019.

With all that bullshit, ‘holistic’ was a Monty.

Passing Bull 225 – A glimmer of maturity at long last?


The most polite sensations Australia Day leaves me with are boredom and a kind of resentment – ennui may be the word.  The resentment comes from this.  Those who style themselves as ‘conservative,’ and bust their gut each year to celebrate the day that the English opened their slammer here, and just ignore the grief that we brought to the blackfellas, are usually those most intent on keeping our old flag, with its curtsy to Empire, and on refusing to have our own head of state, but keeping a monarch who happens to be the head of the Church of England.  Nationalism is usually repellent, and the first resort of those who don’t do too well on their own two feet, but when it is mixed with bullshit, which it usually is, it is revolting.  And that is a more accurate epithet for my usual feelings on this day.

So, it was quite a relief to read the front page of The Australian Financial Review that came out on the eve of the day that whatever we celebrate, it is not independence.  Under AUSTRALIA DAY SPECIAL ISSUE we get 2020 REVISION.  Under that:

A burnt-out landscape.  A war zone of dead wild life.  Unbreathable air.  A smoke-damaged vintage.  A laggard on climate change.  Advertising alone won’t repair Australia’s image problem.

(That last one might really put the wind up the Prime Minister, since advertising is about all that he is good for.  Without a script, he is adrift.)

Then there is – still on the front page – a box for an article VIEW FROM THE SHORE.  ‘Rodney Kelly’s ancestor was shot by the Endeavour’s crew and believes the 250th anniversary is a time to put things right.’

Beside that there is a bombshell.  DAVID KEMP: HOW WE FAILED.

‘James Cook’s Enlightenment ideals were discarded by a brash new colony – to the cost of Indigenous Australians.’

Real conservatives are hard to find here, but this one – David Kemp – at least has an impeccable pedigree.  He served as a minister under that awful little man who could not bring himself to apologise to our first nations.  Little Johnnie Howard would have gagged on ‘How we failed.’  He wasn’t there when they aborigines were slaughtered.  (He wasn’t at Gallipoli either, but principle was never his strong suit.)

What Mr Kemp actually said was:

We now know that the hopes of the Enlightenment leaders, fulfilled in so many ways, in relation to the aboriginal people were misplaced and soon betrayed…..The great silence that has settled on this tragic story is now being lifted….Australians have remembered Cook’s arrival on many occasions in the past, and built memorials to the event, but this year will be different, and the differences will record our evolution as nation.  Memorials this year will express a new appreciation that there were two views of what occurred….It has taken 250 years, but we have come at last to recognise that both views must be part of the telling of our national story, and building our national identity.  Australia now is better able to face its past with more realism than before.  It is, after all, a country that is a product both of the scientific and liberal values of the British Enlightenment and of the ancient hospitable, artistic and consultative culture already here, a culture inextricably wedded to the magnificent land we now share.

Those remarks are in my view so significant that I will abstain for now from comment – except to thank and congratulate Mr Kemp for acting as he now has.

In Beneath Another Sky, the English historian Norman Davies looks at the ‘us v them’ issue in a round the world tour.  His discussion of Texas is both droll and enlightening.  In commenting on some of ‘rousing stuff’ about the Alamo, the author says:

One of the failings of patriotism is its blindness to the patriotism of others.

Good blooper

One of the great blessings conferred on our lives by the arts is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.  Without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.  (W H Auden)