Passing bull 144 – The inanity of red lines


King Lear is in many ways the Everest of our minds.  It is about a choleric old man who digs a hole for himself and his daughters, and then he keeps digging, until he goes mad.  As he descends into the despair of his madness, he says:

I will have such revenges on you both

That all the world shall—I will do such things—

What they are yet I know not, but they shall be

The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep?

No, I’ll not weep.


This wild ungrammatical rant sounds like someone we know, but, like so much in this play, when you watch the descent of this old man, you feel as if you are being cruel in yourself.  And there is something childlike about this dementia in the aged.  It reminds us of the story of the wolf and the three little pigs.


Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.


These thoughts – or something like them – come to mind whenever I hear that dreadful phrase ‘red line’ – or its soul mate, ‘line in the sand’.  Barack Obama will I think regret until his dying day using the term ‘red line’ regarding chemical warfare in Syria.  Who will determine when the event happens, and more importantly, who will determine what the consequences should be?  The policy of President Obama toward the problem of Syria, and other problems in the region, was otherwise so sane.  The U S should not intervene unless it knows just when and how it will be able to get out.  The recent interventions by the West in Syria do not satisfy that simple criterion, and on that ground alone, I would not support them.


Donald Trump, who is as stupid as he is nasty, compounded the problem with a tweet that included a phrase that has even more notorious baggage in this region – ‘Mission Accomplished.’  God save us all.

Since we are speaking of inane language, it is not surprising that Donald Trump comes to mind immediately.  We are reminded of children in the shelter shed at school making up the rules of the game as they go; or of Australian cricketers drawing the line about sledging; or the board of Cricket Australia drawing the line about another inane phrase – ‘being held accountable.’

Well, at least Trump had the courtesy to count, very loudly, to one hundred before he said ‘Coming ready or not.’


Half of all gun owners say that ownership is essential to their identity.  Fear is a factor: nearly half of male gun-owners say that they have a loaded gun ‘easily accessible to them at all times at home’.  According to the Pew study, ‘There is a significant link between owning a gun for protection and perceptions of whether the world broadly speaking has become more dangerous.’

The New Yorker, 12 March, 2018.

Who would want to live in the United States, the land of fear?  Do gun owners have something in common with some Harley owners – is it all about their willies?  Is their world more dangerous because there are so many guns?


A tweet from Tony Abbott.  ‘More unsubstantiated bile from @vanOnselenP.  If my office was so hopeless why is my former deputy COS now director of the Liberal Party and why does my former COS rate more highly than PVO ever did?’

The Guardian Australia 7 April 2018

Does that remind you of anyone?  Apart from the obsession with TV and ratings, there is the suggestion that being a director of a political party in some way gives a person standing.

Passing bull 8 Getting validated

If you validate a travel pass, you do something to it to make it operate to cover a cost of travel by ensuring that you will pay a fee for that travel.  If you validate an assertion or argument, you demonstrate that it is valid – you show, either by evidence or logical explanation, that your position is well founded or sound; in the words of the OED, you show that your position is one ‘against which no objection can be fairly brought.’

We are seeing a new emotional kind of validation.  It occurs when one alleged victim finds support from another alleged victim.  So, when the courts in the U S opened the way for long standing complaints against Bill Cosby to be brought on, and others came forward to do that, the original complainants said that their complaints had been validated.  They had not been validated at all.  They had not even been corroborated.  All that had happened was that other complainants had come forward.  If one or other of those complaints were to be found to be valid in a fair hearing, the question would then arise whether that finding could properly be put forward to support the assertion that the accused had been guilty of similar conduct on another occasion.  You do not have to be a lawyer to see the danger of people being found guilty of an offence because someone has found that they have committed a similar offence at another time.  Nor do you have be a lawyer to see the danger of the herd instinct taking over or of the herd becoming a lynch mob.  This is the kind of stuff that evil people like shock jocks peddle.

This emotional kind of validation therefore looks like bullshit.  We have just seen it in Kenya with President Obama.  He called for equality or equal rights for gay people in Kenya.  That led someone from Amnesty to say that the position of Kenyan gays had been validated.  It is hard to imagine any sense of that term that does not lead to bullshit in this context.  Mr Obama is not God.

Someone had apparently said that there might be limits on how far the west could impose its values on Africa – or the Middle East, or the rest of Asia.  Or Russia.  This led the Amnesty lady to ascend the stratosphere of bullshit.  She said that equal rights for gays was a universal value, or something to that effect.  Putting to one side the very big job of teasing out some verifiable meanings in those terms, this statement is obviously false.  There are obviously different views on this issue in say Nigeria and Russia than say Washington, D C.  You do not see gays being whipped by Cossacks in Washington.

The President of Kenya said this was a ‘non-issue’ there.  I am not a Kenyan, but I do know what it is like to be lectured, and what is like to get tired of the arrogant superiority inherent in the lecturer   People in the west who dismiss out of hand the position of people in, say Africa, as not conforming to universal values risk being charged with something far more serious than arrogance.

This is something that our man at the Human Rights Commission, Mr Tim Wilson, he of the alpine salary and expense accounts, might bear in mind.  When someone from a different ethnic background expressed difficulty with those people coming to grips with equal rights for gays, Mr Wilson said that the comment was ‘despicable.’  Some may have hoped for a grain of tolerance.

Still, bullshit might be like cholesterol – there is good and bad.  Here is what I call good bullshit.  It comes from the Preface to a history of England by the great German historian Leopold von Ranke published in English in 1875.

If we were required to express in the most general terms the distinction between English and French policy in the last two centuries, we might say that it consisted in this, that the glory of their arms abroad lay nearest to the heart of the French nation, and the legal settlement of their home affairs to that of the English…..These European emergencies coinciding with the troubles at home bring about a new change of the old forms in the Revolution of 1688, the main result of which is that the centre of gravity of public authority in England shifts decisively to the parliamentary side.  It was during this same time that France had won military and political superiority over all its neighbours on the mainland, and in connection with it had concentrated an almost absolute power at home in the hands of the monarchy.

Now, as the learned author acknowledges, all this may seem large – and to be beyond validation.  But Ranke was a very big hitter, who was entitled to chance his arm now and then, and he just might give us a kind of insight into our past that we did not have before.  He may even have found the vibe.