Here and there – REWARDS OF PATIENCE

Doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold was a medical practitioner near Brighton in England.  He emigrated to Australia to the area around what we now call Adelaide with his wife Mary.  In 1844, just eight years after this convict free colony started, they purchased 500 acres of ‘the choicest land’ for the sum of £1200.  It was from the estate of Sir Maitland Mackgill.  Mary Penfold farmed the land while her husband developed his medical practice.  She looked after the early wine-making on the new estate.  The first wines were made from Grenache and were prescribed as tonic wines for anaemic patients.  In the early years, the Penfolds also grew barley which was made into beer and sold at a place where wagon trains ended with an appropriate name – World’s End Pub.

That is how the wine-making business we know as Penfolds started.  Its slogan was ‘1844 to evermore’ and one of its premium wines was and is Magill Estate.  Penfolds is one of the world’s biggest and best wine-making businesses.  It is at least as good as the French at the bottom end of the market, and it has one label that can match it with the French at the very top.  It is a business that Australians can be proud of and it makes wines that they – including me – can enjoy.  If doctors get dirty about your consumption of Penfolds, remind them of the subject of the first miracle.

A couple of months before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli, Max Schubert was born to Lutheran parents in a German community at the edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australian.  This was not an easy time for Australians of German descent, and there were lots of such people in the wine-making areas of South Australia.  The Barossa Valley was then the most significant wine-making area in Australia.  Its specialty was and still is the variety known as Shiraz or, sometimes, Hermitage.  Young Max joined Penfolds as a messenger boy.  By 1948, he had become the chief wine-maker, a position he held until 1975.  Max spent his whole working life at Penfolds.  The exception was his war service.  He volunteered against the express wishes of Penfolds to fight the Germans.  He did so in North Africa, Crete, and the Middle East before fighting the Japanese in New Guinea – where he contracted malaria.  That is an extraordinary record of service – to his country as well as to Penfolds.  It is also an extraordinary story of survival.

In 1949, Max was sent to France and Spain to learn more about fortified wines.  They were then the mainstay of production – and the first port of call for serious drunks.  He of course went to Bordeaux.  He visited wine-makers with names to conjure with – Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.   He there tasted very aged wines.  When he got back, he wanted to try to make a wine that would age as well as these great Bordeaux wines.  He did so, and he succeeded.  When he died in 1994 at the age of 79, The New York Times said that his wine known as the Grange had won more wine show prizes than any other Australian wine and was regarded as the flagship of the Australian wine-making industry.  It is in truth a household name –even if most of us cannot afford the $700 or so one bottle costs on release.  The story of Penfolds, and of the Grange in particular, justifies the wording of the title of this book.

The book includes an address given by Max Schubert where he speaks of the beginning of this great wine.

It was during my initial visit to the major wine-growing areas of Europe in 1950 that the idea of producing an Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of twenty years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux first entered my mind.  I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Monsieur Christian Cruise, one of the most respected and highly qualified of the old school of France at that time and he afforded me, among other things, the rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating wines between 40 and 50 years old, which were still sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour.  They were of tremendous value from an educational point of view and imbued in me a desire to do something to lift the rather mediocre standard of Australian red wine in general at that time.

The method of production seemed fairly straightforward, but with several unorthodox features, and I felt that it would only be a matter of undertaking a complete survey of vineyards to find the correct varietal grape material.  Then, with a modified approach to take account of differing conditions such as climate, soil, raw material and techniques generally, it would not be impossible to produce a wine which could stand on its own feet and would be capable of improvement year by year for a minimum of twenty years.  In other words, something different and lasting.  The grape material used in Bordeaux consisted of our basic varieties…..Only cabernet sauvignon and malbec were available in South Australia at the time, but  surveys showed that they were in such short supply as to make them impracticable commercially….I elected to use hermitage or shiraz only (which was in plentiful supply) knowing full well that if I was careful enough in the choice of area and vineyard and coupled that with the correct production procedure, I would be able to make the type and style of wine I wanted…..It was finally decided that the raw material for the first experimental Grange Hermitage would be a mixture of shiraz grapes from two separate vineyards and areas consisting of Penfolds Grange vineyards at Magill in the foothills overlooking Adelaide and a private vineyard some distance south of Adelaide.

So began an Australian success story.  This book contains a comprehensive overview and tasting notes of nearly every wine that Penfolds ever produced including Grange, St Henri, Bin 389 and the ultimate fall-back of the author, Koonunga Hill, which, at about $10 a bottle is as good a value for wine as you can find anywhere in the world.

Andrew Caillard is a Master of Wine.  This book is effectively put out by Penfolds once every five years and contains on Penfolds styles by leading experts from around the world.

Someone once said that Max Schubert smoked Gauloise cigarettes.  If he did, that would have supplied a real motive for making one very big wine because they could kill a brown dog at thirty yards.  But whether Max smoked those cigarettes or not, he made an enduring contribution to the Australian story.  He helped us to shed that ghastly thing called the cringe.  On a good day, we can play cricket and footy well.  But we can also make a bloody good wine – and without any evident help from on high.

Here and there – Yet another crash?  Pardon me for yawning

Only the most desiccated Philistine would be oblivious to the reason for this question of Don Quixote: ‘And are the lions large?’  By this stage of his journey as a knight errant, the madness of the Don might fairly be described as serene.  (The Romantics would have said ‘sublime’.)    When he encountered some lions, the Don wanted to know if their size might warrant their being exposed to his indomitable valour.  On being assured that these lions were the largest ever sent out of Africa, the Don resolves to take them on, and those in his retinue head for the hills in terror.  But, as we now know, the lion had the wrong script.  This is what happened when he was released.

The first thing that the recumbent animal did was to turn round, put out a claw, and stretch himself all over.  Then he opened his mouth and yawned very slowly….The lion proved to be courteous rather than arrogant and was in no mood for childish bravado.  After having gazed in one direction and then in another, as has been said, he turned his back and presented his hind parts to Don Quixote and then very calmly and peaceably lay down and stretched himself out once more in his cage.

Now, I have to say, dear reader, that there is every chance that this lion later went to that great den in the sky without knowing just how close he came to utter destruction for this outrageous affront to the dignity of the most gallant knight errant that the world has ever known.

Why do I mention this now?  Because in response to those people who are shrieking about events on the stock exchange, I feel like reacting like the lion – just yawn, present my posterior, and resume life in my place as if nothing had happened.

We have in truth seen it all before.  Put 1929 to one side, and reflect on 1987 and 2008.  As it happens, when J K Galbraith came up with a new edition of The Great Crash 1929 in 1998, he compared 1929 and 1987.  He did so in terms that may be appropriate in looking at 2008 and 2020.

The most important of the controlling circumstances, powerfully operated before the two Octobers, was, as it must be called, the vested interest in euphoria. In the preceding years in both periods the stock markets had been going up seemingly without limit.   There had been interruptions, some regarded as grave, but they had been overcome.  Underlying influences affecting market values – earnings prospects, general economic growth, prospective interest rates – had in both cases given way to the belief that the increase in values, however unrelated to reality, would continue.  Those who dissented or doubted were held not to be abreast of the mood of the times….The vested interest in euphoria leads men and women, individuals and institutions, to believe that all will be better, that they are meant to be richer, and to dismiss as intellectually deficient what is in conflict with that conviction.  ‘All people,’ Walter Bagehot noted, ‘are most credulous when they are most happy.’

Associated closely with the vested interest in euphoria is the pure speculative instinct….It is a condition that is inherently unstable, for implosively within it are the causes of its own collapse.  What triggers the rush to get out doesn’t much matter.  It will however be discussed with compulsive banality by those who are impelled to find an external explanation for all market movements….

A third controlling circumstance, little mentioned then or recently, was the enactment earlier of tax reductions with primary effect on the very affluent – before 1929, those of Andrew Mellon; before 1987, more spectacularly, those of supply-side economics and Ronald Reagan.  In both cases, they were supposed to energize investment, produce new firms, plants and equipment.  In both cases they sluiced funds into the stock market; that is what well-rewarded people generally do with extra cash…

There was another marked resemblance between the events of 1929 and those of 1987.  That was the prompt search for a scapegoat on which the stock market collapse, however inherent in the previous speculation, could be blamed.  Economic theology is here involved.  The market is not only perfect but in some measure sacred….

….in the Reagan years, taxes were drastically reduced in pursuit of the hitherto-mentioned supply-side fantasy that from reduced tax rates would come increased entrepreneurial energy and increased revenues.  The result, in fact, in combination with increased military expenditure, was the huge budget deficit….

Capitalism, one notices, is currently defended (one does not yet know how effectively) by a great array of measures that its most ardent supporters once deployed.

And so it goes.  The comparison of 1929 and 1987 may be instructive for that between 2008 and 2020.  I mention one obvious link.  We know that for various reasons, a lot of funds have been ‘sluiced’ – and the term is so apt – into the stock market – with results that cannot be stigmatized as unforeseeable.  Another observation to catch my eye – belonging to one who knows zilch about economics – was that if the market is over-valued, what ‘triggers the rush to get out doesn’t much matter.’  Calvin may have been at home with that notion.

Two points may be made.  First, yes there is a vested interest in euphoria when the market is on the up; but there is just as potent a vested interest in distress and desperation when the market is falling.  Then shrieking sells.  Secondly, logic tells us that merely because the market has always recovered in the past, we cannot be assured that it will do so again.  As Bertrand Russell once mordantly remarked:

The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.

Well, let us leave that intellectual rigour to the Apostles at Cambridge and to the endless glory of English caste.  Those of us here on the ground know that if the world turns upside down, and the market for once does not recover, your best bet would be to have a crate of Scotch buried in the back garden to trade on the hottest black market that the world has ever known.

And the Don?  Fie! Fie! And shame on you for suggesting that so noble a knight could ever be concerned about anything as vulgar as mere money!  It was sufficient for the overpowering intellect of so mighty a man that he could and did unveil the one great truth you need to know about money: ‘The person who possesses wealth is not made happy by having it, but by spending it.’

But we can and do seek solace from that noble knight when we are afflicted.

Don Quixote saw his mission simply. It was to relieve the losers. As it happens, that mission was defined for an English court at that time in these terms: ‘…the refuge of the poor and afflicted; it is the altar and sanctuary for such as against the right of rich men, and the countenance of great men, cannot maintain the goodness of their cause.’

As well as relieving the losers, the Don liked to take down bad winners.

And as for me?  I’m with the lion.

Here and there – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence – Norman Dixon (1976)

 

This book reminds me of Clausewitz On War.  Although both are focussed on war, they are replete with valuable lessons for us all.  For example, Clausewitz said: ‘War is the province of uncertainty: three fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.’  That precisely applies to litigation, a form of trial by battle.

The author was supremely equipped to write this book.  After ten years’ commission in the Royal Engineers, he devoted his life to Psychology at University College, London.  You can see traces of both fields of service on every page.  Professor Dixon says that the military tends to produce ‘a levelling down of human capability, at once encouraging to the mediocre but cramping to the gifted.’  That is very common in any large outfit, government or private.

The following also has general application.

It seems that having gradually (and perhaps painfully) accumulated information in support of a decision, people became progressively more loath to accept contrary evidence….  ‘New’ information has, by definition, high informational content, and therefore firstly it will require greater processing capacity; secondly, it threatens to return to an earlier state of gnawing uncertainty; and, thirdly, it confronts the decision maker with the nasty thought that he may have been wrong.  No wonder he tends to turn a blind eye!  ….‘the information-content’ may be just ‘too high for a channel of limited capacity.’

The ignorance of the condition of and the lack of care for the ordinary soldier defies belief in the Crimean and the Boer War.  In the first, many died because they were cold and wet, and they could get no fire; in the second, 16,000 of the 22,000 British dead died of disease.  Those responsible would now be tried for manslaughter.

The same cruel officers said the other side, at least those who were white, should be accorded respect.  ‘The notion that certain acts were ‘not cricket’ was carried to such absurd lengths that the trooper was given no training in the ‘cowardly’ art of building defensive positions or head cover.’  When the heavy machine gun was developed, ‘they were written off as suitable only for the destruction of savages and hardly suitable for use against white men….the colour of the Boer soldiers elevated them from the levels of savages, thereby saving their white skins from, exposure to machine guns, but on the other hand they were regarded, in terms of their believed military expertise, as no better than savages.’  No real uniform or spit and polish, old boy.  It is little wonder they had similar feelings about the ANZACS.  They certainly felt that way about the Americans in 1776 – until they learned better.

Professor Dixon is rightly savage about those who abandoned their men to agonising death.

In considering these data, one is forced the conclusion that the behaviour of these generals had something in common with that of Eichmann and his henchman who, as we know, were able to carry out their job without apparently experiencing guilt or compassion…..  ‘No privilege without responsibility’….Men’s fates were decided for them not so much by ‘idiots’ as by commanders with marked psychopathic traits.

We meet this theme throughout the book – the failures of command were moral rather than intellectual; the flaw was of character rather than the mind.  But we will also come across a failure of the mind in people unable to bear doubt or ambiguity – the ‘black and white crowd.’

The Germans blitzkrieg met a Polish army and a French army that believed horsed cavalry could destroy German Panzers.  That burial in the past defies belief.

The predisposition to pontificate is a dangerous liability.  Unfortunately, such a predisposition will be strongest in those like headmasters, judges, prison governors and senior military commanders who for two long have been in a position to lord it  over their fellow me…the important thing about pontification is that though an intellectual is that though an intellectual exercise, its origins are emotional.

On cognitive dissonance, Professor Dixon says: ‘Once the decision has been made and the person is committed to a given course of action, the psychological situation changes completely.  There is less emphasis on objectivity and there is more partiality and bias in the way in which the person views and evaluates the alternatives.’

But, perhaps there may have been an upside from the predominance of the upper class in British high command.  ‘It did little for military competence, but was eminently successful in other ways.  Few countries can boast of such an absence of military coups as Britain.’

On ‘bull’ – spit and polish and endless repetition –    ‘bull is closely linked to conservatism, for its very nature is to prevent change, to impose a pattern upon material and upon behaviour, and to preserve the status quo whether it is that of shining brass or social structure….it seems to be a natural product of authoritarian, hierarchical organisations….Perhaps the single most important feature of ‘bull’ is its capacity to allay anxiety….by the reduction of uncertainty.’

On ‘character and honour’ –

A code of honour may be likened to an endlessly prolonged initiation rite…As a general rule, snobbish behaviour betokens some underlying feeling of inferiority.  It is a common characteristic of the social climber, of the individual with low self-esteem, of the person who feels threatened or persecuted because of some real or imagined inadequacy.  That there is an underlying pathology to the condition seems fairly obvious for two reasons.  Firstly, those who are emotionally secure are rarely snobbish.  Secondly, the behaviour is itself irrational, compulsive and self-defeating.  After all, even the most hardened snob must know that other people are adept at seeing through his affectations.  There is nothing, for example, quite so transparent as name-dropping or displaying invitations.  He must know at some level that his behaviour provokes at best amusement, at worst ridicule, contempt, or even dislike, but he is nonetheless powerless to curb his snobbishness.  Something drives him on.

Anyone who has been a member of a close professional body – like, say, the Victorian Bar – would relish – no, wallow in – every word of that denunciation of the two bob snob.

On seeking achievement – ambition:

The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarised by saying that whereas the first is buoyed up by the hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. Both types of achievement motivation have their origins in early childhood…..senior commanders fall into two groups, those primarily concerned with improving their professional ability and those primarily concerned with self-betterment.

The comments on the authoritarian personality warrant a note and a book of their own.  The following may convey the gist.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characteristics of the armed services and the private needs of their members.  Research after World War II into the Third Reich showed two personality types.  One was anti-Semitic, rigid, intolerant of ambiguity and hostile to people of a different race.  The other was individualistic, tolerant, democratic, unprejudiced and egalitarian.

Research at Berkeley by Adorno and others refined the type, leading Professor Dixon to say that the results ‘at one level constituted fitting monument to the six million victims of Fascist prejudice.’  Another commentator said the results were ‘hair-raising.  They suggest that we could find in this country [U S] willing recruits for a Gestapo.’

There should have been no such shock or even surprise.  The Gestapo was not inherently German.  Sparta had a similar version for ruthlessly holding down an inferior people more than 2000 years ago.  To suggest that Hitler and the Nazis could only have risen up in Germany is to fall precisely into their vice of typing people – of branding every member of a group – by reference to their breeding.

Professor Dixon says:

The results delineated the authoritarian personality.  People who were anti-Semitic were also generally ethnocentrically prejudiced and conservative.  They also tended to be aggressive, superstitious, punitive, tough-minded and preoccupied with dominance-submission in their personal relationships….It seems that authoritarians are the product of parents with anxiety about their status in society.  From earliest infancy the children of such people are pressed to seek the status after which their parents hanker….There seem to be two converging reasons why such pressures produce prejudice and other related traits.  In the first place, the values inculcated by status-insecure parents are such that their children learn to put personal success and the acquisition of power above all else.  They are taught to judge people by their usefulness rather than their likeableness…In the second place, the interview data collected by the Berkeley researchers suggested that the parents of their authoritarian sample imposed these values with a heavy hand…..an exercise in punitive repression….The extreme strictness of the parents, coupled with their lack of warmth, necessarily frustrates the child.  But frustration engenders aggression, which is itself frustrated, for it is part of the training that children never answer back.  Hence, the aggression has to be discharged elsewhere, and where better than on to those very individuals whom the parents themselves have openly vilified – Jews, Negroes, and foreigners – all those in short, who being under-privileged, have acquired bad reputations in a status-seeking society?…..the authoritarian personalities manifest a monolithic self-satisfaction with themselves and their parents…Because he has to deny his own shortcomings, he dare not look inwards…..  ‘If he has a problem the best thing to do is not to think about it and just keep busy.’  Similarly, the authoritarian personality is intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity.  Just as he cannot harbor negative and positive feeling for the same person, but must dichotomize reality into loved people versus hate people, white versus black and Jew versus Gentile, so also he cannot tolerate ambiguous situations or conflicting issues.  To put it bluntly, he constructs of the world an image as simplistic as it is at variance with reality.

Later, the author points to the relationship between conformity, authoritarianism and the tendency to yield to group pressures, and the relationship with obsession.  He also looks at their generalised hostility, what the Berkeley researchers finely called ‘the vilification of the human.’  The dogmatic militarist is of course seriously anti-intellectual.

He already knows all he wants to know.  Knowledge is a threat to his ego-defensive orientation and is therefore rejected…To think is to question and to question is to have doubts….the essence of dogmatism is a basic confusion between faith and knowledge.

Later, Professor Dixon looks at the ultimate authoritarian – Himmler and his SS.

….authoritarian traits are the product of an underlying weakness of the ego.  Thus, from the first study, it seems that the SS guards of the Third Reich were not, as popularly supposed, ideological fanatics, but inadequate ‘little’ men for whom the satisfactions provided by the SS organisations were tailor-made – all-powerful father figures, rigid rules of loyalty and obedience, and ‘legitimate’ outlets for their hitherto pent-up and murderous hostility……By a process of paranoid projection, they hated in others what they could not tolerate in themselves.  Hence it was that the weak, the old, the underprivileged, and later the starving millions of the concentration camps suffered their fearful attentions   [But they could still] aver that their helpless victims were dangerous enemies, Jewish terrorists, etc, who had to be eliminated.  For in a sense they were enemies, not of the State, but of their own precariously poised egos.

Well, now, how does that all grab you?  Is it too neat and tidy for our crooked timber?  Are we falling into the trap of stereotyping people?  I think not.  The author is too bright and decent for that, and he says in terms that you cannot defeat your enemy by stereotyping him.

It is curious that as far as I can see, the book makes no reference to Hannah Arendt, who expressed similar views about Eichmann, or the KKK, which looks to me to the embodiment in the flesh of authoritarian man.  (Nor, I think, did Arendt make any reference to Adorno in her book on Eichmann.)

But, when I read this uncomely catalogue of our failings, I am reminded of the recycled, simplistic, jealous, mean, nativist, surly rejection that you can get hissed at you on a bad day in an outback pub.  More worryingly, I can also sense it in the vacant faces and the banal chants of those deprived souls who idolise Donald Trump, all dressed up to the nines in the colours of an ourangatang.  Those whom Professor Dixon studied look to me to be the kind of people behind our current moral and intellectual landslide.  And that, for what is worth, looks to me to be a failure of the mind – if those distinctions mean anything.

This book is vital to our efforts to come to grips with our saddest failings.

Here and there – What’s all this fuss about foreigners?

 

 

When kids get control of a cubby house, the first thing that they do is to work out how to stop other kids getting in to share the spoils.  We tend to be hostile to outsiders, or foreigners – people who are sometimes called ‘aliens’. We tend to blend ‘alien’ with ‘enemy’, although our usage acknowledges the difference.  We are all apparently built that way. The process was scarily described by William Golding in Lord of the Flies.  You can see it in families, towns, cities – and in law firms.  Whether you see this impulse as one of inclusion or exclusion may depend on how you see the world at large, but being an outsider, like being a stranger, can hurt. (It was Camus who wrote a book about that.)

Ancient Athens and Rome were very fussy about who qualified for their membership, but as time went on, the Romans got more generous – you might say broad minded – about those that they would or would not let into the club, and some historians say that that this was why the empire of Rome lasted much longer and covered a much larger area than that of Athens.

When the English started their jail in this country, they brought their laws with them.  Those laws included a lot of law derived from judicial precedent as the judges over many centuries had recognised the customs of the English people until they hardened into law.  That body of law is called the common law, and it was that law that said that the white settlers in the land they would call Australia brought their English laws with them.  For a variety of reasons, the prior inhabitants were not consulted about this process.

Our legal ancestors are therefore the English.  And their ancestors were in turn the Anglo-Saxons, and before that the people of the German forests whom the Romans branded as ‘barbarians’.  (The Athenians had been even more exclusive or stand-offish.)    It is not therefore silly to say that the origins of our laws are German in nature rather than Roman.  Roman law was thoroughly received in Germany, so thoroughly that a distinguished American legal scholar, James Barr Ames, would much later be able to say, with a perfectly straight face ‘The English law is more German than the law of Germany itself.’    Roscoe Pound said the same thing, and that the doctrine of the supremacy of law goes back to a fundamental notion of Germanic law.

How then did our legal ancestors deal with foreigners?  (I must confess to a preference for that word over ‘aliens,’ as the latter for me summons up images of flying saucers, Martians, and Alec Guinness waving a funny kind of a sword.)  If you were born in England, you were not a foreigner, or alien.  But if you were born outside England, you were an alien, and nothing short of a statute could give an alien all the rights of a natural born subject.

The critical issue for the English in the middle ages was loyalty or allegiance.  If a foreigner sued in England, he could be met by the plea: ‘You are an alien and your king is at war with our king.’  You will see here the premium put on personal allegiance – a vassal pledged loyalty to his liege lord.  The English had it on good authority (Matthew 6:24) that no man could serve two masters.  But once you got past that simple split, things got murky and downright distasteful.

Maitland teaches us that the starting point of the laws about aliens finds itself with the loss of Normandy – about 1259.  He also says this:

Of course very ancient law may regard every stranger as an enemy; but it will lay far more stress upon purity of blood than on place of birth; it will be tribal rather than territorial law…..But feudalism is opposed to tribalism and even to nationalism; one becomes a lord’s subject by doing homage to him, and this done, the nationality of one’s ancestors and the place of one’s birth are insignificant.  The law of feudal contract attempts for a while to swallow up all other law.  In England however a yet mightier force than feudalism came into play.  A foreigner at the head of an army recruited from many lands conquered England, became king of the English, endowed his followers with English lands.  For a long time after this, there could be little law against aliens, there could hardly be such a thing as English nationality.

(This is from Pollock and Maitland, The History of English Law before the time of Edward I, 1895. Pollock wrote only the first chapter. Included in the ‘Sorts and Conditions of Men’ are the ‘Unfree, Aliens, Jews, Outlaws, Convicted Felons, Excommunicates, Lepers, Lunatics and Idiots – and Women’.   Bracton said that excommunicates were ‘spiritual lepers’.  The concept of bankruptcy was still in the offing.  What these people all have in common is some disability, some lack of rights – some loss of status not to be entered into lightly or ill advisedly.)

There are three things to note from this excursus.

First, the English nation now is the product of a history that features a number of invasions or, at least, movements of peoples.   So is Australia.  Since some white people here get skittish about the word ‘invasion’ in this context, we might use the term ‘encroachment’ or ‘settlement’, begging the question of assent of those imposed upon – although that was not an issue at the arrival of the first Aborigines on this land.  (I have a recollection of Sir William Blackstone referring to the Norman Conquest as a ‘rude shock’ which, as understatements go, is pleasingly English.)  Indeed, unless you are standing smack dab in the middle of the Garden of Eden, or the Rift Valley, we are all descended from migrants.  And we are still building this country by welcoming migrants (with one appallingly mean and hypocritical exception).

As Maitland showed us, issues of identity may be very fluid when a nation is being formed by migration and settlement – or invasion.  The meanness of the kids in the cubby house may then become very unsettling.  And these issues of identity are made more fluid for us now by the significant numbers of people who now hold two passports or who claim to be dual nationals – something quite beyond the comprehension of our ancestors.

In short, and unsurprisingly, the denotation of a term like ‘alien’ varies in time and space.

Secondly, when we seek to find the underlying rationale of our laws about our treatment of foreigners or aliens, we may find ourselves on ground that is very wobbly – both intellectually and morally.  Maitland was writing two generations before Mein Kampf came out, but the terms tribalism, nationalism and purity of blood are now likely to die on our lips.  And that’s before you get to the four lettered word beginning with ‘r’.   So, entering into this territory is worse than watching little boys playing with matches – it’s like watching Superman fondling kryptonite.  (And I resist the temptation to refer to a minister fondling a piece of coal.)

Thirdly, and as we have seen, classifying a person as an alien diminishes that person’s legal standing and legal rights.  For example, I cannot be deported; if I were an alien, I could be, and the whole lynch-pin of my rights to the due process of the law would have taken a mighty hit.  No Australian wants to become subject to deportation by some stroke of a pen or some other fluke or error – or some law that is stated in doubtful terms or is of doubtful validity.  And this is not least the case when both major parties resemble kids in a cubby house showing extreme vigilance and a malignant jealousy about just who might come into and remain in the cubby house.  Otherwise decent people have been heard to descant loudly on their powers about who we will let in to our cubby house.

The other day, the High Court had to deal with issues about who may or may not be an ‘alien’ within the meaning of that term in our Constitution.  Before looking at their Honours’ decision, may I mention one other fact? What is clear, what is transcendentally clear, is that when on that fateful day the people of our first nation saw the sails of the first fleet round the heads of Sydney Cove, and beheld some of the foetid and depraved human cargo on board, they were looking at something more alien than anyone else on this planet had ever been exposed to.  And we may well imagine, as did Keats when writing of the men of Cortez staring at the Pacific, that they ‘Look’d at each other with a wild surmise’ – but with anything but silence.  These white people were at least as alien to these black people as flying saucers would be to us.  At Botany Bay, Lieutenant King ordered a marine to drop his pants to satisfy the Aborigines about what we may call the provenance of the white people, and he followed that by placing a white hanky on a native woman where Eve had put the fig leaf.   One informative account of the upcoming tragedy says this:

When the white people arrived to start their colony in Australia 1788, the nation that had just perfected the steam engine that would revolutionise the whole world, and confirm Britain’s imperial dominance, came into contact with people who did not know how to boil water.  The white people may as well have come from Mars.    

Well, we the white people are no longer the aliens.  Indeed, our arrogance was such that we probably never saw ourselves as aliens.  We now at least see ourselves as the native Australians, or, in the ghastly demotic of the outer, as dinkum Aussies.  And are we now to say that it is not we but they – the people of our first nations – who are the aliens in this land?  These are people whose span of time here makes ours look like a grain of sand at the base of Uluru, but we have never quite managed to suppress our feeling of superiority over them.  Can we so glibly strip them of their rights and standing here – and then just eject them from their land, a land for which they feel a spiritual bond that passes our understanding?

You may by now have divined the question that I will put and my answer to it.  Our relevant statutory law is the standard cross between a quagmire and a minefield, and I will spare you any reference to it.  As I follow what the High Court said in Love v Commonwealth, it held, by a majority, that a power of the Commonwealth to make a law about aliens does not extend to making a law about people who are obviously not aliens.  Aborigines are obviously not aliens.  Therefore that power does not extend to them.  Here is a more formal version of what I understand to be the relevant syllogism.

  1. The power of the Commonwealth under the Constitution to make laws dealing with ‘aliens’ does not extend to a power to make laws affecting a person who could not possibly answer the description of ‘alien’ in the ordinary understanding of that word.
  2. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an ‘alien’ is ‘Belonging to another person place or family; esp.to a foreign nation or allegiance’ or ‘Foreign in nature, character or origin’ – in short, a foreigner. (The old judicial preference was for ‘belonging to another person or place.’)
  3. An Aborigine, as found by applying the criteria in the two Mabo cases, has a connection to the land and the waters of Australia, and a history and a status under our law (at least since the Mabo cases), that entail that that person is incapable of answering the description of an ‘alien’ in the ordinary sense of that word.  In short, an Aborigine is not a foreigner.

4 It follows that insofar as the Commonwealth statute has sought to characterise Aborigines as ‘aliens’, it is beyond power and invalid.

There is no argument about pars 1 and 2 and par 4 in my view follows ineluctably if par. 3 is established.    That is, the only room for argument that I see is in par. 3.  (There may be some ellipsis about the process of reading down, but I leave that to the purists.)  The point is clearly arguable on both sides – as shown by the judgments of seven distinguished lawyers – but neither result could in my view be stigmatized as juristically untenable.  What side you determine to come down on may depend not so much on your technique in working the law, as on your view of history.

As I see it, the crux of the case may be found in these passages of the judgment of Justice Bell.

The plaintiffs’ and Victoria’s argument depends upon the incongruity of the recognition by the common law of Australia of the unique connection between Aboriginal Australians and their traditional lands, with finding that an Aboriginal Australian can be described as an alien within the ordinary meaning of that word…..

The Commonwealth’s concern, that to hold that its legislative power does not extend to treating an Aboriginal Australian as an alien is to identify a race-based limitation on power, is overstated. It is not offensive, in the context of contemporary international understanding, to recognise the cultural and spiritual dimensions of the distinctive connection between indigenous peoples and their traditional lands, and in light of that recognition to hold that the exercise of the sovereign power of this nation does not extend to the exclusion of the indigenous inhabitants from the Australian community.

If I may be permitted to say so, I regret that the Commonwealth chose to refer to a ‘race-based limitation on power’.  That kind of label is seldom helpful and always dangerous.  It is the kind of branding that you might expect from a politician or a member of the press of a certain stripe.  In the context of this case, the suggestion looks to me to be little more than a rhetorical pout at what the more intellectually challenged parts of the press call ‘political correctness’,  or to evince a fetish about that slippery term ‘equality’.  And it might have the unfortunate result of being seen as what is elsewhere called throwing red meat to the base.  (As was predictable, the line has already been claimed by the usual suspects in think tanks and the press in a display of ignorance that is only matched by arrogance.  We might divert ourselves by asking why these people, who are so sadly inane, do not proffer their opinion on how we might perform brain surgery.)

To suggest that an Australian Aborigine is not a foreigner in Australia hardly seems novel, much less controversial.  It is hard, then, to see how the minority Justices could deal comfortably with the ‘incongruity’ identified by Justice Bell. (Another Justice apparently thought that the minority view was ‘bizarre’.)  If as a matter of our law an Aborigine does belong to this land now called Australia, as his ancestors have for more than 40,000 years, on what basis would the court that gave the nation the two decisions in Mabo lend its imprimatur to the suggestion that notwithstanding that status, an Aborigine may be deprived of his rights allowed to Australians by a finding that this can be done under an act of parliament that validly reduces him to the status of an alien?

Now, I may be quite wrong in all of what I say – if the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have any real use at this level.  And if it is said that I am being emotive, I happily plead guilty.  But I clocked off some time ago after thirty years of decision-making, and at a far, far lower altitude, indeed right at the bottom of the hierarchy. And as some of the judgments show, there is a fair bit to be emotive about in this case.  And of course, I have the luxury of being allowed to be candid about matters of policy.

And what I might also say, with respect, is that when it comes to subtlety, nuance, cleverness, or ingenuity – or any other epithet that usually signals to counsel that they are a goner – honours are in my view about equal between members of the majority and minority.  Most parts of these judgments will be way above the pay level of the average lawyer, and completely indecipherable to those parts of the press I referred to before.  I for my part failed to find the spot in the judgments, or the 748 footnotes, where the Justices engaged in their version of a juristic scrum on what I see as the issue in the case – that is, whether an Aborigine is a person who is capable of being described as an alien under our Constitution.

Indeed, as I struggled on, wondering if all this was harder than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, including his justly celebrated refutation of the ontological argument for the existence of God, I could not help falling back on that wonderful anecdote of Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘During the last war, the trains carried a sign: ‘Is this journey really necessary?’’

(I may add that in addition to references to ‘spiritual’,  you will find references to the ‘metaphysical’ in the judgments.  May I say that this area is tricky enough without seeking to count how many angels can dance on the point of a needle?  Given the context, I wonder if I should reconsider this passage in a book called The English Difference?: ‘In the upshot, French and German thinkers concerned themselves in the highest level of rational speculation.  It was called metaphysics.  The English think metaphysics is worthless nonsense’.  For the record, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy begins its discussion of the term by quoting Bradley to the effect that ‘metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct’.  It later cites the famous denunciation by David Hume that any text on metaphysics should be ‘committed to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’  That is the attitude that caused me to make the remark above.)

In my view, we lawyers in this country have done enough damage to our aborigines up to now.  The doctrine of terra nullius was more than a gross insult to them – it was an affront to humanity that came from the darkest side of our imperialism.  And, yes, we did adopt imperialism from the mother country, as we tamely shared the white man’s burden and docilely trundled off to help the Empress of India put down the Boers in South Africa.

The aboriginal community would surely have seen a contrary ruling in this case – by, say,  five to two – as just another kick in the head in the rough lottery of Australian colonial justice in what some may have seen as a triumph of legal formalism over ordinary human decency.  If such a prospect is said to be extraneous to the proper exercise of the judicial function at this level, I would be both surprised and saddened.  And if someone told me that these issues were not even canvassed in the corridors of power, I would be incredulous.  My understanding of the law is informed by that expressed in these very familiar observations of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed.  The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.  In order to know what it is, we must know what it has been, and what it tends to become….And as the law is administered by able and experienced men, who know too much to sacrifice good sense to a syllogism, it will be found that when ancient rules maintain themselves in the way that has been and will be shown in this book, new reasons more fitted to the time have been found for them, and that they gradually receive a new content, and at last a new form, from the grounds to which they have been transplanted.

We do not appoint our judges to stand guard over a mausoleum.

May I, then, conclude on a note of undiluted heresy?  Yes, I know that judges have to apply the law; but they also have to sleep at night.  One of the great jurists anywhere in the world during my lifetime gave voice to a sentiment that you will not often see expressed elsewhere, if at all.

Trial by jury is a unique institution, devised deliberately or accidentally – that is, its origin is accidental and its retention is deliberate – to enable justice to go beyond that point [the furthest point to which the law can be stretched ]…The fact that juries pay regard to considerations which the law requires them to ignore is generally accepted…It is, for example, generally accepted that a jury will tend to favour a poor man against a rich man: that must be because at the bottom of the communal sense of justice there is a feeling that rich man can afford to be less indifferent to the misfortunes of others than a poor man can be.

Now, of course I would never suggest that any of their Honours in their eyrie fastness at Canberra would ever behave like mere jurors – but what I would say is that any judge who repudiates what Lord Devlin says as anathema would not be the kind of dude that you want to have at your back during tense moments in an Indian tiger hunt.  Nor would you want to leave your fingers in the opening of the trap-door to the cubby house.

Top Shelf – 49 – Gibbon

MEMOIRS OF MY LIFE

Edward Gibbon (1814)

Folio Society, 1991; bound in green cloth, gold embossed, in stone slip case.

I had now attained the solid comforts of life, a convenient well-furnished house, a domestic table, half a dozen chosen servants, my own carriage, and all those decent luxuries whose value is more sensibly felt the longer they are enjoyed…To a lover of books, the shops and sales in London present irresistible temptations…..

Before looking at what Gibbon said, you need either to recall or know that Gibbon was one of the most graceful writers of prose that England has produced.  He was also one of the most devastating hit-men that the world has seen.  Apart from the grace of his style, and the rhythm of his writing, he had a wickedly nice, dry irony.  Here is one short example:  ‘See the tragic and scandalous fate of an Archdeacon of royal birth, who was slain by the Turks as he reposed in an orchard, playing at dice with a Syrian concubine’.  Count the criminal libels or mere denigrations in that off-the-cuff remark about one dead man of God.

Here is my all-time favourite put-down by this author.  It is of the Emperor Gallienus.

In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art except the important ones of war and government.  He was a master of several curious but useless sciences, a ready orator and elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince.  When the great emergencies of state required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens.  His profuse magnificence insulted the general poverty; the solemn ridicule of his triumphs impressed a deeper sense of the public disgrace.  The repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats and rebellions, he received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he carelessly asked whether Rome must be ruined unless it was supplied with linen from Egypt, and Arras cloth from Gaul.

There you have the style of Edward Gibbon, and the story of the decline and fall of Rome.

Gibbon came from a family of squires in the Weald of Kent.  He was not well enough to stay at Winchester.  His mother died from breeding six other children who also died.  His father retired from Parliament to return to live among the landed gentry.  He was a man of whim.  One such whim was to enrol Gibbon as a Gentleman Commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford.  In this autobiography Gibbon rained some venom on his old university.

The Fellows or monks of my time were decent easy men who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.  Their days were filled by a series of uniform employments:  the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the common room, till they retired weary and well satisfied, to a long slumber.  From the toil of reading or thinking or writing they had absolved their conscience, and the first shoots of learning and ingenuity withered on the ground without yielding any fruit to the owners or the public…..Their conversations stagnated in a round of college business, personal stories and private scandal; their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth; and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty for the House of Hanover. 

Gibbon was too young to enjoy ‘the taverns and bagnios of Convent Garden’.  Instead, he fell under the spell of the Church of Rome.  This was too much for his father, who banished him to Lausanne, where he stayed for five years to have that nonsense knocked out of him by Monsieur Pavilliard, a learned Calvinist minister.

Gibbon dropped a girlfriend when Dad took exception.  ‘I sighed as a lover.  I obeyed as a son.’  Both limbs of the equation were probably untrue, and we might hope that Gibbon later regretted that tart dismissal of his one and only love.  (Mademoiselle Churchod went on to other things.  She married Monsieur Necker, who became the Minister of Finance in France, and played a large part in the French Revolution, and she gave him a daughter, Mme de Staël.)

Gibbon served for a time in the militia, and remained in it for years, and we might imagine Captain Gibbon, the small man with the rather large and ridiculous head, jogging at the head of his bucolic Grenadiers.  He sought to get away from it all with nights of ‘bumperizing that left him in the morning where he could ‘do nothing … but spew’.

When looking back on his life, Gibbon had no doubt that it was formed by the nearly five years he had spent at Lausanne.  ‘Such as I am in genius or learning or in manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne ….  I had ceased to be an Englishman’.  But he had previously recorded that his taste for the French theatre had only ‘perhaps abated my idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’.

Gibbon embarked on the Grand Tour.  His lack of worldliness – he had been too young to visit the whores when he was at Oxford – may have left him even more at sea with the French ladies than David Hume had been.  He saw Voltaire perform in a play.  Then he came at last to Rome while he was still casting about for a subject for a history, for it was to writing a history that he would devote his life.  His mixed upbringing enabled him to give a more balanced view of the religious divide than others – ‘the Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste’.  The lines with which Gibbon celebrated his visit to Rome are still celebrated by his admirers.

My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect.  But at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City.  After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present in my eye;…several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation…In my Journal the place and moment of conception are recorded;  the fifteenth of October 1764, in the close of evening, as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccalanti of Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol.  But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than the Empire; and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards the object, some years elapsed and several avocations intervened before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.

The six volume work of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was indeed to be his life’s work.  Gibbon greatly admired the History of Hume.  Gibbon’s first work had been written in French, but Hume persuaded him to write his History in English.  Hume thought, being an astute Scot, that the flowering of America would lead to English having the greater coverage.  Hume, and most of the rest of Britain, were generous in their praise of the History as it came out, volume by volume.  The Church was not.

Gibbon held court and would allow little chance of reply.  But this Georgian England had a vivacious conversational character.  He once unloaded one of his best foreign anecdotes and was waiting for his tribute of applause.  ‘When a deep-toned but clear voice was heard from the bottom of the table, very calmly and civilly impugning the correctness of the narrative, and the propriety of the doctrines of which it had been made the vehicle.’  This was no less than William Pitt the Younger (the youngest Prime Minister of England at the age of 24).  Gibbon was obliged to give ground and then excused himself and left the room.  He was apprehended looking for his hat, and when asked to return he said that the gentleman who had interrupted him was ‘extremely ingenious and agreeable, but I must acknowledge that his style of conversation is not exactly what I am accustomed to, so you must positively excuse me’.  Jane Austen could have written that.

He died on 16 January 1794 of an appalling illness that had long troubled him.  He was at peace and without fear, but it is a very fair guess that no other writer of history has been so read, so admired, and so loved.  It is certainly the case that this rather absurd Englishman still talks to us and enlightens us after we have gone more than two hundred years down the road.

The great historian looked for patterns in the past.  He was not to devote his life’s work to describing outlines of spent tea leaves.  ‘History to a philosopher’ he said, ‘is what gambling was to the Marquis de Dangeau:  he saw a system, relations, consequences, where others saw only the caprice of fortune’.  Gibbon was describing the decline and fall of an empire.  He saw that decline occurred with the rise of religion; he asked why ancient civilisation failed and if it could happen again.

Perhaps it was because Georgian English gentlemen suspected that their England suffered from similar lesions on its society that they were content to allow Athens and Rome to be described as civilised.  But it is a little curious that educated Europeans should have sought to find how this mighty and civilised empire was brought low – was felled in truth – by a scrawny ragamuffin hasid whose teaching of the Sermon on the Mount underwrote all of what the English would come to call civilised about their empire.  And how could Rome have sought to hold an empire under arms if it subscribed to the view that it is the meek who inherit the earth?

It is not surprising that Gibbon followed what might be called the party line in describing Rome as civilised, but we might notice that he began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misere des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’

Sadly, space allows only a couple of quotations on the Crusades:

… the name and nature of a ‘holy war’ demands a more rigorous scrutiny;  nor can we hastily believe that the servants of the Prince of Peace would ensheath the sword of destruction unless the motive were pure, the quarrel legitimate, and the necessity inevitable. 

Gibbon attacks indulgences with savagery.  He then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit.  Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God.  In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion.  At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian ….  The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians:  resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease.  After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare.  ….  The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow.  Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world;  and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption.  This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

The first philosopher referred to is David Hume; the second was Voltaire.

Here is Gibbon on Israelite conquests.

When the posterity of Abraham had multiplied like the sands of the sea, the Deity, from whose mouth they received a system of laws and ceremonies, declared himself the proper and as it were the national God of Israel; and with the most jealous care separated his most favourite people from the rest of mankind.  The conquest of the land of Canaan with so many wonderful and so many bloody circumstances, that the victorious Jews were left in a state of irreconcilable hostility with all their neighbours.  They had been commanded to extirpate some of the most idolatrous tribes, and the execution of the Divine will had seldom been retarded by the weakness of humanity.

Here is Gibbon on the absolutism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favour of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the Gospel had arisen.  But it was unanimously affirmed that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity.  These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony.

Finally, this is Gibbon on celibacy.

Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to Divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals [virgins] but the primitive church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity.

In the footnote, Gibbon records of the six Roman maids: ‘nor could the dread of the most horrible death always restrain their incontinence.’

How did our brothers and sisters of Asia fare? Gibbon said that for all his powers of eloquence, Mohammed was an illiterate barbarian, although he says that the ‘base and plebeian origin of Mohammed is an unskilful calumny of the Christians.’ (How did they class the origin of Jesus of Nazareth?)  Gibbon does of course praise Mohammed for dispensing with priests, sacrifices, and monks, but he rejects the doctrine of damnation by which ‘the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions.’ Gibbon was, like most people, fascinated by sex.  He had this comment on Paradise.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of the felicity ….This image of carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks…

But this Paradise was assured to those who died for the faith since the Prophet had said ‘The sword is the key of heaven and of hell: a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer…’ .

It is very hard now to imagine history in any language being written with such pitch and such intensity.  But he may have unsheathed a sword the consequences of which he never intended.

In Gibbon’s view, Greek philosophy had infected the teaching of those following Jesus of Nazareth.  It was notorious that many of the divisions of the early church were fed on thinking that came to its members from the Platonist school.  Gibbon thought that Platonism did not mix well with Christianity.

But theology, which it was incumbent to believe, which it was impious to doubt, and which it might be dangerous, even fatal, to mistake, became the familiar topic of private mediation and popular discourse.  The cold indifference of philosophy was inflamed by the fervent spirit of devotion.

It may have been like global warming disputants trying their hand with the theory of relativity or string theory.

The familiar study of the Platonic system, a vain and argumentative disposition, a copious and flexible idiom, supplied the clergy and the people of the east with an inexhaustible flow of words and distinctions; and, in the midst of their fierce contentions, they easily forgot the doubt which is recommended by philosophy, and the submission which is enjoined by religion.

It has to be said that these observations ring many bells, and not just in the context of the Christian church.

Baroque sentences flowed out Gibbon just like baroque music flowed out of Mozart.  His canvass blazes like that of El Greco.  He had a sense of grace and rhythm that would have appealed to the instincts of Errol Garner and which had a lasting effect on one of his greatest followers.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings.  I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it.  Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.  Let it roll.  Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

May I conclude on a whim of my own fancy?  For me, Gibbon was and is the greatest writer in prose of them all.

 

MY TOP SHELF – 49

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

MEMOIRS OF MY LIFE

Edward Gibbon (1814)

Folio Society, 1991; bound in green cloth, gold embossed, in stone slip case.

I had now attained the solid comforts of life, a convenient well-furnished house, a domestic table, half a dozen chosen servants, my own carriage, and all those decent luxuries whose value is more sensibly felt the longer they are enjoyed…To a lover of books, the shops and sales in London present irresistible temptations…..

Before looking at what Gibbon said, you need either to recall or know that Gibbon was one of the most graceful writers of prose that England has produced.  He was also one of the most devastating hit-men that the world has seen.  Apart from the grace of his style, and the rhythm of his writing, he had a wickedly nice, dry irony.  Here is one short example:  ‘See the tragic and scandalous fate of an Archdeacon of royal birth, who was slain by the Turks as he reposed in an orchard, playing at dice with a Syrian concubine’.  Count the criminal libels or mere denigrations in that off-the-cuff remark about one dead man of God.

Here is my all-time favourite put-down by this author.  It is of the Emperor Gallienus.

In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art except the important ones of war and government.  He was a master of several curious but useless sciences, a ready orator and elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince.  When the great emergencies of state required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens.  His profuse magnificence insulted the general poverty; the solemn ridicule of his triumphs impressed a deeper sense of the public disgrace.  The repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats and rebellions, he received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he carelessly asked whether Rome must be ruined unless it was supplied with linen from Egypt, and Arras cloth from Gaul.

There you have the style of Edward Gibbon, and the story of the decline and fall of Rome.

Gibbon came from a family of squires in the Weald of Kent.  He was not well enough to stay at Winchester.  His mother died from breeding six other children who also died.  His father retired from Parliament to return to live among the landed gentry.  He was a man of whim.  One such whim was to enrol Gibbon as a Gentleman Commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford.  In this autobiography Gibbon rained some venom on his old university.

The Fellows or monks of my time were decent easy men who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.  Their days were filled by a series of uniform employments:  the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the common room, till they retired weary and well satisfied, to a long slumber.  From the toil of reading or thinking or writing they had absolved their conscience, and the first shoots of learning and ingenuity withered on the ground without yielding any fruit to the owners or the public…..Their conversations stagnated in a round of college business, personal stories and private scandal; their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth; and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty for the House of Hanover. 

Gibbon was too young to enjoy ‘the taverns and bagnios of Convent Garden’.  Instead, he fell under the spell of the Church of Rome.  This was too much for his father, who banished him to Lausanne, where he stayed for five years to have that nonsense knocked out of him by Monsieur Pavilliard, a learned Calvinist minister.

Gibbon dropped a girlfriend when Dad took exception.  ‘I sighed as a lover.  I obeyed as a son.’  Both limbs of the equation were probably untrue, and we might hope that Gibbon later regretted that tart dismissal of his one and only love.  (Mademoiselle Churchod went on to other things.  She married Monsieur Necker, who became the Minister of Finance in France, and played a large part in the French Revolution, and she gave him a daughter, Mme de Staël.)

Gibbon served for a time in the militia, and remained in it for years, and we might imagine Captain Gibbon, the small man with the rather large and ridiculous head, jogging at the head of his bucolic Grenadiers.  He sought to get away from it all with nights of ‘bumperizing that left him in the morning where he could ‘do nothing … but spew’.

When looking back on his life, Gibbon had no doubt that it was formed by the nearly five years he had spent at Lausanne.  ‘Such as I am in genius or learning or in manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne ….  I had ceased to be an Englishman’.  But he had previously recorded that his taste for the French theatre had only ‘perhaps abated my idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’.

Gibbon embarked on the Grand Tour.  His lack of worldliness – he had been too young to visit the whores when he was at Oxford – may have left him even more at sea with the French ladies than David Hume had been.  He saw Voltaire perform in a play.  Then he came at last to Rome while he was still casting about for a subject for a history, for it was to writing a history that he would devote his life.  His mixed upbringing enabled him to give a more balanced view of the religious divide than others – ‘the Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste’.  The lines with which Gibbon celebrated his visit to Rome are still celebrated by his admirers.

My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect.  But at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City.  After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present in my eye;…several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation…In my Journal the place and moment of conception are recorded;  the fifteenth of October 1764, in the close of evening, as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccalanti of Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol.  But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than the Empire; and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards the object, some years elapsed and several avocations intervened before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.

The six volume work of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was indeed to be his life’s work.  Gibbon greatly admired the History of Hume.  Gibbon’s first work had been written in French, but Hume persuaded him to write his History in English.  Hume thought, being an astute Scot, that the flowering of America would lead to English having the greater coverage.  Hume, and most of the rest of Britain, were generous in their praise of the History as it came out, volume by volume.  The Church was not.

Gibbon held court and would allow little chance of reply.  But this Georgian England had a vivacious conversational character.  He once unloaded one of his best foreign anecdotes and was waiting for his tribute of applause.  ‘When a deep-toned but clear voice was heard from the bottom of the table, very calmly and civilly impugning the correctness of the narrative, and the propriety of the doctrines of which it had been made the vehicle.’  This was no less than William Pitt the Younger (the youngest Prime Minister of England at the age of 24).  Gibbon was obliged to give ground and then excused himself and left the room.  He was apprehended looking for his hat, and when asked to return he said that the gentleman who had interrupted him was ‘extremely ingenious and agreeable, but I must acknowledge that his style of conversation is not exactly what I am accustomed to, so you must positively excuse me’.  Jane Austen could have written that.

He died on 16 January 1794 of an appalling illness that had long troubled him.  He was at peace and without fear, but it is a very fair guess that no other writer of history has been so read, so admired, and so loved.  It is certainly the case that this rather absurd Englishman still talks to us and enlightens us after we have gone more than two hundred years down the road.

The great historian looked for patterns in the past.  He was not to devote his life’s work to describing outlines of spent tea leaves.  ‘History to a philosopher’ he said, ‘is what gambling was to the Marquis de Dangeau:  he saw a system, relations, consequences, where others saw only the caprice of fortune’.  Gibbon was describing the decline and fall of an empire.  He saw that decline occurred with the rise of religion; he asked why ancient civilisation failed and if it could happen again.

Perhaps it was because Georgian English gentlemen suspected that their England suffered from similar lesions on its society that they were content to allow Athens and Rome to be described as civilised.  But it is a little curious that educated Europeans should have sought to find how this mighty and civilised empire was brought low – was felled in truth – by a scrawny ragamuffin hasid whose teaching of the Sermon on the Mount underwrote all of what the English would come to call civilised about their empire.  And how could Rome have sought to hold an empire under arms if it subscribed to the view that it is the meek who inherit the earth?

It is not surprising that Gibbon followed what might be called the party line in describing Rome as civilised, but we might notice that he began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misere des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’

Sadly, space allows only a couple of quotations on the Crusades:

… the name and nature of a ‘holy war’ demands a more rigorous scrutiny;  nor can we hastily believe that the servants of the Prince of Peace would ensheath the sword of destruction unless the motive were pure, the quarrel legitimate, and the necessity inevitable. 

Gibbon attacks indulgences with savagery.  He then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit.  Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God.  In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion.  At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian ….  The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians:  resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease.  After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare.  ….  The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow.  Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world;  and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption.  This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

The first philosopher referred to is David Hume; the second was Voltaire.

Here is Gibbon on Israelite conquests.

When the posterity of Abraham had multiplied like the sands of the sea, the Deity, from whose mouth they received a system of laws and ceremonies, declared himself the proper and as it were the national God of Israel; and with the most jealous care separated his most favourite people from the rest of mankind.  The conquest of the land of Canaan with so many wonderful and so many bloody circumstances, that the victorious Jews were left in a state of irreconcilable hostility with all their neighbours.  They had been commanded to extirpate some of the most idolatrous tribes, and the execution of the Divine will had seldom been retarded by the weakness of humanity.

Here is Gibbon on the absolutism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favour of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the Gospel had arisen.  But it was unanimously affirmed that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity.  These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony.

Finally, this is Gibbon on celibacy.

Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to Divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals [virgins] but the primitive church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity.

In the footnote, Gibbon records of the six Roman maids: ‘nor could the dread of the most horrible death always restrain their incontinence.’

How did our brothers and sisters of Asia fare? Gibbon said that for all his powers of eloquence, Mohammed was an illiterate barbarian, although he says that the ‘base and plebeian origin of Mohammed is an unskilful calumny of the Christians.’ (How did they class the origin of Jesus of Nazareth?)  Gibbon does of course praise Mohammed for dispensing with priests, sacrifices, and monks, but he rejects the doctrine of damnation by which ‘the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions.’ Gibbon was, like most people, fascinated by sex.  He had this comment on Paradise.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of the felicity ….This image of carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks…

But this Paradise was assured to those who died for the faith since the Prophet had said ‘The sword is the key of heaven and of hell: a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer…’ .

It is very hard now to imagine history in any language being written with such pitch and such intensity.  But he may have unsheathed a sword the consequences of which he never intended.

In Gibbon’s view, Greek philosophy had infected the teaching of those following Jesus of Nazareth.  It was notorious that many of the divisions of the early church were fed on thinking that came to its members from the Platonist school.  Gibbon thought that Platonism did not mix well with Christianity.

But theology, which it was incumbent to believe, which it was impious to doubt, and which it might be dangerous, even fatal, to mistake, became the familiar topic of private mediation and popular discourse.  The cold indifference of philosophy was inflamed by the fervent spirit of devotion.

It may have been like global warming disputants trying their hand with the theory of relativity or string theory.

The familiar study of the Platonic system, a vain and argumentative disposition, a copious and flexible idiom, supplied the clergy and the people of the east with an inexhaustible flow of words and distinctions; and, in the midst of their fierce contentions, they easily forgot the doubt which is recommended by philosophy, and the submission which is enjoined by religion.

It has to be said that these observations ring many bells, and not just in the context of the Christian church.

Baroque sentences flowed out Gibbon just like baroque music flowed out of Mozart.  His canvass blazes like that of El Greco.  He had a sense of grace and rhythm that would have appealed to the instincts of Errol Garner and which had a lasting effect on one of his greatest followers.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings.  I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it.  Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.  Let it roll.  Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

May I conclude on a whim of my own fancy?  For me, Gibbon was and is the greatest writer in prose of them all.

 

MY TOP SHELF – 48 – TACITUS

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

ANNALS AND HISTORIES

Tacitus

Franklin Library, Limited Edition, Pennsylvania, 1979, translated by A J Church and W J Brodribb, Great Books of the World, 1952; fully bound in brown leather, gold inlays and print; raised spine; moiré end papers; gilt edges; and silk ribbon.

Tacitus was born in the first century after Christ.  He reached senatorial and consular rank.  He wrote mainly under the relatively peaceful aegis of the emperor Trajan, after the murder of the ‘tyrannical’ Domitian.  An early work was a small piece on his father-in-law, Agricola, and a book about the Germans, which would become very influential, but he is remembered for two classical works, his Annals and Histories. 

You will see that like Thucydides, Tacitus was equipped by his experience in public life to write a history of and about his times.  The Annals cover the empire from Tiberius to Nero; The Histories deal with a later period including the year of four emperors.  We are missing parts but we are lucky to have what we have – The Annals survived only in two medieval manuscripts, one of one part, and one of another.

Tacitus concedes that the Republic was doomed by its inability to provide peace, but he yearns for older and better days.  At the beginning of The Histories, he does not hold back on the horrors in store.

I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.  Four emperors perished by the sword.  There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once.  There was success in the East, and disasters in the West….Sacred rites were profaned; there was profligacy in the highest ranks; the sea was crowded with exiles, and its rocks polluted with bloody deeds.  In the capital there were yet worse horrors.  Nobility, wealth, the refusal or acceptance of office, were grounds for accusation, and virtue ensured destruction.  The rewards of the informers were no less odious than their crimes; for while some seized on consulships and priestly offices, as their share of the spoils, others on procuratorships, and posts of more confidential authority, they robbed and ruined in every direction amid universal hatred and terror.  Slaves were bribed to turn against their masters, and freedmen to betray their patrons; and those who had not an enemy were destroyed by friends…..Never, surely, did more terrible calamities of the Roman people, or evidence more conclusive, prove that the gods take no thought for our happiness, but only for our punishment…[After the joy at the death of Nero]  The respectable portion of the people, which was connected with the great families, as well as the dependents and freedmen of condemned and banished persons, were high in hope.  The degraded populace, frequenters of the arena and the theatre, the most worthless of the slaves, and those who having wasted their property were supported by the infamous excesses of Nero, caught eagerly in their dejection at every rumour. (I, 2 to 4)

There are two things to notice.  That is a reasonable picture of hell on earth; and we see immediately why Gibbon idolised Tacitus – rolling, rhythmic doom-laden periods, even in translation, dripping with moral outrage and irony.

Tacitus has however told us that he was then ‘enjoying the rare happiness of times, when we may think what we please, and say what we think.’  He begins The Annals with a snap-shot history of Rome.

When Rome was first a city, its rulers were kings.  Then Lucius Junius Brutus created the consulate and free Republican institutions in general.  Dictatorships were assumed in emergencies.  A Council of Ten did not last more than two years; and then there was a short-lived arrangement by which senior army officers – the commanders of contingents provided by the tribes – possessed consular authority.  Subsequently, Cinna and Sulla set up autocracies, but they too were brief.  Soon, Pompey and Crassus acquired predominant positions, but rapidly lost them to Caesar.  Next, the military strength which Lepidus and Antony built up was absorbed by Augustus.  He found the whole state exhausted by internal dissensions, and established over it a regime known as the Principate.

Previous accounts have been marred by flattery or hatred. ‘I shall write without passion or partiality’ – sine ira et studio.

Tacitus then gives a succinct account of the revolution wrought by Augustus.

He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians.  Indeed, he attracted every body’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace.  Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law.  Opposition did not exist.  War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit.  Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially.  They had profited from the revolution and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous opportunities of the old regime.  Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1, 1)

The Annals focus on the relations between the emperor and senate, of whom Tacitus is scathing.  A prime function of the historian is ‘to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciation.  He goes on to describe Rome under Tiberius.

This was a tainted, meanly obsequious age.  The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.  There is a legend that whenever Tiberius left the senate-house, he exclaimed in Greek, ‘Men fit to be slaves.’  Even he, freedom’s enemy, became impatient of abject servility.  (3, 65)

But Tacitus says Tiberius disdained monuments.  ‘Marble monuments, if the verdict of history is unfriendly, are mere neglected sepulchres.’  (4, 38)

The lieutenant of Tiberius, Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian Guard, sets up Tiberius into a reign of terror.  The author records the terror with language of astonishing power, in words that will be instantly understood by anyone who has ever lived under a police state.

At Rome, there was unprecedented agitation and terror.  People behaved secretively, even to their intimates, avoiding encounters and conversation, shunning the ears both of friends and strangers.  Even voiceless, inanimate objects – ceilings and walls – were scanned suspiciously.  (4, 69)

It was indeed a horrible feature of the period that leading senators became informers even on trivial matters – some openly, many secretly.  Friends and relatives were as suspect as strangers, old stories as damaging as new.  In the Forum, at a dinner-party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution.  Every-one competed for priority in marking down the victim.  Sometimes this was self-defence, but mostly it was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic.  (6, 7)

It is unlikely that anyone reading this has lived under Stalin or Hitler, but can you imagine a more powerful picture of what it may have been like?  In the Agricola (45), Tacitus had said that ‘The worst of our torments under Domitian was to see him with his eyes fixed upon us.’  Writing of these horrors must take a toll.  The author feels a need to talk about his task.

Similarly, now that Rome has virtually been transformed into an autocracy, the investigation and record of these details concerning the autocrat may prove useful.  Indeed, it is from such studies – from the experience of others – that most men learn to distinguish right and wrong, advantage and disadvantage.  Few can tell them apart instinctively.  So these accounts have their uses.  But they are distasteful.  What interests and stimulates readers is a geographical description, the changing fortune of a battle, the glorious death of a commander.  My themes on the other hand concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined – a conspicuously monotonous glut of downfalls and their monotonous causes.  (4, 32 to 33)

Eventually, Sejanus over-reaches and is murdered.  What Professor John Burrow describes as ‘the appalling ruthlessness of Roman political atrocity’ is pitifully depicted in the treatment of the son and daughter of Sejanus in one of the cruellest parts of Western letters.

The general rage against Sejanus was now subsiding, appeased by the executions already carried out.  Yet retribution was now decreed against his remaining children.  They were taken to prison.  The boy understood what lay ahead of him.  But the girl uncomprehendingly repeated: ‘What have I done?  Where are you taking me?  I will not do it again!’  She could be punished with a beating, she said, like other children.  Contemporary writers report that because capital punishment of a virgin was unprecedented, she was violated by the executioner, with the noose beside her.  Then both were strangled, and their young bodies were thrown on to the Gemonian Steps.  (5, 6)

The Gemonian Steps were next to the prison.  They were called the Stair of Sighs.  After execution, dead prisoners were thrown on to these steps, and then dragged to the Tiber.

What Tacitus is describing here is a form of moral disintegration, a kind of national nervous breakdown, of the sort that the French would experience in the nineteenth century, and the Germans in the twentieth.  Roman virtue in the old Republican sense has gone.  It is no longer active and patriotic, but Stoic.  The last way for a senator to show worth was to commit suicide with style.  The only way out might be this form of escape, and it might protect the family from a loss of property flowing from a conviction for treason.  In truth, the old tradition of the family having to give way to the state might bear very nasty fruit.

In The Histories, there is a chilling description of the reaction at Rome to an invasion.

The populace stood by and watched the combatants; and, as though it had been a mimic conflict, encouraged first one party and then the other by their shouts and plaudits.  Whenever either side gave way, they cried out that those who concealed themselves in the shops, or took refuge in any private house, should be dragged out and butchered, and they secured a larger share of the booty; for while the soldiers were busy with bloodshed and massacre, the spoils fell to the crowd.  It was a terrible and hideous sight that presented itself throughout the city.  Here raged battle and death; there the bath and the tavern were crowded.  In one spot were pools of blood and heaps of corpses, and close by prostitutes and men of character as infamous; there were all the debaucheries of luxurious peace, all the horrors of a city most cruelly sacked, till one was ready to believe the country to be mad at once with rage and lust.  It was not indeed the first time that armed troops had fought within the city; they had done so twice when Sulla, once when Cinna triumphed.  The bloodshed then had not been less, but now there was an unnatural recklessness, and men’s pleasures were not interrupted even for a moment.  As if it were a new delight added to their holidays, they exulted in and enjoyed the scene, indifferent to parties, and rejoicing over the sufferings of the Commonwealth.  (3, 83)

They do indeed look like a people that has gone mad, with not one shred of decency left.

The Germania was to become popular in some quarters, not least Germany, for being complimentary.  This is the way Tacitus described some of their customs:

Affairs of the smaller moment the chiefs determine; about matters of higher consequence, the whole nation deliberates.

In the Assembly, it is allowed to present accusations and to prosecute capital offences.  Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. 

Without being armed, they transact nothing, whether or public or private concernment.  But it is repugnant to their custom for any man to use arms, before the community has attested his capacity to wield them.

They are almost the only barbarians contented with one wife. 

To the husband, the wife tenders no dowry; but the husband to the wife.

There is little that is barbaric here.  Indeed, the German view on carrying weapons – essential for such a warlike race – is much more civilised than that adopted in those jurisdictions that hold every adult – even an untrained fool – has the right to carry a hand gun, a weapon so much more lethal than anything the barbaric Germans could have dreamed of in their cold, dark woods and bogs.

No, the Roman prejudice was not based on the customs of the kind described by Tacitus, but on the living habits of the Germans, a prejudice carried through to Dante, who in The Inferno mocked their consumption of beer, the ‘guzzling Germans’, and later on the habit of the Germans of defeating the Romans at war.  And Tacitus can set up against the drunkenness and aggressiveness of the Germans, those qualities so missing at Rome – sexual temperance, manliness, strength, courage, and loyalty.

And much would be made in the Renaissance and later of the suggestion that the Germans had no hereditary kingship – freedom was said to be older than absolutism.  The downside was the claim of Tacitus that the German tribes had always inhabited Germany and were of unmixed race.  That could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Agricola is a loyal tribute to his father-in-law, and has a lot to do with affairs in England.  It begins with these words.

Famous men have from time immemorial had their life stories told, and even our generation, with all its stupid indifference to the present, has not quite abandoned the practice.  The outstanding personality has still won an occasional triumph over that blind hostility to merit that poisons all states, small and great alike.

Is that not just dead true – ‘that blind hostility to merit’ – of our choking embrace of bland mediocrity right now?

Later, he gives a most remarkable address by a Briton (Calgacus) to his troops before battle.  Some of it follows.

Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes from the defilement of tyranny.  We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and the seclusion for which we are famed.  We have enjoyed the impressiveness of the unknown….Brigands of the world, they [the Romans] have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea….They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy.  Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create desolation and call it peace…..Can you really imagine that the Romans’ bravery in war comes up to their wantonness in peace?  (30, 32)

Finally, Tacitus refers to the fact that Agricola stood up to the evil Domitian.

Let it be clear to those who insist on admiring insubordination that even under bad emperors men can be great, and that a decent regard for authority, if backed by ability and energy, can reach that peak of honour that many have stormed by precipitous paths, without serving their country, by a melodramatic death.  (42)

The translations of the smaller works are from the 1948 Penguin (H Mattingly).  The point may be clearer in the more modern translation in the Oxford History of the Classical World.

Let all those whose habit is to admire acts of civil disobedience, realise that great men can exist under bad emperors, and that compliance and an unassuming demeanour, if backed by energy and hard work, can attain a pitch of glory, which the majority reach through an ostentatious and untimely death.

There is a reminder that we proceed under a real disability.  We are not reading what this great writer actually wrote.  It is the same, for most of us, with Thucydides, and we have to take our translation on trust.  The remarks by an ancient critic about the astringency and severity of Thucydides and ‘his terrifying intensity’ apply equally to Tacitus.  But we have seen enough to show why both these great writers are historians for the ages.

 

Here and there – These Truths – Jill Lepore – An apologia pro sua morte?

 

If you have a kid in a group who thinks that he is exceptional – or worse, a kid who has been told by someone in authority that he is exceptional – you may very well have a problem on your hands.  That kid may just think that he is superior.  And a superiority complex may be as dangerous as it is annoying.  We see the very worst of it in Donald Trump.  We see an ugly shadow of it over the august university of which Jill Lepore is a member – Harvard.  And might it be the case that just such a complex lays at the heart of the current decline of that curious entity that we know as the United States of America?

Near the death of this very moving book, Jill Lepore unloads some of the deep thoughts that perforate it.

A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos.  A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism.  A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquillity.  A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders.  And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, will fight forever over the meaning of its history.

That’s not all that they have to fight about.  The theme that runs through this book is that white people feel superior to black people.  And that is to put it softly.

At first sight, some of those observations of the author may look a little large – to adopt a phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  What about the first of them – nations born in revolution are doomed to deal with chaos?  Well, just look at France, Russia, Israel, China, and most nations in Africa, Central or South America.  We and Canada and New Zealand – and perhaps other former colonies – brush up OK in comparison to those born in violence.

Russia and China in particular are living disaster areas.  But if you ask when the French Revolution ended, remember that smooth response of Chou En Lai, and watch out for the next outbreak of the gillets jaunes.  Why on earth would you allow a right of rebellion in your constitution?  The French suffered nearly a century of purgatory after the squat Corsican was finally stood down from his pursuit of glory.  He left France a smoking ruin and Europe a charnel house of five million dead.  Revolution followed revolution.

Any revolution comes with counter-revolution built in – as Shakespeare saw in Henry IV Part I, and the following plays.  (The playwright must surely have chuckled when he wrote that fatuous line for a sometime rebel and now a king: ‘Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.’)  When Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, he remarked: ‘Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately’.  But they and those claiming under them would be taunted by the same inevitable question: ‘If we could do it to them, what’s to stop them doing the same to us?’  It’s like kids winning control of a magic tree-house –the first thing they do is to kick away the ladder and slam the door on any other bloody freeloaders trying to cash in on their free enterprise.

This is a very fine and timely book.  It will cause me to do a note on These Untruths – all of which this author is aware of, and which this title wryly reflects.  For now, I will just offer some views prompted by the book, and set them against some findings that I made in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

The Americans come across in this book as slow learners and quick buyers.  They won what they call the war of independence for many reasons – all of which were or are on show in the wars they lost so comprehensively in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  In the year of Our Lord 2020, they still have not come to grips with the brave insight of Maximilien Robespierre that no one ever liked armed missionaries.  (Messrs Bush and Blair and, yes, our man had not managed it either.)  If a Russian peasant is being bayoneted or raped by some drooling mongrel, he or she is not concerned to inquire of the ideology of the ratbag who unleashed them.  How did Goya record the response of the people of Spain to the gift of liberation that Bonaparte sought to confer on them?  They reacted with what they and now we call guerrilla warfare.  And it took the genius of Goya to catalogue the horrors.

Take another example.  This book reminds me that Mr Clinton had four things in common with Mr Trump.  He dodged the draft.  He put a member of his family in high office.  He lied big time.  And he had trouble controlling his zipper.  The first two would hardly be attempted, much less condoned, in Australia, but a majority of Americans were prepared to repeat the dose.  With results that were dreadfully predictable.  When discussing Clinton, the author quotes columnist Andrew Sullivan: ‘Clinton is a cancer on the culture, a cancer of cynicism, narcissism, and deceit.’  That is what I mean by repeating the dose.  (I would like to tell you where the column appeared, but in the ocean of footnotes you get with North American scholarship, there is no dictionary of abbreviations.  Apparently I should search for the first ‘(hereafter called …..)’.  That, Mr Publisher, is a real bloody nuisance.)

Americans in this book look easy to sell a pup to – or a fraud.  Just look at the daylight robbery they are accepting – with many applauding – right now.  Just about every day, Trump is guilty of conduct that would get the CEO of a public company fired – point blank, straight out the door.  Indeed, in a nation that valued its capital market, Trump would be under a life ban from directing any public company because of his association with known criminals.  Yet America, once the bastion of capitalism, asks for and expects less from its president.

When President Obama was inaugurated, a friend and I got up to watch it.  We had our first Bloody Mary at 4 am when he took the oath.  We were tipsy at breakfast.  When Trump was elected, I said that it was my worst day on earth.  We knew it was going to be horrible, but no one predicted – no one – the speed of the moral and intellectual collapse of government that followed.  The great republic now lies flat on its face in the gutter.  Our best cartoonist showed Trump lying back in bed with that serene gross indifference of his while the Statue of Liberty lies on her side with her back to him with a face to the artist of the white eyed horror that Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness.

It is probably too early to diagnose the cause of this collapse, but its scope suggests that the flaws in the fabric identified by Jill Lepore run very deep – and dangerously so.

It now looks clear that we underestimated the impact of the successful attack by terrorist zealots on the twin towers and the sheer ineptitude of the U S government’s response.  It’s as if the nation underwent a kind of slow nervous breakdown, with a huge loss of faith not just in government but in the whole American project.  It’s hard to hold your head up when you keep picking bad fights and losing worse wars, and those of us outside the Union forget, if we ever knew, the throbbing pain of the grief and anger of those who loved the poor men who died for nothing.  American ‘exceptionalism’ had become worse than a sick joke.

And we also underestimated the impact of the Great Financial Crisis – and the ineptitude of all our responses.  Not only did we not lock up enough of the crooks and idiots responsible; we acquiesced in paying them shiploads of money that customarily attract the epithet ‘obscene.’  If capitalism is good, who are its winners?  Those who missed out – which is most of us – felt a sense of unfairness and betrayal.  The whole system looks crooked.  That state of mind can be very dangerous.  Stirrers like Marat and Farage thrive on it.

One by one the premises of the old regime are being discarded.  Jonathan Sumption says: ‘Democracies operate on the implicit basis that, although the majority has authorised policies which the minority rejects, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision making processes.’  That premise has gone clean out of the window in America and it started to quit the building no later than when the minority – fronted by people like Messrs McConnell and Nunes – determined to put a spoke in the wheel of a black president.  Their reasoning was possibly correct and certainly vicious – if gridlock results, people will blame those in charge.  The trouble is that if enough people cheat at a game, the game loses its purpose and becomes unplayable – just look at cycling then and athletics now.

Lawyers have a saying that has merit.  The most important person in a courtroom is the loser.  If at the end of the fight, the loser doesn’t think they got a fair run for their money, then you the judge have failed in your duty not just to be fair but manifestly be seen to have been fair.  You could say the same for elections, and for the reason identified by Jonathan Sumption.  The most important people when the vote is declared are the losers.  The winner has to try to assure the losers that the government will not act against their interests.  This President, a bankrupted property developer with a water-mouthed spaniel at his back, has hardly even pretended to do anything of the kind.  His insecurity makes him innately selfish.  He and McConnell and the like look to be incapable of positive construction.  They take the easy way out – negative destruction.  Their denials are so Manichaean that you might ask, following the text, whether a nation so dedicated can long endure.  If you put a spoke in the wheel often enough, the whole contraption becomes unworkable.

The American record with their first nations is probably worse than ours – it is certainly more duplicitous, and our indigenous people enjoyed the protection of London for longer than the American Indians.  (So did the Maoris in New Zealand – the mother country was always kinder to the locals than the colonists.)  America had its version of our White Australia policy, but what the book keeps coming back to is the distaste if not contempt felt by so many white Americans for all black Americans.

We had our convicts, and their motley drunken keepers, but slavery is altogether different and more corrosive and corrupting.  It is the ultimate contradiction of any reasonable definition of civilisation.  It is also the reason why it is so disturbing to see seriously educated people describe ancient Athens or Rome as civilised – when each was premised on slavery and that variant of a protection racket called empire.  Indeed, on a bleak day in Maine, you might now reflect that the United States as it stands comes off the Indians slaughtered in unequal wars of conquest or revenge and from what Lincoln called ‘the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years…and every drop of blood drawn with the lash.’

It is seriously hard to describe as Christian a nation that killed about three quarters of a million people in a civil war fought over what we now call white supremacy.  And after that war – in which the Union was held together by the God given genius and strength of Abraham Lincoln – the Supreme Court tempered if not reversed the result by the infamy of the doctrine ‘equal but separate’; ordinary people showed that there is a little bit of Eichmann in all of us by lighting up the cross of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, for the Ku Klux Klan; home grown terrorist fanatics spent their lust on lynchings – and the crowd just loved it; the South aped apartheid with Jim Crow; Jackie Robinson, returned victorious from the war, was told to go to the back of the bus with the rest of the niggers, and warned that he could not answer back when spat on by fans of his own team if he turned out for the Majors; some of the best musicians in the world could not get a meal or drink in most of those places they played in; counsel told the Supreme Court that its unanimous decision in the school bussing case – a true prodigy of high justice –may not be obeyed; it was said of one of the greatest sopranos ever that when ‘she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave’; and when the current president shamelessly and inanely flirts with the sediments of all this venom.  People outside America do not understand how vicious and pervasive this poison is.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the nation as a whole has not forgiven itself for putting a black man in the White House – the very language bespeaks its awfulness – and that the whole disease of and following the election of Trump is a kind of bilious act of rejection – just as I celebrated the end of exams by throwing up every time in full loud, cleansing volume.  The twisted mania of Trump that drives him to seek to reverse anything that that black man did while in office even now extends to rejecting an intervention of the wife of that previous president to improve the diet of school children.  That little bit of petty bitterness fairly recalls the mania of Joseph Stalin.

Some say that Churchill said that Atlee was very humble, but that he had a lot to be humble about.  If that were meant as a put-down, its premise is at best doubtful.  But I doubt that he did say it.  The two men fought the war together and they remained close after it.  But the sentiment comes to mind with American exceptionalism.

Like England before it and Israel now, many Americans believed that they were the chosen people of God.  The white nation was started by religious fanatics called Puritans.  They had been in a minority in England (and they had gone out of favour under that ultimate zealot Oliver Cromwell – some of the madder of them actually shut down pubs!)  But in the Promised Land, the Puritans were the majority.  And this majority had no place in their hearts for losers – winners were those on whom God smiled – and God was evidently not smiling on those creatures with black skins or red skins.  He was certainly not smiling on losers with white skins – they had obviously failed before God and it would be impious in the extreme to question His judgment.

Religion has not been good for America – any part of it.  Rome sanctioned rape by partition in South America.  (You could say the same of England in India.)  The Spanish just read the Papal version of the Riot Act to the natives and then went in for slaughter.  There was of course venerable precedent for the extirpation of women and children unfortunate enough to live on land promised to others by God.

In North America, the Puritans never let God get between them and a dollar.  But He did come between them and those who had not done so well.  Here is the germ of the repeated and tragic rejection of universal health care in the U S.  This is an issue like gun control – ideology prevails over humanity.  The cementing of the rights of the righteous in the Bill of Rights sets the United States apart from all other western democracies.  The resulting slaughter of children and the failure to look after the halt and infirm – the American health system is the most inefficient and expensive in the West – sets them apart from the rest of the West.

These failures of national governance preclude Americans from saying that the United States is a civilised nation – if such a nation is one where people treat each other with civility and with respect for the dignity or worth that each of us holds merely because we are human.  And if the Declaration of Independence did not rest on that premise, just what on earth did it say?

So, to go back to Churchill and Atlee, if American exceptionalism was just preppy, chest-beating superiority – which is about what Alexis de Tocqueville saw – what do you do if you have nothing to be superior about?

These truths is a very fine and readable book that casts a fluid but bright light on the great issues of now.  In a book called A Tale of Two Nations, Uncle Sam from Down Under (2014), I sought to look at some of those issues.  I set out below the chapter on my findings.  On reflection I think that I should have said that in my view both labour and primary industry are better off in Australia than in America because of intervention by the government here that would there be described as collectivist or, worse, socialist.  That would be just another case of a silly ideological label trumping sense and decency.  And it would be one more time that we might go back to that beautiful moment when a brave and canny Boston attorney stood up to that awful Joe McCarthy and said : ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’

However all that may be, it is now clear that the American model is utterly broken.  For what it is worth, my view, which is partisan, is that most of the blame must fall on those Republicans in the government who have shown a sustained want of good faith in the past and are showing appalling venality and cowardice now.  But it is also clear that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men are no longer there to put it all back together again.  They have been gone a very long time.  And the problem is the same for the U S as it for us and the U K.  In a democracy, a government is only as good as its opposition.

God only knows where that leaves the rest of us.

 

Extract

Findings?

History is the essence of innumerable biographies.  (Carlyle.)

The world’s worse crimes have been committed by a kind of refusal to treat each man, woman and child for their intrinsic worth when people in power say that the nation or state is more important than you or me.  There we have one issue with trying to make sense of the past.  We speak of peoples who have become nations.  Is it either possible or decent to ascribe general characterizations, or are they just moonshine, and nasty and dangerous moonshine at that?

There is of course another problem.  What would we know?  Very few people reading this will have faced starvation, arbitrary arrest, secret police, censorship, a fanatical cleric in charge, or a lord knocking on the door on the eve of a wedding to assert his seigneurial right; none will have experienced slavery, and few will have felt at first hand that they were being put down because of their colour or their faith.  Compared to most of the subjects of this book, most of its readers are supremely privileged, living in one the freest, securest, and most plentiful nations on earth; and not many readers will know or practise a religious faith in the way that their ancestors did.

How would we know how a Puritan may have reacted to Massachusetts in 1620?  How would we know how an English laborer transported for theft may have felt on reaching Sydney in 1810, or how a Negro slave emancipated may have felt in Savannah Georgia in 1864, or how a Russian refugee may have felt on arriving in New York in 1924, or how a Vietnamese refugee may have felt in arriving in Melbourne in 1974?

And then we see things differently to the way that our subjects saw them.  We have both hindsight and our own baggage, and we find it hard to resist the thought that we may know better than our subjects.

Dr Christopher Hill was a distinguished and luminous English historian.  He was also a Marxist (and sufficiently devout for that belief to survive years in Russia).  Does that mean that we should ignore him, or just watch out and be ready to gloze when words like ‘class’ and ‘masses’ appear?  Dr Hill wrote a book called The World Turned Upside Down.  It is an illuminating account of radical ideas in England during the seventeenth century by a most distinguished scholar of that period.

Dr Hill reminds us that people then believed in magic.  God and the Devil were all about.  People went to witches, believed in fairies, and used charms.  Thieves went to astrologers to see if they would be hanged.  A ‘cunning man’, a white witch, was cheaper than a doctor or lawyer.  Astrologers, mathematicians and conjurors were the same – like our economists.  But scientists were the first to claim that science proved that God exists.  Charles I said that ‘Religion is the only firm foundation of all power’, but the Reformation, although hostile to magic, stimulated prophecy.  John Milton spoke of ‘free trading of truth’ and took it as a given that all men were born free.  Roger Williams compared a church or company of worshippers to a corporation of Turkish merchants.  A Baptist preacher called Mrs. Attaway called for objections after her sermons, like a judge does with counsel after charging a jury.

Assuming that it took a while for the stock of the Puritans in New England to reach that degree of sexual latitude described by John Updyke in his novels – which does appear to have been quite substantial, in one direction or another – what about sex?  How hung up were Puritans about sex in the 17th century?  Yes, ‘sin’ included sex for Puritans, but there was what Dr Hill calls the Puritan sexual revolution.  This was, he says, an important part of the protestant ethic – replacing property marriage, with love outside it, with one based on mutual love.  That was one part.  Another part of the revolution was the downgrading or replacement of the celibate ideal with the abolition of monasteries and nunneries, and the introduction of married clergy.

If that sounds theoretical, here is a statistic that may not be generally known: we are told that at least one out of every three brides in seventeenth century England was pregnant when she was married.  There is such a thing as nature.  The sex drive remains constant, but there have been improvements in contraception.  As Dr Hill remarks: ‘Sexual freedom in fact tended to be freedom for men only, so long as there was no effective birth control.  This was the practical moral basis to the Puritan emphasis on monogamy.  The fact that it has since lost this basis tends to make us forget how important it was in his time.  Unless the seducer was a Don Juan rich enough to maintain a bastard and its mother (as Charles II and the court wits of the restoration could) sexual liberty was a hit-and-run affair.  Many putative fathers must have taken to the road, leaving the mother and the parish authorities to carry the baby.’

That is one way we can go wrong in trying to follow the past – by forgetting how much has changed, and that people’s customs change.  Another way is being one-eyed, as people tend to be with football.  They watch the match from their point of view and are biased, generally hopelessly so; that is part of its charm.  Waltzing Matilda was not written from the point of view of the squatter – it was written from the point of view of the shearer – who happened to be the thief.  The squatters saw things very differently.  One squatter named Mc Bean was so outraged by what he saw as lenient sentences handed down by magistrates against sheep stealers that he posted an advertisement addressed to the thieves, and doubtless the magistrates, in the newspapers.

In consequence of the decision of the magistrate in the Benalla Court, the undersigned would be obliged if sheep stealers would take only what mutton they require for private use.

Benalla would have been the court for the Quinn family of Ellen, the mother of Ned Kelly, and the Kellys with her.  Thomas Keneally mentions the aggrieved squatter in introducing the Kellys.  He says the Kelly boys ‘grew up as part of a group of wild locals known as the Greta Mob.’

The Quinns were a large bush clan, wanted a various times for horse theft, and characteristic of the small, alienated selector and farmer to whom stock theft came naturally and was, if Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter can be believed, in the case of the Irish in particular, seen as an extension of vengeance on the stock of landlords in Ireland.

Thomas Keneally is a writer of fiction and history in good standing, but might he be swayed or biased because he is of Irish extraction, or because he trained for the priesthood and was ordained as a deacon?

Mr Keneally says that the stratagems of the squatters were meant to frighten off selectors like Ellen Kelly (Quinn) and that the ‘demand that the police deal strenuously with all stock theft led ultimately to a relentless and vengeful bullying of the Kelly clan’.  After Kelly murdered three policemen, we are told that there ‘are signs that Ned, who was not a killer by nature, became fatally haunted by the men murdered at Stringybark, and from then set about, however aggressively, seeking forgiveness before man and God.’

We are then told that the Euroa hold-up ‘like other of Ned’s acts of hostage-taking was in part a kindly affair.’  In the Jerilderie letter, his ‘denouncement of police competed with his plea for absolution for the Stringybark killings.’  When leaving, Ned gave his ‘normal and eloquent speech about what had turned him into an outlaw.  His anxiety to justify himself is telling.  No other bushranger sermonized to pubs full of citizens or went searching for someone else to publish his apologia….The Jerilderie letter…..seems to come directly from the language of Irish protestors and Irish transportees who saw themselves as victims of a system rather than, as the authorities would have it, criminals.  There existed a pernicious system which had not let him live in peace, Ned claimed…..One aspect of Ned’s instinctive republicanism emerged in the universal Irish peasant hope that America would declare war on Britain…’

And so it goes on.  Ned was so haunted by Stringybark, that it was unlikely that Ned had ‘passed over into a state of nihilism in which death dealing was the chief principle of his life’.  He did not want to murder police at Glenrowan – he just wanted hostages to swap for his mother.  Joe Byrne was sent to warn Sherritt, not to kill him, but Sherritt uttered words which ‘provided Joe Byrne with an absolute warrant for Sherritt’s death.’  But the train came from the other direction, and ‘Ned’s idea of taking those on the train hostage was stymied.’

So, what did it all mean?

When Ned died in 1880, the Melbourne establishment were beginning to develop financial structures which would operate so fraudulently that Ned’s raids on banks would be modest by comparison.

We may take it that Mr McBean would have had a very different view, and may well have been prepared to pay to express that view.  So might other sheep owners or shepherds, or others of Scots descent or who are not of Irish descent.  (The author makes a disclosure: his middle name is McPherson, spelt differently from the Christina Macpherson who played the tune of Waltzing Matilda for Banjo Paterson.)  Mr McBean would certainly have drawn the line at the suggestion that the Protestant Ascendancy, and the squatters and the bankers, and the other members of the Melbourne Club, were guilty of worse crimes.  There were not enough bodies.  From the moment that Ned Kelly shot and killed three coppers in cold blood, that gangster story was only going to end with his death, and the only question was how many he would take down with him.  The number of four might disappoint some of the poor and the oppressed – but not Ellen Kelly, since two of them were her sons too.

So, allowing for waffle, ignorance, and prejudice, are there any general propositions that we might hazard about these two peoples?

(1)

Well, it would seem safe to say that the U S at least feels more independent than Australia, and that its people feel that they and their nation are standing on their own two feet in a way that Australians cannot claim while they continue to import their head of state whose position turns on the English Constitution.  The ‘fourth’ celebrates independence; Australia Day looks back to the day that the English declared their foreign jail open.  Australians also look for another long weekend for the Queen’s Birthday.  Anyone who has celebrated the fourth or fourteenth of July in the nations that do so will know just how flat and empty Australia Day may be.  It can be downright embarrassing.

(2)

Next, it would be surprising if there were no differences in the outlooks on life of the two peoples looking at the very different ways that their settlers and migrants arrived.  For the most part the Americans did it on their own, while the Australians did so at the cost or with the help of government.  People in America, and their politicians, are not as quick as Australians are to look to government for help in life.  Put differently, Australians seem to depend on government more for welfare than Americans do.  Australians do not see this as a minus – anymore than people in England, France, and Germany do.  How many Americans see their side as a plus is an interesting question, but is this also one ground for suggesting that people in Australia, as opposed to the people of Australia, may be less independent than their American counterparts?

Has this distinction led to a greater emphasis on what is called free enterprise or the role of the entrepreneur in America than in Australia?  To go back to our earlier discussion, do people in America rely more on what they can negotiate for themselves and are they less dependent on their classification with the government than Australians?  Is the old difference, or alleged difference, between contract and status still relevant?

These are hazy areas, but Australians going to the U S are frequently impressed immediately by the eagerness of people to do business with them on a one on one basis.  The Americans tend to look and sound more business-like – and it is first person singular: it is what I have or can do, not what we have got or can do.  ‘What are you offering cash for on your first drink?  Can’t you see that I am running a business behind in this bar?’  And, if a tip is part of the deal, don’t be surprised to be told that you have not kept up your end of it.  If in some sense Americans have been more enterprising than Australians, then that distinction may well be being eroded at either end.

(3)

The impact of the frontier is much, much more extensive in America than in Australia.  There was a kind of battle or series of wars going on for territory for hundreds of years.  If this led to some rough and tough sense of independence, as it did with the Boers in South Africa, it also has led to an appalling tolerance of guns and violence that so disturbs friends of America.  In any event, that rough and tough independence is not what it used to be.  In the year of Our Lord 2014, the Marlboro Man is not what he was – he is now just a broken down case of slow suicide in public, and the directors of his manufacturer may in the future make new law on freedom of contract.  The macho man is on the wane, and men at large can no longer pretend that women just do not exist.  The whole idea of a man’s world is now just bullshit, although the grosser aspects of American football and ice hockey are some fairly stern relics.

(4)

The continuing murderous triumph of the gun lobby in the States is partly down to money – which does seem to carry more weight in America than in other parts of the West – and partly down to what might be called a doctrinaire streak in American public life.  The English Constitution derives from the common law and is set out in many old acts and texts and ultimately is a state of mind.  Its methods are utterly different to those of a rationalist interpreting and applying a code.  That is the kind of function that a constitutional court applies, and it produces a lot more doctrine and dogma.  This is where the great power – liberal or conservative – arises with the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court.  The right to bear arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights is still part of the law in England and the Australian states, but not as part of an unalterable tablet of the law.  The difference is immense – only a lunatic would suggest that it might have the consequences presently contended for by a majority of the Supreme Court.

Almost no American would want to give up their Bill of Rights, although all sides would dearly like to see a great change in some or other of its manifestations from time to time.  You find people on both sides in Australia, but the short answer is that there is nothing to suggest that a referendum might be passed to amend the Constitution.

(5)

Both countries are parliamentary democracies.  The states have more power and substance in America.  (That is a plus there – it would not be in Australia, where there is too much government already.)  The U S gave the president more power on paper, but Australians would not want their nominal leader not to be answerable in the Parliament.  The Australians have by attrition just about ditched an independent civil service, and ministers no longer resign for the sins of their department.  Australia is abandoning the Westminster System by default.

The party system, and with it the parliamentary system, are stressed, for different reasons, but to an equally worrying degree.  Money is huge in American politics, and that fact is not good for the image of America.  It resembles a capitalist feudal structure, a hierarchy of power and patronage built on capital rather than land.  It looks to outsiders as if too many people are in the pockets of too few other people.

While Australia remains wedded to English legal procedures, and you can see and feel a horse-hair wig in many state courts, the American court system has developed on its own with benefits to others including Australia.  We should all be grateful that the Americans are continuing to champion the role and place of the jury.

Here is just one example of the differences in government between the two countries, and one that is characteristic.  Americans do not have compulsory voting; Australia does.  Each side thinks that the other is mad.

(6)

Religion got off to a strong start in America.  It got off to a bad start in Australia – the Reverend Marsden was a flogging parson, and the Anglican Church was and is as establishment as you can get – the monarch of the nation, its Head of State, has to be a member of it.  It does seem clear that religion is a more live force in America, and that Australians would count their comparative relaxation as an unqualified plus.

The churches in Australia played a far greater role in the development of independent schools.  The churches now have very little part to play in these schools, but the failure of governments in Australia to see that its schools keep up with the private schools – called, after the English model, ‘public schools’ – is a part of the biggest failure of government in Australia – for which the church is not to blame.  Although education is not a Commonwealth function under the Constitution, it is in fact their responsibility.  Generations of ineptitude and buck passing at all levels had led to a disgraceful failure to provide an equal opportunity for the young people of Australia to get the kind of good education that they deserve and that the nation needs.  We now see a parliament composed in large part of those who had a free university education legislating to deny that right to others.  The products of the age of entitlement are kicking way the ladder.  This tragic failure of national fibre may well never be corrected.  It would require deep foresight and a cool nerve.

(7)

A sense of independence and self-creation, a real revolution, the creeping frontier, real heroes, and mythical ones, and God have all made patriotism much more visible in the U S than elsewhere.  Americans look to get more involved in national affairs than Australians, and to show more reverence for their flag and at least for the office of the President, but this patriotism can get syrupy in a way that got up the nose of Alexis de Tocqueville and can lead to a kind of moral blindness – in places in the world where that kind of thing might ultimately be noticed.

(8)

Each nation got to where it by means that some would prefer to forget.  Both relied at the start on the free labour of imported convicts – they were Australia’s raison d’être – but before they could do that they had to wrest the land from its native occupiers.  They did so in a way that caused immeasurable misery and loss and by means that most people cannot square with the tenets of the religion of the invaders.  There is not much to be gained from getting hung up on labels, as the Turks want to do with the Armenians.  The label of ‘genocide’ may or may not be contentious.  What matters are not labels, but the evidence of what happened, and the moral or political conclusions that can be drawn from that evidence?

These are issues as much for Britain as they are for America and Australia, and that may not be a bad thing, because the British may not get so skittish about a subject that they may know a lot about because of their shame in Ireland and the rest of the Empire.  In reviewing a book by Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Bernard Porter said:

The lesson the Holocaust should be used to teach – if it’s proper for history to be used in this way at all – is that any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right.  It wasn’t just the Germans.  In different circumstances the British might have behaved as badly.  In certain circumstances – and the Tasmanian case is an example – they did.

‘Any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right’ is you might think a self-evident truth.  It is surprising how many people either do not acknowledge it, or they do not accept that it applies to them, and they do so on the footing of the foundation of the whole bloody problem, the state of mind called ‘racism’, the belief that we are better than they are.

(9)

The main difference between the two nations lies in their standing in the world.  America is the biggest economy and leader of what used to be called the free world.  Australia is a client state, not as troublesome as Israel, but not as close either.  Australia loyally followed its patron and protector into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in order to honour and secure the alliance, but not one government has felt able to acknowledge that fact.  There is what is now called ‘a disconnect’ between the governors and the governed in Australia on the subject of honouring the U S alliance in much the same way that there is a disconnect in America on the subject of tax – they are, if you like, the elephants in the room.  But against that is the tendency to hubris that we saw, and the brittleness of Americans noticed by de Tocqueville – and now their obvious lack of appetite for any ventures overseas, for which they receive no offer of help beforehand or vote of thanks afterwards, and which is predicated on the failure of the U N for which the U S is not responsible.

(10)

Finally, and for whatever reason, there is a deep streak of orthodoxy and conservatism, or, if you prefer, an aversion to risk and skepticism of adventure, in both countries.

More than one hundred years ago, the English nation elected as their Prime Minister a grandson of an Italian Jew, who went on to become the closest confidante of the most powerful monarch in history; more than eighty years ago, the English elected as their Prime Minister a man of Scottish descent who represented the labouring class; and more than thirty years ago they elected their first woman Prime Minister.  Americans now have their first black President, but it took them nearly two hundred years to elect a Catholic as President, and they are yet to elect to that office a woman, a working man, or a Jew.  All three of those omissions are extraordinary – to speak softly – in light of the contribution to American life made by women, working men and Jews.

In truth, the US does have the appearance of a conservative and hidebound republic.  To this day no one could reasonably run for the office of President of the United States while claiming to stand for working men and women or to profess openly the views on religion that we believe were held by Jefferson, Washington and Franklin – none of whom stands low in the American pantheon.  The inability to move appears worse with a political engine where the gears are clashing, and a disparity in incomes and assets that appears to be growing.

Not one of the criminals behind the 2008 crash ever looked like going behind bars; the great citadels of business look to be beyond, or immune to, the criminal law that otherwise maintains an ever growing prison population; the big corporates just do cosy deals in private with the lawyers and civil servants called regulators; an agreed amount of boodle goes to the State as a bribe; the company adjusts its books in an accounting exercise; the shareholders get a reduced dividend; the real crooks keep their jobs and their unimaginable bonuses; and your average Joe winds up in the slammer for much lower levels of crime.

Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people.  The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor.  There is almost no chance of anyone seeing anything like the vision, drive or guts of someone like David Lloyd George or Winston Churchill in the People’s Budget.  By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people.  Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less and they in despair vote in real layabouts and charlatans.

Here and there -The Decline and Fall of Faith and Confidence

 

The Nurse does not know Romeo, but she says to him ‘If you be he, sir, I desire come confidence with you’.  She will confide in him – that is, she will place faith (fides), reliance, and trust in him.  She will trust him to keep what she says to himself, except to the extent that she may permit.  This is the kind of communication that passes between you and your lawyer, priest or doctor, and in varying degrees the law will back you up without your having to expressly stipulate that what you are saying is confidential.

If Romeo accepts the condition of the Nurse, she may have more or less confidence that he will respect her wishes.  She may be confident, to a greater or lesser degree since she does not know this youth at all, that her faith will be respected.  But, by definition, nothing about faith is ever certain.

When, in Othello, worried nobles are speculating on the designs of their Turkish enemy, the Duke says ‘Nay, in all confidence, he’s not for Rhodes’, he could be using the phrase in either of the meanings that we have just seen.  And you do not have to be a philosopher to know that you can hardly warrant any prediction about the future – let alone predict the conduct of any one of us.

The English have led the way in developing our basic model of democratic government.  At times – say, in about 1215, 1535, 1641, and 1689 – they have displayed what might fairly be called genius in shaping their constitution.  As with a lot of geniuses, you think that the answer is obvious once you have seen it – but it took them to unveil it.

At the height of their conflict with King Charles I, the Commons in 1641 passed what they called the Grand Remonstrance.  As slaps in the face go, this one was pretty loud.  Nor was it short.  In clause 197, they expressed the wish that the king should employ only such counsellors (ministers) as ‘the Parliament may have cause to confide in’ without which ‘we cannot give His Majesty such supplies for support of his own estate….’  Shortly after this, and after a stern tongue lashing from his Latin wife, Charles Stuart, as he would come to be called, lost his head, metaphorically, and sought in person to arrest his leading opponents, including the main author of the Remonstrance, in the Parliament itself – leading to a course of events where his stubborn blindness would lead to his physically losing his head at the edge of an axe.

Macaulay was always honest about what side he was on in this long battle that became a war.

In support of this opinion [the felt need of the Commons to tread softly with the King], many plausible arguments have been used.  But to all these arguments, there is one short answer.  The King could not be trusted.

The sentiment expressed in clause 197 is the keystone of responsible government that was settled by the Declaration of Rights in 1689.  It is typical of the English that what started its juristic life as a throwaway line in an instrument of dubious provenance soon became a pillar of ageless, hard law that only an inane anarchist could seek to fiddle with.  If you mention this to an English lawyer or historian, you will get a wry smile and something like: ‘Winners are grinners – the rest make their own arrangements’.

Well, they are no longer grinning – not even the winners.  Across too much of the western world, too many people have lost faith and confidence in their system of government in general, and those holding office from time to time.

Now in my eighth decade, I can sense that this has been going on slowly in Australia through most of that time, but the acceleration across the West since the Great Financial has been too hard to miss.  And the collapse of public decency in the U S and U K in the last few years has been shocking.  Have we then built our house on sand?

Those in government should not feel unfairly singled out.  Very few people have confidence in what Ibsen called the pillars of society.  Churches, trading corporations, charities, trade unions, employer groups, the professions, schools and universities (especially those lumbered with that weasel sobriquet ‘elite’), the press, sporting teams, the professions, the rich – yes, especially the filthy rich – and even the poor bloody poor and refugees are all on the nose with at least some people for one reason or another – with more reason in some cases than in others.

And as we draw further back from God and his Church, we search in vain for any kind of bedrock.  Instead we are left with a revoltingly insipid moral relativity and an even more revoltingly spineless absence of anything like leadership.  The picture is not pretty.

Even the law recognises and seeks to enforce obligations of confidence in some relations – such as partners, husband and wife, directors and shareholders, trustees, and holders of office of public trust – like Ministers of the Crown.

The President of the United States presently stands accused of breaching his office of public trust by seeking to abuse that office to obtain a personal benefit.  The essential evidence is not in dispute.  It is for the most part uncontradicted.  Nor is the allegation of breach of trust fairly answerable on that evidence.  The only question is whether that breach of trust warrants a finding that the President be removed from office.

But it looks like that process will miscarry because those charged with making that decision will commit one of the sins or failures that have brought us to this pass – they will put the interests of party over those of the nation.  And in doing so, they will not see that they are committing a wrong just like that of the man they are protecting.  And too many of them will do that because they are just plain scared of him.  Our brave ancestors who stood up to King Charles I, and who prevailed over him to our lasting benefit, would be worse than disgusted.  As would those in the American colonies who stood up to King George III and his Ministers, and who then fought and defeated his army.

As a result of the doctrine espoused in the Grand Remonstrance, our government must resign if it loses the confidence of parliament.  Can our system survive if so many people have lost confidence in it?  Before looking at what Lord Sumption says about this in his book on the Reith Lectures, we might notice some of the reasons for the fall of faith and confidence in government.

We have sat by for decades watching them let the Westminster system fail through neglect.  Government has been unable to check a shocking inequality in income and wealth that undermines faith in the only ideology in town – capitalism.  There is something inherently unreasonable and unfair going on.  There is a continuing and self-perpetuating decline in the character of people going into government – and people make money by talking with or about the worst of them.

‘Populists’ – a dreadful word – like Trump and Johnson were born to put themselves first, to discard custom and convention, to put party above the nation, and to betray all trust.  They also wallow in that tribalism that demeans all process, and all logic.  Each of them is obviously a charlatan; one is also a thug; both are bullies.  And we have apparently botched the education of a sufficient number of people to allow such people to get away with it.  And the longer they are there, the more that any trust just evaporates.

Trump and Johnson also are champions of the 100% vae victis rule.  (In Kenya, it is called: ‘It’s our turn at the table.’)  This is part of the collapse of moderation and the prevalence of tribalism.  All this is causing parties to forget their function, and is opening up the system to be gamed by minor parties, cranks and crooks.  The result is even more unattractive.

This is happening at a time when the internet is destroying minds, civility, security and privacy.  Its filthy rich drivers are seen as public enemies that our governments are too gutless or inept to control.  Just as they have failed to nail those crooks who fleece us and pay no tax.  Technology is also seen to destroy jobs.  The absurd bonuses of directors may be conditioned on sacking people.  Too few share in the wealth created by sending jobs overseas.  Too few went to jail for crimes committed in the GFC that nearly put the West on its knees.  The cries of envy and for revenge are matched by heightened credibility, and the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories are aided by people in the press who have no sense of decency, much less professional obligation.

The intellectual problem may be simply stated.  Too many people cannot tolerate uncertainty or doubt.  They crave the answer – which is both delusional and dangerous – and a sponsored response that they can hide behind.  This is how Edward Gibbon described the effect of a new faith on old beliefs.

The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation.  A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision.  Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favored the establishment of Polytheism.  So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. 

You could get into serious trouble for saying any of that now – in part because this is a sin for which truth provides no defence.  But if you doubt it, just look at the crowd at a Trump rally or any advertisement put out by Farage.

Sectarian division has been replaced by generational schism.  Technology has made that worse too.  The young are jealous and frustrated, but we that are left worked hard and paid our taxes and we expect a return.  It’s not our fault that life was simpler and better in our flowering time – nor is it our fault that science means that we will live longer and so probably delay or wipe out any devolution.  Nor do we think that it’s our fault that people commit mayhem on the laws of language and logic.  But the sense of betrayal on climate and housing is palpable and warranted in whole generation that finds itself lost.

And our sense of family is almost travelling as badly as our feeling for religion.

Fifty years ago in this country, all the political nuts and crooks were on the side of labour.  They are all now on the side of capital.  This is in no small part due to our failure to develop a decent conservative press.  Instead, that ground is falsely claimed by unreformed Liberal Party hacks, deranged cadres from right wing think tanks, and regressive relics of a repressive sectarian faith.  And for good measure they forfeit any claim to professionalism by going after the ABC with malice fuelled by the lucre and envy of a vengeful feudal owner.  We have to face it – Murdoch is now doing to Australia what he has been doing to America.

The wilful inanity of soi disant conservatives in Australia about climate change makes it hard to resist the impression that they have been bought – which is certainly the case for at least one think tank.

Nationalism is a poll-booster that appeals to those who are jealous of their citizenship, because they think they have so little else – but it always comes with resentment and scapegoats; it is the seed of bad wars; and both get very ugly when it mixes with religion.

And people who abuse ‘elites’ because they – the members of the elite – think they know better, just fail to see that they – the critics – indulge in the same sin.  And their touchiness about inferiority and insecurity gets hilarious results with ‘experts’ – unless they themselves are on the line, in which case they will prostrate themselves before their superior.

We have rediscovered the simple truth of a democracy based on two parties – the standard of governance is only as good as the opposition.  In the U S, the U K, and Australia, dreadful people have succeeded only because the reluctant electorate could not stomach the alternative.  Each now has a leader that too many neither trust nor respect – and each has succumbed to the view that they are there on merit.

My arrival on this earth came just after the end of a war that we did not look for, but which we had to win.  We had fought bravely, and we as a nation walked tall.  We were entitled to do so.  The nation blossomed in my youth, even though its political process had been sterilised.  The whole world lay before us.

Now, as I slip back toward my ancestors and my dog, I will leave a nation whose government has at least twice led us into wars based on false premises.  As a result, we and the nations that we fought over were worse off.  There can be no more fundamental breach of trust by a government than to lead its people into war on the basis of a falsehood – and the breach is so much worse if the government knew or ought to have known that it was not telling the truth.

We at last worked up the courage and common courtesy to apologise to our first nations for the way we took over their land and for what we did to them.  I have not heard any apology from anyone in government for our bad wars.  Instead, the politician who most owes us an apology refused to join in the apology to the blackfellas.  How do you place any confidence in people who behave like that to you?

They are some of our present discontents.

In Trials of the State, Lord Sumption says:

Fundamentally, we obey the state because we respect the legitimacy of the political order on which it is founded.  Legitimacy is a vital but elusive concept in human affairs.  Legitimacy is less than law but more than opinion.  It is a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we do not like what they are doing.  This depends on an unspoken sense that we are [all] in it together…..legitimacy is still the basis of all consent.  For all its power the modern state depends on a large measure of tacit consent…..

The legitimacy of state action in a democracy depends on a general acceptance of its decision-making processes…..Democracies operate on the implicit basis that although the majority has authorised policies which the minority rejects, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision-making processes….Majority rule is the basic principle of democracy.  But that only means that a majority is enough to authorise the state’s acts.  It is not enough to make them legitimate….Democracies cannot operate on the basis that a bare majority takes 100% of the political spoils.

The notions of legitimacy and tacit consent are hard to nail down, but our law was founded on custom and our politics depend on conventions.  My own view is that ultimately the rule of law depends on little more than a state of mind.  I wonder now whether the same does not hold for our whole system of government.

We are looking for an implied premise of reasonableness or moderation.  Our law says that the parties to an agreement are obliged to try to help each other get what they have promised.  At the very least, they must not take steps to abort the deal.  So, if I promise to do something if I get a permit, and I change my mind, and try to stop the issue of the permit, the law will deal with me.

Let us look at a political analogy.  The Republicans defied convention by blocking President Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court justice, which is seen to be a huge political prize in the U S (especially by those puritans who avert their gaze and hold their nose to vote for Trump).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of putting a spoke in the wheel.  But that was to stop Hitler.  The Republicans now put spokes in the wheel of the United States.  And now Trump is repeating the dose by shutting down the WTO by stopping new appointments.  This is another bad faith breach of convention for short term political gain.

Lord Sumption says that it is not enough for a law to be ‘good’ – the public must in some sense ‘own’ the law.  ‘Law must have the legitimacy which only some process of consent can confer.’  This gets hard when we look at the failure of the public to engage in the process.  This in his view is the problem.  It is the same here.  Few people now wish to join a political party, and not many members of parties are that keen to talk about it – except with insiders.  There is a sense of estrangement – and ‘wholesale rejection.’  Confidence is gone.

I entirely agree that formulating a new constitution or trying to get judges to fix the problem is not the answer.  I also agree that one reason the Americans are so tied up on abortion is that the law is judge made – so that they vote for people as president who will appoint judges to change that law.  It would be hard to conceive of a more twisted perversion of the separation of powers.

As to legislating in a binding constitutional manner for human rights and conventions, look at what a mess we have made of company law by overlaying the broad teaching of equity with vast volumes of black letter law.  And then recall that recently a government that calls itself conservative thought that the answer was to scrap equity for that purpose – and for the relief of their friends in business who had lobbied them so frenziedly (quite possibly with the well-endowed aid of a few former ministers of that party).  And that is the same party that goes into reverse cartwheels at the mere mention of investigating federal corruption.

The author says:

On critical issues, our political culture has lost the capacity to identify common premises, common bonds and common priorities that stand above our differences.

He quotes an American judge who said ‘a society so riven that the spirit of moderation has gone, no court can save.’  All that is as true for us as it is for England and America.  Disraeli – ‘perhaps the only true genius ever to rise to the top of British politics’ – said the problem with England was ‘the decline of its character as a community.’

That sense of community is vital.  Like ‘confidence’, the word ‘commune’ has a very long history – on both sides of the Channel.  In the enforcement clause in Magna Carta, the barons reserved a right to go against a defaulting king ‘with the whole commune’.  The great French historian Marc Bloch said:

….by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, they contributed to the social life of Europe, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

The commune exploded in France in 1792 and 1869.  For better or worse, you can see its descendants today in gillets jaunes. 

When an Englishman was arraigned in court to be tried a jury, the jury would be told that the accused ‘has put himself upon his country, which country you are.’  That is a very stirring phrase.  The jury was originally brought over by the Normans as an inquiry made of neighbours – that is, the local community having an interest in the relevant inquiry.  The first medieval reports of cases might refer to the pleadings and then just say: ‘Issue to the country.’

Lord Sumption goes on:

…..experience counts for a great deal in human affairs: more than rationality, more even than beauty.  Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law.  Indeed they are the foundation of law.

Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said that.

These notions are large, but we must deal with them.  Lord Sumption fears that we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes.    I wonder whether we will go down like the way Gibbon saw the Roman Empire go down.

….as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

You know things are sick when a fat, ugly seventy-three year old man, who happens to be the President of the United States, bullies a sixteen year old Swedish girl on the absurdly named ‘social media’ for giving voice to the sense of betrayal of her generation.

I’m not sorry that I will not be here to see the end of it all.

Postscript

In Chapter 3 of his History of England, Macaulay experienced something like an epiphany on how we see our ups and downs.

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana. We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Here and there – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence – Norman Dixon (1976)

 

This book reminds me of Clausewitz On War.  Although both are focussed on war, they are replete with valuable lessons for us all.  For example, Clausewitz said: ‘War is the province of uncertainty: three fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.’  That precisely applies to litigation, a form of trial by battle.

The author was supremely equipped to write this book.  After ten years’ commission in the Royal Engineers, he devoted his life to Psychology at University College, London.  You can see traces of both fields of service on every page.  Professor Dixon says that the military tends to produce ‘a levelling down of human capability, at once encouraging to the mediocre but cramping to the gifted.’  That is very common in nay large outfit, government or private.

The following also has general application.

It seems that having gradually (and perhaps painfully) accumulated information in support of a decision, people became progressively more loath to accept contrary evidence….  ‘New’ information has, by definition, high informational content, and therefore firstly it will require greater processing capacity; secondly, it threatens to return to an earlier state of gnawing uncertainty; and, thirdly, it confronts the decision maker with the nasty thought that he may have been wrong.  No wonder he tends to turn a blind eye!  ….‘the information-content’ may be just ‘too high for a channel of limited capacity.’

The ignorance of the condition of and the lack of care for the ordinary soldier defies belief in the Crimean and the Boer War.  In the first, many died because they were cold and wet, and they could get no fire; in the second, 16,000 of the 22,000 British dead died of disease.  Those responsible would now be tried for manslaughter.

The same cruel officers said the other side, at least those who were white, should be accorded respect.  ‘The notion that certain acts were ‘not cricket’ was carried to such absurd lengths that the trooper was given no training in the ‘cowardly’ art of building defensive positions or head cover.’  When the heavy machine gun was developed, ‘they were written off as suitable only for the destruction of savages and hardly suitable for use against white men….the colour of the Boer soldiers elevated them from the levels of savages, thereby saving their white skins from, exposure to machine guns, but on the other hand they were regarded, in terms of their believed military expertise, as no better than savages.’  No real uniform or spit and polish, old boy.  It is little wonder they had similar feelings about the ANZACS.  They certainly felt that way about the Americans in 1776 – until they learned better.

Professor Dixon is rightly savage about those who abandoned their men to agonising death.

In considering these data, one is forced the conclusion that the behaviour of these generals had something in common with that of Eichmann and his henchman who, as we know, were able to carry out their job without apparently experiencing guilt or compassion…..  ‘No privilege without responsibility’….Men’s fates were decided for them not so much by ‘idiots’ as by commanders with marked psychopathic traits.

We meet this theme throughout the book – the failures of command were moral rather than intellectual; the flaw was of character rather than the mind.  But we will also come across a failure of the mind in people unable to bear doubt or ambiguity – the ‘black and white crowd.’

The Germans blitzkrieg met a Polish army and a French army that believed horsed cavalry could destroy German Panzers.  That burial in the past defies belief.

The predisposition to pontificate is a dangerous liability.  Unfortunately, such a predisposition will be strongest in those like headmasters, judges, prison governors and senior military commanders who for two long have been in a position to lord it  over their fellow me…the important thing about pontification is that though an intellectual is that though an intellectual exercise, its origins are emotional.

On cognitive dissonance, Professor Dixon says: ‘Once the decision has been made and the person is committed to a given course of action, the psychological situation changes completely.  There is less emphasis on objectivity and there is more partiality and bias in the way in which the person views and evaluates the alternatives.’

But, perhaps there may have been an upside from the predominance of the upper class in British high command.  ‘It did little for military competence, but was eminently successful in other ways.  Few countries can boast of such an absence of military coups as Britain.’

On ‘bull’ – spit and polish and endless repetition –    ‘bull is closely linked to conservatism, for its very nature is to prevent change, to impose a pattern upon material and upon behaviour, and to preserve the status quo whether it is that of shining brass or social structure….it seems to be a natural product of authoritarian, hierarchical organisations….Perhaps the single most important feature of ‘bull’ is its capacity to allay anxiety….by the reduction of uncertainty.’

On ‘character and honour’ –

A code of honour may be likened to an endlessly prolonged initiation rite…As a general rule, snobbish behaviour betokens some underlying feeling of inferiority.  It is a common characteristic of the social climber, of the individual with low self-esteem, of the person who feels threatened or persecuted because of some real or imagined inadequacy.  That there is an underlying pathology to the condition seems fairly obvious for two reasons.  Firstly, those who are emotionally secure are rarely snobbish.  Secondly, the behaviour is itself irrational, compulsive and self-defeating.  After all, even the most hardened snob must know that other people are adept at seeing through his affectations.  There is nothing, for example, quite so transparent as name-dropping or displaying invitations.  He must know at some level that his behaviour provokes at best amusement, at worst ridicule, contempt, or even dislike, but he is nonetheless powerless to curb his snobbishness.  Something drives him on.

Anyone who has been a member of a close professional body – like, say, the Victorian Bar – would relish – no, wallow in – every word of that denunciation of the two bob snob.

On seeking achievement – ambition:

The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarised by saying that whereas the first is buoyed up by the hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. Both types of achievement motivation have their origins in early childhood…..senior commanders fall into two groups, those primarily concerned with improving their professional ability and those primarily concerned with self-betterment.

The comments on the authoritarian personality warrant a note and a book of their own.  The following may convey the gist.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characteristics of the armed services and the private needs of their members.  Research after World War II into the Third Reich showed two personality types.  One was anti-Semitic, rigid, intolerant of ambiguity and hostile to people of a different race.  The other was individualistic, tolerant, democratic, unprejudiced and egalitarian.

Research at Berkeley by Adorno and others refined the type, leading Professor Dixon to say that the results ‘at one level constituted fitting monument to the six million victims of Fascist prejudice.’  Another commentator said the results were ‘hair-raising.  They suggest that we could find in this country [U S] willing recruits for a Gestapo.’

There should have been no such shock or even surprise.  The Gestapo was not inherently German.  Sparta had a similar version for ruthlessly holding down an inferior people more than 2000 years ago.  To suggest that Hitler and the Nazis could only have risen up in Germany is to fall precisely into their vice of typing people – of branding every member of a group – by reference to their breeding.

Professor Dixon says:

The results delineated the authoritarian personality.  People who were anti-Semitic were also generally ethnocentrically prejudiced and conservative.  They also tended to be aggressive, superstitious, punitive, tough-minded and preoccupied with dominance-submission in their personal relationships….It seems that authoritarians are the product of parents with anxiety about their status in society.  From earliest infancy the children of such people are pressed to seek the status after which their parents hanker….There seem to be two converging reasons why such pressures produce prejudice and other related traits.  In the first place, the values inculcated by status-insecure parents are such that their children learn to put personal success and the acquisition of power above all else.  They are taught to judge people by their usefulness rather than their likeableness…In the second place, the interview data collected by the Berkeley researchers suggested that the parents of their authoritarian sample imposed these values with a heavy hand…..an exercise in punitive repression….The extreme strictness of the parents, coupled with their lack of warmth, necessarily frustrates the child.  But frustration engenders aggression, which is itself frustrated, for it is part of the training that children never answer back.  Hence, the aggression has to be discharged elsewhere, and where better than on to those very individuals whom the parents themselves have openly vilified – Jews, Negroes, and foreigners – all those in short, who being under-privileged, have acquired bad reputations in a status-seeking society?…..the authoritarian personalities manifest a monolithic self-satisfaction with themselves and their parents…Because he has to deny his own shortcomings, he dare not look inwards…..  ‘If he has a problem the best thing to do is not to think about it and just keep busy.’  Similarly, the authoritarian personality is intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity.  Just as he cannot harbor negative and positive feeling for the same person, but must dichotomize reality into loved people versus hate people, white versus black and Jew versus Gentile, so also he cannot tolerate ambiguous situations or conflicting issues.  To put it bluntly, he constructs of the world an image as simplistic as it is at variance with reality.

Later, the author points to the relationship between conformity, authoritarianism and the tendency to yield to group pressures, and the relationship with obsession.  He also looks at their generalised hostility, what the Berkeley researchers finely called ‘the vilification of the human.’  The dogmatic militarist is of course seriously anti-intellectual.

He already knows all he wants to know.  Knowledge is a threat to his ego-defensive orientation and is therefore rejected…To think is to question and to question is to have doubts….the essence of dogmatism is a basic confusion between faith and knowledge.

Later, Professor Dixon looks at the ultimate authoritarian – Himmler and his SS.

….authoritarian traits are the product of an underlying weakness of the ego.  Thus, from the first study, it seems that the SS guards of the Third Reich were not, as popularly supposed, ideological fanatics, but inadequate ‘little’ men for whom the satisfactions provided by the SS organisations were tailor-made – all-powerful father figures, rigid rules of loyalty and obedience, and ‘legitimate’ outlets for their hitherto pent-up and murderous hostility……By a process of paranoid projection, they hated in others what they could not tolerate in themselves.  Hence it was that the weak, the old, the underprivileged, and later the starving millions of the concentration camps suffered their fearful attentions   [But they could still] aver that their helpless victims were dangerous enemies, Jewish terrorists, etc, who had to be eliminated.  For in a sense they were enemies, not of the State, but of their own precariously poised egos.

Well, now, how does that all grab you?  Is it too neat and tidy for our crooked timber?  Are we falling into the trap of stereotyping people?  I think not.  The author is too bright and decent for that, and he says in terms that you cannot defeat your enemy by stereotyping him.

It is curious that as far as I can see, the book makes no reference to Hannah Arendt, who expressed similar views about Eichmann, or the KKK, which looks to me to the embodiment in the flesh of authoritarian man.  (Nor, I think, did Arendt make any reference to Adorno in her book on Eichmann.)

But, when I read this uncomely catalogue of our failings, I am reminded of the recycled, simplistic, jealous, mean, nativist, surly rejection that you can get hissed at you on a bad day in an outback pub.  More worryingly, I can also sense it in the vacant faces and the banal chants of those deprived souls who idolise Donald Trump, all dressed up to the nines in the colours of an ourangatang.  Those whom Professor Dixon studied look to me to be the kind of people behind our current moral and intellectual landslide.  And that, for what is worth, looks to me to be a failure of the mind – if those distinctions mean anything.

This book is vital to our efforts to come to grips with our saddest failings.