MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 15

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

Eichmann in Jerusalem,

A Report on the Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt

Penguin, rebound in slip case.

This book was first published in 1963.  It was serialised in The New Yorker.  In it,Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key participant in the Final Solution.  Arendt was a German Jewess of great learning who had fled from Nazi Germany, and Vichy France, and had become something of a rarity in the West – a respected intellectual.  The book is obviously the work of a very fine mind, but its publication caused great controversy – and grief within the Jewish community.  Some said that Arendt was too judgmental and insensitive – especially about the role of Jewish people in their own immolation.  But a huge controversy erupted, and can still be felt, about the subtitle – ‘the banality of evil.’

When Arendt arrived and first looked at the accused, she felt a kind of shock.  The ‘man in the glass booth’ was nicht einmal unheimlich, ‘not even sinister’ – certainly not inhuman or beyond comprehension.  She began to experience what she would later call her cura posterior, her cure after the event.  Her very astute biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, says:

Many people who read her five article series in the New Yorker – and many more who heard about the series secondhand – concluded that Hannah Arendt was soulless, or that she lacked what Gershom Scholem called Herzenstakt, sympathy.  They thought that Arendt felt no emotional involvement with the fate of her people.  She, on the other hand, thought that she had been finally cured of the kind of emotional involvement that precludes good judgment.

Well, her awakening may not have been as blinding as that of Saint Paul or Martin Luther, but she certainly blew the fuses of many people who were open to the suggestion that they were subject to ‘the kind of emotional involvement which precludes good judgment.’

In the book, Arendt said this about the banality of evil.

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace

Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  In other words, Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’. 

The phrase ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ has always seemed to me to be far for more pregnant with meaning than that of ‘the banality of evil,’ even if they are related.  At least as it appears to me, those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose on us some kind of Procrustean bed, and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.  That is what I see as the real point of the book, and that is what I think makes it a great book.  And as with other great books, the reaction to it is almost as instructive as the book itself.

But the suggestion that the war criminal was ‘normal’ was hardly novel.  In looking at reigns of terror during or after the French and Russian revolutions, historians have struggled to understand how ‘ordinary people’ can become mass murderers.  In a book first published in 1941 (The Year of the Terror, Twelve Who Ruled France, 1793-1794, 3rd Ed., 220), the American historian R R Palmer made this observation about Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat-load in the Vendée, and who after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

In what way, if any, was Carrier morally different to Eichmann?  As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

We might also reflect on what Berthold Brecht said of Hitler (in his notes to The Resistible Rise of the Man Arturo Ui, also published in 1941):

The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.  They are not great political criminals, but people who committed great political crimes, which is something entirely different.  The failure of his enterprises does not indicate that Hitler was an idiot and the extent of his enterprises does not make him a great man.  If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history.  That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook, and that what he does has great consequences, does not add to his stature….One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.

These are vital questions.  (And they bear on at least one prominent crook in the U S today.)  But, you might ask, what branch of human knowledge was Carrier, Brecht or Arendt invoking.  Tucked away in a footnote near the end of the biography of Young-Bruehl, we find that in his book Obedience to Authority (New York, 1974) the psychologist Stanley Milgram said:

After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to authority in our experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth that one might dare imagine.  This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

For myself, I don’t know how anyone looking at the mass murders in various reigns of terror can come to a different conclusion.  These regimes have awful corrupting power, but when Arendt saw Eichmann in the flesh, she thought that she had overrated the impact of ideology on the individual.  The conclusion of Arendt about Eichmann looks to me to be consistent with the insight of Carlyle on the worst excesses of the French Terror:

What, then, is this Thing called La Révolution, which, like an Angel of Death, hangs over France, noyading [drowning], fusillading, fighting, gun-boring, tanning human skins?…..It is the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.  In this man, it is, and in that man; as a rage, or as a terror, it is in all men.  Invisible, impalpable; and yet no black Azrael, with wings spread over half a continent, with sword sweeping from sea to sea, could be truer reality. 

After recounting how the French Terror extracted goods to trade in from its dead victims (such as using the skins of the guillotined to produce chamois or their hair to produce wigs), so prefiguring the horror of the Nazis, Carlyle said:

Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

Many good judges wonder what is the point or moral basis of our whole criminal justice system.  What does punishment achieve?  Who but God could aspire to measure it fairly?  Arendt felt the same doubts.  According to her biographer, ‘she did not abandon her opinion that extreme evil, whether thought of as radical or banal, is unpunishable and unforgivable.’  The person she sought to untangle this with was W H Auden.

It is in my view very dangerous to try to come to grips with the greatest lapses in the history of mankind by suggesting that somehow some inherent characteristic of either the evil-doers or their victims was in some way a cause of the relevant crime against humanity.  Saying that some people are marked by birth as different to other people is in my view as close as we can get to the notion of original sin.  And Hannah Arendt was far too acute to think that labels help.

You know that the left think I am conservative and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or a maverick or God knows what.  And I must say I couldn’t care less.  I don’t think the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination from this kind of thing.

Here and there – Caste

In Ancient Law (1861), Sir Henry Maine spoke of occasions where ‘that division into classes which at a particular crisis of social history is necessary for the maintenance of the national existence degenerates into the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions – Caste.  The fate of the Hindoo law is, in fact the measure of the value of the Roman code…..Even now, Hindoo jurisprudence has a substratum of forethought and sound judgment, but irrational imitation has engrafted in it an immense apparatus of cruel absurdities.’  The Oxford English Dictionary gives us ‘a race, stock or breed….one of the hereditary classes into which society in India has long been divided.’

Caste therefore has at least these characteristics: a division of people of a community into classes is effected by criteria and means provided within the community so that it is binding by custom or law or both; that classification is hereditary – you are born into a particular caste; and the distinction carries different rights, privileges and obligations depending on where you are in the hierarchy.

In Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson compares the status of African Americans to those that had caste imposed upon them in India or in Germany under Hitler.  I doubt whether the status of those Americans would warrant the application of the term ‘caste’ in the sense referred to above, but the exploration of that standing provides insights that are as luminous as they are unsettling.

Here are some of the anecdotes.

In southern courtrooms, even the word of God was segregated.  There were two separate Bibles – one for blacks and one for whites to swear to tell the truth on.

The Führer admired America.  He attributed its achievements to its Aryan stock.  He praised the country’s near genocide of native Americans and the exiling of those who survived to reservations.  ‘The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them.  Hitler especially marvelled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass deaths.’’ 

Big crowds would turn up for a lynching.  Sometimes the press gave advanced notice of a lynching.  ‘Lynchings were part carnival, part torture chamber, and attracted thousands of onlookers who collectively became accomplices to public sadism.’  A roaring trade in postcards helped spread the guilt.  ‘This was singularly American.  ‘Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs at Auschwitz,’ wrote Time magazine many years later.’  Singularly American indeed.  When the post refused to carry these post-cards, the sender put them in an envelope.

‘In America, a culture of cruelty crept into the minds, made violence and mockery seem mundane and amusing, built as it was into games of chance at carnivals and public fairs.’  ‘Coon Dip’ involved patrons hurling projectiles at live African Americans.  Hurling baseballs at the head of a black man was great sport.  Baseball, you will recall, is the national sport.

Now for some of the meat.

Those in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis.  To stand on the same rung as those perceived to be of a lower caste is seen as lowering one’s status….The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself; thus equality feels like a demotion.  If the lower-caste person manages actually to rise above an upper-caste person, the natural human response from someone weaned on their caste’s inherent superiority is to perceive a threat to their existence, a heightened sense of unease, of displacement, of fear for their very survival….Who are you if there is no one to be better than?

In explosions in France in 1789, and Russia in 1917, the infighting was about those wanting to be at least close to the top – and certainly not close to the bottom.  This attitude underlay the Nazis’ demonization of the Jews.  It is a sentiment in the air at a MAGA rally.  The torch-bearers at Charlottesville Virginia in August 2017 chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘White lives matter.’  The reaction of the President showed the depth of the problem.  When Trump referred to ‘fine people’ at Charlottesville, the world knew that the problem it had with the White House was worse than we had thought.

As soon as you create a hierarchy that rewards people by their standing in that hierarchy, you give fuel to resentment and jealousy – and the conviction that the unjust treatment you have received is an offence that cries out for revenge.  The question to the aristocrat The Marriage of Figaro was ‘And what did you do except take the trouble to be born?’  But people rising above their levels create their own problems.

It turns out that the greatest threat to a caste system is not lower-caste failure…but lower-caste success… Achievement by those in the lowest caste goes gainst the script handed down to us all….Achievement by marginalised people who step outside the roles expected of them puts things out of order and triggers primeval and often violent backlash.

This looks like the kind of force behind the election of Trump and his irrational drive to reverse anything Obama had achieved:  anything – the achievements of Obama were outside the normal script.  They were unnatural, and Trump was put there by God to set things right.

The author looks at film of the crowd’s adoration of Hitler.  ‘In that moment, you are face-to-face with the force of willing susceptibility to evil.  The Nazis could not have risen to power and done what they did without the support of the masses of people who were open to his spell.  And the author has the same view as Hanna Arendt.  She quotes a philosopher: ‘It’s tempting to imagine that the Germans were (or are) a uniquely cruel and bloodthirsty people.  But these diagnoses are dangerously wrong.  What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.’  This is crucial.  There is a bit of Hitler in all of us.

The author refers to ‘tremors within the dominant caste.  Insecure white people were concerned that minorities were taking jobs from whites.  This was one lever pulled by Trump.  This point is pivotal.  In a chapter on the price we pay for a caste system, the author looks at the failure to adopt the welfare state enjoyed by the rest of the Western world – and to the indifference to mass shootings.  Most Australians think that the U S is decently run except for two things – a failure to provide universal health care, and the embrace of mass murders involving guns that comes from a hopelessly twisted theory of rights according to unelected judges.  This leads the author to say:

A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows.  The result is that the United States, for all its wealth and innovation, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries of the world.

You cannot prove or even measure these propositions, but they do appear to be fundamental.  The nation has never rid itself of the stain of slavery. It is not going too far to suggest that the nation has not attained the maturity claimed by the pronouncements of its founders (who, it may be said, were anything but democrats according to our understanding of that term.)  Robert E Lee was a southern gentleman and a great general.  He told those of his slaves that had escaped that he ‘would teach us a lesson we would never forget.  He personally supervised the whipping of men and women.  He told the county constable to ‘lay it on well.’  Then, not satisfied ‘with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.’  The General believed that ‘how long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise merciful Providence.’  God save us from that wisdom and mercy.  Lee is one of trump’s favourite generals.

The institution of slavery was, for a quarter of a millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to cover an owner’s death or to spite a rival or to settle an estate.  They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them.  Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.

Before there was a United States of America, there was enslavement.  Theirs was a living death passed down for twelve generations.

It may well take a lot longer to settle the treatment of that cancer than we had thought.  This book by a coloured American journalist states a case to be answered.

Here and there – Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy

The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

Anne Applebaum

This book is beautifully written.  It is also very sad.  It could be given to apprentice barristers because its author understands that for an advocate, candour is a weapon.  And that it is a weapon is not realised by those people that Anne Applebaum describes.  She looks at the recent political shifts in Poland, Hungary, Spain and England – or, I should say, Great Britain – and asks who are the kinds of people that are attracted by the lure of authoritarian rule?  Her answer is ‘people who cannot tolerate complexity.’  You may want to be careful how you put that.  You could get into serious trouble if you referred to those people as ‘simpletons’ or even ‘simple minded.’  (You get sent straight to the stocks if you say that they are ‘deplorable.’)

….the ‘authoritarian predisposition’….is not exactly the same thing as closed-mindedness.  It is better described as simple-mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity.  They dislike divisiveness.  They prefer unity.  A sudden onslaught of diversity – diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences – therefore makes them angry.  They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.

This is the kind of failing that Keats had in mind when he spoke of the ‘negative capability’ of Shakespeare – ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’  A professional person must pursue this course; its absence is fatal in a judge; and it should be a paramount objective of what might be called a liberal education.  Educated people – and you also need to be careful about where you use that term – are brought up to distrust anyone claiming to have the answer.  But that is what those who surrender to the seduction crave.  It puts an end to anxiety and gives them peace.  Life is easier when you march to the beat of a drum.

And, of course, if you have the answer, then those against you are worse than perverse.  They are diagnosably wrong.  What you get is something like all-out war.  What we then miss is what Sir Lewis Namier referred to as ‘restraint coupled with the tolerance that it implies.’  The term is ‘polarised’ – what one participant told the author was ‘winner takes all.’  In Australia at the moment, a mild disagreement about handling a virus leads to shrieking about the death of democracy.

And you will see immediately how Twitter and the like feed those cancers and deliver up the credulous to their puppeteers.  What you get is a ‘frame of mind, not a set of ideas.’  And in the company of those of like mind, you get identity, the marks of which you bear with pride.

And the answers are plain.  ‘The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity.’  For the followers of Hitler, the Jews were the enemy; for the followers of Obán, it is Mr George Soros.  It doesn’t matter much whom you choose for scapegoats – say Jews, Muslims, migrants or gay people – as long as they are indentifiable and vulnerable.  What you have is ‘resentment, revenge, and envy.’  What you are released from is responsibility for your own history.  And you distrust experts.  You don’t want to concede their power or let them take your time.  You may even burble some nonsense about sovereignty.

As I said elsewhere:

Lord Clark said … that ‘as rational argument declines, vivid assertion takes its place.’…. You see a similar problem with people who ignore evidence that is contrary to the view they have formed provisionally.  It looks good enough to get a problem off their desk to someone else’s – why give yourself more trouble by re‑examining the point?  The problem is, in large part, one of laziness, the quest for the easy life, and for an end  to uncertainty and anxiety. …..The real problem is that most of us are not ready to acknowledge the prior opinion, nor the extent of its hold on us.  As Aldous Huxley observed, ‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored’; or, as Warren Buffett said: ‘What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.’  ….There is a related problem about our reluctance to be left in doubt or uncertainty.  It is sometimes hard to resist the suggestion that doing something is better than doing nothing.  That position is commonly dead wrong.  The French philosopher Blaise Pascal memorably said that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

At least three things sadden me about what this book tells us.  The first is that people like Farage, Trump and Boris Johnson are not people you would like to invite into your home.

Quite a lot of people have since remarked on Johnson’s outsized narcissism, which is indeed all consuming, as well as his equally remarkable laziness.  His penchant for fabrication is a matter of record.

They are the attributes of Farage and Trump.  They are like spoiled children.  They are not used to being denied, or even checked.  If they do meet obstruction, they sulk about the structures in their way.  They even claim to be persecuted.  The contempt of Farage for displaced Muslim persons in 2016 was manifest.  Just about every day, people like Trump or Johnson do something that would get them fired from the position of CEO of a public company.  But it appears that the bargaining power of those who put them in power does not allow them to call their leader to account.

The second point of sadness is that the followers of these liars rejoice in their lies.  This is part of the myth that the establishment is being stormed.  ‘Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign proved it was possible to lie, repeatedly, and to get away with it.’  It is quite remarkable how much time is spent by members of the elite complaining about the conduct of the elite; some even claim to be persecuted by the elite.

That brings us to God in America.  It has been a problem since the Puritans arrived and found themselves in the majority – they were fast running out of favour in England.  The pact between Trump and the evangelical Christians is something like: ‘You give us judges that will ban abortion and we will forget the Sermon on the Mount for federal politics.’  (Could you believe it?  The meek shall inherit the earth?)  That is sickening enough – but Rome did deals with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco.  And according to the author, some in America believe that ‘Russia is a godly Christian nation seeking to protect its ethnic identity.’  Others have odd views about Jerusalem.

If you see Laura Ingraham of Fox News on TV, you may feel the chill of her Aryan froideur even if you are not Jewish.  She is a Catholic who once went on a date with Trump and who gives lectures on Christian values and virtues – ‘honor, courage, selflessness, sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility, respect for elders, respect for the vulnerable.’ Trump is none of those things.  When Ms Ingraham interviewed Trump on the anniversary of D-day, she said ‘By the way, congratulations on your polling numbers.’  How can any faith survive that kind of betrayal?  And the worst of it is that some of these people call themselves ‘conservatives’.  Do any of them have any sense of shame left at all?

Then there is Falstaff – ‘Jack to my friends and Sir John to all Europe’.  (I refer to the Falstaff of the history plays, and not the sit-com of The Merry Wives of Windsor so gorgeously realised by Verdi in his carnival opera version).  Falstaff is, not necessarily in order, a coward, a drunk, a thief, a liar, a cheat, a crawler, a snob and a womaniser.  He is also the most popular character that Shakespeare ever created – so popular, some say, that the Queen commanded and got a whole play by way of encore.  For all his faults – his vices – we relate to Falstaff.  But looked at objectively, he is what Sir Anthony Quayle – and he should know – described as ‘frankly vicious.’

Is there something in our psyche – perhaps the complete reverse of the superego – that leads us to enjoy someone who openly mocks our whole establishment and its tiresome virtues?  You often hear people say that they like Trump because he can say things that they would never get away with – about, say, the first black president.  That is probably also the main source of appeal of those frightful parasites called shock jocks.  This is what Tony Tanner (in his Prefaces to Shakespeare) said:

In carnival, social hierarchy was inverted, authority mocked, conventional values profaned, official ceremonies and rituals grotesquely parodied, the normal power structures dissolved  – in a word, Misrule, Riot, the world upside down.

That is a fair summary of some of the more unattractive aspects of Falstaff and of those living in the world of the current White House.  And when you look at it, there is about Falstaff, as there is about Trump and Johnson, the aura of a spoiled child who never grew up.

Anne Applebaum says that ancient philosophers had their doubts about democracy – as did the movers of the revolutions of 1688, 1776, 1789, and 1917.  Plato feared the ‘false and braggart words’ of the demagogue, and wondered if democracy was anything more than a staging point on the way to tyranny.  This fine book shows a clear light on our current descent.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 12 – Einstein

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

IDEAS AND OPINIONS

Albert Einstein

Folio Society, 2010.  Bound in figured boards, with photographs and slip case.

The word Einstein now stands genius, just as Hoover means vacuum cleaner, but it was Einstein who once and for all put science beyond all but the select.  Before Einstein, people with a good general education could come to grips with the laws of science on which the world revolved.  But they could not do so after Einstein rewrote the whole book.  Now for most of us science is, at bottom, like God or Mozart, something that we must take, if at all, simply on trust.  It would be fair to hazard the assertion that the mind of Einstein has had more effect on the world than any other mind.

Einstein was born of Jewish parents in Ulm, a small city on the Danube in the south of Germany.  He at first attended a Catholic elementary school, and then attended the local Gymnasium.  He was introduced to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the age of about ten – which is like saying that Mozart started composing at the age of five.  He took his tertiary education in Switzerland and got employment as an examiner in the Swiss Patent Office.

The work of Einstein led him to conduct thought experiments about the nature of light and the relation of time and space.  He was crossing the borders of existing knowledge.  In 1905, he published four revolutionary papers, one on special relativity.  He then developed his general theory which was later verified.  He was the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, and a professor at Humboldt University from 1914 to 1932.  He won a Nobel Prize in 1921.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein was in America.  He stayed there – back home they burnt his books and put a bounty on his head.  He then warned the U S that Hitler might be first to get the Atom bomb.  This led Roosevelt to implement the Manhattan Project.  Einstein later wrote a manifesto with Bertrand Russell on the dangers of nuclear weapons.  His total scientific output was staggering.  It does not bear to think what might have happened had Einstein returned to Germany in 1933 and provided the means for Hitler to be the first to get, and most certainly use, the bomb.

Einstein had a mature view of religion.  Towards the end of his life he said ‘I very rarely think in words at all’.  He thought in pictures, in his thought experiments, and mathematically.  Whereas some people see what they believe to be miracles as evidence of God’s existence, for Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence, and revealed a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.  This is very much like what Kant thought.  When Einstein adhered to this dictum and said that God does not play dice, the rejoinder of Nils Bohr was: ‘Einstein, stop telling God what to do!’

Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were out to get him.  A New York rabbi sent him a telegram: ‘Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  Fifty words.’  The reply was: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind’.  Einstein never felt the need to put down others who believed in a different kind of God: ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’.

In a paper headed The World as I See It, published in 1931, Einstein said:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge, and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.  I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves.  Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts.  I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvellous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

You can see why Einstein poses a challenge to religion as it is usually practised.  It is not just the rejection of a personal God and life after death – he finds a source of wonder and mystery from contemplating the world as he finds it.  In a paper published in Germany in 1930, Einstein had affirmed that man could get by ethically without God.

A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible….Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust.  A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.  Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.

Elsewhere he made a strong allegation: ‘The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods.’

He knew how to take a stand.  Here is his advice on a 1953 inquisition.

What ought the minority of intellectuals do against this evil? Frankly, I can only see the revolutionary way of non-co-operation in the sense of Ghandi’s.  Every intellectual who is called before one of the committee’s ought to refuse to testify, i. e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country.

However, this refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution.

If enough people are ready to take this grave step, they will be successful.  If not, then the individuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

That was written by someone proscribed by Nazi Germany.  He could prescribe very high standards.  Here he is on human rights in 1954.

The existence and validity of human rights was not written in the stars…There is however one other human right which is infrequently mentioned, but which seems to be destined to become very important: this is the right or the duty of the individual to abstain from cooperating in activities which he considers wrong or pernicious.  The first place in this respect must be given to the refusal of military service.  I have known instances where individuals of unusual moral strength and integrity have, for that reason, come into conflict with the organs of the state.  The Nuremberg trial of the German war criminals was tacitly based on the recognition of the principle: criminal actions cannot be excused if committed on government orders; conscience supersedes the authority of the law and the state.

The last clause is potent.  Finally, this is what he had to say to Mahatma Ghandi in 1944:

A leader of his people, unsupported by any outward authority: a politician whose success rests not upon the craft nor the mastery of technical devices, but simply on the convincing power of his personality; a victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force; a man of wisdom and humility, armed with resolve and inflexible consistency, who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people and the betterment of their lot; a man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.

Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

Those words were spoken by the man who referred to Jesus of Nazareth as ‘the luminous Nazarene.’  This book is a big clean window into one of the most powerful minds the world has known.

 

Here and there – Black Knight plays White Queen

The events known as the Dismissal of 1975 have come back to the front page of our press with the release of correspondence between the Palace in London (on behalf of the Queen) and the Governor-General (Sir John Kerr) in Australia.  Those who had the custody of those documents had resisted disclosing them.  The resistance was fierce and prolonged.  It is hard to think of a good reason why the people of Australia should have been prevented from getting access to documents that may throw light on one of the most contentious political episodes in our history.

At the heart of that dispute was the question of what is the proper role of the executive of the Commonwealth – the Queen and the Governor-General – in resolving a deadlock between the two houses of Parliament.

The dispute had arisen because one party had used its numbers in the Senate to block supply to the government with a view to forcing an early election and, as I recall, state governments had filled Senate vacancies with people they thought would be amenable to their views.  The government had been acting badly, but there were good grounds to suggest that the opposition parties had breached long standing political conventions in the way in which they were blocking supply.  The atmosphere was worse than tense.  It was venomous.

The answer about the proper role of the Queen and the Governor-General in our political affairs was not given by the Queen.  The answer was driven from London from advisers in the Palace and from the Governor-General and his staff in Canberra.  The Queen, we are told, had no part in the decision.  According to the correspondence now released, the decision reached by her advisers in the Palace and the Governor-General in Australia was that the Queen should have nothing to do with this crisis in Australia, and it should all be left to the Governor General – albeit with the benefit of advice to him from the staff of the Queen at the Palace.  The decision that the Queen should play no part extended to a decision that she should not be told in advance what action the Governor-General might take.

All that raises the question – if the Queen has no part to play in resolving an issue like this, what is the point of keeping the Queen as part of the government of the Commonwealth of Australia?

The Constitution in section 61 provides:

The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.

In considering this provision, we should remember that the Constitution was contained in a schedule to an act of the British Parliament that was passed at the time when Great Britain was at the pinnacle of its power ruling over one of the greatest empires in the history of the world – if ‘great’ is an appropriate epithet for any empire.  When the mother country granted former colonies their independence, as it had done with Canada and as it would do with many other nations in Africa and Asia, it did so by setting up the constitutions of those nations so that they would follow what the British were reasonably entitled to believe was their greatest contribution to the world – the rule of law under the common law and the Westminster version of parliamentary democracy.  You can, if you wish, test the validity or worth of that faith by looking at the subsequent histories of, say, the former colonies of Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, or Italy.

The terms ‘power’ and ‘vesting’ that appear in s. 61 may at times be legally charged, as may be the notion of delegation implicit in the stipulation that the Governor-General may exercise those powers of the Queen, but the intention and effect of this law is plain enough.  The mother country is bequeathing its system of government to the fledging nation that it is giving birth to.  If you look at s. 61, you see that the powers that are exercisable by the Governor-General are the powers of the Queen.  The law says that the Governor-General acts as ‘the Queen’s representative.’  It is like the relation between principal and agent developed by the common law.

In the business of running the government, the Governor-General has the powers of the Queen.  And part of our overall constitutional framework is that the Governor-General, like the Queen, can only exercise those powers on advice from the Ministers of the Crown who are members of parliament and who have the confidence of a majority of that parliament.

There is therefore no need to ask what might happen if there was a dispute between the Queen and the Governor-General as to how those powers should be exercised – each of them can only act on the advice of the government of the day.  It follows of course that it would not be open to the Governor-General to act in a manner that is denied to the Queen – by, for example, acting not just without the consent of the government, but by acting against the express wishes of that government.  To put it more broadly, it is difficult under our law to envisage an agent having more power than the principal.  Perhaps we might consider the analogy of chess – the queen is much more powerful than a knight, but the knight moves in a way that the queen cannot; a player who sacrifices a queen for a knight is mad; and the king is untouchable.

The debate, if that is what it was, about the ‘reserve powers’ of the Governor-General calls to mind the issue of the ‘royal prerogative’ in the seventeenth century.  The Stuart kings could not shed the illusion that their powers – the prerogative of the Crown – came from God – and could only be taken from them by God.  That issue was resolved against the Crown in the events known as the Glorious Revolution of 1788-1789.  James II, the last of the Stuarts, decamped ingloriously, heaving the royal seals into the Thames as he went, possibly reflecting, as one mordant historian remarked, about that part of the neck that was severed when the English cut off his father’s head; Dutch troops patrolled the streets of London; and the parliament and the Queen, who was the daughter of James II, and William of Orange signed the Hanoverians up to supply a line of house trained kings from Germany to run things in England.  This is where we get the supremacy, or, if you prefer, the sovereignty of parliament.  Virtually all powers of the Crown were subject to the will of the people in parliament.  Looking back on it now, this does look like a pan European solution to a very English problem.  The efforts of the French to follow suit a century later met a much harder fate.

Lord Denning, am English jurist of last century, did not pussy-foot about the English solution.

Concede, if you wish, that, as an ideology, communism has much to be said for it: nevertheless, the danger in a totalitarian system is that those in control of the State will, sooner or later, come to identify their own interests, or the interests of their own party, with those of the State: and when that happens the freedom of the individual has to give way to the interests of the persons in power.  We have had all that out time and again in our long history: and we know the answer.  It is that the executive government must never be allowed more power than is absolutely necessary.  They must always be made subject to the law; and there must be judges in the land who are ‘no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any encroachment on his liberty by the executive.’  We taught the kings that from Runnymede to the scaffold at Whitehall [the execution of Charles I]: and we have not had any serious trouble about it since.

It therefore came as quite a surprise to learn from the correspondence now released that the staff of the Queen at the Palace and the Governor-General in Australia went out of their way to ensure that the Queen had no notice at all of what would be the most significant step ever taken purportedly on behalf of the Queen in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia.  Of course in the day to day business of government, the Queen is never consulted.  But on what basis did those who advised Sir John Kerr about his powers decide that the Queen should be not be informed or in any way involved in the way that her powers should be exercised in a manner that had never been done before?

And although the Queen could only act on the advice of the government of the day, the Governor-General was acting in this case in a manner expressly contrary to that advice.  It has always seemed to many to be odd to say that the person entrusted with the powers of the Queen could exercise those powers in a manner expressly denied to the Queen – that in some ways his powers were more plenary than when exercised by Her Majesty.  What the Palace correspondence shows is a Governor-General acting in a manner that was contrary to an essential pillar of our inherited Westminster system of government.

The reason offered for that course is that if the Governor-General had warned the Prime Minister of his intention, the Prime Minister could have asked the Queen to remove the Governor-General and she would then have been obliged to do so.  Is that not a matter of the Governor-General acting peremptorily in order to preclude the possibility of the Queen acting appropriately?  And does that just leave us with Alice in Wonderland?

If after the Governor-General had acted as he did and he had informed the Queen, what may have been the case if the Queen had been of the opinion that she would have acted differently?  And how could Her Majesty have said otherwise when she was obliged to act, and only to act, on the advice of her Australian ministers?

It is not therefore surprising to read that a former member of the Palace bureaucracy says now:

I suspect that the advice that would have been given to him [Sir John Kerr] was that it would have been prudent to hold off a bit longer.  But obviously he felt the pressure of these two contingencies about the election and the financial situation were too pressing to ignore.  I think it was very proper of him not to ask and in ways which are now very evident, very sensible and satisfactory that he didn’t.  There was considerable discussion of a hypothetical nature about the existence of, and appropriateness of, applying to those reserve powers, but at no stage did the Governor-General ever ask the Queen to suggest that he should act in any particular way, and nor did she offer that advice through her private secretary…

The press reports that this gentleman and the author of the Palace letters thought that Australia was embroiled in a ‘political’ and not ‘constitutional’ crisis and concluded that the Governor- General had intervened ‘too precipitously’ to resolve the deadlock over supply.

All of us in London thought that if Kerr had been able to hold his nerve for just a day or two more, there probably would have been a political solution to the problem, which would have avoided a lot fuss.

And ‘a lot of fuss’ there was – that might have been avoided if the various officials in London and Canberra had not sought and managed to keep the Queen out of this dispute.

And one day someone in Whitehall may illuminate us about the distinction between a ‘political’ crisis and a ‘constitutional’ crisis.  It looks to be the kind of question that could have tantalised Aristotle or Plato or Augustine or Aquinas in different ways.  Some may be reminded that the medieval Schoolmen agonised over the question of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle.  This is not the kind of speculation that we need to see in the government of our nation.

Well, what are we now to make of all this?  Does it not just look like an episode of Yes, Minister that has gone horribly wrong?

Many Australians, including me, were infuriated by what happened in 1975.  Now many of those Australians, again including me, just feel personally insulted that the fate of their government in 1975 had been determined by the actions of Palace officials in London and a Governor-General here who thought that it was appropriate for him to act in the way that he did without notice either to the Queen of Australia or to the Prime Minister of Australia.

When you come to think about it, there was truly chutzpah to behold in civil servants in the onetime seat of a mighty empire involving themselves in the affairs of onetime colonies and helping to bring about a change of government – without any notice to its head of state or prime minister. The term coup d’état may be too strong, but I know how some people feel.  If there is one thing worse than a monarch wanting to intervene in our affairs, it may be a monarch who wants nothing to do with us, even though our constitution makes her the primary repository of the executive powers of the Commonwealth.

Now, forty-five years later, we may wonder if the reaction to the election of Gough Whitlam in Australia might now be seen in the reaction to the election of Barak Obama in the United States – ‘this aberration is not the way that we the better people are used to doing business,  and we may therefore just have to bend the rules a little in order to restore the status quo; democracy is at its best when it is duly guided, and sometimes the people just forget what’s best for them.’

It brings to mind an immortal cartoon of Ron Tandberg.  Just before he retired, Sir John put on a routine of another but much better known Sir John – Falstaff.  Sir John presented the Melbourne Cup when it was obvious to tout le monde that he was as full as a state school.  Tandberg showed him blotto with crosses for eyes under a silly, tilted top hat.  The caption was: ‘I love making presentations in November.  Like when I gave the nation back to its true owners.’

Gough Whitlam said Sir John was the last of the Bourbons.  He might as well have said Stuarts – they were very helpfully incorrigible.  But it is notorious that those in the diaspora cling to relics long after their time has passed.  Sir Lewis Namier said that the US is ‘in certain ways, a refrigerator in which British ideas and institutions are preferred long after they have been forgotten in this country’.

Well, two things are clear enough – indeed, two things are transcendentally clear.  First, very few people in Australia want to give any power to any government officials in London to settle their political disputes.  Secondly, no one in London wants to be involved in any such Australian disputes.  The time of this institution in Australia has passed from us long ago.  That being so, the presence of the monarchy in our body politic is as useful as the appendix in my body and it is time for us to achieve independence from Great Britain and proceed under our own head of state.

 

Here and there – Fascism now?

 

‘Fascist’ is a term I used to think that I used too often.  Now I am not sure.  I fear that fascism may be in the air again.

Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale.  He has written a book called How Fascism Works, The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018).  At first I wondered if this was just another product of North American academe that gorges itself on –isms and other abstractions.  But I find that the author has the sense and discipline to make his point and move on.  That is the calling card of an advocate.

Professor Stanley’s catalogue of the hallmarks of fascism is very unsettling because so many appear of them to be surfacing now all around us.  Before I list those hallmarks, and in his order, I may set out a definition of the word that I wrote elsewhere some years ago now.  (Curiously, I am not sure that this book may not offer a definition of ‘fascism’ – that might be said to be the purpose of the whole book.)

‘Fascism’

What do I mean by ‘fascism’?  I mean a commitment to the strongest kind of government of a people along overtly militarist and nationalist lines; a government that puts itself above the interests of any or indeed all of its members; a commitment that is driven by faith rather than logic; with an aversion to or hatred of equality, minorities, strangers, women and other deviants; a contempt for liberalism or even mercy; and a government that is prone to symbolism in weapons, uniforms, or its own charms or runes, and to a belief in a charismatic leader. 

The word came originally from the Latin word fasces, the bundle of rods and axe carried before Roman consuls as emblems of authority, and was first applied to the followers of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, and then to the followers of Il Caudillo, Generalissimo Franco, and the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.  Fascists are thick-skinned, thick-headed, and brutal.  They despise intellectuals – who are after all deviants – but they may have an untutored and irrational rat cunning.

As Professor Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University tersely remarks: ‘The whole cocktail is animated by a belief in regeneration through energy and struggle’ (kampf).  To an outsider, it looks like pure moonshine that is the first refuge of a ratbag and a bully, a brilliant and seductive toy for the intellectually and morally deprived, and an eternal warning of the danger of patriotism to people of good sense and good will.  But while that ‘cocktail’ may look la bit much for Plato, it looks fair for Sparta.

Now, here are the headings of Professor Stanley.

The mythic past

We know this well – the intentionally mythical past.  The nostalgia harnesses emotion to the main tenets of the fascist creed – authoritarianism, hierarchy, purity and struggle.  ‘The strategic aim of these hierarchal constructions of history is to displace truth, and the invention of a glorious past includes the erasure of inconvenient realities.’  And sorry, boys, but the leader is like the father in the old patriarchal family.  That comes with the package when you go backwards.  And nations make odd laws to protect the myth – like the ban on ‘insulting Turkishness’ in Turkey or royalty in Thailand.  And then there is America’s fetish about its bloody flag.  Who wants to die for a bit of cloth?

Propaganda

‘Fascist movements have been ‘draining swamps’ for generations’.  The propaganda puts up a balloon of purity that can only be sullied by outsiders – like migrants, Muslims, or queers.

To many white Americans, President Obama must have been corrupt, because his very occupation of the White House was a kind of corruption of the traditional order.  When women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption.

That is in my view fundamental.

Anti – intellectual

Education, expertise and language are devalued to make intelligent debate impossible.  At the same time, they say that culture and truth are to be found only in the West.  Rejecting expertise makes sophisticated debate impossible.  Indeed, ‘sophistication’ like ‘restraint’ or ‘moderation’ is the opposite of fascism.  It is as if they were born in fear of what Keats called ‘negative capability’ – the capacity to discern and assess conflicting ideas without getting snaky.

In fascist politics, universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise, represented as radical ‘Marxists’ or ‘feminists’ spreading a leftish ideological agenda under the guise of research.  By debasing institutions of higher learning and impoverishing our joint vocabulary, fascist politics reduces debate to ideological conflict.

You can get as much of all that as you want in The Spectator and other like publications in Australia.

Unreality

Reality is replaced by the pronouncements of one man.  (It is I think always a bloke.)  ‘A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence.’  And you get a nauseating deluge of conspiracy theories that are designed to abolish reality.  ‘The function of conspiracy theories is to impugn and malign their targets, but not necessarily convincing their audience that they are true.’  These theories, if that is the term, set aside reality and the basis of sensible discussion.  People look for tribal identification and entertainment.  ‘When news becomes sports, the strongman achieves a certain measure of popularity.’

The author here looks at inequality – ‘dramatic inequality poses a mortal danger to the shared reality required for a healthy liberal democracy.’  This is important.  Inequality undermines an implied basis of fairness or reasonableness in our community.  ‘Those who benefit from large inequalities are inclined to believe that they have earned their privilege, a delusion that prevents them from seeing reality as it is.’  And: ‘Equality, according to the fascist, is the Trojan horse of liberalism.’

Hierarchy

People who feel inadequate need others to grade their place on the ladder.  They need to ‘belong.’  Like boy scouts, girl guides, or the inmates of our prisons –or members of parliament or the judiciary. The risk is that you do not just get class – you get the curse of caste.  People in the American South espoused the ‘great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’

The notion of ‘original sin’ is in my view abhorrent, and an insult to our humanity.  But If I had to nominate our original sin, it would be caste.  And on a bleak winter day, I might see it starting in Genesis rather more clearly than I can see Eve take the apple.  At least we know that that could not have happened.

Fascism clearly thrives on perceived threats of loss of status or reduction of felt worth.  Like most of these markers, it is a balm for insecurity – or one who felt as rejected unfairly as Adolf Hitler.  You just need to look at how the scum, like Marat, came to the surface during the French revolution.  They still seek in vain for a hero.

Victimhood

Science teaches us that increased representation of minorities is seen by those in the dominant majority as threatening.  (During the French revolution, those at the bottom were the most lethal – because they felt the most threatened.)  According to the professor, 45% of supporters of Trump believe that whites are discriminated against and 54% believe that Christians are the most persecuted religion – in America.  And as our author remarks: ‘Rectifying unjust inequalities will always bring pain to those who benefited from such injustices.  The pain will inevitably be experienced by some as oppression.’  That is very astute.  We saw precisely that here after Mabo.  Our squatters felt as jilted as the French nobles did after 1789.

Nationalism is at the core of fascism.  The fascist leader enjoys a sense of collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity that is by its nature opposed to the cosmopolitan ethos and individualism of liberal democracy.

And yet our front lines in the culture wars don’t know how close to home is their bogey of ‘identity politics.’

Law and order

Well, this has been around at least since Pisistratus seized power in Athens about 2,500 years ago on the footing that the state was in danger.  Nixon, for one, made an art form of it.  It is now getting another airing there.

Sexual anxiety

When traditional male roles are threatened by economics or migration, a kind of sexual anxiety may arise.  If you subscribe to the role of the traditional patriarchal family, then you might panic when threatened by people of a different sexuality.  Some of the conspiracy theories are sickeningly mad.  Hitler thought that Jews were behind a conspiracy to use black soldiers to rape pure Aryan women as a means to destroy ‘the white race.’  A fear of rape by blacks underlay many lynchings.  If Freud had not been born, we would have had to invent him.

It is not hard to see how men can feel threatened.  ‘When equality is granted to women, the role of men as sole providers for their families is threatened.’

Sodom and Gomorrah

Part of the myth of the past is the celebration of country over town.  Hitler loathed Vienna because it had rejected him, and he was disgusted by its cosmopolitanism – its mixture of different racial and cultural groups.  Tolerance of diversity – tolerance itself – is alien to fascism.  And the city is the home of the loathed ‘elites’, financial or otherwise.  People who glorify this rural idyll have not often been blasted by bush fire or mortally threatened by drought.  But these people rest on illusion, or delusion, rather than reality.

Arbeit macht frei

That is a label from hell, but fascism espies laziness in its enemies – such as Jews or people of colour.

Why do Americans resist what the rest of the western world embraces as the basic requirements of the welfare state?  It is as well to remember that when Churchill and Lloyd George started Britain on that path with the People’s Budget, they were doing so in part in response to the huge reforms that Bismarck put in place in Germany more than twenty years before.  Yet in the year 2020, a People’s Budget is still anathema in the United States.

Most often American opposition to welfare is represented as a manifestation of a commitment to individualism….And yet a dominant theme emerging from research on white Americans’ attitude is that the single largest predictor of white Americans’ attitude toward programs described as ‘welfare’ is their attitude toward the judgment that black people are lazy.

If that is right, the lagging of the United States behind Germany in 1890 is another by product of the Original Sin of slavery.  The curse that Lincoln descried in his second inaugural still blights the Union.

Here the author quotes Hannah Arendt: ‘It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying, but deliberately proposed to transform its lies into reality.’  Or, as Professor Stanley remarks: ‘The ‘hard work’ versus ‘laziness’ dichotomy is, like the ‘law-abiding’ versus ‘criminal’, at the heart of the fascist division between ‘us’ and ‘them’.’  And an influx of refugees might represent the ultimate threat.

And labour unions are also evil.

Labor unions create mutual bonds along lines of class rather than those of race and religion.  That is the fundamental reason why labor unions are such a target in fascist ideology.

It is curious how much all kinds of regimes have been scared by associations, expressions of community.  The French moved against such associations when celebrating all that they had undone during their revolution.  Generosity so quickly turns to selfishness.

The disabled were of course seen as lacking in value – because value for fascists lies in a person’s contribution to society through work.  And in my view, we are seeing a very ugly echo of that thought in this pandemic, when some hard heads suggest, some more openly than others, that the welfare of the old and useless is expendable in aligning the economy to supply work to those who can work.  Is that not just eugenics by another name?  (Disclosure: My disabilities are such that I would be discarded in the first batch.  ‘Straight to the morgue, Driver.  Forget the hospital.’)

Well, there is Professor Stanley’s list of ten indicia of fascism.  On the last page, he concludes his book this way:

In the direct targets of fascist politics – refugees, feminism, labor unions, racial, religious, and sexual minorities – we can see the methods used to divide us.  But we must never forget that the chief target of fascist politics is its intended audience, those it seeks to ensnare in its illusory grip, to enrol in a state where everyone deemed ‘worthy’ of human status is increasingly subjugated by mass delusion.  Those not included in that audience and status wait in the camps of the world, straw men and women ready to be cast into the roles of rapists, murderers, terrorists.  By refusing to be bewitched by fascist myths, we remain free to engage one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding, but none of us demons.

At times I wondered whether this book was just another excursus on labels, but I think not.  Let us put to one side the word ‘fascist’.  One sort of person now threatens our peace and wellbeing.  That is the person who thrives on our division and conflict, and who cares not for tolerance or restraint.  In my view Professor Stanley has done us a very good turn by arming us to see and meet our enemy.  This is a very important book, even if it says nothing new.  Placement is all.

Finally, to illustrate his theme, throughout the book Professor Stanley refers us to regimes that we least admire – like Hungary, Poland, Myanmar, Turkey and Russia.  Does anyone else come to mind?  Someone who might, perhaps, score a perfect ten on every dive?

Here and there – A populist

 

In a book about Kissinger, I find the following remarks about a populist.  I will refer to him as ‘Smith’ as I think a comparison may be instructive.

Smith was quick-witted, able to deal handily with hecklers, of whom there were many in the early years.  He was so attuned to his audience that he could adapt to any moods.  As a speaker he lived intensely in the moment – and what else does ‘presence’ mean?…..After he had gained sufficient renown, he could afford the pomp and circumstance that kept his audiences in a state of anticipatory excitation until his strategically delayed arrival on stage.  There were colourful banners, peppy march music, fiery introductory speeches to warm up the crowd – and then the main event, the attraction everyone had awaited so eagerly….

It was less what he said than how he said it…..Part of the magic was that Smith told people what they wanted to hear.  His pronouncements were not a challenge, but a confirmation of his followers’ assumptions and preconceptions, an incitement to cast off the dreary restrictions of civility and rationality and allow their emotions full Dionysiac release, above all a permission to maintain hope in the face of obdurate reality and to hate anyone or anything that was perceived to undermine that hope…..He appealed to a devastated populace that ….that had lost everything, including their established beliefs, felt a profound sense of grievance, and found consolation in a [nationalism] that was part sentimentality, and part utopianism, a sort of forward looking nostalgia…

Because he dwelled on longings instead of facts, he preferred abstractions to specifics, emphasizing honour, nation, family, loyalty.  What distinguished him was the totality of his commitment……He employed neither logic nor reason, but sheer passion…Smith didn’t need ideas.  He had the conviction of a convert….

More than one commentator has observed that Smith rallies were like religious revivals, where the crowds went not for articulation of policy positions, but for the release of unbridled emotion….Smith understood that his audiences wanted not only to be saved but also to enjoy themselves in the process…Smith rallies may have suggested prayer meetings; they also resemble Bruce Springsteen concerts.  Whoever imagined that salvation could be so much fun? 

Whatever else he might have been, Smith was a performer, dealing in mass entertainment.  He was no good in intimate settings….but put him on a stage and he was in his element. He knew how to work a crowd and how to package himself as a celebrity.  It didn’t matter what the press said   ‘The main thing is that they mention us.’

Weber said that someone who possessed passion but not a realistic sense of responsibility was little more than a political dilettante consumed by sterile excitements or by a romanticism that, in Weber’s words, ‘runs away to nothing.’  The demagogue in particular was unsuited to the vocation of politics because he runs a constant risk of becoming a play actor, making light of the responsibility for the consequences of his actions and asking only what ‘impression’ he is making…

Smith’s facility for dealing in dreams was enough to gain him a steadily growing following that was serious in its numbers yet fundamentally unserious in its ideas, substituting the lightness of desire for the concreteness of policy….The appeals to violence and the flouting of the law only increased his popularity among his admirers.

A ‘forward looking nostalgia’ is a useful notion.

Does the picture above best describe (1) Mussolini (2) Franco (3) Hitler (4) Tito (5) Kim Jong-Un (6) Erdogan (7) Orban (8) Johnson (9) Bolsonaro (10) Trump or (11) all of the above?

The book quotes a great definition of ‘diplomacy’ that judges and mediators might bear in mind: ‘It is the task of statesmanship to settle disputes in such a way as to minimise the damage to the prestige of the parties involved.’  ‘Face’ can be everything.

As for Kissinger, it is bad if you are too clever.

Here and there – Two men of colour – who were giants

 

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

On 12 October, 1931, a young man in Austin Texas, a freshman at the University of Texas named Charlie Black, paid seventy-five cents to get into the downtown Hotel Driskill to hear someone billed as the ‘King of The Trumpet, and His Orchestra.’  The band was to play at play four dances in Austin.  Young Charlie knew precious little about jazz, and he had never heard of the King.  He went along and paid his money because he just knew that there would be lots of girls to dance with.  Well, in those days, young people went out to meet and dance together, and they even danced cheek to cheek, something that became part of a song later made famous by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

But there was of course a kind of separatism then.  It had been left there long after the Civil War by the curse of racism.  Everyone on the dance floor was white.  Only the waiters and the musicians – including the King – were black.

Charlie Black would later remember what happened when the King started to play:

…..mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed….Steamwhistle power, lyric grace, alternated at will and even blended.

He was the first genius I had ever seen….It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy’s seeing genius for the first time , in a black.  We literally never saw a black back then, in any but a servant’s capacity….But genius – fine control over total power, all height and depth for ever and ever?  It had simply never entered my mind that I would see this for the first time as a black man.  You don’t get over that…The lies reel, and contradict one another, and simper in silliness and fade into shadow.  But the seen truth remains.

Charlie Black’s white mate was unmoved: ‘After all, he’s nothin’ but a goddam nigger!’

Charlie Black, who obviously had a way with words, carried the ‘seen truth’ with him all his life.  He became a distinguished teacher of constitutional law, and he would in part repay his life-long debt to the King in 1954.  It was then that he appeared with other counsel for the segregated bus travelling children in the great Supreme Court Case of Brown v School Board of Education.  The Court then ruled that the Great Republic would no longer tolerate segregated bussing for schoolchildren on the specious ground of ‘separate but equal’.  People were either equal or they were not equal.  Playtime for pussyfooting about race was over.  This was a great win for the nation, for the rule of law in the West generally, and for the people of the King.  It is an appalling cliché, but on this occasion we might justifiably use it – it could only happen in America.

Ken Burns made TV series about the Civil War, baseball, and jazz.   He saw all three as being deeply American – they were about freedom and improvisation.  The book of the last series begins with this anecdote about Charlie Black, and the author says: ‘Genius is ultimately untraceable.  No amount of historical or psychological sleuthing can ever fully explain the emergence of artists like Bach or Picasso or Louis Armstrong, who appears as if from nowhere and through the power of their own individual imaginations transform an art.’

In the Preface, Burns had become lyrical.  ‘Louis Armstrong is quite simply the most important person in American music.  He is to twentieth-century music (I did not say jazz) what Einstein is to physics, Freud is to psychiatry, and the Wright Brothers are to travel.’

If jazz had a holy trinity, Charlie Parker might be the son, and Duke Ellington might be the Holy Ghost, but there is no doubt who the first would be.

Louis Armstrong used to say that he was born on July 4 1900, but the fact was otherwise.  He was born in 1901, and he was the grandson of slaves.  His mother and father each abandoned him at one time or another.  He grew up in Uptown or Back of Town and then Storyville, the red light area, in New Orleans, the undisputed birthplace of jazz.  He hauled coal as a kid, but the family did not make enough, and his mother had to go on the game.  Louis dropped out of school at eleven, and he learned to play the cornet (a kind of trumpet) by ear at Dago Tony’s Tonk.

Young Louis was in custody for a while in the New Orleans Home for Coloured Waifs.  He played in the band and was taught some music there.  He worked for a while for a Jewish family from Lithuania and he saw that you did not have to be coloured to be rejected by white people.  He wore a Star of David for the rest of his life.  He played with Joe ‘King’ Oliver, a legend of jazz, who fleeced him.  He there learned the importance of the straight lead being played in whole notes.  He also played with Kid Ory, and then he joined the Fletcher Henderson orchestra.

By 1925, Satchmo, as he would be called, was a recording star, and he started making recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven.  His then wife, Lil, played the piano.  Armstrong said: ‘When we made those records, it was just pick up them cats and do it.  And we didn’t want no royalties, just pay me man, give me that loot.  Got $50 each for each [tune] – just a gig to us and glad to do it so we could go up town and have a ball with the money.  And now look at them records.’  Lil said that ‘it’s amusing to read in books telling why we did this.  I’m glad they know, because we didn’t.’

Armstrong had no bother with top C’s then, and he began to get a following with his singing.  It was this which would in time, with his natural showmanship, bring him to white audiences.  And he was writing his own material, and the fruits of that melodic creation would become a basal part of the jazz canon.  It is a quirk of history that the charm of Armstrong as a man and an entertainer would blind too many in posterity to the fact that he was a musical genius.  Genius is a much abused word, but on any objective view, Louis Armstrong had it.

On 26 February, 1926, Armstrong and the Hot Five cut six more sides in the recording studio.  Two made jazz history, and are still played and replayed.  In ‘Cornet Chop Suey’, Armstrong states the melody with no accompaniment in a stop-time solo and a cadenza of his own.  It was all so daring that the producer delayed its release, but then cornettists all over the country started ‘cutting’ each other trying to match the Master.  In ‘Heebie Jeebies’, Armstrong sang without words – ‘scat’ – because, he said, he had dropped the song-sheet.  Scat became integral to the repertoire.  Mezz Mezrow drove fifty miles after midnight just to play this record for Bix Beiderbecke, who ‘then tore out of the house to wake everyone he knew’.  ‘Cats’ everywhere began to salute each other as ‘Heebies’ or ‘Jeebies’ and imitating Armstrong’s riffs.

This is how the British musician and critic Alyn Shipton saw those recordings.

The discs that Armstrong made, from November 1925, with his Hot Five Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five, became influential all over the world.  They confirmed that Armstrong had successfully combined emotional depth, rhythmic innovation, and a liberating sense of solo freedom into a heady and original mixture.  He pushed at the boundaries of the cornet’s range.  Even in his hottest soloes he explored a lyricism that might, in part, have come from his love of classics and light opera (indeed he regularly played a selection from Cavalleria Rusticana as his solo feature with Erskine Tate’s band during this period).  Overall, he brought a new set of aesthetic qualities into jazz, a sense that there could be considerable artistic worth in music conceived as popular entertainment.

There is no overstatement there, as is the English critical tradition, and there is nothing light about Cavalleria Rusticana.

Not many people now realise it, but Armstrong revolutionised singing in America, and not just in jazz.  Apart from scat, which became an artform in itself, he learned how to control the melody and rhythm of a song for his own purpose – Sinatra would do the same to make some songs his own.  He could give meaning to the most vapid lyrics, but swing remained paramount – just listen to him and Ella Fitzgerald together.  You are listening to two grand masters creating their own art as they go before your very ears, somehow putting an end to space and time.  Bing Crosby said that ‘Louis Armstrong is the beginning – and the end – of American music.’  And Bing Crosby was in a position to know.

With the end of the twenties, the so-called Jazz Age, and Prohibition, Satchmo was a New York star.  He acquired a protector, a Mafia man who looked after Armstrong for thirty-five years.  With time, and the waning of the Big Bands, he got out of them and developed his All Stars with legends like Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Sid Catlett.  (In the Rough Guide, Digby Fairweather notes that on Louis Armstrong And the All Stars at Symphony Hall, the solo of Catlett on Steak Face is one of the great drum events in jazz history.  The late Whitney Bailliett, in The New Yorker, idolized Catlett.)  It is as if these stellar players have to put themselves on a leash from time to time.

This is how a musician described the dressing room of the coloured musician who upstaged stars like Crosby and Sinatra in High Society.

He’d be sitting down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders and that white handkerchief on his head and he’d put that grease around his lips.  Look like a minstrel man you now…and laughing you know natural the way he is.  And in the room maybe, you see two nuns.  You see a street walker dressed up in flaming clothes.  You see maybe a guy come out of the penitentiary.  You see maybe a blind man sitting there.  You see a rabbi, you see a priest, see.  Liable to see maybe a policeman or two detectives, see.  You see a judge.  All of ‘em different levels of society in the dressing room and he’s talking to all of ‘em.  ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there?  This is Slick Sam an old friend of mine’.  Now the nun’s going to meet slick Sam, Old Notorious, been in one of the penitentiaries.  ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi, good man, religious man.  Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein?  Amelia, this is Rosie, Goodtime Rosie, used to work in a show with me years ago.  Good girl, she’s a great performer.  Never got the breaks.’  Always a word of encouragement, see.  And there’d be some kids there, white and coloured.  All the diverse people of different social levels…..and everybody’s looking.  Got their eyes dead on him, just like they was looking at a diamond.

He made appearances and films with big names and he made hits like Mack the Knife, Hullo Dolly and What a Wonderful World.  He reinvented himself for new audiences and he became a national and then an international icon.

Armstrong never played what we now call ‘the race card’.  Many coloured people were upset by this, but Armstrong was a musician, and entertainer, not a politician.  He preferred to just grin and bear it.  The baseballer Jackie Robinson would suffer the same pain and humiliation.  The grandson of slaves and the coloured waif who hauled coal was feted at the White House.  He may have been just about the best known and best loved person in the whole world.

Duke Ellington was more urbane and dignified.  He could appeal to the white musical toffs even if the ‘cats’ just took him for his swing.  The suave orchestrator said; ‘I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people…some of the music which has been written will always be beautiful and immortal.  Beethoven, Wagner and Bach are geniuses; no one can rob their work of the merit that is due it, but these men have not portrayed the people who are about us today, and the interpretation of these people is our future music.’

Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo, died with a smile on his face.  He had called a rehearsal of the All Stars for that day.  Duke Ellington said ‘I loved and respected Louis Armstrong.  He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.’  (Ellington was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after.)  Wynton Marsalis said: ‘He left an undying testimony to the human condition in the America of his time.’   He also said that Armstrong had been chosen by God to bring jazz music to the world.  ‘Louis Armstrong’s message is overwhelmingly one of love.  When you hear his music, it’s of joy…He was just not going to be defeated by life.  And these forces visit all of us.’  When Ken Burns told a psychic that other people thought that Satchmo was an angel, she merely said: ‘Biggest wings I’ve ever seen.’

And what is the best part?  This very, very great man never forgot Goodtime Rosie, who ‘never got the breaks’.

For what it is worth, Louis Armstrong is for me up there with Abraham Lincoln as one of the two unequivocally great gifts of the United States of America to the West and to the world at large.  Steamwhistle power, lyric grace….fine control over total power, all height and depth, for ever and ever….

21

Muhammad Ali (1942-)

As befits a nation of pioneers who put a premium on individual responsibility and community ideals, Americans go for sport in a big way.  It is their national tragedy that instead of rugby or football and cricket, they have their own sports of gridiron and baseball, so that their champions do not compete on an international stage.  That does not stop Americans following their sports with at least the passion and patriotic intensity of the Indians with cricket or African nations in football.  The games they play tell you a lot about Americans.

In June 1902, a guy who ran saloons in Pigtown, Baltimore took his seven year old kid on a trolley-car to a reform school and then left him there.  .  The school was named St Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys.  The kid would stay there until 1914 when he was 19.  By the time he left, his mother was dead.

The kid got training to become a tailor, but he was big on baseball.  His nick-name was the unkind one of Nigger Lips.  Photos show a wide-eyed innocent with thick lips.  He was a fan of Brother Matthias, who gave instruction on baseball on Saturday evenings, and as a big raw-boned kid, he could play.  He could both pitch and hit – left-handed.  Jack Dunn, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, spotted the kid and offered him a contract at $250 a month – primarily for his pitching.  The kid left St Mary’s as the legal ward of two of the Brothers, and with Jack Dunn as his guardian – the abandonment by his own family was complete.

They took off for spring training.  The kid had never been on a train or seen a menu before – he had never seen a professional player, let alone a professional game.  He must have been the most untutored player ever to go up to the Majors.  Dunn’s babies were known as ‘babes’.  Since the kid had got to retain his surname if nothing else from his family, and that name was Ruth, the kid became Babe Ruth, unquestionably the most famous name in all baseball.

Over the next twenty-one years, the Babe changed the game of baseball.  Before him, the game was controlled by pitchers, and batters approached their task tactically, and they tended to hit a flat trajectory.  The Babe was altogether less prosaic.  He introduced the power game, big hitting right up into the crowd.  He saw his role not just in moving men along the bases, but in belting home runs off his own bat.  He took baseball to a whole new level of entertainment, not just with the power of his hitting, but with the power of his presence.

The kid went to the Red Sox but they came to the doom-laden view that they would have to sell the Babe.  They did so at huge expense – an unprecedented sum – to the Yankees.  Now, the Babe was not really a Boston type, but he and New York in the Twenties were just made for each other.  And the city of Boston would pay an appalling price for its failure to come to terms with the Babe.  In what became known as the curse of the Bambino, the Red Sox would not win another World Series that century.

The Yankees won four World Series and seven pennants in the period that the Babe was with them (1920 – 1935).  In his total career he hit 714 home runs, a proposition that would have been laughed at in 1914.  He was the first to break 60 in a season – which he did after apparently being trumped by Lindbergh.  He was called the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, or the Wizard of Whack, but he still holds the tenth highest batting average of all time.

Jackie Robinson became an officer in the US Army during World War II.  What awaited him when he got back to the land of the free?  ‘Down the back of the bus with the other niggers.’  Rather than football, Jackie took on baseball as his professional sport.  He had the eye of a natural hitter; he had all the skills for a second base; he was deadly quick at stealing bases, and handy if a shirt-front were needed; and he was determined to win.  In short, he was just the kind of player to build a team around.  Except that in 1947, baseball was rigidly segregated – no formal agreement, just invincible history and unwritten understanding.  There were white leagues and black leagues, and that separatism was just as saluted in the north as in the south.

Jackie Robinson and a man named Branch Rickey cracked the monolith.  They both subscribed to the teaching of the Jewish carpenter, especially the Sermon on the Mount.  They would both be tested on the hard bit – turning the other cheek – in a way that is not asked of most of us.  Rickey was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He told Robinson that he would give him a go in the minors with a view to signing him for a full season with the Dodgers if he was good enough.  He said Robinson would be exposed to hate and abuse, sometimes from his own side, and that he would not be able to answer back.

Rickey had one large portrait in his office – the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.  Rickey was smart as well as brave.  He described his purpose:  ‘First, to win a pennant.  There’s some good coloured players.  The second reason is…it’s right.’

Robinson made the season with the minors satisfactorily.  (In his second at bat, he had rifled it into the crowd.)  When it came time for him to turn out for the Dodgers, every club but one said they were against it, and players in his own team took up a petition to have him excluded.  Other teams threatened to strike.  He was still subject to insult and abuse and death threats on the road, and venomous hate speech on the field.  He kept his part of the deal.  He copped it and he did not answer back.  He had a great season with the bat and a league-leading 29 stolen bases and a momentum – turning base-running style.  He was the first ever Rookie of the Year.  The Dodgers made it to the World Series and forced the Yankees to go to the seventh game.  This Yankee side, with DiMaggio and others, is one of the greatest teams ever, and is the main reason why the Dodgers do not have more to show from their ten years with Robinson.  He was not just a hero for black people, but for all Americans.

Well, what might happen if America got a champion black sportsman who played on the world stage, and who could appeal to coloured people all over the world, and who was prepared to stare down Uncle Sam – and who just happened to be the greatest of all time?

This is how Norman Mailer began his book The Fight:

There is always a shock in seeing him again.  Not live as in television, but standing before you, looking his best.  Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear.  Women draw an audible breath.  Men look down.  They are reminded again of their lack of worth.  If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate.  For he is the Prince of Heaven – so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior was born on 17 January 1942 in Louis Kentucky.  His father painted signs and his mother was a domestic.  They were African Americans descended from slaves.  The baby followed his father in being named after a famous abolitionist.  The former Cassius Clay was a most formidable man, a six-foot-six Kentucky farmer who had commanded troops in the Mexico War.  He inherited a plantation and he later freed his slaves.  For this he received death threats.  ‘For those who have respect for the laws of God, I have this argument.’  He produced a leather-bound bible.  ‘For those who believe in the laws of man, I have this argument.’  He produced the constitution.  ‘And for those who believe in neither the laws of God nor of man, I have this argument.’  He laid down a Bowie knife and two pistols.  Lincoln thought enough of him, or of the Russians, to send him to Russia on government business.  As David Remnick remarks, ‘He maintained his physical courage to the end.  When he was eighty-four, he married a fifteen year old girl.’

Clay grew up to win national Golden Gloves and then gold in the 1960 Olympics at Rome.  He turned pro and was undefeated, but he was not winning friends by his manner of belittling opponents.  He was light on his feet and he was unbelievably fast.  He had height and reach, and he could lean back and then hit his overcommitted opponent with a lethal right jab.  He won the right to challenge Sonny Liston, and the fight was set for 25 February 1964.

Sonny was born into the Mob – the underworld – and he could never get out of it.  He never had a chance.  He had no family to speak of and he knew the inside of the Workhouse.  He was an enforcer for the Mob.  Not many people gave lip to Sonny Liston and lived.  The Mob ran boxing.  A generation of Prohibition gangsters had promoted and fixed fights, charming people like Frenchy DeMange, Frankie Yale, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Boo Boo Hoff, Kid Dropper, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schulz.  You can ask why crooks were attracted to pugs, but they were both on the fringe.

Sonny’s manager was Paul John (‘Frankie’) Carbo, also known on the street as Frank Fortunato, Jimmie the Wop, and Dago Frank.  After being sent to Sing Sing for homicide, he lifted his game to become a hit man for the Brooklyn branch of Murder Inc.  David Remnick says that it took Cassius Clay, still on his way up, to break the grip of the Mob.  That young man found his protection in the Nation of Islam.  Many of his countrymen would have been more relaxed if he had stayed with the Mob – the devil they knew.

Sonny then would frighten the hell out of anyone.  The bookies had Clay at seven to one, which is insane in a two man event, and journalists were plotting the locations of the nearest hospitals.  Many thought that the kid would be killed.  The kid – the Louisville Lip – responded as was his wont now.  He taunted Liston, pulled up outside his house and asked him to step outside, and famously said that he would ‘dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’  He turned the weigh-in into a circus.

At the bell, Liston came out like an enraged bull, but Clay slipped away, and was scoring heavily by the end of the first round.  He buckled Sonny’s knees in the third, and he cut the champion for the first time.  He seemed to be blinded in the fifth, but he came back to belt Sonny in the sixth.  Sonny did not come out for the seventh.  It was a TKO and Clay shouted to the world that he was the greatest ever.  The rematch came after Clay had publicly, and amid great hostility, converted to Islam and changed his name.  It was a sad farce.  Liston copped what the press called the ‘phantom punch’, and the fight was over in less than two minutes.  It looked for all the world as if the fix had gone in and that Sonny had taken a dive.

Ali said that ‘Clay’ was his slave name.  He got offside with millions by taunting his opponents and then being cruel to them by prolonging their punishment.  He then courted more unpopularity by refusing to be drafted for the increasingly looked down on war in Vietnam.  He knew who his enemies were.  ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger.’  In the way of things, it would be this stand that would secure his position in the Pantheon – and in the U S, as well as the rest of the world.  He would later be courted by presidents.

Ali was stripped of his title and locked out of boxing until the Supreme Court eventually set aside his conviction on a fine point of law.  (The black Justice, Thurgood Marshall, did not sit.)  By then, the tide had turned completely on Vietnam and Ali was a living legend for more reasons than one.  But he had lost the best years of his boxing life.  He fought Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who was more in the Liston mould, and he lost his first professional fight.  He would later beat Frazier, but the highpoint of his return, and of his boxing career, came with the fight against George Foreman for the title at downtown Kinshasa, Zaire on 30 October 1974, the Rumble in the Jungle.

There was a book, Mailer’s The Fight, and an Academy Award film, Once Were Kings, made about this contest.  Ali was passed his prime.  And Foreman had a fearful reputation.  He was a frightfully heavy puncher.  He had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in the second round.  Ali responded with his normal verbal barrage and mind games, but in the film, Norman Mailer said that Ali never looked at Foreman’s heavy punching bag – it had been deformed.  No one ever got into the ring with George Foreman after watching him deform the heavy bag.  No one – or hardly anyone – though that Ali had any chance at all.  This was then like the first Liston fight that had taken place more than ten years ago.  Again, people in the know feared for the survival of the outmatched challenger.

This is how Norman Mailer describes their coming together in the ring to get instructions from the referee.

It was the time for each man to extort a measure of fear from the other.  Liston had done it to all his opponents until he met Ali who, when Cassius Clay at the age of twenty-two, glared back at him with all the imperative of his high-destiny guts.  Foreman, in turn, had done it Frazier and then to Norton.  A big look, heavy as death, oppressive as the closing of the door of one’s tomb.

Then something extraordinary happened, something almost unbelievable.  Ali came out in the first round and started to hit Foreman, and hit him hard – with his right hand!  It would be like a right-handed batter or golfer coming out and playing left-handed.  It was downright insulting.  Then as the fight settled down, Ali would just go back on the ropes, hunch up, and absorb flurries of punches.  At first some thought that the fight had been fixed.  But then they saw that most of Foreman’s punches directed at the body were not scoring, but were drowning the energy of the champion.  It was high drama – anyone of those missiles could have landed any other fighter back in the bleachers, but Ali just went back, took the blows, and then eased out and scored.  All the time he was taunting Foreman: ‘Is that all you’ve got?’  It then became apparent that Foreman was tiring.  His punches were either not landing or not hurting.  And Ali was starting to float about him and was pinning him with darts at will.  Then in the eighth, Ali moved in for the kill and it was all over, and the world title was his again.  There was delirium in the crowd, and in front of TV sets all around the world.  Sports fans who have seen the fight and the film many times still move to the front of their seats and hold their breath while they watch it yet again.  It is probably the most watched sporting event ever.

After that, there was The Thriller in Manila with Frazier again, but it was all downhill.  Ali was permitted to go on too long.  This is sadly common with boxers and other sportsmen.  He became a distressingly sad reflection of the wonderful athlete and fighting machine that he had been.  In his advanced age he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and he has had it now for a long time.

But even in that condition, he could move very greatly younger people who came into his presence.  Even in decline he had an aura – as Norman Mailer saw, he could be ‘luminous’ – in a way that could still move people by a curious alchemy, a kind of out of body experience.  Why is that?  Perhaps they just feel somehow that Muhammad Ali was in truth the greatest of all time.

It is a great story, the descendant of slaves beats off the mob, becomes world champion, beats off the government, and wins back his championship, each time against a frightening odds and a terrifying opponent.  For all of his faults and failings – which, for him, like most of us, were formidable – his story is a tribute to the human spirit.  This is why he is held in such awe right around the world.  This is why so many see him as the greatest ever, the greatest ever sportsman and the greatest ever entertainer, the promoters’ final dream, the ultimate crowd pleaser.  He embodies the truth that at least at the top now, professional sportsmen and women have almost nothing to do with sport, and almost everything to do with entertainment, business, and money.  If that means that we have gone from the amateur sportsmen of the Olympic Games of the ancient Greeks to the professional chariot races and gladiators of the decaying and decadent Romans, then that is a lookout for all our mums and dads and others.  Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali have between them consummated that transformation.  The man has been, if nothing else, a mover and a shaker.

Muhammad Ali has a lot in common with the late Maria Callas.  He was, like she was, an entertainer.  They are both seen by many as having been in their time the best ever entertainers of their kind – there is generally seen to have been blue sky between them and the rest.  By the force of their character as much as by the high reach of their technique, they both radically changed the way that the world saw their art – and we should not blush to use that word for Ali was well as for Callas.  And now, in his reflective time at peace, Muhammad Ali might agree with Maria Callas that: ‘There are no short cuts.  There is only discipline, technique, and Mut’.  As the professional coach said in Chariots of Fire, ‘You can’t put in what God left out.’  It is just that some make better use of what they get from God than others do.

Here and there – English in history

 

The history of England is for me like the history of a good cricket club. They knew each other and they knew what they were doing.  And they used the power of the English language to get on.  They may be the only ones to know the dark secrets in their closet – Ireland is the most gross – but somehow they let the structure of their language portray their growth and the genius of their common law and constitution.  It’s all very clubby – very English – but it is so very readable.

In Macaulay’s History of England, you get the charm of his writing and the vital expression of his subjects.  Let me give a very long citation.  This is in 1685, and the last of the Stuarts is about to show an inane wish to flirt with political death in a manner that will lead to his eviction, and to the settlement of the English Constitution as we know it.

In a few hours, however, the spirit of the opposition revived. When, at the close of the day, the Speaker resumed the chair, Wharton, the boldest and most active of the Whigs, proposed that a time should be appointed for taking His Majesty’s answer into consideration. John Coke, member for Derby, though a noted Tory, seconded Wharton. “I hope,” he said, “that we are all Englishmen, and that we shall not be frightened from our duty by a few high words.”

It was manfully, but not wisely, spoken. The whole House was in a tempest. “Take down his words,” “To the bar,” “To the Tower,” resounded from every side…….

On the same day it became clear that the spirit of opposition had spread from the Commons to the Lords, and even to the episcopal bench. William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, took the lead in the Upper House; and he was well qualified to do so. In wealth and influence he was second to none of the English nobles; and the general voice designated him as the finest gentleman of his time. His magnificence, his taste, his talents, his classical learning, his high spirit, the grace and urbanity of his manners, were admitted by his enemies. His eulogists, unhappily, could not pretend that his morals had escaped untainted from the widespread contagion of that age. Though an enemy of Popery and of arbitrary power, he had been averse to extreme courses, had been willing, when the Exclusion Bill was lost, to agree to a compromise, and had never been concerned in the illegal and imprudent schemes which had brought discredit on the Whig party. But, though regretting part of the conduct of his friends, he had not, on that account, failed to perform zealously the most arduous and perilous duties of friendship. He had stood near Russell at the bar, had parted from him on the sad morning of the execution with close embraces and with many bitter tears, nay, had offered to manage an escape at the hazard of his own life.  This great nobleman now proposed that a day should be fixed for considering the royal speech. It was contended, on the other side, that the Lords, by voting thanks for the speech, had precluded themselves from complaining of it. But this objection was treated with contempt by Halifax. “Such thanks,” he said with the sarcastic pleasantry in which he excelled, “imply no approbation. We are thankful whenever our gracious Sovereign deigns to speak to us. Especially thankful are we when, as on the present occasion, he speaks out, and gives us fair warning of what we are to suffer.”  Doctor Henry Compton, Bishop of London, spoke strongly for the motion. Though not gifted with eminent abilities, nor deeply versed in the learning of his profession, he was always heard by the House with respect; for he was one of the few clergymen who could, in that age, boast of noble blood. His own loyalty, and the loyalty of his family, had been signally proved. His father, the second Earl of Northampton, had fought bravely for King Charles the First, and, surrounded by the parliamentary soldiers, had fallen, sword in hand, refusing to give or take quarter. The Bishop himself, before he was ordained, had borne arms in the Guards; and, though he generally did his best to preserve the gravity and sobriety befitting a prelate, some flashes of his military spirit would, to the last, occasionally break forth. He had been entrusted with the religious education of the two Princesses, and had acquitted himself of that important duty in a manner which had satisfied all good Protestants, and had secured to him considerable influence over the minds of his pupils, especially of the Lady Anne.   He now declared that he was empowered to speak the sense of his brethren, and that, in their opinion and in his own, the whole civil and ecclesiastical constitution of the realm was in danger.

One of the most remarkable speeches of that day was made by a young man, whose eccentric career was destined to amaze Europe. This was Charles Mordaunt, Viscount Mordaunt, widely renowned, many years later, as Earl of Peterborough. Already he had given abundant proofs of his courage, of his capacity, and of that strange unsoundness of mind which made his courage and capacity almost useless to his country. Already he had distinguished himself as a wit and a scholar, as a soldier and a sailor. He had even set his heart on rivalling Bourdaloue and Bossuet. Though an avowed freethinker, he had sate up all night at sea to compose sermons, and had with great difficulty been prevented from edifying the crew of a man of war with his pious oratory. .. He now addressed the House of Peers, for the first time, with characteristic eloquence, sprightliness, and audacity. He blamed the Commons for not having taken a bolder line. “They have been afraid,” he said, “to speak out. They have talked of apprehensions and jealousies. What have apprehension and jealousy to do here? Apprehension and jealousy are the feelings with which we regard future and uncertain evils. The evil which we are considering is neither future nor uncertain. A standing army exists. It is officered by Papists. We have no foreign enemy. There is no rebellion in the land. For what, then, is this force maintained, except for the purpose of subverting our laws and establishing that arbitrary power which is so justly abhorred by Englishmen?”

Jeffreys spoke against the motion in the coarse and savage style of which he was a master; but he soon found that it was not quite so easy to browbeat the proud and powerful barons of England in their own hall, as to intimidate advocates whose bread depended on his favour or prisoners whose necks were at his mercy. A man whose life has been passed in attacking and domineering, whatever may be his talents and courage, generally makes a mean figure when he is vigorously assailed, for, being unaccustomed to stand on the defensive, he becomes confused; and the knowledge that all those whom he has insulted are enjoying his confusion confuses him still more. Jeffreys was now, for the first time since he had become a great man, encountered on equal terms by adversaries who did not fear him. To the general delight, he passed at once from the extreme of insolence to the extreme of meanness, and could not refrain from weeping with rage and vexation.   Nothing indeed was wanting to his humiliation; for the House was crowded by about a hundred peers, a larger number than had voted even on the great day of the Exclusion Bill. The King, too, was present. His brother had been in the habit of attending the sittings of the Lords for amusement, and used often to say that a debate was as entertaining as a comedy. James came, not to be diverted, but in the hope that his presence might impose some restraint on the discussion. He was disappointed. The sense of the House was so strongly manifested that, after a closing speech, of great keenness, from Halifax, the courtiers did not venture to divide. An early day was fixed for taking the royal speech into consideration; and it was ordered that every peer who was not at a distance from Westminster should be in his place. 

On the following morning the King came down, in his robes, to the House of Lords. The Usher of the Black Rod summoned the Commons to the bar; and the Chancellor announced that the Parliament was prorogued to the tenth of February.    The members who had voted against the court were dismissed from the public service. Charles Fox quitted the Pay Office. The Bishop of London ceased to be Dean of the Chapel Royal, and his name was struck out of the list of Privy Councillors.

This might be a proceeding at White’s or one of those other snooty clubs at St James – affably snooty.  What is certain is that we will see nothing like it.

Here is one of those passages where the English turn their noses up at what happens across the Channel.  James II wanted to restart an inquisitorial body like the High Commission.  That body stands very high in their demonology.

The design of reviving that formidable tribunal was pushed on more eagerly than ever. In July London was alarmed by the news that the King had, in direct defiance of two acts of Parliament drawn in the strongest terms, entrusted the whole government of the Church to seven Commissioners…The words in which the jurisdiction of these officers was described were loose, and might be stretched to almost any extent. All colleges and grammar schools, even those founded by the liberality of private benefactors, were placed under the authority of the new board. All who depended for bread on situations in the Church or in academic institutions, from the Primate down to the youngest curate, from the Vicechancellors of Oxford and Cambridge down to the humblest pedagogue who taught Corderius, were at the royal mercy. If any one of those many thousands was suspected of doing or saying anything distasteful to the government, the Commissioners might cite him before them. In their mode of dealing with him they were fettered by no rules. They were themselves at once prosecutors and judges. The accused party was furnished with no copy of the charge. He was examined and cross‑examined. If his answers did not give satisfaction, he was liable to be suspended from his office, to be ejected from it, to be pronounced incapable of holding any preferment in future. If he were contumacious, he might be excommunicated, or, in other words, be deprived of all civil rights and imprisoned for life. He might also, at the discretion of the court, be loaded with all the costs of the proceeding by which he had been reduced to beggary. No appeal was given. The Commissioners were directed to execute their office notwithstanding any law which might be, or might seem to be, inconsistent with these regulations. Lastly, lest any person should doubt that it was intended to revive that terrible court from which the Long Parliament had freed the nation, the new tribunal was directed to use a seal bearing exactly the same device and the same superscription with the seal of the old High Commission. 

Macaulay of course had his hates.  His treatment of Penn and Churchill was such that the Folio editor felt bound to add a note of redemption at the end.  Well, God spare me from a historian who says he has no hates.  Here are some swipes – coat-hangers in AFL terms – at Churchill (of Marlborough fame).

Churchill, in a letter written with a certain elevation of language, which was the sure mark that he was going to commit a baseness, declared that he was determined to perform his duty to heaven and to his country, and that he put his honour absolutely into the hands of the Prince of Orange. William doubtless read these words with one of those bitter and cynical smiles….

Of that conspiracy Churchill, unrivalled in sagacity and address, endowed by nature with a certain cool intrepidity which never failed him either in fighting or lying, high in military rank, and high in the favour of the Princess Anne, must be regarded as the soul……

Churchill, who was about this time promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, made his appearance with that bland serenity which neither peril nor infamy could ever disturb…….

Churchill left behind him a letter of explanation. It was written with that decorum which he never failed to preserve in the midst of guilt and dishonour…

It’s all so effortless.  And now we are surrounded by pygmies.

It grieves me that so many people will shuffle off without having sampled this largesse.  It is like having Mount Everest outside your back door – and refusing even to open the bloody door.

And just watch out next time some dude ghosts up with a look of ‘bland serenity.’  Canberra is full of them.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 8

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

DEBATES WITH HISTORIANS

Peter Geyl, 1955

B T Batsford, London, 1955; rebound.

The Dutch have earned a reputation for tolerance and enlightenment.  In the 17th century, they offered sanctuary to great European thinkers like Spinoza and Locke – Spinoza died there; Descartes also sought protection there.  Holland has also produced great historians.  One of them was the late Pieter Geyl (1887-1966).  Don’t just take my word for it.  A J P Taylor said: ‘If I were asked to name the historian whom I have most venerated in my lifetime, I should not hesitate for an answer.  I should name Pieter Geyl.’

Every now and then – it is not very often – you come across a writer who soon puts you at your ease.  There is a breadth and depth of learning; there is an absence of arrogance or waspishness; and there is some compassion, some generosity of spirit, too.  We may not be able to call someone ‘wise’ unless we can see something on top of a very fine mind – something like humanity, for the want of a better word.

The late Professor Geyl qualifies on all counts, in spades.  He was trained in Holland but spent a lot of time teaching and writing in England and in the States; he also spent some time in Germany, something that I will come back to.

The first essay in Debates with Historians comes from about 1952 and is called ‘Ranke in the Light of the Catastrophe.’  A Times Literary Supplement piece had in the eye of Geyl suggested that Ranke by his ‘political quietism’ been a pioneer of National Socialism – the ‘Catastrophe’ of the title.  (In the fashion of the time, the article was unsigned.  Geyl referred to its ‘vehement one-sidedness’ and had said that in ‘this case it is not difficult to guess who is the writer’.)  Geyl was intent on defending the German historian against this charge, a very decent undertaking for a Dutchman so soon after that war, you might think.

There are two things.  One is the great insight of Ranke that ‘Every period is immediate to God, and its value does not in the least consist in what springs from it, but in its own existence, in its own self.’  This to me sounds like Bonhoeffer.  It is to preach humility to historians – and some of them could do with the sermon.

Then there is the magisterial closure to the refutation of the charge that Ranke had prefigured National Socialism.  It contains the following.

If we are tempted by our horror at the culmination of evil that we have just experienced or witnessed to pick out in the past of Germany all the evil potentialities, we may construct an impressively cogent concatenation of causes and effects leading straight up to that crisis.  But the impressiveness and straightness will be of our own constructing.  What we are really doing is to interpret the past in the terms of our own fleeting moment.  We can learn a truer wisdom from Ranke’s phrase that it should be viewed ‘immediate to God’, and he himself, too, has a right to be so considered…..Comprehension, a disinterested understanding of what is alien to you – this is not the function of the mind which will supply the most trenchant weapons for the political rough-and-tumble….To understand is a function of the mind which not only enriches the life of the individual; it is the very breath of the civilization which we are called to defend.

God send us more people who can think and write with that largeness of spirit – and consign our mediocrities to the dustbin that they deserve.

The second essay is about Macaulay.  He is the complete opposite of the ideal of Ranke.  He refuses to ‘look at the past from within…to think in the terms of the earlier generations’.  Macaulay looked on the past as the culmination of his view of Progress, of those ‘on the right side’ no less.  Geyl finds that ‘this mental attitude toward the past is in the deepest sense unhistoric.’  Elsewhere he uses the more homely term ‘cocksure.’  But let us not forget that in writing the Whig view of the Glorious Revolution, Macaulay had a lot to be cocky and sure about.  His team had won – hands down.  And as they say at the footy – winners are grinners; the rest make their own arrangements.

The next essay is about Carlyle and ‘the spirit of the Old Testament that seems to be present, coupling anathematization with adoration.’  It is about Carlyle’s ‘impatience with baseness and cowardice, his feeling of being out of place in a world of superficial sentiment and mediocre living……the babbling of lifeless religiosity or the sham assurance of modern idealism.  Instinct, intuition, the myth, these were his challenge to the rationalists and glorifiers of science who (unappeasable grievance) had made the Christian certitude of his childhood untenable for him’.  Carlyle was impatient with those in thrall to logic.  ‘Yea friends, not our Logical, Commensurative faculty, but our Imagination is King over us.’  That is not the least of Carlyle’s appeal.

Geyl, as it seems to me, gets the sadness in Carlyle exactly right: ‘the sentimental tie to a spiritual heritage which his intellect rejected, the painful reaction against the false teachers who gave him nothing in exchange for what they had robbed him of.’  That condition is very common now – it may define our time, as the time of the claimed death of God, but the author concludes on Carlyle: ‘and the perception of that tragic quality makes it possible to accept gratefully that which is vivifying in his work and serenely to enjoy its beauties.’  Would that other professional historians might be so generous with this poetic and prophetic lightning-conductor from the north.

Then follows an essay on Michelet, the first great historian of the French Revolution.  I have read Michelet, mostly in translation, the better to understand the loathing of the French for the church and, for many of them at one time or another, the English.  His father was an unsuccessful printer – as Professor Burrow reminds us, ‘exactly from the stratum from which the revolutionary crowds were chiefly recruited.’  But, Professor Geyl instructs us, business was bad under Napoleon, and ‘the memory of the Revolution was thus, in that poverty-stricken family, allied to detestation of the Corsican despot.’  It helps to have the inside running on the local knowledge of some historians.

You will understand the deeply emotional and personal approach of Michelet if you recall that his initial work was on medieval France and that he thought that the English in destroying Joan of Arc – whom he saw as incarnating ‘the self-consciousness of France’ – ‘thought they were deflowering France’!  (God help him if he ever got to see what Shakespeare put in the mouths of her English tormentors.)

Michelet has the exclamatory style of Carlyle, and a Romantic mind-set, but, as we saw, their differences come in two words.  Michelet talks of the ‘people’ – le bon peuple – while Carlyle speaks of the ‘mob’.  Or, rather, as Geyl tells us, it is the people when it is good – the storming of the bastille; but when they are bad – massacring the inmates of prisons until the streets ran with blood – it is not ‘the people’ but ‘three or four hundred drunks.’  If the awful Terror was an awful weapon, it only had to be employed because of the evil English without, and the traitors within – ‘the people’ and France were guiltless.  (Do you recall Francois Mitterrand saying of Vichy France that ‘The French nation was not involved in that; nor was the Republic’?  Did they all come from Mars?  Have you heard a Russian say that it was not Russia that invaded Afghanistan – it was the Soviet Union.)

On the one hand, Michelet dislikes Robespierre for the lack of that ‘kindness which befits heroes’; on the other hand, the moderates, who literally lost their heads, lacked ‘that relentless severity which it seemed that the hour required.’  Only seemed, Professor?  When people walk on egg-shells like that, they are protecting someone.

And the treacly chauvinism – no, imperialism – defies the patience of the Dutchman.

France the country of action.  Love of conquest?  No, proselytism.  What France wants above all is to impose her personality upon the vanquished, not because it is hers, but because she holds the naïve conviction [yes, naïve conviction] that it represents the type of the good and the beautiful.  She believes that she can render to the world no greater benefit than by presenting it with her ideas, her manners, and her fashions.

Professor Geyl feared that the cult of the Revolutionary tradition may even now be a danger in the hands of propagandists of absolutist politics.  ‘It began with the detestable league against Justice entered into by army and church in the Dreyfus affair.’  I agree, and very many otherwise decent French people then averted their gaze to save the honour of France, but then I look down at the footnote.  ‘I must apologise for speaking the language of the supporters of Dreyfus, in which the personifying metaphors undeniably have the usual effect of effacing transitionary shadings or exceptions.’  It is very, very rare, is it not, to find a professional man apologising for dropping his professional guard?

There are four papers on Arnold Toynbee – but we have seen enough to gauge the quality of this fine book.  Professor Geyl represents something very, very fine about the European tradition.  He came from a nation that holds some of the title deeds of western civilization, to adopt a phrase of Churchill’s, a nation renowned for its tolerance.  His was a Europe that had just been convulsed in an appalling war, for the second time in a little more than a generation, but this historian is able to analyse its history in a way that does great honour to his calling.  In those essays, he had defended one German historian charged with being a step-ladder for the Nazis, and he had sought to understand what he saw as the ‘catastrophes’ that had befallen both France and Germany in different centuries and with different dictators.

I mentioned that Geyl had spent some time in Germany and that he wrote the Dutch version of the Talleyrand essay during the German occupation of Holland.  For thirteen months, Pieter Geyl, even then a most distinguished Dutch historian, had been kept at a place that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama visited a couple of years ago.  Its emblem was Jedem das Seine, ‘To Each his Own’.  We know it under a name of unspeakable horror – Buchenwald.

On his release from Buchenwald, Geyl was kept in a Dutch prison by the Germans until the end of the war.  And, yet, in the period following that war, he was able to write about Europe, and the world at large, in the terms that I have indicated.  This, surely, was a colossal achievement, and one that humbles us.  Professor Geyl has produced work that helps us come to terms with our humanity, and that is I think the proper purpose of the world of learning, or, as I would prefer to say, men and women of letters.  Or as A J P Taylor is quoted as saying in the blurb on this book, ‘Geyl is one of the few living men whose writings make us feel that Western civilisation still exists.’