Passing Bull 136 – The either/or fallacy


The Bill of Rights in the U S enables its Supreme Court effectively to make laws on sensitive political issues.  One example is the First Amendment.  It prohibits the making of laws that abridge freedom of speech.  In previous and purer times, the Justices had a lot of trouble squaring this protection with prohibitions on obscenity.  Surely people should not be heard to say ‘fuck’ and get away with it.  The Court developed a doctrine – in truth they made a law – that said that obscenity was ‘conduct’, not ‘speech.’

The issue came to a head in 1971 in a case about the Vietnam War and the draft in Cohen v California.  Mr Cohen got thirty days in jail for wearing a jacket that said ‘Fuck the draft.’  Under existing doctrine, the slogan was unprotected ‘conduct’ rather than protected ‘speech’.  The majority disagreed and set aside the conviction – and the jail sentence.  The minority was unrepentant, but they muddied the water in retreat.  They said that Mr Cohen’s ‘absurd and immature antic … was mainly conduct and little speech.’  Well, their Honours were not going to let the uppity Mr Cohen go unsmacked, but had that last proposition been put in argument, might not the response have been: in what way is being a little speech different to being a little pregnant?

But was not the whole argument premised on a fallacy?  Is it not a premise of the argument that there is an essential distinction between ‘conduct’ and ‘speech’ – perhaps what Fowler refers to as the ‘essential duality’?  The argument must be that if what we do is classified as ‘conduct’, it cannot be classified as ‘speech’.  But that is not the case.  The word conduct here means ‘things we do’, and one of the things we do is to speak.  (The Oxford English Dictionary is opaque: ‘Manner of conducting oneself; behaviour.’  For the verb, we get ‘to comport or behave oneself (in a specified way)’).  If I say ‘To hell with all politicians’ or ‘Fuck the draft,’ I am engaging in that form of conduct that we call speaking, or speech.  The former includes the latter; there is no necessary distinction between the two terms; and the whole basis of the argument falls to the ground.  The fallacy might be called the ‘either/or’ fallacy, or perhaps, ‘the false dichotomy fallacy’.

Another example of this fallacy can be seen in an AFR piece by John Roskam of the IPA about the movie Darkest Hour.  Mr Roskam says that the movie makes the point that people make history, and that our universities are wrong to preach – as he believes they do – otherwise.

In tertiary institutions individuals have been replaced by ideologies. The most common themes in those 746 subjects [undergraduate history subjects taught at Australian universities] are, in order, indigenous issues, race, gender, the environment and identity…..

The ideology of identity politics and the categorisation of people into pigeon holes according to personal characteristics that they had little or no role in choosing is that there’s no room for choices.

Now, for better or worse, it’s more than fifty years since I studied or taught history at an Australian university, but over the last fifteen years I have spent a lot of time in summer schools at Cambridge and Oxford studying history.  The tutors there are not interested in windy ideological suspirations.   But if an issue like this comes up, as it did in a course on Cromwell at Cambridge conducted by Dr David Smith, then the obvious answer is that people make history – and not vice versa.  I don’t know if there is a different current in our universities but then again, there is a lot that I don’t know about bogeymen of the IPA.

But the fallacy again is that there is no necessary distinction or exclusivity between what might be called the individualistic and the determinist views of history.  It is sufficient to recall the insight of Carlyle – history, our story, is a collection of biographies.  It’s about what people have done – their conduct, including what they said.  When Mr Roskam rehearses his demons – ‘indigenous issues, race, gender, the environment and identity’ – he is referring to labels applied by commentators like Mr Roskam to aspects or effects of what individual people have done.  Most history, even what is called microhistory, inevitably entails some generalization and labelling – and on a bad day, some graphs or tables – but that does not require us to believe that we are not talking about what people do.  There is no such thing as race, gender or identity alone and palely loitering.  Tolstoy obsessed about this in War and Peace, and Carlyle got onto trouble over allegations of hero worship, but for most of us, the issue just doesn’t arise

Of course, the conduct of Churchill had more effect on the outcome of World War II than the man who swept the floor of the Cabinet War Rooms.  Of course, Napoleon had more say about the impact of the French Revolution than the sans-culotte who got his first taste of blood on 14 July 1789.  But no one could write a history of those events by talking alone about named individuals.  Lenin was instrumental in the arrival of Communism in Russia; Gorbachev was instrumental in its departure.  But it is impossible to describe either story without feeling and speaking of the elemental forces that moved across all the Russias during those times.

Great lakes of watery ink have been let go on these themes.  If you ignore large issues like causation, you are exposed to the taunt of Voltaire: ‘If you have nothing to tell us except that one barbarian succeeded another on the banks of the Oxus and Jaxartes, what is that to us?’  But if you get carried away on the airstream of causation, you forget ‘man’s mysterious powers of breaking the laws of his own being.’  (Someone referred to the tragedy of all social sciences as that of ‘a syllogism broken by a fact.’  Against that, someone else said that ‘unpredictability is the privilege of the insane.’)  Karl Marx said: ‘History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, fights no battles.  It is rather man, real living man, who does everything – who possesses and fights.’  History is all about individuals, but their doings are commonly described in very large groups.

In What is History?, E H Carr put one aspect of our discussion this way:

The logical dilemma about free will and determinism does not arise in real life.  It is not that some human actions are free and others determined.  The fact is that all human actions are both free and determined, according to the point of view from which one considers them…..Cause and moral responsibility are different categories.  An Institute and Chair of Criminology have recently been established in this university.  It would not, I feel sure, occur to any of those investigating the causes of crime to suppose that this committed them to a denial of the moral responsibility of the criminal.

That looks plain common sense to me – except that if it is thought that there is some logical distinction between ‘real life’ and ‘history’, then I would reject it as groundless.

If you are asked to tell the story of what we have done, how much weight you give to the individual – hero or villain – and how much you give to the rest – Mr Roskam would not be keen on the ‘masses’ – are matters of degree and possibly taste.  But to suggest that there is a necessary logical distinction is, I’m afraid, just bullshit.

The either/or fallacy occurs when someone says you have to choose between A or B, and that they are inconsistent – when that is not the case.  It is related to the fallacy of the false dilemma.  A dilemma is false if it says that there are only two choices when in truth there are more.  What you generally get is that if you do not do A, you will have to go with B, which will be truly awful.  The truth is that there are other possibilities, but you face an attempt to induce you to believe that you have no real choice.

Passing Bull 110 – Australian values again

After the recent attack in Manchester, and well before that of yesterday, the AFR published an editorial.  It included this:

It is not an inversion of western liberal values to say that living in Australia means at bare minimum an acceptance of democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech and equality of race, gender and belief. If you won’t defend these basics that allow you – and every Australian around you – to live in freedom; if you think your own intolerance comes first, then you need to change. That’s a civic inclusiveness which is quite different from the mindless nationalism of the fringes.

Then it got down to what it referred to as ‘Australian values.’  I wonder if they are different to ‘western liberal values,’ and if so how.  The author doesn’t say.

A totally secure police state would destroy the freedoms we enjoy, and migrants seek. But nor can we allow institutions of government, education and free speech to be intimidated by cultural concerns into ignoring unacceptable threats and dangers. We have been too passive in projecting the values that Australians hold, and why they are a better way of life than intolerance and jihad. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is right to insist on an Australian values test for new citizens – so that migrants know what those values are, and why they matter. And in one clear statement of those values: there is no moral equivalence between Western military actions in the Middle East that strive to minimise casualties, and terrorist attacks on the West that maximise them.

What caught my eye was the reference to ‘Western military actions in the Middle East that strive to minimise casualties.’  Hopefully, any such military action was subject to the rules of war, in which case the reference to minimising casualties adds little.  I say ‘hopefully’ because nothing about the war in Syria suggests that any of the many parties involved in bombing in Syria has the slightest interest in keeping casualties down.

Let’s put that to one side.  We are invited to make a moral judgment that Western military actions in the Middle East are less immoral than or in some way morally superior to acts of terrorism that are driven by the conflict in the Middle East.

Two issues then arise.  What if you take the view – which many responsible people do – that no such military action has benefited the people who live in the affected nations?  Secondly, what if you take the view – which many responsible people do – that Western military action in Iraq was based on a false premise, was badly managed, and has left Iraq and Syria as failed states and breeding grounds for the most lethal kinds of terrorist?

About the worst crimes that politicians can commit is to lead their people into war on a false premise and for a bad result.  Most people think that that is what the governments of the U S, the U K, and Australia did in the second Iraq war.  It’s also clear to me – and many others – that the political leaders were not just wrong – they lied.  They said that they were invading to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction when in truth they were invading to effect regime change, and it is precisely their botching of that function that has done so much to increase our exposure to terrorism.

Let’s assume then that some people believe that Bush, Blair and Howard lied about why they were going into Iraq, or at the very least they invaded Iraq on a false premise, and that as a result both the people of Iraq and we are worse off because we are all now exposed to more terrorism than we were before.  Then turn to a young Muslem who is deceived and deluded into accepting a perversion of his religion so that he becomes a suicidal terrorist and kills himself and others.

At bottom, all the above parties are involved in killing people to achieve political ends.  Many would think that any issue of moral equivalence or otherwise is one on which reasonable minds might differ and is also one that might best be left to God.  But it would be monstrous, would it not, to suggest that that there can only be one answer, and that such an answer might be found by applying ‘Australian values’ – the relevant premises of which are yet to be revealed to us?

So, in my view it’s best to stay away from ‘Australian values’.  As soon as you get away from motherhood – like ‘western liberal values’ – and you get specific, you risk finding yourself in a political quagmire and exposing people to the risk of g that brand of political blackmail that we call McCarthyism.

Poet of the month: Homer (Iliad, Book I)

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring

  Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!

  That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign

  The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

  Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

  Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore

  Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,

  Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!


  Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour

  Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power

  Latona’s son a dire contagion spread

  And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead;

  The king of men his reverent priest defied 

  And for the king’s offence the people died.


An occasional series on the new nationalists –  dingoes and drongos like Trump, Farage, and Bernardi – and other Oz twerps.


A bad start

The assault on truth started instantaneously.  The new president swore on the bible.  The suggestion that this man might have room for God is childish.   Then came the bullshit, and very partisan bullshit.  There is an old and wise saying about courts – the most important person there is the loser.  The same might be said for elections.  But not by this president.  He only talks to the winners.  His maxim is winners are grinners.  Winning is his only value, his only faith.  But, oh, the bullshit.

You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.

Well, I’m not sure about how the tens of millions came by, but the suggestion that this crucial conviction – that a nation exists to serve its citizens – has never been seen before is preposterous.  That is exactly what the French Revolution was all about. The Declaration of Rights recognises in a way that Trump’s  Russian friends would never be able to that the State is not an end in itself:  its purpose is only to preserve the citizens in their rights.  Article 2 says: ‘The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man.’  Still, what would Trump know about the French Revolution – or the American Revolution, or the Russian Revolution – or any history?  An essential part of his psyche is that he never notices anything that doesn’t revolve around him.  And he is after all rewriting the Industrial Revolution.

I had thought it was bullshit to say he wrote his own bullshit, but then came this:

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

We believe the exact opposite down here.  Only a Bible belt septic tank, real or imaginary, could mouth that appalling nonsense.

Then came the revolting Ms Conway to renege on the first promise.  Trump would not produce his tax returns.  She did so with two lies.

We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care.

In the meantime, the new Press Secretary made a fool of himself defending his boss’s wounded vanity about crowd size.

This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period ….These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.

It’s hard to see the poor bastard ever getting over this Hitler-like tantrum, and then Ms Conway reached instant immortality by saying that Spicer was offering ‘alternative facts.’  There in one phrase was the fraud at the heart of the whole campaign.   Poor Mr Spicer was suffering from shell shock after one outing.

I believe that we have to be honest with the American people but I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out, but our intention is never to lie to you.

This might be called the Idiot’s Gambit.  The poor man had not learnt a thing, but in only two days, the new President had set up the Saddam fallacy.  That was, as you recall, that he was such an inveterate liar, you should believe the opposite of whatever he said.  So, people were confident, relying on this fallacy, that Trump would not keep any promise at all.  It then came as a surprise to some that he might actually keep some.

The next day, his minders made a terrible blunder. They let him out unscripted with people he had been bad mouthing.  Well he got over that in his trademark fashion – he lied.  He said it was the press who had been bad mouthing them.  And he launched into yet another attack on them and the wounds to his ego about crowd size.  All that meant so much more to him than the memorial to the CIA fallen he was showing off in front of in such a ghastly way.   And he tried to schmooze like an illiterate teenager on real life TV.

And we really appreciate what you’ve done in terms of showing us something very special.  And your whole group, these are really special, amazing people.  Very, very few people could do the job you people do.  And I want to just let you know, I am so behind you.  And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted, and you’re going to get so much backing.  Maybe you’re going to say, please don’t give us so much backing.  (Laughter.)  Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.  (Laughter.)  But you’re going to have that.  And I think everybody in this room knows it.

It is nauseating drivel, but he keeps having to bring it back to the only thing that matters – Donald Trump.

You know, the military and the law enforcement, generally speaking, but all of it — but the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes.  We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military.  And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did.  (Laughter.)  But I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks.  (Applause.)  We’re all on the same wavelength, right? 

The constant applause for this rubbish adds weight to the suggestion that he brought his own claque.  Then he gets diverted by a reference to Time magazine, and he falls right into the illiterate ‘like’ mode.

So a reporter for Time magazine — and I have been on there cover, like, 14 or 15 times.  I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time Magazine.  Like, if Tom Brady is on the cover, it’s one time, because he won the Super Bowl or something, right?  (Laughter.)  I’ve been on it for 15 times this year.  I don’t think that’s a record, Mike, that can ever be broken.  Do you agree with that?  What do you think? 

After this disaster, Trump then went off to his mates at Fox News to display his immodesty again.

My CIA speech was a 10 and everybody loved it.  I had a standing ovation like you wouldn’t believe.  Everybody and it was such a success.

This was all despicable self-aggrandizement and not surprisingly a former CIA head said so, and equally unsurprisingly, Greg Sheridan got upset.

If you want to know how dangerously unbalanced Trump is, read the whole text of the CIA speech.

Now, I know a lot about West Point.  I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics.  In fact, every time I say I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years who did a fantastic job in so many different ways, academically — was an academic genius — and then they say, is Donald Trump an intellectual?  Trust me, I’m like a smart persona.  (Laughter.)  And I recognized immediately.  So he was number one at West Point, and he was also essentially number one at Harvard Law School.  And then he decided to go into the military.  And he ran for Congress.  And everything he’s done has been a homerun.  People like him, but much more importantly to me, everybody respects him.

If medical science does not have a diagnosis and treatment for this condition, it is time it caught up with history.  No one can stay a spoiled five year old child forever.

Finally, the English outlawed torture about 700 years ago.  Trump is in favour of it.

Foreign leaders are lining up to take candy from this baby before he learns better.  Theresa May, the reluctant nationalist, got in first.  It was oh so easy to verbal trump on NATO.  One hundred per cent!  Well, you can’t take him at his word, but she at least had something to help her in the quagmire left by some of the best liars in the world.

Meanwhile, back in Oz, that awful galah Bernardi was counting his marbles – or those he had not lost – ‘his feline eyes excellent in the twilight’, as Carlyle said of another devout plotter.  And at the other end, that awful woman Rhiannon was plotting.  Here is a real poser.  Who revolts you more, Senator Bernardi or Senator Rhiannon?  Or is it just that they come from what Bernardi’s idol calls the swamp?

As a mate said yesterday at breakfast, we can’t live four years with this.

So, here then is the first Trump gag I have heard.  A plane gets in difficulties.  There are five passengers and four chutes.

I am the greatest basketballer ever with 20 million fans.  I have to go.


I am the greatest violinist ever with 40 million fans.  I have to go.


I am the President of the greatest country in the world voted in with the greatest majority ever.  I am the smartest person in the world.  My people need me and I must go.


That leaves the Pope and a ten year old schoolboy.

My son, I am old and have had a full life. I am ready to meet my Maker.  You are young and have everything before you.  You take the last chute.

That is very good of you, Holy Father, but there are in truth two chutes left – the smartest person in the world just took off with my school bag.

Passing Bull 83 –  Some fallacies about freedom of speech


Many laws restrict what we can say, at least in public.  Examples are laws about confidentiality, consumer protection, contempt of court, copyright, corporate regulation, defamation, electoral laws, fraud, nuisance, obscenity, perjury, privacy, sexual harassment, terrorism, and treason.  All these laws – and there are lots more – are justified.  And it would be silly to object to them because they impair our freedom to say what we like – each law is meant to do just that.  The objection would mistake an inane mantra for a logical argument. The question is not whether the law impairs freedom of speech, but whether that impairment is justified.

Most cultures have had laws about insulting or offensive speech.  The Code of Hammurabi banned ‘pointing the finger’ at someone’s wife.  The Twelve Tables of Rome penalised anyone ‘who publicly abuses another in a loud voice.’  The Sermon on the Mount forbids ‘speaking contemptuously’ against a brother. Each of these laws impairs freedom of speech, but the only question is whether the impairment is justified.

These laws have two obvious justifications.  Words can hurt as much as knives and guns, and verbal attacks can lead to fights – and it is the first duty of the law to preserve the peace.  There is nothing new-fangled about this.  In a book written nearly 800 years ago, an English judge called Bracton said:

An ‘inuria’ is committed not only when a man is struck with a fist or beaten with clubs but when he has been insulted or victimised by defamatory verses or the like.

It is hard to think of a civilised nation thinking or acting differently. And civilised nations also have laws to defend the dignity of individuals against group smears.

Take two laws in Victoria that deal with insulting or offensive language. A Victorian act forbids ‘indecent or obscene language or threatening, abusive, or insulting words’ in public, or behaving in an ‘indecent, offensive, or insulting manner’ (Summary Offences Act, 1966, s 17).  You can go to jail for that misbehaviour.  (Other states have similar laws.)

Then a federal act says that you must not publicly insult or humiliate people because of their race (Racial Discrimination Act, 1975, s. 18C).  That law leads only to regulatory action.

Although the laws cover a lot of common ground – racial abuse in public might attract both – there are two obvious differences.  The federal law is limited to language grounded on race, and it does not lead to criminal liability.

People complaining about this part of the law only refer to the federal law.  Perhaps the reason is that the state law allows the police to intervene where someone says in public to a man and his wife, ‘You are a coward and your wife is a black slut’ – either inside the Australian Club or outside a boozer at Alice Springs. Only a lunatic could object to that kind of law.  It would be justified in the exceptions to the right to freedom of expression in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That right is expressly subject to ‘such… restrictions or penalties prescribed by law and… are necessary in a democratic society…for the prevention of disorder or crime.’ A government that repealed such a law might find itself without coppers on the beat the next day.

But if the state law is so obviously justified, why is not the federal law? It does not lead to jail, but it adds the requirement that the offending words be published because of the race of the victim.  If the verbal attack is shown to be racist, does that not make it worse – will it not be more hurtful to the victim and more likely to start a fight?

Again, it is pointless to complain that either law impairs freedom of speech.  That is the very object of the law.  Is the impairment justified?

Perhaps we can look at it from the point of view of the objectors.  They want to be free of this law.  ‘Freedom’ in this context is ‘a faculty or power to do as one likes’.  So, if people want to be free from this law, they want to be free to do what this law presently prohibits them from doing.  That means that they want to be free to insult or offend others on the ground of race.  Why would any sane decent person want to do that?  Would you entrust anyone with such power?

So, the first fallacy of the opponents of the present law is that they think that impairment of freedom of speech on its own answers the question.  The second is their failure to deal with the penal offences which are obviously essential and which are not complained of.

The third is that they attach an absolute value to the notion of freedom of speech that is not warranted.  My freedom ends when it hurts you.  There will of course be arguments at the edge.  There are with all of our laws.  But the principle is basic.  It was recognised by the French in the Declaration of Rights shortly after the fall of the Bastille.  ‘Liberty consists of the power to do whatever does not hurt others….The law has the right to forbid only actions that are harmful to society…. No one is to be disturbed because of his opinions, even religious, provided that their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law…’ The notion that we might do whatever we like might be too much even for Donald Trump – or Rupert Murdoch.

So, why do some people in the media want to repeal the federal law?  So that people who thrive on conflict can make more money?  They work for people who publish for profit.  The more power they have, the more profits they can make.  They want you and me to give up rights so that they can insult and offend us with immunity from the law – and make more money to our cost.  We are talking of people who live off the earnings of conflict.  They are not pretty.

It is appalling that some politicians seem ready to listen to them.  But then you go back to 2004 when the press engineered from their politicians changes to the laws of defamation across the whole of Australia which were all in their favour and all against you and me. They bleated about the ‘chilling effect’ of the law after the High Court had exploded that nonsense.  The law is meant to chill.

But the press and politicians have always made an unattractive bunch of bastards when they get into bed together.  As a result, you will not be surprised to learn that both Fairfax and Murdoch declined to publish a softer version of what is set put above.  They are a selfish bunch.

The notion that these trading corporations should be trusted to act in the public interest is at best hilarious.  Take for example this bullshit from the editorial of the AFR of 17 December glorying in the conviction of Obeid and the role of the press in having him put down.

But it was not without obstacles. Fairfax Media paid out $160,000 settling complaints made by Obeid. While there is rightly concern about free speech curbs in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the libel laws also let the powerful hide from proper inquiry. It is a disgrace that media organisations such as Fairfax Media have been penalised by the state for damaging the reputation of a politician now adjudged to have abused the trust placed in him. The defamation industry and the legal profession that sustains it should be ashamed of maintaining this conspiracy against the public interest. Personal reputations should be determined by the marketplace of free and open discussion.

This breathtaking bullshit could only have been composed by someone with a very sad history with the law – perhaps someone who lost custody of the money.  (If that is the case, condolences, but I think this paper may have form here.)  The fact that a plaintiff has subsequently been convicted on other charges throws no light on his prior civil actions for defamation – unless the paper says the man should be outlawed retrospectively.  The suggestion that libel laws let the powerful hide from proper inquiry is as silly as saying that they and 18C have a chilling effect – and does Fairfax want to join the Murdoch pogrom on this?  If Fairfax paid out that money by settlement, they doubtless did so because their lawyers advised them that their relevant publishing history warranted those payments.  If they want to bleat like this, they will go down as bad losers, as bad as Andrew Bolt and the tragically embittered Bill Leak.  It is absurd to say that a newspaper’s settling libel claims constitutes being ‘penalised by the state’: and it would be even sillier to say that of a judgment of a court.  So far, it is empiricism without the benefit of evidence.  Then we move to metaphysics without the benefit of logic.  Well, if you are murdering language, meaning and truth, why not be Catholic in your choice of arms?  The second last sentence is raw paranoia, of Trumpian inanity, and the last sentence is pure ideological cant that would make the IPA dream of great expectations.  Surely the newspaper that publishes Jennifer Hewitt, Laura Tingle and Philip Coorey knows that Australians don’t like or trust ideologues?

How could a quality newspaper pack in so many boo boos and symptoms – so much bullshit – into a mere 112 words?  But these are the people asking you and me to give up some of our rights against them.

If we here were prone to that sort of silly talk, we might say that they ‘should be ashamed of maintaining this conspiracy against the public interest.’

And a happy Christmas and a better new year – we’ll be going bad to do worse.

Poet of the Month: Vergil

Soon the crops began to suffer and the stalks

were badly blighted, and useless thistles flourish in the fields:

the harvest is lost and a savage growth springs up,

goose-grass and star-thistles, and, amongst the bright corn,

wretched darnel and barren oats proliferate.

So that unless you continually attack weeds with your hoe,

and scare the birds with noise, and cut back the shade

from the dark soil with your knife, and call up rain

with prayers, alas, you’ll view others’ vast hayricks in vain,

and stave off hunger in the woods, shaking the oak-branches.


Passing Bull 79 – What is populism?

There has been a lot of chatter – some call it white noise – about populists. What are they?  One of the problems with this word is that people who use it rarely say what they mean by it.  For example in today’s AFR, John Roskam of the IPA says that the reaction of the ‘elites’ to wins by ‘populists’ amount to threats to democracy.  The IPA rarely misses an opportunity to miss the point.  The author does not define any of those three terms, but it is hard to imagine any definition of ‘elite’ that would not embrace the IPA and AFR.

The OED, at least in my version is no help.  (The OED on line gives this citation for ‘populism’:  ‘your populism identifies with the folks on the bottom of the ladder’; and for ‘populist’: ‘she is something of a populist—her views on immigration resemble those of the right-wing tabloid press’.  The two are not the same.) If you go elsewhere on the Web, you will find references to ‘ordinary’ or ‘regular’ or ‘common’ people against political insiders or a wealthy elite.  These vague terms don’t help – to the contrary.  What do they mean? Is dividing people into classes a good idea in Australia now – or anywhere at any time?  And if it is simply a matter of the ‘common people’ wresting control from a ‘wealthy elite’, who could decently object?  Would this not be just democracy triumphing over oligarchy?  Or is the world perhaps not quite so simple, or quite so black and white?

Populus is the Latin word for ‘people,’ with pretty much the same connotations as that word in English.  Do populists therefore appeal to the people for their vote?  Well, anyone standing for office in a democracy does just that.  The most famous political speech in history concludes with the words ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’.

But the word populist is not used to describe anyone standing for office.  It is used to refer to only some of those, and the difference seems to be in the parts of the people that are appealed to and the way in which that appeal is made.

So, what kind of people do populists appeal to?  Well, the people who use this word say that the people appealed to are anything but the ‘elite’ – those who have got on well in life because of their background or education, or both.  In both the UK and the US this feeling about the elite – which might look like simple envy to some – is linked to a suspicion of or contempt for ‘experts’.  People do, however, tend to get choosy about which experts they reject. This rejection does not extend to experts who may save their life or their liberty, but it may explain the curious intellectual lesion that many people of a reactionary turn of mind have about science and the environment.

Another attribute of people appealed to by populists is said to be that they have missed out on the increase in wealth brought about by globalised free trade and changes in technology.  These movements obviously have cost people jobs and are thought by some experts to be likely to cost another 40% of current jobs over the next ten years.

A third attribute of people appealed to by populists is said to be that in their reduced condition, they value their citizenship above all else, and they are not willing to share it.  They are therefore against taking refugees or people whose faith or colour threatens their idea of their national identity.

Now, if people who use the word populist are describing politicians who appeal to people with those attributes, they may want to be careful about what pub they are standing in before they articulate that meaning.  The picture that emerges is one of a backward, angry, and mean chauvinist, the loser with the definitive chip on the shoulder.  That picture is seriously derogatory, but in my view it adds warmth and not light to the discussion.  If that is what people mean when they refer to populists, then it’s just a loose label that unfairly smears a large part of the population.  The term does then suffer from the vice of labelling that we have identified.

In truth, this meaning calls up another Latin term vulgus.  This means the mob or herd or ‘the folks on the bottom of the ladder’, who are very commonly people whose ‘views on immigration resemble those of the right-wing tabloid press’.  These sorts of people have been typed for the ages by Shakespeare in Coriolanus, and the inability of the hero to bend his knee to the mob costs him his life.  It is from here that we get our word vulgar, and that is a seriously insulting term.

It may be more helpful and honest to identify the opinions that some politicians appeal to and then comment on the reactions, rather than trying to lump a large and diverse group of the populace under the one pigeon-hole.  Then you might get something like this: People who believe in the promises of Farage or Trump are not too bright.  People who support Farage or Trump in venting spleen against those who are not so well off on the ground of colour or faith are not very nice – at best they are ungenerous.  And any American who believes that there may be one iota of communion between Donald Trump and Jesus of Nazareth is hopelessly deluded to the point of being diagnosably insane.

And if you think that any nation can be governed other than by reliance on ‘experts’ and ‘insiders’, then you are in Fantasyland.  Do you recall when Mao unleashed the Red Guards in the maternity wards?   Or just look at the mayhem in federal parliament caused by idiots, amateurs, and ego-primers that are all hopelessly out of their depth.  Have we ever seen a more depressing circus than the display over backpackers’ tax?

I would myself prefer to drop the word ‘populist’.  In whatever meaning it is used in, it will provoke the routine incantation of inane mantras like identity politics or class warfare or elitist snobbery – that are all just bullshit.

This discussion is I think correct, or at least, arguable as far as it goes.  But it does not deal with the principal fear of people about those who are called populists. The fear is hinted at in the two OED online citations.  Let us look at two dead ones – Mussolini and Hitler.  What frightens and repels us about these terrible people is that they directed their powers of persuasion to vulnerable people in order to bring out the reverse of the ‘better angels’ of those people and entrust the persuaders with power (which would never be given back).  They went straight for the gutter and they stayed there. The ‘liberal elites’ who thought that the ‘populists’ could be reined in later were cruelly deluding themselves.

What might be described as the failure of the better people of Italy has been described by a biographer of Mussolini in terms that could be transposed word for word to the Germans and Hitler.

Mussolini still needed their [the moderates’] help, for most of the liberal parliamentarians would look to them for a lead.  He also took careful note that chaos had been caused in Russia when representatives of the old order were defenestrated en masse during the revolution:  fascism could hardly have survived if the police, the magistrates, the army leaders and the civil service had not continued to work just as before, and the complicity of these older politicians was eagerly sought and helped to preserve the important illusion that nothing had changed.

The liberals failed to use the leverage afforded by his need for their approbation.  Most of them saw some good in fascism as a way of defending social order and thought Italians too intelligent and civilised to permit the establishment of a complete dictatorship.  Above all, there was the very persuasive argument that the only alternative was to return to the anarchy and parliamentary stalemate they remembered….Mussolini had convincingly proved that he was the most effective politician of them all: he alone could have asked parliament for full powers and been given what he asked; he alone provided a defence against, and an alternative to, socialism.  And of course the old parliamentarians still hoped to capture and absorb him into their own system in the long run; their optimism was encouraged by the fact that his fascist collaborators were so second-rate. 

How is that relevant to recent events?  That is a matter of opinion, but Mussolini was, rather like Berlusconi, seen as an ‘absurd little man’, a ‘second-rate cinema actor and someone who could not continue in power for long’, a ‘César de carnaval’, a ‘braggart and an actor’, and possibly ‘slightly off his head.’  The only difference to the next President of the US is that he is ‘an absurd big man.’

Perhaps two generalizations may be offered about populists.  Their reign may be short. They don’t know what they are doing; they are untrustworthy; and they are much bigger on protesting than on governing.  And the possibilities of breakdown of trust at either end between them and their supporters look to be endless.

Poet of the Month: Vergil (Georgics)

In the early Spring, when icy waters flow from snowy hills,

and the crumbling soil loosens in a westerly breeze,

then I’d first have my oxen groaning over the driven plough,

and the blade gleaming, polished by the furrow.

The field that’s twice felt sun, and twice felt frost,

answers to the eager farmer’s prayer:

from it boundless harvest bursts the barns.

But before our iron ploughshare slices the untried levels,

let’s first know the winds, and the varying mood of the sky,

and note our native fields, and the qualities of the place,

and what each region grows and what it rejects.

Passing Bull 78 –  The evil of labelling

Some years ago, a lady at Oxford, en route from the reading room to the dining room for breakfast, was heard to say: ‘I have just been described as a typical Guardian reader, and I’m trying to work out whether I should feel insulted.’  A discussion about the meaning of the word ‘presumptuous’ then followed.

There is no law or custom that says that we should apply a label to people – or put them in boxes, or in a file, or give them a codename.  There is no law that we should not. But most of us can’t help ourselves.  So what?

Well, most of us don’t like being put into boxes.  That is how we tend to see governments or Telstra or a big bank behaving toward us.  Nor do most of us want to be typed.   When someone says that an opinion or act of yours is ‘typical’ of you or your like, they are very rarely trying to be pleasant to you.

Most of us just want to be what we are.  You don’t have to have a university degree specialising in the philosophy of Kant to believe that each of us has his or her own dignity merely because we are human.  We are in a different league to rats and flies.  So, if I am singled out as a Muslim, a Jew, or an Aboriginal, what does that label add to or take away from my humanity?  It is often not easy to see anything positive coming from someone else subtracting from my humanity by labelling me in that way.

So, the first problem with labelling is that it is likely to be demeaning to the target, and presumptuous on the part of the labeller.  We are detracting from a person’s dignity.  We put registration numbers on dog collars, and we brand cattle, but we should afford humans the courtesy – no, the dignity – of their humanity. After all, we can scarcely bring ourselves to think of that time when some people were tattooing identifying numbers on the bodies of other human beings.

The second problem with labelling is that it is both loose and lazy.  If you say of someone that they are a typical Conservative or Tory, that immediately raises two questions.  What do the labels Conservative and Tory mean?  What are the characteristics of the target that might warrant the application of the label?

In this country, at the moment, the terms Left and Right hardly mean anything at all – except as terms of abuse (which is how the words Tory and Whig started in England).  These terms are now generally only applied by one side to the other.  Not many people are happy to have either of those labels applied to themselves. They are just too plastic and fluid.

There is one curious distinction in the way that these terms are applied in this country at the moment.  The Murdoch press is happy to call followers of the Fairfax press or the ABC ‘the Left’ (or ‘the P C Left’ or ‘the Love Media’), but those members of the press very rarely respond by calling readers of the Murdoch press Right wing  (or Far Right, or worse).  Is the difference one of custom or courtesy – or don’t we know or don’t we care?  Just how many people are left who could give a hoot for these outmoded terms?

Similarly, the labels Liberal and Labour hardly stand for any difference in principle any more.  At the time of writing, on any of the major issues in Australian politics, what were the differences in the policies of those parties that derived from their platform?  The old forms of name-calling between Liberal and Labour mean nothing to my children – absolutely nothing.  These old ways are as outmoded as name-calling between Catholics and Protestants.  And there is some common ground in the two shifts – very many people have lost faith in both religion and politics.  The old tensions or rivalries just don’t seem to matter anymore.

Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the obvious problems we have just referred to, labelling is not just common but mandatory in far too much political discussion in the press, and certainly for shock jocks and those who make a career out of working TV chat shows.  While some people naturally thrive on conflict – Napoleon and Hitler are two bad cases – some people in the press engage in conflict for a living. These people rarely have a financial motive to respond reasonably, much less to resolve the conflict.  To the contrary, they have a direct financial interest in keeping the conflict as explosive as possible.  It is notorious that controversy feeds ratings and that bad news sells newspapers.

If you put up an argument to one of these people who live off the earnings of conflict, the response will very commonly involve two limbs – a personal attack  on you (the Latin tag for which is ad hominem), followed by some labels, which are never meant as compliments.  So, for example if someone, were to query the rigour of the policies of the government toward refugees, a predictable response would be ‘What else would you expect from someone who subscribes to the ABC?  How would you like these people to move in next door?’  There is no argument – just vulgar abuse.

The disintegration of thought is palpable, but a lot of people are making a handy living out of it – and not in any way that does the rest of us any good.  So, when someone I know was described as a typical ‘Julia Gillard Labor lawyer,’ he expressed some interest at what that might mean, particularly since he has expressed the views set out above about the lack of difference between Labor and Liberal, and since he also had said that he had voted for Malcolm Turnbull (professedly a conservative) at the last election.    Since the label as a whole hardly looked to have been intended to flatter, he was also interested to know what our first female prime minister had done to be loaded into the shotgun.  The response was sadly of the shirtfront plus label variety.

What does a labor lawyer look like?
Take a look in the mirror.
You will likely see someone who feels superior to the masses.
Who knows best
Struggles to entertain concepts outside of their bubble.
Hugs up to socialism.
Likely not understanding that sooner or later the cash runs out.
You can only squeeze a lemon so far.

Good grief, who are ‘the masses’ outside the dreams of 1948 Marxists? What on earth could ‘hugs up to socialism’ mean in Malmsbury 2016?  That the person being abused believes in Medicare?  Does the complainant actually look like a squeezed lemon?

This example shows the third problem with labelling – it generally tells you a lot more about the labeller – some would say the sniper – than the target, and the answer is rarely pretty.  (Have you noticed that people who use labels and who abuse abstractions expect that others will do the same?  Is this what Freud called ‘projection’?) And if you pile cliché upon label, and venom upon petulance, the result is as sad as it is predictable.  You disappear up your own bum – publicly, and painfully.

So, I would leave labels with George Bush senior, who said that labels are what you put on soup cans.

Poet of the Month: Vergil: Georgics

I’ll begin to sing of what keeps the wheat fields happy,

under what stars to plough the earth, and fasten vines to elms,

what care the oxen need, what tending cattle require,

Maecenas, and how much skill’s required for the thrifty bees.

O you brightest lights of the universe

that lead the passing year through the skies,

Bacchus and kindly Ceres, since by your gifts

fat wheat ears replaced Chaonian acorns,

and mixed Achelous’s water with newly-discovered wine,

and you, Fauns, the farmer’s local gods,

(come dance, together, Fauns and Dryad girls!)

your gifts I sing. And you, O Neptune, for whom

earth at the blow of your mighty trident first produced

whinnying horses: and you Aristaeus, planter of the groves,

for whom three hundred snowy cattle graze Cea’s rich thickets:

you, O Tegean Pan, if you care for your own Maenalus,

leaving your native Lycaean woods and glades, guardian

of the flocks, favour us: and Minerva bringer of the olive:

and you Triptolemus, boy who revealed the curving plough,

and Silvanus carrying a tender cypress by the roots:

and all you gods and goddesses, whose care guards our fields,

you who nurture the fresh fruits of the unsown earth….

Passing Bull 77 – The bull of political correctness

The phrase ‘political correctness’ is a slippery weasel.  It involves reducing common courtesy to absurdity.  Most people have sufficient manners to avoid saying ‘I don’t like Jews’, or ‘all Scots are mean’, or ‘Muslim men make bad fathers even though they don’t drink’ – even if the people making those statements have the misfortune to believe them to be true.  So, if someone said ‘Aboriginal men make bad fathers because they drink’, they would be making an offensive statement based on race.  Most people would have sufficient courtesy to avoid making any such statement in public because other people would very likely be hurt, or offended by such a statement – and the object of courtesy is to avoid our hurting other people when that hurt can be avoided.  (It also distinguishes us from gorillas.)  And it would be downright silly to say that such a simple exercise in good manners could be dismissed as political correctness, whatever that phrase might be taken to mean.

At the other end of the line, it would be just as silly to say that we should not address a group of men and women as ‘guys’.  That would be worse than silly – it would be bullshit.

So, we are talking about matters of degree, and there may be differences of opinion at the edge.  But if there is a problem, it is not one that troubles most people.  In truth, it is an issue that is confined to a very small number of people in government and in the media and in those revolting things called think tanks.

The term ‘political correctness’ or P C has in truth become abused and debased.  People of a reactionary cast of thought claim that their freedom of speech is imperilled by exponents of political correctness.  Commentators in The Australian pepper their pieces with this complaint tirelessly.  In the gibberish of Jennifer Oriel, it is a machine-gunned cliché that rat-tat-tats with the same ghastly monotony as ‘sovereignty’, ‘free speech’, ‘free thinkers’, ‘elitism’, ‘populism’, ‘activism’, ‘systemic political bias’ (from The Australian!),  ‘draining the swamp’,  ‘identity politics’, ‘sovereign borders’, ‘open border activists’, ‘pride in Western culture’, and ‘fundamental Western values’.  (Those last two are black-shirt Dutton sinister – so much for the East!)  Here is a simple example:

The P C left can smear us with false accusations of racism and we have no recourse to action under the RDA.

(As Lenin asked, who are ‘we’?)

Here is another sample:

The restive public is leaning towards political figures who oppose the P C establishment’s open border lunacy, its intemperate approach to channelling public funds into the activist class in the media, academe and non—government organisations, and its censorship of politically incorrect speech.

In that piece, the author used the word ‘sovereign’ or ‘sovereignty’ on nine occasions.  I wonder what that word meant on any of them.  This is transcendental bullshit.

Now may I offer what looks to me to be a sure–fire case of political correctness?  Let’s say that you believe that anyone who believes what Trump says is a fool and that anyone who agrees with him is a jerk.  If you dared to express such a view, they – the people who support some aspects of Trump – will come down on you like an avalanche.  What might be your crime?  You – Brother or Sister – have looked down on and insulted the people, the ensainted and sovereign populus.  You have therefore branded yourself as part of the dreaded ‘elite’.  It is as if you had outed yourself as an ‘aristocrat’ in Paris in 1793.  Shame on you!  Do not pass Go, but go straight back to Eton.

Here is an example of a reprisal by the politically correct.  As you may know, the Murdoch press is very jealous of the ABC.  They make war on Aunty.  Almost every day, they air some complaint in a petulant, bitchy and unprofessional manner.  On 10 November this year, one piece began:

ABC Breakfast presenter the Virginia Trioli has been caught live on air saying Donald Trump’s supporters should be ‘subjected to an IQ test’ and that Mr Trump must have been looking at his wife’s breasts while voting.

She’s been ‘caught’!  The author of the piece goes on to tell us that Ms Trioli has form.  She has also been caught on air making ‘crazy’ circles with her finger next to her ear when Barnaby Joyce was on the TV.  Was she suggesting that our Deputy PM is nuts?

Well, perhaps the Murdoch press over-sauced the goose here.  They do pose, after all, as the champions of freedom of speech – except for the ABC, and anyone who criticises one of their darlings.  And while we recoil with horror at the suggestion that Trump voters might be subjected to IQ tests, we presumably just put to one side one of Trump’s more lunatic suggestions – that he and his opponent be subjected to a drug test before the next debate.

Now, we may be forbidden to query the intelligence of those who voted for Trump, or for Farage or Boris Johnson, but one thing is certain – these people are downright gullible.  Some in the press thought that Trump averaged twenty lies a day.  On any view, he was making promises that were contradictory – as did Farage and Boris Johnson.  ‘Gullible’ here means not just that people want to believe, but that they are susceptible to being duped or deceived (or ‘gulled’).  And the gullible in each case will now face the discovery of the price of their deception.  The promises are already being repudiated, and how many might be fulfilled?  You can have even money that apart from protection, the only promise that he will keep will be to cut taxes on the filthy rich.

It is curious how our wishes distort our thoughts.  The Scots philosopher David Hume said ‘Reason is and Ought Only to be a Slave of the Passions.’ A very meticulous and conservative political commentator on the BBC, representing the Tory party, refused to acknowledge that a giant Farage ad in response to open migration that showed an endless line of Syrian refugees was racist.  Indeed, he went further and said that the mere suggestion that the ad was racist was one of the very factors that had incited the populus to rise up against the elite.  You will recall that Ms Oriel also complained about ‘us’ being dubbed racist and being left without the statutory recourse open to the P C left.  The wheel of political correctness has come full circle – if you call someone out on racism, you may just be consigned to the P C left – at least by people in the elite who cannot be bothered to think.  Or who have been frog-marched into intellectual oblivion by the IPA.

And let us come back to ‘identity politics’, a notion that I don’t follow, but which causes great grief to the IPA, and other reactionaries.  With whom has Trump identified?  Poor white losers – that’s what the pros tell us.  And for salvation, the same poor losers are looking to a billionaire who was born into the American version of the purple, who has never been left in need, and who has never had or lost a real job.  And if those of the meek are his clients, to use a Roman phrase, what language will be adequate to express their response to their betrayal by this gross and rich egomaniac?  .

Finally, I may say that I met Virginia Trioli about 25 years ago.  She had been assigned to interview me while I was being bashed up on the ABC and in the lesser media for a gross crime of political incorrectness.  I had queried the intelligence of radical feminists, and the professionalism of some lawyers.  I may have been the only libel lawyer in Melbourne who was not consulted about suing me.  It all happened in the course of my defence of Helen Garner and her book the first stone.  I very much enjoyed my chat with Virginia.  As I recall, she thought that the whole thing was ridiculous.  I’m glad to see that another generation’s worth of time in the commentariat has not dimmed her sanity, or her wit.  God knows, we all need both.

A sugar tax?

In a book that hopefully will be published shortly, provisionally entitled Language, Meaning and Truth, you will find in a chapter on logic the following:

One form of fallacy recurs all the time in political argument.  ‘The State should not worry about the welfare of children being brought up by same-sex parents – just look at the mess that so many heterosexual parents make of bringing up their own children.’  ‘Don’t worry about dying of lung cancer from smoking – you can just as easily die from heart or liver failure from drinking.’  If the argument is that it is good to avoid harm of a certain kind flowing from one kind of conduct or cause, it is immaterial to that argument that the same or a similar kind of harm may flow from another kind of conduct or cause.   One of the arguments against the English abolishing slavery was that if the English did not do it, others would.  Coal miners say that if we don’t dig it up, others will.  When you state the position like this, the argument is obviously a fallacy – but you hear it all the time.   

We see a similar fallacy on the issue of a sugar tax.  We have a problem with obese children.  Sugar, especially in soft drinks, is a major cause.  The problem can be attacked in many ways – say, by education or by increasing the cost of the damaging product.  Both are applied to cigarettes, and are working.  The tax solution is working is working elsewhere on sugar.  But politicians who represent sugar growers say that the problem can be dealt with by dieting and exercise.  But if you can apply a, b, c, and d to fix problem x, it just does not follow that because you can apply c and d, you should not worry about a and b.  If your doctor says that your heart condition can be treated by diet and exercise, you would be mad to conclude that because you can exercise you will forget diet and knock back six Four’n’Twenties a day.  You might soon be a dead lunatic.

Another response was tried on Sky News.  The tax proposal was denounced as ‘The nanny state on steroids.’  This combination of clichés is not an argument.  If it is a way of saying that this intervention by government is excessive, it begs the question.  Most laws interfere with freedom.  The question is whether that interference is justified.  Since we are talking about the health of children, it is hard to argue that the state should leave the field open to individuals.  It is also hard to argue that it should be left to parents.  We don’t do this with education, and what if the parents don’t believe in doctors?

Mr Joyce should come clean about what is driving him to come up with his bullshit.  Peta Credlin, on Sky, may improve with time.

Poet of the month: Rosemary Dobson

The Greek Vase

In the garden a Greek vase brimful

 of leaves fallen from the grape-vine.

When the wind blows

The tendrils spill out like an alphabet.  Twisting

tendrils join the letters in phrases.

A sentence

is blown my way – some words perhaps dissevered

from the Iliad or the Odyssey

re-formed by hazard

of wind and season.  Treading carefully

among sentences, lines, whole stanzas

on the paving

I think: or are they not inscriptions

for Musa and Erinna, friends of my childhood

in cryptic calligraphy.

Beautiful indeed were Musa and Erinna

their epitaphs are composed in an unfamiliar language

and written in leaves by the wind.

Passing Bull 76 – A letter to the Minister for Immigration

It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien, and in fact repellent, to one’s own.  It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you, but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part.  It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

Well, I didn’t write that to Peter Dutton.  Bertrand Russell wrote it to Sir Oswald Mosley in January 1962, but it does say what I would like to say to people like Dutton, Trump, and Farage.

Dutton transcended even his own bullshit when he criticised a dead prime minister for his humanity – and humanity is not part of Dutton’s universe.

I will write separately of the kid gloves that we are supposed to wear when speaking of those seduced by people like Trump and Farage.  Seduction is the one charge that Dutton is immune from.  But to suggest that a person’s worth might be assessed from the votes cast for them may or may not be valid for a gentlemen’s club or a reality TV show, but it is a complete non sequitur in politics.

Poet of the month: Rosemary Dobson

Diving colander

The kitchen vessels that sustained
Your printed books, my poems, our life,
Are fallen away. The words remain
Not all but those of style and worth.

And here, in Age, I feel the need
Of some Divining Colander
To hold the best of all since done
And let the rest slip through.

Passing Bull 31 – The Loudest Twitterer

If there is something to be gained from the mess that is US politics, it is that ours may not look so bad after all.

About three quarters of a year of cripplingly expensive bullshit and division will eventually produce two candidates.  The parties have let the system get out of control.  They have committed themselves to having democratically selected candidates.  The English Labour Party did that too, and we know the results.  That is a bad case of preferring logic to experience.

The position with the Republicans would be comical, if it were not so serious – even to us down here.  Senator Cruz went, I think, to Princeton and Harvard, and is a member of the United States Senate.  He is running for President of the US representing the Republican Party.  With those cast-iron Establishment credentials, he claims to be against the Establishment.  The truth is that the Establishment is against him.  The Republicans hate him more than Democrats do.

Donald Trump has no policies at all.  He just shouts slogans and mantras and offers nostrums.  He is the ultimate Twitter age politician – full of loud, clipped bullshit of the required number of characters.  The last thing that you could describe Trump as is a Conservative politician.  He is in the populist mode and style of Mussolini.  There is an epic quality to his bullshit.

So, the Republican Party is looking at a possible choice between a radical ideologue it hates and a populist who is not a Conservative.  Perhaps it is time the Republicans ask themselves whether their brand of conservatism – that is minimal legislative intervention – is what a majority of the American people want in the year of Our Lord 2016.  Trump is willing to intervene everywhere, and there does not appear to be much appetite for the Tea Party minimalism of Cruz.  Perhaps also the party might drag itself out of the 19th century and have a platform, a leader, and some policies.

There are many nightmare possibilities for the rest of the world.  If Trump were to do the impossible and become the President, who would receive Frau Merkel?  In The Australian on Saturday, Emma-Kate Symons had a piece indicting the US press for not being critical enough of the family connection.

Trump is currently sporting a third wife.  He has got a daughter called Ivanka.  She is pregnant.  Trump says ‘if Ivanka wasn’t my daughter perhaps I might be dating her.’  Well, why not add incest to the holy cows available for slaughter?  The journalist criticises serious outlets such as Bloomberg and Yahoo for running puff pieces with headlines like ‘Ivanka with her bump stumps up for Papa Trump’.  The reason the press is so soft is that they are scared of Trump and of being locked out.

But if you want to know who might greet Frau Merkel, this is what Emma–Kate says:

The rise of Trump can be traced to multiple factors in the dysfunctional US political system.  It is among other things, the tale of an opportunistic, celebrity-seeking Alpha male paradoxically hanging off the stilettos of the clever model women around him: Number 1 campaigner, heiress, ex-model and Trump corporate senior executive Ivanka and his third wife, the Slovenian-born former catwalk habitué, Melania.

Yet, despite their tactical importance and role in legitimising Trump when it comes to women and immigrants, Trump’s leading ladies are apparently off-limits when it comes to fearless  scrutiny by US media.

Take this week’s cringeworthy exclusive interview at home with Melania Trump in her Fifth Avenue Manhattan ‘Versailles-style’ gilded penthouse by the supposedly liberal but in reality star-struck and access-obsessed MSNBC network show Morning Joe.

Rehearsed and primped like the seasoned reality TV star she is, jewellery designer and caviar face-cream vendor Madame Trump sat on one of her golden thrones, pursed her glossy lips, and waited for the easy questions.

That is the nightmare that would await the world’s most intelligent politician.  And Emma-Kate was being very kind not to mention the sons.


It is therefore a relief to find that the Americans can still do some things properly.  The film Spotlight is fine and persuasive for the reason that Trump is not.  It does not insult our intelligence.  The characters are underdone, and all the more interesting and persuasive for that.  Mark Ruffalo as the lead journalist and Stanley Tucci as an Armenian-born Attorney are terrific in a terrific film.  You can tell when a film is holding an audience, and this film did – especially at the end when the final caption announced that the Cardinal responsible had resigned – and was then given a plum post in Rome.  Still, I don’t suppose we can be too smug about that.  We now have to bribe our deadwood to get it out of the Parliament, and no amount of bribery or dynamite looks capable of shifting the worst case of all.

Poet of the Month: Philip Larkin

Mother, Summer, I

My mother, who hates thunderstorms,

Holds up each summer day and shakes

It out suspiciously, lest swarms

Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;

But when the August weather breaks

And rains begin, and brittle frost

Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,

Her worried summer look is lost.


And I her son, though summer-born

And a summer-loving, nonetheless

Am easier when the leaves are gone;

Two often summer days appear

Emblems of perfect happiness

I can’t confront: I must await

A time less bold, less rich, less clear:

An autumn more appropriate.

Passing bull 2

This is the second note – the first was way back on 20 May – on the failure of public language.  I propose to do it more often – say, once a week.  We are surrounded by bullshit.

On what I thought was a recommendation in The Economist, I bought a book How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh, an Oxford don of Mauritian extraction.  I have long been interested in the different approach to abstract thought and to intellectuals in England and across the Channel – and how those differences affect their laws, lawyers, and histories.  I have written a little book on that subject.

Sadly, my first gulp came with the second sentence in the Preface.  The author says that at school ‘we were served a copious diet of French classics.’  How do you get served a diet?  And how is either a diet or a feed copious?  This book is published by Allen Lane.  Don’t they use editors now?

After a couple of pages I realised that this was not so much a work of analysis as a collection of quotes, like one of those tedious dirges that disfigure scholarship in North America.  In the Introduction, the author tells us his book will explain the five ways in which French thought is distinctive.  One is ‘its historical character (by which I mean both its substantive continuities over time and its references to the past as a source of legitimation or demarcation…)’  Another is that ‘it is striking in its extraordinary intensity (ideas are believed not only to matter, but in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for…)’  Then we are told that ‘cultural centralization’ in Paris is ‘part of the reason why French ways of thought exhibit such a degree of stylistic consistency.’

Hence the Enlightenment Radicals’ notion of popular sovereignty, the exact mirror of the precept of absolutist power; the holistic abstraction of nineteenth-century counter-revolutionary thought, which matched the essentialism of its republican rivals, and the irreducible nationalism of the communists in the modern age, despite their doctrinal opposition to this ‘bourgeois’ doctrine.  This commonality is also the product of shared collective experiences.  Systems of ideas and intellectual currents such as republicanism and Gaullism often represented the maturation of existing social and cultural practices, or the reactions of particular generations to defining (and traumatising) episodes such as revolutions, civil conflicts and wars.

You might, on a good day, distil some sort of sense from all that, but it would be quite untestable, which is what those brought up in the Anglo-Saxon tradition fear from the European love of abstractions, here splattered on the page so copiously.  But does the reader coming into this discussion cold know whether the infection comes from the French or the author?

Next we are told that the ‘idea of knowledge as continuous and cumulative, which is such a central premise of Anglo-Saxon epistemology, is alien to the French way of thinking.’  Since I am having trouble forming an idea of knowledge that is the reverse of continuous or cumulative, I do not know what that means.

One of the reasons for this…is the emphasis on the speculative quality of thought in France.  French intellectual constructs are speculative in the sense that they are generally a form of thinking which is not necessarily grounded in empirical reality.

I do think I understand that the author wants us to follow the basic difference between rationalist and empirical philosophy, but this statement simply says that French thought is speculative because it may or may not accord with the facts.  And that is what we call bullshit.  It is therefore comforting to know that we may not have missed the point when we see that the paragraph concludes with reference to a paper by an Oxford Professor ‘Why One kind of Bullshit Flourishes in France.’

Next – still in the Introduction – we are told that ‘an enduring source of the French pride is their thought that their history and culture have decisively shaped the values and ideals of other nations’.  This large statement prompts an Anglo-Saxon query about empirical evidence.  And Lo! It comes immediately.  The great Vietnamese revolutionary General Giap learned his trade from Napoleon, and then beat up and banished the French.  If this is a source of French pride, they are broad-minded indeed.

Not many people have died at peace in the comfort of existentialism, that body of views that Jean-Paul Sartre became famous for dilating upon.  What was it?  It acknowledged a simple truth.  Shit happens.  The author tells us that ‘Sartre entered the fray in the aftermath of the Second World War, arguing that human beings could escape the contingency of their existence by seizing control of their destiny.’  It is hard to translate that.  Can we abolish the uncertainty of Fate simply by claiming to control our own?  It is hard is it not?  But it is a feature of philosophy on either side of the Channel that the questions are always easier than the answers.

I was disappointed that the discussion of French historians did not touch on the luminous work of Taine or more recently Furet on the way we see the Revolution.  Taine wrote most beautifully, even in translation.  One remark of Taine quoted by the author does convey a large part of the message of the book.  ‘All that the Frenchman desires is to provoke in himself and others a bubbling of agreeable ideas.’ That are not necessarily grounded in empirical reality.