Here and there – Herman Melville on Evil


In Melville’s final work, Billy Budd, Billy personifies innocence and beauty.  John Claggart personifies evil.  He cannot stand the sight of Billy.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab represents another kind of evil.  Ahab is mad to get revenge on the murderous whale that ‘dismasted’ him.  W H Auden said that Ahab ‘is a representation, perhaps the greatest in literature of defiant despair.’  Ahab is wilfully beyond comfort because ‘comfort would be the destruction of him’ (a phrase that Auden takes from Kierkegaard).

Captain Ahab personifies the fanatic, and he appeals to the gutter.  It was only on reading the novel for the third time – in which serious self-editing is permitted – and on looking again at the luminous book Melville, His World and Work (2005) by Andrew Delbanco – that I realised how relevant this curious novel is to us now.  It is a frightening portrait of a manic demagogue.  There is another frightful example in the White House as we speak.

Captain Ahab believes that we are all prisoners of our ignorance about the meaning of our suffering.  He asks his Chief Mate ‘how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?’

To me, the white whale [Moby-Dick] is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s nought beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white male agent, or be the white male principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

This is the kind of apocalyptic stuff we get with Carlyle.  Delbanco says that with Captain Ahab, ‘Melville struck a note that would resound through modern history in ways he could never have anticipated’:

All that maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

The usual term is scapegoat.  Delbanco refers to another writer who says that ‘every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering….a ‘guilty’ agent who is susceptible to pain’ upon whom he can vent his rage and ‘dull by means of some violent emotion his secret tormenting pain.’

For this purpose, Ahab gees up his troops, who are at best an indifferent motley.  They happily surrender to the mood of the moment, and to the instinct of the herd.  The zeal of each takes on the colour of the rest.  Delbanco refers to a critic who called Moby-Dick a ‘prophecy of the essence of fascism’, and to a French critic who in 1928 saw the drift into reactionary nationalism and xenophobia and who said that ‘hatred becomes stronger by becoming more precise.’   He refers to another comment about the ‘intense subjectivism’ with which Hitler ‘repeatedly over-rode the opinions of trained diplomats and the German General Staff, committing blunder after blunder’ that led to the final disaster.

The relevance of all this to the manic demagogues we have now, and their pliant acolytes is obvious.  Delbanco concludes:

In Captain Ahab, Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose – an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete any time soon.

Amen.  But, at least the whale won that one.  And the phrase ‘truth with malice in it’ belongs to the ages.

Passing Bull 129 – Fake conservatives


The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked.  Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  The English preferred evolution to revolution.  They relished their history and traditions; they revelled in their own mystique.  They suspected change.  Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations…’  And the French?  ‘You set up your trade without…capital.’

Now, that is very English.  Our state of mind comes from our experience of history.  ‘Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta.’  And the big reformation secured the separation of Church and State in a typically perverse English fashion.  All this was in aid of ‘liberty’ – ‘Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.’

An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta.

…..everything which has power to win the obedience and respect of men must have its roots deep in the past, and the more slowly institutions have grown, so much the more enduring are they likely to prove.

Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’  Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’.  Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.

These views flow naturally from the Anglo-American legal tradition.  We are looking at a certain type or cast of legal or political thought.  How, then, would a ‘conservative’, so described look at some of our main political issues?

Take our handling of refugees.  History is not a good guide.  Historically, Australians have not acted well toward people of a different faith or colour, and the present government recently flirted with one of the more obnoxious disguises used in the White Australia policy.  But putting to one side plain human decency, our treatment of refugees flouts Magna Carta and legal obligations undertaken to the world community.  To that extent, a conservative must condemn our policy.

Take marriage equality.  A conservative would argue that allowing same sex marriage expands the notion of liberty that underlies our whole dispensation.  There are problems with that contention, but there are more problems with the very idea that the proposal might be opposed on the ground of religion.  Our separation of church and state is recognised in our constitution in a way that is the direct opposite of the English version.

Yes, marriage has been between a man and a woman since Biblical times, but while antiquity may appeal to conservatives, it cannot rule them.  Slavery has a history as long as that of marriage.  As Burke said: ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’  That in my view is the real lesson of the French Revolution, but of one thing we may be sure – Burke would have been horrified and Disraeli would have been mortified by the suggestion that the Parliament refer the issue to the plebs.  That to them would have been a fatal abdication.  Labels have limits – Burke was a conservative Whig and Disraeli was a radical Tory.

Take our reaction to climate change.  It’s now common ground that we have made a mess of it, and fools of ourselves.  It’s hard to see how the issue could have become political, much less ideological.  It would be tart, but not ridiculous, to suggest that the first job of a conservative is to conserve the planet, but you struggle to find any principle to the opposition to the findings of science.  All you get are populist diversions about the price or reliability of power.  It’s what we used to call the ‘hip-pocket nerve.’

Now, you will know that some in parliament and in the Murdoch press who call themselves ‘conservatives’ hold views opposite to those set out above.  Some do it out of malice; others do it for money.  Either way, it’s hard to see any underlying political principle.  But it’s easy to see a surrender to the mob.  What you don’t see is anything like the compromise, moderation or temperaments described by Burke or the self-restraint described by Guthrie.  None of these parliamentarians is temperamentally given to compromise, moderation or self-restraint.

What you have is a repudiation of conservatism.  It’s time these people were called out.  They are not of the right sort of mind.

Passing Bull 126 – Being rational about religion


We take a lot of things on faith – the balance in our bank account, the state of our health, the sense of our doctors, the faithfulness of our partners, and the magic and mystery of giants like Leonardo, Shakespeare and Mozart.  Faith doesn’t only apply to religion then.  To that extent I agree with Greg Sheridan in his piece ‘Idea of God is perfectly logical’ in The Saturday Australian.

My position about God is that of a God-fearing doubter.  I simply don’t know.  I don’t believe anyone knows about God, either way.  While I have lost any belief in God, at least as that term in generally understood, I don’t seek to persuade others either way.  That, frankly, would be none of my business.

It follows therefore that I too, with Mr Sheridan, don’t like Dawkins or Hitchens, although I must confess that I have not read either in depth.  I don’t believe that any proposition about the existence of God is capable of rational proof.  As I gather that both of these men thought that they had proved that God does not exist, they are in my view talking bullshit.  And I don’t think I could be persuaded to the contrary.  And certainly not by arrogant and insulting people like those two.  They are to me nasty intellectual bullies, who think that they can work over people who overtly pledge their faith in that which cannot be proven.

People like Dawkins and Hitchens look to me to be evangelists of a nasty and bigoted kind.  Kant knew that bigots of denial were often worse than bigots of belief, and Carlyle showed his disdain for Rousseau by calling him the ‘Evangelist.’  What right or interest do these people have in seeking to undermine the religious faith of others – a lot of whom may not have the same intellectual horsepower, but very many of whom will be far better off for taste and judgment?  For that matter, why should they seek to deny to all of us the place of magic and mystery in the world – with some variety of rationalist double entry accounting?

So, I agree with Mr Sheridan that belief in God is rational.  To suggest the contrary seems to me to be as silly as it is rude.

But belief in what kind of God?   And how do we express it?  Mr Sheridan refers to ‘the thousands of years of intellectual effort on matters of faith and belief by the best minds humanity has produced.’  The best minds would include Spinoza, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Einstein.  They all professed to believe in God, but their God would be unrecognisable as such to most believers.  (And both Spinoza and Kant were persecuted because their God did not conform.)

Take Einstein.  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.  Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were trying to trap 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’.

So, are we talking about the intellectual model of God, or the personal model?  The personal model, which is that favoured by most believers, is that revealed by scripture.  Here is another and more biting division.  Which scripture?  The Old Testament, the New Testament, Confucius, the Koran, and so on?

So, of course a belief in God is rational – but putting meat on the bones of ‘God’ is another matter.  And that takes us to the second question.  The belief is rational, but to what extent can it be expressed in words and be justified in logic?

Mr Sheridan refers to Aquinas, ‘the greatest of the Christian philosophers and theologians.’  Augustine and Aquinas took the teaching of an unlettered holy man from Asia and drenched it in the European philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  I was brought up in a Protestant sect, and on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the eruption of Martin Luther, I may be forgiven for saying that this intellectualising of the teaching of Christ may appeal to some more than others.

It is in truth no small part of why I lost my faith.  God is limitless – Christ is too – and I have never understood the presumption of mere men seeking to lock God in behind the bars of a syllogism, a construct of human thought.  This is, if you like, an article of faith for me.  I can’t jump six feet; I can’t conceive of a thing being and not being at the same time; but I don’t say that God can’t do either.  What gives us the right to say that God cannot transcend our limitations?  Why can’t God be better than us?

But this intellectual elevation put up by Augustine and others, which can only be understood by about a thousand people in the world at any one time, looks to me to be part of reserving the mystery of it all to the clerics – and that is bad.  This monopoly of understanding was at the heart of Luther’s protest.  And the Church made a great gift to people like Dawkins and Hitchens.  The people of faith were offering to play the people of logic on their own home ground.  It would be like the New York Yankees offering to play the MCC at cricket at Lords.  No bloody contest, mate.

In sum, there are limits to both our logic and language, and you have as much hope of explaining or justifying your faith in God as you do of explaining or justifying your faith in Leonardo, Shakespeare or Mozart – or, I may add, the divine Catherine Deneuve.  Wittgenstein said:

I believe that one of the things that Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless.  That you have to change your life. 

His biographer said:

‘Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm, infinite harm.’  [Wittgenstein wrote.]  Why pair Russell and the parsons in the one condemnation? Because both have encouraged the idea that a philosophical justification for religious beliefs is necessary for those beliefs to be given any credence.  Both the atheist who scorns religion because he has found no evidence for its tenets, and the believer, who attempts to prove the existence of God, have fallen to the ‘other’ – to the idle worship of the scientific style of thinking.  Religious beliefs are not analogous to scientific theories, and should not be accepted or rejected using the same evidential criteria.

That looks obvious to me.  And if you want to return to the beginnings, I see that Plato believed that no philosophical truth could be communicated in writing at all – it was only by some sort of immediate contact that one soul might kindle a light in another.  Good grief – from what ashram did that come?  But then we recall that Einstein said that he rarely thought in words.  And the great physicist Niels Bohr said:

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.  The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.

It was therefore sad to see that Mr Sheridan began his piece by saying: ‘It is more rational to believe in God than to believe there is no God.’  What might that entail?  It is idle to contend that my belief in God is as secure as my belief in my parentage, and it is plain wrong to say that Mr Sheridan’s ancestry is ‘certainly not rationally proven.’ (Otherwise our judges would have to pick up their bongos).  And then we get the call to arms: ‘the high points of our elite and popular culture have been colonised by a militant and intolerant atheism.’

May I suggest that making warlike claims to rational superiority about religion is not the best way to deal with intolerance?  When we talk of God, those who think they have the best arguments are those who are likely to lose the war.  There is a lot to be said for live, and let live.

Poet of the month: Henry Lawson

A prouder man than you

If you fancy that your people came of better stock than mine,

If you hint of higher breeding by a word or by a sign,

If you’re proud because of fortune or the clever things you do —

Then I’ll play no second fiddle: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you think that your profession has the more gentility,

And that you are condescending to be seen along with me;

If you notice that I’m shabby while your clothes are spruce and new —

You have only got to hint it: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you have a swell companion when you see me on the street,

And you think that I’m too common for your toney friend to meet,

So that I, in passing closely, fail to come within your view —

Then be blind to me for ever: I’m a prouder man than you!

If your character be blameless, if your outward past be clean,

While ’tis known my antecedents are not what they should have been,

Do not risk contamination, save your name whate’er you do — `

Birds o’ feather fly together’: I’m a prouder bird than you!

Keep your patronage for others! Gold and station cannot hide

Friendship that can laugh at fortune, friendship that can conquer pride!

Offer this as to an equal — let me see that you are true,

And my wall of pride is shattered: I am not so proud as you!

Here and there – Evil á la mode; and Iago


Last year Fox News, a part of the Murdoch Empire and an aider and abettor of Donald Trump, paid out huge amounts of money to settle sexual harassment claims against their CEO – and to settle with him.  Such is the evil of our times that, as I recall, both settlements ran to tens of millions of dollars.  Earlier this year, Fox News was forced by public opinion to sack its number one attraction, and Trump’s biggest fan and supporter, Bill O’Reilly.  He, too, was a serial abuser, and the undisputed world champion of hypocrisy.  He too handed over many millions of dollars to the victims of his abuse.  Such is the contempt for truth now in public life that O’Reilly was suffered to say that there was no truth in the allegations against him – he was just paying out all those millions to protect his children from bad publicity that had no foundation.  I don’t know whether O’Reilly, too, employs the lie ‘fake news.’

On the weekend, The New York Times reported that O’Reilly had agreed to pay one of the victims of his abuse more than $30,000,000.  That was the cost of her silence – but someone has ratted.  And now it gets worse.  With knowledge of that deal, the Murdoch family offered O’Reilly a renewal of contract at $25,000,000 a year.  Does anyone get to say grace at the start of these lucre-shovelling sessions?

There is evil all around here.  We have monopoly money figures that of themselves corrupt the recipients.  Just look at the spectacle that our bankers have made of themselves.  But there is a vicious disparity in status as well as wealth and income.  The case of that rutting pig Weinstein shows just how corrupted these people can become, and how moguls get to believe that they are untouchable.

But it also showed how vulnerable to predators are those at the bottom.  It’s as if we were reinstituting serfdom of a quite medieval kind – a form of rightlessness deriving not from contract but from status.

As I see it, this is evil, very evil.  And it is just these rents in our communal fabric that lead to cancers like Hanson, Farage, and Trump, so that they can spread their own kind of evil.  It’s all very depressing, and it prompts reflection on the nature of evil.

Roger Scruton – Sir Roger if you go in for that kind of thing – is an English philosopher who gets up people’s noses big time on some issues.  He calls it as he sees it, and tact or social nous may not be his strong suits.  He is however an urbane man with wide interests who is capable of speaking plain English.  I think that he subscribes to the Church of England, and I know that he is an opera fan, and that he wrote a book called I Drink, Therefore I Am.  It’s hard to dislike such a bloke, and he represents a full blooded defence of religion that both God and we badly need.

Scruton’s book On Human Nature has a lot of university type language, but there are some insights there for people who are not familiar with the ontological argument for the existence of God, or Kant’s celebrated refutation of that argument.  (Yes, of course – existence is not a predicate.)

The book is a revolt against the notion that we humans can be defined biologically, genetically, or even, I think, scientifically.  It may even be a reaction against Bryan Cox.

Wait a minute: science is not the only way to pursue knowledge.  There is moral knowledge too, which is the province of practical reason; there is emotional knowledge, which is the province of art, literature, and music.  And just possibly there is transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion.  Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world?  Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world and so help us to be at home in it?

Scruton seeks to explain our humanity by looking at our capacity to reflect on ourselves.  He refers to an Islamic teacher, al Fārābī, who offers us the insight that ‘the truths furnished to the intellect by philosophy are made available to the imagination by religious faith.’  Scruton’s opening lecture on ‘Human Kind’ has a ringing finale:

Take away religion, however, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness.  Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead.  Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’, which is why people so readily fall for it.  It makes cynicism respectable, and degeneracy chic.  It abolishes our kind – and with it our kindness.

It’s been quite some time since anything like that was taught at university under the heading of Philosophy.

It is the subject of evil that is of interest to us now.  Bad people, Scruton says, are like you or me, but evil people are visitors from another sphere, incarnations of the Devil.  ‘Even their charm – and it is a recognised fact that evil people are often charming – is only further proof of their Otherness.  They are, in some sense, the negation of humanity, wholly and unnaturally at ease with the thing that they seek to destroy.’

That seems to be about right.  Scruton reminds us that Goethe gives to Mephistopheles the line: ‘I am the spirit that forever negates.’  We’re not just talking of the person who sucks the oxygen out of a room.  Bad people tend to ignore others because they are guided by self-interest – just look at Trump – but the evil person ‘is profoundly interested in others, has almost selfless designs on them.’

The aim is not to use them, as Faust uses Gretchen, but to rob them of themselves.  Mephistopheles hopes to steal and destroy Faust’s soul and, en route to that end, to destroy the soul of Gretchen.  Nowadays we might use the word ‘self’ instead of ‘soul’, in order to avoid religious connotations.  But this word is only another name for the same metaphysical mystery around which our lives are built – the mystery of the subjective viewpoint.  Evil people are not necessarily threats to your body; but they are threats to yourself.

The relevance of all this to Iago is obvious and Scruton makes the link himself.  In watching the play, we are quickly shocked to find that Iago really intends to destroy Othello.

Peering into Iago’s soul we find a void, a nothingness; like Mephistopheles, he is a great negation, a soul composed of anti-spirit, as a body might be composed of antimatter.  The evil person is like a fracture in our human world, through which we catch glimpses of the void.

These insights, which are strong, lead Scruton to refer to ‘the banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in the bureaucratic mindset of Adolf Eichmann.  And he powerfully reminds us that concentration camps ‘were designed not merely to destroy human beings, but also to deprive them of their humanity.’  He then goes on to refer to what he sees as the ‘paradigm of evil – namely, the attempt or desire to destroy the soul of another so that his or her value and meaning are rubbed out.’

The book concludes with some comments on faith, and the notion that religion ‘is a dedication of one’s being’ and concludes with a reference ‘ to the two great works of art that have attempted to show what redemption means for us, in the world of modern scepticism: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.  In the wake of these two great aesthetic achievements, it seems to me, the perspective of philosophy is of no great significance.’

Would that others of us could be so modest (even if he lost me on Parsifal).  But as ever, we needn’t press the labels or categories too hard.  (George Bush Senior said that ‘labels are what you put on soup cans.’)  Nor should we forget another remark of Hannah Arendt.

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.

This may be hard to square with Scruton, but people who choose to demonise Stalin and Hitler want to run away from history and they demean their victims.

Iago has these lines:

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly… (5.1.18-20)

There is a primal, Garden of Evil, feeling about that type of envy, and it calls to mind the visceral description by the same writer of the type of person who sucks the air out of a room, the common garden smiling assassin.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous…

…..He reads much,

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men …

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

Whilst they behold a greater than themselves.

And therefore are they very dangerous.

(Julius Caesar, 1.2.200-215)

You would not want to stake your house on spotting the difference between the badness of Cassius and the evil of Iago – or, for that matter, what category you might reserve for Eichmann.  It may be best to leave all that stuff to God.  Those issues are certainly way above my pay level.

But let us go back to Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill O’Reilly.  A friend of mine – as it happens, the one who attends mass in a cathedral – astutely observed of the problems of Fox that ‘a large part of tabloid journalism involves the exploitation of human misery’ – or at least, I may add, misfortune.  It is therefore ironic that O’Reilly lies that he is paying out protection money just to avoid exploitation from the gutter.  The exploitation of the gutter is the business model of Fox News, and the modus operandi of President Donald Trump.

Are we then tip-toeing ever closer to the rim of the volcano that we have always sensed lies below us?

Why did the Roman Empire fall?  Edward Gibbon, the great historian, said:

The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind.  But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of its immoderate greatness.  Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it subsisted so long.  The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple.  The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.

The United States is not there yet – but Gibbon looks to me to have diagnosed precisely the condition of the actual decline and coming fall of the Murdoch Empire.

Here and there – Getting a fright – and feeling desperately mortal


The wonderful film Dunkirk shows young men knowing real fear.  They may be shot and wounded or killed.  They may be shot in the worst possible way.  In the back –retreating.  So that if they get back home, it will be as part of defeated army.  (We know about that here in Australia.  This movie is at its most moving when it shows some men getting back home and fearing their rejection as losers.)  We see young men dying – it’s all down to chance.  Randomness is all about them.  Their fate is out of their hands.  There is a sense of helplessness.  Is this the ultimate insult to our human dignity – that we become powerless in the hands of others?

Last Saturday morning, I was working here at this desk in the way I am now – typing and looking out over meadows and gumtrees.  I had experienced some shortness of breath that morning and the previous morning, but nothing much.  (This is about my condition of emphysema, not lung cancer.)  At about 11.20, I started, to feel a chill.  Then I felt aches in the legs.  Then I got short of breath changing rooms.  I felt even chillier and suspected an onset of flue.  When I went to put a large log on the fire, I fell to one knee, and seemed to lose my breathing completely.  This all happened so fast.

At about 11.45, I rang the clinic at Kyneton and said I was very distressed and on my way.  I cannot recall thinking about ringing 000 then.  I do recall thinking the trip to Kyneton – about ten k’s on the freeway – might be tricky for me, but that if I had collapsed, I could have rung 000 from there.  It’s hard reconstructing these things after the event.  The trouble is that you feel like you are running out of time – but you don’t know how much time is left.  It’s like being on time-on in the last quarter.

I made it to the clinic.  I just presented my bedraggled self and was soon on oxygen.  I can recall the fever was so bad that when they pulled a sleeve up, I pulled it down again because the chill to the exposed skin was physically painful.  (Is this what Don Giovanni felt at the end?  )I was looked after by a young doctor who is an extremely competent professional person.  The nursing staff acted on my instructions to get some good neighbours to look after Wolf.  I was taken by ambulance to Bendigo.  The paramedics were also very professional and kind.

After about four hours in casualty – monitored to the hilt – I was cleared of influenza, X-rayed, and told I wasn’t go to die – at least from this infection of the lung.  After a long delay caused by a bus crash outside Ballarat, I was taken to St John of God.  I had a long discussion with Lilly, a 48 year old Malaysian lady, about cooking and climate.  (‘It’s bloody hot there all the time, Mate.’)  I had similarly diverting discussion with many members of a dedicated staff, and after only minimal untruths, I secured my release after two nights.  The kind neighbour who looks after my garden had looked after Wolf.  She collected me and drove me back with him.  I’m determinedly resilient one day later.

But for about thirty minutes on Saturday, I knew real fear.  It was that sense of randomness of helplessness, that fear of the unknown, and loss of dignity.  The image that came to mind was of a fly on its back heading in diminishing oval slurries to the bath plug hole.  There does after all obviously have to be an end sometime.  Timing is all.

I think I can say that death itself doesn’t worry me.  What’s the point?  It has to happen.  Wittgenstein taught me years ago that you don’t live to see your own death.  That is axiomatic.  (Someone at Oxford told me a Greek had said just this 2,500 years ago.)  Descartes started modern philosophy by saying ‘I think, therefore I am.’  At about 4.30 this morning I thought for the first time of a kind of obverse.  ‘I’m dead, therefore I don’t think.’  (If you think that’s silly, it may suggest a problem in the first proposition.)

When the lights go out, that’s it.  There are no replays or appeals to the third umpire.  But we may wish to have some say in how the lights get turned off.

I hadn’t thought I had ever been so scared.  But when I thought about it, I recalled one time in the ‘60s.  During each vacation I worked with a small outfit called C & I Cleaning.  (That stood for ‘Commercial and Industrial’ – you can imagine the men’s version.)  The work was dirty and often dangerous.  Employers got away with things that would now draw jail time – big jail time.  There was no union involved.  It was never even discussed.  I used to think about it, but instinctively felt I would not have a job if I did anything about it.  More importantly, the permanents had families to support, and they were not interested.

We used to do jobs that these people were not qualified to do.  We did a job cleaning the outside of what was the Graham Hotel in Swanston Street between Flinders Street and Collins Street.  We did our own rigging of what were called needles, that is, girders, over the top of the building from which to suspend the slings, called painters’ slings.  These needles went over the parapet under a steel fence and then had concrete davits holding them down.  The whole arrangement looked to me to be amateurish.  I was involved in setting it up.  You may as well have asked me to do surgery. There was no Department of Labour and Industry inspection.  In truth, the needles were wrongly set.

At about midnight, we started winching up the slings.  There were three of us on each of two slings.  I was winching one, at the end nearest the Town Hall.  The site beside me was vacant and there was a north wind giving a bit of a sway to the sling as we went up.  About every ten feet or so my ratchet would give a slight click and just drop.  It was very, very unnerving.  It was also damned hard work.

We got to the top of the sixth floor and the little click became a run and the thing went down so that we were sort of hanging there with the sling at a 60 degree angle.  Someone or others of us were shaking so much that the whole sling was shaking.  It was seven minutes to four in the morning according to the Town Hall clock.  I can remember saying to Dickie Roberts that we were up a bit.  Dickie was an Englishman (who lived with a hooker who did interesting things with Cadbury’s chocolates).  I liked Dickie.  He said ‘You don’t fucking bounce’ in an accent that was thick for more than one reason.

A young night porter came to the window and turned white.  He said he could not handle the window.  We told him to kick the fucking thing in – and the air conditioner as well.  We made our escape at about 4am.  About seven minutes of swaying terror.  When I first read Measure for Measure, years later I thought I knew just what Shakespeare meant by the phrase ‘desperately mortal’.

Someone gave me a brandy.  It was a huge balloon glass.  I drained it and did not feel a thing.  I was blind with anger.  I wanted to get my hands on those management bastards who had been standing down there looking up hopefully with their feet on the ground.  When we got to them they asked if we would go up on the other sling.  Looking back on it, I think it may have been as well if one or another of us had hit one of them.  Dickie could have been just the boy for the job – he was brawny and he had pictures and I was sure he had been inside.  It is not so much that those men were greedy – it was that they did not care: they were worse than careless.  They were in truth bloody dangerous.

None of this came to me last Saturday.  The two cases are very different – not least because of my age.  But there was the same sense of randomness and helplessness – and fear of the unknown.

At least three things are clear to me after two trips to casualty by ambulance.

First, while we have mostly lost the old independent civil service we used to know, we are very well provided for by our doctors, nurses and paramedics.  I spent a lot time in the last few days talking to many of them, including many trainees and Latrobe students.  All of them – all of them – impressed me by their professionalism.  If you spend time in casualty, and see what life’s like at the bottom, you know that these people are not there for the money.  This is vocation, and God bless them.

And God bless their variety.  The last nurse I spoke to was a student from Zimbabwe called Lana.  She had the natural dignity of tall African women, and speaking to her, I realised the advantage that black women have over whites – their eyes flash naturally.

Secondly, there is another group who should spend time in casualty in a public hospital.  Those vicious idiots who want to loosen our gun laws should listen to people screaming obscene hate in public – whether through drugs, including alcohol, or dementia – in hospitals that now employ permanent security staff, and where PA’s announce impending mayhem by ‘Code Grey’, and their end by ‘Stand down.’  It is straight out of Nineteen Eighty-four.  It is worse than madness to suggest that we should loosen gun laws in pursuit of a vane mantra about ‘freedom.’  We will have to learn better how to deal with these nasty, cruel, cranks – I’m talking about the ratbag politicians, not the poor bastards in casualty.

Thirdly, I don’t want to go into labels about dying, but I may have to look again at some of the issues.  The trick, as it seems to me, is to be allowed to go out with as much dignity as possible and as little pain to those close to you.  Can we not manage to set up such a regime?  The issue looks to me a bit like that of marriage equality.  People should be left free to do as they decently want to as long as they don’t hurt others.  Isn’t that what we are supposed to be about?

Let me then go back to Dunkirk.  I hardly saw any TV at St John of God.  But I turned on SBS to watch their Sunday news.  I got the end of the Battle of Jutland.  This was the great naval battle of the Great War.  It was at best a draw.  Neither side risked its whole fleet.  It is still very controversial.  But many ships went down and thousands died.  The horror came as some British ships limped home – to be met by people heaving coal at them from bridges.  The fearfully uninformed were abusing their servicemen for cowardice.  This is sickening to see.  Have ever men been worse treated?  As I said, we know all about that here.  In the name of God, we are such awkward boxes of good and bad.

Here and there – The facts of political life


In order to encourage young lawyers to meet the facts of life head on, and to be able to recount them without bullshit, I used to give three books to my articled clerks on their admission into the legal profession: Gowers, The Complete plain Words; Clausewitz, On War; and Machiavelli, The Prince.  I don’t suppose any of them read all three, or anything like it, but I wanted to convey a hard-headed message – if they didn’t like it, they may have needed to rethink their future.

This came back to me when I read Be Like the Fox, Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, by Erica Benner.  It seemed to me to have a lot in common with another book I had recently acquired, Ike and McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower’s Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, by David Nicholls.  They both have respectable publishers – in order, Allen Lane and Simon & Schuster.  The academic credentials of the authors are elliptically expressed.  The title is catchy.  The style is a kind journalese that may leave some feeling like they’ve been talked down to.  In the first there is direct speech. In each, the author feels the need to tell us about their own journey of discovery, which can be a very troubling symptom. There are floods of notes.  Above all, extravagant claims are made for the book by the usual tame suspects in the blurbs, and by the author.  And in each case, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about – worse, I wondered how I got to be suckered once again, when I’m old enough to know better.

Erica Benner’s book is readable enough, if you go for that chatty style in the historical present, and you suppress your fear of another populist outbreak,  but you would have to be a bloody idiot to believe the blurb that says she has succeeded ‘brilliantly in overturning centuries-old received views.’ We can leave that puffery to the commercial conscience licence of Allen Lane.  But in the Preface, the author says this:

His [Machiavelli’s] design was to write for a tyrant those things that are pleasing to tyrants, bringing about in this way, if he could, the tyrant’s self-willed and swift downfall.’  In other words, the book’s most shocking advice was ironic.  Its author wore the mask of a helpful adviser, all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin…..Machiavelli’s self-proclaimed realism, his book’s main selling point,  was a fraud.  And Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and England were among its first victims.  Cromwell had taken the Prince at face value…..and in doing so, had walked straight into Machiavelli’s trap.

These statements are not small. They are large.  Is Ms Benner intent on eulogising a fraud?  (‘Fraud’ is her word.)  Where can you buy the crystal balls that allow you to divine Machiavelli’s real intent or purpose?  Was poor King Henry VIII really a flop?  Was the English Reformation a mistake?  How fared the nation of England in suffering through its victimhood?   And why didn’t Machiavelli’s fraud work earlier on seriously bad princes like Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler?  Why did five, twenty, and fifty million people have to die before they walked into Machiavelli’s trap?  Just how Machiavellian was Ms Benner’s version of Machiavelli?  Are we all just sad victims of a dilettante prankster?

And that’s before you get to the subtitle.  What did ‘freedom’ mean in Renaissance Italy?  As Bertrand Russell remarked of Machiavelli (in his History of Western Philosophy), ‘The word ‘liberty’ is used throughout as denoting something precious, though what it denotes is not very clear.’  My suspicion is that ‘freedom’ in Machiavelli means the kind of  pompous hypocrisy denoted in that word by the conspirators in Julius Caesar – as they pulled their hats down over their ears and hid half their faces, and then set out about murdering the man who was in their way.

Well, all this stuff is irrelevant to us in the Anglo-American scheme of things.  We don’t go big on theory.  We don’t trust ideologues.  And philosophy, especially political philosophy, has even less going for it than economics.  We prefer experience, evidence, tradition and something like natural growth.  Evolution hadn’t even been invented when Machiavelli was floating his theories.  But they have taken effect, and not noticeably to our benefit.

The Prince was mainly about contemporary or recent rulers in Italy.  The Discourses was more about republics, the form of government more favoured by the author.  If you know anything about the Medicis, Borgias, or Renaissance popes, you know that praise, much less idolatry, is out of the question. In the eyes of most, Cesare Borgia was a model of depravity.  Here is part of what Jacob Burckhardt had to say about the ‘great criminal’ Cesare Borgia.

‘Every night four or five murdered men are discovered – bishops, prelates, and others – so that all Rome is trembling for fear of being destroyed by the Duke’ (Cesare).  He himself used to wander about Rome in the night-time with his guards, and there is every reason to believe that he did so not only because, like Tiberius, he shrank from showing his now repulsive features by daylight, but also to gratify his insane thirst for blood, perhaps even on persons unknown to him….those whom the Borgias could not assail with open violence fell victim to their poison.

On any view, the bloodlines were less than charming, and the Borgias were not nice people to have dinner with. If Machiavelli says he sees nothing to reproach in Cesare Borgia, and he does, he is obviously taking the mickey – unless he is morally insane.  Some have called it satire; others call it comical irony.  While Burckhardt may be out of fashion, he did understand Italy at this time, and he thought the real reason for Machiavelli’s sympathy for Cesare was that Cesare was the only one who could have secularised the Papal States.  (Now there is a proposition to conjure with!)

We are looking at the difference between facts in history and politics, and values in ethics or morals. That’s what I wanted my new lawyers to come to terms with – together with the dangers of talking in such abstractions.  Can you have any politics without any morals at all?  Even Stalin and Hitler found room for loyalty to the nation and party, and obedience to the leader.

This realism had its upside.  Machiavelli criticised the Church because by its conduct it had undermined religious belief.  But there was a downside.  A prince should seem to be religious – an implacable law for American presidents – but the Prince emphatically rejects morals for princes.  Rulers who are always good will fail.  They must be as cunning as a fox.  In the year of Our Lord 2016, this attempt to divorce morals from politics came home to bite us all.  And the point was made by people who worked on the equally objectionable principle that the ends justify the means – a notion that figures largely in Machiavelli’s writings.

Russell introduced the subject this way (back in 1946, the year after I was born).

His political philosophy is scientific and empirical, based upon his own experience of affairs, concerned to set forth the means to assigned ends, regardless of the question whether the ends are to be considered good or bad.  When, on occasion, he allows himself to mention the ends that he desires, they are such as we can all applaud.  Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches to his name is due to the indignation of hypocrites who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.  There remains, it is true, a good deal that genuinely demands criticism, but in this he is an expression of his age.   Such intellectual honesty about political dishonesty would have been hardly possible at any other time or in any other country…..

This assessment looks fair and sensible to me, and I doubt whether Ms Benner would dissent from it.  But it is not a bookselling headline.  How then does Ms Benner unveil her revelation?

But he has learned to avoid lecturing princes on what they should and should not do.  Instead, he gives free reign to his old talent for ambiguous writing, so useful when writing diplomatic dispatches.  [35] He adopts the persona of a cold-blooded adviser to new rulers, one who teaches them to use other princes, foreign peoples, and their own subjects to serve their soaring ambitions.  Yet his writing turns hot, nearly bursts into flame, when he describes how free peoples avenge themselves on those who attack their freedom….On closer scrutiny, though, one begins to notice hesitations and caveats that compromise the praise…..Yet the book’s long discussion of Cesare’s career teams with insinuations that undercut the praise….look more closely and you start to notice details that subvert the artist’s glowing portrait….When reading the Prince, one often has the impression that the book speaks in two different voices, sometimes in the same sentence…..If the louder voice of the amoral adviser goads princely readers to accumulate more and more power, the Prince’s lower register voice – Nicco beneath his bestial disguise – constantly hints that well-ordered republics are stronger, safer, and more natural for the human animal.

Now, whether you regard ‘bestial disguise’ as an improvement on ‘fraud’ may involve issues of taste as much as judgment, but there is nothing new here.  When you could be killed or mutilated for saying the wrong thing, it was natural to equivocate, or be deliberately ambiguous, or to speak with a forked tongue.

All of Machiavelli’s books were banned; he had already been tortured not for what he said, but because someone else put his name in a list; and that most notorious controversialist of the Renaissance, Galileo, had sought to pull off the same stunt by dressing his heresy up in a dialogue.  He said that he just wanted to show both sides.  Well, as we know, the Inquisition did not buy that argument, and Galileo was convicted of being ‘vehemently suspect of heresy.’  Two could play the ambiguity game – but it was and is a well-worn game.

Well, if nothing is new, what’s all the fuss about?  The author’s argument begins with the reference to the ambiguity of diplomacy.  I have included the footnote [35] for which the citation is:

‘35 See Benner, Machiavelli’s Prince.’

Passim? The whole bloody book?  Has it all been said before? Is the good book right after all – is there nothing new under the sun?

So, give us a break Mr Allen Lane, and go a bit easier on the bullshit.

Passing Bull 104 – Australian values


The hypocrisy and intolerance in our public life is getting worse.  A week after telling us that migrants should share Australian values, government ministers are doing hand-stands because someone said something of questionable taste that offended part of our secular faith.  Nor are our leaders in the slightest put out that those complaining the loudest about this allegedly offensive behaviour are also the ones that cry the loudest when the law is invoked against offensive words.  You can apparently be as offensive as you like – until you offend a true blue Aussie.  Why don’t we go for the full Monty and set up a House of UnAustralian Affairs Committee?  I can think of a number of thick thugs who would be ripe to emulate the U S model.

Well, here is my go at some real Australian values where we could well be world leaders.

  1. Holding without trial a person fleeing from persecution in a nation ruined by a war that your nation entered under false pretences.
  2. Imprisoning young aboriginal offenders for stealing bread, under laws of mandatory sentencing passed to deal with aboriginals by legislators who do not know as much as the judges and who do not trust them, while their rich mates crookedly deprive people of millions of dollars and routinely go uncharged.
  3. Refusing to change taxation laws in an effort to enable young people who are not so well off to buy their first home – not just an Australian value but what we used to call ‘the Australian dream’ – for fear that such a law might be against the interests of those who are well off, in particular those members of parliament who invest in land and use the tax laws for that purpose – what used to be called ‘the ruling class’ or ‘the landed gentry’.
  4. Supporting bodies that claim to be in sport but which are in truth trading corporations in the entertainment industry that at least in part live off the earnings of gambling, another form of business that has brought hardship and misery to countless Australians, commonly those who are not so well off or who are not so good at looking after themselves.
  5. Having legislatures refuse to limit the gambling business that does so much harm to their voters, because their governments are now hooked on the easy money coming in as revenue derived in large part from human misery.
  6. Refusing, for reasons of pure self-interest, to make laws to contain the spread of this evil, and to ban advertising of products that bring as much misery as cigarettes.
  7. Refusing to investigate or prosecute people who in public offend aboriginal footballers on the basis of their race on the ground that such action would impede the freedom of speech of the abuser, or on the ground that a single instance of abuse does not constitute harassment – or professing inane political theories that leave them open to this silly suggestion.
  8. Maintaining a system of government that blatantly prefers one religion to all others by requiring its head of state to be in communion with one sect of one religion – by the law of a foreign nation that we hapless and timid Australians have no power to alter.
  9. Forbidding members of a government from voting in parliament on an issue of social equality apparently favoured by a clear majority – on the reasoning like that of a spoiled brat who is a bad sport and who just picks up his bat and ball to spite the winner.
  10. Acquiescing in a body of laws on taxation that are at best incomprehensible, but which offer the wealthy more avenues of evasion than poor people.
  11. Coming too late to the conclusion that allowing a bank manager to be paid one hundred times what a bank teller gets paid is as bad for the rest of Australia as is their practice of encouraging their managers to boost their incomes by engaging in bad and illegal banking practises that hurt those who are less able to look after themselves.
  12. Refusing to sanction a decent inquiry into these evils because it might be bad for business! (This is the bell ringer of all  bell ringers.)
  13. Failing to see that it is blindingly obvious that the widening gap in incomes and housing wealth is undermining the fabric of the nation in the same manner that has produced such ghastly political disruption elsewhere.
  14. Having politicians who generally behave in such an appalling fashion that at any given election, a majority of voters will be clearly against the party that has the misfortune to be elected to govern.
  15. Habitually going off to wars and losing them as a payment of protection money to Uncle Sam, and not only refusing to acknowledge that fact, but positively lying and denying it.
  16. Allowing blockheads – seismically stupid people – to favour a warped ideology of fanatics against the evidence of science to endanger our hold on the planet and to rob our children of their heritage.
  17. Having a political system that is so decrepit that a rational literate liberal leader is soon reduced to a crass scared vote-chasing follower.
  18. Living in philistine cities of the plain where more people will go to watch a single match of football, in a code that has not been and never will be exported beyond our sunlit plains extended, than go to see all the operas and plays put on in those cities over the whole year.
  19. Being in a nation that likes to see itself as ‘sporting,’ and having a major sporting body aligned with one of the most corrupt entities on the planet, whose head has a tenure exceeding that of most African dictators, whose income has blue sky (more than $200,000) between it and that of the Chief Justice of the High Court, and who when challenged descends to the gutter in a manner that should have got him sacked on the spot.
  20. After more than two centuries of white settlement, not having found the means to stop such jerks worming their way into positions of trust and reducing the rest of us to illness or tears.
  21. Having politicians who are so low and unprincipled that they will go out and spruik bullshit about Australian values in an effort to get a transitory lift in the polls, and who either do not see or do not care that we see them for what they are.

You do wonder how our values might be different to those of the English, French, Americans, Chinese, Kenyans, Chileans, Indonesians, or North Koreans, or what school of diplomacy you should attend before pointing out their deficiencies to their face.

But, on reflection, I think there may be one real Australian value – anyone who uses that term with a straight face is a no good bullshit-artist and, worse, probably a politician to boot.

Confucius says:

I am not so impertinent as to practise flattery.  It is just that I so detest inflexibility.

Analects 14.32.

Passing Bull 103 – Bull about poverty

In doing a course on line from Cambridge about Queen Elizabeth I, I had occasion to look at Elizabethan poor laws.  This led me to put on the following note.

‘This woman (Queen Elizabeth I) for me stands for leadership and tolerance.  The first is in very short supply, and the second was brutally attacked in various parts of the world (including mine) last year.  The other thing that struck me again was how much more rigorous was the education provided back then to those who would prefer to watch Shakespeare than to read Phantom comics or watch Days of Our Lives.  (That last comment really shows me as an old fogey.)

But I am now engaged in reading Dickens’ novels for the second time.  I have just finished Bleak House again, and I recalled that poor Jo appeared to die from poverty.  The poor were always before Dickens.  What about in the time of Queen Elizabeth I?

I recalled my amazement about thirty years ago when I was hearing tax cases, and I had to hear my first case about whether a body was a charity.

Where do I find the law on that?

If the tribunal pleases, you look to find the spirit and intendment of the preamble to a statute of Queen Elizabeth I.

The First Elizabeth?  Are you serious?

Counsel was – the act is 43 Eliz. c 1 (1601).  The act’s preamble contained a list of purposes or activities that the parliament believed were beneficial to society, and for which the nation wanted to encourage private contributions. That list then formed the foundation of the modern definition of charitable purposes, which was developed through case law.   The ‘relief of the aged, impotent, and poor’ stand high in the list in the preamble.  Poor Jo would have been a proper object of bounty.

I recalled this old law – which still very much underpins the relevant law where I live – when I was looking at what Lloyd George said in introducing the People’s Budget.

These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood, are problems with which it is the business of the state to deal. 

Was he quite mad?  Was he really saying that ‘it is the business of the state’ to deal with the sick and the unemployed?  Had this little Welsh son of a cobbler forgotten what happened to the first man who said that the meek shall inherit the earth?

Well, Churchill and Lloyd George got the budget through, but only after persuading a reluctant king to threaten to create enough peers to force it through.  The aristocracy thought that this move was revolutionary – and it may have looked like pure heresy across the Atlantic – but once again, the British aristocracy pulled back and avoided revolution – and kept itself alive.

But now I think it was not revolutionary to say that it was ‘the business of the state’ to deal with the poor.  In my view, the English had come to that position more than three centuries ago.  In the Oxford History of England (J B Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603, 2nd Ed., OUP, 1959, 265), I find this:

The official attitude to the whole fraternity of vagabonds had always been, and still was, one of fear driven ferocity: they were the true ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth’ who ‘lick the sweat from labourers’ brows.  But the impotent poor, the poor by casualty, who were poor ‘in very deed’, were acknowledged to be a charge on public benevolence.’  The vital question was what form this public maintenance should take.  Slowly and painfully the state was being driven by the colossal dimensions of the problem to the conviction that responsibility in the matter could not be left to the conscience of the individual, but must be enforced by law on everyone.

The author points to a prior act of 1563 acknowledging the need for a compulsory levy for the maintenance of ‘impotent, aged, and needy persons.’

Now, these Elizabethan conceptions and laws do not look small to me now.  We still have debates about vagabonds – often called ‘dole bludgers’ here – but it does look like some nations may now regret not having done enough for their ‘poor by casualty’ who, at least in the eyes of some, have recently succumbed to snake oil salesmen and false gods.  The various categories of vagabonds of Elizabeth – or Dickens – still look familiar.  They could be the leading lights of a major Australian political party.  (You can raffle that one.)

But whatever else the Puritans took with them on the Mayflower, it was not the idea that the poor were acknowledged to be a charge on public benevolence.  The Puritans were long on the individual and covenant, rather than on status, and they never let spirituality stand between them and Mammon.  Never.  The attitudes to the business that the state has with the sick and poor are very, very different in the U S compared to England, Europe or my country.

And the English and European response is not driven by Christian charity, but by a political view of the integrity of the community.  Charity has been secularised – that is, made the business of the state.  These laws were made in the light of hard experience, as is the English wont, and they cannot be upheld or cast down by the pronouncing of some theory or nostrum or label.  And if you want to know one thing about Oz politics, it is that the simplest form of suicide here is for a politician to even hint at reducing health benefits or pensions, the ‘entitlements’ derided by those who won’t ever need them.  Australians follow the English in distrusting theory and rejecting ideology.  The question is simpler.  What kind of community do you want to live in – one that stops to pick up those who have tripped up, or one that doesn’t?

So, a common historical stock can produce very different fruit.  Perhaps it’s just as well, and inoculates us from boredom with changelessness.  How you see it depends on where you stand.  I am hopelessly prejudiced.  I was born here and raised here.  Last year I was diagnosed with an illness that is frequently terminal.  After many rounds of tests, examinations, diagnoses and treatments from some of the best doctors, surgeons and technicians with the best facilities in the world, the issue is well under control and not life threatening.  I have not seen anything like a bill – except for drugs – and I now suspect that that protection against becoming ‘poor by casualty’ goes back not just to the Welfare State, or to the People’s Budget, but to the poor laws and laws of charity and the good sense of the parliaments of Queen Elizabeth I.

I’m sorry this got so long, but you may sense some bêtes noires being aired.’

The tutor, Dr Andrew Lacey, reminded me that the Puritans thought that poverty was a sign of disfavour in the eye of God – how un-Christ like does that sound? – and that therefore the poor could therefor look after themselves.  He also reminded me that the poor laws went backwards in Victorian England.  Poor people were given no favours.  They were more likely to be punished.  That is why Dickens wrote so much about them, and why Lloyd George and Churchill were involved in a secular revolution.  The governance of England was much more civilised about the poor in 1570 than it was in 1870.

The question is what kind of community do you want?  And labels and ideologies – ‘nanny state’ or ‘socialism’ – are just so much bullshit.  So is the old Left/Right distinction, or IPA nonsense about ‘soaking the rich.’  If you swallow that nonsense, does it follow that the poor must suffer to save the rich?  And what kind of person allows ideology to kill kindness?

Judging by the homeless on our streets, our kindness level here is currently pitched somewhere between that of England at one time or other between 1570 and 1870.

Volume 2 of Passing Bull – Items 51 – 100 – is now available on Amazon Kindle.

Confucius says

The small man, being ignorant of the decree of heaven, does not stand in awe of it.  He treats great men with insolence and the words of the sages with derision.

Analects, 16.8.

Passing Bull 99 – When Rupert nods, Turnbull folds 

The sad decline in Bill Leak was evident to all but the willfully blind.  Now the corrupt and gruesome exploitation of him in death will lead to all of his family and friends being reminded of his contributions to conflict between peoples of different colour and faith for the foreseeable future.

The people at the Murdoch press should be ashamed of themselves.  Those at Sky are hardly any better.  One of Bolt’s poodles, an otherwise affable man named Paul Murray, has swallowed the party line in whole, and hurtles to the periphery of any discussion at the speed of light, banging on about freedom and libertarians.

I think I was in Cambridge when that Four Corners story on Northern Territory black youth was aired.  When I got back, I forced myself to watch it.  It was utterly revolting. It reminded me of those poor GI’s who had to go into the death camps.  These were crimes against humanity.  Only dementia could stop you seeing that. Then I had to listen to ageing lawyers of a reactionary bent saying that this was an ABC beat-up!  Then a senior prosecutor said that these kids had serious form.  The wonder was that we had not turned them into serial killers.

Then The Australian published that Leak cartoon that would have warmed Goebbels’ heart. It is inconceivable that a quality newspaper such as The Times or  The Wall Street Journal would have published such a frightful piece.  Their inhibition would not have come from any law, but from simple human decency or courtesy, and a sense of professional responsibility.

Then our PM said the silliest thing he has ever said.  ‘Bill Leak isn’t a racist.  He’s Australian.’  That was a prize-winning, self-contradicting non sequitur.

But, worse, Turnbull’s fawning over Leak and others at The Australian points up the appallingly incestuous relations between some of our politicians and some of our press.  They are supposed to be watching the bastards, not schmoozing with them.  Well, at least as I understand it, the PM refuses to talk to people like Jones or Bolt.

And now the Prime Minister has caved in completely to Murdoch and his awful minions.  These people are seeking to relax the law against racial discrimination.  By ineluctable definition, they want the right or the freedom to insult and offend other people on the ground of their race.  What sane or decent person wants to do that?  What answer do they give me when I ask why I or any Muslim, Jew or blackfella should give up my legal rights against Rupert Murdoch when he sets out to hurt me – or a Muslim, Jew or blackfella – in a way that is dealt with by the law that these people want to do away with?

This issue means nothing at all to more than nine of ten Australians.  It should mean nothing to government that has made such a mess of energy, house prices, and marriage equality.  The only reason it does is because Turnbull keeps caving in to the troglodytes – who are willfully thick.  This government – which must surely be punished by the electorate – ineffably misses the point by going backwards on every issue it confronts.  It now abuses people in business for exercising their right of free speech to suggest that the government might govern by making a law to resolve one issue that they are holding back on – like the boy with his finger in the dyke. Could you believe it – a government actually governing? And now, it also wants to pump water back up hill – while the P M mouths inanities straight out of the Little Red Book of Mao Zedong.

This government is hopelessly out of date and it deserves to get a long sentence in opposition.  And I say that as someone who believes that Bill Shorten is far, far worse than Turnbull – he stands for nothing at all.  (For sheer insincerity, he is matched only by Hillary Clinton.)  But at least I am assured by my local member that the Labor Party stands firm against this weakness on hate speech of the government.

While I’m on the ALP, they have serious form for colluding with the press against us, the people.  The press knows its standing with the Australian people.  Juries terrify them. So Murdoch and the others got all the state governments in 2004, all I think ALP, to take damages for defamation away from the jury and to cap them.  All of the other changes to the law were pro press and against us.

And some of the bastards in the press have the gall still to complain about defamation laws.  State Labor governments denied us a vital constitutional right – to sit on a jury in judgment for damages on the press and to allow the weak to stand up against the powerful.  Now they want a federal Liberal government to help the powerful to run over the weak.

There are, as it seems to me, two classes of people in favour of the relaxation of laws on racism.  (I put to one side those academics that have never set foot in a courtroom.)  You have the ghastly paid commentariat who are an affront to humanity and who will, like Trump, say the first thing that comes into their heads just to gain attention and earn a dollar, and you have those poor brain-damaged recorded messengers from the IPA that may well believe their own nonsense, but who are crackers.

And for the umpteenth time, can they stop this lying about freedom of speech – or that code name for fascism, libertarianism?  To say that laws against hate speech are laws against freedom of speech tells us an obvious and inconsequential truth.  So do the laws against dueling and fraud; road traffic laws impede our freedom of movement; gun laws impair our freedom to shoot or to play a certain kind of sport.  And so it goes.  You don’t answer any questions about a law by saying that it affects our freedom.  You merely raise the question. All laws affect freedom, and laws against certain forms of speech – such as laws about deceit, espionage, and libel – are precisely meant to curtail speech.

The refusal of the Murdoch press to publish this simple truth shows their dishonesty.  It is worse than bullshit.  It is fraud.

I implore people, especially lawyers, to condemn the Prime Minister and this government for their cowardice and their complicity in harming race relations in a country that already has a bad name for them, and to boycott all manifestations of the Murdoch press.

Yes, I recognise that this is a rant, but now and again a rant is the only thing that will do.  If we have learned anything from history, it is that unless you take stand on some moral issues – and we are talking here of a moral issue – we are on the road to perdition.  Hitler also ranted.  The problem was that not enough Germans ranted back.

Confucius says

The master said, ‘The Gentleman gets through to what is up above; the small man gets through to what is down below.’

Analects, 14.23

Passing Bull 97 – The complete indifference to truth


The book that Chris Wallace-Crabbe and I are writing is presently called Language, Meaning and Truth; Alternative Facts, False News, and the Indifference to Truth.  You will be aware of the events that have prompted the sub-title.  The phrase ‘indifference to truth’ was invoked by John Stuart Mill, and by Professor Frankfurt in his little book On bullshit.  He said:

It is just this lack of a connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit … Bullshit is unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.

The New Yorker quoted a Russian as saying that the Kremlin has decided that state media was ‘overly fawning in their attitude to Trump, that all this toasting and champagne drinking made us look silly, and so let’s forget about Trump for some time, lowering expectations as necessary, and then reinvent his image according to new realities.’

Well, we expect that from Russia and its state media.  That country has never been decently governed.  But we don’t expect it from America – at least not as brazenly as it is shown in Russia.

The complete indifference to truth of the present White House is revealed in the following extract from the WSJ.

Mr. Trump over the weekend tweeted that former President Barack Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower, where he lived and worked during the presidential campaign— an extraordinary claim for which the current president offered no proof. A president can’t legally order a wiretap, and Mr. Obama’s office flatly denied the allegation.

In an interview with Fox News on Monday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was asked why Mr. Trump believed his phone had been tapped. ‘He’s the president of the United States,’ she responded. ‘He has information and intelligence that the rest of us do not, and that’s the way it should be for presidents.’

In a separate interview with ABC, asked what evidence the president had to back up his claim, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: ‘He may have access to documents that I don’t know about.’

On Sunday morning, White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a statement said the president was calling for congressional intelligence committees to investigate the matter, and said: Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.


Do Americans understand just how demeaning and degrading this bullshit is?  Ms Conway is a worse liar than the President.  He can’t help himself; she does it in cold blood.  But poor old Dean Spicer just isn’t up to it.  Here is The Guardian about two days after the WSJ report.

The White House has sown further confusion about Donald Trump’s accusations of wiretapping against his predecessor, Barack Obama.

At a briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Sean Spicer initially said ‘we need to find out’ if the president is the subject of an investigation, then subsequently sought to clarify that there is ‘no reason’ to believe he is.

Reports emerged on the Heat Street website in November, and the BBC in January, that secret court orders were issued as part of a justice department inquiry into Russian efforts to intervene in the election on Trump’s behalf.

 Asked directly if the president is the target of a counterintelligence investigation, Spicer replied: ‘I think that’s what we need to find out. There was considerable concern last cycle when a reporter was the target of one. But part of the reason we have asked the House and Senate to look into this is because of that…….’

Spicer insisted the suspicions are baseless. ‘It was interesting if you look at last week all of a sudden these stories that keep coming out about the president and his links to Russia,’ he said. ‘It has continued to be the same old, same old, played over and over again. The president has made clear he has no interests in Russia and yet a lot of these stories that come out with respect to that are frankly fake.’

But a journalist at the briefing refused to let him pursue this tangent, returning to the initial question: ‘He doesn’t know whether he is the target of a programme?’

Spicer replied: ‘I think that’s one of the issues that we have asked the House and Senate to look into.’

Once more the press secretary pivoted to a denial of any connections between Trump and Russia. ‘All of the people that have been briefed on this situation have come to the same conclusion,’ he said. ‘It’s a recycled story over and over and over again.’

The journalist tried again: ‘Are you saying that there’s a possibility he is the target of a counterintelligence probe involving Russia, because you just connected those two?’

Spicer said: ‘I don’t – no, no, I think what I’m saying is there is a difference between that narrative and then the narrative that has been perpetuated over and over again. The concern the president has, and why he’s asked the Senate and House intelligence committees to look into this, is to get to the bottom of what may or may not have occurred during the 2016 election.’…..

The question and answer session moved on to different subjects, including an erroneous tweet that Trump issued about prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay. But just as the briefing was about to wind up, Spicer appeared to look down at the lectern, possibly at a message.

‘I just want to be really clear on one point which is there is no reason that we have to think that the president is the target of any investigation whatsoever,’ he said. ‘There is no reason to believe that he is the target of any investigation. I think that’s a very important point to make’…..

Earlier in Wednesday’s briefing, Spicer also condemned the publication of nearly 9,000 pages of CIA files by WikiLeaks, though he declined to confirm their authenticity. ‘This is the kind of disclosure that undermines our security, our country and our wellbeing,’ he said. ‘This alleged leak should concern every single American.’

Trump praised the anti-secrecy site during last year’s election, declaring ‘I love WikiLeaks’ as it continued to dump emails from Hillary Clinton campaign’s manager. But Spicer said there was a ‘massive, massive difference between an individual Gmail account and classified information that threatens national security’.

‘Anybody who leaks classified information will be held to the highest degree of law,’ he added.

It’s much, much worse than Basil Fawlty.  The poor man has been broken on the wheel by a lunatic liar.

Pauline Hanson made her contribution to nationalist nonsense and showed just how dangerously stupid she is in remarks about Muslims and vaccinations.  She has pulled back on the latter, but she still invites people to do their own ‘research’.  What does that mean, apart from speaking to a doctor?  If it means going on to the Internet, could anything be more dangerous on a medical subject for someone not trained in medicine?  She also showed the reach of Russian intervention in other people’s politics.  She, like Le Pen, admires Putin.  What have his intelligence services done to achieve that?  Well, while most Australians are chary of patriotism, Nationalists like Hanson and Trump revel in the stuff.  She says Putin is a patriot.  So were Judas, Pilate, Stalin, and Hitler.

People like Farage, Trump and Hanson have a lot of very poorly educated followers. Just look at the Hanson MP’s. Trump certainly appears to treat his supporters with contempt.  Many of the followers of these people are very gullible, and take their news from loaded amateurs on the Net rather than trained professionals in the press.  A study by New York University found that about half of readers of fake news on the Internet during the Presidential campaign believed what they read.  You would have to be uneducated to fall that low.

And a lot of these people have a chip on their shoulder about their lack of education.  And that in part explains their aversion to ‘experts’.  Remember the loathsome Michael Gove, sometime President of the Oxford Union, saying that English people had had enough of experts – unless one is operating on one of them, or keeping them out of jail, or navigating an electrical storm at 30,000 feet.

And this envious rejection of expertise is, I suspect, what lies behind the moral and intellectual collapse of the Liberal Party here and the Republican Party in the U S that has led to the worst peacetime problem ever faced by a government in this country – our complete lack of policy on energy.  And in bringing us down with bullshit, our politicians have been aided and abetted by loaded idiots in The Australian and on Sky TV – and by the even more loaded idiots at the IPA.  All parties have had a hand in this catastrophe, but Abbott and Bernardi stand out as inane reactionary house-wreckers and dummy-spitters.

Some take the view that people who get most agitated about climate change and Islam don’t really believe their nonsense they spit out on those issues – it is just a business model, a front to make a dollar.  That suggestion becomes very acceptable when you hear some of them admiring Trump.  Or when you hear Bolt still banging on about climate change.  Or when you hear the IPA still banging on about men shaking hands with women.  That, apparently, is an Australian value.  Is it, perhaps, a mark of our patriotism?

Confucius says

The Master said, ‘The Gentleman helps others to realise what is good in them; he does not help them to realise what is bad in them.  The small man does the opposite.’

Analects, 12.16.