[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.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


W H Auden

The Franklin Library, 1978; Limited Edition, The Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century.  Bound in green leather, embossed and titled in gold, with ridged spine; gold edges to pages, moiré endpapers and satin book mark.

When I was a young boy, but old enough to hear jazz as a distinct form of music, I bought my first LP – ‘Jazz for People Who Do Not Like Jazz.’  All of the poets who feature in this book might attract a similar label, and none more so than Auden.  But it took me some time when I got a bit older to adjust to the proposition that the following poem was addressed to a boy or young man.  This may not have been a rite of passage, but it was at least a hurdle on the path of education.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms to break of day

Let the living creature die,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Auden had a dream upbringing and education, and studied English at Christ Church, Oxford.  He was ferociously bright, and would later write critical prose up to the intellectual standard of that of T S Eliot.  His poetry is, though, more accessible to the general reader than that of Eliot.  So, we might suspect, was his personality.  He had a long association with Christopher Isherwood, and he also had a following of acolytes.  The young Stephen Spender was desperate to get the attention of Auden.

‘You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.’  This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair, in which I cried: ‘But do you really think I am any good?’  ‘Of course,’ he replied frigidly.  ‘But why?’  ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated.  Art is born of humiliation’, he added in his icy voice – and left me wondering when he could feel humiliated.

That was the kind of preppy stuff that bright young men went on with at Oxford in those days, and it is as well to recall how many of them went clean off the rails.

Here is Auden, perhaps a little out of character, in Roman Wall Blues.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,

I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,

I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,

My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging round her place,

I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish:

There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;

I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye

I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

Like so many of that ilk, Auden was drawn to the Spanish Civil War, but he would come to see it with an eye as clear as that of Orwell.  He contributed to the booklet Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, but he did so in a pained way that showed the pain in his own mind.  Still, he did better than some other big hitters.  Ezra Pound: ‘Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes.’  Evelyn Waugh: ‘If I were a Spaniard, I should be fighting for General Franco.’  T S Eliot: ‘While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best if at least a few men of letters should remain isolated.’  The only thing more limp-wristed than that is an aetherised hand upon a table.

He also had a clear mind on that curious notion, the role of the artist.

Artists and politicians would get along a lot better in the time of crisis [1939], if the latter would only realise that the political history of the world would have been the same if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed.

If the criterion of art were its power to incite to action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.

Tolstoy, who, knowing that art makes nothing happen, scrapped it, is more to be respected than the Marxist critic who finds ingenious reasons for admitting the great artists of the past to the State Pantheon.

Here is an intellectual and Anglican poet on religion.


With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder,

He saw the Devil busy in the wind,

Over the chiming steeples and then under

The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.


What apparatus could stave off disaster

Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?

Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,

World a still pond in which its children drown.


The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:

‘Lord, smoke these honeyed insects from their hives

All works, Great Men, Societies are bad.

The Just shall live by Faith…’ he cried in dread.


And men and women of the world were glad,

Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.


Auden wrote a luminous and scholarly paper on Melville and others.  In his poem Herman Melville, he said:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,

And shares our bed and eats at our own table,

And we are introduced to goodness every day,

Even in drawing rooms among a crowd of faults;

He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,

But wears a stammer like a decoration;

And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;

It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover

And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,

And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.

Later in life, Auden got interested in Tolkien.

Tolkien is a man of average height, rather thin.  He lives in a hideous house – I can’t tell you how awful it is – with hideous pictures on the walls.  I first encountered him in 1926, at a lecture at Oxford.  He read a passage from Beowulf so beautifully that I decided Anglo-Saxon must be interesting, and that has had a great interest on my life.

Auden might remind us of Schubert.  Or, perhaps, Louis Armstrong.  You could just turn him on like a tap.  This gorgeously handsome volume runs to more than 700 pages.  That is a lot of poetry.

Auden died in 1973.  The first poem in this volume is dated December 1927.  The last poem is dated April 1972 and finishes:

Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,

For all, both sweet and horrid,

Are jokes in dubious taste,

Too jejune to have truck with.

Sleep Big Baby, sleep your fill.

In one of the Forewords to his collections, Auden said:

In art as in life, bad manners, not to be confused with a deliberate intention to cause offence, are the consequences of an over-concern with one’s own ego and a lack of consideration for (and knowledge of) others.  Readers, like friends, must not be shouted out or treated with brash familiarity.  Youth may be forgiven when it is brash and noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtues.

Auden said that in 1965.  He was not to know that he was speaking of what has become in 2017 the malaise of our time.



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



John Keats (1818)

Grolier Club new York, 1995, limited edition of 225 copies; silk covered boards with tobacco morocco label embossed in gold, in slip case with marled paper; paper specially hand made by the Cardinal Mill in the Czech Republic; with portrait of Keats, facsimile of one of the letters, and map all tipped in separately.

All I hope is that we may not be taken for excisemen in this whiskey country.  We are generally up about 5 walking before breakfast, and we complete our 20 miles before dinner.

In June 1818, John Keats and a friend set out on walking tour of the English Lake District and Scotland.  He was twenty-two and had just published his second book of poetry, Endymion.  We saw with Milton that intelligence does not preclude art.  It is just as well – Keats, one of the great romantic poets, shows an astonishing IQ in prose.  This is from the first letter:

The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance……I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make man appear little.  I never forgot my stature so completely; I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.

Hazlitt, too, was very bright, but this difference between them is very revealing.  The English come across some Scottish dancers – ‘they kickit and jumpit…..and whiskit, and fleckit, and toed it and goed it, and twirld it    tattooing the floor like mad.’

I hope I shall not return without having got the Highland fling.  There was as fine a row of boys and girls as you ever saw, some beautiful faces, and one exquisite mouth.  I never felt so near the glory of patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier.  This is what I like better than scenery.  I fear our continued moving from place to place will prevent our becoming learned in village affairs; we are mere creatures of rivers, lakes, and mountains.

Could Wordsworth have said that?  Rivers, lakes and mountains are just fine, but there is more to us than fire, water, stone and air – and it was not just Bishop Berkeley who may have said that they are nothing to us unless we are there to see and feel them.  They may as well be on the other side of the moon.

The dialect on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland is much the same – yet I can perceive a great difference in the nations from the chambermaid at this …. inn kept by Mr Kelly.  She is fair, kind, and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch kirk.  A Scotch girl stands in terrible awe of the elders – poor little Susannahs.  They will scarcely laugh – they are greatly to be pitied, and the kirk is greatly to be damned.  These kirkmen have done Scotland good (query?): they have made men, women, old men, young men, old women and young women, boys, girls and infants all careful – so that they are formed into regular phalanges of savers and gainers…..These kirkmen have done Scotland harm: they have banished puns and laughing and kissing…..I….go on to remind you of the fate of Burns.  Poor unfortunate fellow – his disposition was southern.  How sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self-defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in things attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after things which are not.  No man in such matters will be content with the experience of others.  It is true that out of sufferance there is no greatness, no dignity; that in the most abstracted pleasure there is no lasting happiness: yet who would not like to discover over and again that Cleopatra was a gypsy, Helen a rogue, and Ruth a deep one?……We live in a barbarous age. I would sooner be a wild deer than a girl under the dominion of the kirk, and I would sooner be a wild hog than be the occasion of a poor creature’s penance before those execrable elders.

What a plea do we have here for suffering humanity!  Let this text be nailed to the door of every gloomy kirkman or other prelate.

And he was still so young, and would die so young.

When I was a schoolboy I thought a pure woman a pure goddess; my mind was a soft nest in which some of them slept, although she knew it not.  I have no right to expect more than their reality.  I thought them ethereal above men; I find them perhaps equal.  Great by comparison is very small…..for after all I do think more of womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet high likes them or not.

Here is a candour about sex that the crusty Anglo-Saxon will let go straight through to the ‘keeper’.

Near the end of the last of these letters, this great poet offers an insight into what drives this fiery romantic imagination in a way that recalls one of his best known poems and is an enduring testament to our crumbling humanity.

…..went up Ben Nevis, and NB came down again.  Sometimes when I am rather tired, I lean rather languidly on a rock, and long for some famous beauty to get down from her palfrey in passing, approach me – with her saddle bags – and give me – a dozen or two capital roast beef sandwiches.

There, dear Reader, you have the whole secret, heretofore hidden, of that great movement in art known as the Romantic Rebellion.  A decent round of sandwiches – roast beef, of course.

I have three editions of Keats’ letters, including a fine old edition of the complete letters owned and signed by Henry Cabot Lodge.  This present edition is the most luxuriant book in the hands of all those on this shelf – the paper is hand-made and rough cut at the bottom and the sides, and the facsimile letter, map, and portrait help bring the letters alive – not that they need all that much help.

Keats followed Shakespeare all his life.  He turned to Shakespeare for precisely those reasons that others turn to Scripture – for inspiration, for guidance, for discipline, and for faith.  He was to tell Severn that he could not ‘believe your book – the bible’.  In truth, Shakespeare was his bible.

The father of Keats was involved in keeping an inn.  That was enough in England then, as it is in Australia now, to dint the ideas of inclusiveness of some people.  Keats had to live with this snobbery – Shelley, who was not immune from the complaint, said that it killed him.

It is hard to imagine the idol of Keats as a snob.  It is not just that Shakespeare had to spend so much of his time with actors, as that he had to know what the crowd wanted and would pay to see, and he had to be able to characterise those who made up that crowd.  Shakespeare loved creating characters at the bottom of the ladder.   He went for women like Cleopatra, Helen and Ruth – Helen had nothing on Cressida.

Keats saw Edmund Kean play in at least the roles of Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Timon.  When he wrote his own play Otho, there were over forty borrowings from seventeen of the plays of Shakespeare.  When he published his most popular poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, he did so under the name Caviare, a reference to Hamlet.  When he died in Rome, he had his seven volume set of Shakespeare by his bed. He had acquired a tasselled portrait of Shakespeare on the Isle of Wight and this, too, was with him at the end.  It was as if the two were on speaking terms. When Mrs Hunt told him he would be invited to a party for Shakespeare’s birthday, Keats told his brothers that ‘Shakespeare would stare to see me there’.

Matthew Arnold made a comment which may remind you of how religious people describe the condition of one of their faithful.  He said that Keats ‘is with Shakespeare’.  Arnold said that ‘…the younger poet’s work was not imitative indeed of Shakespeare, but Shakespearean because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master’.

But the observation of Keats about Shakespeare for which we best remember him comes from a letter to his brothers:  ‘At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’  You might think that this is just the start of a mature view of the world, but the observation might usefully be put up in bright lights on the rear wall of every court in the country.  It is the foundation of tolerance, and its absence marks the beginning of intolerance.

Shelley waited until Keats was dead to defend him.  He then spoke of ‘A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift’ fleeing ‘Far from those carrion kites that scream below’.  It is no surprise that T S Eliot, who could not have written a poem of the natural charm of those of Keats, said that he was intent on analysing not the degree of greatness of Keats but its kind, ‘and its kind is manifested more clearly in his letters than his poems’.  Rather like squirting the score of the Liebestod from Tristan with an antiseptic syringe.

If you have dragged yourself up the Grampians in Victoria and obtained an exhausted view of one hundred feet of mist, you will recognize a lot in these letters.  One difference is that Keats thought that twenty miles a day was about par.  Another was that having gained the top of Ben Nevis, he could punch out a sonnet on the spot.

I look into the chasms, and a shroud

Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist

Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,

And there is sullen mist; even so much

Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread

Before the earth beneath me; even such,

Even so vague is man’s sight of himself.

It is hard, off hand, to think of anyone with a more clear-eyed view of the world than poor little John Keats.  If only someone could tell him that his name was not writ on water.



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



T S Eliot (1968)

We had the experience but missed the meaning.

Folio Society, 1968, printed by permission of Mrs T S Eliot and Faber and Faber Limited; bound in natural canvas small f’scap quarto with titles superimposed on parchment labels on spine and upper board (with spare title label) and matching ribbon, in card slip-case.

There is something unavoidably intellectual, antiseptic even, about T S Eliot.  You wonder at times if the problem is worse in the poetry or the prose.  What do you say of a writer who prefaces a book of poetry with the following, in upper case: ‘I wish to acknowledge my obligation to friends for their criticism, and particularly to Mr John Hayward for improvements of phrase and construction’?  And he then follows that with fragments in ancient Greek from Heraclitus (in the old Greek spelling) from a German source, Die Fragmente der Versokratiker.   What do you say of a poem that has these lines?

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it.  And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Don’t tell me your problems, Digger – you are supposed to be the bloody poet.  This is about as moving as watching a desiccated Anglican prelate treat himself for constipation with castor oil.  In the name of heaven, how precise is his feeling, or how undisciplined is his emotion, when he is on the nest?  Could a man like this give himself to a woman or to God?  It comes over you with all the charm of an etherized hand upon a table.  Bring your own scalpel.  And what happens to the ‘inarticulate’ after it has been raided?

Why is this book there then?  This is a beautiful edition to read.  This book would not be there in another form – another reason for doubting that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

Then, the author stands for me as a warning of our withering imagination and that Anglo-Saxon aversion to emotional giving, much less surrender.  Twentieth century writing can be far too intellectual.  Eliot and Joyce can look like show-offs.  Someone wisely said that Milton had so much learning that it was a miracle that his imaginative drive had not been crushed.  It is ironical that Eliot, whose imagination barely survived, should have led a reaction against Milton – to whose literary and political genius Eliot could not hold a candle.  (And they both had trouble with women.)

But, then, like a Wagner opera, some light breaks through and you think that the effort may have been worthwhile.  It is a book to be taken with an aperitif on an autumn evening, or, better, before a fire in winter with a bottle of red and the book read by the incomparable Paul Scofield.

From East Coker:

……………..There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

…………..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

………………………..They all go into the dark,

The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant

The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,

The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,

Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,

Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,

And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha,

And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,

And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,

Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God.

This is from The Dry Salvages.

We had the experience but missed he meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form beyond any meaning

We assign to happiness.  I have said before

That the past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations – not forgetting

Something that is probably quite ineffable:

The backward look behind the assurance

Of recorded history, the backward half-look

Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.

I thought enough of the lines from East Coker to use them on the face page of a book.  It was not a wildly romantic book.  It was a book about the law – for company directors.  The poet had earned a living working for a bank.  He said:  ‘The end is where we start from.’

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!

Passing Bull 124 – Bull about respect


If, having fetched a pale of water, Jack said to Jill ‘I respect you’, what might he mean?  The Oxford English Dictionary has for the verb ‘to treat or regard with deference, esteem or honour; to feel or show respect for; to esteem, prize or value a thing’, or person.  Jack is saying that he has a good opinion of Jill, or that he thinks well of her.

What if Jack says that he respects the flag?  Well, he is not talking about the cloth that is the symbol.  He is talking about the people, nation, or political entity for which the flag is a symbol.  And all those entities, involving tens of millions of people, all of whom are entitled to their own respect, are far more abstract than the little girl called Jill.  And there may be a lot more room to discuss just what are the aspects of, say, the nation that causes Jack to respect it.  Jack may not be of the ‘my nation right or wrong’ faction.  To use the distinctions of the OED, the question may also arise whether Jack regards the nation with deference, or whether he merely treats it that way; whether Jack feels respect for the nation, or whether he just shows it.

We are talking about a ritual performed before a symbol – like a lawyer bowing in court, or a believer genuflecting in church.  There may be many shades of meaning behind the ritual or the belief of the person making it to the ideas of those for whom the symbol represents.

Some American footballers chose a different form of that ritual to protest about one aspect of the governance of the nation.  That was their right.  Their president claimed the right to abuse them.  He wanted them punished by being fired.  He did not specify what law or contract had been broken.  He would be equally ignorant of both.  But he showed his lack of respect for his fellow citizens when he offended and insulted them by the vulgar locker room banter that is his stock in verbal trade.  Well, we are used to that with Trump.  He is a bad stupid man who thrives on conflict.

But his unctuous vice-president – who, unlike the president, has God, and has Him written all over his face –feigned a tantrum, and staged a walk-out, at God knows what expense to the American taxpayer.  Mr Pence said:

I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag, or our national anthem.

What would Jack and Jill know about the concluding trinity?  It’s hard to say something good about  a nation that seeks to cast out anyone who does not think well of it.  It’s just as hard to think of anything good to say of a leader of such a nation who turns his back on someone who does not think well of it.  They are marks of regimes that we least respect.

We are having this discussion while looking at a massive lack of respect in the best known industry of the U S – Hollywood.  Mr Weinstein sounds evil to the core.  He reminds me of Mr Strauss-Kahn.  Their vice is identical.  They are predatory bullies who abuse their power to exploit those beneath them in pursuit of their own self-gratification.

So does Donald Trump.  He shows no respect for those beneath him.  He shows no respect for what the flag or anthem stand for – the Constitution, Congress, the judiciary, or the office of President.  The President has no idea about the Bill of Rights, except for the current fallacies about guns.  He is a true abuser of power, and not just because of his celebrated curbside opinion about pussy-grabbing.  The difference between Trump and people like Strauss-Kahn and Weinstein is one of degree.

These thoughts came up as I read an article in the Financial Times.  It referred to an article entitled Why the assholes are winning.  Its author, a Stanford professor, said that leaders who create ‘toxic and hellish work environments’ are often admired nonetheless: ‘It seemingly doesn’t matter what an individual or a company does … as long as they are sufficiently rich and successful.’

The Financial Times went on:

In ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’, his book about Miramax, Peter Biskind described the Weinstein brothers’ reputation ‘for brilliance but also for malice and brutality’.

Another study of the traits of dominant people noted that greater power triggers ‘disinhibited behaviour’. In other words, leaders who are allowed to do whatever they want can end up behaving very badly. The powerful ‘more frequently act on their desires in a socially inappropriate way’, the authors concluded.

Over-eating, over-aggression and predatory sexual behaviour were among syndromes they described for ‘high status, powerful individuals’ whose moods swing from irritability into mania.  When personal patronage is the surest route from obscurity to glamour, danger lurks.

The references to ‘disinhibited behaviour’ and ‘personal patronage’ may or may not reflect what happens in the Murdoch empire, but the whole piece looks to describe the current white House – word for word.  Leaders who get away with doing what they want end up behaving badly – very badly.

Poet of the Month

Andy’s gone with cattle

Our Andy’s gone to battle now

‘Gainst Drought, the red marauder;

Our Andy’s gone with cattle now

Across the Queensland border.

He’s left us in dejection now;

Our hearts with him are roving.

It’s dull on this selection now,

Since Andy went a-droving.

Who now shall wear the cheerful face

In times when things are slackest?

And who shall whistle round the place

When Fortune frowns her blackest?

Oh, who shall cheek the squatter now

When he comes round us snarling?

His tongue is growing hotter now

Since Andy cross’d the Darling. T

he gates are out of order now,

In storms the `riders’ rattle;

For far across the border now Our Andy’s gone with cattle.

Poor Aunty’s looking thin and white;

And Uncle’s cross with worry;

And poor old Blucher howls all night

Since Andy left Macquarie.

Oh, may the showers in torrents fall,

And all the tanks run over;

And may the grass grow green and tall

In pathways of the drover;

And may good angels send the rain

On desert stretches sandy;

And when the summer comes again

God grant ’twill bring us Andy.

Here and there – Reflections on poetry on a bleak day outside Melbourne


On a lousy day at Malmsbury at the beginning of what was supposed to be spring, I wrote to friends along the lines set out below.

I read the Oxford edition of King Lear yesterday.  The editor quoted Keats:

Once again the fierce dispute

Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay

Must I burn through; once more humbly assay

The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.

Keats was in truth a fan.  I wonder how often in his short life Keats read this play – in company, and aloud.  I wonder if he saw it performed. I forget.

My favourite lines – perhaps I should say quotes – were:

so out went the candle and we were left darkling


Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.

Both lines were uttered by fools, actual or pretended, and each is so apt for the foolish darkness all around us now in Australia, England, and America – where the fools are in triumph.  Trump in particular does a fair take on Nero, and he loves nothing more than angling in darkness.  And, Boy, can he put out the candles!

Another phrase that caught my eye was in the press.  ‘Intrinsically disordered’ is apparently a line employed by one church to describe homosexuality.  It’s one of those lines that goes clear out of the back of your head as soon as you have heard it – probably in response to a very healthy defence mechanism.   Himmler may have used that line about the Jews.  We could say a lot about it – including that it is utterly impossible to imagine the holy man whose life and teaching gave rise to this church saying anything like it.

What’s wrong with these people?  A friend of mine is a true and decent follower of the man Einstein called ‘the luminous Nazarene’.  (Kant, too, would never use the name.)  My friend compared the response of the institutional church to marriage equality to the behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank generally.  That’s shockingly sad.

There may not be all that much of a gap between foolish darkness and terminal illness.

You will see, then, that with things as they stand, this Shakespearian fruit is much more bitter for me than sweet.

The reference to Keats, and the weather, sent me back to read for the nth time the letters of Keats from his Scottish tour.  It’s a glorious edition from The Grolier Club, with rough edged handmade paper from the Czech Republic, and a tipped facsimile of a letter (over-written vertically to save on postage) and a portrait and a map.  The portrait is different to that which looks down from my fireplace, but both show the doomed poet with his chin on a hand (although with different hands).  I expect that the portrait shown in the book was done from life; mine was not.

But for two things, the reader may not have thought that the letters came from a poet.  One is that when Keats first saw a waterfall, he spoke ‘if I may say so, [of] the intellect, the countenance of such places.’

The space, the magnitude of mountains, and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance.  I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write, more than ever for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that abstract of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, and put into ethereal existence for the benefit of one’s fellows.  I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make man appear little.  I never forgot my stature so completely; I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.

These thoughts and his well-known piece about ‘negative capability’ suggest to me that Keats had an intellect of singular analytical firepower.  Medical science being what it was then, Keats should have chosen law.  He looks to me to have been a born advocate.

The other thing that alerts us to poetry is that Keats keeps breaking into it.  He says ‘I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this – it can’t be helped.’  He climbed the highest mountain.  It nearly killed him. ‘On that account I will never ascend another in this empire.’  Well, he could still write a sonnet ‘on the top of Ben Nevis.’  In it he jotted down or threw off these lines in his windswept exhausted state:

I look into the chasms, and a shroud

Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist

Mankind do know of hell: I look o’erhead,

And there is sullen mist: even so much

Mankind can tell of heaven: mist is spread

Before the earth beneath me; even such,

Even so vague is man’s sight of himself.

It’s just not fair!  The poor little bugger just couldn’t help himself.  And to make good the comparison – if I had attempted that climb up Ben Nevis, an emergency call to the  Intensive Care Unit at Fort William or Inverness would have gone out within, say, ten minutes of the start – if Scots wielding straightjackets hadn’t got to my ‘impassioned clay’ first.

Passing bull 118 – Bull about the Commonwealth Bank

The following letter was published in the AFR.

Dear Editor

We discuss CBA in a legal vacuum.  The law says the business of a company is to be managed by or under the direction of its directors.  We talk as if the CEO is responsible for managing the business.  That’s wrong.  The board might delegate some powers – it cannot devolve its responsibility.

If the directors are truly responsible for failures of management of CBA, they should resign.  But our business community lost that moral fibre two generations ago.  And because our discussion is premised on a legal fallacy, the board is allowed to pass the buck to the CEO.  That’s as satisfying morally or intellectually as a footy club firing its coach because of the weakness of the team.

But still, no one goes.  Executives lose bonuses – north of a million each.  But given executive pay levels, this will hurt executives less than a speeding fine would hurt me.  And a fine that is ten times the pay of high school teachers will be defended by those who say there is no problem of inequality of income.

So, we have a shot-duck government that no one believes, and a business community that is spineless at the top, corrupt in the middle, and bitterly deprived and discontented at the bottom.  That’s just the cocktail that gave us Farage, Hanson, and Trump.

It also makes the case for a full inquiry into our banks unanswerable – if only to educate company directors.

Yours truly,

Geoffrey Gibson

The following piece was published, with some amendments, in The Guardian.

Koalas at the tills

If I drive above the speed limit, I may be fined.  I may lose my licence, and therefore my job.  If I kill someone while speeding, I’m liable to go to jail.  In weasel terms, I’m ‘accountable’ or ‘responsible’ for my driving.  The CBA mess raises this question: are its directors legally responsible for that mess?

We talk in a legal vacuum.  The law says that a company’s business is to be managed by or under the direction of its directors – but we talk as if the CEO is responsible instead.  That’s wrong.  Directors can delegate powers – they cannot devolve responsibility.  The CEO is responsible to the board; the board is responsible to shareholders. But armed with a legal fallacy, the directors try to duck for cover.

The banks say their problems are ‘cultural’ and the law can’t fix cultures.  What nonsense!  What if there is a ‘culture’ of greed driven by remuneration schemes put there by the board?  What if a macho culture drives men to intimidate women?  Is the law then powerless?

No, the directors of CBA are responsible for all this mess – and here it’s strike three.  Two generations ago, directors would have been pushed to resign.  But that was when bank managers mowed their nature-strips with Qualcasts on Sunday arvos.  Now we do not respect the City, and it’s left to the regulator to tap the directors’ sense of decency.  Their licences may not be presently at risk, but might not a court rule on their legal responsibility?

The directors relied on management.  In court, they would have to show they made independent assessments of the executives’ advice.  This law is hard.  How many of the CBA directors knew enough about banking to assess independently what their whizz kids were saying?  Did the directors reasonably believe that their powers were always being properly exercised?

Here is the Volkswagen dilemma.  Either the directors knew what was going on or they didn’t.  The malefactors were either working under the directors’ direction or they weren’t.  Which is worse?  If the government was telling CBA that something was wrong, can the directors now say that they thought everything was OK?  Weren’t they at least put on inquiry?  Win, lose, or draw, should we not spend some taxes putting these directors in the witness box so that they can explain to us Australians just what they do for their money?  And as for winning – well, it’s curious, but the banks don’t often win in court.

If you watch The Big Short at the cinema, you will hear groans of resignation at the end – nothing happened to the crooks.  Big corporates never get to face our criminal justice system.  Two teams of ineffably urbane lawyers stitch together an evasive dissemblance of regret – apologies are so demeaning; the corporate pays an agreed sum to government, which would otherwise be called a bribe; the shareholders take the hit; and the executives collect their bonuses and move on to the next fatted calf.

We learned long ago that power corrupts.  We are now learning that wealth – itself a form of power – is even more corrupting.  Have those at CBA been allowed to get away with all their wrongs because so much money slushes around that no one will mind the odd little leak?  Is it possible to imagine a more corrupting sentiment in a bank?

So far as we know, no one has yet gone from CBA.  Some executives have lost bonuses north of a million dollars.  That’s more than ten times what we pay high school teachers.  That will have hurt them less than a speeding fine hurts me – and their ticket hasn’t been at risk.

Very few directors went to jail over the GFC.  We protect them like we protect koala bears.  Company directors’ status appears to put them outside the law.  This apparent privilege deeply upsets the punters.  Our criminal justice system really works over those at the bottom – but we don’t lay a finger on those on high.  Are these koalas, then, untouchable?  More invulnerable even than cardinals?

This class difference is very cancerous.  We should all have the same legal rights.  But, then, this company pays its CEO more than 100 times what it pays its tellers.  Do you see why inequality – in both money and status – is such a loaded word now?

So, we have a PM reduced to a grinning buffoon; a government that gets everything wrong by either instinct or tradition, and that just ignores us; and a business world that is indolent and protected at the top, greedy and corrupted in the middle, and deprived and angry down below.  Those are precisely the forces that generate a sense of caste and that gave us Farage, Hanson, and Trump.

They also make the case for a full inquiry into our banks unanswerable.

Warren Buffett manages differently.  A scandal at American Express left subsidiaries owing $60 million.  Should the parent voluntarily honour those debts?   Buffett said their business depended on trust.  We hear that truism a lot now, but Buffett paid the debts to set ‘standards of financial integrity and responsibility which are far beyond those of the normal commercial enterprise.’  For Buffett, it was not enough just to comply with the law; the CBA can’t even manage that.

And what happened to the good old bank set up to guard our common wealth?

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

A Child Said, What Is The Grass?

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,

Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;

It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps, And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,

Darker than the colorless beards of old men,

Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!

And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

What do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Passing Bull 117 – The ungenerous generalities of the IPA



Followers of the IPA are different to most Australians.  The IPA team revels in generalities, abstractions, dogma, and philosophy.  Most Australians are too sensible to take any notice of that sort of ideological stuff.  Our disinclination is, frankly, one of our pluses.  It was therefore a little surprising to see Mr Roskam of the IPA publish the piece below in the AFR this morning.  Mr Roskam there acknowledges why most Australians cannot be bothered with this sort of generalised political philosophy, but he then goes on to make the observations in the three other passages that I have underlined.  In doing so, he resets his own very high bar for bullshit.

After this country’s politicians eventually work out who is and isn’t entitled to sit in Parliament, hopefully they’ll turn their attention back to more important things – like the plebiscite on same sex marriage.

Despite the seemingly endless discussion about the issue and the cry from advocates for change for politicians to “just do it because it’s popular”, there’s been remarkably little public debate about the consequences if a majority of people vote “Yes” to change the legal definition of marriage.

Partly this is because both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage are for the moment arguing about the technicalities of what marriage is, and partly it’s because Australians take a narrow and utilitarian view of human rights and are reluctant to engage in philosophical arguments – unlike in the United States.

The debates around the free press and the Gillard government’s attempt in 2013 to regulate the media, and now the ongoing controversy about the appropriateness of legislation which makes it unlawful to offend someone on the basis of their race reveal that in Australia when it comes to fundamental issues of principle, there’s a tendency to pick a partisan side first and invent a rationalisation for it second.

In the wake of a “Yes” vote, how we talk about same-sex marriage and how we’re allowed by the government to talk about it, is part of a much larger conversation about how Australians talk about questions of sexuality, gender, race, and politics. Gradually the bounds of what by law we can and can’t say about these things are being limited, and at this stage there’s certainly the potential for the legalisation of same-sex marriage to reduce our freedoms rather than extend them.

The question to be asked in the plebiscite: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” is at best disingenuous – and at worst dishonest. The answer that many reasonable people would give is – “it depends”.  It’s completely consistent for someone to believe that two people who love each other should be able to get married, while at the same time also believing that those who publicly state that marriage can only ever be between a man and a woman should not be guilty of breaking the law for expressing such an opinion.

If the plebiscite passes, whether it will in fact be unlawful for say a Christian or Muslim school to teach the “traditional” view of marriage is unknown – as yet no politician has wanted to answer. The question is not hypothetical.  Last year the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart was alleged to have breached Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws for distributing a brochure saying marriage was between a man and a woman.

It’s surprising the “conservatives” in the Coalition who were so eager to have a popular vote on same-sex marriage did not demand that the public should vote on the actual legislation implementing same-sex marriage. The result of a “Yes/No” plebiscite on same-sex marriage is as meaningless as that from Labor’s own proposed plebiscite on Australia becoming a republic.

Same-sex marriage is often presented as a matter of personal freedom. But freedom cuts both ways. At the moment anyone is free – without threat of legal sanction – to describe traditional marriage as a product of the capitalist patriarchy that enslaves women. In fact that’s exactly how marriage is labelled in more than a few critical theory classes at universities across the country. The advocates of a “Yes” vote in the plebiscite would increase their chances of success if they reassured the public that should the law be changed, same-sex marriage could be talked about in exactly the same way as is traditional marriage.

Marriage is more than a legal construct, it’s a cultural and social institution and it’s entirely appropriate the community should have a say on its future.  But it should be a real consultation about the specifics.  It’s incumbent on those who want change – whether to the definition of marriage, or our head of state, or anything else so significant – to explain how the change will work in practice.

One of the lessons of history is that the habit of authoritarians is to talk in generalities.

Is Mr Roskam really afraid that when this nation does recognise same sex marriages, which is just a matter of time, the law that grants that recognition may not avoid the possible consequence that ‘those who publicly state that marriage can only ever be between a man and a woman should not be guilty of breaking the law for expressing such an opinion’?  We hold our politicians in low regard, but could they really be as bad as that?  Or is Mr Roskam just giving new meaning to the term ‘scare tactics’?  I know that members of the IPA are morally and intellectually warped by their obsession with bans upon some kinds of discriminatory speech, but must that obsession lead to this kind of logic chopping?

In truth, what I think you see here is that sad wish of those who falsely call themselves ‘conservatives’ to find ever more complicated reasons for maintaining that we must never change.  That I think is what Mr Roskam meant when he said that ‘in Australia when it comes to fundamental issues of principle, there’s a tendency to pick a partisan side first and invent a rationalisation for it second.’  That’s not just the method of the IPA – it’s the whole bloody point of its existence.  They daily go into the trenches to ensure that we remain forever frozen in the cocoon so finely woven for us by the Holy Imperial Trinity of God, the Crown, and the Church.  It’s not hard to name a team that wants to genuflect at that throne or altar.  Messrs Abbott and Roskam, and Teams Sky and Murdoch, are up there with the best of them.  And the rest of us just have to put up with the nappies.

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

A glimpse

A glimpse, through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room, around the stove, late of a winter night–

And I unremark’d seated in a corner; Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;

A long while, amid the noises of coming and going–of drinking and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.

Passing Bull 116 – Father does not know best



Donald Trump Junior made a fool of himself about a meeting he should never have attended.  If you believed in genetics, you might say something mordant.  He then made a bigger fool of himself by forgetting about the meeting and then lying.  When this was brought to the attention of pater on Air Force One, Dad immediately dictated a response for Junior.  We can just imagine pater bathing in the awe of his minions as he worked with granitic splendour in the crisis.  The President’s response was both stupid and misleading, and seriously damaging to Junior’s case – and the standing of the government.  The White House met the furore by saying that Dad had acted ‘as any father would’ and ‘with the limited information available.’

First, the President of the United States is not just ‘any father.’  Putting to one side that the President might be mad, our Prime Minister has the President’s personal assurance that he is the greatest man in the world.  Secondly, the son is of age, and allegedly capable of looking after his own affairs.  How many sane parents want to dictate to adult offspring indefinitely?  (Junior turns forty this year, more than half the biblical allowance.)  Thirdly, the case is a fortiori here, when Junior is supposed to be running the business of the family to the exclusion of Dad.  Fourthly, a person of average intelligence in a crisis with limited information would wait until he gets decent information before committing himself and others.  What if this idiot invokes the codes on limited information?

While on the subject of bullshit, a lot of people are calling for the head of Ian Narev, who is a serious challenger to Tony Abbott for the tile of the most loathed Oz.  He has presided over a disaster while being paid $12 million plus – the worth of 155 tellers.  The directors are responsible for managing the business.  Why don’t they resign?  For them to fire the CEO would have the same moral and intellectual value of a football club firing the coach for its failure to accept responsibility.

Finally, there is a group of embittered old men who are bigoted in religion and who are standing in the way of how ordinary people wish to conduct their lives.  They invoke God to do so.  Of whom do I speak – Parliament House, Canberra, or the Vatican?

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

A child’s amaze

SILENT and amazed, even when a little boy,

I remember I heard the preacher every Sunday put God in his statements,

As contending against some being or influence.

Passing Bull 115 – More bull on conservatism


Some time ago, I quoted Simon Blackburn’s definition of ‘conservatism’ in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

Conservatism :Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions.  In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclass.  By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally.  The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.

The word has been rendered worse than useless by reactionary elements in the Liberal Party, and apostles of the IPA in the Murdoch press.  People like Abbott and Bernardi are doing their best to work up sectarian strife, although fortunately now, most sane people cannot be bothered.  In two generations all the cranks, theorists, ideologues, and Catholic trouble makers have gone from the Labor side to the Liberal side.

As best as I can see it, these reactionary souls stand for the following: they dislike Muslims, gays, and wind farms; they loathe the ABC and the Fairfax Press; they are consumed by hate for anything to do with human rights and they gaze with the utmost suspicion anything to do with fighting corruption.  They adore God, Her Majesty (even though she is by law a Prot), the flag, and coal.  What any of that has to do with any version of conservatism is not clear.  What is clear is that they have no interest at all in conserving the planet.

In their worst manifestations, they even like Trump.  Two particularly vile commentators on Sky salute him.

Trump is nowhere near being a Republican, much less a conservative.  If you had to put a label on him, it might be something like Leninist nihilist.  But in one of those trumpet voluntaries that we get every now and then from the female cadres of the IPA, Janet Albrechtsen said this about Trump and Islam after his speech in Riyadh ( in a visit which led to regional unrest in record time):

Trump offered up the kind of moral clarity that drove the West to defeat Nazis and Soviet communists. What has happened to us in the interim? Paralysed by political correctness, we walk on eggshells so as not to offend. Ask hard questions about immigration? You’re a racist. Talk about Islam and terrorism? You’re an Islamophobe.  Keep calm and stay quiet? Not anymore. It’s time to get angry.

That newspaper was having a field day about Islam then, but Trump offering clarity on anything?  On morals?  Does anyone read this nonsense before it hits the streets?

Students of commedia dell’arte will be familiar with Scaramouch.  He indulged in grimaces and affected language.  He was what the English would call a bounder or a cad, even if he did play it for laughs.  Someone described him as ‘sly, supple, adroit, and conceited.’  Donald Trump, the darling of conceited nuts in Australia, has just appointed his namesake. The man looks to be exquisitely in character for the role.

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

A clear midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.

Night, sleep, death and the stars.