Here and there – Evading the question

 

People in public life are trained to evade answering questions.  They practise it.  It becomes second nature.  You might think that people in positions of trust should be obliged to answer questions about their discharge of that trust candidly and in good faith.  The law and I would agree with you.  But that is not what happens.  What we get are evasion, equivocation and half-truths.  The idea is never to give a straight answer.  Even if you are just asked to say what time it is.

Here are some of the most popular techniques.

  1. Restate or reframe the question so that you can answer it favourably to yourself. Mediators are trained to do this in a good way to try to take some heat out of the dispute.  It is notorious that opinion polls can be slanted by the way the question is framed.  ‘Do you think that it is in the public interest for the media to have more protection – more freedom of speech, if you like – in reporting on political issues?’  That is very different to: ‘Should we give Rupert Murdoch carte blanche to walk all over us in political cat fights?’  Instead of saying what your party has done, say what its policy is.  This is very common – offering motherhood in place of fact.  Alternatively, instead of talking about policy, say what your party has in fact done.  This simple if blatant evasion is standard.  For question A you have response X; for question B you have response Y; and so on.
  2. Challenge a premise of the question. ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ is objectionable as it assumes that you do beat your wife.  What about: ‘Why do you call this informant a whistle-blower?  He is just a common garden snitch and liar.’  ‘I object to your labelling this man as a conservative.  He is a closet lefty…anarchist ….alarmist’ …..and so on.
  3. If you get a chance to say that the question is ambiguous, think about saying so. (Some lawyers think that if their opponent looks clumsy, it may be best to leave them to try to dog paddle to shore on their own.)
  4. Brand the question as hypothetical and say that you don’t answer hypothetical questions. This may sometimes be true.
  5. Or invoke some other trite label. ‘I don’t engage in the Canberra bubble’, ‘water cooler gossip’, ‘locker room banter’, ‘hearsay’, ‘bloviations of the elites’, ‘virtue signalling’, ‘politically motivated’, ‘fake news’ or ‘deep state’……  Or, I speak to ‘quiet Australians’ (who never answer back).  You can get the full range of this nonsense every Saturday in The Weekend Australian.  Seasoned operatives take the view that the more meaningless and inflammatory the label is, the better off is the response.  It may depend on the acuity of the audience.
  6. If asked about the past say that you are focussed on the future. One Australian Minister, whose sense is matched by their deportment – the avoidance of gender is deliberate – always ‘looks to move on.’  (Walking backwards for Christmas does not enjoy a good pedigree.)  Then, when asked about the future, you decline to speculate on the suppositious or academic.  The golden template is in these immortal lines from the greatest movie ever made.

YVONNE: Where were you last night?

RICK: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.

YVONNE: Will I see you tonight?

RICK: I never make plans that far ahead.

But, alas, that kind of spark is missing from those who bring coals into our parliament.  (On a good day, they remind me of a bus driver from Box Hill in the Fifties.)

  1. If the matter is sensitive – say gun control or climate change – say that current or recent events make it in bade taste to allow ‘political point scoring’ to cloud delicate and personal issues. You can use the word ‘opportunistic’ – and hope that you are not asked to say what you mean.  In this country at least, this is a dead horse – except for followers of Sky After Dark or The Australian.
  2. A primary object is to keep onside that part of the audience that fears doubt and is made insecure by a want of finality. (This is sometimes called ‘the base’ – a useful double entendre.)  That sadly is a large part of the audience (although not as large as in the U S).  For that purpose, keep serving up the same old platitudes.  The simpler, the better.  But be careful about mixing escalation and increase in volume with repetition.  (The leading modern exponent of that technique is currently – in November, 2019 – heading for a gutser.)
  3. Be like a good poker player. Just bluff hard and big and look them dead in the eye and dare them to call you out.  After all, this is all about saving   You could model this aspect on President Xi.  (Who would play poker with that sphinx?)
  4. Blind them with science or big words. This is mandatory in any discussion of science or economics.  (The two are very different things.)  Remember the immortal advice cited by Professor Frankfurt in On Bullshit – ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’  It’s like throwing sand in your protagonist’s eyes.  But this response, too, requires care.  Your supporters take offence if they think you are deliberately aiming to go above their heads (which it is alarmingly easy to do).
  5. Bury them with detail. ‘Yes, in order to deal with that issue in the manner it deserves, I need to take you to some of the figures……’  This is called a snow job.  It is very common in legal and commercial negotiations.  You may look aggrieved if you are called on to get to the point.  ‘This is not a matter to be entered into lightly or ill-advisedly.’  You could then give the Andrew Bolt look of dolour – with appropriate hand gestures.
  6. Alternatively, you may say that the question calls for an opinion that you are not qualified to give. You must apply this technique with extreme care –especially if you devote most of your time to doing just that (which is the case for many lawyers and most politicians).
  7. A similar caution goes for slowing down the process by taking an inordinate time to answer the question – or, more properly, to respond to the question. This technique can be useful in dealing with tyro journalists or barristers in cross-examination, but it may not fit your schtick – this is no place for modesty – and it may not appeal to that ghastly mirage called your ‘base.’  They are happy with front and bluff, and not impressed by a devotion to care; or, for that matter, by fidelity of any colour.
  8. Depending on the forum, you may choose to be pleasant – you should always at least look polite and courteous and under control. If you are prepared to resort to flattery, leave aside the trowel.  And ‘That’s a very good question’ is badly overdone.  And don’t ramble.  You might convict yourself out of your own mouth.  And avoid traps like ‘sincerely’ or ‘honestly.’  (What is your condition when you do not expressly adopt that position?)
  9. An alternative is to belittle the questioner. This too requires care and skill.  Many people don’t like bullies.  (That proposition is just one of those that is refuted by the current rise of two worst leaders in the West.)  Cajolery may be better.  (Blackmail of course should not be undertaken in public, and then only under total and detachable and renounceable cover in private – witness aid to the Ukraine.)
  10. Attack the questioner head on. ‘Well, that’s just the kind of bias I would expect from the ABC.’  (Compare: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands at last?’)
  11. The Latin tag for playing the man is ad hominem ( ‘to the man’). It is repellently overused by diverting attention to the other side.  ‘Well, we are not perfect.  We are realists.  But just have a look at the mess that our opponents left for us – and for you, the people.’  This is intellectual trash, but you get truckloads of it every day, and the people out of doors don’t hear the sighs or groans.
  12. If in doubt, start a fight. This has been the resort of lawyers and business people from time out of mind.  It comes ever so naturally to those who appeal to the gutter, because they know that the gutter enjoys a good fight.
  13. The alternative to a fight is just to walk out. That may be easier to live with than an admission of guilt – and the whole point of the exercise is to avoid precisely that.

They are some of the more common techniques.  The questioner must recall one of the major rules of cross-examination.  Make sure that the witness answers the question.  If you get a snow job or some other windy evasion, bring them back to the point.  ‘Well, are you quite finished?  Are you sure?  Did you understand the question?  Well then, could you now please answer it?’  It’s about even money that they will say that they forget what the question was – and sometimes that may be the case.

Professor Frankfurt cites two definitions of ‘bull’: ‘Talk which is not to the purpose; ‘hot air’; ‘slang term for a combination of bluff, bravado, ‘hot air’ and what we used to call in the Army ‘kidding the troops’’.  He spoke of people ‘unconstrained by a concern with truth.’

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit…..For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony….The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong….Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

That book was published in 2005.  Since then, bull has become an art form and reached its apotheosis in Messrs Trump and Johnson.

Now, you may well think that whatever else we have been talking about, it is not honesty.  I agree with you.  But that is where we are now.

Here and there – Annual Awards

 

Best wishes for Christmas and 2020.  I shall be off for a few weeks, but I commend the list below.  The season of good will is also the season of pay back and catharsis.  My Mum said I should have one every day.

Stay safe and watch out for the smoke.

With Compliments

Annual Awards 2019

Film of the year

The Irishman – an epic in the good old style with three of the best screen actors around.

Sporting events of the year

Two resurrections – Steve Smith and Tiger Woods.

Winx made a lot of people happy – including me, for winning at her last start the day after the Wolf joined his ancestors.

Mesut Ozil.  The German, Muslim, Arsenal footballer who stuck it right up President Xi, and who thereby gave the supporters of Israel Folau something to think about – an experience that they may find exhilarating – or, perhaps, intimidating.

Book of the year

Bending Toward Justice, Doug Jones; Finding My Place, Anne Aly; and Trials of the State, Jonathan Sumption.  (Curiously, the first two authors are intensely sane, but each had two prior marriages.)  (I read Carlyle’s The French Revolution for the seventh time, but that does not fit these criteria.)

Business head of the year

BHP is the biggest shareholding in my small fund, in no small part because of my respect for Andrew Mackenzie, the outgoing CEO.  His education record is formidable – in Scotland, England, and Germany, and in three disciplines; he has a remarkable business sense and capacity to lead; most importantly, he can still behave like a ‘merely decent human being’ – to quote a line from The Russia House.  ‘Leadership’ is a facility that is subject to more bullshit than most others, but Mr Mackenzie has it – in spades.  And he has shown it not just in BHP but at large – in a community that cries out for it – and to the consternation of those dolts who know nothing about business because they have never been involved in running one and because they have not seen the change in the role of business in our community.

Lawyer of the year

Lady Hale of the UK Supreme Court, for herding the cats and striking a blow for the rule of law and common sense and common decency with a single joint judgment.  And because she was once a barmaid and because she wore that brooch.  The U S establishment has not produced it at that level – although the impeachment civil servants looked to be impeccable.

Reporter of the year

Nesrine Malik.  I would not give her any cheek at all.  Seriously bright.  She is from Ethiopia or thereabouts – the cradle of mankind.  She is both imperious and imperial – and with a delicious and imposing sidelong glance.

Columnist of the year

Joe Aston.  For serving it up to people who deserve it.  With a special mention for his gutsy libel lawyer.

Artist of the year

David Rowe.  Easily.  Cartoons are something we do well.  And they are a very necessary guard against depression or madness.

Newspaper of the year

Financial Times.  Producing good newspapers is something that the English do well.  This paper oozes professional decency.  Its views on Johnson are not dissimilar to those of The New Yorker on Trump – but it is not so overtly on a war footing, or so incessantly feeding the beast.  No prize for the worst.

Victims of the year

Those who voted against Trump, Johnson and Morrison; closely followed by those who voted for them.

Mediocrity of the year

ScoMo.  Can someone tell him that there is a world of difference between volunteers’ facing death before killer fires and sending crack armed forces against unarmed refugees and then spitefully repealing a law to simplify the refugees’ getting medical aid – and then putting a plaque on your wall to celebrate – in all humility, of course – your own downright heroism?  ScoMo is a BYO sandwich board – nothing more; nothing less.  He is a ventriloquist’s doll, an organ-grinder’s monkey, and a pencil box with vocal chords.  And if you ever meet someone who is happy to be called a ‘quiet Australian’, could you please be so kind as to let me know? Because we just might have the world’s best practice prize galah on our hands.

Comparison of the year

The New Zealand PM and the Australian PM on national disasters.

Musical event of the year

Jonas Kaufman in opera concert (Andrea Chénier); the MSO Choir and the Brahms Requiem; and my recent acquisition of the Glyndebourne CD set of Billy Budd and my recent re-discovery of the Karajan Boris Godunov.

Symptom of our time

Boeing killed people because money meant more than the safety of you and me.  It then put out unrepentant spin to hold its share price.  For a while the U S government went along with it to save money and face.  No one will go to jail.

Another symptom

The slutty evanescence of Twenty/20 cricket.  And, no, I will not love her in the morning.  As fulfilling as Chinese takeaways in the Fifties.

The Joseph Stalin Award for Bastardry of the Year

The repeal of Medivac.  They did it because they could.

The Geoffrey Boycott Award for Utter and Unlovely Predictability

Anyone from the IPA or Murdoch Press – Brownie points for the quinella.  The IPA in Parliament come from Mars, boy wonders with no experience and less judgment, full of front and emptiness, signifying nothing.  Paterson and Wilson are names to conjure with.  They are true Princes of Bullshit.

Hypocrites of the year

The whole federal parliament.  They pray to start their day and then devote themselves to letting down the same God whose Son would be appalled because they do know what they do.  It is sad to see believers – or so they say – shred their Gospel to schmooze with womanising liars who are so transparently in it for their amoral selves and then turn their backs on refugees – many fleeing from a mess that we had a hand in creating.  Their bizarre response to learning and pollution suggests that they have no children.  Or that they have been bought.  God save us.

Sad sack of the year

Gerard Henderson, the Prince of Sadness in eternal pursuit of the Prince of Darkness – Aunty.  Has driven more people from religion than Savonarola or Mike Pence.  This is a very large statement.

Ratbag of the year

Rowan Dean.  The embodiment of the ugliness in us all down here.  Loves to leer, jeer and sneer at those he regards as inferior.  The ghastly price that we pay for not having a conservative press.  Actually likes Trump, Johnson and Morrison – although his team – yes, team – preferred Dutton.  Dean makes Bolt look like a tame also-ran.

Recipe of the year

Roast vegetables – peel and cut vegies to size (say Dutch Cream or Kipfler potatoes, carrot or parsnip, and zucchini) – simmer on boil for five minutes – place into colander and coat with olive oil and toss with salt, pepper, seasoning, flour and thyme – transfer to roasting pan after melting duck fat on the hob and then lightly repeat the coating process and toss – cook in oven under dripping roast meat.  Reserve vegie water for gravy (for which I cheat).

Restaurant of the year

Tsindos.  OK – I am biased in favour of the Greeks, and this place in particular, but I have been going to that site for more than forty-five years, and any restaurant that puts up with and survives the Deplorables deserves commendation from on high.  Comfort food for the ages.  If you go, tell Harry I sent you.  And wait for the curious look.

Wine of the year

I normally stick with my own, and my own regions, but Bordeaux Chateau Meillac of 2012 for $25 from Banks’ Fine Wines is very acceptable – and it was good to be reminded of that solid old trouper Redman 2013 Coonawarra Shiraz in something like the old Rouge Homme livery.

Aggravation of the year

The continuing despoliation of Shakespeare by miss-casting his plays to make a political point – we need to think about resurrecting the law of blasphemy.

Anything to do with the Mayor of Box Hill (aka our P M) – although Prince Andrew was a late and inspired challenger with an inside run on the rails.

Error of judgment of the year

My resigning my membership of Melbourne Storm and joining Melbourne Rebels.  The former then barely lost a game.  The latter then barely won one.  (I know how Collingwood supporters feel – I was there in 1964 when the D’s won their last pennant.  With my Mum.  And I am in the process of spreading the curse from the Melbourne Redlegs to the Boston Red Sox.)

The Australian Christian Lobby applying publicly collected money to aid a member of the entertainment industry to sue his employer for millions of dollars because they and their supporters were put out that his religious fanaticism led him to denigrate those who differed from him.  The bad taste press thought it was terrific.

And see also Victims of the year and Comparison of the year, above.

Find of the year

Marnus Laberschagne and the Malmsbury Pub – under new management.

Star turn of the year

Anita Hill and those other civil servants who gave evidence before the Congress and whose courage and integrity showed up their political masters for the ratbags they are.  She and they gave us hope that the U S may recover from this catastrophe.

Hardest falls of the year

The whole Republican Party, but especially their soi disant leaders – gloomy, scared old white males bereft alike of integrity and courage – especially those two goons who always turn up behind the same shoulder of Water-mouth McConnell.

Reminiscence of the year

Catherine Deneuve and Juliet Binoche in the one movie.  Just as well they didn’t rope in Emmanuelle Béart as well – they may have had to issue a health warning for fading old men – like the Deplorables (et pour moi aussi).

Realisation of the year

In a two party system of government, it takes two to tango.  And if the opposition isn’t up to it, you can end up with a mess like ours – or England’s or America’s.

Bullshit of the year

This magnificent vote is a reassertion of national sovereignty and national will.

It is a powerful boost to the cause of Western civilisation at a time when it is struggling, and widely seen as under attack.

This is an epic moment in Britain’s long national story.

Johnson is that rarest of leaders; he has bent the arc of history to his will.

The author of the Brexit political project, Nigel Farage, is the other figure who was most influential in this result.  His electoral pressure transformed the Conservatives from a Remain Party to a Leave Party.

Farage stiffened the spines of the Conservatives and then stood down in the seats they were defending to maximise the pro-sovereignty vote.

No smiley koala stamp for guessing the paper or the journalist.  And the poor fellow has crumbled even further since this one.

Australian of the year

Sam Kerr – for being herself, for being the best, and for staring down our worst trait – the adoration of mediocrity and the fear of the novel.

The oncologists at the Prince Alfred Hospital for adopting a philosophical response – nay, a mature or adult response – to the Liver Function Tests that come their way every three weeks in the blood tests that precede each session of immunotherapy.  They also get an elephant stamp for keeping me above the ground.

And most of all, and clear over-all winners, the nurses at the Alfred and elsewhere, for being the crown and cream of the best healthcare system in the world – by the length of the bloody straight at Flemington.  My gratitude knows no bounds.  A safe reservoir of grace and decency.

Aspirations for 2020

My staying above the ground, so delaying my reunion with the Wolf.

Those of us who believe that we might have been privileged to have done something useful fighting back against those pygmies – those gnats straining at a camel – who are just plain jealous.

Trying to bring Sharan Burrow back to help try to right the ship.  I had a bit to do with her at the MFB.  I quickly developed a great respect for her.  She is one of those straight shooters that you quickly sense that you can do business with.  You can see her now on the BBC telling Spanish coal miners that there are no jobs on a dead planet – an inevitable truth that wholly escapes our government – whose minds close at shopping lists and power bills.

Michaelia Cash sacking her hairdresser and fashion designer and then retiring from public life to some very quiet place; not necessarily of the kind that Hamlet commended to Ophelia.  (And while I am there, that Danish prince is a lesson of the dangers of feigning madness.)

ScoMo following his ancestors in the mediocrity bloodline – Little Johnnie and Bro Tony – and getting fired by his electorate.  That would for me constitute irrefutable evidence of the existence of God.

The Demons either putting up or getting put down – if it was good enough for the Wolf, it is good enough for a football club that has been near death since it incurred the curse of Norm Smith.

My getting a standing ovation at the 2020 Brisbane Ring Cycle of Wagner for being noticed for the number of acts I have missed – currently aiming at five out of thirteen – or, as John Steinbeck said of the returning Tuna fishermen in Cannery Row, being ‘embraced and admired’ – but we may forego the twenty-five foot string of firecrackers so nobly presented by the immortal Lee Chong of the general store.  If you let them off in Parliament House, would anyone notice – or care?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are some of our present discontents.

In Trials of the State, Lord Sumption says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Sumption goes on:

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

Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said that.

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

Here and there – Dictators and Populists

 

The following citations come from the most recent book of Frank Dikotter, How to be a Dictator, Bloomsbury, 2019.  They are not a source of comfort when looking at their attenuated successors, those whom we call populists.

Preface

There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals.  There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few.  But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves.  A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius.  Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage.  All were surrounded by sycophants.  They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own.  With devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people.  A few became unmoored from reality altogether….

Mussolini

Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people accessible to all…..By one account, Mussolini spent more than half his time curating his own image…. Fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics.  Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.

‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion.’…[He insisted on being in the public eye as much as possible.]  What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.

Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’.

In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance.  Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor.  Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.

Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them.

‘The strength of fascism…lies in the lack of fascists.’  Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount….He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral. ideological or otherwise.  ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed….’

A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office….The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law….

The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen.

They lied to him, much as he lied to them.  But most of all Mussolini lied to himself.  He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth.’

The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political program.  It was deliberately superficial…

The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored. [And he had no friends and many bitter rejects and enemies.]

Hitler

‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’

He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope’.  The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and clapping.

…as Hitler turned forty on 20 April 1929, he ascribed to the ideal leader a combination of character, willpower, ability and luck.

[After the Crash] Faith in democracy dissolved, inflation took hold, and a sense of despair and hopelessness spread.  Hitler was the man of the hour.

It [invading Poland] was a huge gamble, but Hitler trusted his intuition, which had proved him right so far.  He had built an image of himself as the man of destiny and had come to believe in it….’In my life, I have always put my whole stake on the table.’

‘He can tell a lie with as straight a face as any man’, noticed William Shirer.

Stalin

The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a program or platform, but by a chosen leader….The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate.

…Stalin was a cunning unscrupulous operator who exploited other people’s weaknesses to turn them into willing accomplices.  He was also a gifted strategic thinker with a genuine political touch.  Like Hitler, he showed concern for the people around him, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, remembering their names and past conversations.  He also knew how to bide his time.

He used his position as General Secretary to replace supporters of all his rivals with his own henchman.

Just as soon as his main rival was dispatched, Stalin began implementing Trotsky’s policies.

Stalin’s underlings composed paeans to their leader, enthusiastically abasing themselves.

Sheer vindictiveness and cold calculation had kept Stalin moving forward, but over the years he also developed a sense of grievance, viewing himself as a victim. A victor with a grudge, he became permanently distrustful of those around him.

One month after his funeral, Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers.

We need not consider the others in the book – Mao, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengitsu.  We have enough to work on as it is.

Each of these dictators was an affront to humanity.  Each was a selfish, vicious, cruel man who always put himself above all others.  Each was fearfully insecure but deeply in love with himself.  Each created a world that was as tasteless as it was mindless.  An air of stupidity and vanity – emptiness – prevailed.  Their ambition was more than greedy – it was insatiable.  Although each might be seen as morally void or insane, each gave their followers ample evidence of the damage that they could do unleashed – and not one of them was ever fit to be on the leash.  At least with hindsight, each showed that they could not be trusted.  (Mein Kampf set out in detail the evil in Hitler’s mind; Lenin, as cruel a man as any, left a testament warning Russia about Stalin.)  Each loved the sound of his own voice.  Each acquiesced in sickening nonsense from sycophants and nauseating behaviour from underlings.  Somehow each charmed at least some people enough to ignore warning signs, and many of them conned sensible people who should have known better into accepting them.  Each was a big gambler because they attached little weight to the lives of their people.  (You could say this and a lot more of the above about Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon.)

Not one of them lived or died a happy man.  Offhand it is hard to think of any woman in history who has exercised such power for evil.  Each did lasting damage to his people and nation.

What these lives teach us about the current scourge of populism is a matter for you.  But it looks like political crashes are driven by the same two primal causes of economic crashes – greed (or ambition) and stupidity.

There is a third element – fear and cowardice.  Educated people did not do enough to resist or check dictators like Mussolini and Hitler borne to power on the gullibility of what used to be called the masses.  We see just that now in America.  Anyone who believes virtually anything Trump says is, frankly, stupid.  And yet many prefer him and, from fear and cowardice, educated people in positions of power do nothing to resist him.  If they do so, they will be called ‘human scum.’  Republican Senators think they fulfil their constitutional function by acting as Stormtroopers in Congress – and then sending out for pizza.  Has ever a once decent nation collapsed so quickly?

There is still nothing new under the sun.  Except this – before populists relied on mass rallies; now they rely on mass media designed by crooks specifically for use by fools and cowards.

Here and there -Hunter Biden, Donald Trump – and Clive of India

 

In discussing the colossal good fortune of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine, a friend quoted the delicious remark of Sam Goldwyn: ‘The son also rises.’  (Yes, the computer did query this.)  We don’t like seeing people in public office on the take.  They should be in it for us – not themselves.  Diverting the profit to the family does not achieve deliverance – at least for those who did not come down in the last shower.

Putting someone in office under obligation inevitably creates conflicts of interest.  And the risk of the donee, the recipient of the gift, being, or appearing, compromised.  It is of course worse if someone is obviously appointed above their pay level.  They are some of the reasons decent people are nauseated by the gifts showered by Trump on his daughter and son-in-law.  (The claim of Jared Kushner, to advise on jails appears to rest on the fact that his dad went one up on his dad-in-law by doing time for fraud.)

Writing in The Guardian, a writer from New York said:

When you are the son of a famous and powerful politician, you are showered with opportunity, whether you deserve it or not.  This is nepotism, but it is also, if we are being direct, a form of corruption.  Moral corruption.  Not only because these prestigious positions are not earned, and because these celebukids are taking something that rightly should have gone to someone more deserving; but also because, even though there is rarely anything so crude as a direct quid pro quo, this undeserved largesse is always motivated to some extent by a desire by some powerful interest to take advantage of the halo of influence cast by the parents.  That influence should properly accrue to the public, who their parents work for.  The lavish lives afforded to famous kids are, in effect, stolen from the American people.  Each coveted job handed to a president’s kid represents a small quantity of subversion of the spirit of the democratic process.

This particular form of injustice is often waved off as just be the way of the world.  Seven-foot-tall people get to be in the NBA, and the children of presidents and vice-presidents get sweet, lucrative gigs whether they’re qualified for them or not.  We shouldn’t take this so lightly.  We should, in fact, be enraged by it.  Politics is not just another way to get rich.  It is a public service field, and the more important the position, the more stringent the ethical requirements it should carry.

The next three generations of a president’s family should have to work the checkout line at Family Dollar.  What better way to stay in touch with the pulse of America?  What better way to demonstrate how much they value hard work, and the gargantuan struggle to join the middle class? 

All this reminded me that England, the home of our parliamentary democracy, ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption during for most of the 18th century.  The story was luminously illustrated by Sir Lewis Namier in something of a revolution in the writing and teaching of history.

The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.  ….Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…

Richard Pares referred to the difficulty of one MP on a conscience vote: ‘It will hurt my preferment to tell.’  There you see the conflict of interest.  He quoted the advice of one MP who would be called an ‘old lag’ in another context:

Get into Parliament, make tiresome speeches; you will have great offers; do not accept them at first, – then do; then make great provision for yourself and family, and then call yourself an independent country gentleman.

What, old boy, could be simpler – or fairer?  If you read any biography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that on the eve of war, the incoming president had to spend days rewarding those who put him there.  It’s as rewarding as giving Christmas presents to sisters – God preserve you from any seen inequality.

Now, ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours underlay’ feudalism and the Mafia; Napoleon was shockingly greedy in looking after his family – with thrones; the Nazis were as corrupt as the Spartans.

But we are now shocked to see the establishment looking after its own when anyone with a modicum of ability can make their way up the bourgeois ladder on their own.  As I recall, one act of nepotism came back to slap George W Bush square in the face after Katrina, but Ivanka and Jared are as in your face as any other aspect of the present White House.

All this occurred to me reading again the luminous East India Company in Eighteenth Century Politics by Lucy Sutherland.*

Clive of India was unlovely – largely for the same reason as Trump – you get the same combination of greed and banality – and without shame.  Although to be fair, Clive was anything but downright stupid.

With Clive you get the corruption of Georgian politics with the corruption of the English doing business – committing something like daylight robbery – in India.  The engine of the business was the company of the title of the book.  It was a magnificent edifice that so beautifully delineates the ruling class of England at the time and their innate capacity to bulldust their way out of the gutter with some affable condescension of the kind that would have propelled Mr Collins to the feet of Greer Garson.  As Dame Lucy Sutherland drily remarks early on: ‘The Company was very unsuccessful in checking corruption even when it was discovered.’

To make a comfortable fortune in the public service and to establish those dependent on him in situations of profit was the major (and to contemporaries) the legitimate ambition of the ordinary politician…As a result, there emerged, not an orgy of corruption, but a fragile balance between public and private interests expressed in the system of ‘political connection’ and ‘political management.’

Clive was a latterday proconsul.  The Company was ripping off the natives – ‘gifts’ – and its servants were making their fortune on the side.  Here is Clive on gifts.

When presents are received as the price of services to the Nation, to the Company and to that Prince who bestowed those presents; when they are not extracted from him by compulsion; when he is in a state of independence and can do with his money what he pleases; and when they are not received to the disadvantage of the Company, he holds presents so received not dishonourable.

What is the word price doing in there?  That suggests that the ‘gift’ has been bought.  That is a contradiction in terms.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done for the Company, then the Company is being deprived of an entitlement.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done by an agent of the Company on the side, then the chances are the Company is not getting the full benefit of the promise of that agent to work in good faith in the interests of the Company.  Either way, the gift is ‘received to the disadvantage of the Company.’  And if the gift is large, is not the agent’s ‘independence’ impugned?  It is one thing for bank manager to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch; but a whole new vista unfolds if the gift is a first class return ticket to Monaco for the Grand Prix.

The truth is that while people may refer to the transactions as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents,’ they are for most part not made from any spirit of benevolence, but as an attempt to acquire, or buy, influence.  In that, they are just like most donations to political parties – and, on the same ground, fair game for the epithet of ‘corrupt’.

For instance, a person of interest in the Ukrainian–Trump corruption scandal is the U S Ambassador to the E U.  He appears to have three qualifications for that position – like the man who appointed him, his business is in boozers; he gave his wife a signed copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and, most importantly, he is a big donor to the Republican Party.  Indeed, it does appear that he bought this ambassadorship for a snip – a mere one million dollars (on which, we may be sure, he has paid no tax).  The notion that he might be a disinterested diplomat is fanciful.  Like everyone else appointed by this President, he is there to do the bidding of the appointer – and if he doesn’t, he will be sacked loudly on Twitter.

Clive’s defence of ‘presents’, then, does not hold up.  As it happens, our law is, now at least, clear that the agent would have to account for that gift to the Company.  It does not matter if the agent acted in good faith – or in a criminal way.  A member of the armed forces who used one of their trucks in smuggling was found to hold his resulting profit on trust for the Crown.

In my judgment, it is a principle of law that if a servant takes advantage of his service by violating his duty of honesty and good faith, to make a profit for himself, in this sense, that the assets of which he has control, or the facilities which he enjoys, or the position which he occupies, are the real cause of his obtaining the money, as distinct from being the mere opportunity for getting it, that is to say, if they play the predominant part in his obtaining the money, then he is accountable for it to the master. It matters not that the master has not lost any profit, nor suffered any damage. Nor does it matter that the master could not have done the act himself.  (Denning, J, upheld on appeal to the House of Lords: Reading v A-G [1951] A C 507.)

Nor did Clive feel any need to pussyfoot about using wealth to increase his political power.  (On a bad day he may have resembled Mr Kurtz in A Heart of Darkness.)

…a large fortune honourably acquired will be the source of great honours and advantages….believe me, there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions, and if after the Battle of Placis I had stayed in India for myself as well as the Company and acquired the fortune I might have done, by this time I might have been an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon instead of an Irish Peer (with the promise of a Red One).  However the receipt of the Jaggeer [jagir – an annuity paid by an Indian Prince] money for a few years will do great things.

As soulless materialism goes, Trump could hardly improve on that – but at least Clive had put on the uniform and put himself in harm’s way.

The jagir was worth £25,000 a year.  That puts the windfall of Hunter Biden (US $ 600,000) in the shade.  But common jealousy did its work and the struggle to retain that benefit, which the law would not I think now tolerate, dominated the life of Clive and the Company.  When he lost the benefit, he consulted Lord Hardwicke, a master of Equity, who said Clive and his father ‘either could not or were not willing to tell me what pretence of right was alleged for this proceeding.’  Later on, Horace Walpole, the first prime minister, said: ‘The Ministry have bought off Lord Clive with a bribe that would frighten the King of France himself; they have given him back his £25,000 a year.’  That does give new meaning to the word mercenary.  Walpole did say ‘that [Clive] owed his indemnity neither to innocence nor eloquence.’  And Dame Lucy did not exonerate Clive from guilt on the more modern charge ‘of using his inside information to gain profit on the market.’  (Clive did not buy the stock in his own name.)

Mind you, Clive gave good consideration to get his fortune back.  He promised the Government:

…..my poor services, such as they are, shall be dedicated for the rest of my days to the King, and my obligations to you always acknowledged, whether in or out of power….If these conditions are fulfilled, I do promise, Sir, that I never will give any opposition to the present or any other Court of Directors, and never will interfere in any of their affairs directly, or indirectly.

It’s ‘peace in our time’ all over again.  And is it not inherently vulgar for a subject of the King to make his loyalty to the King conditional upon the execution of a promise?

In the just released book, The Anarchy, The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple says that Clive was a ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’  He was also an utterly fearless guerrilla fighter.  Calcutta should have suited him: ‘one of the most wicked places in the Universe….Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’

Dalrymple says the jagir would now be worth £3,000,000 a year – and income tax had not been invented.  In addition, this swashbuckling buccaneer took plunder – called prize.  ‘Not since Cortés had Europe seen an adventurer return with so much treasure from distant conquests.’  And now the financial rape got serious.  The English called it ‘the shaking of the pagoda tree.’

And of course the white man did to the coloured man things he would never do to one of his own.  Dame Lucy records that Clive’s English attorney said the question ‘was this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.’  And of course, in the tropics on the wrong side of the world, all decency had gone clean overboard.  Macaulay was up for it.

A succession of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons.  A succession of ferocious invaders [Persians and Afghans] descended through the Western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of Hindostan…

Before them, Alexander.  After, them, the English and Clive.  And, yes, Mr Kurtz.

Well, well, well …..Clive’s men kept the doctors busy.  Now Trump’s men keep the lawyers busy.  The one difference is that you would have known you were going bad if you had run into your doctor in a Calcutta knock shop.  Manhattan’s slammers are filling up with Trump’s lawyers.

*F.n.: Lucy was a Geelong Girl educated in South Africa and Oxford.  According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman undergraduate to address the Union there.  She was the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for more than a quarter of a century.  She was an acolyte of Namier – and it shows – to her benefit.  (I am a Namier fan.)  God bless her – but I do fear that Lucy may have gone to God without having once seen in action the Mighty Cats of Geelong – let alone the late, great Polly Farmer, a blackfella who could punch a footy through the window of a moving car.

Here and there – A glimmer of hope at long last

 

As with any label, ‘populist’ is dodgy.  But in two people – Trump and Johnson – we have two of them.  Each is frankly vicious, and liked by some people for that very reason.  No decent person would allow either of them into their house – much less leave him in charge of their children.

Who support them?  We are speaking of people who are happy to chant ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send them back,’ or who believe that another rich heir will stand up for the ordinary bloke in the street, even though this spoiled fop got the full treatment from Eton and Oxford and, probably White’s, and has only ever come across blue collars by accident.

Johnson was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, an all-male dining club for Oxford boys in drag, that indoctrinated him in how to trash common decency.  Speaking of those times, Johnson said:

This is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness.  But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up. Or was it? Actually I remember the dinners being incredibly drunken.

That is a fair statement of the cast of mind, if such it may be called, that led to the events of 14 July 1789.  No sane person could have spent more than five minutes at one of those functions before throwing up.

In the last few years, we have witnessed an alarming moral and intellectual collapse in both England and America.  The scale of that collapse, coming from people who once claimed to be conservatives, suggests to me that our current model of government may not have long to live.

Our version of democracy must be premised on some degree of respect, tolerance and acquiescence – all of which are denied by political thugs who appeal to people who have lost all interest and faith.  Any democracy must sit above some level of reasonableness, but we are watching it all go down the drain – noisily and rapidly.  In the beautiful words of Yeats:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

And it just keeps getting worse.  Trump and Johnson are like Ponzi schemes – they have to keep fuelling their own furnace.  And the bitterness and division then lead sensible people to extremes.  The Financial Times is now in something like a state of war with Johnson in the same way that The New York Times is with Trump.  But how else do you respond to a lying oaf who is content to incite murder of his opponents – who were barred by their sex from Eton or the Bullingdon Club?

This descent into the gutter of previously decent people resembles the descent that occurred in Europe a century or less ago.  My guess is that a lot of the disenchantment, especially of younger voters, comes from our failure to halt a galling inequality; to deal with those people whose greed and crookedness nearly brought us all undone in the Great Financial Crisis; the insecurity that comes with the technological revolution; and the farcical and selfish failure to deal with climate change.  I suspect that the chief of these is inequality.  And if you had to give one word for what the French and Russian Revolutions were about, that would be it.

In looking at Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology, Simon Kuper in the Financial Times made some very acute observations about where we are.  I will set some out at length.

Helped a little by that book, inequality has soared up the left’s agenda, especially in the particularly unequal US and UK.  Now Elizabeth Warren has a shot at becoming the most redistributionist US president since Franklin D Roosevelt, while an electable post-Corbyn Labour leader could achieve similar in Britain….

 Whereas Marx saw history as class struggle, Piketty sees it as a battle of ideologies.  Every unequal society, he says, creates an ideology to justify inequality.  That allows the rich to fall asleep in their town houses while the homeless freeze outside….

Piketty recounts the justifications of inequality that recur throughout time:

‘Rich people deserve their wealth.’  ‘It will trickle down.’ ‘They give it back through philanthropy.’ ‘Property is liberty.’ ‘The poor are undeserving.’ ‘Once you start redistributing wealth, you won’t know where to stop and there’ll be chaos’ — a favourite argument after the French Revolution. ‘Communism failed.’ ‘The money will go to black people’ — an argument that, Piketty says, explains why inequality remains highest in countries with historic racial divides such as Brazil, South Africa and the US.

Another common justification, which he doesn’t mention, is ‘High taxes are punitive’ — as if the main issue were the supposed psychology behind redistribution rather than its actual effects.  All these justifications add up to what he calls the ‘sacralisation of property’….

There’s a growing understanding that so-called meritocracy has been captured by the rich, who get their kids into the top universities, buy political parties and hide their money from taxation.

Moreover, notes Piketty, the wealthy are overwhelmingly male and their lifestyles tend to be particularly environmentally damaging. Donald Trump — a climate-change-denying sexist heir who got elected president without releasing his tax returns — embodies the problem…..

Millennials are especially suspicious of success.  More American adults under 30 say they believe in ‘socialism’ than ‘capitalism’, report the pollsters Gallup.  This generation owns too little property to sacralise it.

Centre-right parties across the west have taken up populism because their low-tax, small-state story wasn’t selling any more.  Rightwing populism speaks to today’s anti-elitist, anti-meritocratic mood. However, it deliberately refocuses debate from property to what Piketty calls ‘the frontier’ (and others would call borders).

That leaves a gap in the political market for redistributionist ideas. We’re now at a juncture much like around 1900, when extreme inequality helped launch social democratic and communist parties.  Piketty lays out a new redistributionist agenda.  He calls for ‘educational justice’ — essentially, spending the same amount on each person’s education.  He favours giving workers a major say over how their companies are run, as in Germany and Sweden.  But his main proposal is for wealth taxes.  Far from abolishing property, he wants to spread it to the bottom half of the population, who even in rich countries have never owned much.

To do this, he says, requires redefining private property as ‘temporary’ and limited: you can enjoy it during your lifetime, in moderate quantities.  He proposes wealth taxes of 90 per cent on billionaires.  From the proceeds, a country such as France could give each citizen a trust fund worth about €120,000 at age 25.  Very high tax rates, he notes, didn’t impede fast growth in the 1950-80 period.

Warren (advised by economists who work with Piketty) is proposing annual taxes of 2 per cent on household fortunes over $50m, and 3 per cent on billionaires.  She projects that this would affect 75,000 households, and yield revenues of $2.75tn over 10 years.  Polls suggest most Americans like the idea.  Paradoxically, the plutocratic US may be ideal terrain for a wealth tax…..[Emphases added.]

This is the most sensible discussion of our current condition that I have seen.  It oozes good sense for me.  One test of a political proposition is the extent of its rejection by Rupert Murdoch.  This is not just anathema – it is schismatic heresy and capital treason.  And I may add that I have long suspected that the prime driver of Trump was the belief of most of his followers that far too much of America had gone to people of colour – including the White House.

Perhaps, after all, Elizabeth Warren may have the answer.  (‘Educational justice’ – now there’s a phrase that has a whiff of 1789 about it.)  And could we get Aeschylus to provide the script for Donald Trump going down to Pocahontas?

My impression is that unless democracies get their act together and do something ‘deep and meaningful’ about inequality, then, in the language of rugby league, things could ‘get very ugly.’

Here and there – Populism in Henry IV

 

Clowns have a licence to go over the top with their audience.  That is an essential part of their schtick.  The populist tends to be amoral.  He – it looks to be in the male domain – can joke about his lack of candour. He exults in his capacity to thrill his audience – whom he despises – by going flagrantly over the top.

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.  (Henry IV, Part I, 1.2.212 ff)

It is so cold blooded, it takes your breath away.  But that is the hallmark and thick skin of the con man.  He will turn giving offence into an art – and be applauded by his audience.  (The Everyman says that ‘Redeeming time’ is a reference to Ephesians 5:7 ff: ‘Be not ye therefore partakers with them, for ye were sometimes darkness, but now ye are light in the Lord….Redeeming time because the days are evil.’)

Well, if a king could say ‘L’état, c’est moi’, the leader of the people can say: ‘Touch not me – I am the people.’  The French Revolution would see the glorification of le peuple, and ideologues of a certain caste glory in the term ‘the masses’.

No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.  (2.4.474 ff)

And then the prince says he is up to it in words that make the Godfather look like a croquet player.

I do.  I will.

Is he the coldest prince you ever saw?

Well, the king, his father is past all that.  His wild days are behind him.  He will not be ‘so stale and cheap to vulgar company’ (3.2.41). He can lecture his wayward son on debasing the majesty and mystique of the Crown.

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children ‘This is he;’
Others would say ‘Where, which is Bolingbroke?’
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress’d myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.  (3.2.46 ff )

The problem with putting yourself in hock with the motley – when he ‘enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – is:

For thou has lost thy princely privilege

With vile participation. (3.2.69, 86-87)

That’s what happens when you are truant chivalry (5.1.94).

Unsurprisingly, the man Bolingbroke deposed had a different version.

Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green
Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench…..(Richard II, 1.4.23 ff)

The populist needs more than a thick skin.  He needs more face than Myers.  When caught on a lie, he bluffs it out with pure front.

FALSTAFF: There is Percy: if your father will do me any honour, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either
earl or duke, I can assure you.

PRINCE: Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead.

FALSTAFF: Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to
lying! 

You can be gracious and condescending at the same time – especially if you went to the right school and bear the insignia of the establishment.  There is no harm in humouring the lower classes and you may get some fun between the sheets.

Thine, by yea and no, which is as much as to
say, as thou usest him, JACK FALSTAFF with my
familiars, JOHN with my brothers and sisters,
and SIR JOHN with all Europe.  (Part 2, 2.2.130)

But when it comes time to cast aside the disguise, you show no mercy.

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
…..
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.  (5.5.48 ff)

And you utterly repudiate all your former comrades – even the most pathetic, like that portable lighthouse Bardolph.  Even unto death.

We should have all such offenders so cut off…(Henry V, 3.6.112).

If that means that the people will think that their leader has killed the heart of his closest companion (2.1.91), what boots it?  They are after all just the people.  But it is quite in order for the leader to beseech Almighty God not to take it out on him because his father broke the rules in laying his hands on the Crown.

Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood….(4.1.297 ff)

The parallels with today are so obvious that they chill the blood.

 

 

Here and there – Hitler compared

 

University examiners loved stating exam questions ‘Compare and contrast….’  At the Alfred for a drug hit – immunotherapy – I was rereading Sebastian Haffner The Meaning of Hitler.  I remarked to the nurses – one of them is from Munich – that a lot of it seemed relevant – often alarmingly so – to a contemporary populist disaster.  Sometimes the contrast was more illuminating than the compare.  See what you think.

Hitler had no friends.  He enjoyed sitting for hours on end with subordinate staff – drivers, bodyguards, secretaries  – but he alone did all the talking.

There is no development, no maturing in Hitler’s character and personality.  His character was fixed at an early age – perhaps a better word would be arrested – and remains astonishingly consistent; nothing was added to it.  It was not an attractive character……from the very start [there] was a total lack of capacity for self-criticism.  Hitler was all his life exceedingly full of himself and from his earliest to his last days tended to self-conceit. Stalin and Mao used the cult of their personality coolly as a political instrument, without letting it turn their heads.  With the Hitler cult, Hitler was not only its object but also the earliest, most persistent and most passionate devotee.

That’s a 10 in the ‘Compare’ column.

When in the twenties, Hitler had at his disposal nothing but his demagogy, his hypnotic oratory, his intoxicating and illusionist skills as a producer of mass spectacles, he hardly ever gained more than five per cent of all Germans as his followers….The next forty per cent were driven into his arms of 1930-3 and the total helpless failure of all other governments and parties in the face of that plight.  The remaining decisive fifty per cent, however, he gained after 1933 mainly through his achievements.

This is a 10 on ‘Contrast.’  Hitler had a real achievements – economic, military and foreign miracles – six million unemployed to full employment in three years.  Before that: ‘The man does not really exist – he is only the noise he makes.’  After that:

‘Those who are only vigorous destroyers are not great at all,’ says Jacob Burkhardt, and Hitler certainly proved himself a generous wrecker.  But beyond any doubt he also proved himself a star achiever of high calibre, and not only in wrecking.

Still very heavy ‘Contrast’.

And he perceived correctly that absolute rule was not possible in an intact state organism but only amidst controlled chaos…A close study of him reveals a trait in him that one might describe as a horror of committing himself, or perhaps even better, as a horror of anything final.  It seems as though something in in him caused him to recoil not only from setting limits to his power by way of a state system, but also to his will by way of a firm set of goals.

This may be the most frankly vicious insight of the lot.

The point is that Hitler’s successes were never scored against a strong or even a tough opponent: even the Weimar republic of the late twenties and Britain in 1940 proved too strong for him.

Spot on again for ‘Compare.’

Of course he was no democrat, but he was a populist, a man who based his power on the masses, not on the elite, and in a sense a people’s tribune risen to absolute power.  His principal means of rule was demagogy, and his instrument of government was not a structural hierarchy but a chaotic bundle of uncoordinated mass organisations merely held together at the top by his own person.  All these are ‘leftist’ rather than ‘rightest’ features…..  Clearly in the line of twentieth-century dictators Hitler stands somewhere between Mussolini and Stalin, and upon close examination nearer to Stalin than to Mussolini.  Nothing is more misleading than to call Hitler a fascist. Fascism is upper class rule, buttressed by artificially manufactured mass enthusiasm.  Certainly Hitler roused masses to enthusiasm, but never in order to buttress an upper class.  He was not a class politician and his National Socialism was anything but fascism.  (Emphasis added.)

Well that should give you something to chew on –and frighten the hell out of you.

For there is no denying the voluntarist trait in Hitler’s view of the world: he saw the world as he wanted to see it. That the world is imperfect, full of conflict, hardship and suffering…… This is only too true, and it is quite right not to shut one’s eyes to it.  So long as he says no more than that, Hitler stands firmly on the ground of truth.  Except that he does not state these things with the sad, courageous earnestness with which Luther calmly faced what he called original sin but with that frenzied voice with which Nietzsche, for instance, so often hailed what was deplorable.  To Hitler, the emergency was the norm, the state was there in order to wage war.

Compare and contrast – indeed.

Here and there – Catherine Fieschi on Populism.

 

A short while ago I quoted the Financial Times on Catherine Fieschi’s book on populism called Populocracy.

The fundamental organising principle of populism is a divide between the people and the elite. The ‘commonality of people’ have an innate sense of what is right, which helps to explain ‘why so much populist politics will short-circuit discussion or examination: because the people’s preferences are innate. And because they are innate, they are just and cannot be argued with.’

The second important component, Fieschi says, is betrayal by an elite, typically one that has a greater sense of allegiance to its own members than to the people or the nation.

The third is authenticity, the leitmotif of Fieschi’s book.  By authenticity she does not mean an unvarnished image or consistent beliefs — the magic dust for all modern politicians — but a politics rooted in instinct rather than reason, ‘the politics of the gut’. It allows the populist to dismiss opponents as hypocrites and provides licence to speak one’s mind without limits, to be direct to the point of shamelessness. 

Fieschi combines conceptual analysis with real examples to chart the historic evolution of populism. Mr Le Pen was a prototype who began to write the populist manual with his use of the ‘calculated provocation’. ‘Lying as a demonstration of one’s irrepressibly authentic nature: what could be more sincere than that?’ Fieschi asks.

Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, she writes, pioneered ‘entrepreneurial’ but non-ideological populism. Anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo broke ground with his blog and web-based ‘democracy’. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s hard right League, is always available, always accessible, seemingly unstoppable. 

…. Her thesis is that digital technology has made us receptive to populism by exalting immediacy, simplicity and transparency. Without complexity, delay and frustration we do not pause for reflection.

I would add seven comments to that helpful summary.  ‘Populism’ does not just emerge as a result of a crisis, but…its logic is also to create a crisis.’  (Trump does this on a daily basis; shock jocks live off it.  In the old language, they are anti-social; and ‘social’ media encourages them to be anti-social.)   As well as being against elites, populists are against diversity or pluralism.  They relish their shamelessness.  (Just look at Berlusconi or Trump – or Bolsonaro’s promotion of his son.)  They look for simple answers and go heavily on scapegoats.  They have to face a quandary – how do you drain the swamp without becoming a part of it?  They are jealous and distrustful of experts.  And finally, the author does not disguise her opinion.

Yet populism’s reliance on disruption, on simplification, on a debased form of authenticity (that is shameless rather than genuine) means that it is inherently corrosive of politics….We are encouraged to leave expertise behind and embrace common sense, to deny complexity, to reject diversity and to choose the short cut of instinct – just as things are possibly more plural, more complex and more delicately balanced than ever before.

The book is very instructive – even for someone who gets unsettled by the term ‘political science.’

There is little that is new in the phenomenon.  Pisistratus was an early model in Athens and the Gracchi followed in Rome.   The great German historian Mommsen said of Caius Gracchus.  ‘On the very threshold of his despotism, he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to hold his ground as a captain of robbers, and to lead the state as its first citizen – a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon also had to make dangerous sacrifices.’  That is so ripe for most of the jerks discussed in this book.

Catherine Fieschi discusses the role of tabloids in England.  Here we have shock jocks who appeal to the same audience – with all the decency of sluts in white boots.  Complete ignorance is no barrier. Shock jocks will comment on a trial when they do not know the law and have not seen or heard the evidence.  Logic they have not. But they have plenty of front.  Hitler was the world champion of the betrayal conspiracy with the knife in the back of 1918, and the followers of Jesus of Nazareth face a different kind of quandary.  How can you sustain an Establishment, and a very rich and powerful one at that, on the basis of the life and teaching of a convicted tearaway whose mission it was to collapse the Establishment?

The key trait of the followers appears to me to be insecurity.  They cannot stand doubt.  They lack what Keats called negative capability

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.

Pascal memorably said that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’  (Trump, yet again.)  This form of immaturity underlies their intolerance of people outside their tribe, and their blind tolerance of and trust for their leader.  Their sense of inferiority leads them to reject experts (unless they need one personally).  They get jumpy if you call them out, but if they are represented by those at Trump rallies chanting ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send her back’, they are as unpleasant as they are stupid.  They are nothing if not gullible.  Gulling them is as hard as taking candy from a baby.  They remind you of those simple minded investors whose greed allows them to be seduced by silly promises of wealth and forget the obvious – that risk rises with returns.  This insecurity, this felt lack of status, also underlies their jealous exclusivity about membership of the nation.  You can see all of this on show during the French Revolution, especially in the different ways that Robespierre and Marat manipulated the sansculottes.

The result is a kind of blindness and deafness among the faithful.  The followers do not see that their Messiah is not one of them.  As often as not, he is a paradigm example of the elite, who could not give a bugger about any of them and is there simply for himself.  They don’t even complain when the leader looks after his people at their cost.  I cannot resist citing Carlyle.

Think also if the private Sansculotte has not his difficulties in a time of dearth!…How the Poor Man continues living, and so seldom starves; by miracle!  Happily, in these days, he can enlist, and have himself shot by the Austrians, in an unusually satisfactory manner – for the Rights of Man.

Trump knows precisely how docile and stupid his followers are.  He expresses his contempt to their face.   ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’  Only God knows just how true that is.

There is something sordid about all these Pied Pipers.  The current tenant of Number 10 may have gone to Eton and Cambridge, but the mistress he is taking to Number 10 enjoys a relationship that has required the attention of the rozzers, and when he is not engaging in a domestic, he is spreading his seed in a way that may vex the editors at Debret.  Any democracy is at risk of succumbing to the lowest common denominator – not least when snake-oil salesmen – and they are all men – gull those with a chip on their shoulder with the aid of sponsored cowardice on social media.

Finally, at least in Australia, there is the added insult of people who applaud or defend populism claiming to be ‘conservative’- one of the most abused terms in our language.  Populists are a direct negation of conservatism.  They are out to destroy or disrupt, and not conserve.  The problem with using the term ‘conservative’ is highlighted by Simon Blackburn 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.

It is not possible to apply either of those usages to the criteria of populism identified by Catherine Fieschi.  And, to the extent that any decent or useful meaning can be given to the label ‘libertarian’, the same goes for it.  And all that is without looking at courtesy, decency or integrity, or what Sir Lewis Namier called ‘restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies.’  Restraint is as essential to conservatives as it is entirely absent from populists.  The spoiled child syndrome looms large in their chosen ones.  Sordid people are beyond restraint.

This book is a very good contribution.  It will be fun watching the boys from Eton and Cambridge hopping into the ‘elites’.  One objection to them is that while they can afford the cost of their disruption, most of those they lied to can’t.  Suckers of the world unite – you have everything to lose, including your brains.  And, sadly, there is one born every minute.

Here and there – George Will: The Conservative Sensibility

 

You get some idea of the tone and gist of this book from the following extracts from the Introduction.

Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and–soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism.  American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking….The label ‘liberal’ was minted to identify those whose primary concern was not the protection of community solidarity or traditional hierarchies, but rather was the expansion and protection of individual liberty.  Liberals were then those who considered the state the primary threat to this…..In Europe today, the too few people who think the way American conservatives do are commonly called liberals, and people who think as American progressives do are called social democrats….Progressivism represents the overthrow of the Founders’ classical liberalism.

Later on, we get this – those who believe, as the Founders did, that first come the rights and then comes government, are adherents of the Republican Constitution; while those who believe, as progressives do, that first comes government and then come rights are the Democratic Constitution.  The difference comes down to whether ‘We the people’ is a collective entity or ‘We the people as individuals.’

A number of things follow.  First, this book is about theories and labels.  (I agree with the late G H W Bush – labels belong on soup cans.)  Secondly, it will offer little to the rest of the world because this conservatism is uniquely American and different to that of the rest of the West.  Thirdly, the book will be completely foreign to Anglo-Australians because we prefer experience to theory, results to ideology.  Finally some of the discussion will be as penetrable as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Real Presence, and provoke the question: What contemporary political issue might be enlightened by the application of these theories or labels?

But let us take the mission of this book on its terms.  We are to seek the Founders’ thinking by going back to what they said.  Lawyers are familiar with this process (and avoiding dogmatism in this context will be very tricky).

Let us put to one side that the Founders knew division – between, say, the focus of Jefferson on you and me, and the focus of Hamilton on Uncle Sam.  The Founders had some things in common.  They owned and traded in slaves.  They might fairly be labelled patrician and they were horrified at the thought of what we call democracy.  Alexander Hamilton spoke of the ‘unthinking populace’ and John Adams referred to ‘the common herd of mankind’.  George Washington referred to the common people as ‘the grazing multitude’.  He had the High Tory view that ‘the discerning part of the community’ must govern and ‘the ignorant and designing’ must follow.  His successors now practise the reverse.

As a result, the Declaration contained two outright lies.  The one about all men being equal is well known.  Perhaps I may then refer to what I said in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

Well, this evasion, if that is the term, on the subject of slavery might be expected from a slave-owner from the largest slave-owning state.  But what was not to be expected was the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.

The American Declaration of Independence follows the form of the English Declaration of Rights.  It records the conduct complained of to justify the termination of the relationship.  (This is what lawyers call ‘accepting a repudiation’ of a contract.)  The English did so in short, crisp allegations that were for the most part devoid of oratorical colour in the Declaration of Rights.  The allegations are expressed in simple enough terms and were not phrased so as to encourage an evasive form of denial. 

How does the American Declaration of Independence go about this process?  Before it gets to an allegation that the king maintains standing armies, which is a relatively specific charge, it made ten allegations of misconduct that were so general that they would not be permitted to stand today as an allegation of a breach of the law on a conviction for which a person might lose their liberty.  The fourteenth allegation, which is hopeless, but which appears to be an attempt to invoke the English precedent, is that:  ‘He [King George III] has abdicated government here.’  Then there is the fifteenth allegation:  ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’  If that allegation of plunder and murder – the old word was ‘rapine’ – had been seriously put, you might have expected to see it before an allegation of abdication – and before every other allegation.  The eighteenth allegation relates to the Indians. The nineteenth was the allegation relating to slavery and which was struck out.  Those drafting the Declaration were not evidently keen to get down to the subject of people of another race.  Or tax.

Let us put to one side that all these allegations are made against the Crown, and not the government, and that none of these allegations refers to any statute of the British government.  There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence.  The primary reason that history gives for the revolt of the colonists was the imposition, or purported imposition, of taxes upon them by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax.  Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different. 

But British taxation is only mentioned once in the Declaration of Independence.  That reference is fallacious.  It is against the King.  The Glorious Revolution made it plain that he could not impose a tax.  The only reference to the English legislature comes when those drafting the documents scold the English for ‘attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us’.  Given that the 1688 revolution secured the supremacy of the English parliament over the English Crown and made it transcendentally clear that only the English parliament could levy a tax on its subjects, it may have seemed a little odd for Jefferson to be suggesting that the American colonies were somehow subject to the English Crown, but not to the English parliament.  ‘Jurisdiction’ is a word that has come to bedevil American jurisprudence, and it looks like the problem may have started very early.

‘For imposing Taxes upon us without our Consent’ comes in near the end of charges against England.  This Declaration is then a very dicey basis for any political theory or catechism.  It’s not much of a rock to build a church on.  And the descendants of the colonists are still skittish about tax.  They are better at spending than paying.  An endorsement of deceit, racial superiority and fiscal irresponsibility may be okay for the current president, but surely not for a Republican, much less a bona fide conservative.

The rest of the West think that the U S has been driven to at least two disastrous political failures by the application of the kind of theories discussed in this book by Mr Will  – free universal health care and gun control.

If you think an ounce of evidence is worth a ton of theory, try this.  In June 1908, David Lloyd George told the House of Commons:

‘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.  They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.’

That proposition is still heresy for those to whom Mr Will appeals. For them, the State has no business in dealing with such problems.  But Lloyd George and Churchill drove through this reform – as they called it – which would be the foundation of what we know as the Welfare State, and the start of the provision of a system of affordable health care that is taken for granted in every country in the West – except America.  England was following the example set by Bismarck in Germany.  Well over a hundred years later, Americans were still mouthing silly labels like ‘Socialist’.

What do Americans get for their primitive and puritanical purity?  Not just the worst health system in the Western world, but the most expensive.  And they get something from between pity and contempt from the rest of us who regard free universal health care as non-negotiable in a society that likes to call itself civilised.  You can quote Plato and Hegel till the cows come home – decent health care provided by government is for us an inescapable part of our social fabric.

The same goes for gun control.  Americans pay a frightful sacrifice in human life in obedience to what we see as a hideously loaded ideological reading of a clause in their Bill of Rights that had nothing to do with the cruel aspirations of the NRA. .  The same Bill of Rights is part of our legal dispensation, but only a lunatic would assert that it has the same lethal consequences for us.

You get some idea of the depth of the gulf separating us when you read ‘So, constitutional lawyers are America’s practitioners of political philosophy.’  That is not our way here.  English and Australian jurists would be horrified at the notion that they should engage in political philosophy while on the job.  And we worry about Mr Will’s grip on reality when we read: ‘most Americans want altars kept apart from the state’s business.’  Is all that stuff we read about Evangelicals just fake news?

The Index to the book makes no mention of Trump, or, in a book riddled with –isms, populism.  As best I can see, the book contains no discussion of the current status of ‘conservatism’ for Republicans in America.  If they are the two main issues facing America today, then tossing intellectual playthings about like shuttlecocks makes Nero’s fiddling look while Rome burned positively sane.  If this book correctly reflects a ‘conservative’ spectrum in America today, then we may better understand what many see as the moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party and any reasonable application of ‘conservatism’ to the U S in 2019.

By contrast, near the end of Jefferson and Hamilton, John Ferling said:

Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics and government, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

Well, that was way back in 2103, and since then the abhorrence of Jefferson has got so much worse as the United States has fallen flat on its face in the gutter.  And, yes, Hamilton was killed in a duel.  And the rest of the world looks on in sadness as the United States increasingly looks more like its current president – the spoiled child who never grew up.

None of this would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville.

…..in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity…As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself…Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.’

And ‘irritable patriot’ is a reasonable title for the current incumbent at the White House.