Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation

 

Without seeing an outline of studies for the Ramsay proposal, it is difficult to comment on its educational utility.  I am currently writing my second version of the top fifty books.  If the proposal envisages offering a smattering of those, it will be a bit like a finishing school for English gels before they offer themselves up to the meat market with a sombre photo of a twin-set in Country Life.  If it is a matter of offering a dabble in history, literature and philosophy, it would be like offering a shallow B A before something useful or sensible.  I wonder how ‘Western’ adds to or subtracts from ‘Civilisation’, and how the course would treat the lowlights set out below.

 

The barbarism of ancient Greece and Rome – whose citizens called everyone else barbarians

The failure of our education systems to identify that barbarism – especially at Cambridge and Oxford

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

The inherent conviction of Kant and Hume, and other leaders of the Enlightenment, that people of colour were seriously inferior to white people

A growing hostility to Islam masked as concern about migrants or refugees

The hardening of attitudes to refugees – including people made refugees by failed policies of the West

The Thirty Years War, the religious wars on the Dutch, and the French religious wars.  (Has anything inflicted more loss and misery upon Europe than Christianity?)

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

The perpetuation of the lie about Original Sin in order to hold women down

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

The failures of European imperialism generally and in particular the cruelty of imperial powers and colonising peoples to indigenous peoples

Napoleon, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.  (Russia is not part of the West.)

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

The perfection of terrorism in the French Revolution and by other oppressive regimes – all but the French claiming collaboration with Christianity

The intellectual failure of Marxism and the moral and political failure of Communism

The failure or degradation at one time or other of all the Great Powers of Europe and their Empires

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

The failure of the rule of law to consolidate elsewhere than in common law countries and Western Europe

The involvement of so many religious bodies in abuse and covering up that abuse

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

The present decline of Christianity and the failure to find something to put in its place

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

The failure to confront inequality of opportunity and other lesions of what we call capitalism

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

The consequent onset of the aberration called populism – the populists and those they follow are the antithesis of whatever western civilisation may be, and they evidence its failure

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

The lingering death of classical music, opera, and modern jazz

The moral and intellectual collapse currently being experienced by the nation that once led the west

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

The failure to provide any sense of vision about where we are headed

The failure to come to grips with the notion that all the pillars of what is called western civilisation – religion, philosophy, the rule of law, courtesy (civility) and a sense of refinement – have failed or look likely to fail with the result that many now see the whole notion as having failed

A felt sense of superiority – notwithstanding all these manifest failures – and a need felt by some to engage in propaganda about the virtues and values of Western civilisation

Which will appear from the response – express or implied – of the zealots of western civilisation to this sad catalogue: ‘Well, yes, we have made mistakes – but we are much better than any other bastards – so stay with us for all of your answers to all of the big questions.’

Passing bull 171 – Bull about confessing

 

Not being Catholic, my understanding of the role of confession in religion is limited.  But Catholic friends whose judgment I trust tell me that in their view the debate over compulsory reporting of crimes admitted in confession is pointless.  They say that it is quite unlikely that a priest guilty of illegal sexual abuse would confess his guilt in confession.  It would be even more unlikely if he were a serial offender not offering genuine contrition and not truly committed to abstaining.  And only a mad priest would confess to a crime if he knew that the law required the person to whom he had confessed to report this confession to the police.

It is surprising then that the Catholic Church refuses to bend on this issue.  In The Australian on Saturday, a priest made the following arguments.

Without the surety of confidentiality no one would come to confession and speak about their deepest, darkest faults for fear of this being used against them by others….If those seeking confession know that anything they confess may be reported to police, why wouldn’t they go directly to police and report it themselves?

This is empiricism without the benefit of evidence.  And it sounds badly wrong.  Is it seriously suggested that members of the flock are so criminal and neurotic that they will not go to confession if they believe that the admission of a serious crime has to be reported to the police?

…in seeking to break the seal on confession, the government, by essentially making priests agents of the state, fundamentally would breach the separation of power between state and the church.

Well, I have to report to government often – for tax, licensing, or electoral purposes, for example – but it would be silly to say that I then become an agent of the state or that that silly proposition may have some forensic consequences.  If you want to frame the argument in large terms, what this church is seeking to say is that it ought to be above or outside the law, and is therefore seeking to undermine the rule of law.

In my view, therefore, those arguments go nowhere.   It is worrying that their author is an archbishop.  And anyone who thinks that this is a good time for a priest to say that he should be outside the law is crackers.

Bloopers

This is where climate change emerges as a classic post-material concern.  It is cost-free virtue-signalling.  The arguments are mainly emotive and any politician attempting to run against the tide by introducing facts and realism would be worried about the backlash in social and mainstream media….Apart from obvious risks in meddling with foreign policy settings for domestic political gain, the trouble with this sort of superficial campaigning is that it assumes blocks of voters can be picked off here and there with policies and giveaways, it tends to insult the intelligence of those same voters.  Rather than win votes, it may fuel disdain for the major parties and their tactics…..It is as though our political media class is focussed on the half-time entertainment….They ought to have more faith in the electorate….The enduring criticism of Labor and Liberal prime ministers across this lost decade has been too much focus on politics over policy, spin over substance or popularity over respect….Now Scott Morrison has inherited a broken Coalition, rescued from its lurch to the Left…..

The Australian, 20 October 2018

And so it goes – on and on and on.  It’s as if Mr Kenny keeps two A4 pages in a drawer and just re-orders the catch-phrases.  But it shows clearly why people in Wentworth rejected both major parties, and why every night the leaders of the ALP and the Greens go down on their knees to thank the Almighty for the blessings bestowed on them by Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, the IPA and The Australian.

Passing bull 170 – Religion and politics

 

At least two prime ministers have said that they would not allow their religion, or faith, to interfere with their politics.  What nonsense.  Politics is about how we get on with each other.  So are morals.  It would be absurd to say your morals are irrelevant to your politics.

But people who are religious commonly draw heavily on their religion for their moral views.   Indeed, some people of religion have been heard to say that is difficult to envisage a biding moral code without the backing of a religion (putting to one side the difficulty of settling on which one?)  If a person’s religion is vital to their morals, it is equally vital to their politics.  Next time you hear some people say that their faith does not affect their politics, ask them whether that means that they can put to one side the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.  It is pure bullshit.

Although, to be frank, some people worry that some politicians ignore the demands of their faith far too much.  Some take that view about the way we deal with refugees.  They say, for example, that everything we do on Nauru violates almost every part of the Sermon on the Mount.  That position is gaining support – from at least 6000 doctors who have their own moral position to advance. For them, there is nothing new about finding a position adopted by both major parties to be immoral.

Now, it is suggested that our current prime minister is considering getting us to join Guatemala in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the moral lightweight championship of the world.  He will abandon principle to seek a vote.  How much lower do we have to sink before something snaps?

Then there is the reaction of President Trump to the apparent murder of a journalist by Saudi Arabia.  He says that any sanction will not include limiting the sale arms (that are used for the butchery in Yemen).  He says that such a sanction would cost the U S too much in money and jobs.  The Great Republic, it seems, cannot afford to be decent.  How is Trump’s position different to that of a bank robber who tells the judge that he needed the money to feed and clothe his children?

There may then be something to be said for the proposition that politicians do not give full faith and credit to their religion.  But, then you look at the Kavanagh catastrophe, and you call for the bucket.

Bloopers

Readers must be in turn fascinated, confused and astounded by the increasingly lurid fiasco surrounding the US Supreme Court confirmation hearing of judge Brett Kavanaugh. When I read that this 53-year-old man with a seemingly unblemished character and all the right credentials in jurisprudence had suddenly been accused by a woman of molestation when he was 17 and she 15, and that despite years “recovering” her memory of the incident, she still couldn’t remember any concrete facts about it, and what’s more, no one else could confirm her accusation, I laughed. Not the standard feminist response but this episode had turned into the theatre of the absurd.

Angela Shanahan, The Australian, 29 September.

Well, at least the contributors to that paper never claim that their faith does not affect their politics.  But it is sad when someone claiming adherence to the Beatitudes laughs off attempted rape.  That is worse than bullshit.  It is cruel.

Passing Bull 166 –Nothing at the top

 

There is real concern at the revolving door of federal politics.  The people in Canberra are not up to it – morally or intellectually.  But has it occurred to you that there may be nothing there at all?

Do you know that we have a federal Minister for Energy?  The federal Constitution says nothing about energy – but that doesn’t stop the Commonwealth having a ministry.  How does the Minister see his function?  To keep down prices.

There will be no ideology in what I do.  My goal, the goal of my department and the goal of the electricity sector, must be simple and unambiguous – get prices down while keeping the lights on.

Well, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia may not have the power to make laws about energy, but as a minister advising Her Majesty the Queen of Australia, the Minister believes that he can do something to keep prices down.  What can he do?  And what can he decently do as a member of a government that likes to call itself conservative, and to believe in the invisible hand of the free market?

If electricity is supplied by corporations, won’t their directors be managing their business to return profits to shareholders (including super funds), and might not this obvious fact of life lead them to increase rather than lower the price of their product?  In truth, asking a minister of this government to do anything sane about the environment or energy is like asking the Grand Chief Wizard of the Lodge to conduct Mass.

The National Party claims to represent farmers.  Desperate drought affected farmers have now joined with a conservation group to put on an ad:

We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy.

Each of those propositions is anathema to those in power federally.

Well, the Commonwealth has power to make laws about corporations.  It has legislated about them – at mind-crippling length.  It has also appointed a body to enforce those laws.  The scandalous ineptitude of that body is just one of the unsettling revelations of the Royal Commission that this government was so keen to avoid.

You get the impression that some members of the government think that the buck stops with the regulator.  That is wrong.  The government cannot shed its responsibility for enforcing its laws by appointing a regulator any more than a board of directors can do so by appointing a CEO.  This government remains responsible for its failure to enforce its own laws.

The Treasurer appears to favour giving the regulator power to order a corporation to pay compensation ‘within a set timeframe, thus avoiding ASIC needing to take legal action.’  On its face, that looks like giving the executive of the government the power to deprive people of their property without intervention by the judiciary – that is to say, without due process.  That will be an interesting exercise – especially for a government claiming the character referred to above.  But whatever else is involved, we will get masses of regulation – and highly remunerative work for lawyers, accountants, and other advisers.

What then is the major aim of the Treasurer?

The big focus for me is going to be on the productivity agenda and…cutting regulation.

If you put all this with the blooper below, it is hard to imagine any body of people more completely losing their way.  Is there anyone home at all?

Bloopers

Brown is a fourth-generation grazier whose family property has been affected by drought.

In the clip, she calls for ‘politicians to stop dancing around the issue and help us to do something about this’.

‘We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy,’ she says.

The campaign comes after the prime minister, Scott Morrison, described the drought as his highest priority but said the conversation about the connection between drought and climate change should be ‘left  to another day.’

The Guardian, 16 September, 2018

This might remind you of the standard response of Donald Trump or the NRL to the latest mass murder in the U S.  ‘This is not the time to talk about the answer to the problem – our rotten gun laws.  In the meantime’ – as David Rowe remarked some time ago in the AFR –‘take a few boxes of thoughts and prayers – on the house.’

Here and there – An unsurprising Royal Commission

 

The most surprising thing about the Royal Commission into banking is the amount of surprise people feel.  What did they expect?

In 1983, a very old and respectable trustee company – Trustees Executors and Agency – failed and went into liquidation.  A very un-trustee like general manager had flirted with property development and short term money.  This collapse was a huge shock.  The Victorian Premier wanted the directors to surrender their passports.  (A few years later there were worse crashes.  Do you recall Tricontinental and Pyramid?)  ANZ acquired the business of the trustee by act of parliament.  One of the older trustee managers was heard to groan that bankers ‘don’t understand trusts – they only know debits and credits.’

There is a world of difference.  If you deposit money with a bank, it becomes theirs, and they have to pay you back an equivalent amount later.  But if you ask them to hold your BHP shares on trust for you, they become subject to much more onerous obligations and you get much more generous remedies.  In the first case, they get your money; in the second, the shares remain yours.  The relationship between creditor and debtor is very different to that between a trustee and beneficiary.  A trustee may have to account to a beneficiary for a profit taken innocently in the transaction.

Some think that the law has nothing to do with morals or ethics.  They are dead wrong.  So much of our law turns on whether people have been careful, honest, or conscientious.  If someone puts their confidence in me, the law says that I have to act toward that person in good faith, and take care that I do not have an interest or become subject to a duty that conflicts with my obligation to honour the confidence put in me.  These duties are called fiduciary.  If I get sued, the court might even inquire whether my opponent’s hands are clean.  So, moral or ethical issues abound in the law.

The banks probably educate their staff about bankers’ obligations of secrecy or confidentiality (which sit uncomfortably with the aversion of bankers to being called fiduciaries).  But plain and simple moral obligations tend to get forgotten in the blizzard of government intervention. They do however remain, and these obligations that are called equitable tend to be sternly enforced by the courts.

What education do the banks give their staff who act as trustees?  What do they get taught about that mystical word ‘fiduciary’?

That is one fault line on show.  Another relates to management.  The law says that ‘the business of a company is to be managed by or under the direction of the directors.’  At the risk of sounding like the late Bud Tingwell in The Castle, what do those words mean?

Very experienced directors, managers, and lawyers answer this question very differently.  The directors of a bank are not there to act as tellers, but how much direction do they have to give to managing the bank’s business?  Those words are elastic.  Does it matter that the law describes directors’ duties as fiduciary?  What are the directors of banks told about their obligations under the law?

Can you recall a time when we actually dealt with bank managers?  I grew up living beside one.  Alf had come up the hard way.  Alf could be rough and tough, but two things were certain.  Dishonesty never entered his head; and if he thought a would-be borrower was being stupid or greedy, Alf would let them have it – right down the bloody front.

Alf was not into equitable or fiduciary obligations.  He just did his job by the bank and its customers.  Both sides were content, in a way that we don’t see much of now.  If, as I suspect, there is doubt about the management of banks at the top, there is at least as much doubt about how they manage you and me – their customers.

Here and there – Problems with politics

 

When Aristotle said that man is a political animal, he meant, we are told, that man is at best when he is living in a polis – a town, or a city, or small state.  Putting to one side a Greek bias, people are better off when they live together.  (If you are a hermit, you have a better chance of doing what you want, but who would want even to visit a land of hermits?)

In order to be able to live together in a community, we have to be able to get on with other people.  Everyone is different and people want different things.  It follows, as night the day, that I will not be able to have everything I want.  If, therefore, some people in a group are determined to get their own way, regardless of others, we have a problem.  They might put a spoke in our wheel.

England and Australia are governed by an elected party that is said to stand for something, but which does not appear to stand for anything.  The same goes for each of their leaders.  Both the party and the leader appear to have lost purpose and direction.  Sadly, much the same can be said of the leader of the opposition in each country; each is, at best, a disappointment.  All this fuels the loss of faith in government, and assists the downward spiral.

America is different.  Its governing party has lost its nerve and any commitment to principle.  It just refuses to do its duty to control the executive.  Its leader owes allegiance to nothing but himself.  As for the opposition, if such it may be called, it has no leader at all.  The system doesn’t allow it.

The American problem therefore looks worse than that of England or Australia.  But in each case, there is simmering discontent, a loss of faith in government if not the nation, and a readiness to confront enemies at home, either real or imagined.  We are seeing hostility, or just plain anger, and an unwillingness or inability to restrain it.  We are losing the lubricant that oils our political machine and allows it to tick over and absorb any shocks caused by faulty parts or cogs in the gears.

As I understand it, economies and reserve banks are still adjusting to the Great Financial Crisis – that started ten years ago.  (History may show that crisis to have been more consequential than the Great Depression.)  The appalling inequality of wealth and income that that crisis revealed is part of the problem.  Another is that our wealth as a nation depends on international trade that each nation has only a very limited capacity to control.

What you then get is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness among those who have lost out.  You also get a sense of affront and outrage at the apparent inequality of treatment.  The people so offended hardly need persuasion that their case is both plain and just.  They look for politicians who will give them the plain answer they need.  When the fishwives of Les Halles got to Versailles, their demand was simple: Du pain; pas tant de long discours.  Anything resembling sophistication is of course the defence mechanism of the enemy of the chosen.

Well, the plain answer is obvious.  The people of the nation – the real people, that is – need to go back to its true self, what it was before those awful bad guys took over.  (It is of no concern that this past is almost wholly imaginary.)

And the other part of the answer is equally obvious.  You identify and go after the causes of your maltreatment.  These are obviously those who are foreign to the real people, either abroad or at home.  You go after them with gusto, especially if they are sitting ducks.  How sweet it is to be able to dish out elbows for people whose lives have been dedicated to copping them.  The historical label for these people on the receiving end is ‘scapegoats’, but our latterday avengers are not keen on that term; it too closely resembles their own condition while they were disempowered.

From that dreadful cocktail, you get misfits like Hanson, Farage, Johnson and Trump.  It does not matter that this model has been duplicitously flogged from Peisistratus to Duterte for 2500 years.  There is one born every minute.  Nor does it matter that history hardly reveals any successful people’s or peasants’ revolt or any scapegoat who has been decently pursued.  The relevant history is one of misery and injustice.  Neither the oppressed nor their champions go in for length, width or depth in their view of the world.  Their commitment is short-term, personal, and angry.  Like that between the advocate from Arras and the sans-culottes, it is a marriage entered into on the altar of social justice.  (They hardly spoke a word in common, but they developed a communal taste for an exposed neck.)  If you had to choose one word for such a union, the most polite might be ‘irrational.’

We have seen all this before.  What is worrying now is the readiness of people to throw sand in the gear box.  In the end, our political system depends on people restraining themselves and co-operating with others.  ‘Co-operating’ with others there means little more than living or working with them.  It comes back to living in a group.  If we do want to rate ourselves above the apes, we have to control our impulse to selfishness.  If you go to legal historians, they will speak of customs; lawyers talk of precedents; constitutional lawyers speak of conventions; our commitment to the rule of law comes down to little more than a state of mind.  You will immediately see that the short-termed champion of the oppressed can so easily drive an excavator clean over the foundations of our world.  It may not take all that much to seize up our machine.

And when you think about it, people who should also have known better have been eating away at conventions that stood in their electoral path – for immediate if transient advantage, they were prepared to risk long term damage.  And, as it seems to me, the soi disant conservatives have always been the first to go out of bounds.  Just look at the determination of the Republican Congress to block an elected president, even to the point of denying him the right to appoint to the Supreme Court.  Their determination to block Obama has only been matched by their steely resolution to do nothing to stand in the way of President Trump.

On the need for cooperation, take an example from the law.  A man agreed to buy a very expensive machine.  The contract was subject to testing by the buyer.  The buyer refused to pay.  He said that he had not tested the machine.  But the court held against him.  The court found that the buyer was at fault in not inspecting the machine and that he could not rely on his own fault to defeat the claim of the buyer for payment.  The court ruled that:

…where in a … contract it appears that both parties have agreed that something shall be done, which cannot effectually be done unless both concur in doing it, the construction [legal effect] of the contract is that each agrees to do all that is necessary to be done on his part for the carrying out of that thing, though there may be no express words to that effect.

The court therefore found that where people agree to act together for a common purpose, their agreement may be subject to an implied condition of cooperation.  That ruling to my mind does little more than reflect a necessary truth of communal life.

Why are so many now ignoring this obvious fact of life?  Part of the problem comes from the self-righteousness of those who see themselves victims as the victims of injustice.  (As Gandalf remarked in The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘There is such a thing as malice and revenge!’  And every revolution known to man nearly drowned in them.)  The other part of the problem comes from the selfishness and deceit of the chosen champions of the dispossessed.  They have, after all, only come along for the ride.

Now, a lot of this is large, too large.  But none of it is novel.  Indeed, it is just the lack of novelty that is most unsettling.  Of course they love their country; of course they value their citizenship; what else have they got?  So, we will reclaim our sovereignty, whatever that means; we will glorify the Fatherland, and if necessary go to war for it, and our values; and we shall confine citizenship to those born to deserve it.  That old script is so tawdry, but it does prompt some reflections.

From any point in that compass, Trump is a vicious threat.  He is a stupid spoiled child who has never been taught any better, but what troubles us as much as the credulity of what is called his ‘base’ is the failure of an established party to do its job and check him.

They may however be part of a grand irony.  If the GFC paved Trump’s wave to power, he may be rewarding those wealthy smart Alecs responsible by policies, if such they may be called, that favour the rich over the rest.

But Australians need not feel smug about the inanity of American government.  Its main allegedly conservative party is once again tearing itself apart over a proposition as contestable as that which says that the earth is round.  Those responsible are helped by lay preachers, failed political hacks, think tank stooges, and tarts for the crowd who somehow get some attention from the downtrodden on the outlets of Rupert Murdoch.  The tribalism and bitchiness transcends anything offered in the past by the Labor Party – and that is no small statement.

There is another worry for us. Three of the most unloved people in Australia are Rudd, Latham, and Abbot.  They are now being joined by a fourth – Joyce.  The rats come from all sides; each led his party; two were Prime Minister; all four failed at their top; all four have turned on their own party with all the grace of a Taipan hit and missed by a piece of angle iron.  There is a well-founded worry about the stability of all of them.  But what they have in common is that they are bad losers whose blame on others is writ large and whose hunger for revenge is as ugly as it is unwarranted.

But we may have seen a touch of spring.  When a member of the Guards ratted on a princess, The Times said that the system had ‘flushed out an absolute shit’.  So have we.  Fraser Anning looks to be as nasty as he is inane.  I will not rehearse the terms of his maiden speech – that’s your and my taxes at work – but Mr Anning did not seek to hide his contempt for people of a different creed or colour; nor did he seek to hide his longing for the White Australia Policy.  He just stood there looking like a toddler who had just soiled his nappy in public.

In doing so, Mr Anning immediately outed all those members of parliament and the Murdoch press who have for years been transmitting signals about those very sentiments under code names like border protection, sovereignty, national values, freedom of speech, and that most glorious chestnut of them all – Western civilisation, or, if you prefer, Judaeo-Christian civilisation.  We need not pause for an historical analogy for the role Muslims in Australia in 2018 as scapegoats; if you have a problem, ask another Australian who subscribes to a faith coming out of Asia – apart from Judaism and Christianity.

Mr Anning’s embrace of those whole wavelengths of scapegoats was so brazen that both houses of parliament came together and denounced the rogue ratbag on the spot.  How dare a new boy queer the nest of the old boys?

Everyone felt better.  But do you know what?  Even the decent press called this a victory for democracy.

And about ten years after the good fishwives of Paris got their bread and killed their king, they got a little Corsican emperor with his own aristocracy and a secret police that the Bourbons could never have dreamed of.

Here and there – What is fascism?

 

Some years ago, I sought to identify the range of meaning of three terms or labels commonly used in political discussion as follows.

Left and right

I do not like and I try to avoid these terms, which come from the French Revolution, but I shall set out my understanding.  The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions.  The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution.  The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change.  The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it.  The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it.  The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it.  These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous.  Either can be authoritarian.  On the left, that may lead to communism.  On the right, you may get fascism.

Fascism

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

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

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

Madeline Albright has written a book warning against a resurgence of fascism.  Eastern Europe looks very bleak.  You can make up your own mind about the application of those criteria to Trump.  To me it looks a very close run thing.  I am sick of hearing about him.  I merely say that since Hitler died before I was born, Trump is the leading contender for the prize of the man most loathed on this earth during my lifetime.

I want to invite people to apply those criteria to Napoleon.  Again at first blush that, too, looks close.  Let me just quote some passages from a biography by the distinguished English historian J M Thompson.

Napoleon’s forays into Italy and Egypt were little more than robbery on a grand scale.  He wanted to fund the rape of Egypt by robbing the Swiss.  On the war in Italy, Napoleon said:

Discipline is improving every day, though we still have to shoot a good many men for there are some intractable characters incapable of self-restraint.

You may recall that his political career took off when he used artillery to disperse a Paris mob – Carlyle’s ‘whiff of grapeshot.’  Throughout his career, the Corsican was profligate with French life – something that scandalised his Grace, the Duke of Wellington.

Asians got it worse.

The Turks must let their conduct be ruled by extreme severity.  Here at Cairo, I have heads cut off at the rate of 5 or 6 a day.  Hitherto, we have had to treat the people tactfully, in order to destroy the reputation for terrorism which preceded our arrival.  But now we must make sure that the natives obey us; and for them obedience means fear.

Could Hitler have improved on that descant?

Each stage or coup in the rise of Napoleon in France involved a franker appeal to force.  Abroad, the urge for conquest was insatiable.  His nationalism was only matched by his egoism.  He said that he had made Italy a part of France.  Madame de Staël had his measure.  ‘The English particularly irritate him, as they have found the means of being honest as well as successful, a thing which Bonaparte would have us regard as impossible.’

In his 2014 book Napoleon the Great, Andrew Roberts said that Napoleon was great.  This to me is like the myopia that leads Oxbridge to say that ancient Greece and Rome were civilised.  He committed France to eternal war (la guerre éternelle) and then he lost that war.  He left five million dead in the process.  He left France a smoking rubble that it took France at least a century, and endless coups and revolutions, to come out of.  And, fatally to the reputation of any soldier, he walked out on his own army – twice.  And the only reason that Napoleon and his spurned soldiers found themselves in the sands of the Levant and the snows of Russia was his manic lust for la gloire.

But at least he had one clear policy.  Make France great.  And he then ruined the joint.  As they say there, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Here and there – The problem with inquisitions

 

On one visit to the Inquisition, Galileo got a swine of a question.  ‘Why do you think you’re here?’  I’m afraid that from time to time I could be worse.  ‘As you sit there in the witness box today, do you think what you did was right (honest, sensible, careful, conscionable, or whatever)?’

Either form of teasing dilemma summons up the Hampton Fair in the 50’s – firing an air-rifle at moving ducks.  You just waited until the head of the duck moved into your sights.  Then you pulled the trigger – and knocked over the duck.  Shooting sitting ducks was child’s play.

The banks knew they were in big trouble when the present commission began.  First, the failed efforts by their friends in government and the press to protect them from public inquiry meant that the latter-day tricoteuses could smell a cover-up and would be out for blood.  Secondly, there is hardly any presumption of innocence.  The website refers to the ‘Royal Commission into Misconduct’.  Given the banks’ confessional tone in trying to avoid any inquiry, the commission is merely stating a fact, but imagine asking the Israelis to be examined about the ‘massacres’ at their border.  Thirdly, the government petulantly locked the inquiry into a time-scale that some feared might castrate it.  That meant that some procedural niceties would have to go.

For whatever reason, witness statements were ordered.   I think that practice is pernicious, and on reasonable grounds, I suspect that this commissioner has the same view.  It is unfair to the witness – especially the honest witness – and it leads to game-playing and concoction.  Many good judges condemn this process.

What we then get is not so much cross-examination, but what normally comes at the end of cross-examination – counsel puts to the witness the substance of the allegation against their side.  This is required by common sense and ordinary decency – and therefore by the law.

But when the inquiry is at large, the result can bear an ugly resemblance to a one-sided debating bout that becomes an exercise in ritual humiliation.  Counsel has access to apparently unlimited documentation compulsorily acquired from the target – something that the accused in an ordinary criminal trial would never be exposed to.  The witness then has a choice – they either bag their mates, or they dissemble.  That’s a nasty dilemma.

And this contest, or duel, doesn’t take place before a judge who Maitland said should act like a cricket umpire, but before a representative of the executive government – who is appointed to report back to government after inquiring into that mystical thing called truth.

So, these inquisitions make common lawyers very queasy.  I rarely lost that queasiness in performing similar functions in tax and other tribunals or a public inquiry over thirty years.

But someone is feeding some in the press some dud lines on these issues.  One is that the banks are denied due process.  If the banks and their nominated witnesses do not yet know the case they have to meet, they have been living on Mars, and giving their shareholders – of whom I am one – further evidence that their executives are grossly overpaid.

Then it is said that the laws of evidence don’t apply.  Sadly, most lawyers and judges have not properly applied those laws for years.  (One reason is those accursed witness statements.)  The present commissioner knows these laws.  Most of them relate to logic, fairness, or relevance.  It is plain silly to suggest that this commission might ignore those requirements.  Each of those suggestions of unfairness is therefore groundless.

If I am wrong about that, and the unfairness is, as suggested, both harmful, and unlawful, the victims can afford to go to court for redress.  If therefore anyone pushing this line is prepared to surface – so far their number is zero – they can put up or shut up.  We know they have the money.

Anglo-American lawyers well know the perils of the inquisition.  Maitland saw the medieval difference between a procedure ‘to inquire of’ and one ‘to hear and determine’ criminal causes.  England just avoided ‘that too easy path which the church chose and which led to the everlasting bonfire.’  We also know the risks of asking judges or former judges to do dirty jobs for government.  Lord Devlin said that English governments showed their respect for judges by asking them to dig them out of political holes.

But we most agree that we need this inquiry badly.  The banks are doing it hard, partly because of their original misconduct; partly because of their ill-advised efforts to remain under cover; and partly because of the sulky and inept way that the government repented and ceased being an ostrich.

The relationship between government and banks has gone bad and will not get better.  That is not bad news.  But sometimes you have to endure misery to get better.  I know that well.  Try having surgery for piles.

And whatever you might say about banks, there is not one Galileo among them.

Here and there – The faith of Ali

 

The life of Muhammad Ali reminds me of the life of Miles Davis.  They both show that we here in Australia have never understood how poisonous the problem of race is in America.  In his new biography Ali, A Life, Jonathan Eig quotes an author in Ebony saying of the words ‘I am the greatest’:

Lingering behind those words is the bitter sarcasm of Dick Gregory, the shrill defiance of Miles Davis, the utter contempt of Malcolm X.  He smiles easily, but, behind it all….is a blast furnace of race pride.

That about sums it up.  People talked a lot about three things that got up their noses about Ali: his loud mouthed boasting and his cruel taunting of his opponents; his embrace of another faith, in the very unattractive Nation of Islam; and his evasion of military service and his opposition to America’s war in Vietnam.

There was one thing that got up people’s noses that they didn’t talk so much about – the incredulity and jealousy of a large part of the white population that a black man was better than any white man – and was happily sticking it right up them.  That was, I think, the biggest problem facing President Obama – as now evidenced by the horrific fruit of the white backlash and the election of a president who unashamedly believes that white people are superior to black people.  (I may have added that Ali’s hopeless promiscuity may have upset some – but that’s a relative issue in a nation that turns out presidents as unfaithful as many of those in the U S.)

The taunting was part of the circus act, and, I think, part of the way for the young man to mask his fear in confronting men who could kill him.  It was also meant to unbalance or unnerve his opponent.  Ali saw himself – correctly – as being in the entertainment industry.  He invited aggravation toward himself to sell tickets.  Who wants to see a brawl between friends?  The author freely concedes his view that Ali often went over the top – especially with Joe Frazier.  There is a record of a conversation between the two before any of their three fights.  They were joking, bragging, and singing.

Ali: We don’t wanna be seen too much together, you know.

Frazier: Yeah.  They’ll think we’re buddies.  That’ll be bad for the gate.

Ali: Yeah.  Ain’t nobody gonna pay nothing to see two buddies.

Later the relationship soured.  Both suffered lasting damage from their three bouts – Frazier spent nearly two weeks in hospital after winning the first.  Ali would apologise to Foreman for calling him an Uncle Tom.

Ali thought differently to most of us.  In many ways, he had the mind of a child.  He didn’t want to go to L A for the trials for the Rome Olympics.  He was afraid of flying.  He was persuaded to take the chance.   So he went to a disposals store to buy a parachute – which he wore on the plane.  His graduation from high school was an act of charity, and he flunked the army IQ test.  He could see some big pictures with great clarity, but logic was not his go.

Ali was therefore the perfect dupe for crooks and odd-balls like the Nation of Islam.  And they milked him for all he was worth, and then they denounced and betrayed him.  He nevertheless maintained his faith.  Mr Eig does not doubt the sincerity of that faith, and nor do I.  While most fighters sought refuge and protection from the Mob, Ali found it in a religious sect.  A lot of Americans would have been more at home if he had stuck with the Mob.

As for Vietnam – well, supporters of that war are as thinly spaced now as supporters of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria.  Ali’s position may well have affected that of Dr Martin Luther King.  He said that America could only be saved with ‘radical moral surgery’ and ‘I can’t segregate my conscience.’  Mr Eig says:

Ali’s stand against Vietnam made him a symbol of protest against a war in which black men were dying at a wildly disproportionate rate.  Black men accounted for 22% of all battle deaths when the black population in America was only 10%.  Why was America spending money and tossing away lives in the name of freedom in a distant land while resisting the cause of freedom at home?  Why, yet again, did the interests of black Americans seem to diverge from the interests of the nation as a whole?  Ali raised these troubling questions as opposition to the war rapidly spread.

Ali based his opposition to the war on his religious beliefs.

Many great men have been tested for their religious belief.  If I pass this test, I will come out stronger than ever…..All I want is justice.  Will I have to get that from history?

When he said that, Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world.  He had staggered that world by beating Sonny Liston – twice (although some thought both were fixed).  Ali was at the height of his powers, the prime of American manhood, but the white establishment was now bent on taking out this uppity nigger.

When Ali declined to accept induction, the commissioners of the most corrupt sport on earth moved to ban him.

Never mind that they had long tolerated the mafia and professional gamblers in their sport.  Never mind that Ali had not yet been convicted of a crime.  Never mind that boxing’s rules contained no requirement that its champion be a Christian or an American or a supporter of America’s wars.  None of that mattered.  Guided by anger, prejudice, or patriotism, boxing’s rulers decided that Muhammad Ali was unfit to wear the sport’s crown because he was a Muslim who refused to fight for his country.

Ali had been fortunate early in his career in being managed by a group of right minded business people from home.  They arranged very fair contracts and helped him with tax and saving for the future. But he was like a child with money.  He liked the feel of cash, and he threw it away.  Later he would come under the control of a promoter who had been convicted of murder.

Now a group of very senior black athletes met with Ali for hours to try to get him to change his mind about the army.  President Johnson had offered him the deal given to Joe Louis – he could just put on the uniform, and fight exhibition matches.  He could play down his religion in public, and remind the Nation of Islam, who had dropped him, that he was no good to them serving his term of five years – which was the maximum, that he got.  ‘Everybody had a chance to ask him all the questions they wanted to.  Eventually, everybody was satisfied that his stand was genuine based on his religion and that we should back him.’  Given what was involved, Ali must have had real faith.

More than four years later, Ali’s appeal against his conviction and sentence came on before the Supreme Court.  The government argued that Ali was not a pacifist – he had merely said he did not want to fight the Viet Cong – ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger’- or for a country that treated him as a second class citizen.  He was just making political statements.  That argument prevailed five: three.

Justice Harlan was to write the decision.  His clerk had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and was persuaded of the sincere pacifism of this sect.  His judge then changed his mind: four: four.  The decision would stand, and Ali would do five years.

But this would not look too good.  Then another judge came up with a technical point.  The appeal board that rejected Ali’s claim had not given any basis for its finding – without knowing why his claim had been rejected, how could they have given him a fair hearing?  Well, that does look thin – there is no authority except the decision referred to in the footnotes* – but the justices thought this was better than an all-white court jailing a champion on a split vote.  And they did so unanimously.  Ali found out about his release as he was buying orange juice at a small grocery shop in Chicago.  He shouted the store.

Most of us know all about the fight against Foreman, the Rumble in the Jungle.  I saw it live in the basement of a near blood-house pub in Elizabeth Street.  I was amazed and enthralled – as was a large part of the world.  It was a massive achievement.  On reflection, both Liston and Foreman lost to Ali for similar reasons – he was able to survive and score well for seven rounds – they were used to crushing their opposition in two, and they were not equipped to go anything like the distance.

After that, you may wish to skim read.  It’s mostly downhill.  Dirty fights; whoring (he was in bed with two whores on the afternoon of a big fight); brain damage; corruption; theft; waste; and an uneasy peace.  We were moved by the lighting of the flame at Atlanta, by the film Once Were Kings, and by the funeral.

Ali was fortunate to die when the U S still had a literate and honourable man in the White House.  This is what President Obama said.

‘I am America’, he once declared.  ‘I am the part that you won’t recognise.  But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own.  Get used to me.’  That’s the Ali I came to know as I came of age – not just as skilled a poet on the mic, as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right.  A man who fought for us.  He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.  His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and public standing.  It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled and nearly send him to jail.  And his victory helped us to get used to the America we recognise today… Muhammad Ali shook up the world.  And the world is better for it.  We are all better for it.

What a giant!  Muhammad Ali had the clout and the gifts of Babe Ruth; he had the courage and the devotion to his people of Jackie Robinson; he may have lacked that aura of saintliness that we see in Mandela, Ghandi, and, yes, Lincoln; but because of Muhammad Ali, his nation, however defined, has changed forever, and for the better.

The book had another message for me.  We should ban professional boxing.  It is a cruel and unusual punishment, and we should not pay men to beat up other man and shorten their lives.  This is a denial of civilisation.

*According to Wikipedia, the likely source was the book The Brethren by Woodward and Armstrong.  In 2013, A TV film was released, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.  Christopher Plummer played Justice Harlan.

Here and there – Two leaders – to whom do I refer?

 

He views the world as revolving around himself.  He has no interest in anything that does not concern him personally.

He thrives on conflict.

He is better at tearing down than building up.

He is immensely vain.

But he is also very insecure.  There was a flaw in his upbringing, and his education was at best suspect.

He cannot stand any slight on his character or upbringing.  He is likely to react irrationally and violently.  People doubt whether once he has got to the top he will be able to restrain himself.

He therefore hates the press, and sadly for him, his nation has plenty of quality press.

He adores being adored.  He thinks that it is only natural that he should be adored.

He is therefore at his best before an adoring crowd.  You can see him drawing support and relief from the adoration.

He loves rallies, parades, and ceremonies – anything to do with the military is terrific.  He likes dressing up as a member of the military, and mixing with them – although deep down, he does not like or trust them.

He prefers being adored to governing.

His government program is driven by a need for revenge.  One is less coy than the other about what is being avenged.

He is barely literate.  His written utterances would ill become a ten year old boy.  But for those who want to see, those utterances show a very bent and nasty man who could do you a lot of harm.  Some people see him as being so unhinged as to be mad.  The written communications of both are scarcely literate, but one unloaded one long endless tirades, while the other issues short bitchy pouts after dawn.

He knows nothing about trade, economics, international diplomacy or the law.  He is the most undiplomatic person ever born.  He had had little or no experience in government before getting the top job.  And it shows; and just before dawn, he knows that it shows.  This feeds his insecurity and anger.  And it makes him worse at governing.

But his supporters say that his very inexperience is a blessing.  He is untainted by the old regime that it is his mission to destroy.

Notwithstanding his ignorance of government, he occasionally indulges in micro-management when in the mood.  The results are awful.

He loves to proclaim his love for his country – in part in the hope that this will fuel his country’s love for him.

But in truth his love of himself is so great that there is little room left for love of country, and none for love of God.

One relies on others wanting to appease him; the other is keen to appease his strongest opponent.

He lies all the time.  That is to say, he is fundamentally dishonest.  ‘Conscience’ is a word that could not be applied to him.  Such a thing could only get in the way of his ego.

He therefore has no understanding or respect for the principles of decency that underlie his position.

He is therefore open to fraud and corruption, although one of them, for family reasons, is far more into nepotism than the other.

In truth, he has little respect for decency and no time or room for truth.

His propaganda team therefore has carte blanche.  They may or may not accept that their dealings with people reveal that they hold other people in contempt.

He pursues scapegoats relentlessly.  One premise of that pursuit is that he can do no wrong.  Another premise is his capacity to lump people together and regard them as inferior – and therefore ripe for target practice.

One is more reticent than the other about identifying his scapegoats but their cadres pursue them relentlessly – and smile while they do so.  This only unsettles a small number of their followers, and any dissent is brushed aside.

There is another term that could never be applied to him – tolerance.  If you think that tolerance is the fine fruit and the vital root of western civilisation, he is therefore a threat of the kind that some are wont to call existential.

Another term that could never be applied to him is contemplation.  He looks like he might have a nervous breakdown if he was locked in a room on his own in order to meditate.

Because of his character flaws, he has no friends, and his relations with women are fraught.  Each of the three women who got close to one committed suicide, or tried to, and for one of the suicides, it was her second attempt.  The other has not been able to keep his hands off women, and his third marriage is obviously stressed – his third wife stalks about like a startled POW.  (Perhaps she is.)

He doesn’t drink but his taste for food is very odd.

They have different views on military service.  Although one was knocked back for officer training – twice – he was rightly decorated for bravery in battle.  The other evaded military service with the same dedication with which he would later evade paying tax.  Another word you could never apply to him is patriot – at least if being a patriot means doing the right thing by your country where you could evade such service by a mix of cowardice and deceit.

He would like life tenure – but only one gets it.

Because of those defects in his make-up, he is the worst possible person to lead his country.  But he manages – just – to persuade enough people to support him to enable him to get the top job.  On one view, neither of them ever got a majority vote, and the same people who supported each of them must know that when the end comes, he will turn on them – viciously.