Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear.  The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message.  On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group.  An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.

In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets.  He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio.  What techniques did Iago deploy?

Select your target

Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable.  Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally.  Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump.  Iago knew that Othello trusted him.

…..He holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him.  (1.3.381-2)

When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly.  There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.

Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable.  He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion.  Grounds for anxiety are baked in.  Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness.  It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse.  In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness.  People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries.  Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen.  His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you.  A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.

Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt.  Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.

And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

IAGO.  Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO.  Cassio, my lord?  No.  Sure I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running.  This is fundamental.  The target must think that they are the prime mover.  Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

How poor are they that have not patience?  (2.3.370)

Maintain deniability and a false front

The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability.  It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)

Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’  That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.

Make me to see’t or at least so prove it

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates.  And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)

And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

An hour or more not meaning any harm?  (4.4.3-4)

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy.  How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’?  And credulous people see what they want to see.

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally.  A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

Embroil others in your schemes

Born stirrers weave webs like spiders.  Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler.  Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes.  Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation.  His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

For naught I did in hate but all in honor.  (5.2.294-6)

Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride.  He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor.  For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated.  Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is.  It may be the shiftiest word in our language.

It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’.  One thing does seem clear.  What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say.  Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas.  They just want to stir people up for the sake of it.  They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now.  One Nation is full of them.

Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks?  I said elsewhere:

The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people.  Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality.  Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse.  Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better.  It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.

There is a lot of that about, too.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil.  Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did.  In part, it runs:

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’  I used the word ‘malice’ above.  In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.

The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.

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.

MY TOP SHELF – 38 – War and Peace

 

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

38

WAR AND PEACE

Lev Tolstoy

 

London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, Oxford University Press, 1943; subsequently recovered in half morocco in red with gold title and humps on spine, and cloth boards.

You die and find it all out or you cease asking

With a phrase unusually pregnant with meaning even for Shakespeare, a character in Measure for Measure is described as ‘desperately mortal’.  The characters of War and Peace come down to us in the same way – but, more: somehow they come to us as desperately human.  This novel of about 1,300 pages has two leading characters, but most of the action comes from three Russian families.  Although we are occasionally let in on the French side, and Napoleon himself has a substantial role, this is a Russian novel where the author refers to the Russians as ‘we’.

The three families of Russians are aristocrats.  We meet one peasant at the end, but no merchants or professionals.  When it comes to leading or expounding a point of view, we hear only from the men.  We are therefore looking only at a tiny part of the Russian nation, perhaps not one in a thousand.  Tolstoy was a Russian count and most of this novel is about Russian counts (or countesses) or better.  To adopt an observation of another author, the second title of this book may have been: ‘All aristocrats are spoiled; some are more spoiled than others’.  But for all that we see a pageant of all humanity unfurling before our eyes in a way that may only ever have been matched in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

Count Pierre Bezuhov is the central figure in the novel.  He moves among the three families and across the lines of the two armies.  In many ways he is like a one-man Greek chorus.  He was the illegitimate child of an old rake who was legitimated at the very end so that he could inherit a very wealthy estate.  That is how the novel begins.  Pierre was not raised in or for the purple.  He is gauche, but acute of mind; he cares little about the social niceties that everyone else cares very greatly about; and you might say the same about money.  He has a very simple faith, but for most of the novel he lives under the impression that he can by the power of his mind arrive at the answers to life’s questions.  His quest for such an answer is at the base of the novel.

Pierre, like Prince Andrey, talks a lot to himself.  These speeches are their soliloquies.  In the BBC production, they are voice-overs.  They are as integral to the novel as the soliloquies are to Hamlet.

Let us refer to some of the problems of the novel.  Tolstoy the writer had a lot of form for going on at length about what would then have been called ‘philosophical’ issues.  In this novel he goes on a lot about the determining factors of military movements.  Most of this seems to be undertaken with a view to belittling Napoleon.  The fashion one hundred years ago for engaging in this kind of ‘philosophising’ was much more in favour then than it would be now.  Most of this kind of talk will be likely to bore people now, and readers are advised to skip through it.  Flaubert complained to Turgenev about the essays of Tolstoy: ‘He repeats himself!  He philosophises!’  That hectoring tone has crept into the novel.

There is perhaps something of a similar problem with Natasha.  She tends to be altogether too gushing for modern tastes (as might Anya be in The Cherry Orchard).  But we do need to remember that she does start off as a closeted fifteen year old child who is expected, at least in some respects, to play the part of an adult.  The novel also has some of the attributes of 19th century novels, like two bad guys who are really just caricatures of bounders or cads, and a liking for coincidence.

For all that, the novel in spite of its length is extremely readable.  It does not have anything like the boring excursions that you come across in Les Misérables, or Moby Dick, or that some even find in Don Quixote.  With a modicum of application, the ordinary reader should not have much difficulty in completing reading this book in, say, a fortnight.  When they have done so, they will know that they have read what many people in the world regard as the greatest novel ever written.

Let us remember that we are dealing with a world that is completely beyond our comprehension.  The Tsar had absolute power.  The Russian people had no history of trying to contain that power.  The doctrine of the divine right of kings was well and truly alive and well.  It follows that they were still living with serfs, or white slaves.  Serfs could be worth less than dogs.  In the course of a hunt, Nikolay Rostov enquired after a black and tan bitch owned by another hunter.  The hunter said he had acquired the bitch a year before for three families of house serfs.

So, the world of Russia then – during the wars against Napoleon – is utterly unlike any world that we have known.  The Russian aristocracy was trying to ape European civilisation, and particularly that of France, by speaking French, but in many ways their customs will seem as comprehensible to us as the customs of the blackfellas that were practised in this country one or two thousand years before the white people arrived here.  To make the comparison more local, Russia in 1812 had much more in common with Persia than with France or Germany.

The book has set pieces dealing with both war and peace: the two major battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are covered in great detail; there are two famous ballroom scenes; a scene at the opera; an extended account of a wolf hunt; and, for action between war and peace, a duel.

At times, the commentary has an El Greco lightning-strike scale of illumination.  While Moscow was waiting for the French, the population descended to animal lawlessness with scenes like those in Paris at the height of the terror.  In one of them, Tolstoy reflects unmistakably on the Passion.  The Governor of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, hands one suspected traitor over the mob.  ‘You shall deal with him as you think fit!  I hand him over to you!’  The resulting massacre is bestial, and resembles in part the September Massacres in Paris twenty or so years before.  As the Governor goes home in his carriage, an asylum spills out its lunatics:

Tottering on his long, thin legs, in his fluttering dressing-gown, this madman ran at headlong speed, with his eyes fixed on Rastoptchin, shouting something to him in a husky voice, and making signs to him to stop.  The gloomy and triumphant face of the madman was thin and yellow, with irregular clumps of beard growing on it.  The black agate-like pupils of his eyes moved restlessly, showing the saffron-yellow whites above.  ‘Stay!  Stop, I tell you!’ he shouted shrilly, and again breathlessly fell to shouting something with emphatic gestures and intonations. 

He reached the carriage and ran alongside it.

‘Three times they slew me; three times I rose again from the dead.  They stoned me, they crucified me  …  I shall rise again  …  I shall rise again  … I shall rise again.  My body they tore to pieces.  The Kingdom of Heaven will be overthrown  …  Three times I will overthrow it, and three times I will set it up again’, he screamed, his voice growing shriller and shriller.  Count Rastoptchin suddenly turned white, as he had turned white when the crowd fell upon [the victim of the mob].  He turned away.  ‘Go, go on, faster!’ he cried in a trembling voice to his coachman.

We read novels for the insight we get from writing like that, not to read tracts about theology or politics.

War?  No sane person writes a book about war that is pro-war.  Sane books about war are anti-war.  Homer began the tradition with the Iliad and War and Peace is its apogee.  The novel is an attack on everything that Napoleon stood for – his doctrinaire aggression and his doctrine that one man – a hero – can create history.  Here is the most polite thing that Tolstoy ever said about Napoleon:

A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions, no name, not even a Frenchman, by the strangest freaks of chance, as it seems, rises above the seething parties of France, and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position.

Bulky, slow, modest, determined, devout, one-eyed old Kutuzov is the real hero of the novel.  Kutuzov has God, but he is down to earth.  He is not into theory or even strategy.  On the eve of Austerlitz, Kutuzov addresses his staff:

‘Gentlemen, the dispositions of tomorrow, for today indeed (for it’s going on for one o’clock), can’t be altered now’, he said.  ‘You have heard it, and we will all do our duty.  And before a battle nothing is of so much importance …’ (he paused) ‘as a good night’s rest.’

We may be confident that Kutuzov had the view of the impossibility of military science that Tolstoy attributed to Prince Andrey.  ‘How can there be a science of war in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be definite, and everything depends on countless conditions, the influence of which becomes manifest all in a moment, and no one can know when that moment is coming.’

This plain view of soldiering is like the view that Pierre came to hold over our understanding of what matters most.  It is attained not ‘by reason, but by life’.  That view in turn is very much like the view of the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that ‘the life of the law has not been logic but experience’.  General Kutuzov was no theorist.

Above all, Kutuzov looked after his men.  This wise old soldier knew that the geography and climate could see Napoleon off (just as they would see Hitler off).  Why spill Russian blood for the sake of it to supplement the work of God?  A commander of the German school wanted Kutuzov to take a stand at Moscow.  This is how the good old man dealt with the bullshit.

‘The holy and ancient capital of Russia!’ he cried, suddenly, in a wrathful voice, repeating Bennigsen’s words, and thereby underlining the false note in them, ‘Allow me to tell your Excellency that that question has no meaning to a Russian.’  (He lurched his unwieldy figure forward.)  ‘Such a question cannot be put; there is no sense in such a question.  The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is the question of the war. The question is: the safety of Russia lies in her army.  Is it better to risk the loss of the army and of Moscow by giving battle, or to abandon Moscow without a battle?  That is the question on which I desire to learn your opinion.’  He lurched back into his low chair again.

The role of Kutusov should be studied by all those commanders who believe that they have the brains and the toys that take them beyond the reach of the eternal verities.  Kutusov was a supremely good, lovable hero.  Accordingly, to show the gratitude of Mother Russia, he was in victory stripped of his command by an inbred fop who could not have fought his way out of a wet paper bag.  This is irony.  It may not be irony of the tragic kind, but Tolstoy revels in it, as well he may, and he lays it on with a trowel.

Prince Andrey was hardened by the battle of Austerlitz where he was badly wounded.  On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrey has a remarkable conversation with Count Pierre.  Sporting coaches might wish to commit parts of it to memory.

‘But you know they say’, he said, ‘that war is like a game of chess.’

‘Yes’, said Prince Andrey, ‘only with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, that you are not limited as to time, and with the spirited difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division, and sometimes weaker than a company.  No one can ever be certain of the relative strength of armies.  Believe me’, he said, ‘if anything did depend on the arrangements made by the staff, I would be there, and helping to make them, but instead of that I have the honour of serving here in the regiment with these gentlemen here, and I consider that the day really depends upon us tomorrow and not on them…  Success never has depended, and never will depend on position, on arms, nor even numbers; and, least of all, on position’.

‘On what then?’

‘On the feeling that is in me and him’, he indicated Timohin [his Major] ‘and every soldier.’

Prince Andrey glanced at Timohin, who was staring in alarm and bewilderment at his Colonel….‘The battle is won by the side that has firmly resolved to win …’

What counts is the feeling that is in me and in him.

Two other comments on the war.  When standing outside Moscow – this ‘Asiatic city’ – Napoleon observed that ‘a city occupied by the enemy is like a girl who has lost her honour.’  As the French soldiers dispersed in the city, they went from being an active menacing army to being marauders.  If Mr Bush and Mr Blair had taken notice of these two simple truths before sending their armies into Baghdad, they may have saved their armies a lot of lives, and themselves a lot of embarrassment.  Nor did Napoleon pause to explain why he was surprised that he was not welcomed in Moscow – it is, after all, rare for a girl to welcome the man who has just raped her.

Prince Andrey sure knew how to unsettle his friend Count Pierre.  When, near the end, Pierre asked one of his old retainers if he still wanted freedom, the answer was in substance: ‘What on earth for?’  But the answer of course would have been different if the question had been put by old Prince Vassily Bolkonsky.  Tolstoy, too, was an abiding liberal.  He could afford to be having been born a Count into a family of 800 serfs.

Well, what then of Pierre and his quest for the one logical answer to all of life’s mysteries?  Pierre had formed a view that he should kill Napoleon.  He did not reach that position in the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he resolved to try to kill Adolf Hitler.  Pierre had devised some bizarre formula in a naïve belief that there must be a given logical or even mathematical answer.  He eventually came to rest with the simple view that God is everywhere and that we must take life as it comes.

In accordance with the text, Pierre learns his lesson not from logic but from life.  Ostensibly it comes to him in talking with a peasant, Platon Karataev, but the truth is that it comes to him during his imprisonment.  Over a period of time, he actually gets to live with the unwashed.  It would be like someone brought up in the landed aristocracy in England and kept on the estate or at an elite boarding school and then being dumped in the ranks in the navy.  You may as well land him on Mars.

In the course of his journey, Pierre delivered himself of an observation which for many is their favourite part in the book.  ‘You die and it’s all over.  You die and find it all out or you cease asking.’  Pierre thought that this proposition was illogical, but it appears to us to be spellbindingly logical, one of the very few propositions about the afterlife that is sane, sensible and apparently logical.  If you combine with it the insight of the ancient Greeks that you do not live to see your own death, you have the basis of a tolerant view of the meaning of life, or at least one that suggests that we should be tolerant of the views of others.  Bravo, therefore, Pierre!

Kutuzov was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Napoleon.  Zhukov, greatly admired by Eisenhower, was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Hitler.  At the end of that war, which the Russians refer to the Great Patriotic War, Zhukov was stripped of his position as commander-in-chief.  The man responsible was called Stalin.  He had more power than any of the Tsars had and Stalin killed more peasants than any Tsar did.  Millions more.

If you go to Moscow now, you will see why they refer to the Great Patriotic War.  On the way in from the airport, there is a monument to ‘where we stopped the fascists.’  It is not far from the Kremlin.  If you visit the Kremlin you may get a guide who will say, without mentioning any names – ‘That is the gate he came in on’ and ‘That is the gate he went out of.’

I want to end this note on this wonderful book by looking at one of its more famous incidents, one so faithfully shown in the BBC series.  It is in Book 12 Chapter 3.  Napoleon’s army is occupying Moscow.  It is executing Russian trouble-makers.  A group is marched to a field.  Pierre hears officers talking of whether the prisoners would be shot separately or two at a time.  Pierre listens and watches in horror as the prisoner are shot in pairs.  ‘On the faces of all the Russians, and of the French soldiers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror and conflict that were in his own heart….The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak.  The moment they laid hands on him, he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre.  (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free).  The lad was unable to walk….When he understood that screaming was useless, he took his stand at the post….and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.’  He was not dead when he went into the pit.  A French sharpshooter lingered over it.  ‘This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired.  He swayed a like a drunken man, taking steps forward and back to save himself from falling’  An old NCO dragged the soldier off.  The crowd dispersed. ‘That will teach them to start fires,’ said one of the Frenchmen.’

I said that I would come back to the way that the German occupying army shot the French historian Marc Bloch during World War II.  According to the very complete biography of Bloch by Carole Fink, on the night of 16 June 1944, at about 8 o’clock, 28 prisoners of Montluc at Lyon were assembled from various cells and hand-cuffed two-by-two in an open truck that was escorted by German officers and subofficers with aimed tommy guns.  They went to the Place Bellecour which was then the Gestapo HQ.  They were there insulted by a drunken German officer who bragged that London would be destroyed by the V-1.  They then drove along the Saone to a meadow surrounded by trees at a place called La Rousille.  They were then unloaded in batches of two-by-two and shot at close range by uniformed soldiers with machine guns.  A survivor said that Bloch at the last moment comforted a frightened young man by telling him that the bullets would not hurt.  Bloch was reported to be the first victim to fall.  As he did, he cried ‘Vive la France!’

According to Carole Fink, there were two main differences in the executions imagined by Tolstoy and those recorded in history.  The Germans circulated and delivered the final fatal shots to the head, but they did not bury the evidence – they just destroyed the evidence of identity, and hurried off.  Tolstoy had said: ‘They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.’  Tolstoy could say that of his murderers because he was their creator.  We do not know what was in the minds of the German murderers because we are not God.

As it seems to me, we have in Tolstoy a writer with a genius for artistic imagination and an insight into the human condition that we do not expect to see outside of God.

Passing Bull 211 – Empty noise about Pell

 

A Jewish friend once remarked to me that when a pope dies, everyone becomes an expert on papal elections.  We now see a similar reaction when a cardinal goes to jail.  The press is full of nonsense written by people who do not know the law and have not seen the evidence, but who rely on named academics or practising lawyers who are generally not named.  Two of the worst instances in The Australian on Saturday led me to write the following letter to its editor.

It is not surprising that Peter Van Onselen is ‘staggered’ by the certainty of opinion of some commentators. 

Paul Kelly is not a lawyer and has not seen the evidence, but he says that Pell ‘should not have been brought to trial on the second incident let alone convicted.’ 

Mr Kelly also says that the word of the victim was ‘accepted over that of Pell.’  That is at best misleading.  Pell denied the allegations to the police.  He did not give evidence at the trial.  The victim gave evidence on oath and was cross-examined at length.  The accused chose not to allow the court to hear and test his sworn evidence.

Gerard Henderson says that the argument for the option of a trial by judge alone ‘is never more evident than in this case.’  While Mr Henderson may not say so in terms, the premise of the argument appears to be that Pell ‘could not be guaranteed a fair trial if [his] guilt was assessed by a jury.’  The necessary implication is that the jury here did not discharge their oath and give a fair verdict.  Does Mr Henderson wish to extend that condemnation to the two justices of appeal who agreed with the jury?

My understanding of the majority judgment is set out in the note that follows below.  Much has been made of the fact that the minority judgment was written by a lawyer who practised in criminal law.  The assumption appears to be that that fact makes him better equipped to deal with this kind of appeal.  Even in The Australian Financial Review, we find its Legal Editor saying:

A leading criminal barrister speaking on background describes its reasoning as impeccable.  ‘You would be on pretty safe ground following Weinberg,’ says another.

The most common observation by those concerned about the verdict – and its sole reliance on testimony by a victim 20 years after the event – is that Weinberg got it right because he had the most experience in criminal law.

It’s unfair on his fellow judges – Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Court of Appeal president Chris Maxwell – but it’s also true.

Put to one side the reference to ‘sole reliance.’  Generalisations about any form of governance are at best shaky, but if the suggestion is that criminal lawyers make better appellate judges in crime than others, the suggestion is not consistent with the legal history of Australia – or England.  Which may be just as well in the present case, since, as I understand it, of the seven justices presently on the High Court, only two have directed juries in crime, and the last epithet you would apply to one of those is ‘specialising in the criminal law.’

It is very distressing to see a sectarian divide that for most of us died a generation ago now being fanned into flame again.  The judges are used to copping flak, even when loaded with impertinence and ignorance, but you might spare a thought for the jurors in this case.  They sat through a long and hard trial and then wrestled for days with their decision.  They are now mocked and derided by people whose prejudice is manifest and who know not what they do.

One thing seems clear.  People have, for better or worse, made up their minds, and nothing the High Court does will change them.

 

Majority Judgment in Pell

  1. I have read the judgment, but not word for word. It is very long and involved.  I make three general observations.  First, all this is so far removed from my practice in the law that it is quite possible that everything I say is entirely unfounded.  Secondly, the complexity of our procedure is shocking.  The trial judge plainly earned the praise of the appellate judges. (Par. 17: ‘As the parties acknowledged during the hearing, his Honour’s charge was exemplary. Like his conduct of the entire trial, it was clear, balanced and scrupulously fair’. )  Our trial process is close to being unmanageable.  I am surprised more trial judges don’t break down under the load.  (Nor are appellate judges free of stress – see the discussion of ‘deference to the jury’ at pars. 105 – 109.)  Thirdly, some of the discussion about assessing witnesses suggests that I may not always have done it by the book in thirty years of trying issues of fact.
  2. Subject to those disclaimers, I comment as follows.
  3. The extracts of the evidence of the complainant suggests that he was a devastatingly articulate witness. And a brave one.  Potentially – and, actually – lethal.
  4. The response of the defence was in the alternative. The complainant’s story was either invented or a fantasy.  And in any event, it was impossible.
  5. There is a difference between an imagined account and an invented one, a deliberate lie and a fantasy (pars 68-73). As I see it – and I may be wrong – the problem with this defence is that the defence did not suggest a motive for the lie and did not explain the hallmarks of a ‘fantasy’ to the jury or the Court of Appeal.  (My shorter OED has: ‘Imagination; the process, the faculty, or the result of forming representations of things not actually present.’)  Even allowing that the onus remains on the Crown throughout, it is hard to see how a tribunal of fact might deal with this argument when each part has a doubtful footing.
  6. On the impossibility ground, it looks to me like Walker wanted to back away (116) but the majority (126) held him to it saying ‘the defence had made a considered forensic decision to express this part of the defence case in the language of impossibility.’
  7. The majority thought the Crown therefore had to prove a negative – that its case was not impossible – and that the evidence and submissions of the defence revealed only uncertainty and imprecision. The difficulty then can be seen here:

‘171 The point is, we think, powerfully illustrated by the fact that both parties filed substantial summaries of evidence in support of their respective appeal submissions. The schedule attached to Cardinal Pell’s written case ran to some 44 pages, summarising the evidence said to reinforce the ‘obstacles’ identified in the written case. The Crown’s responding table ran to some 32 pages. Shortly before the hearing, Cardinal Pell’s representatives filed nine individually-bound volumes which incorporated, with respect to each topic, both sides’ contentions and the relevant transcript extracts. The Crown responded with a document of its own, running to some 37 pages, which senior counsel handed up during oral argument.

172 Having reviewed this extensive documentation, we make two points about it. First, it demonstrated that on almost every point both applicant and respondent could find one or more statements in the transcript which supported their respective contentions in the appeal. Given what we have already said about ‘ebb and flow’, this is unsurprising.

173 Secondly, the fact that each side could call in aid such a substantial body of material drawn from the evidence reinforces our conclusion that the jury were not compelled to have a doubt. That is, there was room for debate about the effect of the evidence — both of individuals and as a whole — on almost every point. More importantly, there was always a well-founded and proper basis for rejecting evidence that conflicted with the central elements of A’s account of the offending.

174 Having reviewed all of the schedules of evidence and material placed before us on this appeal and having reviewed the evidence for ourselves, we are not persuaded that the jury must have had a reasonable doubt about the guilt of Cardinal Pell.’

  1. That does not look like High Court material to me.
  2. I noticed that the Court of Appeal had previously considered an offence committed in ‘circumstances of remarkable brazenness’ (101). The defence to me at times sounded a little like a scattergun – ‘we have so many bullets to fire that one of them must be lethal; alternatively, the enemy cannot survive their cumulative effect.’  (For some reason, I am reminded of the trial of the Earl of Strafford – I will look it up.* Things were simpler and quicker back then.)
  3. I was amazed to read that Pell in his prepared statement to the police, was permitted by his lawyers to say:

‘They’re[the charges are] made against me knowing that I was the first person in the Western world to create a church structure to recognise, compensate and help to heal the wounds inflicted by sexual abuse of children at the hands of some in the Catholic church.’

It takes your breath away, and it is precisely the kind of response that would have animated the discussion about whether the accused should give evidence.  Pell may as well have plastered a target down his front and pointed at the bull’s eye.  My suspicion – and it is no more than an a suspicion of a lay amateur for this purpose – is that this failure of the accused to stand up may have lead the jury – which, we are told, included a church pastor, a mathematician and a tram driver: a group of people who would not be likely to think in the same way as senior judges – to think that this was a case of honesty and innocence against money, power and ingenuity.  But that of course is the most idle speculation – and thank God juries do not have to give reasons.

  1. In any event, Pell’s lawyers have a hard road ahead.

*Strafford was impeached and charged with treason.  The Crown – which did not lose many of these treason cases then – alleged many instances of conduct adverse, they said, to the Crown.  Strafford argued that no one instance constituted treason.  With what Miss C V Wedgwood described as ‘wearisome reiteration’, Pym asked the peers to ignore what Strafford said about single articles and look on the charge as one of ‘constructive treason.’  But Strafford was winning the argument, and the Crown – I should say Strafford’s enemies – proceeded against him by a bill of attainder.  Then it got really ugly.  Oliver St John spoke in a ‘viciously vindictive manner’.  Honourable game was protected by rules of sportsmanship, but ‘it was never accounted either cruelty or foul play to knock foxes and wolves on the head…because they be beasts of prey.’  Strafford lost his head and even Macaulay and Churchill said that this was not cricket.

Bloopers

Later on Thursday Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that Mr. Netanyahu had decided to deny entry to the two American lawmakers, on grounds of their ‘boycott activities against Israel’ and in accordance with the country’s anti-boycott law.

New York Times, 15 August, 2019.

A law against boycotts is an interesting defence of a boycott.

**

‘We’re in favor of trade peace on the whole,’ Mr. Johnson told the president, in a mild-mannered rebuke of Mr. Trump’s embrace of tariffs as a bludgeon against allies and adversaries alike.

The New York Times, 26 August, 2019

Outside ‘the whole’ is a different matter.

**

Some sense in The Australian:

It’s not a matter of whether it’s ‘virtue signalling’ or which side of politics you’re on, but it’s a matter of insurance, and risk, both at a global and individual level.

At some point soon, insurance will become expensive and hard to buy.  Governments and companies need to move from trying to prevent climate change to dealing with it, and that should probably begin with thinking through what happens if we lose the insurance industry entirely.

Alan Kohler, The Australian, 20 August, 2019.

The rest know that Kohler is therefore an ‘alarmist.’

MY TOP SHELF – 26

MY TOP SHELF

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

26

 

TRACTATUS THEOLOGICO-POLITICUS

Benedict de Spinoza (1670)

Translated R H M Elwes Second Edition, Revised; George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden, 1889; republished in facsimile by Kessenger Publishing, U S; rebound in half yellow leather and yellow cloth with black label embossed in gold.

Superstition then is engendered, preserved and fostered by fear.

The main text that the Inquisition invoked against Galileo was the miracle of the sun standing still for a day to enable Joshua and the Israelites to kill a lot more of the indigenous people whose land God had promised to his chosen people.  This is one of those parts of Scripture that makes a lot of people very nervous about miracles and an all too human God – nor did it do much for Galileo.  Do we really want a God who intervenes in Middle Eastern wars by suspending his own laws to help one tribe kill more of others because he has chosen them as his favourite?  Do we want a God who is so exclusive and so lethal?  If you do not, you may wish turn to Spinoza and Kant.

For some, the only black mark against Spinoza is that Bertrand Russell said that he was ‘lovable.’  This is what Russell said.  ‘Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.  Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.  As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.  He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him.  Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism.  Leibniz, who owed much to him, concealed his debt, and carefully abstained from saying a word in his praise; he even went so far as to lie about the extent of his personal acquaintance with the heretic Jew.’  That is a fair summary.  Good people, saintly people, can have that kind of effect on others.

Spinoza’s parents were Portuguese Jews forced to ‘confess’ Christianity by the Inquisition.  They migrated to Amsterdam where Baruch (or Benedict) was born.  He was very bright as a child and so intellectually precocious that his own community eventually excommunicated him.  The terms of the cherem chill the blood.  He was described when young as having a beautiful face with a well formed body and ‘slight long black hair.’  He polished lenses by day and wrote philosophy at night.  He died young of a lung condition that was not helped by his work.

The Tractatus was published anonymously and was immediately condemned on all sides.  His master-work, Ethics, was not published until after his death.  He lived alone, and frugally – although he enjoyed a pipe and a glass of wine, he could go for days on milk soup made with butter and some ale.  There is no evidence that he ever sought to harm another, but plenty to suggest that he died in a state of peace, if not grace.

The Ethics contains his full world-view, made up of geometric propositions.  One is: ‘God is without passions, neither is he affected by any emotion or pleasure or pain.’  That is a large part of the Tractatus.  Spinoza says that his chief aim in the Tractatus is to separate faith from philosophy.  He says that Moses did not seek to convince the Jews by reason, but bound by them a covenant, by oaths, and by conferring benefits.  This was not to teach knowledge, but to inspire obedience.  He then says, ‘Faith consists in a knowledge of God, without which obedience to Him would be impossible, and which the mere fact of obedience to Him implies’.  Spinoza supports this assertion with reference to both Testaments.  He then goes on to say that he has ‘no further fear in enumerating the dogmas of universal faith or the fundamental dogmas of the whole of Scripture.’

As doctrinal dynamite goes, there is enough in his exposition for believers and unbelievers of all kinds to inflict a lot of damage on each other.  And Spinoza gives intellectuals another slap in the face:  ‘The best faith is not necessarily possessed by him who discloses the best reasons, but by him who displays the best fruits of justice and charity’.  You might think that a lot, or even most, believers of good will would go along with that proposition, but Plato and Aristotle would have been very, very unhappy, and deeply shocked.

Spinoza holds that if Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend, Christ communed with God mind to mind.  Elsewhere, he puts it that Christ was not so much a prophet as ‘the mouthpiece’ of God; Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race.  He condemns those who stick to the letter:  ‘If a man were to read the Scripture narratives believing the whole of them, but were to give no heed to the doctrines they contain, and make no amendment in his life, he might employ himself just as profitably in reading the Koran or the poetic drama.

Reason, Spinoza said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’  His belief is evidenced by the following extracts from the Tractatus.

I have often wondered that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion … should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.

Piety, great God! and religion are become a tissue of ridiculous mysteries;  men, who flatly despise reason, who reject and turn away from understanding as naturally corrupt … are never tired of professing their wonder at the profound mysteries of Holy Writ; still I cannot discover that they teach anything but speculations of Platonists and Aristotelians, to which (in order to save their credit for Christianity) they have made Holy Writ conform; not content to rave with the Greeks themselves, they want to make the prophets rave also….

The Bible leaves reason absolutely free…it has nothing in common with philosophy; in fact, Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footings….I pass on to indicate the false notions, which have arisen from the fact that the multitude – ever prone to superstition, and caring more for the shred of antiquity than for eternal truths – pays homage to the books of the Bible, rather than to the word of God.

Spinoza corresponded widely on a very high plane, but some letters show homely insights from the least sect-bound of men.  Christ gave ‘by his life and death a matchless example of holiness’; if the Turks or other non-Christians ‘worship God by the practice of justice and charity toward their neighbour, I believe that they have the spirit of Christ, and are in a state of salvation’; the ‘authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates does not carry much weight with me’; and ‘Scripture should only be expounded through Scripture.’  He also asked question similar to one asked by Darwin: whether ‘we human pygmies possess sufficient knowledge of nature to be able to lay down the limits of its force and power, or to say that a given thing surpasses that power?’

In The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, the late Professor Alan Donaghan contributed a paper called Spinoza’s Theology.  Theology is the study of God.  If Spinoza was studying God, you would think that he believed in God.  Sane people do not devote large portions of their lives to discussing something that they do not believe exists.  Spinoza said that he believed in God.  He was emphatic about it.  When you get to his Ethics, published after his death, God is fundamental to his whole world view – to the whole universe.  Yet the other members of his community expelled him on religious grounds.  They said that he did not believe in God.  They said that Spinoza was an atheist.

In the Ethics, you come across propositions that run slap, bang into the face of the Bible.  We have already seen one proposition denying passion to God.  It is fundamental to Spinoza that he takes humanity out of God and identifies God with Nature.  Then Spinoza incorporates the Sermon on the Mount into his metaphysical edifice.  Part IV, Proposition 45, says:  ‘Hatred can never be good’.  A corollary is that envy, contempt, derision and revenge are bad.  Then you get Proposition 46:  ‘He who lives under the guidance of reason endeavours, as far as possible, to render back love, or kindness, for other man’s hatred, anger, contempt etc, toward him’.  This is the doctrine of turning the other cheek in logically modelled Latin.  And later comes a little gem of humane wisdom in Part 4, Proposition 55:  ‘Extreme pride or dejection indicates extreme ignorance of self’.  It is not at all hard to see why Spinoza appealed to the mind of Einstein.

It is fundamental for some that the existence of God can be and has been demonstrated (proved).  Well, even if you accept that this may be the case, or is the case, that proof must leave open the question of which, if any, model of God that is presently on the market has been proved to exist.  The model put forward by Spinoza was not satisfactory to most Jews or Christians, but it is inherently unlikely that any logical proof of the existence of God could lead necessarily to the proof of a god whose characteristics are defined by revelation and in very human terms.  And do not forget that Spinoza, brought up in the Jewish tradition, was not just a great mind.  He was a first-rate Bible scholar – in both Testaments.

Spinoza holds that the sphere of reason is that of truth and wisdom; the sphere of theology is piety and obedience; ‘I consider the utility and the need for Holy Scripture or Revelation to be very great … the Bible has brought a very great consolation to mankind.  All are able to obey, whereas there are the very few, compared with the aggregate of humanity, who can acquire the habit of virtue under the unaided guidance of reason’.  Reason, as he had said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’

The little Dutch Jewish outcast also said:

Every man’s true happiness and blessedness consist solely in the enjoyment of what is good, not in the pride that he alone is enjoying it, to the exclusion of others.  He who thinks himself the more blessed because he is enjoying benefits which others are not, or because he is more blessed or more fortunate than his fellows, is ignorant of true happiness and blessedness, and the joy which he feels is either childish, or envious and malicious.

Many of those words will ring true for those who have become estranged from religion, and just as many who are struggling to stay with it.  The last citation alone would justify the whole life and work of this very great and holy man.  That sentiment should be put up in neon lights outside every exclusive institution in the land.

Spinoza was a very holy man who crossed on to the turf of less holy men.  Turf wars are the scourge of religion.  The great gift of Spinoza and Kant to mankind was to stand up and stare down those clever and subtle men – alas, they were all men – who claimed to have exclusive rights to the box of tricks without which the rest of us could not get near God or enjoy the grace of true religion.  They both should be remembered as two of our greatest liberators.  Their legacy is worth so much more than the brackish howls of those bothered God-deniers whose very loudness bespeaks the bankruptcy of philosophy.  Just what does philosophy have to show for itself?  And, just before dawn, did Bertrand Russell see himself as one of those who were intellectually superior to Spinoza?

 

 

Passing Bull 197 – The love media

 

It takes a degree of froideur to go to The Weekend Australian after a Coalition win – or, more accurately, yet another ALP loss.  But I summoned it up this morning.  Greg Sheridan is not stupid – he is just so often wrong.  ‘Scott Morrison is restoring our global swagger.’  Where and when did we lose it?  In Cape Town with the sandpaper?  Mr Sheridan is full of praise for Morrison who he thinks as yet shows no sign of hubris.  And again he praises Trump by condemning Trump’s critics.  The fallacy is blatant.  Trump is out to destroy conservatism.  Which contribution of Trump to the world order this week did Mr Sheridan most celebrate?  Building a wall in Ireland or getting Mar a Lago to run the NHS?

If ‘tribalism’ had not been discovered, Chris Kenny would have demanded it.  He thinks ‘the love media’ should follow Seinfeld – and not Twitter.  That raises two questions.  First, what is the other media called – ‘hate media’?  Secondly, how do you account for the success of his idol, Donald Trump, on Twitter?

Bloopers

Labor’s overreaction to the Australian Federal Police raids was another clear example of falling for misguided priorities….Journalists cheered of course, but away from the political/media class, the insinuation the Coalition has us sliding toward a police state would have sounded hysterical and partisan, while non-journalists would have wondered why the media thinks it deserves exemption from the rule of law.

The Weekend Australian, 8 June 2019.

I don’t know if Mr Kenny sees himself as a journalist, but he does write for the Murdoch press, and his subscription to the rule of law fairly takes your breath away.

MY TOP SHELF – 24 – THE TRIAL

MY TOP SHELF

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

24

THE TRIAL

Franz Kafka

Franklin Library, 1977; full grey morocco; gilt titles and humped spine; moiré endpapers in black with black ribbon; gilt edged paper in text; translated by W and E Muir; and illustrated by Phero Thomas.

Someone must have traduced Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

How do you feel when your bank bounces a cheque – usually in favour of your secretary or your landlord or, even better, your golf club – and you get a computer generated letter – long after the affront has been administered to the payee of the cheque – and which does not name any actual person in the bank but which bears an anonymous squiggle over the printed title ‘Team Leader, Dishonour Team’?  Just think of that – your bank has a whole team dedicated to dishonouring you and the rest of its customers.  Does the team get to march to a tune?  Do they have their own guernsey?

Or, you get another computer driven letter that contains the name of no real person. It is almost entirely incomprehensible, but it is alleging that you owe your government a large amount of money for tax.   You correspond with computers and you cannot get any sense from them.  You sense that they do not know what the law is and that they do not care about you.  But the one thing you do understand is that they say that the law stands behind their assessment and says that it is right and that you have the onus of proving them wrong.  Are not really bad criminals better treated by the law?

Or you live in a regime where you get fined for driving offences that are detected by computers and notified to you by computers and which carry points which are tallied by computers until you get enough to lose your licence – by computers.  Computers then notify you that you have scored enough points to have lost your licence and that accordingly you are not allowed to drive.  You seek to challenge that decision – if decision it is – and the bureaucracy showers incomprehensible paper all over you.  It refers to an ‘Infringements Court’.  Do people really believe that there is such a court?  In the meantime the law is that you have been deprived of your licence and therefore your livelihood by a process untouched by a human hand, much less by judicial hands.

These instances of contemporary absurdity – of how we are losing our way and our rights – are called Kafkaesque.  Franz Kafka was a German speaking Czech Jew who trained in law but who engaged in office work to support his writing.  His best known work is The Trial.  It is set in an indeterminate time and place and it follows the course of an absurdly unreal legal process brought against its hero who is named Joseph K.  It begins with the text set out above and it does not relent.

The events of the day somehow lead K to be attracted to another tenant, Fraulein Burstner.  ‘K … rushed out, seized her, and kissed her first on the lips, then all over the face, like some thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring of long-sought fresh water ….  He wanted to call Fraulein Burstner by her first name, but he did not know what it was.’  There is a recurring streak of anonymity and unreality.

When he gets to see the court, he enters a door directed by a young woman with sparkling black eyes who is washing children’s clothes in a tub.  He felt like he was going into a meeting hall.  When he got before the crowd he said:  ‘Whether I am late or not, I am here now.’  This was met with a burst of applause.  K thought that ‘these people are easy to win over’.  K tells the Examining Magistrate that ‘I do not say that your procedure is contemptible, but I should like to present that epithet to you for your private consumption’.

There are nightmare elements throughout.  The uncle of Joseph K refers him to an old lawyer.  The lawyer is ill but agrees to see Joseph. The lawyer is looked after by a nurse called Leni who is attracted to men generally, and accused men in particular.  Leni immediately propositions K, and not without effect.  The lawyer knows more about K’s case than K, because he is a lawyer who moves in legal circles and has discussed this case with his colleagues.  In this system, the accused is never told the charge.  Sometimes they try to guess what it might be by looking at the course of the interrogations.  ‘In such circumstances the Defence was naturally in a very ticklish and difficult position.  Yet that, too, was intentional.  For the Defence was not actually countenanced by the Law.’  (The third question put to Galileo on his second visit to the Inquisition was: ‘Why do you think you are here?’)

There are ranks of lawyers.  At the bottom are pettifogging lawyers.  They are all over the place.  At the top are the truly great lawyers.  No one has ever met one of those.  The most important part of the role of the lawyer was counsel’s personal connection with officials of the court.  No client ever dismissed a lawyer – such a thing was not done.  An accused man, once having briefed a lawyer, must stick to him whatever happened.  It is rather like marriage, but more binding.

Joseph K is so preoccupied with the process – which in no way resembles what those in the common law would call a trial – that his work at the bank is affected and a deputy manager is moving in to poach his clients.  K has to keep customers waiting, and he sometimes gets some satisfaction from the fact that others have to be kept waiting.  It is a way of stressing the hierarchical nature of the world of Joseph K.  (When will our computers be programmed to be sweeter to those with money?)

Titorelli is a painter with influence.  He asks the question that criminal lawyers generally avoid:  ‘Are you innocent?’  When he gets an affirmative answer, Titorelli says, ‘I have to fight against countless subtleties in which the Court indulges and in the end, out of nothing at all, an enormous fabric of guilt will be conjured up.’  K asked the painter how he came into contact with the judges.  ‘That was quite simple ….I inherited the connection.  My father was the court painter before me.  It’s a hereditary post.  New painters are of no use for it…..For every judge insists on being painted as the great old judges were painted, and no one can do that but me.’  Titorelli thinks therefore that he is unassailable.  He assures K that ‘as you are completely innocent, this is the line I shall take’. But then the painter goes on to give K the bad news:  ‘I have never encountered one case of definite acquittal.’  The best that K can hope for is ‘ostensible acquittal, or postponement’.  ‘Ostensible acquittal’ is a masterpiece of evasion. In such cases it is just as possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the court and find officers already there waiting to arrest him again.  The very fruitful meeting with the painter ends with the painter selling K a few paintings.

The lawyer says that he has discussed K’s case with a judge who does not think much of.  K:  ‘But for all they know, the proceedings have not yet even commenced.’  ‘At a certain stage of the proceedings there was an old tradition that a bell must be rung.’  It was perfectly possible that K’s case has not reached that stage even yet.

The last chapter is called ‘The End.’  It begins:

On the evening before K’s thirty-first birthday –   it was about nine o’clock, the time when a hush falls on the streets – two men came to his lodging.  They were in frock coats, pallid and plump, with top hats which were apparently irremovable.  After some exchange of formalities regarding precedence at the front door, they repeated the same ceremony more elaborately before K’s door.

Later K says to himself: ‘Tenth-rate old actors they send for me ….They want to finish me off cheaply ….What theatre are you playing at?’  He was repelled by the painful cleanliness of their faces.  They are mechanical and anonymous as the warders who came to arrest K.  They take him to a quarry and his last words are: ‘Like a dog!’

The end is unseemly, but not nearly as unseemly as the millions of ends inflicted by the secret police of Hitler or Stalin in ways and circumstances that Franz Kafka could never have dreamed of.

Orlando Figges informs us that on 28 July 1938, two young girls, Nelly and Angelina, were arrested without notice with their mother, Zinaida, by two NKVD operatives.  Their father had been arrested nine months before, and not seen since.  The girls were told that they would not see their mother again and would be sent to different children’s homes.  When they left, the girls could see the NKVD beating up their mother.  Unlike Joseph K., Zinaida was told of the charge against her.  She was charged with failing to denounce her husband.  The State said its subjects owed more allegiance to it than to their husbands or wives.  She was sentenced to eight years in a labour camp – the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland.  She was nursing a baby at the time.  Could the singular mind of Franz Kafka have comprehended such denials of the essence of our humanity?

Kafka wrote at a time when people spoke of the death of God, meaning peoples’ loss of faith in God.  What we now see is not a voluntary loss of faith, but a mandatory placing of faith.  After Einstein, physics passed beyond the understanding of all but a few.  Most of us have to take the physical world on faith.  It is like Darwin – and that ask is too big for some.  It is the same now the way computers control so many parts of our lives.  They add to our sense of loss of independence, to our sense of helplessness.

This novel is very different to the novels of the great George Orwell warning us of the loss of humanity under totalitarian regimes.  The Trial is more like an opera or a tone poem.  It is very twentieth century.  Think of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck or Lulu, or The Makropoulos Case of Janacek, or The Chairs of Ionesco.

The Trial delivers slashing insight into the frailty of the human condition.  As it happens, the nightmare vision of this artist may not be realized again under dictators like Stalin and Hitler, but more simply by the accretion of the processes that we have now mastered, as a result of which the trial system keeps getting longer and longer, lawyers keep getting more and more expensive, and the law itself just gets more and more incomprehensible, and the descent in each is completely assured and computer-assisted.  Did Kafka the lawyer see this, or is it merely implicit in the vision of Kafka the artist?  You will recall that great lawyers were like acquittals – they had never been seen.

As is commonly the case with great artists, the vision of Franz Kafka was eerily prophetic.

Here and there – Tim Storrier

 

THE ART OF THE OUTSIDER

Catherine Lumby

Craftsman House, 2000; fully illustrated; here with slip case.

About twenty or more years ago, I attended the opening of a swank art gallery in that swish part of Armadale in Melbourne that treats of antiques.  The person who was advertised to open the gallery was one of its featured artists, Tim Storrier.  When I got to the gallery I passed a room with an open door and four or five people in it.  I did not know what Storrier looked like but I felt instinctively it was a well-dressed man a few years younger than me who looked like a well presented squatter – in the old country, a squire of the county.  Although apparently content within himself, he did not look all that thrilled to be where he was and doing what was asked of him.  Somehow, I got the impression that you might be wiped off like a dirty bum if you put a foot out of line.  One might even get the kind of put-down that one might get at ‘School.’  Well, the artist commenced his remarks with words to this effect: ‘Asking an artist to open an art gallery is a little like asking a cow to open an abattoir.’  I laughed out loud in part because this observation was in accord with mine of the speaker.  But, I have to say that the owners of the gallery did not appear to share the hilarity.  Indeed, they looked a bit queasy.  But Storrier went on to make a speech that held my full interest – so much so, that I was sorry I was not in a position to take notes.  For the most part, talking about art is about as useful as dancing about architecture.  Catherine Lumby, in this sensible and illuminating work, makes it plain that Storrier shares that view.  So, his remarks were full of sense and devoid of bullshit.

You might say something similar about the art of Tim Storrier.  When I was in the better part of the market – with someone else’s money – an enthusiast at Australian Galleries said that this artist was absorbed in the ‘elemental.’  He was dead right about that – fire, water, pyramids, serpents, and the firmament, as often as not in an outback so barren that it is threatening.

I am lucky to have two pieces by this artist.  One is a photo of a burning pyramid in what looks like a desert at about dawn or dusk.  It was made in 1981 and is entitled ‘Toward an innuendo of impermanence.’  (That kind of title would have appealed to Shelly in his Ozymandias mode.)  Against what I might call stiff competition, that cibachrome, as it is called, attracts a lot of attention.  It is commandingly elemental.  The second is a lithograph of a minutely executed drawing of a saddle.  It is called ‘Saddle, 1987.’  The first cost $450 in 1998 and the second cost $700 in 2007 (both without buyer’s commission).  I probably would not get anything like that for either in this market, but that is not the reason I acquired them – or any other art I have bought.  What I can say is that if we put one side the art of aboriginals, before I put my hand in my pocket to buy a work of art I like to know that the artist can draw.  This saddle leaves that in no doubt at all for this artist.  He is not just a natural; he is trained in what I might here call ‘high technique.’

Storrier may approach the market in Australia in much the same way as Barry Kosky approaches putting Wagner on in Germany: ‘The way I look at it, if you’re not virulently criticized by at least fifty per cent of the people, then you’re not doing very much at all.’

Given our wariness of bullshit on this subject, I shall leave it at two citations.  In his Foreword, the late Edmund Capon said:

There is a wonderful quality of honesty at work in his paintings, haunted as they are by the space and strange emotional quiet that is evoked in pictures with low horizons and vast skies.

Driving off into the virtual obscurity of the outback, setting up camp with his tables, chairs, sunshade, easel, paints and brushes, Storrier places the smallest of canvasses on the easel and then proceeds to survey all that space before him through a pair of binoculars…..His pictures are beautifully composed and executed: there is nothing brusque, temporary or arbitrary about his work…..Such images, of instinct and memory that sometimes border on the nostalgic, are fraught with the dangers of the cliché, but ultimately, the strength of conviction, the personality of memory and experience, and the subtleties of technique triumph.  Storrier is a cautious artist – he has to be in tackling such subjects.

John Olsen said:

First thoughts could have been influences of Drysdale or even Nolan, but this was not so.  There was rigour and exactness in his draftsmanship that allowed no vagueness of edge or blurry metaphors…..For Storrier, the Australian landscape is a stage set where all the players have gone home; where ‘camps’ or deliberately planned situations, named surveyors’ camps, are adorned with flat handmade saddles; where tools of craft hang symbolically from them…..Storrier remains privately shy and socially uncomfortable.  He is one of the most secretive and enigmatic artists working in Australia today – a man of unpredictable intentions and directions, and one of the most original.

Boyd, Nolan, Smart and Williams have changed the way I see my country.  I am not sure that Storrier has done that, although the night sky can cause a tremor, but he has changed the way I look at painting and drawing.  And Olsen was surely right when he said that Storrier is an original.  Possibly for that reason, the two works of his that I have are the only two that are specifically identified in my will.

Passing Bull 192 – Folau and freedom of religion?

 

A professional sportsman called Israel Folau is intent on making statements threatening people guilty of what he regards as immoral conduct with eternal damnation.  He does so although requested to stop by those in charge of the sport that is the subject of his business.

The usual suspects are mouthing platitudes about freedom of speech.  This in the Murdoch press is code for a licence to offend or insult others on the ground of their sexuality or religion.  They are also referring to something called ‘freedom of religion.’

The defenders of Izzy would do better to focus on freedom of contract.  If Folau can conduct himself in this way with impunity, the authors of the relevant contract should notify their PI insurers.  Yet, the Murdoch press on the weekend said with a straight face that if Folau can be fired for breach of contract, the law might relieve him from the burden of his promise on some ground of public policy.  So much for doctrinal consistency.  So much for freedom of contract.  So much for government keeping its hands off business.

But those who warble for money will continue to do so.  Freedom of religion, whatever that means, is not in issue.  The issue is whether Izzy is in breach of his contract or otherwise engaging in conduct that is contrary to the business interests of his employer to an extent that gives his employer the right to exclude him from that business.

Many Australians would start with two simple propositions.  First, Izzy is in this for himself and not the team – no coach of any team sport would want to have anything to do with him.  Secondly, to the extent that Izzy invokes God as a reason why he is hurting others – I refer to others in his sport, not the objects of his harangues – he deserves twice the punishment.

This dispute has little or nothing to do with God

The religion of Israel Folau does not command him to do what is complained of.  (If it were said that his religion does issue such a command, then that in my view would make Izzy’s case so much worse.)

It is or should be obvious that Folau’s conduct is causing harm to his employer and others employed in that line of business.  These days sponsors drop people cold for this kind of public bickering, moralizing and division.  (If it matters – and it doesn’t – in my view Izzy’s conduct causes even greater harm to those who profess what he calls his faith.  His is evidently a religion of division and eternal punishment and intolerance.  His condemnation would extend to most honest people, and I take it that those who repent according to the faith of Judaism, Islam or Hinduism – or perhaps even the Church of Rome – do not escape Folau’s grizzly vision of the justice of his God.)

It also looks to me that Folau is in direct breach of an undertaking he gave to the CEO of the ruling body.  If so, he cannot be taken at his word.

I agree with the Wallabies’ coach that Folau’s behaviour is incompatible with his remaining in the national side.  This is not because he has unfortunate beliefs that some are prepared to call religious, but because he refuses to behave at the minimal level of tolerance and team work expected from someone who wears my jumper – or your jumper – or our jumper.

We recently celebrated the first anniversary of another incident that brought shame on us as a people in Cape Town  – and this conduct of Izzy is at least in that league – in my view.  If someone in my employ did the same to me, his feet would not touch the ground on the way out the door.  I very much doubt whether any other Wallaby would want to have a person as self-centred as Izzy on his team.  I certainly don’t want him in my jumper – and that’s before I get to the text of what Izzy is saying.

But, as I say, the warbling will go on from those who live off the earnings – or, perhaps, the droppings of conflict.

Bloopers

The ‘anti-996’ campaign is blacklisting companies such as Alibaba and JD.com where, it claims, shifts of 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week, are common. Alibaba has not commented. JD.com said it did not oblige staff to work such hours but it encouraged everyone to ‘fully invest themselves’.

Financial Times, 9 April, 2019

It makes you wonder if Spartacus and the cotton pickers realised that they were blessed insofar as they had ‘fully invested themselves.’

Passing bull 191 – The people and the crowd

 

 

When people come together to vote for parliament or to serve on a jury – rather similar exercises – we feel good about each other.  But if we see them come together as a lynch mob, we are revolted.  We are revolted because people following the herd instinct are behaving more like animals than human beings.  Most of us are very worried about the crowds behind the gillets jaunes in France.  People have there taken to the streets not just to protest against government but to try to bend the government to do its will.  That is a plain denial of parliamentary democracy.  That kind of government can only work if the overwhelming majority of people accept the decision of a majority.  But ever since 1789, the French have claimed the right to take to the streets to stop government taking a course they do not like.  The result is that France has not been able to push through unpopular reforms in the same way that Germany and England did.  And the result of this triumph of the people is that the people are a lot worse off.  That in turn leads to the gillets jaunes and to the President’s not being able to implement the reforms for which he was elected.  And so the cycle goes on – until one morning the French get up and see a scowling Madame LePen brandishing a stock whip on her new tricoleur dais.  She will have achieved the final vindication of the crowd – the acquisition of real power by real force.

The Bagehot column in The Economist this week is headed ‘The roar of the crowd.’  It begins: ‘The great achievement of parliamentary democracy is to take politics off the streets.’  Well, the English achieved that – but not the French.  The article goes on to refer to street protests being invoked to express ‘the will of the people.’  That bullshit phrase is or should be as alien to the English as it is to us.  It is dangerous nonsense advanced by people over the water like Rousseau – one of most poisonous men who ever lived – Robespierre, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler.

The article also refers to social media –the worst misnomer ever – as ‘virtual crowds online.’  It quotes an 1895 book The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind as saying of crowds that they show ‘impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments’ and says that the crowd debases the ordinary person – ‘isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.’  That is because he has handed over the keys to his own humanity.  All this is just as spot-on for social media as it is to those whom Farage whipped up against Muslims, or those for whom Trump did the same, or those who marched last night in favour of Brexit and did so to a ghastly drum-beat that made them look so much like the English fascists from the 1930’s.

For our system to work, people have to show at least some restraint and toleration.  At least two forces are in my view at work in Australia working against us and in favour of the herd instinct of the crowd.  One is social media.  The other is the Murdoch press.  The first is obvious.  As to the second, a New Zealand observer said there were two reasons for the immoderate restraint and toleration of their government to a crisis of hate – the leadership and empathy of the leader of their government, and the absence of the Murdoch press.  In Australia, Sky News after dark regularly parades Pauline Hanson while Bolt and others defends her and while in The Australian columnists attack Muslims as jihadis in something like a frenzy.  And it was just a matter of time before they spitefully turned on the New Zealand Prime Minister and the ‘Muslimist Aljazeera’ – and of course those middle class pinkos at Fairfax and the ABC.

The people behind social media and the Murdoch press are wont to preach about freedom of speech.  The sad truth is that they go to the gutter for the same reason – for profit.

Two more points.  The current disaster in England started when they went and tested ‘the will of the people’ and got an equivocal answer – yes, leave, but on what terms? – with a majority too slim to permit a simple solution to a difficult problem to be found and implemented.  Now we have the awful and degrading spectacle of parliament behaving worse than the crowd.  And people who got where they are on a vote from the people are with a straight face saying that it would be wrong to ask the people again now that everyone knows what lies were told and who has been the worst behaved.  Indeed, their Prime Minister says a second vote would be a ‘betrayal of democracy.’  Some say an election would be better – when both major parties are hopelessly splintered and there is no reason at all to think that a reconfigured group of those responsible for the present mess might do better.

The real betrayal of democracy has taken place in America.  Trump appealed to the crowd to reject the ‘elites’ – people who know what they are doing.  Neither he nor almost everyone in his government has any idea about governing.  But his betrayal is more elemental.  A President is elected, as Lincoln said ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’  Trump could not care less about the people.  He is only interested in that ghastly minority that is called his ‘base.’  And since he thinks his base wants him to abandon affordable health care, he will try to kill it.  And to hell with the people.

It’s not just that the policies of people like Farage, Hanson and Trump are revolting – it’s the people they get to work with them that are also revolting.

It looks like the hour of the crowd is with us again and it may never have looked worse.

Bloopers

But Trump bends history to his will.  May simply bends under the will of others.

The Weekend Australian, 30-31 March, 2019.  Mr G Sheridan

It is an interesting view of the strong man.  Amazingly, the editorial was even sillier.