Passing Bull 269 – Deconstructing Clausewitz

The Australian is enjoying a fad about strategy and tactics.  I doubt whether they have read Clausewitz On War.  It is a large book of great substance.  Strategy is the use of engagements for the object of the war.  Tactics involve the use of armed forces in the engagement.  In The Australian of 1 April, there was a lot of comment on our withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Our engagement in my view was what Churchill called ‘a colossal military disaster.’  (He was speaking of Dunkerque.)  Under the heading US support was our only strategy, Greg Sheridan began his note this way:

The Western intervention in Afghanistan has been a strategic failure accompanied by countless tactical successes.

Mr Sheridan may or may not be following the Clausewitz model.  He appears to be saying that the West won some battles but lost the war.  But how do you lose a war when you have lost count of the battles that you have won in that war? 

But the problem gets worse.  Why did we join in this war?

Australia never had a strategic purpose in Afghanistan except to show the Americans we were good allies.  That is not a trivial purpose, but we had no independent strategic ambition at all.

At least two things might be said.  First, if our strategy was to cement our alliance with the US, is the writer saying that we failed in that objective?  He says that the Western intervention was a strategic failure.  I think it was a failure for our limited purpose because of what Mr Sheridan called ‘the weirdly limited way we waged war there.’  This was a simple case of tokenism.  But that is not I think the view of Mr Sheridan. 

Secondly, our government has never admitted what our limited purpose was, and it will not do so now.  It is no comfort to those who have lost loved ones – 41 died in combat – to be told that they died just to keep on side with Uncle Sam.

Nowhere did I find in the paper a reference to the number of soldiers who later killed themselves because of their involvement in this now lost war.  They far outnumber those killed in combat.  The ABC says there have been at least 500 such suicides.  And they are continuing.  You have to take that into account in determining just how badly our governments have let us down.


‘Our response will be guided by the principles of simplicity and clarity to make the law easier for Australians to understand and access’, a spokesman for Senator Cash said yesterday.  ‘It is important to reiterate that the government’s response is driven by simplifying the current legal and regulatory environment for victims of sexual harassment.  This doesn’t, however, absolve employers of their current obligations to make their workplaces safe for everyone and free of sexual harassment.’

The Age, 10 April, 2021.

This interesting contribution to simplicity and clarity involves more than failures of grammar – it is bullshit – World’s Best Practice.

Passing Bull 268– A nonsense job

A well-known figure has pulled down a job with a US mental health coaching company called BetterUp Inc.  The aim of the company is ‘to help create impact in people’s lives’ and help people become the ‘best version of ourselves. ‘Proactive coaching provides endless possibilities for personal development, increased awareness and an all-round better life.’  The employee is a prince estranged from his family – which is an interesting way to increase awareness and find an all-round better life.  We are solemnly assured that the role of the prince will be ‘meaningful and meaty’ – but that he won’t manage employees – nor presumably will he proactively counsel clients about estrangement.  ‘He’s synonymous with this approach of mental fitness and really investing in yourself.’  BetterUp uses an app to link people with personal coaches for counselling and mentoring.  The prince had an app – presumably to help with the estrangement.  The prince said his mentor was ‘awesome’.  ‘This is about acknowledging that it isn’t so much what is wrong with us, but more about what has happened to us…..I want us to move away from the idea that you have to feel broken before reaching out for help’.  And handing cash over to BetterUp.  


You will say that this is bullshit.  But let me tell you that my whole world view has changed since our Prime Minister, possibly inspired by Hillsong, introduced us to the notion of empathy counselling for MPs who make pigs of themselves.

Just think how the whole course of world history may have been changed if Stalin, Hitler and Mao had had access to empathy counselling under the guidance of a benevolent prince.

Here and there – A Degree in Western Civilisation?

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.  Flaubert to Turgenev.  (Cited by Simon Leys in a speech, The Idea of the University.)


Parents, and now grandparents, can well recall the wail from the back seat of the car on a summer’s day – ‘Are we nearly there yet?’  We might ask the same about ‘Western Civilisation’.  But first we might stop to ask what we mean by either ‘civilisation’ or ‘western.’  Most Australians could not give a hoot about either, and that’s just as well, but in a discussion about learning, it may be as well to pause to think, even if just occasionally. 

Set out at the end of this note is an attempt that I made elsewhere to say what the word ‘Civilisation’ may mean. 

What about the word ‘Western’?  West of what?  There is no great consensus except for Europe and the U S.  Russia appears to be out of bounds on most views, but how the U S and some other former parts of the British Empire get to be included in ‘the West’ is a mystery.  What about the West Indies?  What about the America south of the Panama Canal?  What about other European empires?  We may have different views of the impact of France on Egypt or of England upon India, but there is not much room for doubt about how parts of Africa, Asia and South America think about their roles in the Belgian, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish empires – the feeling is generally one of contempt, fear and loathing.  What could the people of the Congo tell us about the civilising instincts of the Belgians?  You don’t see too many European versions of the Commonwealth Games.  

The inference you might draw is that in this context, ‘western’ means ‘white.’  But how can a civilisation, however defined be white, black or brown?

If the civilisation of the West was so calamitous in the East, how civilised was it anywhere?  Is there any part of the East that is better off as a result of the empires of the West?

And if you confine Australian students of civilisation to that of the West, how do you explain a blanket denial of any contribution to our civilisation of the people who were here for 60,000 years or so before the Europeans bothered to show their faces?  Do we Europeans still just prefer to proceed on the footing that the best thing to do with our Aborigines is just to ignore them?

If you went to the beach at Manly or Portsea, and you came across a barrier ‘People from the West to the Left and People from the East to the Right’, you would conclude that the authority who put the sign up wanted to segregate bathing at the beach by reference to whether they came from the West of the world or the East.  Presumably the authority concluded that that is what most people using that beach would want or that that kind of segregation accorded with government policy.  Having determined the sense or purpose, of the segregation, you could then go on to consider its decency.  But before you get to the decency of segregating sources of civilisation between those coming from the West and those coming from the East, what sense or purpose could you give for this form of segregation in sources of learning at a university?

Well, with either the term ‘western’ or ‘civilisation,’ there is a lot smoke and haze.  There is not enough to support a rational rubric.  You may or may not be able to develop a logically defensible construct of something called western civilisation, but it will not be defensible as a criterion for teaching something that is inevitably a construct of both East and West.  When the omelette is made, you cannot reproduce the eggs as they were.

Nor can you fall back on Kenneth Clark’s elephant test – I may not be able to define civilisation, but I know it when I meet it.

As labels go, therefore, ‘western civilisation’ is as misleading and deceptive as the other labels subscribed to by those wedded to this one, like ‘elites’, ‘identity politics’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘virtue signalling.’  We may decently regard each one of those labels as a sign pointing to bullshit.


Hardly any nation in the West could even begin to be described as civilised in any tenable sense of that term until near the end of the nineteenth century.  Since that time was followed by two world wars, the depression, the holocaust, and the bomb, we are not looking too solid. 

If civilisation is so hard to come by, and to hold on to, why impose a form of geographic exclusion?  Why impose any form of exclusion?  That, as a Danish prince observed, is the question. 

What decent reason can we in the West offer to those in the East for maintaining that our seats of learning should offer our students a course of study of the world that has as a central premise the assumption that the contribution of the East to the civilisation of our world is not worth teaching or learning?  Can we seriously look people in the eye and say that our exclusion of most of the world is not based on hostility, if not superiority?  In a nation that lies under Asia, is it a good idea to say that Asia not worth the look?  What is it about us that drives us to say that we are different? 

If John says to Betty ‘Mine is different’, he is rarely saying that Betty’s is better.  Au contraire.  John remarks upon the difference in order to assert his superiority.  So it was with Kenneth Clark and the African mask and Apollo.  ‘I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation from the mask’.  Of course not; one is from Europe; the other is not.  It is from Africa, but implicit in the comment of the white man is the premise that the criteria of ‘civilisation’ are universal.  Is that premise itself not just another manifestation of the white man’s conceit?

If you have ten people in a room and you say that you will speak to only five of them, you straight away get off side with the other five.  Division, especially segregation, leads to friction.  And if your chosen five have any brains, your penchant for division will leave them unready to show you their backs.  They doubt whether you can be trusted.  It is not a function of a university to dabble in communal friction.

If the primary goals of education are to teach tolerance and the need to see all sides of any question, how do we answer the suggestion that this proposed exclusion looks set to frustrate both objectives?


Part of the problem comes from the mistiness of Kenneth Clarke and Oxbridge.  When it comes to this fancy concept called civilisation, they lose their hard nose for evidence – what we call empiricism.  They just ripple on like Erroll Garner playing Misty.

Empire and slavery alone disqualify Greece and Rome from being described as civilised.  That’s before you look at their failure to respect the sanctity of human life, or their failure to find a decent form of governance – a failure that dogs them even now.  If anything, Greece was worse on governance than Rome, but very few leaders of the republic or empire of Rome died in their beds.  Gibbon said:

Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperors, that, whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same.  A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of treason and murder.

Yes, the Renaissance produced great art, but the republics that produced it were unspeakably cruel, corrupt, unequal, and degenerate; and the David that Kenneth Clark rhapsodised over is for others a gruesome trailer of fascism.  Clark saw in that David ‘a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that we call civilised life….It is the enemy of happiness’ and ‘one of the great events in the history of western man.’  That’s fine for an English aesthete, but I see in that pose the rich man’s Harvey Weinstein.  Recent events in the U S have taught us to look differently upon uppity spoiled brats who want to cast themselves into some heroic mould.

Then, apparently, even some Catholics get dewy eyed about the Reformation, although the continuing failure to reform celibacy still sees horrifying breaches of trust perpetrated on the children of a dying congregation.  People advocating the proposed exclusion of Eastern learning refer to the Reformation as if it were a blessing.  It was not.  Religious schism brought generations of war and misery – as it has and does in the East. 

You don’t need the intellect of Kant to see that any division flowing from doctrinal feuding is the worst.  ‘Heresy’ might just be the most lethal term in our language.  The Germans know this.  In about 1948, they were asked what the worst war the Germans had endured was.  They had two examples from the deepest hell before their living eyes.  A majority went back more than three centuries to cite the Thirty Years War.  That war is a dreadful blot on all our history, a direct product of the division wrought in the Reformation, and a frightful debit in the balance sheet of religion on earth.  And that’s before you get to those crimes against humanity called original sin and predestination.

(We can for the moment put to one side the intellectual schism of longer standing between the rationalism, theory and codes of the Continent, and the empiricism, practice and common law of England – except to note that in any history of the West, that difference is fundamental.)

Other people get misty about the French Revolution.  Yes, some high ideals were proclaimed; the French finally got the Church off their backs; and caste took a hit before coming back in spades as class for Balzac, Flaubert and Proust.  But that’s about it.  The horrors led inexorably to the strong man; Napoleon left five million dead in his wake, plus a nation in ruins; and recent events in Paris suggest that France has still not recovered and may yet bring Europe undone.  About one hundred years before the Holocaust, Carlyle foresaw how the horror of the Terror prefigured another disaster for mankind. 

One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention, and no more:  the blond perukes; the Tannery at Meudon.  Great talkers of these Perruques Blondes: O reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined Women; the locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a cordwainer, her blonde German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald.  Or they may work affectionately, as relics, rendering one suspect?  Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort.  ….  Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; … ‘There was a tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotine as seem worthy flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made; for bleaches and other uses.  The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality of shamoy; that of the women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture …’  Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

There is not much that is civilised in making a chamois from the skin of a decapitated dissident or applying to a scalp some mockery of ‘a rather cannibal sort.’

Then of course there is our darling of the New World, the Declaration of Independence.  It, too, expressed fine ideals, but it led to war crimes in a vicious civil war that reminded Churchill of the agony in Ireland, but which does not feature now on the Fourth.  The Declaration contained two callous lies.  The first was that all men were created equal.  The second is less well known.  No history of America has been given that agrees with Jefferson’s list of the reasons for the rebellion.  The Americans rebelled because they did not like paying tax.  They still don’t.  They believe that public money grows on trees.  It is no accident that the loudest non-payers of tax in the U S call themselves after the Tea Party or that the darling of the motley that they elected as their President (Trump) rejoices in not paying tax.  Yet Jefferson sought to bury this issue deep down in a document of self-serving claptrap that might induce a blush even now in a Californian attorney for a grasping plaintiff.  And even then he lied.  He accused the English king of imposing the tax when the whole point of the English Revolution of 1689 was that only the parliament could impose a tax.  Well, whenever someone proudly announces the discovery of a self-evident truth, we know that bullshit is not far away.

(Australians don’t go in for self-evident truths in politics.  They find it so hard to find any form of truth in politics that any proclamation of a self-evident truth just has to be bullshit.)

Now, we don’t call barbaric people civilised just because they do pretty pictures or make nice speeches.   Even before we white people got to them, our first inhabitants were creating art that sells very well now in New York and Paris, and Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany had fine sounding declarations of rights – but there are obvious issues about seeking to apply any variation of the theme of civilisation to any of those instances.

It was the insight of Thomas Carlyle that civilisation, however defined, is a very thin veneer.  It can dissolve quickly and reveal the barbarian in us all.  Put differently, we are like Hottentots tip-toeing around the rim of a very live volcano.  One false step and that’s it – with extreme prejudice.


Now, these failings and fault lines are obvious, and by and large they are accepted by those who wish to inflict segregation at universities by excluding from a degree course the teaching of the wisdom and beauty of the Orient.  But is not the best way to assess our failures – if ‘our’ is the correct term – to compare that experience with what happened elsewhere? 

In looking at the failures of Greece and Rome – and both their crashes were awful – might we not learn from looking at what happened in, say, Egypt or Persia?  In looking at the flowering of art in Italy and Germany, might we not learn from looking at similar effusions in China or India – or our Aborigines?  Might we reflect on the impact of Japanese art on our Impressionists?  In looking at the misery inflicted on humanity by Christianity in the West, might we not learn from the misery inflicted on humanity by Islam in the East – and now in the West as well?  In looking at the damage wrought by the French Revolution, might we not learn from the damage wrought by what is still called the Indian Mutiny or the Russian Revolution?  In looking at the hypocrisy of the Athenian Empire – which they spun as the Delian Confederacy – might we not look at the hypocrisy of the British Empire?  In assessing the grandeur of Lincoln, Churchill or Bonhoeffer, might we not learn from looking at Ghandi, Mandela, or Ho Chi Min?

In short, in trying to assess the ups and downs of that shifting notion called western civilisation, why should we abandon the process of thought – suck it and see, aka empiricism – that underlies our bodies of learning called science and the common law?  At what point in the course does the university apologise for wanton cultural vandalism and intellectual castration?

Let me take a brief look at what the students might miss from China.  A mate who knows China gave a quick thumb sketch.

The finest public service the world has ever known or dreamed about over a period of more than a thousand years.  A foreign policy that spurned invasion of foreign countries or interference in their affairs.  An intellectual life as rich as the Greeks – Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, and so on.  An unmatched artistic life – poetry, calligraphy, painting, novels, and essays.  A belief system centred on family values and no Godcentric nonsense.

He was speaking of China before the intervention of the West, and he later added that he had forgotten tea.  I’m not sure about gunpowder.  Or the distinct cooking on our former gold fields, but which derives from the family values referred to above.


It may be that those who seek to promote this constriction of our learning think that we can detect a theme of progress as mankind moves forward.  This proposition is, I gather, firmly contested.

In some ways we can see mankind undergoing a series of ‘progressive’ liberations.  We got free of kings (or at least those of the absolute variety).  We cut free of the supernatural of witch doctors and priests.  We developed sources of knowledge like science and the law that obliterated the monopoly that some kings and priests had lorded over us.  We finally got rid of the aristocracy, although social snobbery is incurable.  It is curious that people who champion western civilisation celebrate what is called the Enlightenment with such passion when that movement was just another phase of our liberation from the supernatural – which for present purposes is represented by that other apple of their eye, Judaeo-Christianity.

Down here, we still think that the best at this were the English because that’s how we were brought up.  They started toilet training their kings, nobles and priests in about 1215 and over the next 700 years they brought them into line.  (In contrast, Russia is still getting over the shock of lighting the fuse in 1917, and the French still invoke the right to revolt that they wrote into their Declaration of Rights in 1789; as mentioned, the American Declaration of 1776 had its own failings.) 

Macaulay said this:

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as a rising up of the human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty.  In both cases, the spirit of innovation was at first encouraged by the class to which it was likely to be most prejudicial….In both cases, the convulsion which had overthrown deeply seated errors shook all the principles on which society rests to their very foundations.  The minds of men were unsettled.


These propositions are large, but until recently I sympathised with the notion that we might be moving upwards. 

In the past few years that faith has taken a big hit.  In that time, two pinnacles of what is called western civilisation have succumbed to the tocsin of the gullible and surrendered power to people who are opposed to most of what those invoking the term civilisation are said to stand for.  I am referring to the U K and the U S.  If Nigel Farage or Donald Trump is the product of western civilisation, we are in real strife.  If either is an answer, then the question doesn’t bear thinking about.

Well, accidents can happen in the best of families, but what is deeply troubling is the role played in the descent to the underbelly by those who should know better – those people who had claimed, falsely as we now know, to be conservative. 

The cowardice of the Republicans and the bitchy inanity of the Tories are faintly mirrored in the Antipodes by the impotence of what is called the Coalition.  The three political parties, and their minders in the Murdoch press or Fox or Sky News, have two things in common.  One is an addiction to ideology that is as false to our Anglo-Saxon and common law heritage as you can get.  The other is that their jealous pride in their own ignorance allows them to bet the planet on their prejudices.  Their betrayal of conservatism is now complete.

Angela Merkel said:

Sometimes my greatest fear is that we have somehow lost the inner strength to stand up for our way of life.  To which we can only say: if we have lost that, then we might also lose our prosperity and success.

And we are reminded of the remark of Sebastian Haffner about the failure of the better people to deal with Adolf Hitler.

The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding’.  This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial….  At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed.  They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown….  The Kammergericht [superior court] toed the line.  No Frederick the Great was needed, not even Hitler had to intervene.  All that was required was a few Amtsgerichtsrats [judges] with a deficient knowledge of the law. 

The fear is that what was built up over a millennium may wash away inside one generation.  Have we been unwise enough to build our house upon the sand?


Those events have shaken whatever faith I may have had in what is called western civilisation.  But then it gets worse.  The people behind the recent ideological disruptions in this country are aligned with, if not personally a part of, the movement to exclude the teaching of the East and to put blinkers on our universities in the manner under discussion. 

We are speaking of what might be called the radical fringe of the Liberal Party and their well-paid cheer squads in the Murdoch press, Sky News After Dark, and the Institute of Public Affairs.  (Sky News After Dark is the pale rider’s version of Fox News.  Rupert Murdoch really does have a lot to answer for.)  They bang on so interminably about western civilisation that you wonder if it is a Masonic code for something else.  These people forego sensible discussion to make rude and unprofessional remarks about the ABC. Fairfax and CNN, which on a bad day get labelled as the ‘love media.’  The effluent is at its worst when coming from those brought into the media by politicians or think tanks.  And they celebrate their parochialism from afar by championing Brexit to the death.  Gustave Flaubert or George Eliot would have gazed with wonder on their provincialism.

My country does not have a pantheon for prime ministers – or at all.  (Since we currently average about one P M a year, our abstention might be prudent.)  When I spoke of ideologues off side with our historical roots, I had in mind John Howard and Tony Abbott. 

We can put the latter to one side.  Mr Abbott has spent his life in loving subjection to two foreign potentates – the Queen of England and the Pope in the Vatican.  Given that the English Constitution bars any Catholic from wearing the English Crown, that is a remarkable contribution to what John Keats called negative capability.  Unfortunately for him, us, and the Ramsay Centre, Mr Abbott now is a sad unreformed joker who has overstayed his welcome after being fired for knighting a duke – although the damage that he personally has exposed the planet to should not be overlooked or forgiven.  (And when you think of it, is it not rich for someone posing as a statesman to allow his personal prejudice to stand in the way of safeguarding the welfare of the nation?)

Mr John Winston Howard joined George W Bush and Tony Blair in declaring war on a nation that had nothing to do with us, much less than pose a threat us.  They did so on the basis of at least one premise that was false.  It is hard for the leader of a nation to commit a greater sin than to lead their nation into war on a false basis.  We are still paying a fearful price.  As a result George W Bush and Tony Blair are widely rejected if not reviled at home.  Not so with Mr Howard.  Perhaps no-one noticed him.  Perhaps his plain ordinariness saved him.  He might come within the description that Balzac gave to his leading character:

……he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him.  He excited no one’s envy.

There is more.  As I said elsewhere, putting to one side the Tampa and the babies:

Can’t say sorry to the aborigines.  Can’t say goodbye to the British.  Can’t say no to the Americans.  A hemisphere out of place; a century out of date; and not a principle to be seen.  The spiritual heir of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Mr. Howard, is a relic lost among the cobwebs of the colony he cannot escape from. 

That reminds me that Mr Abbott was described as the god-child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop.  Her taste for low flying in helicopters now sees her on Sky News After Dark serenading people who believe people like Hanson or Trump, but who rejoices in the right of the people to protest, at least to the extent that the protests that she led with Tony Abbott saved us from the carbon tax.  (And the godmother shows her title to the team jersey by dropping dark hints on live TV about the deep mystery of George Soros.)

And in between strutting and fretting about the world stage in gold and green pyjamas, and posing as a connoisseur of cricket, and looking righteously concerned under an Akubra hat, Mr Howard appointed his ideological soul mates to the board of the ABC, including Michael Kroger and Janet Albrechtsen.  Mr Howard does not think that this nation can be trusted to survive on its own without the British Crown, but he is prepared to trash a national institution for party political purposes.  What damage might he do then if we let him lay his hands on a decent university?


So what? 

The Ramsay Centre put those two Australian politicians on its board of directors.  Its website gushes about their political successes and it does not blush about the political dreams and aspirations of the late Paul Ramsay.  Mr Ramsay had a mission.

He also wanted to create over time a cadre of leaders – Australians whose awareness and appreciation of their country’s Western heritage and values, of the challenges that have confronted leaders and people, with that broad heritage in the past, would help guide their decision making in the future.

Parents may have different views about trusting schools to train their children as ‘leaders,’ but would you want your child trained to be one of a cadre of leaders of this nation’s heritage and values?  ‘Cadre’ has a militant if not military ring to it.  A cadre is there for a cause.  The Compact OED has ‘a small group of people trained for a particular purpose or profession’ and ‘a group of activists in a revolutionary organization.’  Fowler is to a similar effect. 

Good grief, is your son being drafted into the Jesuits?  Of course, not.  We can safely put to one side the word ‘revolutionary’ here – that is emphatically not Mr Howard’s shtick.  But, good heavens – activists!  In the label laden lexicon of the political warriors promoting the Ramsay Centre, you don’t get much lower than activist.  And what does the word ‘Western’ do for the blackfellas?

The word ‘cadre’ there surprised me.  For some reason that word in this context brought to mind some observations about Loyola by the Reverend J M Thompson (in his Lectures on Foreign History, 1494-1789):

….the romantic and crusading spirit of the Spaniard, the fanatical and medieval piety of the Catholic, the soldier’s belief in discipline and organisation.  We find them all in the Constitution of the Order….But if one stops to think, how does the Jesuit training differ, unless perhaps in conscientious intensity, from that of West Point or Saint Cyr?….As for liberty of thought, there is no more room for patriotic agnosticism in West Point than for religious agnosticism in a Jesuit College.

We are talking about two politicians from the same party, not about Victor Trumper or Phar Lap.  These two politicians are both widely seen as failed Prime Ministers.  They are the source of deep division and no little revulsion in our community.  It is hard to think of a better way of getting up the noses of any decent Australian University than by saying, with a straight face, that we come with the blessing of these two politicians – but that there are no politics involved; none at all.  It is just a pure accident of history that your benefactor chose two controversial – perhaps partisan, even – party political people to represent him.  We just want to confer our disinterested benefit on you for the academic benefit of the university and the nation.


Messrs Howard and Abbott are missionaries, people with a cause.  They are out to recruit cadres to that cause.  This is their finale in the cess-pit called Australian politics.   It’s as if all their life up unto this time had been but a preparation for this trial.  Just look at the middle name of John Howard.

Our missionaries could of course have got up the nose of the Chancellor if they simply overturned a truck of snuff on the Chancellor’s desk, or they could have beetled into Cambridge or Oxford waving a wad of cash and saying that it comes with the blessing of the late Mrs Thatcher – and then watched the inmates choose the window for the inevitable defenestration.  (I here speak from personal knowledge.)

So, this tawdry affront to our intellectual heritage looks to be little more than a crass political stunt by a very wealthy man who got some very bad political advice.  Whoever got the idea of launching this ship of state with these two political warriors at the helm was not too bright.  The ship deserved to sink as soon as it hit the water.  Because the project was politically charged, it is intellectually maimed.

And are we not put out by the suggestion that the education of our youth should be left to these two faded relics of a vanished empire?


May I go back to my first question?  West of what? 

The Israelis may get shirty because they are on the wrong side of the Bosporus.  They might fairly respond that so were Moses and Jesus, and that therefore the West cannot claim the heritage of any of their teaching.  Moses and Jesus were of, by, and for the East.  They were at least as Asian as Mohammed or Mao Zedong.  Wagner, and many of his ilk, never forgave Jesus for being Jewish – but not many of the painters of Jesus put an uncomfortable level of colour into his visage. 

This may be why the exclusionists are so hot for Augustine and Aquinas.  They took the teaching of a simple Jewish holy man and purged it of every last bit of Asia by drenching it in Plato and Aristotle and locking it safely away beyond the reach of the merely vulgar.  (I may say that any suggestion that Augustine or Aquinas might go into some kind of ‘great books’ selection would be hilarious for many reasons – even for that minority of students that has God.)

Is, then, Russia, or too much of it, on the wrong or east side of the Urals?  Many have problems with describing Russia as civilised, but we know that they would say that that is just our European prejudice for rejecting the high place in the history of mankind of the great people who stopped the two greatest predators – Napoleon and Hitler – known to mankind after Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.  Well, if we still exclude Russia, a list of ‘great books’ that leaves out, say, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov is going to look like a sad bastard mutant.


Well, others may say that all that is silly.  I would agree entirely, but it is a silliness that flows from a stated position of an arbitrary and unnecessary division of the world.  It is very hard to split the world into East and West and not have each pooh-pooh the other.  Indeed, the division of the world for the purposes of ‘Western civilisation’ now looks so arbitrary that you cannot help but think that it is driven by a sentiment of exclusion that is at least as old as the Old Testament but which now dares not speak its name.

It is, then, hard to make sense of the term western civilisation.  It is even harder to justify employing that term – in any relevant sense – to exclude from our education sources of knowledge, wonder, and beauty from the East or from our Aborigines.  The process of exclusion or segregation is itself bad because it leads to conflict.  That’s why, for example, many object to clubs that exclude women – or people of colour or a different faith – or people from the East.  Australian universities are not there to close Australian minds or to foster division within and hostility without the nation. 

It follows in my view that those who have had the benefit of an education at an Australian university should regard any attempt to promote a sponsored degree in western civilisation as a threat to the integrity of that university.  In my view, we should actively resist that threat – not least because it is being sponsored by politicians who have a lot of form for engaging in nasty, harmful, and unnecessary ideological bunfights. 

The threat is also sponsored, or at least promoted, by that part of the press that follows two dicta: you must say something different even if it is silly; but it’s OK to be predictable, as long as you stay on a war footing and preach to the faithful.  Those drivers may look to be contradictory to the novice, but they bear a worrying reflection in the proposed degree.  All these sponsors may operate on the fringe, but that fact offers no immunity to the centre.

And many, if not most, supporters of the Ramsay Centre have indulged in a point blank if sulky denial of learning, at least as it is manifested in what we call science.  They have stood squarely against what a university stands for.  Their version of logic was expressed by Donald Trump: ‘I don’t believe it.’  Their version of voodoo is a little more difficult to explain.  Mr Abbott is the very public champion of this denial of learning.  He is not a man that you would want to give any power to in a place of learning.

These people routinely slaughter both language and logic.  Here is a sample.

…citizens and entire nations are judged according to their professed loyalty to PC dogma.  Open borders, multicultural ideology, minority fundamentalism and casual antipathy to Western civilisation are common values of Eurocratic elites….Its cadres denounce democracy when the tide of public opinion is against them…They have so little regard for the truth that politically correct ideology is presented as fact.  They dismiss the Western tradition because its basis in public reason means the peasants can speak truth to power.

That is bullshit.If you take out the clichés, you are left with what Louis XVI put in his diary on 14 July 1789.  Rien.  Thank God for the East.

But what you need to notice is the fear held for Western civilisation or tradition and the consequent resentment.  The sense of victimhood is almost palpable.  Why do we fear broadening our mind, or expanding our intellectual of cultural platform?  Do we not fear and reject regimes who seek to do just that?


Norma and Mac, my mum and dad, never got to university.  As was common among those coming of age during the depression, they left school to go to work at about the age of thirteen.  They sent me to a state school and then a private (public) school.  They both worked for that purpose.  The Commonwealth of Australia then picked up the tab for my five years at Melbourne University. 

Like many of my age, I am appalled that a government that consists in large part of men who had the benefit of that kind of funding of universities now turns the tap off for the next generation.  Bugger you, Jack, I’m OK.  That sadly is so very Australian now.  Are we really so poor or so mean?

This conduct of our government defies both logic and decency in a young and wealthy nation that has an obvious interest in staying ahead of the mob.  Now, having converted our universities into common street walkers, like sluts in white boots, the politicians are supplying the procurers to pay them off for selling themselves short in what many would see as little more than debauchery. 

They may well think that those universities that are weak enough to roll over might have some latterday Baden Powell or Cecil Rhodes who may come within the spirit of that old gag that they used to tell on World of Sport ­about a young footballer going out on his first date with Raquel Welch – he thought that something wonderful might happen, but he wasn’t quite sure how.

Well, Mac and Norma may not have had a university education, but they had an earthier grip on the facts of life than a lot of my generation do now.  They knew the truth of the saying that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.  The mighty dollar has eroded the truth of that proposition for far too many of us.

Here we are, in my view,in the territory of Caesar’s wife.  Not only should a university not put its integrity at risk, it should avoid any conduct that might be seen to do that in parts of the community at large 

One way that the beneficiaries of a good university – its former students – might encourage that university to follow that policy would be by making any gift to that university expressly subject to a condition prescribing the failure or withdrawal of the gift if the university later agrees to accept funding in a way or from a source that the person making the gift thinks would compromise the integrity of the university.  That is the course that I propose to follow. 

If that idea were to take hold – if the alumni were to engage in communal action – if they were to become activists – we might see the dollar sign shining brightly on the other side of the ledger as well.  We might hope that the dollar power of past students between them could match the dollar power of Messrs Murdoch and Ramsay. 


We might recall that at its birth, the Commonwealth of Australia had as much if not more passion than the Ramsay Centre about preserving its heritage.  Our heritage then was described as our British heritage.  Some blushed at the notion that we would exclude Orientals.  Others were not so coy.  Our first Prime Minister, the jovial and clubby ‘Toss-pot’ Barton, said: ‘The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.’  We Australians would not be trapped in the same lie as the Americans about equality.  We would call a spade a bloody spade, Mate, and a Chinaman a bloody Chow. 

That nice Mr Deakin, another P M, was educated enough to wish different peoples ‘to associate without degradation on either side,’ but he too insisted ‘on a united race’.  In the end we used a cheap and dishonest ploy to discriminate against Orientals, and when the founder of the Liberal Party, ‘Pig-iron’ Bob Menzies, another P M and former Wesley student, was asked to ease the immigration policy because it was discriminatory; he replied with the assurance of a pukka sahib: ‘Good thing too – right sort of discrimination.’  (Sir Robert, as he would later surely become, was prone to inflict high Tory dismissals from under his lofty eyebrows.  When I hear his name now, I think of the glorious line in Henry V of Montjoy, the French herald, before Agincourt: ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial’.)  

To round off on our Liberal P M’s, Mr Howard was wont to say that our level of Asian immigration was too high – he thought that multiculturalism was ‘aimless, divisive.’  But, then, Mr Howard was often eager to wound but afraid to strike, and he would dismiss these musings with a cliché about black armbands; his psyche has no room for either mourning or for saying sorry to the blackfellas.

Well we have got over our hang-ups about British heritage and of excluding coloured migrants under the cover of insisting on migrants having a European heritage.  We as a nation are immeasurably better off as a result.  Are we now to agree to go backwards and seek to preserve our intellectual heritage by excluding learning that is not European?  And are we to do just that in the halls of our higher learning? 

The mere suggestion is revolting – but what decent explanation can be given for another exclusion of the Orientals?

What I may call my university should not, in my view, take any step that might in any way be reasonably seen by some as inviting any form of return of any aspect of the White Australia Policy.  There may be room for argument on that point, but there can be no doubt that the policy of segregation of the Ramsay Centre involves discriminating against the ideas and values of the East. 

I regard that form of discrimination as wrong in itself.  That in my view should be the end of it.  I simply refuse to apply the ultimate denigratory label to discriminating against people and ideas from different parts of the world.  That term is both inflammatory and abused.  Rather, I base my opposition to the Ramsay Centre on two grounds set out above.  First, it is bullshit.  Secondly, it is pernicious.

Excerpt on Civilization

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘civilize’ as ‘to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine’.  People who extol ancient Greece and Rome as ‘civilised’ obviously use the word in this final sense.  They see ‘enlightenment’ and ‘refinement’ as being enough to outweigh the barbarity of slavery or their many-godded naturalistic religions.  They see civilisation even though neither Greece nor Rome had then been blessed with the respect for the dignity of each human life that is at the foundation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and which is elemental to our concept of ‘civilisation’.  Unlike Hamlet, the ancients had not heard the beautiful notion ‘that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’

In his wonderful TV series and book, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark asked what civilisation is.  He said: ‘I don’t know.  I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet.’  He then compared a tribal African mask to a sculpture of the 4th century B C, the Apollo of the Belvedere.  He said ‘I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation from the mask.’  He supported that claim in this way.

There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world.  But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something.  It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself – body and spirit – which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these quantities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.  He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways – through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the physical world.  The children of the imagination are also the expressions of an ideal.

It is curious that Clark made no reference to ‘the arts’, ‘enlightenment’ or the ‘refinement’ of the OED – they are most emphatically what his series and book were all about.  We find there very few references to myths, music, dance, or philosophy.  Instead, we now hear of a quest for ‘an ideal of perfection’ which will apparently do enough to balance ‘the superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world.’

There are at least three issues with the notions identified in the OED or by Kenneth Clark.  First, most people could not give a hoot about and do not appreciate the kinds of enlightenment or refinement referred to; indeed, most people in a pub would have trouble in following just what Clark was saying. 

Then the relative terms are in any event very plastic.  Views may differ on what is art, what is refined, or what is enlightened, or what might be seen as an attempt to reach the ideal of perfection.  What if a member of the tribe represented by the African mask did not think much of the Apollo of the Belvedere?  By what criteria might a product of the Western Establishment say that the black man was wrong?  What might we say about the adverse reaction of a slave from the sweat of whose brow the Apollo was wrought?  I might say that if I were choosing art for my home or place of work, I would much prefer the African mask to the Apollo of the Belvedere; but, then, I like aboriginal art, which would have been foreign to Clark, and pop art, which would have appalled him.  The fact that the Apollo is a ludicrously idealised and stylised portrait of a vain pagan god that Napoleon looted from the Vatican does not add to its charms.

And, finally, it is not much good having a refined ear for Mozart’s Requiem if you can be murdered in your bed, or your having a Ph D for analysing the downward smile of the Mona Lisa of Da Vinci if you can be cast into prison forever on the mere say so of a prince or a bishop – or if you just cannot get enough food or water to live.

In my view, most people in the West now have a different view of what the word ‘civilised’ should mean.  They would, I believe, go along with something like the following.  In my view a nation or people cannot call itself civilised unless each of the following five criteria is met. 

  • It has a moral code that respects the person and the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group. 
  • It has a mature and stable form of democratic government that is willing and reasonably able enforce that respect and those rights, and to preserve its own democratic structure.  (I have opted for democracy because it seems to be the fairest mode of government and to be the best able to deliver the other objectives.)
  • It observes the rule of law and it seeks to protect the legal rights of its members. 
  • Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption. 
  • It seeks to allow its members to be able to subsist and, after providing for their subsistence, to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others. 

Put differently, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that its members are ‘civil’ to others.

You will have seen that my definition makes no reference to refinement or enlightenment or to ‘the arts’ or the ‘ideal’.  This is because I view government much like I view education.  The object of education is to teach people reading, writing, and arithmetic – any grace, taste, or faith they may get from that source will be a bonus.  I see government as there to protect us from each other and from itself – any refinement or enlightenment is, for the most part, a matter for us and not government. 

On the other hand, I can imagine people wanting to refer to religion in their criteria – historically, at least, the first of my criteria is based on religion – and also to some kind of social equality and a refuge or safety net for those who do not do so well, but I am conscious of the difficulty in getting agreement at these edges.  The requirement of ‘legal equality’ does, however, come in under the rule of law.

If a definition like that set out above were to be applied, then no state could have been regarded as civilised until about the beginning of the twentieth century, and then only in the West.  I do not think that such a suggestion would seem odd to men and women in the street today in London, Paris, Berlin, or New York.   I think that public opinion in the West has moved on since the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and that we attach more weight to the protection of human rights and dignity, and from our own annihilation, than some impossibly enlightened and refined works of art whose real secrets are not revealed to the unwashed.

In any event, you can make up your own mind on when in your view any nation ought or ought not to be able to call itself ‘civilised.’  No historian can play God.  But you may wish to bear in mind the different meanings of civilisation, or the weights to be given to its parts, and you might ask this question – did either ancient Athens or ancient Rome satisfy any of the five criteria set out above?  How many do you think that either satisfies now?

Passing Bull 267–Bloviating

My Oxford English Dictionary has not got to ‘bloviate’ yet, but I gather it means to talk windily or wordily – if there is such a word.  Greg Sheridan used it once or twice, but then I think he stopped using it.  Perhaps because his paper makes an art form of it.  Here are the starts of two articles in The Australian the other day.  One is by Paul Kelly.

In the contemporary world, politics follows culture.  But what has happened in Australia over the past month is that culture is not predetermining politics – it is devouring it.  Scott Morrison confronts a long seeded cultural change originating in the everyday experience of women, yet an ideological movement filled with revolutionary dimensions.  Fifty years ago, most people saw sexual relations as a private issue – but sexual relations are now a political issue, indeed a frontline political issue.  The Liberal Party struggles to manage this – just as conservative parties around the world are struggling with such a revolutionary change.  It arises from two events – the almost mundane demand of feminism that women be treated with genuine respect in every aspect of life and the rise of the politics of the self, the politicisation of feelings and of psychological oppression no longer to be tolerated.

The other was by Dennis Shanahan.

Scott Morrison has strategically moved to broaden the issue of sexual harassment and mistreatment of women into a societal problem that is not restricted to Parliament House or the Liberal Party.  Simultaneously, Labor has tactically sought to microscopically concentrate on the Prime Minister, his reactions and responsibility for despicable sexualised behaviour that is being revealed.

Well, if you know the distinction between politics and culture, you will have no trouble with the distinction between societal and social, or sexual and sexualised, and no problem in seeing how Clausewitz would have distinguished between the strategic response of the government and the tactical approach of the opposition.  (Naturally, in the Murdoch press, it is Labor that is demeaned.)  But from what was Prime Minister Morrison moving so strategically?  Apart from a certified moron, and the ghost of Chairman Mao, does anyone on earth believe that the problem of sexual harassment is ‘restricted to Parliament House or the Liberal Party’?  And what is the ‘revolutionary change’ that people are struggling with – as against ‘the long seeded cultural change’?  And what could be ‘private’ about an allegation rape in the office of a Federal Minister involving two people on my payroll?

There’s a much older word than ‘bloviation’ for this stuff.  It’s bullshit.

Here and there – Dickens and Carlyle

In the leafy months of June and July (1793), several French Departments germinate a set of paper-leaves, named Proclamations, Resolutions, Journals, or Diurnals, ‘of the Union for Resistance to Oppression.’  In particular, the town of Caen, in Calvados, sees its paper-leaf of Bulletin de Caen suddenly bud, suddenly establish itself as Newspaper there; under the Editorship of Girondin National Representatives!  (The Girondins were opposed to the regime and marked for extinction by Robespierre.)

That is how Carlyle begins his chapter on Charlotte Corday, the murderer of Marat, that grubby little idol of the masses and cheer-leader in the Terror.  There it all is – quirky, doom-laden, prophetic, arresting, and BYO grammar and vocabulary.  Nothing else even comes close.

Dickens idolised the author of The French Revolution.  He was like a disciple.  Carlyle was to 19th century England what Dr Johnson was to the 18th.  Some recalled Dickens ‘playing around the old lion’ as Garrick did around Johnson.  Disraeli, himself a novelist, recommended Carlyle to his queen for the highest distinction for merit at her command, saying that Carlyle and Tennyson stood out in ‘uncontested superiority.’

She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled D’Armans, while Nobility still was….  ‘She was a Republican before the Revolution, and never wanted energy.’  A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’  What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-daemonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright-complete was she, through long centuries!

Carlyle savaged the middle class.  In the Britain of Queen Victoria, glutted on the gold of Empire, that course was fraught.  But Carlyle had concluded that it was middle class civilisation itself, and not its corrupt institutions, that was the source of real evil.  And nothing he saw over the Channel of the bourgeoisie would have softened that opinion.  They would be descried by Balzac, Flaubert and Proust at times after a fashion that we see in Dickens.  In his fine book, Carlyle and Dickens (1972), Michael Goldberg cites a note in the Saturday Review that said that Dickens had a mission, but that it was to make the world grin and ‘not to recreate and rehabilitate society.’ 

But the increasing impact of Carlyle on Dickens showed up in increasing social criticism from Dombey and Son onward.  You get sustained disquiet with the community at large in place of sporadic commentary upon particular social lesions.  Dombey is, like Père Goriot, a firestorm about Mammonism, a pet loathing of the stern Scot, Carlyle.  Mr Goldberg says:

The tyrants of his last novels are less and less to be found in the thieves’ kitchens of the underworld or in the elegant drawing rooms of the aristocracy.  They are commercial nabobs like Dombey, financiers like Merdle, industrial barons like Bounderby, utilitarian lawgivers like Gradgrind, monetary barbarians like Podsnap, and noveau riche opportunists like Veneering.  As the portrait of a class they embody the idea, as Shaw put it, that ‘it is not our criminals but our magnates that are robbing and murdering us.’

That does all sound modern – if not radical.

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm…A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at the sight of her: you could not say of what character …  ‘All these details are needless…it is I that killed Marat…I killed one man,’ added she, raising her voice extremely (extrêmement) as they went on with their questions, ‘I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocent; a savage wild beast to give repose to my country’…. There is therefore nothing to be said.  The public gazes astonished: the hasty limmers sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving….The Doom is death as a murderess…To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, any ghostly or other aid from him.

Faced with a script like that, a novelist may have quailed about writing a story about those times.  Dickens did write one – to our singular betterment. His novel owes so much to Carlyle.  Probably in jest, he said he had read Carlyle’s account nine times.  He read all about the revolution and then threw his notes away and wrote.  The Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge were madness – a favourite notion of Carlyle – and nothing more.  Now he was looking at the product of intolerable oppression.  The aristocracy thought Figaro was funny.  They did not die laughing.  Carlyle and Dickens were both lethal on the aristocracy but ambiguous about the third estate. 

Carlyle had said that ‘old secrets come to view; and longburied Despair finds voice.’  There was a thread for Dickens’ plot.  Dickens had the Marquis lamenting the loss of feudal privilege.  ‘Our not remote ancestors held the right of life and death over the surrounding vulgar.  From this room, many such dogs have been taken out to be hanged.’  He also wrote that ‘the leprosy of unreality disfigured every face in attendance upon Monseigneur.’  The Tribunal became ‘a jury of dogs empannelled to try the deer.’  All that is Carlyle to the bootstraps – and it underwrote the savage cannibalism of the Terror.  Of Marat, Carlyle said: ‘All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

Thousands of books have been written about the French Revolution.  It is a fair bet that only one mentions Adam Lux.

…..the fatal cart issues; seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in a red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death, – alone amid the world.  Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched?  Others growl and howl.  Adam Lux of Mentz declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her; the head of this young man seems turned.  At the Place de la Révolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile.

Poor Adam was dotty about Charlotte.  It was raining and we infer that the figure of Charlotte became more deeply impressed on young Adam as a result.  But this was not the time to show sympathy for an enemy of the people.

Adam Lux goes home, half-delirious; to pour forth his Apotheosis of her, in paper and in print; to propose that she have a statue with this inscription, Greater than Brutus.  Friends represent his danger; Lux is reckless; thinks it were beautiful to die with her.

And he does – ‘with great joy’ – for a crime that Stalin would borrow from the French.

A Tale of Two Cities is still right up there and will be while English is still spoken.  Carlyle is well out of fashion, largely because his worship of heroes stirs bad chords.  The Revolution is very short on heroes.  What about the angelic-daemonic Charlotte Corday – the absolute hero of Adam Lux? 

Can an assassin be a hero?  Well, the revolutionaries thought Brutus was a hero.  Dante put Brutus in the same level of Hell as Judas.  We idolise Dietrich Bonhoeffer – but he was part of the plot to kill Hitler.  God only knows what the answer may be. 

But we do think that Charlotte Corday would have been happy to quit this world with the last words on her lips of Sydney Carton.  Each of those figures stands for our humanity.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


David Williamson, 1974

Currency Press, 1974; rebound in quarter green leather with marbled cloth boars and title ‘STORK’ in gold on orange leather label on spine.

Twice in my life I have walked out of a cinema in tears for the same reason.  Once was in 1997 after watching The Castle.  The other time was nearly forty years before that after watching the film Stork.  I ran into a mate who asked what was going on.  ‘I have just seen some bastard put this bloody country on the screen.’  Each occasion was a revelation – and a comforting one.

The first film was an adaptation of the play The Coming of Stork by David Williamson.  The seventies saw an explosion of Australian theatre as the nation began to throw off what it called its ‘cultural cringe.’  It was no coincidence that this happened when the nation also sought under Gough Whitlam to get past the dead hand of a defeatist political mediocrity and subservience that took us into the horror of the Vietnam War.  The young playwright, David Williamson, was perfectly placed to express what educated people called the zeitgeist of that time in Australia.  He was also perfectly placed to comment on the milieu that happened to present most of his audience.  The three plays in this book – The Coming of Stork, Jugglers Three, and What if You Died Tomorrow – were a central part of something resembling a birth.

David Williamson was born in 1942, the son of a bank officer.  He took most of his schooling in Bairnsdale in western Victoria, and graduated in mechanical engineering at Monash University, Victoria’s second university.  The Coming of Stork was his first full length play.

In the Preface to this book, the author says:

The Coming of Stork is played out among graduate technologists, a group known for brazen and rather awkward openness as far as sexual matters are concerned, but an almost complete lack of communication concerning ambitions, fears, hopes, and joys.  It is a cynical milieu, but not without a certain reductive biting humour and heavily disguised compassion…..In these plays, content is more important than style.  There are no mechanical theatrical devices….My writing career was greatly helped by the unrelenting and faultlessly naturalistic production given to The Coming of Stork at La Mama, which reproduced the atmosphere of flat sharing males with gripping authenticity and held audiences engrossed despite glaring weaknesses in that rough first draft.  The occasions when I have been most disappointed with productions of my plays have been when the playing style has degenerated into the farcical.  They all demand a meticulously naturalistic acting style if the audience are to retain their involvement.

Stork, the film, featured Bruce Spence as Stork and Jacqui Weaver as the promiscuous but sumptuous Anna.  There are also Clyde and West who are at a loss what to do in life, but who meet favour with Anna, and Tony, who is both bourgeois and on the make.  Stork is tall, ungainly, accident prone and as man to be someone imprisoned in his own youth.  He refuses to grow up.  Like Falstaff, it is his failings that make him so engaging.  Stork in my view is one of the great constructs of the Australian stage.  Here is a sample.

Stork: Did you fake it!

Anna: No.  Of course not.

Stork: Then what are you talking about?

Anna: I never, er, have much, er, trouble.

Stork: Never have much trouble?

Anna: It’s pretty, er,  easy for me to, er, respond.

Stork: So it was nothing to do with the feeling between us?

Anna: Of course it was.

Stork: And nothing to do with my virility?

Anna: Of course it was.

Stork: Pretty easy.

Anna: I must be wired up the right way.

Stork: Charming.

Anna: Clyde’s very clever, but what I’m saying is that it really doesn’t make any difference.

Stork: What d’ you mean, very clever?

Anna: At, er, sustaining himself, but sometimes I’d rather just have one orgasm than a string of them.

Stork: A string of them?

Anna: Clyde’s, er, quite good at, er, sustaining himself.

Stork: I didn’t realise I was up against such talented opposition.

Anna: I’d like our relationship to continue, Stork.

Stork: You’ve dealt a death blow to my masculinity, Anna.  It may never rise again.

Anna: I’m terribly fond of you, Stork.  The trouble is that I’m terribly fond of Clive and my, er, other friend too.

Stork: (sarcastically): Clyde and your other friend and me.  What about Westy?

Anna: (alarmed): Who told you about Westy?

Well, there you have aftermath of the sixties and the flower power crowd.  That side of university life was not revealed to me. 

This play is nearly fifty years old.  Either because of changes in customs and manners, or because this was the author’s first play, a lot of it looks gauche, if not vulgar now, and some parts may need to be adjusted for modern audiences.  But, the capacity of the play to show us as we are still holds.  And that is what I understand the fundamental role of the playwright to be to carry out.

Passing Bull 266 –Brains in America

Not many Americans respect intellect.  Hardly any show anything like the respect for intellect that we see in France and Germany.  Disrespect for intellectuals becomes downright distaste for experts.  These forces exploded under Trump.  He gloried in his own obtuseness and he did not hesitate to treat as idiots people who attended those absurd rallies.  The essayist Emerson saw all this a long time ago.  ‘Let us honestly state the facts.  Our America has a bad name for superficialness.  Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.’  What, then, would Emerson have said of the greatest booster and buffoon of them all?

Well before Emerson, de Tocqueville had commented on the touchiness of the Americans.

But I maintain that the most powerful, and perhaps the only means of interesting men in the welfare of their country, which we still possess, is to make them partakers in the Government…….in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity.

As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself.  Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.

As I remarked elsewhere:

There is something close to the heart of America here.  The upside is ambition, drive, and personal and communal responsibility; the downside is Salem, McCarthy, and Gordon Gekko.  In some sense, the feeling of communal responsibility and participation does seem to rest well with American patriotism; so does their prickliness if you happen to query in passing something close to American hearts.  The Americans tend to be more committed and involved in America.  The film The Godfather begins with a product of Italian immigration saying ‘I believe in America.’  Australians are not so serious about all this kind of thing, and open discussion, much less profession, is not encouraged.  If they see it in Americans, they might mumble something about people wearing their hearts on their sleeve.

You wonder at times if they will ever grow up.


The US does not need a rerun of the Obama years.

The Australian, 25 January, 2021

There in one sentence is the accumulated venom of Rupert Murdoch.  That is outstanding.  America does not need a re-run of the years in which the ruined US economy was repaired, the disastrous engagement in Iraq was ended, a sane healthcare scheme was introduced and a clever, decent, worldly, stable, rational and entirely honourable man served as President.  They wish that we had four more years of a stupid, vain, bigoted, immoral, boastful, overgrown child as President.

Here and there –Porter v ABC and Milligan

The highpoint of the attack on the ABC as pleaded in the Statement of Claim is as follows.

The ABC and Milligan knew that Porter would be readily identifiable as the subject of the article and that he would ultimately be compelled to publicly respond.  They knew that the allegations by AB could never be proved in any civil or criminal proceeding and despite that they published the article to harm Porter and to ensure that he was publicly condemned and disgraced in the absence of any finding against him.  They were frustrated that they were unable to broadcast AB’s allegations in the November 4Corners as they intended (because they were indefensible) and thus disingenuously published the article without naming Porter in order to give effect to their intention to harm him.  Milligan engaged in a campaign against Porter in order to harm his reputation and have him removed as Attorney-General by her continued publications about him.  She has further continued to defame him in republishing assertions that AB should be believed and other allegations.  The ABC and Milligan published the article making serious allegations of criminal conduct about Porter without any warning to Porter and without any attempt to give him an opportunity to respond.  They selected portions of the dossier to quote in the article for the purpose of making AB’s allegations as credible as possible when there were other significant portions of the dossier which demonstrated that the allegations were not credible.  Milligan did not disclose her close friendship with a friend or friends of AB including persons named on the ABC.  Milligan acted with malice knowing of the impossibility of any finding of guilt or civil liability in the circumstances and believing that a public campaign designed to damage his reputation would be a more effective substitute against Porter in replacement of the process of the justice system.

The popular word for that process is lynching.  Another word is pogrom.  It is the sort of thing we associate with the grosser parts of the Murdoch press – as in their recent pogrom against the Premier of Victoria.

The allegations are made by counsel as good as you can get for this purpose, doubtless on the express instructions from the plaintiff, who happens to be the first Law Officer – and most probably with the knowledge of at least the Prime Minister.

It is curious that the press has not as far as I can see commented on this aspect of the case.  The word ‘libel’ then becomes a kind of coat-hanger for the real charge.  It is about as lethal a charge as you could make against a member of the press.  Against a commercial broadcaster, it could put its licence in play.  It is more deadly for the ABC because the attitude of the government to it is roughly equivalent to the attitude alleged against Louise Milligan to Porter.  It wants the ABC taken out.  It must think Christmas has come very early this year.

The pleading is unusual on two counts.  It is extremely well drawn.  And it is permissibly loaded with evidence because the plaintiff will rely on inferences to be drawn about states of mind from a chain of events.  Most direct allegations of events are on the record – there is no controversy.  There is more than enough to force the defendants into evidence.  (There may even be an application to split the case, but we can put that technicality to one side.  It’s about forty years since I did that.)  More importantly, discovery will produce truckloads of documents that will embarrass the ABC and Milligan – and sources – and urgers, like Malcolm Turnbull.  That embarrassment might drive the ABC to settle – especially if the embarrassment rises up the scale.

All litigation is a form of lottery that few can afford and none can predict.  That uncertainty is made worse here by politics at both ends.  But after fifty years of them, this is how I see libel actions in this country.  Australians treat the press like government.  They need it, but they don’t trust it.  They rely on both, but begrudge them their power.  If they – a jury or a judge – think that the press has behaved reasonably and that the plaintiff more or less deserved it, so be it.  But if they think that the press has gone in too hard, and that the plaintiff has not had a fair deal, they put the press down – with gusto and a very big bang.  I say that as a lawyer who I think still holds the record for copping the biggest libel verdict in the history of Victoria – while acting for the ABC – in a case that we thought we would win.

That is not a happy outlook for Aunty or Louise.

The Fitness for Office of the Commonwealth Attorney-General

Experienced trial lawyers will have at least two problems with the suggestion that there should be a judicial inquiry into the fitness of the Commonwealth Attorney-General to hold office.

First, even if the complainant were alive and willing to proceed to a trial before a jury, it is extremely unlikely that any police officer would forward the brief to a prosecutor to consider whether a prosecution could proceed based on the reported admissible evidence available.  The reported evidence of the complainant’s mental condition – which apparently led to her being dissociated from reality – would clearly be a factor that all involved in the process of considering any prosecution would need to take into account.  That being so, we need not consider whether a magistrate could, or would have committed an accused to stand trial, whether a jury properly instructed as to the law and admissible evidence could convict, and whether such a verdict could stand on appeal.  (In the case of George Pell, the prosecution cleared every hurdle except the last.)

Secondly, while the fitness for office of a director of a public company may be the subject of judicial findings premised on legal criteria, the fitness for office of the Attorney-General is not.  That issue is political, not legal.  It is resolved politically, not legally.  The relevant process is an election, not a judicial inquiry.  The opinion on this issue of another lawyer is worth no more than mine, or that of my cleaning lady or oncology nurse.

It follows in my view that there is no sensible subject for a judicial inquiry.  There is nothing novel about a person in high office being the subject of unresolved issues of rape.  It is the case with one cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and two justices of the American Supreme Court.

Let me tell you how as a trial lawyer for over fifty years I come to those conclusions.

I am appalled at the level of ignorance of how an inquiry into Mr Porter might proceed – and into what.  I did a very tricky inquiry about thirty years ago that was politically fraught, and for thirty years I presided on a sessional basis over tribunals where the issues tended to be at large.  I am a common lawyer who practised in equity and who has a visceral distrust of the inquisitorial system espoused in Europe – and by any repressive government.

It is a disgusting feeling when as the judicial officer, you have trouble framing the question.  It is like driving on black ice.  In the Fire Brigade disciplinary tribunal, I was dealing with charges framed by lawyers under a statute – too cautious, and lawyerly, but something to hang on to.  In eighteen years hearing tax cases, I was dealing with the decision of a revenue officer to disallow an objection by the taxpayer.  Both could use brutally broad language that would not be allowed in a decently run court of pleading – the whole object of which was to reach an issue of fact for the jury or demurrer for the court.  Even in a case where Jim Merralls QC instructed by Mallesons with David Batt for AMP – on a scheme that looked headed for the High Court – I had to ask counsel for the Crown: ‘Mr Boaden – do you think at some time you might make some passing reference to the terms of the notice of disallowance that you have been sent here to defend – just for old times’ sake?’

I repeat – being left at large in some form of inquisition is anathema to me as a common lawyer.

In the gaming inquiry that I conducted, the issue was whether a U S entity was a fit person to hold a gaming licence in Victoria.  There were statutory criteria, and there was undisputed evidence that the applicant had lied on the record to a U S regulator, but I still had to summon up every day of my twenty one years on the job to crystallize an issue that could allow us to decide the case.  Otherwise, the ocean of litigation could have gone on for years. 

In the end, we were able to ground our decision in plain terms with no reference to legal authority at all.

On the evidence before us, we have come to the conclusion that VLC should not be on the Roll.  In our opinion, the findings of two associations between Mr Lippon and people who have been convicted of criminal offences, and the two acts of dishonesty on his part, are founded on matters of fact that are not substantially in issue.  The implications of those findings and the conduct of VLC in the course of the inquiry are such as to demonstrate that VLC does not meet the requirements of honesty, integrity, and repute which the Act contemplates for those who are to be placed on the Roll.

For our part, we do not think this conclusion requires or will benefit from sustained analysis.  There can be no scale of the relevant considerations such that the issue of satisfaction of the statutory requirements can be the subject of measurement.  In our opinion, the Act contemplates, and this Commission should impose, high standards on those who want to take part in the provision of gaming facilities.  This is because the Victorian people are being asked to take these people on faith.  If we may adopt a phrase used by a distinguished commentator upon American affairs, it is no part of the function of this Commission to start to play with the faith of the Victorian people.  We think that the Victorian people are entitled to expect more, and that the Victorian Parliament has required more, than VLC can offer.

Politicians say that you should not start an inquiry unless you know the answer.  Another reason for having an inquiry is that the issue is such that you must have an answer.  This case is not one of either of those.  People calling for an inquiry acknowledge that there is a significant prospect it will not be able to make a conclusive finding on the allegations of rape.  That incapacity is inevitable.  Where does the inquirer go from there? 

What is certain is that we would get a full rehearsal of the allegations that will appal the family of the dead accuser, sicken the community, and leave the wounded accused maimed for life.  And for what?

The one inescapable problem is that the accused will not be faced by his accuser. The Sixth Amendment to the U S Constitution states that ‘in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.’  That merely states a long standing principle of the common law.  ‘Confrontation and the opportunity for cross-examination is of central significance to the common law adversarial system of trial’ (Lee v R (1998) 19 CLR 94). 

We should be very worried if you or I can be deprived of that fundamental human right merely because the proceeding is said to be an administrative inquiry rather than a judicial determination – when as a result your or my life might be ruined in equal measure by either process.

The truth as it seems to me is that the absence of the accused does not just make any inquiry unfair to Mr Porter – it makes any inquiry simply pointless.  Indeed, of those few who are competent to deal with such an exercise, I wonder who would want the job or take it.

I cannot believe that all those pursuing Mr Porter for political reasons are ignorant of all these problems.  The unfairness hits you full in the face.  I do not like Mr Porter; I positively dislike the Prime Minister; I have no time or respect for either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party; but there was a time when I thought that the ALP would stand up for basic legal or human rights.  That time has apparently passed and those involved should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

Mr Porter – Add on

I may have added that if it is said that it is undesirable to have an Attorney-General the subject of an unresolved allegation of rape, Mr Porter will find himself in select company – one Cardinal and two Justices of the United States Supreme Court.