Passing Bull 214 – Economics and Voodoo

 

How Markets Fail by John Cassidy (2009) is as instructive as it is readable.  On reading it again, I was struck by how evangelical many leading economists are.  They assemble in platoons preaching ideology masquerading as science.  One economist said of Hayek: ‘This kind of writing is not scholarship.  It is seeing hobgoblins under every bed.’  Friedman was the ultimate evangelist.  He could rewrite history to suit his program – he taught that the depression was not caused by market failure but by government failure. 

In 2003, one of Friedman’s successors said that macroeconomics had succeeded in solving the central problem of depression-prevention.  He reminded me of the heart surgeon who said of my chest pain that whatever its cause, it would not kill me.  Six months later, it bloody nearly did just that – because I had delayed in reporting to casualty for hours relying on his advice.  It was, as his Grace the Duke of Wellington observed, a damned close run thing.  So was the Great Financial Crisis – another painful case of a pretty syllogism broken by a sad fact.

It is not as if no one saw the GFC coming.  Mr Cassidy reminds us that in 2003, Warren Buffett told his shareholders that ‘In our view…derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.’  But there you go – the Harvard Business School had knocked back Warren Buffett.  Not the right kind of academic aura – like that of Mr Greenspan.

You can therefore imagine my relief when I read:

The economics department of Morgan Stanley…was refusing to hire any economics Ph D’s unless they had experience outside academe.  ‘We insist on at least a three-to-four year cleansing experience to neutralise the brain washing that takes place’…..’Academic  economics has taken a very bad turn in the road’….’It’s very academic, very mathematical, and it really doesn’t – I want to choose my words carefully here: it is nothing like as useful to the business community as it could be.’

Political parties and think tanks should take note.

When Mr Cassidy goes from ‘utopian’ economics to ‘reality based’ economics, we get:

….the essence of utopian economics is that the free market, by generating a set of prices at which firms and consumers equate private costs and private benefits, produces an efficient outcome.  But from the point of view of society, what is needed is a balancing of social costs and social benefits.  Free markets don’t lead to such a balancing….The market fails, and fails in a very specific and predictable sense.

This is not hard to get.  Dealing in cigarettes or alcohol has social costs – that might be met from taxation.  The same goes for dealing in carbon.  The simple thing to do to meet the social cost would be to impose a tax.

But you can’t do that if tax is an ideological blind spot. And if you subscribe to the ultimate dream of utopia – that money grows on trees.  It’s a bit like asking a keen footy fan to explain a Grand Final that his team just narrowly lost.  After the first few words, you can sit back and hear the needle in the groove as the record revolves fixatedly on its own axis until its predetermined end.

Bloopers

In a blunt message to corporate leaders, the Prime Minister told The Australian the government wanted them to step up and focus on discussions that led to better outcomes for workers and their families.  ‘If you want to advance the cause of your employees so they can earn more, there isn’t time for distractions…The most successful businesses are those that focus on that.’

The Australian, 13 September, 2019

This is hilarious beyond belief.  The Minister for Thongs knows nothing at all about business – absolutely nothing – but he feels free to tell business how to run itself – while saying that business has no place in talking about politics – which business has been driven to do because the politicians are so inept.  And this is from a political party that once had aspirations to being ‘conservative,’ but which is now introducing legislation to enable government to intervene at will in what used to be a free market.  Do those galahs really believe that we came down in the last shower?

MY TOP SHELF – 36 – Kim

 

[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.]

36

Kim

Rudyard Kipling (1900)

Easton Press, Collector’s library of Famous Editions, 1962; illustrations by Robin Jacques; introduction by C E Carrington; fully bound in blue leather; embossed in gold with Indian motifs and title; humped spine; gold edged paper; pearl moiré endpapers and ribbon.

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zan-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum.

To paraphrase the start of Billy Budd, if you walk down the boulevards of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, you will marvel at the range of skin colours and tones on display among what must be the most racially interwoven people on earth.  You do not get the same effect walking down a boulevard in Mumbai, but if you spend any time in India you will see that it has the greatest mixture of faiths and creeds and peoples and tribes and classes and castes on earth.  There are now many more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, but although there was mayhem at the partition of the two countries, these teeming millions more or less manage to get by most of the time without cutting each other’s throats.  India has its share of religious freaks and fanatics but, with England, it is entitled to be regarded as one of the most tolerant nations on earth.  The conjunction of England and India is not accidental – and Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, is testament to the tolerance of both.

The notion of empire is very much on the nose, and Kipling was an Englishman, writing about India when it was the subject of an English Queen Empress – the Raj – and Kipling was seen as the great apologist for the Empire.  The novel Kim will therefore look not just out of date, but out of taste.  But an uncommitted reader coming for the first time to Kim – which was said to be the favourite novel of the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, and which Nirad Chaudhuri said was the very best picture of India written by an English author – will see that it could only have been written by someone who had two qualities: the capacity to deliver engrossing narrative; and a complete affection for and knowledge of the various peoples of India.  And, you might add, the capacity to take relaxed pot-shots from time to time at the affectations of the British in India.

And if Kipling had views that no longer commend themselves to us, so what?  Mozart had an appalling lavatory humour; Beethoven was rude and difficult to deal with; and Wagner was a rolled-gold, five-star jerk.  Do these disabilities stop us listening to their music?  Why let political prissiness stand between you and a good read?  But if you would rather read about India by an Indian, read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  It is badly written and venomous toward India, but it won the Man Booker Prize, and is prescribed reading by Cambridge University for those who are literarily challenged and who can only take their literature tossed with ideology.  Mr Adiga could be India’s answer to Quentin Tarantino – the taste quotients appear to be identical, and the outcome in each case is both shocking and inane.

The second misconception of Kim is that it is a children’s story.  Its hero is a boy who has qualities and experiences that most boys would die to have.  But those experiences are divided equally between two worlds – the spiritual world, and the world of espionage.  Kim becomes the disciple of a Lama, a holy man.  He also becomes involved in the Great Game in what we now call Pakistan and Afghanistan.  (We are still playing games up there, but we are not doing so well.)  The espionage side of the tale is terrific for children – but the nature of the bond between the Lama and his disciple (chela) may be above the level of most children, at least most white children, and will be the more engrossing of the two tales for boys and girls who have well and truly grown up.

The novel starts like the Iliad and Paradise Lostin medias res (in the middle of the action) with lines quoted in the novel (and film) The English Patient set out at the head of this note.  When Kim gets a ticket for the train – ‘the work of the devils’ or ‘the fire carriages’ – he returns with the money ‘keeping only one anna in each rupee of the price of the Umballa ticket as his commission – the immemorial commission of Asia’.

The Lama is in search of the river where the arrow of the Lord Buddha came to earth.  Kim is in search of a Red Bull on a green field – the emblem of the Mavericks, the Regiment of his father.  When Kim is taken in by the Mavericks and a priest, the priest ‘looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen’.’

Kim is introduced to the Great Game by Mahbub Ali and by Creighton Sahib:

The dealers call him the father of fools, because he is so easily cheated about a horse.  Mahbub Ali says he is madder than all other Sahibs.

Kim survives the orphanage and the school of St. Xavier’s in Partibus, and then he goes up to Simla to be educated in espionage by Lurgan Sahib.  While the Sahibs are trying to reclaim Kim as one of their own and use him for their purposes, Kim longs to return to the Lama as his chela.  The two stories merge when Kim and his Lama end up tracking Russians near the Khyber Pass.

The Lama has a confrontation with Mahbub Ali and asks Mahbub why he does not follow the way himself and take Kim as his chela.

Mahbub stared stupefied at the magnificent insolence of the demand, which across the Border he would have paid with more than a blow.  Then the humour of it touched his worldly soul.

In the end, the Lama gains Knowledge and release.  He has a view of the River of the Arrow at his feet.  The book ends with these lines:

So thus the Search is ended.  For the merit that I have acquired, the River of the Arrow is here.  It broke forth at our feet, as I have said.  I have found it.  Son of my Soul, I have wrenched my Soul back from the threshold of Freedom to free thee from all sin – as I am free, and sinless.  Just is the Wheel!  Certain is our deliverance.  Come!

He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as any man who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.

In the 1950s MGM film, Errol Flynn played Mahbub Ali.  But the story of the Lama is played with surprising effect and taste with Paul Lucas in that role.  In the 1984 film production, the Lama is wonderfully played by Peter O’Toole, in a manner that we would see him use as Priam in that awful film called Troy.

It is hard to imagine a story better calculated to hold the interest of boys and girls of all ages.  Children may be captivated by the Great Game – especially those scenes where Lurgan Sahib is teaching the young apprentice the mind games that will become his stock in trade – but the older readers and audiences will have at least as much time for the story of the Lama and his chela.  The two stories touch when the Holy Man tells Kim:

I have known many men in my long life, and disciples not a few.  But to none among men, if so be thou art woman born, has my heart gone out as it has to thee – thoughtful, wise and courteous, but something of a small imp.

The love between an old man and a much younger one has been much touched on, at least since the Dialogues of Plato.  Although Kim was strikingly good looking and attractive to women, and doubtless some men, there is no possibility of a sexual undertone here.  This is the love between two males – one supremely and disconcertingly unworldly, and the other entirely and thrillingly worldly.  It is not like Prospero and Aerial (or Caliban), but it is not silly to compare the relationship to that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  (In his book on Kipling, Angus Wilson thought that Kipling may also have recalled Pickwick and Sam Weller, and Fagin and the Dodger.)  Sancho is as worldly as Kim, but in a more earthy, folksy and matter of fact way.  While the Lama’s unworldliness derives from his holiness, the Don’s derives from his madness.  But in the result, the dialogues between both pairs are illuminated by a harmony that has endured and enthralled all kinds of readers.

The Lama is far from being mad or idiotic – he has no trouble in rustling up the money to pay St. Xavier’s.  But when the Lama in his simplicity thinks that a hooker is a nun, we are reminded of the time when the town wenches burst out laughing when the Don referred to them as virgins, and the affronted Don said:

Give me leave to tell ye, ladies, that modesty and civility are very becoming to the fair sex; whereas laughter without ground is the highest degree of indiscretion.  However, I do not presume to say this to offend you, or incur your displeasure; no, ladies, I assure you that I have no other design but to do you service. 

While Sancho forever ruminates on his master’s madness, Kim is forever astounded at his master’s holiness.  In each case, the chemistry comes about from the mixing of the elements.

The aim of art is to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  Very few novels have achieved that aim like the novels Don Quixote and Kim.  Both have that quality that is so rare.  It is the quality that children feel for a book they have loved.  They are sorry when they come to the end of the book because when they put the book down, they will have to leave a world that has given them so much and which looks to them so much more lively than their own.

Passing Bull 213 –Labels again

 

‘Virtue signalling’ is in vogue in some quarters as a label used as a term of abuse.  The other day, someone asked a sensible question.  What is wrong with virtue signalling?  Big corporates spend a fortune on it.  So do governments – although different considerations apply to different ways of spending public moneys.

Reading Richard Evans’ The Pursuit of Power, Europe 1815 – 1914, I came across some diverting labels.  In 1900, a German gynaecologist said: ‘The use of contraceptives of any sort can only serve lust.’  Given that the survival of the species depends on procreation, what’s wrong with a spot of lust – if you are still up for it?  The notion that sin is inherent in the word lust does not get much encouragement from the Oxford English Dictionary.

A Mayor of Vienna, who happened to hate Jews, was upbraided for sitting at a table with some Jews.  His answer was very simple. ‘I decide who’s a Jew.’

The word Prussian carries a connotation of militant if not military Teutonic discipline and froideur – all ghastly stereotypes.  And Bismarck was the prototype Prussian.  You might therefore be surprised to learn that Bismarck has a good claim to be called the father of the Welfare State.  The Iron Chancellor got in about a generation before Churchill and Lloyd George when he said that ‘the state had to meet the justified wishes of the working classes.’  He dubbed his aristocratic paternalism as ‘state socialism.’  That would be enough to send current Republicans clean out of their minds.’

But the prize for quote of the book goes to a Russian ethnographer who in 1836 said:

According to the observations of old timers, the climate of Kharkov province has become more severe, and it is now exposed to more droughts and frosts.  It is likely that this change has come about because of the destruction of forests.

Yes, that’s right – man made climate change was old hat in Russia in 1836.

Blooper – a good book

The book Finding my place by Anne Aly is a must.  She was two when her parents migrated here from Egypt.  She and they met the full face of bigotry about colour and Islam in Australia.  They were getting over this when Osama knocked over the twin towers and this was followed by the Bali bombing.  Reading this book, you get a clear idea of the damage done by people like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones – and, I would add, John Howard.

Anne’s parents thought it would be easier for her, but that is problematic.  She went through two failed marriages.  On top of her primary degree at the American University of Cairo, she has a diploma, a master’s and a doctorate of philosophy.  Tickets don’t worry me too much, but she got the last two while raising two sons as a single mother.  That is on any view impressive.

She has a world-wide reputation for her expertise in counter-terrorism.  And she has put her training into effect.  One young Muslim who was being groomed told her third husband that but for Anne he would be dead or in jail.

The book is by turns heart-breaking and hilarious.  It is worth the price of purchase just for the spray she gave a shabby dealer who sought to renege on a sale of fencing and passed a  rude remark about Arabs.  Anne Aly does know my language.  And yes, she does sink the slipper into two politicians who – to my certain knowledge – asked for it.

I will only refer to two quotes.  This on being a Muslim in Australia after the twin towers.

There is something disempowering about hate.  If someone hates you for who you are, there really isn’t anything you can do about it.

This on being a federal MP.

I’ve never liked politics and I doubt that I ever will. I don’t rate my performance in media interviews where I’m pitted against a seasoned politician who barks out attacks and expects me to do the same, and my greatest fear is that I will become that person.

Anne Aly is the kind of person who will get right up the noses of the IPA and their ilk.  She is a Muslim woman who breaks all the templates and has made more of her life than they ever will.  This is her triumph, and I found it entirely uplifting.  I will give a copy to my oldest grand-daughter.  The language can be fruity, but the humanity of this woman is a winner for us all.

Here and there – Hitler compared

 

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

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

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

That’s a 10 in the ‘Compare’ column.

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

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

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

Still very heavy ‘Contrast’.

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

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

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

Spot on again for ‘Compare.’

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

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

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

Compare and contrast – indeed.

Here and there – What kind of liar is Donald Trump?

 

In a piece for The New York Times headed ‘Why Does Manafort Lie?’, an American philosopher referred to the remark of Aristotle that some people lie because they boast, and some people lie to flatter others.  Manafort – the man with $15000 ostrich jacket – looks to be a prime example of both.  The philosopher began his piece:

Maybe Paul Manafort simply has more chutzpah than the rest of us. Here’s a man convicted of financial fraud, facing further criminal prosecution for the lies he’s accused of telling, who makes a deal to protect himself and proceeds, according to a memo sent to a federal judge on Friday, to lie to the prosecutors. Accused of lying, he offers as evidence in his defence … what appear to be more lies. There are no good reasons to believe him, and yet he seems to brashly lie nevertheless.

Another liar, Cohen, looks like a beaten man – not repentant, but beaten.  Manafort looks determined to remain pleased with himself.  There is every chance that his lying is so compulsive – so much part of his everyday life – that he no longer knows or cares if he is lying.  By contrast, Cohen looks like a common garden crook who had the misfortune to get caught.  Cohen does not look remorseful either – he just looks bloody guilty.

Donald Trump is a compulsive liar who does not follow either pattern.  But if you had to choose, you would say he is far closer to Manafort than Cohen.  Among other things, Trump is incapable of anything like remorse, much less apologising.  The only time I have ever seen Trump look like he might be conscious of the fact that he was lying was when he was asked if he accepted the explanation of the Saudis for the murder of Kashoggi.  He said that he was, but this was too preposterous even for Trump, and his response lacked all conviction.  Both have since conformed to type.  The Saudis have given about five contradictory explanations – about as many as Trump gave for sacking Comey – and Trump has confessed that the dollar trumps decency.

There are two reasons why people commonly lie.  One is that they want to improve on the truth.  These are the boasters.  They quickly get known.  You choose your own factor for their golf handicap or their income.  They just can’t help themselves.

Another reason for lying is that the truth might hurt.  Did you buy that second property so that the children could learn about life on the farm, or in order to profit from its subdivision?  If you have lied about that, you must hope that your bank manager’s diary notes do not show a more mercenary mindset.

There is another occasion for lying – what is called, dangerously, a white lie.  Sometimes we might have to choose between doing something wrong and causing someone pain.  ‘Well, Son, are you looking forward to meeting my second husband – indeed, your new father – again at Christmas?’  Well, if it’s a choice between hurting your mum, and putting a mild blot on your escutcheon of honour, most of us would stay with mum – because we prefer real life to abstract value or theory.  Goodness, just look at how all hell broke loose when Cordelia could not bring herself to butter up to her cranky old dad, King Lear.  But, in discussing the mendacity of Donald Trump, there is no such out on those lines.

In short, Trump lies because he can.  People who get more power than they can decently handle commonly feel the need to stretch that power beyond its limits.  That is Donald Trump all over, the spoiled child who never grew up or got beyond breaking his best toys.  He has no friends.  He is very dangerous to be near.  You could never turn your back on him.  And when the end comes, it will be sudden and final.  And on one charge alone, he would looking at a minimum of three years in a late bid by the nation to introduce him to the concept of humanity.

Passing Bull 212 –For or against?

 

After I had criticised a comment on where we have gone wrong as being too generalised, I was asked to express my view.  I did so as follows.

It is hard to avoid generalisation, but my sense – for what it is worth – is that the wounds inflicted on the less prosperous part of the middle class by the GFC, globalisation and technology have left them in a very disaffected condition.  They have a big grievance about inequality – which is justified on both capital and income – and an equally justified sense of insecurity. There is a loss of faith in our pillars, and sustaining conventions go west. This drives them back on to what they see as their fundamentals – their nationality or even their race – and, as in Italy and Germany in the 1920’s, this leaves them sitting ducks for populists and their conspiracy theories and scapegoats.  These people in turn fan the flames and increase division.  The inescapable word is ‘polarisation.’  It still has some way to go in the US and UK, but it is not far from the surface in the rest of Europe.  We have so far mostly avoided it – because we avoid politics.  You can forget the rest of the world.

I would be sympathetic to the suggestion that the decline of religion is a major factor but for three things.  The notion that you need God to be moral was blown up more two hundred years ago.  The behaviour of some people claiming to have God – like evangelical supporters of Trump or Catholic defenders of Pell – is genuinely revolting.  And a lot of the worst wars came out of religious schism.

They are what I see as the background to the moral catastrophe of people like Trump and Johnson.  I have the firm but utterly unverifiable notion that a big part of the problem is that for many Americans, Trump is God’s answer to their putting a nigger into the White House.  And I don’t think that too many supporters of Johnson are much better: Farage is shameless.

What we have at least now established is that when assessing a political leader it is fatuous to suggest you can ignore their moral character.

I would add two things.  The populism embraced by people like Trump and Johnson is said to come from parties that were conservative.  As I have said before, a populist is not a conservative.  And these two were born with silver spoons in their mouths.  They could not care less about the less privileged people they appeal to.  Indeed, if either has ever met a working man, that would have been an accident of history.

The result is that these people don’t stand for much. They are in it just for themselves Rather they are defined by what they are against.  Trump is against anything done by Obama, and people of a different colour or religious belief.  Johnson is against Europe – or so he says.  Both are against migrants –their scapegoats of choice.  When your politics are defined by what you are against rather than what you are for, your recipe for bitter division – polarisation – is complete.

A related issue is that people don’t win elections – the other side loses them.  That is an Oz specialty.

Bloopers

Something will have to give.  Environmental awareness is one thing but outsourcing sovereignty is something else.  Amazon fires have exposed what has long been suspected.  Despite international agreements and peer group coercion, in the end nations will pursue their self-interest.  With the passing of each survival deadline that decision becomes easier.

Maurice Newman, The Australian, 29 August, 2019

The man who wrote that was appointed Chair of the ABC.

**

In response to an ASX query about its 21% share price jump yesterday morning, OneMarket revealed it had ‘engaged in confidential discussions with a number of parties regarding potential corporate actions.’

‘Those discussions are not mature and there is no guarantee that those discussions will progress or will result in any corporate action,’ OneMarket said after the close of trade.

The Australian, 29 August, 2019

Would you buy a used share in that outfit?  What ‘action’ of a corporation is not ‘corporate’?

Here and there – Catherine Fieschi on Populism.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY TOP SHELF – 34

 

[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.]

34

OLD GORIOT

Honoré de Balzac

Easton Press, Famous Editions, 1993; translated by Ellen Marriage; illustrated by Renee Ben Sussan; bound in grey leather with gold embossing and label, and humped spine; gold leaf pages; moiré end papers and ribbon.

Goriot had raised the two girls to the level of angels; and, quite naturally, he himself was left beneath them.  Poor man!  He loved them even for the pain that they gave him.

This volume on the shelf is a wonderful presentation of a wickedly good book.

Stories about ungrateful daughters and ugly sisters go back thousands of years in Europe and Asia.  In the Mahabharata in India, there are stories about good and bad children’s treatment of aged parents.  In Grimm, we have the story of the Goose-girl Princess who told her father that she ‘loved him like salt’.  The most famous example in Europe is the story from Celtic legend that we know as King Lear.  An aging king decided to give away his kingdom to his three daughters.  His good daughter is too honest to feign the protestations of love of her two sisters.  In a fit of anger that leads him to madness and his kingdom to destruction, Lear gives all to the two bad daughters.

The old father in Père Goriot (that we know as Old Goriot) of Balzac has at least three things in common with King Lear – he gives everything to his daughters (just two for Goriot); they repay him with ingratitude and they reject him; and in so doing they kill him.

Old Goriot is about the forty-first of ninety four novels that Balzac labelled La Comédie Humaine.  It is set in Paris in 1819, just thirty years after the fall of the Bastille, and four years after the fall of Napoleon.  France had been turned upside down – first they had killed their King; then they had killed their God.  Where would they find bedrock?  The answer of Balzac in this novel is: Nowhere.  Balzac was to say: ‘Reading those dry and rebarbative listings of facts called histories, who has not noticed that writers have forgotten, in all ages, in Egypt, in Persia, in Greece, and in Rome, to give us a history of how life is lived?’

Almost all of the action is set either in a boarding house (a pension bourgeoise) of Madame Vouquer on the Rue Neuve Saint-Geneviève in the Latin Quarter, or in a salon of a hôtel (home) of titled ladies.  The first setting is emphatically lower middle class, with a dingy smell that might never leave you.  The salons are on the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the Chausée d’Antin.  The first is the more elevated, and occupants of the second will do anything to be invited into the first – anything.  The salons might be represented today by the townhouses of merchant bankers in Knightsbridge, and their motto would be the same.  Greed is good; success is all; in truth, as one character says, ‘success is virtue’.

The pension, like the ship The Indomitable in Billy Budd, is a world of its own.  The author says there ‘is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty…’

When his wife died, Goriot transferred all his love to his daughters, Anastasie and Delphine.  He spoiled them in every sense of the word ‘spoiled’.  He allowed them to marry the men they wanted to marry – they therefore went for money and titles and their husbands, having taken the dowries, insisted on keeping old Goriot out of sight ‑ in the name of God, he represented trade.  Then the girls take everything from Goriot and his standing with Madame Vouquer and others becomes contemptible.  If a daughter is seen near him, she is thought to be the fancy of a dirty old man.

Eugène de Rastignac comes from a respectable family in the South.  He comes to Paris to study law.  He is young and good looking.  He gets seduced by Paris and by titled money.  Vautrin is a striking figure of mystery with a dyed beard and a hairpiece, and an evidently strong frame.  In some ways he is like the hero of Les Misérables because he is an ex-convict.  But Vautrin is an escaped convict.  He has a gaze that can both pierce and defile.  He is, unlike Claggart, a truly satanic figure.  He holds charms for the motley.  It is he who will tempt young Rastignac.  .

The author is comfortable in discussing the whole gamut of human relations.  This is how he describes how Goriot made his money.

It was during these years [1789] that citizen Goriot made the money which, at a later time, was to give him all the advantage of the great capitalist over the small buyer; he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him.  He excited no one’s envy

When Goriot is telling Eugène what he is feels for his daughters, Balzac gives him these unforgettable lines:

Well, then, since I have been a father, I have come to understand God.  He is everywhere in the world, because the whole world comes from Him.  And it is just the same with my children, Monsieur, only I love my daughters better than God loves the world, for the world is not so beautiful as God Himself is, but my children are more beautiful than I am.

It is a remarkable passage.  The entrapped Goriot, like Lear, only lives to strangle himself.  His vision is so distorted, he is near madness.

Eugène is sickened by the stony-hearted bitch, Delphine, this worthless moll of a daughter.  He could see that Delphine was ‘capable of stepping over her father’s corpse to go to a ball’, but Eugène cannot help himself.  He just goes along with her, as he had with Vautrin:

… Eugene was too horror stricken by this elegant parricide to resist … The world of Paris was like an ocean of mud for him just then; and it seemed that whoever set foot in that black mire must needs sink into it up to the chin.

Now that Eugène has seen the sewer in the form of this ‘elegant parricide’ he sees ‘society in its three great phases: Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’.  Eugène and a medical student, Bianchon, arrange for the burial of old Goriot, having been cheated on the price of the shroud by Madame Vouquer.  The daughters send their two carriages with their armorial bearings.  Eugène is obliged to borrow five francs from the errand boy, Christophe, to pay the grave diggers taking part in a third class funeral at Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

The ending of this novel comes upon us like a cataract, a bravura point d’exclamation of the entire Romantic Movement.

It was growing dusk, the damp twilight fretted his nerves; he gazed down into the grave, and the tears he shed were drawn from him by the sacred emotion, a single‑hearted sorrow.  When such tears fall on earth, their radiance reaches Heaven.  And with that tear that fell on old Goriot’s grave, Eugène de Rastignac’s youth ended.  He folded his arms and gazed at the clouded sky.  And Christophe, after a glance at him, turned and went – although Rastignac was left alone.

He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river.  His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendôme and Cupola of the Invalides.  There lay a great world that he had longed to penetrate.  He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently: ‘We’ll fight this out, you and I.’ 

Then, as a first challenge to society, Rastignac went to dine with Madame Nucinen.  (Delphine)

There is, therefore, no place for God in The Human Comedy.  Every teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is first mocked and then violated.  We are left with hell on earth, and our young hero can see no way out.  The medical student, Bianchon, was later in the series to become a great physician, and it is said that Balzac cried out for Bianchon during his own death agony.  Well, Balzac was not, like Lear or Goriot, reduced to the ‘thing itself’, ‘unaccommodated man’.  We are left in Old Goriot with what Geoffrey Bullough in his Introduction to King Lear described as ‘the tragedy of Machiavellian atheism’ and ‘pathos too deep to analyse’.

As Eugène grows into manhood and acquires knowledge, Goriot slips into dotage and oblivion, and his lights go out.  His daughters prey on Goriot for his money, but Rastignac does exactly the same to his sisters and his mother – and any piece of upper-class Parisienne skirt he can lay his hands on.  The glitter of the final ball blazes beside the emptiness of the garret in which the squeezed lemon peel has been left.  We are left with what T.S. Elliot called The Waste Land.  By its end Anastasie and Delphine are consumed by a loathing for themselves and each other that is almost as corrosive as that felt by Goneril and Regan.

Goriot leaves the world not so much like Lear, but more like Othello – ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’.  Rastignac is down at the end – he has to pawn the Bréguet watch given to him by his moll to pay for the funeral – but we know that he will rise again, at least according to his own lights, in further instalments of The Human Comedy.  This novel is in large part about the education of young Rastignac.  It is far from being a sentimental education.  This indictment of the bourgeoisie is every bit as coruscating as the plays of Henrik Ibsen such as The Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler.

In his book Ten Novels and their Authors, Somerset Maugham said of Balzac, ‘It is generally conceded that he wrote badly… Balzac was a vulgar man… and his prose was vulgar.  It was prolix, portentous and too often incorrect.’  Of Balzac himself, Maugham said that ‘I think it better to admit that he was selfish, unscrupulous, and dishonest’.  He also had a voracious appetite for food and women.  But Maugham began on Old Goriot by saying, ‘Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world, Balzac is to my mind the greatest.  He is the only one to whom I would without hesitation ascribe genius’.  All of those remarks are borne out by the wonderful novel that is Old Goriot.  It is a novel of a genius in his prime.  It is as good a read as I have on this shelf.

 

 

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.’

The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity

The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound.  (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.)  The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar.  He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten.  (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.)  The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head.  We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).

Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil.  The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity.  How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning?  The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).

The two questions are simple enough.  What is it to be human?  What is it to be evil?  If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.

How did this come about?   Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes.  This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through.  It happens in most families at Christmas lunch.  (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?)  These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth.  Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.

I remarked elsewhere:

Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press.  For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom.  But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’.  This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons.  Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life.  People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.

We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.

The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character.  It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong.  Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable.  In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’

The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley.  Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’  I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved.  Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’.  That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.

Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism.  ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’  That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside.  (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people.  No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)

This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life.  There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy.  We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy.  It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones.  The ceremony of courtesy is drowned.  Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?  Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them?  It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall.  They have no interest in any world without them.  When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play.  It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances.  The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:

The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.

That is why King Lear is our Everest.  Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  They lack discretion.  They are low on judgement.  (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)

Prometheus had the same problem – big time.  I remarked elsewhere:

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. 

Lear loses all the props of mankind.  Prometheus had sought to restore them.  The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion.  It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him.  ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’  ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’  Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:

You are a colt new broken, with the bit

Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,

And bolting.  You are far too strong and confident

In your weak cleverness.  For obstinacy

Standing alone is the weakest of all things

In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.

‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.

This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with

Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.

Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power.  (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).

Prometheus was chained upon a rock.  King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire.  One took on God.  The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton.  Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.

These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation.  It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.