Passing Bull 325 – Unprecedented

The decline and fall of the Republicans brought on by Donald Trump is nowhere sadder and more unsettling than in their reaction to the FBI search and the warrant that authorised it.

Even the ultimate lapdog, Mike Pence, thinks some may have gone too far.  Perhaps his mind has been concentrated by the attempt to lynch him.

“The Republican party is the party of law and order. Our party stands with the men and women who serve on the thin blue line at the federal, state and local level. And these attacks on the FBI must stop,” he said.

“Calls to defund the FBI are just as wrong as calls to defund the police. And the truth of the matter is, we need to get to the bottom of what happened. We need to let the facts play out,” said Pence, who alongside Trump, is considering a 2024 presidential campaign.

“This unprecedented action does demand unprecedented transparency,” he added, saying that he would call on Attorney General Merrick Garland to fully disclose the reasons behind the recent search.

First, the party of law and order is the main party defending the right to bear arms which makes it impossible for government to maintain law and order.  They say that the constitutional right, which makes it impossible for government to do its constitutional duty, was meant to allow people to bear arms against a government doing them wrong.  As did the people who raided the Capitol.

Secondly, everyone uses the terms ‘unprecedented’ in this context.  So was the Declaration of Independence.  So is Donald Trump.

Thirdly, when the Republicans apply ‘unprecedented transparency’, whatever that is, to Merrick Garland, and the judge who authorised the warrant, they might recall that the only reason that Garland is not on the Supreme Court is their unprecedented step in blocking his appointment.

Finally, on reflection, the Declaration did have a precedent – the English Bill of Rights – including the right to bear arms = which the English have never been stupid enough to abuse in the American way.

U S – Trump – FBI – Bill of Rights – the right to bear arms.

The dispensing power of Donald Trump

Dear Editor (NYT),

You report the claim for Donald Trump that documents taken out of the Oval Office “were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them.”  This is the largest claim to a dispensing power made by a head of state since the Stuarts.  You will recall that King James II asserted that his royal prerogative enabled him to dispense with statutes he did not like.  That did not go down too well, and there was a revolution – and the Bill of Rights.

That law has never troubled the English, but your Supreme Court has applied it to give rights to carry weapons that horrify the rest of the West.  It is just a matter of time until someone – possibly on the Supreme Court – alleges that the misgovernment alleged against the DOJ and FBI show why citizens should have the right to bear arms – against misgovernment.

The irony is that Merrick Garland should be on the Supreme Court – for its considerable betterment.

Yours truly

The person responsible for this stunt may not be aware of the shades of meaning of ‘deem’. But English was never good for Trump. Which is one reason he marries women whose English is worse than his.

Trump – dispensing with the Espionage Act – bullshit.

Idolizing the people

Most peoples romance about their past.  The French have made an art form of it.  Their first historian of the revolution, Michelet, idolised le peuple.  Pieter Geyl is as insightful a historian as I have known.  He wrote a paper about Michelet which you can get in his magisterial Debates with Historians.  The people were implicated in the Terror and other atrocities.  In his account, Hippolyte Taine lacerated the mob.  Michelet let them off.  The gruesome September Massacres – when victims were cast out of jails to be slaughtered by the mob – a broiling lynch mob – were not the fault of le peuple but ‘three of four hundred drunks’.

As the French descended into anarchy and a form of dictatorship, the sedate bourgeoisie of law-makers in the Convention surrendered power de facto to the Paris commune – a word fated in the history of Europe and which would recur fatefully about once a generation or so in France up to and including the yellow vests a year or two ago.  The triumph of the commune was, if you like a revolution within a revolution.  Danton had to live with imputations about his inaction during the massacres.  The Convention had to live with imputations about their failure to rein in the Commune.

Geyl made observations in 1954 that bear directly on the appalling failings of the United States taking place before our eyes.

The worst, however, was that the event [the September Massacres] demonstrated the impotence of the Convention.  To me the way in which that Assembly allowed itself to be tyrannised over by the Paris Commune (in which the lowest elements had the upper hand, as Michelet admits) seems an undeniable proof of moral cowardice, dishonouring the Revolution.

That is a precise picture of Republican elders in the United States showing moral cowardice in giving way to the mob – ‘in which the lowest elements have the upper hand.’.  And they are doing just that in light of the evidence coming out every day that the mob will in truth be a lynch mob even without that encouragement.

When Michelet gets fuzzy about the ups and downs of the ensainted people, Geyl says this.

There is in that sentimentality about the bloody maniacs of 1793/4, moved by the new revelation of eternal truths, but also by hatred and fear, something positively repulsive.  But they were all patriots, they were all faithful servants…


And no decent country in the western world would have suffered the election of a draft dodger and tax evader who was a lying fraudster and whose inability to recognise the world as it is or to accept its rules were bound to lead to chaos and strife – to an extent that now threatens the rule of law, if not the Union itself.

And then compare the way in which the Tory elders of England put down their serial pest.  It wasn’t pretty, but it did have the benefit of a start of one millennium or so.

PS The note on Pieter Geyl below comes from Listening to Historians.  He is one of those people – I know far too many – who make you wonder what you have done with your life.


Holland had, and still has, a reputation for tolerance and enlightenment.  In the 17th century, it offered sanctuary to great European thinkers like Spinoza and Locke – Spinoza died there; Descartes also sought protection there.  Holland has also produced great historians.  One of them was the late Pieter Geyl (1887-1966).  Don’t just take my word for it.  A J P Taylor said: ‘If I were asked to name the historian whom I have most venerated in my lifetime, I should not hesitate for an answer.  I should name Pieter Geyl.’

Every now and then – it is not very often – you come across a writer who soon puts you at your ease.  There is a breadth and depth of learning; there is an absence of arrogance or waspishness; and there is some compassion, some generosity of spirit, too.  I do not think that we can call someone ‘wise’ unless we can see something on top of a very fine mind – something like humanity, for the want of a better word. 

The late Professor Geyl qualifies on all counts, in spades.  Geyl was trained in Holland but spent a lot of time teaching and writing in England and in the States; he also spent some time in Germany, something that I will come back to.  His 1955 book Debates with Historians is ideal for our purposes as it looks at four of the historians that we have.  (A substantial part of the book consists of a polite demolition job on Arnold Toynbee.)

The first essay from about 1952 is called ‘Ranke in the Light of the Catastrophe.’  A Times Literary Supplement piece had in the eye of Geyl suggested that Ranke by his ‘political quietism’ been a pioneer of National Socialism – the ‘Catastrophe’ of the title.  (In the fashion of the time, the article was unsigned.  Geyl referred to its ‘vehement one-sidedness’ and had said that in ‘this case it is not difficult to guess who is the writer’ – A J P Taylor?  Trevor-Roper?)  Geyl was intent on defending the German historian against this charge, a very decent undertaking for a Dutchman so soon after that war, you might think. 

There are two things.  One is the great insight of Ranke, that we have seen, that ‘Every period is immediate to God, and its value does not in the least consist in what springs from it, but in its own existence, in its own self.’  This to me sounds like Bonhoeffer.  It is to preach humility to historians – and some of them could do with the sermon. 

Then there is the magisterial closure to the refutation of the charge that Ranke had prefigured National Socialism.  It contains the following.

If we are tempted by our horror at the culmination of evil that we have just experienced or witnessed to pick out in the past of Germany all the evil potentialities, we may construct an impressively cogent concatenation of causes and effects leading straight up to that crisis.  But the impressiveness and straightness will be of our own constructing.  What we are really doing is to interpret the past in the terms of our own fleeting moment.  We can learn a truer wisdom from Ranke’s phrase that it should be viewed ‘immediate to God’, and he himself, too, has a right to be so considered…..Comprehension, a disinterested understanding of what is alien to you – this is not the function of the mind which will supply the most trenchant weapons for the political rough-and-tumble….To understand is a function of the mind which not only enriches the life of the individual; it is the very breath of the civilization which we are called to defend.

God send us more people who can think and write with that largeness of spirit – and consign our mediocrities to the dustbin that they deserve.

The second essay is about Macaulay.  He is the complete opposite of the ideal of Ranke.  He refuses to ‘look at the past from within…to think in the terms of the earlier generations’.  Macaulay looked on the past as the culmination of his view of Progress, of those ‘on the right side’ no less.  Geyl finds that ‘this mental attitude toward the past is in the deepest sense unhistoric.’  Elsewhere he uses the more homely term ‘cocksure.’ 

All this may be accepted, but with two exceptions, has anyone written history in a more entertaining fashion?  Has anyone ever got even close to Macaulay’s description of the trial of the seven bishops or of the massacre at Glencoe?  Some years ago, I was reading the History of Macaulay for the third time.  I was reading about the trial as I walked to chambers with the book in front of my face.  I was nearly killed by an irate tooting driver because I found that I was walking against a red light.  The dry-as-dust crowd are not likely to lead me unto temptation or unto damnation.  And let us not forget that in writing the Whig view of the Glorious Revolution, Macaulay had a lot to be cocky and sure about.  His team had won – hands down.  And as they say at the footy – winners are grinners; the rest make their own arrangements.

The next essay is about Carlyle and ‘the spirit of the Old Testament that seems to be present, coupling anathematization with adoration.’  It is about Carlyle’s ‘impatience with baseness and cowardice, his feeling of being out of place in a world of superficial sentiment and mediocre living……the babbling of lifeless religiosity or the sham assurance of modern idealism.  Instinct, intuition, the myth, these were his challenge to the rationalists and glorifiers of science who (unappeasable grievance) had made the Christian certitude of his childhood untenable for him’.  Carlyle was impatient with those in thrall to logic.  ‘Yea friends, not our Logical, Commensurative faculty, but our Imagination is King over us.’  That is not the least of Carlyle’s appeal.

Geyl, as it seems to me, gets the sadness in Carlyle exactly right: ‘the sentimental tie to a spiritual heritage which his intellect rejected, the painful reaction against the false teachers who gave him nothing in exchange for what they had robbed him of.’  That condition is very common now – it may define our time, as the time of the claimed death of God, but the author concludes on Carlyle: ‘and the perception of that tragic quality makes it possible to accept gratefully that which is vivifying in his work and serenely to enjoy its beauties.’  Would that other professional historians might be so generous with this poetic and prophetic lightning-conductor from the north.

Then follows an essay on Michelet, the first great historian of the French Revolution.  I have read Michelet, mostly in translation, the better to understand the loathing of the French for the church and, for many of them at one time or another, the English.  His father was an unsuccessful printer – as Professor Burrow reminds us, ‘exactly from the stratum from which the revolutionary crowds were chiefly recruited.’  But, Professor Geyl instructs us, business was bad under Napoleon, and ‘the memory of the Revolution was thus, in that poverty-stricken family, allied to detestation of the Corsican despot.’  It helps to have the inside running on the local knowledge of some historians. 

You will understand the deeply emotional and personal approach of Michelet if you recall that his initial work was on medieval France and that he thought that the English in destroying Joan of Arc – whom he saw as incarnating ‘the self-consciousness of France’ – ‘thought they were deflowering France’!  (God help him if he ever got to see what Shakespeare put in the mouths of her English tormentors.) 

Michelet has the exclamatory style of Carlyle, and a Romantic mind-set, but, as we saw, their differences come in two words.  Michelet talks of the ‘people’ – le bon peuple – while Carlyle speaks of the ‘mob’.  Or, rather, as Geyl tells us, it is the people when it is good – the storming of the bastille; but when they are bad – massacring the inmates of prisons until the streets ran with blood – it is not ‘the people’ but ‘three or four hundred drunks.’  If the awful Terror was an awful weapon, it only had to be employed because of the evil English without, and the traitors within – ‘the people’ and France were guiltless.  (Do you recall Francois Mitterrand saying of Vichy France that ‘The French nation was not involved in that; nor was the Republic’?  Did they all come from Mars?  Have you heard a Russian say that it was not Russia that invaded Afghanistan – it was the Soviet Union.) 

On the one hand, Michelet dislikes Robespierre for the lack of that ‘kindness which befits heroes’; on the other hand, the moderates, who literally lost their heads, lacked ‘that relentless severity which it seemed that the hour required.’  Only seemed, Professor?  When people walk on egg-shells like that, they are protecting someone. 

And the treacly chauvinism – no, imperialism – defies the patience of the Dutchman.

France the country of action.  Love of conquest?  No, proselytism.  What France wants above all is to impose her personality upon the vanquished, not because it is hers, but because she holds the naïve conviction [yes, naïve conviction] that it represents the type of the good and the beautiful.  She believes that she can render to the world no greater benefit than by presenting it with her ideas, her manners, and her fashions.

It is like a wearied but proud parent answering for the forward behaviour of a preppy, spoiled child.  Here presumably is the rationale of Michelet for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Hitler did not bother to try to dress up his invasion of Russia.  Was there any difference between the two for the millions of Russians who were doomed to die because of each invasion?  If you are facing rape or a bayonet, does it matter who sent them?

And what about Belgium, the presently disintegrating heart of Europe?  Well, they were not ‘true Belgians’ – they were within the ‘true boundaries’ of France.  What about the French robbery and rapine in Belgium?

Was it not for Belgium and for the world that France undertook the war, which between 1792 and 1815 cost her ten millions of her children?  In view of that frightful quantity of French blood, it does not begrudge the Belgians very well to grudge us a little money.

It takes your breath away.  What about the ten millions of the children of those nations who were not minded to accept liberation from Napoleon?  And what had Europe to show for her five million dead?

Did he [Robespierre] not understand that to try to dam in such a Revolution was impossible, ridiculous, and unfair?  Unfair, for we owed it to the world.

Again, it defies belief – until, that is, we recall the banality of the evil of the dictators of the next century.  Michelet thought that France was ‘stained’ by 1815.  (Some are still unhappy about Waterloo Station.)  Geyl observes that ‘his vehemence sometimes gives the impression of being an attempt to shut down his inner uncertainty’.  The same may be said for Robespierre, but we see this all the time now in the wind-bags posing as politicians. 

We have been speaking of the need for historians to look at the world as it was seen by people at the time – Maitland was very strong on this – but are we not compelled to dream of meeting the shades of Professor Michelet over the ruins of Dresden or Hiroshima and asking him if he might care to revise his view of the wisdom of allowing nations with tickets on themselves to walk all over other nations just to present them with ‘her ideas, her manners, her fashions.’

Professor Geyl feared that the cult of the Revolutionary tradition may even now be a danger in the hands of propagandists of absolutist politics.  ‘It began with the detestable league against Justice entered into by army and church in the Dreyfus affair.’  I agree, and very many otherwise decent French people then averted their gaze to save the honour of France, but then I look down at the footnote.  ‘I must apologise for speaking the language of the supporters of Dreyfus, in which the personifying metaphors undeniably have the usual effect of effacing transitionary shadings or exceptions.’  It is very, very rare, is it not, to find a professional man apologising for dropping his professional guard?

There are four papers on Arnold Toynbee.  He had discovered ‘laws’ of the rise and fall of civilizations that he unfolded in massive length and detail and with prodigious learning over 2500 closely printed pages.  It was all moonshine.  He said that on his predictors, things were not looking up, but that if we went back to God, we could be saved: ‘Be converted, or perish.’  It was therefore a smash hit in the United States.  It has now sunk almost without trace.  Its tone can be assessed from the work of a fellow-traveller at Harvard who published four massive volumes full of tables and graphs called Social and Cultural Dynamics.  Scores – no, as we would now say, teams – of scholars compared any number of books and paintings to grade the extent to which they might be characterized as ‘sensate’ or ‘ideational’.  What got into one of the most respected and wealthy universities on earth to back a project that was on a par with reading tea leaves or Tarot cards? 

I will mention four things about Professors Geyl and Toynbee.

The first is that Geyl is completely courteous and fair.  He may for all I know have learned from reading Darwin that if you want to do a demolition job on someone, the best thing to do is to set out the object of attack fairly, accurately, dispassionately, and courteously.  This advice is allied to the opinion of good advocates – that their most potent weapon is candour.  One advantage of setting out the other position in detail is that you can point to the spot where it fails.  You can claim the logical high ground.  You are not just being disarming – your position is carried with conviction.  One reason for this is that you are being honest – intellectually.  People should read The Origin of Species and Debates with Historians on this ground alone.  Would that those posing as professional sportsmen could absorb this lesson.  Each is a triumph of fairness and courtesy.

Secondly, the short answer to those who claim to have the answer to history is the remark that someone made to the effect that the tragedy of the social sciences is that of a syllogism broken by a fact.  We are not God.  Our understanding is too frail to support over-arching cathedrals.  We must make do under humbler shelters.  Geyl refers, more than once, to the wise advice of the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga to the effect that the height of a civilization cannot be measured.  ‘To judge a civilization, or one particular stage of a civilization, steadily, and to judge it whole, is a task which I think will always be beyond the powers of the human intellect.’  We should leave the blind arrogance of those who adhere to the alternative view to those who prop up the corner of a bar arguing about whether Muhammad Ali was as good a sportsman as Babe Ruth. 

On a related issue, Geyl quotes a cracker of a line from an English historian called Mr E M Young.  Mr Young warned about trying to get some absolute ‘canon of valuation’ and went on:

If we trespass across this boundary, we may find ourselves insensibly succumbing to one of the most insidious vices of the human mind; what the Germans in their terse and sparkling way call: ‘the hypostatization of methodological categories’, or: the habit of treating a mental convenience as if it were an objective thing.

(In fairness to Mr Young, it may be said that the relevant ‘terse and sparkling’ phrase does look threateningly like as if it may have fallen from the great Prussian, Immanuel Kant.  God only knows what it sounded like in German.) 

It is spellbindingly obvious that it is only people who do the things that make up our history; or, as Carlyle said, history consists of innumerable biographies.  There was no such thing as the French Revolution.  Some people in France – some we can identify; most we cannot – performed actions that came to constitute events that over a period of time – the boundaries of which are negotiable – historians and others have labelled as the French Revolution.  But there was no such thing.  The convenience of a label, and sloppiness of thought, give no warrant for treating all these infinite human actions as ‘an objective thing.’ 

On 14 July 1789, the Parisian bourgeoisie – however you define that weasel term – did nothing.  Rather, some men and women – some of whom we know; most of whom we do not know – took by force a government post, and then mayhem and all hell were let loose (as I think Milton said).  The taking of that fortress came to stand for the subsequent collapse of royalty and most of the last vestiges of the feudal system, but only God knows what may have happened to the white hats if a detachment of troops in black hats in charge of heavy fire-power had not changed sides at what we now would call the tipping point on that day. 

Not one of the things that any person did that collectively now fall under the label of the ‘French Revolution’ could have been predicted in advance – not one.  Nothing was preordained.  For just one example, Louis Capet could have kept his head, as could Charles Stuart, if he had been ready, willing and able to negotiate.  And while on 14 July, many historians forget that the nastiness and violence and killing started then.  Paris did not have to wait for the Terror to see blood on the streets or heads taken off shoulders – they had it from Day One.  If we are speaking of a revolution, we are speaking of violent force.  Depending on your outlook, you might think that the mob got the taste of blood very early.

Thirdly, and very much relatedly, one essay is dedicated to exploding the idea that Toynbee was being empirical – just proceeding as a matter of fact on the evidence – as opposed to people like the German Spengler (The Decline of the West) who were theoretical or philosophical.  It is a fair inference that Toynbee followed the bad example of mediocre judges – too many of them – by reaching a conclusion and then setting out to justify it.  But Professor Geyl states the objection more dispassionately.

I must confess that the historian who presents me with large generalizations and in the same breath tells me that he has been proceeding empirically will always arouse my distrust.  Nothing is more likely to be misleading than the comparison of the historian’s method with that of the scientist.  When the scientist conducts an experiment intended to show that a certain reaction is brought about by one particular element, or combination of elements, rather than another, he will take care above all to isolate that factor beyond the possibility of mistake.  It will always be hard indeed for the historian to do likewise.

It is the same for lawyers; we are fond of saying that experience trumps logic; we and historians are looking at men and women through a glass darkly, not measuring quantities of matter into a test tube.  That is why some of us are more enlightened about the past by the art of Gibbon, Carlyle, and Macaulay than a shotgun splatter of graphs, tables, citations, and footnotes; it is also why it does not look too good for the professional historians to be snooty about or envious of those writers who can reach us where we live.  We may be reminded of the observation – of R D Laing? – that more light may enter a mind that is cracked than one that is whole.

Geyl concludes against Toynbee that ‘the whole imposing work is a travesty of the scientific method.’  The final paper winds up that ‘this prophet usurps the name of historian….I regard his prophecy as a blasphemy against Western Civilization.’  The steps leading to that conclusion have been laid with great care, and the skeleton of the reasoning has been frankly exposed.

Finally, we have an indication of the way that the breeze has changed about religion.  The invitation ‘Convert or perish’ would ensure that this monument of Toynbee hit the dustbin a lot faster now, but Professor Geyl refers to a Dutch professor ‘who is a faithful Catholic and stimulating religious thinker, [who] begins by observing that many of his co-religionists will not admit any criticism of Toynbee, because they are so profoundly impressed with his message, his message of salvation through Christ.’  Toynbee had somehow constructed a system intended ‘to support divine truth.’ 

It is like the opponents of Galileo who quoted the Bible to over-rule the science of astronomy.  It is no business of mine to give advice to those of faith, but may I say that it makes as much sense to me for people of the cloth to pick fights with professional historians, philosophers, or doctors, as it would do for the Marylebone Cricket Club to challenge the New York Yankees to a World Series baseball play-off on a resurfaced Lords?

I shall try to deal briefly with three other essays.

Talleyrand, a randy, deformed bishop with a brilliant mind, was the foreign minister of Napoleon.  They clashed over policy.  Talleyrand undoubtedly went against his boss at times.  In one essay, Geyl asks why French historians, even those who are against the little Corsican, do not notice this.  ‘Are the French more inclined to detest inconsistency of action and deceitfulness?  Have they less patience with the witty and charming intriguer, the shifting evasive, character?’  There were some acting against the Emperor when he ‘was paving the way for the catastrophe’ (there is that word ‘catastrophe’ again), but Geyl concludes that the French took the view that their ‘loyalty was to the government actually in power, irrespective of one’s feelings as to its desirability’.  A footnote says that the Dutch version of the paper ‘was written under the German occupation in 1944’. 

When Churchill’s memoirs came out, Geyl was ‘thrilled’ to read that Churchill had the same view.  Churchill had had to tell a secret session of the Commons why Eisenhower had chosen to deal with Admiral Darlan who had been sent by Petain ‘and to whom there still clung the somewhat unpleasant odours of Vichy’ (and you will have noted the tolerance that is there extended to the fallen).  Churchill, no enemy of France, said that there was a principle of the droit administratif, ‘a highly legalistic state of mind’ arising from a sub-conscious sense of national self-preservation.  The Allies believed that because the French state had been subjected to so many convulsions, many French would regard de Gaulle as a man who had rebelled against the authority of the French State.  Therefore the Allies thought that they had better deal with the officials nominally empowered, even if they were on the nose.  (And perhaps here is a clue to the enduring antipathy of de Gaulle to England: these papers were written before that antipathy was fully realized).

You will see immediately the relevance to the attitude of French historians to Talleyrand and Napoleon.  In 1952, there was another name to reflect on.  ‘The German parallel does not of course imply that I am overlooking the enormous difference between Napoleon and Hitler…But they were both dictators and adventurers.’  This very wise historian had previously prepared us for this discussion:

One certainly does not need to be a Frenchman to understand that attitude.  [To betray Napoleon was to betray France.]  Everybody will find it easier to recommend to the citizens of another country resistance to a dictator as their true national duty than to put that doctrine into practice when the case presents itself at home.

How very, very true.  How many of us have within ourselves the courage of a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  Not me, Mate.  There was a man of God who was imbued with the Sermon on the Mount and who felt that it was his duty not just to disobey but to kill Hitler.  Bonhoeffer had after all accepted the truth of the remark with which Professor Geyl closes this essay:

as regards Talleyrand, the German parallel will remind us – if we need that reminder: the present generations are becoming ever more familiar with the idea – that under the regime of a dictator-adventurer the social order is partially dissolved and the resistance cannot be judged by the rules of normal times.

Is this just not downright marvellous?  How often is history so enlightening?

There is a paper on the U S civil war.  You will not be surprised that Professor Geyl is against the view that the war and its outcome were pre-ordained.  He argues that the essential premise of the contrary argument is just ‘one more proof of the general truth that the course of history is not governed by the conscious will of the majority.’  Did a majority of English people want to kill Charles Stuart?  Did a majority of French people want to kill Louis Capet?  Anybody familiar with the politics of a student body, a trade union, a parish church, or a professional partnership will wonder how often a majority view prevails.  (Do most people in Europe want to support the Euro on the terms on offer?  Do the centralists in Brussels have anything in common with those whom they claim to represent?)

In the course of the discussion, Geyl shows that he understands the greatest of all our men, Abraham Lincoln – ‘that rare combination of courage to stand alone with moderation; of detestation of the evil with understanding of the difficulties of the human agent or of the society in which the evil flourishes.’  He looks at the naked majesty of the Second Inaugural and goes on:

….the leading idea expressed in religious terms, is that events had taken their course independently of human control.  To me this humility in the face of the mighty happenings seems to be a truer proof of wisdom than Randall’s rationalism [the contrary view].  The conception in which it is founded may have its tragic implications; it has not, to anyone who accepts life in its entirety, anything depressing.  What seems depressing is rather that attempt to show, over and over again, that those people could have been spared all their misfortunes if only they had been sensible.  For do we not know at long last that man is not a sensible being?

Have you as yet got to expect the richness and ripeness of this kind of response from this writer?

From a short note on ‘Latter-day Napoleon Worship’, here is the former Emperor at St Helena on his first wife:

The real reason why I married her was because she had got me to believe that she had a large fortune….I found out the truth about her finances before I married her, and in any case the marriage with a woman of a good old French family was an excellent thing for me.  I was a Corsican after all.

Geyl comments on the ‘downrightness, and also a psychological truth, which are positively staggering.’  Could a man who was so cool about dropping a wife also be cool about dropping an army?  He did it twice.  Once in the sands of Sinai and once in the snows of Russia.  When the going got tough, Boney buggered off – twice.  (Well, he was a Corsican, after all.)  If you put to one side the millions who died so that the little Emperor of the French could play Europe and Egypt like a chessboard, there are things to be said for an against Buonaparte – and there is a book by Geyl on that subject – but on one issue there can be no argument – his troops could not trust this leader to stick by them when things went bad.  Is a there a worse charge left to be levelled against a soldier?

As ever, Geyl can allow for the poignancy of the manner of Napoleon’s dying – ‘for he could be truly and charmingly kind.’  And Napoleon certainly was unrepentant as he left us: ‘I am glad I have no religious faith.  It is a great comfort now.  I have no chimerical fears, I am not afraid of the future.’  I understand that feeling – what it might do for his victims is a matter for God.  Geyl leaves the subject ‘almost ready’ to accept the verdict of Thomas Hardy:

Such men as thou, who wade across the world

To make an epoch, bless, confuse, appal,

Are in the elemental ages’ chart

Like meanest insects on obscurest leaves –

But incidents and grooves of earth’s unfolding;

Or as the brazen rod that stirs the fire

Because it must.

If you read a lot, you may sometimes feel like a lone digger traipsing over an old gold field, and you just plough on in the wistful hope that one day your luck may turn and you may just come across some real gold.  Well, we got one here!  We have here a breadth and depth of learning, simple courtesy and fairness, and above all, compassion for the human condition.  In the end, Professor Geyl only fires point blank at Toynbee because he sees Toynbee as having impeached his faith, a faith that was I expect entirely secular, but no less real or precious for that; I suspect also that he had tired of Toynbee’s dogged unrepentance, and the wilful blindness of his deluded followers.

Professor Geyl represents something very, very fine about the European tradition.  He came from a nation that holds some of the title deeds of western civilization, to adopt a phrase of Churchill’s, a nation renowned for its tolerance.  His was a Europe that had just been convulsed in an appalling war, for the second time in a little more than a generation, but this historian is able to analyse its history in a way that does great honour to his calling.  In those essays, he had defended one German historian of a charge of being a step-ladder for the Nazis, and he had sought to understand what he saw as the ‘catastrophes’ that had befallen both France and Germany in different centuries and with different dictators.

I mentioned that Geyl had spent some time in Germany and that he wrote the Dutch version of the Talleyrand essay during the German occupation of Holland.  For thirteen months, Pieter Geyl, even then a most distinguished Dutch historian, had been kept at a place that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama visited a couple of years ago.  Its emblem was Jedem das Seine, ‘To Each his Own’.  We know it under a name of unspeakable horror – Buchenwald. 

On his release from Buchenwald, Geyl was kept in a Dutch prison by the Germans until the end of the war.  And, yet, in the period following that war, he was able to write about Europe, and the world at large, in the terms that I have indicated.  This, surely, was a colossal achievement, and one that humbles us.  Professor Geyl has produced work that helps us come to terms with our humanity, and that is I think the proper purpose of the world of learning, or, as I would prefer to say, men and women of letters.  Or as A J P Taylor is quoted as saying in the blurb on this book, ‘Geyl is one of the few living men whose writings make us feel that Western civilisation still exists.’

What’s Wrong? Extracts

This book is now on sale. Below is an extract on doubtful terms.


a priori, absolutely (this is the default BBC answer for ‘yes’), accountable, acid test, action (verb), activist (what’s wrong with having a cause?), adamant (for a lawyer, a dodgy proposition that the lawyer cannot dissuade the client from persisting in), add value, address issues, agenda, agitator (a Mixmaster ?), and/or (deadly before a fussy literate person or in a literate context: what does it mean?), and then some, antithesis, apples with apples, arguably, argy bargy, as to whether, at the end of the day, attendee (looks passive, but should be active, and is pretentious), austerity (living within your means) Aussie (Aussie Aussie Aussie is more than three times as bad – see cringe making below), awesome


back to the future, backflip (vulgar abuse in politics), bad apples, ballpark, bandy about, beloved (maudlin), beltway, best practice, birth (as verb – ‘she birthed well’), bottom line, boot camp, boutique, brand (noun), break even, breaking point, breakthrough, broad church (euphemism for factional corrosion in a political party), burning issue


cack handed, canny (Scot or investor), cancel culture, catalyst, charisma, cherry pick, closure, coalface, comfort zone, comfortable (be comfortable or uncomfortable with – except in negotiating), competitive evaluation process, conceptualise, conflate, connote (unless you know the difference from denote), conservative (utterly abused or debauched: as we speak, either suicidally recidivist reactionary or one claiming the privilege of the harlot through the ages) core (values, principles, or promises), cost benefit, cost effective, crisis (typical political or economic hyperbole), cringe making, critique (verb), crushing, cut through, cut-through (noun), cut to the chase, cutting edge


damage control (what politicians do when they get caught), deal breaker, deconstruct, deep pockets, delighted (‘I or we would be’ is generally a bad lie; see passionate), devil in the detail, dialogue, dichotomy (the last two are so pretentious), dilemma (unless it is a real one and not just where you have to make a choice), discriminate (extreme care required – we discriminate against murderers), downsize, doyen, Draconian (unforgivable), draw a line in the sand, driver (management bullshit as in ‘core driver’)


elite, end of the day, envision, epicentre (when you just mean centre) even playing field, eventuate, execute (that shot was poorly executed = bad shot), existential (threat or anything else), extrapolate, eye watering


faceted (multi ), famously (as in ‘as X famously said’), feedback, feel good, fire up, flag (verb), flip flop (verb), floodgates, frame of reference, freedom (from what or to do what), free-standing, front and centre (adverb), full credit, functionality


gaffe (an error by a politician you want to put down), game changer, game plan, gear up, geared to, generation X, get-go, go figure, going forward, go to man, good luck with that, governance, grow (transitive verb – ‘she grew her business’), gut feeling, gutted (the opposite of stoked)


having regard to, head space, heavy lifting, hearts and minds, heralds (verb), herein or hereon, hereinafter or hereinbefore, high end, high handed, highly geared, hindsight, holed up, holistic (an almost certain guarantee of pure bullshit), hollow out, hopefully, hot button, hunkered down


icon, iconic (as remarked above, this has been belted senseless), identity politics, impact (verb), impact on, impactful, in a nutshell, in regards to, in terms of (the adult version of the teenage comfy rug ‘like’), in terrorem, input, interface, issue (address the), iteration


jackboot, journey (mine with you)


keep me (you) awake at night, key, key performance indicators, king hit, knife edge (election, frustrating a caller)


landmark, lean in, legacy (in second term of US President), Left (as a political term), leverage, leverage off, libertarian (a status not claimed by those with a modicum of sense or a sense of modesty; pompous code for something far worse), line in the sand, line of sight, little Aussie battler, low hanging fruit


macro , make a nonsense of, maintenance (high or low), mandate (crass as a verb and abused as a noun), marginalise, matrix, maximise, meaningful, micro , mindset, minuet (unless it is warranted), mis speak (in truth, it was a lie), modality, mojo, monetise, morph, move the dial, moving forward, multi skilled, multi tasked, my (our) ask of you


neo conservative, neoliberal, network (verb – except for travelling Russian furriers), no brainer, – not (in brackets after a list of attributes), not have a problem with, nuanced


obligate, one size fits all, ongoing, opine, optics, optimal, optimise, options, orient, orientated, outcome, outgoing, out group, outlier, output, outsource, overall


parameters, parent (verb), parenting, passionate (about things you show no passion about), pear-shaped, per, perfect storm, political correctness, political football, politically motivated, poor decision, prioritise, proactive, problem (not have a problem with), progressive (political), push back


quick fix


radar (off or under the), ramp up, reach out, reality check, red flag, red line, reform (in politics, it suggests that the change is for the better, which will generally be controversial), repurpose, reputational damage, reset, resonating, rethink, Right (political) (see above, Left – what does either mean here and now?), roll out


said (adjective), scenario, scope (verb – clear symptom of predatory and expensive bullshit), scoping, segue, seize on (what a politician does with the mistake of another), share with you, showcase, sic, side of the angels, sidewalk (only US), skill set, societal, sovereign or sovereignty, start over, state of the art, stitch up, strategy, stoked (see gutted), street smart, sub set, substantive, symbiotic, syndrome, synergy, synthesis


tactical, tad (a) (I930s twee), tank (intransitive verb), that said, think (as in think money), think outside the box, thoughts and prayers (perfunctory and insincere), tick all boxes, tipping point, tolerably clear, top down, top line, transformative agenda, transparent (of language), transparency, traumatic, twenty four seven


unaccountable, unparalleled, unpack (figurative – seriously pretentious), unstructured, utilise


value add, vaunted, veritable, viable, vow (verb)


wake up call, wannabes, wash its face, watershed, weaponise, weaponising, wherein, win win, window of opportunity, woke, work in progress


zero sum game, zero tolerance

Logic – buzz words – cliches – political swipes.

Parties and opposition

(Extracts from book in preparation about failures in government and business provisionally called What’s Missing?)

The failings of the two-party system

So, we might get the service from government that we deserve.  We have looked at the fragility or unsteadiness of the two-party system.  At the time of writing – say, Easter 2022 – each of our two major parties is in a contest to see who stands for the least and which is the worst managed. 

You might do better if you left the running of the system of national government to the members of the Magpies (AFL) or the Bunnies (NRL) – at least they believe in something and they have respectable numbers.

This is part of the problem.  The system depends upon the parties, but it has no real control over their make-up or operation.  This is one part of our government that is truly left to the people.  While we make voting and jury service compulsory – because our whole system depends on them – we leave our political parties at large.  Their membership is just a tiny part of the population and all the evidence suggests that it would be silly to claim that their views reflect those of their community.  Experience tells us that those who seek political advancement in any community rarely represent the views of the group as a whole.  They have a drive to pursue an agenda that sets them apart.

We saw how unrepresentative a party can be when, after the fall of Boris Johnson, the Tory party in England was called upon to ‘elect’ a successor.  Then the party members went through a demeaning farce of imitating American presidential primaries.  The process showed that the MPs had a different view to the party members as to which was the better candidate, after a crude outbreak of populism led to Fairytale promises that looked likely to bankrupt the nation – morally as well as intellectually.  It was as if they had learned something from the Republicans and Donald Trump – some voters positively want to be lied to – provided the lie is big enough and brash enough.  And the underlying assumption of the shambles was that the office of Prime Minister in the U K was in some way presidential.

Neither of the two major parties in Australia now stands on a part of its platform that distinguishes it from the other.  You could swap the platforms and hardly anyone would notice. 

The Man from Snowy River was always a myth.  Australians fear novelty and abhor radicals.  The party that once represented farmers has gone over to the miners – for lucre.  The long age of agrarian socialism is over.  All parties are being consumed by factions – as a result it would seem of standing for nothing.  (Who else are you going to have a fight with?)  The Liberal Party now is fractured to the extent that the Labor Party was sixty years ago.  And that is a large statement.  Neither party is up to fulfilling its function in the two-party system.

And that is a worry.  Government under our system is only as good as the opposition.  In Australia, America and Britain we have seen people elected who were obviously unfit for the job – but who got there just because their opposition could not get their act together.

The result in Australia appears to be a major swing to independent MPs as electors just give up on the two main parties.  That being so, the system is to some extent working – on the principle that nature abhors a vacuum.  The reaction of the intellectually challenged parts of the commentariat was sadly predictable.  The new independent members will drive them mad.   They are educated; they have had real jobs; they are not driven by personal ambition; they are not cruelled by party; they make sense ; and they want to do something for the country.

The lethal collapse of the opposition parties

Some years ago now, I was listening to David Brooks of the NYT talking about how either the Democrats or the Republicans, I forget which, should respond on a political issue.  ‘Why should they do that?’  ‘Because they are Americans.’  I thought that was facile at the time.  But then it looked to be an unanswerable truth.  They should do what was good for their country.  If that course might be against the interests of the party, the country should prevail.

The point is fundamental.  People go into government by being elected, because they want to help govern those who elect them.  The English system came to depend on two major parties.  We and the Americans have adopted that model.  For that purpose, people join, or support, or vote for political parties.  But the original purpose holds.  If the people who are elected think that a policy is bad for the country, they should not support it – or at least give serious attention to their status in both the party and the nation.  A member of a political party cannot in practice treat every issue as one of conscience – neither can they forget what is the whole point of the exercise.

Those who think that the party is more important than the nation should reflect on those whose views they follow.  Like Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Putin, and Xi.

The role that the party has to fulfil in governing depends on whether a majority of the people give them enough votes to prevail in the parliament and so form a government.  That party then provides the government.  The other party provides the opposition.  But the prime function of each remains the same.  They are there to provide government for the people whom they represent by keeping the wheels of government turning on the tracks laid down for that purpose.

What then is the role of the opposition?  The English historian J M Thompson wrote about how ‘the thick fog of party spirit’ infected the French Revolution.   England was very different.  An Englishman was trained –

to exercise his party spirit in the game called the Party System; and among the rules of that game – not always observed as they should be – are the obligation to sink personal differences in party loyalties, not to criticise your opponent’s policies unless you have a better one that you are prepared to carry out yourself, and, in case of a national crisis, to help rather than hinder whatever government may be in power.

You only have to state those rules to see how far we have fallen. 

On the next page, the historian said that ‘majority legislation might be merely partisan, and minority criticism destructive and irresponsible.’  We know all about that in Australia.  Especially on the climate – which is a ‘national crisis’ – and where one side, in government or opposition, was ‘merely destructive and irresponsible’.  They start by denying there is a crisis!  They can’t even see out the window.

Then the Reverend historian – he started in academe as a man of the cloth – made observations about France that prefigured the disaster of the U S today.  He said that this method of governing was made infinitely more harmful by the threat and then the advent of war.

For then, party spirit became patriotism, and patriotism took on the colour of religion.  It became a sacred duty to denounce, to vilify, and destroy.

That looks like just what has happened in the U S.  Americans have always embraced patriotism and religion in ways that make us very queasy here.  And they do just that with ideology – which we would not give tuppence for.  The result is that for God and country, McConnell and his like in the Republicans set out not just to hinder, but to stop the whole process of government.  They stop it and then they send it right off the tracks.  And then they blame the government for the breakdown.

That is – they try to do the exact opposite of what people elected them to do.  For God and the flag – and a lying, cowardly property developer, who refused to serve his country or to pay its taxes – they commit the ultimate breach of trust put in them by the people who voted for them.

The Victorian opposition at present (mid 2022)  is merely inept.  But the federal opposition now looks set to follow the Republican model.  They appear to subscribe to the heresy that the sole function of the opposition is to oppose.  Nothing could be further from the truth – but they appear to be mindlessly set on opposing the government even on policies where the people have clearly rejected the policies of their party.  In doing that, they put our whole system at hazard.

Politics is like a game in one respect.  It depends on people wanting to play and preserve the game.  There must be some underlying level of both forbearance and co-operation, of tolerance and restraint.  People who refuse to play by the rules – or the conventions – of the game put the whole game at risk.  Just look at what one underarm ball did to cricket.  Or what Kyrgios is doing to tennis.  Or what Norman is doing to golf. 

And then look at the 6 January assault last year on the whole government of the United States – and the breathtaking cowardice of the white elders who were put there to protect the peace of the nation.

In the end, I think that the fabric of a communal group – a footy club, a law firm, a city, or a nation – rests on little more than a state of mind.  And that can be a soft target for people of ill will or small minds.

Politics – parties – Liberal and Labor – Republican and Tory – Trump – the proper role of opposition.

Passing Bull 323 – Political fallacies

Most people are aware of the saying that all power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Lord Acton went on: ‘Great men are almost always bad men.’

Australians tend to think that of the rich.  But the remark shows that the word ‘great’ is confined to appearance.  ‘Great’ men like Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon killed people for their own political purposes.

Miss C V Wedgwood said that powerless also affects us – it can be demoralizing.

More men are undermined by frustration than by success.  Since we cannot attain to greatness…let us have our revenge by railing at it….Since power corrupts, we, who have none, are not corrupted…

That is all very Australian – and MAGA – the salute to mediocrity.

Suspicion of power and suspicion of motive, valuable if held in control, paralyse all human action if they themselves take control.

We are nearing that point here.

It is absurd to confine a gentlemanly distaste for the vulgarity of the political scene with a call to abandon the world… We forget in the smug condemnation of the political world that its standards depend, and always will depend, on the moral quality of the men who go into it.  It is true that saints are rarely found in politics.  But it does not follow that only scoundrels are.

That is plain good sense.  The author remarks that fascism took hold ‘in its most violent forms among those populations which were least politically adult.’  That is a good way to describe Trump and the conspiracy theorists.

The person most to be feared in modern society is the Common Man.  He is, like the Average Man …a figment of the imagination.  It does not make him any the less dangerous…Since the common people came into their own, emphasis on uncommon people has come to be regarded as bad taste. All that was written in England.

Politics – fallacies – fascism – Trump – MAGA – populism.

Very ordinary people being very evil

The world saw our humanity at its worst in France in events giving rise to Robespierre and Napoleon, in Russia in events giving rise to Lenin and Stalin, and in Germany in events giving rise to Hitler.  In each there was not just a violent regime change, but a violent destruction of a whole system of government, and the rise of a government that practised if not subsisted on terror, and which we now characterise as totalitarian.  Each of those sequences of events therefore comes four-square within the meaning of ‘revolution’ – but for some reason, I don’t know what – we apply that term only to the French and Russian convulsions, not the German.

Each nation saw great harm suffered by people as a result of great evil.  On each occasion, history shows us humanity at its worst or lowest.  Yet two of those nations, France and Germany, were seen, at least in Europe, as two exemplars of civilisation – of Europe, or more broadly, the West. 

Russia was not and is not part of Europe.  Since that nation has never known what the West knows as the rule of law, most in the West do not regard it as civilised.  Russia has a different view of its standing in the world, and it tends to regard any tenet of the West as prima facie wrong.

Which of those national collapses entailed the most evil is an opinion on which reasonable minds may differ.  It is a question that is in my view well beyond us.  As I see it, only two kinds of people would assert a capacity a capacity to give a reasoned answer to allow a judgment to that question – those who think that morality can be resolved by arithmetic; and those who think they are God.

But there is I think a general impression that humanity could not sink any lower than the Germans did under Hitler.  I refer to an ‘impression’ because that is all I think that it can amount to – like Monet trying to give an impression of light upon water. 

But I wonder to what extent that impression derives from the availability of film shot at the time, and the relentless reproduction of television documentaries on the subject – and the fact that one of the war crimes of Nazi Germany was on a scale so gross and beyond precedent that the world saw fit to create a new nation for the primary victims.

Those people who catalogue these crimes against humanity, like Timothy Snyder of Yale, are acutely conscious that the mere placement of numbers may annihilate our sense of humanity – and so cause us to forget that each single person in the many millions – every last boy or girl – had his or her own worth or dignity.  That dignity arises from the mere fact that every person is human.

Well, at least that is the view of those nations that we regard as civilised.  For example, the German constitution begins: ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable.  To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.’ 

That is not so in nations that have not known the rule of law, but have always been subject to despots of one colour or another ruling by armed force and fear.  We call regimes that say that all human rights are subject to the demands of the State ‘totalitarian’.  The three nations we refer to descended to that level.

The arithmetic can be unhingeing as well dehumanising.  About, say, seven million Germans died during World War II.  About, say, twenty million Russians.  The Poles suffered a greater population percentage loss.  Merely to mention figures that way is to flirt with a kind of blasphemy.

Elsewhere, I said this.

If you accept as an article of faith that each of us has our own dignity or worth just because we are human, then it is wrong for anyone to treat anyone else as a mere number.  We are at risk of doing just that when we seek to compile numbers of the victims of the three regimes that we have been looking at. 

The essential crime of both Hitler and Stalin was that they degraded humanity by denying the right to dignity, by denying the very humanity, of people beyond count by denying the humanity of one man, woman, and child multiplied to our version of infinity.  Every one of those victims – every one – had a life and a worth that came with that life that was damaged or extinguished.  In his book Bloodlands, Richard Snyder endorsed the proposition that ‘the key to both National Socialism and Stalinism was their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human,’ and when we descend to statistics, we might do the same. 

Stalin and Hitler murdered fourteen million people between them over twelve years.  Nearly 700,000 were shot in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 to 1938.  Some four million Soviet citizens were in the Gulag when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.  As we saw, the NKVD massacred many of their own prisoners as the Germans advanced in order to stop the Fascists getting their hands on more forced labour.  The Soviets sentenced a further two and a half million people to the Gulag during the war.  The NKVD remained active anywhere that the Fascists did not reach including Leningrad under siege where those poor wretches were starving to death.  More than half a million deaths were recorded in the Gulag in two years.  They all died without grace or dignity.  The Germans killed about three million Soviet prisoners of war, which is about the number of Ukrainian peasants that were starved to death by the Soviets in 1932–1933.  The total Russian casualties of that war, civil or military, were of the order of twenty million which is more than two and half times greater than the casualties of all nations for the First World War.

My own impression is that those who think that the lowest depths of humanity were plumbed by the Germans are not sufficiently acquainted with the horrors – the bestiality – that occurred during what are known as the French and Russian revolutions.  Some have a general awareness that both Stalin and Mao probably murdered more people than Hitler.  But have they seen how we got right back to the primal slime elsewhere?

Here are some citations from Carlyle on The French Revolution.

One begins to be sick of ‘death vomited in great floods’.  Nevertheless, hearest thou not, O Reader (for the sound reaches through centuries), in the dead of December and January nights, over Nantes town, – confused noises, as of musketry and tumult, as of rage and Lamentation; mingling with the everlasting moan of the Loire waters there?  Nantes Town is sunk in sleep; but the Representant Carrier is not sleeping, the wool-capped Company of Marat is not sleeping.  Why unmoors that flat-bottomed craft, that gabarre; about eleven at night; with Ninety Priests under hatches?  They are going to Belle Isle?  In the middle of the Loire stream, on signal given, the gabarre is scuttled; she sinks with all her cargo.  ‘Sentence of deportation’, writes Carrier, ‘was executed vertically.’  The Ninety Priests, with their gabarre coffin, lie deep!  It is the first of the Noyades, what we call Drownages, of Carrier; which have become famous forever.

Here is a part of the infamous September Massacres.

Man after man is cut down; the sabres need sharpening, the killers refresh themselves from wine-jugs.  Onward and onward is the butchery; the loud yells wearying into base growls.  A sombre-faced, shifting multitude looks on; in dull approval; in dull approval or dull disapproval; in dull recognition that it is a Necessity.

This is how Stefan Zweig described the execution of revolutionary justice at Lyon.  The whole city was to be liquidated – that is, wiped off the face of the earth.  As Hitler would do to the village of Lidice in reprisal for the assassination of one of the most brutal killers known to man, Reinhard Heydrich.

Early that morning, sixty young fellows are taken out of prison and fettered together in couples.  Since, as Fouché puts it, the guillotine works ‘too slowly’, they are taken to the plain of Brotteaux, on the other side of the Rhone.  Two parallel trenches, hastily dug to receive their corpses, show the victims what is to be their fate, and the cannon ranged ten paces away indicate the manner of their execution.  The defenceless creatures are huddled and bound together into a screaming, trembling, raging, and vainly resisting mass of human despair.  A word of command and the guns loaded with slugs are ‘fired into the brown’.  The range is murderously close and yet the first volley does not finish them off.  Some have only had an arm or leg blown away; others have had their bellies torn open but are still alive; a few, as luck would have it, are uninjured.  But while blood is making runnels of itself down into the trenches, at a second order, cavalrymen armed with sabres and pistols fling themselves on those who are yet alive, slashing into and firing into this helpless heard, of groaning, twitching and yelling fellow mortals until the last raucous voice is hushed.  As a reward for their ghastly work, the butchers are then allowed to strip clothing and shoes from the sixty warm bodies before these are cast naked into the fosses which await them.

Bystanders, solid citizens all, applauded.

One further citation from Carlyle will serve to link the horrors of the French during these times with those of the twentieth century when mass murderers defiled their victims even in death: 

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 be 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.

People who think that they can measure that sort of evil have a problem.  Carlyle was reduced to speaking of the madness in the hearts of all men.

There is a related problem. 

Some like to think, or dream perhaps, that ordinary people, decent people – the kind of automaton that does not exist, but which is conjured up by vacuous politicians as a substitute for policy, or even thought – are not capable of that kind of evil.  We saw it with the film Downfall.  Hitler was kind to his secretary and his dog.  People said they made him look human.  What should they have done – put horns on his head? 

Of course he was human.  It is simply wrong to say that his kind of evil is inhuman.  It is even worse to say that Hitler was evil in a way that only a German could be.  To brand a whole people as evil takes you right back to where we all started.  That is precisely the evil of which Hitler was guilty – as were all of those who followed him in that course.

During what the Americans call the War of Independence, there was a civil war between Patriots and Loyalists that saw humans behaving like beasts.  There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’ An American historian said that the ‘war in the lower south became a series of bloody guerrilla skirmishes with atrocities on both sides’.  During the Russian civil war, women covered themselves in their own shit in vain attempts to forestall rape, and if a child went missing, the immediate fear was cannibalism.

I wish to cite three distinguished writers on the issue of the evil that may inhere in us all.

Hannah Arendt got up a lot of people’s noses for what she said in Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Curiously, what I regard as the most significant parts of a most valuable collection of insights did not arouse so much antipathy.

Elsewhere, I said:

In the book, Arendt said this about the banality of evil.

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing….  He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace

Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  In other words, Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’. 

The phrase ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ has always seemed to me to be far for more pregnant with meaning than that of ‘the banality of evil,’ even if they are related.  At least as it appears to me, those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little bit of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose on us some kind of Procrustean bed, and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.  That is what I see as the real point of the book, and that is what I think makes it a great book.  And as with other great books, the reaction to it is almost as instructive as the book itself.

That observation of Arendt is well known now.  When I wrote about it, I was equally familiar with the remarks of Macaulay about the massacre at Glencoe.  This was a ghastly, perfidious action – aktion in German – of ethnic cleansing – extirpation – carried out in Scotland under a royal warrant signed in London.  An armed detachment was sent to the Highlands to accept the hospitality of the proscribed clan and then to murder them – in cold blood, man, woman, and child – in the name of the law.  Some of the killers got queasy and they botched the massacre, allowing some of the clan to escape – and face death in the cold.

Macaulay sweated on his account of this frightful crime against humanity.  And then he sought to understand it.

We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or avenge themselves…. virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is within his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church, on a commonwealth, on mankind.  He silences the remonstrances of conscience, and hardens his heart against the most touching spectacles of misery, by repeating to himself that his intentions are pure, that he is doing a little evil for the sake of great good.

Appropriately for us now, the passage ends with Macaulay’s saying that we could not imagine that ‘Robespierre would have murdered for hire one of the thousands whom he murdered from philanthropy.’  And you see that Macaulay referred to the insidious incitement of ‘virtue’.  It was precisely this talisman that Robespierre and his henchman, Saint Just, sought to invoke – in Latin.

And we might conclude with observations on Robespierre and the others involved in the Terror – the people who gave us the word ‘terrorist’. 

The English historian J M Thompson began academic life as member of the cloth.  He turned to teaching history – European history, especially the French Revolution – and he wrote about it with singular charity and clarity.

We are often surprised, in studying the Revolution, to find that those who appear in public as violent demagogues, or bloodthirsty monsters, are at home the mildest of men.  With the reputation of kind husbands, indulgent fathers, and faithful friends.  To many of these men, their revolutionary activities were a business which they left behind at the committee room, or at the doors of the House; to a few they were a religion, which they kept for the altar of the country, or for the ministry of the guillotine.  If they were savage, they were savage officially.  They were no more addicted to bloodshed (speaking generally) than is a public executioner.  If they acted a part in the public eye, we cannot accuse them hastily of being hypocrites: all officialism and all professionalism, from that of religion downwards, stand in danger of the same judgment.

It is like an induced schizoid condition of split personality.  And we do know that when it comes to matters of state, or if there is real money on the table, the Sermon on the Mount goes clear out the window.

Thompson was speaking there of Jean Paul Marat, the sometime ‘doctor’, who embodies the truth that in times of unrest, the scum rises to the surface. 

And in speaking of people being savage ‘officially’, Thompson reminds us of that servant of the Reich – it may have been Eichmann – who was said to have gone to work with death in his briefcase.

We are speaking of ordinary people being bestial.  But when we are, we are worse than animals.  So far as we know, animals are not cruel intentionally, and they do not inflict or inspire terror as a matter of policy. 

And in all this, we are subject to one sovereign truth.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Take Robespierre – our foundation ‘terrorist’.  He was born to provincial parents.  He had to assume headship of his family when young.  Educated by the Jesuits and then trained in the law, he was reserved, but he had little in reserve, and like latterday would-be dictators, he had no real friends.  He gave up a valuable judicial post because he could not in Christian conscience pass a death sentence.  He argued firmly and with understanding against France going to war – in a manner beyond Messrs Blair and Bush.  He said, with complete truth, that no one likes ‘armed missionaries.’

Yet within a few years, he became a political murderer as cold and dedicated as Reinhard Heydrich.  With no prior instruction in the art of government, he was thrust into leading a nation that had collapsed internally and which was threatened externally with annihilation – and he was facing forces that would surely have killed him and others if they had lost power. 

Then faction dictated that you either killed or got killed.  Then, not surprisingly, Robespierre went out of his mind.  He decided that he could reinvent God; he dressed up like a fop; and he descended into mere gibberish.

You fanatics have nothing to hope from us.  To recall men to the worship of the Supreme Being is to deal fanaticism a mortal blow.  All follies fall to the ground before reason.  Without compulsion, and without persecution, all sects are to be merged in the universal religion of virtue.

Then the instinct of self-preservation took over in those around him, who were giggling so nervously, and Robespierre fell after a colleague – it was Fouché – who had been raised in an Oratorian seminary, who had commanded the slaughter at Lyon, and who would be chief of police under Napoleon, went around whispering into terrified ears: ‘I hear he has a list – and that your name is on it.’  Fouché was the ultimate survivor.

And that nice, kind, young man from Arras prefigured Joseph Stalin. 

As Miss C V Wedgwood remarked: ‘One common humanity can produce a Napoleon and a Buddha, the guards at Buchenwald and the nuns of Leper Island.’

The quest to understand evil is a prime function of history.  In that quest, we are subject to two fallacies.  One is that some of us can meaningfully adjudicate upon relative evil.  Another is that committing the worst evil is beyond most of us.  It is a sad mix of pride and prejudice.

History – French, Russian, and German revolutions – the nature of evil – the function of history – Arendt – Carlyle – Macaulay.

MRG and Religion

A text on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arrived yesterday.  I put it down after one page.  I have been down here so often before.  But on that page was a phrase I will keep.  It is in the Preface to the Second Edition – which is not in my leather-bound version.  Kant said that the history of metaphysics had come down to ‘merely random groping.’  How very true – of all philosophy both before and since.  And of so much nonsense in politics, business, and the law.

And religion.  My tolerance of so many people claiming to be ‘religious’ runs more thinly by the day.  Claims for religious ‘freedom’ are for the most part moonshine.  As Kant said, no power on earth can come between a person and God.  But when people seek a dispensation from the law to give effect to their view of religion in what they do in public, they are usually seeking a licence to hurt others.

The decision by some footballers to object to wearing a gay pride jumper on what are said to be ‘religious’ grounds borders on lunacy.  But only if lunacy is not seen as a defence to an allegation that they are seeking to use religion as a reason for inflicting pain on others.  They should be ashamed of themselves – but twisted dogma will get in the way.  And as one correspondent to The Age said, it is a curious God who forbids their wearing that kind of jumper – but who smiles upon them when they wear another jumper.  Which has a logo for gambling.  That they wear on the Sabbath.  While playing football.  For lucre.

It is impossible to take these galahs seriously.

But that awful group of people called the Australian Christian Lobby does just that.  They really are degenerate – and hurtful.

Seven Rugby League players created a significant cultural moment this week when they chose faith over football.

When faced with the choice to either wear a ‘pride’ rainbow jersey or stand down from one of their most important matches, these men did not waver in following their conscience.   

The Manly Sea Eagles coach has apologised for their controversial decision to introduce a ‘pride’ Jersey for the ‘Women in League’ round, but the players will not be allowed to play unless they agree to wear it. They have effectively been excluded by the club’s actions.

There has been a lot of negative press surrounding the men’s decision not to play and they have been under significant pressure. It would be great to take the opportunity to send some encouragement their way.

Let’s thank them for bucking the ‘woke’ trend and daring to be a Daniel!  

That is a lot worse than ‘merely random groping’ (MRG).  It is insidious and hurtful – and they know it.

We should do all we can to ensure that these nasty people get no dispensation from any of our laws – tax or otherwise – but are left in the ditch they dig for themselves.

Kant – merely random groping – ACL – hate – tax -freedom of religion.

The Honeymooners

After my TV was replaced and I got access to YouTube on it, I stumbled last night on one episode of The Honeymooners.  The series was made in 1955-6 on a simple set with a small cast.  Jackie Gleason is the over-sized bus driver, the Common Man that commedia dell’arte never really got – grumbling short-tempered humanity who just manages to fall into line eventually each time.  His wife, Alice, is up to it – and exquisitely cast.  ‘Peanuts.  What do I do with peanuts?’ ‘Eat ‘em.  Like any other elephant.’ 

The show is nearly seventy years old. now  It now has its own sense of ritual.  Ralph is as big a character as Falstaff, but the series savours of both Don Quixote and Waiting for Godot.  It does feel that elemental.  I don’t think the Americans have made anything like I since.  The English, yes – the U S, no.

In America, now, there does not appear to be any appetite for or capacity to create a show about the tribulations of the ordinary bloke – who ultimately accepts his lot because he is in God’s country.  Now the not so well off  go out and vote for a crooked property developer who evades military service and paying tax, and who wants to tear the whole place down.  And they invent a world of their own that is so much more unreal than anything we might see in a seventy year old television show.

What a falling off was there.

TV – US – The Common Man – Trump – theatre.

Passing Bull 322 – We need new stories

You will want to get the book by Nesrine Malik, We Need New Stories.  Nesrine writes for The Guardian, and she is super bright – the brightest commentator I have seen or read for a while.  I used to see her often on the panel of Dateline London on the BBC.  She just oozes authority.  She is Sudanese and her presence would make Cleopatra look like a streetwalker.    (After reading this book, I understand better the politics of panel selection on such shows.  They are very unattractive.)

The book looks at six myths.  You can see them all on any Saturday in The Weekend Australian.  Or hear them any night from Andrew Bolt and company on Sky After Dark.   Nesrine dissects all that nonsense about ‘political correctness’ or ‘identity politics’ – I have never understood what either is – with a precision I would describe as surgical – if a quondam barrister may be allowed that phrase.

This is how Nesrine starts her chapter on The myth of virtuous origin.

There is no mainstream account of a country’s history that is not a collective delusion.  The present cannot be celebrated without the past being edited.  If the United Kingdom is to have a sense of pride in its contemporary self, there is no way it can be acknowledged that the country was built on global expansion, resource extraction and slavery.

That is true – but the people I refer to will dismiss it with a slogan – about black arm bands.

If the United States’ large fault-line is race, in the UK it is immigration.

That is so here, too – at least since a soi-disant Conservative government put it there in terms that were as mindless as they were cruel.  And we as a people let both parties keep it there with moonshine about People Smugglers that made as much sense as the threat of the Yellow Peril or the Domino Effect in the 50’s and 60’s.

But there is no necessary distinction between hostility driven by considerations of colour, religion, or race and the politics of immigration.  The plain truth is that both we and the English did things to aspiring immigrants of colour or the Muslim faith that we would not have done to white people of any faith.  Possibly the most egregious example was the Farage ad with a throng of coloured immigrants marked BREAKING POINT.  I do not like the worst ‘racist’, but people who sink that low are not to be forgotten.  Farage would make a taipan look homely.

And we came a close second – and we have yet to come clean.  My firm suspicion is that all our blather about immigration is just a screen to enable us to walk over those we regard as inferior.  And the worst culprits are often those leading the charge to describe the nation as ‘Christian’ or the civilisation as ‘western’.

We know that we have a problem with the commentariat.  It is not as bad as in the US, but Rupert Murdoch is working on it.

…the impunity of Iraq War peddlers points especially to a media oligarchy.  Whether it was the Iraq War, Brexit or Donald Trump’s election, what has never really been reckoned with is the media’s role in reproducing the very myths that, when they finally took shape, bewildered its own members.  The media wrote all the stories that led to our age of discontent.

That last allusion to Burke occurred to me when writing of our present troubles.  But the comment applies to us in bloody spades.  There is hardly a worse sin a government can commit than to commit its people to a war on false premises.  Blair and Bush have paid a price.  The first flew too high.  The second never left the ground.  But our contribution to mediocrity just beetles on and about our little duckpond.

The author gives chapter and verse.  About two journalists I had had time for.  But David Aaronovitch comes across as a snitchy, spoiled sook, and Bret Stephens always looked to me to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Medicine for having an attitude to paling fences that could lead to a much-needed breakthrough on surgery for piles.  (This is from a victim.)

Then there is Niall Ferguson.  I was and am happy to defend the author of that wonderful book, Kim.  He was a man of his time.  Ferguson does not have that excuse.  He is a golden boy throwback who puts his paw out to collect the moulah from the fat cats he keeps purring. 

But the bullshit is far from harmless.  Ferguson said of Iraq, that in the interests of capitalism and democracy, ‘the proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary …by military force.’  The arrogance is incandescent.  The bullshit equals that of the Evangelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau – who said that people could be forced to be free – which is up there with fornicating for virginity.

But neither Blair, nor Bush, nor our little bloke, nor Ferguson was reminded of the remark of Robespierre a propos of exporting the glory of the revolution throughout Europe by French arms – no one likes an armed missionary. 

Has the person been born who could rationally deny that? If a Russian peasant is being bayoneted or raped by a foreign invader, does it matter if the war criminal was sent by Napoleon or Hitler – for liberation or extermination?  (Which do you think Putin has in mind for the Ukraine?  He actually says it is a liberation – and he may as well claim the authority of Rousseau and Ferguson for the proposition that consent is irrelevant.))

It is therefore right that Ferguson gets the line of the book.  ‘He complained about white men being unfashionable while owning the catwalk.’  It reminded me of a remark by Tony Tanner.  It may have been about Richard II – he began to see the writing on the wall; the problem was – he had done most of the writing.

We see this all the time in the people I referred to at the start – like Andrew Bolt.  The poor buggers see themselves as victims – they have been misunderstood, either as members of think tanks, or the Roman Catholic Church, or as failed party hacks, or turncoats or Uncle Toms.  They live in the safest and richest country in the world and are paid a fortune to wrap themselves up in their cocoons and talk bullshit to the fading faithful – and play the part of victims!  For all I know they may say that Rupert is a victim of Jerry.

These label-floggers or standard-bearers tend to come in two varieties.  There are those who don’t really care, but who go along with the herd because that is safe and puts food on the table; and those who care deeply and believe what they say.  The first are boring but harmless enough – a kind of opiate for the masses.  The second are also boring, but potentially harmful – their minds tend to be warped by God, the cadres of think tanks (like latterday Jesuits), or the rich lady with all the coal who fills their coffers with her cash – and becomes a Life Member.  But they all mock the notion of journalism as a profession – and that is very sad.

This book is terrific.  We need as much of this as we can take.  But we also need to recall that most of the book is about myths – and a myth is a story about something that never happened.  The Oxford English Dictionary is prolix:

A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historic phenomena.  Often used vaguely to include any narrative having fictitious elements.

God did not create the world in the manner described in Genesis.  That we know as a matter of fact – unless we are one of those American zealots called creationists who prefer the romance of a myth to the proofs of science (until they get on the gurney for life saving heart surgery). 

Satan did not fall from heaven.  Eve did not bite the apple.  Achilles did not sulk in his tent.  Don Quixote did not shoot the breeze with Sancho Panza.  Don Giovanni did not wreak havoc.  Hamlet did not have it out with his mum.  But, for whatever reason, we in our human frailty go to those stories for a kind of comfort – or for a kind of truth.

The evidence is sufficient to allow us to say that we know that a Jewish man answering the description of Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans.  The circumstances are muddy because of the nature and content of the gospels.  But what then happened is not a matter of evidence but faith.  That is the basis of any religion.  Only a small part of the world’s peoples believe that the executed man arose from the dead.  But that is the case for the faith-based beliefs of all religions.  

Most people believe that the stories underlying all religions are false.  There is only one difference between me and a believer – the believer believes all religions are groundless in fact – except one.  I don’t allow the exception.  But that does not stop most people pledging their faith to the myth they have grown up with.

Human nature therefore looks to have a need for fantasy – an ‘illusory appearance’ or ‘a supposition resting on no solid grounds.’  That would entail that our attachment to the value of truth gets wobbly.  And that is what bad people prey on.  And that is why we need books like this.

Nesrine Malik – Murdoch News Corporation – myths – logic.