Extracts from a book of fifty important books or people. The second of four such volumes.


Arthur Miller

Franklin Library, 1981.  Fully bound in embossed leather, with ridged spine; gold finish to pages and moiré endpapers with satin ribbon.  Introduction by the author.  Illustrated by Alan Mardon.  Limited edition.

Death of a Salesman is not an easy night out at the theatre.  Au contraire.  This play is wrenching, as wrenching for some as the tragedy of King Lear.  It is pervaded with a sense of doom – not just in the sense of that term in Lord of the Rings, as an end foretold, but in the darker sense of inevitable destruction or annihilation.  The battered, deluded Willy Loman is, like the crazy old king, bound upon a wheel of fire, and the fate of his whole family unfolds before eyes that you may wish to avert.  It is therefore as challenging as a Greek tragedy or one of Shakespeare, because it is a searing inquiry into the American Dream.  That is not something that many Americans have been all that happy to undertake.  (Indeed, the character of the White House as we speak shows a frightening capacity for delusion.)  But by the end of the play, you may be left with the impression that a champion of American business is less secure than a medieval serf.

This is Willy according to his wife:

I don’t say he’s a great man.  Willy Loman never made a lot of money.  His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived.  But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.  So attention must be paid.  He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.  Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

When Willy’s boss wants to get rid of him, he responds: ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.’  He is, as his wife remarked, a human being.  But his delusion passes to his sons.  When reality catches up with his son Biff, he says: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.’  In the Introduction, the author says:

The play was always heroic to me, and in later years the academy’s charge that Willy lacked the ‘stature’ for the tragic hero seemed incredible to me.  I had not understood that these matters are measured by Greco-Elizabethan paragraphs which hold no mention of insurance payments, front porches, refrigerator fan belts, steering knuckles, Chevrolets, and visions seen not through the portals of Delphi, but in the blue flame of the hot-water theatre…..I set out not to ‘write a tragedy’ in this play, but to show the truth as I saw it.

The academy was dead wrong.  E pur si muove.

All My Sons is hardly any easier.  The American Dream here is punctured not by failure but by betrayal, and a crime of the worst kind.  A businessman in a time of war betrays his nation by selling defective parts to the army.  This crime leads to the deaths of American servicemen including, it would appear, one of his own sons.  And the man says that he did it for his family.  But, as in Greek tragedy, his crime comes back on the whole family and ultimately it will only be answered by his death.  In The Wild Duck, Ibsenwrote a drama where one businessman was forced to accept moral and legal responsibility for the crime of his partner.  This affront to the American Dream would be one of the factors leading to Miller being confronted by the Houses Un-American Committee.

This is how the playwright introduces Joe Keller, the hero. 

Keller is nearing sixty.  A heavy man of stolid mind and build, a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him.  When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgment must be dredged out of experience and a peasantlike common sense.  A man among men.

There is no doubting that this is like a Greek tragedy.  The mother tells the son that the brother who was a pilot and has been missing for years is still alive.

Your brother’s alive darling, because if he’s dead your father killed him.  Do you understand me now?  As long as you live, that boy is alive.  God does not let a son be killed by his father.

This drama, like that of Ibsen, is both hair-raising and fundamental, and the end of this play is quite as shocking as the end of Hedda Gabler.

The Crucible grabs and distresses us for different reasons.  It is a fraught descant on the lynch mob, and it had and continues to have so much impact because it covers ground from the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century to the McCarthy pogroms of the twentieth century.  In the course of both, we get to see ourselves at our most fragile and lethal worst.  And this is ‘us’ – this is not an American problem any more than fascism was a German problem.

The children at Salem in 1692 suffered from hysteria in the medical sense.  The reaction of the community was hysterical in the popular sense.  If you believe in witchcraft, it works.  (Witness the effect of pointing the bone in our indigenous community.)  A ‘victim’ showing hysterical symptoms is a victim of a fear of witchcraft rather than of witchcraft itself, although the distinction may not matter.  John Hale showed a remarkable insight when he observed at Salem that the suspects showed fear not because they are guilty, but because they were suspected.  In 1841 a Boston legal commentator said that no one was safe and that the only way to avoid being accused was to become an accuser.  That script was re-written word for word during the Terror in France.

From 1950 to 1954 the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used The Senate Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations as his version of The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to pursue people who had had any association with the Communist Party.  HUAC had previously been a dodgy little affair specialising in anti-Semitism, but when the Red scare came to prominence under the boozy mania of McCarthy, real people got badly hurt without anything resembling a trial, much less due process. The Americans had in truth unleashed a latterday pogrom, and it only ceased when McCarthy over-reached and went after the Army.

One of the writers forced to appear before the HUAC was Arthur Miller.  He correctly believed that he only got his subpoena because of the identity of his fiancée.  (In an amazing commentary on the difference between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power, the Chairman offered to cancel the session if he could be photographed with Marilyn Monroe.) 

Miller adopted the position that had been taken before the committee by Lillian Hellman.  She said that she was willing to talk about her own political past but that she refused to testify against others.  She said:

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

Hellman did not have the advantage of a beautiful lover.  Not only was he not gorgeous, but he was avowedly left wing and he was jailed for refusing to rat.  Partly for this reason, Hellman is not as fondly remembered in some quarters as Miller.

Hellman described her experiences in the book Scoundrel Time, published in 1976.  Miller described similar experiences in a play published in 1953.  That play was The Crucible.  It was based on the events in Salem in 1692, and is a searing testimony to the ghastly power of a mob that has lost its senses.  When Miller was called before the HUAC in 1956, it reminded him of The Crucible, as life followed art. 

And if you have invented Satan, you have to give him some work to do.  The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

In the Introduction, Arthur Miller wrote:

It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.  The wonder of it all struck me that so picayune a cause, carried forward by such manifestly ridiculous men, should be capable of paralyzing thought itself, and worse, causing to billow up such persuasive clouds of ‘mysterious’ feelings within people.  It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one could have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.

The relevance of all this to the mess that we see across the West today is obvious.  Indeed, if you read those words again you may be frightened by the references to ‘paralyzing thought’ and ‘elemental decencies.’  The lynch mob or pogrom is simply the ‘people’ at its worst.  We are now confronted everyday by affronts committed in the name of ‘populism’ as if being popular affords some evidence or warranty of worth.  (Was there ever a politician who was more popular than Adolf Hitler was in 1936?)  What we now see is our dark under-belly being flaunted before our eyes by people stunted by envy. 

Arthur Miller went on to comment on what may be described as our ‘darker purpose’ in terms that Hanna Arendt would have recognised.  He referred to ‘the tranquility of the bad man’ just as Arendt referred to the ‘banality of evil’, and to ‘the failure of the present age to find a universal moral sanction.’

I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example, we should not know good…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal.  I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to our dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact – to conceive, in effect, of Iago.

Those propositions are hugely important.

A View from the Bridge might for some bear more of a resemblance to an Italian opera – say, Cavalleria Rusticana – than  a Greek tragedy, with a heavy sauce supplied by Doctor Freud, but for the sake of Sicilian honour, the hero continues the bad run of  this author’s heroes.  The same sense of inevitability – doom – is there again.  By contrast, the author says that A Memory of Two Mondays is a ‘pathetic comedy….a kind of letter to that subculture where the sinews of the economy are rooted, that darkest Africa of our society from whose interior only the sketchiest messages ever reach our literature or the stage.’  Each of these plays is pitched well below the middle class – and territory not covered by Ibsen or Chekhov.

In commenting on King Lear, an English scholar said that we go to great writers for the truth.  The last word may make us wobble a little at the moment, but we look to great writers – and Arthur Miller was certainly a great writer – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves for what we are.  Arthur Miller says in the Introduction:

By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up new relationships between a man and men, and between men and Man.  Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.

We might then flinch at what is presented to us in the theatre, but Arthur Miller did not.  His memoire Timebends is a testament to his enduring moral and intellectual fibre – as of course are the five plays in this fine book.This Franklin edition is lusciously presented and reminds us that if we want to try to understand the human condition, the place to go to is the theatre.  And whatever else may be said of Arthur Miller, he knew what it was to be dramatic.

The book is dedicated to Marilyn.

Passing Bull 262 – Woolly weasels

Mr Roger Shipton, still currently of ASIC, likes to have his hand held.  He got me and other taxpayers to pick up a tab north of $100,000 for tax advice when he took his position at ASIC.  Since this came to light in October of last year, he has stood aside.  If it was not obvious then, it was certainly obvious by now that no one could have confidence in ASIC if he returned permanently – his position was untenable.  According to the press, he hired a platoon of lawyers to help him ride the current wave – three barristers and a solicitor, not from those at the bottom of the market.  Well, at least I will not be called on to pick up their tab – directly; but I may be called upon indirectly, because I am now up for about $200,000 foregone since he stood down.  Well, I suppose I will get more than half of that back in tax – unless of course he gets a flotilla of other lawyers to tell him how to avoid paying that tax. 

It was obvious that the man had to go.  But neither he nor the Minister had the decency to say so.  Instead we are told that ‘we believe that it is time for a fresh start at ASIC and a fresh start will begin with the search for a new chairman.’  All this comes after an investigation, we are told, cleared Mr Shipton ‘of any wrongdoing’.  So, he has done nothing wrong – but he must go.

Do these people think that we all came down in the last shower?  Why has this investigation taken months?  Why could it not have been concluded in twenty-four hours?  It is not a question of whether Mr Shipton has broken any law or infringed any guideline.  The question was whether a person who has claimed a payment for his personal benefit of more than $100,000 from public money while he was the chairman of a statutory body that regulates the conduct of business in this country could retain the confidence of the business community or the public at large.  There could only ever have been one answer to that question.

This is appalling nonsense of itself.  But it gets so much worse when you look at what the leader of the federal government did to Christine Holgate.  She authorised payments of $20000 to executives of Australia Post as a reward for very good results.  She acted within established authority within the corporation and derived no personal benefit from the transaction.  She too has now been cleared of any wrongdoing (although her investigator saw fit to refer to the views of some weasel directors and used terms like ‘inappropriate’ or ‘inconsistent.’)  But without hearing from her, let alone an independent investigation, the Prime Minister unleashed a posse that that predicably became a lynch mob.

And all this when all who knew what was going on at Australia Post said this woman was doing a great job.

No one said of that of Mr Shipton – not even his scripted despatcher.

If people in government behave like this, what do they expect from us?

And people who want to step outside their brief and offer gratuitous commentary of their own on a subject of their inquiry may wish to reflect on the standing of a man who may have changed the course of world history by doing just that.  His name is James Comey and the beneficiary of his backhander was Donald Trump.

Here and there – King John and the Laws of England

Part II

Shakespeare did not refer to Magna Carta in King John, but he described the reaction of the English barons to a weak king.  The king undergoes another coronation and takes fresh oaths of allegiance to overcome the excommunication.  The barons are very restless at all this.  The king tells them they will see how ready he is to accommodate them.  Salisbury says:

The colour of the king doth come and go
Between his purpose and his conscience,
Like heralds ‘twixt two dreadful battles set:
His passion is so ripe, it needs must break.  (4.2.76-79)

When news comes of the death of Arthur, John is quite unmanned.  All he can say is: ‘They burn in indignation.  I repent.’  He is now a shuttlecock between the Vatican and the barons – and Innocent and the barons were very tough nuts.  He is craven before Pandulf and he blames Hubert for not refusing to murder Arthur.  (Reinhard Heydrich was cashiered from the navy – he appeared before a court of honour and blamed a pregnancy on the girl.)  So that when it came to settling what was a kind of civil war, what Mafia dons called ‘making the peace’, King John had to make concessions that would have been unthinkable in the realm up to that time.  The concessions appear in Magna Carta.

These barons were in truth not the flower of chivalry.  One, Robert fitz Walter, called himself ‘Marshall of the Army of God and Holy Church.’  Robert de Ros was a marauding land rustler whose men attacked agents of the Sheriff of Yorkshire with bows and arrows.  Well, the barons had among their number members who were capable of putting together a document of the first constitutional significance – the very first.  John did not sign it – there is no evidence that he could write.  It took legal effect when it was sealed with an oath. 

Some very astute lawyers were involved in making this document, and they were not acting solely in the interests of the barons.  The Charter provides for what is to happen ‘in order to have the common counsel of the kingdom for assessing aid.’  ‘Aid’ there means in substance tax.  To ‘have the common counsel’ will harden into a requirement that the king get a statute from his parliament before he can get a tax.  That then will be the lynchpin of the whole dispensation, since he who controls the money controls the game.  That’s the process that was completed in 1689.

But the Charter is remembered and still invoked for two articles on the administration of justice.  Articles 39 and 40 are as follows:

39. No freeman shall be captured or imprisoned or disseised [deprived of land] or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go [nec ibimus] against him, or send [nec mittimus] against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

40. To none will we sell, to none will we deny or delay right or justice.

These words were meant to be etched in stone.  You might expect to find in a prayer book the words ‘nor will we go against him or send against him.’  If you want to know whether the original has the same lapidary quality, the Latin, partly shown, is just as moving.

Article 39 is no less than the foundation of what we call the rule of law.  If the English people had only given Article 39 to the world, they would still have our gratitude.  What this clause says is that liberty and property are not to be interfered with without due process of law.  The phrase ‘due process’ enters into later versions of the Charter, and ‘due process’ is the concept that underlies much of the Bill of Rights in the United States. 

If you borrow money for a company and default on repayment, the bank may send in a receiver over the business.  There are difficulties about suing kings – what form of security, then, did the barons get from their faithless king?  I said elsewhere:

They favoured the receiver model.  Article 61 refers expressly to security (securitas) and it is in horrific terms that not even the most over-mighty and overbearing corporation, outside of Russia, would dare to seek.  It provides that if the king defaults, the barons can give him a notice to remedy that default.  If he does not, a committee of twenty-five barons ‘together with the community of the entire country, shall distress and injure us in all ways possible – namely, by capturing our castles lands and possessions and in all ways that they can – until they secure redress according to their own decision, saving our person and the person of our queen, and the persons of our children.’  Well, that is fine for the royal family, but what about the poor downstairs maid when that awful Robert de Ros, neither alone nor palely loitering, comes thundering over the drawbridge, leaving his chain mail behind him, in one of his beastly marauding moods, and holding something large and nasty in his hand? 

….. The right of entry is given to a committee of barons ‘together with the community of the entire country’….  Communis is a very, very potent term here (as would be communio in a church).  When the French monarchy was brought down in and after 1789, the government of the country for a large part came to rest with the commune of Paris, especially after the 10 August coup of Danton (in 1792).  The revolutions that shook the great cities of Europe in 1848 were centred in the communes.  A movement in favour of revolutionary change across the entire world to free the masses of their chains, which would cause so much misery in the twentieth century, was called the Communist Party after these communes.  Yet here we have English barons giving these communal rights to the yeomen and all the freemen of England way back in 1215.

You cannot try to make a constitution in a vacuum.  You need at least two things – a body of existing law that commands the assent if not the respect of a majority of the people; and a body of judges to interpret and enforce those laws.  It looks like only England had those qualifications then.  Remember that England was developing the first profession outside the church.  It was this profession – including the judges in that term – that would celebrate and nurture Magna Carta so that it would become ‘with all its faults a kind of sacred text, the nearest approach to an irrepealable fundamental statute that England has ever had.’  The reference to sacred text from the sober legal historian Maitland tells us something.  In order effectively to nurture a constitution, you need some kind of faith based on experience.  We call it tradition.

Being a rat, King John straight away sent to Rome and got the Charter quashed.  Exhibit A in the duress plea was the default clause – which was decently omitted from later versions.  But the Charter kept getting reinstated. 

What was its real significance?  The king had to negotiate with his subjects in order to rule.  He derived his authority not from God, but from the consent of the people revealed by this contract.  That is why this is the most consequential document in the history of the world that was not said to have derived from God.  And the significance of that liberation is on show in the play King John.

English legal historians tend to be coy about the role of contract in their and our history.  But if the great shift has been from status to contract, as Sir Henry Maine said, then the Charter is its first great manifestation.  And there is common ground that the Reformation in England had nothing to do with religion.  It was all about political power, and in that it was a triumph.  (Whereas in Germany, it was all about religion, and in that it was a political disaster.)  If you want to see the effect of this liberation on England, compare the later histories of France, Italy, and Spain to those of England and Holland. 

And the role of Magna Carta and the Reformation confirms my abiding impression that the rule of law comes down to little more than a state of mind that comes out the process of the common law so that the waters of Runnymede feed into those of the Campaspe.



Samuel Beckett (1952)

Folio Society, 2000; illustrations by Tom Phillips; bound in illustrated cream boards with olive slipcase.

This play is an interesting litmus test for the would-be literati or cognoscenti.  It is one thing for you to have a copy in your library; it is another thing to say that you have seen the play in production (where, as one critic said nothing happens – twice); but you really take the prize if you can claim both of the above – and that you understood it!  You go straight to the top of the honours class if you are aware of the following dialogue between Kenneth Tynan and Jean Paul-Sartre (which tells you about all you need to know about Sartre).

TYNAN: You once said that you admired Waiting for Godot more than any other play since 1945.

SARTRE: That is true.  I have not liked Beckett’s other plays, particularly Endgame, because I find the symbolism far too inflated, far too naked.  And although Godot is certainly not a right wing play, it represents a sort of universal pessimism that appeals to right wing people.  For that reason, although I admire it, I have reservations.  But precisely because its content is somewhat alien to me, I can’t help admiring it the more.

Sometimes you wonder how France survives its intellectuals.

Samuel Beckett was born into a comfortable Anglican family in Dublin in 1906.  He took a degree at Trinity College, where he played first class cricket, and he then taught in France.  There he came under the aegis of James Joyce.  He took up permanent residence in France, and during the war served in the Resistance for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (which, with cricket, distinguishes him from Sartre).  On visiting his mother after the war he had something of an epiphany.   He decided that his path would be different to that of Joyce. 

This play was first published in 1952.  After a rocky start, it gained popular and critical acceptance.  Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize and he rewarded himself with a modest quota of mistresses.  He died in 1989 and was buried in the Cimitière du Montparnasse.  He was a leading light in what is called the theatre of the absurd.

Two characters called Vladimir and Estragon, in a minimalist set, are waiting for someone called Godot.  While they wait – Godot never comes – they muse and squabble, and three other lesser characters intervene.  The script is such as to have driven actors nearly mad when they asked the author what it really meant, and critics have differed wildly about what it stands for.  Beckett got to be relaxed about this as it was obviously a driving force behind the success of the play.  At its Australian premiere in 1957, Barry Humphries played Estragon.

Here is the set: ‘A country road.  A tree.  Evening.’  The writer was not paid by volume.  Early in the dialogue, Vladimir says: ‘One of the thieves was saved.  It’s a reasonable percentage.’  There has been no prior reference to the crucifixion.

Vladimir: Suppose we repented.

Estragon: Repented what?

Vladimir: Oh….  (He reflects.)  We wouldn’t have to go into the details.

Estragon: Our being born?…..

Vladimir: You should have been a poet.

Estragon: I was.  (Gesture towards his rags.)  Isn’t that obvious?

So, the humour is Irish and black.

Vladimir: What do we do now?

Estragon: Wait.

Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.

Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?

Vladimir: Hmm.  It’d give us an erection!

Estragon: (highly excited).  An erection!

Vladimir: With all that follows…..

Estragon: Let’s hang ourselves immediately.

Toward the end of Act I we get:

Vladimir: But you can’t go barefoot!

Estragon: Christ did.

Vladimir: Christ!  What’s Christ got to do with it?  You’re not going to compare yourself to Christ!

Estragon: All my life I have compared myself to him.

Vladimir: But where he lived, it was warm, it was dry!

Estragon: Yes, and they crucified quick…….I wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself….We weren’t made for the same road.

Vladimir: (without anger).  It’s not certain.

Estragon: No, nothing is certain.

Near the end of Act II we get:

Vladimir: What are we doing here, that is the question….We have kept our appointment, and that’s an end to that.  We are not saints but we have kept our appointment.  How many people can boast as much……?

Estragon: (aphoristic for once): We are all born mad.  Some remain so.

The illustrator of the Folio Edition, Tom Phillips, featured bowler hats in his work.  He said that he borrowed them from stills of Laurel and Hardy, ‘the cinematic precursors of Pozzo and Lucky’.  The play was written before the Goons came out, but it would be interesting to know if it had any impact on Joseph Heller before he wrote Catch 22.

Well, like oysters, you will either like this play or not.  But there is no doubting its impact, and if you get it, your intellectual standing will take right off.

Passing Bull 261 – The business of sport

Out of solicitude for my mental health, I have stayed away from the gongs announced on this dreadful dies non, but two items caught my eye today in the sports pages.  One concerned Mr Toby Price, the two time winner of the Dakar, the toughest contest on the planet.  They will have to invent a new word for courage for him – in hospital again with a broken body. 

The other concerns our PM who is increasingly looking like a strolling player in search of a sandwich board.  He said something very silly about sport and politics.  Politicians, especially those of the crude, retail populist kind – like ScoMo – just love mixing with sportsmen.  Remember Our Bob on the America’s Cup?  Paul Keating number 1 at Collingwood?   

But like the IPA on corporations, ScoMo thinks sports bodies should not have views on politics.  You do not have to live in a small town to realise that if you want to get on in business, you have to engage with people.  That’s what Cricket Australia did about this sad day’s name, and our PM said he thought they should prefer sport to politics.  I am not sure if the New South Welshman knows of Mr Adam Goodes, but Mr Gideon Haigh correctly analysed the bullshit.

The either/or foundation is of course perfectly fallacious.  Sport is pervaded by politics, especially when sports teams purport to represent whole nations, and beloved of politicians, who envy its capacity for engaging, exciting and unifying…..Which is exactly why Morrison flaunts his democratic credentials by cosying up to sports people …..So when the Prime Minister objects to the mixing of cricket and politics, what he is really objecting to is the particular mixing that doesn’t shore up his national daggy dad routine.  And when he says that it ‘wasn’t a particularly flash day for those people on those vessels’ of the First Fleet, it’s not just a lazy stab at moral equivalence, but the same tone-deaf approximation of the vernacular as Kevin Rudd demanding a ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle.’

Precisely, Mr Haigh.  Get a new gag writer, ScoMo.  The Mayflower at Plymouth Rock was more your go.  Puritans to their bloody eyeballs, but they never let God stand between them and a dollar.  That’s why your old mate Donny Boy is still so flush, and in with the chosen, God’s elect.  Just live for the Sharks of Cronulla on Saturdays and Hillsong on Sundays.  You bloody ripper, Mate.


It is hard to see what the world did wrong to land Rupert.  The Oz editorial yesterday counselled Mr Biden to be prudent and concluded:

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

There in one sentence is the accumulated venom of Rupert Murdoch.

The Australian, 25 January, 2021

Passing Bull 260 – They are not us

Dear Editor (New York Times),

Americans who say that those who violated the Capitol are not ‘us’ forget history.  The nation was conceived in violence.   The war against the English was also a civil war that Churchill compared to atrocities in Ireland.  The founding document was based on a lie about equality.  600,000 Americans died in an attempt to extirpate that lie.  This President could not believe a black president could be American. He has cheered on white violence and condemned black protests.  And this nation uniquely celebrates a constitutional right to bear arms.  The purpose of a gun is to inflict violent harm.  So, Americans, don’t say you’re not violent.  It’s in your blood. 

The divide between black and white led to the Civil War and Black Wednesday.  Those who razed the Bastille cherished equality;  those who stormed the Capitol dread it.  The question you face was stated at Gettysburg  by the greatest American –  ‘whether a new nation,conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… can long endure’.

Yours truly


Donald Trump finishes his astonishing term as president in utter ignominy.  His behaviour since he lost the presidential election on November 3 has been far worse than anything he did as president….Trump was always a contemptible and unworthy character.  For any serious conservative, voting for him was always a 51-49 decision.

Greg Sheridan, Weekend Australian, January 9-10, 2021.

Where to start?  What does ‘conservative’ mean there, ‘serious’ or not?  What is there 50/50 about someone who has always been ‘contemptible’ and ‘unworthy’?  This proprietor does warp minds.  The Wall Street Journal broke ranks and said Trump should resign.  Since this is about 1000 to 1, the next question is what should otherwise happen?  They give no answer, although they concede that ‘Trump’s character flaws were apparent for all to see when he ran for president.’  Then the WSJ reveals the house flaw when it says that the 2019 impeachment was an abuse of process that has diminished Democrats’ credibility.  The alternative view is that that impeachment was a lay down misère which only failed because Republicans did not do their duty, and that the U S and the world are now much worse off because of their failure.  And, given that Trump is contemptible and a man whose character flaws are notorious, their failure is inexcusable.

Here and there – Milton on Trump’s Washington – Paradise Lost

Quite by chance a couple of days ago, I started to listen again, with text in hand, to Paradise Lost so gorgeously read by Anton Lesser.  It is ravishing – if you forget the theology, which is awful.  Every time I listen to it or read it, I wonder why Satan is the star of the show.  But the events in Washington yesterday reminded me of the title.  And some of the lines look to bear directly on the gruesome convulsions of America at this solemn hour.

The following look good for those made cowards by Trump.

The conquered also, and enslaved by war,
Shall, with their freedom lost, all virtue lose
And fear of God; from whom their piety feigned
In sharp contest of battle found no aid
Against invaders; therefore, cooled in zeal,
Thenceforth shall practice how to live secure,
Worldly or dissolute, on what their lords
Shall leave them to enjoy; for the earth shall bear
More than enough, that temperance may be tried:
So all shall turn degenerate, all depraved;
Justice and temperance, truth and faith, forgot.

No prizes for this one.

……..till one shall rise
Of proud ambitious heart; who, not content
With fair equality, fraternal state,
Will arrogate dominion undeserved
Over his brethren, and quite dispossess
Concord and law of nature from the earth;
Hunting (and men not beasts shall be his game)
With war, and hostile snare, such as refuse
Subjection to his empire tyrannous:
A mighty hunter thence he shall be styled
Before the Lord; as in despite of Heaven,
Or from Heaven, claiming second sovranty;
And from rebellion shall derive his name,
Though of rebellion others he accuse.

This seems apt for the Republicans.

Since thy original lapse, true liberty
Is lost, which always with right reason dwells
Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:
Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,
Immediately inordinate desires,
And upstart passions, catch the government
From reason; and to servitude reduce
Man, till then free. Therefore, since he permits
Within himself unworthy powers to reign
Over free reason, God, in judgement just,
Subjects him from without to violent lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthrall
His outward freedom: Tyranny must be;
Though to the tyrant thereby no excuse.
Yet sometimes nations will decline so low
From virtue, which is reason, that no wrong,
But justice, and some fatal curse annexed,
Deprives them of their outward liberty;
Their inward lost….

But here is the bell-ringer.  My new Public Enemy Number 1 – which, given the competition, is a mighty achievement – Ted Cruz.  Trump is just an illiterate spoiled child who was never taught better or brought to heel.  It’s not that he did not go to discipline school – he was never house trained.  Ted Cruz – and his younger dreadful fist-bearing lieutenant – do not have that excuse.  I am told that they had glittering careers as young lawyers.  I know just the type.  High IQ and zero judgment.  And, after lives spent in front of mirrors, the last people you would want to have behind you in an Indian tiger hunt.

Faithful to whom? to thy rebellious crew?
Army of Fiends, fit body to fit head.
Was this your discipline and faith engaged,
Your military obedience, to dissolve
Allegiance to the acknowledged Power supreme?
And thou, sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem
Patron of liberty, who more than thou
Once fawned, and cringed, and servilely adored
Heaven’s awful Monarch? wherefore, but in hope
To dispossess him, and thyself to reign?

There you have Teddy Boy to a tee – fawning and cringing servilely – the lowest form of life to crawl out from under a rock.

Passing Bull 258 – Good bye to 2020 – the return of the bogey man – and Happy Christmas

The Presidency of Donald Trump and the events of 2020 have seen the return of the bogeyman and of conspiracy theories for those who take their news to suit themselves.  Catholics, Masons and Jesuits have fallen out of favour as scapegoats.  Stalin had the kulaks.  Mussolini had effete liberals.  Franco had the Communists and atheists.  So did Senator McCarthy; and, to a lesser extent, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies.  It is best to pass over Hitler in silence.  As of now (December, 2020), many Australians seem to be seeking a reprise of the White Australia Policy with vitriol against the Chinese.  Their anxiety is made worse because President Trump appears to have abdicated in favour of President Xi, or, on a bad day, Chairman Kim.  (Do you remember when Trump said that he and Kim had fallen in love?  Neither could even spell ‘reciprocal’ so the ending had to be sour rather than sweet.)  Renegade doctors blame Big Pharma.  (Well, who wouldn’t?)  The Murdoch Press has the Premier of Victoria, who is stubbornly refusing to lie down, Muslims and other victims of a civilisation that is not deemed to be Western (although all the major religions of the West come from the East), scientists who peskily worry about their findings, and anyone whose ideology allows them to be sane about saving human life from a mortal illness.  This last is a form of madness imported by those on the Murdoch edge directly from their brothers and sisters at Fox News and is particularly sought after by those whose minds have been launched into eternity on one-way tramlines coming straight out of sullen think tanks.  Their rallying cry was given by a Governor of one of the stricken Dakotas: ‘My people are happy because they are free.’  (Well, yes, m ’Lady, they are also dying, but what’s a spot of death between Comrades of the Pure in Spirit?)  And all of us have all that modern technology and those dreadful pretty boys who have got so filthily rich on our debasement.  So that when you get China, high tech that is all-invasive, and a big corporation that is all-pervasive, you get Open Sesame for the Conspiracy Theorists’ Dream Team.  What, then, about the outgoing President of the U S A?  It’s a veritable smorgasbord.  (His family did come from that part of the world, but he lies about that, too.)  He has the Muslims, the Mexicans, the migrants, the media – or just about all of it, including now Fox News – the Ivy League set, the military, the FBI, the CIA, the medical profession and any other scientist, and any activist, that is any person who threatens his view of law and order, or who threatens to demean a photo op of his standing before a church, that he has never been inside, with a silly look on his face, holding a book that he has never read and could not understand, the way having been made safe for him and his ensainted daughter and her handbag by the Army of the United States in full battle gear.  And above all, he has it in for any person who is better educated than him.  Since this includes almost everyone else in America, it is a very big problem indeed – not least because the most educated person of the whole bloody lot of them was a man of colour with a wife who can think, both of whom in a moment of madness the people of America put into that bloody white house on Pennsylvania Avenue.  It just goes to prove that old saying – even paranoiacs have real enemies.

And very best wishes for Christmas and 2021 – and no one is sorry to say good bye to 2020 – and at least we are still above the ground – and, yes, Australians picked a good time to do the right thing for all of us.

Passing Bull 257 –Unquestionably vague

We would be better off – much better off – if we did not use words like ‘misogynistic’ or ‘anti-Semitic’.  One refers to an adverse view of women and the other refers to an adverse view of Jewish people.  But each term is used adversely to its subject and the range of conduct that might give rise to such a comment is so wide that such a comment is likely to be as unfair as it is vague. When I say that words like ‘misogynistic’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ are used adversely to their subject, I mean that we think it is wrong for people to assess the character of a person by reference to what some might see as the characteristics of other people from the same group – like women or Jewish people.  Decent people do not judge others by stereotypes.

Yesterday Mr Henry Ergas published a column headed ‘Why casual bigotry of Obama’s slur must be called out’.  The memoir of Mr Barack Obama referred to Mr Nicholas Sarkozy as ‘a quarter Greek Jew’.  He has ‘dark, expressive Mediterranean features’ resembling the figures of ‘a Toulouse – Lautrec painting’ and ‘all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric’ reflecting unbridled ambition and incessant pushiness’ while his conversation ‘swoops from flattery to genuine insight.’  These comments, which seem to me to be fair, leaped out at Mr Ergas and led him to compare those remarks to the insults ‘notoriously hurled at Benjamin Disraeli, the first person of Jewish birth to become Britain’s prime minister.’  (I might make two observations.  First, I greatly admire both Disraeli and Obama as statesmen of great character; one reason for my admiration is that both had to overcome real prejudice to get where they did.  Secondly, only one epithet leaped out of the page for Mr Ergas – ‘Greek’ and ‘Mediterranean’ apparently made no impact on Mr Ergas at all.)  Then we get:

…..if anti-Semitism involves using the label ‘Jew’ to evoke, emphasis or explain an inter-related complex of unattractive attributes, as Gordon Allport suggested in his classic book on The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Obama’s snide description of Sarkozy is unquestionably anti-Semitic.

Now, one might dismiss that as a mere blemish in an extremely lengthy volume.  It is however indisputable that had Sarkozy’s flaw been that he was black, gay, or Muslim, each with its associated stereotypes, the slur would have unleashed storms of protest…..In reality, the only roar was of a deafening silence.  From the New York Times to The Washington Post and beyond, not one of the gushing reviews considered Obama’s statement even worth mentioning.

In part that reflects the normalisation of casual anti-Semitism on the ‘progressive’ side of politics.

Mr Ergas went on to refer to a column by Mr Bret Stephens (whom I much admire) in the Times linking anti-Semitism to the criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism in ‘the left-leading media.’

Yet the left’s problem with Jews goes well beyond the blurring of the lines between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.

He went on to refer to the benefits conferred by religion – principally for the West it seems, although both relevant faiths came from the East – and makes two further criticisms of ‘the left’ and says that it and Mr Obama are ‘trivialising faith.’

So Mr Ergas says that Mr Obama cast a ‘slur’ on Mr Sarkozy, that the epithet ‘quarter Greek Jew’ ascribed a ‘flaw’ to Mr Sarkozy, and that in its context that epithet entails the conclusion that Mr Obama used the label ‘Jew’ to ‘evoke, emphasise or explain an inter-related complex of unattractive attributes.’  And what is more – that conclusion is unquestionable, indeed indisputable.

The short answer is that the matters of fact alleged by Mr Ergas against Mr Obama are not in my view sufficient to warrant the conclusion that is alleged.  And, after all, what is being alleged is a slur on Mr Obama that entails that his character suffers from a serious flaw.  You may recall that Mr Ergas says that ‘had Sarkozy’s flaw been that he was black, gay, or Muslim, each with its associated stereotypes, the slur would have unleashed storms of protest…’  It does look like the position of Mr Ergas may be circular – he appears to be saying that by describing someone as Jewish, you are invoking the stereotypes that come with that label.  You might also recall that the terms ‘Greek’ or ‘Mediterranean’ don’t apparently come with same heavy baggage.

But in my view, there is more than a non sequitur here.  How does Mr Ergas arrive at his conclusion against Mr Obama?  He comes to that conclusion because this is just what he has come to expect from a person who belongs to or comes from the ‘left’ or ‘progressive’ side of politics.  Neither of those terms is defined, and both are vague, but to adopt what I said above –

When I say that words like ‘misogynistic’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ are used adversely to their subject, I mean that we think it is wrong for people to assess the character of a person by reference to what some might see as the characteristics of other people from the same group – like women or Jewish people.  Decent people do not judge others by stereotypes.

In other words, Mr Ergas can only support his conclusion adverse to Mr Obama by resorting to exactly the kind of prejudice that he alleges against Mr Obama.

Indeed, what we have is a good example of the kind of commentary that disfigures our public life now – an adverse conclusion based on inadequate evidence; a conclusion alleged with total confidence; an absence of restraint; a one-sided and coloured view in a battle of us versus them; we are right and they are wrong; and appeals to mythical history.

In other words, we have a celebration of prejudice.  I will not therefore comment on the venomously dangerous suggestion that an adverse comment on Israel or Mr Netanyahu may warrant a charge of anti-Semitism. It is all very sad, but some readers apparently go for this sort of stuff.  The letters of congratulation have started already

King John and the Laws of England

Part I

Macaulay did not like Strafford.  He called Strafford ‘the first of the rats’.  Well, Strafford did really frighten the English, and they were desperate to kill him – which they did by means that even Macaulay and Churchill conceded were outside the law – and definitely not cricket.  But for raw shiftiness, Strafford was no match for King John.  ‘Shifty’ is the right epithet here.  You see it in the famous El Greco portrait of the Inquisitor.  When Sir Jack Plumb came to describe the advent of the Hanoverian kings, he said that they came full of apprehension because their future subjects had a reputation throughout Europe for being shifty.  The most famous speech in the play King John is about commodity – that is the wilful expediency, egoism, opportunism and compromise that the English associated with a ‘trimmer,’ those who trim their sales to go with the flow, and which causes us to turn away from politics.  It’s what politicians show when we say that they are being shifty.  John Masefield thought that the play was about treachery.  We would call it a study in back-stabbing.  That is a frightful illness that this nation has succumbed to as one prime minister after another was coarsely stabbed in the back.

But when we look at King John now, we see the seeds of two great movements in the laws and constitution of England – Magna Carta and the rule of law, and the Reformation and religious Home Rule for England.  While looking at these, you need to recall that they took place while the English lawyers and judges were developing that body of case law that we call the common law.  That law would underlie the whole stupendous fabric, so that our greatest jurist, Sir Owen Dixon, could deliver a paper entitled The Common Law as an Ultimate Constitutional Foundation.  The English constitution is part of the common law.  (That is not the case in the United States.)

The play is about the sources of power.  A king has died.  Should the succession go to the next brother (John) or the son of the deceased (Arthur)?  France backs the latter.  It and England are on the point of going to war about it.  They patch up their differences with a fortuitous marriage after breaking the world land speed record in courtship.  But the Pope has it in for King John over a dispute about the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  His emissary, Pandulf, bounces the ball by addressing the kings as ‘anointed deputies of heaven’ – and he is peremptory:

I Pandulph, of fair Milan cardinal,
And from Pope Innocent the legate here,
Do in his name religiously demand
Why thou against the church, our holy mother,
So wilfully dost spurn; and force perforce
Keep Stephen Langton, chosen archbishop
Of Canterbury, from that holy see?
This, in our foresaid holy father’s name,
Pope Innocent, I do demand of thee. (3.1.64-73)

England (King John) responds:

What earthy name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy and ridiculous,
To charge me to an answer, as the pope.
Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more, that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy,
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold,
Without the assistance of a mortal hand:….(3.1.74-84)

Pandulf excommunicates King John on the spot and offers sainthood to his killer. 

The play came out less than ten years after the Armada (and two scenes later we get a reference to a scattered armada).  So, all this Catholic bashing would have been blood to a tiger for Queen Elizabeth and her loving subjects.  The Spanish would have been driven by God to burn this heretic, so that when this brave woman made her great speech at Tilbury, she had what Americans call ‘skin in the game.’ 

The Elizabethan reaction would have been raucous, but when I saw this play at the Barbican about a quarter of a century ago, the locals allowed themselves an audible frisson during this scene.  They were all talking about it at interval.  (I was most impressed.  These were the people and this was the city that stopped Hitler.  Herr Von Ribbentrop could hardly have arrived on stage with more éclat.)  Shakespeare was very kind to Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, but Pandulf gets it right down the front, both barrels.  He talks the French out of their alliance ‘to be the champion of our church’, leading the locals to revile ‘the curse of Rome.’  War preparations are resumed, and King John resolves to have the boy Arthur murdered.  And all this misery comes at the behest of a foreign potentate about a disputed succession – not to the English Crown but one English holy see.

Pandulf is oily and insidious.  He is loaded with the prevarications that the Elizabethans saw in the Jesuits.  With God and Innocent III behind him, he treats both kings like his deputies, just as Napoleon would treat them like chess pieces.  Pandulf is the puppeteer on the cover of The Godfather.  ‘Sovereignty’ is a blighted term, but while Pandulf was abroad, the kings of Europe and England saw theirs decapitated.  Pandulf is stalking proof of Protestant propaganda of the danger of breaking the biblical injunction against a servant having two masters.

What has this to do with the Reformation?  Other countries in Europe would be prepared to tolerate this interference in their nation’s governance, but not England.  Henry VIII seceded because the Pope was standing in the way of his securing his succession – a most vital function of a king.  By contrast, King John surrendered his kingdom to Pope Innocent under a bond of fealty and homage for which he was to pay an annual tribute to the Holy See.  That looks like a protection racket, Mafia style.  The Oxford History remarks that this hardly gave rise to adverse comment at the time: ‘It was only later generations with bitter experience of papal control that denounced the transaction in violent language.’  Other kings had acknowledged the feudal superiority at Rome, but the Tudors would look back at this time, and the problems with Becket, as the foundation of their drive to independence – if not liberation.  When the end came for the Vatican in England, it might remind us of what Gibbon said about the fall of Rome – the wonder was not that it happened, but that it had gone on for so long.

You will have seen that the author has King John refer to ‘that great supremacy where we do reign.’  I have no doubt that this was a deliberate allusion to one of the acts of parliament that secured the divorce from Rome.  The Act of Supremacy begins –

Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same….

This was standard practice for English propaganda.  In building the common law, the judges resorted to legal ‘fictions’ to help get around road blocks set up by precedent cases and forms.  They were not so different when legislating.  Revolutionary changes would be described as simply affirmations of past customs, beliefs and laws.  So they begin by saying that their realm has always been accepted as an empire – the ruler of which can have no superior.  Well, King John plainly had a superior – but why rest on aberrations?

Shakespeare would show that he was alive to the issue.  When the French herald came to deliver the message of his king to King Henry V of England before Agincourt, he said that the French could have dealt with Harry at Harfleur, but that ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial: England shall repent his folly’.  A little later that night, Harry moved among the sad and depleted English troops in disguise – ‘a little touch of Harry in the night.’  ‘What are you?’ the king asks.  Pistol – a swaggering drunk – replies ‘As good a gentleman as the emperor’.  This leads the king to say: ‘Then you are better than the king.’

So, the English asserted their supremacy over the Church of Rome.  They did so through their parliament.  This was too big a job for a king alone.  The next phase of their history was in establishing the supremacy of the parliament over the king.  That process would be more or less complete by 1689, after what they call the Glorious Revolution.  It started with what we call Magna Carta in 1215.  The progress led to the form of government that we enjoy today.  There was nothing like it anywhere else in the world.  When the Americans affirmed their supremacy over the English Crown they simply used English precedents as their templates.