Passing Bull 62 – Asking the wrong question


There is one unavoidable axiom of our logic.  A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.  If you deny that proposition, you deny logic, and you destroy the possibility of rational thought.

It may be that the one unavoidable axiom or foundation of morality is that like cases should be treated alike.  If you deny that proposition, and dictators definitively do just that, you destroy the possibility of a moral system.  If you give a dog a biscuit for presenting his paw five times and then kick him, he knows that he has been hard done by.  (He also probably knows the difference between an intentional kick and an accidental one.)

This feeling or instinct is fundamental to our sense of fairness, or if you prefer, justice.  There is I think a related feeling that we have, and that runs deep in us. This is that somehow we should organise our communal lives so that our reactions to each other are in some way proportionate or reasonable.  A lawyer might be tempted to say that it is an implied term of our arrangement that we will at least try to get on with one another.

There is nothing surprising or high faluting about any of this.  The propositions I have just mentioned underlie a lot of our jurisprudence.

Communities that persistently breach our notions of fairness or proportion are likely to break apart in what we call revolutions – as happened in the United States in 1776, in France in 1789, and in Russia in 1917.

Let me mention five instances where our sense of fairness or proportion is being breached on a huge scale.

First, some people in this community earn millions of dollars a year while the national average wage is well under $100,000.  We have school teachers and nurses doing vital work for us all while we watch bank managers get paid 100 times as much for doing a job that we at best mistrust and at worst view with contempt.  This is an affront to sense as well as to decency.  The boss of Fox was sued for abusing a female staff member.  She got $20,000,000.  He got $40,000,000.  Is this public money or just in-house Monopoly?  I can recall devoting days on the free list in helping a worker get to the High Court because a number of judges who had never got their hands dirty could not bring themselves to describe as ‘serious’ an accident that had mangled his arm and left him marked for life.  Can you imagine the uproar if one of their Honours had suffered such an accident at work?

Secondly, what we call the Great Financial Crisis, which threatened all of us and which still hangs over us, was caused by greed, stupidity, and criminal dishonesty.  In the United States, the Department of Justice has handed out fines of $40 billion –that is $40,000,000,000,000.  So far as I know, not one executive has been jailed.  We nightly see or read of big corporations doing deals with regulators whereby the state is bribed to allow shareholders to be milked to allow executives to avoid jail and to trouser their bonuses.  The concept of open justice, either the openness or the justice, has ceased to exist for a large part of business.  It is a gaping scandal in our public life – and a scandal that runs across the whole of the Western world.  Meanwhile, in some parts of Australia, we throw blackfellas into jail for stealing a loaf of bread if that is their third offence.  We do this because the legislature has been bullied by shock jocks into confessing its distrust of our judges and imposing on our judges mandatory sentences.  They put judges on a conveyor line even though a lot of us think that punishment is just a measure of despair.  So, in the year of our Lord 2016, we repeat the moral infamy that caused the English to set up a jail in this land in 1788 and so commence the destruction of its original inhabitants, the people that we have still not learned to look after.

Thirdly, look at the most recent manifestation of the ghastly gun culture in the United States.  About once a week now, a black person is shot by a police officer in circumstances that could hardly be repeated elsewhere.  This tragedy could yet unwind the Great Republic.  This chasm between black and white is the result of a compound of two ideological trainwrecks – Jefferson’s lie about all men being equal, and the juristic nonsense about the right to bear arms warranting the ritual murder of school children by mad or evil people using automatic handheld guns.  It is also a grim testament to the power of money and selfish prejudice at the centre of what we nervously call capitalism.

Fourthly, we are witnessing the rise of giant corporations that look to be utterly ungovernable.  They absorb or wipe out any competitors and they treat tax like the French church did before 1789 – as a don gratuit, or free donation.  The rest of us have to pay more tax because the great and powerful do not.  That is a precise description of the main economic propellant of what we call the French Revolution.  The Economist issued this warning:

The rise of the giants is a reversal of recent history.  In the 1980s big companies were on the retreat, as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took a wrecking ball to state-protected behemoths such as AT&T and British Leyland.  But there are some worrying similarities to a much earlier era.  In 1860 – 1917 the global economy was reshaped by the rise of giant new industries (steel and oil) and revolutionary new technologies (electricity and the combustion engine).  These disruptions led to brief bursts of competition followed by prolonged periods of oligopoly.  The business titans of that age reinforced their positions by driving their competitors out of business and cultivating close relations with politicians.  The backlash that followed helped to destroy the liberal order in much of Europe.

That should be sobering.

Fifthly, we see the rise of populist leaders like Farage, Corbyn, Trump and Hanson.  Their programs bear no proportion to the national interest.  In the case of at least two of them, it is hard to avoid concluding that they put their own interests before those of their party, let alone their nation.  These people threaten not just the political fabric but the moral fabric of their nation.  But when we advert to the evil done in their name by their supporters, we risk making things worse.  In the same edition of The Economist, there is an article headed ‘Who’s deplorable?’  The subheading is: ‘It is perilously hard to criticise Donald Trump without seeming to insult his voters.’

Put simply, Mr Trump’s shtick should not be working.  In part, that is because he has repeatedly made appeals to bigotry since entering the race more than a year ago.  It is dismaying to see so many Americans either nod in agreement or pretend not to hear what he is really saying.  To be still more blunt, to anyone with their critical faculties undimmed by partisan rage or calculation, he is obviously a con-man… In short, Mr Trump has brilliantly manoeuvred himself into a place in which fact-checking him sounds like snobbery.  As his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has bragged: ‘He’s built a movement, and people are proud to be a part of it.  When you insult him, you insult them.’

It hardly bears thinking of what kind of person that remark might remind us of.  Were the case not so threatening or tragic, it might be a perfect example of what some people are pleased to call ‘identity politics’.  Or as Philip Coorey remarked in the AFR, Trump and his ilk did not create this swamp – they arose out of it.

You might be tempted to add a sixth case of a failure of fairness or proportion – it is not offhand easy to identify a trade union in this country that is properly administered to look after the interests of its members and nothing else.  Too many have leaders that are on the take financially, on the make politically, or who have just been there too long and are locked into class wars that we should have quit generations ago.  That proposition may be a little too sensitive politically, because there must be some good unions, but if it is correct, that is another essential organ of ours that has failed.

Well, all this may be obvious enough, or at least arguable enough.  But what does it have to do with the subject of bullshit?  Just this – most of our press commentary has failed to blow the whistle on our edging toward the brink of collapse, and it has failed sufficiently to notice the connection between the first four issues and the fifth.  A sure way to get the wrong answer is to ask the wrong question.

Poet of the Month: Ibsen


Her griefs were the hours

When my struggle was sore,–

Her joys were the powers

That the climber upbore.


Her home is the boundless

Free ocean that seems

To rock, calm and soundless,

My galleon of dreams.


Half hers are the glancing

Creations that throng

With pageant and dancing

The ways of my song.


My fires when they dwindle

Are lit from her brand;

Men see them rekindle

Nor guess by whose hand.


Of thanks to requite her

No least thought is hers,–

And therefore I write her,

Once, thanks in a verse.