The name of this blog has been altered from “The Black Flag” to one that more closely describes my political position. More changes are on the way …probably.
“Wearing your heart on your sleeve at least gives you something to wipe your nose on.” – Ophelia Oldfellow
Private expressions of emotion: grief, regret, elation or affection, may or may not be sincere but I believe in giving them the benefit of the doubt until their falsity is proved. Public expressions of emotion, on the other hand, should be judged more harshly and their exponents regarded as guilty until proved innocent.
It is a source of shame to me that I can remember where I was when I first heard about the death of John Kennedy or that of Diana Spencer. It reminds me that I am not immune to popular obsessions, no matter how hard I try. When I’m waiting at the supermarket checkout I anxiously scan the magazine covers on display. I am relieved whenever a celebrity is referred to by its first name and I don’t know who it is. I feel vindicated and uplifted. Occasionally I do recognise a name and gloom envelops me. Memento, homo, quia ovis es.
(For the record: I was at boarding school when John Kennedy died. A bloke called Mick W, who had got up earlier than the rest of us, came hurrying out of the bathroom where had been listening to the radio and said “The American President’s been shot!” Years later, I was ironing a shirt when the radio or television – I forget which – announced the death of England’s Bimbo-in-Chief.).
Diana’s death, while funny in itself, was completely overshadowed by the “outpouring of public grief”* that followed it. Cartloads of flowers dumped in public places! Oh if only I could have been a by-laws officer, with the power to impose on-the-spot fines for littering! “I’m sorry sir, but you’re not allowed to deposit decaying vegetable matter on the footpath.” Because human beings are such sheep this sort of anti-social vandalism has become fashionable and widespread. When the Australian cricketer Phil Hughes died after being struck by a ball people placed cricket bats in places where they were visible to passers-by (gateways, balconies, verandas) as a “tribute”. A number of his former teammates took every opportunity, when playing a match in front of a sufficiently large crowd, to gaze soulfully heavenward at moments when they knew the cameras would be on them, in pretence that their former friend was looking down on them. I suppose they were at least recognising someone who had actually existed, which makes them less ridiculous than those athletes who cross themselves or kneel and give blubbering public thanks to a god who is only a figment of their sick imaginations.
Nobody has been more appropriately scornful about contrived public emotion than the great South African poet Roy Campbell. His epigram “The Land Grabber. (On a Poet Who Offered His Heart for a Handful of South African Soil)” goes like this:
The bargain is fair and the bard is no robber;
A handful of dirt for a heartful of slobber.
*Did you note that? Journalism!!!!!
This post, a short one, is an attempt to make a particular argument clear to people who disagree with me (all my previous efforts have failed miserably – I have never been able to make myself understood). To show goodwill I intend to play nicely. I will soft-pedal the sarcasm and not refer to them as “Greenshirts”.
The contradiction at the heart of Green ideology is a false distinction between things that humans do and things that other animals (or microbes, or chemical reactions or sunspots) do. They select one creature out of all those who have ever existed and pass moral judgements about its behaviour. My argument is that, by doing so, they are guilty of the same foolishness of which they accuse others – regarding humans as a special case.
Humans wiped out the dodo. An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. Both events were the inevitable result of inevitable processes. To say that one was “natural” and the other was not is to adopt an untenable philosophical position: that humans have free will and stand outside the rest of the universe. The best articulation of their fundamental argument is:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
In other words, the argument that most enrages them is implicit in their own position.
It follows that every public manifestation of a political party with “Green” in its name must inspire contempt in the intelligent observer. Oooops!
I’ve devoted several posts to the deficiencies of “democratic” political systems and recently I’ve been reading Democracy and its Crisis by AC Grayling. Anybody with the slightest interest in the subject should take a look at it. Here is a link. It starts with a good history of how our current systems have evolved and follows up with an analysis of what is wrong with them. The emphasis is on very recent events in the UK and US, particularly the “Brexit” referendum and the election of Donald Trump.
There are certain differences between AC Grayling and me. He is a professor of philosophy with a shitload of academic qualifications and has published many books. I am unemployed, unqualified and haven’t. He has better hair than I do. Nevertheless many of his conclusions are compatible with mine and he deserves credit for that.
I have believed for a long time that a few comparatively simple reforms would quickly improve the efficiency and morality of our political systems.
Make parliamentary voting secret. This will smash the rigidity of party discipline with one blow. Every argument in favour of the secret ballot applies with even more force inside the legislature than outside it. If the party bosses cannot tell how an individual legislator has voted they are powerless to direct the process and the legislators are free to exercise their proper function: applying their minds to the question at hand and voting for what they believe is the best outcome for Joe Public. Grayling makes the excellent point that in any other workplace it would be unlawful for bribery, intimidation and blackmail to be the standard means of imposing discipline (as they undoubtedly are within political parties). Similarly, anyone who sought to dictate how an ordinary citizen should vote (in the same way that political parties do to your elected representatives) would go to jail. And let’s not forget that, under the present system, every legislator who automatically votes the party line or succumbs to the routine intimidation of party bosses is a traitor to the electorate. An elected representative has not undertaken to reflect the wishes of a particular party or even the wishes of the voters. The true function of a representative legislator has (of course) never been stated more eloquently than by Edmund Burke:
… it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Induce more people to vote. Grayling favours the Australian practice of making voting compulsory. I don’t agree with him. I understand the arguments in favour of it, especially in places like the UK which have first-past-the-post voting with all the unfairness inherent in such systems, but rather than penalise people who don’t vote, I would reward people who do. The act of voting should automatically move you into a slightly more favourable tax bracket. I don’t have enough technical knowledge to say exactly how this should be done but I’m sure there are already enough existing (if unacknowledged) links between tax records and voting records to make the process simple enough in practice.
Proportional representation. Most of the arguments that are used against it, when analysed, turn out to be arguments in its favour. “It makes coalition governments more likely!” “You mean it creates a system where parties must cooperate and compromise? Great!” “There are too many minor parties!” “You mean that the composition of the legislature actually reflects the choices made by the electorate? Terrific”. “A government might not be able to muster a sufficient majority to implement its program!” “You mean there are safeguards against the tyranny of the majority? That sounds good.”
Preferential voting has many variants but its essence is well described by this definition from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: ” … a system of voting in which voters indicate their first, second, and lower choices of several candidates for a single office. If no candidate receives a majority, the second choices are added to the first choices until one candidate has a majority.” Such a system avoids the iniquities of first-past-the-post voting where the candidate who scores the most votes wins and, unless the winner gets more than half the votes, most electors are dissatisfied with the outcome. The more public interest there is in the election the more likely it is that there will be many candidates and therefore the greater probability that the winner will not have a majority. Preferential voting guarantees that even if you vote for a candidate with no hope of winning your vote still has a residue of significance. Compare that to the situation of an English voter who supports the Labour Party but has the misfortune to live in a safe Conservative seat (or vice versa). Preferential voting also has the huge advantage that the candidate actively hated by the fewest electors is the most likely to win.
It is the responsibility of governments to provide, either directly or indirectly, services to their citizens. Governments have no other function or purpose . I believe that members of the executive should be restricted by law to the range of public services available to the poor. They and their families may only be treated in public hospitals; they may not own or travel in a private vehicle; their kids must attend government schools.
We must find a way to minimise the impact of all those forces that try to interfere in the direct interplay between candidates and electors: party officials, advertisers, sponsors, pollsters, newspapers and so on. To discourage these unwanted outsiders I’d suggest that the only form of electoral advertising should be public meetings either paid for by the government and attended by all candidates or paid for by individual candidates where a sign would be clearly visible to the audience saying “This meeting was paid for by a donation from x”. No television or newspaper advertisements. No telephone calls. Speak before a live audience and answer direct questions or don’t get your message across. No opinion polls. Draconian laws should be introduced to frustrate the malign influences who will be trying to thwart my proposals. For instance public meetings are likely to be disrupted by hecklers aiming to prevent their opponents from being heard. It would be a defence against a charge of heckling if the defendant could convince a court that the interruption was (a) funny; and (b) audible to three-quarters of the audience. With that exception, interference with a public meeting or pretending that “deplatforming” is a word that an adult might use should be punished severely.
Earlier I quoted Edmund Burke on the obligations of a legislator to his constituents. Alas, there aren’t many Edmund Burkes in contemporary politics but there were damn few of them in Burke’s own day. Far more typical, then and now, is the attitude exemplified by Anthony Henley, MP for an English parliamentary seat before the Great Reform Bill of 1832. (I have taken this story from a wonderful anthology entitled Scorn, compiled by Matthew Parris.) I gather that Henley, having been elected by the corporation of Southampton after bribing them, quarreled with them “about the Excise” and subsequently replied to their letter of complaint as follows:
I received yours and am surprised by your insolence in troubling me about the Excise. You know, what I very well know, that I bought you. And I know, what perhaps you think I don’t know, you are now selling yourselves to Somebody Else; and I know, what you do not know, that I am buying another borough. May God’s curse light upon you all: may your houses be as open and common to all Excise Officers as your wives and daughters were to me, when I stood for your scoundrel corporation.
We should be grateful to Tony for reminding us just how necessary the various Reform Bills were and how far we have all come under our separate constitutions. The reforms I’ve suggested may seem extravagant or fanciful but most of them will become commonplace eventually and 2018 will then seem as far away as 1832.
A famous American once wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds .” No, it wasn’t Donald Trump (I said “wrote”!). The quotation, however, is a nice introduction to my theme: that politics is inimical to consistency of opinion.
Barack Obama is a secret Moslem who wasn’t born in America. Donald Trump is, wittingly or not, a Russian agent. If you find one of those statements plausible and one not, I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re a human being with some sort of an interest in politics.
It is almost irresistibly convenient to believe the worst about our opponents, and not just in the limited sphere of formal politics. We all know that those on the other side of the fence – in politics, work, sport or family dynamics – are not only morally inferior; but also unfairly favoured by the gods, referees, the electoral system and Rupert Murdoch.
All too often political abuse is characterised by an insane lack of judgement and proportion. You can accuse an opponent of any silly thing, no matter how implausible, confident that some of your allies will accept, embellish and reproduce it. For instance, Bertrand Russell – a ferociously intelligent man – described John Kennedy as much more wicked than Hitler. I’m sorry, Bertie but you should get out more. The comparison between Kennedy and one of his successors, Bill Clinton, is more apt because, although neither of them could keep his dick in his trousers (a quality they shared with Bertrand Russell, incidentally), fashions in public indignation had changed by the time Clinton came to power. Kennedy was lucky enough to be famous at a time when root rats were glamorous and the Press could be relied on to keep its mouth shut. Clinton, on the other hand, was condemned as a sleazebag. Admittedly Kennedy’s … er … conquests seem to have included women of genuine distinction: Mafia harlots, for instance; prostitutes; film stars. Poor old Bill, on the other hand seems to have been fated to link up with second raters. He even found himself married to a woman who couldn’t beat Donald Trump in an election.
Donald Trump is, by the length of the straight, the most ludicrous U.S. President in history – a constant source of embarrassment to his fellow citizens and amusement to me. However he’s not photogenic enough to be the Beast of the Apocalypse and doesn’t even have enough integrity or personality to be the second coming of Richard Nixon. Yet to hear his supporters tell it he’s the authentic voice of the people (a frightening thought given that most of them are allowed to vote). Barrack Obama, perceived by his enemies as an alien betrayer of US interests and by his supporters as a paragon of virtue was actually a bottomless reservoir of metronomic platitudes and not much else. He won the Nobel Prize for Blandness, didn’t he?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, John Howard, a suburban lawyer with the charisma of an accountant, was disguised, for a time, as the Australian Prime Minister. He ended his career, much to my enjoyment, by losing an election to an ABC wind-up toy. Howard was described as an unflushable turd by a person (Mungo Macallum) who apparently made a living by providing political commentary. Epithets such as “racist” and “war criminal” almost passed for moderation among Howard’s critics. Abuse at that level no doubt, boosted his ego but reflected badly on the critics’ sense of proportion. We weren’t much better off after Howard departed: he was succeeded by the abominable Kevin Rudd, who is famous for eating his own ear wax in Parliament. You don’t believe me? Look here
stabbed in the back succeeded by Julia Gillard. She was the most embarrassing Australian Prime Minister in my lifetime, beating Biddy McMahon by a short half-head, but that’s all she was. She wasn’t capable of doing anything on a grand scale, either good or ill. After all, there isn’t much novelty in a politician being a treacherous liar; I doubt if anybody has ever become Prime Minister without it. To hear her critics tell it, though, she was a combination of Messalina and Myra Hindley. I shall always remember fondly her entertaining habit of leaping to her feet and squeaking “Misogyny!!!”, to roars of applause from the Fairfax press, every time somebody disagreed with her.
The point is that Joe Ordinary’s reactions to these politicians were predictable and depended almost entirely on Joe’s own political allegiance. Most politicians, of any party, have no personalities other than those invented by their hired liars with the aim of deceiving you. That won’t inhibit you from the most disgusting excesses of adulation or vituperation at the next election.
Has this always been the case? Or can I blame “social media” – almost as ridiculous a concept as “reality television”- for the decline of civilisation. (I realise that all fulminations against Facebook should be done in a Walter Brennan voice but I have a sore throat.) Abraham Lincoln was described by some of his contemporaries as “an idiot”, “a Yahoo” , “the original gorilla” and other endearments. The vows of many Clinton supporters to emigrate if she lost the 2016 US election were foreshadowed by the determination of a prominent abolitionist, who disagreed with some of Lincoln’s policies, to move to Fiji if he was re-elected. She seems to have turned out just as much a bullshitter as they did; see evidence here A good article about anti-Lincoln feeling can be found here
So why are our judgements so unbalanced? Why do political affiliations lead us into inconsistent opinions? Is it a variant of the Endowment Effect according to which we value goods (and, presumably, people) more highly if we feel they are “ours”, that we have some proprietary interest in them? Is it just that we feel unable to express an opinion on a public subject without a crowd to shelter in? Are we afraid to hold a nuanced position? Are we more comfortable with a simplistic view of the world? If any of these explanations are true why the hell are we allowed to vote?
Oh and who was the American who inspired the title of this post? It was Ralph Waldo Emerson (no relation to Roy as far as I know).
This is a slightly modified version of a post that I put up on a previous blog. I think it’s worth repeating.
Some years before my father died a document circulated among some of his friends from the Second World War. It was a transcript of a radio programme from early 1943, a series of interviews with members of his unit, including Dad himself, recorded after the horrendous Buna – Sananada fighting in which they had participated. Because of wartime secrecy, the unit – the 2/12 Australian Infantry Battalion – was not identified. Here is a link to the full transcript. I hope you find it interesting enough to read in full, but just to give you the flavour of it, here is an extract:
The morning of the attack on New Year’s Day we were in position around Battalion Headquarters. About ten minutes after the attack started the wounded started to come in. Well, when word came in that many of the stretcher bearers were wounded, Dave Hodgetts volunteered to go out and bring the wounded in. And I suppose during that day he must have brought in about 30 men. He had to go across a couple of nasty stretches swept by fire but that didn’t stop him. Then, in the afternoon, when all the wounded had been looked after, he carried ammunition to the forward positions, and some of them wouldn’t be more than 10 to 15 feet from some of the pillboxes. He had a cup of tea about six or seven o’clock and then he volunteered to lead a pioneer party out to the forward platoons with stew and tea, and I suppose he must’ve worked until about ten o’clock that night. First thing next morning he was out taking ammunition to the machine gunners. While he was out with ammunition he noticed a wounded man lying out in the open.Two of the Jap posts were sweeping this ground with machine gun and rifle fire and Dave was told he didn’t have a chance of getting to the wounded man. Dave said “Like hell!” and crawled out and got him. Every time he went out with ammunition he went round fossicking to see if there were any wounded left. He worked as no other fellow did. He seemed to be the first man in everything. He was always the first to volunteer for anything.
In a prefatory note to The Middle Parts of Fortune (the best novel of the First World War) the author, Frederic Manning, wrote
“…in recording the conversations of the men I seemed at times to hear the voices of ghosts.”
As well as my father, some of the men interviewed here were intermittent characters in my childhood and youth. It’s a strange feeling to read this text and come across those familiar names and idioms. They are the nearest thing to ghosts in my experience.
|Leo Gardner (1918-2004)|
There are army terms used in the transcript that might be unfamiliar to some readers. “MT” is “Motor Transport”, “sig” is “signaller”, “draw the crabs” means “attract enemy fire”, “C O” is “commanding officer”. If anybody has any questions on this or any other aspect of the transcript I will happily attempt to answer them.
Reflecting on these interviews leads me to try and clarify my thoughts about how we remember various wars and the men who fought in them. That is a matter for a later post. For now all I will say is that I am scornful of ill-informed and mawkish displays of public sentimentality. I can hardly do better than to quote Frederic Manning again.
“War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half of its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”
(This post is based on a conversation I had recently on Facebook. To the other people who participated: thank you for the stimulation. If I’ve stolen any of your original thoughts, I apologise.)
I hate all national anthems. I hate people feeling obliged to stand up for them and feeling superior to those who don’t. I hate people with flags on their cars or in their front yards. It used to be an instance of Australia’s superiority to the US that we were above that sort of nonsense. Now, however, there is barely any such thing as a recognisable Australian culture. Most of our fashions in thought (including anti-Americanism) are imported from the US and one of those execrable fashions is a willingness to take flags and anthems seriously.
National anthems at sporting events are an abomination. The prevalence of them is one reason why, although I love sport, I have practically stopped attending it. In fact if you go to a big sporting event these days you get hit with a double whammy: vulgar national anthems to start with and a combination of 5th rate pop music and advertisements for Colonel Sanders throughout the day. And when I say “national anthems” (I’m on a roll now) I include pseudo-anthems – the Pommies playing Jerusalem before cricket matches, for instance. Are they completely immune to embarrassment? The author of Jerusalem, William Blake, was as mad as a cut snake and his poem is a mixture of lunatic religiosity and disguised support for the French Revolution. During the First World War one Hubert Parry was commissioned to set it to music as a patriotic rabble rouser although he eventually tiptoed away from the commissioning organisation because it was a bit too patriotic if you know what I mean. He handed the rights to his music over to the suffragettes in the hope that it would become their political anthem. Political organisations just love songs, don’t they? Nothing serves to better illustrate the truth of the old adage: “If you’ve got something to say, say it; if you’ve got nothing to say, sing it.” One of the most hilarious sights in politics is a group of Fairfax-reading, ABC-watching left wingers singing The Red Flag. Personally I prefer the version that begins: