THE HOBGOBLIN OF LITTLE MINDS

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

Rudd was 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).

 

 

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MY FATHER’S WAR

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.

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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.”

WHAT’S IT TO YOU, SPORT?

(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:

The working class can kiss my arse;
I’ve got a bludger’s job at last.
though there are plenty of others.
At this point I should probably clarify my own position on a couple of issues: William Blake, though mad, was, at his best, a fine poet.  The suffragettes, apart from their unwarranted obstruction of horse races, were a worthy organisation.
Here in Australia we have too many grudges about New Zealand.  I think it would be better if we tried to get along with our trans-Tasman neighbours. We could start with an equitable division of disputed properties. We’ll have Phar Lap and you can keep Russell Crowe. That’s a fair start, isn’t it? See, a bit of good will and you can resolve most difficulties. Not all, though: there remains the haka. Why it has not been laughed off the world’s sporting grounds I do not know. It’s offensive and ridiculous. It’s especially ludicrous when demonstrated by some seven-foot sheep shagger who’s as white as my arse and has a ribbon wound around his head to keep his brains from falling out. Give it away, fellers! Isn’t it enough that you win all the games?
I used to be so proud of Australian sporting teams because they didn’t know the words of the national anthem!!! That was a real indicator that our culture (back in the days when we had one) was superior to that of flag-wavers like the Americans. Not now, though. Now our boys throw their heads back and bellow absurdities with the world’s best (having devoted the previous week to memorising the words, they generally seem to have forgotten the game plan, but you can’t have everything). All national anthems are horrible, but ours is more embarrassing than most. The French have the most offensive lyrics, counterbalanced by a good tune (which they pinched from the Fitzroy Football Club). Australia’s has a crappy tune AND vomit-inducing lyrics. New Zealand’s has boring anachronistic words and a rudimentary tune. Canada’s has only two words and no tune at all.  The vapidity of South Africa’s anthem is masked by the fact that it’s so fucking long and you have to suffer through reprises in nineteen different languages.  The US anthem combines the musical subtlety of Chopsticks with the verbal sophistication of a tweet from their  President.
And flags!  Don’t get me started.  Flags will have to wait for another day.

TIME FOR SOME DISCRIMINATING TALK ABOUT WOMEN

It’s only a matter of time before top-level sporting teams will be compelled, by the power of fashionable opinion, to include equal numbers of women and men. This is just one of the thoughts that struck me while I enjoyed the spectacle of Adelaide getting flogged by Richmond in the recent AFL Grand Final.

Note that I didn’t say “public opinion” since the opinion of Joe or Joan Public is irrelevant in determining which issues occupy the headlines. Some examples: same-sex marriage; abolishing the titular monarchy; the plight of illegal immigrants who get sprung trying to  enter Australia. These are some of the issues that take up a lot of air time at the moment but, regardless of their rights or wrongs,  I doubt if any of them matters much to Joe or Joan.

The precedent for selecting sides by ideological rather than athletic criteria has already been set. I understand that some South African sporting teams are compelled to include a certain  number of “black” or “non white” members. Normally I would be amused by the problems of definition raised by these rules (How dark is black enough? What percentage of European ancestry is acceptable?). However if anybody is going to be inconvenienced I’m glad it’s the  South Africans; it serves them right for having made  such a stupid fetish of strictly defined racial categories in the first place.

From time to time some reckless public figure tells the truth about the difference in standards between male and female tennis players. John McEnroe was the latest, when he said that Serena Williams, on a good day, might be able to compete with the 700th best male player.  It was as if he’d thrown a handful of chips into a flock of hungry seagulls. A whole lot of indignant squealing and not much rational dialogue. In fact McEnroe has a high opinion of Serena Williams as an athlete – I’ve heard him say so. His point is that by comparing female to male tennis players you’re not comparing like with like. That’s why they have separate tournaments.  But ideological purity is more important than good sense or good will; so I’m confident that eventually they’ll have to play one other (the men will need to be blindfolded or have their legs broken or something but that’s just a matter of administrative detail). Incidentally I can’t resist the opportunity to make another point about Serena Williams: remember her disgusting outburst against a line judge a couple of years ago? If a man had behaved like that there would have been a queue of blokes lining up to smack him around the head.  Or am I  just a starry-eyed old idealist? Anyhow Serena Williams makes Nick Kyrgios look like Victor Trumper and the sport would be better off without the pair  of them.

Moving now to the silver screen: it appears that a growing number of actresses want to be called actors (presumably because “actress” is an example of unacceptably accurate and precise language). On the other hand any impassioned outcry from actresses for the Academy Awards to stop handing out separate Oscars for women has escaped my notice. I know that this is a genuine sociological problem and you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve solved it for you. In future there can still be two awards for good acting. The categories can be:

  • Best actor claiming to have a penis; and
  • Best actor claiming to have a vagina.

Now I’ve given this matter some serious thought. Of course I wouldn’t suggest that potential nominees should be subject to any form of inspection. That would be an invasion of their privacy and we all know that it’s far better to do something really stupid than to run the risk of encroaching on anybody’s rights. Hence my cunning formula “claiming to”. We can do this on the honour system! Like all honour systems  it will be abused in a certain percentage of cases but that just provides the subtlety by which actors who don’t want to claim to have either a penis or a vagina can still be eligible. The’ll have to tell a lie, of course, but which lie they choose to tell is a matter of indifference to the system. And if it’s the worst lie told in Hollywood that week I’ll go he.

 

 

What I did with an Amazon voucher

Recently I was given an Amazon voucher. My Principal Advisor suggested that my thank-you email to the donor might be the basis of a short blog post, so here is a summary of the books I bought.
  • The Third Reich: A New History    Michael Burleigh is one of my favourite contemporary historians. I’m looking forward to reading this book.  He can usually be relied on to find new twists on old subjects. If you wanted to try one of his books I’d suggest starting with Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism.

 

  • The Spartacus War: Barry Strauss  I bought this on the basis of good reviews and the never-changing fascination of the subject. The author is new to me.

 

  • Alanbrooke War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke  The diaries of Alan Brooke (Pommy Chief of the Imperial General Staff for most of the Second World War) are a historical event in themselves. This is the first unexpurgated edition. I used to have a copy of the bowdlerised version that, when published in the 50s, resulted in Churchill never speaking to Brooke again, despite their intimate association during the war. It’s not that he is blind to Churchill’s virtues, but he’s not blind to his faults either. Fascinating.

 

 

  • Fire & Blood: A History of Mexico: T. R. Fehrenbach. I know quite a bit about the conquistadors, and a little bit of 20th century history but I don’t have a grasp of the continuity of Mexican history. Buying this book is an attempt to correct that deficiency. I wonder if it’s got anything about walls?

 

  • Fame is the Spur:  Howard Spring.  One of my minor obsessions is middlebrow novelists of the 30s, 40s and 50s, some of whom I think are greatly undervalued. Howard Spring is one of them. I haven’t read this book but it was quite famous in its day. I believe its about a  lower class Pommy who rises up the social ladder through Labour Party politics.

 

I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ opinions about any of these books.

THE MOST POWERFUL DRUG – some cautionary examples

“Words are … the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain ….” – Rudyard Kipling

It is a truth not yet universally acknowledged that a single cause in possession of multiple titles must be in want of credibility.

This truth is independent of the merits of the cause. A cause with multiple titles is not necessarily nonsense but it merits closer scrutiny and greater scepticism than would otherwise be the case.

Take, for example, what used to be called Global Warming and now is more often described as Climate Change. There was always something a little bit fishy about it and the change of name encourages the suspicion that it is just a successor to the Y2K bug. I’m inclined to believe that those parts of the theory that are true are not significant and those parts that are significant are not true. So the geography of the planet changes over time? Wow! Hold the front page! Some species which exist now might not exist at some time in the future? Gee, that’s never happened before.

“Creationism”, in its frantic but unavailing struggle against its own risibility, took to calling itself “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design”.  No luck. Those who believed in it under the first name still do and those who can count to twenty without taking their socks off still don’t.

The controversy about homosexual marriage is another illustration .  I suppose I need to state my own position: I’m in favour of changing the legal definition of marriage to encompass same sex couples.  I made up my mind on this question some time ago and so haven’t recently read many arguments against the change. Most opinions I do come across these days are from the advocates of change. These are the people who set the terms of public debate and let me emphasise that these are the people with whom I agree. For the most part they express their views in a mixture of sloganeering and hysteria. They seem to start from the assumption that anybody who disagrees with them is wicked or stupid or both. And in the course of the debate the title of the objective has changed. First we heard “Same Sex Marriage” then “Gay Marriage”  (presumably because “sex” has been booted out of the enlightened lexicon in favour of the appalling solecism “gender”) and now “Marriage Equality”. So if you have reservations about the issue, you’re in favour of inequality, right?  You expect this nonsense from religious knuckleheads but I, naïf that I am, have always wished for better from people on my side of the fence.

“Language” said Virginia Woolf “is wine upon the lips”.   Yes, Virgie, but sometimes it’s goon.  Here are some more examples.

When it comes to political discourse familiarity, sadly, breeds a lack of contempt. The first time I heard expressions like “political correctness”, “ethnic cleansing” or “sexism” I laughed.  I appreciated the trouble somebody had taken to invent a satirical term as a way of skewering a particular form of muddled or dishonest thinking.  Most other people (those without a vested interest) did too. Not now, though. If you are critical of the cliché you are assumed to be critical of all the ideas that lie behind it.  Once the cliché has passed into common usage it functions in the general population as a substitute for knowing what you’re talking about.  Other examples are “islamophobia”, “misogyny”,   “un-Australian”, “ageism”, “accountability”, “wellness” and “think outside the square”.  Some dangerous clichés achieve this status (i.e., becoming a substitute for thought) without even having provided a laugh in the first place: “patriotism”, for instance, or “holocaust”.

Another perversion of language that gets up my nose is the cliché that is an example of what it seeks to condemn. “Soundbite” and “dog whistle” are terms that identify dangerous tendencies in public discourse. “Soundbite” means “the replacement of a complex argument by a word or phrase simple enough for the stupidest person to remember” (the best example of a soundbite in literature is “Four legs good, two legs bad”). But take the sentence “You can’t complain about soundbite politics and then hound anyone who doesn’t deliver it”:  here “soundbite” is a soundbite.  Similarly “dog whistle” means “political language that has an unspoken meaning aimed particularly at one section of the audience”. The phrase “dog whistle” is itself an example of just such a message. It feeds paranoia (see Betsy de Vos, below).

Different code words (to use a code phrase) occur in different contexts. The other day I came across a recent American example. In line with their current policy of putting the fox in charge of the fowlhouse, a woman named Betsy de Vos is Czarina of Education. (I can’t resist the temptation to say that only in this sense is our Betsy a fox). It seems that the de Vos family have spent lots of money in support of organisations that favour the teaching of “intelligent design” as a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution. Apparently these groups have designated the expression “critical thinking” as  code for “promoting theistic alternatives to evolution”.  Every time Betsy slips that apparently innocuous phrase into the conversation the religious knuckle-draggers are able to nudge one another meaningfully and snigger, secure in their knowledge that the righteous are back at the top table.

And does any of this matter? Is language important? Well, obviously I think it is. So did W.H. Auden; in his In Memory of W.B. Yeats he wrote:

Time that is intolerant

Of the brave and innocent

And indifferent in a week

To a beautiful physique

Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.

We can only hope that the reverse is also true and that time will eventually condemn those who pervert and misuse language. More to the point, I hope you join me in condemning them now.

A SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

I’m not a fan of nationalism. I wish the basic political unit of the world was something other than the nation state. I also wish that rainwater was red wine and that Collingwood always won the premiership. Sadly I’m forced to live in a world where none of those things is true (although the Collingwood one may soon be if yesterday’s demolition of the Weegirls is anything to go by).

The problem of illegal immigrants claiming refugee status in Australia is currently a stick to beat the Liberal Party with. A couple of years ago it was a stick to beat the Labor Party with. In fact it is an ideal cause for supporters of whichever party is out of power. They can claim moral superiority without having to actually do anything about the problem. Since I despise all political parties equally I am well placed to come up with a practical solution.

I start by suggesting that any government has a right to decide which people are welcome. Does anybody disagree with that? Does anybody think that every person who turns up has a right to come in? It’s a defensible position and might be even more so if we had a different form of government but I haven’t heard anyone espouse it.

OK, how should we decide? Well, there is apparently an official way of deciding whether or not to grant a person “refugee status”. I don’t know anything about it and I’m sure it’s as bodgie as most bureaucratic procedures but let’s stick with it for now. Let that be the first part of the process. Now it gets interesting.

There are some people who are reluctant to admit Muslims. I can see that there are plenty of  reasons for that. I’d have no problems letting bad Muslims in, but I’m wary of devout ones. Do you believe that homosexuality merits death? Are you in favour of mutilating young girls? Do you think that apostates deserve to be killed? Should it be a crime to burn your fantasy book? Well, fuck off then. We have to find some way of separating the sheep from the goats and excluding fanatical lunatics would be a good start. It might also be necessary to make them confirm their opinions publicly in some way. I leave it to you to work out the mechanism.

But is it enough to just exclude devout Muslims? What about other religious dingbats? Most of their beliefs are not very dangerous but they are insane. Let’s get rid of them as well. There is no doubt that a country which discriminates in favour of atheists will have a saner, more intelligent population. And there is also no doubt that immigrants are a net gain for the receiving country. So any illegal immigrant who passes our tests (a genuine refugee who is also an atheist) is welcome. Our population will improve both in absolute numbers and in moral fibre (I’ve waited for years for a chance to recycle that expression!)

So what do we do with all the others who don’t qualify? Aha!

The countries with the greatest numbers of refugees are those who are next door to the wretched countries from which the refugees emanate. Turkey, for instance or Jordan or Lebanon or Rwanda.  So the Australian government says to the governments of those countries “We will take off your hands three (or four or five) refugees who pass our tests for every one who doesn’t pass that you will take from the current population of our detention camps.” It’s a good deal for both governments (though certainly a better one for Australia). It has another virtue as well: unlike the present “system”,  it doesn’t give rich illegal immigrants an advantage over poor illegal immigrants.

I make no charge for this modest proposal.