The Bonfire of the Insanities – the biofuel greenwash

Drax!

It sounds like a villain in The Avengers series. 

We first saw it when visiting my niece in Yorkshire a few years back. But we did not know then that this huge, redundant coal-fired power station outside the historic town of Selby had been re-purposed as Britain’s largest biomass plant. But now, it seems, everybody is talking about it. 

Drax has been touted as a pioneer of clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, and is one of villains of the documentary BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?, an excellent but scary film made by North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance about the burning of wood on an industrial scale for energy. It tells the little-known story of the accelerating destruction of forests for fuel, probing the policy loopholes, huge subsidies, and blatant green-washing of the burgeoning biomass power industry.

BURNED describes how the European Union’s desperation to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels kicked off a demand for wood pellets for burning to generate electricity that in turn created an industry. Promising clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, it came for what it called forest waste, and then it came for the forest itself. 

The film exposes a green-wash built on shonky accounting and corporate conjuring, corporate deception and misrepresentation, complicit economists and regulators, and semantic sleight of hand. 

It reveals how an accounting error determined biomass burning to be carbon neutral, whilst a mechanism to prevent counting carbon twice became a rule that carbon wasn’t counted at all. Indeed, it was declared that the burning of biomass was “instant carbon sequestration” whilst emissions exuding from the new-age power stations were actually “biogenic carbon” – green power!

And it exposes the hoodwinking of ordinary folk in economically depressed areas who now suffer the environmental and health consequences of born-again power plants that become, in reality, incinerators. 

PLEASE WATCH THIS IMPORTANT FILM NOW — free-streaming via LinkTV (30-minute concise edition)  HERE 

Coming to a forest near you! 

In Australia and elsewhere, the general public, forest industry nostalgists, conservative politicians, and, even, many environmentalists believe that we are saving forests from destruction by using plantations for jobs and construction timber, when in fact the former are few, supplanted by hi-tech  mechanization, and latter is destined for pulp mills and power plants.

But maybe we are at last wising up.

Since the widespread distribution of BURNED, the true scale of the biofuel greenwash is being given the publicity it needs. The true colours of rebadged, born-again plants like Drax are now revealed for all the world to see. And they are not green! 

The mainstream media is now on the case, as demonstrated by recent pieces in The Australian and The New Yorker. The latter, an informative report reporting on work done by the Dogwood Alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Centre, is republished in full below (But you can read it HERE).

Drax, of course, is held up as public enemy number one.

The Southern Environmental Law Centre reports that the British government, “continues to heavily subsidize biomass electricity generation at the expense of wind and solar. In 2018 alone, Drax Power (which has now converted four of its coal-fired plants to burn biomass) received £789.2 million in U.K. government subsidies under the guise of carbon reductions … These subsidies are being used on an industry that, even under the proclaimed best case scenario, does not reduce carbon emissions in the time-frame necessary for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Instead, the UK and European Union must end all subsidies for biomass electricity generation and reallocate existing biomass subsidies to zero-emitting renewables like wind and solar”.

It gets worse. Like some colonizing power (no pun intended), Drax is extending its reach. The SELC reported recently on a carbon lifecycle analysis for three wood pellet mills located in Louisiana and Mississippi and owned by Drax Biomass, a subsidiary of Drax Power …  The analysis demonstrated  that Drax’s plants rely mostly on whole trees sourced from thinnings from non-industrial pine plantations, with the remaining wood coming from sawmill residues, although there is evidence that Drax is using between 5-20 % hardwoods. Rather than reducing carbon emissions, the analysis showed that burning wood pellets from these mills for electricity in the U.K. increases carbon pollution to the atmosphere for more than 40 years”.

Meanwhile, as I write, back in Europe, a cargo ship is approaching Ireland’s green shores laden with timber from faraway foreign forests to be consumed in re-engineered peat-fired plants as part of a “co-fuel” trial. The Irish environmental organisation An Taisce (pronounced An Taysh) – essentially, the country’s national trust – has sounded a clarion call with respect to shipping what is officially designated “sustainably sourced biomass” (of course it is!) in a diesel-powered vessel halfway across the world from a country that is already facing dire environmental problems – and no, we’re not talking about some impoverished third world nation, but economically, technologically, intellectually and socially well-to-do Australia!

Australians too are now on the case.

In a recent article, environmentalist Francis Pike shone a strong light on Australia’s disingenuous complicity in what is indisputably a global greenwash. She writes: “the fairy-tale that burning wood instead of coal is carbon neutral continues to wreak havoc on the world’s extant forests … For a long time, the falsity of carbon emission accounting for forest bio-energy has been apparently invisible to many policymakers”. But, she continues, “the fairy-tale could soon end, taking with it the myth that the industrial logging of the world’s native forests has been and is now “sustainable”. 

She, like the  Dogwood Alliance, calls out the linguistic contortions and the dubious accounting: “Corporatised state forest agencies and helpful state environmental protection agencies have created industry-friendly definitions, definitions of residue that can accommodate whole logs.  They might be called pulp logs – native forest trees of various “unwanted” species not allowed to grow to maturity”.

And whilst we in northern New South Wales might be alarmed about re-tooled plants like Drax and those in Ireland’s Midlands, Pike reminds us that something wicked this way comes: “ … whole log “residues” can be chipped and transported to power stations or transported and then chipped at the power station, as with New South Wales power stations at Vales Point on the Central Coast and Cape Byron in the north. Native forest biomass burnt with or without coal or something else, props up emission intensive enterprises with its “carbon neutral, renewable energy, subsidy attracting” quality. Or the forest biomass is exported, as pellets, chip or whole trees”. (Activists are already protesting at the Condong plant at Cape Byron).

‘Renewable energy’ at Cape Byron, NSW

Australian forests are now being actively marketed as an export commodity for combustion in Asia, most notably China, and to a lesser extent, Japan – not to mention, of course, Saint Patrick’s Fair Isle. 

Queensland Commodity Exports Pty, Ltd, a subsidiary of wood-chip behemoth Midway, a leading supplier of wood-fibre to the Asian markets, is currently sourcing Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) certified timber (a much-prized but highly suspect ‘green tick of approval’) from northern NSW – including all of Bellingen’s plantation forests, and pulping it on the wharf at Port Brisbane.

So …

BELLINGEN BEWARE — vast areas of our closely surrounding public forests have been reclassified as ‘low quality’ for wood-chip export … the bio-fuel industry will be coming for us next!

As Bob Dylan once sang, “It’s all just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme, babe, that sucks you into feelin’ like this”.

Here is some further the reading on Drax and the Irish trials:

See also in In That Howling Infinite, The Return of the Forest Wars and If You go down to the woods today.

Condong 13/08/2019. David Bradbury

The bonfire of insanity: Woodland shipped 3,800 miles to burn in Drax, emitting more CO2 for a cleaner and greener Britain!

David Rose, The Mail on Sunday, 16th March 2014

On a perfect spring day in the coastal forest of North Carolina I hike along a nature trail – a thread of dry gravel between the pools of the Roanoke river backwaters. A glistening otter dives for lunch just a few feet away.

Majestic trees soar straight and tall, their roots sunk deep in the swampland: maples, sweetgums and several kinds of oak. A pileated woodpecker – the world’s largest species, with a wingspan of almost 2ft – whistles as it flutters across the canopy. There the leaves are starting to bud, 100ft above the ground.  The trees seem to stretch to the horizon: a serene and timeless landscape.

But North Carolina’s ‘bottomland’ forest is being cut down in swathes, and much of it pulped and turned into wood pellets – so Britain can keep its lights on.

The UK is committed by law to a radical shift to renewable energy. By 2020, the proportion of Britain’s electricity generated from ‘renewable’ sources is supposed to almost triple to 30 per cent, with more than a third of that from what is called ‘biomass’.

So our biggest power station, the leviathan Drax plant near Selby in North Yorkshire, is switching from dirty, non-renewable coal. Biomass is far more expensive, but the consumer helps the process by paying subsidies via levies on energy bills.

That’s where North Carolina’s forests come in. They are being reduced to pellets in a gargantuan pulping process at local factories, then shipped across the Atlantic from a purpose-built dock at Chesapeake Port, just across the state line in Virginia.

From the States to Selby

Those pellets are burnt by the billion at Drax. Each year, says Drax’s head of environment, Nigel Burdett, Drax buys more than a million metric tons of pellets from US firm Enviva, around two thirds of its total output. Most of them come not from fast-growing pine, but mixed, deciduous hardwood.

Drax and Enviva insist this practice is ‘sustainable’. But though it is entirely driven by the desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a broad alliance of US and international environmentalists argue it is increasing, not reducing them.

In fact, Burdett admits, Drax’s wood-fuelled furnaces actually produce three per cent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal – and well over twice as much as gas: 870g per megawatt hour (MW/hr) is belched out by wood, compared to just 400g for gas.

Then there’s the extra CO2 produced by manufacturing the pellets and transporting them 3,800 miles. According to Burdett, when all that is taken into account, using biomass for generating power produces 20 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

And meanwhile, say the environmentalists, the forest’s precious wildlife habitat is being placed  in jeopardy.

Drax concedes that ‘when biomass is burned, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere’. Its defence is that trees – unlike coal or gas – are renewable because they can grow again, and that when they do, they will neutralise the carbon in the atmosphere by ‘breathing’ it in – or in technical parlance, ‘sequestering’ it.

So Drax claims that burning wood ‘significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared with coal-fired generation’ – by as much, Burdett says, as 80 per cent.

These claims are questionable.  For one thing, some trees in the ‘bottomland’ woods can take more than 100 years to regrow. But for Drax, this argument has proven beneficial and lucrative.

Only a few years ago, as a coal-only plant, Drax was Europe’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and was often targeted by green activists. Now it boasts of its ‘environmental leadership position’, saying it is the biggest renewable energy plant in the world.

It also gets guaranteed profits  from the Government’s green energy subsidies. Last year, these amounted to £62.5 million, paid by levies on consumers’ bills. This is set to triple by 2016 as Drax increases its biomass capacity.

In the longer term, the Government has decreed that customers will pay £105 per MW/hr for Drax’s biomass electricity – £10 more than for onshore wind energy, and £15 more than for power from the controversial new nuclear plant to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset.  The current ‘normal’ market electricity price is just £50 per MW/hr.

Mr Burdett admitted: ‘Our whole business case is built on subsidy, like the rest of the renewable energy industry. We are simply responding to Government policy.’

Company spokesman Matt Willey added: ‘We’re a power company. We’ve been told to take coal out of the equation. What would you have us do – build a dirty great windfarm?’
Meanwhile, there are other costs, less easily quantifiable.

‘These are some of our most valuable forests,’ said my trail companion, Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Centre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  ‘Your government’s Department  for Energy and Climate Change claims what’s happening is sustainable,  and carbon neutral. But it’s not. What you’re actually doing is wrecking the environment in the name of saving  the planet.

After our hike through the forest, Mr Carter and I drove to a nearby airfield, where we boarded  a plane. From 2,000ft up, the forest spread beneath us. Soon, however, we reached an oblong wedge, an open wound in the landscape. It was a recent ‘clear cut’ where every tree had been removed, leaving only mud, water and a few stumps. Clear cuts are the standard means of harvesting these forests, and this one covered about 35 acres.

Enviva yesterday confirmed that some of its wood was turned into pellets for Drax.

In the next 10 minutes, we flew over at least a dozen such holes in the tree cover. Finally a looming smokestack appeared up ahead: Enviva’s pellet plant at Ahoskie. To one side lay the material that provides the plant’s input: a huge, circular pile of logs: tens of thousands of them, each perhaps 30 or 40ft long. In the middle was a heavy-duty crane. It swivelled round and grabbed bunches of the logs as if they were matchsticks, to feed them into the plant’s machines.  Later, we inspected the plant on the ground. It’s clear that many of the logs are not branches, but trunks: as Carter observed, they displayed the distinctive flaring which swampland trees often have at their base.

Here the story becomes murky. At Drax, Burdett said that in making pellets, Enviva used only ‘thinnings, branches, bentwood .  .  . we are left with the rubbish, the residue from existing forestry operations. It’s a waste or by-products industry.’ He insisted: ‘We don’t actually chop whole trees down.’ But looking at the plant at Ahoskie, Carter said:  I just don’t get this claim that Drax doesn’t use whole trees. Most of what you’re seeing here is whole trees.’

Pressed by The Mail on Sunday, Enviva yesterday admitted it does use whole trees in its pellet process. But according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Woodworth, it only pulps those deemed ‘unsuitable for saw-milling because of small size, disease or other defects’.

Not so green: By using pellets, Drax produce three per cent more carbon dioxide than coal, not including the CO2 produced by manufacturing the pellets and transporting them 3,800 miles

She claimed such trees, no more than 26 inches in diameter, make up a quarter of the wood processed at Ahoskie. Another 35 per cent comes from limbs and the top parts of trunks whose lower sections went to saw mills. To put it another way: 60 per cent of the wood cut by the loggers who supply Enviva is turned into pellets.

The firm, she added, was ‘committed to sustainable forestry… replacing coal with sustainably produced wood pellets reduces lifecycle emissions of carbon dioxide by 74 to 90 per cent.’

How fast do these forests, once cut, really regrow?

Clear-cut wetlands cannot be replanted. They will start to sprout again naturally quite quickly, but according to Clayton Altizer of the North Carolina forest service: ‘For bottomland sites, these types of forests are typically on a 60 to 100-year cycle of growth depending on the soil fertility.’ Other experts say it could easily take more than 100 years.

That means it will be a long time before all the carbon emitted from Drax can be re-absorbed. For decades, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will be higher than it would have been if Drax still burnt only coal.

Drax’s Nigel Burdett yesterday admitted he did not know how long a North Carolina clear-cut bottomland swathe would take to regrow, but insisted this simply doesn’t matter. What counted, he said, was not the areas which had been cut, but the whole region from which the pellets were sourced.

Drax’s website implies unmistakeably that biomass deserves its ‘carbon neutral’ status because the wood cut for pellets regrows. But Mr Burdett said: ‘The rate at which it re-grows is irrelevant. The crucial issue is how much there is across the whole catchment area.’ He said that in North Carolina, as in other southern states, more wood is growing than being cut so the ‘sustainable’ claim is justified.

There is an obvious objection to this: the forests would be growing still faster, and absorbing more CO2, if they weren’t being cut down.

Burdett’s argument gets short shrift from conservationists.

Danna Smith, director of North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance, said the pellet industry increases the pressure to ‘over-harvest’ forests, as landowners know they have a guaranteed market for material which they could not otherwise sell: ‘It adds to the value they get from clear-cutting.’

The pellets are supposedly a step in reducing CO2 emissions, but have, in fact, made it worse

Moreover, she added, if this incentive did not exist, they would wait until the smaller trees were big enough to cut for furniture and construction – and all that time, they would be absorbing carbon.

A recent study showed that bigger, older trees absorb more CO2 than saplings. As for Drax’s claim that what counts is regrowth across the region, ‘that just doesn’t capture what’s happening around the mills where they’re sourcing the wood’.

According to a study by a team  of academics, published in December by Carter’s law centre, Enviva’s operations in North Carolina ‘pose high risks to wildlife and biodiversity, especially birds’.

The Roanoke wetlands are home to several rare or endangered species: the World Wildlife Fund said in a report that the forests constitute ‘some of the most biologically important habitats in North America’ and constitute a ‘critical/endangered resource’.

Meanwhile, in North Yorkshire, the sheer scale of Drax’s biomass operation is hard to take in at first sight. Wood pellets are so much less dense than coal, so Drax has had to commission the world’s biggest freight wagons to move them by rail from the docks at Hull, Immingham and Port of Tyne. Each car is more than 60ft high, and the 25-car trains are half a mile long. On arrival, the pellets are stored in three of the world’s largest domes, each 300ft high – built by lining colossal inflated polyurethane balloons with concrete. Inside one of them, not  yet in use, the echo is impressive. Light filters in through slits in the roof, like a giant version of the Pantheon church in Rome.

To date, only one of Drax’s six turbine ‘units’ has been converted from coal to biomass: another two are set to follow suit in the next two years. Eventually, the firm says, its 3.6 gigawatt capacity – about five per cent of the UK total – will be ‘predominantly’ biomass, burning seven million tons of pellets a year.

From the domes, the pellets are carried along a 30ft-wide conveyor belt into a milling plant where they are ground to powder. This is burnt in the furnaces, blown down into them by deafening industrial fans.

All this has required an investment of £700 million. Thanks to the green subsidies, this will soon be paid off. Even if all Britain’s forests were devoted to Drax, they could not keep its furnaces going. ‘We need areas with lots of wood, a reliable supply chain,’ Mr Burdett said.

As well as Enviva, Drax buys wood from other firms such as Georgia Biomass, which supplies mainly pine. It is building new pellet-making plants in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Last month, the Department of Energy and Climate Change issued new rules on biomass sourcing, and will insist on strict monitoring to ensure there really is ‘sustainability’.

In North Carolina, this will not be easy: as Carter points out, there is very little local regulation. But wouldn’t a much more effective and cheaper way of cutting emissions be to shut down Drax altogether, and replace it with clean new gas plants – which need no subsidy at all?

Mr Burdett said: ‘We develop  our business plan in light of what the Government wants – not what might be nice.’

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2581887/The-bonfire-insanity-Woodland-shipped-3-800-miles-burned-Drax-power-station-It-belches-CO2-coal-huge-cost-YOU-pay-cleaner-greener-Britain.html

Don’t Burn Trees to Fight Climate Change—Let Them Grow

Bill McKibben, The New Yorker, 15th August 2019

Countries and public utilities are trying to reduce carbon emissions by burning wood pellets instead of coal, but recent studies have shown that the practice will have disastrous effects.Photograph by Anna Gowthorpe / PA Wire / AP

Of all the solutions to climate change, ones that involve trees make people the happiest. Earlier this year, when a Swiss study announced that planting 1.2 trillion trees might cancel out a decade’s worth of carbon emissions, people swooned (at least on Twitter). And last month, when Ethiopian officials announced that twenty-three million of their citizens had planted three hundred and fifty million trees in a single day, the swooning intensified. Someone tweeted, “This should be like the ice bucket challenge thing.”

So it may surprise you to learn that, at the moment, the main way in which the world employs trees to fight climate change is by cutting them down and burning them. 

Across much of Europe, countries and utilities are meeting their carbon-reduction targets by importing wood pellets from the southeastern United States and burning them in place of coal: giant ships keep up a steady flow of wood across the Atlantic. 

“Biomass makes up fifty per cent of the renewables mix in the E.U.,” Rita Frost, a campaigner for the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville, North Carolina, told me. 

And the practice could be on the rise in the United States, where new renewable-energy targets proposed by some Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as by the E.P.A., treat “biomass”—fuels derived from plants—as “carbon-neutral,” much to the pleasure of the forestry industry. “Big logging groups are up on Capitol Hill working hard,” Alexandra Wisner, the associate director of the Rachel Carson Council, told me, when I spoke with her recently.

The story of how this happened begins with good intentions. As concern about climate change rose during the nineteen-nineties, back when solar power, for instance, cost ten times what it does now, people casting about for alternatives to fossil fuels looked to trees. 

Trees, of course, are carbon—when you burn them you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the logic went like this: if you cut down a tree, another will grow in its place. And, as that tree grows, it will suck up carbon from the atmosphere—so, in carbon terms, it should be a wash. 

In 2009, Middlebury College, where I teach, was lauded for replacing its oil-fired boilers with a small biomass plant; I remember how proud the students who first presented the idea to the board of trustees were.

William R. Moomaw, a climate and policy scientist who has published some of the most recent papers on the carbon cycle of forests, told me about the impact of biomass, saying, “back in those days, I thought it could be considered carbon neutral. But I hadn’t done the math. I hadn’t done the physics.” 

Once scientists did that work, they fairly quickly figured out the problem. Burning wood to generate electricity expels a big puff of carbon into the atmosphere now. Eventually, if the forest regrows, that carbon will be sucked back up. 

But eventually will be too long—as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear last fall, we’re going to break the back of the climate system in the next few decades. For all intents and purposes, in the short term, wood is just another fossil fuel, and in climate terms the short term is mostly what matters.

As an M.I.T. study put it last year, while the regrowth of forests, if it happens, can eventually repay the carbon debt created by the burning of wood pellets, that payback time ranges from forty-four years to a hundred and four in forests in the eastern U.S., and, in the meantime, the carbon you’ve emitted can produce “potentially irreversible impacts that may arise before the long-run benefits are realized.”

As the scientific research on this carbon debt emerged, in the past decade, at least a few of us in the environmental movement started voicing opposition to burning trees. The most effective leadership has come from the Southeast, where community activists have pointed out that logging rates are now the highest in the world, and that rural communities—often communities of color—are being disrupted by endless lines of logging trucks and by air pollution from plants where trees are turned into easy-to-ship pellets. 

Earlier this year, a proposal to build the largest pellet mill in the world, in Lucedale, Mississippi, drew opposition from a coalition that included the N.A.A.C.P. and which predicted that the plant would have a “disastrous effect on the people, wildlife, and climate.”

But Mississippi environmental officials approved an air permit for the plant, which would employ ninety full-time workers, and so far European officials have also turned a deaf ear to the opposition: new E.U. regulations will keep treating the cutting down of trees as carbon neutral at least through 2030, meaning that utilities can burn wood in their old plants and receive massive subsidies for theoretically reducing their emissions. The Drax power plant, in the North of England, which burns more wood than any power plant on Earth, gets 2.2 million dollars a day in subsidies. 

But a new study, commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center and released on Monday, makes clear that, even under the most conservative estimates, Drax’s burning of wood pellets that it imports from the American South will “increase carbon pollution in the atmosphere for more than forty years, well beyond the time-frame identified by the IPCC as critical for carbon reduction.” 

Biomass fuel at Drax Selby. Anna Gowthorpe / PA Wire / AP

European subsidies treat power plants that burn wood as the equivalent of, say, solar panels, despite the fact that, under even the most generous scenarios, they emit at least ten times as much carbon, when factoring in the energy that it takes to make the panels. “They’re looking for ways to shift their infrastructure without drastically overhauling it,” Bob Musil, a veteran-environmentalist who now runs the Rachel Carson Council, said. “Ways that don’t cause shifts in culture.” 

It’s remarkably similar to what happened in the United States with fracking: political leaders, including some in the Obama Administration, decided that the least-fuss way to replace coal would be with natural gas, only to learn that, as new science emerged, they had in fact replaced carbon emissions with leaking methane, which was making the climate crisis worse.

In this case, the greenwashing is particularly misleading, because burning trees defies the carbon math in another way, too: once they have been cut down, the trees won’t be there to soak up the carbon. “The Southeast U.S. is falsely seen as a sustainable source of wood,” Danna Smith, the executive director of the Dogwood Alliance, told me, because when the trees are cut down they can regrow—unlike, say, in the Amazon, where thin soils usually mean that when trees are cut down the land becomes pasture. She added, “But these forests are vital carbon sinks.”

In fact, the newest research shows just what folly biomass burning really is. 

This summer, William Moomaw was the co-author of a paper that tracked carbon accumulation in trees. Planting all those trees in Ethiopia definitely helps pull carbon from the air, but not as much as letting existing trees keep growing would. Unlike human beings, who gain most of their height in their early years, Moomaw explained to me, “trees grow more rapidly in their middle period, and that extends far longer than most people realize.” 

A stand of white pines, for instance, will take up twenty-two tons of carbon by its fiftieth year, which is about when it would get cut down to make pellets. “But, if you let it grow another fifty years, it adds twenty-five tons,” he said. “And in the next fifty years it adds 28.5 tons. It would be a mistake to cut them down when they’re forty and make plywood. It’s really foolish to cut them down when they’re forty and burn them, especially now that we’ve got cheap solar.” He calls letting trees stand and accumulate carbon “proforestation” – as opposed to reforestation.

Bill McKibben, a former New Yorker staff writer, is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College. His latest book is “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?Read more »

The agony of Julian Assange

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
That fellow’s got to swing’.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
 
A nice dilemma we have here that calls for all our wit
Gilbert and Sullivan, Trial by Jury

The Road to Belmarsh Gaol

Julian Assange, the Australian co-founder of online media organization WikiLeaks is in deep shit. He’s pissed off the Yanks, frustrated the Poms, and angered his Ecuadorian hosts, and now the Swedes want to have another bash …

He was arrested on April 11th by British police at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been claiming political asylum for almost seven years having lost a final appeal against his extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. He was then charged with failing to surrender to the court.

While in the embassy, Assange could not be arrested because of the international legal protection of diplomatic premises, which meant police could not enter without Ecuador’s consent. On April 11, British police were invited into the embassy and made the arrest. On the same day, Assange was found guilty on that charge of failing to surrender, sentenced to fifty weeks for jumping bail. and is serving his time at HM Prison Belmarsh.

On April 11, the United States government unsealed an indictment made in March 2018 charging Julian Assange with a conspiracy to help whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, former soldier and pardoned felon to crack a password which enabled her to pass on classified documents that were then published by WikiLeaks – in effect, conspiracy to hack US computer systems, a charge which carries a maximum five year sentence. The US has requested that the UK extradite Assange to face these charges before a US court. Assange has now been indicted on seventeen charges under the espionage act, which if proven, could mean life imprisonment. There is no guarantee that once he enters the the legal system he will ever re-emerge.

In 2010, a Swedish prosecutor requested Assange’s transfer to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, which he denies. Whilst appealing a British High Court decision to extradite him, he spent eighteen months under house arrest at the home of a supporter (in effect, he has been incarcerated for almost a decade). In 2016, Assange was questioned by Swedish authorities by video link while he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2017, they closed the case against him, but after his arrest, the lawyer for one of the Swedish complainants indicated she’d ask the prosecutor to reopen the case. Sweden’s Prosecution Authority reviewed the case and renewed its request for extradition; but in November 2019, it dropped the matter citing a lack of substantive evidence.

But the British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has signed off on the US’ extradition request. It must now go through the British courts. The process could take years, well beyond Assange’s initial   fifty weeks incarceration, the court’s refusal to free him when it had expired – on the grounds that he was a flight risk (he has form, after all) – and the formal expedition hearing which open in February 2020.

Stay angry, get even

The current US administration cleaves to the maxim “stay angry and get even” – Uncle Sam neither forgets nor forgives. Just wait and see what happens if it can get its hands on exiled hacker and   Now Russian resident Edward Snowden. The British Government, relieved to have restored a corner of Knightsbridge to its sovereignty, and currently knee deep in the Brexit “Big Muddy”, probably won’t lift a finger to help him even though by any standard of much-vaunted British ‘fair play’, his self-imposed punishment hardly fits his alleged crimes, an by any liberal and democratic benchmark, he’s certainly served his time. Former Aussie prime minister Kevin Rudd has declared that  Julian Assange would pay an “unacceptable” and “disproportionate” price if he is extradited to the United States, that no actual harm to individuals has been demonstrated, whilst the WikiLeaks founder should not take the fall for Washington’s failures to secure its own classified documents.

Our leaders here in Australia, lost in our own short-term political preoccupations bleat from the distant sidelines that it’s not our problem – which politically and diplomatically speaking, it isn’t, other than the fact that he is an Australian citizen (albeit a longtime absentee) and therefore warrants consular assistance. Simplistically put, there are no votes in it.

Will our government now help him out? Demand his return to Australia? Oppose the calls from the US to extradite him from the UK?

Our tepid and tardy response to the detention in Thailand of footballer Hakeem al-Araibi on a dodgey Bahraini extradition order and the asylum plea of Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammad – ironically, again from Thailand – does not auger well for a resolute and reasonable response. The way we left erstwhile al Qaida fellow-travelers David Hicks and Mamduh Habib to rot in Gitmo, and the  lack of enthusiasm with which we took up journalist Peter Greste’s case in Egypt – his family and journalists worldwide maintained the struggle for his release – suggest that after what we call “diplomatic representations” (what ordinary folk call “going through the motions”), we will face political realities and bend to the US’ will.

Caught up between our subservient relationship with the US, our slavish pandering to economic and strategic interests, placing these above considerations of human rights, and our government’s susceptibility to the malign influence of shock-jocks and populist politicians, Australia’s official behaviour in such cases is often predictably and reflexively disingenuous.

Nowadays, most governments are desperate to stop leaks, data dumps, whistle-blowers and uncomfortable revelations. Democratic governments have attempted to use ostensibly benign legal and security powers to restrict media oversight and criticism. Witness here in Australian how the Victorian Director of Prosecutions is seeking to put thirty-six media outlets, editors and journalists on trial over allegations that they breached a suppression order in reports published after the prominent and well-connected Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child sex abuse charges. The powerful look after their own.

Less squeamish, more thuggish autocratic regimes have few qualms about consigning journalists and editors to jail and worse whilst their western allies and armourers ‘see no, hear no, speak no evil’. Narrow, national interests as ever trump (an apposite word, indeed) human rights. Witness the hundreds of Egyptian and Turkish journalists jailed without trial, the harassment and even killing of reporters in Eastern Europe and Russia, and, of course, the gruesome murder of Saudi scribbler and stirrer Jamal Khashoggi.

The US, the land of the free and the First Amendment has truly shown its hand, and its true colours, proving that Assange’s fears of extradition were quite justified. The UK, meanwhile, has long ached to nail him for contempt of its bail laws, and just plain contempt, really – and a seriously extravagant waste of already straitened police resources. When Assange had worn out his Ecuadorian welcome, lubricated, it is alleged (by WikiLeaks), a $4.2 billion IMF bailout plus another $6 billion from other financial institutions, the Met was ready to roll. Meanwhile, Australia’s political class, having long regarded his Australian nationality as an embarrassing inconvenience, just hoped that we could be left out of it all.

Rally ‘round the fall guy

The media, mainstream, extreme, any stream really, including social media and sundry supporters and detractors, are rushing to both praise Assange and to bury him. They defend and demonstrate, denounce and demean. So Julian Assange, simultaneously icon and bête noir, is the ideal fall-guy “pour decourager les autres”: for everyone on the left and the right who dig him, there’s another who can’t stand him for reasons political, personal, or perverse.

There’s the role he played in the demise of Hilary Clinton and election of Donald Trump, as if, some believe, he was hoping for some kind of “get out of jail free” card from a Trump administration. There’s his hanging out, in a confined space, with the likes of UKIP’s irritating and arguably obnoxious Nigel Farage. All this has forever tarnished his reputation as a warrior of the left. There’s those problematical charges in Sweden that we now learn have never gone away.

During the Australian Federal election before last, the party running his senate bid in absentia gave its preferences to right-wing libertarian nut-jobs ahead of Labor and the Greens, his erstwhile natural allies – and then put it all down to clerical error.

Sadly, stories about his tantrums, visits by Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga and onetime Baywatch hottie Pamela Anderson (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!) and neglecting to clean up after his cat – lurid tales of his hygiene habits appear have been concocted to dehumanize him in tabloid tittle-tat – have rendered him an object of ridicule. And the images of him being dragged out of the embassy, pale and blinking in the unforgiving daylight, grey-haired, bearded, wide-eyed and disheveled, like some mad old street person, have engendered pathos and pity.

There can be little doubt that his mental and physical health deteriorated during his confinement. For sure he is not the confident man who entered the embassy so many years ago; but the law doesn’t recognise this – it demands a reckoning. And many love to kick a man when he’s down.

In the end, Assange was in so many ways his own worst enemy. It is hypothesized that he could’ve surrendered to the Brits long time passing and took his chances at law instead of hiding, a much diminished figure, in the embassy of a small Latin American republic. The sad irony is that if he’d faced the music all those years ago, he might’ve been a free man by now, either having done his time or been exonerated, or else, a credible and respected political prisoner supported worldwide as a champion of press freedom and free speech.

Lights in dark corners

Amidst all the commentary and partisanship swirling about the Assange’s unfortunate circumstances, there has been remarkably little explanation of what he, Manning, WikiLeaks and Snowden have actually done in a substantive security sense. Robert Fisk and his colleague at The Independent, Patrick Cockburn, address just that.
Fisk wrote on 31st May:  “ … the last few days have convinced me that there is something far more obvious about the incarceration of Assange and the re-jailing of Manning. And it has nothing to do with betrayal or treachery or any supposed catastrophic damage to our security”.
Cockburn succinctly belled the cat with on the same day: “ … the real purpose of state secrecy is to enable governments to establish their own self-interested and often mendacious version of the truth by the careful selection of “facts” to be passed on to the public. They feel enraged by any revelation of what they really know, or by any alternative source of information. Such threats to their control of the news agenda must be suppressed where possible and, where not, those responsible must be pursued and punished.”
Fisk continues: “The worst of this material was secret not because it accidentally slipped into a military administration file marked “confidential” or “for your eyes only”, but because it represented the cover-up of state crime on a massive scale. Those responsible for these atrocities should now be on trial, extradited from wherever they are hiding and imprisoned for their crimes against humanity. But no, we are going to punish the leakers – however pathetic we may regard their motives … Far better we hunt down other truths, equally frightening for authority. Why not find out, for example, what Mike Pompeo said in private to Mohammed bin Salman? What toxic promises Donald Trump may have made to Netanyahu? What relations the US still secretly maintains with Iran, why it has even kept up important contact – desultory, silently and covertly – with elements of the Syrian regime?
Assange was not, in Fisk’s opinion an investigative journalist; he is nevertheless, a scapegoat, and also a salutary warning for all who shine a light into the dark corners of power: “… what we find out through the old conventional journalism of foot-slogging, of history via deep throats or trusted contacts, is going to reveal – if we do our job – just the same vile mendacity of our masters that has led to the clamour of hatred towards Assange and Manning and, indeed, Edward Snowden. We’re not going to be arraigned because the prosecution of these three set a dangerous legal precedent. But we’ll be persecuted for the same reasons: because what we shall disclose will inevitably prove that our governments and those of our allies commit war crimes; and those responsible for these iniquities will try to make us pay for such indiscretion with a life behind bars. Shame and the fear of accountability for what has been done by our “security” authorities, not the law-breaking of leakers, is what this is all about”.

Back to Cockburn who writes that one reason Assange was being persecuted was for WikiLeaks’ revelations about US policy in Yemen: “Revealing important information about the Yemen war – in which at least 70,000 people have been killed – is the reason why the US government is persecuting both Assange and Yemeni journalist Maas al Zikry … (who) says that “one of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in that tragic condition it has reached today is the US administration’s mass punishment of Yemen”. This is demonstrably true, but doubtless somebody in Washington considers it a secret.”

A nice dilemma

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange has done the world many favours. They’ve exposed war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; they’ve shine an unwelcome light on wrongdoing, shabby deals, and hypocritical, incriminating and ofttimes embarrassing goings-on in the corridors of power and diplomacy worldwide. And they’ve passed all this on to reputable media sources throughout the so-called free world to sift, analyse, question, join disparate dots, and disseminate.

Yet, in what may seem in retrospect to be a bad dose of overconfidence and hubris, they aspired to be players in the power games of others rather than remaining a neutral and discerning watchdog. And this was perhaps Assange’s undoing – if undone he indeed becomes. This story has some distance to run …

His faithfully longtime lawyer Jen Robinson declared that his arrest, after seven years of self-imposed internal exile, has “set a dangerous precedent for all media and journalists in Europe and around the world”. His extradition to the US, she said, meant that any journalist could face charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States”. She might have added “published outside the US”, Indeed, US revanchism is a chilling demonstration of imperial overreach and a grim warning to others.

And yet, much of the legal argy-bargy around the charges Assange is likely to face in the US hinge on the question of whether he is actually a journalist and whether WikiLeaks is actually a news organization. He and his supporters have long portrayed him as a champion of a free press, but some experts believe that the US Department of Justice’s decision to charge him with conspiring to hack government computers limits his ability to mount a vigorous free speech defense. Assange has long said WikiLeaks is a journalistic endeavour protected by freedom of the press laws, and in 2017, a UK tribunal recognized WikiLeaks as a “media organisation”.

Political prisoner, maybe, whistle-blower, certainly, but “not a prisoner of conscience”, at least by Amnesty International’s definition. Compared to many prisoners on Amnesty’s books, innocents and activists banged up by oppressive regimes, Assange has been pretty well treated. The consistent reference in many media reports to a potential death sentence in the US is egregious insofar as the UK will not allow extradition if a death sentence is on the cards. Many would also dispute the tag “investigative journalist” that some have bestowed upon him, seeing as he and Chelsea Manning released classified US and other information. They did not ferret it out, sift it and analyse it for publication as investigative journalists generally do. As for making Assange a “working class hero”, as some on the far-left have done, that is drawing a long bow. Friends and foes alike are now dancing around these distinctions.

In a concise recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Greste, who got to know very well the inside of a squalid Egyptian prison cell and the Egypt’s kafkaesqe judicial system for allegedly publishing what a government didn’t like, makes a few points that Jennifer, her colleague, the eloquent and famous Geoffrey Robertson, and others have skated lightly over:

“Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom … Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility. To effectively fulfill the role of journalism in a democracy, there is an obligation to seek out what is genuinely in the public interest and a responsibility to remove anything that may compromise the privacy of individuals not directly involved in a story or that might put them at risk. Journalism also requires detailed context and analysis to explain why the information is important, and what it all means”.

Greste nevertheless sounds a warning. On the eve of the first extradition hearing on January 25th 2020, in an opinion piece in the SMH, he wrote of how the Obama administration   “realized that if they prosecuted him, they would then have to prosecute the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for also publishing much of Wikileaks’ material, and in the process do irreparable harm to the constitutional guarantees for press freedom. It is clear that under Trump, Assange is highly unlikely to have his rights respected or get a fair trial, and those, too, are grounds to oppose his extradition. The manner in which US prosecutors are handling his case, and its implications for anybody who believes in democratic accountability, are too serious to let Assange be extradited without a fight”.

Other Australian are not as hostile to Assange as Peter Greste, as a recent article  by Amanda Horton in the Sydney Morning Herald observes, concluding with the not quite rhetorical question of what would Australia do if he was serendipitously returned to our distant shore:

“The Australian government certainly appears singularly unmoved by Julian Assange … Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the legal processes must “run their course” and Assange should “face the music”. The government position appears to be that f the US wants to extradite him, and extradition proceedings are underway, Australia can’t intervene even if it wanted to … This is total nonsense, says everyone with experience: diplomacy is all about pulling levers behind the scenes … The problem, say sources in government, is that Australia may be reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of Assange … Australia may also be too afraid – “too craven”, according to one – to test its standing with the US; and there may be a sense that the US has gone too far to back down, so a request to do so would be both embarrassing and useless. The US-Australia relationship may be further tested if, eventually, the UK refuses extradition and deports Assange back to Australia. It appears that the US might then be able to request his extradition directly from us. What will we do then?”

Meanwhile people continue to argue over whether Assange is a hero or a ratbag – our ratbag as an equally ratbag conservative Australian member of parliament called him – demanding,  surprisingly that he be brought home).  They debate whether he is a legitimate journalist, publisher, troublemaker or whistleblower, a Trumpista or Putinesca. But sycophantic and pusillanimous politicians aside, most informed people of goodwill believe that there isn’t a case to answer and that he should be repatriated to Australia. It will be interesting to see where Jen Robinson’s last minute (February 2020) witness statement about Trump’s offer of pardon will go, and indeed, what the British Court will decide. One thing’s for sure: The Powers That Be will continue to play dirty.

 

© Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved


Yes, Julian is in deep shit. But, you animal lovers and sharers of kitty pics out there in the twitterverse and Facebook world, his cat and companion Michi has gone to a good home …

Read more about politics in In That Howling Infinite here: A Political World – Thoughts and Themes

The ghosts of Gandamak

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

When in the wake of 9/11 the US and it’s allies invaded Afghanistan, critics and cynics invoked the long arm of history to declare that the venture was a forlorn hope. Many questioned latter day imperial hubris. Others asked what were the long term goals, and what was the exit strategy. Reference was made to the Soviet Union’s destructive, demoralizing and ultimately debilitating invasion and nine year occupation (some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, and 35,000 were wounded whilst about two million Afghan civilians were killed) which left the land in the tyrannical thrall of competing warlords; and to America’s own Vietnam quagmire. And then there were the British history buffs who reminded the world that Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires, so well illustrated in the famous painting of the last stand of the 44th Foot on the bleak hillside of Gandamak during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Inevitably, we dust down Rudyard Kipling’s well worn rhyme:  

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

After more than 17 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, with over two thousand soldiers dead and some twenty three thousand wounded. And yet, US forces are no closer to defeating the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001 – than they were a decade ago. Indeed, In fact, the proportion of the country under the full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. A war which has caused over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 wounded (over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed) has staggered to a bloody stalemate.

Whilst a American force that once reached 140,000 soldiers America could not wipe out the Taliban, a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, seems capable keeping the Taliban more or less in check. Whilst the Taliban appear to control the arid, countryside But 10,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone. 

The US is now endeavouring to come to a peace deal with the Taliban, and its efforts are all the more urgent in the wake of President Trumps decision to extricate American troops from this expensive and dangerous entanglement. The Taliban appears happy to deal – and may be willing to accede to the US’ conditions  to rid themselves of the Americans knowing that if they renege on their word, the GIs are unlikely to return. 

Before America toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (about 24 million people) who live in government-controlled areas.

Hearts and Minds

A US withdrawal could jeopardize all this If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam when Nixon’s administration hung its South Vietnamese allies out to dry (read Max Hastings recently published Vietnam – an American Tragedy for a chilling account of the US’ cynical, cold-blooded duplicity). 

Even if the Afghan government staggered on, a US withdrawal without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. In a 21st century replay of The Great Game, neighbours India, Iran, and Pakistan, and regional powers China and Russia would be tempted take advantage of the vacuum for their own strategic and economic ends, but to would all struggle to fill it. There could be a surge in fighting, as warlords once again reassert their influence and as ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the situation. The whole region could be further destabilized, and America and its allies could be sucked back in – on other’s terms. 

And Afghanistan, at war with itself for 40 years, would be condemned to continuing conflict and carnage. 

Click on the picture below to read the New York Times’ commentary on the negotiations. And below that is a recent piece by David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert. He argues that talks between the US and the Taliban are not new. He asks: “What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue”. In essence, he argues, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments. Donald Trump and the shifting, unpredictable nature of US foreign policy; the growth of Chinese influence and engagement in Afghanistan’s political and economic development; and the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group, and now the Taliban’s is an arch-enemy. Kilcullen is, as ever, well worth reading.

In In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Ghost of a chance in talks with Taliban

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 16th February 2019

Training Wheels

The recent announcement that US and Taliban negotiators had agreed a framework for peace talks was greeted as a breakthrough in the 18-year war. But the twin issues around which those talks will be framed — a withdrawal pledge by Washington in return for a Taliban promise to never again let Afghanistan ­become a threat to any other country — are far from new.

These have been consistent Taliban demands since December 2009, when (as part of the headquarters team in Kabul) I met insurgent leaders who asked for the same deal in almost the same words. Likewise, I have heard these demands from many Taliban-aligned elders in Afghanistan over the years, and Taliban representatives proposed the identical quid pro quo during talks with the Obama administration in 2011-14.

What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue.

Since rebuilding Afghanistan was always recognized as a multi-decade project (akin to the US presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany), Washington was effectively telegraphing an intent to never leave — US forces are still present, after all, in all three of those countries more than 75 years after occupying them.

For coalition partners, and allies including Australia, the aim has been to demonstrate commitment, strengthen ties to Washington and thereby increase access to the political, economic and security benefits these ties offer. This goal, too, was achieved as soon as coalition forces entered Afghanistan: our hypothetical cynic might observe that we gain “alliance points” simply by being there and doing a decent job.

No coalition partner would be fighting in Afghanistan without Washington, and none can win or lose the war on its own. Thus, for the allies, whether the war is won or lost is, strictly speaking, irrelevant: having succeeded in being seen as a valuable ally, the only thing that could now undo that success would be to leave before the US does. Winning the war is, of course, a real objective for coalition capitals as it is for Washington — but it’s a secondary one.

Thus, for the coalition, given the open-ended nature of the Afghan commitment, the focus has been on calibrating troop levels, expenditure and other inputs to make the effort sustainable for the long haul. There are about 14,000 American troops in country (less than half the number stationed in Korea for the past several decades) and US spending on Afghan security forces is tracking at about $US3.7 billion ($5.2bn) a year — a tiny fraction of the overall US ­budget).

On Australia’s part, after peaking during 2010-11 with reconstruction and stabilization forces in Oruzgan province and a special operations task group that ­achieved widespread respect for its ­professionalism, our commitment now stands at about 300 ­personnel.

Most Australians are in headquarters roles in Kabul, at Camp Qargha (the officer academy near Kabul), as advisers to the Afghan Air Force, and at the training, advisory and assistance command for Afghanistan’s southern region in Kandahar. There is no doubt the Australians are performing a valuable role and enhancing our reputation with Afghans and allies — but again, we would achieve this effect whether the war is won or simply drags on; the only thing we could do to undermine ourselves at this point would be to withdraw ahead of the allies.

Coalition casualties are also relatively low — the coalition lost 18 personnel last year, dramatically down from 2010, the worst year of the war, when 711 US and allied troops were killed. Australia has suffered 41 fatalities, with more than half killed in 2010 and 2011 at the peak of our commitment. Our last fatality occurred in July 2014, while our last combat casualty was in June 2013.

While any loss of life is a horrendous tragedy, in the harsh logic of defense planners the US casualty rate is sustainable. In short, at the current level of financial and human cost, there is no strictly military (as distinct from political or humanitarian) reason why the US could not simply continue the war indefinitely. Of course, for the Afghan military and police — which have lost 45,000 killed since September 2014, compared with the coalition’s 72 — the war is far from sustainable, and its impact on civilians is both horrific and increasing. So while the coalition can essentially keep this up forever, the Afghan military and ordinary Afghans can’t.

For the Afghan government, another key stakeholder, our imaginary cynic might say that the main goal is to maintain the benefits of international presence including military aid, funding, donor engagement and reconstruction effort. Again, although winning is a real objective for Kabul, until its capture of Kunduz in October 2015 the Taliban showed no ability to seize provincial cities or do deep damage to the capital, so losing to the Taliban seemed an impossibility. And under those circumstances, winning the war was desirable but continuing it was mandatory, since it was the war that guaranteed international engagement.

This is no longer the case: given rising civilian casualties, the high loss rate of Afghan forces, the deadly string of Taliban bombings now afflicting Afghan cities and the fact that the Taliban are now capturing and briefly holding provincial capitals every few months, the Kabul government wants to reduce the war to a far lower level of intensity.

Containing the Taliban as a remote, rural threat, grave enough to stop the international community abandoning Afghanistan yet able to be gradually overcome as a long-term national project (with international money and help) would be ideal.

On the Taliban side, winning has always been the ultimate goal but, like other stakeholders, the insurgents have been willing to let the war drag on without a resolution. In the first few years after 9/11 the Taliban was in disarray — its senior leadership group, the Quitta Shura, wasn’t even founded until October 2003, two years after the US-led invasion.

Then after a resurgence in 2005-06, it suffered severe setbacks in the south and east of the country and its fighters were forced to bide their time as they rebuilt, recruited and rearmed in Pakistan, and stealthily recaptured territory in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then Barack Oba­ma, in announcing his surge in December 2009, also (very helpfully for the Taliban) announced its end date, later extended by NATO but still resulting in a rigid timetable for withdrawal.

As a result, Taliban leaders wisely decided their best course was to withhold most of their combat troops in Pakistan, do enough to stay in the public eye in Afghanistan, and wait for withdrawal, which duly took place right on schedule. After the International Security Assistance Force departed at the end of 2014, the Taliban immediately began ramping up its activity, and within a year it was gaining ground, taking the fight to Afghan cities, and projecting force into Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, which has historically seen India as its principal threat and feared encirclement by an India-Afghanistan alliance, keeping Afghanistan unstable is an important means of preventing that encirclement and achieving strategic depth. Pakistani decision-makers have long been extraordinarily open about this.

From their standpoint, the Afghan Taliban (as distinct from the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad sees as a real threat and has fought hard to contain) is an insurance policy, to be preserved in case of a need to crank up the pressure on Kabul and New Delhi. A Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as would an outright Taliban defeat, so keeping the war on a low boil and letting parts of Pakistan become a haven for the Taliban has made sense through much of the war since 2001.

This might be why, during the tentative talks in 2009-10 that I mentioned earlier, Pakistani intelligence officers arrested a key Taliban figure — Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, a former deputy defense minister and a highly respected combat leader who had expressed willingness to talk with the coalition.

With Baradar out of the picture, the talks collapsed, but Pakistan now had a controlling hand in the resumption of talks, at a time and in a manner of its choosing. That’s why Baradar’s release by Pakistan last October — and his participation in the most recent talks in Doha last month, by far the most productive to date — was such a big deal. For the first time in years, the Taliban now has a negotiator at the table with the power to deliver on agreements, and the fact that Pakistan released Baradar to participate suggests that Islamabad, too, is serious about finding a path to peace in Afghanistan.

This brings us back to our original question: what’s different now? In essence, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments.

The first is Donald Trump.

I mentioned that two key assumptions have underpinned the enduring international presence, namely the fear of a Taliban takeover if we withdraw, leaving a weak Afghan government behind, and the expectation that such a takeover would result in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about the first issue, and his answer to the second is that if an attack took place, he would order massive retaliation.

Given his generally mercurial approach to foreign policy and the fact that he has indeed ordered strikes in Syria and raids in Yemen and Africa, this threat is probably credible enough to give the Taliban pause — and, more importantly, reassure some in Kabul. The US President — who campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan as part of a broader policy of extricating America from its Middle Eastern wars of occupation — has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling his campaign promises. In his recent State of the Union address he repeatedly emphasized the need for a political solution in Afghanistan.

But while he seems entirely serious about settling (as he calls it) with the Taliban, his attitude is sharply at odds with that of the US foreign policy establishment, the Defense Department (where secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over the Afghan and Syrian withdrawals), the Democratic opposition, and even his own Republican Party in congress, which passed a bipartisan resolution calling on him to maintain forces in Afghanistan and Syria.

So, with a US presidential election next year and its guerrillas gaining ground, Taliban negotiators know that this is the best offer they are likely to get, while by January 2021 there could be a very different occupant in the White House and Washington’s Afghanistan “forever war” project could be back on.

A second factor is also preying on Taliban minds — the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group. Having lost 98 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is looking for greener pastures in Africa, The Philippines, and particularly Afghanistan. IS-K has been very active since its first appearance in September 2015, launching a series of horrendously violent bombings and massacres, and the Taliban is an arch-enemy of the group.

Still, the group’s reach and influence are growing, leaving the Taliban with the choice to make peace this year under relatively favourable circumstances or face a war on two fronts with an emboldened IS-K in the future. Again, this puts pressure on Taliban negotiators to find a solution.

The final new factor is that Pakistan seems to have finally decided its interests are best served by peace in Afghanistan — hence the release of Baradar and the willingness to support talks.

The reason for this change might partly be the new, tougher line on Pakistan adopted by the Trump administration, or a policy shift by the civilian administration in Islamabad. But for my money, the most plausible explanation has to do with Pakistan’s major ally, China.

Chinese business and political influence in Afghanistan have been growing significantly in recent years through investments in mining and infrastructure, aid money, diplomatic activity and a limited military presence (with troops often disguised as security contractors working for Chinese companies in country).

Afghanistan is also an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. This matters to Pakistan because, if the key factor driving Islamabad’s behaviour has been fear of encirclement by India, then one solution is for a major Pakistani ally, China, to play an important role in Afghanistan and thereby counterbalance Indian influence.

This would reduce the requirement for Pakistan to tolerate the Taliban, since there would no longer be a strategic rationale to destabilise Afghanistan. While many in Washington see Chinese influence in Afghanistan as a threat, in fact a greater Chinese role in the region is probably inevitable in the long term and is likely to be quite constructive.

All this means that — after 18 years in which everybody wanted to end the war, but everybody also wanted some other objective even more and was willing to continue the war rather than risk that other goal — things might finally be changing for Afghanistan. While I am not as cynical about this as my hypothetical observer, I am very sceptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. This is not the first time that talks have been mooted, it’s not the first time the stars have seemed to align for peace, and it’s clear that the Taliban is both far from defeated and incapable of winning outright.

There is also the not-so-minor matter of the sovereign independent government of Afghanistan, which strongly resents being cut out of negotiations, has defense and interior ministries led by highly competent hard-line adversaries of the Taliban, and is highly unlikely to acquiesce in its own abandonment.

So, time will tell, but at this point, colour me sceptical but not entirely cynical about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.

 

That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

Free Speech, One Each

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practice it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain.  Paul Monk

Every once in a while, The Australian commissions an articulate and respected conservative commentator to pen a piece on a topic dear to its editorial heart. He (these worthy souls are invariably old, white blokes) duly oblige, for kudos or cash or both, and yet are careful not to become ensnared in the NewsCorp echo-chamber that houses the more virulent and predictable of its opinionistas. Historian Geoffrey Blainey recently managed such as arabesque when writing about the controversial Ramsay Centre (see The Oz’s Lonely Crusade). Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson did likewise in a tribute to Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (see Ghosts of the Gulag).

Australian author Paul Monk has done likewise when invited to ruminate on free speech in western universities. Instead of laying into left-wing uni students and the so-called Green Left, the bêtes noir of columnists like Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen, Monk refused to sing their song. Instead, he reminds us of our history and of our responsibility as democrats and reasonable folk to maintain dialogue with and endeavour to understand the reasoning (or its dearth) of our ideological opponents. History has shown us that once the shouting stops, the shooting often starts.

Often, I am disappointed, saddened even, by the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices.

Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation.

Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

Monk’s piece is a timely reminder as he enjoins is to teach our children well.

Five Rules for Civil Engagement

Paul Monk, The Australian, 8th December 2018

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion around these days regarding freedom of speech in our universities and more generally. But civil society and constitutional government ­require freedom of speech. And freedom of speech requires sound meta-rules regarding the way it is conducted.

Suppress freedom of speech and you move towards authoritarian government. Without sound meta-rules you move towards ­anarchy and violence.

Around the world right now we can see a disturbing drift in each of these directions.

Ever since the Greek city-states pioneered democratic government and freedom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long struggle over the nature of the rules and how to uphold them.

Our present debates about freedom of speech, “hate speech”, censorship and “deplatforming” belong squarely within this tradition. It was, after all, the Athen­ian democracy that condemned Socrates to death for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”; but we tend to admire him rather than those who condemned him.

The meta-rules we need now, in the interests of science as well as democratic governance and civil peace, are five in number.  1. That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilised and patient discourse is to elicit the truth. 2. That, since this may prove difficult and time-consuming, we agree to disagree while the inquiry and discourse are pursued, rather than simply insisting on our prior opinion being the truth. 3. That the search for truth itself be conducted according to workable principles of reason and evidence, not dogma or vehement assertion. 4. That we strive to see the distinction between opinion and truth and accept that truth, once grasped, will generally require that we alter our opinions. 5. That we agree to open contentious subjects up to discussion under the above four rules, not shut them down.

These are pretty basic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be challenged in any 21st-century liberal democracy. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani has written in The Death of Truth, even the first rule — accepting that there is such a thing as truth — is now under challenge from a bewildering variety of sources.

Holding the scientific and philosophical line on this is made more difficult by the fact human beings generally are prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive weaknesses, which ­obstruct the search for truth even in the best and most important cases.

Anarchic social media exacerbates these problems, creating thought bubbles, viral “road rage” and avenues for the rapid dissemination of confused, mendacious or inflammatory claims.

There are also deliberate ­attempts to sabotage the factual and philosophical foundations of truth seeking. Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, in his ­gentle and lucid manner, exposes the institutional vandalism of the Trump administration in this ­regard. Contempt for or shameless denial of fact and truth is endemic in undemocratic governments around the world in our time: ­Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

But our liberal democracies should be bastions of the meta-rules. This is especially so in our universities, which are supposed to be the schools of reason and the havens of open exploration of ideas. George Orwell famously wrote: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But that gets us only to the starting gate. All too often people insist on telling us things that we do not want to hear for the good reason that it is abusive, ignorant, banal, degraded or otherwise ­objectionable.

Are we obliged to listen, much less agree? And if we are not disposed to do so, what happens next?

That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be prepared to uphold them and call our interlocutors on them when they are ­violated. That’s demanding work; but it is the indispensable work of democratic politics and a scientific culture.

It is for this reason and not ­because one has any sympathy for bigoted or harebrained ideas that many of us are dismayed by the rise of “grievance studies”, the ­insistence on “safe places”, “trigger warnings” and the suppression of lines of “hate speech” at all too many of our universities.

There seem to be a growing number of things one cannot be ­allowed to say publicly or teach, or say within teaching, at universities. Is this what the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has come to at universities? Is this the proving ground for well-informed and articulate practitioners of free speech and democratic principles?

I attended university between 1977 and 1987. My purpose was to learn enough to be able to participate intelligently in public discourse about the forces shaping our world. I didn’t go to university to agitate but to inquire, though I was aware of the student radicalism of the 60s.

I encountered people, including teachers, of many different opinions and ideological or ­religious persuasions and read as widely and deeply as I could concerning where these different ­beliefs had come from and why anyone would adhere to them. No political correctness or ideological straitjacket was in evidence. That appears to have changed.

I did, however, encounter individuals with strong opinions. I ­recall a tutorial during the 1979 course Classical Social Theory (on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and other modern social theorists) in which a fellow student declared bluntly and humourlessly that “come the revolution” people who thought as individualists like me “will all be shot”.

He didn’t threaten to assault me on the spot, though, and it never occurred to me to insist that he be expelled from the class or the university for saying such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I disagreed with his politics. I was bemused by what these days one might dub his “hate speech” but not intimidated. I knew perfectly well that my classmate’s attitude was not ­merely some strange fantasy on his part.

Pol Pot had been overthrown in Cambodia only very ­recently, after having huge numbers of his country’s educated elite tortured and shot. Deng Xiaoping had just crushed the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing and had Wei Jingsheng imprisoned for — as the trial judge put it — “using so-called freedom of speech to stir up trouble”. The ruthless practice of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies throughout the 20th century was well known to me.

But being at a university in a liberal democracy, I felt safe enough to absorb such violent language in the tutorial room.

This extended to public lectures. In 1980, I attended a forum in the famous Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne, at which several well-known speakers addressed an audience of hundreds on the subject of Malcolm Fraser’s economic policies and the problem of relatively high unemployment.

David Kemp (Liberal), Tom Uren (Labor Left), Don Chipp (Australian Democrats) and Albert Langer (Monash University Marxist radical) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, however, gave a decidedly inflammatory address. The first three had all advocated various competing approaches to macro-economics and unemployment relief. Langer declared openly: “Those are all bourgeois solutions. If you want to do something useful, go and learn how to use a rifle. What this country needs is a revolution.”

There’s freedom of speech for you: used to advocate violence rather than the deepening of ­inquiry and debate. Langer was not so much a far-right Proud Boy as a Proud Leninist.

Afterwards, I approached him and asked would he care for a coffee. He cheerfully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Student Union, I conducted an exercise in freedom of speech. “Albert,” I said to him, “let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were able to organise the revolution you’ve just called for and seize power in this country. What exactly would you then do?”

“That’s a good question,” ­Albert responded.

“Sure, it’s a good question,” I ­replied, “so what’s your answer?” He remained silent. “OK,” I went on, “let’s assume you pursued a standard policy of nationalisation, state planning and indoctrination, but things got gummed up and the economy hit the skids. What would you do then?”

“Oh,” he said airily, “we’d have to have another revolution … And why not? After all, if things worked out, it’d get boring. Revolutions are fun.”

We proceeded to the Student Union and ordered our coffees. He described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist”, which struck me as absurd and ­objec­tionable but not sufficiently so as to derail the conversation. I have never since, however, been able to take Langer seriously. He remained at liberty, carrying on with his ratbaggery for years. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t able to organise an armed revolution and I was able to pursue my studies without being purged or shot.

The year after that public forum, curious about student radicals such as Langer, I undertook an honours thesis on the student ­rebellion and general strike in France in May of 1968. The soixante-huitards (sixty-eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite ­anarchic ideas about freedom of speech and social change. “All power to the imagination,” was one of their most fetching slogans.

From a conservative point of view, they were assorted imbeciles, suffering from various Castroite or Maoist fantasies and Marcusean delusions. Charles de Gaulle ­derided them as “bed wetters”.

I was interested in the wellsprings of their revolt and how it played out in advanced industrial society. My inquiry was unhindered and I drew my own conclusions, critically evaluating the full spectrum of ideological opinions about les evenements de Mai. It was a valuable learning experience.

The Free Speech Movement as such had arisen at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964-65 among restive students who had come to believe that learning at university was not enough. Agitation for social change was ­incumbent upon them and should be accommodated by the academic authorities.

There was a struggle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such ­activism in the early 60s, not least through the nationwide American movement called Students for a Democratic Society. As the problems of war in Vietnam and racism heated up, elements of the SDS threw the meta-rules of democratic social order overboard and opted to attempt violent revolution. They formed the Weather Underground Organisation, inspired by the insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Carlos Mari­ghella in Latin America. I studied all of this in the 80s when it was still a matter of recent history; during doctoral studies on American counterinsurgency strategy throughout the Cold War.

I identified to some considerable extent with Tom Hayden and the founders of the SDS and ­empathised with armed rebels in countries such as El Salvador and The Philippines. I was wary of the Marxist-Leninist brand of violent revolution, given its appalling history in the 20th century, but ­appalled by the death squads that plagued Central and South America in those years. My investigation itself, after all, required the meta-rules of liberal democracy.

Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, starring Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper and Shia LaBeouf, romanticises the Weather Underground and its radical politics. The film’s worth seeing, but it’s not a good ­introduction to what happened back then.

Brian Burrough did a vastly better job in Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence(2015). Crucially, for our present purposes, he shows how the FSM and SDS struggled with the meta-rules regarding freedom of speech and civil society and how the impatient and “radical” wing threw away those rules and opted for violence of the kind Langer extolled.

Such would-be revolutionaries, like neo-Nazis or violent anarchists or religious fanatics, pose a direct threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, after all, to seek truth in congenial, intelligent, well-­informed and professional company. But what do we do when we confront venom, ignorance, hostility, entrenched resistance — when we confront one kind or ­another of what Churchill called “the fanatic”: someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject?

Well, that’s exactly when ­defence of the meta-rules, including by police protection if necessary, is most important.

Nadine Strossen, the first female national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of constitutional law at New York University, has just given us a fine reflection on this challenge: Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. She makes a powerful case that when we find ideas objectionable, we need to have the courage to stand up and challenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.

An unimpeachable “liberal” on race, class and gender, she states forthrightly: “On many campuses … students complain that they have been ‘assaulted’ when they are exposed to ideas that offend them, or even if they learn that a provocative speaker has been ­invited to campus. This false ­equation between controversial ideas and physical violence fuels unwarranted calls for outlawing and punishing ideas, along with ­violence.”

For reasoned debate and fruitful inquiry to take place, it is necessary that violence be outlawed, but it is counter-productive for ideas to be outlawed. What’s required is to foster the opportunity for strenuous debate and what may often be painful and difficult learning. If we cannot agree on that, our political and intellectual culture is in trouble.

Unfashionable as it is to state this these days, the ideas of freedom (eleutheria), political equality (isonomia), equality of speech (isegoria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and democracy (demokratia) derive from classical Greece. They were imperfectly realised in the ancient world and the Greek and Roman republics gave way to autocratic rule. But we derive our key modern ideas about freedom and responsible government from those beginnings.

Plato, Aristotle and the School of Athens

As Josiah Ober wrote in The Athenian Revolution: “Some 2500 years after the revolution that made it possible, democracy is widely regarded as the most ­attractive form of practical (as ­opposed to utopian) political ­organisation yet devised. Among democracy’s virtues is its revisability — the potential of the political regime to rethink and to reform ­itself, while remaining committed to its core values of justice, equality, dignity and freedom.”

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practise it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Doing these things itself ­demands that we adhere to the meta-rules that make it possible. And here’s the kicker: so will building any realisable “utopia” be worth striving after? Martin ­Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faithfully to it, calling for the American republic to live up to its founding meta-rules.

Paul Monk (paulmonk.com.au) is the author of 10 books. The most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas: Uncensored Reflections in an Era of Turmoil (Echo Books, 2018).

November 1918, the counterfeit peace

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.  John 3:16

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw an end to four years of carnage on the western front and the end of of the First World War. The armies were demobbed and men went home to lives that were changed utterly:  British and French, Austrian and German, Belgian and Italian, Serbs and Bulgarians, Turks and Arabs, and also, soldiers from across the ocean – Americans and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders,  South Africans and Indians. Friends and foes.

The victors retired to a restless peace, but the vanquished, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, descended into revolution and civil war for a time as  gangs of former soldiers fought on the left and the right. In eastern Europe, the crumbling of empires, the Russian revolution, civil war and the struggle to establish the borders of newly established states meant that armed violence continued, leaving deep scars and bitterness that many ways set the stage for the autocracies of the 1930s and further bloodshed.

The Polish-Soviet war lasted until 1921. The Russian Civil War, ending in 1923, raged across most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic region. British, Australian, American and French soldiers were dispatched to Murmansk and Archangel to fight the Red Army; Poles fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw; pogroms were perpetrated against Jews just as they had been for years, decades, centuries prior, accelerating  ,  with subsequent consequence, Aliyah to Palestine.

The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which saw the Greeks, with British and French support, endeavouring to seize Constantinople, led to terrible massacres, and a forced exchange of populations that uprooted one and a half million Greeks and Turks from towns and villages they had occupied for a millennium. Armies marched back and forth across the Great European Plain, bringing devastation and starvation and destroying millions of lives. Central Asia, the lands now covered by the once Soviet ‘’stans likewise became battlegrounds for Reds, Whites and local warlords.

And in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’, as expat GBS Shaw called it, a “terrible beauty was born” – WB Yeats’ exquisite words – the doomed intifada that was the rebellion of Easter 1916, launched, opportunistically yet quixotically whilst English eyes were elsewhere, led exponentially into open rebellion, a qualified victory, and a civil war and partition that rested, roused and then resurrected in Derry in 1968 and decades termed somewhat innocuously ‘The Troubles’.

For some, there was light at the end of the terrible territorial tunnel. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, achieved statehood, or the restoration of nationhood, as did, fleetingly, Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Poland reappeared on the map after over a century of having been carved up by empires. Hungarians lost two-thirds of their territory and more than half of their population. “Little” Serbia, which had ignited the Balkan powder keg in 1914, with Gavril Princip’s famous shot that ricocheted through complacent, twitchy and mightily armed Europe, was united with its Slav but religiously fractured Balkan neighbours in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and we now know how well that worked out.

Beyond Europe too, a bitter ‘Peace’ sowed dragon’s teeth. Last year, we commemorated the centenaries of the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, the first draft of a colonial dispensation that established borders that remained unchallenged until Da’ish assaulted the status quo in 2014, and the Balfour Declaration, which set in train the rise and rise of the state of Israel and the long descent of Palestinian hopes for a land of their own. Ironically, the most militant Zionist pioneers and later, soldiers, terrorists and statesmen, emigrated from Poland and the Tsarist empire. These many legacies resonate today.

The end of WW1 saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and left Britain in control of Palestine and Mesopotamia. The peace conferences that followed led to the creation of modern Turkey, and, though for decades under French and British colonial rule, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Kurds turned up at the conference table but were denied a seat and thereafter, a state.

The war changed more than maps, frontiers and regimes. The needs of modern warfare brought women into the workforce, galvanizing the movements that won them the vote in many democracies. The pace of technological change already underway in industrialized countries was quickened by the demands of war, and advances in land transportation and aviation continued exponentially, as did the development of weaponry, together with the insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Economic privation precipitated the first successful Communist revolution and many failed ones, whilst the peace, resentments, reparations, and recession prompted many to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. The mass movements of populations helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus or Spanish Flu, which quietly killed possibly up to a hundred million souls – more than both world wars combined.

In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, historians would observe with the benefit of hindsight how the Second World War rose ineluctably from the ashes of the first, just as the division of Europe and the Soviet enslavement (and I say this as a lifelong leftist) of those Eastern European countries that emerged after 1918 led to the Europe of today, and as the peoples of the Middle East reaped the whirlwinds of both conflagrations. Many look back on the tumultuous decades that followed the Great War, and sensing signals and signposts in contemporary  temporal tea leaves, advise is to be afraid, be very afraid.

We like to identify patterns in history that help us understand and explain our contemporary world. But we should exercise caution. To continue the hindsight riff, remember that things we see in the rear view mirror appear closer than they really are. The world is very much different today, as is our knowledge, our perception, our hopes and fears, and so also, our prognostications and expectations. If we can do it all over again, we’ll do it differently, and much more dangerously and destructively. Having learned so much, we have, one fears, understood so little.

 As we remember that moment in Western Europe and the Levant when the guns at last fell silent, let us contemplate melancholy mathematics of the human toll poignantly described by American economist and academic Patrick Chovanec in a fine article in the New York Review of Books, which I have reproduced below:

 “In the Great War itself, over sixteen million people died, including almost seven million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds … people would (tell) me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future”.

Qurba-n قُرْبان

Sacrifice  – Rayner Hoff, Anzac Memorial, Sydney

On the occasion of the centenary, read also, Dulce et ducorem est – the death of Wilfred Owen, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, 


World War I Relived Day by Day

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Gavrilo Princip arrested after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Sarajevo, June 28, 1914

Four years ago, I went to war. Like many of the people whose stories I followed in my daily “live-tweets” on World War I, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What began as an impulsive decision to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a Serbian assassin, in June 1914, snowballed into a blood-soaked odyssey that took me—figuratively and literally—from the rolling hills of northern France, to the desert wastes of Arabia, to the rocky crags of the Italian Alps, to the steel turret of a rebel cruiser moored within range of the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. And like the men and women who actually lived through it, now that the Great War is ending I find myself asking what, if anything, I’ve learned from it all.

In the American mind, World War I typically occupies an unimpressive place as a kind of shambolic preamble to the great good-versus-evil crusade of World War II, a pointless slugfest in muddy trenches for no worthy purpose, and no worthwhile result. Its catchphrases—“The War to End All Wars,” “Make the World Safe for Democracy”—evoke a wry and knowing chuckle. As if. But the war I encountered, as it unfolded day by day, was far more relevant, passionate, and unpredictable.

Posting daily newspaper clippings and photographs, found mainly in books and online archives, I began to see the Great War as a kind of portal between an older, more distant world—of kings with handlebar mustaches, splendid uniforms, and cavalry charges—and the one that we know: of planes and tanks, mass political movements, and camouflage. It snuffed out ancient monarchies in czarist Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, and gave birth to a host of new nations—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan—that, in their struggles to survive and carve out an identity, continue to shape our world today. The British declared their intent to create a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.

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Russian infantry marching to battle, Poland, August 1914

The needs of the war brought women into the workforce, and helped win them the right to vote. The huge privations it inflicted triggered the world’s first (successful) Communist revolution, and the frustrations it unleashed prompted many, afterward, to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. And finally—though many have forgotten it—the comings and goings of people caused by the war helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus, which quietly killed an estimated 50–100 million human beings in their homes and in hospitals, more than both world wars combined.

I also encountered a cast of characters more varied and amazing than I thought possible. Rasputin, the dissolute Russian mystic who warned Czar Nicholas that going to war would destroy his dynasty, and was murdered in part because he was (falsely) suspected as a German agent. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who inherited a war he didn’t want, and tried fruitlessly to make peace. T.E. Lawrence, a scholarly young intelligence officer whose affinity for the Arabs helped turn them to the Allied cause, and shaped the modern Middle East. Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who played double-agent, seducing high-ranking Allied and German officers for valuable information, until she was caught and shot by the French as a spy.

Some of the names are familiar, and offer hints of future greatness—or infamy. A young anti-war journalist named Benito Mussolini, sensing the way the wind blows, changes his tune and aggressively advocates for Italy to enter the war, before signing up himself. A young Charles De Gaulle is wounded at Verdun and taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. A relatively young Winston Churchill plans the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and pays his penance by serving in the trenches, before making a political comeback. A young Harry S. Truman serves as an artillery officer on the Western Front, alongside (and outranked by) a young George C. Marshall (his future Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State) and Douglas MacArthur (his future general in the Pacific and Korea). A young George S. Patton develops a fascination with tanks. A young Walt Disney doodles cartoons on the side of the ambulances he drives, in the same unit as a young Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s). Another young ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway, finds inspiration on the Italian Front for his novel A Farewell to Arms. A young Hermann Göring (later head of the Luftwaffe) becomes a dashing flying ace, while a young Erwin Rommel wins renown fighting at Verdun and in the Alps. Meanwhile, an odd young German corporal, who volunteered in the very first days of the war, is blinded by poison gas in its final days, and wakes up in hospital to the bitter news that Germany has lost. His name is Adolf Hitler.

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French troops under shellfire during the Battle of Verdun, 1916

The dramatic panoply of people, places, and events, however, only occasionally rises to the fore. For the most part, the war is a steady stream of ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing their clothes, attending a concert, tallying supplies, fixing a car. History books give us a distorted sense of time, because they fast forward to major events. A day may take a chapter, a month may be passed over in a sentence. In fact, there were periods where nothing much happened—plans were being made, troops trained, supplies positioned—and when you live-tweet, you experience that waiting. Sometimes, it led to intriguing surprises, like photographs of dragon dances performed by some of the 140,000 Chinese laborers brought over to France to lend muscle to the Allied war effort. Mostly, it was a matter of endurance. Each winter, the fighting came to almost a complete stop as each country hunkered down and hoped its food would last. The “turnip winter” of 1916–1917, when the potato crop failed, nearly broke Germany; the increasingly desperate craving for “bread and peace” did break Russia the following year.

The future president Herbert Hoover made his reputation by coordinating food relief shipments to German-occupied Belgium, and later as the US “food czar” ensuring Allied armies and populations were fed. The vast mobilization was effective: by 1918, the Allies were able to relax their food rationing, while Germany and its confederates, strangled by an Allied naval blockade, were on the verge of starvation. America’s war effort was accompanied by a vast expansion in the federal government’s power and reach. It nationalized (temporarily) the railroads and the telephone lines. It set prices for everything from sugar to shoes, and told motorists when they could drive, workers when they could strike, and restaurants what they could put on their menus. It seized half a billion dollars of enemy-owned property, including the brand rights to Bayer aspirin, and sold them at auction. The US government also passed espionage and sedition laws that made it illegal to criticize the war effort or the president. Some people were sent to prison for doing so, including the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president for a fifth and final time from a cell.

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A woman munitions worker operating a machine in an armaments factory, Britain, circa 1915

Winning the war, however, was far from a sure thing. For three years, the Allies threw themselves against an evenly-matched enemy on the Western Front, without making any breakthroughs, while the Eastern Front gradually crumbled. An early Allied foray to take out Turkey, at Gallipoli in 1915, ended in bloody disappointment. Inducing Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side, that same year, was supposed to swing the entire conflict in their favor; instead, the catastrophic Italian rout at Caporetto, in the autumn of 1917, put the Allied effort in greater jeopardy. When Lenin seized power in Russia, at the end of 1917, he took it immediately out of the war and ceded immense land and resources to German control. True, the US had by then entered the war, in response to Germany’s submarine campaign against merchant ships and its clumsy diplomatic scheming in Mexico. But with the war in the East essentially won, the Germans saw a window in which they could shift all of their armies to the West and crush the exhausted British and French before enough American troops could arrive to make a difference. Their spring offensive, or “Kaiser’s Battle,” in early 1918 drove deep into Allied lines, prompting the French government to evacuate Paris.

The Germans’ big roll of the dice failed. The Allies held, and the US mobilized much faster than anyone expected. By the summer of 1918, a perceptible change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were arriving every month at French ports, and their first units were taking part in battles, piecemeal at first, to push the Germans back. Even in September, however, nearly everyone expected the war to continue into 1919. That was when a huge US army of 3 million men would be ready to take part in a big Allied offensive that would drive all the way to Berlin. It never happened. That fall, the German army—and those of Turkey, Austria, and Bulgaria—first buckled, then collapsed like a rotten log. By November 11, the war was over.

The fact that nobody saw the end coming, the way it did, highlights the value of going back, a hundred years later, and reliving events day by day, as they took place. What may seem obvious now was anything but so then, and we do the people who lived through it, and our understanding of them, a real disservice when we assume that it was. “Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” The British historian C.V. Wedgewood elaborated on the same idea: “History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was like to know the beginning only.” We can’t entirely forget that we know what happened next, but when we at least try to identify with people who did not know, we shed new light on them, and on what did happen.

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Leon Trotsky with the Soviet delegation to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, Brest-Litovsk, 1918

Take the Russian Revolution. We see it as the birth of a Communist superpower, and struggle to make sense of the seemingly half-baked, half-hearted effort by the Allies to intervene by sending troops, including Americans, to Russia’s ports in the far north and far east. People at the time, however, saw it almost entirely through the prism of the Great War. At first, the Allies welcomed the overthrow of the czar, and believed it would rejuvenate the failing Russian war effort. By replacing an infamous autocrat on the Allied roster with a fledgling democracy, it made “making the world safe for democracy” a more credible call to arms, and helped pave the way for the US to enter the war. When Lenin took over and made a ruinous peace with the Central Powers, he was seen as simply a German puppet. And when Bolshevik forces, augmented with released German and Austrian prisoners of war, attacked a unit of Czech soldiers crossing Siberia to rejoin the Allies on the Western Front, those suspicions blossomed into fear of a full-fledged German takeover of Russia. The Allies sent troops to key Russian ports to secure the war supplies stockpiled there and provide an exit route for the loyal Czechs. They considered trying to “reopen” the Eastern Front, but realized it would take far too many men. They assumed that when Germany was defeated, their proxy Lenin would eventually fall, and when the war ended, they naturally lost interest. It all makes sense, but only if you see through the eyes that people saw through at the time.

Did it really matter who won the war? In its aftermath, the Great War came to be seen as a colossal waste, a testament to the vanity of nations, of pompous older men sending foolish younger men into the meat-grinder for no good reason. War poems like “Dulce et decorum est” and novels like All Quiet on the Western Front have crystalized this impression. But this was not how people felt at the time. German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas—some exaggerated, but others quite real—convinced many people that civilization, as they knew it, really was at stake. I was consistently and often surprisingly struck by the sincerity of support, not just on the home front, but among soldiers who had seen the worst of combat, for pursuing the war unto victory. The tone matures, but remains vibrant: these were, for the most part, people who believed in what they were fighting for. At what point the bitter cynicism set in, after the war ended, I cannot say. But at some point, that enthusiasm, and even the memory of it, became buried with the dead.

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Boys wearing bags of camphor around their necks to ward off influenza, 1917

Though, in fact, in many places the war did not actually end. An armistice was declared on the Western Front, and the armies there were disbanded and sent home. But Germany, Austria, and Hungary all descended into revolution and civil war for a time, with gangs of demobilized soldiers fighting on all sides. In Russia, the Soviet regime and its multiple enemies would battle for several years, while trying to reconquer territory surrendered when it quit the war against Germany. The Greeks tried to reclaim Constantinople from the Turks, and would be massacred when the Turks succeeded in reconsolidating their country. The Poles fought wars with the Ukrainians and the Soviets to define the boundaries of their newly independent country. Jews and Arabs continue to fight over the new lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire to this day.

In the Great War itself, over 16 million people died, including almost 7 million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds. Some of the most touching parts of my experience live-tweeting were the times when people would tweet back to me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

British artillery at the Somme, France, 1916

The Oz’s lonely crusade for Western Civilization

In June, Into That Howling Infinite published a piece that discussed a subject that was causing many conservative commentators to lose their beauty-sleep:  Western Civilization and the long dark tea-time of The Australian’s soul.  I wrote at the time:

“Australia’s national broadsheet (that is, published nationally rather than in a particular state) The Australian, owned by expatriate Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is indulging in a mighty bout of shadow boxing on the subject of whether or not western civilization is or isn’t in decline in our antipodean Elysium. Shadow boxing in the sense that it preaches largely to the converted on a subject that is close to the heart of its opinionistas, and of little consequence to the public at large. Its adversary is that will ‘o the wisp otherwise know as the ‘green-left’ that has set up a virtual red commune in the our universities and the soviet that is our national broadcaster. Take the question of whether the Australian National University should have accepted money from a private body to establish a course in Western civilization aimed at educating a new generation of potential movers and shakers in the cultural foundations of our society. This argument has swept the pages of the conservative media like a wildfire with, it must be said, more heat than light. In the outrage industry it is hard to recall an episode that has generated, well, more outrage”.

As an hour of reckoning draws closer with respect to the Ramsay Centre’s intellectual monument to the virtues of Western Civilization, The Australian is still battling its demons with its staunch defense of this noblest of causes. None more resolutely than its latter-day Madame Défarge Janet Albrechtsen whose succinct summary of the academic left’s opposition to the course is : “White: bad. West: evil. No learning, no debate but lots of unshakable victim-hood”.

Since the phoney “culture war’ erupted six months ago, clearer heads have outed the motives of the opposing teams. The left thinks members of the Ramsay board, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, are using it as an ideological Trojan horse, a nag that is Anglo-centric, Christian, white, and, predominately, male. The right considers the the opponents’ outrage is yet more more evidence that left-wing group think has overtaken our university campuses. And yet, even without the controversy sparked by the Ramsay board’s perceived politics,  there is nevertheless unease among some academics about creating a new course focusing on Western and mainly antique works whilst Australia’s community becomes increasingly multicultural and socially polyglot.

This piece takes up where the last left off …

When negotiations between the Ramsay Centre an the Australian National University down last  May, the prestigious University of Sydney entered the ring. In June, one of The Australian’s Inquirer’s editors must have thought, “perhaps we ought to get someone with intellectual heft to have a shot at this”, to which another replied, “Hey, why don’t we get the professor to write something?” So they call ‘national treasure’ historian Geoffrey Blainey and ask him to put his epaulette-laden shoulder to the conservative wheel. The good professors thinks, “Blimey! I don’t have much to say about this storm in a tea cup, but to keep The Oz happy and earn some beer money, I’d better rustle something up”.

And so we got another couple of thousand word in defense of the, well, by now tired old debate, as the acclaimed conservative historian weighed in with a longish piece that actually added very little to this bonfire of the inanities. He did, however, make a few interesting but with regard to the subject at hand, irrelevant observations.

“Nothing has done so much to transform the world in the past 400 years as Western civilisation. It is a main cause of the rise of democracy, the spread of education, the dissemination of Christianity to new continents and the flowering of various fine arts. Yet another gift — thanks to Western medicine — is that billions of human lives are enhanced and prolonged. These gains are part of what we call Western civilization. Yet this is the civilization that most Australian universities are ceasing to study in depth or, if they do study it, often reach hostile or unsympathetic conclusions.

“Much of (the ANU’s) income is from Asian parents who attach invisible strings to their financial support. Chinese citizens might not send their sons and daughters to the ANU if it preached worrying messages about China and its history, and various other overseas citizens would be offended if Islam were heavily criticized in ANU lectures … It was little known until this month that one ANU department received large sums from Turkey, Iran and Dubai. Would the same money arrive next year if Israel suddenly became the more favoured nation in ANU books and articles?”

“But Western civilisation is not Eurocentric. Even in origins it owes a heavy debt to the Old and New Testaments — and they are Asian, not European, books in origin…The fact is that science and technology dominate the mainstream of Western civilisation, and they are the dynamic, not conservative, fields of knowledge. A … course in Western civilisation cannot be confined to Europe. Printing as an infant technology came from East Asia to Europe, where it was improved, with dynamic effects. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one of the ultimate mainsprings of democracy, owed much to the printing press. The slow rise of democracy and the rise of mass education owed much to the printing press and cheap paper.

“There are few grounds…for the idea that a Ramsay-type course simply would be preaching the benefits of Western civilisation. It will gain legitimacy only if it weighs on the same scales the defects as well as merits of the changing civilisation in which we live”.

A week later, the cauldron was bubbling stilll. This time, it was the turn of Greg Sheridan, Cardinal Pell admirer, Tony Abbot aficionado, devout Catholic nostalgist, but otherwise competent and cogent veteran writer of foreign affairs. And former NSW premier, ex-foreign minister, American Civil War tragic, and longtime bush-walker Bob Carr, a self-confessed interrogator of “the canon” who surrendered the premiership out of ennui. We publish Sheridan’s artiucle below, after that of the good professor.

But first, welcome reality checks by the Herald’s Jacqueline Maley and Jordan Baker.  In short, our hyperventilating culture warriors ought to get out more often and hang out with the oi polloi.

Jordan Baker, Education Editor, 27 October 2018

If negotiations succeed, the first of the University of Sydney’s Ramsay scholars will file into their classrooms in February 2020. There will be six to eight of them in each class, mostly fresh-faced 18- and 19-year-olds armed with sky-high ATARs, big dreams, and dog-eared copies of Homer’s Iliad, which is usually the first text dissected in a course on Western tradition.

They’ll chat about their selection interviews, their scholarships – up to 40 of them will get about $30,000 a year – and the other subjects they are studying. They may well talk about the outcry over their course, too, which probably intensified as their first day drew near; everyone they know would have had an opinion on their controversial choice of major.

They will graduate three years later with what the chief executive of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, Simon Haines, believes will be an education “in the old and important sense. What this course is supposed to be teaching you is to be a more thoughtful, more reflective, more articulate, more authentic, more self-possessed citizen, parent, friend, or member of the community.”

Negotiations may not succeed. The University of Sydney last week revealed the terms on which it would accept the Ramsay Centre’s millions, but there’s no guarantee the centre’s board, led by former prime minister John Howard, will agree to them. If it does, the university will begin drawing up a curriculum for the first significant Great Books course in Australia.

Such courses are an American creation, established in the 1920s to revive the concept of a broad education amid increasingly narrow focus on disciplines. Many have survived; there’s Columbia’s Core Curriculum, Yale’s Directed Studies, and Reed College’s Humanities 110.  “The great book model was founded on the idea of independent thinking,” says Salvatore Babones, a US-born assistant professor in sociology at Sydney University.

Students discuss the themes that have recurred in great works of literature from “Plato to NATO” across philosophy, history and literature. They might discuss the concept of duty as argued by Aristotle, Cicero and Immanuel Kant; or revenge across The Iliad, Othello and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Their teachers use the Socratic method. “Students are encouraged to disagree with each other with the gentle mediation of an experienced teacher,” says Haines. The classes are intellectually intense and so small that they leave nowhere for students to hide.

Some Great Books courses don’t want specialists teaching texts, and might enlist a philosopher to teach Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, for exampleinstead of a Greek historian. “A specialist wants to get into discipline-specific debates,” says  Babones. “But the idea is not to get the ‘right’ understanding of the book, it’s to explore the book.” St John’s College in Annapolis in the US, which teaches only Great Books, believes that providing historical and social context is ideological, and unnecessarily distorts students’ independent thought.

But like Ramsay’s proposed course, US liberal arts courses have faced controversy. In the late 1980s, protesters argued that Stanford’s Western civilisation courses perpetuated European and male biases. Civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson joined protesters chanting, ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.” Stanford cut the course,  and an attempt by conservative students to reinstate it two years ago failed. More recently, students at Reed University protested in Humanities 101 lectures, arguing the course is too white, too male, too Euro-centric, and ignored how the texts might been used to perpetuate violence against people of colour.

Great Books courses are not entirely new in Australia;  Sydney University already has one. But it is open only to Dalyell Scholars, elite students who’ve achieved an ATAR of 98 or above. Students can study it for two semesters, reading 12 texts over the year. A Ramsay-funded course would be far more ambitious, says Professor Peter Anstey, a senior advisor to the university during negotiations with the Ramsay Centre

'Puerile' culture war battering Ramsay Centre negotiations, says Sydney Uni boss

Instead of 12 texts over one year, there would be 30 over three, with the option of an honours year. “What we are proposing is an undergraduate major that is six times the size of that [existing] course,” he says. “If we did get funding, our course in Western tradition would not just be a Great Books course. We would also teach students the skills for analysis and interpretation and so on. It’s a quantum leap from what we are currently doing.” The university would use subject specialists, some of them inter-disciplinary, to run the courses’ tutorials. “However, it might all fall over,” Anstey says. “We don’t know.”

When the Ramsay Centre first invited Australian universities to apply for two or three Western civilisation degrees late last year, funded from part of a $3 billion bequest from late healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay, it posted an example of a potential curriculum on its website. The University Sydney would draw up its own, but Ramsay’s is indicative. Students would begin with Homer, Sappho and Euripides, then move through the classical historians to Chaucer, Augustine and Machiavelli. In later years they would study Marx, W.E. Du Bois, and Patrick White. They would study female writers, but only a handful including Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.

Some Sydney University academics don’t think much of that curriculum. “It’s largely about the conversation between modern English and German writers about the Graeco-Roman classics,” says Bruce Gardiner, a senior lecturer in the Department of English. “However much the university may massage the syllabus, its version would still be measured by the centre against its own version, which is neither cogent nor disinterested.”

Details of a Sydney University-Ramsay partnership are yet to be nutted out and hang on the Ramsay board’s decision, which could be weeks away. But an initial agreement with the Australian National University before the negotiations broke down in May amid claims from ANU that Ramsay’s demands would interfere with academic independence (a claim denied by the centre) – illustrates what it might look like

Ramsay scholars would need ATARs of 97 or above and be selected by application and interview, the ANU agreement said. Some 12 academic staff would be paid for by Ramsay, and about 30 students would receive scholarships of about $30,000 a year so they could focus on their studies, a benefit some believe has been lost in the debate. “The opportunities for students in terms of scholarships are tremendous,” says Professor Matthew Hindson, a composer at the university’s Conservatorium of Music who supports Ramsay’s proposal at Sydney. “Students do it really tough these days.”

Not everyone agrees. Gardiner believes the scholarships are iniquitous. “The fundamental educational principle of equal opportunity would be entirely undermined were some to be treated, in this way, as more equal than others,” he says.

Partly because of the ANU scandal, the proposed partnership between Sydney and Ramsay has become mired in a culture war. The left thinks members of the Ramsay board, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, are using it as an ideological Trojan horse; the right considers their outrage more evidence that left-wing group think has overtaken campuses. But even without the controversy sparked by the Ramsay board’s politics,  there is still unease among some academics about creating a new course focusing on Western works while Australia’s community becomes increasingly multicultural.

Ahead of a speech on Australian education in China next week, Dr Nicholas Jose, professor of English at the University of Adelaide, has been thinking about the texts he would include in a Great Books course that reflects the ethnically diverse Australian community of 2018. He would begin with Aboriginal song poetry. “That raises the question of ‘what is a book?'” he says. “This is literature that was oral literature for many centuries before being written down and translated”. He would include texts from the Indian Sanskrit tradition, China’s Confucius, and the world’s first novel, the ancient Japanese Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. “Then there’s the literature of the southern hemisphere more broadly, whether it’s J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or great writers of Latin America,” he says.

An Australian Great Books course should be more ambitious than those on offer in the US, but “also specific to the questions of Australian civilisation in the 21st century,” says Jose. “Of course, the same themes apply in the thinking and literature of these other cultures – ambition, revenge, power, politics, greed, passion, love.”

Sydney’s deal with the Ramsay Centre might never come to pass. Even if the board accepts the university’s conditions – changing the name ‘Western civilisation’ to ‘Western tradition’, and giving Ramsay fewer rights on scholarship and academic appointment committees than other donors to reassure staff of the university’s academic independence – there is no guarantee the arts faculty and academic boards would approve the university’s proposed curriculum.

Ramsay’s millions might end up at the University of Queensland, which is also interested. Or nowhere.

Professor Haines believes part of the resistance to Ramsay’s proposal is unease about introducing a concept that is unfamiliar to Australia’s academic landscape. But he believes it’s necessary. “We need more diversity, and more variety, and more different approaches in the university sector, as many in the humanities say themselves,” he says. “[We need] to reintroduce this kind of concept of a rounded education at a time when the pressure is ever stronger to make university e


Academic freedom, freedom of speech, the right to be a bigot that former Attorney-General George Brandis so famously advocated – the fight for such liberties is a luxurious hobby for people who have all their basic needs covered.

I have a hunch that the people who have enjoyed the greatest personal freedom the modern world can offer – those with money, freedom of career choice, and few caring responsibilities at home – are the ones most pre-occupied with freedom-based culture wars.

That doesn’t mean these freedoms are unimportant, on the contrary.  It just means we need to be hyper-aware that the people with time on their hands to fight for them are highly unlikely to be representative of the mainstream.

Meanwhile, most Australians, preoccupied with paying mortgages, raising children, worrying about looming HECS debts or laughing with incredulity at the impossibility of buying a home have their views consistently misrepresented by people with an ideological agenda.

Recently we have seen this dynamic play out over a few very important issues.

The Ramsay Centre/Australian National University debacle is perhaps the most infuriating example of the gaping chasm between mainstream values and the agenda pushed by cultural warriors.  The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, funded by a bequest from the late billionaire Paul Ramsay, had been in talks to finance a Western Civilization degree at the Australian National University.

Then Tony Abbott wrote an article for Quadrant magazine. The piece is well argued and worth looking up, if only because it reads like Abbott had been binge-watching Dead Poets Society before he wrote it. In it, Abbott explains the Ramsay Centre is not simply “about” Western civilisation but “in favour” of it, and asserts that “respect for our heritage has largely been absent for at least a generation in our premier teaching and academic institutions”. This statement is as false as it is sweeping, and proof, if it was needed, that Abbott is out of touch with what is being taught in iversities.

Crucially, Abbott also wrote that “a management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions” for the new degree, which was wrong, insomuch as it had not been agreed upon. Abbott’s article helped cripple the negotiations, which were at a delicate stage when it was published.

But what truly killed the deal was the imposition that the centre wanted to make on the academic freedom of the university. ANU chancellor Gareth Evans and vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt wrote this week that: “We took our decision for no other reason than the centre’s continued demands for control over the program that were inconsistent with the university’s academic autonomy.”  They said the Ramsay Centre had “an extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach to the proposed program” and most extraordinary of all: “the centre has gone so far as to insist on the removal of ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective for the program”.

In his Quadrant piece, Abbott quoted a Tennyson poem on Britain as a land where “freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent”. Such freedom stops when you have the culture police sitting in on tutorials to make sure the professor stays on message.

Similarly, Abbott and his small band of supporters in the Coalition party room are out of touch with mainstream Australia on the issue of reducing Australia’s carbon emissions. Their continued opposition to the National Energy Guarantee, which Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg is trying desperately to wrestle into legislation, shows zero regard for the majority of Australians who support renewable energy.
The 2018 Lowy Institute Poll showed 84 per cent of people agree that “the government should focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”.  This is up from 81 per cent last year.
Likewise, the vote of the federal Liberal Party executive to “privatise the ABC”, the latest step in an anti-ABC campaign based on criticisms the broadcaster is a swamp of left-wing bias, only shows how out-of-step the executive is with average Australians.

The Roy Morgan MEDIA Net Trust Survey, published this week, shows the ABC is Australians’ most trusted media brand, followed by fellow public broadcaster SBS, with Fairfax Media, the only commercial publisher in the top three, coming third.

Finally, the campaign to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which occupied the culture warriors for half a decade, was one of the most marginal of their un-Australian causes. A Fairfax-Ipsos poll taken in March 2017, amid the second round of debate over the section, showed 78 per cent of Australians opposed legalising speech that “offends, insults or humiliates” on the basis of race.  Most trusted Brandis; 84 per cent; 78 per cent – they are the kinds of polling results politicians can only dream of.

Australian values, mainstream values, the values of Western civilisation that we have been hearing so much about lately: they are too important to be hijacked by men (for it is mostly men) who have too much time on their hands and little care for what most Australians actually believe in.

Let the culture warriors play their Boy’s Own war games over academia, free speech or even climate policy.  But not for a minute can they tell us, with a straight face, that their views represent “mainstream Australian values”.

Geoffrey Blainey The Australian, 23rd June 2018

Australia’s universities are themselves creatures of Western civilisation. But many of their leaders refuse to teach or debate the history and the essence of their civilisation.

When some reply that they are independent and cannot possibly handicap themselves by accepting a big sum of Ramsay Centre money, then maybe they should devise their own courses.

Several vice-chancellors convey the strong impression that they are less interested in the vast sweep of Western civilization than in being the king of their own impressive castle. We must have academic autonomy, they say.

Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt seems to be doubting his own civilisation. He is a great scientist, and our nation is lucky to have enticed him away from his fast-moving Arizona-Harvard escalator of fame.

His field is astronomy and astrophysics, and if this year in Canberra his university had been offered a huge Chinese grant for that domain of research, he would have turned on all lights and telescopes to accept it. Obstacles would have been swept aside. But when offered a new course in the humanities and social sciences, and especially in history, he says no.

He is backed so far by several academic heads who say they display already in the ANU a wonderful smorgasbord of courses. But why is there no room for one more plate, a larger plate that tries to fit into one piece many fragments of knowledge?

Nothing has done so much to transform the world in the past 400 years as Western civilization. It is a main cause of the rise of democracy, the spread of education, the dissemination of Christianity to new continents and the flowering of various fine arts. Yet another gift — thanks to Western medicine — is that billions of human lives are enhanced and prolonged.

These gains are part of what we call Western civilization. Yet this is the civilization that most Australian universities are ceasing to study in depth or, if they do study it, often reach hostile or unsympathetic conclusions.

The ANU is said to possess one of the best humanities and social sciences faculties in Australia. Why are its leaders not guiding the debate?

Although they respond enthusiastically to a few media queries, their answers raise fresh questions and doubts.

Where is a thorough academic statement that covers each of the key issues? Does the university already have a wide course that covers Western civilisation and much more? Of course the university has dozens of minor history courses, but is there one that covers the wider world?

Schmidt has been frugal in his public appearances. Interviewed expertly and politely by Stan Grant on ABC television, he cheerfully played a straight bat while giving away scant information. In the end he gave the impression, mistaken of course, that he knew less about the topic than did Grant. He relied almost solely on the argument that the university must be autonomous.

Why does he think the ANU has held such a high reputation in the world? He says it is “based on that academic autonomy we have”. With all respect, this seems slightly far-fetched. There is no evidence that the other 40 or so Australian universities have less academic autonomy than the ANU.

Academic autonomy, while important, can be illusory. Much of a university’s income is from the federal government, with strings sometimes attached.

Much of its income also is from Asian parents who attach invisible strings to their financial support. Chinese citizens might not send their sons and daughters to the ANU if it preached worrying messages about China and its history, and various other overseas citizens would be offended if Islam were heavily criticised in ANU lectures.

It was little known until this month that one ANU department received large sums from Turkey, Iran and Dubai. Would the same money arrive next year if Israel suddenly became the more favoured nation in ANU books and articles? In light of these facts the Ramsay Centre cannot be seen as a unique threat to academic autonomy. It is easy to toss around the hallowed phrase “academic autonomy” because it implies that academics preside over that autonomy. But the council that governs the typical Australian university — and appoints the vice-chancellor, and often has a hand in appointing other high officials and even professors — includes lay members.

Traditionally citizens of some distinction, many have not attended a university but still have a welcome say in its affairs. These council members sometimes prove much superior to certain professors in judging human nature.

The chancellor — the chairman of the governing body — of a new university is appointed usually by the state government and reflects its sympathies. Some of the best known leaders of the oldest universities were retired prime ministers. Sir Robert Menzies was chancellor of the University of Melbourne and EG Whitlam was prominent on the senate of the University of Sydney.

Gareth Evans has been chancellor of the ANU since 2010 and presumably was chairman of the committee that appointed Schmidt. Before beginning his long career as a federal Labor politician and prominent cabinet minister, Evans was an excellent law lecturer at the University of Melbourne, but it was not that area of expertise that won him the honoured post of chancellor of the ANU.

There is indignation that two former Liberal prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, were on the board of the Ramsay Centre and trying to influence the university’s autonomy. But Kim Beazley, former leader of the Labor opposition in the federal parliament, also was on the board during nearly all the months of negotiation. And on the other side of the debate, Evans was perfectly entitled to his say. It is unlikely Schmidt would have made a decision about academic autonomy without close consultation with his chancellor. As I was once the chancellor of a new university, I glimpse the unwritten rules and conventions.

Evans, being overseas, remained out of sight in this debate but his views were briefly and eloquently quoted in The Australian Financial Review: “Great universities are fiercely defensive of their autonomy, and alarm bells properly ring when potential donors refuse, for example, to accept ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective, as was the case here.”

Do alarm bells sometimes ring in your head when you hear the phrase “academic freedom”? A noble phrase and worthy goal, it is sometimes scorned or misused by universities.

Should scholars retain academic freedom (and the high salary and superannuation that goes with it) when their performance as teachers and researchers fails to meet normal academic standards by a large margin? When freedom is venerated but incompetence is tolerated, the university has really lost its autonomy. Moreover, its paying students have been robbed.

The forces so vigorously opposing a new course in Western civilisation have not yet found persuasive arguments. About 100 academics at the University of Sydney, uneasy that their campus might be landed with the course, called the concept “conservative” and “Eurocentric”. Here was “European supremacism writ large”. But Western civilisation is not Eurocentric. Even in origins it owes a heavy debt to the Old and New Testaments — and they are Asian, not European, books in origin.

The Sydney 100 attach the word conservative without thinking. The fact is that science and technology dominate the mainstream of Western civilisation, and they are the dynamic, not conservative, fields of knowledge. A Ramsay Centre course in Western civilisation cannot be confined to Europe. Printing as an infant technology came from East Asia to Europe, where it was improved, with dynamic effects. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one of the ultimate mainsprings of democracy, owed much to the printing press. The slow rise of democracy and the rise of mass education owed much to the printing press and cheap paper.

How can the Sydney 100 view Western civilisation as simply a European phenomenon or a woeful example of white supremacy?

There are few grounds, in any case, for the idea that a Ramsay-type course simply would be preaching the benefits of Western civilisation. It will gain legitimacy only if it weighs on the same scales the defects as well as merits of the changing civilisation in which we live.

I agree that universities have to be cautious. With much to be proud of, they have much to defend. Major earners of export income and supermarkets of knowledge, they closely watch their competitors at home and overseas. Every year they must woo a new procession of customers, from Shanghai to Gundagai.

Like huge corporations, they have to steer clear of the more damaging kinds of controversy. A harsh headline in the morning paper, an exposure on evening television news, the threat of a parliamentary inquiry, all have to be avoided.

Big decisions that were once made by a variety of specialist scholars, after much debate, are now made quickly and defensively on high.

You can bet your life that if this inflammable topic had come up for discussion in the late 1940s, in the small universities of that era, the debate would have been intense in tea rooms and lecture theatres. A surprising facet of the Schmidt debate is that it is taking place less in the ANU than in the media. And the university is not yet winning this debate.

If I understand the contents of the proposed course in Western civilisation, I would suggest that it does not go far enough. Many critics see the proposed course (which they mostly have not read) as a hostile invasion of Canberra on a wide front. But the teaching course proposed by the Ramsay Centre and rejected by the ANU is notable for its modesty. Perhaps that was the wisest path when approaching a university that ultimately has proved to be sceptical.

So many of those who reject Western civilisation are cultural offspring of the 1960s. They deplore the recent history of the environment and they rejoice in the rise of feminism, the campaign against racism and the crusade for civil rights. Especially in the 60s and later decades, they rediscovered the Aborigines and their lost history.

No university in the nation can equal the role of the ANU — and its celebrated researchers such as John Mulvaney, Jim Bowler, Rhys Jones and others — in unveiling the long and often ingenious story of Aborigines.

Without doubt these new teachings revealed weaknesses in Western civilisation, but many present-day scholars exaggerate. They minimise the benefits of Western civilisation and forget the gains.

They forget to report that Australia was sometimes a trailblazer globally. This was the first nation in the world to allow women not only the right to stand for parliament but also the right to vote.

These critics actually enjoy the fruits of the Western civilisation that they deride. Unlike their great-grandparents, they had the chance to study at secondary school and university, largely through dramatic improvements in the standard of living. It was Western civilisation and its genius in multiplying wealth and leisure that gave them this opportunity.

In the 90s I coined the phrase “the black armband view of history”. The phrase is still valid. Too many educated Australians feel guilty or ashamed about their nation’s past. Admittedly there is much to regret but there is far more to be praised.

If the ANU were defending a majority ideology and viewpoint, we might have to pay more attention to its arguments. But an opinion poll conducted this week shows that most Australians, whether Labor or Coalition voters, appreciate Western civilisation. The only major political viewpoint that is often opposed to Western civilisation is that of the Greens.

Until recently, John Warhurst was a professor of political science at the ANU. Discussing the Schmidt affair on the basis of his wide experience of universities and their politics, he concludes pragmatically: “Universities should be left to make their own decisions so long as they are consistent, pluralist, transparent and willing to explain themselves in the public square.”

This is the problem facing the leading university in Canberra. Its leaders have so far been unable “to explain themselves in the public square”.


Western civilisation a lost cause at public universities

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 30th June 2018

Australian philanthropists, anyone who has accumulated a little extra money and would like to ­donate it generously to make a difference, should no longer consider giving any gift to an Australian public university in the field of ­humanities.

In the physical sciences, and mostly in the learned professions, our public universities are still good. But if you have any interest in or concern for Western civilisation, and all the treasures of human wisdom and insight involved in that vast, sprawling, critical and magnificent tradition, stay away altogether from our public universities.

If this tradition is to be creatively explored, renewed and understood, indeed intelligently criticised, it will happen outside our public universities. Pockets of excellence remain in the humanities in public universities but overall they are on an ideological path of narrowness and anti-intellectualism, and they are getting worse. Their university administrations will certainly never reform them.

This is the inescapable conclusion from the extraordinary opinion piece penned by Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt and chancellor Gareth Evans to explain why they suddenly ended negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which had offered huge donations to set up a degree based on the great books.

Such courses are common in the US. But in Australia only the small Campion College runs such a great-books-based program to an accredited degree level. (Full disclosure: I have been a visiting fellow at Campion, as I have been at sandstone universities.)

Schmidt and Evans made various allegations about Ramsay seeking improper control that were rebutted the next day by the centre’s chief executive, Simon Haines. Haines was at the meetings. Schmidt and Evans were not. Haines, and Ramsay board members John Howard and Tony Abbott, quoted ANU documents on its website to support their case that these disagreements were not serious until ideological political opposition emerged at the ANU. Schmidt and Evans have now offered a counter-narrative that also seems plausible.

However, it is not important to adjudicate who is giving the more accurate account. Schmidt and Evans make one crucial statement: “The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation simply did not trust the ANU to deliver a program acceptable to it.” If it is to succeed with other public universities, Schmidt and Evans argue, “it will have to change its approach”.

I don’t know if the Ramsay people agree with those propositions but I think Schmidt and Evans are right. No vice-chancellor in recent decades has stood up to on-campus far-left pressure. Ramsay is in negotiations with the University of Sydney. I have no doubt that if it embarks on a program there it will effectively be flushing its money down the toilet.

More than 100 Sydney University academics signed a protest letter against the prospect of Ramsay coming to their campus that declared: “The Ramsay programme represents, quite simply, European supremacism writ large.”

If a Ramsay Centre is established at Sydney it will be at best an embattled outpost surrounded by hostility and controversy. It will be at any moment subject to crippling demonstrations. It will wilt and die in the hostility or, more likely, be taken over in time by the educational left, the normal fate of any such conservative effort.

The grotesque inversion of normal standards in allowing the department of peace and conflict studies to be a throbbing principle of political activism, but expressing horror that someone in academe might have some genuine appreciation of Western civilisation, reveals the deep reality of Sydney Uni today.

The educational left is also politically left, but the bigger problem is the pedagogic and epistemological nature of the dominant view in humanities departments. This is not a distinctively Australian phenomenon. As is normal, our left-wing intellectual revolutionaries are completely derivative of US and British trends. Nor is this something conservatives made up to scare innocent children.

Let me offer you three random examples. The Economist, a socially liberal magazine, in its Bagehot column last week commented, entirely in passing, that an Oxbridge education “disposes people to despise their own country”.

Niall Ferguson, one of the great contemporary historians, recently lamented the systematic way the educational and political left have moved through mainstream Western university departments and taken over every new position. They are ruthless about appointing like-minded people who sign up to broadly sympathetic ideological approaches.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, in a recent Australian interview suggested the effective suppression of the great books has become so ubiquitous and entrenched, yet their appeal is so timeless and magnificent, that they will survive now only through new courses springing up outside traditional departments.

Confronting the stark reality that you can no longer enjoy the prestige of the traditional institutions, no longer rely on them to do the job, that you must support the newer private institutions or undertake the herculean task of creating new institutions, can be bitter, especially if you like the quiet life. But you will never reach your destination if you don’t start your journey from reality.

The ANU says it has more than 150 courses concerned with Western civilisation. Yet as my colleague Rebecca Urban has reported, many of them approach their subject through the cliched lenses of class, race and gender as rendered by contemporary cultural theories.

The Institute of Public Affairs did a simple word search of the course description material and found that none of them mentions Dante Alighieri or Thomas Aquinas. It is not possible to understand the development of Western civilisation without understanding such figures. And of course there is no sense of a coherent integrated exposure to the development of Western civilisation.

There are two fundamental problems with humanities departments in many Western universities now — their content and their intellectual methods. Both have been overwhelmed by critical theory and postmodernism.

Postmodernism regards all traditional historical narrative as false, while critical theory denies the very reality of objective facts. Both are mired in a series of interlocking cliches and dogmatic assertions about gender, class and race. These approaches, far from being radical, hip and relevant, have resulted in massive decline across the Western world of enrolments in humanities.

Partly this is because these approaches render even beautiful texts horrible to read. When your analysis is fixated on a frequently fictional and highly tendentious a priori evaluation of class, gender and race, you don’t really read the books at all. It doesn’t matter whether you’re analysing Shakes­peare or a restaurant menu, you can come up with the same theoretical analysis games.

Much that passes for humanities study in Western universities now routinely convicts the West — both Western societies today and the West more broadly throughout all its history — of five capital ­offences.

One, chronic, structural, irredeemable injustice in the economic order.

Two, always and forever being sexist, patriarchal and, most recently, destructively and oppressively heteronormative.

Three, pervasive racism in every aspect of their power structures.

Four, inherent and intrinsic militarism.

Five, false consciousness, imprisoning a supine public in unjust and wickedly untrue meta-narratives, which are themselves instruments of oppression.

Naturally, in the history of Western civilisation all kinds of crimes and injustices were committed, as in the history of every other civilisation. That is the nature of the human condition. The intellectual dialogue that students would engage in by studying a traditional great books course would be a thrilling journey of humanity trying to come to grips with questions of meaning and justice.

The idea that such a course is inherently triumphalist or all about European supremacism is a grotesque parody, a kind of kindergarten argument of stupefying misrepresentation of the contents of the Western canon itself.

It is not necessary to subject the great books of Western civilisation to the depravity of critical theory to imbue students with critical thinking. The great books do that themselves.

For example, Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in the early 14th century. During the Middle Ages there was a robust dialogue between popes and princes about the limits of political power and spiritual power. Pope Boniface VIII claimed a rather excessive degree of spiritual and temporal authority over all rulers. Partly as a result, Dante rather unkindly puts him in the eighth circle of hell.

If you actually engage with the great books, and read them before consigning them to a sterile theoretical subcategory of mind-numbing tediousness, you will find every critical faculty exercised and challenged. Human rights did not begin with the UN declaration after World War II but were at the centre of a great rolling theological and political dialogue. From the start, the Western tradition, profoundly influenced by Christianity, grappled with the evil of slavery. Many Christians stand rightly accused before the bar of history as slave owners. But many Christians denounced slavery.

Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th-century bishop, delivered a sermon in response to a rich man’s boast that he had bought slaves. Gregory asked: “For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality … If he is in the likeness of God and … has been granted authority over everything from God, who is his buyer, tell me? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For His gifts are irrevocable.”

One of the worst ways to teach Western civilisation is as isolated bits and pieces without ever seeing the integrated, connected nature of Western thought. The West, uniquely, developed experimental science because of its theological views of nature. God was sacred and nature was natural. Nature didn’t embody warring or capricious demons. It was good, as Genesis had proclaimed. And it embodied order, as a reflection of divine order. The desire to discover the secrets of that order led to experimental science.

In an act of vandalism and cruelty, of neglect and foolishness, we are hiding from our young people all the fun and adventure of the great books, all the grandeur and excitement, all the drama and passion of the Western canon.

We will never recover it at our public universities. Better to recognise that, and make a start somewhere else.

READ MORE : Why we rejected Ramsay CentreGARETH EVANS, BRIAN SCHMIDTWestern studies, with a twistREBECCA URBAN

Comments made in response to Sheridan’s article:

Yes. And Ramsay should walk away from the Public Unis and leave them to wallow in their ideological sewers. The left is nothing if it is not railing against something. Leave the academics to rail against themselves as is happening in the feminist movement and amongst the gender warriors where now all men are rapists and all women are victims. Normal people regard this as tiresome and are keen to see it unravel. At Unis before too long the public will demand that the students get an education, not an indoctrination. The Lomberg nonsense was a good start. Now it is Ramsay. Soon it will just unravel when miserable self loathing old lefties like Evans and a few thousand other 60’s and 70’s “revolutionaries” leave the trough.

It is difficult to see what we have understood as ‘western’ civilization lasting for many more decades, for both ideological and demographic reasons. We are now ideologically committed to multi culturalism, by which we mean, not having a plurality of cultures, but equating all cultures as of similar value, therefore forbidding critique. That’s hate speech. The exception is being super critical of our own past, and of the Christian influence within it. This leveling of cultures, is, in my view, non sustainable and illusory. Whilst secularism predominates, it lacks coherence and fails to satisfy deeper human needs. What will rise to the top? Whatever it is, it will be totalitarian in nature.
I am more optimistic. I dont think even the disillusioned millennials want totalitarianism. They are just disappointed with the pathetic leaders recently thrown up by democracy. But I think it is a cycle. There is evidence of the people in the west demanding values based leadership. Some of their choices are experimental and enigmatic and flawed, like Trump, but they presage change. The tired old mixed up sexual revolution generation (like Evans) is dying out literally, and that is great.
Universities should be redefined as “insular institutions for the social conditioning of young people, the propagation of ideas that don’t work and the defence of values-less stupidity.”
The bottom line is that publicly funded institutions HAVE to be accountable to the various Acts that require Universities to have open discussions. They are not there for themselves but for the people of Australia.

An audit to measure compliance is overdue. Funding will have to hinge on whether these institutions are fulfilling their PUBLIC duties and obligations full stop! We pay the taxes that fund these places.

Simply replace ‘Univesities’ with ‘ABC’ and it explains why nothing will change.
I wont pretend that I can even begin to understand what this academic stuff is about. I think that people should be free to study whatever they want if they think they can make a living out of it.

What has really annoyed me over the last week or so in reading all the articles & opinion pieces here is the way that the perpetually outraged have reduced this matter to a bomb throwing exercise between the “We love Tony fan club” and “everybody else”. The whole thing has been hijacked by the Abbott fans as another weapon in their war on the Liberal Party. Now I am not a supporter of Abbott as a politician although I freely admit being an admirer of (most of) his religious and family values and I am not sure if in fact he had anything to do with the material content of this course of study. I just wish that the Editor of The Australian had not allowed this matter to be hijacked as a populist political issue for the sake of clickbait, rather that the Editor had encouraged a far more nuanced academic debate such as this article by Mr Sheridan. I don’t pretend that I would have understood the arguments from either side but I would have enjoyed reading and trying to understand them.

A great article. Jordan Peterson is proven again to be correct in his criticism of the loony left ideology driving our universities. Shame on you all.
An over reaction Mr Sheridan to an esteemed University exercising its right to say no. Disgruntled Ramsay Centre supporters are now only talking to each other. The ANU has dismissed the Ramsay Centre, it’s over, it’s time to move on, everyone else has and as far as the ANU is concerned the matter is closed. Give it a rest Greg.!

Yes Conrad, “it’s time to move on”. When  I see that phrase I know its NOT time to move on, unless you like to join the other leemings heading for the cliff of great social equality and diversity utopia. Prepare for the mass destruction mate, you’ll be the first to suffer.

If we raise student fees we might drain the arts swamp. Otherwise tenure makes them untouchable fools.
If the post that I have just made is actually posted Barbara, your post is a perfect example of what I have just said.
With all honesty, we cannot look in the mirror and deny our the past that has created our current beingز
Perhaps the 100 Sydney academics ensconced in their insular monastic universities would have preferred that Japanese supremacism had dominated in the Second World War rather than European.

I wonder exactly what these academics contribute to our society.  I mean they don’t seem to produce anything of quantifiable value as do those engaged in the hard university areas such as medicine, engineering , sciences etc (although recent revelations indicate that some have been infected with the humanities plague and have rejected the scientific method). The 5 capital offences listed:  economic injustice in the economic order, sexist, patriarchal and heteronormative, racist, inherent and intrinsic militarism and false consciousness, imprisoning a supine public in unjust and wickedly untrue meta-narratives, which are themselves instruments of oppression; all of these define Middle Eastern Islamic culture, not Western civilisation.

These five define ALL civilisations that currently and previously existed some, as you’ve pointed out, more so than others.  To paraphrase Winston “Western Civilisation is a dreadful system it’s just better than all the others”, especially those utopian dreams based on Marxist false premises.  Go ahead read the old fool, all his assertions are based on mid nineteenth century English class structures.  Remove those premises from his writings and its just a recipe for totalitarian rule just different tyrants as Orwell wrote in his seminal critique Animal Farm.
There are other ways of framing this.  Let’s assume that HECs is a way of framing Western Civilization.

Here we have the consumers deciding what they want to buy. Here we have consumers making choices. Here we have the market, distorted as all markets are, operating as it ought to operate.

Here we have a University protecting its extremely valuable brand.

Here we have the purchaser unable to debase the that brand by piggybacking on it, replete with a bit of ambush marketing.

Where do all these points come together?

Southern Cross University.

Craven wants the money and would let the Ramsay Centre do what it wants because it would do what he wants.

Abbott could have a sort of St Patrick’s Seminary with some additional ‘canon’ texts added but without the gays, the feminists, the Marxists, the post-modernists, without Indigenous people and without global warming.

Howard could set the seal on a couple of decades of setting back the fight against global warming and a couple of decades of utter denial about the way in which Western Civilization utterly smashed the Indigenous population. Legitimacy at last!

But why will this not happen? Because, as it says in the canon of another domain, ‘Money can’t buy me love’.

Virtue signalling and rank hypocrisy does not buy you a loaf of bread either Pat .

If you and your ilk were in charge long enough , bread would be something only your “ elite “ would know anything about .

Hey, hey, Tim. HECs is the apotheosis of Western Civilization: have money, can choose, will buy.
The logic of those who view western civilization through the prism of the five points Greg highlights totally escapes me.You could apply those same five prisms totally or in part to all civilizations.Surely an open mind should be maintained in examining all history and placing it in the context of the prevailing views of the time.Same applies to the recent phenomenon of apologizing for past what are now seen as injustices.Being over seventy I lived at the time when these perceived injustices were the prevailing world view and although I won’t be around to see it I will guarantee in fifty years society will look back in horror to the things that we now see as mainstream, and particularly the current post modernists philosophies.
What a great debate is happening. The role of universities, the quality of education, the achievements of the West, and the skeletons of the West.

 Students doing such Western civilisation courses can learn what others have thought about the West’s 2,500 years of civilisation, and apply to the current age what they’ve learned from the past.

Negotiations have not ended – just mere sabre-rattling.

A very good article. Maybe the most optimistic point is that enrolements in humanities are falling. These remaining students will be the left wing politicians of the future.

Spot on Greg. We need to commence the redesign and new build of all our institutions. The West can do it. We have been in this type of instability before and our young are waiting for new leadership and ‘to go’.
Yesterday, someone disputed my assertion that, unlike existing courses on Islam, an ANU course would have been critical of Western Civilisation.

It seems that many are unaware of the fondness for teaching ‘Critical Theory’ amongst left wing academics these days. From Wikipedia:

“Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”.

In sociology and political philosophy, the term critical theory describes the neo-Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which was developed in Germany in the 1930s.”

Most often, what left-wing academics mean by “critical” is *not* critical reasoning, but merely criticising anything that runs counter to Marxist dogmas.
If you want to study Western Civilization go to Asian universities. They are pretty sure that it is an important study if you want to prosper

Well said Greg. Schmidt is a great scientist. He should have stuck to that and left university admin to someone who knows about it. As for Evans, well, he is just being his Biggles best.

A very tactful exclusion of your colleague, PVO, who supports the ANU narrow mindedness. You are right, the ANU is beyond redemption until the lefty thinkers see the error of their ways.
Both Schmidt and Evans are men of towering intellect and monumental achievement. But should they be running a university? Surely it is obvious that universities should be run by people who have established their credentials as leaders in tertiary education? Presumably people like Schmidt and Evans are appointed as bridges to the wider world. But part of the problem surely is that people of stature do not rise up through the ranks of tertiary education. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Well one of them is.  Wouldn’t rank Grovelling Gareth anywhere near this term.
There is great depth and insight here.
Just on the question of slavery, it was white Christian men that defeated the use of slaves in the West. The Royal Navy and 400, 000 casualties in the US civil war. Worthy of praise IMO.
Just on the Question of Slavery. A classic example of Revisionist Christian History. Christian England was only Second to Christian Portugal in transporting millions of slaves into the New World. Rather than some great moral epiphany, the only reason (not withstanding some isolated moral souls) England abandoned the Slave trade was the colonies had decimated her sugar trade and she sort to economically cripple them. Meanwhile England moved from the slave trade to direct oppression and plundering in India destroying a thriving economy and nation.
Slavery existed long before Western Civilisation (ask how the pyramids were built) and during & by Western Civilisation (as you point out)and finally ended by Western Civilisation (as Peter states).

But the modern Arts student at ANU will of course never hear the full story, courtesy of Evans and Schmidt. Only the Left viewpoint, as you kindly outline, allowed.

So Wilberforce had nothing to do with it?

Um Oh Russ.  Suggest you read up on the history of muslim slave traders before you start ranking societies.  But of course that doesn’t fit with your mindset does it.

The Liberal Party has been blind to the decades-long leftist indoctrination going on in our universities. As a student in the 1970s, we truly were taught to despise our culture and civilisation, usually through snide references and cheap mockery. To our juvenile minds, we thought that was the ‘right’ attitude–ie to be unthinkingly left. It’s a training ground for the leftists, who then vote Greens or Labor. Why do the Liberals tolerate it? Surely not on ‘free speech’ grounds? Free speech at universities is only the ‘freedom’ to preach leftist, or worse, Marxist, doctrine.
This is why history is not being pursued. If students were taught real history they would be extremely scared of what is being preached to them by the marxists
You are right Greg. It would be a big mistake for the Ramsay Centre to go to ANU or Sydney Uni or any of Australia’s public universities. Campion would be an excellent choice.

I think, however, that there is a serious problem within the Ramsay vision of Western civilisation. Ramsay has a ‘great texts’ focus. This is too limited. It puts (for example) John Locke on the same level as the Bible. The latter is the fundamental ‘great text’ of the West. The truth is that Western civilisation cannot be taught or understood from a position wholly external to the Christian worldview. It cannot in principle be secularised.

What we are seeing today is many advocates of Western civilisation courses, including Simon Haines from Ramsay, but extending into the general public, who are thinking in terms of the Enlightenment. They are progressives, in other words, who see the West as having evolved via John Locke and other ‘greats’, from a benighted religious culture into the wonderful secular culture we have today. This is not going to communicate to students what Western civilisation – the real civilisation – is all about.

I would be disappointed if the Ramsay trust were to renegotiate with ANU. This worthy benefactor has really dodged a bullet. The ANU have been outed as a shameful bunch of left wing politicians that are not interested in anything academic- what is worse, is that we the tax payer fund this garbage institution that purports to be our national university
Yes. Being rejected by ANU is what my mother used to call a “blessing in disguise”.
Absolutely agree. Transfer the funding to a new start elsewhere from the current universities.

Every builder knows when termites have infested a building, you knock it down, destroy the infestation, and rebuild with strong defences. The infested structure is irredeemable. Metaphorically, universities and their academies are the same.

Well said Greg. The Ramsay Centre should focus on either private universities or establish its own, or perhaps spend money on public awareness campaigns to counter the biased rubbish being taught in our slipping Education System. Perhaps it should also donate to political parties that strongly defend Western culture and values; Australian Conservatives springs to mind!
Postmodernism projects present grievances onto the past. The objective is to undermine and destroy western civilisation. It has been fueled by the environmentalism that developed in the 60s and the scare mongering that came with global warming catastrophism. Maurice Strong who chaired the 1992 Earth Summit was a Marxist and stated: “Isn’t the only hope of the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?” The survival of Western civilisation faces challenges not only in the social sciences and humanities but in the natural sciences where scientists who question global warming alarmism are sacked or ostracized. Look what happened to Peter Ridd at James Cook.
What a great article Greg.  In our primary education seventy years ago in a small school in Charters Towers, we learnt much of what you have discussed here in our history classes and form the many extracts from the great classics which formed part of our “reading books.  (See Queensland School Readers”)

Unfortunately, in the 1960s/70s, when our children were in primary school, all of this was flushed away.  The readers wre replaced by a series about two modern children in the uninspiring series of “Dick and Dora”, intended to make children read about things with which they were already familiar and hence, it was argued, could learn to read more efficiently.  This was rubbish of course and did not cause children to become avid readers. (fortunately in our case, their mother did that for them)   (John, Nancy’s husband is writing!).

I don’t want to get bogged down in the merits of Western civilisation but to identify why one inherently cannot trust an academic culture that does not recognise the benefits of intellectual diversity. Ideas should be tested from a variety of viewpoints to find truth and bad ideas changed or rejected. Karl Popper said that a theory that cannot be falsified cannot be valid. Yet vast swaths of Left orthodoxy are not allowed to be challenged because they throw up all these alleged principles that are more important than truth. On the Ramsay issue 170 Sydney University academics have now signed a protest letter that Ramsay is at odds with “promoting a society of diversity, inclusiveness, and mutual respect.” Those words are not harmless motherhood statements but the Left’s Trojan horses for Marxism, and they are apparently of a higher order priority to the pursuit of truth. They promote identity diversity at the expense of ideas diversity. The Left has cleverly arranged their ideology and strategies in such a way that all pathways leads back to privileging their ideology irrespective of common sense observations that they are wrong. The Left insists that they know all and that challenging them is evil because the Left also claim to monopolise all lofty morals. This arrogant, unchallenged outlook means for example that social researchers should be suspected of corruption because they are not intellectually curious but merely inventing or massaging ‘facts’ to fit their ideological prejudices. There is nothing new to learn, just a plan to implement. It mocks the core functions of a university. With challenge impossible academic life becomes a virtue signalling contest to be the most extreme and other-worldly. The university becomes a place of ritual like an Islamic Madrassa where they chant dogma and rock back and forth, except at the centre of this religion is worship of oneself for transcending the earthly limits of pesky obstacles like facts and reason to become creatures of pure moral essence. John Stuart Mill said, “he who only knows his side of the case knows little of that.”   Antipostmodernism Stephen

A very neat analysis, Stephen. I particularly like your remark regarding the Gauleiters of the Left, “They promote identity diversity at the expense of ideas diversity.”

Excellent comment on an excellent article. I particularly liked: “With challenge impossible academic life becomes a virtue signalling contest to be the most extreme and other-worldly. The university becomes a place of ritual like an Islamic Madrassa where they chant dogma and rock back and forth, except at the centre of this religion is worship of oneself…”

A Parting Glass – farewell to an old friend


We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
TS. Elliot, Little Gidding

“One of those days in England, with a sword in every pond”, sang Roy Harper, the high priest of anglo-angst. And so it was when we looked out on England and imagined a wider world. Our journey took us to this farthest shore on the brink of the mighty Pacific.

This month saw the passing of a fine old friend whom I’d first met fifty years ago this September when we arrived as young freshmen at the provincial red-brick university in Reading, Berkshire, a provincial southern town on the banks of the River Thames, less salubrious than its famous riverine neighbours Oxford and Windsor, and noted mainly for biscuits and beer. Fate determined that a bunch of disparate ingenues from all parts of the island boarded at the same ‘hall of residence’.

It was there that John and I bonded through folk music. I had a battered Spanish guitar that I’d strung  with steel strings, and had started writing songs and playing them to our friends. One day,  I left my guitar with John and headed to Hull to visit an old school chum and do my first trip (“those were days, yes they were, those were the days”). When I’d landed and hitch-hiked home, John had not only mastered the instrument, but was able to play me a couple of his favourite songs – Ralph McTell’s Streets of  London and Michael Chapman’s One Time Thing (see below). Very soon, he could play them note-perfect from just listening to the vinyl. Instead of me showing him chords and finger picking, he was teaching me. And whilst emulating his guitar idols, over time he assembled a fine repertoire of his own songs.

With a bunch of university friends, we later flatted in London whilst they earned enough money to get themselves overland to Australia. There, two of the fellowship settled down, built families and careers, and raised a mob of clever, creative and beautiful children. I was never born to follow; but life seeks out its own highways and byways, and in time these led me also DownUnder.

Those London days inspired my Harperesque, navel-gazing epic London John (see below).

Though his later life rendered him victim to a treasonous DNA, he fostered and followed through a passion for the wide, dry flatlands west of the Great Divide. He would undertake long-distance solo driving tours “beyond the Black Stump” (which is to say “the back of beyond”, or more prosaically,  “to buggery”); and would send us dispatches of his journeying, with beautiful photographs and stories of shooting the breeze with the locals and playing his guitar in pubs and by camp fires. When driving was physically no longer an option, he’d catch the train to outback Broken Hill.

Like Banjo Paterson, one of our national bards, and his poetic alter-ego Clancy of the Overflow, he treasured “the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night, the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

Listen to John’s songs on SoundCloud.

Farewell to North Finchley 1992

Back in the Day …

All those years ago …
Northern lads in a southern town.
Working-class in a middle-class world.
To Reading we’d come and then to London Town.
We are all compadres still.

Lent you my old guitar when I was roved out.
I came home and you’d played like a pro.
Streets of London and One Time Thing.
Note perfect played by ear.
And you were teaching me.

In London we busked on the Undergound
Got busted when playing Pavan.
Bow Street Magistrates Court.
“Soliciting reward without license”.
The only record we’d make together.

You took the hippie trail to Asia and beyond.
Bound for Bondi Beach.
Sang of mushrooms and a dog on the shore.
Four amigos washed ashore DownUnder.
Where you found your true home.

I came hither by another road.
Our paths forever criss-crossed.
Like ships passing in the night.
You headed always to the bush
But got to see our forest home.

Once you lent me your Martin guitar.
And I  went and lost it.
You probably never forgave me for that.
But maybe you’ll find it again in the valley beyond.
Because old friends always meet again.

There’s a song we’d all sung
When we were all young.
Of when we were no longer so.
Written by an ancient Greek
Over two thousand years ago.

I’d rolled it into a song of my own
As bold songwriters do.
And as years run us down and transfigure us
It echoes through the foggy ruins of time.
I hear it now as clear as the days we sang:

In those days when were men,
Ah, you should’ve seen us then.
We were noted our for our courage and agility.
We carried all before us
In battle and in chorus,
And no one could’ve doubted our virility.
But those days are past and gone
And the feathers of the swan
Are no whiter than our heads
For now we’re old.
And yet, as you can see,
Thinning relics we may be,
In spirit, we’re still
Manly, young and bold.

Farewell, old friend,
And flights of angels sing you to your rest.

Vale John Rugg 1949 -2018

Valances

                  (early in the morning at break of day)

Valance: The capacity of something to unite, react, or interact with something; connections; relationships.

In the afternoon they came upon a land in which it seemed always afternoon.
Lord Alfred Tennyson, The Lotus Eaters

Out of the cradle so restlessly rocking,
Ringing the changes that resonate still,
The rolling momentum of memory sailing
Like some graceful galleon, onwards until

We came in due course to harmonious havens,
Seeking the warmth of another land’s sun –
Such was the feeling, and such was the motion
Of onwards, and upwards, and endlessly on,

Out of those valances, casual, knowing,
Seeking out payments for debts never due,
The curious cadence of melodies flowing,
Gathering vagrants in pastures anew,

Forgotten weekends of such transient yearnings,
The edginess felt as we near a strange land,
Vanishing echoes of strange dreams returning,
Just out of reach of the memory’s hand,

They’re falling like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist,

Flowing like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist, like mist through my arms.

Out of the days of such recklessly wandering,
Seeking sensation and stretching the mind,
Journeying aimlessly, canyons and castles
Pass ageless and ageing and captive in time,

What lies before us and what lies behind us
Are little compared to the treasures we find,
Are nothing compared to what’s lying within us
As secrets unfold and the stories unwind,

And down through the ages, the prophets and sages
Set beacons to guide us both forward and aft,
We rise on the billow, descend to the hollow,’
Climb to the top-mast, or we cling to the raft,

And when all is unravelled, the road that’s less travelled
Winds back to the start, and we know it again
For the first time, and we know that there’s no more to say,
So early in the morning, at breaking of day.

Falling like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist,

Flowing like mist through my arms,
Flowing like mist through my arms,
Broken memories, fractured songs
Are flowing like mist, like mist through my arms.

© Paul Hemphill 2012

Other memories of the ‘Sixties in Into That Howling Infinite: Back in the day: and A Window On A Gone World

  The Old Man’s Tale

Part One

In those days when men were men,
Ah, you should have seen us then
We were noted for our courage and agility.
How we carried all before us,
Both in battle and in chorus,
And no-one one could have questioned our virility.

But those days are past and gone,
And the feathers of the swan
Are no whiter than our heads, for we are old;
And yet as you may see,
Thinning relics we may be,
In spirit we’re still manly young and bold.

Though we may be phased out crocks,
The whiteness of our locks,
Does the country better credit, I should say,
Than the ringlets and the fashions
And the wild immoral passions
Of the namby-pamby youngsters of today.

But for all our sacrifice for to make a better life,
For those who followed to be proud and free.
Oh, we had to watch you grow
Into some horticultural show.
“Was it thus worth all our toil?” The dead ask me.

We lived like men, we looked the part;
We held our country to our heart;
We always did our best and better still;
But you who came too late to fight,
You’re living off the state alright,
And from our hard exertions, take your fill.

But those days, alas, are gone,
And the feathers of the swan
Are no whiter than our heads for now we’re old.
But if we could have seen
What the fruits of toil would’ve been,
Would we still have been so manly, young and bold?

Part Two

The image of my life is laid out before me:
It shows how well I fate, how hard I fall;
How people curse and jibe, how friends ignore me;
And I scream in a soundless voice, “I don’t care at all”.

You look at the world through different eyes to me:
You see life in a greyer shade of white;
Embrace the past, dictating what is there for me;
Telling me what is wrong and just what is right.

But I tell you I just don’t care.
You can’t change my mind.
And all your stories just won’t wear.
Let se speak my mind.

So i don’t fit your picture of the ideal man,
And if I don’t impress your sight – you say I must.
If I don’t don’t suit your taste like so many others can,
Must I conform to gain your meaningless trust?

I tell you I just don’t care.
You can’t harm my mind.
And all your fictions just won’t wear;
Let me speak my mind.

You say my behaviour’s a disgrace to modern life.
This permissive way of living’s got to stop!
“Why can’t you accept the guidance
Of those who are older and wiser?”

But then I just don’t have a wife to swap,
Or the guns to kill,
Or the power to guide men’s lives,
Or to bend their will,

And I don’t have the blood on my hands,
And I don’t have lies in my mind,
And your explanations won’t wear,
And  you won’t change my nine.

And my ears are not deaf to the tears,
And my eyes are not blind to the plight,
And my senses not numb to a world
That has yet to emerge from its night.

Put me on the road to God;
I know it’s the path to Hell;
Ins if I fall, don’t  heed my call.
Just say it was just as well.

© Paul Hemphill, September 1969

Some of John’s favourite songs:

Michael Chapman: One Time Thing. This was one of John’s early favourites back in the day. He’d borrowed guitar when I’d gone off on a frolic and when I’d got back. he’d not only learned how to play guitar, but he played this note perfect – and sang it much better than Chapman.

 Amazing Blondel : Pavan. We got busted when we played this on the London Underground. John used to play the flute riff on his guitar. It was the only record we made together – in Bow Streets Magistrates Court!

Al Stewart. Ivich. Al was a longtime favourite of John’s, from Reading days, and we used to go to see him in Cousins in Soho when we lived in London.  John admired his excellent guitar-work.  A friend of ours – ex-GF of one of our flatmates, actually – went out with Al for a while. I think John had left for Australia by then, but I got to know him. He even came for supper at my folks’ home in Birmingham when he played there once. And most amusing, that was.

Here’s another Al Stewart song that John liked, In Brooklyn

Roy Harper, the English High Priest of Angst, was another of John’s favourites. Here’s one of his ‘softer’ songs. Very nice. Another Day.

And probably, John’s all time favourite, Ralph McTell’s Streets of London. John played this note perfect too, from the get-go. I hated it, but there’s no accounting for bad taste.

Photo Gallery

Picnic in Whiteknights Park 1969. 

The M1, Summer 1972. Brendan, John, Eric and Paul

Hemphill Family Home, Birmingham, Summer 1972

Bardwell Park, October 1983 Paul, John, Andrew, Damian, Christian and Jean

Federal Hotel, Bellingen, December 2013

Milo Down Under

Is it only six months since the cream of Australia’s intelligentsia, including those famous insider outsiders Mark Latham and Ross Cameron, News Corp flunkies Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtson, Alan Jones (of course), the entire Whine Nation cabal, including the irritating dwarf Malcolm Roberts (now consigned to that limbo where lame ex-pollies languish), and that gruesome twosome Cory Bernadi and George Christiansen rocked up to salute confused libertarian and Alt-Right poster-boy Milo Yiannopoulos?

[Author’s note: this piece was penned (don’t we miss that anachronism!) in a fit of frolic and nostalgia. I found Milo’s adventures in Australia quite entertaining and informative. May he come back soon! Many of the places and personages mentioned herein may be unknown to readers who are unacquainted with the politics of our great southern land. I beg your indulgence.]

That giant can of ‘Milo’ ?  ‘Milo’ is a chocolate powder, often served in hot milk, and commonly given to kiddies as a dinkum night-cap (thus guaranteed to keep them up all night long). It is one of many Aussie icons – alongside meat pies, lamington cakes, kangaroos, the late Steve Irwin, and the ABC (our national broadcaster, which many on the right would like to see abolished).  And we have many such BIG Things in Australia. Like the Big Merino in Goulburn, the Big Prawn in Ballina, and the Big Banana in my own regional centre, Coffs Harbour]

Did Milo REALLY make such a big impression DownUnder when he was out here last December? At the time, I thought that it was just shock jocks, insider “outsiders” (or is it outsider “insiders”?), a One Nation coven, and a mob of journos who view politics as entertainment, who fawned at the feet of this strange muppet.

I guess we will never really know because the media, forever breathlessly covering our antipodean political blood-sport, generally loses all sense of objectivity and proportion. And in vicariously entertaining and picturesque way, the carnival was quite newsworthy.

There was wide media coverage as demonstrators of all stripes flocked to Milo’s clandestine but well-publicized-Melbourne gig in their tens and proceeded to get stuck into each other, and the police turned out in force to break up the very telegenic brawl. Milo’s myrmidons were sighted sporting Trump flags and red “Make America Great Again” caps (which goes to show what an unoriginal lot we Aussies are). Guy Rundle of e-zine Crikey sent an entertaining dispatch from the Flemington front-line on 4th December 2018 (it is republished below). Damian Costas, the organizer of the event, who also happens to be the publisher of Australian Penthouse, Was billed A$50,000 for the services of the boys in blues, but he has yet to pay up. A case of “free speech, one each”?

 

it was a gift that kept on giving. Soon afterwards, celebrity sex therapist, Milo-fangirl and occasional News Corp mouthpiece Bettina Arndt spent quality time with Milo (our featured image), and joined the opinionistas of the House of Rupert by writing to a News Corp and Institute of Public Affairs template in an opinion piece in The Australian which echoed a Janet Albrechtsonesque angst about left-wing university group-think into a contrived diatribe against the preponderance of young women in said left-wing ranks. Universities, she says, are brainwashing our damsels and transforming them into latter-day Mesdames Defarge.

And yet, Betty, maybe girls were already left-wing before they enrolled in Uni. And one really can understand why they veer to the left given the example set by the conservative right-wing males who dominate our politics, business, churches and media. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and “the powers that be” do not like it.

They do not like very much, it seems. It is becoming quite predictable that “culture war” opinionistas coopt any contrarian who comes along as a crusader for their conservative cause. Late militant atheist Brit Christopher Hitchens; dissenting Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomberg; Canadian psychologist Jordan Petersen. Even eccentric and useless climate-change denialist Viscount Christopher Walter Monckton. So it was not unusual that Milo got a guernsey from the News Corp chattercrats. As did Milo’s mate, photogenic Canadian Alt Right poster girl Lauren Southern who dropped in on us last month. Laurie canceled her New Zealand speaking tour, however, after the Mayor of Auckland banned her from speaking in his burgh. Yet another example of how the Kiwis are doing things better than its neighbour across the Tasman these days.

Southern Discomfort

The whole Milo mythos is founded upon a world of make-belief, a political world overly determined by rhetoric, fear and loathing, fireworks and fictions. It is driven by false narratives that envelop false hopes and expectations. But, like that big can of chocolate powder, we like big things in Australia, and if they are not as huge as we like them, in the immortal word of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, we make it so …

And so, whenever the likes of Milo and his ilk land on our fatuous shore, they are feted by the right and vilified by the left whilst the affronted at every hand huff and puff in self-righteous indignation, posture and pontificate, vigorously virtue-signaling energetically to their minuscule covens. The chucks cluck, the dogs bark, and the circus leaves town.

As Led Zeppelin once crooned, “Oh, it makes you wonder!”. But, as John Lennon sang: “Strange days indeed! Most peculiar, Mama!”

[I’ve just remembered what Milo’s martial get-up reminds me of – Michael Jackson. As the Donald would say, “Sad”]

Peter Fitzsimmons wrote a highly amusing piece in the SMH recently. Read it here, or in full at the end of this post, he also reveals that Brexit bon-viveur Nigel Farge will grace our shores shortly. be still my beating heart!

For more in In That Howling Infinite on Australia’s politics, see Outside Looking in;  Western Civilization and the long, dark tea-time of The Australian’s Souland Conservatism in Crisis

Guy Rundle reminisces in Crikey ,4th December 2018:

Night had fallen on Flemington when your correspondent rocked up to the Milo extravaganza. The houso flats across the road, sheer cliffs of lights, the Citylink overpass glowing green on the other side.

Racecourse Road was blocked off either side of the Milo venue, Melbourne Pavilion, an old art deco hall with a concrete box attached to one end of it. “Weddings Events Functions” reads the sign on the side. All that, and, inevitably, boxing too.

Big cop trucks at each end of the area, flashing red and blue, cop helicopter thrumming overhead.

Cops and cops and cops around. Cops in yellow hi-viz; cops in blue; black-clad ninja-turtle riot squad. Rings and rings of them. Cops in number absurd.

“No place for fascists no place for fascists” or something, shout coming from the grounds beneath the flats. “We live here, fuck off.” The remnant left protesters, hardy anarchists mostly, had been joined by locals, young mainly, African mainly, from the flats.

The Milo late-show crowd were arriving on the other side of the street. They gleamed white in the fluoro and arc lights. A few Mediterranean types, of martial arts/UFC styling, top-crop hair and T-shirted, hard-body man tits. But mostly Anglo, boiled-potato pale.

“They don’t even know what they’re protesting,” they laughed, at the protesters.

“It was easy to get a park, because protestors don’t own cars.” That got a big laugh.

And:

“How can Milo be a racist? He’s married to a black man!”

“I know! I know!”

Heard that exchange six times if once. A sort of alt-right ring tone.

I’d missed the early session argy-bargy, because I’d been to — what else? — a book launch in Fitzroy. The first show crowd were just coming out, the cops directing them down a corridor between temporary barriers, running down a side street.

“Go go go go this way this way this way” — the cops treated it like they were getting the Kurds out of Iraq. The protesters were half a kilometre away.

“Lot of cops to protect one paedophilia advocate,” I said loudly, and one cop on the end of the line winced, visibly. I made a mental note.

The place was in lockdown, yet I was drifting easily back and forth between the lines, threading through the riot cops, my press card in a lanyard. Admirable respect for free activity of the press I thought.

Then I looked at the stage door, where bouncers and tour officials were gathered. Fat men in dark suits and lanyards, they — ah.

The cops thought I was with the tour.

There were 600 in the early show, took a while to get them out. They clutched copies of Dangerous, Milo’s self-published book, and copies of Australian Penthouse, sponsors of the tour, and my sometime publishers (hello, fellows! You still owe me author’s copies of the September and October issues by the way. Send them to the Crikey office, please).

“The show was great,” Trisha told me, without much prompting. Trump-style red baseball cap, bottle-blonde, fake-leather jacket, two copies of Dangerous, two copies of Penthouse. “I just love him, he’s so funny.”

“What do you like in what he’s saying?”

She thought for a long time.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh … well, I mean immigration. Not that we don’t like Muslims! Just not the wrong ones!”

“There anyone in Australia who inspires you like he does?”

“No one! No one!”

“Andrew Bolt?”

“He’s pretty boring.”

‘What about the pro-paedophilia stuff? ‘Thirteen year old boys can consent meaningfully’ …”

Trisha squirmed.

Ponytail man came up. There were a lot of ponytails in this crowd. Long, short, ’80s adman, postmodern architect, vegan grindcore maleorexic, Milo’s little ponies.

“I’ve seen Milo four times.” Ponytail man was soft-faced, soft-bodied. Milo men are either hard-body keto warriors, living off bullet coffee enemas and T-gel patches, or they appear to be carved from a giant bar of soap. Ponytail man wore a red tie, and a white cotton suit, over hips that wobbled like an offal tray.

“How was he tonight?”

“Top form, top form.” As if speaking of an employee.

“What’s the most important issue facing Australia today?”

“Oh corporate control. Banks, globalisation …”

“Who do you like politically here-“

“Oh the Citizens Electoral Council make … sense.” (A LaRouchite! I’d found a LaRouchite!)

“We need a state-owned bank, public ownership,” he said.

“But that’s exactly what most of the protesters would say!”

“Well, yes, we’ve got to build bridges …”

“And Milo, well, as far as he has any position at all, he’s sort of a gay Thatcherite.”

Ponytail’s eyes peeped out his puffy face, imploringly: don’t spoil this for me.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a music producer.”

“You make a living from that?”

“Well no,” he laughed, like George Martin between Beatles LPs. “I’m living off savings. And,” voice lowered, “getting some payments from the government.” (“Ah, Mr Ponytail,” the voice said on the phone at midnight, “you are too dangerous not to have on our side. Your fee will be dispatched fortnightly disguised as a Centrelink payment.”)

The helicopter thrummed, the protesters got louder. People were coming out of the flats now, it was getting big. Couple of smoke bombs went off near the tram stop, and the riot squad formed up in a phalanx. This was all piss-weak, yet they looked skittish. The more suited up cops are, the more scared they get.

Late-show arrivals, early-show departures commingled. Ross Cameron, the show MC, was walking around, looking at his notes, like anyone gave a damn what he said.

“You’re going to miss the late show Ross,” I said.

He looked up.

“Oh you’re right, yes, thanks very much,” and scurried in through the stage door. He thought I was security, too. Jesus, six Trots in Target suits and lanyards could have taken this place. It was Stupidolooza.

“Do you want to know what I think?” A large blonde swayed towards me, in big blue comedy shades, Jimmy Buffett fan sans margarita, and said, and I will sign an affidavit to this conversation, “they don’t like us cos we support Trump! Yahhhhhh,” she yelled towards the protestors “we’re lefties”.

“Lefties?”

“Oh hang on, no, I get those two mixed up.”

Her equally imposing friend turned up. “Stop talking to him.”

“This is my friend Tziporah,” Lefty said. “She knows a lot of stuff.”

Tziporah! Tziporah Malkah! Kate Fischer as was! Last time I’d seen her, I was writing lines for her for an awards night performance. A torturous joke that included the name “Wittgenstein”. It took a long time.

Tziporah had been casting herself as a Milo fan, or Milo-curious, hours earlier, posting a pic of herself kissing his pic on her “access all areas” pass. Now they wouldn’t let her in. Malkah and Lefty tottered back and forth between the entrances, but they’d been barred.

“You want to talk, call my agent,” Malkah said.

“But I don’t want to talk.”

“Call my agent.”

They tottered off.

The crowd was herded in, the old one herded off, the protesters got louder, plastic bottles started flying across the road.

Suddenly there was loud shouting, and a megaphone “back back, leave them alone …” and the riot squad, having demobbed, formed up again, and started coming across Racecourse Road to the flats.

I walked across with a few others. Malkah and Leftie, passes still dangling, had walked across to talk to the protesters, locals now, nearly all African, and appeared to have asked a question about Muslim extremism, and the organisers were having a bit of trouble restraining some of the more rambunctious.

“Back, back … OK OK look,” the organiser glanced around. No TV still around. “Leave the women alone! Leave the women alone!” Yeah. That would not have looked good on the news.

“Why are they holding this here –” one of the kids asked me, “to insult us?”

“It’s a boxing venue. They-“

The last anarchist charged over, white as the moon. “Don’t talk to the media! Don’t talk to the media.”

Big mistake. The kids, seeing his pale face and black hoodie thought he was a Milo-ister and laid into him. The organisers had to wade in and rescue him. It was all sorted out.

At which point, of course, the riot squad began to move, the Behan principle taking over (“no situation so bad, a policeman cannot make it worse,” Brendan Behan said).

Banging on their shields, they came into the flats gardens in a flank that even I could see was far too long. The kids got behind them. There was pelting with empty mineral-water bottles, the equivalent of a stern letter to The Flemington Leader. The squad narrowed their line and charged deep into the gardens. The kids legged it easily.

Piqued, the squad set up camp, holding a corden inside the gardens for 45 minutes, an empty Fanta can from the windows bouncing off a helmet now and again.

I tried the line again.

“Four hundred cops on night shift to defend a paedophile sympathiser. You must feel really proud of your work.” Tried it about half a dozen times. Pretty sure it got a few wobbles. Tease the cops about being agents of the banks, etc, no response. But, overtime aside, I don’t think anyone signed on to defend a Hitler Youth tribute act.

The gardens quietened.

‘Bout 11.30pm a cop car pulled up. A senior cop got out, took a look at the pointless vigil, and said something sharpish to the field commander. The riot squad moved backward slowly, and in 10 minutes they were gone.

Across the road, somewhere inside, a gay man likely to faint at the sight of a visible panty line was adjudicating on which women were and weren’t fuckable. Today, he’s addressing the right at Parliament House. Australian conservatism in our time.


Peter  Fitzsimmons, Sydney Morning Herald, 7th August 2018

It remains one of my favourite bits of rugby writing.

In the late 1980s, after a Wallaby of modest repute changed national rugby camps to turn out for the Irish team instead, a writer for the Irish Timescommented: “Why is Ireland importing bad rugby five-eighths? Don’t we have enough bad rugby five-eighths of our own?”

Might I ask a different version of the same question for Australia in 2018?

Why on earth are we importing so many “alt-right” political nutters to Australia on speaking tours? Seriously, don’t we have enough alt-right – whatever that is – nutters of our own?

The most recent visitor to our shores was a 23-year-old Canadian, Lauren Southern, whose schtick seems to be warning about the dangers of Islam, multiculturalism, immigration, political correctness and the left side of politics in general, while also trying to right the many wrongs done to white people just because they are white. I repeat: she is just 23-years-old. From the fine, peaceful, happy country of Canada.

I ask you: how likely is it that this young woman, as fine as she might be, will have some wisdom, some insight into Australian affairs, something she can tell us, warn us about, that our own people of her ilk haven’t been saying around the clock, on the radio, in reams of columns, in parliament, on the street, for years?

Police assemble at Broadmeadows train station to manage people protesting against Lauren Southern who is in Australia on a speaking tour.Photo: Darrian Traynor

Hasn’t Pauline Hanson been doing all of the above for a quarter of a century? Wasn’t our very own Malcolm Roberts a seer on these very issues? And isn’t he planning a comeback? (Where are you, Mr Roberts, by the way? A nation turns its lonely, bemused eyes to you.)

As for paying up to $750 to see Ms Southern, close-up, and speak? Please.

Save your money, my friends. Turn on Sky News After Dark any day of the week. You can watch hours of that kind of stuff, from the comfort of your own home. You can call Bronwyn Bishop “Butter,” ’cos she’s always on a roll, on those very subjects. And don’t forget Ross Cameron. And that other fellow, someone-or-other Hargraves.  On Sunday night, and I am not making this up, they even provided a platform for Blair Cottrell – previously notable for his criminality, and for advocating that every Australian classroom should have a portrait of Hitler on the walls – to give his views on immigration. I am not making that up, I said! And tell us, Blair, given your boast about using “violence and terror”, to get what you want from women, your views on feminism?

Yes, Sky News costs a bit, but if you divide the cost of subscribing by the number of cans of Pissed-Off they serve up, it is, seriously, as cheap as chips.

The Brit, Nigel Farage, will also be here shortly, I gather. He, you’ll recall, rose to fame by running the campaign which saw Britain commit to the economic suicide of Brexit and then turned his back on the whole mess, waltzing away on something of a world speaking tour. What, pray tell, can he see, that our own nutters haven’t spotted? In the first place, we don’t have a Brexit situation and in the second place, he’s never lived here, never shared our experience, never had much to do with us at all. So what would he know that, say, Alan Jones doesn’t?

Alan’s great on that kind of thing generally. When he speaks on the radio, there is never a pause, never a nuance to be examined, never a grey area which he is not sure about – he delivers outraged certainty, for a good 15 hours a week. Everything is either right or wrong, it is mostly wrong, and he is the only man who can right the wrongs. All your prejudices will be fed, all the bleak angels in your nature can gorge themselves and you can hit the day roundly pissed off at about 15 things at once. Yes, Alan is, as Paul Keating once described him, a “middle-of-the-road fascist” but he’s our middle-of-the-road fascist and that has to count for something, dammit.

For the Fascist 1500 metre race, our Alan would lap Farage. Not only that, he has endurance. I first heard Alan ranting like that in the Manly rugby dressing sheds, in 1983, and he is still going strong.

Milo Yiannopoulos? I frankly can’t remember what he was all about when he visited earlier in the year – I think it was most of the above, bar ganging up on gays – and only recall that our own Mark Latham delighted in displaying a photo of himself kissing him on the cheek. That would be a fair indication that Latham believes in his views, so if that is the stuff you want, my fellow Australians, if the Yiannopoulos brand of outrage is your thing, buy home-grown, buy Latham. He is producing so much of that highly refined bile – the really good Aussie stuff, not that imported rot – he is giving it away.

I am serious about this.

A consistent theme of the whole alt-Right thing, is to defend Australia, stop the bastards at our borders, say no to foreigners of all descriptions, make Australia great again by putting Australia first, etc.

Can’t the people who espouse all this then, and who want to consume that kind of stuff, start with our own nutters and set a good example?

Support Alan. Support Mark. Support Bronwyn and Pauline. And bring back Malcolm Roberts, the real star of the whole show.

But Blair Cottrell? Actually, no. Even we, have to draw the line somewhere.

An earlier version of this comment was briefly published online last month .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Sparrow’s Blues

You cannot stop the birds of sadness from passing overhead, but you can sure as hell stop them nesting in your hair. 

It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound.

The Making of Martin Sparrow, Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, is set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River, north of Windsor, and the treacherous terrain of the picturesque Colo Gorge.

But first, some background history …

Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported by the British government to various penal colonies in Australia. It had began transporting convicts to the American colonies in the early 17th century, but the American Revolution had put an end to this. An alternative was required to relieve the overcrowding of British prisons and on the decommissioned warships, the hulks, that were used to house the overflow. In 1770, navigator Captain James Cook had claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain, and pre-empting French designs on Terra Australis, the Great Southern Land was selected as the site of a penal colony. In 1787, the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to establish the first European settlement on the continent. Botany Bay, named by Cook for its abundant and unique flora and fauna, was deemed unsuited, and six days later, the fleet hove to in the natural harbour to its north and established Sydney, named for the fleet’s commander.

Other penal colonies were later established in Tasmania – Van Diemen’s Land – in 1803 and Queensland In 1824, whilst Western Australia, founded in 1829 as a free colony, received convicts from 1850. Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and reduced significantly in succeeding decades. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia in 1868.

Convicts were transported primarily for petty crimes – serious crimes, like rape and murder, were punishable by death. But many were political  prisoners, exiled for their participation in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the nascent trade union movement. Their terms served, most ex-convicts remained in Australia, and joining the free settlers, many rose to prominent positions in Australian society and commerce. Yet they and their heirs bore a social stigma – convict origins were for a long time a source of shame: “the convict stain”. Nowadays, more confident of our identity and our national story, many Australians regard a convict lineage as a cause for pride. A fifth of today’s Australians are believed to be descended from transported convicts.

A wise man doesn’t burn his bridges until he knows he can part the waters

In the young colony, for free and unfree, men and women alike, life  could be nasty, brutish and short, beset by hard labour, hard living and for many, hard liquor, cursed with casual violence, and kept in order by a draconian regime of civil and military justice. Particularly so for the felons, formerly of the convict transports, and only moderately less for free settlers and the expirees, former convicts endeavouring to make a living on hard-scrabble blocks on the outer fringes of the Sydney Basin, far from  young and barely civilized Sydney Town.

Sydney Society 1800

Cochrane’s history credentials are evident in his feel for the time and the place, the lifestyle and its accoutrements. And it’s a good pitch for a motion picture. A colonial “western” indeed, for the book echoes those fine films that portray the sordid and seedy side of the pioneer story, like Altman’s chilly McCabe and Mrs Miller, and latterly, the magnificently decadent Deadwood, with less brutal elements of Alexandra Iñárritu’s The Revenant. I noted at least two lines borrowed from classic westerns – Clint Eastwood’s avenger tale The Outlaw Josie Wales, and Arthur Penn’s  frontier drama The Missouri Breaks – and there are probably more.

Cochrane has assembled a cast that is as representative and as colourful of the transplanted populace as it undoubtedly was, although some may come across to readers as a tad stereotypical and over-the-top. Loyal and honest servants of the crown like dour, Scottish Chief Constable Alister Mackie and his erudite sidekick American Thaddeus Cuff, who is never lost for bon mots and folk wisdom; whores that would not be out of place in Deadwood’s seedy Gem; cruel; corrupt soldiers who are a law unto themselves; and veterans of the Indian wars (waged by the East India Company, that is). Some are soberly righteous and others less so, given to either producing or consuming in excess a hooch named for its after effects: “bang-head”); unscrupulous and violent sealers, hunters, bushmen, and escaped convicts; and a wise and inquisitive doctor and an eccentric and obsessively peregrinating botanist intent on determining how the platypus produces its young. And, that unlikely trio at the commencement of this piece.

For many of the characters, and particularly the melancholy Martin Sparrow, it is a tale of hope and renewal, survival  and redemption – again like those iconic westerns. There is something about “the frontier”, on the lawless and dangerous edges of civilization, that tries and proves a man or woman’s soul. Cuff declares that “all life turns on a pitiless wheel”, but, he adds, “we ain’t stuck in brutishness. We got a choice”.

Damnation and redemption walk hand in hand. It is perhaps no coincidence one of the river’s most righteous settlers, the former Redcoat Joe Franks, has a passion for seventeenth century Puritan preacher John Bunyans A Pilgrim’s Progress, that allegorical saga of faith in adversity written whilst the author was doing a twelve year stretch for his religious beliefs. Hope springs eternal on the Hobbesian frontier, and we are constantly reminded of this by the sardonic constables: “hope is the poor mans bread”, but he who lives on hope dies fasting.  Whilst hope might be “the mainspring of faith, it is also “physician to misery” and “grief’s music”. And yet, to the irrepressible Romany girl, who has seen and suffered much, it might also be the “little songbird in the well of our troubled soul”.

… the search for happiness can be like the search for your spectacles when they’re sittin’ on your nose. 

The country into which most of the cast venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country”. Cochrane acknowledges the traditional owners as they roam the fringes of his story and often venture into it, mostly as a benign presence, aiding and advising the protagonists in the mysterious ways of the wilderness.

Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding. “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “They don’t reckon we’re the Christians, Marty … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

But they know in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. To paraphrase Henry Reynolds, acclaimed chronicler of the frontier wars, they can hear that uneasy whispering in their hearts.

It is Cochrane’s description of the landscape that makes an otherwise entertaining but derivative “quest” narrative soar to literally panoramic heights:

“They heard the sound of frogmouths and boobooks and night birds unknown to them, and heard the whoosh and splash and smack of fish jumping in the shallows and the constant sound of the tide chafing the banks and far off a dingo howling, and they saw the river rats scurrying for cover and myriad shapes in the dark recesses of the forest, and higher up they saw great bands of ancient sandstone, moonlit, cracked and fissured by the chisel work of ages”.

“They stood atop a cliff wall that ran north to the dense green line that marked the horizon, above a point where the valley was lost in the braided folds of mountain spurs and  patches stone and a wash of the darkest forest green … The far cliffs were fractured by heavily forested gullies and slot canyons carved deep through stone. To the north he could see open patches of grassland on the valley floor, the lumpy shapes of marsupials grazing, smaller things foraging, clustered together, wood ducks and a flock of black cockatoos in full flight following the line of the far wall, the stone there fissured and scarred like the hide of a dragon”.

“Soon they were there, standing four in a line atop the stone cliffs, a sheer drop to the thickly  timbered slopes that flattened to a valley floor perhaps a mile away, the river there flanked by irregular patches of forest and grass meadow and game feeding on the grasses – emu and wallaby, a wild dog loping along, and wildfowl breaking from the reeds. They saw a flock of parrots skimming the canopy, their colours coursing down like windswept rain. They saw a wedge-tailed eagle, those ragged wings, wheeling, slow, hypnotic, in the heavens above”.

Landscapes such as these are familiar to me. I view them from high places and walk the forests, and I have seen and heard the myriad birds and animals that inhabit the lands east of our Great Dividing Range. Indeed, many of them I view from my home in the forest. I felt the thrill of recognition as Cochrane’s adventurers ventured forth.

Breathtakingly beautiful it might be, but, then and now, it’s a hard and dangerous land. “… deadly cruel if you’re lost in there. I tell you both this: the wilderness in the west begs a certain reverence and demands a certain humility”.

The weather swings from searing heat to devastating floods – it is such a deluge that propels Martin Sparrow on his odyssey. The terrain in treacherous – one careless misstep and a fall can be deadly. The flora and the fauna might be exotic and magical to behold, but not everything is benign. There are snakes, funnel webs, wild dogs, eels, and bull sharks, and a particularly unpleasant wild pig. The travelers are constantly checking for mosquitoes, leeches and ticks. And the deadliest of all, the humans.

Well, these days it seems all the wilderness does is abet a multitude of crimes and occasionally a smidgen of restitution I suppose. Small mercies. 

A perilous place the bush may have been, but that did not deter those who sought to venture there and indeed, find a path through the Great Dividing Range. In ensuing decades, many explorers would weave their way westwards to view that “vision splendid of the western plains extended”, as our national bard described it. But in convict days, the vision splendid was one of freedom, from slavery’s metaphorical chains -actual irons were not required in the colony because the dense and impenetrable forests that covered the lowlands and the slopes of the ranges were as “iron bars all the way to the sky” and the nomadic “savages”, de facto guards, so to speak, and for freedmen, from backbreaking toil of the their meagre farmsteads. “… it’s the misery of this mercantile tyranny … or the sovereignty of the commonweal, fire of the brutish parties that govern us here”.

Tales of an inland haven, a sanctuary from the military despotism and the rigours of pioneering  were part of the convict “dreaming”.  Some say this was a rhetorical ploy to throw the Law off the scent as the real escape route was by boat along the coast. The authorities dismissed it as a fantasy, a fable, or, to quote Robbie Robertson, “a drunkard’s dream if ever I did see one”. All that lay out yonder was trial and tribulation and death by a thousand stings, bites, or spears.

And yet, the magical thinking of a happy land far, far away is part of our human storytelling. “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dream of really do come true”. Even Westworlds androids, who yearn, like Pinocchio, to be human, roam relentlessly towards the freedom of “the valley beyond”.

The notion of becoming a “bolter”is the primary theme of the story, and indeed the “making” of the luckless, lovelorn, indebted and hence perennially, melancholy Martin Sparrow who was ever wont to “stagger from one calamity to another”. A paradisaical village of free folk beyond the mountain fastness and the long arm of the constabulary, on the banks of “a river of the first magnitude” that winds its way to a mighty, whale-splashed ocean far to the west of the unknown continent, as they note, the celebrated  Mr Flinders himself had surmised, their wants satisfied by bevies of copper-coloured women:

“And there it is, the most beautiful grassy woodlands that you are ever to see, and way below, a small village, embosomed in a grove of tall trees, by a most majestic river, flowing west, as far as the eye can see, and small boats gliding the channels between little islands, and women, knee-deep in the  shallows, casting their nets … Olive-skinned, well-favored by nature and most pliable and yielding in all regards”.

Give a man his wish, you take away his dreams. 

And so, amidst Cochrane’s historical and political exposition – and he wears his historian heart on his sleeve – and remarkable scenic descriptions, a mob of folk of widely disparate authority, status, means, temperament and ability head off in twos and threes into the wild. Some are driven by duty; for others, it’s a living; and for our unlikely duo and dog, it’s a quixotic leap in the dark. Some perish, others sicken, and several arrive at their own epiphanies and apotheoses. I recall Paul Simon: “Some have died, some have fled from themselves, or struggled from here to get there”; and also, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s observation that often, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour”.

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
Rudyard Kipling, The Explorer (1898)

Orphan Girl

This beautiful song was written by Brendan Graham for the Annual Great Famine Commemoration at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks in 2012 to commemorate the immigration to Australia of over four thousand female orphans who, between 1848 and 1850, were brought from Ireland during the Great Hunger. It is performed by the celebrated Choral Scholars of University College of Dublin, featuring soloist Abby Molloy


For wider reading about Australian history, I highly recommend William Lines’ challenging Taming of the Great South Land, the late Robert Hughes’ magisterial The Fatal Shore, and David Day’s Claiming a Continent Posts in In That Howling  Infinite include We got them Australia Day Blues and Outside Looking In.

As part of its marketing strategy, publisher Penguin Books, has seen fit to share extracts from the opening chapter of The Making of Martin Sparrow.  I have republished them below.

1.

Sparrow woke on wet sand somewhere downriver with a terrible stink in his nostrils, the smell of death and decay, rot and ruin all about. At first he did not stir, there in the pre-dawn, pale light to the east beyond the river, the tide on the turn, ebbing now, the flow yet a faint murmur in his ears.

Confusion held him still, as did the formidable lassitude in his bones and the damp cold on his skin. The sound of his breathing con­firmed the likelihood that he was alive. He raised his head and looked about, sucked up a wad of gritty phlegm and spat onto the sand. He wondered if perhaps his deliverance was the work of a kindly fate, a chance to make good his miserable existence. Hard to know.

The sand was strewn with muck and wreckage. The hen coop was there, his hens dead, in company with tangles of lumber and thatch, fence posts and scoured saplings, a big, raggedy cut of wagon can­vas and a lidless coffin, the muddied panelling infested with yellow mould that glowed bright in the soft dawn light.

He sat up and brushed himself off, noticed a long cut on the inside of his forearm, but it wasn’t bad. If it was bad, deep, he might have bled to death while he lay there in the dark, half drowned. But it wasn’t and he didn’t. That was lucky.

He studied the coffin; reckoned sooner or later he’d have to take a look, in all probability stare rotting death in the face. A crow alighted on the rim, shuffled one way then the other, then hopped in, keen to join its companions. Sparrow saw a flurry of black wings as the disputatious gathering settled to its work.

There was a blood-soaked tear in his britches and a hungry leech on his thigh, like a small, fat velvet purse. He flicked the greedy little sucker onto the ground, took a twig and pierced it, watching his own blood spill out and colour the sand to russet.

In the shallows he scooped up a fragment of the Sydney Gazette, but the newspaper dissolved in his fingers as he tried to unfold the sodden sheet.

Sparrow surveyed the farms beyond the river, the flooded fields; wildfowl feeding on the flattened corn, flood-wrack washing seawards on the flow. He dropped to his knees and laved water onto the little puncture wound on his thigh and the cut on his arm. Quite why he did that he did not know for he was otherwise layered in muck all over.

Memories washed about inside his head dispelling some of the confusion – the lightning storm, the torrents of rain, the hen coop caught in the violent flow; wheat stacks coursing the river; the unremitting fury of the waters, crops awash, the bottoms gone; the exodus of reptiles; the dismal cries from distant quarters, the sound of muskets dangerously charged.

He got up and turned about, scanned the lowlands to the west, the mountains far off, full of mystery and foreboding, and full of promise too.

The sound: the ebbing tide, the pecking crows.

Sparrow stepped quietly from the water. Stood. Listened some more. He crossed the sand, took hold of the wagon sheet, heavy with wet, and edged towards the coffin until he could see the beaks spear­ing into that shrunken face riddled with wounds, a fledgling on the old man’s chest, pecking at his coffin suit. He did not hesitate, for their pleasure had filled him with an unfamiliar wrath and rendered him vengeful. He hurled the wagon sheet across the coffin. The cap­tive birds panicked and leapt into the cloth and flapped and squawked and leapt again, like hearts beating in some hideous thing.

Sparrow took hold of a heavy stick and began to beat the cloth with all his might. A wing appeared askew the panelling and he smashed at it and heard the creature scream. And he kept on just so, until the canvas lay sunken in the coffin and the birds were all but still, dead or dying, their frames faintly visible. He leant on the stick, suck­ing for breath, awaiting further movement in the coffin, watching as blood seeped into the cloth. The birds made a few pitiful sounds, now and then a ripple or a shudder or the flap of a wing.

Sparrow stood over the coffin until the cloth stopped moving. He looked west to the mountains. Tiredness took hold. ‘Maybe it’s true, maybe I don’t got the mettle,’ he said.

He crossed the sand, stood over his coop, dropped to his knees. His hens in death, his good, sweet, giving birds, were naught but a lumpy pile of dirty feathers and claws.

He reached into the coop and gently palmed his birds apart, set­tling his hand upon a muddied wing; recalled the signs: the lightning storm in that inky blackness over the mountains, the discolouration of the flow and the rapid rise of the river.

But the waters had receded, briefly – a most deceptive interval that filled Sparrow with a false notion of security and he had not then seized his opportunity. He had not got in his crop, not one ear of corn; nor had he got his scarce possessions off the floor of his hut, nor moved the coop to higher ground, thus condemning the hens to a most frightful expiration, such an end as filled Sparrow with dread for reasons he did not care to contemplate. For all that, he was truly sorry.

More than once Mortimer Craggs had told him to stop being sorry. ‘Sorry for this, sorry for that,’ said Mort. ‘You got to stop being sorry, Marty, you gotta stop forthwith and seize the dream, for therein lies our path to an unfettered liberty, y’foller me?’

Sparrow did not quite follow, but he’d said yes anyway for he did not want further badgering from Mort, who was a fierce badgerer and a most indiscriminately violent man once roused. Mort might well whack a man; or he might take a filleting knife and slit his nose. You never did know what Mort might do.

Sparrow felt the sun on his back at last. Once more he looked west across the water-logged lowlands to the foothills and thence the mountains. He recalled his last conversation with Mort Craggs, before Mort took off with Shug McCafferty, before they bolted for freedom.

‘I just ain’t ready to go,’ he’d said. He was uncertain as to why Mort had invited him to join the bolt, for they were not friends, just acquaintances, a lethal acquaintance dating back to the years of his youth in the village of Blackley on the river Irk.

‘I think you don’t got the mettle, Martin,’ said Mort, fingering the ridge of proud flesh on his cropped ear.

‘I have things to say to Biddie first,’ said Sparrow.

‘Forget the whore, there’s women on the other side, there’s a big river, there’s a village, women aplenty, copper-coloured beauties, the diligence of their affections something to behold.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Can’t say, not till you commit to the venture, swear a binding oath.’

‘I cannot swear an oath, binding or otherwise, not yet.’

The very idea of copper-coloured women on the other side of the mountains puzzled Sparrow, deeply. He was somewhat lost for a per­spective on this startling infomation. ‘Like the Otahetians?’ he said.

‘No, nothin’ like them and I can say no more Marty, not another word.’

And that was the last conversation he’d had with Mort Craggs.

Sparrow had to wonder if perhaps his yearning for Biddie Happ was a foolish dream. If it was not a foolish dream before the flood it most likely was now. His thirty-acre patch was swamped, his corn crib gone, his corn crop flat in the mud, the wildfowl, the borers and the mould most likely hard at work this very day. His hut might well be gone too, lost to the flood. His hens were dead, he was deep in hock, mostly to Alister Mackie, and would have to beg for seed for another crop and that meant more hock, regardless of the weather to come. In short, it was now most unlikely that Biddie would see any chance of elevat­ing her prospects by joining with him, Martin Sparrow, former felon, time-expired convict, failed farmer on the flood-prone bottoms of the Hawkesbury River. Fool of a man.

He sat on the sand, bowed his head and ran his fingers down his forehead, over the faint indentations that continued onto his eyelids and cheeks, the all but faded scars that folk took to be the remnants of small pox.

He tried to sort his pictorial thoughts. That wasn’t easy with Biddie presenting herself in one instant and the copper-coloured beauties in the next. ‘I should have gone with Mort,’ he said aloud. He thought about the birthmark on Biddie’s face, the mark she tried to hide with that lovely sweep of hair, pinned just so. He wondered if copper-coloured women ever got birthmarks. As to that, he just didn’t know. The mysteries, numberless.

2

Alister Mackie sipped his Hai Seng tea, treading the porch boards by the tavern door, treading to waken his bones as the pale grey light of dawn brought the distant mountains into view and the mass of hud­dled humanity on the village square came to life, the refugees from the flood stirring from makeshift tents on rickety frames, tattered paniers lumpy with tools and keepsakes, waifs bedded in carts and barrows, piglets trussed and tumbled in the mud, game dogs on tethers and crated fowls crooning their disquiet.

He held the mug in his two hands, sniffed at the steam com­ing off the brew, searching the scene: the double guard on the stone granary and the commissariat store; soldiers by the barracks door in various measures of infantry undress; washerwomen in and out of the washhouse; the butcher, busy on his scaffold, a hundred pounds of pork on the hook; the little church, the smithy, the stone gaol. The village they called Prominence.

The drudge called Fish joined Mackie on the porch. He wiped his hands on his apron. ‘You want I take the mug?’ he said.

Mackie handed him the mug.

‘They’re hammered, like castaways, every last one of them,’ said Fish.

‘They are, yes.’

‘I seen floods, but I never seen a flood like this one.’

‘Nor I.’

‘Here and there the tops of trees, otherwise an ocean.’

‘Yes.’

Mackie stepped off the porch. He weaved his way through the bivouac to the commissariat store on the far side of the square and from there he followed the ridgeline past the granary to the top of the switchback path, where he paused by the doctor’s cabin to scrutinise the work of the floodwaters below. The government garden, gone, an acre of greens torn from the slope as if scythed away by some pale rider’s mighty blade; the cottages on the terrace, squat and sodden, the weatherboard swollen and warped. Felons in the shallows, gathering up the ruins of the wharf, the guards perched on their haunches.

Mackie joined his constables, Thaddeus Cuff and Dan Sprodd, at the foot of the switchback path and together they stepped from spongy duckboards into the shallows and clambered aboard the government sloop. Packing away the mooring lines, they drifted into the current and settled at their ease. A light westerly, a port tack, the wind and the tide obliging.

Cuff patted the planking beneath the rowlock, looking up into the big gaff rig as the sail took the wind. ‘This tub reminds me of Betty Pepper,’ he said. ‘Deceptive quickness in stout disguise, charms you’d never guess first off.’

He glanced back at the cottages on the terrace and there she was, Bet, watching them go; her porch strewn with soaked possessions, the high-water mark like a dirty wainscot on the cottage wall. The young strumpet Biddie Happ was there too, squaring a muddied rug on a makeshift line. Cuff raised his hat and Bet responded with a curt swish of her hand and took a broom and set to sweeping the mud off her porch. Biddie patted at the swathe of red hair that covered the birthmark on her face.

‘They’ll miss me,’ said Cuff, ‘they cannot help themselves.’ He grabbed the wicker handles on a gallon glass demijohn, upended it, took a swig, then another, and then he passed the receptacle to Dan Sprodd.

Sprodd took a swig and passed it back to Cuff who took another swig, knowing it would aggravate the chief constable.

‘Hardly underway, you set a fine example, Thaddeus,’ said Mackie.

‘Thank you!’ said Cuff.

‘You should ration that.’ Mackie wagged a finger at him.

‘I don’t go with the shoulds, the shoulds are a tyranny. I see no joy in rationing bang-head, or anything else for that matter,’ said Cuff.

‘Americans take their liberties very seriously,’ said Sprodd, as if Mackie was sorely in need of the information.

‘Indeed, we do!’ said Cuff.

‘As do I,’ said Mackie.

‘I’ll tell you now, spirits put clout and vigour in a man. You’ll get honest toil from a pint of bang-head, miracles of effort from a quart.’

‘That or the fatal dysenteries!’

Cuff quite liked the sound of the chief ’s lowland brogue but it was too early to argue with any persistence. Sleepiness, briefly, had the better of his contrarian temperament. ‘Hear that Dan?’ he said, ‘We are not to be trusted with the drink; we, the meritorious constabulary.’