Friday, January 30, 2009

Grabbing traditions that the Left have not yet managed to destroy

Please forgive me for starting with an enormous cliche but: "Man is a social animal". And that observation underlies some further remarks that I want to make about group belonging and connectedness to others generally. I have of course written at length on that before and pointed out the paradox that conservatives -- who very much respect individualism and individual liberty -- are also the ones who are most at ease with being members of a group -- such as a nation -- where pride in group membership is of course called patriotism. Being human, Leftists too have such a need but their miserable and constant criticism of the world about them normally inhibits their feelings of group membership. So when they do find a group that they approve of they go completely overboard -- as with Obamania or Nazism.

And the constant Leftist accusation that any group loyalty is "racism" has inhibited or even destroyed some of the group loyalties that people once felt. I don't blame my readers for being unaware of it but particularly ethical or generous behavior was in the early 20th century often referred to by the English as "white". "That's very white of you" was once a great compliment and expression of appreciation. Yes. People were once proud of being white. These days that is a huge no-no, of course. Black pride is great but white pride is now allegedly an unmitigated evil. Even though the people who defeated Hitler were in fact overwhelmingly -- white.

And where shreds of the old group loyalties have survived Leftist attack, it is remarkable how popular they are. People need such things so they grab what is left. And I want to give three examples of that -- all largely from my own experience but not solely so.

The first is ANZAC day. ANZAC day is a great Australian tradition. It commemorates the landing of Australian soldiers under British command in Northern Turkey during WWI. Due to typical British military bungling, it was a disaster but the heroism of the troops in their parlous situation was widely reported and admired. And the anniversary of that landing is now Australia's most significant national day. It is the day on which we remember our many war dead and there are traditions about how we do that. A central tradition is the dawn service. The original ANZAC troops went ashore at dawn and at that very time their sacrifice is honoured to this day. A service is always held at a local war memorial or cenotaph at that time. And certain traditional words are said there at that time too.

So who goes to these services? Old guys who still remember their war service? They do indeed. But lots of young people go too. They sense a great national tradition and they grasp it eagerly. And although the original ANZAC troops are now long dead, the crowds at the commemorative services are bigger than ever. It is to this day a great day of Australian pride and undoubtedly Australia's most solemn day of celebration. It goes from strength to strength. There have been Leftist attempts to mock it but such attempts have been like water off a duck's back. A book mocking it was in fact for a time a set text in many Australian schools but even that did not succeed at working the usual Leftist destruction.

And my second example is much more mundane but in a way more amazing. To understand how amazing you need to know what the Scots and the English think of one another. It is not good. Tolerance describes it but there is not much more than that. And sometimes even the tolerance breaks down. Old memories going back to the 13th century die hard, amazingly enough. Yet at my last Burns Night -- an ineradicable and unashamed Scottish celebration of great sentimentality -- I had several English-born guests present -- with attitudes to all things Scottish that were typically English. They didn't even really like the pipes (bagpipe music)! Yet I started the night by distributing the words of "Scotland the Brave" and asking everyone to sing it. It is of course a great patriotic and very sentimental Scottish song so I was mildly surprised that my English guests sang it with as much gusto as anyone else. They "got into it" as well as anyone else.

And that is not just something from my own social circle. It was recently reported that there were in fact this year more Burns Night celebrations -- always highly ritualized and traditional occasions -- in England than there were in Scotland! Such is the need for old customs and unashamed feelings of connectedness and uniting in something significant.

And then there is Australia day. Australia day was for a long time more an official holiday than a people's holiday. Australians are in general patriotic but not ostentatiously so. The day commemorates the first landing of British settlers in Australia on Jan. 26, 1788. Leftists fume about it of course and say it should be renamed "Invasion day" because there were already at the time black people living in Australia. And Greenies think it is a tragedy too -- because of the "damage" the white settlers did to the natural landscape. So on the Australia Day just past there was a call to move the day of celebration to some other date -- a call which our centre-Left Prime Minister firmly rejected. He has good political instincts.

The interesting thing about Australia day, however is that HAS now become a people's holiday. As mainstream Australians have been fed -- in the schools and from the media -- a steady diet of white guilt and how wonderful blacks and Muslims are, the more they have turned to celebrating their own identity and history. And Australia day is an opportunity for that. It is now common on Australia day to see cars on the road with one or more Australian flags fluttering from them. Various organizations actually hand them out for that purpose. That never used to be the case. And even Australians of East Asian origin (of whom Australia has many) sometimes get into the spirit and wear Australian symbols -- such as the flag -- on their clothing. They see no problems with what the British wrought here and are glad to be Australians. So the Leftist attack on Australian patriotism has in fact energized it and made it an occasion for coming together. I gave an extended coverage of the Australia day just past on my AUSTRALIAN POLITICS blog.

Just a very small point to end up with: In my childhood I was often told in tones of awe and reverence that my great-grandfather was in the Black Watch. So what is the Black Watch? Basically, it is just another Scottish regiment in the British army. But it isn't just that. It is the Black Watch and you have to have traditional Scottish feelings and knowledge of history to understand that. Being in the Black Watch is REAL belongingness, a source of pride and honour.

And I DO like haggis! As I have already mentioned, there is a small account on my personal blog of my most recent Burns Night -- for what slight interest it may have.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Some of my best friends are Jews"

There are some politically active people in the Melbourne Jewish community and I do what I can to circulate their material when I can. One of their movers and shakers, Ralph Zwier, has recently written a small article on the old, old controversy about people saying "Some of my best friends are Jews". That remark is, rather paradoxically, usually interpreted as indicating that the person uttering it is antisemitic. So although Ralph and I have had an amicable and frequent correspondence for some time, you can understand why I would never dare to call him one of my best friends!

But isn't that a bit paradoxical? What are genuinely philosemitic people supposed to say? Are they supposed to say: "None of my best friends are Jews"? There is actually an answer to that in the Bible. I find it in three of the Proverbs of Solomon the Wise: "He who flatters a man spreads a net for his feet" (Proverbs 29:5 R.S.V.); "Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy" (Proverbs 27: 6. R.S.V.); "He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favour than he who flatters with his tongue" (Proverbs 28: 23 R.S.V.). In short, a true friend is CRITICAL, but constructively so. So by that standard I think I stand up rather well, in that I have on several occasions (e.g. here) remarked that Jews as a whole tend to be politically stupid and have endeavoured to point to wiser paths that they might follow.

But that does that wash? I perfectly understand that many Jews might see me as being simply impertinent and ignorant. So is it the case that Gentiles are damned whether they speak either good or ill of Jews? Nearly but not quite. Ralph Zwier's point is that antisemites say things which indicate that they have BENEFITED from Jews. the obvious corollary is that a real philosemite would actually do things the other way around: He would do things that benefit Jews rather than seeking benefits FROM Jews. And I think that is a completely commonsense observation. My way of supporting the Jewish community is to defend Israel in any way I can and to donate to Israeli charities. And, Yes, I do have some Jewish friends whom I value greatly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Names, names, names

Personal names are rather an interest of mine. I find them revealing. They tell me a lot about people's background. When I hear surnames like Kerkorian or Krikorian or Khachaturian I know, for instance, that the person is of Armenian origin. And a Hryniuk or a Gavrishchuk is of Ukrainian origin etc. The "ian" or the "uk" endings tell the story.

So it bugs me a little when people change their surnames. I think a Robert Zimmerman who calls himself Bob Dylan is perpetrating an imposture, for instance. Why pretend to be Welsh when you are an Ashkenazi American?

OK. I know that there are sometimes good reasons to change your name. I knew a guy of Greek origin once whose surname was Drakakis. He changed it to "Drake" on the grounds that his original name sounded like something you got on your shoe if you walked along the street without looking where you were going. Greeks in fact seem to the the keenest name changers. Spiro Agnostopoulos became Spiro Agnew before he became vice-president of the United States and Jennifer Aniston would be Jennifer Anastassakis except for a name change. I actually don't mind Greek surnames. "Haralambopoulos" sounds delightfully absurd (I wonder what it means?) and I had a thoroughly admirable friend years ago named Panayotis Kokkinidis. Can you get more Greek than that? He somehow seems to have ended up in Vietnam these days, of all places. They are lucky to have him.

Another interesting thing is what Christian names say about social class. American blacks, for instance often devise quite "creative" names for their children in an apparent effort to say something good about the progeny concerned. But it doesn't. Such names simply say "black" -- and, with all due apologies, that is NOT prestigious.

In British and Australian circles, the most authoritative arbiters of good taste are of course the Royal Family and, with names like Charles, Edward, Andrew, Anne, Margaret, Elizabeth, Harry and William, I think the message is clear -- that they prefer traditional names. In the circumstances I note with some satisfaction that an old friend of mine named his sons Tom and Bill -- and my son is Joe. There is a similar message about Christian names here, in an article from "The Times" of London.

I must admit, however, that my mother got a bit carried away. She named her sons John and Christopher, which is fine, but she named her daughters Jacqueline and Roxanne -- French names. But the Australian love of abbreviations defeated any grand ambitions. My late sister Jacqueline was always known in the family as "Jack" and the fine husband of my gorgeous sister Roxanne generally refers to her as "Rock"!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A defender of hopeless causes?

I think there is a saint for hopeless causes. I will have to look him up and shoot him a prayer. I think I need him.

My mother told me once that when I was a kid and she asked me if I had done something naughty I would always admit that I had. She said that I was so honest that she never had the heart to punish me. I sometimes wonder if that honesty is a curse. It sure gets me into a lot of trouble. I am always blowing the whistle on popular beliefs that I can see to be wrong -- as my GREENIE WATCH and FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC blogs attest. If I went with the flow, I would have a lot more fame and fortune, I think. But I do pretty well anyway. My latest bit of skepticism is:

"Some people even believe that William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll"

And I am sure that we can all remember Bob Dylan (aka Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham) singing that accusation in his nasal voice. But as far as I can see, Zantzinger was innocent. "Zantzinger" is a marvellous name to conjure with (Dylan even invented a "diamond ring finger" to rhyme with it) so no wonder Dylan was tempted but even Dylan's biographer says that the song was a libel:
The Dylan song followed him around his whole life, though he steadfastly refused to talk about it with reporters. In 2001 Bob Dylan biographical Howard Sounes actually got a quote out of him. "[Dylan] is a no-account song a bitch," Zantzinger said. "He's just like a scum bag of the earth. I should have sued him and put him in jail. [The song is] a total lie." Clinton Heylin - perhaps the world's authority on all things Dylan - seems to agree. "Dylan's concern was not the fact themselves but how they might fit with his preconceived notions of injustice and corruption," he wrote in Behind The Shades. "That the song itself is a masterpiece of drama and wordplay does not excuse Dylan's distortions, and 36 years on he continues to misrepresent poor William Zantzinger in concert."

What actually happened seems to be that Zantzinger was drunk after a celebration and did insult the lady and tap her on the shoulder with a toy cane but that did not kill her. She died several hours later of her chronic medical condition: hypertension, arteriosclerosis and a burst cerebral aneurism -- a "stroke" in popular parlance. Zantzinger was convicted of manslaughter because his actions were deemed to have brought on the stroke but that is speculation. Clearly, if the woman had been in normal health, nothing would have happened. So the light sentence Zantzinger received reflected his very low level of culpability rather than anything more sinister. If the court had really been "racist" or even fair, it would not have convicted him of anything at all. And Zantzinger's continued good standing in his community can also be seen as a judgement about his innocence rather than as evidence of "racism" Who among us has not committed indiscretions while drunk?

Hey! Aren't the Lefty whiners who monitor me going to love this one! I wrote the last sentence above ("Who among us...) with them in mind. They will surely use it as a summary of what I say about Zantzinger. Leftists love to quote out of context. The whole truth is generally too destructive of their simplistic ideas. I should have mentioned previously that my fellow Brisbane conservative blogger Leon Bertrand gives the whiners concerned a hard time occasionally.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Are Jews a nation?

I am feeling rather ill today so may not post as much as usual but despite that I am immediately drawn to renew my discussion with Punditarian -- who has just written a long post in support of his contention that Jews are a "nation". I am at something of a loss to know why that seems important to him -- "ethnic group" is the normal appellation -- but I will comment nonetheless. "Ethnic group" is certainly vague and uninformative.

I have been careful thoughout all I have said on this matter to avoid placing any importance on race, for what I hope are obvious reasons. But I hope I might be forgiven for using another "dangerous" word: Volk. Punditarian strayed into Latin and Greek in his comments so I hope I can be forgiven for straying into German. And I think Ashkenazi Jews could be seen as a Volk. Volk is a "dangerous" word because it was a central concept for Hitler. Though the old East German Communists used it a lot too. Contrary to what many seem to think, it does NOT mean race. The German word for race is Rasse and Karl Marx in fact simply used the English spelling: "race", even though he was writing in German. So when Hitler described Germans as a Herrenvolk, he was calling them a "master PEOPLE", not a master race. Yet Volk means rather more than the English word "people". I have written rather extensively here on the translation of the word but let me try to summarize here by saying that it does overlap a little with the concept of race in that it describes a group of interrelated and interconnected people, a sort of extended family. And I think that their weak endogamy does make Ashkenazi Jews a Volk in that sense. It seems a pity that, despite their extensive borrowings from other languages, the English never seem to have found a use for Volk, even though it is in various spellings found in quite a few European languages. It is both a very ancient and a very useful word.

And the word comes into its own in describing two groups that Punditarian mentions. He argues that throughout the 19th century Italians and Germans were "nations" even though they were not under any kind of central rule until late in that century. There were many small German-speaking states but no Germany as a single political entity, for instance. I would argue however that Germans were always a Volk but only became a nation in the 1870s. Volk is certainly the word that Germans of the time used for themselves. The words "nation" and "national" are identical in English and German and are used similarly. And what Germans wanted to do for most of the 19th century was to unite their Volk into a single Nation. And under Bismarck, they just about managed it -- though Bismarck's strategic omission of Austria from the new German nation was grumbled about by many as a Kleindeutsch (little Germany) solution. A later German leader remedied that omission to much acclaim, of course.

Punditarian raises the case of Nigeria, with its disparate tribal mix and says that Nigeria is not a nation because of the hostility between its composite tribes. I am going to be a bit cheeky here and remark that by that standard Israel is not a nation either, with its Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Druze, Arabs etc. Without an external threat Israel would fly apart in a trice. But be that as it may, I think Volk again clarifies the situation. Nigerians are not a Volk but they ARE normally called a nation. And Israel too is a nation composed of several Voelker. The Ashkenazim and the Sephardim are certainly not a single Volk, though they could become one through intermarriage.

A final point which Punditarian touches on is however very important. Christians define their religion in terms of accepting certain BELIEFS. Jews tend to define their religion as accepting certain PRACTICES -- practices set down in halacha (Jewish law). So in that way even an atheist could be a Jew in good standing as long as he kept kosher etc. And I think that gives power to my contention about the centrality of religion in defining Jewishness. As Punditarian himself argues, Jews have remained Jews by way of their distinctive practices, and those practices define a religion.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Although we never normally think of him that way, Dickens may be the second most influential Leftist after Marx. His storytelling ability enthralls us to this day and is for almost all of us the only picture we have of the 19th century -- and a dismal picture it is. Dickens portrayed the worst of his times, not the average or the typical but we tend to accept his verbal pictures as typical. And the the situations that Dickens described were so bad that the word "Dickensian" has come to mean oppressive, uncaring and inhuman. His novels were, however, political propaganda. Surprisingly, England in the Victorian era had a social welfare system that was both fairly comprehensive and independent of the government.

Even in the modern era of universal government welfare payments we can still find people living in "Dickensian" conditions -- for one obvious instance, the Australian Aborigines. All systems have some weaknesses and concentrating on the worst cases tells us nothing about how well the system works as a whole. A modern-day Dickens could equally well describe terrible situations caused by the actions of heartless government employees. See SOCIALIZED MEDICINE for just some examples of that. So let us now look briefly at what history tells us about the Victorian system rather than at what the novels of Dickens tell us about it:

There were two main sources of social security in Victorian England: The parish and the Friendly Societies. The parish system is the one Dickens concentrated on but it was in fact the Friendly Societies that were more important. We still have many of the Friendly Societies with us to this day. Most Australians will have heard of Manchester Unity, The Oddfellows, The Druids and various other societies. These days just about all they provide is health insurance but in the Victorian era their functions were much broader. They also provided unemployment insurance, widows benefits, funeral benefits and various social functions. In the Victorian era a skilled worker would normally join a Friendly Society associated with his work, his town or his religion. If no other Society suited him he could join the Oddfellows. When he joined, he signed up to pay a weekly subscription to the society out of his wages. In return the Society covered him for most of the problems of daily life. If he got sick he went for free to the Society's doctor or a doctor that the Society had an agreement with. If he got really sick he could be admitted for free to a hospital run or approved by the Society. If he became unemployed he would receive a weekly payment from the Society to keep him going. If he died, his widow would be looked after. So ordinary workers in the Victorian era in fact had quite a high level of social welfare benefits -- all privately provided without any involvement by the government.

Some people, however, fell outside the Friendly Society system by reason of being too poor or too foolish to join. For these there was the parish system of poorhouses and workhouses. This was a system whereby the local parish of the Church of England gave charity to the poor so that nobody need be without shelter or food. It provided only the most basic food and shelter and did nothing to make poverty comfortable but it did make sure that everybody was provided for in some way. It was in that system that Oliver Twist was portrayed by Dickens as asking for "more please", implying that the people in it were not well fed. About that, though, we read:
Doctors writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) say they have uncovered the gruel truth behind the Victorian workhouse. Charles Dickens, they contend, was exaggerating when he portrayed Oliver Twist and other orphans driven to the brink of starvation by a miserly diet of watery porridge. In fact, the food provided under 1834 Poor Law Act, which set up workhouses for the destitute poor in mid-19th-century Britain, was dreary but there was plenty of it and the diet was nutritious enough for children of Oliver's age, their paper says.

In Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote, the orphans were given "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday." On feast days, according to the novel, the inmates received an extra two and a quarter ounces (64 grams) of bread.

Four medical experts, with skills ranging from nutrition to paediatrics and the history of medicine, say such a diet would have killed or crippled the children, inflicting anaemia, scurvy, rickets and other diseases linked to vitamin deficiency. They took a closer look at the actual historical record, sifting through contemporary documents and even replicating the gruel that workhouse children most likely had.

One important source for their research was a treatise by a physician, Jonathan Pereira. He wrote it in 1843, five years after Dickens completed "Oliver Twist" and ignited a furious debate about the workhouses. Pereira found that the local boards of the guardians of the poor had a choice of six "workhouse dietaries", one of which they could choose according to the circumstances of each establishment. On the basis of Pereira's figures, using a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th-century English cook book, the authors calculate Oliver would have had around three pints (1.76 litres) of gruel per day, comprising 3.75 ounces (106 grams) of top-quality oatmeal from Berwick, Scotland. Far from being thin, the gruel would have been "substantial," the authors say.

This would not have been the only source of food. Pereira details "considerable amounts" of beef and mutton that were delivered to individual London workhouses. "The diet described by Dickens would not have supported health and growth in a nine-year-old child, but the published workhouse diets would have generally met that need," the BMJ paper says. "Given the limited number of food staples used, the workhouse diet was certainly dreary but it was adequate."

The authors add a caveat, saying that this assumption is made on the basis that inmates actually received the quantity and quality of food prescribed, but Pereira's book suggests this was generally the case.

Such a system was sometimes no doubt heartless and could be abused and it was episodes of heartlessness and abuse that Dickens portrayed -- and which he moved his middle-class readers to "improve". Attempting to improve the Victorian system, however destroyed it. As one commentator acerbically observes:
In effect, the bourgeoisie declared war on their underlings, and tried to improve them out of existence. Their weapons in this war were 'a national system of education, a state system of welfare, public housing schemes and, later on, a state system of hospitals, a comprehensive system of National Insurance and much else besides.' These might not all sound like unmitigated evils to LRB readers, but Mount does a spirited job of pointing to the ways in which all of these structures were imposed on top of previously existing working-class vehicles for self-help. In one of the most original sections of Mind the Gap, he evokes a thriving culture of schools, Sunday schools, reading rooms, Nonconformist religion, collective insurance and trade unions. 'It is not too much to say that the lower classes in Britain between 1800 and 1940 had created a remarkable civilisation of their own which it is hard to parallel in human history: narrow-minded perhaps, prudish certainly, occasionally pharisaical, but steadfast, industrious, honourable, idealistic, peaceable and purposeful.'

And then this civilisation was dismantled. To take only one of a number of Mount's examples, the extensive culture of privately run working-class schools was destroyed by the board-schools founded by the 1870 Education Act, which were not free, but were effectively subsidised to a point where they put their private competitors out of business. All of this was part of a process in which 'the working classes are firmly tagged as the patients, never the agents.'

So any system can be abused and can fail and there is no doubt that the present system of government welfare that we have is also often heartless and is also often abused. The main difference between then and now is that the present system is more generous. Our unemployed get more spent on them. Our society today is however much richer than the England of Victorian times so the more generous provisions of the present era would probably have occurred under any system.

Child labour
The plight of child labourers in Victorian Britain is not usually considered to have been a happy one. Writers such as Charles Dickens painted a grim picture of the hardships suffered by young people in the mills, factories and workhouses of the Industrial Revolution. But an official report into the treatment of working children in the 1840s, made available online yesterday for the first time, suggests the situation was not so bad after all.

The frank accounts emerged in interviews with dozens of youngsters conducted for the Children's Employment Commission. The commission was set up by Lord Ashley in 1840 to support his campaign for reducing the working hours of women and children.

Surprisingly, a number of the children interviewed did not complain about their lot -- even though they were questioned away from their workplace and the scrutinising eyes of their employers.

Sub-commissioner Frederick Roper noted in his 1841 investigation of pre-independence Dublin's pin-making establishments: "Notwithstanding their evident poverty ... there is in their countenances an appearance of good health and much cheerfulness."

A report on workers at a factory in Belfast found a 14-year-old boy who earned four shillings a week "would rather be doing something better ... but does not dislike his current employment". The report concluded: "I find all in this factory able to read, and nearly all to write. They are orderly, appear to be well-behaved, and to be very contented."


So once again we see that the Dickensian portrayal of something is at least questionable.

Happy people?

It is notable that contented, successful people (Podsnap, Gradgrind) are portrayed most unfavourably by Dickens. This too is Leftist. As noted conservative historian Russell Kirk quoted Bagehot as saying: "Conservatism is enjoyment". The converse is however more familiar: Leftists are miserable sods always complaining about something. They have a pervasive hatred of the world around them. And that, presumably, is why Dickens and many other literary figures are Leftist. Just as newspapers do well on accounts of disasters, so tales of suffering, unhappiness and escape from oppression sell novels. As Bagehot also said: "All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality - the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape." Conservatives, of course are not so driven. They see plenty to criticize in the world but are generally content just to get on with their own lives rather than constantly striving to tear down "the system". (More brilliant Bagehot quotes here)

Let me say just a few words about Mr Podsnap (in "Our Mutual Friend"). Read how Dickens describes him here. It is a classic piece of Leftist poison, where Mr Podsnap's contentment with himself and the world about him is completely transmogrified. Podsnap can literally do nothing right. Even his patriotism is portrayed as ignorant -- something that anticipated modern Leftism. And Podsnap's success in business seems to be just somehow accidental -- with no suggestion that Podsnap may work hard and intelligently at what he does. The Leftists of academe whom I know so well think exactly that way about business to this day. And even Mr Podsnap's furniture is ridiculed. And there is of course no suggestion that solid citizens like Mr Podsnap keep the world on an even keel. Leftists don't want the world kept on an even keel. Their ideal is revolution -- with all the hate-driven indifference to human life that that normally entails.

So let us not get a false picture of the evil capitalistic 19th century from Dickens's brilliant propaganda. The 19th century was in fact second only to the 20th century for the improvements it brought to the lives of ordinary English people.