Reading about the Greek fiscal crisis has been unavoidable, and I have also been reading biography of H. L. Mencken. That is a dangerous combination. Menckenium is a dangerous substance in the hands of an amateur like me. What would HL make of this? Polemic and invective, these were his fission and fusion.

He would excoriate all those saps who feel sorry for Greece, which, after all, sold government bonds with sovereign guarantees to European, American, and Australian banks. The money that the banks paid for those bonds went somewhere. Where did it go? Come back little Euros, all is forgiven. Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Imagine the outcry at the time if those banks had refused to buy Greek government bonds on the grounds that it was not likely repay the money! Those now wrapped in Greek flags would have screamed for the banks to buy those bonds! 'Our sovereign guarantees are as good as anyone else’s,' they would have cried! The isms would have filled the air: racism, nationalism, stupidism.

There would have been protests on Syntagma Square, demanding that the bonds be bought just like those of….,, er, Portugal, Enron, Spain, and Italy.

Those around the world who now inflate their egos by feeling sorry for Greece instead of thinking, would have rallied to the Greek cause. So much for the pathetic claim that predatory lending was somehow at the root. When I read that I laughed louder than at Donald Trump, and that is saying something! (This man brings his own fright-whig. A trouper for sure.)

Then there is the perfectly idiotic claim that the money need not be paid, because after all the creditors are B A N K S!

People are important. Banks are not people. Greeks are people. Therefore Greeks win!

What kind of thinking is this? A kindergarten syllogism? My dog is capable of more complex reasoning than this.

As Angela Merkel has said many times the lending banks were investing pension funds in sovereign bonds, a conservative investment with a low rate of return but very secure; that’s why it is called sovereign debt. That is what most pension funds do, opt for high security at the price of a low rate of return.

Indeed, I have seen the point made in a German newspaper that one of the pension funds exposed to Greek debt has a great many retired Turkish immigrants on its books. It turns out Turks who have worked in Germany have no desire to write-off Greek debts. So much for the supposition that banks are inhuman constructions of the aliens among us. [Their are aliens among us, to be sure, and they are hiding in plain sight on Fox News. Look at those mutated little fingers! (You either get it, or you don't. No explanations are offered.)]

Somewhere along the way I noticed the assertion that the Greek government could not repay the debt since Greek voters had voted against it. Talk about a stacked deck! If I could vote against paying the house mortgage, let me at that lever! Ooops, too late, already repaid with interest. I will side with Aristotle on this one, when he says in ‘The Politics’ that a new regime had best honour the debts of the old regime.

Then there are arguments from authority. An old favourite in the classroom. ‘A Nobel Prize winning economists says thus and so….’ and that must be the final word. Hmm. This particular Nobel winner has a track record of one blunder after another since the Prize went to his mouth. He is displacing Linus Pauling’s record for the most embarrassing gaffes by a Nobel Prize winner.

Finally, the very first claim the Greeks made, which is still coded in the reactions, is that Germans are all Nazis and to hell with them! Nothing Germans say is reported on the BBC or the ABC websites. Facts are unnecessary with reactions are so ready. ‘They can afford to pay, so let them pay.’ Really? This is too imbecilic to merit a response. Well, maybe a little response: that many of the purchases of bonds were laid off to other banks in the United States, Latin America, and yes, little old, Australia. Those who want higher mortgage rates, put those hands up now!

Greek-debt deniers line-up with climate-change deniers, Catholic Church pedophile deniers, Aboriginal-slavey deniers, Holocaust deniers, and Flat-Earthers.

Where will this all end. I dunno. But I do know that Italy, Spain, and Portugal are waiting in the wings. Any concession Greece gets, they, too, will want it and retrospective is just fine.

Meanwhile, Great Britain has learned for another generation or two the importance of staying out of the Euro and Europe.

Full circle comes around to the question of where all those Euros went in the first place. No one seems to be interested in pursuing this matter. I do hope some of them were salted away in Cyprus! Where…hocus, pocus they disappeared to the Russian mafia when it bought the island.

Reducing complex matters to simple slogans, and demonizing others, that is civilised debate.

To the H. L. Mencken in me, this is all a laughing matter, like religion, democracy, and the ABC’s effort at news-reporting, but the last time a Greek government had a financial crisis of its own making, in order to distract attention from that, it started a war with Turkey in Cyprus.

Seeing the rowdy scenes in parliament in Athens and the endless protests in Syntagma Square in front, makes me wonder what the generals are thinking. They are all Maoists at heart: order grows out of the barrel of a gun, said the Great Helmsman, while slaying his countrymen by the millions and becoming a hero to twerps in the West.

I hesitated to write this because I supposed I would earn a torrent of abuse from those rushing for a selfie atop the barricades, but then I realised, none of these people would bother to read it anyway. Just to make sure they did not read it, I did not include any graphics.

Why write it then? All bloggers know the answer to that: Because it is there.

George W Norris (1861-1944) of McCook Nebraska did much to make the United States what it became. He represented the third district in Congress for ten years, winning five elections, and then went to the United States Senate where he served five terms, thirty years.

Norris cover.jpg Published in 2013.

He supported and championed liberal and progressive causes, as did so many of his fellow Republicans in the era of Teddy Roosevelt, but if Republicans changed, Norris did not.

He left his mark in three distinct ways, one in Nebraska and the other two nationally.

1.During World War I the Federal government built a cataract of dams and power stations in northern Alabama at Muscle Shoals to produce munitions. At the end of the war, the assumption was that it would sold off for a few dollars to commercial interest who would exploit.

But why should a private corporation reap the benefit of the immense public investment in the complex, asked George Norris who then introduced a bill to have the Federal government operate the complex as a public utility.

This was socialism, cried the business interests, which grudging lifted the offered purchasing price. Norris lobbied hard, bombarded the press with facts and figures, during the Coolidge administration, and, because his opponents underestimated him, he secured a majority vote for his bill in the Senate. The first time it passed, it then died in conference committee with the House of Representatives.

Norris in Congress.jpg George W Norris

Norris was seasoned and he knew that it would be a long road, so he was ready in the Hoover administration with a second bill, re-worded but with the same effect, and it, too, passed, and this time it passed the through the conference committee and went to the president who dealt it a pocket veto.

When Norris presented his third version, Franklin Roosevelt was president, and Muscles Shoals became the first brick in the Tennessee Valley Authority. The hue and cry over the TVA raged for years but it came to be. See ‘The Wild River’ (1960) for the humane side of the TVA.

TVA map.gif The TVA

2. That the electricity produced by the damns sustained the second major theme of Norris’s career, Rural Electrification. That, too, was denounced as communism. Readers of ‘Sad Irons’ by Robert Caro know just how revolutionary electricity was in the lives of untold millions. This, too, was denounced as a Communist plot, along with fluoride in the water.

Few will realise how stoutly the advance of Rural Electrification was resisted. The arguments against it are the old chestnuts much in use today about the evils of big government and the corruption of the flesh by easy living. Having electricity on tap would sap the vital energies of the people, and thereby lay them open to ever greater repression conveyed by radio propaganda….. Yadda, yadda, yadda said the Ann Coulters of the day.

3. The Nebraska element is the unicameral legislature that remains unique among the fifty states. Norris had seen in Lincoln and in Washington how the two houses of a legislature work and arrived at a counter intuitive conclusion. The more representative the houses, the less representative was the legislation. Already this is too hard for an ABC journalist out to demonise someone.

Invariably the two houses would pass bills that differed from each other and these two versions would have to be reconciled in a conference committee, typically of five individuals. This is standard operating procedure, and it is still is. This reconciliation goes on beyond closed doors an is usually reported to the two houses in a list of items at the close of session without debate or fanfare.

Norris had seen legislature completely changed by a conference committee of five. The greater the volume of legislation, the more was delegated to conference committees, the less oversight there was applied to them.

He started a one-man campaign for a unicameral legislature and he kicked off in Hastings on Platte to reform the Nebraska state legislature by making it unicameral to squeeze out of existence this process of the conference committee. In a one-house legislature, he reasoned, all business would have to be done in the house, i.e., in public.

He upped the ante by also insisting that this unicameral be non-partisan. His proposals offended both political parties and the Hearst Press, the ‘Omaha World Herald,’ which thundered against this double-edged communist proposal: doing the public business in public!

State-Capitol-Building-a-Lincoln-NE-2012-11-02_1200x797.jpg

Against this mighty array of forces, Norris had two even more powerful allies: The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

These catastrophes convinced many that things had to change. Business as usual was inadequate to either of these challenges. In a 1934 referendum Nebraska adopted a non-partisan unicameral legislature. The monumental state capital building, only recently completed, had allowed for a second smaller, upper house which then became used for, among other things, the venue for auditioning contestants in a state-song contest. Ever practical those sons of the soil are on the Great Plans.

By 1936 Norris was persona non grata in the Republican Party and he ran for re-election as an independent. Norris won then, but in 1942 lost to a real Republican, Kenneth Wherry, who is perhaps best remembered for anticipating Ann Coulter in claiming that all homosexuals were subversives and perhaps the other way around, too. Wherry is accorded all honours the Republican Hall of Fame and Norris is absent entirely.

28 Jul

‘Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken’ (1951 [1986]) by William Manchester

‘Voltaire in Baltimore,’ said one admirer of the iconoclastic H. L. Mencken (1880-1956).

When I moved the copy of ‘The Creed of the Sage of Baltimore’ on my office pin-board a few weeks ago to re-arrange things, I posted it on Facebook. Doing that reminded me I had read William Manchester’s biography of the Sage in 1980. Now seemed a good time re-new acquaintance with this original. Trusty Amazon not only found a copy for me, but also revealed that there had been a second edition which I quickly acquired. To call Mencken an ‘original,’ as Manchester does is right, but it hardly seems enough - unique is better. Love him or hate him or both, he was one of a kind, a singularity.

Manchester.jpg

This was a journalist who carried a baseball bat down his pant leg when he went to do interviews, supposing, rightly in some cases, that his questions would provoke physical violence, and he would have to defend himself. This was a newspaper editor who kept a shotgun on his desk when receiving complaints, a near daily occurrence, from members of the public. He would listen but he would not be cowed, that was the silent testimony of the shotgun. If the complainer was cowed, so much the better.

As a boy in the streets of Baltimore, he became fascinated with the machinery in a local shop, as many boys have been fascinated by trains or trucks. The local shop was the neighbourhood weekly newspaper/newsletter. He stood for hours after school watching it. His father gave him a toy printing press and was thus born ‘H. L. Mencken’ when he printed his own business cards with it. He had always gone by the name ‘Harry’ but all the ‘r’ letters in the set had been broken in his first experiments with it, so he styled himself ‘H. L.’ and it stuck.

When he left high school he applied for a job with the ‘Baltimore Herald’ and by persistence made a go of it. He loved the life and went at it like there was no tomorrow. This was a pace he continued for the rest of his life. But the newspaper’s readership fell in a very competitive market, and the desperate editor turned him loose. He was transformed from a journalist reporting events, to a columnist dishing out opinions. Is there nothing sacred? ‘No,’ was his reply.

Sanctimonious clergymen were target practice for his daily column. When they protested in a mass delegation to the newspaper’s owner, Mencken consulted his public and private files. The public files he had collected for sometime, recording incidents of clerical misdeeds with altar-boys, collection boxes, choirgirls, prostitutes, loan sharks, gamblers, you name it. These he recounted with unequaled enthusiasm. Still the clerics protested, so Mencken went to the private files.

Mencken.HL.001.jpg Mencken in his prime,

When he was but a reporter going where he was sent, doing what he told, he was a police reporter, and he was a very sociable drinker with police officers all over Baltimore. They provided him with still more dirt on churchmen that had not yet reached the public record. What a motherlode of gossip and libel did he find, and he did use it, having first mastered the libel laws! The clergy beat retreat, and having won, Mencken did not pursue them. There was still bigger game to hunt in the jungle of the sanctimonious.

Now blooded, he turned to the Baltimore political machine whose Mayor aspired to the spoils of a national office. Once again he published juicy extracts from the public record, connecting the dots, then he turned to the selfsame police officers for more dirt, which was supplied. But even that did not seem enough for so elephantine a target, so Mencken advertised in his column for citizens, in the strictest confidence, to confide in him information about the mayor. They did. Even he was surprised by the rapacious venality thus revealed, but this was a man for Augean stables. He treated it like a baseball game and created a scorecard, with day by day results in the race to the pennant.

His heritage was German, like many others in Baltimore, and he was proud of it. He loved German music and played the piano well on musical evenings with, first, the family, and then drinking buddies. When the Great War started, he saw it as Germany civilising Europe, and if Belgium, France, England got in the way, tough luck! His daily columns, whatever the subject matter, included an encomium to the Kaiser, Germany, mythical Germania, Bach, Nietzsche, or something else explicitly German. As the war went on and American neutrality leaned to Britain, he kept at it. While many Americans of German extraction admired his audacity, they kept their heads down.

His editor hoping to edify and distract him, sent him to Europe to cover the war. Europe? The editor gave him a steamship ticket to Southhampton and train ticket to London. The train ticked was never used. He changed ships at Southhampton for Oslo and then Copenhagen, and then bought his own train ticket to Berlin. Thence he proceeded to file dispatches from the Russian front, extolling German civility, cuisine, beer, courtesy, efficiency, etc. The editor cut off his funds and Mencken returned unrepentant. But seeing the war fervour back home, thereafter he had the wit to keep his own head down, but he never forgave Woodrow Wilson.

Then he turned his talents to editing a literary magazine. He it is that created the house style guide. His was the first to offer this service to contributors. Likewise he also was the first editor to declare what kind of stories he would publish as a guide to authors submitting. Finally, he vowed to treat authors with consideration and courtesy which was not the norm then or now. Submissions were reviewed and returned within 48 hours, and the letters of rejection or acceptance were hammered out on his typewriter. Those rejected got comments on the strong and weak points of the submission sometimes coupled with suggestions of other publications to try, and those accepted were bathed in flattery before he indicated just how little he could pay contributors. Having himself been rejected by editors with curt form letters rather like the disdainful treatment meted out by Qantas cabin staff when I used to fly with that carrier, he was trying to do unto other authors as he wished other editors to do unto to him.

In time he published stories by James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Edmund Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill (plays in this case) and still more, when no one else would. He also pushed a young Alfred Knopf into publishing.

Perhaps his most lasting personal contribution was ‘The American Language’ which he prepared while staying his pen during the Great War. He was in part inspired to defend Americanese against the British, and their American sycophants, and so it was in part his private war against England in support of Germany. The other inspiration was the black slang he heard in the streets, the saloon talk of polyglot Baltimore, and frontier language of the west which he mostly knew through the works of one of his most beloved writers, Mark Twain. He likened Americanese to a new species of animal, living by its own rules in a new environment, quickly growing away from its origins (Britain). This was a hobby project but when it was published it obtained instant commercial and critical success, though he offended the self-appointed guardians of the King’s English stationed in the United States, and a war of words about words ensued.

Mencken.jpg HL doing what he did best, editing,

These guardians should have known better than to take on this master of polemic, venom, and invective. The more so because he had researched the material for many years before assembling it. Ergo, he had it down pat, and he shoved it down the throats of the guardians who assailed him. In time this grew to be a three-volume work, as he tinkered with it for the rest of his life.

The Scopes Monkey trial is well known, and he was the conductor of the orchestra there. He recruited Clarence Darrow for the defence and blackmailed his paper into paying Darrow’s considerable fee.

He fought Prohibition in every way, from brewing his own beer to the pages of the newspapers far and wide and insulted, mocked every dry clergyman, condemned whole swaths of the nation for supporting such idiocy and just would not shut up. This fight gave him an even greater national profile, since many intellectuals, with secure private supplies from bootleggers, did not fight the good fight on this one.

More battles followed. One of his magazines was ‘Banned in Boston’ as was much else at the time, and he let it go, but when the Bostonians started bragging about caging the Beast of Baltimore, what was a man to do, but fight back? He went to Boston Common and sold copies of the offending magazine himself where he was arrested. At the police station he regaled his incarcerators with stories from his days as the police roundsman in Baltimore, while his lawyer did the heavy lifting. The scorecard read: Mencken 1 - Boston Banners - 0. The judge, who had been handpicked by the Banners, found for Mencken, free speech and all that.

When the good citizens of a Maryland Eastern Shore town lynched a negro, dragged from a hospital bed, Mencken fired his heaviest artillery. These great men proved everything he had ever thought about the scum of the earth. Did he go hard! Wallop! When commercial and physical threats against the newspaper and his person rolled in, he redoubled his invective. Crosses were dutifully burned. Dead animals left on his doorstep. All the tricks that are still in the Tea Party playbook were used. Nothing stopped him. He just kept at it until the villains went on to other, softer targets. Remember what I said earlier about the baseball bat and the shotgun.

Alas, Manchester includes none of Mencken nonpareil coverage of presidential nominating conventions and elections. He loved the circus, and democracy offered the biggest and best one for free. He was present at the hung convention in 1924 and must have had a lot to say about that. By the time he covered his last presidential convention in 1948, he was a bigger celebrity than most of the candidates. Journalist crowded around to interview him, while hapless candidates milled around the auditorium talking to each other.

He was an iconoclast who attacked hot air, bunkum, lies, pomposity, pretention, vain-glory, stupidity, ignorance at every turn, and if one attack was good three or four were better. Indeed, his modus operandi became so well known that one well-meaning friend asked him if there was anything he did believe in, and the result was the Sage’s creed.

Manchester offers no summing up of Mencken’s life, legacy, or impact. My own is this. Puncturing balloons is great fun, and there are plenty of hot air balloons around to puncture, and most of them have so little self-knowledge that they do not know that they are full of hot air. In this, as in so much else though, one has to know when to quit, and Mencken did not. He was like a Groucho Marx who just keeps rabbiting on ridiculing all about him, and with age Mencken became far less discerning in the targets he selected. Neither the Great Depression nor the rise of Adolf Hitler could he take seriously and so his star waned. Just as William Jennings Bryan clung to old verities, in his age so did Mencken.

MAnchester mug.jpg William Manchester


Moreover, Mencken was not wholly negative. He loved baseball his whole life and never said a bad word about it, not even during the Black Sox scandal. He had a blind eye there. Manchester barely mentions the sport but one reason he went to New York City as often as he did was to see Yankee games.

When I visited Baltimore for a conference, I spent far too much time conferring, and did not make it to the Mencken Room, which is only grudgingly open now and again. Likewise I did not do an Edgar Alan Poe homage such was my professional fervour, long since outgrown. I did make it to an Orioles game though! I did go over the submarine in the harbour, and I did see Fort McHenry from the water with a boatload of sozzled conferees.

The second-hand copy Amazon produced is marked up, doing the same myself with most books I read, I sometimes wonder about the marker. Is this someone I would get along with? I try to see some pattern in the mark-up. The marks in this book seem to be analysis of Manchester’s style, his choice of voice — third person past, the mix of description and anecdote, the passive versus active voice. I wonder if the writer was an author. The copperplate penmanship suggests a woman but I have been fooled on that before.

Speaking of marked up texts, as an undergraduate, I had developed a method for selecting used textbooks that worked perfectly.

First I only looked at copies that were highlighted in yellow. Why? Read on and be enlightened. Second I concentrated on those yellow highlighted copies that were densely marked in the opening chapters. Yes, there is a method to this. And remember I was buying in a crowded bookstore with many other students getting books for the semester, so there was physical and social pressure to get on with it.

Ah, the method? I discovered by the end of the freshman year texts that were marked in yellow were used by dolts more interested in the yellow marker than any meaning the text might impart. The yellow highlighter was a novelty in those days and only a few students used them, and they used them, it seemed, more as a status symbol than anything else. Why do I say that? Because the highlighting stopped within a chapter or two. Either the reader dropped the course, give up to failure, or relied on coping the work of others. Law One was: A text highlighted in yellow was likely to be clean after a few chapters.

As a corollary to this law, I also noticed that the more densely marked the first chapter was, the sooner the marking stopped. Someone who highlighted every line on page one, had no idea what was important and what was not. Such an indiscriminate marker was destined, know it or not, to drop even sooner than the average Yellow-Head, as I called them to myself. Law Two was: the more frequent the yellow in Chapter One the sooner the highlighting would stop, leaving the remainder of the text untouched.

A few times a friend expressed surprise to see me pick a book that was heavily marked in the opening pages, but I gave a spurious reason, about that marking saving me the work of doing it myself, rather than reveal the two laws above! These I kept to myself until now.


Mencken’s Creed for those too lazy to look it up for themselves. It is sometimes edited to suit the quoter.

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind - that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.

I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.

I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

I believe in the reality of progress.
I - But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

Reading about John Stuart Mill brought to mind Mr Utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and I remembered that I had acquired a copy this book years ago as relevant to utopia, though many might suggest one criterion of utopia would be the absence of insufferable bores like JB, as he referred to himself. While not a biography, the book does convey much of Bentham’s personality and habits.

The subtitle explains the remit of the monograph, ‘An Account of his Letters and Proposals for the New World.’

Williford cover.jpg

JB proselytised far and wide in England. He started out in law but when his parents’ deaths left him well off he became a full-time know-it-all. He wrote one tract after another, many are legal in orientation, and sent them off to one and all to influence opinion and incite action. He eschewed running for parliament on the ground that the duties thereof would distract from his broader and deeper influence. He ranged over many subject and topics, ignorance being no bar. Altogether a public intellectual!

Then he hit on the idea of the panopticon and devoted himself nearly exclusively to that for years, and sunk a lot of his own money into it. It started out as a model prison but as he honed the idea it became a more general social model. It is all in the name ‘pan’ = ‘all’ and ‘opticon’ = ‘seeing.’ All-seeing, a building made of glass so that everyone could see what each person is doing at all times. Little Brothers and Sisters are always watching! The social discipline born of this exposure would put us all on our best behaviour all the time. Michel Foucault has some things to say about this that are worth reading.

Disaffected by the failure of the Great British to embrace his panopticon, JB turned his gaze to the wider world, and there he saw Spanish America, at the time everything from the Rio Grande south. This was a greenfield site in his mind. New societies were aborning there, and if they started off on the right foot, they would grow into perfect little Benthamic societies. He would be only too glad to tell them about that right foot.

Bentham mug.jpg God's gift to humanity, Jeremy Bentham

Cue, another prodigious letter-writing campaign, and more tracts. Since he paid for the publication of his tracts they were not edited, and seldom reviewed. That may explain why most of them are so excruciating bad. Neither self-criticism nor second-thoughts featured in his personality. His contemporaries can be grateful that for every tract published he wrote two others that had to await posthumous publication in his collected works now safely confined to research library shelves for the terms of their natural lives.

The circumstances were a bit tricky, as reality can be. While Spain still claimed and asserted suzerainty over Spanish America, and these claims and assertions were largely respected by European powers, the Spanish Americans were rebelling against rule from Spain, imposed locally by appointees whose main goal was to enrich themselves with the least possible effort. San Martín, Símon Bolívar, and others were in revolt. These niceties did not bother JB, he wrote to Madrid, to Spanish colonial governors, and to the rebels offering his services as a lawgiver. Solon, reborn! Have laws, will travel.

In doing so he promoted his own considerable expertise as evinced by his numerous tracts, which he usually enclosed with his letters, and he cited testimonials from heads of states (who had never heard of him), savants (who regarded him as a crackpot), and religious leaders (who rejected him as an atheist).

Never one to stand on ceremony, while he was wooing the Madrid government to let him dictate to its restive colonies, he managed to find time to offer 400 pages of criticisms of the Madrid government, its constitution, its acts…. What a pompous prat, one might think.

More seriously, he suggested that his complete ignorance of local circumstances, and existing manners and morēs (or knowledge of Spanish) ideally suited him for the job, leaving him dispassionate, detached, unfettered, and rational. In short, he claims some of the qualities that Plato ascribed to Philosopher-Kings, though he never cites Plato, or anyone else for that matter. It is JB all the way, unalloyed.

He did make plans to travel to Mexico at one time, and then at another Venezuela but neither eventuated. Nonetheless, he continued his barrage of letters and tracts.

Imagine now a besieged Spanish governor in Peru with insurgents at the door, nearly all communication to the interior cut by Indians, receiving a letter…from Bentham running to 25 pages about whether the legal code should be written in italics or not. Bentham often seized on such trivial details and spent pages and pages on them, while the castle burned down. He had neither practical sense nor political nous. Though, surprisingly enough, some of his correspondents did take him seriously like Símon Bolívar, giving me cause to doubt SB’s wisdom. (Maybe I should read a biography of SB.)

Williford charts all this deadpan, resisting all but a few asides on the evident megalomania. This is an excellent, short monograph that shows a considerable volume of research, effectively marshalled to say what needs to be said with little fuss. Perhaps it started as PhD but if so the published version escaped the PhD-to-book syndrome - overkill.

I could not find a picture of the author.

I confess that I have a marked up copy of Bentham's 'Fragment on Government' which I had to read in a graduate seminar, and I cannot remember one thing about it, except the relief at never having to look at it again.

In pursuit of John Stuart Mill I have also recently read Eric Stokes, ‘The English Utilitarians and India’ (1989) which I chose not to review, finding it so densely detailed that only a specialist in British colonialism in India could fathom it. I certainly could not, though I found informative the distinctions Stokes made among the Whig, Liberal, and Utilitarian approach to India. For the Whigs government itself is the enemy. For the Liberals education solves all problems when mixed with time. For Utilitarians there is no substitute for telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and, if time permits, why to do it.

By the way, when Bentham's parents’ estate was divided between the two sons, his brother took his half of the dosh and moved to the south of France to pursue the life of a sybarite. Who can say which was the greater service to later generations?

‘An Istanbul Mystery’ says the subtitle, the fourth in a series, but the only one readily available to me.

A nice set-up with the young girl exploring the island while the dog takes charge. There is a mystery in a cave and an array of characters, Cousin Evangeline and Uncle Orville added to the mayhem. The séance was a laugh. The running joke about the talking dog was deft. The plaintiff ney lessons were part of the local color.

Goodman cover.jpg

It is amusing, and the children are fun, and the final denouement surprised me.

On the other hand the French diplomat was not even cardboard, and after he was inflicted upon the reader, he was then dropped. Likewise the two French police officers, who were portrayed more kindly, were introduced and then dropped.

Goodman mug.jpeg Laurence Goodman, from the back cover

Having said that, I am not motivated to seek out the other titles in the series.

Thanks to the miracle of SBS Television we went to Japan last night and got back in time to go to bed, watching ‘Departures,’ a life-affirming film with cello music about death. Slow, meticulous, and accessible with some travelogue, the story of young Daigo Kobayashi’s transition from mediocre cello player to encoffiner is related, and the effects of the move on those around him, starting with his loyal, but taxed wife.

‘Encoffiner’ is one word Noah Webster did not get. In this case it means laying out of dead person to be placed into a coffin. This is a task performed before the undertaker disposes of the body. ‘Task,’ no, not the right word. Ritual is the word, a performance before the deceased’s family. It is done with the decorum, grace, and precision of the best of Japanese culture, but achieving that takes time and practice, and sometimes the difficulty is compounded by the emotions which the death has unleashed in the family. All of this, and more, is carefully documented as Daigo, reluctantly, enters this world.

Departures.jpg

He is broke, in debt far beyond Mika's, his wife, wildest guess: celli are expensive. The ready money NK Agents offers is too tempting to refuse.

His initial revulsion at both the physical and social aspect of the work is gradually overcome when he realises slowly that the ceremony is of great solace to many families. In time he finds solace of his own in the task. Though it does take a longtime to close the loops and there is more repetition than I liked. Robert Ebert reviewed it in 2009 and gave it four stars out of four and wrote his usual perceptive comments with some comparisons to other films.

yojiro_takita.jpg Yojiro Takita, the director with the Oscar for best Foreign Picture.

We could have watched Computer Generated Images slug it out on 7MATE but we preferred something about life and people, not comic strip nonsense made by prepubescent boys for prepubescent boys, or is that the other way around. Or we could have been hectored by an ABC journalist firmly brandishing one end, usually the wrong end, of a stick. So many choices.

I record a selection of SBS free-to-air movies based on David Stratton’s comments in ‘TV Week.’ I use his comments and not his ratings, which I find too high, though he has recently changed the method and I am still trying to gauge his new approach of categorising rather than numbering.

This is a feature film from Finland, the land of low-key but often very interesting and accessible movies.

Genre? Mockumentary, I guess. It is told deadpan. A Finn writes to a tango club in Buenos Aires, claiming that the tango originated in Finland, and supplies a long and detailed history of its evolution in the far north of the far north. While the Argentines laugh it off, it is, well, curious, and what, after all, is Finland like that these people would make such a stupid claim.

TAngo coveer.jpg

Three of them club together — a guitar player, a singer, and a dancer — to head north to the land of midnight sun, endless forests that all look alike, wrong turns, language barriers, a dead battery, and reindeer on the road.

They find something they never found in Buenos Aires, peace-and-quiet, and also people who have plenty of time for them to get past that language barrier and they learn some things about themselves, Finland, and even the tango, as they finally admit. The explanation of why Finnish men like the tango is perfect.

Tango lake.jpg

tango crew.jpg

Completely unpretentious, no plot twists, plenty of travelogue, first in Buenos Aires and then Lapland. That deity of film criticism Roger Ebert would certainly give it all thumbs up, and so do I.

Fiction? Well not quite. See Wikipedia for an entry on the Finnish tango, and be enlightened.

I read a charming review of this Finnish film about a year ago, and determined to have a look at it. I tried to get it on iTunes but failed. It could not be sold into the Australian market. I even tried to fool iTunes by logging in while in the States to no avail. Though it was available for purchase, I could not purchase it. Frustrating. Yet another chance to develop my patience. (Yes, I know about VPN, but my needs are few.)

I thought that by June 2015 it would surely be available. I was assuming it would be screened at the Sydney Film Festival, since it seemed perfect for that, and then have a commercial release and we could see it on the wide screen. I checked with a Film Festivalian of my acquaintance, who said no, it was not on the program. Rats!

I tried again to locate it for purchase and lo and behold I found a vendor and ordered it toute suite! It promptly arrived and we gave it a spin.

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Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.
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