Gough Whitlam’s political career was over before I was born, but his mythological career was just beginning. He was a man made in heroic proportions, a handsome face with a telegenic gaze, six foot four and a booming baritone voice in the educated accent of the Australian middle class. Gough’s voice may now define Australian soundbite oratory. “Well may we say God Save The Queen, because nothing can save the Governor-General”; “It’s Time”; “Crash through or crash”. His very names – either of his names – fall with the heft of a Patrick White novel. The last Australian prime minister to serve in the military. Intellectual, charismatic and impatient.

Clifton Pugh's portrait of Whitlam

Gough wasn’t my hero. He wasn’t a childhood idol or a teenage political ideal for me. I am not born of that leftist tribe. But he is a heroic figure, playing all the right chords on our acculturated meat brains. He had his sweeping policy triumphs like Medicare and China diplomacy, the great raiser of the koala bear leviathan, his electoral victories, his electoral defeats.

I used to think the Whitlam government’s impatience in ramming through so many changes so quickly was its great mistake, that it died of whiplash. This is the conventional wisdom, but I’m no longer so sure. Complex systems can change incrementally for certain things, but they are homeostatic too, they slip back into established paths. Sometimes you have to change lots of things at once for any change to stick. Sometimes history shifts with a crack. You blink, and everything continues, but everything is changed. The black and white television has switched to colour.

Gough’s story has villains and Gough himself had tragic flaws. The intellectual that couldn’t get the numbers to add up, the charismatic leader that couldn’t keep his cabinet together. The betrayal, the unravelling, the dismissal. But this is a modern Australian story, not a Greek tragedy. Whitlam-Odysseus went home with his Penelope, became a professor, and won saucepans on Sale of the Century. The adoration of the living man was a bit close to royalty, for me. He had a long life, and a good one. Now he has climbed into a heavenly V8 the size of a small tank, and driven off, trailing clouds of glory. We should paint him on the doors of our temples and the walls of our pool rooms, to ward off evil and scare away the ghouls of complacency.


The Vengeful Angels Of Our Nature

It’s not surprising, in a movie such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to find a great deal of hunting vampires, but I did find rather more than I expected of Mr Lincoln. Part of the point of such a piece is of course the glorious joke of its title. Given the basic setup is pretty much explained before reaching the cinema, even more so for those who saw the earlier novel, the challenge is to put something else behind it.

Critics have come out uniformly negative, like a line of Union soliders wielding Springfield rifles of hate. Actually, Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith don’t do too bad a job. Abe: VH has its problems. It doesn’t take the approach (I would think a mistake) of being just a fight movie in 1860s costume. The second act even takes time out for political exposition and smaller scale Whitehouse family drama; a saggy but welcome variation from a simple progression of action scenes. It’s an action movie that makes time for the Gettysburg address. It’s not a long speech, but somehow a little more than expected.

Some parts are flawed. Others are freaking awesome. They are freaking awesome in the same way as Brad Nelly’s George Washington.  They combine mythic fragments of the American Civic Religion with mythic fragments of American action movies and mythic fragments of vampire lore in a mosaic that celebrates their symbolic role while signalling it is also a fiction.

Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith play the material straight. Again I think this is the right choice when presenting such a flagrant counterfactual. Winking at the content would destroy the premise of the fantastic world. The viewer can always step back to laugh at the absurdity of the hook; they shouldn’t be pushed back. There are some good fights, much influenced by the post-Matrix martial arts style. At 105 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

American presidents have a role not unlike saints or Hellenic gods in the American Civic Religion. And many-named Lincoln is at the heart of the pantheon, equal to the founding fathers in symbolic weight, the great hinge on which the chronology of American statecraft swings. Lincoln even sounds mythic. He had, in Adam Gopnik’s words, “mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis”.

This movie’s Lincoln is not the Lincoln of history books, though the complexity of the man lends him weight as an action hero. Don’t all politicians have secret lives run in parallel with their very public lives? This story reverses the usual superheroic trope – the secret life is the one of clean hits and unambiguous moral purpose. The famous, public life is the compromised one beset by moral quandaries. (Batman is a variation where both identities are famous.)

How much of the real Lincoln is really told by popular history? The Lincoln of this movie doesn’t say anything like those dismaying words of the First Inaugral,

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

… and yet, how often does that enter the foreground in the history of poular memory? Lincoln is the great American nationalist, and the great liberal imperialist too. I view this from a non-American vantage point, so maybe I’m missing some cultural context. Maybe all elementary schools tease out the multifarious economic, demographic and historic causes of the War between the States and all Fourth of July barbeques are accompanied by nuanced discussion of the political factions faced by the 16th president.  Many Americans do know their own history well.

I suspect that even when the history is well known the myths of civic religion require certain narrative simplifications. Conor Cruise O’Brien argues much the same about Jefferson. (Jefferson para-scholarship is also largely silent on whether he was a vampire.) The virtue of a movie like this is acknowledging that mythic need while separating it somewhat from history. Grahame-Smith even constructs a scene where Pickett’s charge makes sense – vampires need not fear bullets and can infiltrate an enemy line with invisibility. It’s far more rational than the psychology of armies and generals failing to learn new tactics in the face of new tech.

Civic religions are worthwhile when they support worthwhile ideals. The American variant supports liberty and democracy and a system that for all its flaws is the great exponent of the same. They let us make the transformation from merely thinking republican democracy is a good idea and truly believing it.

Maybe it’s for the best that in these days of targeted US drone assassinations a movie imagining a president individually killing evildoers with a silver coated axe has not swept all before it. When I put it next to such monumental pieces of kitsch as Harrison Ford’s Air Force One or Mt Rushmore it hardly seems out of character. At least Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is honest about what it confabulates.

Confucius Gordon In The Twenty First Century!

Jiang Qing (蒋庆) is a mainland Chinese scholar who proposes reviving Confucius as part of the Chinese political settlement. There is a good overview of his work from Daniel Bell in NPQ. He notes the revival of Confucius’s fortunes amongst Communist Party cadres, as well as critiques Jiang Qing makes of the current Chinese and Western systems.

Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labor, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it’s about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it’s about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.

Jiang, who incidentally shares an English transliteration with Mao’s notorious wife 江青, and is therefore hard to Google for without using Chinese characters, has certainly been on a remarkable intellectual and biographical journey. Xujun Eberlein has provided a good biographical sketch, including his search through intellectual and spiritual traditions from Marxism, Christianity and Buddhism, and detail on his magnum opus, Political Confucianism (《政治儒学》). She also has also posted some a more detailed overview by Wang Rui-Chang and notes on philosophical attitudes to women. Bell also has a good interview with Jiang in Dissent.

I haven’t read Political Confucianism, not just out of native laziness and because I only heard about it last week, but also because it’s patchily available even in Chinese: no English language translation exists. You could call Jiang and his followers Neo-Confucians, except that term is already in use for a group of Song and Ming dynasty thinkers. It was the Neo-Confucians that laid out the obedience-centric doctrine – to government, to parents, to husband – that defined Confucianism until today. This also goes for the New Confucians, the term applied to Neo-Confucian twentieth century thinkers outside the mainland in places like Korea and Taiwan. (Such are the pitfalls of prefixed nomenclature. It has a touch of irony given Confucius declared in Analects XIII, 3 his first priority would be the rectification of names. I have visions of the great teacher giving Modernism, Post-modernism, Neo-classical economics, retro-futurism and Neo-Confucianism several weeks of detention.)

As the Wang Rui-Chang paper points out, Jiang attempts to revive an older, humanistic and individually moral strand of Confucian thought alongside the rather more pessimistic tradition of the Neo-Confucians. Arguably the realpolitik school goes back to the arch-pessimist Xun Zi 荀子, who believed people were inherently evil and needed it taught out of them.

to be fully legitimate, a political power or regime must simultaneously meet three conditions: 1), it must be at one with, or sanctioned by, the holy, transcendental Tao as expressed or implied in the Confucian Scriptures, and as interpreted by the prestigious Confucian Scholars; 2), it must not deviate from the mainstream of the national cultural heritage and break the historical continuity of the nationality; 3), it must comply with the will or endorsement of the common people.

He goes on to quote Edmund Burke; a conservative, moralist figure with a lot in common with Confucius considering they lived 1900 years apart and on opposite sides of the globe.

Skimming over Jiang’s proposal to re-establish Confucianism as a state religion, the key constitutional proposal is of a tricameral legislature, only one of which is directly elected:

The House of Profound Confucians (Tong Ru Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the sacred Way, the House of National Continuity (Guo Ti Yuan) represents the legitimacy of cultural heritage and tradition, and the House of Plebeians (Shu Min Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the common people’s will and desire.

Combining an elected house with two Houses of Lords is obviously not going to light a flame in any democrat’s heart. The obvious parallel here is with the American Tripartite Commission. The existing examples of this sort of thing – in Hong Kong and Iran – are not really encouraging. The emphasis on ethnic or cultural representation rather than geographic and democratic representation also seems both very imperial Chinese and inviting the nastiness of partisan splits on ethnic and cultural lines. Absent having seen the specific arguments Jiang has, and as fun as kicking an absent strawman while he’s down is, let’s just note my general support for the miracle of democracy for now.

What is more striking is the parallel to the golden age of the Westminster system. In 1855 the Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended adoption of a civil service entrance examination as one means of professionalising an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. This was inspired in turn by the long history of Chinese imperial examinations for the civil service. Combined with the great Reform bills, by the end of the 19th century the United Kingdom had a democratically elected House of Commons (庶民院) and an aristocratic House of Lords including a number of bishops (国体院). And they relied on a career civil service to advise on, draft and execute policy, which exerted its own conservative cultural influence on the government (统儒院). This constitutional settlement started to change at the end of the 1990s with changes to the Lords and the relationship between the cabinet and civil service, (and in Australia due to the breakdown of ministerial responsibility) but it had a good hundred year run and is by no means finished with. Given it has both historical precedent and cultural suitability, I can’t help but wonder why Jiang didn’t think of it. Perhaps with all that visiting of monasteries, studying of Marxist texts and surviving the Cultural Revolution, he didn’t get much time for repeats of Yes, Minister. If someone has his postal address, I’m happy to send him a copy.

松柏 (Pine and Cypress)

子日:岁寒,然后知松柏之后凋也 — 论语 九:二十八

The Master said, ‘Only when the cold season comes is the point brought home that the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves.’ — Analects IX.28 (Lau trans.)

Some films or books are fascinating more because of what they imply than what they are in themselves. Not everyone is fascinated in this way. Perhaps it is the definition of an [armchair] critic.

I remember, for instance, the film What The Bleep Is Happening quite clearly dividing my friends into a large, rationalist, hater camp and a smaller, trippy, New Age fan camp. I agreed with all the rationalist arguments except the worth of the film – it was an intriguing insight into the fetal stage of a new religion, a kind of Citified Liberal Hinduism.

Hu Mei’s (胡玫) film Confucius, released this year, is a similar sort of piece. It’s fascinating, but more for co-textual reasons than as a spectacular realisation of a cinematic idea. It’s a very public grappling with one the classics of world literature, and central figure of what was once China’s civic religion, and who is still a central figure outside the mainland.

Mao Zedong declared “We no longer need Confucius”, or at least Alice Goodman had him sing it, and he launched a purge to that effect. Today CCP finds Confucius rather more useful. A society of thrifty prosperity seems worth promoting over the income extremes and materialism of the last few boom decades. It’s also a way of reaching out to the Chinese societies at the edge of the nation of the PRC and beyond. John King Fairbank described HK, Taiwan, through Singapore and to the Chinese diaspora as Maritime China, and almost all of those societies maintained Confucianist and Taoist traditions with much less interruption than on the communist-run mainland. So whether it’s a matter of hands across the Taiwan Strait or expanding the soft power heft of Greater China, Confucius seems a goer. They even got a Hakka star from Hong Kong, Chow Yun-fat, to play the lead. The film was originally slated for release on the 60th anniversary of the PRC, which shares a birthday with Confucius (or at least the one traditionally observed).

For a screenwriter, or propagandist, Confucius presents a challenge. Confucius the historical person is a different, but not distinct, figure from the icon at the centre of Confucianism the tradition. As Confucianism became more and more important as a civic religion of the successive imperial dynasties, the stories and histories attributed to him became grander, more elaborate, and more removed from the humanist philosophy he founded. For example, the best historical evidence we have is that Confucius never rose above the rank of police commissioner of the pre-imperial state of Lu. By a few centuries after his death, he was remembered as its prime minister. Then various emperors posthumously appointed him a Marquis.

Instead of the mythic figure people may be more familiar with, the writers chose to focus mostly on the historical figure. (IMDB and CMDB leave the writers anonymous.) He may be a more appealing figure to moderns – more secular and less of a comic book hero. But the historical record is very thin. Almost the only reliable document about Master Kong is The Analects of Confucius, sayings collected by his students. There is nothing like, say, the nice narrative arc of the Christian Gospels to work with. It’s more like trying the write a movie based on the Book of Proverbs, or Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

In the end the writers do stray a little from the material for dramatic emphasis, particularly at the start – we get human sacrifice (by the bad guys) and a diplomacy scene which is more Romance of the Three Kingdoms than the Spring and Autumn Period, but all pretty much within the scope of dramatic license.

More interesting are the scenes of the King of Lu holding court in pavilion almost like a Greek agora, or a small parliament. Here we see Confucius cutting and thrusting his way to argumentative victory, be it a judicial or policy debate. This is true to form in that it was a period where intellectual and philosophical debate flowered, analogous to the Greek classical period, and spawning as many great thinkers. I couldn’t tell you how much of it actually happened at court – rather less than is shown here, I suspect. But it’s intriguing that the arguments are far more zesty than anything in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, during sittings of China’s massive nominal parliament. They’re more zesty than Question Time in the Singapore Parliament for that matter, a body with much practical lawmaking power, but not many opposition members. Confucius wields power as police commissioner – minister of law here – and then takes on some (historically shaky) further powers for 100 days. There are weird echoes of the first hundred days of FDR and other American presidents, as well as of the Hundred Days of Reform in the late Qing and the hundred schools of philosophy of Confucius’ time. This was the allusion in the poem that Mao used in the Hundred Flowers Campaign, arguably a prelude to the Cultural Revolution; 百花齐放,百家争鸣: Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred thoughts contend.

Though it takes a bit of a dramatic license, this first half is also the more coherent. Confucius spent a number of years as a wandering sage, the script plausibly suggesting it was related to political manouevring at the Lu court. Though walking the earth, as it were, has plenty of narrative tradition, Confucius was less roving kung fu vigilante and more roving civil service tutor. Again, this is harder to dramatize, and during this second half the writers give in to the temptation to have the protagonist utter gnomic quotes from the Analects mid-sentence.

Confucius didn’t do so well with critics or at the box office, where it competed with Avatar, and there were reports of the latter being more politically controversial. Does this mean the CCP is out of touch in returning to a 2300 year old philosopher in an era of raves on the Great Wall of China? Well, perhaps, but my guess is James Cameron can out-muscle anyone when it comes to mass spectacle. The phenomenon of politicians’ public tastes being more po-faced than their constituents is not unknown to democracies, after all, though they tend to produce rather less state funded and state sanctioned film. Hu Mei’s next project is Dreams in Red Mansion, a capital-C classic novel with the whiff of the schoolroom about it. It seems she is seen as a safe pair of hands. The operatic and well known plot of Dreams should have an easier screenplay to deal with than the watchable jumble of Confucius.

I’m glad to see Confucius the thinker survive the brutal winter of the twentieth century, and begin to emerge from the strictures of the rigid social structures given his name. Yet how can one convey the austere aesthetics at the heart of Confucian philosophy in such a visual medium as film? In The Analects the sense of justice is tied to a sense of harmonius music, rites and names. The closest we have here is a scene like a Spring and Autumn music video, complete with extended Master Kong zither solo. Can you make a historically accurate, intellectually interesting, broadly appealing movie about a philosopher? Maybe. But this isn’t it.

Readings From The Book of Bartlet

We finished Season Seven of The West Wing recently. Yes, at last, I guess, but one of the glories of the DVD is how easy it makes attacking a TV series serially. I first saw Virginia Postrel mention this novelistic bonus side-effect of laser technology. And like Buffy, or War and Peace, watching it this way lets the grander themes unfold in a way that the deconstructive experience of catching a dozen arbitrarily ordered M*A*S*H repeats does not.

The comparison with Tolstoy is warranted at another level, as the world Aaron Sorkin gives us is a sweeping and moralistic one. It’s one of high power and great privilege, but also of real, intertwined relationships. It’s also a religous world. The West Wing has to be seen as a text in what Normal Mailer called the American Civic Religion, the set of beliefs and rituals in self-government and the transcendent nature of democracy that keep the institution running. The West Wing has an almost fairy tale idealism about political institutions that could serve as a counterpoint to the skepticism of Tolstoy towards Napoleon and his ilk.

It is a tribute to the comprehensiveness of Sorkin’s vision, but also the embedding of that vision in strands of civic religion, that a writing team was able to continue his work for the last three seasons. They were able to continue his work – rather brilliantly too – because the work itself was an extension of a culture. There are not many examples of great (or Great) works successfully being picked up by a second writer after the first had to leave it. Dreams In Red Mansion is the only one I know offhand, and that too was trying to capture the spirit of an age amongst people of privilege, though in private, not public.

Unlike War and Peace, but like Buffy, The West Wing is also genuinely funny. This was also the only way I was able to convince my wife to watch it, as she is neither a political tragic nor particularly fond of American political kitsch. It’s funny in a highly verbal, rat-a-tat-tat way of a good play or a screwball comedy. The ever marvellous TV Tropes lists three main characters as being Deadpan Snarks. B wouldn’t have lasted one episode without that element, let alone seven seasons. I am going to stray to spoilers now.

I think this dynamic also explains why the series evolved from having Sam Seaborn as the main character (of an ensemble) to the character of Josh Lyeman. Josh was supposed to be highbrow comic relief but in the end his character arc becomes that of the show over the seven seasons. The pilot episode starts with him being a Young Turk foolishly insulting the Christian Right on TV, and the final episode has him become Chief of Staff.

Josh, despite being a nutcase of sorts, is an also an easier protagonist to follow, because he has a job of more obviously doing things. Sam’s main job as Deputy Communications Director was a speechwriter, a relator of events. Furthermore every episode that features Sam writing an excellent speech is also a letter of congratulations from the writers of the show to themselves (and these were mostly in the Sorkin-dominated early seasons).

Of course I still love the character of Sam, who for a while was the last scientific positivist on American TV. I love all of the original characters for that matter, except maybe Mandy, who just left one day at the end of the first season, in the manner of Sorkin characters, and of a certain kind of office. But I didn’t like the ending. There are various suggestions that the writers plans were thrown by the sad death of John Spence. It’s understandable, given that, that they got distracted by the character arc of the team. But they discounted that the power of the show comes from its feeding off of, and contributing to, a myth of democratic process. Seen from that perspective, the show’s ending is weak.

At the end of this tale of the American civic religion, we get the saintly genius Jed Bartlett, who as well as being the nerdiest president since Jefferson nearly became a priest, handing over to the saintly Matt Santos, the everyday dad and fighter pilot, like Thomas Aquinas handing over to the Archangel Michael. It’s a changing of the guard at left-wing fantasy central, not a meaningful, orderly changeover of power. And that’s the great victory of civic politics: handing over power to people, to an organisation, you might hate, who you fought for months and years, but ultimately recognise as patriots, and retreating into loyal opposition yourself. That sourness of loss, that heartbreak, that recognition of the worth of the system, even though balance has tipped for a moment – that is democracy’s catharsis. I know Hollywood doesn’t like tragedies, but Americans of all people should know that a peaceful change of power is really a triumph. Enoch Powell said that all political lives end in failure, but on the West Wing they all have a fairy tale ending. Even Arnie Vinick (R, California) gets to become Secretary of State.

The Supremes is probably my favourite episode. It’s an episode which was setup by the story arc, without being heavily reliant on it. The Chief Justice is fictional – conservatives have held that position for some time – but the situation is recognizable, so it is not a trite allegory. Details like the fading Chief Justice writing judgements in Alexandrine hexameter and the insufferable intern have set it up earlier in the season. Yet it unfolds like a good science fiction short story, exploring an idea. A series of justices second as avatars of judicial philosophies, but it’s also funny, with a drunken hurrah. It’s an episode that puts forward an argument, that promotes debate as being at the heart of good government. The West Wing ever combined a wonkish political hyper-literacy with a fairy tale idealism. These irreconcilable opposites pulled at and fought with each other in every episode, and it was exciting, intelligent, funny television. And then sometimes the wonk and the fairy princess stopped fighting and danced a waltz.