Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Marx of the Master Class.


"It would be well for those interested to reflect whether there now exists, or ever has existed, a wealthy and civilized community in which one portion did not live on the labor of another; and whether the form in which slavery exists in the South is not but one modification of this universal condition… Let those who are interested remember that labor is the only source of wealth, and how small a portion of it, in all old and civilized countries, even the best governed, is left to those by whose labor wealth is created." (John C. Calhoun, here)

Reading outside your usual area of interest is often a loss of time. Sometimes, however, it can be extremely rewarding. That was the case with Richard Hofstadter's 1948 biographical essay on John C. Calhoun (1782 - 1850) -- whose title opens this post.

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A wealthy South Carolina slave-holding planter by birth, and a lawyer by training, Calhoun got involved with politics early, eventually holding major political offices, including the seventh Vice Presidency of the U.S.

John C. Calhoun, 1849. [A]
Given his personal background, young Calhoun gravitated quite naturally to the Democratic Party (at the time committed to a Jeffersonian concept of agrarian society, popular in the South), although initially sharing ground with their opposition, the Whig Party (classical liberalism and protectionism, more palatable to Northern tastes). Against what was common among other planters, Calhoun started as a nationalist, favoring a strong federal government and import tariffs (both unpopular in the South).

From 1830 on, and reflecting the increasingly divergent interests of slaveholding South and capitalist North, Calhoun distanced himself from his nationalist, federalist and protectionist past and fully embraced the Southern planters' cause. Although interesting in itself, neither Calhoun the statesman, nor the somewhat surprisingly dedicated family man, are the focus of this post and perhaps his daguerreotype provides the more suggestive and vivid description of the statesman.

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As his initial sympathy for the North waned, Calhoun the thinker grew increasingly critical of the capitalistic North. This was not an exclusively American phenomenon. Across the Atlantic, Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) is another example of reaction against the ascendant bourgeoisie.

Several things, however, distinguished Calhoun's thought from that of other anti-capitalist reactionaries. Carlyle argued for the English landed aristocracy's moral superiority (exposing himself to accusations of hypocrisy and racism). Calhoun did not follow that route.

Defiantly admitting the exploitative character of the Southern agrarian society, Calhoun observed that the capitalistic North was every bit as exploitative. However, by pretending otherwise -- as liberals/Whigs are wont to do -- in addition to being exploitative, capitalist society was also self-deceiving, hypocritical, and cowardly.

On February 4, 1836, then senator Calhoun (MA) delivered a report entitled "Incendiary Publications", before the U.S. Senate. In that report (a fragment of which opens this post), Calhoun, in ruthlessly lucid terms -- that would sound familiar to whoever read The Communist Manifesto -- approaches the phenomenon of exploitation, manifested throughout history.

Compare Calhoun's writing to the opening lines from the Manifesto:
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
"Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes". (See here)
Slavery in the South -- Calhoun understood -- is but one instance of this universal condition, necessary for the existence of any wealthy and civilized community: one portion of the community lives on the labour of another. It is this stolen ease that allows civilization's great achievements (a subject that Nietzsche would retake decades later).

That wasn't the only opportunity Calhoun broached that subject, either, nor was him the only commentator arguing along those lines: James H. Hammond and the depraved George Fitzhugh in some ways went further than him, proposing the extension of slavery to white Americans.

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But there are more differences. While Carlyle's ideal society was one dominated by the landed aristocracy, Calhoun recognized that the ground gained by the American bourgeoisie could not be regained. Foreshadowing Nietzsche, Calhoun envisaged an openly anti-democratic "final solution" to the unrest by slaves/abolitionists and workers/socialists (Nietzsche's "rabble"): a mutually beneficial alliance by Southern planters and Northern industrialists.

Hofstadter put it thus:
"Calhoun had an ingenious solution for the sectional problem [i.e. North vs South antagonism]: in return for the South's services as a balance wheel against labor agitation, the solid elements in the North should join her in a common front against all agitation of the slavery issue." 

While Calhoun may have never used the term, he understood as well as Marx and Engels did that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". His fear was that by struggling among themselves, capitalists and slave-owners were playing into the hands of workers and slaves.

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Calhoun died in 1850. To some extent, his nightmarish vision for America died in 1861, with the start of the American Civil War.

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While Calhoun ultimately failed as a statesman -- and I, for one, am grateful for that -- the task he imposed himself was too ambitious: no man could have stopped the decline of the slaveholding and agrarian Southern ersatz aristocracy, nor -- paraphrasing the Manifesto -- American society from "more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other -- bourgeoisie and proletariat".

However, one must credit Calhoun with uncanny prescience, as Hofstadter did:
"Calhoun's analysis of American political tensions certainly ranks among the most impressive intellectual achievements of American statesmen. Far in advance of the event, he forecast an alliance between Northern conservatives and Southern reactionaries, which has become one of the most formidable aspects of American politics. The South, its caste system essentially intact, has proved to be for an entire century [remember: this essay was published in 1948!] more resistant to change than the North, its influence steadily exerted to retard serious reform and to curb the power of Northern labor."
For his perspicacity -- if definitely not his intentions -- Calhoun earned the title of "Marx of the Master Class" Hofstadter gave him.

What a contrast with the mediocrity so common among our pathetic, so-called "progressive", "liberal" intellectuals and their discount "idealism".

Hofstadter's essay "John C. Calhoun: The Marx of the Master Class" is a must-read.


Image Credits:
[A] John C Calhoun, 1849, by Mathew Brady. Image in the public domain due to age. Source: Wikipedia.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Death, Climate Change, Degrowth.


Unless you are really very, very young, there is a good chance you have already witnessed an exchange like the one below:
Person 1 says, somberly: "I've got bad news…"
Person 2, suddenly concerned: "What? What happened?"
Person 1 (suppressing a sob): "You know, our friend/relative Bob He passed away. Yesterday"
Person 2, in shocked disbelief: "No! That can't be! I saw him last week, and he looked so well"
Let's think about Person 2's reaction. The fact that Bob was alive and well last week is no argument against the assertion that he died yesterday: people are alive all their lives, from the moment they were born; and they remain alive until the very moment they die.

In other words, the fact of being alive for years is no argument for immortality. Bob was alive 15 minutes before he died.

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Imagine now this conversation:
Person 1: Automation shall lead to generalized unemployment and poverty
Person 2: Preposterous! Every time technology advances people say that, and every time events prove those fears unfounded. You are falling in the fallacy of the lump of labour.
In this dialogue, one can criticize Person 2's reaction on exactly the same grounds: even if history had always contradicted the assertion "automation will lead to generalized unemployment and poverty", there is no warranty this time it won't be different. The fact that there has always been jobs, doesn't mean there will always be jobs.

Don't get we wrong: the accumulated empirical evidence has a weight. But we are talking about probabilities here. And to rely on probabilities we must assume the underlying process has not changed. Person 2's reply does not address that in any way.

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A last example:
Person 1: Growth cannot go on forever. We are depleting non-renewable natural resources; green house gas emissions and atmospheric pollution in general are changing the environment and the weather
Person 2: Pfff. That's the old Malthusian argument! Oil replaced coal, before coal was depleted. Increased population lead to increased agricultural output.
I suppose I don't need to comment: you get the idea.

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If you allow me a little pop-psychology here, Person 2 in the first example seems to be reacting according to the usual 5 stages of grief model. The first stage is disbelief, denial.

I submit that the same may be true for Person 2's reactions in the other two examples.

Unless Person 2 offers a compelling argument, the most his/her reaction shows is lots of faith. (And, sorry, the "fallacy of the lump of labour" thingie or the Malthusian label do not make the cut for a compelling argument).

I myself remain -- in varying degree -- an agnostic. (But the lack of a compelling argument, rightly of wrongly, only adds to the credibility of the opposing point of view).

Now, as an agnostic I may well be sensitive and respect Person 2's feelings/faith. But my respect doesn't make him/her right, convincing or even remotely reasonable.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Terror Doodles.


Hansen: "So how about it, Nash? You scared?"
Nash: "Terrified… mortified… petrified… stupefied… by you." (A Beautiful Mind)

Last week, Australian "police carried out dawn raids in Sydney and Brisbane which the country's prime minister, Tony Abbott, said were necessary to prevent imminent and random 'demonstration killings' by Islamic militants".

We didn't need to wait much to see our safety levels increase.

Oliver Buckworth, a Melbourne-based interior designer, last week "was removed from a Gold Coast-bound flight after a fellow passenger saw the contents of his notebook over his shoulder and informed Tiger [Airways] staff".

According to Fairfax Media and The Guardian (Australia), Buckworth's notebook contained terrifying doodles, explaining his fellow passengers' panic:
 "In a cartoon of a child clutching his head, Mr Buckworth wrote in a thought bubble: 'Tyrannosaurus Rex. Terodactyl. Tarantula. Terrorist'."
And the icing on the cake: "terrorismadeup".

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Now that we are scared witless, Daniel Hurst, writing for The Guardian (Australia) informs us that:
"Tony Abbott's approval rating rises after counter-terrorism raids
"Newspoll shows the prime minister's net satisfaction score is up eight points and the Coalition's primary vote is up two points" (See here)
PM Abbott has inexplicably seen a six-point increase in his personal approval rating, and the Coalition ("centre-right, conservative, libertarian") gained two points in the primary vote intention, while Labor lost one and the Greens lost three.

According to the Newspoll results, if elections were held today, the Coalition would have gotten 41% of the votes, Labor 34% and the Greens 11%.

I guess News Corp can report "mission accomplished".

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But, don't get me wrong: I'm every bit as patriotically terrified, mortified, and petrified as my fellow countrymen (although, apparently, not that stupefied). Who cares about real threats like the Abbott-Hockey budget, when the media can make up some bogeyman?

Now, with your permission, I need to go to the toilet. You know, to clean up the mess in my underwear after soiling myself.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Stiglitz, Vernengo and Rogoff on the IMF.

"Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." (Matthew 26:52. KJV)

Researching on the subject of public debt, I stumbled upon an open letter Kenneth Rogoff wrote to Joseph Stiglitz on July, 2002.

Among other things, Rogoff (at the time Economic Counsellor and Director of Research, IMF) reminisces about Princeton, in the late 1980s:
"One of my favorite stories from that era is a lunch with you [i.e. Stiglitz] and our former colleague, Carl Shapiro, at which the two of you started discussing whether Paul Volcker merited your vote for a tenured appointment at Princeton. At one point, you turned to me and said, 'Ken, you used to work for Volcker at the Fed. Tell me, is he really smart?' I responded something to the effect of 'Well, he was arguably the greatest Federal Reserve Chairman of the twentieth century'. To which you replied, 'But is he smart like us?' I wasn't sure how to take it, since you were looking across at Carl, not me, when you said it." (Emphasis in the original)
This got me thinking: how should one take Stiglitz's words? Was he, perhaps, asking whether Volcker was capable of operating an Excel spreadsheet properly?

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Incidentally, Rogoff speaks highly of the IMF and its openness to criticism and willingness to change:
"You [i.e. Stiglitz] say that the IMF is tone deaf and never listens to its critics. I know that is not true, because in my academic years, I was one of dozens of critics that the IMF bent over backwards to listen to."
By one of those things in life, just a few days ago (about 12 years after that letter was written, now with Olivier Blanchard as the IMF Economic Counsellor) Matías Vernengo wrote:
"So the whole change is a slightly higher inflation target, and a bit more expansionary fiscal policy, when the rate of interest is close to zero. You can read the rest, but if you have doubts about policy check what are the ones promoted by the IMF in the European periphery. As we argue: 'If there is any change in the IMF policy advice it is difficult to find in its policies'."
Twelve years and nothing changed: there's reason behind that "dismal science" view.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Free Freya!


This was the New Matilda's headline yesterday:
"BREAKING NEWS
"Freya Newman Pleads Guilty Over
"Frances Abbott's $60k Secret Scholarship Leak, by Amy McQuire."
(See here)
Freya Newman (21) is a communications student at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and used to work as a part-time night librarian at a Sydney-based private institution. She could have to serve up to 2 years in jail.

What was her crime? I'll give you the short version as documented by the local media, in their own words:

May 21,
The New Matilda published the following piece:
"Leaked Documents Cast Doubt On Abbott's $60k Scholarship Claims
"The Prime Minister is tonight under fire over a scholarship awarded to his daughter Frances. Chris Graham and Max Chalmers report."
(See here)
While Paul Farrell and Oliver Laughland, for The Guardian (Australia) write:
"Tony Abbott's Daughter Was Given Scholarship For $60,000 Design Degree
"Exclusive: Frances Abbott was awarded a chairman's scholarship for bachelors degree at prestigious Sydney institute where a donor to her father sits as chair of board of governors
"- Liberal donor recommended Abbott's daughter for scholarship
"-Frances Abbott was courted for scholarship, says New Matilda."
(See here)
The story also informed that a spokeswoman for the prime minister confirmed that Ms Abbott was a recipient of a scholarship, but denied that any impropriety had taken place.

August 2,
Writing for the right-leaning and Murdoch-owned The Australian, Brad Norington writes:
"Revealed: The Plot To Bring Down Tony Abbott's Daughter Frances
"NSW police are close to completing a criminal investigation into computer hacking that led to confidential student records about a $60,000 scholarship granted to Tony Abbott's daughter being leaked to the left-leaning, online magazine New Matilda."
(See here)

August 6,
Helen Davidson, writing for The Guardian (Australia):
"Frances Abbott Scholarship: Former Worker Is Charged With Data Breach
"Whistleblower who used to work at the Whitehouse Institute of Design to face court after police investigate news of $60,000 scholarship given to PM's daughter."
(See here)
The next event was Newman's plead, which opened this post.

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Speaking now on my own behalf and in my own words, there are two things I find appalling and disturbing in this issue.

First of all, it's simply unbelievable that in a country claiming to be civilized this issue was allowed to escalate in this manner, out of all proportion. Whether there were or not any improprieties (which apparently there weren't), the whole thing reeks of vindictiveness, meanness, and shameless abuse of power.

Writing on The Monthly (September issue), David Marr reminds us of Abbott's words in August 2012, at an Institute of Public Affairs ("right of centre, conservative, libertarian") event:
"We stand for the freedoms which Australians have a right to expect and which governments have a duty to uphold. We stand for freedom and will be freedom's bulwark against the encroachments of an unworthy and dishonourable government." (See here)
As God is my witness, I have many reservations about the Australian Labor Party. The readers know this. So far, these reservations have extended to Labor Party supporters, like Marr. But I have to agree with him on this:
"Abandoning his freedom crusade has left him [i.e. Abbott] a diminished figure: not a pioneer of liberty in anyone's eyes, just a blowhard on the campaign trail. The promises of freedom join all the other broken promises. Under Abbott no laws limiting freedom have changed for the better. Movement has all been the other way. The Coalition is running on instinct. We are back where we were under Howard. Freedom counts for little in political contest in this country."
Secondly, to mobilize police and judicial assets in this absurd manner, when the Abbott government, seconded by the NSW government, has claimed we are in a "fiscal crisis" is not just beyond the pale, is an embarrassment for Australian police and judiciary. Don't you people have anything better to do?

And it casts doubts on these institutions, particularly with the recent crackdown on alleged islamic terrorists.

Have we fallen so low?

I ask PM Abbott to intervene on Ms Newman's behalf; I demand from the Labor Party, the Greens and all the left and pseudo-left parties to make immediate and categoric public pronouncements against this abuse against a harmless Australian citizen, who, on top, is almost a child.

And I'll urge readers to consider this appeal: link

Monday, 15 September 2014

Monday!

"Ever had the feeling that your job might be made up? That the world would keep on turning if you weren't doing that thing you do 9-5?"

A bit over a year ago David Graeber wrote about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs. You remember, don't you? The article about the crappy, boring, soul-destroying, unfulfilling jobs people do, because they have bills to pay, in the process making some rich bastard richer?

(Something like our own jobs, come to think.)

Well, in that piece Graeber had many things right, some very, very wrong. But I won't discuss that.

I'll say this, though. He totally forgot something: the phenomenon of bullshit Mondays!

So, I decided to welcome you to your brand new week, reminding you that today is Monday -- like, yay!! --  with this old Supertramp song:


And, like that great Tasmanian philosopher said: "Don't complain, at least you still have a job".

Have an awesome week!


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Problem of Nietzsche.


"By birth, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was rabble[*]. We are told, and can see in sculptures of him, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all? Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed, thwarted in some way. Or it appears as declining development. The anthropological criminologists tell us that the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo [monstrous in appearance, monstrous in spirit]. But the criminal is a decadent. Was Socrates a typical criminal? At least that would be consistent with the famous judgment of the physiognomist that so offended the friends of Socrates. This foreigner told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum - that he harbored in himself all the worst vices and appetites. And Socrates merely answered: 'You know me, sir!'
"Socrates' decadence is suggested not only by the admitted wantonness and anarchy of his instincts, but also by the overdevelopment of his logical ability and his characteristic thwarted sarcasm. Nor should we forget those auditory hallucinations which, as 'the daimonion of Socrates,' have been given a religious interpretation. Everything about Socrates is exaggerated, buffo, a caricature; everything is at the same time concealed, ulterior, underground."
(Emphasis added. see here)
The author of that extraordinarily vile invective against Socrates became influential during the twentieth century, after a lifetime of obscurity and mediocrity: Friedrich Nietzsche.

What did Socrates, largely a mythical figure, do to deserve that outburst? "What really happened there"?

Credited by Plato, his disciple, with being the first true philosopher, little is known with any certainty about Socrates. Rightly or not, he emerges from Plato's writings as a rationalist, whose dialectical method was based on logical argument.

One could interpret Nietzsche's venom and slander as the words of a depraved Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, and leave things at that.

My reading, however, is different. Nietzsche's bile, directed against his view of Socrates, the man, should be interpreted as a hateful tirade against what Socrates came to represent:
"With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of logical argument. What really happened there? Above all, a noble taste is vanquished; with dialectics the plebs come to the top. Before Socrates, argumentative conversation was repudiated in good society: it was considered bad manners, compromising. The young were warned against it. Furthermore, any presentation of one's motives was distrusted. Honest things, like honest men, do not have to explain themselves so openly. What must first be proved is worth little. Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the logician is a kind of buffoon: one laughs at him, one does not take him seriously. Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously: what really happened there?" (Emphasis added)
In Nietzsche's mind, Socrates morphs from risible "buffoon" into a fearsome threat, because by adopting reason and dialogue, embodied by Socrates, the true Greeks of "noble taste" and "good bearing", the "good society", allegedly forfeited their "authority", their "command": "the plebs come to the top".

Recognizing implicitly the weakness of his position, Nietzsche gives up on rational reasoning, and, instead, appeals to an hominem argument (nominally against the man, but by association, against the ideas of the Enlightenment); in so doing expresses without masks the fear that others also expressed in barely disguised form (Corey Robin called that "elective affinity").

And, to Nietzsche's horror, since the Enlightenment, reason and democracy were predicated as the way of the future for Europe and the world.

Indeed, a spectre was haunting Europe.

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Nietzsche's fears about reason were as premature and unjustified as his attack is full of ironies: democratic dialogue between reasonable and polite gentlemen does not lead to social change.

That, however, does not stop Nietzsche from fearing the mere possibility. This makes of him a rightful enemy of democracy and a prophet of fascism, in addition to being a Post-Modern precursor. Is in this sense that Nietzsche deserves to be read and where he does provide insight.

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Ironically, the man who distrusted science and reason, appealed to Cesare Lombroso (the father of the "science" of anthropological criminology) to justify his tirade.

After mercilessly mocking Socrates' alleged ugliness, Nietzsche ended up looking like this:

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Hans Olde (1899/1900) [A]

And after throwing stones on Socrates' reason roof, fearing reason all his life, only at the end Nietzsche fully embraced unreason [#]:
"To his friend Meta von Salis he [i.e. Nietzsche] wrote:
" 'God is on the earth. Don't you see how all the heavens are rejoicing? I have just seized possession of my kingdom, I've thrown the Pope in prison, and I'm having Wilhelm, Bismarck, and [anti-Semitic politician Adolf] Stocker shot.'
"To his closest friend, theologian Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche wrote:
" 'The world will be turned on its head for the next few years: since the old God has abdicated, I will be ruling the world from now on'."
There is poetic justice in that.

Notes:
[*] The original in German reads "Sokrates gehörte, seiner Herkunft nach, zum niedersten Volk: Sokrates war Pöbel". The noun "Pöbel" translates as "rabble" and it is this word I use, instead of the softer adjective "plebeian", which Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale used. While etymologically connected to plebe, Pöbel carries in German a stronger negative connotation than the English plebe.
[#] Quoted from Sax, Leonard. What was the cause of Nietzsche’s dementia?
Journal of Medical Biography 2003; 11: 47–54.

Image Credits:
[A] "Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Hans Olde (1899/1900)". This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Source: Wikipedia.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Vicarious Embarrassment: the Short(en) Lines.


There are things so bloody pathetic that you can't avoid blushing with vicarious embarrassment.

Ever since the IS psychopaths started their terror campaign in Iraq, the local Murdoch-dominated media has done its best to spin the horrific images into a direct and immediate threat to Australia. And by one of those extraordinary coincidences this happens just as the Federal Liberal-National ("centre-right, conservative, libertarian") Coalition so-called Government faces strong and justified criticism for its terrible budget.

A couple of weeks ago, WA senator Sue Lines (Labor) joined the dots:
"And it [i.e. the Federal Government] is looking for opportunities in the media and elsewhere to try and scare the Australian public and to distract everyone from the budget." (see here)
Predictably, Scott Morrison, the Federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (Liberal-National Coalition), denied it in his party's customary insulting style:
" 'If she doesn't believe the IS involvement in Iraq and Syria presents a genuine and real threat to Australia then she's a muppet,' he said.
"That's just ridiculous and I think she should be hurled into line by her leader and the debate returned to the adults." 
(see here) 
So far, nothing really extraordinary: an Australian citizen exercising her right to free-speech, being rebuffed by an arrogant Government minister.

What makes this episode remarkable was the immediate reaction of Bill Shorten, "her leader", to Morrison's "order":
"Shorten said he had spoken with Lines about the comments but would not go into details of the conversation.
" 'I and Labor recognise that national security is a matter which goes above day-to-day politics,' he said.
"Other Labor figures also distanced themselves from Lines's comments."
(see here)
Ah. But Australian pundits can't understand why lefty voters are so chronically unhappy with Labor. You need to be a genius to solve that riddle.