For foreigners and people disinterested in politics, Kevin Rudd is our most recent former Prime Minister. Australia had a bit of a problem: it had a political reader who wasn’t engaged in the public discourse and lacked a popular narrative. To the average person, he was something of an unknown quantity. When the Government faced problems, the inability of the public to understand the Prime Minister resulted in plummeting popularity polls — from his record-breaking highs to remarkably average results in only a few months.
When dealing with historical figures, writers situate them in a context which provides a coherent picture for analysis. There’s nothing new about this: writers such as Livy and Tacitus used these techniques to provide crisp images of their subjects: what drove these people? what made them who they were? what part of them could we emulate in our own lives? what part of them should we avoid in our own lives?
In his essay, Marr took a similar approach with Rudd. What was at the core of Rudd? How could Marr ‘make sense’ of Rudd?
SPOILER ALERT: Marr views Rudd as a creature of ‘impatient rage’ and views the life and actions of Rudd through that lens. It’s an excellent article and analysis.
What baffles me is the response it’s received in the media. There are two refutations of the essay available to critics:
1. ‘Using Marr’s approach of analysing Rudd through his anger does not bear useful results. Rudd’s anger is not all-pervasive and too much remains unexplained. Using Marr’s approach, I still do not feel like I understand Rudd.’
2. ‘While Marr’s approach is good and useful, there are other good and useful approaches. We could view Rudd through … [insert another lens here].’
Instead, various people have whined that Marr’s approach is somehow illegitimate. ‘No, no,’ they seem to say, ‘You can’t view somebody through the lens of their anger. Here is a Wikipedia link and here’s a poem.’
For illustration, here’s Mark Bahnisch’s article on Crikey:
David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, “Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd”, already highlighted in the weekend papers, will no doubt garner even more attention now that it’s been released.
I’m in shock. Can you imagine the sheer power of Bahnisch’s mind grinding away for a night and a day to come to the conclusion that releasing an article causes the article to attract more attention? Give this man a research grant.
Marr contends that Rudd revealed himself as “most human” when he was angry at the conclusion of a dinner he’d had with the writer, and after Marr had told him that his argument in the essay was that Rudd’s “contradictions” were borne of rage. This seems to me to be absurd. I can’t imagine anyone under the same circumstances not being angry at such an insulting, wounding and trivialising line of argument.
Marr, it seems to me, was “thin-slicing”, using one aspect of his interpersonal experience with Rudd to confirm a purported broader pattern.
In which universe is this not a complete non sequitur? So what if he can’t imagine a person who has self restraint and poise? Bahnisch’s lack of imagination does not a rebuttal of Marr’s point make. By comparison, I can imagine a person who would not be angry at ‘such’ an insulting, wounding, and trivialising line of argument: me. Does this make Marr’s point more persuasive?
Consider also Scott Stephens over at ABC’s The Drum in ‘Murder in the party room: Rudd and the martyr complex‘. Stephens rarely shies from weird babbling: according to him, electing Schwarzenegger to Governor of California is Americans ‘retreat[ing] into fiction‘ and he had an article pulled from Eureka Street for being so offensive that even Andrew Bolt agreed with it.
And he doesn’t fail to meet the expectations in his criticism of David Marr.
Some puerile resentment stemming from childhood traumas explains nothing about Kevin Rudd because it explains everything. And Marr clearly errs in seeing it everywhere, coiled around the disparate elements of Rudd’s story, providing them the artificial consistency of a mediocre psychodrama.
What does that even mean? ‘Explains nothing […] because it explains everything’? It’s characteristic Unitarian babble: waffly sentences which try to hide the lack of substance in the criticism.
But let’s look at Stephens’ alternative:
Whether it be the calmly defiant Thomas More of Robert Bolt’s The Man for All Seasons or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brave resistance to the Nazi regime or the political assassination of Gough Whitlam, martyrs seem to function as a kind of idee fixe for Kevin Rudd. They order Rudd’s political passions in much the way that Lincoln or King or Bobby Kennedy do those of Barack Obama.
And here, I think, we have the key to the Rudd enigma – and perhaps the beginnings of an answer to the question with which I began. It’s not that Rudd wants to be a martyr. Rather, he wants to see himself through the eyes of the adoring throng that venerates the martyrs.
Le whut? All the words appear to be in English, but sense has gone on holiday.
Marr’s essay isn’t perfect — there are times where the essay seems to be something of a grudge match — but to offer flimsy assertions that Marr’s wrong ‘just because’ doesn’t seem to do the essay much justice.