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The cult of the arsehole

Australia should have a long, hard think about the kind of people we prioritise

I re-watched Whiplash the other day. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a terrific, morally indefensible movie about a music teacher who pushes a young jazz drummer to greatness. Its unusual central message is that abuse works. Bigoted insults, physical assault, even driving a student to suicide are all justified, if these tactics produce one Buddy Rich clone 50 years past its use-by-date. (Even the jazz icon idolised is a bully.) What It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas, Whiplash is to arseholes.

The movie’s been on my mind because this week I’m headed back to Australia, after more than six months away. Last time I was in Sydney, Tony Abbott was still prime minister, and I’m curious to see if the change is tangible. I know that systemic problems aren’t fixed by replacing one person, and I’m wary of “civility” discourse in politics. Still, it was nice to think or at least pretend that the air might be a little clearer after that petty, obnoxious, suspicious, stupid and squalid era (not all of which was Tony Abbott’s fault).

But then I broke the cardinal rule of holidaying and read the Australian news. And here I came across an item that still resists belief. Re-reading it now makes me feel like a cartoon stockbroker, ready to hop out the window still clutching the tickertape.

“The federal government says it will consider backing Kevin Rudd for a top United Nations job if the former prime minister puts his hat in the ring.”

That’s not just a top job, but the top job, the full Kofi Annan. And you can feverishly check the date all you like, but that news item is from the Year of Our Lord 2016. It is Julie Bishop offering that support; Labor are on board already. Kevin Rudd has bipartisan backing to become head of the United Nations. The United Nations of Earth.

If you haven’t seen Kevin Rudd, let’s recap. The two-time former prime minster isn’t just an arsehole, he’s the Dalai Lama of arseholes: the kind of arsehole that comes just once in a generation, mystically identified from childhood, then goes on to fulfil the ancient predictions of a sooth-sayer by showing how much of an arsehole he is. One of the difficulties Julia Gillard suffered as prime minister is that she was never allowed to disclose just what a titanic, unworkable arsehole her predecessor was. It became a matter of state secrecy, like a nuclear code. “We knew he had a narcissistic personality disorder, but thought he’d be a good PM as long as no-one found out” is a hard sell. Besides, the same factional bosses who defenestrated him refenestrated him, and that was after civilians knew the true nature of the beast.

At least there was a silver lining: in his brief time(s) in office, Rudd demonstrated not just his own fatal flaws, but a fatal flaw in the auteur theory of arseholes. That’s the problem with Whiplash – most shouting bosses aren’t Gordon Ramsay. They aren’t even Bernard King. They’re just people like Rudd: sub-standard individuals who bully and bluster their way to the top.

And Rudd wasn’t just an incompetent arsehole, but incompetent partly because he was an arsehole. He was still using the phrase “the smartest guys in the room” as a compliment, even after it had become synonymous with Enron’s corporate corruption. He believed he could single-handedly find a missing plane in Papua New Guinea, simply by looking at maps all night in Canberra. Public servants talked about “the Eye of Sauron”, because any prime ministerial interest in your area would mean a certain trip to Mount Doom.

Not so long ago, at the funeral of Gough Whitlam, former prime minister Kevin Rudd arrived to an icy and absolute silence from his comrades. It was so exquisitely awful it carried the tenor of another time, when words like “reputation” and “public disgrace” still really meant something. Dwell, for a moment, on what it takes to become the most despised person in the history of the Australian Labor Party, what kind of soul it takes to win that contest.

And yet here we are. How does the conversation go, exactly?

“Hey, Kevin’s in the news again.”

“You mean Kevin Rudd, the man whose uniquely acerbic temperament kicked off a five-year political crisis and almost destroyed our political party?  What about him?”

“Looks like he might run for the top job at the UN.”

“That sounds like the kind of insane megalomaniacal thinking totally out-of-step with his capacities that got us in this mess in the first place.”

“Yeah – but we’re backing it, obviously.”

“Right. I’d better get JBish on the phone … Good news. She’s in.”

You’ll forgive me, then, if that first step at Kingsford Smith has a little less spring to it. Because surely – surely – this can’t continue. Australia runs anti-bullying campaigns at school, and then still rewards, and indeed lionises, the same behaviour in every other sphere of society. I used to think it came from mixing larrikinism with authoritarianism. Or from sport, some version of the primacy given to the coach’s spray. But sport has moved on, and the teams with the “no dickheads” policies have become champions. It’s time the rest of us moved on as well. Instead we’re making a rare bipartisan push to inflict it on the whole world. Our parties can’t agree we need fast internet, but they can hot-tub over this. No wonder, with each passing year, more and more of our national neighbours think we’re a pack of arseholes.

About the author Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is a writer, broadcaster and contributing editor to the Monthly.

@rgcooke
 
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