July 2023

Life Sentences

‘You don’t have to like people, only love them’

By John Safran
An observation from Father Bob Maguire – and an antisemitic man in need of charity – taught the author a valuable life lesson

When it came to accolades, Father Bob Maguire reminded me of the counterculture figures I’d dug growing up, from Johnny Rotten to Abbie Hoffman, from Chuck D to Jim Goad. There was always a tension. They would appreciate their work being celebrated – show me the artist free of ego and you’ll be pointing to a poxy artist – but were sceptical, even paranoid. Why is this institute granting me a prize? What’s in it for them? What if I buy into the flattery? Will it lead me astray? For the love of God, I cannot be a sell-out.

Father Bob would have felt that tension in May, up in Heaven, looking down and finding himself awarded a state funeral, at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, in recognition of his social work and for being hilarious. The egoist in him would have sort-of liked the dignitaries showering him with well-deserved praise. But his counterculture soul would have squirmed. That’s why I felt obliged to do what I knew he would love: I roasted him while he lay in a box only a few metres from where I stood. Playing off his love for appearing in the media, I eulogised: “Bob was like a reverse-Native American. He thought his soul would be taken away if a camera wasn’t pointed at him.” But it was said with love and respect. And what was he going to do about it anyway? (Having said that, I did trip leaving the podium. Was Bob’s spectral foot responsible?)

Bob helped me untangle the complicated realities of life. Let’s walk through one. Through Father Bob I learnt underprivileged people could be jerks. Not all of them, but roughly in the same proportion as any other population. So, a lot.

The first day I filmed with Bob, in 2004, he called over a downtrodden bloke who hung out on his church lawn. Bob was hoping for a touching moment for my documentary. The man thanked him and the Father Bob Maguire Foundation for their help over the years. Then he eased into blaming the Jews for his predicament. What an a-hole.

Then and there, Bob told me something that stuck, that helps me travel through the world: you don’t have to like people, only love them. Its immediate meaning is something like: be kind to people, show them dignity, even if they’re wretched. But trying to live this aphorism doesn’t only benefit the wretched. It benefits the other party – in the incident just outlined, me.

How so? I become frustrated when I feel coerced to suppress what is so obviously true. Bob’s teaching puts on the table that there are wankers and shit-for-brains among the oppressed. And with that, the truth sets me free. I can get on with it. I didn’t respond to Bob’s hobo-Nazi by boycotting the Father Bob Maguire Foundation; I did my bit to help Bob with his work.

You might counter that I’m stating the obvious – that there are dipshits and pricks amongst the underprivileged. But don’t you gaslight me. From World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine to Amnesty International campaigns, the social-justice industry is built on positioning those too poor for shoes as goody-two-shoes. They never tell you that as soon as that World Vision kid is nourished, on your dime, he’ll be down at the internet cafe trying to fleece you in a Nigerian Prince scam.

In 2014, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox, who is transgender, joined a campaign to improve safety for transgender prisoners in the United States. Each celebrity campaigner was filmed reading out a letter from an inmate. Cox then withdrew her support and renounced the campaign, after finding out her assigned prisoner had committed horrendous acts including murder. Why did she think people end up in prison with life sentences? Chances are that many of the non-murderers were jackasses too. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, running the campaign, didn’t whitewash that the prisoner had unleashed unimaginable misery onto her victims. But it said that this distressing truth didn’t run at odds with the fact inmates deserve safety themselves.

So, thank you Father Bob, for helping me square the circle. I think about you whenever I come across a dickhead asylum seeker or insufferable cancer patient. You don’t have to like people, only love them. And to that downtrodden man on the church lawn who blamed the Jews: go fuck yourself, and here’s a bowl of soup.

John Safran

John Safran is a writer and filmmaker. His latest book, Puff Piece, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. His documentary on Jewish Australia is part of SBS’s Who The Bloody Hell Are We? series.

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