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Embracing the arrogance of Kevin Rudd

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Tuesday, 3 December 2013


It seems all too natural that any mention of arrogance should bring our collective attention to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. You can almost taste the bile in the mouths of average citizens when his name emerges in conversation. Rudd has seemingly committed an unforgivable sin. He failed to sufficiently care about consensus opinions, nor offer the sort of social platitudes that we tend to expect. For this he was professionally condemned – he should have been applauded.

Arrogance it seems is just too much of a barrier for Australian audiences to reason through. As was the case recently when Peter Hitchens appeared on ABC's Q&A. The consequential swell of public disgust was largely targeted at the unabridged approach he carried into the discussion and the superior tone he employed, rather than at the social judgements he voiced, that are by and large, out of step with the majority of Australian citizens. What wasn't recognised was that unlike most people who express such unpopular opinions, Peter Hitchens showed the courtesy of not trying to obfuscate the supporting rationale. This sort of intellectual courage is rarely seen in our country, and not surprising considering the unengaged response.

Similarly, the ego-maniacal impression of Kevin Rudd which public opinion has come to accept, is just as misplaced. Largely it originates from his professional interaction with colleagues, staffers, advisors and senior bureaucrats. These people, whether they recognise it or not, are at the highest echelons of government, with all the privileges and future employment guarantees that working intimately with our highest elected official entails. That the downside of this opportunity was a demand that they match the Prime Minister's personal work ethic and that they endure a lack of courtesy, seems trivial. The shallowness of this sentiment is not what you would expect from people tasked with running our country, people who should be able to recognise the bigger picture. There is pettiness and a sense of self-entitlement about such criticism, an immature demand for recognition - this is what arrogance really looks like.

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Yet even if we are to take it for granted that the true measure of human arrogance lies with Rudd in this equation, it cannot be removed from the courage it demands. Arrogance can only be labelled as such after it is demonstrated in an open forum, after it becomes apparent to others that majority opinion and moral consensus have no impact on the decision making process of a particular individual. It necessarily entails someone willing to suffer publicly for their beliefs and their means of achievement - Kevin Rudd believed he knew what was in the long-term benefit of Australia and what sort of leadership it would take to achieve it. In as far as this was more important to him than being liked, he was arrogant. In this sense Kevin Rudd was not your ordinary politician – he was much better.

Despite such ideological conviction and intellectual integrity underlying his behaviour, the hatred felt toward Kevin Rudd has not been hard to find. Countless former and present Labor MP's seem to believe that only a public airing of their animosity toward Rudd would help to ease the suffering he inflicted upon them. As custom dictates, now that he is politically dead and has retired from politics, this behaviour has abated - though one would imagine only temporarily.

If anything had been obvious over the last 3 years, it is that Kevin Rudd was only interested in being a member of parliament if it meant leading the parliament. Having shown no interest in running in the Labor leadership ballot, and having barely set foot in Australia since the election defeat, it should have been obvious that Rudd was planning for a life outside of politics. That he remained as an MP was merely to give the people of Griffith some breathing space between elections, holding on to his seat, though in a no-show capacity, long enough to spare Labor electoral punishment by dragging the voters to polling stations too soon after they were last inconvenienced. Yet this failed to stop an expanding circle of his ex and present colleagues from lambasting his presence as destabilising and screaming for his resignation. If this sentiment was genuine, a quick phone call to the party leadership would have calmed their concerns about his ongoing capacity. Whereas previously, political expediency forbade it, this was simply the best available excuse to publicly denounce the character of our former Prime Minister. Like a child unable to contain their anger, there is no message or pragmatism to be found here, these outbursts are entirely reducible to the personal offense taken to Kevin Rudd as a human being.

The casual manner in which former attorney-general Nicola Roxon called Rudd a 'bastard' during her John Button Memorial Lecture summed up this attitude. It seems there is no occasion too important, no moment that is too inappropriate to personally attack our former Prime Minister - these are highly paid professionals, proving unable to contain their emotions. Yet, the real message is in the content rather than the insult, "Removing Kevin was an act of political bastardry, for sure, but this act of political bastardry was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to too many people". That is, it was the style rather than the contents of his governance that brought about its downfall. It is here that we should be outraged, this is simply too capricious and superficial a reason to condemn the highest office in the country – the one office where results should matter above all else.

As with Kevin Rudd, it has become fashionable to denigrate the work of Ayn Rand, and you can see why, her literature is dominated by a reconceptualization of what it means to be selfish. She offers sympathy to the narcissists amongst us, "You have been called arrogant for your independent mind. You have been called anti-social for the vision that made you venture upon undiscovered roads. You have been called ruthless for the strength and self-discipline of your drive to your purpose". What Rand is proposing is a question, "by what right? - by what code? - by what standard?" are these judgements valid - on what side of this relationship does selfishness and arrogance really reside? Is the arrogance of Kevin Rudd really the problem here, as opposed to our unyielding demand that he be crucified for it. Nietzsche explains the phenomenology of this reaction when he says "arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive".

Sadly, hostility is all too common as our natural response when we are confronted by any degree of arrogance. It grinds on our minds and infects the nature of personal interaction to the point that reason and content become meaningless – and in this, we do ourselves a disservice. When former Labor MP Steve Gibbons attacked Kevin Rudd as a "psychopath", there seemed by a lack of condemnation, to be a tacit approval for this characterization – a characterisation that is almost exclusively employed as an insult. Yet does anyone believe that the majority of high level CEO's are not arrogant, selfish and driven? Is it not consistently claimed that psychopaths dominate the upper echelons of the corporate world? This seems to register with most of us only as an interesting piece of trivia, rather than as it should, as statement about high achievement and of the professional benefit that can be realized by disconnecting action from emotion.

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If this sort of successful personality does not flourish in politics, if these individuals that drive the private sector are not to be found driving our country - then it is our failing, not theirs. It is to our detriment that we cannot climb above the trivial and the petty, that we cannot discern the message from the medium. Kevin Rudd was a rare political mind, the like of which is no longer noticeably present in the Australian parliament. If all we can remember him for is his personality, then we are creating a barrier for future political talent, pushing young professionals into alternative career paths where they can be judged on results, rather than likability. By vilifying the arrogance of Kevin Rudd, we are tacitly devaluing the qualities of courage, determination and independent thought – we are setting a dangerous standard for Australian politics.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is an Australian writer and academic. A La Trobe University graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Philosophy, and Deakin University graduate with a Master's degree in International Relations, Jed has resided and worked extensively around the world. Follow Jed's writing at https://twitter.com/JedLeaHenry

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