The Daily Telegraph should at least be given credit for remembering what no one else did: that a couple of weeks ago marked the first anniversary of Mark Latham’s resignation from federal politics. Prior to the altercation with Ross Schultz, Latham had disappeared entirely from the public scene, becoming a kind of media persona non grata. Maybe he finally achieved the anonymity denied him by political office - the smashing of the camera testifies clearly enough to his desire for privacy. But wasn’t his complete disappearance up to this point a little conspicuous?
Just think back to mid-September, and the media orgy that surrounded the publication of The Latham Diaries. After The Australian purchased exclusive rights to publish some of the more incendiary portions of the Diaries - effectively to inoculate the public against what Latham consistently claimed was a “serious book” that has “a lot to say about political science and social studies in this country” - Latham was everywhere, albeit reduced to little more than a spectacle, an object of the Big Brother-like voyeurism he so detested in contemporary Australian society.
During his political career, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show provided a consistent point of personal reference for Latham (he alludes to it throughout his Diaries and even signs off with, “And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night”). But the media frenzy last September more closely resembled a scene from The Elephant Man than the benign gaze of Truman’s viewers: New Ltd, Fairfax and the ABC were all falling over themselves to be the first to put “the freak” on show, to poke moralistically at Latham’s apparent hypocrisy, to draw out the bruising Westie from beneath his thin veneer of civility.
This reduction of Latham’s Diaries to the ravings of a megalomaniac was incredibly effective. He made headlines, sold papers, boosted ratings … and then vanished without a trace. The entire strategy resembled one of Hollywood’s well-worn subplots: the villain can’t simply kill the hero because then he becomes a martyr (and thus larger than life in the public imaginary). He first must discredit the hero, subject him to a social death prior to his actual physical demise.
By discrediting Latham as the maniac that almost became PM, his Diaries were made to join the ranks of those other great intellectual memoirs whose purpose was to justify the activities of their authors and establish their historical greatness, but only served to confirm a deeper insanity - Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoires of My Nervous Illness and, of course, Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
But let’s return to Latham’s beloved Truman Show for a moment. Peter Weir had the crazy idea of attempting to include the “actual audience” watching The Truman Show within the voyeuristic loop that constitutes the film’s theme: “I would have loved to have had a video camera installed in every theatre the film was to be seen. At one point, the projectionist would cut power and could cut to the viewers in the cinema and then back to the movie.” In other words, at some point in the film, the audience would have the camera turned back upon them so that they could watch themselves watching the movie.
In this same spirit, what if we were to turn the attention back onto our response to Latham? I was sickened, in the wake of the Diaries, by the back-patting and expressions of self-congratulation that we had not elected Latham. But the sheer mauvais foi of such expressions merely serves to underline Latham’s popularity as an alternative PM throughout 2004. Perhaps the morbid fascination that gripped us all watching Latham’s supposed descent into madness was merely a deflection from our own earlier complicity in his rise to prominence.
And here we have democracy at its worst. Democratic politics is authentic only during a genuine moment of indecision, a well-nigh paralysis over what choice is the right one, that moment when the full weight of the importance of the decision, on the one hand, and our incapacity to make it, on the other, achieves awareness in us. Conversely, democracy is never more loathsome than when we take our stupidity and fickleness for virtues, believing that the democratic process will always “land on its feet” and that the collective substance of “the people” is greater than our diminished capacity as individuals.
This perhaps holds to key to the reason for Latham’s rapid departure from federal politics: a loss of faith. While Latham’s animosity toward Labor factionalism was clear, and the break with his erstwhile mentor much publicised, what went almost entirely unnoticed in the commentary on the Diaries was Latham’s fidelity to Keating. Both Labor leaders remained committed to the “Australia that could be” but were rather contemptuous of “really existing Australia”, the ordinary punters (unlike Howard, of course, who has found his niche with the rabble on the hill).
For Latham, the role of progressive politics was to overcome the effects of prolonged prosperity - self-interest, downward envy, insular cynicism apathy - and to encourage the development of genuine forms of social cohesion at a local level. He staked his entire campaign on the belief that, if Australians could be shown another way, a different Australia, they would abandon Howard in droves.
The first serious blow to Latham’s belief came on the night of the “Great Debate” (which he decisively won): “I was on a high, until I found out the next day that more people watched Australian Idol than the debate. Does politics matter in this country? Not really.” Australians, for Latham, had renounced the very desire for authentic society in favour of the idiocy of pop culture.
Then, after the election, the realities of Howard’s Australia became all too apparent.
Apathy is the greatest enemy of progressive politics. [People] have contracted out management of the economy to Howard and Costello. They don’t care how many lies Howard tells or how smug Costello looks; as long as the economy is strong they will vote Liberal. My campaign was just a sidelight to them. And the really scary thing? That’s how most of the country sees our democracy. Cynicism is the gold standard of modern politics, the public discount all the words and go for self-interest.
Ultimately, Latham didn’t lose his faith in Labor, but in the Australian people. And here the bombastic tone of his Diaries takes on different resonances. Latham’s self-aggrandisement is predicated on the underlying belief that if he is right, then the Australian people are wrong - not just in our choice of Howard, but wrong at our essence. Maybe this is why we were so eager to forget him?
It is with the publication of the Diaries that Latham best expresses his place in the Keating tradition. Over against Hawke’s shameless populism, Keating knew that the task of any great politician is to wage war against his own people, to drive them to achieve something other than themselves. What if we don’t need different politicians, but different Australians? As Bertolt Brecht put it in 1953, the most difficult, but necessary task of all is “to dissolve a people and elect another”.