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Jun 9, 2010

David Marr’s anger hypothesis is torturously argued

Kevin Rudd should be judged on the public benefits of his actions, not on a whole bunch of inferences from his biography and cherry picking by David Marr in his Quarterly Essay on Rudd.

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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. Indeed, Marr was interviewed on his piece by Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report.

Marr argues that Rudd is primarily driven by anger. Purportedly, this rage stems from his childhood experiences.

It’s a tortuously argued hypothesis. And it’s one I suspect that informed Marr’s conversations with others, rather than emerged from the evidence he examined. Marr himself highlights the notorious belief in Canberra circles that Rudd’s squeaky-clean image was dissonant with the face he presented privately.

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.

Certainly, the claim he makes that the only issues on which Rudd displays courage are those with some tenuous connection (in Marr’s mind) to his so-called childhood traumas seems to mask an unreflective disappointment that the issues Marr himself holds most dear are not the ones Labor is highlighting. And the selective quotation of Rudd’s first speech to Parliament obscures other statements of his political beliefs, and the public purposes that have inspired his career.

It may be true, as Marr contends, that we don’t really know Kevin Rudd. After this latest exercise in amateur psychology, I’m not sure we need to know.

Surely Rudd should be judged on the public benefits of his actions, not on a whole bunch of inferences from his biography, and a highly selective cherry picking of evidence, a lot of which appears to come from those with an axe to grind.

I’m sure Marr would not like his own public career to be assessed on the basis of a reductive argument that one emotional state, putatively the result of childhood trauma, determines his entire life, and I’m not at all sure that he’s done anyone much of a service by doing that to Kevin Rudd, whatever his private failings may or may not be.

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65 thoughts on “David Marr’s anger hypothesis is torturously argued

  1. Michael R James

    @DECCLES at 2:04 pm “Has anybody who has posted read the Quarterly Essay? The points that Marr make are highlighted with lengthy contextual direct quotes from Kevin Rudd himself. To suggest that Marr constructed a 100 page essay based on a lunch and short walk with Kevin Rudd alone is frankly insulting.”

    Yes, I have. I partly agree with you. But actually I also did not come away with the overwhelming impression that the “rage” hypothesis was the main thing (I haven’t reached the end of the Q essay yet.) but that it was partly a media beat-up, trying to find an angle. Marr said clearly that the frank discussion on the beach was not a rage, not one of those obscenity-laced tirades but a genuinely passionate outpouring from Rudd.
    The title “Power Trip” is truer but actually a bit banal. Is there any leader this does not apply to? Marr provides a “description” of Kevin Rudd but could not really penetrate the motivation behind his peculiarities. The destructive obsession with detail to the exclusion of getting the broader picture in focus and actually done. The deaf, dumb and blind insistence on ABC-AM that he had very, very hard work ahead of him! I am sure I was one of thousands who shouted at the radio: bloody hell, take a long holiday, take a chill pill, a massage

    Whitlam is one of his heroes yet he doesn’t seem to have learnt much from the great man (I have more to say on that in tomorrow’s Drum); certainly he doesn’t want to crash in 35 months like Whitlam (but he HAS anyway but without getting much of his agenda, unlike Whitlam). This may be inherent in most politicians but it also could have been reinforced by Goss’s two objectives, cited in Marr’s essay: “”First, to run a traditional Labor government and drive important reforms; and second, to deliver a long-term, stable government. Taking the public with us.”

    These are all very bright guys but they continue to think they can do the impossible: implement long-needed reform (always long overdue after a protracted Coalition government, in Qld it was like traversing geological epochs), be a progressive government yet simultaneously bring the people with you! Australians are extraordinarily and narrowly timid. If Gough couldn’t do it (and he did do it for two elections, not for the third) then one has to be a realist and, if one let’s one patriotism overrule ego, go for the “crash or crash through” strategy. I would gamble against all the dumb polls and venture to say that if he had taken a genuine approach to a real ETS (fewer concessions to miners more real action) and had strongly defended a compassionate asylum policy, then he would be better in the polls than he is now. Either way he would probably still win the next election but the difference is he would not have compromised policy nor his credibility.

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    Actually it is the other media misinterpreting what Marr actually wrote. And deliberately so.

    What he wrote was Rudd’s anguish because he wants to do good things for the sick, the poor and the dispossessed but things get over run by beaurocracy.

    It was an interesting essay and I felt enormously sad for the 11 year old who watched his father die an horrendous death over 8 weeks, got dumped with relatives, slept in the car, got sent to an abusive catholic boys school and so on.

    It takes an enormous amount of guts to go on and become a bright and gifted diplomat and the descriptions of the job Rudd actually did in Queensland are the polar opposite of the Dr Death syndrome the Nats whine on about.

    The problem in Australia is that the press gallery are a bunch of bored twats who got so used to turning every statement by Howard into a news story that they don’t know how to do any work any more.

    David said in the first interview that Rudd’s rage is a rage to do good, not that it is a bad rage.

    I understand that rage – I discovered at 14 that there were aborigines in this country who were treated as flora and fauna and rage against that machine has kept me advocating for aboriginal rights ever since. I have the same rage over our treatment of refugees who come and ask for our help.

    The same rage when I see cowards beat a smaller person or we bomb another country to bits and have no empathy for the victims.

    I think Rudd empathises way too much which is not a problem until the hard bitches like Gillard over rule him.

  3. John Bennetts

    David Marr is a lawyer turned journalist. Or is he the celebrated English neuroscientist? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Marr_(neuroscientist) Believing it to be the former, I suggest that he chill out a bit, too. I suspect that he has overplayed his hand in his assessment of the PM.

    OTOH, as I said in response to an earlier article on this subject, I fear that the PM’s performance is suffering due to a feeling of self importance, of urgency, in part made worse by lack of sleep. If only he would delegate more, trust his front bench, use Cabinet as it is designed to be used and take regular breaks away from the office I feel that his personality would return to being three-dimensional. At present, it is, at most, two dimensional, sometimes only one. (Is he still cranky? Yes/No)

    For instance: Peter Garrett heard of the dropping of the ceiling insulation program, not from a process of Cabinet discussion, or even a message from the PM, but by reading the morning papers. What does that tell you?

    My personal history has convinced me that I am capable of extremely hard work, but that after a period of this, I become less considerate of others, snappy, shoot from the hip, make less nuanced decisions, perhaps even stuff up comletely.

    For mine, the PM is simply overtired and fatigued and needs to pace himself by only getting involved on a needs basis, rather by than trying to row all 8 oars in the boat.

  4. Syd Walker

    For his next stunt, David Marr might care to psycholanalyse all the so-called, self-important ‘Insiders’ – a carefully selected subset of Australian political commentary that never includes, shall we say, any ‘Helen Thomas opinions’.

    Then perhaps they could all do a reality TV show together so the Australian public can turn the channel and forget all about them.

    These ‘top-flight’ journalists come across to me as opportunistic smart-asses who value, above all, their future employability in one branch or another of Murdoch’s New Corp.

    What went wrong with their toilet-training, David? (and yours)

    When is ONE mainstream journalist going to point out what many in the community have knwn for years: the war in Afghanistan is not only illegal and immoral. Even more importantly, the ‘founding myths’ of the war – 9-11 and all that – are obviously a bogus pack of lies to anyone who cares to look into the matter with an open mind.

    Why do all these ‘insiders’ keep lying to the Australian community about mass murder? Why are public funds employed to keep these liars on our screens?

    See http://edwardrynearson.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/is-the-war-in-afghanistan-justified-by-911/ – and weep for the state of Australian journalism and political commentary which has studiously avoided this explosive story for years and years on end.

    ‘Insiders’ like Marr sneer at ‘conspriacy theorists’, while inventing the most preposterous theories and foisting them on us all for a nice price. They have abandoned the most fundamental cornerstone of their profession: the quest to reveal important truths to the public. Shame!

  5. Jack Strocchi

    Mark Bahnsich said:

    Marr argues that Rudd is primarily driven by anger. Purportedly, this rage stems from his childhood experiences.

    I’m sure Marr would not like his own public career to be assessed on the basis of a reductive argument that one emotional state, putatively the result of childhood trauma, determines his entire life,

    There is nothing wrong with a bit of amateur psychologising. We all do it and politicians are fair game, they go into the public sphere not afraid to dish it out. They should cop it sweet.

    The problem is not with psychologising, its with bad psychologising. Marr gets the role of Rudd’s anger ass-backwards. Rudd’s anger is a side-effect, not a driving force, in his career path. Rudd is not angry because of his modest origins, he is angry because of his relatively modest destiny.

    He compares himself and (correctly) idolises Whitlam, a true man of destiny. Rudd hero worships Whitlam because Gough is everything he is not and never will be – a leader of men in a great cause. And since he falls well short of this mark, and always will, he is angry with himself and with others. Hence his infamous dummy-spits.

    Rudd’s sense of thwarted ambition does not drive him, it torments him. Rudd is essentially a managerial, rather than entrepreneurial, personality. As I observed in 04 MAY 2008:

    Rudd is the quintessential softly-softly diplomat who abhors damaging conflict.

    Thats why he squibbed on Climate Change and the Double Dissolution. He is going on the RSPT out of a sense of compensation and to shore up his Left-wing.

    Unfortunately Rudd will never achieve what he thinks is the proper destiny of a PM. He just does not have it in him to be a great leader and he knows it deep down inside. Rudd is angry with himself for failing to live up to his own ideals of political courage.

  6. Jack Strocchi

    David Sanderson @ #52 said:

    At the risk of committing the same sin myself may I suggest that he has an unrealised desire to be the modern-day Patrick White and that these novelistic excursions are about his own rage at not achieving this goal.

    I think it is worth taking that risk since sin of psychologising barely rises to the level of venal. And Marr senses something of the same sense of thwarted ambition in Rudd, perhaps that was what attracted him to Rudd in the first place.

    Marr was correct to spot anger as a tell-tale sign of Rudd’s inner demons. But his attribution of the cause of that anger – Rudd’s modest social origins – is hackneyed, flimsy and superficial. I dont think Rudd spends much time grieving about his relatively lowly origins. My guess he is quite proud, and justifiably so, of his ascent from humble beginnings to his current grand station.

    Rudd is angry with himself for the same reason that Marr is angry with himself. They both had monumental ambitions which, although partially achieved, have not really come to fruition due to inner-failings.

    Both Marr and Rudd are unashamed hero-worshippers whose achievements can never match their chosen role models.

    Marr would like to be a great psychological novelist like White but he simply lacks the insight and literary skill. Instead he played it safe and became a lawyer and journo.

    Rudd would like to be the great political statesman like Whitlam but he lacks the balls and the sheer world-historic self-confidence to put it all on the line. He is a diplomat at heart.

    Both suffer from the rage of out-sized ambitions housed in worthy-but-dull personas.

  7. Jack Strocchi

    DAVID SANDERSON @ #54 said:

    The above is typical of how completely unfounded these psychobabble speculations are.

    No, not “typical”. My theories of Rudd’s PM behaviour are testable and have passed tests.

    Your extrusions do not even rise to the level of “babble”.

    Since Rudd has been PM I have correctly predicted his main ideological tacks, in part based on an assessment of his character.
    From his mini-me-ism regarding Howard.
    To the “>empty symbolism of the 2020 conference.
    And now to his swing to the Left to counter the swing to the Greens.

    So evidently my analysis of Rudd’s pyscho-political behavior has legs.

    You have predicted nothing, but bagged everything,
    The intellectual equivalent of a black hole.

  8. Jack Strocchi

    DAVID SANDERSON @ #56 said:

    The fact that you have previously attacked Rudd, in a highly predictable, unoriginal and dreary manner, does not constitute a “test” and provides no evidence to support your crank theories.

    I have not “attacked Rudd”. I have called him a “quintessential diplomat”.
    Learn to read or at least go through the motions of credible quotation practice.

    FWIW I think Rudd is a highly competent manager, which is a good thing.
    But not an inspirational leader in the manner of Gough, who he idolises.
    Thus he is unable to point to any substantial landmark pieces of legislation, just a myriad of worthy-but-dull regulations.

    Marr is confusing Rudd’s anger as a cause (his chip on the shoulder over modest origin) with Rudd’s anger as an effect (his frustration at his relatively modest achievements).
    Hence his frustration at the disparity between his actuality and his aspiration.
    Which boils over into anger at underlings, letting off a bit of steam, not a hanging offence.
    Not. Rocket. Science.


    Jack, amuse us, tell us about the “tests” your theories have “passed”.

    Follow the links, read them and weep. My theories predicted Rudd’s broad ideological tacks.
    His early mimicry of Howard, his empty promises on CPRS at 2020 and his recent cojones-growing exercise to impress the Left in the lead up to 2010.
    Successful prediction = passed tests.

    Meanwhile you have provided no proof that your analysis of Rudd-ALP is robust enough to generate confirmed predictions.
    All you have done is heckle, and even that not very well.

  9. Jack Strocchi

    DAVID SANDERSON @ #58 said:

    Read them and weep? They’re not that funny.

    Lurching from “point-and-splutter” to “point-and-titter” is no substitute for facts and logic.
    A word of advice: when you’ve dealt yourself a handful of nothin’ you need to learn how to play it cool to stay in the game.
    Your bluster doesn’t fool anyone.

  10. Jack Strocchi

    Its possible that AUS’s leadership vacum is not solely down to Rudd’s essentially conservative and managerial persona. We have had a steady-as-she-goes polity for most of the post-Cold War era. It is not conducive to crusading leaders, as both Hewson and Keating discovered.

    A good leader inspires hope in the troops and fear and loathing in the enemy on the eve of a crusade. A good manager is there to mind the shop. Which category do you think Rudd falls into? More to the point, is AUS in the tennies more like a crusade or a shop?

    The fact is that good followers make good leaders. Brits wanted to be tally ho when Churchill took the reigns. The French yearned for Napolean and then de Gaulle. Australians were passionate about Whitlam and Fraser in a way that they will never be about Rudd and Abbott.

    Most Australian voters are too comfortable to be interested in voting for anyone inclined to give the social system a good shake up, even if it is in a good cause that they notionally support. They are disengaged from politics, being more interested in their personal and professional lives, social networking, home rennovations, part-time study, hovering over the kids etc

    The dont want to follow a leader. They want to immerse themselves in private life. Thats why they voted for Kevin “more of the same” Rudd in the first place.

    So Rudd should not beat himself up for not being able to deliver on “the greatest moral challenge of the era” or for falling short of the inspirational example of Whitlam. He should get back to what he does best, which is being on top of details and counting beans.

    A mans go to know his limitations.

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