Bob Carr is at least as vain as your average politician. The unusual thing is that he knows it. And the shocking thing is that he doesn’t seem to mind letting us know that he knows it.
Such are the complex ironies that attend the mounting controversy about, among other things, the lack of English subtitles for Wagner in Singapore Airlines’ first-class cabin. Even before the publication of his Diary of a Foreign Minister, tasty examples of comic observation and complaint are leaking out, the largest batch so far in the Fairfax media.
From these we learn Carr’s favourite exercise is the “wonderful one-legged Romanian deadlift” and that he sometimes “has more energy than 16 gladiators”.
Retired politicians who can write well are rare creatures. And the subset among them with an engaging sense of humour isn’t much larger than Carr and John Button. Carr is cagier than was Button, more the trickster figure, and a true satirist who would rather provoke his readers than enlist their sympathy. Comics want finally to be loved, but Carr seems to have the wild satirical characteristic of not caring what people think as long as he gets a reaction.
No doubt the parts of the new Diary already in the public sphere are broadly unrepresentative of the rest of the book. There will be a lot there about local and international politics; much of it will be worth reading and some will be special pleading slipped in under the guise of serious analysis or comic invention.
Never trust an apparently self-exposing ironist not to be smuggling a sub-text under the show of self-immolation. It’s the job of politics and foreign affairs experts to check the book for that sort of disguised freight.
However, as a researcher of political satire, the really interesting thing in the leaked passages made public about fat Americans and steel-cut organic oats is what might be called the “bonfire of the vanities” effect. Politicians and their minders go to extraordinary lengths to pretend they are ordinary people doing ordinary work for all the ordinary voters out there.
This is one of the most cherished illusions of Australian political life. And Carr blows this illusion away, exposing the rarefied atmosphere, the celebrity culture, of his echelon of ministerial life. Now that he really and finally has retired from politics he can expose the fake humility and hypocrisy it demands of the driven people who get close to the top.
“I am not like you suburb-dwellers,” Carr is telling us. “I am extraordinary and bizarre in my talents, my discipline, and my obsessions. And I have to be like that to make it this far in public life, because a normal person isn’t welcome or useful here at the top.” It is not what we want to imagine our representatives are like. We want blander, stabler versions of ourselves, but the life is too punishing, the temptations too big, the satisfactions too petty.
Carr seems to be coming out as a self-made grotesque, as an exemplum not just of how power works, but of how it corrupts. The last nugget in the Fairfax article illustrates the point. Carr writes:
When we stop in LA I will tell our embassy at the UN not to adhere to that steamed-fish policy.
Every meal the Foreign Minister is served bland steamed white fish. This apparently reflects a Fuhrer-directive that I had the department send out about my diet. But whoever drafted it overshot the mark.
I want turkey, I want grass-fed beef .. This is the new Führer-directive.”
This is unlikely to be psychotic self-exposure. Carr was too cagey a politician for too long for that to wash as an explanation, and no sane person calls himself Führer without irony.
The joke opens a window into a world in which the minister is like an absolute ruler surrounded by sycophants, where a politician is exactly like a rock star, throwing his weight around by making childish demands.
So, while I don’t doubt that Carr really is a vain and eccentric man, he is also capable of writing like a satirist, exposing the way power distorts self-perception and value. This may detach his fellow Australians at least a little from our fond myth of egalitarianism.
At the end of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Gulliver has returned to England from the land of the rational but horse-shaped houyhnhnms. He cannot stand the stench of common European humanity, so he spends his time in the stable with horses that at least remind him physically of the creatures who have thrown him out of their excellent and rational land.
As long as the oats are steel-cut and organic, Gulliver can expect the company of a former premier and foreign minister any day now.
By Robert Phiddian, Flinders University
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