The cult of self esteem


For any political reporter, the light of your professional life is not some bold policy announcement, because, believe me, there are no visionaries left to do the announcing. It used to be a big dreamer, a Gough Whitlam, even a Bob Hawke – but not a fraud such as Paul Keating – bursting onto the scene. But they, too, are a threatened, if not extinct, species. Nowadays, we thrive on reporting that most atavistic of political pursuits: the scramble for leadership and promotion.

The recent departure of NSW Premier Bob Carr, and the way he was replaced, has provided a perfect anthropological study of the ‘Peter Principle’, where people rise to their level of incompetence. I am not ready to indict his successor, the personable Mr Morris Iemma – for God’s sake, I hear them say, give the man a chance – but peering behind the Wizard’s curtain these past ten days, as ministers jockeyed to get promotions, I find myself agreeing with an unlikely comrade.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

Remember a few months ago, when Prince Charles declared that some people were simply getting above their station in life. When a junior member of his staff complained about the limited scope for advancement within the Royal Household, Charles wrote an extremely indiscreet note, whining about her ambition. ‘What is wrong with people nowadays?’ he protested. ‘Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far above their capabilities?’

I concede that Charles Windsor is hardly the poster boy for modern meritocracy. He is set to inherit the headship of a nation, and one of the world’s great fortunes, solely on the basis of birthright. Ability is irrelevant in the life and privilege of a royal. (When Charles’s youngest brother, Edward, scraped into Jesus College, Cambridge, with a modest qualifying mark, and reputedly through the energetic lobbying of the warden, their father is supposed to have said, ‘Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus.’)

But no matter how ludicrous the messenger, Charles’s central point remains valid. The cult of self-esteem – of cheesy, American-style self-boosterism – has led to a dysfunctional education system, a culture of complaint and an awful lot of disappointed people.

I’m all for encouraging people, especially kids, to test their boundaries, explore new interests and activities, develop new skills, broaden their horizons. But sooner or later we bump up against the reality that we cannot do everything we want in life. I’m lucky in that, since my parents have me a portable typewriter for my 12th birthday, I’ve only ever really wanted to practice journalism, and with varying and modest degrees of success, I have.

But I’ll confess to a harbouring secret desire – and, for the listening public, a thankfully unfulfilled one – to be a jazz musician and lounge crooner. But I have no musical aptitude, no sense of timing. I cannot carry a note. Aficionados of church music can hear me singing on a CD of great English hymns, recorded in the late 1990s at the Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire, but there are another 1,199 voices to disguise my painful wailing. The point is I have no musical talent, beyond being an appreciative listener of jazz.

When I was 11, I fancied myself as an equestrian. But when my mother refused to buy me the tweed hacking jacket so I could pretend I was on a fox hunt (yeah, I know, blood sports and all that), or the Wild Bill Hickok-style leather chaps so I could fantasise about being home on the range, I gave it away. Besides, I could never get that thing right, where you’re supposed to bounce up and down when the horse trots.

A member of panel interviewing me for a university scholarship once asked me to identify my greatest strength. In the one, solitary intellectual masterstroke of my entire life, I replied: ‘It is that I know my weaknesses, my limits.’

Charles may have been a hypocrite but he got it right when he blamed a delusional education system for telling ‘people they can become pop stars, high court judges or brilliant TV presenters or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having the natural talent’.

Let’s take the most innocuous example: the modern pop star. A friend of mine, one of the most authoritative music critics in this country, almost 20 years in the game, insists that, despite her iconic status, Kylie Minogue is simply not a very good singer. When her producers, the star-makers at Stock Aitken Waterman in London, signed her, they worked out they could feed her voice through all manner of synthesisers, compressors and computers to adjust the pitch. Now, with a lot of help, she churns out a decent enough melody, but she’s no Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday or Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell, who needed only the simple tinkling of a piano or strumming of a guitar to make stunning music.

More seriously, progressives cannot afford to indulge an education system that merely encourages self-esteem. Under absolutely no circumstances should progressives ever allow the circumstances of birth – of race, ethnicity or gender – or of socio-economic class to become a barrier to one’s complete participation in life, to the full achievement of one’s potential. I am an unapologetic advocate of a classical liberal education, free from the cancer of post-modernism. The great American socialist Irving Howe argued powerfully that the only way to equip the working classes and the disadvantaged for success – and, most vitally, for leadership – was to afford them the same rigorous training in the traditional academic disciplines as the children of the elite.

But that is not the same as an education system that encourages the big-boned girl to think she can become a fleet-footed ballerina or the clumsy poet to believe he can be a dexterous neurologist. Such a system simply sets people up for a fall. In fact, it discourages excellence by suggesting that feeling good about participating is just as important as doing something really well.

There comes a time in adolescent and young adult development when we must identify each person’s potential and channel it in a specific direction.

And it’s the same for Labor politicians. Most of them will have skills to be good local members, to serve their constituents industriously and compassionately. Some of them will have the imagination and discipline to become ministers and hammer achievable policies out of bigger dreams. But only a handful will have the leadership gene, the unique ability to explain the larger truths, transform people’s thoughts and feeling and get them to follow.

Linda Ronstadt does a pretty good version of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s classic ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

And you know what, sometimes, after a boozy night with a few friends, when I put on the CD player, I think my version is also pretty good. But then again, wishing doesn’t make it so.

Thanks to Alan Moir at the Sydney Morning Herald

Thanks to Alan Moir at the Sydney Morning Herald

It’s not my policy to use this valuable fortnightly space to traverse the politics of NSW, which I cover in my regular job, but I should say something about the retirement two weeks ago of Premier Bob Carr.

As Carr’s biographer, he was a constant and intensive presence in my life for a year, between September 2002 and September 2003, as I researched and wrote the book, with help from an old friend and fellow journalist Rachel Morris. (He co-operated with the book but it was, most definitely, not authorised.) But I had known him, although I have never claimed to be a friend, since 1988.

Over the past fortnight I have been asked often about his legacy and my answer is simple. Carr was, for our side, the progressive side of politics, a brilliant but wasted talent. He has a superb mind and was the most eloquent Australian politician since Whitlam. Like Bob Hawke and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, he could have used his extraordinary skills as a communicator, as an explainer, to shift the debate towards the social democratic left. He could have popularised our cause. But somewhere along the way, he lost the will to fight the concentrations of economic and social power.

There is not much sentimental goodwill towards Bob within the Labor Party or the broader labour movement, despite what some political eulogists are saying. But then, as premier, Bob never showed much sentiment for his own people. He became enamoured of the socio-economic elites. In fact, he joined them.

I still like the bloke. I’m still awed by his intellect and entertained by his theatrics. But I’m left to mull over the words of Tennyson: ‘Of all the words of pen and tongue, the saddest are these, it might have been.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.