Political Nobodies


In this instant-celebrity drenched culture, driven by facetious obsession with the goings on of Big Brother housemates, it’s easy to lose sight of the good work that many people do. They seek no cash prize, no public absolution, and certainly have no gratification in confessional exposure. A book that is selling well in the US at the moment details the activities of such people. It has the unfortunate title of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.

Part of the art of changing the world these days appears to be becoming a personality, so that you can advance a cause. Activists are getting caught up in the image society. Naomi Klein is as branded as they get.

Personally, I still prefer the down-to-earth, easy-going activism that I have encountered for most of my life. That’s why when my friend Graham Willett and I considered editing a collection of essays and personal biographies on Australian political activism, I proposed the title Political Nobodies.

The title summed up the status of thousands and thousands of individuals who make Australia a better place by virtue of their often unnoticed contribution to social justice in all its forms. Just like ‘queer’ and ‘wog’ have been appropriated, it’s time some of us got used to being proud ‘nobodies.’ The book was to be a collection of unique untold stories fit for an age when it is clear Australian politics needs activism outside the parliamentary mainstream.

Graham didn’t like my proposed title, and from a marketing perspective it wasn’t exactly upbeat, so we workshopped with the help of a breakfast at a cafe befitting the chardonnay-drinking chattering classes. Graham came up with The Chanting Classes and we filled in the obligatory post-colon subtitle later: Organising for Social Change in Australia.

We imagined the front cover thus: a Howardian white picket fence fronting a perfect green lawn into which were staked banners spruiking various progressive causes. The idea was inspired by seeing various houses in the northern suburbs of Melbourne with signs declaring ‘Escaped Refugees Welcome Here.’

We approached over ten potential contributors to cover topics such as AIDS activism, the waterfront workers dispute, women and development, East Timor solidarity, rural environmental issues, Aboriginal activism, refugees, and organising against Islamophobia. The idea was to let activists tell their own stories: how they got involved, what resources they used, and how their activism had changed them. The book intended to show that it’s possible for any of us to get active and change things.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

New Matilda’s own Helen Smith wrote a wonderfully insightful piece for the book on opening her and her partner’s home to Sri Lankan refugees. Part of a general campaign for the rights and wellbeing of refugees, the Spare Room for Refugees project was as demanding as activism can get. Anyone can attend a demo, but to open your life and physical space to a stranger is a massive undertaking. Helen tells a tale of real people, living in close quarters, with limited means. She shows how living with her new friends changed parts of her life. The local cricket club also got in on the act, welcoming the refugees to play games. It’s a story that’s crying to be read.

Helen’s is a story of uplifting decency in indecent times. We were confident that publishers would be interested in the collection.

We submitted three sample chapters to four publishers. We argued that the book would have a natural market, and also a niche market among students of social movements, as well as the thousands of people who had been involved in the campaigns covered in the book.

While we waited for the publishers’ responses, we approached several prominent Australians to pen a preface – to no avail.

Bob Brown was approached. I met Bob during the Franklin River Blockade. I spent a week with him in Risdon gaol, before he left to take up a vacant Upper House seat in Tasmania. I left the prison about a week later when the Green ranks had dwindled, the novelty of prison food had faded, and my adolescent zeal to be a martyr had been dented after being the target in a game of ‘remand cricket.’ The rules included the batsman being awarded a six each time he hit a Greenie. Stuck in the prison courtyard, there was nowhere to hide.

I met Bob a number of times after that and he was always friendly and down-to-earth, so I was hopeful he would remember me and be happy to help. I wrote, explaining who I was, hoping that the old connection would pay off – but then, he probably gets hundreds of such letters a year from people wanting to recapture the good old days before the mortgage and second job to pay for the offsprings’ private education.

To my disappointment I received a letter from a Greens staffer explaining that Bob was too busy to write the preface, but that we might like to excerpt parts of his recent book. Oh, and he sent his warm regards. I began to feel that my initial title was right: Political Nobodies.

This set the stage for further disappointment – admitting this might be career suicide – four Australian publishing companies turned down the book. The first company was kind, the publisher got on the line explaining it wasn’t their thing, and that we might try someone else.

The second company was slow and forgetful, finally being reminded of the submission three to four months later and just as quickly saying no. The third was polite.

The last publishing house we approached was stuck up. We got a simple rejection notice with wording to the effect that no further correspondence would be entered into. I’d like to suggest in future they at least offer a reason, and they take the aristocratic disdain out of their rejection letters.

So, our idea had fallen between the cracks of publishers’ bottom lines, affectations, and their judgement about the limited appeal of stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

The cult of celebrity is actually the new economy – ‘nobodies’ do not sell. I now realise that we should have offered a book on celebrity recipes inspired by life changing events: Mark Latham’s humble pie; Russell Crowe’s calming balsamic salad; Princess Mary’s conception-enhancing yoghurt.

In fact, last month, New Matilda featured an excerpt from Emma Tom’s new book, Something About Mary, which was published by a small Australian publishing house. The book is about that Tasmanian woman (I refuse to remember Her name) who married Prince Charming, lost Her Australian accent in the process, and discovered the dignified poise of the lady class. The excerpt covered how the two met, including dress arrangements, dancing, and bar decor.

Was it always thus: the mundane details of celebrity life being more saleable than people changing the world?

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.