… and you will be hated by all for My Name’s sake, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.—Matthew 10:22
Tony Abbott was one of the most disliked prime ministers in recent memory. According to NewDaily, “The only prominent Australian less popular than Prime Minister Abbott was convicted paedophile Rolf Harris.” But, paradoxically, he was one of the most effective prime ministers, in the shortest time.
Personally, I’ve always liked Mr Abbott. I thought he was a courageous man and a good father. One of my tests for political leadership is: Would I like that person beside me in a scrap? Out of Abbott, Turnbull and Shorten, there was no contest. Abbott is a fighter. The others would most likely make some kind of deal to avoid the guillotine. I’ve always felt that Abbott wouldn’t be afraid to stand and hold the position, whatever the outcome.
The daily barrage of insults and fury expressed towards Abbott in his last six months of office was only equalled by the amount of communal bile directed at George W. Bush during the Iraq War. It felt as if collective boils had been lanced on the occasion of the end of the Bush government, and on Abbott’s fall. And although Malcolm Turnbull is presently implementing the very policies initiated by Mr Abbott, no one seems to care. The scapegoat has been slain and, as a “people”, we are now healed. But healed from what?
Even the ABC liked Mr Turnbull. (Well, at first.) Maybe, compared to Abbott, they considered him Liberal Light. So would the opposite of that then be Labor Dark?
Australian Rules star and Brownlow Medal winner Adam Goodes recently quit football, due, he said, to the booing and vitriol that fans were expressing every time he took the field, in response to an Aboriginal war cry and spear-throwing movement he mimed at a match. Goodes said he was leaving the game because he was concerned that the other players would have difficulty playing well with this atmosphere of hatred on the field.
This incident brought back my school years in Painesville, Ohio, and the regard and prestige that football players, and all sports stars, had in our small town. The movie Friday Night Lights accurately sums up the kind of town I was raised in: a football town. If you weren’t a player, you were invisible.
The achievers in sport in our town were also, not coincidentally, the ones who had the most beautiful girlfriends—often cheerleaders—and were hands-down the most popular kids in the class. Most likely to succeed, in the school yearbook; that kind of thing.
This linking of sport, politics and popularity is no accident. It is part of the DNA of those professions. After all, a successful politician is elected by a popular vote, not an unpopular vote. When Lee Iacocca, the then-CEO of Chrysler, said, “to solve big problems, you have to be willing to be unpopular”, he was not talking about a career in politics or pop music.
A great visionary like Van Gogh could never be elected to anything. The majority would have had no idea what he did or why he was excellent, unless someone had told them. And even then, they wouldn’t have believed it—until the historical evidence was overwhelming, or big money was involved.
We might think we would have had the insight to recognise a Van Gogh masterpiece for what it was, if we had seen one back in his day, but most likely we would have just walked right past it, oblivious to its splendour—because nobody had told us it was worth something. (Well, it wasn’t then. Even though it was exactly the same painting.)
Someone once said that to perceive a single rose, we have to forget a thousand clichés, and when Gertrude Stein wrote “a rose is a rose is a rose”, it was the first time a rose had actually bloomed again in verse since the Romantic era beat it to death as an image.
Johann Sebastian Bach is another paradox. Today, serious musicians view Bach as the cornerstone of Western music—a musical genius beyond compare. I used to think that anyone, knowing what we know now about Bach’s work, and having the option, if we could go back in time, of actually trading places with Bach, or the more celebrated Handel, would naturally choose to be Bach, based on pure musical vision. Now I am convinced that 95 per cent of people would instead always choose Handel over Bach. Why? Because Bach was relatively unknown and unsung, was a conservative family man, religious and worked for the church, for a weekly wage. Handel, on the other hand, was popular, famous, rich, a celebrated figure in the court and a great composer to boot. (Great is good enough for most.) The perks Handel had would have made all the difference to the majority; they would have made the same choices then as they would make now. To choose to be the humble and relatively poor Bach, over Handel, requires a certain kind of quirky stubborn genius, separate from the average pack mentality, which is as rare now as it was then.
In school, popularity, with a capital P, was one of the things that drew boys and girls into sports competitively and seriously. Of course, it was fun to play sport. All the kids I knew had fun when it came to playing any kind of physical game. For one thing, it got you out of class, which for the most part was boring.
But different forces, not only skill, drove the serious athletic achievers. One of the most significant drives was the need to be popular. It was no accident that the class president was also an outstanding football player. Everyone loves a winner, and one of the arenas where one sees this most clearly is sport. The most difficult arena to see it in is the arts. (That is, until the dollar shows its face—then it becomes yet another avenue to power.)
Something strange happens when an athlete gets booed every time they play. I think the synapses in the brain begin to fry; there seems something wrong with the universe, because one of the reasons most of these people choose sport as a career is because it gives them validation amongst their peers and the public. When they are no longer liked, even booed, one of the raisons d’être for that career choice comes into question. (The money itself is not enough. Most top athletes become outstanding long before money is a factor.)
One sports commentator said that an athlete being booed is nothing new and that Goodes should have toughed it out and not quit. After all, it is normal for fans to boo a success by the opposition. It happens all the time and it is part of the game. But something was different about the reaction shown to Goodes. He was booed simply for taking the field. It had nothing to do with his playing. It had to do with his politics.
Although politics and sport are great games, there is a greater game that the larger public has always derived more emotional satisfaction from: the hunting down of the scapegoat. Everyone can be a player in this game.
In the media, Andrew Bolt, the controversial journalist for the Herald Sun, is the next one in the queue for the community pillory. Bolt is probably the most popular journalist in Australia and also the most reviled. Work that one out. No other journalist elicits such a paradox of passions. While I disagree with Bolt often, I always enjoy reading and thinking about what he has to say. I respect the courage of convictions. Even if they differ from my own.
The outstanding achievements, of those that were at first despised are legion, great achievers who were detested, some even killed.
The wealth and worldwide fame that Daphne du Maurier earned from her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, and stories such as “The Birds”, were a poor substitute for the recognition she sought from literary critics, who dismissed her as a second-rank “romantic novelist”.
US President John Tyler was kicked out of his own party mere months after taking office, after vetoing most of his party’s agenda. He left the government deadlocked after the panic of 1837 by vetoing Henry Clay’s legislation for a national banking act.
President Franklin Pierce set the stage for the Civil War. He was also a supporter of secession, and was the only ex-president to openly support the South in the Civil War.
President Andrew Johnson holds the record for most presidential vetoes overridden by Congress. He later avoided impeachment by a single vote.
President Herbert Hoover took the brunt of the blame for the economic collapse in 1929, which began the Great Depression. He earned a good deal of disapproval by failing to improve economic conditions.
Richard Nixon was made infamous by the Watergate scandal. He resigned in order to avoid impeachment. But Nixon pioneered significant breakthroughs in international relations that had previously been impossible.
Winston Churchill was hated, then beloved during the Second World War, then ridiculed after the hard war work was done.
In the commercial arena, Vincent Connare invented the most detested type font in the world, Comic Sans. “Comic Sans looks like someone threw up on the keyboard and that’s what came out,” graphic designer Dave Combs told the Huffington Post. There are many inventors of irritating innovations which later became indispensable to the very people who criticised them: the pop-up ad (invented by Ethan Zuckerman), spam (Gary Thuerk) and the CAPTCHA (Manuel Blum, John Langford and Luis Von Ahn) which means “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”. The karaoke machine was invented by a Japanese musician named Inouke Daisuke. The alarm clock and the remote control were another two universally hated discoveries that are now common.
It takes a lot of sand to be willing to be hated for something one believes in. James Baldwin once wrote: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Muhammad Ali was detested when he conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War. He was convicted and stripped of his licence to box. He was already hated by southern racists, who longed for a “Great White Hope” to come forth and teach him a lesson, but even more so when he became active in the Civil Rights movement. Ali’s willingness to be disliked was part of what made him unique.
The paradox of politics is that we desperately need a leader with vision. This means the ability to see further than the average person, to see the bigger picture. The paradox lies in the fact that to be elected also requires the majority of average people to vote for you—people who may not be capable of seeing the big picture at all. So something else is required to win this unusual kind of political popularity contest.
In his book Leading with a Limp, the therapist Dr Dan B. Allender said:
A good leader will, in time, disappoint everyone. Leadership requires a willingness to not be liked, in fact, a willingness to be hated. But it is impossible to lead people who doubt you and hate you. So the constant tug is to make the decision that is the least offensive to the greatest number and then to align yourself with those who have the most power to sustain your position and reputation in the organization.
Leadership is not about problems and decisions; it is a profoundly relational enterprise that seeks to motivate people toward a vision that will require significant change and risk on everyone’s part.
Joe Dolce has contributed poetry, song lyrics and prose fiction and non-fiction to Quadrant for many years