Saturday, September 21, 2013

Patronising the punters won't light the fires of the left

I'll start with a couple of personal observations. I've never thought T-Shirt politics actually achieved much, which is why I never “bought the T-shirt”. Also, although I'm perfectly capable of swearing up a storm, I don't see much point in a T-shirt saying “Fuck Abbott” and I'm actually weary of the word “fuck” on T-shirts (yes, that probably makes me a hypocrite of some kind).

However, neither am I completely comfortable with Sarah Burnside's article, here, “Why it's futile to F*ck Abbott” saying in part:

“Arguably the most problematic shirt is the one boasting no foul language at all. It proclaims simply: “Abbott is not my Prime Minister”. Unless you're living in an alternative reality, yes he is. Those of us ideologically opposed to this government need to digest this truth, face the challenges before us, and hold our leaders to account — not close our eyes and believe in fairies.”

(An aside: nearly all political dissent is “futile”. It'll be ignored by the media, blocked by the insiders, won't get enough momentum to have an effect, and the only people who will pay attention will be ASIO, heaven knows why.)

The article was answered at AusOpinion here and I don't propose to discuss whether Abbott is my prime minister, but I do have further thoughts about dissent.

I agree with Ms Burnside's conclusion that “To make a real and radical change in our politics, we need something less stylish than belligerent despair: a commitment to the unfashionable notion of the collective good.”

However: I don't believe in fairies, and I've been around a bit, and it seems to me simplistic to think that dissent might or must or can take one form, agree on one voice, and align behind one vision and leader.

Since it's never happened that way, I don't see any reason to think it will happen in the future.

1. The voice of dissent isn't the act of dissent

I'm not splitting hairs merely for the hell of it, here. Buying a T-shirt is different from writing an article, which is different from marching behind a banner, which is different from taking part in the ongoing grind of organising, fielding candidates, fund-raising and the rest.

2. One is not exclusive of the another
Of the quarter-million people that once marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on Sorry Day in May 2000, how many continued, organised, did the grind, worked to change the world? A tiny minority, most of which were already schooled, involved, engaged.

The majority of the T-shirt wearers probably are disengaged. And a minority are engaged. It ever was thus.

To think that the person who buys the T-shirt is also incapable of empathy or organisation is to force-fit a very dull template upon the rest of the world.

3. Dissent with one party does not imply affiliation with another

Were I to by a “Fuck Abbott” T-shirt (see above), it doesn't identify me with the ALP. Even before the stupid antics of Kevin Rudd, the clear demonstration that the party has managed to invent a structure in which misbehaviour is rewarded, it had managed to convince me that it wasn't listening to me and cared for me no more than the Liberal party.

I'm not obliged to act in ways that support the ALP's cause. So I'm a fool who wastes his vote? I'd offer as counter-evidence the last parliament: faced with having to work to get consensus, the parliament managed a harder legislative workload than is seen when a self-indulgent dominant party dozes its way through its term.

4. Po-faced politics is a dead loss
There's this habit, as people mature, to suddenly treat every aspect of political discourse with the utmost seriousness, and to wrinkle the nose at the messy, rude or even humorous. I do it myself, sometimes. But I am aware that it's an alienating habit, and I try to stay as loose as I can.


Stop laughing, this is serious” isn't just alienating. It also debases the discourse, because it demands inappropriate responses. When someone is being small and silly, it doesn't improve the world to treat them as being big and serious.

At its heart, the demand that dissent be expressed in acceptable ways, and should only exist in the context of an acceptably organised Proper Movement – it's just condescending. It assumes that the person who buys the “Fuck Abbott” T-shirt is a rootless bogan, incapable of understanding The Big Picture (in an acceptable context, which generally means “get the ALP back into office”); or is an alienated youth, too jejune to understand that their dissent is pointless.

Or – as is suggested in Sarah Burnside's article – that it's “an embrace of individualism rather than empathy”.

I take strong exception to this: I can't be alone in being able to maintain both anger without surrendering empathy. It's a matter of knowing my enemy.

The impulse to control dissent, to demand that my anger be channeled through someone else's paths: this is also a conservative impulse. It defines politics as the game of the aged insider: “here is the acceptable discourse, here is the right way to do it, trust me, I know.”

To most of the population, the insider's view is smug and comfortable, condescending and alienating, po-faced and joyless. I like to laugh, poke fun, and yell at the TV when some vile seat-warming time-server pretends to tell me what I'm thinking.

Fuck it, I might just buy the T-shirt after all.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My strange employer interview style

A Twitter conversation got me thinking about hiring staff. I joked that my main benchmark for potential staff was "put up with me" and I got told "you don't have many staff, then". 

(Oh. Sorry, Paul Wallbank, I just realised what your joke meant. Oops!)

Still: it's not in my current remit, but there was a decade when I did a lot of staff-hiring: journalists, working in three different publishers, all of them working under me.

And I am a bit difficult, really. I'll grant that my good qualities include loyalty and I'm very willing to share any information I have and support "my" people without reserve; but my bad qualities include a short temper, a loud voice even in a good mood, and I'm persnickety and demanding and opinionated. I'm not always easy to get on with at close quarters.

Nobody ever taught me how to hire staff. I had to work that one out by myself, and although my approach to interviews is probably unorthodox, it nearly always worked out well enough.

I had to know myself a little to hire staff, which meant working out the main parameters:

  1. Can this person write, or at least be taught to write? (Not so easy. Everyone thinks they can write and nearly nobody can).
  2. Is this person resilient enough to put up with me teaching them to write? (Very difficult, actually. Writing is personal. Everyone who thinks they can write hates correction, especially if they have a bit of university paper attesting to their ability to write.)
  3. Can this person take charge of an interview? (Strategy can be very personal: think of the spectrum between Andrew Ollie's killer eyebrow, John Doyle's smooth voice, and Kerry O'Brien's aggressive interruptions)
  4. Can this person cope with a weirdo like me as their boss? (Really, it's going to matter. “Seamless” or “frictionless” aren't in my character. I'll own my good points, but on a scale of one to ten, my character flaws are off the meter on the bit that says “definitely not good”).

The easy bits of the potential journalist's CV are … right there, in the CV. The hard bit is the person's agility, their responsiveness, their resilience, their adaptability. “Can this person survive a hostile situation and somehow come out with their skin intact and some kind of story?”

Which, in my personal interview style, boiled down to a very simple strategy. After the formalities and obligatory questions were over, I would say something like: “OK, you want this job. Interview me. Now. Any topic.”

The responses were always informative, and the results were sometimes unexpected.

Some people simply panicked. That's fine: I still panic in interviews, if I find myself teetering on a ledge. If you can recover, that's a point in your favour.

Some people were smooth – which only worked if they could also think of something to actually ask me as an interviewer.

Some of them reverted to a set-list of questions. They were watched closely: if they reacted to my answers and changed tack, that worked in their favour. If they stuck to a mental list of questions, no go.

Some became grim and determined. “This is scary and I'll get through it.” If they also had the good sense to respond to my answers, show a bit of mental agility, or even probe me to give proper answers to their questions, I was generally impressed with them.

Some even managed hostility. One young woman, whose CV wasn't promising, simply looked at me and said “You bastard.”

Me: “That's not a good start, but why am I a bastard?”

She: “Because I'm not a journalist. I want to be a journalist. But I don't know how to interview you.”

(She convinced me that she wanted to be a journalist and got the job. She went places and we run into each other from time to time and I always get a hug. She's no longer a journalist, but she can afford better clothes than I can, so I'll chalk down a win.)

Along the way I've hired a fairly broad range of personalities. What follows is the synopsis of a real conversation with my boss at the time, a publisher.

Jenny is wearing a plastic crab on her head today.”

I think that's her way of telling me she has a migraine.”

She's too strange. Get rid of her.”

Last week, she saved us a bucket of money, by discovering that a 3,000-word feature was plagiarised. Think about it.”

She can stay. The plastic crab goes.”

He won: the plastic crab was, next month, replaced by a plastic lobster. “Jenny” ended up specialising in money laundering, last time we met.

Apart from that, what can I say about my weirdo interview style?

There were nearly no dead ducks to emerge out of it. My alumni include people who went on to be a ministerial staffer, industry analysts, journalists, and others.

And some ended up very close friends. There is a teddy bear in this house, given to my then four-year-old son with great solemnity: “This was my bear when I was a girl. I'm going travelling now, and can't take her with me, so you take care of her.” And “Becky Bear” is still in the household sixteen years later.

Or there's one of the first journalists I interviewed, whose friendship will soon enter its third decade.

Nobody keeps the staff they hire as a boss. You get to make your judgements, teach what you can, form friendships if the world lets you, and set people loose.

And I really don't take any particular credit for what my alumni might have achieved after we parted. They impressed themselves on me because of their qualities: those qualities should have served them wherever they landed.

What I got were good journalists – because I promise if you can interview me, cold-call with no briefing, you're well on the way – and friends. Most of whom I treasure, anytime they give me the chance!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life, uncensored

From time to time, usually in the kitchen with wine in hand, Ms T and I are moved to wonder how the hell we've stuck through things this long.

One reason is that we abandoned censorship in our private conversation, at first by accident, and these days, by design.

No, I don't mean “I'm allowed to swear”. When we first met, I had a triple-degree in swearing: my father was ex-Royal Navy, a trainer I had at the Overseas Telecommunications Commission had invective both inventive and hilarious, and I then worked with a touring rock-and-roll sound company.

Ms T knew how I talked even before she grabbed me in a lift, made an explicit suggestion, and told me her phone number, late in 1987. 

“No censorship” means that there is no topic that's off-limits, and as long as it's she and I, we discuss rather than judge. I don't have to be scared of a “confession”, because we'll take it, talk it around the forest, hunt it down in its dark dens, and fill it with arrows before abandoning it to its fate.

How did it happen? Although I recommend the uncensored life, I hope you get it an easier way than we did.

Ms T really was near death in 2010 when all this started. At 32 kg, she was anorexic enough to die; she also had a stomach more ulcer than stomach, liver failure (interrupted blood supply) and toxaemia.

Which meant, in the twelve weeks she spent in RPA getting stabilised and diagnosed, there was a lot of time when she wasn't taking in what doctors said to her. I got the job of translator, repeater, and explainer. And because she wasn't taking things in as well as if she were well, I might start at hopeful euphemism and end with “you might die” or “fuck knows”. And there was lots of crying.

We got through that with her alive, and we started learning a new mode of communication – after being married more than twenty years and going through all the things that happen, mortgages, children, money shortages and caring for my mother.

For most of our marriage, I guess like most people, one or the other of us would try to conceal the worst of ourselves from each other.

Slowly, bit by bit, the lifelong “hide myself” habit got eroded.

There were hauntings from death to spoil our nights in 2012: three trips to ICU, major surgery, a bone-marrow crisis, two tumours to be cut off, months in a wheelchair, and all the time, the grinding diary of chemotherapy.

For a chunk of the year, things looked dire, and our conversations became increasingly frank about everything. We were making sure there was nothing left unsaid, even if we were frightened to say it.

Month by month, we ran out of secrets.

Ms T was already short on secrets. Chemotherapy does that: if you have to tell your husband to glove up because he needs to clean up because you needed to throw up, what's the remaining secret? If sickness, vomit, pointless anger, jealousy, shit or death are no longer secrets, what's left?

It can't happen to everyone, and I mourn that. Of our 26 years, it took us 23 to unlock the hidden drawers in our psychic cabinets. Our secrets left us like moths, fluttering away in the light, and somehow we had the good fortune to fill the cabinet with love. And we censor nothing.