I’m a lefty too left for the left (ie – someone who would vote Green if the Bob Brown didn’t have his tongue in Labor’s mouth) and I’ve been thinking this week about Tony Abbott and why I find him so, well, SCARY. This is not to belittle him for his choice of swimming costume, recreational activity or indeed, the consistent kicking he receives for being a practicing Catholic. That seems unnecessarily petty. So, why, even more than “man of his word” Howard, do I find Tony Abbott’s potential rise to the highest political seat in the land so absolutely sick-making?
Because he is a zealot. He believes so fully in his right-ness. The whiff of saintliness is about him. I don’t admire this. Apparently he is lovely in person, but Hawke and others think him “mad as a cut snake.”
Saints interest me for the delirium of self-aggrandizement hidden beneath its meekness, its will to power masked by goodness. Saints have used their deficiencies to their best advantage. Yet their megalomania is undefinable, strange and moving.
EM Cioran, Tears and Saints
I prefer a polly who might listen to at least SOME advice he or she is given, perhaps modify positions on issues beyond having to soften their image during grip and grin polling times. There’s always an empathy bypass for a successful politician – otherwise the compromises of the journey, the deal-making, the jettisoning of personal hobby-horses, would be too difficult.
But Abbott I find particularly cold, almost ‘straight-edged’ in the old no-drink, no-sex, ultra-violent meaning. OK, he is not ultra-violent, but I get a strong sense of the power he draws personally from his disciplined body, the denials in the face of temptations required by his faith, and the through-line of his belief.
This is what EM Cioran calls “the will to power” (quoting Nietzsche) in his excellent book on the phenomena of saints, Tears and Saints. The one who seeks sainthood (as opposed to the willingness to self-negate, to lose, that is characteristic of the mystic) is like Dominic, a hound to purge renegades, to root out and destroy those who are excommunicated. He will get the job done. The quote below made me think utterly of the sellable appeal of John Howard as a strong man, at an emotional remove that suggested his power. And the same goes for Abbott.
“The mightiest men have hitherto always bowed reverently before the saint, as the enigma of self-subjugation and utter voluntary privation – why did they thus bow? They divined in him…the superior force which wished to test itself by such a subjugation; the strength of will, in which they recognised their own strength and love of power, and knew how to honour it: they honoured something in themselves when they honoured the saint. In addition to this, the contemplation of the saint suggested to them a suspicion: such an enormity of self-negation and anti-naturalness will not have been coveted for nothing…In a word, the mighty ones of the world learned to have a new fear before him, they divined a new power, a strange, still unconquered enemy;- it was the “Will to Power” which obliged them to halt before the saint. They had to question him.”
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
I fear the influence Abbott’s dogma will have in the exercise of power. I want to believe that he wouldn’t seek to make the morning after pill illegal again, or dismantle recently-improved legal rights for partners in same-sex relationships, or close the judicially-refined loophole that makes abortion legal federally and would then require more test cases in our highest courts (you’d think that was impossibly backwards, but let me introduce you to Ireland, land of leprechauns and… insert tasteless abortion joke here). Or – lets all ride the left-wing hobby horses – set back medical research incalculably by tightening legislation on stem-cell use. What about more subtle areas of doctrine – say, legal prostitution? Religion in public schools? Funding for religious schools? Cadets? Private promises made to lobby groups like Exclusive Brethren? I don’t have a yardstick for Abbott’s drive to implement his moral agenda other than his own words, and they are scary enough.
I know that of all the denominations, Catholics can be pretty lacksidasical about the practice of their faith, particularly in comparison to the fundie churches. Italian churches are empty except for nonnas praying for their wayward grandsons – nice to outsource guilt as well as laundry. It’s not that they don’t believe, the creed. But the flavor of Catholicism I grew up with wasn’t so much into the mental anguish, the worm of hellfire turning in our guts every time we, I dunno, masturbated. It was more like St Augustine saying “God, make me good, but not yet.”
I don’t consider Abbott a garden-variety Roman Catholic. I sense intemperance in his fervour. Most worrying of all to me is the personal lobbying of his spiritual mentor Cardinal Pell, and the extent of that influence is unknown to us. I am not the first person to be alarmed by the spectre of a strongly religious person gaining high office. JFK’s defence of his Catholicism against accusations that he would toady for Papal interests makes interesting reading.
It is the disjunction between the election-calm facade that Tony Abbott is currently projecting, and the headstrong Abbott that made him a non-starter for the Liberal leadership after the loss in 2007 that makes me afraid. Which is why I won’t be voting Green on Saturday despite my profound disappointment at Labor’s recent incumbency, and a closer personal fit with their views. Because I want to direct my vote exactly at stopping Tony Abbott.