Aman with a parliamentary pension of $80,000 a year called me elite this week, just over a decade since I took a half-eaten chicken from outside a stranger’s hotel room because I had no money for food. Now it is possible I achieved this mythical elite status in the intervening years; I am writing this column. But my assailant is a Well Known Commentator whose only stumbling block in his many wellpaid media gigs is that he holds on to them like a man in a greasy pig competition.
I do understand where he is coming from, however, having grown up in similar circumstances. Mum raised me and my two siblings on her own while working for meagre pay. Our father paid $21 a month child support for most of that time. Were it not for the local Catholic Church and its community, we would have had more than one desolate Christmas.
This man, whose father died when he was a teenager, became mayor at 30 and leader of the ALP before losing an election. His wife is a lawyer. He breeds racehorses for fun. None of these are bad things, unless you’ve glazed your persona in the resentment of never fitting into the class you’ve now belonged to for decades.
What commentators — well-read, well-connected — never disclose is that elitism is built on cultural capital. Not just the big stuff, either. By the time I’d finished high school I had read only three classics. I never finished Pride and Prejudice, as mandated, but nailed the essay based on the four-hour BBC drama. I knew of some artworks, but only by indirect means. Whistler’s Mother was famous, I knew, because Mr Bean ruined it in a movie. I saw a few foreign-language films on SBS, but only because we had dial-up internet and I stayed up late to see naked people. Such were the times.
We laugh, but there is an acute shame in all of this. I won a scholarship to a private university, about which I cared little, but it came with a newspaper cadetship so I went. During one of the valedictory speeches I listened to a student give a speech in which he lamented the rise of scholarships “diluting the elite status of the university” for the full-fee paying among them.
I cried when, in my late teens, I sat next to some of these students at a teppanyaki restaurant during an official function and went hungry because I did not know how to use the chopsticks and was too embarrassed to ask. Days before, I’d never even heard of such a restaurant. It’s enough to make a man angry, I get it. My provocateur must have known this feeling. It has riled him for decades. I suspect not, however, out of concern for the millions of other Australians to whom this continues to happen but on account of his own wounds, which have festered.
Both Mark Latham and I made it out of this milieu, whether he wants to admit it or not, though I remain tethered to it in weekly battles to support Mum through the drug addiction of a very close family member that has raged for years. I have feared for her safety more often than I care to think about. None of us has the resources or social leverage to even start an intervention, let alone make rehab work.
There is a certain access that comes to being in the media, though nothing of the sort the anti-elites would have you believe. It is true that when Mum feared our relative had been involved in a serious car accident I called police media to get some basic details and put her mind at ease. It wasn’t him. I did not feel elite.
This is the “real Australia” the commentators claim to represent, though of course they do not. They peer in, as if through a window at a zoo, and sketch clownish caricatures of our lives. I use my experience only because I know it, though there are many whose experiences outside mainstream politics and power deserve to be captured in minutiae instead of airbrushed by pointless slogans.
But I get it, the residual hurt and anger. I know the fissures outsiderism can leave on the soul, particularly when you’ve wanted to belong somewhere but end up between the start and the finish. Even now, I find myself wondering if this might have been more powerfully argued, more eloquently put, if I’d known more people who’d read the right books when I was younger.