MICHAEL MULLINS. Abstract thinkers living in bubbles.

During the Christmas break I read Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt, which is one of the more acclaimed Australian memoirs published during 2018. It details the wretched life he’s led and also challenges the culture warriors of the left and the right. Speaking about politicians as well as journalists, he says: ‘We don’t need more journalists from the right or from the left… What the media needs is more reporters with the ability to understand their subjects.’ 

One Hundred Years of Dirt is one of the more acclaimed Australian memoirs published during 2018. I found it an easy read in that it’s less than 200 pages and beautifully written. But it was also very uncomfortable, for two reasons.

The first is its details of the wretched life Rick Morton has led. This includes childhood trauma in outback Queensland followed by material poverty as an adolescent in a single parent household closer to the city. Then there’s the emotional disability that has lasted to the present, in the life of the now 31 year old journalist at The Australian.

The second reason is that Morton’s message is confronting for people with a world view like mine. He sees us as culture warriors from both sides of the political spectrum who never step outside our respective bubbles.

‘We don’t need more journalists from the right or from the left… What the media needs is more reporters with the ability to understand their subjects.’

Morton is speaking about politicians as much as he is journalists. He suggests that the quality of their understanding of people is just as important as the soundness of their policies. That is a plausible explanation for the success of rogue politicians like Hanson and Trump, whose policies are inconsistent, shallow or non-existent.

The problem with the bubble-dwellers is that we grew up with university educations and a diet of comparatively abstract media content, largely from the ABC. This is where Rick Morton has the upper hand in understanding how people tick.

‘Mum’s life was hard and we relaxed by watching soap operas, reality television and The Today Show. I can’t remember a time when we had ABC-anything on.’

Not only do the politicians and right and left culture warriors lack cut-through, but Morton talks about the anger they generate in the people they’re seeking to win over.

‘It’s directed at a system that overwhelmingly keeps people in their place. … I had no connections, no networks, no family even in the big cities where I would end up working.’

Morton attributes his eventual success to a combination of ‘the handy resilience forged under such conditions’ and ‘dumb luck’.

He’s now in a position to act as a bridge between those of us who believe that ‘higher power prices are the cost of fighting climate change’ and the many Australians for whom ‘the slightest bump in their electricity bill means a deeper slide into poverty’.

Morton’s first-hand experience of poverty enables him to credibly point the way to politicians in their bubbles, who are actually the ones who most need to be bridges between abstract thought and real life.

Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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2 Responses to MICHAEL MULLINS. Abstract thinkers living in bubbles.

  1. Mark Freeman says:

    I take issue with the blandly naive comment that rising power prices are the cost of trying to deal with climate change. This nonsense is successfully sold to the battlers the book talks about. It’s a fine example of the stock in trade of conservative commercial media and politicians – hoodwinking the poor and ignorant. It’s why we have no real reformist energy policy and continuing price gouging which impacts exactly those people the most.

    It’s all very nice to talk about needing to step outside bubbles and understand people but that doesn’t mean reverting to implistic thinking or pandering to half baked ideas.

  2. Misha Ketchell says:

    Yes, 100 Years of Dirt is a terrific, insightful book. I hope it goes on to become a classic of its type, which is an unusual mix of autobiography and social/political analysis. I think Rick is right to critique those in the media who come from a type of background that is more privileged, and to highlight way that narrow background produces a narrowness of reporting. But his point is quite subtle and not necessarily just a plea for an identity-politics solutions. I think he is saying that journalists need to do a better of job of understanding their subjects, and that requires reporting skills, a type of rigour and tenacity and commitment to truth that we often don’t see in the self-serving reporting of journalists who see profit in taking a position on culture wars.

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