I interviewed Jacinda Ardern in Crave cafe last Thursday in what was a surreal and somewhat discomfiting experience. Surreal because after two years of trying to get this interview, and after watching the Prime Minister’s updates almost every day since the COVID-19 crisis began, suddenly there she was, across the table, wearing a mask (in fact, two masks (not at the same time) — one, her fashionable brown mask, in which she arrived, and the second, a disposal blue mask for the interview, because the disposable one doesn’t muffle her voice as much — Jacinda thinks of everything). And discomfiting because I couldn’t shake the feeling the interview shouldn’t really have been taking place. Why? Because Jacinda has a government to run, an election to win, a pandemic to stave off — and yet here she was, being interviewed by a has-been journo for the blog of a local cafe. Erm, okay. Slightly embarrassed by the circumstances is an understatement. I tried to offset my discomfort by thanking the PM for her generosity in agreeing to the chat. She was having nothing of it, of course, partly because Jacinda doesn’t see herself as generous; she sees herself as normal — a normal person who wants to stay connected to other normal people, which makes an interview for her local cafe’s blog totally justified.
I was discomfited also by the nature of the interview itself, which, being on behalf of Crave, was, shall we say, “safe”. But on a day in which a UNICEF report card had once again ranked NZ as one of the worst countries in the developed world for children (34th out of 41 countries), which meant the PM was having to defend her government’s record on child welfare, I would be asking her questions such as, Where will you send Neve to school and how will you make that decision, and, Why did you take Stephen Colbert to Kind cafe? Admittedly, I’m not the hard-nosed journo I once was, but I still work for News Corp FFS, and I still try to hang on to a semblance of journalistic integrity … and yet here I was giving the PM the most soft-cock interview she was likely to participate in all week (if not all year). Groan.
So there I was, in my over-sized suit coat to hide my COVID lockdown beer belly, wearing the one decent pair of pants I still fit into, holding in my gut so that it wouldn’t bust my Loyal Workshop leather belt (which are way too short, I might add — what do you think this is, India?). So yes … I felt old and fat and irrelevant, well before the PM even walked in.
But in she came and we did the interview, despite all my misgivings. And during the interview I had some thoughts about Jacinda that weren’t relevant or even appropriate for the Crave “What’s your favourite cheese scone/coffee combination?” piece that you can find here.
The first thought I had was about Jacinda’s genuine beauty, which I’ve heard others talk about but never really considered before. I’m not just referring to the light in her eyes or her winning smile, although those things are real. I’m not even referring to her immaculate and made-for-TV makeup (which I hadn’t expected, to be honest — I thought we might get Facebook Jacinda). I’m referring to that indefinable thing, that beauty that seems to radiate from deep inside, and which Jacinda watchers internationally seem to have had a lot less trouble recognising than “we” cynical (and committed to mediocrity) Kiwis. In this, she reminded me of Princess Di, a comparison that occurred to me as she met my gaze across the table and became fully present, fully in the moment. I never met Princess Di, obviously, though it wasn’t for the want of trying (and when I say “trying” I mean fantasising). Diana was able to master the media, as does Jacinda, and Diana’s critics (as well as her allies) reckoned she was adept at manipulating the Press for her own good (though I’m not sure how being killed in a Paris tunnel while fleeing the Press can be described as “her own good”). Jacinda’s harsher critics reckon she manipulates the Press too, though I haven’t seen it (so fuck them). What people generally agreed on about Diana was that she radiated beauty in a way that enveloped those around her. It was probably nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than her freedom to be supremely human, which is very “normal”, although few of us exhibit the freedom to be human in quite the same way — too many agendas, too many social conventions, too many layers of self-deceit to worry about. Diana, however … people wanted to be around her, to be in that bubble that her humanity generated. And I think Jacinda is like that. Genuinely. Even though saying so proves once and for all I’m no hard-nosed journo, and heck, that I’ve even lost the capacity for objective discernment. You don’t win a lot of friends in NZ by hopping on board the Jacinda bandwagon, especially not with right-leaning voters. But you know what, fuck them too. Their cynicism and hate has become boring and predictable, and their incapacity to appreciate genuine beauty in someone says more about them than it does about me (or you). Let them have their snarky opinions. And when they’re done sharing them, let them crawl back into the shadows where they belong.
My second thought was around Jacinda’s philosophy of kindness. Before saying more, I should confess that I’m not into “kindness” — not the philosophy of it, anyway. Kindness is essentially self-focussed. It’s about one’s own character and behaviour, rather than the “other”. Nothing particularly wrong with that, except it tends not to go far enough. It’s banal. Safe. Ultimately self-serving. It certainly isn’t — but is often confused with — radical love of the other. Radical love treasures the other’s otherness. Kindness doesn’t really pay otherness any heed. Kindness leaves a person feeling good about what they have done … radical love seeks for the other’s ultimate good. Being kind doesn’t require sacrifice. It isn’t the type of love that hurts. It isn’t dangerous or subversive, it doesn’t go beyond itself into those scary relational places where rejection or humiliation might happen. As an example, Jacinda’s philosophy of kindness results in aesthetic changes to the front-of-house at Work and Income, so that welfare recipients can feel like dignified humans. We discussed this in the interview. It’s part of the government’s culture change program in response to its emphasis on kindness. It’s a good start. However, radical love would make sure benefit recipients didn’t have to live on a pittance. It would lead to bolder immigration and asylum policies; more dynamic housing policies; more revolutionary child welfare policies. Being kind says, I will speak nicely to you when you come to talk about your welfare payments. A radical love for the other refuses to rest until a person isn’t expected to feel dignified at receiving the fucking paltry sum of $250 a week just because they can’t find work in a pandemic (or at any other time).
A side note: Jesus wasn’t “kind”. A lot of the time he was actually the opposite, relative to what we consider kind nowadays. His mission wasn’t kindness though, it was radical, self-sacrificing love. Jesus didn’t instigate culture change programs that resulted in a redesign of the temple’s front-of-house. He turned over the money-lenders’ tables and then brought the walls of the fucking temple down. That’s the difference. If you’re a “Christian” and you’re feeling pretty good about kindness … go read the Gospels again.
That said, there is one aspect of Jacinda’s philosophy that stayed with me — that for her it isn’t just an idea, it’s a philosophy that demands action. I appreciate too that she follows through on the philosophy/action workflow by ensuring it filters through the system, all the way to the people on the phones or behind the desk … the places where it can make the most impact. As I say, it doesn’t go far enough (in my opinion), but it’s a great place to start. I know from experience the value of carrying a subversive idea all the way through to how we do actual engagement. At Laidlaw College, I wanted to see the theology of love encounter built into the design of the new atrium, cafe, education centre, library, finance desk. We went ahead and redesigned everything on that very premise, and by all accounts it made a huge difference, even if the lecturers were initially sceptical and grumbled loud and long about it. But you know what, fuck them too. They gave me so much grief. But even that wasn’t entirely their fault — they’d been made redundant and forced to reapply for their jobs so many times, it was clearly too much to expect a new cafe and atrium to fire their rockets. And that’s Jacinda’s point. Kindness needs to filter all the way through the system — to HR processes and call centre procedures and management training — so that people are treated with dignity at every level. It’s not enough to circulate a White Paper. It’s not enough to talk about it in Cabinet. It’s not enough to preach about it to the Press. It has to make a tangible difference throughout the bureaucracy, and it has to make a difference to the very people whom society has not treated particularly well in the past.
Look, no one is perfect. Some of us, for example, can’t even fasten our leather belts without breaking a sweat. And we don’t have to canonise Jacinda in order to recognise the incredible leadership she has shown over the past few months. But neither should we harden ourselves to the very special qualities that are right there on display, and which the rest of the world seems to recognise and acknowledge far quicker and more readily than we do. What they see is genuine. The beauty is real. The kindness is authentic. Her hope is tangible.
Jacinda didn’t have to spend half an hour with an old hack in a Morningside cafe last Thursday. Cynics would say it’s all part of the electioneering, and maybe it is. But even if it was, she didn’t have to be so present, and so generous in her engagement.
To anyone observing Jacinda from afar, who might even be coveting the leadership we’ve had in NZ since the pandemic reached us, you’re not mistaken in what you see. To the sceptics, well, I reckon you’re just being hard for the sake of being hard. That’s on you.
Jacinda’s the genuine article. No doubt about it. I hope she’s given more time to take her philosophy of kindness even further, perhaps as far as governing from a place of radical love. Then we might see some real and lasting change. I think she’d be up for the challenge.