Calling All Gadflies

When I was in my final year at Duke University, I pushed a pram from Durham, North Carolina to Washington, DC as part of a relay team to raise funds for long-shot US Presidential candidate, John B Anderson. I’ve never liked party politics (I’ll vote for whoever I like, thank you very much). So it made sense that I was putting my energy behind the Independent candidate. The year was 1980 and Anderson was running against the incumbent, Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter and Hollywood movie star and former California governor, Ronald Reagan – a race that, after 2016, no longer sounds absurd.

The problem: I’m not, and have never been, a runner. In fact, with few exceptions, I’ve been known to run only when someone’s chasing me. My good friend, let’s call him Dean, was a left-leaning activist (weren’t all uni students in the ‘70s?) who convinced me that neither athletic prowess nor stamina was needed for the 400+ kilometre trek. When fatigue and shin splints set in before 100km I realised Dean, although lovable, was not immune from truth-bending for a good cause. He had lined up other uni teams to participate, and the good people at Guinness Book of World Records were poised to sign off at the finish line.

The cast of characters met along the way could be plucked from any dark comedy. Let’s just say that a woman pushing a pram in the middle of the night along the side of a highway, trailed by a van (of teammates), can attract all sorts of personalities and conversations. It was a journey that tested everyone mentally and physically. One of the teams saw fit to put its pram (and runner) in the back of their support van for who knows how many kilometres, until sprung and disqualified. Unfortunately, this was one of many reasons the Guinness Book officials eventually deemed the race ineligible. Not what you want to hear upon collapsing at the finish line after a few gruelling days (and nights).

On the up side, our team met John Anderson who seemed bemused by our trek. We read his smile as: ‘It’s wonderful to see such impassioned and motivated young people actively engaged in our political future.’ But with time, comes wisdom and a new translation: ‘I have no chance of winning if my political base is this motley team of privileged misfits.’ We stayed on a few days as campaign volunteers, mainly working on GOTV (Get Out the Vote), cold-calling and door-knocking prospective voters by day, solving the world’s problems by night at the local watering hole.

Critics claimed Anderson was a liability (selfish, even) because by running, he was taking votes away from the major candidates. Even the candidate himself knew he had no hope in hell of winning so why bother mounting a campaign, many asked. It recently occurred to me that I could be seen as a spoiler of sorts, though I think the term, like many labels, is grossly misunderstood. Spoilers, for the most part, don’t set out to ‘spoil’. They set out to ‘solve’ – to take a stand, to right a wrong, to raise awareness, to voice an opinion even when drowned out by a cacophony of major interests, who sometimes have more common ground than they think, if only they’d resort to reason over rhetoric and rants. I’ve always preferred the term gadfly. Socrates called himself a gadfly (an intellect’s version of ‘thorn in one’s side’) because he questioned the knowledge of others, usually authorities, along with his own – provoking, challenging, examining, using logic to clarify and refine disparate views. Unfortunately, gadfly, like spoiler, has negative connotations. Why do people think upsetting the status quo is necessarily a bad thing?

With my B.A. (philosophy) in hand, I moved to Washington, DC where I lived for five glorious years. I landed a job working for a Congresswoman thought to be the inspiration for the Lacey Davenport character in Gary Trudeau’s much-loved comic strip, Doonesbury. I never imagined working for a Republican but the ideals of youth were easily overridden by the need to pay rent. Unfortunately, she was soon unseated in her Senate bid and our office instantly unemployed. (“Hello Georgetown, I’d like to enrol for a PhD in philosophy.”) Co-opted again, this time by a different friend, I co-produced a colouring book for another Republican, Ronald Reagan, given out as a freebie at his ‘84 election night party – a party that I wept through, but that’s another story. The following decade in Australia, I wrote a fortnightly column for a lovely, somewhat strident public figure with whom I couldn’t agree on the weather, let alone medico-politics. 

Looking back, I’m convinced that all of these opportunities and experiences, from the zany to the mundane, allowed me to step outside my comfort zone. I’ve learned along the way that it’s only when we inhabit others’ shoes – particularly the smelly ones that don’t fit (fyi, not a Republican jibe) – that we can properly discuss and debate big ideas. Core training for would-be gadflies, and a precursor to working out the source of disagreements: fundamentally incompatible premises, competing values and priorities, lack of consensus about desired aims and outcomes, to name just a few. 

In fact, every government department, business, school/university, hospital, corporation, research institute and the like needs a gadfly – someone to probe and prod so duties to others remain firmly in sight. Of course, I’m not sure what a gadfly would look like. Big eyes and mouth, sharp sting, subtle whine, rattling wings, but harmless if you’re game to befriend it? If my design skills were better, I’d knock off a prototype. I can so see a brooch … and a tie clip because gadflies aren’t exclusive. At least they shouldn’t be.

Maura Pierlot

Postscript: Accused by the state of corrupting youth, Socrates died by taking the executioner’s hemlock rather than flee or renounce his views – a fate that I don’t plan to repeat. The Apology, by Plato, is an account of the speech that Socrates gave at the trial that sentenced him to death.

A quiet achiever, John B Anderson founded FairVote and worked tirelessly for electoral reform and alternate political parties until his death in 2017, age 95.