I reckon that the study of antiquity must be a real pain in the urn. Much of what the classical scholar has to go on is a collection of objects or texts. I mean, proceed with your analysis of the pre-modern period, and do help us all understand the mistakes of dead civilisations—even though we’re bound to make them anew. But, there must be questions that arise with the appearance of every unearthed artefact, like “did anyone really take this statue of the sewer goddess Cloacina housed in a Roman loo that seriously?”
Future scholars could ask this of sewer god, Sam Newman, and I don’t know if they’d come up with a satisfying answer. If they were to read only the work of “writer” Rita Panahi, they would think of Newman—a man whose only positive contribution to the culture has, in my view, been this homage to the very great WikiLeaks supporter, Pamela Anderson—as an important champion of free speech.
The Panahi “article”, in brief, describes a recent on-air silence by Sam Newman not as the work of a big steak lunch—which would have been my bet—but as that of a “pervasive culture of political correctness and identity politics”. Newman himself tells Panahi that he felt the “outrage brigade” had compromised The Footy Show. Panahi welcomes the return to the program of Eddie McGuire, apparently, the only instrument able to release Newman from the yoke of The Sensitive Left etc.
That we could have glimpsed freedom in a man like Sam who so rarely utters what could pass as a thought might well seem amazing, to our descendants.
None of this makes much sense. First, if Sam is such a redoubtable rascal, I don’t see how any more Eddie or any less Eddie could serve to modify him. Surely men who Speak The Truth don’t need the host of Hot Seat to help them do it. Second, to suggest that Nine, whose revenues tend to narrow quarter on quarter as is currently the case for all television networks, would put the complaints of the “politically correct” above profit is inane. TV is raking in a fraction of the dough it enjoyed in the pre-streaming era and if board members feel that a reality show called My Big Fat Genital Warts would bring them into surplus, they’ll make it.
I tried to think about Panahi, Sam and his liberating pal Eddie in the context of posterity. What will future scholars make of twenty-first century Australia? Unless there are non-Panahi relics available to them, there is a very real chance that you and I will be remembered as terribly stupid. That we could have glimpsed freedom in a man like Sam who so rarely utters what could pass as a thought might well seem likely, if amazing, to our descendants. As likely as the idea that Romans genuinely believed that an icon of Cloacina could stop their bogs from getting backed up.
I am no scholar, of the ancients or of anything much. But I really don’t think a civilisation that went to all of the trouble of actually planning and building sewers could genuinely believe that a goddess governed their flow. Our Lady of Toilets was just something you put up in your lav out of habit. Sam Newman, I believe, has much the same function as this classical toilet decoration. We built the means, allegedly, for free speech. This worn symbol of it won’t stop it up.
Many people for many good reasons object to the content of The Footy Show, a rusty artefact whose jokes can be carbon-dated to the 1970s. They say that the program is offensive and disrespectful to people in already marginalised social categories. While I have no argument with these claims, I do agree with Panahi that protest of the program is foolish. I do not agree with Panahi that protest of the program has been, as she claims, effective. At least to the extent that it made Newman, as she claims, “genuinely aggrieved”.
Yes, there are those who enjoy what Newman says, or facetiously mumbles or lazily represents. But they are not a class growing in number.
You can’t have your freedom cake and shove it in your freedom-speaking cake-hole, too. Either the “outrage brigade” is effectively silencing persons like Newman for short periods, or even, as has been the recent claim in Quadrant, silencing satirists permanently, or they are a minority whom no one takes seriously, least of all Sam Newman, or a network with a very long history of serving up shit.
These arguments are perplexing to me. If I, for example, claim that the media scorn heaped on Yassmin Abdel-Magied seemed inconsistent with her influence, or even the public interest in this moderately popular figure, then I am enacting “political correctness gone mad”. The young lady, they say, should toughen up, shut her mouth or risk being run over by a vehicle. If persons of Panahi’s world-view propose that cartoonist Bill Leak’s life was ended by persecution on Facebook, then they presume themselves to be uncompromised champions of free speech. This logic holds that Abde-Magied is someone who must bear the consequences of her actions—in this case, seven words on Anzac Day which urged her Facebook followers to consider victims of wars other than that Great one—whereas Leak is someone who suffered the fatal consequences of a group that is—what?—both sufficiently powerful to claim a life and culturally out-of-touch enough to represent almost no one.
The thing I do envy about scholars of old artefacts is that they get to work backwards from cultural things. They say that this bit of broken pottery tells us about the society from which it arose, and they do not make the opposite case. Those who object to The Footy Show, I think, would do well to heed this habit. It is, in my view, not an influence on a living culture so much as it is itself a relic of an old order that is dying.
Also evidence of this death is the writing of Panahi and all those who stand up for Sam Newman as an icon of free-flowing sewage. Sorry, speech. Yes, there are those who enjoy what he says, or facetiously mumbles or lazily represents. But they are not a class growing in number.
There is a new order waiting to be born, as I am sure a scholar of antiquity will tell you there was at many times in Roman history. In this time-between-times, we can see the old toilet statue imperilled, and there are those attendants who try to keep her in one piece. And then we see the emergence of the new, still confused about where this “freedom” thing will go, certainl only that it should not be confined to spaces as small as mediocre shows on network television.
Sam Newman and those advocates who confuse him for freedom are crumbling. Something new will be erected in their place. Until that time, we will see Eddie McGuire act as scaffolding, I guess. And await that era where historians will no longer think of us as dolts polishing false idols.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PAID FOR WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. IF YOU ENJOY READING HELEN RAZER’S CULTURAL CRITICISM PLEASE CONSIDER A SMALL CONTRIBUTION PER WEEK TO KEEP IT COMING. FIND OUT HOW HERE