So – I have just posted my decision for the Australian ‘Same-Sex’ Marriage Survey. I had made my decision whether or not ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’, correctly and accurately put a cross in the required box on the given form, sealed it in the provided government envelope and posted it. Just as I was dropping the envelope into the post-box a young woman was next to me doing the same thing. She smiled at me, I smiled back, and then she said, ‘I hope you are voting “Yes”. I didn’t reply, but smiled again and walked away. I had just taken a couple of steps when I heard, thrown to my departing back – “Leech!”.
I stopped, but did not turn around. I giggled. This was, perhaps, not the wisest thing to do as subsequently I was ascended/descended to another level and called, quite loudly, ‘F (expletive) leech!”. I kept walking.
This young woman’s behaviour exemplifies the worst of this current Same-Sex Marriage debate. It has been completely divisive on a national level with both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps being extremely vitriolic and vicious in their condemnation of each other. Furthermore, if one has not publicly declared one’s choice, preferring the democratic right and privilege of privacy and silence, one can find oneself also condemned – or worse – threatened to be ‘de-friended on Facebook, and other social media. So – now I am a “leech”.
The reason why I giggled was because of something that this young woman would not have known. She must have assumed that I was mocking her, which I can understand and appreciate. However, this was not the case. I giggled because just recently I have enjoyed doing some private tuition for an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens; the final lines of which, spoken by the character of Alcibiades, are : ‘Bring me to your city, / And I will use the olive with my sword,/ Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each / Prescribe to other, as each other’s leech,/ Let our drums strike.’
Now – these final lines are quite complex and full of multiple meanings. In a play that deals with the betrayal of friendships, broken loyalties, and leeches, Alcibiades final lines are ambiguous. The word ‘leech’ implies someone who is like a blood-sucking insect; however, leeches were also used for medicinal purposes, beneficially and successfully removing bacteria from open wounds – they still are used for such purposes. There is an implied threat behind Alcibiades final lines. He a friend of Timon’s, but he is also an Athenian general who has swopped sides in the Peloponnesian War, which is the historical context of Shakespeare’s play, and now threatens to destroy Athens. He wins, but it is left unknown as to whether or not he destroys Athens. The real Alcibiades didn’t; but Shakespeare’s Alcibiades intends to bring in a military dictatorship – “I will use the olive with my sword”. Even the final line “Let our drums strike” suggests the power of military force.
Timon of Athens is a play that has long lived in relative obscurity. Now, in the 21st Century, it would seem that this cranky and bitter play has found a contemporary relevance. The opposite fate of the once popular and regularly performed The Taming of the Shrew, which due to the influence of feminism has somewhat drifted back into relative obscurity; but not Timon. It is a strange play, full of anger and bitterness. It is not even called a ‘tragedy’, yet is grouped within Shakespeare’s ‘Tragedies’ in the First Folio. It’s full title is actually ‘The Life of Timon of Athens‘. You don’t feel any type of sublime tragic catharsis at the end of the play – you feel relief.
It is often cited as prefiguring King Lear but I think it has more in common with Coriolanus. Both characters, Timon and Coriolanus feel betrayed by their own country. However, whilst Coriolanus achieves a kind of tragic dignity in his decline and fall Timon remains an embittered old man. Unlike Coriolanus, as well as Lear and other so-called tragic characters, Timon isn’t even given an on-stage death; we are merely told he is dead. In Alcibiades final speech, at the end of the play, he reads from Timon’s epitaph, “Here lies a wretched man corse, of wretched soul bereft:/ Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left!/ Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate. / Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait’. His friend Alcibiades tries to mitigate such bitterness – ‘yet rich conceit / Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye / On thy low grave, on faults forgiven’. However, the faults are not forgiven. Timon certainly hasn’t forgiven anyone for his tragic fall. Alcibiades knows this, and quickly moves to ‘Dead/ is noble Timon, of whose memory/ Hereafter no more’. So that’s that re Timon; a person not even to be remembered. This is unlike the fate of any other main character in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Most are eulogised in some sympathetic form or other, with an appeal to remember their respective fates – but not Timon. He is disposed of as quickly as he was by his so-called friends in the play, like a piece of worthless rubbish whose memory would only disrupt the new world to come. Or – is Alcibiades wanting to remove any personal connection with Timon to disguise his own ambitions and intentions? A mystery.
It is, however, this mystery, this non-neat ending, so different from Shakespeare’s other plays, that makes Timon of Athens so unique. It may also be one reason why the play is finding a new resonances with modern audiences. We know, now, that neat endings, are idealized and non-existent. This leads me back to the Same-Sex Survey. We know that no matter which way the vote goes it will not be, nor ever be, a neat ending. Furthermore, there is a mystery that may never be revealed about why respective and consecutive governments have failed to amend the current Marriage Act despite the overwhelming evidence that the majority of the population is not opposed to such change.
For those who don’t know this is a survey organised by the Australian Federal Government to garner a national opinion of whether or not the Australian Marriage Act should be amended to include Same-Sex marriage. You may well ask why? It’s a mystery – especially considering that homosexuality has been decriminalised for decades, and that same-sex de-facto relationships are recognised; that homosexuals are protected under the Anti-discrimination law; that opinions had already been asked for, with the response being overwhelming in the positive; that the Federal Government is spending $1.2million on something for which they already know; and that it is happening at the same time of funding cuts to universities and, of course, the Arts; and meanwhile the North Koreans are firing missiles over Japan, threatening the whole world’s peace. Nonetheless, the Survey form currently is being distributed and we are all busy responding with either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, and our own private Civil War continues to rage on and on and on….a mystery.
It stands as a complete mystery as why the respective and consecutive Liberal and Labor Governments have consistently failed to push through this reform. This includes (not surprising) the Howard, and (surprising) the Rudd, Gillard, and Turnbull administration and governments. This failure is a major blot of shame on these respective governments as eventually, despite the current Survey probably ending nowhere, this issue of Same-Sex marriage will simply not go away and will finally be approved – it is inevitable.
The real tragedy about this debate and this current Survey is that it has been highly divisive on a national level. Both camps, the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters, have indulged in public denouncements of each other that have been vitriolic, vicious, and violent to the extreme. What is extraordinary in all this mish-mash is that very rarely is the actual Marriage Act cited. Opinions are based on emotional knee-jerk indignation and misinformation. For example, the Christian Right who are forcibly advocating a ‘No’ vote based on religion refuses to acknowledge that the Marriage Act is actually secular. Except for authorising ministers and priests, along with civil celebrants, to conduct marriage services, there is no mention of religious belief in the Marriage Act. Yet the Christian Right believe that any change to the Marriage Act to include Same-Sex Marriage will undermine religious freedom in Australia, despite absolutely no proof or evidence that this will happen. The paranoia associated with ‘Reds Under the Bed’ and anti-Communist witch-hunting has nothing on this baby. However, if we take the failure of the Menzies Government to outlaw the Communist Party through a national plebiscite in the 1950s as an historic precedent and indication then one can be hopeful that this current Survey will support the ‘Yes’ vote, reflecting overall modern Australians characteristic abhorrence of discrimination (at least on paper).
The whole debate centres on a one-sentence definition of marriage at the beginning of the 1961 Marriage Act, which was regarded as not a satisfactory definition by the Howard Government in 2004. Due to two challenges to the 1961 Marriage Act by two individual same-sex couples the Howard Government pushed through Federal Parliament an amendment, which whilst challenged by the Green Party was supported by both Liberal and Labor MPs and Senators, and passed into law. This 2004 amendment specifically defined marriage as a union between ‘a man and a woman‘, and was designed ‘to ensure that same-sex marriages are not recognized as marriage in Australia, inclusive of those performed under the laws of another country that permits such union‘. The amendment was also to ‘prevent same-sex couples from adopting children from overseas‘. Whilst the 1961 Marriage Act also stated that marriage was between a man and woman it was the Howard Government in 2004 that brought in the boogey-man of social and religious non-conformity and abnormality. The issue of gender, and specifically ‘sex’ in the proposed amendment to the Marriage Act, which will allow Same-Sex marriage, is constitutionally problematic; hence the whole thing may collapse under a High Court ruling. There is a solution, however, if we follow the Canadian definition of marriage, which removes sex and gender, and states that marriage is ‘the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others’. For further information see -(http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/bd/bd0405/05bd005). Unfortunately, these means that dogs can’t marry, but hopefully they will continue to love us anyway.
I find it remarkable that most of what I have written above is not mentioned in the various emotional explosions blasted up on social media and other forms of news and information distribution. The tone, attitude and expression of most is ‘You are either with us or against us’ – from both camps. We are, in effect, in a state of Civil War, which has been hardly civil, and like all Civil Wars – there are no victors. The resentment that both camps will feel no which way the decision goes will fester like a rotten canker in the body politic.
What truly concerns me is the complete lack of respect for privacy. As the young woman today at the post-box exemplifies (joining far too many), just because I chose to exercise my democratic right and privilege and not disclose my decision, and no give her what she publicly expected, she punitively attacked me. I am sure, in her indignation she felt completely justified in doing so; I had rejected her advances. Generously giving her the ‘benefit of doubt’, maybe not – I don’t know. However, she said it so loudly and strongly that I think I can assume she wanted others to know too. This smacks of witch-hunting and mob rule and violence.
Am I being a bit paranoid? Maybe – but the level of abuse from both camps and the expectation that one should reveal one’s private decision is alarming. It is anti-democratic; it is the birth of fascism. In other words, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, based on the issue of public disclosure and revelation. I have nothing terrible to hide, and those that know me well can well imagine (correctly) what I may have voted – but I’m not going to publically declare and share it with all and sundry.
It is our democratic right and privilege not to disclose which way we are voting. This applies to voting for respective local, state and federal governments, as well as the national survey. If we give in on this issue then the potential flood-gate of fascism pours forth, and the oven doors of non-conformity begin to open. If you choose to reveal your decision then that is your choice. However, if you decide not too, exercising your democratic right and privilege, then you should not be ridiculed and criticized for not following the popular front. Sadly, and tragically, this has not been the case in this current debate. This expectation of public sharing in regard to voting, probably born by social media, is the un-neat ending to this hideous and divisive Civil War. The resentment and expectation, I fear, will remain no matter what the final decision.
OMG – I’m sounding like Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons! However, unlike the real Sir Thomas More, I am not running around burning Catholics at the stake, and hanging, drawing and quartering others whom I suspect are undermining the fabric of society. However, judging by the various sentiments articulated and vigorously expressed by both camps in this current debate my fate could be the same as Sir Thomas More’s. Death due to silence.