Saturday, 8 September 2018

Australian Politics, #MeToo, and Ancient Greece as Western Democracy

"In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is crucial to reassess the way we teach and write about art historically important works that portray violence against women – violence spanning millennia when viewed through the lens of art history – in order to reinvigorate the role played by art history in contemporary social movements. Although images of violence against women are not exclusive to ancient Greek art, the large number of artworks from ancient Greece depicting this violence, such as abduction (a metaphor for rape in ancient Greece), coupled with the perception of Greece as a paradigm of democracy in the West, suggests a reanalysis of Greek art is a good place to start."
Reading this passage in Cynthia Colburn's and Ella Gonzalez's article in HyperallergicHow to Teach Ancient Art in the Age of #MeToo, struck me this morning as enlightening within the context of Australia's "culture war". (I strongly recommend this article because some of my discussion below will make little sense otherwise.) Following this year's latest blow up surrounding the Ramsay Foundation's attempt to establish a degree in Western Civilisation, the phrase "the perception of Greece as a paradigm of democracy in the West" sent my mind racing into the maelstrom of the "culture war" which is politicised heavily in Australia. 
As I have written before Tony Abbott's (Australia's former prime minister) declaration that the Ramsay Centre was "not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it" doubled with ANU's decision to knock back the offer resulted in another public outburst in Australia's culture war. Normally the battle fronts of this are Australian history, especially about historical approaches to colonisation, so this little outbreak of hostilities was quite different. It also provides the opportunity to use broader Western history and culture to look at Australia's current government. 
The Ramsay Foundation (which backs the creation of the Ramsay Centre) and its members who are or were politicians (at least John Howard and Tony Abbott, but there might be more I am unaware of) would be more than happy with the concept of Greece being perceived as a paradigm of western democracy. While I can't give a direct quote, Greek culture giving the world democracy was one of the points highlighted to in the debate about the creation of the Ramsay Centre and its specialist degree. 
However, I am quite sure that the supporters of the Ramsay Centre (in politics and media) would be terribly uncomfortable with the rest of this essay. Australia has just undergone in the last month more political upheaval with the conservative faction of the Liberal Party (which includes Tony Abbott) arranging the metaphorical assassination of its moderate leader, Malcolm Turnbull. While this faction was unable to get its preferred leader, their machinations led to Turnbull's resignation. This is of interest to the topic of Colburn's and Gonzalez's essay because in the wash up this, numerous female members of the Liberal Party have spoken out about the behaviour of male members of the conservative faction bullying and threatening them in an attempt to get their signatures on a petition to demand another vote on who should lead the party. When these women spoke out about the threatening behaviour of their colleagues, numerous male members of the conservative faction of the Liberal Party (not members of parliament) publicly stated that these women needed to "harden up and role with the punches" and that politics was a hard game and if they couldn't handle the heat, get out. By speaking out against this behaviour, are the women within the Liberal Party being seen as Amazons by the conservative faction, behaving unnaturally?
The conservative faction of the Liberal Party have historically been the strongest "cultural warriors" and it is members of this faction who have supported the Ramsay Foundation's desire to create a Western Civilisation degree, and this is the behaviour and attitude towards women of this faction within our democracy. The Liberal Party is often referred to as "having a woman problem." This makes for an interesting comparison with the attitudes towards women represented Greek art as discussed by Colburn and Gonzales.      
While questions of misogyny abound within the Liberal Party, none of these events have been described as sexual in nature. But the same cannot be said of the Liberal Party's coalition partner, the National Party. On Thursday the outcome of a complaint made against then leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce, was made public. The internal review of the complaint made by the New South Wales National Party was "unable to make a determination about my complaint of sexual harassment against the former leader of that party … due to insufficient evidence”. This was the outcome despite the investigation finding the complainant "forthright, believable, open" and "genuinely upset" by the incident. In the discussions which surrounded this non-outcome, some people found this result inconceivable because Barnaby Joyce had recently released a memoir in which he described his behaviour towards women (he found life in the country's capital "lonely", resulting in his extra-marital affair with a younger woman in his staff) and his tendency towards drinking too much. Joyce could be easily painted as a centaur figure and the NSW National Party as the Lapiths. 
Photo by Egisto Sani, sourced from Flickr.
Centaur sexually assaulting a Lapith woman from the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
These issues relating to the treatment of women within Australian politics are not limited to the current ruling coalition, with enough stories swirling around also encompassing the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens to provide a political science student a dissertation, but they do not relate to the leadership of political parties. 
The question that I have for those conservative members of the Liberal and National Parties who support the creation of the Ramsay Centre, do they support the entirety of ancient Greek culture when you view Greece as a paradigm for democracy in the West? And does this explain your parties' "women problem"?
Given that Catherine Marriott had made her complaint with a request for anonymity, I thought the least I could do was use a picture which clearly showed the elbow to the centaur's head.
The photograph was taken by Egisto Sani.