A version of the following article first appeared in ‘Online Opinion’ in 2014 under the title ‘Obliterating the past obliterates its lessons’. As an entertainer who once performed on the same bill as Rolf Harris, I was moved to write this after he had his Aria Award revoked and his songs removed from playlists Australia wide. Harris was found guilty and he deserves his punishment. However, he also needs to be remembered for his positive contribution to Australian music.
Here’s a crass riddle for you. What has ancient Egyptian pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut and Rolf Harris got in common? Mmmm? The answer could lie in the fact that while living more than 3,500 years apart, they were both celebrities.
Yet that’s not it. The answer is that both of these individuals are victims of ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ – the practice of chiseling, painting over or otherwise removing a person’s image or legacy from public view so to be purged from the national psyche. Sometimes it’s done by ordinary people as a sort of communal catharsis. Sometimes it’s ordered by a new regime or powerful elite as a prescribed amnesia. They did it to Saddam Hussein and they did it to ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. They wanted to do it to Bill Clinton. They’ve done it to Robert E Lee. Watch out Ned Kelly.
Most of the time, it doesn’t matter if the individual had performed hundreds of good deeds in the past or even managed, as in the case of Hatshepsut, to build a flourishing nation. The new dynasty of Pharaohs scraped her face off buildings anyway. Those who render ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ (let’s call it DM from now on), look only to the ‘perceived’ dark side of a person’s character and condemn them on that.
I say ‘perceived’ dark side as it’s often the political thinking of the day that decides what is dark and what is not. It can also be decided by money, ideology and gender. These days it can also be decided by who has a Smartphone in the vicinity.
While some DM may be deserved, University of North Carolina Lecturer Sarah Bond recently wrote that the practice does more to cement the individual in the national mind than remove it. The image may not stay in the public eye, but it stays in the mind and in legend where it can be distorted – sometimes positively.
It’s also true that without the image or legacy of a disgraced individual to reflect on, we can’t possibly learn the lessons their downfall could teach us. A faultless history makes for a system of theoretical learning with no grounding in reality. We learn far more from the mistakes and horrors of history than its wonders. A sanitised national fairy tale is a useless teacher.
Yet why do some disgraced celebrities get DM’d while lots of other bad as hell celebrity types have their crimes forgotten and the ‘bright’ side of their character lauded? Why is one guilty celebrity damned while another praised?
Nigel Milsom, one of Australia’s most successful artists, was recently awarded the Nation’s richest art gong – the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize while in prison for armed robbery. Brandishing a tomahawk, Milsom most certainly inflicted psychological damage on some poor worker while trying to rob a shop under the influence of crystal meth. While out of character and influenced by depression, it was in anyone’s language, a crime. His Portrait Prize remains however and so it should.
Radio personality Alan Jones has been found guilty of defamation, racial vilification or contempt of court on no less than 12 occasions. He has hurt millions through racially motivated comment. His blathering about Julia Gillard’s father “dying of shame” has been condemned from both sides of politics. He received an Order of Australia in 2004 for his charity work. He still has it.
Much closer to Rolf Harris is Roman Polanski. While not a home grown celebrity, his contribution to international cinema is unquestioned. He received many awards years after being found guilty of the rape of a 13 year old girl and has many more awards pending. He’ll probably get them. So he should.
Now I was no great fan of Rolf (notice past tense – I’ve subconsciously DM’d him), yet I did on one occasion perform on the same bill. He got far more applause than me and deservedly so. He was good; very good. As an entertainer he made the lives of millions brighter. He changed the direction of Australian music and gave national identity linked with humour a place on 20th century radio playlists around the country and around the world.
Harris is being treated like Saddam Hussein. His image is being removed from murals across the country. His Aria Wall of Fame award has been revoked and his portrait removed from the National Portrait Gallery. Radio won’t play has stuff and I’m waiting for the ABC songbooks to be re-written. The Pharaohs of Egypt would be proud.
Just as Jones, Milsom and Polanski remain recognized as influential contributors in their field, so should Harris. His bright side – that of an outstanding entertainer must remain in our national psyche.
Harris was stupid. His dark side was judged and he will pay for his crimes – probably in far more ways than we’ll ever know. Yet our inability to see that all of us are capable of doing both good and bad things is even more stupid. When we fail to recognise this in the celebrities and sports stars we condemn, we fail to recognise it in ourselves and a white picket fence perspective of national identity becomes a deceitful norm.
Unlike an amoeba, we are multi-dimensional beings, and not all of those dimensions are socially or legally acceptable. Cutting off the nose of a nation in order to rewrite history may have been done in ancient Egypt, yet in 21st century Australia, we should hope that our local pharaohs have a more rational view of history and humanity.