A few months ago certain portions of the web was filled with headlines about singer Michelle Shocked going on a rant against same sex marriage including the chilling line “God hates fags”. While this would be pretty awful from anyone, it was big news for two reasons. Firstly Shocked is very much a lefty, veering between anarcho-socialist politics and being on the far left of the US Democrats at different points of her life. Secondly, a huge portion of her fan base are queer-identified. On top of those things, this occurred in San Francisco, which at least lets her off the accusation of playing to her audience. Not surprisingly half the crowd walked out, and various venues cancelled follow up gigs.
Now I need to state right here that I have been a HUGE Michelle Shocked fan. Arkansas Traveller is a strong contender for my favourite album of all time. One of the many thoughts that passed through my brain when I saw The Age cover the story was “Jeez, now you cover her, you wouldn’t bloody give her a run when it was just about the music.” Buried in my cupboard is a t-shirt too precious to throw out, even though it is too holey to wear. It has a picture of Michelle and speech bubble saying, “Music and politics are too important to be left to the professionals.” So yeah, I’m biased, I want to cut one of my heroes some slack.
But I have not played any of my Shocked CDs since.
A couple of weeks later an email lobbed in my inbox (I’m on her mailing list). It was pretty rambling and confused, but most of it was made up of the text of an interview she did with Piers Morgan. This started off even more confused, sometimes seeming as if two people with contrasting views were fighting over control of Shocked’s larynx, with sentences that contradicted themselves or appeared to me to lead nowhere. I might despise Morgan, but he did a good job under the circumstances of leading her back to answering the questions and at the end he got this out of her:
MORGAN: And do you have any problem with gay marriage?
SHOCKED: No, I don’t.
MORGAN: Do you support it?
SHOCKED: I do.
MORGAN: So you support full gay rights?
Apparently some people in the audience that night thought Shocked was not expressing her own views, but trying to explain how opponents of same-sex marriage saw the issue (despite her leftist politics she attends an evangelical church where a lot of the people are very conservative so she knows these views). Reading the first part of the interview with Morgan one could well imagine how it would be very difficult to follow what she was trying to say.
Australian readers might now start to see the improbable link to Eddie McGuire. (For non-Australians, McGuire is the president of the most famous football club in Australia. He took over at a time where the club’s supporters had a reputation for racism, and took considerable strides to turn this around, while pissing a lot of people off for various other things. A couple of weeks ago a 13 year old supporter of his club racially abused one of the game’s greatest players, who is Aboriginal. McGuire was generally judged to have acted very responsibly in denouncing that behaviour, but then undid it all by making a racist joke about the incident on radio).
Now unlike a frightening number of talkback radio callers, most people who comment on articles or people who have absolutely no excuse at all I understand that being straight I don’t get to decide how offensive Shocked’s comments were. Just as, being white, I don’t make the call on the seriousness of the abuse Adam Goodes coped, or McGuire’s follow-up. The people affected weren’t in much doubt, and it is beholden on everyone of good faith to support them, rather than wonder around saying “I just don’t see why it’s an issue”.
But judging the statement is not the same as judging the person who made it.
When A Beautiful Mind came out some people denounced it for “whitewashing Nash’s anti-semitism”. It’s true that John Nash said some appalling things about Jews. At the time he also thought he was the emperor of Antarctica. He apologised profoundly once he found himself back in touch with reality. Do you judge a sane person by what they do when they are in the grip of psychosis? Surely not. I don’t think Nash deserves to be considered an anti-semite on the basis of his hallucinations. One can debate how problematic A Beautiful Mind‘s departures from literal truth are, but the idea they were covering up for an appalling bigot by not alerting the public to what he said is pathetic.
Shocked is not schizophrenic, but if you look up the symptoms of bi-polar disorder you pretty much find a picture of her staring back at you. Psychosis is not a universal symptom of bi-polar disorder, but nor is it a rare one. I’m not qualified to diagnose, but reading that Morgan interview felt like watching someone dancing the border between sanity and madness. I’m inclined to blame what she said at the disastrous gig on the psychotic state.
What about Eddie Everywhere? He may have delusions of grandeur, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest he could be classified as mentally ill. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced a couple of sentences represent him. That’s not in anyway to minimise the seriousness of linking of Goodes to one of the world’s most famous symbols of sub-humanity. I think Harry O’Brien‘s statement was utterly true as well as very brave. But a couple of seconds, repented immediately, don’t define a person. There’s plenty of things to be critical of McGuire over, such as his complete lack of grasp of the concept of conflict of interest. But I’m not sure that someone who has spent almost two decades tackling racism deserves to be branded as one because somewhere in his brain some wires crossed. It’s possible to say someone did a terrible thing, but is not a terrible person.
Over the weekend, I’ll be turning fruit from my tree into jam. It’s not strawberry, but it has been my tradition when producing preserves to play Michelle Shocked’s song encouraging people to “close down these corporate jam factories”. The speakers have died on my computer, and my earphones don’t stretch to the kitchen, but I might just be singing it under my breath.
Update: Martin Flanagan pretty much agrees with me (as well as having some other really important things to say), while Miranda Devine thinks Eddie McGuire is a racist. I think the case is not closed.