Over the last year or so I have been trying to catch up on two aspects of modern culture that I missed out on during a busy life devoted single-mindedly to serving the people. The first of these cultural signposts was the iconoclastic and hilarious TV show Seinfeld. The second was (don’t laugh) Australian Rules Football. So I have now watched all 90 episodes of Seinfeld and the rest of my weekends have been spent watching the football on television. It is true that one Saturday I accepted an invitation from a rich friend to join him in a corporate box with Dr Edelsten and his inamorata; but the food was so plain it surpassed the worst excesses of Liberal party fund-raising chicken, the players were so far away I could not tell who was kicking the ball and there was an eerie silence in our isolated bubble that was so uncharacteristic of the noise and atmosphere outside that you may as well have been on a different planet.
Since then, I have confined myself to watching the game on TV, where the close-ups are so close-up you can see the blood and actually see what is going on. And what is going on is cheering, booing, abusing the umpire, hysterical and one-eyed devotion to your side and cutting down to size any pretentious upstart who supports the other mob, all of which are eminently commendable activities; it is the great leveller, irrespective of race, colour or religion.
In contrast, Seinfeld, as you will recall, made its name by being exactly what it promised to be, a show about nothing. It really is about nothing: whole episodes could be – and were- devoted to nothing but the stars waiting for a table at a restaurant, going to the laundromat or getting lost in a car park. No discussion of issues or ideas is permitted in Seinfeld and every instalment in the lives of these slick New Yorkers is devoted solely to, well, nothing. Applying myself with great devotion, I steadily got abreast of these two great cultural forces, the hilarious banalities of daily life in Seinfeld and the uniquely Australian egalitarianism and larrikinism of the AFL.
Little did I realise, as they each wove their unique magic around me, that eventually they would meet in the middle and somehow mould themselves into a unified symbol of modern life and the way it is lived. But they have done exactly that, and it came about only last weekend. What happened was that I had my weekly dose or two of the show about nothing and then remembered that I also had to keep an eye on Adam Goodes and whether the crowd at the Sydney v. Geelong game had booed or cheered him as he came onto the ground after a week’s respite from playing. You will recall that he was upset at being booed at previous matches and claimed it had happened because we are all racists and have been so ever since the day he calls Invasion Day. So we were all warned that we were not allowed to boo him anymore as he is an Aboriginal and that would be discrimination; we could boo anyone else, but that would not be discrimination.
The game was not televised, so I leapt at the Sunday newspapers to find out what had happened. Had there been another outburst of the vile racial vilification for which we are so deservedly renowned or had there been the dawn of a new age of tolerance and love, with the Lions laying down with the Tigers, as it were, there being nothing so wimpish as lambs in the AFL. I was therefore curious whether Adam Goodes had been booed again or perhaps cheered this time for the skilled footballer he undoubtedly is.
As usual, I turned to the Age for moral guidance, and there was my answer: nothing had happened. Nothing. There was only, as the Age put it with its unique mastery of the English language, ‘a blissful silent blink’, with ‘no booing nor braying. No jeering or cheering’ and a ‘wonderful normality.’ Nothing had happened because it was guaranteed beforehand that ‘nothing would happen’ and, accordingly, nothing did happen. Anyone who had idle thoughts of dishing out some abuse as generations had done before, anyone who had thought of booing, anyone who had even thought of offering the occasional cheer had been well and truly warned off in advance. We had lost the best of that essentially Australian opportunity to scream and shout, show what we thought of the players (good on our side, dreadful on the other) and the umpire (patchy) and to do so while we are abusing and shouting at anyone we wanted to, regardless of their race, colour or religion. And we had had it all replaced with… nothing; well, nothing but a ‘wonderful normality’, a happy and satisfied Age editorial and the Human Rights Commission salivating that one more freedom had fallen victim to the racism industry and one more area of human activity had been silenced. So Australian Rules has caught up with Seinfeld, but Seinfeld has won.
We have lost a lot through this episode and gained nothing. Seinfeld’s ‘nothing’ is delightfully iconoclastic. But the new ‘nothing’ of football makes me ever wary about where the next attempt to silence us will come from.
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