Sunday, March 05, 2023

When hate speech is OK

When it emerged that a 2022 Sydney Festival dance production was being supported with a $20,000 grant from the Israeli embassy, more than two dozen performers boycotted the festival and demanded it be shut down for “normalising apartheid”.

When it was revealed that this month’s Adelaide Writers Week would feature authors who have published what reads like violent abuse towards supporters of Israel, mocked Jews over the Holocaust and expressed support for Vladimir Putin, the response from festival organisers and participants was of a different kind.

The show must go on.

In the past fortnight, Adelaide Writers Week has become a national flashpoint for those who believe that, far from being challenging spaces which invite the exchange of multiple ideas, arts festivals are now captive to fixed left-wing orthodoxies, including questioning whether the state of Israel has the right even to exist.

The furore invites broader questions. Are there limits to free speech? At what point does robust free speech descend into hate speech? Do the social media ramblings of a person count towards an assessment of their output and character?

Key Jewish-Australian organisation have been appalled by the conduct of Adelaide Writers Week and its director Louise Adler, the former chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing, in crafting a line-up which they say gives a platform to bigots.

Adler is curating her first Adelaide Writers Week under a three-year deal, having taking the reins from previous director Jo Dyer, who ran unsuccessfully as a teal candidate for the SA seat of Boothby at last year’s federal election.

Critics of AWW say that not only is the festival stacked in favour of the Palestinian cause, it has rolled out the red carpet to people they regard as extremists.

Their anger is shared by Australian Ukrainians, who in the lead-up to the first anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion were dismayed to learn Adelaide was playing host to an author who believes the continuing war is the fault of the Ukrainian government and people.

The fallout so far has been significant – three authors have cancelled in protest, sponsors have threatened to pull funding, The Adelaide Advertiser has removed all its staff from the daily “Breakfast with Papers” program, and Premier Peter Malinauskas has been urged to intervene.

The two authors who sparked the dramas are Jerusalem-based Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd and Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa.

Aged just 24, El-Kurd is hailed by his supporters as one of the most important new voices in Palestinian literature, his 2021 debut collection Rifqa credited with “laying bare the brutality of Israeli settler colonialism”. He also works as the Palestine correspondent for The Nation and in 2021 was named, with his twin sister Muna, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine.

El-Kurd’s grace as a poet is less evident in his tweeting, where he has described supporters of Israel as “sadistic barbaric neo-Nazi pigs” with an “unquenchable thirst for Palestinian blood”.

“I hope every one of them dies in the most torturous and slow ways,” he has tweeted. “I hope that they see their mothers suffering.”

He has ridiculed Jews for having to wear so much sunscreen – suggesting it proves they don’t belong in the Middle East – and made Holocaust references, including accusing Israel of “kristallnachting” the Palestinian people.

With this back catalogue of vitriol, it’s not surprising that the Anti-Defamation League and Executive Council of Australian Jewry have both written to the Adelaide Festival arguing that El-Kurd is not so much the Wordsworth of the West Bank but a peddler of anti-Semitic abuse.

His fellow author Abulhawa is also well regarded as a writer; her latest book Against the Loveless World lauded as a moving exploration of statelessness and resistance in the context of the Palestinian struggle.

But again, less elegant on Twitter, where she has written “It’s possible to be Jewish and a Nazi at the same time” and described Israel as “the only ‘nation’ that systematically kidnaps and tortures children daily”.

It is Abulhawa’s views on Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine that have caused the most blowback for AWW. In multiple tweets, Abulhawa has declared the war is Ukraine’s fault for trying to join NATO and parroted the Moscow line with a tweet which simply read: “Denazify Ukraine.”

She has described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “a depraved Zionist trying to ignite World War III” and said: “This man is no hero. He’s mad and far more dangerous than Putin.”

It was for this reason that three Ukrainian authors have withdrawn from the festival, all of them writing to Adler saying they would not share a platform with someone who peddled Russian propaganda in defence of genocide.

“I feel saddened that calls to be sensitive in relation to Ukrainians who have been attacked in this genocidal war and to not give a platform to voices that repeat Kremlin propaganda are not always heard,” author Olesya Khromeychuk wrote.

Fellow author Kateryna Babkina wrote to Adler: “I’m afraid I can’t participate in any kind of event that gives voice to the person considering Ukrainians should give up their right to decide what to do with their destiny and their independent country and just become a ‘neutral nation’ pleasing Russian ambitions in order not to be killed.”

The fallout from all this has been acute for the Adelaide Festival. Board members have been lobbied urging them to intervene; sponsors Minter Ellison, PwC and IT firm Capgemini have demanded their signage be removed as they weigh future support for the festival; Malinauskas vowed not to attend any sessions involving the offending authors, despite grudgingly honouring a pre-made commitment to speak at the opening of the event.

But Malinauskas, who has Lithuanian ancestry from his refugee grandfather, has made no secret of his concern at the presence of the pair on the AWW line-up.

“There is a distinction between provoking thought and facilitating the spreading of a message that simply does not accord with basic human values,” he said. “That is worthy of contemplation for Writers Week.”

Adler has now made several public statements saying authors at AWW have been reminded that hate speech or bigotry of any kind will not be tolerated.

But she is sticking to her guns with the line-up on free speech grounds, arguing that it is vital that different ideas be put forward and contested.

“I am interested in creating a context for courageous and brave spaces where we can have civil dialogue and discussion about ideas that we may not all agree on,” Adler said.

“If we all gather together just to agree with one another or with people who share our views, well some people might enjoy that, but I don’t think that’s the point of a literary festival.”

Adler’s detractors laugh at the assertion of diversity, with former federal Labor MP Jewish-Australian Michael Danby noting there are seven Palestinian authors and not one Israeli at the event.

A quick look at the AWW political line-up does little to bolster Adler’s claims to it being a freewheeling orgy of disagreement. From the world of politics, Liberal moderate Amanda Vanstone will be joined at AWW by Bob Carr, Wayne Swan, Bob Brown, Steve Bracks, Gareth Evans, Sarah Hanson-Young, Maxine McKew, along with ACTU secretary Sally McManus and teals founder and funder Simon Holmes a Court.

If this is diversity, it is a brand of diversity which extends all the way along the ideological spectrum from the rabidly left-wing to considerably left-wing to somewhat left-wing.

In defending the presence of El-Kurd and Abulhawa, Adler has tried to draw a distinction between their published works and their social media posts, as if the tweets can almost be expunged from the record.

“Twitter is more for succinct targeted polemic rather than nuanced discussion,” she told this newspaper.

It’s a defence which is rubbished by the third Ukrainian author to withdraw from the festival, Kharkiv-born Australian author Maria Tumarkin, who in a withering blogpost made it clear she regarded AWW as an intellectual indulgence while an actual war was going on.

“I’m a Ukrainian Jewish Australian, no hyphens or hyphens, I don’t care. My world (as I knew it) ended on February 24, 2022. I have no connection to any ‘interest groups’, ‘sponsorship money’, ‘Zionist lobby’, ‘pearl-clutching’ (snort!), ‘attempts to silence marginalised voices’, ‘propaganda’ propagation – what else have you got for me?

“I’d rather not be lectured on developing a higher tolerance for ‘confronting ideas’. All good on that front, thanks.

“In the last 12 months I’ve learned a lot and changed my mind a lot. Perhaps the most salient lesson is that anti-war can mean pro-genocide. It means pro-genocide right now in Ukraine.

“Statements in which Zelensky (who’s Jewish) is called a Nazi, fascist, someone responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and/or WWIII are not anti-Zelensky and/or pro-Putin. They are forms of genocide cheering (a step up from genocide apology). They do not exist in the space of discourse only and do not represent something that can be classified as merely a contentious political opinion. If only.

“And while we’re on the subject, I see no difference between Twitter feeds and books if tweets are pro-genocidal and knowingly so.”

Adler is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. As such, she invites a degree of awe with her bulletproof commitment to free speech principles. But she is clearly out of step with a great number of Jewish and Ukrainian people who regard this not as free speech but hate speech. And her promise of diverse speech is not backed up by the AWW program.

In the broader context of the cultural arc of these modern-day festivals, one wonders if he were alive today what kind of reception the Italian chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi would receive were he scheduled to appear in Adelaide this week at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden.

Would If This is a Man be hailed for what it is, the definitive first-person chronicle of the high point of human evil, or a tendentious sob-story aimed at bolstering Israeli hegemony? The answer would probably be the latter, especially if the Israeli embassy dared sponsor Levi’s appearance.


Youth crime epidemic in Queensland

There are many adjectives which Queenslanders have employed to describe Campbell Newman over the years but “fearful” is not among them.

Yet tonight, as a story in today’s Sunday Mail reveals, the former hard-nosed Queensland premier who began working life as an army engineer, and whose own political pugnaciousness unquestionably contributed to his downfall in 2015, admits freely that he is fearful, increasingly anxious and genuinely concerned for his own personal safety.

In a Sky News documentary screened tonight, the same Newman who launched a legislative assault on bikies and simply dismissed the threats and intimidation which followed reveals it is kids roaming the street outside his home that scare him.

He locks his bedroom door every night, horrified by recent events which include a stabbing murder only 1000m from his home.

“I’m ready for them to come through my back window,’’ he says.

Newman, more than eight years removed from high office, is not dissimilar to average folk with a limited ability to formulate public policy. He is now not a member of any political party.

And while his ideological affiliation with the conservative side of politics remains, his opinions are largely bipartisan in the sense they are being expressed in all quarters, right across this state.

His remarks will resonate with mums and dads who go to bed at night now wondering whether their car will be stolen. Youth crime is no urban myth, nor a media generated community panic. It’s now factored into our ordinary lives.

Those security cameras which only a few years ago were the sign of a wealthy homeowner living in a large compound are now winking at us as we knock on the door of ordinary Queensland suburban homes.

Queenslanders now sense that many of these youthful criminals have no framework of reference for ordinary behaviour – that they will, quite literally, kill you if you disturb them in their attempts at theft, and then have little capacity for self-reflection after the event.

That lack of a capacity to grasp the enormous damage they have caused to a fellow human being is noted by many youth workers who see, time and time again, how many of these serious offenders have been totally divorced from any sympathetic human connection almost from the day of their birth.

Newman, with an indisputable grasp of public policy stretching back 20 years to his days as Brisbane mayor, has some cutting criticisms to make of the Labor state government on this issue.

Queenslanders don’t want to play politics with this issue but they too are grappling with the same questions.

This government cannot deny, and will not deny, its policies on youth crime have been developed through a more academic prism which is opposed to incarceration as a method of rehabilitation and reflects criminal justice trends going back half a century.

But, as Newman points out in his blunt manner, that system hasn’t worked.

Newman sees a principal purpose of criminal justice as keeping people safe from violence. Yet he is against locking children up in detention centres.

Instead, he sees an answer in youth offenders being signed up to community service or being sent off to boot camps remote from our major population centres.

Many Queenslanders will now agree that anything is worth a try.


International Women’s Day is a farce

Organisations such as Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency add up all the salaries earned by men and women and then announce how much less in total women got paid. According to the agency’s latest calculations, it’s now 13.3 per cent less.

This is partly because there are female-dominated professions, such as nursing and teaching, that should be better paid. But even the agency admits it isn’t because women are paid less for doing the same job as a man.

So the persistent difference between men and women’s total earnings comes down to something more fundamental: personal choice. It’s important to recognise this to create better outcomes for women in later life.

Many men and women design their entire lives and career choices around a family unit which includes children. Divorce settlements, if it comes to that, need to account for that implicit deal. That includes asset-splitting. This would be the best way to support women who take jobs with less responsibility or fewer hours because they pragmatically realise that “having it all” is a furphy.

While we’re at it, “having it all” is another trope that should be cut from the International Women’s Day line-up. If a woman is “having it all” – that is, kids and a kick-arse career – chances are there’s both childcare involved and a nanny at home. That’s other women, for the most part. Why don’t they get to “have it all”?

And if we’re not “having it all”, for instance, because the desired family didn’t eventuate, or the career isn’t so stellar, the International Women’s Day “all” is an annual kick in the guts about what it takes to be complete as a woman.

Those women who aren’t being guilted into attending some patronising event, are spending International Women’s Day doing twice the work. For instance, the nannies, mentioned above.

And the ABC likes to celebrate by creating all-female line-ups on its flagship shows, presumably giving the chaps the opportunity to put their feet up. Meanwhile, Champions of Change (until recently known as Male Champions of Change) provides an opportunity for men to burnish their CVs by turning gender equality into a form of corporate charity.

All this dressed up in the blare of pink that adorns International Women’s Day. “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’RE A GIRL,” it announces, like an annual late-life gender reveal.

Thanks, without your help, we’d never have figured it out.


Australia’s cultural treasure Trove hangs in the balance

Billions of stories held within the National Library of Australia’s online portal, Trove, are hanging in the balance as the federal government considers a funding plea to maintain the beloved platform.

The archive’s funding is due to expire on June 30 and chief executive of the Australian Library and Information Association, Cathie Warburton, said it would be disastrous if the resource was lost.

“Trove is the envy of the world,” she said. “Its international reputation as a keystone of Australia’s national research infrastructure with free access to digital sources is a credit to Australian librarianship. It would be an unmitigated tragedy if we lost it.”

The National Library has warned that without at least $7 million in additional government support in the May budget, the popular archive could cease operations from July.

The National Trusts of Australia is the latest organisation to call for urgent funding for the portal. Chairman Lachlan Molesworth described Trove as a national treasure.

“I would call Trove the single most important custodian of digital heritage in the country in the same way that we are probably the most important custodian of the physical cultural heritage in the country,” he said.

“Trove records the best and the worst part of this country’s history ... losing that is losing part of our cultural heritage.”

Arts Minister Tony Burke last month met leaders of eight national galleries and museums including the National Library, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery.

The government’s own advisory body on national cultural policy has recommended arts and cultural organisations be exempt from efficiency dividends, a method by which cumulative cost-cutting is enforced.

Burke last week said no decision had been made on additional funding for Trove, but hinted Labor was favourable to funding what he described as an “incredibly important” resource.

“It is fair to say that Labor has always had a commitment to the cultural institutions,” he said.

Spanning some 6 billion items, Trove has an estimated 70,000 daily users.

It contains all manner of Australiana: advice on making wartime rations go further, a 1936 recipe for sliced heart and bananas fried in fat – and a map drawn in 1940 showing “the distribution of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia”.

Researching a bluestone fountain in the heart of Melbourne started Irene Kearsey’s journey into the ever-evolving database that is Trove.

Stanford Fountain, on Spring Street, was constructed in 1870 by Pentridge prisoner William Stanford of bluestone, the only material available to him. Stanford later succumbed of silicosis – then called “stonemasons’ disease” – literally dying for his art.

His story is just one of billions held within the portal, which holds digital copies of newspapers, government gazettes, maps, magazines, books, photographs, archived websites, music and interviews.




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