I was interviewed a few nights ago on ABC News Radio on the conflict in Gaza and the realities of the Zionist lobby:
My weekly Guardian column:
The Byron Bay writers’ festival, one of Australia’s largest literary events, has just finished after three days of discussion and debate under sunshine and rain. With record-breaking crowds listening to writers and rappers in large outdoor tents, it was impossible not to be seduced by the diverse participants, including British authors Jeanette Winterson and Geoff Dyer. I spoke about vulture capitalism, Gaza, Palestine and adversarial journalism.
The growth of literary festivals in Australia and globally is a cultural phenomenon that deserves more discussion. India’s annual Jaipur literary event attracts over 100,000 people in a frenzy of debate, colour and energy. When I spoke in Jaipur in 2011, there were “only” around 50,000 visitors. The event’s reputation and stature has grown exponentially since then.
Martin Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English at Harvard University, writes:
“It is difficult to imagine something like the Jaipur Literary Festival in China, and not just because of state censorship there. Jaipur is made possible by the democratic diversity of India … but also by the deep roots that tie India to the Anglophone world.”
In fact, Chinese literary festivals are growing in size and reach, as are similar events in Indonesia and South Africa, as are literary festivals in Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Perth and Brisbane, which challenge the notion that the book is dying due to the rise of digital publishing.
Around 80,000 people attended at least one Sydney writers’ festival event this year. San Francisco’s Litquake festival encourages writers to read their fiction from tablets, laptops or mobile phones. Self-published authors are thriving, making money (some, anyway) and demanding to be included at the establishment table.
The snobbery around these writers should disappear because finding a respected publisher may not always be the ideal option. Britain’s Polari first book prize, for writers exploring the LGBT experience, has this year shortlisted two self-published authors on its longlist.
This global literary movement is frequently backed by corporate dollars and state funding, surely the sign of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, necessary questions over sponsors using their dollars to whitewash bad behaviour or greenwash polluting or destructive policies are too often ignored in the rush to accept the money.
That’s why this year’s controversy over Australian company Transfield, who turn a profit from managing asylum seekers in mandatory detention while backing the Sydney Biennale, was a unique opportunity to link the arts to business practices. Literary festivals would be wise to take note, lest they be accused of turning a blind eye to dirty dollars being spent on worthwhile pursuits.
Why do we love these annual institutions? Founder of The Hoopla, Wendy Harmer, launching the Newcastle writers’ festival in April characteristic style, argued that a communal need for spiritual and intellectual nourishment, along with disillusionment with the political process and its media followers, draws populations to discover new places to share ideas.
With regional towns getting in on the act, Harmer said, “the hunger for communion with like-minded souls is growing. Especially among women, who are not content to sing along to the same old hymn book or obey party rules set by institutions run by men”.
The strength of any cultural institution is its willingness to build an audience, make them feel at home, provoke them, and bring them enjoyment. Reflecting on the politics of the time is surely a pre-requisite for remaining relevant and topical, and yet there often remains a curious lack of diverse voices arguing over the issues of the day.
One of the most persistent critics of literary festivals in Australia is the Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson. He often writes that the partly “taxpayer subsidised” writers’ events are heavily skewed against rightwingers. In 2013 he wanted to know why there were largely “leftist, left-of-centre or social democratic participants” in Sydney.
“And what about right-of-centre types and social conservatives?” he asked. “Well, it seems that fewer than a dozen fit this category. That’s a balance of six to one. That’s your typical Sydney Writers’ Festival. That’s your taxpayer dollar working for – well, you be the judge.”
Henderson is, in part, correct. It’s rare to find political panels with writers who vehemently oppose each other’s point of view and argue for, say, the strengths in Tony Abbott’s government, tough asylum seekers policies or the war in Iraq. I think this matters and it’s surely important to provide a platform for articulate advocates of these positions. This is not about spurious balance – literary festivals aren’t designed to have two self-described leftwingers and two conservatives on every panel – but robust disagreement is healthier than constant, furious agreement.
Like many of us in our online habits, we spend too much time listening and reading to those who we like and respect rather than find uncomfortable or offensive. This circular behaviour is like comfort food; tasty but ultimately unintellectual.
Last weekend in Byron I was on a panel with writer Abbas El-Zein, and Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist David Finkel, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finkel and I clashed over the benefits of embedding in a war zone versus independent reporting, and whether we should have more sympathy for occupation forces or civilians under their rule. It was heated but respectful and reflected a different worldview towards reporting in a time of conflict. The audience responded positively to the spirited discussion.
Literary festivals have the opportunity to challenge authoritarianism and intolerance. Events don’t operate in a vacuum – witness the 2011 campaign, of which I was a part, alongside Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky, against a cosy Galle writers’ festival in the heart of a repressive Sri Lankan state. Writers and audiences have a responsibility to remember to both enjoy themselves and the many artists imprisoned and killed for simply expressing a critical, public opinion.
We Australians feel connected to the wider world but are also insulated from its more brutal waves. Writers’ festivals are a unique way for us to briefly connect with each other during a time of global unease and insecurity.
I’ve returned from the wonderful Byron Bay Writer’s Festival where I’ve enjoyed the outdoor festival in the sun talking about Gaza, Palestine, politics, war (on a very interesting and sometimes heated panel with Washington Post journalist David Finkel and writer Abbas El-Zein and another one on free speech) and vulture capitalism. My 2013 best-selling book, Profits of Doom, has just been released in an updated edition so I spoke to a packed audience about the issues within it:
My weekly Guardian column:
Libya was sold as a glorious, liberating war. London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson wrote in March 2011 that the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi was “of course … a good idea”. He was cautiously optimistic that a Western-led military campaign would not be a “disaster” like Iraq in 2003. “What kind of democracy do we hope will bloom in the desert soil, after decades in which political parties have been banned?” he mused.
Johnson was joined by a host of world leaders, journalists and humanitarian interventionists calling for overwhelming firepower to be deployed against the Libyan army. The western-backed Misrata militias killed Gaddafi and optimism about Libya’s future was in the air. The subject of Libya and the left was much-canvassed, including by Australian writer Guy Rundle, who wrote:
“For my money once a request was made for support [from Libyan rebels], and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity.”
Current events prove this sentiment was badly misplaced, if not naïve. Libya is now divided by civil war, armed groups roam the streets and violence is ubiquitous. The United Nations and American ambassador have fled.
The New York Times last weekend explained the failure of the intervention instigators to invest enough time and energy in nation-building. “In the absence of a strong government,” journalist Kareem Fahim wrote, “a monstrous shadow state was emerging, centred on the power of militias made up of men who fought Colonel Gaddafi and never put down their arms.”
The delicate job of constructing an inclusive democracy since the fall of Gaddafi has been complicated by the extremism of Islamist forces, incompetence and corruption in the political class and the shift in global interest to other conflicts. Amnesty International reported just before the 2012 election that democratic institutions were weak, and were struggling to cope with the Misrata militias, who were engaged in ethnic cleansing and conducting arbitrary arrests and torture. This report was barely covered in the global press.
Libya is mostly ignored today because foreign correspondents are busier than ever. Although an army of brave freelancers and citizen journalists are invaluable when it comes to covering war, mainstream resources are dwindling. In a new book by reporter Anjan Sundaram, on his experiences as a stringer in Congo, he explains how the site of one of the worst genocides in modern times was largely ignored by editors in Western capitals.
“The Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world”, he argued recently in the Times. “We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.”
Libya has suffered this fate. After initial fascination with the Arab Spring reaching Tripoli, media interest dwindled and moved onto other places, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. There was little talk of the pragmatic reason London, Paris and Washington wanted access to Libya: huge oil reserves.
With chaos now descending across the state, and Libyan weapons spreading to Syria, Mali and beyond, the silence from those who backed the 2011 war is deafening. They’ve simply moved onto the next conflict, the next place to advocate intervention, the next editor and journalist guaranteed to completely ignore their record of backing the last disaster. Amnesia and eternal forgiveness are hallmarks of corporate punditry.
One of the leading arguments in favour of bombing Libya and overthrowing Gaddafi was the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It was constantly cited as a key justification for assisting the beleaguered Libyan population. David Cameron, the British prime minister, and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, were just two of the prominent advocates of R2P in 2011.
Three years on, the crisis in Libya barely rates a mention, and R2P reeks of selective application. When British journalist Mehdi Hasan asked French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a supporter of Western military action against Muslim states, whether he took any responsibility for the troubles in Libya in 2013, he ducked and weaved. He preferred to boast of his desire to bomb Syria. When asked whether a military force should be stationed in Palestine to defend its civilians, he admired Israel’s inherent humanity.
I feel like I’ve been writing this same column for over a decade, reminding politicians, journalists and commentators that the internet is the ultimate record of their advocacy for violence against unarmed peoples in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Libya. With a record like this, it’s no wonder humanitarian intervention is associated with creeping colonialism.
We never hear any R2P backers pushing for a military intervention in Gaza to protect the Palestinians from Israeli missiles. Nobody is talking about protecting Egyptian civilians from the brutal, US-backed dictatorship in Egypt. Barely a word is raised to protect the repressed activists in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s dressed up as solidarity, a responsibility to protect, or an intervention to prevent breaches of human rights, from Iraq to Libya these are grotesque experiments on helpless civilians, the conclusions of which are clear for us to see.
Today I spoke at a large Sydney rally in support of Palestine, Gaza and a dissenting, non-violent Jewish perspective. I think there were only a handful of Jews in the predominantly Muslim and Arab crowd. I hope that more Jews begin to find their voice on this vital humanitarian issue and refuse to allow Israel to speak in our name.
Thanks to Rahaf Ahmed for filming my speech:
This morning I was invited onto Channel 7′s Weekend Sunrise to discuss the Israeli onslaught in Gaza and Israeli government extremism:
My weekly Guardian column:
Yarl’s Wood is a Serco run immigration removal centre in Milton Ernest, built in an industrial park more than an hour from central London. Allegations have been made against Serco staff, including of sexual assaults by guards against detainees, yet the British government continues to use the facility.
During a visit inside the centre, I briefly experienced the prison-like conditions suffered by immigrants on a daily basis. After submitting myself to a biometric reading of my index finger – a Serco brochure in reception helpfully informed me that the information could be kept indefinitely because the Data Protection Act is so vaguely worded – I met a young couple from Sri Lanka who were confused and anxious.
The woman was pregnant, and told me Serco staff often didn’t believe her when she said she needed to visit a local hospital for care. She was depressed and worried about her baby. She regularly missed meals and begged me to help them get out. Thankfully, they were released shortly after my visit, to an undisclosed location.
Emma Mlotshwa is the head of Medical Justice, an NGO that provides doctors to immigrants in detention. They offer independent assessments of asylum seekers condition while campaigning for the end of prolonged incarceration. She told me that the system was making people sick.
“The lowest price wins the contract”, she said. “They cut corners, which results in less care, lower paid staff, lower qualified staff – and at Yarl’s Wood, this deliberately aims to fudge responsibility between Serco and the Home Office. Serco often tries to stop us visiting, saying detainees can’t be found or we have the wrong paperwork.”
One thing is clear: keeping the Sri Lankan couple locked up for months was about punishment; they weren’t a security risk, nor flush with funds and able to disappear into the community. This brutal treatment is supposedly a deterrent for future migrant arrivals landing in a country where politics is increasingly defined by leaders who talk tough against the most vulnerable.
The desperation of immigrants behind bars was repeated during my visits to the Geo Group-run Harmondsworth and Serco-managedColnbrook sites, both near Heathrow airport. The centres will be taken over later this year by Mitie, a less well-known British provider than G4S and Serco.
In October 2013, a large fire broke out in Mitie’s Campsfield detention centre. Subsequent investigations found no sprinklers had been installed. Mitie’s CEO, Ruby McGregor Smith, told me that when her firm took over the facility from the Home Office, she wasn’t asked to install a sprinkler system.
She was confident that she had a “good team” to manage what would soon be, according to the corporation’s February press release, the “largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”.
I asked McGregor Smith why she thought her company could run these centres any differently than other contractors. She talked of a more “humane” policy towards asylum seekers – she damned G4S and Serco for their failings in Australia, and argued that both firms were clearly incapable of managing remote facilities, but didn’t admit this to the government in Canberra.
She also slammed competitors for having a “prison culture”. “There’s a danger”, she said, “that if you bring in companies who have run some of the toughest prisons in the world to run detention centres, you won’t get anything different. That’s all they know.”
Nick Hardwick, Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, told me that contractors like Serco, G4S or Mitie aren’t entirely to blame for problems in detention centres. “What causes people’s despair in immigration removal centres, the bulk of them, why they are such unhappy and sad places, is because of people’s distress in how their immigration case is being handled. It’s not generally about the centre itself.”
When detainees are released, they still often face indefinite insecurity. In Sheffield, I visited G4S housing in one of the poorest areas of the city. On a windy summer day, with Roma children playing in the streets, I saw squalid houses, with up to nine men packed into small rooms. I heard stories about the Home Office taking years to reach a decision on immigration claims, which precludes many migrants from building a decent life, given their lack of work rights.
G4S in Sheffield is opposed by local campaigners, such as the South Yorkshire migration and asylum action group. The privatisation of asylum seeker housing has led to allegations of corruption, incompetence and wilful blindness. A senior Serco source in Australia told me last year that his company wanted to run all Australia’s asylum housing, concerned that the immigration centres would empty and their bottom line suffer.
The political class in Britain rarely highlights the personal cost of outsourcing the most basic social services. The complete privatisation of welfare services is a real possibility, despite G4S and others failing to assist the unemployed after being paid by the state to do so. Across the UK, Europe and the world, the same few companies are competing for an ever-widening range of contracts.
What I saw and heard across Britain confirms the startling facts: poverty is soaring and the government and corporate media response is to pass these people into the warm embrace of multinational bureaucracy.
Here are my launch notes:
- Met Omar in 2009 in Ubud, Bali, at the Ubud Literary Festival. He was funny, brash and cheeky. His spoken word poetry was rude, crude, witty, humorous, moving and different to so much of what claimed to speak for Australia. This was an authentic voice that wasn’t white, how bloody rare is that in our bland press?, and he demanded to be heard in the mainstream. His new book signals he’s not content waiting to be asked. He’s arrived with a bang and lashings of the word “cunt”. From the first page.
- His great poem, My Generation, is a work I constantly return to, with lines like this:
took solace in
false prophets who promised change
and did more of the same,
whose ideologies of optimism
were turned into
fridge magnets and bumper stickers-
YES WE CAN”
The false dawn of Barack Obama still resonates today.
- Here Come The Dogs is an Australia we rarely see or hear. It’s tough, edgy, masculine, multiracial, uncompromising, not beach obsessed, not polite, full of fucks and the youth. It roams around a country that we all know exists. Tony Abbott would not approve. His daughters, all dressed in white, virginal dresses on election night last year, would be appalled. It’s even more reason to love this book.
- Knowing Omar for more than five years, he’s often choosing between poetry, hip-hop, writer and playwright. We can now add author to this list. Here Come The Dogs has a rhythm that’s hypnotic, exposing an Australia that is ashamed of our past, questioning of our present and not overly optimistic about our future. Reading the book I found myself wondering why we don’t hear these perspectives more often. Blame the media. Blame the old editors. Blame the unadventurous. The Pacific point of view is almost invisible in Australian media. The loser is mocked not understood. The petty criminal is fodder for a Daily Telegraph cover. Omar injects humanity around all his characters but he doesn’t shy away from sometimes stomping on their hearts and dreams.
- This book makes me proud to be Australian because it doesn’t give a fuck about manners, and encourages eating our food with fingers and not a knife and fork. Napkins aren’t provided. It’s raw and all the better for it.
- This is an angry but tender book. Men dominate. Flames lick around all the characters. Uncertainty is in the air. Confidence is something to be mocked.
- I’m honoured to call Omar a friend and we’ve spent hours, in Australia, Indonesia and India, debating politics, the world and the finer points of Barry Obama’s foreign policy. Thank you for asking me to help launch your first book. The first of many, and I know you’re already planning the next one. May you offend every more people with it, a sign in my world that you’re achieving your aims.
- I encourage everybody to buy at least 5 copies of the book, for friends, enemies and lovers. It’s written in a language that soars. May it provoke concern in North Shore wives, excitement in inner-city kids, fear in private schools and trembling at the censorship board.
A witty and moving look at the privatised US prison system: