The real significance of Bob Carr’s comments on Israel lobby

Much of the media has dismissed former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s diaries as being obsessed with irrelevance, diets and exercise. In fact, the diaries are fascinating and focus on a range of international events (see my Guardian column this week on the Zionist lobby sections).

I saw Carr last night at Sydney University and although he’s a confident speaker there’s a level of defensiveness when talking about Israel. He still calls Israel a democracy (conveniently ignoring the nearly 50 year occupation of Palestinian land and people).

Australian academic Scott Burchill has further thoughts:

Carr’s remarks about the Israel lobby in Australia are not revelatory. Serious students of Australian foreign policy know how domestic lobbyists for the US, China, Indonesia, Israel and other states work to co-opt decision-makers and manage public opinion in ways favourable to their political masters. Money buys influence.
 
Nor is it surprising that Julia Gillard’s office was specifically targeted. It wasn’t because the Prime Minister was thought to be insufficiently pro-Israel – she could hardly be more faithful to the Zionist cause. Carr on the other was considered wobbly and had to be controlled where possible by Gillard’s ministerial seniority. And here lies Israel’s current dilemma.
 
The most important aspect of the diaries imbroglio is what Carr’s growing scepticism illustrates – the collapse of support amongst Western social democrats for Israel’s narrative about the “peace process”. They are just not buying it like they used to. The days of uncritical support for Israel’s position and unqualified blame of the Palestinians for the conflict, are over. No amount of residual Holocaust guilt or demonisation of the BDS campaign will bring them back. 
 
European social democrats, and even Democrats in Washington (like Secretary of State John Kerry who is now publicly blaming Israel for the collapse of his “peace mission”) have been its staunchest supporters, but are now fed up with Israeli obstructionism – especially newly invented conditions like the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Some feel duped. They see that as each Palestinian concession is made, a new obstacle to peace mysteriously surfaces from the Israeli side. Increasingly they think Israel is refusing to take yes for an answer, preferring incremental colonisation under the cover of a futile, never-ending “peace process”. Norman Finkelstein has looked closely at this phenomenon in the US, where only the fully owned Congress still ritually incants the old script.
 
This should be the lobby’s biggest worry. If they are losing the support of people like Carr who have shown nothing but fidelity to their narrative up to this point, they are in deep trouble. 
no comments

Why we need to discuss unhealthy power of Zionist lobby part 44225

My weekly Guardian column:

To have a prominent political figure challenging the power and message of the Israel lobby is almost unheard of in most western nations – which is precisely what makes the just released diaries of former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr all the more remarkable.

Across 500 pages, Carr catalogues his intense exercise regime, friendships with Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger and hectic schedule of meetings and first-class travel. Carr’s more eccentric quotes certainly makes it tempting to dismiss the book, but to do so would be missing the vital importance of his remarks on the Israel/Palestine conflict and Zionism’s most aggressive advocates.

Carr explains, in compelling detail, how Melbourne’s Zionist lobby pressures, romances, bullies and cajoles politicians to tow the most fundamentalist position over illegal Israeli colonies, Palestinian recognition at the UN, and even the language used to describe Israeli actions. He also claims that Israel lobby financing impacted the positions of elected politicians on foreign policy. Carr reports former Kevin Rudd telling him that about one-fifth of the money he had raised in the 2007 election campaign had come from the Jewish community, and criticises Julia Gillard’s unfailing pro-Israel stance (see, for example, her effusive praise of the Jewish state after she received the Jerusalem Prize), pointing out that she would not even let him criticise Israeli West Bank settlements.

“It’s an appalling situation if Australia allows a group of [Jewish] businessmen [in Melbourne] to veto policy on the Middle East”, Carr summarises in frustration (unsurprisingly, local Zionist groups have responded with fury and defensiveness to the attack).

Carr is right, of course, but I would also have liked to see him discussing in depth the countless numbers of politician and journalists taken on free trips to Israel by the Zionist lobby, where they are often given a selective tour of the region. Tim Wilson, to take just one example, described an introduction to Israel which included a visit to a refugee camp in Bethlehem and a tour of the old city of Jerusalem, along with “meetings with politicians, academics and journalists” (organisers insist guests are “not controlled” and allowed open access).

Part of the softening of politicians to be receptive to the most extreme views on Israel and Palestine comes from those sponsored trips, coupled with relatively weak Palestinian advocacy and a post 9/11 context which paints Arabs with a discriminatory brush. These trips are not, as The Australian claimed last week, “to better understand its strategic fragilities from the ground” – that’s just lobby language. No, those trips – such as AIJAC’s Rambam Israel fellowship – are in essence programs engineered to show journalists, human rights commissioners, advisors, student leaders and politicians the Israeli government perspective. More than a fair share of them return to Australia singing the praises of Israel, issuing caution over any end to the occupation in the process.

Be astounded with this list, provided by the essential blog chronicler of the lobby, Middle East reality check, of all the media and politicians who have taken these trips over the last few years. This hand-holding can be perceived as one way to propagandise the elites against growing public support for Palestine, especially since few of these visitors seem to use their own initiative and visit Gaza or the West Bank for more than a few hours.

The lobby has to acknowledge its power and access to senior politicians. AIJAC head Mark Leibler didn’t realise or care during his ABC TV Lateline interview last week that boasting about such encounters, when most of his meetings with prime ministers and senior ministers aren’t on the public record, reinforces the public perception that they too often operate in the dark, without accountability. Let’s not forget: this is a lobby which often pushes Australia to take a hardline view on settlements on occupied territories only shared by a handful of other nations, such as the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru at the UN.

We are that isolated, and Australians deserve to know what goes on behind the scenes. In the meantime, it’s considered perfectly normal for our political class to proudly tweet a photo with Moshe Feiglin, one of the most hardline Israeli politicians (as Australia’s ambassador to Israel did last week), or to welcome a pro-occupation Israeli leader such as Naftali Bennett to Australia.

This is the political environment in which Carr’s diaries and observations must be seen. Australia, and most western countries, continue to indulge Israeli occupation. But cracks are appearing in this strategy, and Carr should be congratulated for slamming the groups and power centres that aim to continue this dysfunctional alliance.

one comment

The Australian review of “Prisoner X”

My following review appears in yesterday’s Weekend Australian newspaper:

Understanding the insular and tribal Melbourne Jewish community has fascinated sociologists for decades. With one of the largest concentrations of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, proudly Zionist and with strong Jewish day schools, it’s a world that created Ben Zygier, the Australian Mossad agent who committed suicide in a high-security Israeli prison in 2010.

When ABC television’s Foreign Correspondent broke the explosive revelations of so-called Prisoner X last year, defying the Israeli media’s deferential position towards government secrecy, there was intense scrutiny of the role of Mossad in Australia and globally.

ABC investigative reporter Rafael Epstein attempts to unravel the secrets of Zygier’s life as somebody who shares a similar background: this book includes a photograph of the author as a young man in the Galilee, holding a borrowed AR-15 rifle during a visit to the Jewish state.

Epstein details Zygier’s transformation from a boy “brought up on stories of the exploits of Israel’s soldiers and spies” into an individual who decided to dedicate his life to what he viewed as protecting Israel from harm. What creates this fervour is Zionism — Epstein writes of his own experiences that “Zionist youth movements were part of the beginning of the Jewish brand of nationalism” — and the idolisation of Israel (“each session [at the youth group] began with the singing of the Israeli nation­al anthem”). There were times when Epstein and his Jewish friends were “high on Zionism” and he has “vivid, emotional memories of animated late-night conversations about the precise path to a life lived to its potential, preferably in Israel”.

These are important insights into the milieu in which Zygier thrived. One notable absence in Prisoner X, however, is any real discussion about how these realities have created generations of Jews with a mindset that backs hardline Israeli nationalism and West Bank colonies. It’s surely vital to deconstruct why many Jews across the Diaspora have these perspectives. Epstein’s book could have examined them in more detail because Zygier would not have been as committed to the Jewish state if successive Zionist leaders and their followers hadn’t wanted young Jews to almost ignore Palestinians.

Piecing together Zygier’s life is a tough ask. His parents are not talking publicly, so Epstein tries to explain how the Melbourne man became a committed Likudnik (backer of right-wing Israeli policies), fell in with Mossad (he was approached by a partner at the Israeli law firm where he was employed) and worked his way up the intelligence food chain.

Discovering how Mossad recruits young Jews is challenging and Epstein shows the opaque process by which the agency finds willing recruits who have the requisite political acumen.

In fact, as the author details, “many of the people I knew [in Melbourne] could have enlisted and gone on to join the Mossad”. The normality of such a mission, to fight for a nation on the other side of the world, is the key to understanding Zygier and others like him.

Zygier’s career remains murky and Epstein uncovers much new material, including details about work targeting Iran in Europe and the personal cost of Mossad work such as suicide attempts in 2008 and 2009. Zygier, who was married with two young children, became an emotionally fractured man.

Writing recently in The Guardian, Epstein questioned the willingness of Australian politicians to ask hard questions of Israel because of Canberra’s relationship with Tel Aviv. He damned the lack of curiosity among the political elites over Zygier’s work and death.

Epstein feels a responsibility to show respect for the Zygier family — The Australian Jewish News praised the book and author as showing appropriate understanding of the Zionist community — and acknowledges gaps in his knowledge of the story. Still, he demands answers. Prisoner X is a book about prying open a tight world of secrets and betrayal. The supply of young Jews to Israel could be affected by the Zygier case, leaving an uneasy taste in the mouths of many wondering how Israel treats one of its own.

Prisoner X

By Rafael Epstein

MUP, 194pp, $29.99

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist. His most recent book is Profits of Doom.

no comments

Personally supporting BDS against Israel

Last night in Sydney there was a successful event to highlight the growing global movement of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel and the legal case against proponent and Sydney University academic Dr Jake Lynch.

Around 140 people came to hear various speakers detailing the many reasons BDS is one just way to apply pressure on occupying Israel.

Here’s my statement of support that I read last night:

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a key successful fighter against apartheid in South Africa, recently wrote a letter condemning US lawmakers for their increasingly crude attempts to curb free speech over BDS. Tutu argued why he long backed BDS:

“I have supported this movement because it exerts pressure without violence on the State of Israel to create lasting peace for the citizens of Israel and Palestine, peace which most citizens crave. I have witnessed the systematic violence against and humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation and pain is all too familiar to us South Africans.”

I support BDS as a human being first and a Jew second. Don’t believe the false rhetoric from the corporate press, some politicians and media as well as the Zionist lobby that BDS is anti-Semitic or discriminatory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the leading US Israel lobby conference this year, slammed BDS backers as “bigots”. It was a desperate move from a leader and movement, Zionism, that is increasingly known globally as occupiers and brutes. 

BDS is working, removing the legitimacy of a nation that claims to be a democracy but oppresses millions of Palestinians every day. I have seen this with my own eyes in Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza. 

BDS has moved mainstream, from leading European pension funds divesting from Israeli banks and corporations operating illegally in the occupied territories to Sydney University Professor Jake Lynch refusing to partner with an Israeli academic whose institution colludes with the Israeli state and enforces the occupation. I am proud to call Jake a friend, colleague and partner. 

Believe me when I say that growing numbers of Jews worldwide are uncomfortable with blind support for Israel. Ferocious debates within the Jewish community in the US are a weekly affair. It bodes well for a future when justice for all Jews and Palestinians is possible and both peoples can live free from racism in the name of Zionism. 

When the US-led “peace process” is a sham designed to benefit Israel and the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop refuses to condemn Israeli colonies in the West Bank, BDS is one answer. It challenges the occupier and the forces that support it, demanding equality and punishing the individuals and groups, such as Sodastream, that aim to financially benefit.  

BDS is growing and I’m proud to be part of a global movement that’s led by the Palestinians most directly affected. 

UPDATE: Green Left Weekly has covered the event.

no comments

FBI Radio interview feature on privatised immigration detention

The issue of privatised immigration detention in Australia and globally is one subject of my book Profits of Doom.

Sydney’s FBI Radio Backchat program produced a strong feature on the issue last weekend and interviewed me about it:

no comments

On racism, how to tackle it and why the state often worsens it

My weekly Guardian column:

As an atheist Jew, I find it distinctly uncomfortable to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers. I utterly oppose the inaccuracy, hatred and intolerance that goes with refuting the reality of Nazi crimes against Jews, gay people, Gypsies and many others.

But a truly free society is one that tolerates and encourages strong exchanges of ideas. This includes the most abominable of them, such as those expressed by German born, Australian-citizen, Holocaust denying Frederick Tobin, a regular bogeyman wheeled out to justify laws against offensive thoughts.

I fundamentally share the view expressed by Noam Chomsky that “acceptable speech” should never be decided by the state, because we “don’t want them to have any right to make any decision about what anybody says.” As a result, “a lot of people are going to say things that you think are rotten, and you’re going to say things that a lot of other people think are rotten.”

Australian academic Clinton Fernandes furthers this argument:

“One of the most important points in any discussion about the right of free speech is this: the defence of a person’s right to express certain views is independent of the views actually expressed. Thus, one might defend Salman Rushdie’s freedom to write The Satanic Verses without agreeing with the content of that book – or even needing to read it.”

These issues have all been thrust back into the public spotlight with the Australian government’s desire to amend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to, in their view, expand free and often inflammatory speech. Attorney general George Brandis said last week that, “it is not, in the government’s view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others.”

Tellingly, Brandis has also arguably given the green light for intolerance when he said that people “do have a right to be bigots“. Surely the role of any responsible government is to condemn and fight hatred, rather than encourage it.

The response from the vast bulk of the left to the RDA alterations has been horror and opposition. Minority groups are outraged. The Labor party doesn’t support the changes and leader Bill Shorten has urged the Jewish community to lobby hard against the amendments (a request he would probably not make to other, equally affected communities because of the power of Australian groups backing Israel in influencing both major sides of local politics).

The Zionist establishment, long-time backers of the RDA, have written thousands of words in opposition to the government’s proposed changes, but the irony shouldn’t be lost on us. This is coming from individuals and organisations that routinely petition politicians and media organisations to erect tightly controlled limits on so-called acceptable talk around Israel and Palestine, illegal West Bank colonies and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. They rarely have any complaints when anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian sentiment is floated in the press.

Unlike those groups, I welcome a robust discussion over the limits, intent and interest of the state in trying to restrict the most offensive speech imaginable – although I do have some misgivings.

I share some of the concerns of learned law experts, such as Andrew Lynch, a director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW, who writes in the Melbourne Age that the government has a wilful blindness to the profound power disparity between those individuals or groups who may be offended or hurt by hate speech and those most likely to be using them (such as media personalities or politicians). It’s a position utterly lost on cocooned editorial writers and also on columnist Andrew Bolt, who this week praised his ability to receive an apology for hurt feelings, forgetting that his requests come with the power of the massive corporation behind him. Bolt is neither a fair arbiter of how the law should work in relation to hateful speech, nor in a position to understand the awful effect that verbal abuse can have on an Aboriginal, refugee, Jew, Muslim, or Greek.

In supporting some changes to the RDA – principally supporting the removal of laws against “offensive” speech – I acknowledge that I’m writing this as a privileged white man who has rarely experienced racial abuse or hatred because of my religion (except my public, journalistic frankness over Israel/Palestine and the “war on terror” has brought constant hate mail and even death threats).

And at this stage, I also have to underline the fact that the vast bulk of commentators pushing for changes to the RDA are also white and male. It’s impossible to ignore the lack of female, Indigenous and non-Anglo perspectives (there are some exceptions, such as Aboriginal advisorWesley Aird and Sue Gordon, who both back the government’s moves).

As a result, much of the discussion about the RDA is expressed by a political and media class that indulges racism on a daily basis, from theNorthern Territory intervention against Indigenous citizens to our treatment of asylum seekers, racial profiling, or our backing of wars in the Middle East. These groups and individuals don’t really care about tackling everyday racism, preferring to distract the public from their own shocking records instead.

None of this means, though, that those of us who have spent years fighting discrimination against minorities can’t feel uncomfortable with current laws that seek to restrict free speech. The RDA has not reduced tangible racism in Australia (if anything we’re becoming less friendly to migrants, according to a new study) and we shouldn’t look to a state that entrenches racism to legislate against it.

After thinking about this issue for many years, and growing up in the Jewish community I was constantly warned about rampant anti-Semitism, I support this comment by the 20th century American journalist H L Mencken:

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

It may make our hearts sink, but we owe it to our democracy to defend the rights of the most offensive people in our community.

no comments

What is the author’s voice and where the hell is it living?

I was invited last October by the Australian Society of Authors to speak at their national congress on the role of writing, journalism and being an author. The video has just been posted (!):

Much modern publishing is based on a commercial model, and has relied on authors to deliver sales and profits. Yet authors are also seen as important contributors to culture and education. A further identity – that of speaking truth to power – sees authors consciously take on activist tasks through their work.

Science journalist and NSW Writers Centre Executive Director Jane McCredie led author Susan Johnson and journalist Antony Loewenstein in discussion.

This discussion took place as part of the ASA National Writers’ Congress on Friday 18 October 2013 in Sydney.

no comments

ABCTV Big Ideas on Profits of Doom and vulture capitalism

The following was broadcast today on ABCTV1:

Can vulture capitalism be stopped?

That’s the question put up by Antony Loewenstein in his last book ‘Profits of Doom: How vulture capitalism is swallowing the world’.

He’s a writer, photographer, blogger, doco-maker and always a provocateur. He’s in conversation here with Chip Rolley, editor of the ABC’s The Drum.

The focus of this exchange is the implications of privatising prisons, detention centres, aid and security in this country and on a global scale.

To put this conversation in context, it took place at the Perth Writers Festival right after the riot on Manus Island and the death of refugee inmate Reza Barati.

no comments

ABCTV News24′s on racial discrimination, politics and Murdoch empire

I appeared on ABCTV News’s24′s The Drum last Thursday talking about changes in the Murdoch empire, the ethics and politics of changing the racial discrimination laws and why unions are in such dire trouble in Australia:

no comments

The ethics of the US alliance

The job of US State Department favourites (journalists, commentators and politicians who routinely rehash US government talking points over war, peace and the Middle East) must be exhausting. Defending the indefensible while still being on the information drip-feed.

Welcome to the US embassy, the free champagne, caviar and PR tips are in the boardroom.

I was recently attacked, with about as much credibility as Israel when talking about Palestinian rights, by Lowy Institute flak Michael Fullilove over my recent Guardian comments on Russia and Ukraine.

Australian academic Scott Burchill is one of the country’s most astute observers of this pernicious trend. This latest piece by him is spot-on:

Reflexive support for state power and violence by America’s cheerleaders in Australia takes many forms. There are ad hominem attacks on those who disclose Washington’s nefarious secrets, such as its slaughter of journalists in Iraq or its illegal surveillance apparatus directed by the NSA. There is a conspicuous silence when US drones murder civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and  Afghanistan.

Currently there is confected outrage when a rival state cedes territory it considers to be a legitimate strategic asset, but convenient amnesia when questions about invasions and occupations by friends and allies are raised.

Compare the reaction to President Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which has so far resulted in one fatality, with Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Bahrain in 2011 which killed many innocent Shi’ites but which Washington refused to even call an “invasion”. Coincidently, just as Crimea houses the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet, Bahrain plays host to the US Fifth Fleet.

Consider Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, which has killed thousands of Palestinians since 1948, and dispossessed many more, but would not have been possible without Washington’s connivance.

Perhaps there is a closer parallel. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. Mass expulsions of Greek Cypriots, property theft and egregious human violations including killings and unexplained disappearances, followed the initial attack in July 1974. But Ankara remains a valued NATO ally and there are no suggestions in Washington or Canberra that economic sanctions be imposed on Prime Minister Erdoğan, his business cronies or predecessors. Some invasions and land grabs, such as Indonesia’s 24 year occupation of East Timor which Canberra and Washington enabled, are just fine with us.

Hypocrisy, double standards and selective outrage dominates foreign affairs commentary. Amongst the current avalanche of hysterical Putin bashing in the Western media one fact is always omitted. The US is the most promiscuous interventionary state in the world, with mass slaughters in Afghanistan and Iraq being only the most recent examples of its addiction to military violence. In both these cases Australia was an enthusiastic accomplice.

To those infatuated by power, however, these actions – for which apologies are never issued nor reparations paid – are not crimes, merely “wrong-headed and foolhardy” because Washington’s impact on the world is “benign” (Michael Fullilove) and it remains an “overwhelming force for good in the world” (Greg Sheridan, Kevin Rudd). Just ask the Vietnamese.

Perhaps the strangest claim by American boosters in Australia is that Washington is unfairly singled out for criticism by “the left” and thugs like Putin get off lightly. According to a former Liberal Party staffer, “It’s interesting how little the green-left in Australia has said about Russia’s conquest of Crimea which, under international law, is part of Ukraine. Had the United States done it, I think the green-left would have gone berserk.” (Gerard Henderson ).

Actually, the alleged silence of “the left” is neither interesting nor surprising. Despite its own significant responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine, there is no obsession with Washington’s crimes in the Australian media or across the broader political class. But there should be one.

There is no alliance between Australia and Russia. We don’t have intelligence sharing agreements with Moscow. There are no technology transfers and no Russian troops rotating through Darwin. We don’t play host to “joint facilities” with Russia, have routine ministerial meetings with officials in Moscow or regular bilateral summits between our heads of government. We have no influence on Moscow’s political elite.

We do, however, have limited leverage in Washington. The alliance gives us access to their decision makers, regardless of whether our opinions are welcome. With that opportunity comes a responsibility to exert influence where we can, especially to curb America’s propensity to meet its global political challenges with extreme violence. This does not constitute a disproportionate preoccupation with US foreign policy, as the local Washington lobby would have us believe. As our major ally that is precisely where our focus should be.

It is also our ethical duty. In democratic societies, responsibility for the consequences of our actions extends to the decisions taken by governments on our behalf because we can participate in the process of formulating policy. The US alliance is a policy choice for Australia and there is no evading the moral consequences of that relationship, including the international behaviour of “our great and powerful friend”.

Our leaders closely align themselves with their counterparts in Washington, and claim to share both common values and a similar view of the world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in several wars before, we have been willingly complicit in acts of aggression and breaches of international law. Drawing attention to these crimes, as opposed to those committed by others we have no influence upon, does not constitute anti-Americanism. It is our moral and political responsibility. Like charity, analysis and criticism should begin at home.

one comment

Triple R interview on politics of citizen’s arrests

I was interviewed by Melbourne’s Triple R radio this week:

On, Michelle Bennett talks to author, journalist and activist Antony Loewenstein about Western hypocricy and “peaceful citizen’s arrests”. In a column he wrote recently [for the Guardian], Loewenstein put forth a discussion-provoking argument for greater accountability of Western leaders, including pushing for a serious enquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War. 

no comments

Where are books and story-telling going?

My weekly Guardian column is below:

How many e-book consumers realise that some publishers, writers and distributors know an awful lot about their reading style? They have knowledge about how far into the book you’ve reached, when you get bored, which characters you like and those you don’t. Amazon, Apple and Google, along with countless large publishers, embrace the idea of providing products that readers are apparently craving.

It’s yet another way that our digital footprint is commercialised, marketed and analysed. Nothing is private anymore. Curling up on the couch with an e-book is not a solitary act but instead a way for corporations to learn about your habits and then sell you items you’ll think you need.

Novelist Scott Turow told the Wall Street Journal in 2012 that writers still didn’t know who bought their books or why. “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting”, Turow said. “Personally I’d love to get the information.” The president of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux pithily responded: “We’re not going to shorten War and Peace because somebody didn’t finish it.”

Along with the music and newspaper industries, the publishing world is undergoing a profound transformation that will affect every book that you buy or write. A 2009 New Yorker article on whether the Amazon Kindle could “improve on the book”, is today a redundant question. The device, despite its technological limitations and mundane aesthetics, has sold in the millions (not that Amazon ever releases actual sales figures).

The days of extravagant publishing parties, sales reps enjoying spa treatments and wine tastings are almost gone. The result is that author advances have plummeted, Amazon now controls vast swathes of the industry, bookstores are closing across the Western world and yet at no time in history have more people been reading. Publishers in Australia and globally are trying to adapt, recognising that readers want more choice in how they purchase books. The Australian industry, while perhaps healthier than in years past, remains risk-averse though online opportunities for genre fiction has never been stronger.

The reasons for the publishing malaise is both complex and predictable (yes, the internet kills and nourishes all art forms). In a seminal 2009 essay on the subject, by Elizabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a litany of figures are blamed, including the industry itself. She worried about the commodification of books, the “internet types” who see books as items to be shifted as opposed to critical cultural artefacts in a healthy democracy and “lucrative junk”. Sifton laments “booklike objects created by the teams working on, say, famous generals in televised wars, cooks, telly dons, ballplayers, realty-show contestants, famous pats. These flashy items dominate shelf space, ad budgets and public attention; they leave nowhere near enough air, space or money for true literature.”

I would counter and say a healthy market should sustain all types of books, from the literary masterpiece to the quickie title based on an instantly forgettable TV show.

Despite it all, the book will survive and perhaps thrive, though our understanding of what a book can do and how it relates to the reader must change. Amazon remains a behemoth and yet a recent New Yorker feature on the company painted a picture of multinational disinterest in building a quality collection of books and literary culture (perhaps because they’re too busy selling garden tools, dildos and toys on their website).

Books, like newspapers, aren’t just products to be bought, discarded and forgotten; they contribute to the necessary exchange of ideas, policies and dreams in any stable nation. Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy urged her colleagues this year to strongly promote the “marketplace of ideas” that they create. Books can inspire fear and hope, love and pain. They allow any individual to shut out their own lives and imagine a different reality. Whether this is fiction or non-fiction and in print or online, we should celebrate, nourish and support the realisation of creative works. This takes time, money, patience and a diversity of views. Never forget that only six corporations control 90% of media in the US. Smaller, independent presses have therefore never been so important (along with challenging the idea that a company like Google can digitise every book ever written, handing one firm unimaginable and dangerous cultural and financial power).

So what will the reading future look like? It may be dominated by new ideas around wearable technology such as Google Glass. Wired magazine claimed in January that these devices “will be as big as the smartphone”. It’s entirely conceivable that people will want innovative ways to read content as they live, work and sleep. Publishers will need to be ready or the public will simply bypass them and design their own methods of reading. As an author myself, I’d love a book that can be accessed on multiple devices, each giving the reader a different experience about my journalistic work, some static and others interactive.

Perhaps the most interesting interventions in this debate over narrative are coming from gamers and digital storytellers. Sydney based Guy Gadney, group executive director of The Project Factory, blogged this month – under the headline, Why Ancient Stories Bring Transmedia Inspiration (Or Why Books are Shit) – that consumers should no longer accept the rules set by publishers. “Books are now centralised and controlled by monolithic publishing houses which make the decisions over what we should read and what stories will never see the light of day”, Gadney argued. “But behind this corralling of story form and structure, a new wave of storytelling has recently been emerging that will challenge the orthodoxy.”

He advocated a “dialogue not monologue” around engaging audiences and used one example of a project that will assist Australian Indigenous cultures in sharing their stories to a wider audience via an app, Ringbalin: River Stories. A normal book simply cannot fulfil this mission.

I don’t see this project as replacing traditional books but a direct challenge to the failure of the written word to publish or even acknowledge so many Indigenous stories. With the public increasingly consuming information on countless devices and screens with limited time to read and reflect, non-linear forms of storytelling must be considered by any serious producer of content.

Books will exist in 100 or 500 years, and not just in museums. How we as a society manage the online disruption to traditional forms of publishing will determine how we want to tell our own stories and how they should be remembered. Are we no more or less than what is recorded on a retrievable device? Memories fade. History has been traditionally written by the elite so I welcome the ability for anybody today to document their lives, every intimate detail, on equipment of their choosing. Books need to adapt to this changed reality or face being principally embraced as nostalgia.

no comments