Writing festivals are often tired, stilted affairs, but the 38th Adelaide Writers' Week did not promise to be that run-of-the-mill gathering of yawn-inducing, life draining sessions. For one thing, social media vultures and public relations experts, awaiting the next freely explosive remark or unguarded comment, were at hand to stir the pot and exhort cancel culture.
The fuss began with the festival organisers' invitation of two Palestinian authors, Susan Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd. Abulhawa was specifically targeted for critical comments on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, notably regarding NATO membership, and for being a mouthpiece of "Russian propaganda", while El-Kurd has been singled out for social-media commentary on the Israeli state, calling it "sadistic", "demonic" and "a death cult".
Righteously, the South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas showed his less than worldly view on such festivals by insisting on boycotting their talks and presentations. Ever the vote-getting politician, there were those constituents at the Association of Ukrainians in South Australia who had been making noise, notably through their president, Frank Fursenko. "We are very concerned that [the festival organisers] are giving a platform to people who are known apologists for the Russian invasion of Ukraine," insisted Fursenko.
Malinauskas even contemplated pulling government funding from the event, something he declared at his address opening Writers' Week. (This was also the view of the South Australian opposition leader, David Speirs.) The premier, it should be noted, is less morally troubled when it comes to funding the LIV Golf tournament, backed by the obscurantist journalist-assassinating regime of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
At the very least, he made some concession to maturity: refusing "to listen to someone's viewpoint" also involved surrendering "the opportunity to challenge it, much less change their mind." But for all that Abulhawa's presence at the Writers' Week had to be "actively" questioned.
The Advertiserwas less reserved, barking in childish condemnation and demanding, via a statement from editor Gemma Jones, that the Writers' Week director Louise Adler resign. "The views of the two writers in question are repugnant."
Law firm MinterEllison also took up a tenancy in the land of black and white in their decision to withdraw sponsorship, citing concerns about "the potential for racist or antisemitic commentary." It had decided "to remove our presence and involvement with this year's Writers' Festival program". That's branding for you.
Consultancies hardly known for their principled stances on intellectual debate let alone the public good took to the podium of virtue even as they withdrew their support. PwC, which provides pro bono auditing for the Adelaide Festival Foundation, openly disassociated itself from the event by requesting that its logo be removed from the festival website. "We condemn in the strongest terms any antisemitic comments and any suggestion of support for Russia's war against Ukraine," the company stated in a memorandum . "We stand with the Jewish and Ukrainian communities who have been understandably hurt by this issue. In this respect, we have asked the chair of the Adelaide Foundation that any association with PwC with this aspect of the festival be removed."
In all these shallow, stubbornly ahistorical assessments, context is missing. The background, and sense of where such supposedly horrendous opinions sprang from, are dismissed. The culture of cancellation and erasure, as it has been previously, is the prerogative of the powerful and their PR offices. It is also insidious, stressing the trendy, appealing brand of the moment, the acceptable opinion which makes the acceptable person.
El-Kurd, Palestinian poet and correspondent for The Nation, enraged since the day Jewish settlers made their way into his East Jerusalem home, has made no secret in adopting a more militant stance for Palestinians. It was, he stated , "not enough that I have lost my home to Israeli settlers, it's not enough that I grew up and lived as a refugee under military occupation." In his protest and suffering, he had been constantly told to be "polite" and "respectable".
Those years were behind him, times which featured a "failed strategy" that placed a heavy emphasis on humanising unacceptable tragedy: the focus on women and children (again, the branding that matters); the focus on "our inability to commit violence, our inability to feel rage". "And we over-emphasise the victims whose qualifiers make them human."
In her response to the storm, Abulhawa expressed gratitude to Adler and the Board of the Adelaide Festival "for bravely ensuring that we do and will have space to speak and interact with readers on a cultural landscape." She then moved to chart the fault lines that have made contrarian views – or at least views deemed undesirable by the anointed policing agents on the Ukrainian War – a matter of vengeful reaction. To be critical of the Ukrainian Saint was to somehow be a shill for Russia's Vladimir Putin; to be a proponent for peace was somehow akin to encouraging genocide. "These assertions are false, absurd and libellous."