There is much competition for the title, but Federation Square may well be the ugliest piece of architecture in Melbourne. It is not a fair representation of our nation’s federation (if it were, we would do well to split the country up and revert to the colony system immediately), and neither is it, in any literal sense, a square; the misshapen thoroughfare and surrounding buildings feature no right angles, only wrong ones. Embedded in an abstract mess of glass, metal and concrete are long, thin LED screens, which hang diagonally. It is not a welcoming space. Whenever Melburnians plan to meet somebody in town, they suggest doing so on the steps of Flinders Street Station. These steps are always impossibly crowded, and it would usually be easier to rendezvous at Fed Square, but nobody does.
On the inside it is a different story. For this assignment I’ve been tasked with covering the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival, most events taking place in Fed Square’s main hall. The walls of this large room are glass, and afford a charming view of the Yarra bank. Hundreds of wooden seats in nordic modern style are arranged in neat rows, facing a small stage. The interior is as pleasant as the exterior is obnoxious. This, as it turns out, also holds true for the festival itself.
The program is packed with provocative events, like “Rape Culture”, “Are Men Ruining Feminism?” (spoiler alert: Clementine Ford says they are), “Rise of the Right Wing”, “Sexism as a Mental Health Crisis” and, most challenging of all, “Meet Sam Dastyari”. No prominent conservatives have been invited. The theme for this year is “Revolution”, and while most scheduled lectures and panels have taken this to mean the light-and-bubbly sexual kind, more than a few speakers allude to supporting the means-of-production, blood-on-the-street variety. Yet, overwhelmingly, the writers and audiences themselves are friendly and white-collar. If the Australian proletariat were to rise up suddenly in violent revolt, Melbourne Writers Festival attendees would be prime targets for looting and liquidation. The 2017 MWF bills itself as being “For everyone who reads”, but when I arrive at the opening night gala, I see that a more accurate descriptor would be, “For well-off white women in their sixties”.
Tim Blair: War of the Poseurs
Kim Scott, the first indigenous writer to win the Miles Franklin Award, has been recruited to give a “powerful opening address”. According to the Festival guide he’ll be discussing “how writing yourself into history can challenge Australian identity and transform our connection to language and land”, so I decide to buy a stiff drink. The bar is located at the back of the hall and, alas, it has been cordoned off. Behind the velvet rope are thirty or so people having a better time than I. Given their age and dress, I assume they are the ones responsible for organising the festival. It is the same old story; the party members preach equality and revolution, but keep the finer things for themselves. “Am I allowed in there?” I ask the red-shirted guard. The young woman shakes her head and affects apologetic embarrassment. She can’t quite bring herself to say “No”, but when I turn to walk away she seems relieved. A fellow prole—a man in a plaid jacket—is venting nearby: “We can’t get wine until after the event?” I feel a faint urge to hug a fellow oppressed drinker.
I take a seat towards the back of the room, as hundreds of people file in. I don’t spot any massive celebrities, but I do recognise the guy who used to do the words on Letters and Numbers, and that guy who was always on First Tuesday Bookclub. Eventually everybody finds a seat, the lights dim, and Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin takes the stage to deliver a welcome to country. I don’t know who she is, but later I find on a Wikipedia search that she is a high-profile welcome-to-country deliverer. She takes a moment to spruik her new book, titled Welcome to Country. A mobile phone rings. Nobody says anything, or shushes—it just rings out.
Now that the welcome is over, fifty or so people file in to the hall. The ushers must have kept them outside while the rest of us were being welcomed. Another speaker takes the stage, who again acknowledges “elders past and present”, before introducing a dance troupe. Rubenesque women dressed in black wave their arms, while another lady whispers incoherencies over a drum beat: “we belong like cockatoo, dreaming, mountains, valleys, we belong, the sea eagle, heartbeat rhythm, concrete temples, the heart of a lion, honouring Ganesh, we belong to gods and goddesses, we belong …” It goes on like this for what seems a very long time. When they’re quite finished, everybody applauds. The applause stops abruptly once the dancers have left the stage.
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A third speaker takes the podium, and tells us we’ve just witnessed an “earth honouring ceremony” that brings together Indian and Aboriginal cultures. He thanks Aunty Joy and, again, acknowledges that we are gathered on stolen land. Yet another man takes the stage—there are an awful lot of people employed by the festival as executives—and there is yet another acknowledgment of the First Nations Peoples. By my count, we are treated to six such reminders of European invasion during the one event. Another telephone rings and, again, this is something the person on stage does not acknowledge. They’re all so obsessed with their moral duties that nobody has bothered to fulfil one of the basic duties of an MC: getting the audience to switch their bloody phones off.
Finally, Kim Scott takes the stage. He thanks the preceding speakers, and says he reckons “it’s glorious, this strong Aboriginal strand that’s going through things”. He too emphasises that this is a stolen country, and that white men forced an apartheid-type regime on a decimated indigenous population. At least, unlike many of the other speakers this evening, he is charismatic. Throughout his lecture he sometimes makes the audience laugh, although laughter might not be the right word. It is that strange, polite noise that one so often hears coming from inner-city Melbourne audiences at the comedy festival; a collective moan of agreement. It is less like joy, and more like the noise you make when a loved one is serving dinner.
Scott tells those gathered that Australia has a “poisoned” history of racism and privilege, and hundreds of rich white people nod enthusiastically. The speech is long, meditative and, at times, incoherent. At one point the English language itself comes under attack (which is a little odd for a festival about writing). Scott’s argument, as far as I understand it, is that since English was not devised in Australia, the language forces English speakers to think colonially. He goes off on more than a few tangents. There’s a Slim Dusty song, a call to cultural revolution, and a painting that, I think, is supposed to say something about perspective. Towards the end Scott asks how much time he’s got left, and is informed off stage that he has gone on too long. Despite all the welcoming and acknowledging, the whitefella is once again telling the blackfella to get out of his way. In conclusion, Scott says that “something must be implemented”—but he’s not forthcoming on what that something is, who’ll be doing the implementing, or how. He exits to much applause.
Yet another festival bureaucrat takes the microphone. He thanks Scott, and says that “it is gonna take us some time” before we can “fully process” what has been said, which seems a polite way of conceding that he didn’t understand much of it either.
There are 300 events scheduled for the festival and three or four of them are running at any given time. Like a man who has lost his glasses, there are many things I can’t see. Sadly, on the second day I miss out on “The Perils of Populism”, “Women Writers in the City”, “Climate Change Activism”, “The Vandemonian War” and “Feminist Lit”—and that’s just before lunchtime. Instead, I opt for a panel discussion, “Death in the Digital Age”. It is held in a different room, a small, stuffy cinema about fifty metres from the main hall. Approximately a quarter of the audience is made up of young men who, to put it politely, look as if they are interested in digital things, and the rest of those assembled are so old that, to put it impolitely, they might have pressing concerns about death.
After another welcome to country, the MC and the panellists speculate on a variety of topics (What happens to our Twitter when we die? Wasn’t that episode of Black Mirror good?). I’m not sure how much of it the seniors are actually following. An elderly woman nearby keeps nodding her head and humming in agreement at statements which really don’t warrant that response—“Facebook was originally intended as social media” (“Hmm!”) “You’ve all seen roadside memorials” (“Hmmm!”). The highpoint of the discussion comes when the MC uses the term “online detritus” to describe old Facebook accounts and e-mails. I have never heard this expression before, and am quite impressed. The feeling is fleeting. As the festival goes on I hear three different speakers use detritus as a metaphor in three different speeches, and realise that detritus is just an unusually popular thing to say in Melbourne’s literary circles. It is by no means their worst tic. That, by the way, is the expression, “We need to think about these issues as a society.” That sentence, or some close variant (in escalating clumsiness “Society needs to think about these issues”, “These are issues which our society needs to think about”, and “We, as a society, have to come together around these issues and really think about them”) is uttered countless times at the festival. The sentiment is totalitarian (“society needs to think about it!”), but also populist (“the entirety of society should be consulted”) and, more than anything, an admission of mediocrity (“Me? Oh, I don’t have anything to say on the issue myself. I’ll leave that to society”). It is also, as is the case at the “Death in the Digital Age” panel, seldom actually true. Do we really, as a society, need to think about what happens to somebody’s Facebook account when they die? Isn’t that something we could figure out on our own?
The festival has booked MCs for all the events. Ostensibly they’re there to introduce the writers and run question-and-answer sessions, but more often than not they take it on themselves to crowbar progressive ideology into otherwise apolitical topics. At “The Genius of Birds”, science writer Jennifer Ackerman is scheduled to discuss “the sophisticated science behind birds’ brains and behaviours”, but not before an MC gives an acknowledgment of country—which, by this point, I have to assume has been mandated—and then starts to pontificate about the Kulin nation, who “would have been very aware of the birds in this area” before Europeans came and “paved over the ground”, which resulted in the loss of “understanding”. Ackerman’s lecture itself is very enjoyable; she talks about different birds, their startling intelligence, enormous memories, and surprising ability to solve puzzles. At one point, a sparrow flies into the room, and there is much amusement. In closing, the MC says that Ackerman has today demonstrated that “human beings are not separate to nature … we are a part of it”. She has, of course, done nothing of the kind. She has demonstrated that one species of bird is capable of using a twig to find food, not annihilated human exceptionalism.
Next is “Creative Women”, a panel I’m keen to attend after seeing that the festival has described it thus: “This event is fragrance free. We respectfully ask that you refrain from wearing perfume or cologne to this session.” Over the course of the festival there is much mockery of the unwashed masses, but this is the only occasion on which you might be turned away at the door if you stink. How does one police such a thing? Will there be a designated armpit sniffer, ensuring that everybody is aromatically au naturel? I’ll never know; Kate Grenville, who has written a book called The Case Against Fragrance, drops out of the event the night before, and whatever anti-scent measures the festival might have had planned are abandoned. She has been replaced by ex-heroin-addicted-prostitute-turned-memoirist Kate Holden, who is astonishingly good fun: “I was from a very bookish, bourgeois, papery background, and then I did heroin for five years, which was rather more exciting!” Otherwise, the panellists cheerily complain about writing as a female—“with housework, kids, a partner, it’s important to stake your time”, “I’m terrified of that empty screen”—with occasional jabs at the Coalition government peppered in—“I cannot belieeeeeeve this latest Dutton thing!” The audience laps it up. If a single conservative has been booked in, or is attending this festival, I can’t spot them. The “Creative Women” seem to understand that they’re in a bubble, but they don’t seem to mind: “Melbourne audiences are awesome! They really get the politics.”
The next event for the day is, aptly, “Identity Politics”, a debate which asks, “Do identity politics play a pivotal role in comprehending the structural barriers that subjugate marginalised minorities [ugh], or is there a better alternative?” It’s a free event, held in one of the smallest rooms in Fed Square. The organisers have severely underestimated the turnout. I arrive ten minutes early, and wade through a thronging horde, only to be told that the event is already full. Nearby, a person of indecipherable gender and ethnicity isn’t having a bar of it: “But our friend is speaking!” They insist that they have a booking, which is odd, because the festival guide states that “no bookings are required” for the debate. It doesn’t even seem as though it is possible to make a booking. I wait around the entrance, hoping that one of the debaters will spout a micro-aggression and I will be able to take the seat of a triggered person, but nothing happens.
I leave, and head for another event charged in the politics of identity. Today, all over the world, people pretending to be Irish are gathered in pubs watching Conor McGregor fight Floyd Mayweather. I cross the Yarra and cut through an Asian food court to get to a P.J. O’Brien Pub which, like the debate, is over capacity. A hundred or so people, men and women of varying age, race and class, press up against the pub’s windows to get a look at the television inside. Across town, writers are preaching inclusivity, predominantly to middle-class whites who read the Age. Here, at an Irish pub, watching two men punch each other in the face, diversity is manifest.
This brief foray into normalcy drives home the strangeness of the festival. Audiences are seldom enthusiastic, but neither are they cold or critical. After events, they say to each other things like “I enjoyed that”, in the same tone of voice you’d use to tell a stranger the time. The designated smoking areas around Fed Square are forever empty. This seems wrong at a festival selling itself as a haven for revolutionaries and bohemians. Heading into the next event a few minutes late, a tall woman cuts in front of me to have her ticket scanned. She is a few feet away, and turns to look at me. I make a gesture to indicate that no offence has been taken. She flinches, as though I was going to strike her. She stares vacantly for moment, turns away, and walks through the entrance.
Back in the main hall again, American writers Joyce Carol Oates and Megan Abbott are being interviewed together at a panel called “The Dark Side of Womanhood”. When I arrive, the petite, seventy-nine-year-old Oates is reading a gory excerpt from her new book, A Book of American Martyrs, about a young woman who bashes men with a claw hammer. Over the course of an hour, the Australian woman MC-ing the event tries again and again to push these already left-of-centre women into politicising their own work. “What I was thinking about when I read these books,” says the MC, “was the dark side of capitalism.” Neither Abbott nor Oates is keen to go there. “I was primarily thinking more of the people … I start with the people,” says Oates who, herself, had in mind “the tragedy of family life”. Abbott echoes the sentiment, and says that she “doesn’t have an agenda” for her characters. In Oates’s novel a female boxer gets a concussion. The MC states that, in America, a concussion “is a class issue”, and jumps into talking about discriminatory healthcare in the US. These Americans are progressives, but they’re more intelligent and nuanced than these narrow talking points. Oates, for example, has written a book that quite tenderly humanises a fundamentalist Christian who shoots up an abortion clinic. She speaks fondly of a different character who articulates a pro-abortion position in her book, and then adds that “the paradox is that the only people who say these things are the ones who get born”. Later, she is brutally frank about the lives of female athletes, saying that they must sacrifice “their bodies, sexuality and mental health for athleticism”, in a way that men do not. Yes, both panellists make cheap Trump jokes—“We are afraid to go home!”—but, unlike so many at the festival, they give the impression that they are rigorous, independently-minded people.
Next is another American, the twenty-four-year-old Angie Thomas, who has topped the best-seller list with The Hate U Give. It’s a novel aimed at young adults (“YA” in industry parlance) which is often referred to as “The Black Lives Matter Book”. It is the first event I have attended at the festival where the median age of the audience is below fifty. Despite her youth, Thomas is an adroit and engaging speaker. She’s warm, funny and, evidently, adored. Her address is titled “YA & Activism” and, although nobody else here would describe it in these words, it is about the importance of indoctrinating teenagers with progressive politics. She speaks about the power of literature to change lives: “I’m here to tell you that it is indeed possible to change the world!” She loves teenagers, and passionately implores those gathered to “Spark the brains! Tell their stories! Empower them! Invest in the future!” She believes that literature has the power to make people moral, and wonders, what if the dreaded Trump had engaged with empathy-wakening literature as a young man? “Maybe he’d be a better person … we wouldn’t hate him.” Not to be a downer, but both Stalin and Lenin loved The Brothers Karamazov, and Hitler adored Don Quixote. An appreciation of literature is no guarantee you’ll end up “making the world a better place”.
When Thomas moves from generalities to specifics, she moves from specious reasoning to factual untruth. Yes, the US government viewed Dr Martin Luther King as a threat, but Thomas wrongly states that “his family later won a lawsuit against the US government for wrongful death”. In fact, in 1999 the King family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Loyd Jowers, the owner of a restaurant near where King was murdered. Both sides alleged government conspiracy. The government agencies, which were not named as defendants, did not get to respond. A Memphis jury found in favour of the Kings, but the United States Department of Justice rejected those findings on the basis of a lack of evidence. Angie Thomas goes on, however, with emotion swelling in her voice, to state that “the US government claimed responsibility in Martin Luther King’s death, but that’s not something we talk about”. The reason this is “not something we talk about” is that it did not happen. Thomas, however, states it as fact. She later says that “there’s a stereotype that black fathers don’t exist. That’s a lie.” If that were literally a stereotype, Angie Thomas would be correct; biology dictates that every child, regardless of race, is fathered. If, however, she means that there is an incorrect stereotype about absent black fathers in America, then she is wrong; 67 per cent of non-Hispanic black American children are raised in single-parent households, compared with 25 per cent of non-Hispanic white children, and a mere 17 per cent of Asians. There are compelling arguments that lay the blame for this disparity at the feet of white America, but to deny it is to deny reality. It is well and good to talk about changing the world, but if you don’t start with the truth, what hope have you got?
Over the next few days, reality is bent out of shape again and again in pursuit of progress. Shireen Morris leads a discussion called “Constitutional Recognition” on “the modest and moral request that we let Indigenous people have a say in the running of the nation”. In fact this “modest and moral” proposal has been guaranteed in law since the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1962. Morris says she is advocating for a legally recognised representative body of Aboriginal Australians who would advise the parliament on the laws which concern them. She emphasises that it would not be a shadow parliament, nor would it possess veto powers. She insists that even “paranoid” conservative constitutionalists could get behind the idea, and that those who disagree are unreasonable. Andrew Bolt is the go-to straw man on three separate occasions.
The discussion goes down a different road during the Q-and-A session, when Morris states that the new committee would be perfectly positioned to negotiate a treaty between indigenous Australians and the Australian government. Later, when asked why the body wouldn’t get veto powers, she makes it clear that she wishes the body did have veto powers, but that it’s just not politically viable—it is “unfortunate” that Australians wouldn’t give 3 per cent of the population the right to veto the other 97 per cent. Is it really “paranoia” when one’s fears are openly confirmed? An audience member who is supposed to ask a question chooses instead to go off on a five-minute rant that would confirm every Tory’s worst nightmare: “I will be voting Yes, because we must kill conservatism!” This sort of outburst is not uncommon at the festival. On another day, the historian Sean McMeekin gives a fair, reasonable lecture on the Russian Revolution. In the audience Q-and-A a man aggressively asks if “there’s some political reason behind your interest in the Russian Revolution? I mean, why would you even be interested in it if you are opposed to it?” McMeekin is flabbergasted. “I’m not a politician,” he says. “I’m a historian, a teacher. I’m interested in human events and am fascinated by the study of history.” The man who asked the question does not clap when the session concludes.
On a Monday night, ex-Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and retired President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs speak together on a panel about metadata. They make impassioned defences of privacy, freedom of expression, and condemn unaccountable government agencies. Sometimes they sound sensible. At other times, as when Ludlam is making sweeping complaints about ATMs having little cameras in them, or lamenting the fact that corporations have access to information you choose to give them, or Triggs is questioning whether “well-meaning conservatives” actually exist, the wheels fall off. Repeatedly, Triggs hammers the government. While she graciously concedes that metadata laws have prevented terrorism, she also calls the policy “draconian”. “Who else is enjoying Professor Gillian Triggs off the chain?” asks Ludlam. Everybody is, it seems. During her time with the Human Rights Commission, many on the Left denounced the notion that Triggs was politically partisan. Now they revel in it.
Events at the festival are marketed as though they are going to be controversial. The attention-grabbing theme of revolution is used wherever possible, and even when it is impossible: a discussion on Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria is entitled “Revolutionary Women”, despite the fact that these two women devoted themselves respectively to the Catholic Church and the British Empire, two of the most hierarchical, reactionary institutions in history. Repeatedly in panels, Q-and-A sessions and lectures, writers emphasise the importance of fighting the good fight, telling truth to power, standing up for yourself, and so on. At the festival itself though, nobody ever seriously disagrees with anybody else. There are no arguments, no contradictions, and seldom even any scrutiny or clarification.
At “Media and Society”, the ABC’s Julia Baird and ex-Fairfax editor Eric Beecher make the case that there has been a “market failure” in newspapers, and that the government must step in to fund journalists. Which mastheads should receive taxpayer support? The ABC and Fairfax, of course, because so many other media outlets, like, say, Newscorp and (one supposes) this very magazine, are full of culture warriors who “waste so much time”. “Does anyone mistrust what they read in the media?” Baird asks the audience. Somebody shouts “The Australian!” to which Baird happily replies, “I’m with you!”
At “Are Men Ruining Feminism?”—a panel on which no man is present to defend his gender—a squad of intersectional feminists spend an hour smearing the unfair sex. For them, it wouldn’t be enough for women to fill every single vacancy that opens up for every powerful or prominent job. Rather, powerful men should take it upon themselves to resign from the workplace en masse so that women can take their positions. Men who are worried about male issues—suicide rates, family court—are losers. Women who don’t subscribe to intersectional feminism must be suffering from internalised misogyny.
The panel backs up byzantine gender theory (“implicit in problematic structures … control over your narrative”) with bizarre examples: fewer men work in primary schools now than they did in the 1990s, and this is taken as evidence of a regressive patriarchy that encourages men to become CEOs and women to look after little children. Nobody speculates that it might have more to do with changing attitudes and awareness of paedophilia. Clementine Ford, the star of the panel, is treated like a messiah by the audience. She launches a withering attack on men who “perform their feminism”: “I don’t care what you say about your feminism. Prove it! Do it! Not because you want to be recognised, but because it’s the best thing to do. That’s the only reason to do it.” As if on cue, a man behind me whispers to a woman: “She’s amazing.”
Over the long slog that is the Melbourne Writers Festival, there are two individuals who give me especial cause to celebrate; oases of logic and hope in a desert of ideology and propaganda. One is Micah White at “Will Democracy Win?” a panel at which, oddly, nobody seems to be in favour of parliamentary democracy. White is an activist, avowed revolutionary, and the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street. He seems extremely sensible—as sensible, that is, as a man advocating revolution can seem. Having founded the most popular protest movement of recent times, he has now rejected the idea of protest entirely. “There have never been as many protests,” he says, “but they have never been so ineffective … corporations advocate protest!” He is clear, where so many others have been vague, about what he and his fellow progressives actually want: “We need to overthrow and govern society”, and give power to the people. He professes that he “likes Brexit”, and is in favour of populism: “I’m a globalist populist.” Has this man entirely misjudged human character? Probably. Has he learnt anything from the revolutionary horrors of the twentieth century? One doubts it. At least, though, he is honest, coherent, and opposed to the tightly-held, wishy-washy nonsense of his fellow travellers: “The amount of groupthink is insane!”
The other bright light at the festival is Sami Shah, a comedian, writer and Islamic apostate, who gives a robust, impassioned, and not entirely welcome defence of free speech. “The ugly truth of free speech”, he says, is that we must “defend the indefensible”. His rationale is that “only free speech allows for great art”. For his controversial life and opinions, he routinely receives hate mail and death threats. He recounts a particularly ironic one sent by a Muslim detractor: “How dare you malign the religion of peace and love? I hope you die!” Shah doesn’t want tougher legislation on hate speech—“I don’t trust legislation … there’s nothing we can do”—but he wonders if therapists might be able to provide “better training for people who cop it”. Shah’s talk is one of the few occasions at the festival when a speaker takes deliberate steps to make his audience feel uncomfortable. “This is an echo chamber!” he tells them. “This totally is an echo chamber!” Shah is wonderfully funny and engaging but his defence of free speech is, apparently, hard medicine. The MC is sombre in his concluding remarks, and says that “this is the most difficult sort of conversation to have”. Really? These are all self-identifying free-thinkers, and the single most difficult thing for them to talk about is the importance of freedom of expression? Perhaps that really is something we need to think about as a society.
James McCann, an Adelaide writer and comedian, has a website at www.jamesdonaldforbesmccann.com. The 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival went on from late August to early September.