Sunday, May 09, 2010

Margaret Atwood's price?

The fly that sips treacle is lost in the sweets. --The Beggar's Opera

$US 0.5 million.

Margaret Atwood, whose work has explored in depth the complex and unequal relations between men and women, and who stood up in 1981 for gay rights when it wasn't fashionable to do so, will be sharing the million-dollar Dan David prize with Amitav Ghosh, who once wrote fiercely about colonial dispossession. They receive their gold in Tel Aviv today, personally delivered by the President of the State of Israel.

A short and sharp campaign was launched when the news first broke. It fell on deaf ears.

Her acceptance of the prize is "fraught with ironies," indeed. Atwood is required to kick back 10% of the prize money to support graduate students at Tel Aviv University. Students in Gaza, meanwhile are unable to pursue their studies:

"We have no fuel supply in Gaza for student transportation," Ayah Abubasheer of PSCABI wrote in an email on 21 April. "There are no basic supplies or stationery for students in Gaza. Basic materials such as pens, pencils, sharpeners, erasers and so on are not available. And, books? There are no books, research resources or any of the like in Gaza. Israel bombed the Islamic University's labs and student residences during the [winter 2008-09 attacks on Gaza]."

"Many of us," said Palestinian students in an open letter to Atwood,

have encountered your writing during our university studies. Although your books are not available in Gaza—because Israel does not allow books, paper, and other stationery in—we are familiar with your leftist, feminist, overtly political writing. And most of all, we are aware of your strong stance against apartheid. You admirably supported sanctions against apartheid South Africa and called for resistance against all forms of oppression. ‬
Ms. Atwood, we consider you to be what the late Edward Said called an “oppositional intellectual.” As such, and given our veneration of your work, we would be both emotionally and psychologically wounded to see you attend the symposium. You are a great woman of words, of that we have no doubt. But we think you would agree, too, that actions speak louder than words. We all await your decision.‬

Well, now we have it.

Atwood claims to be aware of the situation in Gaza, where her books cannot, as noted, be read because of the current siege. She promises an article on the topic at some point.

It is glib of Atwood to compare a boycott with censorship. One is voluntary; the second is imposed by the state. But readers will know, nevertheless, that I'm iffy about cultural and academic boycotts. If we can't talk, we're lost, and art and thought are two ways of carrying on a conversation. Israel isn't a monolith: it's full of human beings with a diversity of views and values. The trick is to
separate the individual, with whom we not only want to have, but must have dialogue, with the faceless, reified state with whom, by definition, a human dialogue is impossible.

But when the boundaries become confused--when a researcher is improving weapons of war to be deployed against an occupied people, or a film-maker is "re-branding" a country by deliberately ignoring its dark side--we must demand clarity. It is appropriate to ask individuals where they stand: to define their roles in the conflict. Artists and thinkers don't float above the world of events, but are part of that world, and, one way or another, they live, breathe and act in it.

So where does Atwood stand?

Perhaps, in that context, the question now shifts. What will Atwood do with the other 90% of her prize?

A wise feminist friend of mine once said, "Money has no politics." She was referring, if I remember rightly, to government funding for women's organizations. Her eminently practical point was that, once the cash was in hand, it could be used as a tool for good. Its source was less important than what would now be done with it.

Years ago, my union received a "solidarity" donation from another union during a strike. When the strike was over, the union turned around and conducted a successful raid of our membership. What would we do with that donation?

A benighted few, as I recall, suggested returning it. I proposed that we should use it to fund anti-raiding local development activities. In the event, it was decided to give it away to our social partners, such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. And this we did in a blaze of publicity, and to the considerable anger of the other union, whose own constitution would not have permitted it to do any such thing.

So here's the challenge we should be now posing to Margaret Atwood. Use the money for good. Help Palestinian students get the books, paper, computers and other supplies that they need. Endow a scholarship for them. Fund visiting professorships. Give the oppressed a voice. Use your influence to open some doors and windows in that vast prison known as Gaza.*

Just maybe, you can do something tangible to make things better. If you choose to.

[H/t filasteen--and James Morton]

UPDATE: A reader notes in the comments that UNRWA (from which the Harper government recently disassociated itself) is working with a non-profit organization called One Computer Per Child to provide laptops for schoolchildren in the occupied territories, including Gaza.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a demonstration will take place in Tel Aviv this Wednesday on behalf of Israeli Bedouins, who are being driven out of their villages to make way for Jewish families. You don't have to be Palestinian to get the short end of the ethnic stick in that part of the world.

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