Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tanks, but no Tanks

As pretty much anybody who will be reading this knows, a couple of weeks ago Michael Lista published a piece of long-form journalism on about Scott Griffin's role in a $15 billion deal that will see a Canadian company selling light armoured vehicles (LAV) to Saudi Arabia. Griffin, of course, is the patron of a lucrative poetry prize that bears his name, so this news is of particular concern, or should be, to people who read and write poetry, not least of all because Saudi Arabia, as Lista points out, has been especially brutal in its punishment of a writer, Raif Badawi, whose only crime was criticizing the Saudi government.

Poets' antennae are easily--often far too easily--set aquiver by perceived injustice. Consider some recent tempests in the pobiz teapot. Jason Guriel's mildly sceptical review of Alice Oswald's Memorial was likened to a "Twitter rape threat" by poet Helen Guri, thanks to some creatively dubious close reading of Guriel's diction in the piece. Both Frederick Seidel and Kenneth Goldsmith were widely attacked for their poetic responses to the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing race riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Conceptual poet Vanessa Place was also recently accused of racism in her work. Most recently, white poet Michael Derrick Hudson was roundly denounced for publishing poems under the Chinese pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. And of course, there's the ongoing matter of gender imbalance in reviewing, which has seen many names named and shamed.

Most of these issues are legitimate causes for concern, even if the call-outs and ostracizations they generate are extremely problematic. Hopefully, however, everyone can agree that no piece of writing or act of cultural appropriation, however offensive it might be, could ever be equated with selling arms to a tyrannical state that routinely uses violence to control its own people, and which is widely known to sponsor terrorist organizations. But, while some people in the writing world are disturbed by the revelation of Scott Griffin's ties to an arms deal that is, by all appearances, a violation of Canadian law, this group of very well-educated citizens, normally so keen to speak out against social injustice, global capitalism, militarism, etc., has of a sudden gotten all "let's take a step back and appreciate the nuances of this dilemma" on us.

A lot of the (muted and limited) response to Lista's article has consisted of hand-wringing, head-shaking, cognitive dissonance diminishment, complicity mongering and, in a few cases, spectacular acts of moral gymnastics, of the sort offered up by no less a figure than Margaret Atwood, as quoted by Lista in his article, making Hitler-invoking NRA-style arguments that tanks don't kill people and it takes a good guy with a tank to stop a bad guy with a tank. Poet and critic Clint Burnham has contributed my favourite bon mot on the situation:

Some of the things I've heard, paraphrased and condensed:

  • We're all complicit. Look at your RRSP portfolio. Look at the gas you put in your car. Look at your electronic gadgets and your sweatshop shirts.
  • The Griffin endowment was funded before this arms deal and is self-sufficient, so the prizes aren't tainted by dollars from Saudi Arabia.
  • We always knew that Scott Griffin made parts for tanks. Is it so much worse to sell tanks to the Saudis than to the Americans? Just because we go to his gala and drink his wine doesn't mean we endorse his business practices.
  • Griffin also owns House of Anansi Press, so if we're going to boycott the prize, does that mean we also can't buy Anansi books?
  • A Saudi prince owns a big share of Twitter, so if you have an issue with Griffin, you'd better close your Twitter account, you hypocrites.
  • All money is blood money.
  • Lista's motives are suspect.
  • This is a distraction from the real story, which is about the Conservative government allowing this deal to take place.

It all amounts to saying that we're in no position to take a position--or that this is the wrong thing to be taking a position on. There's some validity to it, I suppose, even if it leads by reductio ad absurdum to the conclusion that we can't stand on anything because everything is made of sand. And I don't believe for a second that those dancing around this topic would endorse taking no stands or that the taking of stands is a zero-sum game. 

The degree to which I'm unable to disentangle myself completely from the webs of globalized capitalism and all its ills is something I'm aware of daily (and it's something that Lista cops to in his article). I do have some red lines, however. I have no RRSPs in large measure because I know how hard it is to invest ethically; I'm hoping to retire eventualy on a combination of my Via Rail pension, CPP/OAS and proceeds from real estate investment. Of course, my mortgages have come from a big bank and who the hell knows what they're doing with the money I'm giving them. We do have an RESP for my son's future education (funded by us, other family members and government top-ups) and I'm not sure where that money is invested, as the documentation the bank gives us isn't transparent. I will not shop at Walmart or Amazon because of the way they treat employees, their union-busting tactics and the way they use their buying power to outcompete smaller retailers. I also don't shop at Chapter's or Indigo. I'm too well-informed about these retailers and their negative impacts on booksellers and small publishers to give them money. But it's still possible to buy my books from them and I know I make other consumer decisions that are less well-informed. Less absolutely, I have never bought a car, though I rent cars, own a motorcycle, burn fossil fuels in my home's furnace and even my "green" employer consumes an enormous quantity of diesel per annum moving people across the land.

(Lista's motives, it seems to me, are irrelevant. Even if this was part of some elaborate spite or revenge campaign on his part, the facts are not of his invention. And the story, while adding colour to the bigger picture of our government's too-cozy relationship with the Saudis, in no way diminishes or excuses the fact that none of this would have taken place had Harper's party not brokered the deal. It's significant, I think, that journalists have been less conflicted about the ethics of this story, qua story, than poets have, probably because the facts of it are unimpeachable and Lista has disclosed his biases--and has pissed off fewer journalists than poets over the years.)

So yeah, the world is complicated, and complicity is impossible to avoid. But equating our complicity  in purchasing commodoties and making ignorant investment choices with that of Griffin is nonsense. Griffin is making money directly by selling shock absorbers to a company that will put them in tanks, which will be sold to a country that is one of the world's greatest human rights abusers. It doesn't matter if "that money" isn't the money that funds the prize. The prize bears his name and you can't divorce his present business dealings from his involvement in the prize. If, knowing what we now know, you take his money and keep your mouth shut, you are not merely complicit, you have given yourself an upgrade to tacit condoner. Past shortlistees and winners of the prize become part of the Griffin circle and go into the pool of potential future jurors and even trustees. I'm not going to call out any individuals who have accepted, or will in future accept prize money from the Griffin Foundation because I think calling people out on blogs and social media is fucking gross and because yeah, life is complicated and I don't know what pressures are driving other people's choices. I've made a conscious choice not to depend on writing for my living and I've never been a part of the Griffin inner circle*, so it's a lot easier for me to speak my mind. So no, I won't call you out. But I am calling on you to abandon the exercises in rationalization and look deep into your conscience and decide if this is something you can endorse. Maybe people are already doing so, but I'm not seeing much evidence of it yet. And I'm not the only person paying attention. 

*My decisions in the past to publicly criticize the institution and its operational procedures have no doubt precluded this ever happening. Long before this story broke, I thought of the Griffin Prize as a great exercise in reputation engineering at the expense of rigorous critical appraisal of contemporary poetry. Literary prize culture has always been an irritant to me because of the way it turns writing into a spectacle and a rigged competition. The Griffin is a particularly egregious example of a rich person buying himself an instant measure of culture credibility. How gauche and arrogant is it to establish a prize and name it after yourself? (At least Jack Rabinovitch named the Giller Prize after his late wife.) And since its establishment, the Griffin has become a real coterie affair. I don't buy the trickle-down argument that it's good for poetry. It's been very good to a few poets, some of whom might actually deserve it. By far Griffin's best endeavour is the Poetry in Voice high school recitation contest, which is far more about poetry than the Prize is and far less about glitzy galas and Scott Griffin himself. I was pleased to act as a judge for PiV a couple of years ago. But I don't think I could accept if I was asked again now.