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 Canadaland.com 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:
Poets line up to not bite hand that feeds barely any of them
— Clint Burnham (@Prof_Clinty) September 24, 2015
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.