Flat White

The latest in woke censorship: it’s only cancel culture when the cancellers say so

9 July 2020

11:08 AM

9 July 2020

11:08 AM

Meanjin online has published a piece by Eileen Chong, “Representations”, explaining why she demanded a short story written by Stuart Cooke — which she deemed as being “problematic” — be “taken down” from the on-line literary journal Verity La. Both Meanjin and Verity La are funded by the Literature Board of the Australia Council. In the process, Chong exposes what she calls “systematic racism in the industry” (I think she means the lit biz). 

You can read her article here.

A white Australian writer.

A white male narrator.

A white woman poet friend.

A well-known white woman poet.

Another white woman.

Award winning white poet.

The white woman poet.

An established, well-known, successful, award winning white poet.

The whites in that society.

Where white people are often the gatekeepers.

A Good White.

These are all direct quotes from Chong’s piece. This is every occasion where “white” as it refers to race is used in the article. 

One could accurately conclude from this that race — and one race, in particular, the white race — is something that concerns her in this article.

But before I get into the main issue with “Representations” I should do as Eileen does and “position myself, for the sake of clarity and transparency. “

I’m white. That’s it. Oh yeah and I’m male. That’s all you need to know. Nothing about my education, my life experience, or my parents cultural, class background or their life experience is relevant; nothing about my values or my cultural background is of any importance. I’m white, ergo I’m racist. That’s all we need to know.

Perhaps one biographical detail that may be of some relevance to the present topic is that I lived in Hong Kong from 1998 and 2007; worked, wrote, published, performed my poetry and got married in Hong Kong.

While living there I also witnessed first-hand the racism of some Hong Kong Chinese displayed towards people of colour in that city. The issue is well-documented as is the plight of marginalized minorities in that city. 

I should also point out that the woman I married in Hong Kong was Indonesian and was one of the 300,000 “foreign domestic helpers” in Hong Kong, many of whom are forced to endure cruel working conditions mandated by the Chinese authorities in the Hong Kong SAR.

The situation for domestic helpers in Singapore isn’t much better. The documented cases of abuse of young Indonesian and Filipina women in Singapore at the hands of their Chinese employers is heartbreaking.

Maybe Eileen grew up with one in Singapore. They are like those robot vacuum cleaners that whizz around your feet except they speak when spoken to and cook dinner when you’re ready to eat. 

Like Hong Kong, racism towards people of colour, particularly Indians, is relatively common in Singapore. Numerous cases are outlined in the informative book published by Macquarie University called “Everyday racism in Singapore”. I would recommend that book to anyone interested in racism in Singapore.

But yeah, according to Chong’s own narrative she left all her “privilege” at customs, or was it the baggage conveyor belt? 

I grew up in Singapore as a member of the majority ethnic group, the diasporic Chinese. Singaporean-Chinese are basically the whites in that society. I have benefited from that privilege.

It took moving to Australia as an adult migrant to realise that I was the Other.

For “Other” read victim.

So we are asked to believe that Chong’s arrival in Australia was like some deep clean washing away any residual traces of privilege, entitlement and God forbid, racism or cultural chauvinism. What better candidate to set themselves up as chief censor and racism detector; someone with supposedly a pure position on racial matters.

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never met Eileen Chong. My Hong Kong friends say she knows of me or knows my work. The few poems I’ve read of hers I’ve liked, and I look forward to reading more. I have absolutely no issue with Eileen and the last thing I want to do here is make this about her. I do have issues with the ideas expressed in her article and that’s what I’m focussed on. 

Sadly this is going to be difficult because despite Chong’s repeated insistence that “this isn’t about me” she has clearly made her article very much about her because instead of relying on research as a basis for her conclusions she relies on something as subjective as her personal feelings. A very post-modern but fundamentally flawed approach. 

The first thing I’ll say about this article is that it marks another low point in Meanjin’s offerings over the last decade or so. What was once a literary magazine of quality and standing has now been reduced to a mere vanity project for tenured Marxist academics. A tatty showcase for the same tired predictable post-modernist gumph. It was once a go-to place for stimulating poetry and informative reviews now it’s just a parking lot for rusting hulks of tedious Marxist diatribes all painted in the same dull Soviet grey.

The article begins with Chong’s justifications on why she deemed it necessary to insist that Stuart Cooke’s story be “taken down” from the on-line journal literary journal Verity La. 

She writes “In this piece, a white male narrator has sex with a Filipina woman in Manila and hits pretty much every square on the ‘Filipina fetishization, misogyny, colonialism, and racism’ bingo card. “

And? That’s it?

Nothing about the supposedly offensive language or quotes to illustrate the racist stereotypes that the piece allegedly contains. Frankly, I would expect more from a literary magazine.  We’re just meant to accept Chong’s word that the piece employs damaging stereotypes of Filipinas and therefore must be removed.

Fine, the white racist stereotype is absolutely fine. Write all you like about that but any other representation and watch out!

The first thing to say here is I haven’t read the story. The second thing to say is that I can’t remember the last time a story was removed from a publication because it offended the feelings of one person, even one seemingly as “pure” as Chong. Of course, she then hastens to assure us that it’s not really just about her feelings.

It is about the Filipinx-Australian community who have been deeply hurt by the publishing of a creative non-fiction essay, ‘About Lin’, in Verity La, an online literary journal based in Australia. It is about Filipinx-Australia individuals who have spoken up strongly against this, like Eunice Andrada, and Gloria Demillo.

So Chong claims she’s essentially speaking up and on behalf of the Filipinx-Australian community. She mentions two Filipina sounding names but their opinions are not quoted so we need to take on faith the claim that they hold the same opinions as her. 

According to the 2016 census, there were 304,015 Filipino Australians living in Australia and we are being asked to believe that they all — or at least a good proportion of them — agree that Stuart Cooke’s story should be censored. 

Chong’s claim is that she’s speaking for the whole 304,015 Filipino Australians but she offers no evidence of how she’s polled their opinion. 

Incredibly, she then goes on to casually document a second occasion where she was involved in the censorship of another piece in Verity La.

For the record, I spoke up before to @VerityLa about another problematic piece on 21/3/20. It misrepresented a well-known white woman poet in another creative non-fiction piece written by another white woman. My concerns were heard immediately & the piece taken down.

Chong evidently relishes her new role of censor in chief. 

This time the issue was apparently an unflattering portrayal of one white woman poet by another white women poet (So important to get the right racial and gender  characteristic in there.) People are not individuals remember, they belong to strict identity groups that map their presumed privilege, oppressor or fragile oppressed status. 

What follows then is a convoluted narrative about how she pleaded back and forth with “ the white woman editor” to take Stuart Cooke’s story down. Chong documents her growing frustration with her because she couldn’t see her point of view and therefore wouldn’t act on it. 

I was told by editor as a woman she saw that the Cooke piece might have been sexist, but of course, she doesn’t see it from the race perspective.

I was speechless.

I did not know you had to be the same race as someone in order to see that something might be racist.

Of course, there was no consideration of the possibility that the editor of VL or the Board might actually believe in freedom of expression as a basic human right. A birthright bestowed on all Australians by our ancestors who fought and died in two World Wars in order to secure it. No, Of course not. Chong doesn’t even mention one of the pillars of our civilisation and culture which is the right to speak freely and openly without fear or favour. Surprise surprise for Ms Chong it’s all about race. 

Chong portrays herself throughout as a heroic figure fighting against the odds in some epic struggle against a tide of systematic racism. At one point she confesses to being beat…

“I am tired. I have been made to feel guilty for speaking up. I have been punished. People make mistakes. They are allowed to make mistakes. This is not about cancel culture.”

Again, unsubstantiated claims of being punished. By who? How?

And again we need to take Chong at her word that this “isn’t about cancel culture”. Really? What is this about then? Censorship culture?

Then, later in the article when introducing her poem Country which she was invited to write by Australian Poetry, Chong demonstrates, what I can only describe as a stunning inability to self-reflect.

When I wrote the first part of my poem, ‘Country’, & sent it to @Toby_Fitch. He encouraged me to say more. I said I was afraid, that I had grown up in a country with strict censorship laws & I didn’t know how to speak up.

So, let me get this right: Chong infers that it’s not okay that the country of her upbringing has “very strict censorship  laws” which she was subjected to while growing up there and which by her own admission has left her not knowing “how to speak up.” However, at the same time, her own efforts of censorship are justified because white people are racists.

Has she considered for a minute that her censorship of Stuart Cooke’s work, and the other unnamed “white Australian poet” might also produce an environment whereby some people may feel inhibited about writing on certain topics and speaking up? Has she considered what opprobrium  I’m inviting on myself by writing this article and expressing my point of view? Apparently not. What we are asked to believe is Chong is a courageous fighter for the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden… something she refers to as “the community.

From here Chong pivots to her central thesis which is that the literary scene in Australia is plagued by “deep systematic racism” and that all us privileged racist whites have just gotta fess up and make amends.

It’s a long bow to draw. The logic goes something like this… because the editor of Verity La (a white woman, got that) took so long to censor Stuart Cooke’s story and required her to withdraw her poem from publication and resign from an unnamed “board” to make it happen, this is evidence of deep systematic racism in the literary community.

Of course, the other evidence are her hurt feelings and apparently some “micro-aggressions” which she experienced at an award ceremony which she attended in Canberra. She doesn’t detail these so it’s impossible to judge the weight of her allegations, however one can safely assume that white people were involved.

So, zero data or statistical analysis to support her claims. One obvious place to start would have been an examination of the Australia Council’s grant process over the last fifty or so years. By all means, trawl back through the grant applications and compare the number of successful applications by people from NES backgrounds and compare that against applications by racist whites. I suspect that Ms Chong may find – if she actually did the work- very different evidence than the systematic racism she alleges. But then again, who needs statistics and bothersome facts, when you have subjective feelings.

What follows is a somewhat self-indulgent, passionate, but ultimately hollow rant, about systematic racism and an appeal to others to join her in her noble cause of ridding the literary community of that white racism.

Commitment to inclusion, representation, diversity means you change processes to remove barriers to marginalised communities. You address how your systems are broken.

Again, there is no real detail here about what barriers marginalised communities face when participating in literary activities. By this, I mean barriers different to the normal challenges that all poets face when trying to find a home and an audience for their work in what can be a hostile environment for poetry. Nothing in the article that illuminates how our system is “broken” except the obvious: white people are privileged racists.

I say empty rant because I’m still searching for something resembling actual evidence that Eileen Chong has been the victim of systematic racism which is her central allegation. Unlike Ms Chong and the editors of Meanjin, I need something more substantial than her injured feelings before I can just nod along.

If we examine for a minute what we learn about Eileen Chong from reading her article. We learn that she arrived in Australia in 2007. She has published eight books,  with Australian Poetry, Pitt Street Poetry, Recent Work Press, George Braziller, and has a book forthcoming with the University of Queensland Press. All good reputable publishers. She mentions twice being runner up to the Prime Ministers Literary Awards, Australia’s highest literary achievement.

She mentions being invited to write a poem for Australian Poetry, and sitting on some unspecified board.

A cursory look at her web site we discover that her books have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Anne Elder Award 2012 for a first book, the Australian Arts in Asia Award 2013, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2017, the Multicultural Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Award 2018, and the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2013 and 2017.

Individual poems of Chong’s have shortlisted for several prizes, including the Ron Pretty Prize 2014, the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2016, and the Australian Book Review‘s Peter Porter Poetry Prize 2015 and 2017. She also longlisted for the University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor Award 2014, 2015 and 2016. Her poems are widely anthologised in Australian and international anthologies.

We also learn that her poem “Burning Rice” is on the New South Wales English syllabus in Australia as a prescribed text for the Higher School Certificate from 2019-2023, thereby guaranteeing book sales.

Chong has also co-judged the Blake Poetry Prize 2013, the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2017, the Anne Elder Award 2017, the New South Wales’ Premier’s Literary Awards for Poetry (the Kenneth Slessor Prize) 2018 and 2020, the University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize 2018, and the Mary Gilmore Prize 2019.

So, from the perspective of someone like myself who has written and published poetry in Australia and overseas for 44 years and has never won any prizes, never been shortlisted for any, published my six books with small underground presses, never received publishing subsidies for any of them, never received any funding from the Australia Council or any other funding body, never had a text prescribed set for any English exams, never been invited to write a poem for Australian Poetry,  never been invited to judge a poetry competition, from that perspective, Eileen Chong has done extremely well in Australian literature.

But don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem with Eileen’s success. On the contrary, I celebrate her accomplishments unreservedly and I see them as evidence of Australia’s openness and inclusiveness that someone who has arrived from overseas relatively recently has gone on to make such a substantial contribution.

But instead of  Chong feeling rightly proud of her success even that seems to leave a sour taste in her mouth:

In 2017, my book Painting Red Orchids shortlisted for the PM Lit Awards. It was my 2nd time shortlisting for the prize. I attended the ceremony in Canberra. The entire day was filled with microaaggresions of racism & sexism. I wrote about it at @Meanjin

I share all these experiences with you, in the hope that you might see: whatever success you see FNPOC or marginalised community members achieve is not because of our difference.

It is in spite of our difference.

So where I see evidence of the basic goodness and openness of Australian society, Chong sees racism and oppression. That’s the nihilistic vision of post-modernist Marxists at work, and that’s the vision of Australian society and culture that Meanjin and to some extent the Australia Council panders to when they promote this poisonous destructive world view.

Chong seems totally oblivious to the fact that her own success somewhat negates her central assertion that Australian literary culture is racist and the odds are stacked against anyone of colour making it in that field.

Probably the most interesting thing in the article to me is what she goes on to say about literary festivals, safe spaces and cancel culture.

I don’t wish to exist in a literary community that relies on a whisper network to warn others. Many have fallen through the cracks. If we all have more courage, more accountability, there won’t be a need for a whisper network. There will be more safe spaces, a safe community.

Okay, so what’s needed is more accountability. The question that this raises is accountability to who? On this point, we are left to ponder. I can guess it’s probably not going to be white racists.

How many times have you invited someone, only to have others contact you to tell you quietly, in fear, that they are not safe? How many times have others been hurt by toxic people who are given a platform by your event? How many readers read them, unaware?

Good question. Chong infers that the informal “whisper network” is quite busy. This is all news to me. I have suspected as much over the years but have always batted it away, putting it down to my own paranoia.

Again,  no definition of what is meant by “safe”. We are left to wonder whether insufficiently acknowledging ones so-called “white privilege” will make one unsafe, or is it more to do with the subject of one’s work. Either way, it just sounds like more censorship from the censorious left. More people setting themselves up as moral guardians of others virtue, based on nothing more their own subjective feelings about how someone or someone’s work makes them feel. Like much of the extreme left they talk long and hard about diversity but diversity of opinion has no place in their perfect world.

But never fear. Chong has a solution to the “whisper network”

This is about stopping toxic behaviour in our industry and community before anyone even needs to be cancelled. If as a community, we do not tolerate toxic behaviour, much less reward it, people will be held to higher standards of care. (her emphasis). 

Again, nothing to define “toxic behaviour”. No documented examples of such behaviour. So Chong’s solution seems to involve banning people before they are invited. I guess this would necessitate the maintenance of a running list of those deemed to be “toxic” and “unsafe” which could be added to it over time. This list would have to be made available to the Woke Gatekeepers but at the same time be kept secret. I mean we wouldn’t want people to think someone is being discriminated against, would we? 

One is reminded of the glory days of the Soviet Union when the transgressors would be given no explanation for their sudden exclusion from society> Instead they would find themselves in chains on a train barreling towards Siberia where one had plenty of time to “reflect” on one’s transgressions.

But Chong assures us in the next breath that this has “nothing to do with cancel culture”. More magical thinking. It’s not cancel culture because I say it isn’t. Of course it is and I challenge Chong to explain why it isn’t.

So, in summary, this is a deeply flawed and frankly worrying article. Worrying in the sense that it bodes ill for the future of freedom of speech and freedom of expression within our literary culture and society as a whole. The fact that it was published at all reflects badly on Meanjin, in my opinion. 

It is based on nothing but wild assumptions and ungrounded assertions supported by nothing but feelings and self-indulgent notions of persecution and victimisation. By insisting that all minorities feel the same way towards Australian culture (“threatened, intimidated,  bullied”) and therefore in need “safe spaces” —  cleansed of “toxic” whites – in order to thrive, Chong patronises and demeans minorities. Reinforcing the narrative of fragility does absolutely nothing to empower the communities Chong claims to speak on behalf of. In fact, it does the exact opposite. We should be training people of all backgrounds to be resilient and to speak their minds, not clear some confected “safe-space” hived off from a supposedly hostile sexist, racist, homophobic world.

Such a set-up alienates ordinary honest decent Australians from participating in the literary life of their county by accusing them — unfairly in my view — of racism/ sexism/ homophobia/ transphobia or any of the other cardinal sins that constitute present-day identity politics.

At the very least I sincerely hope the editor (sorry, the white woman editor) of Verity La is given a right of reply but I’m not holding my breath.

Either way, it’s too late for Stuart Cooke. He’s had his story taken down and stands accused of racism and sexism (is that even a word these days?) sorry, misogyny.

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