When Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul, a number of academics held a forum, ‘In Defence of Academic Freedom’. By far, the most brilliant speech was by philosophy Professor Akeel Bilgrami. He explained his view, which I’d long held intuitively: that it is the responsibility of the intellectual to be unpopular.
I can find it quite understandable, indeed I find it honourable, if someone speaking and writing in America finds it important to stress much more the wrongs of the American government and its allies and clients, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia under Suharto, Chile under Pinochet… But if the same person was speaking or writing, say, in the Palestinian territories or in Arab newspapers, it would be far more effective and honourable if he were to criticize the Palestinian Authority or Arab regimes like Sadaam’s or Islamic regimes like Iran’s…. Edward Said showed exactly this honourable imbalance, criticizing Israel and the U.S. while speaking here and criticizing Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in the Arab press.
It is said that whenever Sakharov criticized the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the ’50s, he was chastised by his government for showing an imbalance and not saying anything against the treatment of blacks in the American South. That is precisely the kind of imbalance that courageous people are going to be accused of by McCarthyite elements in this country, and I hope that all of us will have the courage to continue being imbalanced in just this way. It is in some ways the duty of the intellectual to be imbalanced in this way. That is another way of saying that it is the duty of the intellectual to be unpopular. They should not be discouraged by such unpopularity. They should see it as an indirect acknowledgement of their courage.
The problem, of course, is that there are too few Edward Saids. Who wants to be unpopular? It is much easier to pass over the crimes which we support in silence, while bitterly denouncing those of official enemies.
There is, however, another problem in Australia. Who would publish Edward Said? The Australian? The Herald Sun or the Daily Telegraph? Australia’s corporate media is extremely narrow, divided between Fairfax and Murdoch. Where else could his ideas get a fair hearing? Today Tonight? A Current Affair?
What remains of the landscape? The ABC is wholly government funded, and thus susceptible to bullying and pressure. It is also not open to self-criticism, such as on its scandalous Lateline report that helped trigger the NT Intervention, and lay its groundwork in public opinion.
There is an urgent need in Australia for spaces for people to challenge conventional wisdom, and to confront Australian readers. Australia doesn’t just need people to tell the truth – about our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Intervention in the Northern Territory, climate change, and so on. It needs a space for sustained reflection on these issues. Australia needs a place to confront it, just as it urgently needs to be confronted.
Overland is a wonderful space for this. As recent examples, think of the excellent essays it’s run by Clive Hamilton on climate change, and by Chris Graham on Noel Pearson. I also think of my efforts to earn Overland some influential enemies – and the brave stand its editors have consistently taken in response. This is consistent with its goal for over 55 years: to print and support dissent.
To take an example I know, Overland plucked one obscure, dissenting article on a judgment on a case in the Northern Territory and put it on its blog. Luckily, otherwise, no-one would have heard of it. The article went all over twitter, before winding up on the ABC Drum site, and then into the Indigenous Law Bulletin. Yet the obscure article was decidedly unpatriotic. Many right-thinking patriots were angered. Some of them suggested the Jewish author would be better off living in Israel.
Overland continues to publish articles saying things many Australians would prefer not to hear. And perhaps, never will.
Like the ABC, Overland gets government funding. In a way, this poses a challenge to its independence. If it does come to pose too much of a threat to major established interests, there will be pressure on it to adopt the correct line, or lose funding.
This is why it’s so important for people like us to start supporting Overland. I took out my subscription today. I hope you do too.