Impressions from the Sydney Writers Festivalby Michael Breen
Mostly we don’t see writers we read their stuff. So it is unusual for thousands of readers to meet hundreds of writers to listen and respond and start a million conversations. Why is the Sydney Writers’ Festival one of the largest such events in the world? What is its magnetism? Chip Rowley the festival’s artistic director quotes Milan Kundara from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Much of the festival for me was unearthing things we should never have had the chance to forget.
Three streams of thought emerged from the sessions I attended.
One was what you could call dangerous information, the second information in decline and the third the non-rational gap between information and action.
What Economists can’t buy you.Ross Gittins, Herald journalist and economic commentator’s session “The Happy Economist” was a sell out as were copies of his book. Gittins said Bob Hawke jolted him with a statement that ‘economics is about happiness’. So Gittins chased up happiness, its definitions and surprises, like facts that conservatives are more happy than progressives.
Can money buy happiness? Most people we know would say “no”. But strugglers need bread and money for to buy some of it. The paradox is that we say money won’t give you happiness but act as if the opposite is true. We say natural resources like air, water etc. are precious but act as if they are almost free and infinite. To economise we cut expensive labour costs and at the same time waste natural unrenewable resources. We use an indicator like Gross Domestic Product because it is expressed in numbers, because we consider numbers give facts close to reality, even though GDP is not a measure of national wellbeing.
Gittins, who has commented for decades on economics, and economies, points out economists operate as if the economy is in a box separate from the planet. The planet is near breaking from cancerous expansion of population, and inordinate consumption on the one hand and degradation of precious finite resources on the other. We are on a hedonistic treadmill where running will not reach happiness, but bring eventual unhappiness.
So for the situation to even start to get better rich countries need to live more simply, to reduce consumption and give some of their utilities to poorer countries, to reduce population, to protect resources and to reform economic thinking.
Have we got a Lie for You
The second and very central stream at the festival was the Wikileaks phenomenon. In the year since last year’s festival, Assange and co have changed the international information stage by removing some of the illusory props and widening the proscenium. Wikileaks have done so in the size of their information dump, the seriousness and secrecy involved and the effects flowing to journalism and governments. Much of the material we suspected was there is now on show. Suspicions are now evidenced based. So far more damage has been done to government and corporation images, their credibility and egos than trauma to individuals or groups; except of course for Corporal Bradley Manning and Assange. The former in arguably torturous solitary confinement and the latter the plaything of the imperial and Swedish justice systems.
Leaker’s (there ought to be a better title; how about “searchlighters”, “unearthers”, “spin strippers”?) have often been personally damaged which trauma fuels the rage of their activism. Julian Assange is a highly intelligent, very complex, betimes grandiose and naïve soul. Often the man’s personal private activity gets more focus than his publishing. And wouldn’t governments and corporations much prefer that angle? The Writers’ Festival owes Assange a lot for his efforts but when asked at a large Town Hall session on Wikileaks what Australia could do to support him the audience applauded loudly. Andrew Fowler said lawyers and journalists need to pressure government, Sulette Dreyfus pointed out we ought pressure parliamentarians about a piece of proposed legislation limiting information and increasing ASIO powers. But Assange and Manning?
Hopefully governments will be forced to lower the barriers between what is essentially secret and what is not. The fear, though, is that they will erect tougher barriers to protect their embarrassment. There is talk in the USA of amending the freedom of speech amendment to enhance secrecy. Many journalists feel guilty about not preventing the Iraq war and so they ought take more risks while absolutely defending their sources. Yet how do you manage that if you work for the Murdoch Empire?