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The Censor and the Pamphleteer
Webdiarist Henry di Suvero has written a trilogy of plays on the Palestinian dispossession. Crescent Moon, Yellow Star asked "Why do the Palestinians have to pay for the Holocaust?". The Ballad of Rachel Corrie examined the use of Palestinian non-violence. The Refusenik looked at opposition inside Israel to its Palestinian occupation. Claws of the Eagle, is a play about American imperialism.
The son of an Italian Jewish father and a Catholic mother, di Suvero's parents fled China, where he was born, to the United States before WWII. For fifteen years he did legal work in the anti-war, civil rights and poverty law movements. He worked in the Black ghettos of Newark, New Jersey, and Watts, Los Angeles, and served on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union as well as President of the left wing National Lawyers Guild. He was the principal organizer of The Peoples College of Law, a night law school for Third World students in Los Angeles.
In 1979 he taught in Papua New Guinea and assisted the West Papuan resistance to Indonesian rule. He studied yoga at the B.K.S Iyengar Institute in India before returning in 1982 to settle in Sydney with his Australian wife. He taught law at UNSW and practised at the NSW Bar, specializing in criminal defence. He lives in Byron Bay with his wife and writes for theatre, film and television.
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David Marr’s impassioned opening day public lecture at the 2007 Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, exposing and condemning Howard’s suppression of free speech and dissent, ended with a call to action to the assembled literati to fight Attorney General Ruddock’s proposed amendment to the Film and Literature Classification (i.e censorship) Act. Ruddock, said Marr, wants to forbid “advocacy of terrorist acts” in literature and film, which would result in emptying library shelves and banning a wide range of movies and video games.
When Marr ended to loud applause and the crowd was exiting, flushed by the call to arms to defend free speech, I began to distribute two flyers I had prepared critiquing two journalists, Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald, and Michael Gawenda, recently retired from The Age, both of whom would appear later in the Festival program.
The Sheehan flyer carried the photograph of Sheehan in The NSW Board of Jewish Deputy’s 2006-7 Journalist Mission to Israel and a copy of my Letter in The Echo calling him the High Priest of Islamophobia. I said his Festival placement in a panel on “the ethics of investigative journalism” was “preposterous” because after his Israeli trip, he wrote several pro-Israeli articles without any acknowledgement of his sponsorship.
The flyer also carried liberal excerpts from a 5 August 2006 book review by Shakira Hussein in The Australian of Sheehan’s book about the Sydney rape trials by a gang of Muslim youths. Her critique was that “Given the total lack of empirical evidence that Muslim men in Australia are any more likely to commit rape than anyone else in Australia, Sheehan’s willingness to endorse the idea that a Muslim upbringing conditions one to sexual violence is a dangerous and repellent slur.... Centring discussions of rape around ethnicity and religion is as dangerous to Australian women (of whatever background) as it is to Muslim men.”
The flyer concluded with the caution that “If you want to keep your mind pure and your bookshelves clean, don’t buy Sheehan’s book.”
The Gawenda flyer carried the 6/5/02 transcript of a Media Watch interview between Marr and Gawenda when he was editor of The Age about his decision not to publish a two panel cartoon by Leunig that compared the entrance to Auschwitz with the entrance to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Gawenda said the cartoon was “just inappropriate” adding “Anyone seeing that cartoon would think it was inappropriate.”
85% of The Media Watch poll disagreed and thought The Age should have published the cartoon.
The flyer attacked the sanitized Festival biography of Gawenda for not revealing his past as an Associate Editor of the Australian Jewish News. It also claimed that, during his SMH assignment to America, he failed to file major stories critical of the Israeli lobby.
Five minutes after I began handing out flyers, Russell Eldridge, Editor of The Northern Star, stormed up to me, angrily shouting “You can’t do that! You can’t do that! No one can hand out pamphlets without permission! This is a private event! A private event! You need permission, etc.” As a steady stream of vitriol continued to spit from the mouth of the squat man in front of me, my eyes glazed and he morphed into a spitting cane toad with bulging eyes.
When I came to, I asked this Festival Thought Police Officer what authority he had to stop me, then offered him a leaflet, pointing out it was a reasoned critique of a speaker at the Festival. “I don’t need to see it.” he barked, refusing the offer by folding his arms so as not be contaminated, and continued his harangue.
A breathless female Assistant Thought Police Officer rushed up reporting “Jeni Caffin, the Director of the Festival, refuses you permission to distribute leaflets!”
“Refused without making a request.” I thought. “How Alice In Wonderland! Ruddock could learn something from Caffin.”
Having more than a fifty year history of leafleting and demonstrating in the States, from my uni days and continuing the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war years, I realized it was futile to deal with raging irrationality, and packed away my leaflets.
The Festival is held at Becton’s Byron Bay Beach Resort by Belongil Beach, north of Bryon. Temporary Cyclone fences, marking a boundary that requires the exhibition of a Festival pass to enter, corral the Festival marquees. The Resort is located at the eastern dead end of a bitumen road that begins at the Ozigo (BP) turnoff from Ewingsdale Road and passes over an unused set of railway tracks.
No signs announce the entrance to private property anywhere along the road, so I assumed the road was one of those famously ill maintained Council carriageways.
The next morning at 8:30 am I began distributing on the road, handing leaflets to drivers as I worked the line of cars backing up from the entrance to the Festival’s parking lot or to pedestrians walking to the Festival. I dressed neatly, was clean-shaven, had a short pitch, and wore a big smile.
“This is prohibited literature.” I said. “I’m not allowed to distribute it inside the Festival. Thank you for taking it and supporting free speech.” Every driver took the leaflets, rolling down car windows, many greeting me with a laugh or clever subversive repartee. The readiness to accept, to be open to engage in the contest of ideas, was exhilarating. Free speech was at work, circumventing the Festival’s Thought Police.
“Henry you can’t do this!”a voice screamed out behind me.
“You’re not allowed! You were told this yesterday!”
I turned and saw a small, thirtyish woman with her hair gelled in that spikey, matted, semi-grunge look.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Jeni Caffin” she said.
“The Chief of the Thought Police herself.” I thought.
“Becton owns the road!” she screamed. “You can’t distribute on this road!”
“The’re no signs saying it’s a private road” I replied.
“Becton owns the road!” she screamed again, raising her arm and pointing beyond me. “ All the way to the railroad tracks! All the way to the railway tracks!”
As a 71 year old pamphleteer I had promised my good wife I would try not to add to my arrest history, so rather than pour petrol on the fire breathing Thought Police Chief and invite arrest, I did an Aikido fall, turned my back and channelled her fury to propel me towards the railway tracks, only fifty metres away.
As I walked, The Police Chief shouted “You slandered me!”
“Poor thing.” I thought, “she’s taken it so personally.”
You see, the Gawenda leaflet had a sub-head “The Festival Spin”, quoting The Police Chief’s Festival announcement this year’s program dealt with “ Who is shaping our vision of the 21st Century?” Citing my critique of the Islamaphobic Sheehan and the closet Jewish Lobby’s Gawenda, I concluded “Enter the 21st Century with [their] twisted perspectives, compliments of the Byron Bay Writers Festival.”
With the shouted “You slandered me!” bouncing inside my head, I had an epiphany moment, a true, drug free, post modern, Orwellian, Byron realization: Inside every authoritarian hides a swollen, fragile ego, unable to take the slightest criticism, no matter how valid. Obsessive Thought Policing is the authoritarian’s weapon of choice for controlling the intelligentsia.
The railway tracks lay on a gentle one metre rise, forcing cars to slow down and back up beyond the tracks. Modifying my distribution strategy, I now ended my pitch adding “Free speech starts at the railroad tracks.”
A fellow playwright stopped, and as he took the leaflets laughingly asked if this was a piece of street theatre. Gareth Smith, local pillar of the peace movement, hopped off his bicycle to embrace me. With more than half the drivers I shared the common bond of grey hair. It was plain as they took the leaflets, they were my companeros, who also had been there, done that.
My stack of three hundred sets of leaflets went in no time.
I walked back to the Festival site talking with a fellow Greens Party member, telling him about the Festival Thought Police in detail.
“It’s like Gunns” he said, referring to the lumber company suing the Greens for picketing and obstructing their massive land clearing of old growth forests in Tasmania. “They’re suing us for millions for protesting and exercising free speech. It’s the same fight about what’s more important. Free speech or property rights. It’s so weird they’re talking about human rights and censorship inside the Festival, and look at what they’re doing to you.”
“Yeah,” I said, “they don’t walk the talk, do they?”