Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
Carol: It’s been some time since our last correspondence piece. So much has happened, but also I’m still at home shielding from the virus. I remember watching the livestreams of various Sydney Festival and Queer Film Festival Palestinian Boycott actions and rallies in January this year, and feeling energized by what’s still politically possible while the pandemic rages on. On the other hand, livestreams of the anti-vax right just downright drained me. People in this reactionary movement have called for boycott too — of the Australian Open — following Novak Djokovic being detained by the Australian government in the same inner-city hotel that has imprisoned Medevac refugee detainees since 2020 (they were previously indefinitely detained in onshore and offshore detention centers). However, calling for some dispersed reactionary boycott is very different from organizing a boycott.
Tasnim: Yes, we’ve been witnessing the right’s appropriation of left-wing discourse and strategy for a while now and that extends to boycotts. Whether it’s the two year anti-vax movement in Australia or the boycotting of anything and everything Russian that has occurred this week due to white settler identification with Ukraine’s dignified struggle compared to Syria, characterizing the Russian invasion as an attack on western civilization and liberal democracy, we’re challenged with this undermining of resistance through its uprooting from radical politics. I think when we make a comparison with responses to pro-Palestinian BDS campaigning in Australia, we see an eagerness towards boycott when it is employed to entrench white supremacy and empire and a delegitimization of boycott when it challenges power. It was only last month that government MP Dave Sharma criticized the Sydney Festival boycott that our movement organized to pressure the festival to drop the Israeli Embassy’s $20,000 star sponsorship. He described the boycott as “fundamentally at odds with the purposes of art and culture”.
Carol: LOL, Sharma, who used to be the Australian ambassador to Israel, who is on record on the talk show, Q+A arguing that “in Australia, if we were taking rocket fire here, I expect our population would be calling our political leadership and saying, “What are you doing to stop this?” It’s that Israel has a right to self-defense”.
Tasnim: Yeah, ABC News’ Q+A program regularly invites him to justify Israeli aggression. Ironically, this week, an audience member went on Q+A to show support for Putin and repeat Russian state justifications for the invasion of Ukraine. The host, Stan Grant, ejected him from the audience for “advocating violence”, telling him that “people here have been talking about families which are suffering and people who are dying. You supported what’s happening, hearing that people are dying”.
I think if we uphold a politics that understands the dangers of legitimizing dehumanizing rhetoric, we must then ask, why is it acceptable for Australian mainstream media to platform the many architects of, and apologists for, not only Israeli apartheid, but also Australia’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the locking up of refugees in detention, the Northern Territory intervention? What is the difference between a voice like Sharma and the supporters of Russian imperialism?
Carol: Not much really. Liberalism naturalizes settler colonial violence. Sharma’s criticism of BDS, essentially means—don’t bring politics into the arts because the arts are about unity and peace. Such a narrative regarding the arts bolsters the state’s image and its economy and functions to normalize both settler colonial Australia and Israel. But art and culture have always developed through struggle, in relation to social movements.
Tasnim: I think for me, that’s what was striking about opposition to the Sydney Festival BDS campaign. That in providing a defence for taking money from Apartheid Israel to fund the arts in Australia, artwashing of both white supremacy and Zionism was in operation. We heard an insistence upon Sydney Festival’s progressiveness as an institution in the discourse erasing Israeli colonial and apartheid structures. Both the states are presented as liberal democracies engaging in cultural diplomacy out of a commitment to diversity — and with that the charge of normalizing an apartheid regime is dismissed but so is the ongoing genocide here. The boycott campaign was characterized as one opposed to the Israeli dance performance, Decadence, and with that its activists were scapegoated as opposed to western values: too unsophisticated to appreciate culture, illiberal, and antisemetic. That is despite BDS organizers and artists coming together to re-politicize the arts and create what they refer to as ‘alter-spaces’: whether it is founding the Solidarity Film Festival in opposition to MQFF or planning an Artists against Apartheid event for later this year.
Carol: Yeah, I feel that we saw artists undermine these ideological functions in their assertion that art is always political. It’s just too bad their unions and institutions didn’t get behind them, and I’m not talking about just a solidarity statement. The lack of support by organizations claiming to represent artists is symptomatic of how boycotts are sometimes seen as individualized practices contingent on withdrawing one’s own labor. And the anti-BDS rhetoric in mainstream media was pretty relentless, which meant that some visible participants were targeted as individual actors.
Tasnim: Yeah, the amount of opinion pieces published to stigmatize BDS was telling! The chair of the Anti-Defamation Commission, Dr Dvir Abramovich, had the audacity to urge that “the festival must never succumb to the aggressive pressure tactics of intimidation”. It really highlights how neoliberal Australia attempts to depoliticize the arts through the commercialization that you’ve pointed to as well as how settler colonial domination is advanced and invisibilized through a post-racial image of Australia. If we look at the Sydney Festival’s About Us webpage, the festival narrates its own history as being founded in 1977 as a cultural celebration conceived by the Sydney Committee, the NSW State Government, and the City of Sydney, which is a mere two years after the repeal of the White Australia policy in 1975 with the advance of multicultural ideology. The event “celebrates our city, and the Festival’s style and energy reflect the confidence, diversity, and vigor of one of the world’s most beautiful cities”, normalizing settler sovereignty.
Carol: Hmm, just as the arts can be appropriated to provide a pretense for progress, similarly, boycotts can be employed for liberal purposes. Recently, the Australian government joined the U.S. in a boycott of Beijing Olympics over China’s human rights abuses in East Turkestan. This sort of “humanitarianism” is a smokescreen for the appropriation of Uyghur struggles and the zones of terror they exist within in order to further white supremacist nation-building interests. The state weaponizes legitimate calls for justice to present Australia as a progressive nation that respects human rights, whilst continuing to operate as organized crime on stolen Indigenous lands. This critique is not pointed to Uyghur and Tibetian people in Australia calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, or First Nations exercising sovereignty in calling to boycott the Stolenwealth Games. We have to pay attention to who and where the call to boycott/divest/sanction is coming from.
Tasnim: Boycott is accepted within confines — boycott because we value freedom but not your freedom to disrupt. Within the BDS campaign though, a radical contestation emerged over the role of the artist that revealed limits to the festival’s commitments towards diversity. With the boycotting of Melbourne’s Queer Film Festival upon its participation in the pinkwashing of Israel, community also pointed to the festival’s radical history and the festival’s co-president, Molly Whelan resigned in agreement, stating in a public letter that within MQFF “power is so firmly in the hands of white, cis men”.
Carol: Yeah, and there are bigger structures to how limits are imposed on political action. The state treats any freedom endeavor as a declaration of war. Under Australian anti-competition laws governing secondary boycott, the hoops workers and their unions have to jump through before pursuing industrial action in Australia are onerous. These requirements do not even meet the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions that Australia has signed. Coupled with neoliberal union’s material stake in administrative jobs and careers, wildcat strikes are largely discouraged due to opposing class interests and fear of breaking the law. So, the courage required to take risks needs to be redefined here. Today, secondary boycotts for the “dominant purpose” of environmental protection or consumer protection are permitted. But following the Abbott government, who in 2014 considered applying penalties to environmental boycotts, the Morrisson government today has voiced their interest in outlawing boycotts entirely.
Tasnim: Meanwhile, boycotting Russia is the patriotic thing to do, right? Sanctions are suddenly legitimate and moral where they operate to redeem white innocence. I’m inclined to believe this popularized ‘BDS Russia’ is psychically driven by settler guilt that emerges as our Palestine movement increasingly confronts white nations. This jingoistic sanctioning of Russia is meant to be redemptive of the West — it is aggressive and irrational, and not hypocritically in betrayal of BDS — but rather appropriative of it. It is an eating of the other and their politics, to gesture to hooks. A West drunk on its sense of superiority as it pours out vodka bottles, through boycott it cleanses itself from the shame of ongoing Indigenous genocide and the endorsement of Apartheid Israel, admitted as such by Amnesty International just last month. I think that’s why even internationally, we see the same anti-BDS figures most committed to mobilizing Russia boycotts.
Carol: I think the vodka example also shows how boycotts can become a liberal tactic when it appeals solely to people who can afford to withdraw their consumption, and those who can leverage their social capital. While it is important for the privileged to cede ground, and of course they are taking a risk that is relative to them, but there is still a class division here, in relation to who gets to participate in this action, and whether you are supported after it. Politics needs to be made relevant to those surviving the day-to-day, not just those who can afford to pull out of events and resign from boards.
A related history behind how boycotts are used towards liberal ends comes to mind. Much U.S. social movement history tends to document boycott practices through accounts of white people who challenged British imperial policy — White Quakers during the 18th century, White Abolitionists who invoked consumer power and responsibility in seeking to change state policy, and end slavery. Since the 19th century, boycotts have become widely associated with free market ideology, merging the relationship between political agency and individual spending power. Many movements have become deradicalized through the focus on “consumer activism” over other militant means. These whitewashed boycott histories often take precedence over Native American and Black boycott and other tactics of refusal — with the exception of the Black Civil Rights bus boycotts that are often pointed to in a narrative of racial progress.
Tasnim: Hmm, this omission of anti-colonial boycott history seems to be consistent with state efforts to undermine movements for racial justice. In this settler colonial context, we’ve witnessed the official appropriation of Indigenous voices, where “reconciliation” is advanced over demands for Indigenous sovereignty and LANDBACK. I guess that’s why it’s a mistake for progressives to defend boycott through a discourse of protecting civil liberties, as this maintains the disempowering terms afforded to colonized subjects who are given their “rights” by the state.
Carol: Another counter-revolutionary effect that happens in parallel is when boycotts get to be seen as a non-violent political practice. Non-violence is often associated with M.L.K. and Gandhi, who are referenced tokenistically, and their politics misrepresented, to demonstrate non-violence as a method redemptive of whiteness. But really, to characterize any political action as non-violent or violent outside of its material realities is to play into state disciplining of dissent and perform moral supremacy. The violence versus non-violence debate on political tactics such as boycott has become a zone of pacification and paralysis to action, while providing cover for the organized violence of the state.
Tasnim: Heh, ‘War on Terror’ logic is never far from this dichotomy of good and bad dissent. I’ve been reflecting on the racial logics that determine when it is legitimate to take up arms against an invading force. For example, when white settlers attempt to join the struggle against Russian aggression, but not in Syria! Syrian revolutionaries have been smeared as members of Al-Qaeda by all sides of the western political spectrum; they are considered a perpetual suspect. And we’ve spent years fighting the passing of so many repressive laws and policies that received a mandate through heightened anti-Muslim securitization discourse.
Carol: Yes, this swift derailing of “rights” in the name of national security is why we’ve got to continuously assert that collective refusal against imperial and domestic warfare is a necessary part of cultural transformation. On this continent, boycott has anti-colonial foundations in refusing the settler colonial project, from First Nations self-determination to migrant resistance. In 1972, Yolgnu people from the Goulburn Islands boycotted a medal ceremony saluting one of their own to protect their country from increasing incursions of mining activity and land grab. Tracey Banivanua-Mar, in her book Decolonisation and the Pacific traced the way anti-colonial resistance is instantiated as refusals that moved from imperial literacy, petitioning, strikes, spatial strategies of occupation, withdrawal of cooperation, refusal to pay taxes, and community-run services — through various anti-colonial movements across the archipelagoes of Oceania.
At the end of the day, boycott is a tactic, and like rioting or striking, we’ve seen the anti-vaxxer right claim these tactics for themselves to exercise white settler domination. These means are not symbolic of revolutionary agitation on their own. Organized refusal and the ability to confront the predatory state is only one part of building dual power. The other requires us to transform our social relations on the grassroots level with longevity in mind, shifting how we deal with prisons and poverty and climate devastation. Meaningful solidarity goes beyond an “anti-politic”, and this requires us to redefine courage and how we protect each other. While communities can come together briefly at the height of a boycott campaign, we need strategies and infrastructures to synthesize our struggles and political memories together in a sustained way.
Tasnim: I love that and really feel it too especially in this political moment of heightened culture wars. I think as long as we are nurturing an understanding of power in our communities, no appropriation of radical politics can thwart our co-struggle against imperialism, western or otherwise, that leans on genealogies of anti-colonial, anti-capitalist resistance.