You think you’ve seen all the forms of Internet outrage, and then along comes an essay about Canadian poets and the House of Saud. An account of the ties between Griffin Poetry Prize founder Scott Griffin and the recent $15-billion Canadian arms deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, poet and critic Michael Lista’s “The Shock Absorber” is quite the polemical performance. It’s researched in depth; it unites such excellent topics as Great Power Politics and Petty Poet Politics; it even has some decent one-liners, as when Lista notes Griffin’s sometime desire to do altruistic work in a benighted nation and clarifies: “That underdeveloped country wasn’t Canadian poetry; it was Kenya.” (Wocka wocka.) A former poetry columnist at the National Post, Lista’s in fine form here: casually virtuosic, anticipating and karate-chopping objections, prosecuting his case with judicious flair.
His case is this. Scott Griffin, who not only funds the Griffin Prize but also owns the Canadian literary publisher House of Anansi, is the controlling shareholder of a Brampton, Ontario military parts manufacturer called General Kinetics Engineering Corp. General Kinetics, Lista reports, “has a subcontract on the largest foreign trade deal in Canadian history. It is an arms deal — one that violates our own export regulations — negotiated by the Harper government on behalf of London, Ontario’s General Dynamics Land Systems, for the delivery of $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles.” The buyer is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a land of Wahhabi haute couture and persecuted liberal writers. As Lista presents it, the deal’s a grotesquery with the geometry to please a perverse Spinoza: profits from arming a despotic regime, one that imprisons and brutalizes its subjects who advocate liberal democracy on their blogs, are sluiced into subsidy for writers in the liberal democratic West.
What an elegant equation. Guilting, nauseating — and quite beautiful in its symmetry. Lista’s argument offers an aesthetic satisfaction that’s part of what makes it tricky to dismantle. To my taste, his essay is an excellent poem. But it asks to be read also as politics, as activism, which means tugging a little on its loose threads, however fine the fabric.
There’s one thread, for instance, that you can pull and keep on pulling: if writers should boycott funding sources with ties to dirty business — indeed, with ties to this one arms deal in particular — why stop with Griffin? Isn’t every cent of Canadian public arts funding implicated as well? The Government of Canada, which brokered the Saudi deal through its Canadian Commercial Corporation, derives plenty of revenue from the sale, directly through commission and indirectly through taxation. That means a writer deposits Saudi blood money when she accepts a grant from the Canada Council or is shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Awards or publishes with any press that receives public subsidy, just as much as if she’s among the very few poets to be honoured by the Griffin Trust. It may be a commonplace to say there’s no such thing as clean money, but in this case, the source of the dirt is precisely the same whether government or Griffin writes the cheque.
It may be handy to use Scott Griffin as a symbol of national complicity with repressive foreign regimes, but he certainly doesn’t hold more responsibility for that complicity than the officials who shape policy or the voters who tolerate them. Though the “foreign-writers-suffering/Western-writers-prospering” equation has rhetorical force, in no tangible way does the Saudi deal implicate Canadian writers more than it does Canadian citizens as such. Whatever profit Griffin’s General Kinetics makes from its subcontract on the Saudi deal, it’s a pittance next to the sum the deal injects into the Canadian economy. Don’t mistake this reasoning for Harper’s defense of the contract; I’m not saying it’s necessarily sound policy. But non-poets (i.e. 99.9999% of Canadians) benefit from the transaction as much or more than poets do, and it strikes me as a bit of a category mistake to focus the critique of the policy on a small interest group’s complicity and not the public’s, on a private figure and not on policy-makers.
To focus the critique on a private figure is to ask about the nature of individual responsibility in a situation of limited individual power. Though the very wealthy Griffin isn’t powerless, he doesn’t dictate the laws within which his business operates. Is it realistic to expect a business to have an intrinsic moral compass, distinct from the pursuit of its self-interest, in such areas as government hasn’t seen fit to regulate? If you think so, notice that your conviction is essentially Christian: you believe there’s a natural law, available to every person’s conscience in precisely the same way, that transcends the positive law of the state. And perhaps there is — but there’s plainly no consensus on the details of that natural law, so it shouldn’t be surprising when, to the extent that it’s not codified into positive law, our neighbour interprets it otherwise than we do. The question remains: from what perch of moral certainty can we pass judgment on a private firm that pursues its interests in ways that government, which is meant to represent the will and values of the public, has either explicitly encouraged or condoned through its silence? If corporate behaviour is at odds with the public’s values, and for structural reasons the public can’t express its disapproval through the market (e.g. a given company sells its products to states and not to citizens), it would seem most expedient to correct that behaviour through the only organ of the body politic with the legitimate power to coerce — that is, through government.
Most expedient, and the only expedient, maybe — since what exactly would be achieved by a grassroots response like a poets’ boycott of the Griffin Prize? General Kinetics would conduct its business as usual. Poetry publishers would receive operating funding derived from taxes on oil and military-industrial revenue, as always. Most Canadians would continue to be unaware that poetry is still a thing. Scott Griffin would perhaps be sad; in a “best-case” scenario, he’d withdraw his company from the Saudi deal, a move that would leave the deal 100% intact. Poets could feel proud that they’d expressed their political convictions through action; the sensation would be roughly the same narcissistic, self-congratulatory pleasure as the keenest vengeful reverie of Internet outrage, but more nebulous because not shared in text, unless there’s a petition. If there’s a petition — well, shit will have gotten real.
To be fair, the utilitarian question here — what measurable good would a protest action achieve? — isn’t the only legitimate one. An individual’s conscience also has its claims. A poet or publisher or publicist will make her own decision about whether to endorse a literary prize by participating in it, given the opportunity; she has the same freedom and obligation to choose, is confronted with the same questions, even in the absence of a scandal that announces itself as a high moral crisis — if, say, she dislikes how a prize’s festivities are dominated by persons of pallor. Obviously, everyone has the right to come to terms in his own way with the world’s contradictions. But that involves, I think, looking clearly at them, not collapsing them into an angry unity that activism can swiftly act on.
I’m revolted by the suffering of Saudi Arabia’s liberal blogger Raif Badawi and those in similar straits, persecuted for disrupting their societies’ status quos; I’m disturbed that my country does business with some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, it’s hard to dismiss the realpolitik or realist argument: that a country can’t always ally itself with foreign states it likes, since the balance of power is an amoral proposition, more chess than catechism. (Saudi Arabia is a key geopolitical bulwark not against the upstart Islamic State, a claim that Lista’s article critiques, but against the regional hegemony of Iran, about which the article is silent.) On the third hand, I worry that realpolitik can be a macho cop-out, a tactic where you cite the tragic nature of reality as a license not to act in good faith. At any rate, it seems to me a person is wise to weigh how her responsibility is rationed by her power: to be honest with herself about which world-flaws she’s able to redress on her own, think twice about making symbolic gestures at which injustice shrugs, and consider what she can achieve instead through the slow, unglamorous work of building a broad consensus for political change.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Lista’s dudgeon. It’s stylish, and it raises awareness of an important problem in a way that commands attention. But the literary community’s internal reaction to it, whether vociferous or muted, makes next to no practical difference. What would make a great difference is if the Government of Canada’s unprincipled subversion of its own trade policy were to become a major election issue. To bring that about — and it’s beginning to happen — collective pressure may start in the literary community, but it can’t end there. Organize. Hit the streets. Try to place opinion pieces in media with a broad readership, get on TV. Keep the Saudi arms deal in the public imagination.
Or shrug. And worry about money, and try to do right by your neighbours, and live your life.
But if you do choose to make a cause of the questions Lista’s raised, recognize that they belong to you as a citizen first of all. The Griffin Prize is quite beside the point.