Alice Walker: The colour of censorship?
Should the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book Award turn down an offer to translate her work so that it can reach new audiences? CBC journalist Neil Macdonald’s answer is uncomplicated: never. Indeed, his loud criticism of Alice Walker for “self-censorship,” among other sins, is tame compared to the yelling of the National Post, which ran two columns calling her "self-absorbed”, “childish” and a “moral hypocrite”. This last headline was supplied by Barbara Kay, who devoted her column to a condemnation of Walker’s personal life, on which she must be an expert. Her reasoning is that if she can show that Alice Walker is a deficient mother, any other action she takes can be dismissed.
Walker, whose 1982 novel The Color Purple on the ravages of the African-American experience has gained her a global audience, is known for taking an interest in the experiences of the oppressed. The indignation rained down on her by the Canadian press is due to the fact that she dared include the Palestinians in this category.
The name-calling started after a letter Walker wrote on June 9, in which she declined a request from Israel’s Yediot Books to publish The Color Purple in Hebrew. Walker cited her participation in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, in response to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians within and outside its current borders. As she puts it, “I would so like knowing my books are read by the people of your country… I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon this will happen.” When change comes, she will happily release the book.
Macdonald believes that allowing the book to be published in Israel would promote the “free exchange of ideas”, and might influence some of the more extreme views in Israel. Perhaps—among the few Israelis who cannot read English, but Walker has chosen to decline as a matter of conscience. This choice has attracted much more attention than a quiet assent to Yediot Books ever would.
A free exchange of ideas? Not even in Canada, where any statement on the systematic injustice meted out to Palestinians is one that is routinely and fervently censored out of political and public comment. KAIROS, an ecumenical development organisation, lost its funding because, according to Minister Jason Kenney, it made critical comments about Israel. In 2010, then deputy NDP leader Libby Davies was roundly excoriated for stating that Israel’s illegal settlements and the siege of Gaza had to end. She cited “fear and self-censorship” as palpable forces which silenced criticism of these policies among Canadian politicians. Shortly afterward she faced calls from the Prime Minister to resign.
The current torrent of abuse leveled at Alice Walker by Canadian journalists is part of a larger social allergy to the subject. It also serves as a warning to anyone else who would dare voice an unsanctioned opinion. The result is that most people do not— leaving the coverage of this long running conflict entirely in pro-Israeli hands. This is the “self-censorship” that Macdonald might have drawn attention to, for silencing intelligent debate and twisting our grasp of international problems.
Would Walker have been similarly excoriated if she had refused an Iranian publisher the rights to translate her book into Farsi?
Other critics of Alice Walker ridicule her act as “childish” or self-important because her protest will not by itself change policies toward Palestinians. One somehow doubts she thought it would! Not long ago, actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt announced they would not marry until gay marriage was legalised in the US. Even accounting for celebrity egos, the couple probably didn’t think this announcement would shock politicians into changing the law. For many people, that did not make the statement pointless.
While Walker is the latest to make headlines, she is hardly the only one to say that the treatment of Palestinians today is deeply unethical. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has compared their lot to that of South African blacks under apartheid. He should know. Naomi Klein is another outspoken critic- and participant in the BDS campaign.
Walker, who similarly opposed the release of the film version of The Colour Purple in apartheid South Africa, believes that symbolic acts of protest are important in the process of social change. That change only arrives when individual people, in their own small circles, decide to take a stand. Often, witnessing someone else’s protest encourages others to think —and even to participate. That is why Alice Walker decided to turn down a publishing offer. If her refusal meant nothing, it would hardly have attracted such attention.