North Korea Honi Soit

This week, Labor MP Tim Watts upheld his party’s 30-year revulsion for a tertiary education that is free. In a tweet aimed not just at Sydney University student newspaper Honi Soit but the approach that institution takes to the study of international relations, Watts told everyone that they should just feel ashamed. Watts, a chap who has argued both poorly and at length for our nation’s very urgent need for respectful debate, appears to want those who engage in it respectfully condemned within universities.

Look. Here’s the piece that rankled Watts. You probably won’t like the state-sponsored travelogue, and I didn’t much, either. A tankie defence of North Korea is not my jam and I do not agree with Jay Tharappel that the fight against imperialism demands the subjugation of those who contest it. I ardently agree with almost no one, however, that it is the ideal work of universities to contest all pre-existing knowledge.

Surely, the liberal and imperial ideals Watts cherishes are strong enough to withstand the research of Dr Tim Anderson — I’d guess, the true target of Watts’ attack. Surely, it’s OK if one or two or three people manage to exist in the departments of our nation’s international relations departments while not arguing the Washington liberal consensus.

That a doctoral view like Tharappel’s can actually be formed within the academic context is an effing miracle. Again, I’d prefer that North Korea was not upheld as a meaningful, viable or scientifically socialist threat to US imperialism. Personally, I’d like it better if the guy had chosen Venezuela instead. I’d like it most of all if Watts, whose own views on international trade, labour and conflict can be easily sampled in all their inchoate ruin, would quit damning what remains of actually respectful debate in universities.

[Author of controversial pro-North Korea piece has firebrand activist history]

I’d also like it if Tim Watts would write for Honi Soit about his own state-sponsored trip to Israel. Then, we could all (respectfully) compare it to Tharappel’s North Korea trip so we might all come to (respectful) conclusions about that political bias, both conscious and nonconscious, that appears in every travelogue.

Which reminds me: seven years ago, local journalist Carolyn Webb wrote a travelogue. Seven years ago, local journalism wrote a prelude to its end. In a print media manoeuvre that has since become familiar, Fairfax sacrificed another soldier to win its weekly war on clicks. Webb was not a travel writer, but the company — one that had done away with more than 80 of its subeditors six months prior to the article’s arrival — commissioned and published her callow review anyhow.

Fairfax did not apologise to the many readers who found Webb’s take on a Balinese town distasteful. Instead, they published distaste for Webb, whose misdeed had been to report her irritation at all the poor people she found on a holiday in the Global South. Before you could say White Man’s Burden, a number of writers content to romanticise poverty outside the West were published.

Tim Elliot wrote a piece, now archived, urging Webb to get her head out of her G20 fundament. Which might have been a reasonable request if made by a company that did not otherwise and overwhelmingly write holiday reviews of “developing” nations as though they were trying to piss off the ghost of Edward Said. Janet DeNeefe, expat founder of a Balinese literary event, elected to dress “like a tourist” to prove that Webb had been wrong about the charms of impoverished Ubud workers. A local bloke called Nyoman appeased the Western need to read about the wisdom of the destitute. “I don’t have anything,” the worker told DeNeefe. “I just have a heart.”

It was a response by Richard Woolveridge that really got post-colonial condescension down. No, unlike Webb, he was not offended by the desperation of Balinese hospitality workers. Au contraire. He was charmed by his “animated” Balinese guide who “just smiled every time I glanced around”. Woolveridge doesn’t mind that he is subject to the “smooth” deceptions of the Balinese. After all, it’s lovely to be “taken for a ride” by simple folk. He concluded his heart-felt infantilisation of the Orient by warning others never to give money to foreign children.

I have done time as a travel writer, and even as an editor of travel writing for a terrible in-flight magazine. I can tell you, just as the Webb affair does, that political bias is almost always on painful display. You want to read a chipper holiday piece that wilfully ignores the worst crimes of a punitive nation-state? Buy the weekend papers or pick up some brochures at a US travel fair.

Crikey has learned that Jay Tharappel funded his own travel to North Korea, not a”junket” as the text originally said.

Peter Fray

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