Five days before I was scheduled to speak at a conference on Historical Materialism at the University of Sydney, I received an email from the organizers, explaining that they had refunded my registration fee and struck me from the conference program. They told me that comments I’d made in an online opinion piece three years earlier made my attendance inconsistent with “the commitment of the Historical Materialism Sydney conference organizers to creating an inclusive space for people with diverse gender identities.” In the greatest of ironies, my piece had criticized leftists for playing wedge politics in order to purge radical feminists from progressive circles. The conference was certainly a leftist one: its title, “Historical Materialism,” refers to a Marxist view of history as emerging out of social relations and their contradictions, rather than out of enlightened progress. In keeping with this politically structuralist theme, and as an historian who has written books from a similar standpoint, I’d proposed the talk, “Keeping alive the myth of property in the person: Prostitution in today’s capitalism.”
I did eventually give this speech, but only after repeated appeals to be reinstated to the conference program. I approached the conference lead organizer and its keynote speakers, and then the chair of University of Sydney’s academic board. Responses were slow from all until I suggested my exclusion would expose the University to institutional risk, given an upcoming review by the Australian federal government into “university freedom of speech.”
I ended up delivering my paper on a panel alone, though, because, as I was told the evening before, my two fellow female presenters originally scheduled for the panel elected to move to other slots in the timetable. They might have been influenced by an “open letter” posted to social media demanding I be no-platformed from the event and encouraging attendees to boycott my presentation. Indeed, it was mostly boycotted. To date, I have received no word of apology from either the University of Sydney or conference organizers for this slight on my professional reputation, or for their breach of principles of academic good conduct, found in the University of Sydney’s own Charter of Academic Freedom, which commits the University to “promoting and supporting… principled and informed discussion of all aspects of knowledge and culture.”
On the first day of the conference, very far away from its clownish postures, construction began on an American naval base in pristine waters off northern Okinawa, Japan. Locals had been resisting this expansion of US military infrastructure in their region for 20 years. I know this because I spent a month with them in 2001, after which I wrote about their impressively diverse anti-base movement, with its array of environmentalist, peace, and feminist groups. Over decades, people from a range of backgrounds had worked collectively to resist the base, and witnessing the first truckload of gravel being poured into Oura Bay was, according to a press release published in the Okinawa Times on December 14th, a “soul-crushing morning” for them. Antics surrounding the Sydney conference competed for attention with my thoughts of these activists and their years of lost income, freedom, and family time expended on a political fight that was nearing defeat.
During those 20 years, no activist in Okinawa had the privilege of being able to pick and choose with whom they built alliances or worked in coalition. Their situation permitted no such liberal luxury, only desperate struggle to build movement numbers. They had to be grateful for any friends they could get. The combined will of the US military and the Japanese government was thrown behind the base construction proposal, and so, facing such a Goliath, unionists, churchgoers, artists, fishermen, and feminist groups like Women Act Against Military Violence joined forces in resistance. Defeat was always a possibility, but coalition members permitted no cracks of movement disunity to open up to make it a certainty.
In places like Okinawa, different and even conflicting groups band together for a common cause. In doing so, they prioritize that cause over everything else — including their ideological purity, public image, and social media credibility. In places like Australia, no similarly strong commitment to a cause exists. On the contrary, the priority is performing outrage about inconsequential things in order to appear as though one cares deeply about the right things. People prefer to be seen as the right kind of people holding the right kind of views over actually achieving anything. Meanwhile, coal mine development, overseas military deployment, housing degradation, reef destruction, and corporate tax rorting proceeds apace.
But the problem isn’t one of laziness or smoke and mirrors distraction. We know from the history of left organizing that ideological fitness tests are applied deliberately for political purposes. They are applied for the benefit of the people whose interests a movement is seeking to advance. How they are applied clearly signals who is being prioritized.
As to whose interests the Australian left is pursuing, the antics over my attendance at the Historical Materialism Sydney conference gave the game away. Questioning the notion that gender is a matter of how we feel about ourselves, rather than a matter of how we have been systematically treated throughout our lives, was turned into a crime more serious than ignoring tens of thousands of Asian women in brothels on every street corner of Australia’s cities. But the comedic disproportion of this scenario wasn’t accidental. It was manufactured in service of male interests that are now coming under pressure from feminist challenge.
Over the last few years, the Australian left has seen the #MeToo and violence against women movements become entrenched causes of its constituents — young female ones in particular. This growing movement poses a threat to the interests of the male left, which have always ignored violence against women and been sexually libertarian in nature. The Australian left has never stopped defending Bill Henson, promoting sex industry deregulation, railing against any and all internet regulation (even when it comes to child pornography), and writing off concerns about child abuse as “moral panic.” Never in its history has the left made the Goliath of male sexual violence a cause that different and even conflicting groups will band together to resist. Male sexual violence has never been declared the fight that will be prioritized over everything else, including ideological difference. Never has it been proclaimed that, while defeat is a possibility, no cracks of movement disunity will be permitted to make it a certainty. But the Goliath has become too hard to ignore.
Its manifestations are glaring and its harms now seep into every aspect of our lives. Young people in particular are affected by widespread failure in Australia’s child protection system, unregulated sexualized advertising, the proliferation of internet pornography presenting female torture as routine, escalating rates of sexual assault crime against young women in particular, and regular news of football players gang raping fans in conditions of near legal impunity. In this environment, it’s telling (but historically typical of leftists) that organizers of the Historical Materialism Sydney conference allowed scorn to be poured on a feminist who campaigns against an industry profiting from many of these forms of sexual exploitation of young people.
There’s no doubt the Australian left cares about Adani and the refugees on Nauru. But it cares even more about movement interests. That’s why we see no progress being made on problems like climate change and corporate corruption in Australia, because the country’s leftists are bogged down fighting an unacknowledged guerrilla war. They’re holed up in trenches protecting interests historically significant to the movement: namely, those of male sexual entitlement. As a result, they must fight things like banking oligopolies with one hand tied behind their backs.
The Okinawan anti-base movement experienced a major defeat on the first day of the Historical Materialism Sydney conference, but it was a day of victory for Australia’s women’s movement. It was the day the Australian left gave away its anti-feminist game, and so turned itself into a movement of yesterday’s men. These men have now made themselves ripe for overthrow, and will endure succession by a united, diverse, broad-based Australian women’s movement that has declared male sexual violence its Goliath.
Dr Caroline Norma is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow and senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.