Have you heard about the controversy surrounding the cover of the winter issue of literary journal Meanjin? It would make sense for you not to have heard about the ructions, controversies involving literary journals being naturally rarefied affairs. Though as a rough measure, the more rarefied a controversy, the more heat it generates among Murdoch press columnists, and this controversy has those columnists understandably giddy with schadenfreude at the spectacle of the "uber-woke Green left" – that's Chris Kenny in The Australian – dismembering itself.

Meanjin's offending cover.

Photo: Meanjin

As to what happened. Meanjin's June edition features pieces on #MeToo from Clementine Ford, her words invariably powerful whatever you might think of her polemics at any time, and Anna Spargo-Ryan, whose prose is mesmerising and haunting – pieces that will be overshadowed, if not erased, by a debacle not originally of their making.

If the debacle was of anyone's making it was Jonathan Green's, Meanjin's literary editor, an editor – as I can attest from his time at The Age – of the kind they rarely make anymore, intellectually curious, wickedly good-humoured and up for creative risks. In this instance, he crossed out most of the word Meanjin on the journal's cover and substituted the hashtag #MeToo, which might have been a sharp reflection on how the #MeToo movement is shaking the foundations of institutions.

But then indigenous writer Amy McQuire pointed out that the journal's name is the indigenous word for the land on which Brisbane now sits. McQuire tweeted: "Given the destruction of land, cultures and language is fundamentally tied to violence against Aboriginal women … it feels weird to see (the word) Meanjin crossed out in this way."

Clementine Ford.


McQuire's reflection strikes me, to the extent that my views have a rightful place here, as valid – the Americans, in their earnest way, might call the episode a "teachable" moment about intersectionality, about how for indigenous women sexism cannot be disentangled from race. For an opposing view about the merits of McQuire's stance, read some of the aforementioned Murdoch columnists; but, really, there's little substance to argue about because she was essentially expressing her feelings, and expressing them without tonal overkill, which in these times counts as almost gracious. Seeing the word "Meanjin" crossed out feels "weird" to her. That's all. She was not alleging the magazine cover breached UN human rights conventions. She was not – I don't think – calling for anyone's head.

But that didn't stop others losing theirs, because in the Meanjin milieu, where victimhood is sometimes a competitive sport, one mildly irate tweet from an indigenous woman – and a number of likeminded tweets followed – has the force of an atom bomb.

Green apologised for his "blindness" and carelessness.

"It's a reminder of my privilege to not see what now seems so obvious," he said.

Green also explained that the "complex" story of the #MeToo movement "compounded" his error, the movement having been created a decade ago by American woman of colour, Tarana Burke, to advocate for underprivileged victims of sexual violence. But in the Australian context, he continued, "where violence against Indigenous women should be a source of national soul searching … the casual obliteration of a proud Indigenous word with the hashtag of a movement dominated latterly by white women was a gesture of unthinking clumsiness".

And then Green, a white male, obliterated the reference to the white women's #MeToo revolt from the digital version of the magazine's cover, which now carries the headline "The Turning Point" and Ford's byline, but no further hint as to what her story is about.

Ford and Spargo-Ryan also jointly expressed shame for not "immediately" spotting the problem with the cover and condemned themselves for being part of the "ongoing trauma of whiteness in this country". Had it been me, I'm sure I would have likewise missed the problem with the cover, and would be feeling similarly embarrassed.

The women, however, did not leave things there. Determined "not to profit" from the hurt they believed they caused, the pair said they would donate their fee to Aboriginal women's services. You could read this gesture as "virtue signalling" or personal brand protection or as further evidence that women's emotional default setting is self-flagellation. But I cannot read it as appropriate or just.

Having dealt with feminism and racism, let's give old-fashioned materialism an airing.

Whatever their own "blindness" about the magazine cover, the women are freelance writers, harried I'm thinking, and advising on the cover simply isn't their job.

So in the wash-up to this fiasco, why are Meanjin's writers, its women writers, in no less than its #MeToo special, the ones— the only ones — depriving themselves of a payday? A modest payday, for as I understand it Meanjin's scribes are paid as much for the privilege of being published in the prestigious journal as they are for their labour. For if we must operate in this offence economy, in this tweeter-takes-all marketplace (must we? really?) then surely in the new spirit of corporate and institutional accountability it's Meanjin, an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing, that should be taking a financial hit? Meanjin that ought to be dedicating the proceeds from its June edition to an indigenous women's service?

And herein lies the lesson: indulge in the politics of symbolism and the truly powerful get off scot-free.

Julie Szego is an Age columnist.

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