The Sunday Independent (South Africa)
January 04, 2009
e1 Edition


Censorship still a burning issue in the 2000s

by Boyd Tonkin


George Bernard Shaw once wrote that assassination is the ultimate form
of censorship. That hardly counted as a joke 100 years ago. Now, it
sounds like no more than a footnote to today's headlines.

In January 2007, Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor, died at an
ultra-nationalist assassin's hands. His murder came after a sustained,
high-level campaign to vilify and prosecute those writers - such as
Dink, or Turkey's Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk - who dared to debate the
Ottoman massacres of a million or more Armenians in 1915.

Just three months earlier, the author and journalist Anna
Politkovskaya paid the same price, shot in the lift of her Moscow
apartment block after her dogged and fearless research into the
underside of Vladimir Putin's regime had made her one ruthless foe too
many. As for the grotesque public killing, so far unsolved, of
Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006,remember that the
former KGB agent's chief offence, in the eyes of his Russian enemies,
was to publish a book that denounced the alleged terror tactics of his
ex-employers in provoking the second Chechen war.

That book, Blowing Up Russia, was promptly and permanently banned in
his native land.

In Britain, freedom of expression hardly looks in better shape. In
2006, only a concerted campaign by what one minister once sneeringly
called "the comics' lobby" - in fact, a very broad coalition of
writers, artists, lawyers, parliamentarians and (yes) entertainers -
reined in an ill-drafted catch-all law against the incitement to
so-called "religious hatred".

Two decades ago, British publishers stood firm against the Ayatollah
Khomeini's fatwa and issued a joint paperback edition of The Satanic
Verses in solidarity with Salman Rushdie. Would the same collective
support take shape now? Much of the media has decided to indulge in
"responsible" self-censorship that often feels not too far from
cowardice. No British publication, channel or station (save for a few
rapidly squashed student magazines) allowed its readers or viewers to
make up their own minds about the Danish cartoons of Mohammed.

In many cultures, free expression remains a matter of life and
death. From Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita to Hubert Selby's Last Exit to
Brooklyn, from Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer to William Burroughs'
The Naked Lunch, a list of unbanned books includes landmark works that
still have the power to disturb and to confront that led to their
initial battles with authority.

Recall (just for starters) that Nabokov's "nymphet" is not around 14,
as many people think, when she catches the predatory eye of Humbert
Humbert. In fact, she is 12. Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange
satirises the currents in modern society that give rise to the random
violence of disaffected youngsters. At the time, some read his
critique as an endorsement of thugs. Many might still do so today.

Champions of patriotic warfare will still be affronted by Erich Maria
Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Haters of political spin
and guile will be appalled by Machiavelli's The Prince. Believers in
the spotless innocence of youth will be disgusted by Edmund White's A
Boy's Own Story. Partisans of Castro's just and equal Cuba will be
outraged by Reinaldo Arenas's Singing from the Well. Islamic
patriarchs will be repelled by Taslima Nasrin's Shame. Feminist
puritans will be distressed by DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover -
and so, explosively, on.

"Literature", as the poet Ezra Pound put it (and his own flaky Fascist
tendencies have expelled his work from many college courses), "is news
that stays news".

Some readers may indulge in a little superior scorn when they consider
the bourgeois prudery that sought to suppress Madame Bovary's
adulterous passion, or the apartheid-era racism that tried to crush
the compassion and solidarity of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved
Country. But we all approve of censorship in one form or
another. Modern politicians in fragile multicultural societies seek
control over material that "offends" organised blocs of voters. Many
feel glad that British laws passed over recent decades forbid
inflammatory racist speech, writing and images.

Those for whom Holocaust denial represents a uniquely vile assault on
truth welcomed the legal shaming of David Irving - though not, to be
fair, his 2006 jailing in a hypocritical Austria.

Even the bravest standard-bearers of liberty had their blind spots
when it came to censorship. John Milton's 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica
remains the most forceful English blast in favour of the unsupervised
freedom to publish.

It claims that killing a book is as bad as killing a man, for "who
kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who
destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as
it were, in the eye". Note Milton's qualification, "good": the first
in a long line of provisos with which free-speech champions sought to
head off the menace of proscription by an appeal to moral or artistic
merit.

Fast-forward to 1960: the successful arguments of Penguin Books in the
Lady Chatterley trial still turned on the "literary value" defence
allowed by the Obscene Publications Act.

Milton also had a sticking point: Roman Catholicism. Catholic
propaganda, he thought, exempted itself from the protection that the
state ought to offer authorship because it amounted to treason: a
deep-rooted attack on the values of the nation and its culture. So,
too, for many liberals now. The fascist or the racist puts himself
outside the free-speech pale, and so deserves ostracism or punishment.

American mainstream thinkers said the same of communists in the
McCarthy era. Now, a young Islamist radical who holds up a scrawled
banner calling for the beheading of some infidel may face a charge of
incitement to murder.

Only in one disputed territory - the depiction in print of sexual acts
- does the early 21st century in the West seem significantly more
permissive an age than those preceding it. Even here, anomalies and
arguments abound.

Christian campaigners, not long ago, tried to enforce the removal of
mass-market British editions of books by the Marquis de
Sade. Authoritarian societies - from the Rome of Augustus to the Cuba
of Castro - have often bothered much less about escapist erotica than
about literary challenges to the power of the state and the person of
its leaders. George Orwell knew his history when he filled the
"Airstrip One" of Nineteen Eighty-Four with cheap gin and cheap porn
to pacify the proles. Trend-setters of the 1960s liked to believe in
the "subversive" power of sexuality on page, screen or stage. A
century earlier, they would have had a point: witness the scandal of
Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, and, indeed, the prosecution of Madame
Bovary. In the interwar years, British law still proudly made an ass
of itself by putting works such as Radclyffe Hall's tortured lesbian
romance, The Well of Loneliness, in the dock.

After the Lady Chatterley trial, the floodgates formally opened - but
the creative well dried up. Only among gay authors in the West did
written sex hang on to its edge of danger and defiance - from Edmund
White in the US and Reinaldo Arenas in Cuba to Jean Genet in France.

Reading the great banned books of other times and other climes will
hardly sort out the dilemmas and contradictions that recur in the
history of public speech. It might, though, help us to understand that
the sands of taboo and transgression, of heresy and blasphemy, are
forever shifting. Within a generation, Joyce's Ulysses and Lawrence's
The Rainbow moved from being proscribed to being prescribed.

Other novels travel in the contrary direction. In 1900, Harriet
Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery saga Uncle Tom's Cabin seemed to millions
one of the noblest, most influential books since the Bible. By 2000,
it had become a byword for patronising ignorance. Our shibboleths and
scapegoats will no doubt look as bizarre to future critics.

"Let there be light," say writers. In answer, the powers that be treat
them not as the salt of the earth but as a law unto themselves, merely
concerned with filthy lucre. All those phrases, as it happens, come
from a much-censored author: from William Tyndale's magnificent
English translations of the Old and New Testaments, which have left a
deeper mark on everyday English speech than any other text. And what
happened to Tyndale? The Catholic authorities, not content with
burning his heretical work, burned him at the stake in Flanders in
1536. In cultures where the written word is banned and burned - even
forbidden versions of the Bible - then living men and women will often
follow. Ask the grieving family and colleagues of Hrant Dink.