Censorship: Still a burning issue

Censorship: Still a burning issue
22 February 2007, The Independent
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. A month ago, the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink 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 dare openly 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 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 last November: 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.

At home, freedom of expression hardly looks in better shape. Last year, 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". The same government that devised that measure looked on in silence as several existing laws were broken when a hooligan gang claiming to act for the Sikh community forcibly shut down the Birmingham Rep's production of Behzti (Dishonour) by the young British writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. "No one from the Home Office was prepared to defend the playwright," noted the National Theatre's director Nicholas Hytner, "even after she was threatened."

Our politicians seem to have concluded that there are no votes in artistic freedom, or even upholding the law, but many in pandering to every angry cry of "offence".

Almost 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 UK publication, channel or station (save for a couple of rapidly squashed student magazines) allowed its readers or viewers to make up their own minds about the Danish cartoons of Mohamed.

In many cultures, free expression remains truly a matter of life and death, quite as risky as it ever was. So The Independent's collection of once-banned books arrives at a crucial moment. 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, it brings together 25 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 kids. 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' 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 over recent years), "is news that stays news". This selection of fearless and visionary works has stood the test of time. They retain the right to shock - and awe.

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, of course, 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 liberally minded people feel glad that British laws passed over recent decades forbid inflammatory racist speech, writing and images. The casual clubland asides of a generation back can now lead straight into court - as the BNP's Nick Griffin recently found out. Fresh legislation against the "glorification" of terrorism, aimed at jihadi hotheads but couched in terms that could have ensnared 1980s supporters of the ANC, has few vocal or visible opponents. Those for whom Holocaust denial represents a uniquely vile assault on truth welcome the legal shaming of David Irving - though not, to be fair, his jailing in a hypocritical Austria.

Not even extreme libertarians will raise a finger or a voice against the extension of surveillance powers of the law-enforcement agencies who aim to eradicate child pornography via large-scale trawls such as Operation Ore. Here is a vast network of hi-tech censorship that all but violent criminals support. Overall, it seems as if everyone in Britain now agrees with the provocative US critic Stanley Fish, who in the 1990s wrote an influential anti-liberal tract entitled There's no such thing as free speech - and it's a good thing too. For Fish, as for other radicals who make common cause with conservatives, all expression takes place within a contested set of rules and constraints - psychological, verbal, social, economic. And only fantasists ignorant of history and humanity ever believe in a blank slate.

Look at the history of our current "culture wars", and you find that 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 via 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.

As many fair-weather libertarians do today, 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. If filmed, many of Sade's more grossly sadistic scenes (which sometimes involve children) would be instantly deleted once the BBFC had taken a look. Why, protesters asked, are legislators sure that images can harm but words do not?

And even words can still run foul of British law. One maverick Manchester publisher, Savoy Books, endured a tireless 17-year campaign of legal harassment by local police and magistrates. Their onslaught culminated in the confiscation and destruction of David Britton's gruesome satirical fantasy, Lord Horror. This was the last major suppression of a British printed work for supposed obscenity, overturned only after a long process of appeal in 1992.

Besides, 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, absurdly, 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. In fast-buck mass culture, the "sexual intercourse" that began for Philip Larkin "in 1963" soon felt more like a cheap trick than a new dawn. 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. The Old Bailey conviction of Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1967 (overturned after an appeal led by John Mortimer) surely bucked the Sixties liberal trend because of the gay and transsexual milieu of much of Selby's novel. Meanwhile, in the 1970s, James Kirkup's poem for Gay News - in which a Roman soldier erotically contemplates the crucified Jesus - brought the laws of blasphemous libel out of their ancient mothballs. That case, too, resulted in a conviction.

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 under our feet. Within a generation (to take just two obvious examples), Joyce's Ulysses and Lawrence's The Rainbow moved from being proscribed to being prescribed - from the magistrates' court to the seminar room. 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 as the passions of the past so often do to us.

So read these formidable literary pariahs with an eye on our age, as well as theirs. In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking - but, otherwise, Cole Porter got it wrong. Heaven knows, anything definitely doesn't go these days. The prudes and persecutors have simply changed tack and chosen different ground, as they always have.

"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.