Last week, the Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, probably Germany’s most famous living author, published a poem (German original here) criticising Israel and its contemplation of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear programme. This (predicably) caused controversy: Grass was a conscript into the SS during the Nazi era, which led many people – most prominently, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu – to accuse him of gross insensitivity and anti-semitism.
On Friday I was invited to participate in the BBC World Service programme ‘World Have Your Say‘ to give English PEN‘s reaction to the poem. I defended Grass’ right to write such a poem, even if some people found it offensive. I also said that it was interesting that Grass had chosen to launch his political criticism in the form of poetry, and that debate through literature might be a way to defuse the often shrill and vitriolic exchanges that accompany discussion of Israeli policies. I thankfully managed to avoid offering an opinion on either the ‘moral equivalence’ issue or the motives and character of Günter Grass himself – The ‘phone-in’ format does not lend itself the ambiguity and detail that such debates requires, and the discussion became very tetchy when it turned to these matters.
I do regret not making a couple of points more forcefully. The first was the complaint that Grass was being ‘insensitive’ and ‘arrogant’. This may well be the case, but that should never be a reason to censor such people. George Orwell and others have spoken of how liberty and free expression are meaningless if they do not also include the right to offend: insensitivity and arrogance are surely siblings to offensiveness, and Grass’ apparent insensitivity should never be a reason for formal censorship.
Conversely, a caller from Germany who defended Günter Grass complained of ‘political correctness’. As I’ve argued before, political correctness is a form of social sanction against those who say offensive things, and it is a far superior mechanism to formal censorship – people may be criticised for saying things, but at least they get to say them! Embodied in the concept of Free Speech is the right to counter-speech. No-one has the last word, and no-one has the right to have their opinions – or their poetry – go uncriticised. Political Correctness is a form of counter-speech.
One aspect of counter-speech I enjoy is when critics respond like-for-like. My favourite example of this is Ari Roth and Theatre J, who responded to Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children with their own pieces of theatre. In the case of the Grass poem, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin at least took the title of his poem (Was Gesagt Werden Muss, ‘What Must Be Said’) for the first line of their rebuttal. I made the point to the BBC that I would like to have seen some more literary responses to Grass’ offering. Have any been posted online?
Since I spoke on the programme, I hear that Grass has been declared a persona non grata in Israel. I don’t know whether Grass was intending to travel to Israel at any point, but this is nevertheless a form of state censorship. I wonder if his books will still be available for sale in Israel after this incident?