Günter Grass and BBC World Have Your Say

Gunter Grass. Copyright: Das blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann, Wikimedia Commons
Gunter Grass. Copyright: Das blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann, Wikimedia Commons

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?

On The Censorship of Cricket

The thing that caught my ear this morning was the cricket scores. England are on tour, playing Pakistan… in Abu Dhabi. The English cricketers cannot travel to play in actual Pakistan due to security threats.

This echoes the problems experienced by delegates to the Jaipur Literary Festival last weekend. Threats of violence (real and imagined) kept Salman Rushdie away from the podium, and even derailed a planned video-link appearance.

In both cases, the threats of a few reactionaries are spoiling the chances of ordinary people to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. In both these cases they are Islamists, although Hindu Nationalists are guilty of similar ad hoc censorship of artists such as the late M.F. Hussain.

But anyway, my half-formed thought is this: I wonder to what degree the practice of sport might be considered ‘expression’ in the same way as we think of writing as expression? The elegance of Sport is often likened to dance, which undeniably a form of artistic expression. And dancers are routinely referred to as ‘athletes’ with similar fitness regimes. The need for an audience is common to both groups too. If an audience is barred from a performance, then that is an infringement of the artist’s freedom of expression. Is not the barring the Pakistani cricket fans from the games (by virtue of the games being played in another country) a similar infringement?

The problem is not experienced by the players. Since Pakistan has a proud cricketing heritage, with millions of enthusiasts. Denying these fans the ritual of test matches feels like a denial of their cultural expression too. The Islamic fundamentalists are demanding that their conception of Pakistan trumps any other ideas of what is important.

This is probably an old conversation for Pakistani cricket fans. Yet it is seldom discussed here in the UK. The fact that the Test Match venue has been moved to Dubai is not remarked upon by the sports reporters. I think it is a useful issue to highlight, because if these similarities between art and sport hold up, then that would be a very useful point for free expression campaigners to insert into the campaigning rhetoric. One assumes there are more sport-lovers than literature-lovers.

A Tale of Two Authors

Compare how two authors deal with book reviews that they believe to be defamatory.

First, Chris McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know” took blogger Vaughan Jones to the High Court over a review that Jones posted on the Amazon website, of all places.  The judgement on whether this case can proceed is expected today.

Historian Niall Ferguson was similarly upset by a negative review.  His book Civilisation was eviscerated by Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (a much more credible and prominent platform than Amazon’s product review pages).  Ferguson felt he had been defamed as a racist.  However, in contrast to Chris McGrath, Ferguson chose a different forum to express his grievance and demand satisfaction – the letters page.

This approach – fighting words with more words – is precisely the kind of counter-speech I advocated in my ‘Way of The Blogs‘ piece for the Guardian a couple of years ago.  It offers a form of redress to the aggrieved person, while avoiding censorship, and it is also much cheaper.  I think it is a much classier way of dealing with critics, than hauling them down to the Royal Courts of Justice.

Debating Breivik’s Manifesto

As tweeted yesterday, I was asked onto Paul Hammond’s morning show on UCB Radio, to discuss Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breiviks’ manifesto, which has been published online.  I made the case that, unpleasant though Breivik’s views are, censoring his manifesto would only give him a martyrish status.  Also, the reasons given for suppressing such writings would quickly be used to attack and censor other books (like the Bible).

Here is the audio of my segment [6 Mb].

On the UCB’s Facebook page, a few people raised dissenting views.

… surely the human rights of the Norwegian students and there families should be held in higher esteem the Anders Behring Breiviks. He gave up his rights the moment he blew up the building in Oslo.

I think this is just a confusion of the concept of human rights.  Of course rights such as free expression may be lawfully removed, but its wrong to say that a killer or any other hated person in society can forfeit their rights in this way.  If that were the case, we would call them ‘privileges’ not ‘rights’.

Another common sentiment:

But I would caution against publishingg such material. Not everyone has the wisdom or intelligence to be able to read it. God forbid but what if there was to be a copycat killing because of publishing this?

To this, I am reminded of Bronwen Maddox writing in The Times, discussing the ramblingsof another killer, Cho Seung Hui:

The accusation that the NBC broadcasts may provoke copycat attacks — the most serious charge against the network — appears to rest on a notion of severe mental illness as contagious, common and predictable.

UCB is a Christian radio station, and as such there were a few comments invoking the more nebulous concepts of God and Satan:

He had his foot in satans kindom, he is a freemason wich is v evil ,he also listend 2 chantin an playd demonic games on computa,he gave the devil an entrance 2 his mind.ther so much ocult activities that warp the mind an insesetive the value of life

I don’t think this is helpful.  Evil and even satanic Anders Breivik may be, but these are adjectives to describe his end state of mind, not the process by which he became like that.  Explaining a good or a bad act as being the work of God or Satan is a way of avoiding hard thoughts and (maybe) a difficult truth.

Free Expression in Oslo

Its been a bit quiet on the blog this week.  That’s because I’ve been at the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Oslo.  I’ve been using Twitter to log noteworthy nuggets from the seminars and speeches, and may add some more substantial thoughts later.

In the meantime, here’s a compelling cartoon from the artist Magnus Bard.  It features in the International Cartoon Exhibition, currently on show until 26th July at the Oscarsborg fortress in Oslo fjord.

magnusbard-because

Free Alaa – Egyptian blogger detained

While MK posts on the benefits of the small-web (more on that another time), we find a good example of the ‘large web’ we have all come to know. Demoblogger posts G-B4A as a Test Case in Web 2.0 Activism, highlighting the 21st century methods being employed to hasten the release of Alaa Abd El-Fatah, who has been imprisoned for his part in a peaceful, pro-democracy protest.

The web can raise awareness of these issues, but we must still focus on more traditional channels in order to effect change in this particular issue. Pickled Politics suggests that Google-bombing might not be successful, and in any case should not be an end itself.

[The] free-Alaa campaign needs to become more prominent with mentions in the national papers. But surprise surprise the press has largely ignored the story … My suggestion is: organise or join a demonstration outside the Egyptian embassy or send emails to your newspaper or broadcaster of choice and ask why haven’t they yet written about this story.

Or, of course, TheyWorkForYou.com can allow you to make your MP aware of the issue. The new Foreign Secretary might be prompted to take up the issue of free speech with the Egyptian government.

Journalists Harassed in Israel

One group of people who get very little attention in the Middle-East are the Arab citizens of Israel. One in five Israelis are Arabs, but as either Muslims or Christians they are effectively second-class citizens in what is, after all, a Jewish State. Even if a utopian reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians were to take place, a two-state solution would still leave discrimmination of Arab Israelis unaddressed.

Israel claims to be an open democracy, but certain recent events remind us of an authoritarian streak that must be tempered if the country wishes all its citizens to live in peace. On Christmas Day, the renowned writer Antwan Shalhat received a travel ban issued by Israel’s Department of Interior. No explanation for why the ban was placed has been given, no time-scale is specified, and the reasons given are “secret”. Furthermore, according to Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, a travel ban violates Mr Shalhat’s constitutional right to leave the country under Article 6 of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Antwan Shalhat has translated many texts between Hebrew and Arabic, including the work of Yeshayahou Leibowitz. What is most bizarre is that he has no plans to go overseas at present, for speaking engagements or otherwise. The ban seems arbitrary, unjust, and does nothing to engender confidence in the government.

The treatment of Mr Shalhat is not an isolated case. Last autumn, a string of Arab Israeli journalists were detained and interrogated by the Israeli General Security Services (GSS/Shabak). Those detained included Hassan Muwasi, correspondent for Lebanese newspaper, al-Mustaqbal, and Ahmad Abu Hussein, head of www.arabs48.com. The men are not suspected of any illegal activity, but were questioned about their relationships to journalistic contacts, who are in turn suspected to have links with Hezbollah. In addition, the journalists were asked questions unrelated to state security, regarding details of their professional work and political affiliations.

I’lam, the Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, believes these ‘security interrogations’ constitute a breach of Israeli Penal Code Section 114D which specifies that persons in contact with ‘outside agents’ cannot be charged if their intentions do not threaten state security. The journalists have not been secretive regarding their activities, and assert that any contact they have had with people who have, in turn, had links to Hezbollah, are purely professional. I’lam’s press statement says:

[the interrogation] subsumes the professional and cultural rights of Arab journalists to the assumed security needs of the Israeli state. There is no consideration of the crucial role relationships between Arab journalists in Israel and the wider Arab world play in the professional, informational and cultural life of Arab citizens of Israel, nor is there any consideration of the rights of Arabs in Israel to freedom of expression, association and information.

Hamas looks set to win a large proportion of the vote in the imminent Palestinian elections. To ensure that the organisation chooses politics over violence, the freedom of movement for Arab journalists in Israel and Palestine is of vital importance.