Radio Interviews

A welcome side-effect of the new English PEN website is an increase in inquiries from journalists. There have been a couple of free speech moments in the past couple of weeks – Günter Grass, and China at the London Book Fair – and as such the media have been in touch with us. I was asked to speak on the radio on a couple of occasions.

Discussing Günter Grass on BBC World Have Your Say:

Discussing China at the London Book Fair on Monocle 24:

I also spoke to 2ser Radio in Sydney but haven’t heard the audio yet. (Update: here).

Its excruciating to hear all the “ahs” and “ums” and “you know” and “sort of” that pepper what feels, at the time, like normal fluent speech. The second clip is better than the first, which is because I had longer to prepare.

The audio is hosted on PodOmatic, which I’ve only just discovered. It is free to sign-up and has easy integration with iTunes. I would use AudioBoo but it limits the length of the audio clips to 3 minutes.

Günter Grass and the Free Speech Moment

Last week I wrote a follow up to my Comment Is Free piece on Gunter Grass, this time for the New Statesman blog.

Over the past few days, a “free speech moment” has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League. Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the “free speech moment” has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism. Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author. In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here. The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship. Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event. A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of “work”. English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a “chilling effect” on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These “free speech moments” are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem. But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass

When I do a post for Comment is Free, I like to do a round-up here of pertinent and impertinent comments that appear below it.

My piece on Gunter Grass pulled in 298 comments, which is a record for me, but sadly nothing to do with my prose. They are the predictable result of writing anything about Israel – partisans of both sides come out in force.

One comment, from fellow Comment is Free contributor David Wearing of the New Left Project, stood out:

The equivalence drawn here with the Habima theatre situation is entirely spurious.

The Habima theatre has performed to illegal colonists in the West Bank. Those colonies are maintained through a system of brutal repression (including the denial of many democratic rights, such as free expression) of the indigenous population.

Individuals and institutions are 100% entitled, as a matter of conscience, to choose not to work with Habima for that reason, and to encourage others to take a similar position. There is no question of censorship. To decline to associate with someone on moral grounds is a democratic choice.

No one has suggested that Jews or Hebrew speakers should be excluded blanket-fashion. The insinuation that this is what the proposed cancellation of Habima amounts to is an outrageous slur. Would anyone object to a performance by a Hebrew speaking theatre group made up of people who had never and would never perform in the illegal colonies? Everyone knows the answer to that. Everyone knows that those calling for Habima to be cancelled would welcome such an alternative performance with absolute delight.

So there is no comparison here to the Grass case, where a state (the one which criminally maintains the colonies mentioned above) has declared an individual persona non grata because he has expressed an opinion that the state disapproves of. That is dictionary-definition undemocratic behaviour.

I think that’s true, and my piece should have taken more care not to draw direct equivalence. I was merely trying to make the point that it should be left to individuals as to whether to engage with any piece of art. User silverchain took issue with Wearing, pointing out that plenty of other languages in the Shakespeare festival are represented by countries such as China and Turkey who also abuse human rights.

Continue reading “Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass”

Hit Günter Grass with Poetry, Not a Travel Ban

Liberty Central LogoAnother piece on Günter Grass and his poem, this time for Comment is Free.

On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech.

Censorship might be legitimate when a writer incites violence or war, but Grass’s poem does neither. His transgression is to write something that many people find offensive and (given his history, as a conscript in the Waffen-SS) deeply insensitive. However, this is no reason for censorship: freedom of expression is meaningless without the right to offend. This is true not just for criticism of Israeli foreign policy, but the criticism and satirisation of other states, religions and individuals too. This is why we in English PEN oppose defamation and blasphemy laws all over the world and have also argued against laws banning Holocaust denial. On this we agree with the philosopher Pierre Vidal-Naquet (whose parents both died in the Holocaust) who said that “confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper” and Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who says that one must “counter a book with a book; a statement with a statement.”

If Grass has written a polemical poem, the Israeli literary community should respond with poetry of their own, parodying and picking apart Grass’s offering. Literary dialogue, as opposed to diatribes by official spokespeople, is a far superior way to discuss these thorny issues. In 2009, the US-based Theatre J responded creatively to what they saw as unfair criticism in Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children by commissioning counter-plays. The result was more art, and a genuine attempt to discover some common ground.

Individuals, not states, should be free to make up their own minds, and this principle applies to boycotts in the UK, too. Recently, a group of prominent British artists demanded that the Globe Theatre cancel the performance of The Merchant of Venice by Habima Theatre, the national theatre of Israel. The troupe has performed in the West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, and therefore, say the signatories, it is disqualified from performing in the UK.

While these are legitimate concerns, the result of this would only be to remove the moral choice from theatre-goers, many of whom are understandably excited about seeing a play notorious for its antisemitic characterisations interpreted by a Jewish group. Moreover, the play has been programmed as part of an international celebration of language and Shakespeare, and excluding the Hebrew language would be odd. The issue is nuanced and complex and it is unlikely that either a large arts institution, or a cabal of actors and directors, will get the answer just right. Far better that the choice on whether to boycott is made by the individual audience members.

For those who disagree with the performance, there are other ways to express displeasure. Peaceful protests can and should be staged outside the Globe, and new plays can be written in response. Grass may even choose to write another poem, giving us his thoughts. The dialogue will continue afresh. Free speech means no one ever gets the last word.