Defenders of the discordant

An Embarrassment of Tyrannies
January 16, 1998

One could be misled by the title of this book into thinking it is an abundance of tyranny - as of riches - that is being celebrated. The idea that a distinguished journal aims only to embarrass tyrants rouses the instinctive response: what, only that? Surely embarrassment is an inadequate response to violence and violation across the world. Yet that is precisely what Stephen Spender set out to do in May 1972 at the urging of Soviet dissidents, Pavel Litvinov and Larisa Bogorez Daniel, to protest against the show trials in Moscow. "The idea was to make public the circumstances of those who are silenced in their own countries, wherever that may be, and publish their work." To do so, he brought together "an organisation of intellectuals who made it their business to publish information about what was happening to their censored, suppressed and sometimes imprisoned colleagues." It was called the WSI - the Writers and Scholars International - and its journal, Index on Censorship, was published under the directorship of Michael Scammell.

That freedom of speech is one of the universal human rights is, then, the conviction on which Index was founded. Yet it is not universally recognised as one, and even in western democracies there is a growing reluctance to consider it on the same level as, say, the freedom from injustice, inequality, racial prejudice, poverty and illiteracy, and an increasing awareness that there are cultures and traditions in which the supreme authority - whether political or religious - is the container of national identity so that to question it is seen as a threat to the nation. In many western countries now there is some debate over whether the freedom of speech is not overvalued. Ronald Dworkin, in a long, thoughtful essay, acknowledges that "free speech, if it is a universal right, also protects pornographers hawking pictures of naked women with their legs spread and bigots sporting swastikas or white hoods and selling hatred," but points out that although we are all likely to condemn such activity, "if we do, the principle is inevitably weakened, not just in such cases, but generally". The pornographers and bigots may not proffer "ideas" that need our support but in a democracy they must be permitted - because only if they are listened to can they be debated and argued against. Dworkin insists such a right is absolute: there can be no reservation. "Principle is indivisible, and we try to divide it at our peril." Stuart Hampshire adds that freedom of speech can exist only in lands that have a credible system of justice: "Justice requires that there should always be the right of appeal against censorship, and the denial of free expression, the right to a day in court or the appropriate tribunal." Even in a one-party state, or a state ruled by a fundamentalist religion, the settling of disputes in a court of justice is what is essential.

Unexpectedly enough - and the chief joy of this volume lies in the unexpected voices and visions - Judy Blume, the popular writer of juvenile fiction in the United States, supplies an example from her own experience: having her books for adolescents banned by libraries and schoolrooms for taking up such taboo subjects as menstruation and sexuality.

Spender need not have worried, as he did, that "there is a risk of a magazine of this kind becoming a bulletin of frustration" - because the material is so rich and so diverse. It may have come to birth at the time of the cold war to protest against the violation of human rights in the Soviet Union - the torture chamber, the labour camps, the treatment of dissidents in "psychiatric clinics", the determined efforts to silence such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky and Brodsky - but it went on to watch over the Czech Chartists and the fate of Vaclav Havel, then the Solidarity movement in Poland, together with such organisations as Amnesty International, which conducts inquiries into the abuse of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law and provides legal aid for victims of political persecution, and the PEN clubs, which support political exiles and organise international congresses to provide models of free discussion between writers from all over the world.

When the cold war ended many could have been misled into thinking that they, and the journal, would no longer be needed. "To have been truly successful," Ursula Owen says in her preface, "It should have made itself redundant. But the world being what it is, that is unthinkable." Grimly true, because if anyone thought the destruction of the Berlin Wall was the symbolic end of censorship, that person would have had to be looking out of one window only and ignoring all the others that opened on to Greece under the colonels, Pakistan under military rule, the fascist juntas of Latin America, the genocides in Africa, the silencing of all secular voices in Islamic countries.

Not to speak of what is going on very much closer to the editors' own homes. Noam Chomsky reminds us in a withering indictment of the US's extermination of Native Americans and present-day conditions in the prisons of the "sweet land of liberty", recounting violations of article four of the Declaration of Human Rights one by one. Phillip Knightley contributes a history of "news management" in the West. He dates its inception to the Allied attack on Sebastopol in 1855 when Prince Albert himself denounced the poor correspondent of The Times, William Howard Russell, the pioneer of war reporting, as "a miserable scribbler", which led to demands for his lynching (not so very unlike the present demands that the press rein in its pursuit of the royals). As a result, in 1855 it was forbidden to publish anything that could be considered of benefit to the enemy. After the second world war a Canadian correspondent, Chris Lynch, confessed: "It's humiliating to look back at what we wrote during the war. We were a propaganda arm of our government. At the start, the censors enforced that, but in the end we were our own censors. We were cheerleaders." The exception was the Vietnam war reporting: since the first amendment to the US constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, restraint was permitted only during an emergency. However, war was not officially declared on Vietnam and so the fighting was not subject to censorship. The reporting of such tragedies as the massacre at My Lai and revelations about Operation Orange led to the public outcry that caused the withdrawal of the US army. A lesson was learnt, one might have thought - only to see it unlearnt during the gulf war. One recalls the general outrage in the US and Europe on seeing the bombing of Red Cross centres in Iraq - not against the bombing, but against CNN for reporting what was so revolting to viewers' sensibilities.

Matthew D'Ancona provides us with a list of "warspeak" in the reporting of that time: an area cleared of Iraqis was termed "cleansed", "surgical bombing" was employed, and civilians caught in a "target-rich environment" risked "collateral damage" while the words "kill" and "death" became the efficient-sounding "interdict", "impact", "suppress" and "eliminate" and casualties became a "body count". "In the gulf war," he writes, "words were used to salve the conscience, to cordon off the truth, rather than to communicate it", leading to what he terms "a riot of euphemism".

This wonderful variety of viewpoint is what prevents this collection of writing from Index from becoming the "bulletin of frustration" that Spender and this reviewer feared it might be, considering the state of the world. The opinions are by no means glumly alike. Sir Michael Tippett, for example, who once spent three months in prison as a conscientious objector, and who composed an oratorio in memory of young victims of Nazism, pleads for the freedom of music to be heard anywhere - for example, Wagner and Strauss in Israel, Shostakovich in Russia - and reminds us that in 1942 the BBC excluded "any form of anaemic or debilitated local performance", eg "crooning". But Yehudi Menuhin, like Tippett a patron of Index, begs for protection from "music injurious to ear, soul and sensibility" such as muzak piped into elevators, shops, airports and planes.

There could hardly be voices more different than the one we hear in Solzhenitsyn's anguished poem, "God Keep Me from Going Mad", written while serving a sentence in a labour camp in northern Kazakhstan in 1950-53: "A frozen footcloth is the scarf that binds my face./ Fights over porridge, the gangers' constant griping/ And day follows day, and no end to this dreary fate." - and in the colloquial and ironic poem, "Out of the Game", by Herberto Padilla, the Cuban revolutionary who fell out with Castro and ended an exile: "Won't make his message clear./ Doesn't even notice miracles./ Spends all day thinking,/Always got something to moan about./Get him out!/Get the killjoy out!" In prose as well, voices display their very individualistic attitudes and manners of speech even when making the same point - for example, Michael Ignatieff's sober appraisal of the scope and limitations of the truth and reconciliation commissions set up in South Africa and in the former Yugoslavia, in contrast to Pieter-Dirk Uys's scathing satire, "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but ...", in which a former apartheid minister takes the stand and announces, "Comrades, I have a clear conscience. I have never used it!" Uys expresses relief at knowing the commission is led by "a man with a great sense of humour ... Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the only person in the land who can sit in a glass house and throw stones." He is only too aware that "Truth is rarely pure and never simple! And 50 years after the Nuremberg trials, will we see history not just repeating itself, but taking tragedy and turning it into farce?" There is Nunca M s's brief, searing testimony, "File 2819", on the torture of prisoners in Argentina, offset by Ivan Kraus's slyly hilarious suggestion to President Ceausescu on how to bring about total censorship: "I suggest we solve the problem rationally and simply by abolishing the alphabet," and also Ludvik Vaculik's amazingly good-natured piece, "A cup of coffee with my interrogator", in which the interrogator complains "I know you'll put all this into one of your articles ... and you'll call it A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator."

Some of the finest pieces are those in which a factual report is transformed into a creative vision - eg Julio Cort zar's "Apocalypse at Solentiname", in which the photographs he brings back from Nicaragua turn out not to be of the mass he witnessed in a church, or cows in a field, or the mothers and children he photographed, but of the torture, murder and horror he had known to exist.

Nor is it only political repression and censorship that is addressed. Alberto Manguel has an intensely felt piece on the censorship of gay literature that he experienced in a lifetime of reading, and Arthur C. Clarke, who celebrates the success of mass communication precisely because it makes possible "the embarrassment of tyrannies" through international exposure - "A free press can give you hell, but it can save your skin" - does not let this celebration go unqualified: "I don't believe that a civilisation can advance technologically without corresponding moral progress: if they get out of step, it will self-destruct, as ours is in danger of doing."

The fact is that mass communication, publication and free expression all bear within them the seeds of potential evil as well as potential good. They cannot do without a moral intelligence to give them life and direction, and this is what the publishers of and contributors to Index endeavour to provide.

There are some disappointments: although there are two pieces by Salman Rushdie - one a comic portrait of censorship in Pakistan's radio and cinema, the other a tender ode to the art of writing before it disappears under the onslaught of high-tech communication without books - there is nothing about the infamous fatwa, surely the most bizarre form of censorship there is. That is left to Wole Soyinka to attack in his impassioned "Jihad for freedom" - but one would have wanted to hear the victim's own response.

It is regrettable that this collection does not permit itself more space for notes on the contributors - at least their birth dates, and lists, however abbreviated, of their publications. Sometimes one is missing, sometimes the other, and often both.

Nevertheless one closes the book with a sense of relief and gratitude that it exists, and continues to raise the toast of former Soviet dissidents: "Let us drink to the success of our hopeless endeavour!" Anita Desai is professor of writing,Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States.

An Embarrassment of Tyrannies: 25 Years of Index on Censorship, 1972-97

Author - E. L. Webb and Rose Bell
ISBN - 0 575 06538 9
Publisher - Gollancz
Price - £20.00
Pages - 347

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments