Saturday, July 29, 2006

Another victory for the book-burners?

It started with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and has been gaining momentum ever since: the idea that if you are offended by a book, play, film or whatever, and you then whip up a sufficiently vigorous campaign to get the book (or whatever) banned, you will probably succeed in at least some of your aims.

I for one didn't appreciate at the time, the importance of the Satanic Verses business, or how significant the weak-kneed response of sections of the liberal-'left' intelligentsia would prove to be, in setting a precedent and encouraging the enemies of free speech and free thought. While the majority of the majority of the literary/intellectual world gave some degree of support to Rushdie, a significant minority (notably Roald Dahl, John Le Carre and Germaine Greer) scabbed. 'Mainstream' politicians including Roy Hattersley and Norman Tebbitt took the opportunity to direct their fire at Rushdie, rather than those who threatened to kill him. The majority of tthe 'left', after initially supporting Rushdie, got cold feet and backed off.

The Satanic Verses was not, of course, withdrawn or banned. But a paperbeck edition was put on hold, booksellers took it down from display and - all in all - the bigots could claim at least a partial victory.

Apres nous les deluge: militant Islam exposed the weakness and decadence of the post -Chatterley trial liberal consensus in favour of free speech: inevitably, other religious, ethnic and communal groups followed suit. Since then we have witnessed the (ultimately successful) Christian fundamentalist campaign against Jerry Springer: the Opera, the closure of Gurpreet Bhatti's play Behzti after Sikh "community leaders"and their supporters picketed Birmingham Rep, and the closure for "security reasons" of an exhibition of paintings by MF Hussain after protests by the so-called "Hindu Human Rights Group". I would include in this list of shame the craven failure of the mainstream British media to publish the Danish "Mohammed" cartoons earlier this year, though I am aware that that is a somewhat more contentious example in the eyes of other contributors to this blog: I'll discuss it later if anyone wants.

Anyway, now we have the splendidly named Campaign Against Monica Ali's Film Brick Lane: they have succeeded in preventing the filming of scenes in Brick Lane itself and now intend to burn copies of the book at a rally in London tomorrow. The exact motivation of the campaign is not clear to me, but it seems to have something to do with the fact that Monica Ali's father is a non-Sylheti Bangladeshi from Dhaka, and that Sylheti Bangladeshis (the vast majority in the UK) believe that Ali has insulted them in various unspecified ways. In fairness, it should be noted that quite a few Brick Lane Bengalis have come out against the campaign and even one of the campaign committee members, Lutfur Ali, says his aim is not so much to stop the filming, as "to sensitise the film-makers to our concerns" (Guardian, July 27). needless to say, very few of the campaigners have actually read the book (the Guardian found just one who had).

Once again the wretched Germaine Greer has weighed in against free speech, supporting the campaign against the film and sneering at Monica Ali as a "proto-Bengali writer with a Muslim name" (Guardian G2, July 24).

And once again it is an ethnic minority artist who is under attack from self-appointed, reactionary, male, "community leaders". The least that monica Ali has the right to expect from the white liberal/'left' intelligentsia is some elementary support: and not to be scabbed upon by the likes of Greer.


Anonymous Opus Babe said...

Er Jim, you don't really do complexity, do you?

4:31 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

I thought they were still gonna make the film, but just shoot the scenes somewhere else? Either way, obviously I think book-burnings are a reactionary and sick-making phenomenon: that really should be a no-brainer for any kind of progressive. Particularly when all the "offended party" of book burners are objecting to, are scenes in a novel. Sorry but that strikes me as fairly clear cut on the freedom of expression front. Of course Brick Lane's producers should be able to make their film unencumbered, and of course book burning rallies are an atavistic disgrace.

However yes Jim, as you know, we disagree about the Muhammad cartoons. When there's a popular climate of racist backlash involved, and when the material being written forms a part of that backlash, that changes the balance of the equation for me. Which is why I was pleased that the British press didn't publish the cartoons, and why I was deeply angry that the AWL did.

They're two different cases, in two different sets of circumstances, and therefore different rules apply. That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

4:42 PM  
Anonymous Opus Babe said...

Well make your minds up, boys. Either you're uber-libertarians for total free-speech or you are not.

4:44 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Err... we disagree, Opus. Perhaps you need to get your head around that. Or maybe it's you that has the real problem with "complexity"?

It's a cliche perhaps, but that's what freedom of expression is about: respect for different views, and a willingness to air them in public.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous boogski said...

Funny. It was Volty who actually convinced me that people should have the right to deny the Holocaust without being locked up for it. But, as you point out Jim, that's not consistent with his position on the Mohammed cartoons. Just for the record, your posts are plenty complex, Jim. opus babe is wrong!

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Opus Babe said...

Methinks you're avoiding answering the question, VP. Are you for total, indivisible freedom of expression or not?

4:55 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Opus, ironically given your first comment, I'm saying (contrary to Jim's view, and, apparently, yours) that it's complex.

I'm for the right to freedom of expression, in the sense that generally I think the state should stay away from censoring literature. There are obviously exceptions to that (mainly linked to violence and exploitation, like child porn, incitement to racial hatred etc), but I think that should be the rule of thumb.

But I don't think that a right is the same as an obligation. To coin Boogski's example (and I well remember the debate), I'm against a legal ban on holocaust denial. However, that doesn't mean that I'd choose to allow a holocaust denier to become a co-blogger on this site.

Sorry to disappoint you, but here in the real world, some things just need more than a one-word answer.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Opus Babe said...

Not disappointed at all, just probing what your values add up to in, ahem, the real world.

But just to be clear, you do accept that there are limits to freedom of expression, right?

5:13 PM  
Blogger Jim Denham said...

There should be one, and only one, limitation on free expression: when it becomes incitement to physical assault (OK; I grant you: easier to say than to enact in practice. But it's still a good principle to operate by). Certainly, the idea that simply giving "offence2 is sufficient grounds to deny free speech is an affront to elementary norms of democracy and human intelligence. Free speech, by definition, is for those who give offence.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Opus Babe said...

Right, now we have something to work on.

Kindly explain where free-expression would incite physical assault with a list of examples.

Demonstrate, in other words, what is acceptable in a free society and what is not.

5:31 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

What's your view, Opus?

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Opus Babe said...

Hang on, I'm asking the questions, mate!

6:02 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Indulge me.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Opus Babe said...

I have. Flesh out the theory, application and limitations of freedom of expression with appropriate illustration.

6:22 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

I've already synopsised my stance. So... what's yours?

1:03 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

The film in any case is not 'Monica Ali's'. The screenplay was co-written by Abi Morgan ('Murder', 'Sex Traffic') and the film is directed by Sarah Gavron ('This Little Life').

You might then have expected the film's critics to have complained about the non-Beangali team making the film. But still they concentrate their fire on poor old Monica.

I think there's a pattern here. Rushdie got a lot of stick for being a posh English bloke rather than a proper Indian. There's a new book called 'Londonstani', whose writer, Gautam Malkani, has been repeatedly slagged off for going to Cambridge and therefore not really knowing anything about kids in Hounslow. Monica Ali gets attacked for not being a real Bengali.

I'm not talking about the Bengalis in Brick Lane here. It's the fact that the Greers of this world direct this sort of fire at Asian writers which I find interesting. No, not interesting.

3:36 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

also, btw, according to the internet movie data base, somebody already made a film of Ali's book, in 2003, which was shot in Brick Lane. But nobody noticed (including me, I have to say).

3:39 AM  
Blogger Jim Denham said...

"Free speech that incites physical assault" (you really want examples, 'Opus Babe'?): "Kill the Niggers/Jews/Muslims", etc; "Death to Israel / Zionism"; I think it's fairly easy to identify it in its crude forms. What is more difficult is to identify it in its more slippery. modern forms. But to fight modern race-hate (including the increasingly prevalent anti-semitism), legislation is all but useless.

3:10 PM  
Blogger bob said...

Jim, did you just say Kill the Niggers in your post? Time for the censor's knife to be sharpened I say!

8:35 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

He also said "sugar tits" in the post about Mel Gibson.

The man's a menace, I tell you.

10:04 AM  
Blogger stroppybird said...


Hope Paddy the Puritan doesn't wander over , else you are in for a lecture :-)

3:11 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Why me? Jim's the man with the sugar tits (metaphorically speaking)!

3:27 PM  
Blogger stroppybird said...

Both of you !!

You know what paddy is like, reason won't come into it :-)

12:00 AM  
Blogger Jim Denham said...

I'm sorry I used the "N" word previously, even though it was to make a point. I could have made that point without using that particularly abhorrant word. If it gave offence to anyone, I apologise.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Opus Babe said...

So the *only* limits to freedom of speech, in your view, Jim, are in cases of incitement to violence, correct?

11:35 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Deja vu

3:25 PM  
Blogger Jim Denham said...

Correct, opus.

5:14 PM  

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