Günter Grass and the free speech moment

A travel ban is still censorship.

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.

Robert Sharp is head of campaigns & communications at English PEN

Silenced? Günter Grass Photo: Getty Images
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Was this Apple Tree Yard sex scene written by a sexually frustrated politician?

No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt.

After much anticipation, the BBC’s Apple Tree Yard, an adaptation of Louise Doughty’s novel, aired last night. Newspapers had whispered excitedly over its opening sex scenes – the Sun exclaimed that this would be “the most explicit bonkbuster yet” (whatever that means), as the first episode would have more than five minutes of graphic sex throughout, in locations as varied as a toilet and an alleyway.

But the most toe-curling scenes of all occurred in a grander location – Westminster Palace. Dr Yvonne Carmichael (Emily Watson) meets a tall, dark and handsome stranger after giving evidence on genomes to the government (as all politics nerds know, there is nothing sexier than a select committee meeting.) What follows feels like the erotic fanfiction of a political hack who has spent far too much time at the Houses of Parliament.

They “run into each other” in the canteen, and flirt in Westminster Hall. Yvonne is about to leave - then our politico stranger brings out the big guns. Yep, the alpha move of all Westminster workers and tour guides. Here it comes.

Pow. No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt. As he runs off to get the keys, Yvonne’s loser husband Gary texts her.

Ugh, boring Gary, sat at home sniffling. You can just tell from a text like that that Gary has never been to the Houses of Parliament. Gary refers to the whole palace as “Big Ben”. Gary’s never even heard of the Chapel in the Crypt.

Not like this bloody Keeper of the Keys.

So in they go to the chapel, handsome stranger smoothly remarking that you can get married in here, because, as he knows, weddings are basically porn to women (seeing as they don’t watch actual porn). The sexual tension is palpable as he deploys facts about royal peculiars, Oliver Cromwell’s horses and Lord Chamberlain.

Yvonne gets dust on her coat, and our man hands her a handkerchief, because he really knows what he’s doing.

If you’ve ever been to the Chapel in the Crypt, you know what’s coming next. “That’s not the best bit,” says the stranger, walking over to a cupboard at the back. Yes, here comes the pièce de résistance, the sexual cherry on top of this weird fucking cake. “You’ve come this far,” he says lightly, but he knows this is the point of no return: if Yvonne sees this next reveal she will surely be a lost woman.

They creep into the cupboard, where he shows here the back of the door. YES, IT’S THE TONY BENN EMILY WILDING DAVISON PLAQUE!!!!!!!!!!!!

In one fell swoop, this complete stranger has persuaded a beautiful woman to climb into a dark and secret broom cupboard with him, whilst he simultaneously shows off his feminist credentials. He even explains who this iconic feminist was to Yvonne. A man showing off a plaque, made by another man to commemorate a dead Suffragette, to a woman. I have literally never seen anything more feminist in my fucking life.

And then, of course, they bang, right in front of the plaque. Did Emily Wilding Davison die for this? Probably.

It brings a tear to one’s eye. Undoubtedly this is the perfect British politics geek’s sex scene, and I, for one, applaud the BBC for this brave and stunning work.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.