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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage