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Should we ban books denying the Holocaust from high street shops?

A campaign to remove hateful works from retailers like Waterstones and Foyles has kicked off a censorship row.

Do we have the right to spread lies freely? Or does the propagation of dangerous falsehoods limit our freedom?

Old questions of freedom of speech, which have reappeared in recent years under the sexier new title of “post-truth”.

The debate’s latest iteration is the discovery that large numbers of books containing extreme hate content are being sold by mainstream booksellers in Britain.

A two-week investigation by the anti-racism campaign group Hope Not Hate found numerous texts denying the Holocaust sold on the Waterstones, Foyles, WHSmith and Amazon websites.

The group has published its findings in a paper called “Turning the Page on Hate”, and is urging the retailers to remove these texts, which range from what are deemed “dangerous” to Holocaust denials to far right books. They include:

  • US neo-Nazi leader William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, which depicts a future race war against black people and Jewish politicians, and has inspired real-life hate crimes and terror attacks, like the Oklahoma City bomb.
     
  • The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – an old 1900s forgery, which tells of Jewish plans for world domination; Adolf Hitler read this in the 1920s, and it has been described as a “warrant for genocide”.
     
  • Numerous books that deny the Holocaust, by writers like David Irving, Germar Rudolf, Fred Leuchter, Carlo Mattogno, and Nick Kollerstrom whose claims include that there was an “elegant swimming pool at Auschwitz” where inmates would “sunbathe… on Saturday and Sunday afternoons while watching the water polo matches”.
     
  • All of Second World War British fascist and Holocaust denier Oswald Mosley’s works.
     
  • Books by present-day white nationalists like the American alt-right figure Greg Johnson, who believes in creating an ethnostate only for white people.

You can read the whole list here.

Since the campaign began, Foyles appears to have removed numerous works from its website (including Fred Leuchter’s The Leuchter Reports: Critical Edition, Did Six Million Really Die? By Richard Verrall, Breaking The Spell by Nick Kollerstrom, Arthur R. Butz’s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry and many of Mattogno, Rudolf and Johnson’s works).

However, its chief executive Paul Currie tells me Foyles has not taken any books down from its website: “We have not removed any of these titles other that auto-cleansing.” (This is an automatic process, he explains, which “cleanses” inactive searches on its eight million-title database).

He warns against censorship:

“This is a difficult scenario for all booksellers given the width and scale of publishing and the perennial issue of censoring from all aspects of life what people can read.”

Currie told Hope Not Hate directly that Foyles does not stock the offending titles on its shelves, or promote them to customers, but filtering them would be “unmanageable”:

“We’ve found that the overwhelming majority of authors and titles listed are not available to order from our website – they simply appear as bibliographic records.”

WHSmith also appears to have removed some books from its website since the campaign launched (including The Turner Diaries, Did Six Million Really Die?, The Leuchter Reports, various works by Mattogno, and all books by Kollerstrom and Johnson). I asked the retailer if it removed these due to pressure from Hope Not Hate, but have received no response.

At the time of writing, Waterstones retains the works Hope Not Hate discovered it selling during its investigation, as does Amazon – although the latter has removed similar works from sale in the past.

Amazon has declined to comment.

In a letter responding to the campaign from Waterstones’ owner James Daunt to Hope Not Hate, seen by the New Statesman, the bookshop finds issues “partly philosophical and partly technical” with the urge to withdraw the books.

Daunt argued that such titles are simply pulled from the standard industry database onto Waterstones’ website. They are not stocked in their shops or warehouses, but they are also not screened if they come through established publishers and distributors.

“We offer only a passive ordering service to those who have precisely and actively searched for the title,” he wrote, saying Waterstones’ role is as a “bookseller that undertakes to supply any book that a customer orders from a supplier with whom we have a trading relationship”.

“What should we censor?” he asked rhetorically, refusing to remove the titles:

“It is not our position to censor this listing beyond the existing measures we take to exclude self-published books that may potentially be offensive.”

But Hope Not Hate rejects accusations of censorship. “We’re not asking for these books to be banned,” says Hope Not Hate’s campaign director Matthew McGregor. “People have a misconception or are deliberately misinterpreting what we’ve said.”

He argues that, “people have the right to write and publish books, even if we find those books abhorrent. But there’s no requirement on the part of the retailers to sell those books... By listing these books on their websites, these mainstream retailers are giving credibility to these books.”

There is an echo here of another recent campaign, Stop Funding Hate, which urges companies not to advertise in mainstream right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail. While there have been accusations of political censorship here too, others, like my colleague Jonn Elledge, argue that the decision to pull advertising is ultimately a business and reputational judgment rather than a free speech issue.

Yet stopping the spread of ideas we find abhorrent is an old tendency rather than a “new trend”, and not solved by making information inaccessible, argues the Index on Censorship’s chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. “Encouraging bookshops not to stock certain content because it’s considered hateful I think is problematic,” she says.

“When you’re suggesting [the removal of books from] some of the largest bookshops in the country, which are the ones most people can access, then you are limiting people’s access to information… Anything that limits people’s ability to find out information is a threat to freedom of expression.”

Hope Not Hate argues that while these books should remain available, their ideas don’t deserve the veneer of respectability provided by trusted bookshops. “Outright Holocaust denial is not a point of debate; it’s not a philosophical question. These are books that argue something didn’t happen that did,” says McGregor.

Unless these titles are re-filed under “Fiction”, I can’t see a compromise between those warning against censorship and the urge to protect people from hate speech.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

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.