Are Racist Books Still in Circulation?

An article with the title ‘While Offensive TV Shows Get Pulled, Problematic Books Are Still Inspiring Debate and Conversation’ dated July 3, 2020 and written by Ron Charles appeared in the Washington Post.

Ron Charles writes about books and publishing for The Washington Post. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest. Before moving to the District, he edited the books section of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. His wife is an English teacher and the cinematographer of their satirical series, “The Totally Hip Video Book Review.”

Ron Charles

The article, in its entirety is as follows.

“As Confederate statues finally tumble across America, television networks are marching through their catalogs looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon — more shocking with each new announcement. Just this month, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from “The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs.”

“The Office”? — really? I don’t remember that scene.

Of course not. Collective amnesia is an essential condition for perpetuating poisonous stereotypes, the way bad sanitation leads to cholera.

In her most recent novel, Swing Time, Zadie Smith captures the disorienting surprise of running across an old racist trope. Her title Swing Time is borrowed from a 1936 musical comedy starring Fred Astaire. In Smith’s prologue, a young woman googles a favorite scene from that movie that shows Astaire performing a tribute called “Bojangles of Harlem.” With a shock, she sees what she had not noticed as a child: “I hardly understood what we were looking at,” she says. There’s Astaire dancing as magically as ever, but he’s in blackface with “the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin.” Her beloved scene suddenly feels ruined by racist exaggerations.

Any theater launching a production of “Othello,” for instance, must begin with a rich body of scholarship on Shakespeare’s sources and intentions. What are we to make of the Moor, the Venetian general manipulated into murderous rage by his villainous white colleague? Even before Othello comes onstage, he’s subjected to obscene racist ridicule. And later, Othello himself laments, “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.”

As a Renaissance writer working in England 250 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Shakespeare surely held the white supremacist values of his culture. But is “Othello” a racist play, or is it a fledgling critique of racism?

Twitter would, no doubt, trend with #CancelShakespeare. By the end of a ferocious week, the Bard would withdraw his play, begin a listening tour, and issue a statement expressing deep regret for the pain he has caused by appropriating the experience of a Moor.

Monuments celebrating racist traitors, which were erected to fabricate history and terrify black Americans, are not works of art that deserve our respect or preservation. Similarly, scenes of modern-day white comedians reenacting minstrel-show caricatures are not ironical interrogations of racism that we have to stomach any longer.

Blackface has long been an issue in comedy.  Look no further than ‘Saturday Night Live’ for proof.

But. complex works of literature are large, they contain multitudes.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents a fascinating trajectory of the currents of American sensitivities. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery melodrama electrified the nation when it was published in the early 1850s. Northern abolitionists wielded the novel as a sword for their cause. Southern defenders of slavery answered Stowe’s work with condemnations and counter stories. Even if President Lincoln never actually told Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War,” the sentiment of that legend is true: Stowe energized the debate that led to battle. Frederick Douglass wrote that the novel’s “effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.” In the 20th century, though, the book fell out of favor. Critics complained that it traffics in subservient racial stereotypes; the name “Uncle Tom” became a racial insult denoting complicity with one’s oppressors. But in 2006, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins published The Annotated ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ which offers a complex reappraisal of the novel as a “strange, startling, and audacious work.”

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs. By the 1950s, a movement had begun to remove the novel from American schools because of its frequent use of the n-word. As that push gained momentum, critics debated whether Twain’s portrayal of Jim is sympathetic or humiliating; others suggested editing the novel to fit contemporary tastes. The critical arguments have been illuminating, exploring, among many subjects, Twain’s regard for black people and the deleterious effects of racist language on African American students.

Even weak novels can spur great debates. This year, a thriller by Jeanine Cummins called American Dirt would have fallen quickly into the obscurity that awaits most thrillers. But several insightful critics uses Cummins’ book to highlight the persistence of racist stereotypes in popular literature.  Their critiques and subsequent activism promise to permanently improve the representation of Latino people in publishing.

What’s more insidious is the self-satisfaction that comes from calibrating our Racism Detector to spot only a few obvious sins. Scanning videos for blackface or searching text files for the n-word is so much easier than contending with, say, the systemic tokenism of TV rom-coms or the unbearable whiteness of Jane Austen.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a point like that must be in want of a quarrel.

Bring it.”

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine has published a letter with the above title signed by over 150 writers and academics.  I would also have signed it, if I had been invited.

The full text of the letter and the list of signatories is below.  Harper’s says, “The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at letters@harpers.org.”

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.

Censorship

There is an article form the November 1965 issue of the Writer’s Digest by Alma Boice Holland that was re-published in the March 16, 2020 issue.  In their lead-in to the article, WD says: “Today is Freedom of Information day and while censorship isn’t necessarily the same as withholding information, they are, to some degree, related. Here’s a piece from the November 1965 issue of WD by Alma Boice Holland with her thoughts about censors and the arts.”

WD says, “Alma Boice Holland’s published works range from a book of philosophical essays, to short plays, articles, short stories in a wide list of magazines from Family Circle to Saturday Evening Post.”  Below is the cover of a magazine which features one of her articles:

 

In the WD article, Ms Holland says. “Approximately one billion dollars a year is spent in the United States to decide what the public should be allowed to look at, hear, and to read. The output of obscenity in books, magazines, movies, television, and pornographic records has become Big Business. The United States Post Office believes the yearly output may reach five hundred million dollars. An equal amount is spent by the government and private censoring organizations to police the arts, and deny lewdness the protection of the Bill of Rights.

The battle rages continually and it is not occupied with sex alone. It can even be political and result in open book-banning. As early as 35 A.D. the Roman, Emperor Caligula, tried to suppress Homer’s Odyssey because it did not agree with his own thinking about individual freedoms.

Boston’s Superior Court condemned Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy, in 1930. While the publisher was paying a fine of $300, the book was listed as required reading in a Harvard English course. The next year, a certain bestselling book was banned in China. Want to guess? It was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Want to know why? The objection was to the idea that animals could talk.

Practically anybody can be a censor. No license or other permit is necessary. There are two varieties, preventative and punitive. The first tries to stop material from reaching the market. He reads gallery proof, sees movies and television plays ahead of release, passes on magazine pictures, etcetera. He is not popular among the producers and publishers who often disagree with him.

The punitive censor arouses criticism after the book or play or other medium has already reached the public. It is then that he takes action. He is helped in this effort by the statues which are the laws in every state in the union. In addition, more than 150 cities have passed ordinances against obscenity. All of these laws can be used by the self-appointed censor. So why should his job be a problem?

It has become a problem because of the ever-changing moral climate. The general public is more lenient and the courts less biased. Movies and television plays are being shown today which most certainly would have been banned a mere decade ago. Books that were once sold from under the counter are now openly displayed. Inhibitions are fading away and, so far, there seems to be nothing to take their place. The censor is almost out of a job. He has been thrown so many curves that he has become bewildered. Is this good?

Over the years, and all over the world, there have always been these self-appointed guardians of the public morals. Some of the manifestations have been both strange and explainable. At the same moment that Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado was being barred in London, for fear it would displease the Japanese, these same Japanese were applauding the score aboard their warships.

Do American readers need to depend on censors? Or can the censors depend on support from American readers? The subject is open to debate and the argument seems to be self-perpetuating. Each might consider the words of Lord Thomas Robert Dewar: “Minds are like parachutes; they only function when they are open.””

While Ms Holland’s name may not be immediately recognisable in the literary world – Wikipedia has no listing for her, Amazon has her 80 page book of essays published in 1969, Google seems quite uncertain – it is difficult to disagree with her conclusion.

Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City

I wanted to read a book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006, but when I looked at his recent novels, I was put off.  My Name is Red is 688 pages; A Strangeness in my Mind is 764 pages.  To me, this seems a disproportionate amount to time to devote to one author.  (Perhaps, I’m like a teenage boy: so many girls, so little time.)  So, I chose Istanbul: Memories and the City (336 pages), which was written in 2005, and appealed to me because I visited Istanbul, briefly, on my honeymoon.

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer, screenwriter and academic, born in Istanbul in 1952; he has sold 13 million books in 63 languages.  He is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in writing and comparative literature.

In 2005, Pamuk made a statement regarding the Armenian Genocide that  “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  An ultra-nationalist lawyer brought a law suit based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to insult Turkey or the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  The suit resulted in a lengthy battle with the Turkish legals system in which the European Union took an interest because of its implications for the freedom of speech in Turkey.  The Turkish Justice Ministry finally declined to back the trial on a technicality, but gave no support to Pamuk, who said that he mentioned the genocide not to call attention to specific numbers of deaths but to demonstrate the lack of freedom to discuss taboo subjects in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul, translated by Maureen Freely, is one of five non-fiction works by Pamuk in English.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a reflection on the Istanbul the author knew as a child together with his family memories.  There are black-and-white photographs on every couple of pages, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and some as recent at the 1960’s; most are of ‘old Istanbul’ but there are family photographs, as well.  The ‘old Istanbul’ photographs are a vehicle for commentary on the writings of European and Turkish literati regarding the culture, style, history, art and visual perspectives of the city.  Clearly, Istanbul was (and is) a unique city: its rapid growth, its human crossroads of East and West, its unique wooden architecture (which frequently went up in smoke), the presence of the Bosporus with all its maritime energy, and the air of melancholy (húzún) arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent economic decline, and the cultural ambivalence between East and West.

Perhaps what is surprising about this book – part travelogue, history, autobiography, artistic and cultural commentary – is that it is an integral whole, seamlessly shifting themes without confusing the reader.  This, I think, is all down to Pamuk’s fondness for his city and his skill as a commentator and a writer.  One can set the book aside for a day or two, but one is drawn back into its dream-like flow.  The attraction is, in large measure, due to the characterisation of the boy, Orhan, his brother, his mother and father, the larger family and their declining circumstances.  The one criticism I have is that a map of the city should have been included.  There are frequent references to districts in Istanbul by their Turkish names, but one has no idea of the geography which is an omission for a piece of writing which is otherwise so visual.

Istambul is a very pleasant reading experience.

The new ‘Parthenon of Books’

There is an article in Architectural Digest, posted on July 11 by Nick Mafi , the title  – 100,000 Banned Books Have Been Formed into a ‘Parthenon of Books –  of which caught my eye.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis banned books that were written by authors who were of Jewish descent, or had pacifist or communist sympathies.  The list included such luminaries as Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London.  Now, some eight decades later, a monument is being constructed in honour of these censored books.

Argentine artist Marta Minujín has created a full-scale replica of one of the world’s most famous structures, the Parthenon in Athens, constructed entirely from censored books. The symbolism is striking, as the Parthenon is the very antithesis of political repression. Indeed, the artist went on to add in a statement that the original Parthenon is “the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy.”

The display is part of the Documenta 14 art festival in Kassel, Germany. Now in its 14th iteration, the Documenta was first established in 1955 an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art, after the horrific years of Nazism. For the current exhibition, Minujín created the structure by sourcing 100,000 donated books from around the world. The novels were then secured to the steel structure with plastic sheeting, protecting them from the natural elements while allowing sunlight to filter through the building. The site of the exhibition is noteworthy as well, as the city of Kassel (located in central Germany) was where several thousand books were burned during the Nazi-led campaign to rid the country of books deemed un-German.

The temporary exhibition will run through September 17, 2017. When it ends, the books will be taken down and recirculated around the world.”

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

Suppression of Freedom of Speech

Camilla Turner wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph in late April on the topic “Student ban on free speech ‘blight of our age’.”  She said:

“Suppression of freedom of speech in universities is ‘one of the greatest problems of our time’, a former chancellor has warned.  (A chancellor in the UK government is the finance minister.) Lord Lawson, who led the Conservative campaign for Brexit, said that political correctness was a ‘great blight of our age’, adding that students often have their way because of ‘totally supine’ university authorities.

Lord Lawson

“‘Safe space’ and ‘no platform’ movements have swept across campuses, including campaigns to ban speakers deemed offensive.  But Lord Lawson, who served as chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the Eighties, said it was crucial that universities were independent from government.  He went on: ‘But now we have a new problem in the university sector, which is not the problem of government control – though that always needs to be watched – but the problem of the suppression of free speech.  The problem comes from political correctness to some extent, which is the great blight of this age.  A view is either politically correct or not, and if it is not, then it should not  be heard.’

“At an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s first  private university, he added, ‘This is happening throughout the universities today, where it is pushed by students.  They may not be the majority of students, but they are very vocal and they have their way because of totally supine university authorities.  The suppression of freedom of speech in the universities is now one of the great problems of our time’.  A new higher education bill has been criticized by academics, who say universities will be forced to pander to the demands of ‘snowflake’ students.

I agree with Lord Lawson.  There is entirely too much exclusion of what for some is painful dialogue on university campuses.  One example is at my alma mater where the name of a college (my particular college, in fact) was changed because of student protests.  The name of the college was Calhoun College, named for John C Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) who was an American statesman and political theorist from South Carolina and the seventh Viced President of the US  from 1825 to 1832.  He was also a two-term US Senator and US Secretary of State.He is remembered for strongly defending slavery and for advancing the concept of minority rights in politics, which he did in the context of defending Southern values from perceived Northern threats.

Wikipedia says this about Calhoun: “In Calhoun’s defense, Clyde Wilson, editor of the multi-volume The Papers of John C. Calhoun and a Distinguished Chair of the Abbeville Institute, argued: ‘Your ordinary run-of-the mill historian will tell you that John C. Calhoun, having defended the bad and lost causes of state rights and slavery, deserves to rest forever in the dustbin of history. Nothing could be further from the truth. No American public figure after the generation of the Founding Fathers has more to say to later times than Calhoun.’

While I can appreciate that Calhoun is an objectionable figure for many, is it necessary to expunge him from history?  It seems to me that particularly at university level, one needs to reflect on the good and the bad.  One needs to ask, “Why did they name this college after John C Calhoun?  Would we do the same today? Why not?  How have we changed?”  It seems to me that there are some learning experiences in such a dialogue.

Besides, when one starts cleaning up names, where does one stop?  Calhoun College (now called Grace Murray Hopper College) is part of Yale University.  Founded in 1701, it was originally the Collegiate School of Connecticut, but it became Yale College after the gift of Elihu Yale, a slave trader.

‘Banned’ books

There were two recent articles in The Daily Telegraph regarding the ‘banning’ of books by Holocaust deniers.  The first article, by Olivia Rudgard, reads:

“A Cambridge college has removed a David Irving book from display in its library after a visiting Jewish academic complained.  Churchill College, Cambridge, said the Irving’s biography of its namesake, Winston Churchill , would now be held in a ‘closed access’ area with borrowers only able to read it on request.

“Dr Irene Lancaster, formerly a teaching fellow in Jewish history at Manchester University, encountered the books written by the Holocaust denier on display.  She said: ‘They certainly weren’t hidden away – they were sticking out like reference books.’

“A spokesman for the university said: ‘Holding banned or challenged books in no way endorses the views or scholarship of the authors.  Rather, they are accessible to scholars to allow them the opportunity to challenge and refute their contents’.  The spokesman added that the library was used by college members and visiting academics and not the general public, and therefore the books had not been on ‘public display’.”

Wikipedia says this about Irving: “Sixteen years after an English court discredited his work and the judge called him ‘antisemitic and racist’, the historian David Irving claims he is inspiring a new generation of ‘Holocaust skeptics. On the eve of a major new Bafta-nominated film about the trial, Irving, who has dismissed what happened at Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war as ‘Disneyland’, says that a whole new generation of young people have discovered his work via the internet and social media. . . . Irving v Penguin Books Ltd was one of the most infamous libel trials of the past 20 years. An American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, had accused him in her book, Denying the Holocaust, and Irving, then a somewhat respected if maverick historian, sued her and her publisher.”  (And lost.)

I had a look on Amazon where there are plenty of David Irving’s books.  His book, Churchill’s War, The Struggle for Power, has nine five-star reviews and one three-star review.  The 3-star review complains about non-delivery of half of the e-book.  The five-star reviews focus on the depth of research and the quality of historical writing.  Many of the reviews mention Irving’s reputation, but say that this work is not biased.

The second article, by Robert Mendick:

“Amazon has bowed to public pressure and quietly removed from sale dozens of anti-Semitic books that deny the Holocaust.  An outcry followed news it was profiting from titles such as The Myth of the Extermination of the Jews, by Carlo Mattogno, which was available as a download.  Dr Nicholas Terry at the University of Exeter, said Amazon had last week withdrawn form sale more than 30 books.  The expert on contemporary Holocaust denial added: ‘This is a major blow for Holocaust denying authors.  Amazon has been a major outlet for their sales’.  Despite the decision, Amazon still sells anti-Semitic literature through its website, and it is unclear what rules determine what material is acceptable and what is not.  The company refused to comment.”

I would make three points about all of this:

  1. Non governmental organisations should be free to exclude material which they consider objectionable.  The government should not have any such freedom.
  2. Amazon ought to be transparent about it’s policies, which should err in favour of exclusion of objectionable material.
  3. Any policy should be intelligent and selective, leaving ‘on the shelf’ quality, constructive books by objectionable authors.

Rape & Freedom of Speech

On Tuesday evening, my wife and I went to a piano concert at Southbank Centre.  As we approached the entrance, staff diverted us to another entrance around the corner.  When we turned the corner, we found we were in the midst of a demonstration, complete with portable loudspeakers, signs and angry people – mostly women.  We hurried through and found an entrance at the far end of the building.  I couldn’t help wondering what in the world a demonstration at Southbank Centre would be about.  On the way home that night, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard, and found what was the issue: Tom Stranger and his ex-girlfriend, Thordis Elva were going to tell their story of rape and reconciliation.

The story is this: at the time of the rape, 20 years ago, Stranger, who is Australian, now married and a youth counsellor, was on an exchange trip to Iceland.  There, he met Elva, an Icelander who was 16 at the time (he was 18), and he became her first teenage romance.  The Evening Standard article continues: “The pair went to a Christmas party, and, wanting to impress him, Elva tried rum for the first time.  She became very drunk and spent the night being sick in the toilets – staff at the venue wanted to call an ambulance to get her home but Tom volunteered.  She was incapacitated and remembers how grateful she was to him for removing her vomit-stained dress and high heels, and how alarmed she suddenly felt when he started to go further.  He raped her.   She remembers it being painful.  She never reported what happened because it didn’t fit with her idea of what rape was.  Or his, he says: ‘I presumed that after a night out with your girlfriend, a boy is deserving of sex.  I sanctioned my own perceived needs and sexual urges, and had no regard for Thordis’ well-being.  I did not have an intent to hurt Thordis, but that is what I did.’

“Nine years after the rape, Stranger, long since back in Australia, all thoughts of Elva buried, received an email. ‘It was detailed and clear.  Her words took me back to that room nearly a decade earlier.  They told me what really happened and revealed the effects my actions had on her. . . . But I also felt I was being offered something really rare, something that needed to be understood, respected and not questioned. . . . He wrote back and they spent the next two years corresponding in long emails, unpicking the events and repercussions of that night.”  She proposed that  ‘in six months time we meet up with the intention of reaching forgiveness, once and for all.  In person.’

“They met on neutral ground – a hotel in Cape Town.  Talking was difficult.  At one point Stranger broke down. ‘I’ve come to understand the damage that I caused.  It’s been a long journey for me to be totally able to acknowledge that it was rape, and to comprehend how Thordis has had to live with the effects of my actions.’

The two have written a book: South of Forgiveness, published by Scribe.

Tom Stranger & Thordis Elva

Their appearance at the Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre last Saturday was cancelled.  2364 people objected to his appearance, but it was rescheduled for last Tuesday.  The petition to cancel said: “By giving the rapist in question a platform to relay their narrative the event will inevitably encourage the normalisation of sexual violence, instead of focusing on accountability and root causes.”  Those who opposed the appearance said it would set a precedent in which rapists can be applauded simply of admitting their crime, “and may even encourage rapists to contact survivors, an action that would severely disrupt their process of healing.”

Stranger says he disagrees with the female judge who warned that drunk women put themselves at higher risk of rape.  “I would say that’s a continuation of victim-blaming.  Once again the scrutiny is on the actions of women. . . . I would not speak about the choice of women in that way.  I want the focus to be on the young men making their choices and why they do what they’re doing. . . . It’s about time we started looking at sexual violence as a men’s issue.  It’s very clear – unless it’s a mutual thing, unless there’s consent, then it’s wrong.”

In reading the Evening Standard article (which covers two entire pages), the writer, Stefanie Marsh, leaves one with the impression not only that Stranger is contrite, but he understands why he is a hate figure, and is willing to suffer abuse to get his point across: It’s a Men’s Issue.

As to whether the Women of the World appearance should have been cancelled, I take a neutral view: it’s up to the management of the festival, and more generally, I think it depends on the time and place.  What I would object to is if the government were to interfere in the decision.  Having said that, I have an issue with the protest petition.  My issue is not about freedom of speech but about willingness to listen.  It seems to me that there is an increasing tendency in our society today when a subject is introduced to say: we don’t want to hear about that!  There are three words in the petition to cancel that make me believe this is an example of refusal to listen.  Narrative: have the petitioners considered what Stranger’s narrative might be instead of assuming what it is?  Accountability: the petitioners want to focus on accountability; that’s exactly what Stranger does: his own.  Root causes: Stranger identifies the root cause as being a men’s problem.  Is that not correct?

A Real UK Threat to Freedom of the Press

For most of us it probably seems unlikely that freedom of the press could disappear in the UK – that the government will control what the press can publish, or that publishers will be afraid to run exposés of politicians and other public figures.  But that is exactly what could happen when the government’s consultation regarding the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, 2013 ends next Tuesday.

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The Crime and Courts Act, 2013 is a result of the Levenson Inquiry after the phone-hacking scandal that put the News of the World out of business.  Section 40, a part of the statute that was never implemented, would require that every newspaper not signed up to regulation by Impress would pay all costs in any libel case brought against it, even if it won the case.  So, for example, if a major newspaper ran an exposé of an MP involved in a money for votes  scandal, the newspaper would have to pay all of the MP’s legal expenses, no matter the outcome.

Impress is funded by Max Mosley, a barrister and former racing driver with interests in Formula One and other automotive organisations.  He is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists.  In 2008, his sexual exploits were exposed by News of the World.  He sued and won, not on the basis that the reported exploits didn’t happen, but on the basis that they were falsely described as being fascist.   Mr Mosley funds Impress to the extent of £3.8 million, and says he may continue funding for years.

Impress is the only media regulator to have won the backing of Press Regulation Panel, which has been set up with a royal charter, introducing a degree of government involvement.  About 50 media outlets have signed up to be regulated by Impress.  The other media regulator is IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, with over 2,500 members,  IPSO does not submit to the Press Regulation Panel, and is governed by the media industry.  IPSO has an Editor’s Code of Practice, they can levy fines of up to £1 million, they can force publication of corrections, there is a 24-hour anti-harassment hotline, a whistle-blower’s hotline, they can investigate complaints and require their members to submit annual reports of compliance with the Editor’s Code and how they have handled complaints.  This is a regulator with professional due process and teeth!

Mr Mosley suggests that requiring a media defendant to pay all legal expenses is an incentive to arbitrate disputes.  He is disingenuous.  A new horde of ambulance-chasing lawyers will certainly appear, attracted by the high fees to file ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawsuits.  Why would they be interested in arbitration?  He says that Impress will screen out frivolous law suits.   Really?

You may be asking why I, as a writer, am interested in this issue.  The answer is that I care greatly about the preservation of our democracy, and history has taught me that once laws are passed to regulate the press, it is not long before other freedoms of expression are regulated or discouraged.

If you agree with me, and if the government decides to put Section 40 to a vote in Parliament, please make the case for a ‘NO!’ with your MP.

A Writer Unmasked

You may have read that the New York Review of Books’ investigative reporter Claudio Gatti has unmasked best-selling novelist Elena Ferrante.

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 Perhaps it is best to quote from an article in The New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz:
“The news that the true identity of the writer Elena Ferrante has, allegedly, been uncovered was published on the blog of The New York Review of Booksat 1 a.m. on Sunday—the Internet’s witching hour, when salacious tidbits are unloaded online to greet the unsuspecting citizens of Twitter bright and early in the morning. It was met with widespread consternation from Ferrante fans. People are pissed. The sleuth, an Italian journalist named Claudio Gatti, has gone beyond the efforts of previous Ferrante truthers, who have generally tried either to compare the biographies of various Italian writers with what is known or inferred about Ferrante’s life or to match their literary style with hers, and used forensic accounting to uncover a money trail that, he believes, leads straight to the source. The process has taken him months. If only someone had got him interested in Trump’s tax returns during the primaries, just think where we might be today.

“I hate to do it, but in the interest of clarity, here, briefly, is what Gatti claims. Ferrante, he says, is Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome with her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone. For many years, Raja has translated books from the German for Edizione E/O, the publishing house that puts out Ferrante’s work. Gatti says that payments from the publisher to Raja “have increased dramatically in recent years,” in line with the increase in revenues that Edizioni E/O has enjoyed as Ferrante has become an international literary star, and thus “appear to make her the overwhelming beneficiary of Ferrante’s success.” (He obtained information about Edizioni E/O’s revenue and Raja’s income from an anonymous source.)

“To this evidence Gatti adds the further proof of Raja and Starnone’s real-estate dealings. In 2000, the year that Ferrante’s first novel was made into a movie in Italy, Raja bought a seven-room apartment in what Gatti assures us is an expensive neighborhood in Rome. In 2001, she bought a country house in Tuscany. This past June, Gatti reports, Starnone bought an eleven-room apartment “on the top floor of an elegant pre-war building in one of the most beautiful streets in Rome,” not far from Raja’s apartment. Gatti, after making a brief foray into Italian tax law to explain his suspicion that it is Raja who has purchased the new apartment in Starnone’s name, reminds us that most translators do not earn enough from the sweat of their labor to be able to afford such nice things. Raja has risen suspiciously above her station.

“The part of Gatti’s claim that has unavoidable meaning for readers is that Anita Raja’s biography does not at all correspond to that of Elena Ferrante as gleaned from her novels, or as described in “Frantumaglia,” a work of autobiographical fragments that first appeared in Italy more than a decade ago and which will be published in the United States on November 1st. In that book, Ferrante writes that she grew up in Naples, the daughter of a local seamstress. Raja’s mother, Golda Frieda Petzenbaum, worked as a teacher, and was born in Worms, Germany, into a Polish Jewish family that fled to Italy in 1937. She married a Neapolitan magistrate, but the family moved to Rome, in 1956, when Raja was three. If Raja is Elena Ferrante, that would mean, among many other things, that she has no firsthand knowledge of the postwar Naples milieu that she evokes with such fiercely unsentimental strokes, the oppressive rione on the city’s outskirts that anchors the Neapolitan novels and gives them their extraordinary texture of lived truth.”

Ferrante, through her publisher had said: “I have my private life and as far as my public life goes I am fully represented by my books. . . Thanks to this decision, I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free. . . . To relinquish it would be very painful.”  For me, the appalling aspect of all this is the character of Gatti.  He seems to be motivated entirely by selfish interests: enhancing his career, making money, putting himself in the limelight while injuring the interests of another person.  His allegations that Raja (if indeed it is she) was engaging in a kind of publicity stunt, and that eventually she would be found out.  He seemed to imply that she was asking for it.

I sincerely hope that Gatti will continue to be showered with approbation and that other ‘investigative journalists’ will not try to follow in his footsteps.  Life is about making choices; it is not about frustrating other people’s choices.