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Letters

Vol. 38 No. 19 · 6 October 2016

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What are we allowed to say?

‘What would be the Western reaction,’ David Bromwich asks, to an artist who ‘leaned heavily on the most flagrant … anti-Catholic clichés’ (LRB, 22 September). But we already know. More than twenty years ago, in Otto Preminger Institut v. Austria, the Strasbourg Court upheld the decision of the Innsbruck provincial court, which had ordered the seizure and forfeiture of a film. The film had depicted in satirical form religious subject matter that was said to constitute an attack on the Christian religion, and Roman Catholicism in particular. The court found the expression in question to be so offensive as to be a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance; the ‘duties and responsibilities’ of speech, it determined, included an obligation to avoid gratuitously offending others and thus infringing their rights. This ruling is entirely consistent with Bromwich’s arresting observation at the outset, ‘Free speech is an aberration,’ and ‘censorship is often taken to be a necessary means to effect improvements that will convey a better life to all.’ After all, as Bromwich also observes, when The Satanic Verses caused offence the pressure to denounce it ‘came from sensitivity to the feelings of an audience that would never be tempted to read it’, rather than those who would read it.

The desire to promote a spirit of tolerance, with a reminder that those who exercise free speech must not be oblivious to their ‘duties and responsibilities’, is seen in other cases concerning Christian sensibilities. Thus, in Wingrove v. UK two years later, Strasbourg upheld a ban on the video film Visions of Ecstasy, which portrayed St Teresa of Avila astride the recumbent body of the crucified Christ engaged in an act of a sexual nature. Since no attempt was made in the film to explore the meaning of the imagery beyond engaging the viewer in a ‘voyeuristic erotic experience’, the court held that the public distribution of such a video could outrage and insult the feelings of believing Christians. In Murphy v. Ireland in 2003 Strasbourg even accepted the Irish government’s submission that a religious advertisement that isn’t on the face of it offensive could have an offensive impact since religion has been a divisive factor in Northern Ireland. A restriction of freedom of expression was justified, therefore, to protect the religious sensitivities of the Irish public.

What the Charlie Hebdo killings raise is the direct question – rarely considered before in debates about freedom of speech – of the relevance of the identity of the affronted religious group, and of its relative social standing in our society. What we can or cannot say must be conditioned by this. Immigrants bring with them their identities, their practices and their traditions, but most of all their ‘way of life’, and addressing immigrants’ identities and sensibilities is something that cannot be done from an elitist perspective. Just because there is a legal right to free speech does not mean we should show no moral restraint in exercising that right. As Bromwich recognises, ‘there is, after all, a difference between ridicule of the established and mockery of the unestablished.’ Surely, the purpose of satire is to expose the injustice, blindness and hypocrisy of the powerful. It is not to justify the puerile and vulgar pillorying of soft targets. Can there really be any justification for deliberately belittling a community that already feels marginalised and vulnerable? We do not expose the hubris of the powerful by attacking the marginalised. Bromwich is right that ‘we must spread freedom of speech in order to make the world free. And to do the job well, we must watch what we say.’

Satvinder Juss
King’s College London

David Bromwich writes that ‘the heart of Milton’s attack in Areopagitica lies in his refusal to claim innocence for any human activity. It is the presumption of innocence by the censor that most deeply informs the zeal for silencing opinions that are thought to be intolerable.’ This reminds me of Auden’s discussion of innocence in ‘Dingley Dell and the Fleet’. Auden argues that Eden is a vision of childhood in which the contradictions of the present have not yet arisen, and Heaven a future world in which they have been resolved, meaning ‘its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do.’ If the analogy is sound, those who wish to censor ‘offensive’ opinions are either like children who, in Auden’s words, don’t ‘know that to be no longer innocent, but to wish that one were, is part of the definition of an adult’, or they are authoritarians who would rather everyone had the correct opinions than haggle over them in the marketplace of ideas – what Bromwich, following Milton, calls ‘trial by what is contrary’.

Joshua Gaskell
London W4

Occupy!

Tim Barker describes Occupy’s tactic as the ‘illegal occupation of public space’ (LRB, 8 September). He has Zuccotti Park in mind. I was in charge of design at the original site, Liberty Plaza Park, when I worked for SOM. The basic zoning regulation for such a project gives a developer a bonus – from 15 to 18 FAR (floor to area ratio) – if they build a tower occupying no more than 40 per cent of the site with the rest given over to a public plaza, theoretically open to the public at all times. Because the site consisted of two separate lots separated by a street, a special law was passed requiring that other public amenities, such as subway access, be included. It would be difficult, given these complexities, and given that 60 per cent of the site counted towards the bonus, straightforwardly to make the case that the occupation was illegal.

Tom Killian
New York

Does terrorism work?

Richard English’s Does Terrorism Work?, at least as Thomas Nagel describes it, doesn’t live up to the promise of its title (LRB, 8 September). English, Nagel tells us, proposes to analyse terrorist campaigns ‘as the work of rational agents employing violent means to pursue definite political ends’. To begin with, I have my doubts about the feasibility of analysing politics of any sort in terms of ‘rational agents’, particularly after the Republican National Convention. More to the point, English and Nagel fail to recognise that terrorism arises, as a rule, out of desperation. Circumstances felt to be unbearable are likely to have more to do with a terrorist organisation’s raison d’être than any ‘definite political ends’. ETA, to take one example, was founded in 1959, by which time the Franco regime had been in power for nearly twenty years. Hopes for change at the end of the Second World War had been dashed when Eisenhower embraced Franco for a historic photo. The dictatorship continued for another thirty years. The Spanish government’s response to ETA was predictably fierce, and arrests, kidnapping, torture and murder continued, under various democratic administrations, well into the 1990s. By this time, many people in the Basque country had friends or family who saw themselves as victims of the repression. Support for the organisation died hard.

This pattern – terrorism, leading to repression (including the use of illegal methods), leading to increased sympathy and support for the terrorist organisation in the affected population – has been repeated so often it seems logical to assume it forms a part of terrorist strategy. The United States, with the active co-operation of a number of European countries, responded to the attack on the World Trade Center with a campaign involving kidnapping, murder, secret prisons and the systematic use of torture, culminating in the illegal invasion of Iraq. No one has ever been prosecuted for these crimes, aside from a few soldiers who were stupid enough to photograph themselves abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. If we suppose, as seems reasonable, that one of al-Qaida’s principal objectives was to expose modern Western democracies’ contempt for the rule of law, they can certainly be said to have been successful.

David Hall
Barcelona

Killed by Tigers

Further to Katherine Rundell’s perceptive appreciation of Saki, readers wanting to know more about Tipu’s Tiger may like to watch it in action on YouTube (LRB, 11 August). It arrived in London in 1800 and has been in the V & A since 1880. Having been ‘cleaned, varnished and repaired’ it was made available to visitors, who could turn the handle and play tunes on the organ inside it. The Tiger was dropped and badly damaged during its evacuation in the Second World War, but restored again in 1984 by the musicologist Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume. His findings, the story of Tipu Sultan, the connections, or not, with Munro and much else of interest is told by Susan Stronge in Tipu’s Tigers (2009). The image and its legends find an echo in Alexander Calder’s wire Circus of 1926 in which the not very accurate knife-thrower is billed as the Sultan of Seringapatam.

Rosemary Hill
London SE5

Wound Tight

Michael Hofmann quotes the opening lines of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Asides on the Oboe’, describing them as ‘hateful – unsmiling, jussive, peremptory’ (LRB, 22 September). I could feel Hofmann steadily winding his strings tighter in his almost wholly admirable defence of Stevens, but the notes were getting sharper and sharper, and surely ‘hateful’ broke a string. Peremptory, jussive tones in Stevens are always mock peremptory, mock jussive, employed for sound, for play, never in final judgment no matter what he may say, much less hateful.

Gary Amdahl
Redlands, California

What Wilson Said

I was interested to read Stuart Middleton’s appraisal of Harold Wilson (LRB, 8 September). When I was his tenant in Oxford in the early 1960s, William Beveridge used to come down to our flat in the evenings to reminisce and I well remember his telling us that Wilson was the best research assistant he’d ever had – more intelligent, more industrious and more perceptive than any of the other clever young men who had worked for him. But, he added, it would be a fatal mistake for the Labour Party to appoint him as their leader because he was politically amoral, a judgment that would appear to have been confirmed by Wilson’s conduct in office. He seems to have had no principled strategic aims that might have benefited from his tactical skills.

John A. Davis
Cambridge

In his cool reassessment of Harold Wilson, Stuart Middleton doesn’t mention two of Wilson’s contributions that have been long-lasting in their impact and could be seen as examples of his ‘moral exhortation’. One was the arguably crucial role he played in the 1950s in joining Victor Gollancz in establishing the campaigning charity War on Want, dedicated to challenging the unacceptable faces of capitalism in an increasingly global world. The other was joining Jennie Lee in setting up the Open University.

Benedict Birnberg
London SE3

The Pram in the Hall

Michael Newton’s depiction of Charles Williams’s ‘occult shenanigans’ – a ‘refuge from the pram in the hall’ – called to mind the many conversations I had with Williams’s son Michael when I worked with him in a City bookshop in the year between school and university in the 1970s (LRB, 8 September). Michael would complain, whenever the chance arose, about his father’s annoying eccentricities. How he envied, he would say, his friends’ ‘ordinary’ fathers, their nine to five jobs in suits and ties, while his own would hit the world in cape and sandals, preferring a carriage to a car. He would remember with comparable dismay evenings of devastating tedium whenever Tolkien turned up, intent as he apparently always was on reading aloud the latest chapters of his work in progress.

Bob Jope
Torbay, Devon

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