A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 24 May 1997
Yet suspicious old Albion has, for a quarter-century, hosted one of the world's most successful efforts to mobilise intellectuals. This week, Index on Censorship magazine celebrates 25 years of defending free expression and documenting every threat to it. Index began in 1972, with a response by its founder Stephen Spender to an appeal by Soviet dissidents against a show-trial in Moscow. Since then, Russia has shifted from terror and torture to a flawed but functioning democracy, as have many other states from Spain to South Africa, Poland to the Philippines. It's worth recalling this list of gains for liberty - and the huge role of intellectuals in winning them - when moral-mazers whinge about declining standards..
The anniversary number of Index (pounds 7.99) fixes its gaze on "The Future" and avoids any lolling on laurels. Its star-spangled essays range from Umberto Eco (on the grounds for a universal ethics) to Salman Rushdie (warning against both old nationalism and the "New Behalfism" of PC zealots), from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Nadine Gordimer. Yet, as always with Index, the topical testimonies best bring home the value of intellectual witness. Selim Zaoui reports with chilling eloquence on terror in the mountains of Algeria; Aung San Suu Kyi explains her Burmese version of Vaclav Havel's "power of the powerless", while the exiled writer Yang Lian defines his condition as a Chinese "poet without a nation".
Yang's piece, like several others, confirms that coming battles over free speech will be fought in Asia, and China in particular. Elsewhere, Ian Buruma mocks the local despots' claims that so-called "Asian values" rule out true democracy. Surely this is merely a kitsch-Confucian version of the colonial belief that lesser breeds neither want nor need freedom, as long as they enjoy full rice-bowls (read: fully-cabled air-con duplex apartments in Kowloon or Singapore). A patronising myth in Kipling's time, it sounds just as phoney now.
Our own intellectual trouble-makers might point that out the next time some investment-hungry politician bangs on about duty and discipline among the "Asian tigers". There are more important things in life than the prosecution of people who pee in lifts.
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Secret Cinema: Why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
- 2 Christians: The world's most persecuted people
- 3 Israel-Gaza conflict: The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
- 4 Thatcher ‘was warned of Tory child sex party claims’
- 5 The Simpsons Family Guy trailer: First look at crossover episode after Comic-Con debut
Secret Cinema: Why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
Game of Thrones season 4 blooper reel unveiled at Comic-Con 2014
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral backlash from US parenting groups
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Doctor Who series 8: Watch Peter Capaldi in new ‘Listen!’ teaser trailer
Israel-Gaza conflict: The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace
Were 'Poor Doors' added to mixed developments so wealthy residents don't have to go in alongside social housing tenants?
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia