A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
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.
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with 'topics' as country reforms its education system
- 2 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 3 #FreeTheNipple: Women in Iceland bare breasts in solidarity with trolled student
- 4 Scientists have discovered a simple way to cook rice that dramatically cuts the calories
- 5 Zayn Malik quits One Direction: Hundreds of workers request compassionate leave following band member's exit
Jeremy Clarkson to host BBC's Have I Got News For You despite Top Gear exit
A historian gave the most British look of despair when someone screwed up Richard III's birthday at his reburial
Zayn Malik already working on solo material, just days after quitting One Direction
Kay Burley 'bias' against Ed Miliband prompts 130 complaints to Ofcom
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Nigel Farage brands LGBT activists 'filth' and 'scum' and accuses them of scaring away his children after they invade his local pub
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Russia threatens Denmark with nuclear weapons if it tries to join Nato defence shield
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Germanwings plane crash: Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz wanted to 'do something people would remember him for'