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.
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Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 #NotGuilty: Second Oxford student writes of brutal rape by two men who then threw her in a bin as part of campaign against victim blaming
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 5 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils