A week in books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
According to one of W H Auden's brilliant little doodles, "To the man-in-the-street who, I'm sorry to say/Is a keen observer of life,/the word `intellectual' suggests straight away/a man who's untrue to his wife". Some years ago, Paul Johnson wrote a long and silly book that added up to little more than a gloss on that quatrain. Although they spawn just as many thinkers and scribblers per capita as any other nation, the English still like to pretend that the contaminating I-word stops, like rabies, at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.

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.