A Week in Books: A lingering distrust of free expression

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The Independent Culture

A few weeks ago, ministers were steaming ahead with their (still extant) new bill to outlaw incitement to "religious hatred". That would have placed - and might still place - a big legal stick in the hands of any bunch of death-worshipping theocrats who objected to being so described. Now groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, who would have galloped to exploit such a law, themselves face a state ban. From one angle, this looks like farcical incoherence; from another, a tragically mistimed resort to macho gestures when cool heads and clear thoughts are at a premium.

Soundbite-happy politicians may need tuition in Mr Blair's "culture of tolerance" as much as disaffected Muslim youth. And that tolerance, as even premiers ought to know, can only claim any virtue or valency when it resists heavy pressure. The Islamist variant of fascism peddled by those targeted "websites" and "bookshops" will be defeated in the open, if at all. In the battle of ideas, censorship can only ever win a phoney war.

So any politician who wishes to shore up, not undermine, an indigenous "culture of tolerance" should be reading John Milton rather than red-top editorials. And, with luck, England's greatest revolutionary intellectual will swing back into fashion soon. Philip Pullman has written the preface to a new edition of Paradise Lost (due from Oxford), paying tribute to the writer whose creative combat with forced obedience and false authority inspired the His Dark Materials trilogy.

But MPs, pundits and every other podium-thumper ought perhaps to start with Milton's Areopagitica - the peerless anti-censorship polemic, written in 1644, which remains the fountainhead of the whole free-speech tradition in English. By contemporary standards, Milton's stance looks far from watertight. Notoriously, he would have denied freedom of expression to Roman Catholics alone, not as religious believers but as the loyal servants - so he saw it - of an international network of tyrants working towards the violent overthrow of English liberties.

Still, the strongest parts of his argument against a "fugitive and cloistered virtue" that "never sallies out and sees her adversary" override his caveats. Values that never wrestle in complete freedom with their enemies are no values at all, just child-like superstitions. And state censorship simply amounts to "weakness and cowardice in the wars of truth". Since "the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue," Milton thunders, "and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely... scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tracts, and hearing all manner of reason?" All manner of tracts - not just those the Met or Downing Street approves.

Milton winds up Areopagitica with an artful (if slightly vain) account of his visit to the elderly and Inquisition-ridden Galileo in Tuscany - where, he says, they envy and respect English liberty. But he also alludes to other native habits, much observed abroad. The English, he notes, are equally famous for their drunkenness, excess and "daily rioting". Who says that enduring national characteristics are merely a myth?