To support freedom of expression, read Maus

The US’s commitment to free speech is now so politicised that it’s endangering democracy

September 07, 2023 15:40

This column is a little leftfield for me, as I try not to write about my work and rather focus on our community (and, of course, my politics). But occasionally, different worlds collide — and I am so fed up with the hypocrisy of politicians, both at home and abroad, who claim to be protectors of democracy while their actions only undermine it. This is of key concern to the Jewish community.

I run a charity, Index on Censorship, which supports political dissidents and promotes freedom of expression as a democratic value. My team and I work with dissidents who have had to flee the country of their birth because their voices are silenced by the tyrants and dictators who run their homelands. They are my inspiration, as they speak truth to power regardless of the personal cost. There are more than a million political prisoners currently detained around the world. For most, their only crime is that they have dared to disagree with the regime that runs their country.

Defending them, providing a platform for their stories, for their words, for their lived experiences is my raison d’etre. Their lives and their lack of rights are on the frontline in the battle of democratic values versus the repressive alternative.

But their stories are not the ones we see every day in our news. When we talk about free speech in the UK and US, the subject matter tends to be more domestic in nature, as this human right is so often politically hijacked by groups who wish to cancel their political opponents rather than debate them; and by campaigners, who hide behind their right to free speech while inciting hatred and division. This politicisation of freedom of expression is a disaster for those of us who care about protecting our democracy and promoting genuine democratic values.

I am particularly vexed as I have just got back from the US, a country I love, which claims to cherish the fundamental right to free speech. It’s protected by the First Amendment. Academic curiosity is prized, journalism is defended and celebrated. At least, these things are meant to be true — I’m just not sure that they are. Something is going horribly wrong.

I could highlight too many instances of where the US is failing to live up to its commitment to the First Amendment, but I want to focus on access to literature. There is nothing more important for freedom of expression than access to the written word and for most young people that means a public library or the school library. Libraries are safe havens for learning, for academic challenge and for access to new worlds and new views. They provide a resource not just for education but also for self-exploration. They are places where you should be able to challenge your preconceived ideas as you learn about the views of others.

But libraries are being politicised, with politicians seeking to remove books from public shelves that challenge their own world view. In the last academic year, 1,648 books were banned by local politicians and educators across America. Most were not hate-filled tomes but rather books that explored challenging issues from sexuality to the impact of slavery and recent history. They have sought to ban Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume, Toni Morrison and Khaled Hosseini and even an adaptation of Anne Frank's diary.

In Tennessee they even tried to ban a book detailing the Holocaust. Maus, the award-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, was banned “due to concerns about profanity and an image of female nudity in its depiction of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust”.

It is an effort to delete our Jewish history. By attempting to remove our stories from the shelves of a school library, people with a political agenda are seeking to re-write history.
They undermine our efforts to push back against anti-Jewish hate and Holocaust denial and revisionism. And if we allow them to ban Maus, then what is next?

Books of every political persuasion are published daily. Books that promote Israel, books that call for its destruction. Books that outline a new conservatism and those that seek a revived form of social democracy. Books that praise Putin and collections of poetry from Belarusian writers. Books promoting Trump and books celebrating Biden. In a democracy, we need every one of them so that we can challenge our own world view and learn from each other.

We never win an argument by ignoring the world view of our protagonists, and we won’t thrive as a society if the answer to our opponents is to seek to cancel them.

If we see the banning of books as an answer to anything, then we have joined the ranks of the oppressors against the vanguard of those who seek to defend democracy.

Next month marks Banned Books Week in the UK and US. If you believe in freedom of expression, read one of the banned books over the Chagim. I’ll be re-reading Maus.

Baroness Anderson is a Labour peer

September 07, 2023 15:40

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