Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Let's remember freedom of expression!

Flying aeroplanes into buildings and bombing trains and buses makes for spectacular television footage. The events, horrible as they are, seem even more horrendous after hours of live coverage and endless interviews with shocked participants. The perpetrators of events like these are unconscionable. Regardless of motivation, by their actions they show they are incapable of sustained, reasoned debate. They are no different from sociopaths and psychopaths in that they lack the capacity to measure right from wrong. For this they might deserve our pity, but they do not earn our compassion.
However, in yielding them no moral ground, we need to be careful to maintain our current level of freedom of expression. Recently, a number of seemingly fair-minded commentators and government spokespeople have expressed support for the banning of publications and books that promulgate the views espoused by those who bomb and terrorise. The logic seems to be that if you ban the words, you cease the actions.
But this is flawed logic. It has never worked. The narrow attitudes and cultural insularity of our own past are near enough to make this abundantly clear.
For much of the 20th century, Australia’s access to information was highly regulated. The power awarded to the Customs Department under the Customs Act gave the responsible Minister the power to ban any imported work by proclamation. In 1933 the government established a Book Censorship Advisory Committee to provide the Customs Department with an educated and literary body able to prohibit the importing of inappropriate works. The members of the committee, all men, were professors, the parliamentary librarian and other distinguished Australians. They quickly established strict and rigorous criteria for the censorship of works. Anything mildly sexually explicit, positive about homosexuality or outside very narrow moral boundaries was prohibited. The department was soon banning an average of six books, newspaper and magazines a month. The censors prided themselves on maintaining ‘Anglo Saxon’ standards, as historians Nicole Moore and Deana Heath have discovered in their analysis of this process.
Along with Ireland and the increasingly apartheid-dominated South Africa, Australia was one of the worst censors in the Western world for most of the last century. Australian censors had no compunction in banning works that were acceptable in London, Paris and New York. There was a further extension of their narrowness of view in 1938 when the government set up a fund to encourage the development of literature in Australia. Those appointed to the fund were the members of the Literature Censorship Board. That is, literature in Australia was to be developed by the censors of imported literature. (Some cynics claim nothing has changed.)
But there was little discontent or commentary on censorship from booksellers or publishers or academics. It was authors who were active in the Anti-Censorship League. Authors such as Miles Franklin and Nettie Palmer opposed not only the draconian laws covering sexual expression but also those laws that allowed for the banning of books for their ‘seditious’ content. ‘Sedition’ was interpreted by those responsible for administering these laws as the ‘overthrow of civilised government’ and both novels and political tracts were banned.
The Left Book Club, founded by the famed British publisher Victor Gollancz in May 1936, had a missionary objective in educating its members with cheap, informative and readable books. A Sydney branch was established in 1938, and late that year there were over 4000 members in Australia. In 1939, after the signing of the Soviet–German non-aggression pact, the government unveiled plans to ban communist newspapers and severely censor other of their publications. Two months later, the CPA was declared a subversive and illegal organisation and party premises, including those associated with the Left Book Club, were raided.
Left Book Club publications seized by the Australian government included such subversive works as those of George Meredith, George Orwell (Down and out in Paris and London and Keep the aspidistra flying had been banned in 1936), Stephen Spender, A.L. Morton, Arthur Koestler and John Strachey. The Australian government banned all literature that dealt with the Soviet Union, despite such works being freely available in the United Kingdom.
While Customs Acts and Police Offences Acts restricted the importation of material deemed seditious or obscene from overseas, there were many other laws available through which authorities could prohibit the dissemination of information. These included advertising and gaming acts, crimes and vagrancy acts, Post Office acts, public health and venereal diseases acts, Commerce Acts, acts for the protection of children, acts covering defamation, printers and newspaper, as well as obscene publications acts.
Even after the war and during the fifties and sixties, Australia’s elaborate censorship system limited our ability to access a full range of information on a range of topics, but particularly sexuality. Christina Stead’s Letty Fox; Her luck was banned in 1947, Australia being the only country to find the work of one of our most significant writers offensive. Homosexuality was a special target of the censors who banned such respectable academic works as D.J. West’s Homosexuality as well as James Baldwin’s Another country and Gore Vidal’s City and the pillar.
In the end, though, the censors did not win and Australian society did not fall apart as a result of the increased awareness of sexuality and other cultures that resulted. In fact, the easing of censorship had an opposite effect, leading to a cultural renaissance, a re-establishment of Australian films and a recognition, with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Patrick White in 1973, that Australian writers were equal to those from the rest of the world.
Today, Australians are proud of their multicultural, multifaceted country. We are proud of our diverse culture. We are no longer confined by a narrow Anglo Saxon viewpoint. Therefore it behoves us to resist any efforts to bring back the constrictive censorship of the past. There is no justification for it.
Freedom of expression enhances communication. Without it, we close the doors to those with whom we should be speaking and we are no longer a free and tolerant society. That is, we become so like those zealots with their life-destroying doctrines that we might as well be them.
Copyright © 2007 Australian Society of Authors/Jeremy Fisher

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