Censorship - a 25-year lyric record

August 02, 1998|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the sun

"An Embarrassment of Tyrannies: Twenty-Five Years of Index on Censorship," by George Braziller. W.L Webb and Rose Bell. 347 pages. $30.

In 1972, Index on Censorship published its first issuprotesting Soviet show trials of dissidents Larisa Daniel and Pavel Litvinov. With this volume, editors W.L. Webb and Rose Bell offer a stunning anthology of 65 selections that not only celebrates the magazine, but provides a history of censorship, repression and resistance around the globe. Poems, short stories, polemics, narratives, interviews and analyses mix freely in this kaleidoscopic chronology.

The anthology moves from a heart-wrenching firsthand account of imprisonment and torture by Greek dissident George Mangakis to a laconic interview with the late Russian Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky ("I must say that any kind of civic activity simply bores me to death"), to novelist Wole Soyinka's dark look at human rights violations in Nigeria.

"Index on Censorship" includes such disparate figures as novelist Salman Rushdie, who is still living under continuous death threat from the government of Iran; Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, who depicts South African apartheid and dissident physicist Fang Lizhi, who discusses human rights violations in China and the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

It is difficult to condone police brutality or suppression of dissent by self-interested totalitarian governments, and it is easy to think that state censorship is taking place somewhere else. But "Index on Censorship" doesn't let the Western reader off the hook.

There is playwright Arthur Miller, leftist critic Noam Chomsky or Philadelphia death-row resident Mumia Abu-Jamal to tell us we have our own problems from investigatory committees, book banning and movie censorship at home to the support of dictators, denials of the right of sanctuary and the thwarting of U.N. efforts to create human rights standards.

"Index on Censorship" not only questions the philosophical legitimacy of censorship but the opposition to it, as well. Philosophers Stuart Hampshire and Ronald Dworkin ask to what extent liberal Western governments have a right to insist that totalitarian or religiously based governments, with their self-righteous lock on truth, eliminate censorship.

On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a congressional decency standard for awarding federal arts grants. The writers for "Index on Censorship" make their position clear on such matters: that censorship is censorship no matter where it is practiced; that it is a slippery slope from withholding federal funds and regulating what citizens can read to slapping them in jail; and that treating people as children is not much better than treating them as powerless subjects. This superb anthology provides perspective on a continuing problem here in the United States; it should be required reading for Congress and our state legislatures.

Craig Eisendrath, the former executive director of th Pennsylvania Humanities Council, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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