Banned Book Week: Ideas Are Incombustible

The issue of censorship and free speech has been centre stage, globally, throughout the month of September with online,  social and print media ablaze with conflicting views on the matter.

Only last week the heads of state of Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Yemen stood up at a United Nations summit to call for the curtailment of what many people in the West consider a fundamental right. Amid all the bitter turmoil surrounding this issue, Banned Book Week provides us with an opportunity to take time out from the good fight and celebrate its victories in the literary world.

From a quick glance at the list of historically banned books on the BBW’s website, one can draw one concrete conclusion: the censors always lose eventually. Books that are banned by a dictatorial political system or puritanical religious movements tend to become classics at least partly for that very reason; they represent a moment in time and an eventual victory over it. As South Africans this concept has a special significance for us.

Censorship is a subtly suicidal act, seemingly a reaction to some subliminal awareness of the assured failure of any attempt to hold the intellects of others in bondage. The South African Liberation Struggle, the American Civil Rights Movement, the sexual awakening of the sixties, the rise of secular humanism and the struggles against communism and fascism are, to varying extents, defined and chronicled and even facilitated by the works that the forces of reaction and censorship tried to prevent us reading and, in so doing, helping to dig their eventual graves.

The censorship of certain works can tell you a lot about the censor, particularly those banned for sexual indecency or immorality; it is a widely recognised truism that the prohibition of certain activities often masks the secret desire on the part of the individuals insisting on their prohibition to participate in them. But the more historically significant reason that censorship is inherently self-defeating is that it forces the citizen to confront the inevitable question: to whom would you delegate this role of deciding for you what you can and cannot read, see or hear? The answer to this question is always the same, there is no one who is qualified to fulfill this role and in inadvertently forcing this question on society, the censor reveals their incompetence, not only in this role, but in the ability to make any meaningful decisions on behalf of others.

So if you need your flagging spirits lifted and you have a few minutes to spare, take a moment to peruse the list of great works, many now rightly taught to our children of works, not only of literature, but of history, and be reassured of how many victories have already been won.

As Mr Rushdie put it, “If writing is ‘thing’ then censorship is ‘no-thing’ and as King Lear said to Cordelia, ‘no-thing comes from no-thing.’”

Salman Rushdie: To Hell and Back Again as “Joseph Anton”

salman rushdie

“What we must do, all of us, is insist that this society is one of open discourse.”

It may seem like this memoir has been a long-time coming, as Rushdie’s life story garners as much public interest as his vibrant and fantastical novels; but, given the harrowing nature of his experiences, it is not surprising that it took over two decades before he could commit the events to print. In February 1989, in response to claims that Rushdie’s novel constituted blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, the theocratic leader of the Iranian dictatorship at the time, the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, offered a bounty in his own name for murder of Mr Rushdie – a man who was neither a practising Muslim, nor an Iranian. It has been noted by many since then that this extraordinary offence to morality, free speech and the rule of law represented a foreshadowing of what we could expect from religious fundamentalism in years to come.

It was a watershed moment, an opportunity to set a precedent for how such barbarism could expect to be confronted in the future. But the reaction was less than satisfactory. While Rushdie himself has always been vocal in his praising of the agents assigned to protect his home; the diligence of the British authorities in assuring his safety; and the support of his friends and family, the response from religious figures the world over confirms the importance of protecting free expression from bogus claims of blasphemy. The Pope, Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other nodding heads of various religious institutions, closed ranks and condemned the novel and its author. Elements of the intellectual and political community were also not without blame and many dithered as to whether he deserved their support and whether they could afford to offer it. In other words, offending a verminous religious dictator with the resources to fund and facilitate your assassination is a very efficient way of discovering who your friends are.

The years immediately following this debacle only grew darker for Rushdie; family, friends and colleagues (and even their families) were threatened and attacked, his Italian translator stabbed, his Japanese translator murdered. Desperate to appease his tormenters in order to put an end to such attacks, he published an article declaring that he had embraced Islam and apologising for his previous blasphemy, but this fell on deaf ears. Here again, was a foreshadowing of things to come; Rushdie discovered that the nature of fanaticism is that it cannot be reasoned with and does not seek dialogue. A similarly dark lesson was learned too late by Theo van Gogh who was murdered in the street for the film he made in partnership with Ayaan Hirsi Ali about the plight of Muslim women in Holland; as he lay in the street having been shot off his bike, he tried to reason with his killer before his throat was cut (Ms Hirsi Ali has since had to live a life of constant surveillance and protection comparable to that of Rushdie’s).

During his years on the run, possibly due to the publicity surrounding the initial circumstances, his life was erroneously characterised by some as a kind of glamorous Bond-esque existence; the international man of mystery always accompanied by black-suited anonymous agents. For his part he has always been puzzled by this association, “To me it felt like prison”.  This is illustrated most harrowingly in his description of the panic he felt when a minor miscommunication about the whereabouts of his son led him to believe that he had been taken, the horror of such a thing is probably more vividly understood by those who have children, for my part, I can only imagine.

Ever since he became a hunted man, he has become a kind of go-to talking head when matters of free speech and offence, particularly in a religious context, are brought to the public square. And the multiple interviews and re-posting of his old articles over the past week have almost served to obscure his more comprehensive commentary on the matter: the book itself.

The interest in his story should not be surprising; Rushdie himself concluded that the tumult surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses was bigger than either him or his work. I believe most people instinctively recognise the relevance of such cases to their own lives and to democracy. Others, sadly, recoil in fear. A number of rather flaccid platitudes (still in use today in relation either to Mr Rushdie’s case or to other examples of so-called ‘blasphemy’) were employed by those who failed to recognise the relevance of this struggle and wished to distance themselves from him. One Rushdie himself finds rather amusing is “he knew what he was doing”. In Rushdie’s words “it would be really strange, I thought, to spend five years writing a novel and not know what I was doing; what would that be, that act?” The absurdity of such a statement aside, the other implication is that he was trying to cause offence and expecting a response – which was simply not the case. Despite being a secularist, Rushdie’s writing is, for the most part, an overwhelmingly colourful homage to the diverse religious and cultural traditions of India and not an attempt to denigrate them. In fact, the ‘offensive’ chapter was an abstract dream sequence based on a religious myth that in no way sought to attack Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. However, even if he had sought to offend, as the creators of the recent controversial ‘film’ appear to have, it says nothing to justify the actions of those who react to it through a campaign of violence and intimidation, nor does the fact that the film is devoid of artistic merit. Indeed, another tactic adopted by those who sought to abandon Rushdie was to dodge the blasphemy question entirely by attacking the book on purely literary grounds, thereby spinelessly absolving them of the responsibility to stand up for freedom of expression. The literary or artistic worth of the material makes little difference to those who seek an excuse to commit acts of violence or surrender to them. To paraphrase Rushdie, when asked about the events of the last week, defending free speech sometimes involves defending people you don’t like and free speech includes the right to behave badly.

In Rushdie’s own words, “Censorship changes the subject and introduces a more tedious subject; it creates a more boring world.” Censorship does not respect the difference between trash and art. If we remove the right of the less pleasant elements of society to make trash, we give up great art as well. In a world where the right to ugly speech is not defended alongside the right to beautiful speech, we would possibly have already lost Salman Rushdie and his writing. Salman Rushdie’s journey should remind us all of the importance of defending what we have in free societies. Indeed, such cases as his are not merely a matter of private trauma but affect us all. This was eerily illustrated by Christopher Hitchens, who, in the conclusion of the chapter in his own memoir, detailing his friendship with Rushdie and his defence of him after the issuing of the fatwa, employs the phrase mutate nomine de te fabula naratatur, “change only the name and the story is about you.”

Markets Are Not Human Inventions

Markets have arisen independently of intentional design, just as the human eye, for the non-religiously inclined at least –  as useful and as complex organism as it may be – evolved independently of intentional design. Counter-intuitively, therefore, it is fallacious to regard markets as a human invention.  Markets are so intrinsic an aspect of human living that we may regard them as a correlative of human life as much as a swelling belly is a correlative of pregnancy. They are as intrinsically a part of human life as the formation of groups, communities or societies. They are the default position that occurs under conditions of freedom. They are – quite literally – as old as the existence of homo sapiens. Anthropologists have formulated many biological categories to identify the earliest homo, but the one that Dawie Roodt and I have formulated for use in our impending book Maverick Economics is homo tradiensis – trading man. When two people or more form a group, they form, a market; it exists independently of their volition.

Markets exist as a consequence of the fact that no single human being can ever do everything to sustain life by himself or herself. The earliest forms of markets took the form of co-operative trades: trades of strength, of speed, of dexterity, of guile. Author Haim Ofek in his book Second Nature argues that the biological evolution of the free hands of the bipedal hominid led to the use of weapons, which led in turn to the emergence of tradable private property.

Ofek suggests that fire makers and custodians exchanged access to their fires for food. Fire makers were pioneers in the exchange of services for things. They set up their markets in caves in wooded areas, carefully nurturing several hearths used to kindle fires for other groups in exchange for food, skins, and other resources. Trade allowed the fire keepers to concentrate on maintaining the all-important fires, while simultaneously freeing the other groups to specialise in food and resource acquisition. Work specialisation and private property rights not only provided the grounds for intra-kin trades, they inevitably provided the grounds for extra-kin trade, because extra-kin trade provided access to an endlessly increasing range of specialisations and rewards. Within this axis of specialization, private property rights, and extra-kin engagement markets were born, and markets provided the necessary impetus for the evolution of the large brain. Markets were thus not the consequence of the emergence of casino online species homo sapiens, but its cause – which is why we call our earliest forebear homo tradiensis.

The proposition that markets are not a human invention is not one that people will naturally agree with, even people who regard themselves as “free marketers”. This is because markets have every appearance of being an enormously useful institution that we actively form or establish to our great advantage. We elect, for instance, to form a stock market, or a Saturday morning village market.  But I would like readers to consider that, in establishing a market, we are not establishing the concept of a market, because the concept of a market is intrinsic.   It might strike some as a fanciful analogy – sorry, I can’t think of another one – but we don’t invent the concept of love every time we fall in love. We simply do what comes naturally, in the same way that we do what comes naturally when we “go to market”.

Markets are not systems.

Markets are not systems. They are not comparable with any –ism designed to achieve a utilitarian outcome.  They are neither intrinsically good nor bad, and since they are not designed to deliver a normative outcome, it makes absolutely no sense to talk of “market failure”. It is humans who succeed or fail, not markets.  Whilst markets have a great many characteristics we may choose to regard highly if we want to – they are inimical to war, they are socially enriching, they build cultural and linguistic bridges, they transform production into wealth, they meet material needs of consumers – they are actually not specifically designed to achieve any of these purposes.

For these reasons I occupy what may be regarded as the unhelpful  position of regarding arguments about  the value or otherwise of markets as what the lawyers call (I think) supererogatory – proving the existence of something that doesn’t need to be proved. Striving to prove that one is alive is also supererogatory. Markets are not in a competition against any other form of organised behaviour, just as breathing is not in a competition against dietary supplements. Those who claim they don’t like markets love to present us with an apparent choice between markets and person-made systems like central planning or price control. These are bogus choices.  The real choice is better presented thus: you can have markets, or you can ban or disallow markets.  The concomitant choice is: you can have freedom or you can have servility. The opposite of reason is not emotion, it is unreason; the opposite of markets is not state control, it is no markets

Markets are not brought into existence  by virtue of the apologia we make for them, or the rationale we may – mistakenly in my view – make on their behalf, just as love isn’t brought into existence by love poetry. People who claim to dislike markets are liars; everybody loves markets, and everybody makes use of markets. Markets exist when two people come together to make a private transaction; they exist at the side of roads; they exist in towns and villages where people buy local produce; they exist in rural communities; they exit in all their glory in Fez and Marrakesh, and throughout the Arab world; they exist in Portobello Road; they exist on the Internet; and of course they exist on bourses. Markets are pervasive; they inhabit every single nook and cranny of our lives, except when they are physically prevented from existing by human intervention, an intervention always characterised by a limitation of freedom.  But no amount of illegalisation or proscription will ever finally extirpate market transactions: witness the global trade in narcotics, in rhino horn and in stolen goods.

So, in answer to the question: why do markets matter? I don’t provide an answer, but instead I ask market antagonists a question of my own: why don’t markets matter?  Of course, they never will provide an answer.