BTW: In praise of Ubud censors
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
Silly old Harry S Truman, 33rd president of the United States. What right had a Democratic wimp who never scored a college degree to write lines like those above? If alive today he’d be sued for being anti-authority and disturbing the peace.
Now back to the future. It’s set in New Zealand, normally flagged as a nation of tolerance and liberty, pioneering social change.
This is the advanced liberal democracy where same sex couples get married; don’t try that in uptight Australia.
Yet last month NZ banned a book.
It was the first ban for 22 years so you’d assume it was a knitting pattern for suicide vests or maybe a kitchen recipe for baking black-plague bacteria.
Wrong. This was a kid’s novel called Into the River and written by a teacher trying to reach troubled teens. It tells of a Maori boy growing up in an Auckland boarding school where he encounters [shock, horror] sex, drugs and racism. It won several awards.
Even in laid-back Middle Earth nasty things happen, but some folk think silence is golden. A self-imposed Christian lobby group called Family First demanded age restrictions, effectively removing the book from the market it was written to reach.
Ten days ago the ban was lifted and you can now buy the novel – if you can find one. Author Ted Dawe, who had his typescript rejected by mainstream publishers, funded the book himself. He now has literary fame, a decent income and is writing a sequel.
Into the River has been swept into page one prominence by the people who tried to dam it. Sociologists call this the Streisand Effect.
In 2003 American singer Barbra Streisand unsuccessfully sued a photographer for US$50 million for publishing a photo of her California mansion. Before she rushed to the lawyers only six people had seen the picture. After her case was made public close to half a million Googled the photo.
And so it will be with the government’s ban on certain books and discussions at the upcoming Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This event is big time among the international literati, but till now little known among the millions whose concerns are rising prices, not the decline of the metaphor.
Now the UWRF is tabloid stuff. Maybe its existence has even penetrated the Presidential Palace, though the incumbent is better known for his taste in bakso not books.
The organizers say the ban follows ‘increased scrutiny from local authorities who have the power to revoke the Festival’s operating permit, issued by the national police … Should certain sessions proceed, it would run the risk of the entire Festival being cancelled.’
The three sessions off the menu were going to chew over the 1965 coup that felled Soekarno and brought General Soeharto to power at the cost of an estimated 500,000 lives.
Maybe the cappuccino sippers in the placid paddy on Bali’s uplands would have got so frothy-lipped by the speeches they’d have lashed out with their laptops and started a new revolution.
Such is the power of ideas. Such is the paranoia of the guilty.
In the NZ book ban Don Mathieson, president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, said Dawe’s novel ‘had an unhealthy preoccupation with private parts of the body and their potential use in social activity’.
Substitute ‘historical public events’ for ‘private parts of the body’ and you get to understand the minds of the censors.
The UWRF, billed as ‘Southeast Asia’s biggest cultural and literary event’ will be poorer in the short term. But in the long term we’ll all be richer. The Streisand Effect will kick in and ensure this fringe festival and the events of 50 years ago will be big news everywhere.
So thank you censors. And by the way - NZ and RI now share something else in common: International ridicule. Duncan Graham
First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2015