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Page last updated at 17:40 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 18:40 UK

Why we need dilemmas

Book protest

By Clive James

Imagine you're a huge fan of an author for his writing, only to discover something deeply unpleasant about the man himself. You could boycott his books - but that would be an act of dogma that could be every bit as blinkered as the reason for your objection. Dilemmas, dilemmas...

At a time when Iraqis who have risked their lives for Britain in Basra need a newspaper campaign to be allowed into this country, the radical cleric, Abu Qatada, apparently can't be allowed out. The case of Abu Qatada might have been designed as an extreme test for the principle that the rule of law must be put before our feelings. My own feelings on the matter are quite clear. I feel that Abu Qatada should be locked up in a suitably padded cell with a television set he can't turn off, the television set showing nothing except one episode after another of Big Brother.

Abu Qatada
A Jordanian national who has been fighting extradition to his home country where he has been convicted for terror attacks
He has been dubbed 'Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe'
While in prison in the UK he made a video appeal for the release of Briton Norman Kember

So perhaps it's lucky that I am not in charge of enforcing the law. Undoubtedly my chosen method of dealing with Abu Qatada would be a form of torture. Since the law is against torture and I am too, another set of feelings enters the picture to confuse my first set of feelings, which turn out to be not as clear as I thought. My first feeling that Abu Qatada, clearly a menace to all Muslims as well as everybody else, should somehow be made to vanish, is complicated by my second feeling, which is that he should not be rendered up to a government whose promise to refrain from torturing him is compromised by the fact that officers of its prison system have tortured people before. That sounds like an untrustworthy promise.

So to my mind, increasingly feeble instrument though it is, there is a dilemma. Abu Qatada has a record of preaching the desirability of doing unlawful things. But there is no lawful way of getting him out of the country. There might not even be any way of withdrawing the considerable amount of money his extended stay here has so far cost us, through the benefits system that he didn't hesitate to invoke even while preaching death and destruction against all the workings of liberal democracy. So we are stuck for an answer, and, as people tend to do when they are stuck for an answer, we change the subject. If we can't deal with him, who can we deal with?

Clive James
I have a lot of respect for her powers of argument - three rounds with Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be a more comfortable encounter for her opponent

Well, we can deal with people who have done less, or done nothing. At this point, Sir Vidia Naipaul handily makes himself available. Getting in ahead of the biographies that will reveal all after his death, Sir Vidia has co-operated with a biography that reveals all while he is still alive. Thus we have it on his own authority that he behaved badly to the three women who have shared the greater part of his working life. It isn't a story that inclines me to share a drink with him, not that he is likely to ask me. But he has confessed to nothing unlawful and so far most of the reviewers of his biography have stressed the importance of separating the man from the work.

The Independent's formidable journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, however, was not minded to do so. She avowed her intention of not reading anything by Sir Vidia ever again. Like anyone who has ever taken tea with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I have a lot of respect for her powers of argument. Three rounds with Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be a more comfortable encounter for her opponent. Were we to take tea again however, I would attempt to raise the same question about Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom, when it came to their treatment of the women who loved them, left Sir Vidia looking like a therapist. Has she stopped reading them?

And in Sir Vidia's invidious case, the women could always have told the genius to go chase himself. None of them did, and it seems fair to assume that they put up with him because they thought he was an important man. Yasmin the Naipaul Slayer takes a lot on her shoulders when she declines to think the same. It's possible that she got carried away by the relief of being able to discuss a clear-cut issue. I don't think it is, quite, but it's certainly a lot more clear-cut than another issue that she has been facing lately with a bravery that must be a tax on the nerves.

VS Naipaul
VS Naipaul: Respected author, but not universally admired for his conduct

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown hasn't given up on her warnings about the injustice of marginalising Islamic citizens of Britain. Nor should she. But she has also continued warning Islamic citizens against extremists. The price she risks paying for this is to be called racist, even though racism is the very thing she is arguing against, because the extremists really are racists. But among her fellow journalists there are all too many who are ready to employ the word "racist" against anybody, even a Muslim, who calls for the great majority of law-abiding Muslim citizens to explicitly condemn extremism, instead of just tacitly disapproving of it.

Non-Muslims who agree with her, of whom I am one, can only help to earn her the title of traitor from some Muslims, even though we vocally believe in religious freedom, cultural pluralism and every other fruitful complication that makes for a living society. It takes equality before the law to ensure all that, but you can be called a racist for saying so. And of course there are non-Muslims who don't believe in religious freedom one bit and yet they might be keen to give her their unwanted endorsement as a convert to their intolerant cause. Clearly she has the courage to face these possibilities, or she would not have spoken. But she is stuck with a dilemma.

Enlightened prose

It must be a whole lot easier to recommend that the books of Sir Vidia Naipaul should not be read. There is a dilemma in that too, however. It's just not so easy to spot. But if we embark on a course of not reading books written by all the people we don't approve of, we risk missing out on valuable knowledge about the world. Not just in his great novel A House for Mr Biswas, but in his subsequent volumes of non-fiction, Naipaul told a lot of awkward truth about the backwardness of the culture he came from, and the new creative energy in Bangalore today partly depends on the awareness - an awareness he helped to encourage - that there is such a thing as an historical dead weight that only creativity can overcome.

Ernest Hemingways
Massed Ernest Hemingways

It's only a few years since the British poet Philip Larkin got the Naipaul treatment. It happened after his death instead of before, but there were similar calls for his books not to be read. In his collected letters he had revealed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, and a lot of other kinds of "ist" that nobody sensible could admire. But in real life he would rather have drunk water than be discourteous to anyone of any race or gender, and he also wrote dozens of the most magnificent poems to have graced our literature in modern times. They're magnificent not just because they are lyrical even in their despair, but because they register the real world, in all its complexity. Poetry like Larkin's, and prose like Sir Vidia's, is still the best safeguard we've got against the rage for simplicity, the total view that wants to achieve a false peace by silencing everyone who might contradict us.

Or it would be the best safeguard, if the law wasn't even more important. Without a structure of reasonable law, art can do little to shape opinion. And there are no laws, however reasonable, that do not produce dilemmas. I don't think China should ever have been awarded the Olympic Games. That having happened, I don't think the British section of the torch relay should have been allowed any scope beyond a single lap around the Millennium Dome while the Chinese security heavies were locked up for re-education in Raymond's Revue Bar. But that's just what I think. Less than that, it's merely what I feel. The law allowed a torch relay. Luckily it also allowed demonstrations in protest. The reason that protests should not be violent is that the law disallows violence, not that it disallows protests. You can't help wondering, though, whether some of the young people all over the world who think they are helping the oppressed people of Tibet by embarrassing China really have any idea of what China has been doing to Tibet over the last half century.

Wei Jingsheng
Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, now living in the US

When China intensified what it called the peaceful liberation of Tibet, the world hardly cared. Anyone who knew about it also knew that there was nothing they could do. The Dalai Lama persuaded the United Nations to make some resolutions but China ignored them. The Dalai Lama got a better hearing from Richard Gere. Tibet's fate was news outside China but the news made few waves. Inside China, Tibet's fate was never news at all. Inside China there was no news except news controlled by the state, and there was no law that applied, so there were no dilemmas. If the Chinese leadership had ever been faced with their own equivalent of Abu Qatada they would been in no doubt about what to do with him.

Our best hope for China now is that it is has entered a new stage where dilemmas will be possible. A dilemma is the surest sign that the rule of law exists. By that measure, China started coming back from the dark in 1978 when the Chinese people were invited to read wall posters about the Four Modernizations that would make China an advanced society. A student called Wei Jingsheng wrote on the poster that none of these four modernisations would mean a thing without a fifth modernisation, democracy. He was thrown into jail more or less forever, but they didn't kill him. Occasionally he was even allowed out, until he said something untoward and they threw him back in again. His first short break from jail happened in 1993, when China was bidding for the 2000 Olympics. In 1997 he was deported to the US. Perhaps this year the Chinese will ask him back, to carry the torch into the stadium.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Once as a librarian in a school library, I introduced a kindergarten teacher to Wilde's The Selfish Giant. This teacher found the story to be too overtly Christian and possibly offensive to our multi-cultural students. I (a Jew) told her this was a beautiful story containing excellent values. A few days later, I heard her read it to her class. I have disagreed with members of my community who want Dahl banned because of his personal views (anti-Semitism). Whatever his views are, he is a excellent author, especially of children's books. I do this because I have studied literature and know that authors are human and often unpleasant (like many of us). Remember that reading a book does not mean you approve of the author's personal life. If we block sale or reading of the books of anyone whose personal views we disapprove of, we are censors and are damaging the heritage of our language.
Heather, Montreal, Canada

If you call for Muslims to explicitly condemn extremism, instead of just tacitly disapproving of it, do you also make the same call of Christians, Jews, and those of other religions? If not, then I'd say you certainly are a racist. Muslim extremism did not cause the invasion of Iraq, nor is it responsible for the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people.
Dennis Sosnoski, Paraparaumu Beach, New Zealand

We do need dilemmas, if only so there is always room to question ourselves, our opinions and our institutions. The word "should" is a dangerous word and makes prisoners of us all, if we are not careful, as are the words "right" and "wrong". Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of people stopping behaviour they don't agree with by using the same behaviour. If we don't stop and think about that, very little gets resolved in the long term.
Ray Powell, Glastonbury

Some very interesting, thought-provoking ideas in here. In particular, the comments about VS Naipaul struck a chord with me, because I had a very strong reaction to finding out one of my favourite authors is homophobic. I have stopped reading his work, because I can't think of him without feeling sick to my stomach. Now, I am questioning that decision, thanks to Clive's remarks.
Andrea, Bristol, England

Hemingway treated his women like rubbish, yet as I have no intention of sleeping with him (apart from the whole "being dead" problem), why should that stop me reading his book? No tell-all biography of his many flaws can strip his prose of its cold clear beauty. No matter how people say Wagner was a racist, I am still moved by the finale of the Gotterdammerung. Art, real art, is separate from the person creating it, it is a entity of its own. It's interesting to know the background of the creator, but not necessary.
Nona, London

If we are not allowed to read Sir Vidia Naipaul's works, should we gather them into a pile and burn them instead? Is this a situation where Yasmin Alibhai-Brown would like us to go to?
John, Auckland, New Zealand

Islam is a religion, a religion that projects an overt and uncompromising political ideology. And, however much the BBC and other liberal commentators might wish that Muslims can be influenced by the same line of sophisticated secular reason that has dominated western thinking, I am afraid they can't, and there is very little evidence that Muslims wish to be so influenced. However whether you agree with this analysis or not, one thing is certain; Islam is not a race. So why should anyone who expresses real concerns about the goals and aims of Islam be smeared as a racist?
Steve, London

We should not expect our artists to be saints as well. The difficulties lie when cults of personality develop around them, and a romanticised image becomes an object of veneration, over and above their work. I think this is an issue in the case of some of the English Romantics, who were marketed as much as personalities as poets, and of someone like Burns, whose personality cult has taken precedence over his work, which was not in the top rank. (In a shorter career, Robert Fergusson was certainly superior in his use of Scots.)
Dr M M Gilchrist, Glasgow, Scotland

The way the world powers ignore such atrocities as what has been happening in Tibet for years and refuses to rock the boat of China by any meaningful actions borders on complicity. It is not enough to say; "stop it, it's wrong what you are doing to your people and those of Tibet and ooh, whilst I'm on the phone, could I have 20,000 mobile phones and 50,000 MP4 players and 10,000 of those cheap copies of Levis that you're so good at in six weeks at Southampton please, thanks very much."
Paul, Valencia

Clive James is in good company with his thoughts. Isn't the theme of Shakespeare's Hamlet all about the angst caused by moral dilemmas? The play shows the dangers of too much thinking: "Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all" is a warning to anyone who tries. Hamlet waits for the perfect moment to kill Claudius, but the vanity in this is thinking that anything is perfect.
Oliver, London

I am a European Muslim who shares with you almost everything you have said. I believe that we have reached a time where we, Muslims of Britain, must exert any influence we have upon our communities to denounce the terrorists & extremists who hijacked our peaceful religion and distorted our image in the worst possible way.
M Saleh, Manchester, Lancashire

One of the biggest dangers of meeting your heroes is discovering they have feet of clay. Discovering unattractive attributes of artists you previously admired can have extremely negative effect on their works. How many people still enjoy listening to songs by Gary Glitter following recent revelations? Art is subjective and its ability to provide pleasure is as fragile as the popularity of its source.
DS, Croydon, England


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