Paul Moon: Censorship alive and well and living in NZ

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This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazis' book-burning, a crude pogrom against any knowledge or ideas that the German Government considered ideologically unacceptable in 1933.

Of course, all the condemned literature outlived the Nazi regime, but the wretched spectre of books being tossed on to blazing pyres remains one of the unforgettable images of that period.

The physical destruction of books now seems to belong to another, much less enlightened age, but not so the censorial urges that led to the practice. I have experienced this first-hand in the past few weeks since the release of my book This Horrid Practice, which explores traditional Maori cannibalism.

I recall a fellow academic approaching me when I started writing the book and warning me that I was putting my career in jeopardy by tackling this subject. At first, I dismissed the caution, but when others began making similar comments, I came around to the view that I would be risking my integrity as a historian by being bullied into silence.

Then the attacks came, and in several forms. I am sure many of the people who have complained about the book have yet to read it, but this has not stopped them rushing to judgment and making all sorts of shrill accusations about its contents.

First, there were the emails and often anonymous phone messages, accusing me of all sorts of sins for having researched and written about Maori cannibalism. This was followed by Rawiri Taonui, the lecturer from Canterbury University, suggesting I was demonising Maori and that my book was a return to Victorian values.

In the process, he ignored the vast amount of scholarship and research that went to make the book and instead descended to name-calling by way of a response to my arguments. It was all sound and fury, signifying very little.

Margaret Mutu similarly condemned me and announced to the media that I did not understand the history of cannibalism, although she admitted to not having read even a single sentence of the book.

Then the Human Rights Commission dipped its toe into this acrid pool and considered the merits of a letter of complaint made about the book. The commission's response was to suggest I enter into mediation. Like Kafka's Josef K, I found myself being considered increasingly guilty, even though I do not know what I am meant to be guilty of. I politely refused the offer.

And here is where the book-burners come in. While the methods are far more subtle, their aim in this case to bar the sale and distribution of my book amounts to exactly the same thing: censorship based on ideology.

Although slightly melodramatic in this context, the principle of Orwell's adage that "Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death" metaphorically still holds true to some extent.

I would not presume to guess the sort of pompous thoughts that run through the minds of a few academics who like to see themselves as guardians of public morality.

But they do not speak for the sort of New Zealand I grew up in, and neither, it seems, do they even speak for the communities they purport to represent. Yet, even before my book was released, they were in full chest-thumping mode, coming not to praise Paul Moon but to bury him.

So how should an author react to attempts at censorship? One response would be to yield to the critics and retreat into a form of academic hibernation, hoping that the chill rhetoric will eventually blow away.

But this would be to let the censors win. It is crucial that writers in all disciplines take a more principled stand, regardless of short-term irritations they might face.

If this was the United States, such freedoms of expression would be taken for granted, as they are embedded in the constitution and in the fabric of American society. Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that the United States has long been the source of some of the most important developments in many academic disciplines.

There, researchers have the luxury of inhaling in an academic environment that is much less inhibited by the type of strictures placed on writers in other parts of the world.

In New Zealand, with our population of just over four million people, there are too few historians as it is, and with no such absolute security of freedom of speech, there is a real risk that our past might end up being misrepresented because of the censorial forces at work. Some would go as far as to say aspects of it already have.

Those very few people intent on banning books and gagging knowledge rely on cultivating a climate of fear, in which publications have to be given the stamp of approval by some moral police or else face haughty condemnation. The best weapon against this threat is open and frank discussion of the evidence. Surely we have nothing to fear from that?

* Paul Moon is a professor of history at AUT and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.

- NZ Herald

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