Fear and loathing - and pacifism

IssueMarch 2006
Comment by Jeff Cloves

This occasional column is a continuation of the one I wrote for Nonviolent Action and it's timely to revisit an issue that arose at NvA.

I'm still smarting from the spiking of one of my columns because (as I recall) “it would cause offence to our American staff”. During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq I submitted a poem in place of prose. I hoped A hymn of hate to America might provoke a response. It did.

A challenging idea

The poem was originally written before the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. It has been published in various small mags and anthologies broadly sympathetic to the peace movement but I sent it to NvA in order to challenge the idea that pacifism and righteous anger/hatred were incompatible. I was quite shocked to be censored by NvA, but now I wonder if our government's own hate-induced rush to limit freedom of speech might make my poem even liable to prosecution.

Its opening line was born of impotent anger at the USA 's imperial ambitions and I resorted to fantasy: “I dream that I'll awake one day/and find America sunk”. A later verse, however, is the one which I suspect caused offence:

I wouldn't fling a line to Nixon

or launch a raft for any White House gang

given a chance I'd shove the wretches under screaming:

”that's for Korea that's for Chile

that's for Vietnam that's for El Salvador

[the list has grown as the US has attacked/invaded other countries and the poem has got longer]

that's for bubblegum you bums”

An indivisible freedom

Maybe the editors of NvA simply didn't like the poem and if they'd said so I would have gritted my teeth and lumped it. As it is, the offence of rejecting a poem for fear it will cause offence nags away at me and is now to be magnified by massive limitation of freedom of speech in the face of the threat of terrorism. This limitation has provoked howls of liberal rage at the perceived illiberality of our government but it has also put the cat among liberal pigeons.

Years ago, the South Place Ethical Society, the owners of London's Conway Hall, caused offence by allowing it to be hired by the National Front or some such. The Society responded by citing its own constitution and its commitment to free speech. Such freedom, it insisted, was indivisible. And so it is. We cannot pick and choose what is acceptable to say.

Hearts and minds

Personally, I have come to the view that absolute freedom of speech is essential and would have no limitation whatever. Better that people say openly what is truly in their hearts than nurture hatreds that find expression only by remove. If people want to incite violence against others they should be free to say so just as the army is able to advertise its commitment to the murder of persons unknown.

When, in the 1970s, the then editors of Peace News urged the British army to defect from Northern Ireland, they ended up in court on a charge of conspiracy. Fortunately, the jury would have none of it and a famous nonviolent victory was won.

I believe the way to refute racial myth and fantasy is to have it out in the open where it can be rebutted. And, as pacifists, we must find a way of resisting violent action in our own streets and neighbourhoods just as we insist invading forces be resisted in other countries. We've all had endless taunts about what we pacifists would have done about Saddam and we all have our answers. Above all we know that ideas and ideologies cannot be suppressed by cutting out the tongues of their prophets and poets.

Topics: Civil liberties
See more of: Jeff Cloves