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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Our Opinion

Censors For Peace

Some Greeks who say they oppose the policies of George W. Bush seem to be aping them more and more each day, at least as regards an increasing intolerance for any opinion that does not conform to their own. The Athens daily Kathimerini reported last week that the organizers of the Athens International Book Fair had announced that they were “disinviting” Britain from this year’s gathering, which is scheduled for next month. Britain was not only originally invited to take part, but was, in fact, to be the event’s honored nation. The decision to cancel British participation, however, was finally made because of the country’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq and its role as the United States’s most loyal ally in the conflict.

Such, at least, was the public rationale given to all and sundry by the Athens Publishers and Booksellers Association (SEBA), an outfit that, by its actions, appears to define free speech and the open exchange of ideas and opinions according to the Little Red Book — or most probably the big red volumes of the Great Helmsman. We could not believe the story when we read it. Leaving aside the repugnant nature of what is, simply put, an act of intellectual fascism, what exactly does SEBA think it is accomplishing? The British Council, which was responsible for organizing British participation in the Athens fair, might be an arm of the British government, but so what? Will the next international medical conference held in Athens preclude the participation of doctors who work in Britain’s National Health Service?

What is most incredible — and obnoxious — about SEBA’s actions is how they conflate its intellectual vigilantism with principled opposition to war. What should we expect next? Book-burnings of American authors? Municipal bonfires in Constitution Square of the works of “Anglo-Saxons.” There is truly something fundamentally awry — not to say deranged — in a society whose publishers decide to boycott books.

Meanwhile, however, SEBA has decided to invite American filmmaker Michael Moore to its conclave. Now there’s intellectual daring and bridge-building across cultures for you. has nothing against Michael Moore. Quite the opposite, we think his work is admirable, politically astute, and certainly a breath of fresh air — and honesty — in an otherwise stultified US media environment. It’s just that we don’t understand why the American Michael Moore is kosher for the deeply peace-loving SEBA, while the entirety of contemporary British arts and letters are not. Isn’t anybody in SEBA aware of the fact that many (most?) British writers and intellectuals are as opposed to the war in Iraq as it is?

Besides, what makes a book “antiwar,” and who judges? Is The Iliad pro-war or antiwar, or both? Are these even legitimate questions? And who draws up the criteria that make an author “acceptable” or not? What is most contemptible about SEBA’s self-satisfied decision to ban the British from its book fair is that it reminds us of the time, not all that long ago, when there were pistopoiitika koinonikon fronimaton (certificates of social probity) in Greece and only “correct” and “healthy” opinions could be expressed in what the powers-that-be at the time thought was the best of all possible worlds.

A final point: By claiming that the Greek public’s antiwar sentiments do not make it safe for British authors to participate in its fair, SEBA has outrageously offended every Greek, as well the Greek government. While SEBA is clearly imprisoned in a virtual world of its own bizarre making, most other Greeks can distinguish between cultural engagement and political contention — not to mention simple, everyday, human interaction and exchange. It goes without saying that if, according to SEBA, British publishers and writers aren’t safe coming to a book fair, what are people to think about the prospects of visiting Greece during the Olympic games?

SEBA’s actions and statements defy rationality and even simple common sense. More important, they insult all notions of intellectual freedom and the unimpeded intercourse of ideas. Again, it is difficult to believe that this organization represents publishers and booksellers. In the end, we can only hope that, in a moment of collective lucidity, it will rescind its decision. More important, we think this is a moment that demands the immediate and forceful intervention of Greece’s own writers and intellectuals. If nothing else, they have an obligation to speak up in defense of their country’s — which is to say, their own — intellectual honor and dignity in the face of such an unconcealed, and shameless, attack on both.

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