DIPLOMAT MAYJUNE 2021 WEB READY - Flipbook - Page 57
BOOK REVIEWS 57
Alasdair Buchan’s suggestions for reading this month
DANGEROUS IDEAS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CENSORSHIP IN THE WEST FROM
THE ANCIENTS TO FAKE NEWS, ERIC BERKOWITZ, £20, WESTBOURNE PRESS
CENSORSHIP IS A WAR ON THINKING. Or to be more accurate, a continuing,
murderous sequence of crimes committed against those who think.
The wonderful army of buried Chinese terracotta soldiers discovered only in 1974 was
created by the ‘First Emperor’ of China, Qin Shi Huang, around the time of the birth of Christ
to protect him in the afterlife from the thousands of real people he had buried alive to punish
them for thinking and writing poetry, history and philosophy, primarily using Confucius as a
source. After Qin’s death the writer Lu Xun eerily foresaw the potential for such events to be
repeated (George Orwell’s 1984 being one of thousands of works on the topic).
Fast forward two millennia to Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and the
Communist leader had unleashed another nationwide attack on intellectuals. His motivation
was clear. In a speech he bragged that the Emperor Qin had “buried 460 scholars alive
[Intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shihuangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin...
a hundredfold.” He hadn’t literally but the misery, humiliation and, yes, deaths inflicted on
parents, teachers, lecturers and poets was calamitous.
From this starting point, Eric Berkowitz’s book continues to astonish and shame those who think thinking can be policed.
Century after century someone with power was always attempting to bolster it by hounding those they thought were criticising,
condemning and, worst of all, laughing at them. Did Henry VIII really think a sentence of death would expose those who had
broken his law against imagining his death?
Less funny, sorry, not funny at all, are the endless examples of star chambers, inquisitions, papal edicts, lynchings, un-American
Committees, and genocides, past and all too present. And so to today. While those who exalt academic freedom welcomed
the dawn of the internet as a liberating step forward, it didn’t take long for a gaggle of trolls, race-haters, holocaust deniers and
intolerant states to show what the net offers those with bad intent too.
This book is important and it’s probably best for people, as a friend of the author told him, to get it quick “before it’s banned!”
THE PLAGUE CYCLE, CHARLES KENNY, £20, SIMON & SCHUSTER
CHARLES KENNY IS AN economist and an international development expert, so he takes
a welcome non-medical, wide-angled approach to creating this illuminating treatise on plagues
and, yes, pandemics.
Readers may jerk their necks back at the surprising conclusion of this well-argued book. So,
let’s begin at the end. It is the author’s impressively argued view that it’s a sign of progress that
today, heart attacks and strokes are the leading causes of death. After all, he says, this is evidence
of humanity’s greatest triumph: “until recent decades, most people didn’t live long enough to
die of heart failure.”
In other words, today’s Coronavirus pandemic is bad but it’s not bad enough to
reverse the achievements of centuries in getting to where we are today.
The past, you might say, was a lot worse. You only need to search Wikipedia for
‘Major epidemics and pandemics by death toll’ to find the Plague of Justinian in the
sixth century may have killed 60 per cent of the population of Europe; that the fourteenth century Black Plague may
have again taken 60 per cent of a much larger European population that Spanish flu might have killed 5 per cent of the
390 million people in today’s vast world population would have to die for the Spanish Flu’s 5 per cent level
to be reached. The difference now, of course, is manifold. Vaccination, better sanitation, medical advances,
(especially the genome project), and loss of superstition.
Modern communications have spread good practise awareness further and wider than even
the twentieth century managed. I hesitate to tell you this, because the pernicious anti-vaxxer
movement certainly needs no encouragement, but no less a humanitarian than Mahatma
Ghandi once believed that smallpox was not contagious saying: “Vaccination is a
barbarous practice, and it is one of the most fatal of all the delusions current in our time.”
The previous proprietor of Diplomat, Alasdair Buchan is a former Fleet Street journalist
who is preparing to launch an online magazine providing travel advice for the disabled.
DIPLOMATMAGAZINE.COM } MAY/JUNE 2021