'THERE IS NO SUCH THING," George Orwell once said, "as a genuinely nonpolitical literature." That probably comes as news to millions of Danielle Steel fans. Still, if Orwell had only tacked on the word "award" to his aphorism, that 1946 statement would have been as eerily prescient as his novel "1984."
Take Thursday's awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Though the secular storyteller has been a rumored Nobel candidate since his lyrical 2002 novel, "Snow," he is perhaps best known for being charged in his native country last year for "denigrating" the Turkish identity. His crime consisted of pointing out, in an interview with a journalist, that the Ottoman Empire killed 1.2 million Armenians nine decades ago and that its successor has killed 30,000 Kurds over the last two.
Harold Pinter, is equally well known for his strident leftist politics. The 2004 honoree, Elfriede Jelinek, is a fierce critic of Austria's conservative establishment.
As tempting as it is to poke fun at political moralizing from the Nobel committee, the ones truly deserving of criticism are the governments — not just of Turkey but also of France and the United States — that twist language into politics by criminalizing speech and denying the truth.
Turkey continues to demonstrate its unreadiness to join the ranks of mature democracies with its many attacks on free expression, most of them springing from laws against insulting the state or its institutions. And the list of jokes that insecure Ankarites can't take is long: suggesting that troops be withdrawn from Cyprus; criticizing Kemal Ataturk, the long-dead father of modern Turkey; even having a fictional character in a novel speak of the Armenian genocide. The country is consistently ranked about 100th in the world by global nonprofit groups that measure press freedom, and the European Union has insisted on easing these restrictions as a precondition to Turkey's membership.
During that process, France has taken the lead in pushing Turkey to join the 21st century instead of squabbling over the 20th. But as is too often the case in Europe, the state's zeal to promote the truth has manifested itself in a prohibition against the individual's right to state falsehoods. On Thursday, as Pamuk was winning his prize, the French National Assembly passed a bill making it an imprisonable offense to deny that the Armenian genocide took place. This matches similar laws across the EU criminalizing Holocaust denial. Both notions exhibit an unseemly lack of confidence in the free competition of ideas and leave European governments open to charges of hypocrisy.
France has a partly questionable motivation — anti-Turkish animus — for coming down on the side of truth. The U.S., which is motivated by a desire to please its most important Muslim ally, has come out on the other side — refusing to call the Armenian genocide by its proper name. Proving again that nothing corrupts language more than politics. "Political speech and writing," to quote Orwell again, "are largely the defense of the indefensible."
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