S0 IT HAS finally happened. The courts are now being used in an attempt to silence a section of the Canadian publishing industry. It was announced recently that an organization of Second World War veterans is suing the makers and broadcasters of "The Valour and the Horror," a group that includes Terence and Brian McKenna, the CBC, the National Film Board, the federal attorney-general, the federal secretary of state and minister of communications, and the publisher HarperCollins. It is somewhat surprising that GI Joe and Spiderman are not also included in this roll-call of rogues, but that aside, what concerns me is the fact that a group of highly organized people are trying to gag a major Canadian publishing house.
This is neither the time nor the place to explore and analyse the specific contents of "The Valour and the Horror," either in terms of the artistic merit of the six hours of television documentary and consequent HarperCollins book, or the alleged errors - 41 of them, apparently that have so provoked and perplexed the veterans of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Brian McKenna describes the situation as being worse than libel chill, almost an ice age. "They want to make sure no one will ever shine a flashlight on some of the dark places of our history again," he says. Those men who used first the Senate and now the courts are proud, valiant individuals who deserve honour and respect for their services in a most necessary war, and their courage is not in question. But in this case they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
Because the point of all this, the thrust of the veterans' campaign, is not an attempt to put right some factual errors, but rather to gag an opponent, to dictate what should and should not be seen on television or published in books. It is in spirit no different from the risible but dangerous antics of Canada Customs when they impose their suburban sensibilities on esoteric literature, deciding for 26 million people what is good for them, what might turn them into deranged killers or dangerous sex maniacs. Yet we should also be wary of some of the arguments circulating within this maelstrom of point and counterpoint. Some arrogant critics of the censorship policy scream that the people at Canada Customs have no education and are unqualified for their positions. This is missing the point in spades. The crux of this debate is not about "who" should censor but about "why" should we censor? The patrician angst of a handful of full-fed authors complaining about the schooling of civil servants is not only irrelevant but ludicrous. It would not matter if the English department of Queen's University were in charge of the customs desk - it is still a case of authority being imposed on matters that concern only the individual; the issue being, in short, what he or she wants to read in the privacy of his or her own home.
Quite a lot of this, of course, is connected with the Canadian obsession with submerging the citizen beneath waves of concern, a tide of compassion. Wear a helmet on a bicycle, we are now ordered, it might save your life. Yes, it might. But that life belong, to me, not to you, the state, God, or gods. If I don't care about its future safety, that is my business. When it comes to literature, just let me be, let me read what I want to read and trust that I am sufficiently intelligent, well-balanced, and reasonable to decide what is hate literature, what is damaging pornography, what is distortion of historical truth, and what is a slur upon Bomber Command during the Second World War.
It was the Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu who said "The wise man, when he must govern, knows how to do nothing. Letting things alone, lie rests in his original nature." Why then this itch to scratch other people's consciences, whether the scratching takes the form of an overbearing customs official or a zealous former Lancaster pilot suing his enemies for $500 million? It is all about a lack of trust, about pessimism concerning human nature. Oddly enough, when are left to make up their own mind, they invariably come to the decision. This was something that George Orwell wrote about so often and so eloquently, hammering away at us to realize that ideas and views cannot be locked away. His perception of the ultimate menace to free and free reading was Big Brother; in Canada the large sibling now takes the form of a group of men dressed in black with legal documents under their arm.