Is sentencing a Nazi sympathiser to read Shakespeare an appropriate punishment?

Judge seemed to think introducing student ‘to high culture’ would ‘magically make him a better person’ said The Daily Telegraph

Shakespeare books
(Image credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

“Does reading classic literature have a beneficial effect on the criminal mind,” asked Amanda Craig in The Sunday Times. Judge Timothy Spencer QC apparently believes so.

Last week, he gave Ben John, a former student at De Montfort University in Leicester who had downloaded some 70,000 white supremacist documents, including bomb-making guides, a two-year suspended sentence – telling the 21-year-old that he had avoided prison “by the skin of his teeth”.

After making John promise not to read any more extremist material, Spencer asked him: “Have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope.” He promised to test John on these at his next hearing, and said that if he hadn’t read them, he would “suffer”.

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The judge “seems to imagine that introducing John to high culture will magically make him a better person”, said Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. I fear that he is wrong. “In fact, it may just as easily do the opposite. If this young Nazi sympathiser reads Oliver Twist, he will encounter Fagin, a nakedly anti-Semitic stereotype.” And if he reads Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, he will encounter another: Shylock.

As he works his way through the canon, he will find that Evelyn Waugh admired Mussolini, that Ezra Pound supported Hitler, and that W.B. Yeats approved of eugenics. He will discover that Philip Larkin wrote a poem urging the government to “kick out the n*****s”, and that George Bernard Shaw was a staunch proponent of genocide.

If the judge was determined to set a reading list, said Mariam Khan in The i Paper, I can think of better ideas. How about The Holocaust by Laurence Rees, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla, or Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera?

It’s “never wise to second-guess a sentencing decision” without knowing all the details, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. But it does seem an unduly lenient sentence (and it has been referred to the Attorney General). Many have wondered whether “a brown-skinned teenager” who had downloaded 70,000 pieces of Islamic State propaganda “would have got away with a lecture on the merits of Pride and Prejudice”.

The case is a “depressingly familiar” story of an awkward, angry young man retreating into “dark online subcultures, where each click leads to something more extreme”. This tendency poses “a real and potentially murderous danger to society”. And we need a more effective antidote to it than “a diet of bonnet dramas”.

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