Blackstonian Free Speech

I have finally started reading The Great Dissent by Thomas Healy. It’s history of how United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes came to write a famous defence (or should I write defense?) of free speech in the case Abrams v. United States. It’s a fascinating account of how someone with entrenched conservative views changed his mind, and also a useful potted history of the concept of free speech. I’m making plenty of notes and bookmarking several passages. Continue reading “Blackstonian Free Speech”

Ungerechtigkeitfreude

In a dark, personal and fascinating essay on Josef Mengele, my former colleague Jo Glanville sticks a pin in a very particular feeling experienced by those of us who work in human rights campaigning:

Had I developed an unhealthy attraction to stories of the most extreme inhumanity? I asked myself similar questions when I left journalism to work in human rights. I often used to discuss with my colleagues the adrenaline rush that would come when we heard about a new case of imprisonment, prosecution or worse, giving us the energy to take action, but it was disturbingly close to a sensation of excitement. Perhaps my motives were irrelevant, since the work was clearly necessary: whether researching historic human rights abuse or campaigning for current cases. But the intellectual thrill that can accompany investigating or campaigning against the darkest events, alongside a repulsion at the atrocities, continued to disturb me.

I call this thrill Ungerechtigkeitfreude – ‘Injustice joy.’ But I do not see it as a negative emotion. The feeling of excitment comes from the recognition that a particular human rights violation—one that sits squarely within the mandate of your organisation—offers a clear opportunity to make a case that could catalyse change. It is the recognition of an opportunity to spin an act of destruction and oppression into something positive.

I imagine that scholars of fascism, genocide, and its intersection at the Holocaust, have similar muddled feelings. As one accrues a deep historical understanding of how something terrible came about, one also gains the ability to recognise parallels in our own time and place. Which in turn offers the opportunity to sound the alarm and divert the problem.

It is a recognition that, while we have no power to change the past, we do have an opportunity, every day, to change the future for the better.

Radical Redistribution

My erstwhile colleague Jessica Prendergrast has just published a fascinating post on the problems of social mobility in coastal towns and rural areas. Its a response to the Social Mobility Commission’s fifth ‘State of the Nation’ report. As one of the directors of the Onion Collective in Watchet, Somerset, Jess has been deeply involved in the development of community projects and social enterprises for many years.

Here’s an idea a bold government could implement: Continue reading “Radical Redistribution”

Roy Moore, Project Veritas and the Backfire Effect

Across the pond, the Washington Post has exposed an attempted sting on its investigative journalism team. A right-wing group named Project Veritas sought to hoax the paper into printing false allegations about the sexual predator and GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore. Here’s the Washington Post story (its behind a paywall) and the Guardian US rehash.

A few notes on this. First, it’s emblematic of how profoundly damaged American democracy has become. Newspapers were always supposed to be, if not entirely neutral, then at least reliable arbiters of truth. This attempt by Project Veritas seeks to undermine that reliability. Had they succeeded, power and influence would have accrued to Donald Trump and those who enable him. Continue reading “Roy Moore, Project Veritas and the Backfire Effect”

Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All

Buffalo Jump at Wind Cave National Park

Writing in the Guardian last week, Carole Cadwalladr lamented the way in which Twitter catalyses and facilitates global bullying. This prompted a short exchange between me David Heinemann from Index on Censorship. We noted the betrayed promise of free speech for all that social media offers, and what—or rather, who—might solve the problem.
Continue reading “Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All”

The Warning Signs

Earlier this week, Ratko Mladic was found guilty of war crimes.

It seems astonishing that, even after the Holocaust of the 1930s-40s, there could have been further genocides. Is it that people fail to recognise the warning signs that lead to such atrocities? Or that they lack the power and protection to stop the descent into barbarity?

A compelling new video from RightsInfo uses the testimony of three survivors of genocide to describe how these crimes against humanity came to happen.

The lesson is that human rights must be defended early and often. We should and we must defend our rights against even the tiniest encroachment. If we do not, whoever has violated those rights will surely return to erode them further.

See also: my interview with Anjan Sundaram, author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship.

All the UK and Ireland Bank Sort Codes

Image by Procsilas Moscas (Creative Commons)

As well as debating politics, human rights and free speech, this blog is also interested in spreadsheets. Regular readers may recall my triumphant post about UK Postcode Areas, or the deeply honest and uncompromising account of the Excel spreadsheet function VLOOKUP.

As part of my job I’ve recently had cause to look up the bank name and address for a given set of sort codes. To begin with, I simply Googled each sort code and then copied-and-pasted whatever information was revealed.

This is extremely tiresome, so I’ve made myself a spreadsheet. I scraped the web for the information, and have put it in a handy CSV file: sortcodes-uk-and-ireland.csv [1.2 MB]. Continue reading “All the UK and Ireland Bank Sort Codes”

Blogging as a Mode of Thinking

I’ve updated my WordPress blog software to version 4.9 and in doing so thought I would try their latest default theme. So the website looks a little different but all the content is the same as it was last week.

While doing the update I messed up something with the server permissions and everyone was locked out. This is something of a test post to check we’re back to normal.

Over on another eponymous blog, Austin Kleon writes about his experiment in daily blogging. This observation feels true to me:

I had forgotten how wonderful blogging is as a mode of thinking. Blogging is, for me, more about discovering what I have to say, and tweeting more about having a thought, then saying it the right way.

Indeed. Blogging is iterative writing. Continue reading “Blogging as a Mode of Thinking”

The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence

It’s nearly 25 years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south London. His death has become a pivotal moment in race relations in the U.K. It has become, in retrospect, the moment when the country woke up to the shoddy justice available to people of colour. It prompted the MacPherson Inquiry which famously branded the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’.

In the 25 years since the murder, the Daily Mail has claimed for itself a central role in bringing justice for Stephen Lawrence. Its campaigning is hailed as an example of public interest journalism, and is often cited as a refutation of the charge that the newspaper itself is inherently racist.

In an enlightening paper for Political Quarterly, Professor Brian Cathcart examined every word that the Daily Mail published on the Stephen Lawrence case. He suggests that the newspaper has systematically exaggerated its influence over the case. He’s written OpenDemocracy article summarises the main findings. Continue reading “The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence”

Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.

The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”