Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition

Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flickr (CC licence)

Lost in the noise, this tweet from Labour Stephen Doughty MP:

https://twitter.com/SDoughtyMP/status/1072550760314007552

Events have over-taken this prospect. The Chair of the 1922 Committee received the required 48 letters on Tuesday, and so on Wednesday Theresa May had to weather a confidence motion from Conservative MPs. The opposition parties are keeping their powder dry on a confidence motion of their own. There is now no vote to avoid by proroguing parliament.

Nevertheless, the very thought of such manoeuvring should give us pause for thought. In the case of this Government and this embattled Prime Minister, the tactic would have surely backfired. While proroguing parliament is procedurally allowed, the British public would have considered it somehow ‘cheating’ and taken a dim view. Meanwhile, Members of the House of Commons would have been angry at having been denied the opportunity to censure the Government before Christmas, and would have returned in the New Year smarting for a confrontation. Continue reading “Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition”

Protesting the Imprisonment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

English PEN banners protesting the imprisonment of Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

I just noticed that the International Observatory for Human Rights put up a video last month, publicising the demonstration they did outside the Embassy of Myanmar in September. The ‘occasion’, so to speak, was the ridiculous jailing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

I was at the demo, representing English PEN, and am featured briefly in the video, calling on The British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi.

Continue reading “Protesting the Imprisonment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo”

Guy Fawkes Night is All About Hate, So Why Are We Outraged When Some Idiots Engage In Hate Speech?

Grenfell Tower 'effigy'

Both readers of this blog will be sufficiently aware of my position on free speech to be able to work out what I think about the news that six people are to be prosecuted for staging a racist ‘Grenfell’ Bonfire Night.

The group made a model of Grenfell Tower and set it alight, then posted pictures on social media.

My take is simple: it’s disgusting, racist and worthy of our opprobrium, but should not be a matter for the police. The ‘message’ of this particular stunt does not appear to have any merit, but its far too close to other kinds of political expression—in particular, satire—that we value, and which must be protected. Continue reading “Guy Fawkes Night is All About Hate, So Why Are We Outraged When Some Idiots Engage In Hate Speech?”

Anecdoche

In an essay entitled ‘What Do We Do About A Woman With A Penis‘ by Cassie Brighter, she writes:

Anecdoche — I stumbled into this word recently. It defines that condition when everyone is talking, and no one is listening. I see people expressing very polarized, angry views. I see people speaking from hurt, from fear and from hate.

For a moment I was slightly shocked that I had only just learnt the word now. It’s so useful and apt for the way online discourse (and indeed, political discourse in general) seems to unfold right now that it should be in common use.

It turns out that the word is a deliberate neologism, an invention of the Dictionary is Obscure Sorrows, a creation of John Koenig. Here’s his version:

a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.

While it’s great to be able to express this concept, it’s also slightly annoying, because the word does not mean what one might expect it to mean. Anecdoche is clearly a portmanteau of ‘anecdote’ and ‘synecdoche’.

  • An anecdote is an account of a personal experience, usually retold to make a point or reveal some truth;
  • Synecdoche is a part that stands for the whole. “Send me fifty swords” to mean, “send fifty people armed with swords”.

So an anecdoche could be a single story that becomes a stand-in for, and accepted truth of a particular issue.

This would be a useful word to have because this sort of thing happens all the time in political debates. It’s particularly relevant to transgender activism, which appears to have been reduced to a single, unhelpful question, over whether trans women should be able to use women’s toilets and gym changing rooms. The issue is way more complex and interesting than that.

The Awkward Squad and the Horseshoe Nail

Darkness. Brazil elects a proud fascist. A gunman murders eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The EU is becoming unsafe: authoritarians are on the rise in Italy, Hungary, and Poland; Journalists have been murdered in Malta and Bulgaria. All around the world, politicians, the press and the people are asking themselves how and why things have declined so quickly and catastrophically.

Continue reading “The Awkward Squad and the Horseshoe Nail”

Gayer Cake

Icing is a medium of expression. I think often of this marvellous interview with the musician Todd Trainer (drummer in Steve Albini’s band Shellac) with the music journalist Holly Day:

Yeah. Icing has definitely always been a part of the visual aspect of Brick Layer Cake. All four records have had icing on the covers, both front and back covers – literally all the artwork that has ever appeared on my records is icing, so that’s a theme, an aesthetic theme … Icing is a rather limited medium – I shouldn’t say “limited”. It’s an unforgiving medium to work with, because you only get once chance to really do it right.

Trainer’s album covers, with their naïf cursive, are a thing to behold, and I wonder if there are other modern artists working in the medium. There are probably similarities in technique to art made from neon tubing, as practiced by people like Bruce Nauman or Tracey Emin. And since icing is very much a craft, it is surely ready for a Grayson Perry subversion. Continue reading “Gayer Cake”

The Free Speech Moment and the Claudia Jones Lecture

Kerry-Anne Mendoza
Kerry-Anne Mendoza

In debates about reproductive rights, a crucial concept is over ‘when life begins’ and when a complex collection of human cells starts to have a moral claim. Some people say this must be the ‘moment of conception’. Others talk about ‘viability’, when certain senses come online; or they talk about the moment of birth.

For a long time now, I have been meaning to write a post about the ‘free speech moment’, after which we have a moral duty to defend the right to freedom of expression, even if we find the speaker or their statements odious. During a free speech controversy, asking oneself when that moment might be is a useful exercise, which helps to clarify what one thinks.

The Free Speech Moment I refer to might be the point of publication. Or in other contexts: The clicking on the ‘tweet’ button; The curtain up; the the exhibition opening; The opening notes of the first song; the speaker clearing their throat.

Alternatively, the Moment might also be the point of commission; the announcement of the new season of plays; the curatorial decisions; the booking of the venue; or the invitation. Continue reading “The Free Speech Moment and the Claudia Jones Lecture”

When the Myth of American Democracy Explodes

Listening to Carol Anderson talk about her book One Person, No Vote on the Ezra Klein Show podcast; about voter ID laws and other measures that actively prevent black people from voting; about gerrymandering and electoral college distortions that allow the party that loses the vote to win the election…

Watching Brett Kavanaugh testify to the US Senate Judiciary committee; where he refused to answer or evaded questions; where he perjured himself; and where his white male colleagues apologised to him for having his honour questioned…

… I found myself thinking that American democracy is on the decline. That it may even be irreparably damaged.

But then I thought again about what I had witnessed, and what people like Carol Anderson are complaining about. It is not that American democracy is dying, but that the absence of a proper democracy is and always has been entrenched. Continue reading “When the Myth of American Democracy Explodes”

Recommending Non-Kids Songs for Kids on the Lifehacker Upgrade Podcast

The Upgrade podcast from Lifehacker recently asked “What Non-Kid Songs Do You Listen to With Your Kids?” and I sent them some commentary, based on my own personal experience. I’m pleased to say that my recommendation of ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club was included in the round-up!

You can listen to the episode via the player below, or on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher. My smirking voice (can voices smirk?) may be heard brielfy in the segment that starts at about 29 mins.
Continue reading “Recommending Non-Kids Songs for Kids on the Lifehacker Upgrade Podcast”

‘Surprising and concerning’ – Quoted in the Guardian, discussing legal threats to book sellers

Jim Waterson of the Guardian reports a bizarre story of legal reputation managers at Schillings sending threatening letters to booksellers and independent book shops, in an effort to stop them stocking a book about an (allegedly) corrupt banker.

I’m quoted near the end of the story, expressing my dismay:

Robert Sharp of English PEN, the free speech campaign group that co-founded the Libel Reform Campaign, said the decision by Low’s lawyers to target booksellerswas deeply worrying. “This is surprising, concerning and sets a terrible precedent,” he said. He argued that by focussing on the synopses, “the effect of these legal letters is to short-circuit the legal process, by putting booksellers in an impossible position”.

Continue reading “‘Surprising and concerning’ – Quoted in the Guardian, discussing legal threats to book sellers”