Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?

Censorship of the painting would set a dangerous precedent that would disproportionately affect black artists

A controversy has erupted around the Whitney Biennial in New York. Protestors have demanded that a Dana Schutz painting of murder victim Emmett Till be removed from the exhibition with the further recommendation that it be “destroyed and not entered into and any museum or market”. This is a clear call for censorship.

Emmett Till was an 14 year old African-American, murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury.

Till’s mother Mamie famously requested an open casket, so the terrible disfigurement of her son could be witnessed by everyone. This decision exposed to the world the brutality of lynchings and lack of civil rights for black people. Continue reading “Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?”

On Killfies and Campaign Photos

What photo will the media use in the event of your untimely death?

Via @Documentally’s excellent weekly newsletter, here’s a short Observer article by Eva Wiseman on the phenomenon of ‘killfies’. This is where a person’s attempt to take a selfie of themselves gets them killed.

Which led me to think, maybe we’ve been getting our fears wrong all along? What if the way technology destroys humanity is not with an uprising of robots, of toasters turning against their masters, of self-driving cars choosing a road trip less travelled, but with something as simple as a reflection? There is something so unashamedly ancient in these deaths that it almost seems gauche to point it out. The sirens singing on the rock, beckoning sailors towards their comprehensive display of filters. The boys drowning in their own image. The recording of a risk, the risk itself. …

And once you’ve learned about killfies, it’s very hard to unsee them. Every Instagram post suddenly reads a little like a suicide note.

Or, as a candidate for ‘the photo of you the media will use when they report on your untimely death’, the darker side to selfies that I wrote about a few years ago. In bygone eras, these images were usually school photos or wedding day pictures. Now they tend to be self-portaits. Continue reading “On Killfies and Campaign Photos”

Fighting the Fundamentalists: More Books Please

Let’s lob literary ordinance into Iran

In a report about Ayatollah Khameni’s regressive and anti-Semitic views on feminism, this nugget:

Earlier this month, Khamenei issued a speech warning that “cultural attacks by the enemy are more dangerous than military attacks”, hitting out at human rights groups and think tanks.

The speech itself concerns the Iran-Iraq war. Khameni believes that intensive discussion and celebration of the ‘Sacred Defence Era’ will culturally fortify Iranians against the pernicious influence of Iran’s enemies. His definition of ‘culture’ is of course extremely narrow. But there is nevertheless something refreshing about the idea that cultural influence is more important and effective than military force! Continue reading “Fighting the Fundamentalists: More Books Please”

Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

When institutions abuse the trust placed in them, they become brittle and expose themselves to conspiracy theorists and demagogues

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves. Continue reading “Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown”

Multiple Matters: Twins in Fiction

In 1929, Ronald Knox, a clergyman and literary critic, set out a list of rules for detective fiction.

Watson: Sherlock, could it be…

Sherlock: It’s never twins.

I wrote a very short piece for Multiple Matters, the official magazine of TAMBA.


Twins are a irresistible plot device, particularly for science fiction and fantasy writers who can have their characters appear to be omnipresent, to teleport, or even return to life. The ploy works for the same reason that random people obsess over the multiples they meet at school or in a buggy at the shopping centre: twins are are part of our natural world, but they are also somehow magical. Continue reading “Multiple Matters: Twins in Fiction”

How Do We Make Diversity Scale?

How does the great work done by indies to platform more diverse voices scale to the larger publishing and production companies?

It is the Oscar’s this weekend and La La Land is favoured to win Best Picture.

In this op-ed piece for the Independent, Amrou Al-Kadhi laments the way Arab characters exist on the periphery of most Western cinema.

Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging. With masterful directors, sublime works like Moonlight happen; now the story of gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto has become that much more relatable and mainstream. It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.

Reading this challenge to the film industry, I naturally began to think of how the literary community measures up on the same issue. Although I don’t exactly work in the publishing industry, English PEN works closely with publishers and writers, and the debate over who gets published and what gets published is always close and loud. Continue reading “How Do We Make Diversity Scale?”

I’m Glad That ISIS Suicide Bomber Jamal al-Harith Was Paid £1m Compensation By The British Government

We must not let politicians use this story to undermine the case for universal human rights

The news this week was full of the controversy surrounding the British born suicide bomber Jamal al-Harith, formerly known as Ronald Fiddler.  Al-Harith was picked up by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001, where he was suspected of fighting with the Taliban.   He spent time in the U.S. detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, before being returned to the U.K. It seems that he subsequently traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS and launched a suicide bomb attack during the current battle with the Iraqi army for the city of Mosul.

Aspects to this story include whether security services had been monitoring his movements; whether the policies of previous Home Secretaries (including Teresa May) made it easier for him to do what he did; The Daily Mail’s ridiculous attempt to smear Tony Blair for being at fault; and the alleged £1m compensation paid to al-Harith. Continue reading “I’m Glad That ISIS Suicide Bomber Jamal al-Harith Was Paid £1m Compensation By The British Government”

What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?

“It is easy to advocate counter speech when you can engage in it freely and without repercussions”

Using my statement to the Bookseller as a springboard, Ruth Coustick-Deal writes an interesting and challenging piece on counter-speech, and why it doesn’t solve the problem of hate speech in the way that free speech advocates assume.

Certain paragraphs that stood out for me, as particular challenges for free speech advocates.  We need to have answers to these points, and address them in our own responses to controversial speech. Continue reading “What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?”

Swallowed by the Kraken

I usually experience the podcast as disembodied conversation between my ears, but on this occasion I was able to step into that space myself… like someone sucked into his own dreams.

There has been a growth in the popularity of podcasts in recent years—both in the number being produced, and in those listening to them. I think part of the reason for this can be explained by the same psychologies that make sitcoms popular. Recurring characters in shows like Cheers, Friends or Big Bang Theory are your smart, funny friends that visit you every week. It’s a pseudo-social interaction, and I think ‘panel’ podcasts tickle similar synapses.  Continue reading “Swallowed by the Kraken”

Imagine Your Well Meaning Policy in the Tiny Hands of Donald Trump  

One tangential effect of the Trump presidency—I hate to call it anything so optimistic as a ‘silver lining’—is that it is likely to reconfigure many people’s conception of the state and its power.
An ongoing difficulty for those of us who campaign on human rights issues is convincing ordinary that rights violations effect them. The people who usually have their human rights violated first are usually out of the mainstream: people on the political fringes, religious minorities, or those who are part of unconventional sub-cultures. Those who are part of the conventional majority do not the abuses happen to others, and even if they are told about them, they never really believe the old Pastor Niemöller warning that they could be next (I’ve talked about this before).


Although I think such attitudes are mistaken, I think they are forgivable. When one lives in a country with a healthy democratic culture under politicians who are conventional and centrist, it is entirely rational to think that any clipping or shaving of human rights will not affect you, because, frankly, they won’t.

This is why the British people appear to have consented to their government logging communication and browsing history: few people really believe that Prime Ministers like David Cameron or Teresa May will use their surveillance powers to establish a Nineteen Eighty-four style surveillance state.

Warnings to that effect (perhaps even deploying the word ‘Orwellian’) are perceived as hyperbole.

Likewise with the way in which people consented to human rights abuses perpetuated by the Obama Administration. Because the forty-fourth president was a thoughtful and essentially decent person, it was assumed that any capability the U.S. Government has to invade citizens privacy, or to launch drone strikes on foreigners, would be used wisely and sparingly.

But Barack Obama gifted Donald Trump an expansive surveillance state.

While I do not believe the Trump presidency is likely to be materially or morally helpful to the world, it will at least be rhetorically useful. In his awfulness and in his likely abuse of his power, he will provide the perfect warning, a salutary tale, a bogeyman that we can use to warn policy-makers and voters everywhere about the dangers of eroding civil liberties.

So when someone proposes a slight curb on free speech, or subtle change to surveillance powers, the argument will no longer be some nebulous hypothetical In the future someone could misuse these powers. Instead, the argument will be Imagine these powers in the hands of Donald Trump. The fact he has been elected and is busy ignoring all the standards, traditions and norms that keep a democracy strong and trusted, shows us just how quickly a stable democracy can slip off the rails. He is a stark reminder that we should build safeguards and worst-case-scenarios into our laws.

None of this is particularly interesting to the Irish or to ethnic minorities, of course. They don’t need to imagine state over-reach because they already have first-hand experience of how the state can abuse it’s power at their expense.