An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious, arrogant, cowardl and self indulgent. On all of these counts, you are mistaken.

Dear People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters —

As is customary with this form, I must begin by stating whether or not we have met.  We have not.  But in many ways, I feel like you.  In fact, following my Open Tweet to People Who Write Open Letters this morning, it could be said that I am you.  I share your concern that the Open Letter form has become a cliché, and your worry that we are reaching Peak Open Letter, bringing an ennui that can only be described as Open Letter Fatigue.

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious and arrogant.  You claim that they are cowardly.  You claim they are self indulgent.

On all of these counts, you are mistaken.  Continue reading “An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters”

59 Productions to produce City of Glass for the stage

This multi-layered book is perfect for the 59 productions treatment

This week 59 Productions (the radical design and production company than I had a hand in setting up) announced their latest project.  Its an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by Duncan Macmillian, the acclaimed writer of People Places Things.  The show is directed by my friend Leo Warner and is a co-production with Home and the Lyric Hammersmith.

City of Glass (part of Auster’s New York Triology) is an intriguing post-modern detective story that plays with ideas of reality, identity and imagination.  I think its a perfect fit for the kind of art that Warner and the remarkable 59 Productions team create.  In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he outlines their approach. Continue reading “59 Productions to produce City of Glass for the stage”

On human rights, the UK should not be a law unto itself

There is something extremely comforting about the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a treaty others can hold us to

The parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls is about to publish a report into the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.  It appears as though British-made weapons have been used to commit human rights abuses in Yemen.

Its draft report, seen by Newsnight’s Gabriel Gatehouse, said: “The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.”

The committee said it seemed “inevitable” that such violations had involved arms supplied by the UK which would mean it was in violation of its own legal obligations.

I’m not sure, but I think the phrase “its own legal obligations” means aspects of UK law that prohibt certain kinds of sale.

It’s stuff like this that makes me (and human rights groups) extremely distrustful of the Conservative Government’s proposed ‘Bill of Rights’.  This is a proposal to place our human rights protections entirely within the UK legal framework, with no reference to the law and jurisprudence of European Court of Human Rights.

As the Saudi arms sales story shows, this Government, in keeping with all past and future governments, cannot really be trusted to abide by its own rules and laws!  There is therefore something extremely comforting about the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a treaty and an obligation that other countries can hold us to (and of course, we can hold them to it as well).

On human rights, I’m glad that Britain is not currently a ‘law unto itself’ and fear for the time when that changes.

Ban the Burkini Ban

As someone who blogs about freedom of expression I really can’t let the ridiculous burkini controversy in France go by without comment.

Policemen have literally been forcing women to disrobe in public. That is deeply illiberal and wrong.

The arguments for enforcing such a policy do not stand up. Continue reading “Ban the Burkini Ban”

Can Courage be Learnt?

The author Malcolm Gladwell wrote the popular book Outliers: The Story of Success.  ‘Outliers’ is term he gives to incredibly successful people, but I’ve used the same word to describe that particular sub-genus of political activist, who persists in challenging authority when others are intimidated into silence.  These people are often sued, imprisoned, attacked and even murdered because of what they write. It is my great privilege to work with and on behalf of such people at English PEN.  They are compelling because they are so unusual in their societies (a fact that makes them even more vulnerable as people in power seek to make a public example of them). What makes such a person?

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series Revisionist History has only recently been launched but it’s already in the Top 10 downloads on iTunes. Episode 03 ‘The Big Man Can’t Shoot‘ revisits the idea of what makes some people take different decisions to others, told through the fascinating story of two basketball players.  It gives some insight into what makes both types of ‘outlier’—the successful sportsman; and the tenacious political activist.

The episode asks why barely any professional basketball players shoot free throws underhand. It’s a technique that is proven to yield more points for a player… but it’s also deemed ‘cissy’ or a ‘grandma shot’.  Social pressures prevent basketball players from making a simple change to improve their game!

The reason for this bad choice is not ignorance.  Basketball player Wilt Chamberlin said he knew he was better shooting underarm than over, but he chose the inferior technique anyway.

Gladwell explains that we all have a psychological threshold that must be met before we change our behaviour.  Towards the end of the episode he describes what’s going on in our heads when we make these kinds of choices:

He doesn’t care! The kind of person who would let bad things be said about him in his own autobiography is the kind of person who would shoot a free throw that other people think looks ridiculous. … Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations. Who would rather be right than liked.

It takes courage to be good. Social courage. To be honest with yourself, to do things the right way.

To my mind, the idea that someone like Lydia Cacho or Liu Xiaobo or Mazen Darwish has ‘courage’ is true, but also slightly trite, because it only describes what they have done, not why or indeed how. Courage is difficult behaviour to discuss because it is unclear whether it can be learnt or whether it is innate.

Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions here offer arguments for both.  First, his discussions of a low psychological ‘threshold’ that can inspires radical behaviour (or a high threshold that can discourage it) implies that something innate. It’s just a part of our personality that we acquire at an early age. However, as he describes elsewhere in Outliers, a great deal of talent can actually be acquired through practice (specifically, focused practice).

Perhaps courage, as displayed by the political activists and writers I work with, can be similarly taught!? I wonder what this looks like in practice?


Photo: Syrian journalist and activist Mazen Darwish (right), recipient of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.  Darwish spent 4 years detained without trial in Syria. © Robert Sharp

How Women Are Covered

Last month I suggested that the satirical focus on Philip May’s wardrobe was because of the social media backlash against sexist media reports.

Sports reporting is particularly bad in this regard and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has thrown up some ur-examples, so its only right that we call them out. Continue reading “How Women Are Covered”

Stronger Together: America is a Collaboration

The keynote speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia were a fantastic reminder of just how potent is the idea of ‘America’. The President and the First Lady are perhaps more comfortable speakers, but I thought Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech on Thursday evening (which I’ve only just watched) was actually the most persuasive analysis of what the country stands for and what it can be. Continue reading “Stronger Together: America is a Collaboration”

Calling LBC to Debate Our Response To Terrorism

What a hideous few days for terrorist attacks in Europe.  First, a spate of incidents in Germany: an axe attack; a shooting that killed nine people; someone with machete; and most recently a suicide bomber that injured 15 people. 

And then on Tuesday, the despicable murder of Fr Jacques Hamel at his church in Rouen, France. It’s less than a month since the Nice attacks, when a man in a truck deliberately ran over hundreds of people celebrating Bastille Day.

The regularity of these attacks only adds to the fear that the terrorists seek to sow.  There is a sense that Europe is a battleground, that things are falling apart.  The Far Right will seek to exploit this fear to their advantage.

We need to remember that these incidents are still extremely rare.  After the Nice attacks, the author Tom Pollock wrote a post on the likelihood of someone being hurt by a terrorist:

In France, in the last two years, there have been 8 attacks for which responsibility was claimed by Islamic Extremist Terrorists, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66,000,000 people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident. …

In Iraq, by contrast, the chances are much higher.

We would do well to remember this… but of course it’s not the whole story. Being told that they are extremely unlucky is no comfort to the victims or their families. And even though the chances of you or me being caught up in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, we still do not want to live in a country or on a continent where this happens so frequently.  There is a psychological impact on everyone. 

Yesterday, I heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the radio, suggesting that everyone now needs to alter their mental state. We must, he said, become far more cautious and suspicious in public spaces. He offered Israel as an example of the permenant state of alert that Europe needs to adopt.

I think that would be sad and wrong. The Israelis perpetual expectation of attack is one reason given for the continued occupation of the West Bank.  It’s an attitude that leads to soldiers shooting at children throwing stones.

But Something Must Be Done, right?

Perhaps not. What seems clear from the recent attacks is that the level of co-ordination with the leaders of Islamic State / Daesh is minimal and perhaps non-existent. There may not be any networks to infiltrate or many conversations on which to eavesdrop. The security services are surely already doing all they can, but there is no easy way to prevent so-called ‘lone wolves’ using everyday objects to hurt ordinary people, as happened in Rouen and Nice.  

At least, no way that would preserve civil liberties and the open society that we value, and which the terrorists loathe. Security guards outside churches, really?  It’s a problem that can only be solved with long term social policies, not quick-fix increase in the security presence.

On Monday, I called into the Breakfast Show on the talk radio channel LBC. During the programme, plenty of callers had been discussing the latest terror attacks.  Some people advocated racial and religious profiling, and The host, Nick Ferrari, seemed to be imply that the terrorism was essentially the fault of asylum and immigration policy.

I called in to say two things.  The first was to point out that (pace Tom Pollock, above) terrorists kill a tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Europe.

My second point was that we should not introduce any new policies, such as banning Muslims or ignoring refugees, that would compromise our values.  Such policies are exactly what the terrorists want because they ‘sharpen the contradictions‘. Demonising Muslims and turning away refugees will only boost recruitment to ISIS.  I am shocked that there are still people in this country and around Europe who do not understand this.

At the end of my impromptu contribution to Nick Ferrari’s show, I tried to introduce the idea that we should accept that some people will die from terrorism, in the same way that people die from cancer, in wars or car accidents. In this, I had in mind the short article ‘Just Asking‘ by David Foster Wallace, written for Atlantic magazine in 2007.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?

If we must change our way of thinking, let us internalise this: We cannot live in a state of total security.  Some crime and even terrorism is always likely to be with us. This idea is something that liberal people, who support human rights and a free society, often try to avoid talking about.  I have written before on the need for campaigners and those who advocate for civil rights to be honest about the negative consequences of advocating freedom. We need to better explain why the freedoms and rights that we hold are worth preserving, even if bad people can do bad things with those freedoms. 

When I made this point on my LBC, Nick Ferrari accused me of being “sanguine” about terrorist deaths! I cannot decide whether he was right on that point: perhaps in the moment my argument was poorly put. Or conversely, perhaps accusing rights defenders of such things is a standard tactic deployed by those of a more authoritarian tendency?

Incredibly, the audio from the show does not appear to be readily available online, so you cannot judge for yourselves. 

Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May

Our constant call-outs of sexism in the media are slowly having an effect

Societal progress moves at a glacial pace. Sexism didn’t go away when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and it’s still with us even though Teresa May now occupies Number 10 Downing Street.

Still, it’s interesting (to me, at least) to watch our societal attitudes change, even at the quantum level.  In fact, I think it is particularly worthwhile to note the most granular changes in our discourse: in this case, how we talk about women and men.

Many people have shared this article by Nicole Morely in the Metro: ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man‘.

Continue reading “Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May”

No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’

Any political party that did not have a mechanism for a sitting leader to be ousted would be pretty much the definition of anti-democratic

The worrying news from Turkey has made me think about the way in which the recent political machinations within the British Labour Party have been described (usually by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) as a ‘coup’.

I’m sure the people who use that word do not mean to suggest that the 171 Labour MPs who want Mr Corbyn to resign are equivalent to soldiers with guns.  But use of the word does imply that the manoeuvrings are anti-democratic.

But they are not.  They are profoundly democratic. Continue reading “No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’”