Attack on my colleagues at Kurdish PEN

To see an office so clearly labelled ‘PEN’ with its door kicked in is personally chilling, and I feel the intimidatory censorship of my Kurdish colleagues quite acutely.

Ordinarily, I am a couple of degrees removed from the people who are persecuted for standing up for free speech.  But an e-mail that was sent to me over the weekend brought the perils a little close to home.

On 2nd February 2016, the offices of the Kurdish PEN Centre in Sur Amed (Diyarbakir) were attacked.  Photos provided by my colleagues at Kurdish PEN show the door to their office was bashed in, and the abstract statues in the courtyard were decapitated. Continue reading “Attack on my colleagues at Kurdish PEN”

On Gun Ownership, Nothing Less Than Repeal of the 2nd Amendment Will Do

For human rights defenders, advocating for a constitutional amendment is the only consistent approach

Not a week goes by, it seems, without a mass shooting in the USA.  The world’s oldest democracy also has the highest rate of gun related deaths in the developed world.  It’s a shocking public safety problem, and it’s caused by the fact that the Constitution of the Unitied States says that the government cannot curtail its citizens’ right to bear arms.

Many constitutional scholars say that the 2nd Amendment does not really mean that individuals can arm themselves. Rather, they say, it simply stops the Federal Government from preventing the formation of militia.  The authors of that text were, after all, mindful of tyrannies, dictatorships and unchecked state violence. Continue reading “On Gun Ownership, Nothing Less Than Repeal of the 2nd Amendment Will Do”

Peter Tatchell’s Surprising Support for the Homophobic Bakers

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the homophobic Bed & Breakfast owners. But Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

Remember the controversy about the ‘gay cake’?  Last year, a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.  A court ruled that the bakers had discriminated against a customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, contrary to equality legislation.  The customer, Gareth Lee, was awared £500 in compensation.

The case will be considered in the Appeal Court this week.  Ahead of the hearing, the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has published a surprising article defending the bakery.  There’s a version on the Guardian comment pages, and a longer version sent to Peter’s mailing list.

I recommend reading the entire article, but the crux of Tatchell’s argument is this:

It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.

The bakery refused to support and propagate the idea of same-sex marriage.  Lee was not refused service because he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.

This is a subtle point but also a persuasive one.  The implications loom large.  Tatchell asks:

Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? … If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience surely means the freedom not to engage in the commerce of distributing ideas that you oppose.

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the Bed & Breakfast owners who refused service to a gay couple—This blog has previously discussed the issues raised by such cases. However, Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

The Medium of Icing

Who would have thought that patrsies are political! Almost 10 years ago, this blog also discussed the Medium of Icing.

Kickstarter’s Honest Response To A PR Problem

Last year, the amazing Zano project crashed both literally and metaphorically.  Once the largest ever European project to have been funded on Kickstarter, Zano was an ambitious plan to produce thousands of remote control drones with auto-follow and return-to-base capability.  But the idea failed spectacularly in November 2015 when the Welsh company Torquing Group went bust.

This was obviously a personal and financial disaster for those running the company; and a serious disappointment for everyone who had paid £139 or more to Kickstarter in the hope of receiving one of the first batch of drones.

However, it was also a public relations nightmare for Kickstarter.  It is certainly not unknown for crowd-funded projects to fail and not deliver the backer ‘rewards’ as promised, but the high profile nature the Zano project, and its complete demise, threatens to destroy the trust that millions of people have placed in the platform.  Worse, it could undermine the whole idea of crowd-funding as a way to finance products and creative content. Continue reading “Kickstarter’s Honest Response To A PR Problem”

Mass Murder LOLs

Dressing up as a génocidaire is totally fine.

One striking aspect of the Star Wars behemoth is how the bad guys have become hip1.  The triangles and chevrons of the Darth Vader and Stormtrooper mask have become iconic in their way, and adorn T-shirts, rucksacks, pin-badges, and even baby clothes.

It therefore seems natural that one can buy Darth Vader and Stormtrooper outfits for your kids. Continue reading “Mass Murder LOLs”

Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History

Is this censorship or merely curation?

You’re all aware of the controversy surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University, right?

To recap: Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the colonialist, businessman and white supremacist whose career in Southern Africa had huge impact on the continent.  The celebrated Rhodes Scholarship programme at Oxford University was established by his estate. As such, there is a statue of him at Oriel College at Oxford.  Some current students are campaigning to have the statue removed on the grounds that Rhodes was a racist and not someone who should be glorified in stone.

This campaign is happening in a milieu of renewed debates about freedom of expression and decency at universities.  I am against ‘no platform’ policies,  and against the abuse of useful innovations such as Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings as a way to shut down offensive speech. Continue reading “Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History”

How We Export The Erosion of Human Rights

Defending the law, the Chinese government pointed to legislation proposed in Western nations.

Whenever I moan about the British Government interfering with and weakening our human rights protections, one thing I usually note is what a terrible example it sets to other countries around the world.  How can we expect other Governments to respect human rights if we do not respect them ourselves.

Here is a concrete example of this problem in action, courtesy of The Guardian.

China introduces its own ‘snooper’s charter’

Defending the law, the Chinese government pointed to legislation proposed in Western nations, such as Britain’s draft investigatory powers bill, which grants similar powers to the UK government.

There is no need to comment further at this point.

Even the most offensive art can have two meanings

This week, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was criticised for publishing a shocking cartoon about migrants and rape culture.

It features a depiction of the terrible image of drowned three year-old Aylan Kurdi alongside what appear to be some dirty old men, chasing women Benny Hill style.

Continue reading “Even the most offensive art can have two meanings”

‘The Force Awakens’ and our Culture of Self-Referentiality

Our media moves at such a furious pace, you have to be quick to your blaster if you want to fire off a ‘hot take’. Wait for others to shoot first, and you’ll find your head slumped on a table in the Cantina of Irrelevance. I fear that writing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens in January 2016 may seem like sad devotion to an ancient religion, but I did want to make a brief note about the film, building on what all the other critics have said. Spoilers ahead.

Many, many writers have noted how the film appears to be little more than a remake of the original trilogy. Each plot-point, scene and character seems to have a companion in the 1977 film or one of its sequels. As well as clear parallels between, say, Rey on the desert planet of Jakku and Luke on the desert planet of Tatooine (both characters are strong in the force and both are hurriedly propelled skywards by the same piece of ‘junk’, the Millennium Falcon), there are times when the similarities are egregious and a little lazy. Entrusting crucial computer files to a brave, bleeping droid; a planet killing weapon with a single point of weakness. 

However, the similarities become forgivable when they invert the original scene or flip the gender roles: my favourite was when the hapless Finn arrives, still in his Stormtrooper gear, to rescue Poe—a clear reference to the Luke and Leia meet-cute in Episode IV.

As the film progressed, I was struck by how so much of its meaning depends on a good knowledge of the previous films. By this, I do not simply mean that the story is a saga or a soap opera, where what happened to this person’s dad or that person’s mum is crucial in understanding the drama of each scene (it is that, too, but that is to be expected with epic sci-fi and fantasy stories).

Rather, it is that every scene has two layers of meaning.  First, the prima facie advancing of the plot; and then a second meaning, which is the reference: not to some abstract monomyth, but to a precise piece of film-making within an specific, earlier piece of art from the late 1970s.

I am sure that there are plenty of people who watched this film with little or no knowledge of the original triology.  I do wonder what that would be like! Akin, I imagine, to watching a Bollywood film when you cannot speak Hindi. The subtitles help you out but you chuckle out of time with everyone else. The Force Awakens is not really a film for newbies.

That the film cannot stand alone, that it is not self-contained, is not necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, at times I think the references are perfect.  The way the music score in the final scene iterates towards Luke’s familiar theme is just sublime.  Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the biggest film of the year (possibly the highest grossing film of all time, eventually) is predominantly paraphrase, parody and reference. I think that it is emblematic for how the dominant culture entertains us in the middle half of the second decade of the twenty-first century: through overt and specific call-back. This is a post-Simpsons Star Wars; Sci-fi for the Family Guy generation.

The self-awareness is not only to be found in the scene-for-scene parallells, but in the dialogue. Star Wars always had funny, flippant lines, usually spoken by Harrison Ford as Han Solo. He, and others, deliver similar lines in The Force Awakens and yet here they feel more appropriate than in the earnest originals.  In particular, the way in which Rey chastises the men who patronise her feels bang on-trend for the decade. Her dialogue with the other characters reminded me of countless scenes from the modern Doctor Who, where the various so-called ‘companions’ do a good trade in one-liners that deflate the Doctor’s grandiosity…. as if they know they’re in a TV show. Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not break the fourth wall in the way Spaceballs does so magnificently. But there are moments, when a character subverts a movie cliché, where I felt that a wink at the camera was just a few frames beyond the cut.

The biggest subversion of movie clichés is in the notable and welcome prevalence of female characters in the film. I think that also says something important about our Fifteen-Years-Into-The-Millenium1 culture. I will write about that in a separate post.

1. Its incredibly tiresome that we lack an eloquent way to describe our current period in history. “The Noughties” sounds crass and uncultured, and what do we even call the years beyond 2010: “The Teens”? “The Tweens”? In the past I have used fin de millenaire, referencing the established phrase fin de siecle, but of course that refers to the end of a period, right before the turning of the century or millenium, rather than the period immediately after.