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Flags Matter

Flags are symbols, full of historical meaning.  Just ask Emily Thornberry.

Following the despicable shootings in Charleston, South Carolina last week, there has been renewed debate over the Confederate Flag, the banner under which the secessionist Southern states fought the American Civil War.  Some people claim that the flag is simply a symbol of Southern culture and ‘heritage’— that flying that flag is merely an expression of an independent, libertarian spirit.  But that is disingenuous.  The Confederate cause was explicitly racist, about fighting for the right to subjugate black people.  Ta-Nehisi Coate catalogues the unequivocal words of those men who rallied their fellows to the ideology of white supremacy, and argues “Take Down The Confederate Flag—Now“.   The recent discussion has unearthed this article by Christopher Hitches from 2008, where he excorates the former Governor of Arkansas and (at the time) Presidential Candidate Mick Huckabee for lauding those who would fly the Confederate flag.  A “straightforward racist appeal” for votes, Hitchens called it.

On a more positive note, watch this wonderful TED Talk, done in the style of a radio show, by Roman Mars (my favourite podcaster).  His show, 99% Invisible, is all about design, and the talk is about the importance of flag design.

Roman outlines the principles of good flag design, draws attention to some good city flags, some bad city flags, and some truly terrible city flags.  He also explains why we should care.

A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage. It might seem frivolous, but it’s not. .. Often when city leaders say, “We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,” my response is, “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner for people to rally under to face those more important things.”

 

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The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon

I posted this on Medium last week to almost deathly silence.  I thought it would be something people might share but clearly I’ve not built up enough of a network.


One aspect of the Internet that makes me a little melancholy is the fact that so many people have to put the same phrase on their social media bios: “These are my own views and not that of my employer” or variations of that theme.

It’s sad because the Internet was supposed to be a place where people have the freedom to explore new ideas, identities and friendships. Instead, our online discourse is polluted by the anxieties and the obtuse reasoning of the corporate world.

The all-to-common “personal opinions” disclaimer reminds us how our freedom of thought and of personality is curtailed. My heart sinks whenever I read such words, because I know that the person who is writing them is on their guard, insuring themselves against some future misunderstanding or invasion of their work life into their personal space.

And yet we need such disclaimers, because on the Internet there are a remarkable number of people who are happy to conflate the views of an individual with that of the organisations they work for. Continue reading The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon

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Human Rights as a Thought Process

Last week I was invited to attend a speech by Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman MP, interim Leader of the Labour Party, entitled ‘In Defence of Human Rights‘.  She gave a robust defence of the Human Rights Act 1998, which the Conservative Party seeks to repeal.  She called the Government’s plans ‘politically and constitutionally destabilising’ and made important points about how the proposals would give authoritarian countries the ‘green light’  to start defining human rights in ways that suit those in power, rather than their citizens. Continue reading Human Rights as a Thought Process

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Ten years on from ‘The Unrecognized’, Bedouin Villages in the Negev Remain Unrecognized

Ten years ago I was part of the 59 Productions team that produced The Unrecognized, a short documentary commissioned by Adalah, The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Our film examined the plight of Israel’s Bedouin minority, who live in villages that the state refuses to recognise.   Despite being citizens of Israel, they are not provided with basic public services such as water, sanitation, education, healthcare, or transport infrastructure.

Appallingly, the problems outlined in the film persist a decade later.  On the Huffington Post, Nadim Nashif and Dalal Hillou outline the current situationContinue reading Ten years on from ‘The Unrecognized’, Bedouin Villages in the Negev Remain Unrecognized

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No, Ambassador: It’s Not ‘Meddling’ to Call for Free Speech in Saudi Arabia

First posted yesterday on Huffington Post UK.


Today is the third anniversary of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s arrest, and thousands of activists around the world are demanding the reversal of his conviction on charges of blasphemy and ‘setting up a liberal website’. Many gathered at Downing Street today as a letter signed by hundreds of writers and politicians was delivered to Prime Minister David Cameron.

But the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London is not amused. Last week, it issued an indignant response to the ongoing campaign for Badawi’s release.

‘…the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia wishes to state that it has no tolerance for foreign entities meddling in the Kingdom’s internal affairs,’ said the statement. ‘The Kingdom will not tolerate such outrageous, ridiculous interference in its sovereign criminal justice system.’ Continue reading No, Ambassador: It’s Not ‘Meddling’ to Call for Free Speech in Saudi Arabia

Some quick predictions about #Periscope and Terrorism

Last week I recorded a quick Periscope video blog making some predictions about terrorism and technology.

I think that very soon there will be some kind of outrage – either a terrorist attack or a shooting spree – where eye-witnesses stop to film the events as they unfold.  They may even put themselves in danger to broadcast live via Periscope or similar live-streaming apps.

Discussing this with some friends of mine, I was told that was a ridiculous suggestion, and that any eye-witnesses would simply run for cover rather than film a murderer on the loose.  But I have a hunch we will soon see examples where the urge to film and share trumps the urge to fight or flight.

I don’t know what the consequences of this will be.  I just think it will happen.  What do you think?

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Four reasons why I probably won’t win the Shirley Jackson Award

I gatecrashed the Hugo-nominated Pornokitsch blog to post this review of my competitor novellas.  I also put this on Medium, just because.


I’m delighted and honoured to have been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, for my novella The Good Shabti, published by Jurassic London. However, there are four good reasons why I probably won’t win.

The first reason is the Ceremony of Flies by Kate Jonez (DarkFuse). Our protagonist, who calls herself Emily, is an unreliable cocktail waitress, an unreliable road-trip buddy and definitely an unreliable narrator. We meet her serving drinks in a Las Vegas casino, but before long she is on the run in a 1971 Pontiac Convertible, driven by an equally dubious gambler named Rex. Their journey takes them from the bright lights of Sin City, via suburban Barstow, to ever more remote and decaying locales, until she arrives at what might just be the end of the world.

Jonez’s parched descriptions of this doomed trajectory are fantastic. There are Joshua Trees and Stucco churches, and flies everywhere.  The soaring temperature is evoked so well I thought my Kindle might overheat.  And there is no let up—Every apparent relief, every opportunity for a cool breeze or a quenching of thirst, is just a further heightening of the characters desperate plight. Is this Emily’s personal hell for the many crimes she has committed? Or some wider vengeance? Continue reading Four reasons why I probably won’t win the Shirley Jackson Award

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59 Productions wins Tony Award

Huge congratulations are due to my former colleagues at 59 Productions, who just scooped a Tony Award for their set design work on the Broadway musical An American In Paris.  

Creative directors Leo Warner and Ben Pearcy led the team. Here’s Leo talking about the work of 59 on the BBC World Service Weekend programme (skip to the 16 minute mark) Continue reading 59 Productions wins Tony Award

Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week.  Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable.  The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.

If this is a real trend then it’s appalling.  As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly.  Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage).  Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society.  Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.

I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

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James Rhodes wins at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court gave free speech a boost last week when it handed down its ruling in a case known as MLA v OPO, and lifted an injunction prohibiting publication of an autobiography.

The case concerned Instrumental, a memoir by the classical pianist James Rhodes. The book includes graphic accounts of the sexual abuse that Rhodes suffered as a young boy, and how music helped him to overcome the mental health issues he suffered as a result. Rhodes ex-wife sought the injunction on behalf of their son, who as Aspergers Syndrome. She argued that, were their son to read the book, it would cause him significant psychological harm. Relying on 19th century case law, she argued that publication would be to knowingly cause this distress, for which her son would have an action in civil law.

The Court of Appeal had accepted this argument and put an injunction in place, even going so far as to provide a schedule of excerpts from the book that should be removed before publication would be allowed. But on Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this was an error. Continue reading James Rhodes wins at the Supreme Court