"Nothing to hide, nothing to fear"? Two Retorts

One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.  I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.

But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument.  Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people.  They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us.  They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people.  In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.

Here are two sophisticated arguments against even responsible governments having mass surveillance powers.  First, the philosopher Quentin Skinner, in conversation with journalist Richard Marshall.  I quote at length without apology: Continue reading

Our Human Rights

Last month, the essential Labour Campaign For Human Rights (LCHR) launched Our Human Rights.  Its a campaign to highlight how the European Convention of Human Rights, and the British Human Rights Act, have helped ordinary citizens get what they need and deserve from the state.

Too often, human rights laws seem distant from the ordinary person.  They are portrayed by those hostile to the concept as being little more than a tool for terrorists and illegal immigrants to game the legal system.  As I have written before, speaking about human rights only in terms of the most extreme cases does not persuade the ordinary voter of their importance. Continue reading

The Tricycle Theatre, the Jewish Film Festival, and Cultural Boycotts

Last week the Tricycle Theatre caused controversy when it asked the UK Jewish Film Festival (which it was due to host in November) to return a grant made by the Israeli Embassy.

Given the present situation in Israel/Palestine … The Tricycle cannot be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict…the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided that it occurs without the support or other endorsement from the Israeli Government

This has been met with widespread criticism.  Hadley Freeman in the Guardian says “don’t tell me what to think about Israel.” In the Spectator, Nick Cohen says its anti-semitic double-standards:  what other community but the Jews are asked to pass a political purity test?

There is one aspect to the debate that is missing from the reports and opinions that I have read, which is that members of Palestinian civil society have called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law.  With this in mind, I am not sure that charges of double-standards are quite accurate.  The test of ‘consistency’ is not whether the Triclcyle Theatre (or any other boycotters) accept money from other governments… but whether they heed other international boycott calls, from other embattled groups.

Having said that, I find this point diffcult to ignore:

In general I find the idea of cultural boycotts to be unsettling.  Artists are likely to be some of the most open and liberal people within a society, and it seems counter-productive to break-off dialogue with the very people who will be the vanguard of change in social and political attitudes.

In this case, it is clear that the UK Jewish Film Festival is curatorially independent of the Israeli state, and in fact shows films that are critical of the government and its policies towards the Palestinians.  To fund dissident voices is a curious form of propaganda!

However, some might say that propaganda is precisely what this amounts to: by supporting dissent in the cultural domain, the Israeli government can claim that it supports diversity and free expression.  Meanwhile, it continues to enable the construction of settlements in the West Bank…

Perhaps now is precisely the wrong time to take a stand?

Here’s a counter-intuitive thought: perhaps now, in the midst of the Gaza crisis, is precisely the wrong moment to make a boycott gesture?  Israeli violations of international law have been taking place for many years, and the BDS movement is in response to the settlement building in the West Bank, not the Gaza intervention.   Yet only now has the Tricycle Theatre chosen to make an issue of the Israel’s Embassy’s financial support for the JFF.

With our domestic law-making, we often fall prey to a Something Must Be Done attitude at moments of crisis, ignoring more routine and less spectacular injustices.  Perhaps it would have been better had this debate taken place at a time when Gazan civilians were not being bombed by the Israel Defence Force.


Is Everyone In Gaza A Combatant?

In my recent post ‘On The Killing Of Children‘ I wrote:

Implicit in this is the idea that if only Palestinian adults had been killed, the air strikes would have been more acceptable. Because Palestinian adults are seen as dispensible. Or worse: deserving of their fate. An idea that Palestinian adults are fair game, and their lives count for less, because they voted Hamas into power.

Appallingly, this precise sentiment has been voiced more than once in the last few days.   On 28th July, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, gave a public speech:

When you welcome Hamas into your living room and allow them to launch rockets next to your sofa, you are not a civilian you are a combatant.

When you are part of an election process that asks for a terrorist organization which proclaims in word and in deed that their primary objective is to destroy their neighboring country and not to build schools or commerce or jobs, you are complicit and you are not a civilian casualty.

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Damian Green Warns of "The Coercive Power Of The State"

Damain Green has blasted the Government’s overreach into our private lives:

I’ve had personal experience of the coercive power of the state.  If freedom was going to die out in this country it was never going to be because of some dramatic seizure of power by a dictator, it would always come about through the gradual erosiuon of the individual freedoms and privacy that we have all taken for granted all our lives.  And whether the excuse is the war on terror or the desire to provide better public services, that erosion is precisely what we are seeing today.

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Trust in God and Teresa May, But Tie Up Your Human Rights Camel

So its come to this: defending the Human Rights Act through the medium of animated GIFs.  A few months back, Unlock Democracy posted ‘15 Reasons We Should Celebrate The Human Rights Act‘ opn Buzzfeed, with some amusing pop-culture animations. (h/t to the brilliant Human Rights blogger Adam Wagner).

If these 15 reasons persuade, it is because they link our human rights to things that ordinary people can identify with: our right to a private life, &cetera.  However, they still refer to instances where the individual clashes withe the state, for example at a demonstration, or a council tennacy. Continue reading

Literary Gaza gasps for breath

As the destruction and death persists in Gaza, we should be thankful that creativity has not yet been suffocated.  Incredibly, authors continue to write through the bombardment.

According to an email from Ra Page, director of Manchester-based Comma Press, which recently published a collection of short stories from writers in Gaza, “all of the Book of Gaza contributors are writing away like crazy, whilst they have power.” (Eighty percent of households in Gaza currently have only up to four hours of power per day as Israel has badly damaged the Strip’s electricity infrastructure.)

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On the killing of children

The news is hideous. 298 people died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, almost as many people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel.

In both cases, the news reports emphasise the number of children killed. It’s a common journalistic practice that we take for granted, which is actually quite curious.

What is being communicated? Is it that a child’s death is somehow more tragic, because they have not had a chance to properly experience life? If so, what about all the dead adults who have still not achieved their potential?

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Writing on Censorship for Off Black Magazine

Off Black Magazine launches today: fashion, arts and culture.


Me too.  I was delighted to be asked to write for the launch issue (which takes ‘The Body’ as its theme) on the censorship of art and culture.  My article takes in erotica, Google algorithms, 3D models of vaginas, Instagram’s terms & conditions, and Rupert Bear’s penis.


Urging Libel Reform in 'The Herald'

Today The Herald has published an opinion piece by me, urging reform of the libel law in Scotland.

Incredibly, the cradle of the Enlightenment offers fewer free speech protections than England and Wales. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.

Read the whole thing in the paper, or at HeraldScotland.com.