Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

“Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, This Is Wrong”

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

Adinkra Symbols

In the local church hall, the Girl Guides have put up a display of strange symbols.

In the local church hall, the Girl Guides have put up a display of strange symbols.  A short tour of Google reveals them to be Adinkra Symbols from West Africa – specifically Ghana.

I’ve pasted some images below, but there are more on www.adinkra.org. My favourite is WO NSA DA MU A “If your hands are in the dish”, a symbol of participatory government, democracy and pluralism. Continue reading “Adinkra Symbols”

For Books’ Sake: Supporting Nigerian LGBTQ writers

A practical and targeted form of international intervention that avoids being patrimonious

I’m pleased to be quoted in an article by Ellie Broughton on the For Books’ Sake website, When Gay Characters Attract Death Threats. Continue reading “For Books’ Sake: Supporting Nigerian LGBTQ writers”

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”

On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi

We need to be shocked now, so we may demand action from our government now. I think that trumps our squeamishness

Before I mire myself in questions of when and whether to publish shocking images, I should—must—begin by writing about the fact of Aylan Kurdi’s drowning and the refugee crisis in general.  If the central argument for publishing an image of a dead boy is that it ‘gets people discussing the issues’ then I think I have an obligation to do so, even if these thoughts have been stated earlier and more eloquently, elsewhere. Continue reading “On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi”

Taiye Selasi and the Afropolitan

We published Taiye Selasi in 2005.

So yesterday, Granta announced their once-a-decade list of the Best British novelists under 40. I’m pleased for English PEN deputy president Kamila Shamsie, who was featured on the list.

But I’m also delighted to the inclusion of Taiye Selasi, whose novel Ghana Must Go has recently been published. Taiye is the author of my favourite piece of prose published in the LIP magazine, a magazine project I worked on from 2003-07.

Continue reading “Taiye Selasi and the Afropolitan”

Technological Time Travellers

I’ve just started reading The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate). It is about the history of information, writing, and IT, and it won the English PEN Hessel-Tiltman Prize this year.

I was struck by a passage in the book, discussing ‘African Talking Drums’:

Before long, there were people for whom the path of communication technology had lept directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages.

This rang a few bells.  First, this nugget from Alain de Botton:

If technology is developing well, what was normal when you were a child should by now seem ridiculous.

Which seems to me to be a variation on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  What’s interesting with regard to the African Talking Drums is that they are seen as a kind of primitive technology, even thought (as The Information explains) the language is so complex it appeared to be a form of magic to the white slavers, colonialists and anthropologists who heard them.

These technological leaps are interesting, I think, because so much of our culture is tied up in technological advancement.  It dictates what kind of jobs are necessary and profitable, of course, but also influences design.

I am reminded of Jason Kottke’s posts on Timeline Twins (for example, watching Back to the Future today is like watching Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, because the gap is 27 years in both cases), and also Human Wormholes and The Great Span (for example, this old man who witnessed the Lincoln Assassination).

It also makes me think of my great-grandfather, who (along with everyone else of his particular generation, I suppose) was alive to hear the news of the Wright Brothers achieving powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and also to watch the Apollo landings on the moon from 1969-72.

Think finally of the uncontacted tribes of Puapa New Guinea and the Amazon, who must consider the aeroplanes that fly overhead to be magic.

On How We Go To War

Amid all the frantic late night comments about the UN resolution to finally act in Libya, this tweet from @techsoc stood out:

All intervention is risky & w/ great downsides. A non-intervention is also an intervention; letting Gaddafi kill using weapons we sold.

I think this an interesting companion thought to Sunder Katwala’s bolshy piece on the subject of whattaboutery (a topic Johann Hari previously dealt with in this hardy perennial). Sunder explains why it is worth intervening in Libya when we might not do so elsewhere. First, there has to be a clear and present humanitarian crisis (this is not present in most examples of despicable oppression, a small mercy). Second, intervention has to be possible and practical. This generally means the support and assistance of major regional players like the Arab League or African Union, who are notoriously lethargic. And third, the intervention requires a legitimacy, again related to what important external stakeholders think, but also what those inside the country ask for. These three checkboxes provide a case for what Sunder calls contextual universalism. It matters – at least to me – because it articulates why I had a gut feeling that the Iraq war was wrong, and the current intervention is right. This is despite the fact that the documented brutality of Saddam Hussein was ever bit as bad as that of Colonel Gaddafi.

The cautious approach is clearly a response to the bungling of Iraq. I watched some of the collegiate House of Commons debate on the issue yesterday, and most of the contributions, from Nicholas Soames to John McDonnell, were infused with the considerations that Sunder lays out. This approach to Foreign policy – the need for practicality and legitimacy, the need to be seen to be going to war for the right reasons – is obviously influenced by how unsuccessful the hawkish and shameless approach of Bush/Blair turned out to be. in 2006 I wrote in this space how protest actually serves to influence future policy more than current policy. I quoted Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, who wrote:

… someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.

Well, Tony Blair was not forced kicking and screaming from office in the way Tim hoped. Nevertheless, the way the British and American Governments have acted during this current crisis is telling. It is clear that they have been profoundly affected by the uproar we caused last time. David Cameron is rightly being praised for his handling of the crisis, but his course of action was defined by the parameters set for him by recent history. And those parameters were set by us, the awkward squad of protesters and dissenting bloggers. For that, I think we can claim some credit.

Update

I did not see The Andrew Marr Show but @DrEvanHarris did:

Shami points out Blair Iraq effect coming home to roost. No public appetite for deploying ground troops even in humanitarian cause. #marr

Chimanmanda Adichie's Single Story

“I have always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person, without engaging with all the stories of that place and that person. “

An interesting TED talk by the novellist Chimamanda Adichie on the power of stories, and how a multitude of stories are required in order to fully understand other people.

Key quote is thirteen minutes into the speech:

I have always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person, without engaging with all the stories of that place and that person.  The consequence of the Single Story is this: It robs people of dignity.  It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.  It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.

That’s my kind of multiculturalism.