Last week, the works of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair because they were ‘blasphemous’. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books “violated the kingdom’s laws”. This theological position comes about because in some of his work Darwish treats Judaism, Christianity and Islam as equivalents, which obviously upsets the fundamentalists.
I spoke to the Guardian about the ban and was quoted in their report:
But the writers’ group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. “It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world’s most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect,” said its head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.
“Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development,” said Sharp. “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”
I have worked for (and with) some courageous people at English PEN. I am often struck by the personal cost of exercising your right to free expression, and how damaging to life and finances taking stand can be.
For Banned Books Week, I was asked by Tor.com to write a piece on these people, the ‘Outliers’ who do the thing that most people would not.
Have you ever been stood up by Cory Doctorow? I have. Back in 2010 I was due to interview him at the London Book Fair about his latest novel For The Win. I read his entire back catalogue and planned loads of insightful questions, but when the time came for the interview in the PEN Literary cafe, he didn’t show up. Later, I received an e-mail from him with a preposterous and obviously made-up excuse about how his plane had been grounded by a volcano. So it was me on the stage with an empty chair. (My hastily written chat standard performance poem “The Empty Chair a.k.a Cory Doctorow Is Not Here Today” rocked YouTube, with literally dozens of views.) Continue reading →
On the technology site GigaOM, Matthew Ingram has postedtwo of a series of three articles about his “experiences of snooping on my kids and their online behaviour over a period of years.” He installed a ‘keylogger’ on his daughter’s computer everything she typed was e-mailed to him. When he confessed this to friends, they were shocked.
Is such parental behaviour justified? Children have fewer civil rights than adults (they cannot get married or vote) and its unreasonable to expect that they enjoy the same level of privacy as an adult – Parents should be aware of their medical conditions, for example. However, the transition from childhood, to the place where you take responsibility for yourself, is long and grey (see a previous post where I recommended aligning the age of religion with the age of consent).
When teenagers are concerned, NSA-style eavesdropping feels creepy. I think having secrets is part of what makes us a rounded and mature human being, and accepting that there are things that you do not know about your child is part of the parental process of ‘letting go’. However, much of their discourse takes place in public and semi-public social media spaces. It is less creepy to register an account and ‘follow’ a tween’s online discussions. I think that even doing so under an alias would be acceptable. What better illustration of the pitfalls in online discourse can there be, than discovering that the kid with the cat avatar you’ve been discussing Zac Efron with, was actually Your Mum?! Continue reading →
The double-Booker winning author Hilary Mantel has caused controversy, after delivering an uncompromising critique of the Duchess of Cambridge. The lecture she gave to the London Review of Books is now online: audio and text.
The Daily Mail and the Metro seem to have misinterpreted Mantel, reporting the speech as a ‘scathing’ and ‘venomous’ attack on the Duchess. But that is not the author’s sentiment at all. Instead, Mantel is critiquing the way in which the illusion of Royalty turns women into objects, vessels, and wombs. I am sure that Kate herself would find the analysis uncomfortable, but the attack is on the Monarchy as a whole, and on media outlets like the Mail and the Metro that feed off the images of Royal consorts.
The backlash towards Mantel puts me in the mind of the Orwell (or was it Hearst) quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” The speech is a form of social and cultural criticism rather than journalism, but I think the Orwell/Hearst sentiment applies equally. Mantel’s negative comments about Royalty are precsiely the sort of thing that other people – call them Monarchists, or ‘The Establishment’, or social conservatives – would prefer had been left unsaid. That fact is, in itself, a reason to applaud Hilary Mantel for saying it alound and in public. This speech should shock us into reconsidering the role of Royalty in our society. It should make us revise our stratospheric expectations of the Duchess of Cambridge, too.
It is worth noting that this kind of speech act is precisely the sort of thing that gets censored in other countries. Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws and many, if not most, other countries, have criminal defamation or ‘scandalising’ laws that would have seen Mantel down at the police station for an interview, or on trial, or in prison. In the UK, we finally abolished our dead-letter analogues in 2009. It should be a source of pride that one of our most celebrated novelists is able to make such controversial statements, unfettered.
This is precisely the kind of social leadership that we need from our authors. I wonder what would have happened if a politician had said the same thing?
The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?
First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.
However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.
Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.
Over the weekend I was quoted in Politiken, the Danish broadsheet, discussing the LOCOG attempt to control how staff, athletes and the public tweet during the Olympics. The ‘Games Makers’ have strict tweeting rules, and Twitter have been roped in to police ‘ambush marketing’ attempts by companies who are not an official games sponsor.
Hos den engelske afdeling af PEN, der kæmper for ytringsfrihed over hele verden, siger kampagneleder Robert Sharp, at han finder forbuddet direkte latterligt. “Det er bizart og man kan spekulere over hvilket signal OL sender ud ved netop at lægge så meget vægt på deres sponsorers interesser. Det efterlader en med en dårlig smag i munden og det strider for mig at se imod hele den olympiske ånd, der går ud på åbenhed og at dele”, siger han.
Robert Sharp tvivler alvorligt på, at de den Olympiske Komite kan håndhæve nogen form for censur. “Vi har tidligere set i forbindelse med retssager her i Storbritannien, at selv ikke et forbud fra Højesteret har kunnet stillet meget op overfor twitter. Tværtimod tror jeg ethvert forsøg på at stoppe en twitterpost eller et opslag på Facebook vil have den modsatte effekt. Det vil sprede sig på nettet med lynets hast”, mener han.
The thing that caught my ear this morning was the cricket scores. England are on tour, playing Pakistan… in Abu Dhabi. The English cricketers cannot travel to play in actual Pakistan due to security threats.
This echoes the problems experienced by delegates to the Jaipur Literary Festival last weekend. Threats of violence (real and imagined) kept Salman Rushdie away from the podium, and even derailed a planned video-link appearance.
In both cases, the threats of a few reactionaries are spoiling the chances of ordinary people to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. In both these cases they are Islamists, although Hindu Nationalists are guilty of similar ad hoc censorship of artists such as the late M.F. Hussain.
But anyway, my half-formed thought is this: I wonder to what degree the practice of sport might be considered ‘expression’ in the same way as we think of writing as expression? The elegance of Sport is often likened to dance, which undeniably a form of artistic expression. And dancers are routinely referred to as ‘athletes’ with similar fitness regimes. The need for an audience is common to both groups too. If an audience is barred from a performance, then that is an infringement of the artist’s freedom of expression. Is not the barring the Pakistani cricket fans from the games (by virtue of the games being played in another country) a similar infringement?
The problem is not experienced by the players. Since Pakistan has a proud cricketing heritage, with millions of enthusiasts. Denying these fans the ritual of test matches feels like a denial of their cultural expression too. The Islamic fundamentalists are demanding that their conception of Pakistan trumps any other ideas of what is important.
This is probably an old conversation for Pakistani cricket fans. Yet it is seldom discussed here in the UK. The fact that the Test Match venue has been moved to Dubai is not remarked upon by the sports reporters. I think it is a useful issue to highlight, because if these similarities between art and sport hold up, then that would be a very useful point for free expression campaigners to insert into the campaigning rhetoric. One assumes there are more sport-lovers than literature-lovers.
I love stuff like this – it speaks to the idea of a shared humanity and global culture, something that only the internet reveals.
And it is enriching art like this which is likely to be compromised by the propose SOPA legislation in the USA. Yesterday a number of sites, including Wikipedia, went ‘dark in protest at the proposed law. SOPA is a US initiative and so its difficult to know what we in the rest of the world can do to support it. Signing this Aavaz petition (along with a couple of million other people) might be a good start.