In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:
The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?
The callous murder of ten journalists and two policemen yesterday in the centre of Paris is a landmark moment. The French now have their own 9/11 or 7/7. It’s certainly a defining moment in the history of freedom of expression too: on a par with the Rushdie fatwa.
It’s less than 24 hours since the atrocity and the murders are still at large, yet there is already so much to write about. With ‘moments’ such as this we experience cycles of news, comment, counter-comment and meta comment (i.e. comment on the comment). We seem to be experiencing all of these at once. Continue reading
Should the EU act to save illegal immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean? Superficially, this question sounds a bit like one of those dilemmas presented by moral philosophers: do you switch the path of the runaway train so it kills one old man instead of a family of six?
But in this case, the question is not a like-for-like, life-for-life comparison. Instead, it boils down to whether we
- save the lives of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants; or
- try to save a few million Euros of costs incurred by the Italian navy
… and I suppose, a few million more Euros caused by the inconvenience of being stuck with a boat-load of Africans without identity documents.
Students in ‘Introduction to Ethics’ seminars should not find this example particularly troubling. Since we are not weighing up human lives, a few humane heuristics will see us through. One of those is that if its a choice between people and money, you save the lives. When confronted with someone in clear and present danger, and the power to save them, we should not sit on our hands and watch them drown.
Really, what is so hard about that? Continue reading
King Juan Carlos is to abdicate. I love this simple poster design, campaigning for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.
The abdication reminds me of the point I made in last week’s post about MP recalls, where I said:
If the electorate cannot get rid of their representative outside of election time … I think its is only fair that the representatives cannot rid themselves of their electorate either.
I think a similar principle holds for monarchies. If the hereditary principle means that people cannot choose their head of state, then its inconsistent and wrong for the monarch to be able to choose whether or not they serve as head of state! If we allow blood-lines to play a part in our constitution then we have to accept whatever gaffe-prone idiot that genetics throws up… and that idiot is stuck with the populous too.
To my mind, a single abication undermines the whole idea of hereditary monarchy. Any country where that happens should transition to a full democracy with an elected or legislature-appointed head of state (I prefer democracies with a nominal, not executive president but I’m sure there are arguments for and against both models). I hope that the abdication of the Spanish King triggers a referendum that ends the anacronism.
Did anyone hear the BBC Today interview with UKIP leader Nigel Farage this morning? I was tearing my hair out at the inanity of it all.
Presenter John Humphrys repeatedly asked Farage whether he wanted to be Prime Minister and whether he thought UKIP would soon be in Government. This is a no-win question for the Interviewee: if he says ‘yes’ he will be accused of being delusional. If he says ‘no’ he is accused of lacking ambition and not worthy of a person’s vote. So, like all minority party leaders, he was forced to give an evasive non-answer.
This is ‘gotcha’ questioning from Humphrys, and reveals nothing about the matter at hand: why are UKIP doing better in the polls?
There may be instances where ‘gotcha’ questioning is appropriate – for example, to highlight a contradiction in a Government policy. However, the electoral paradox that Farage must confront is not of his making. Instead, it is a feature of the political system. There is no value in wasting broadcast time trying to get Farage to explain this. Voters are savvy enough to understand the conundrum. It is patronising to suggest that Farage is somehow pulling the wool over their eyes.
Single issue parties seeking protest votes is an entirely legitimate use of representative democracy. Any kind of electoral success brings influence and an audience, and so can be an aim in itself , not just as a route to power. When Humphrys and the BBC portray such political activism as fringe or Quixotic, they are being unhelpful to the voters and to the issues. And when this journalistic cynicism is practiced at the expense of actual scrutiny of UKIP’s policies, it is downright harmful and wrong.
The news that Twitter is censoring content in Germany is a great big casserole of free speech and censorship issues. There are so many things to say that I almost don’t know where to start. Almost.
The first issue is over the German laws against holocaust denial and Nazism. These laws are not unique in Europe and should be seen in the context of the second world war. Europeans, and Germans in particular, are obviously very sensitive about the Nazi ideology and one can understand why such laws are in place. However, this does not make them right or sensible. It is all very well to suppress Nazi ideology, but what if the next threat to democracy comes from a left wing perspective? Communism, after all, is as lethal as Nazism.
Suppressing any speech, however abhorrent, only serves to send it underground. It is far better to have such speech out in the open where it can be countered. The great failure in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not that Hitler was allowed to put forward his views, but that not enough people challenged him. This is how evil flourishes – good people stand by and do nothing. Laws against Nazism and holocaust denial are sticking plasters. They do not tackle the root cause of such ideologies, or change minds. Continue reading
Here are my photos from the demonstration for Azerbaijani editor Eynulla Fatullyev.
Update 7th June 2010
Here is a video of the same event, courtesy of Amnesty:
This lunchtime, English PEN will be demonstrating for Eynullah Fatullayev, the imprisoned Azerbaijani editor now on hunger-strike. Its a joint action with Amnesty UK, Article 19 and Index on Censorship. Our call for support was printed on the Guardian letters page this morning:
Today at 12 noon, free speech campaigners will protest outside the Azerbaijani embassy in London, calling for an end to the persecution of jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev. We urge all Guardian readers who believe in free speech to join us.
Newspaper editor Fatullayev is serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence based on trumped-up charges of terrorism and defamation. In April this year the European court of human rights ruled that he had been wrongfully imprisoned and called for his immediate release.
Fatullayev is now on trial on a new accusation of possessing illegal drugs – a charge widely believed to have been fabricated in order to keep him in prison.
Freedom of expression is the bedrock of human rights, without which other abuses go unheralded and unchecked. Those of us who can speak out must stand up for those to whom free speech is denied.
Kate Allen Director, Amnesty International UK, Agnès Callamard Executive director, Article 19, Lisa Appignanesi President, English PEN, Carole Seymour-Jones Chair, Writers in Prison Committee, English PEN, John Kampfner Index on Censorship, Alan Ayckbourn Playwright, William Boyd Author, Philip Pullman Author
I will be there taking photos which I will post to the English PEN Flickr stream later today.
The letter in The Guardian is an example of a multi-signatory letter, an age old tactic for all types of political campaigner. The prominent names (of which we have many at PEN) make the letter newsworthy and ensure its publication at the most timely point. Other recent examples include our complaint about the UK visa system in The Times, our appeal about Jaballa Matar in the same paper, and more than one complaint about the new law on criminals’ memoirs.
However, opposite our multi-signatory letter is this complaint from Mohsin Khan of Wadham College:
While there have been several timely and crucial multi-signatory letters, we must bear in mind that MPs, celebrities, and chief executives have the contacts and means to get together and compose a press release. If the issue is then deemed important by the national media, it will be picked up in the news section of papers. The joy of the Guardian letters page is that it lets individuals contribute to national discussions when they would otherwise be ignored – and we must safeguard this space.
Guilty as charged, I’m afraid. I do not think this is a tactic that activists will abandon any time soon, so Mohsin must rely on the good judgement of the letters page editors to keep the debate eclectic, and too keep the diverse voices prominent.
This illustrates the point Clay Shirky made about how Nation States might break down in the Internet Age, and my comments about how people might choose to constitute politcal units based on something other than brutal geography.