Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

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 “Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?”

Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean

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

  1. save the lives of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants; or
  2. 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 “Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean”

If you abdicate, that should be game over for the monarchy

King Juan Carlos is to abdicate. I love this simple poster design, campaigning for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.

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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.

 

How the BBC's 'Gotcha' questions hurt democracy

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.

Twitter Succumbs to Regulation

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 “Twitter Succumbs to Regulation”

Trouble Looming over Burqa Ban

So, French MPs have voted to ban the burka.

We know where this story will go next.  Somewhere in France, a woman will engage in a piece of civil disobediance and enter a public space wearing her veil.  She will draw attention, crowds, the press.  She will be asked to leave, but she will not leave.  Eventually, she will be deported from the area by the gendarmerie or other state agency.  Worse, someone may try to pull off the offending strip of cloth.

This event will be photgraphed and videoed by more than one person, and the footage will be on YouTube within the hour.  It will then become a staple of anti-secular propaganda, proving the intolerance of the European mind and the inherent anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the West.

Some might suggest that my worries about this inevitable end-point are purely pragmatic.  They might agree that the new French law is counter-productive in the PR war against fundamentalist Islam… but then go on to argue that sometimes, the right decisions are not popular and that we cannot allow short-term realpolitik to trump the principle of the thing.

Here, I have to disagree.  I think that the question over policing what people wear is the principle at stake here.  Dictating dress codes is an incursion on an individual’s free expression.  If we condemn a misogynistic religion or a patriarchal culture when it proscribes what women wear, then how can we support a government that intervenes (and sets prohibitions) in precisely the same arena?  It is appalling.

I often hear the argument that women who wear the veil are “brainwashed”, an assertion that certainly makes sense to me.1 But such a claim is unfalsifiable, impossible to verify.  It is therefore a useless and illegitimate argument to put forward in the political arena, and not a good enough reason to legislate.  If we are truly convinced that brainwashing has taken place, then we must engage in “reverse-brainwashing”, putting forward alternative arguments, explaining the theory and the history of patriarchy, in the hope that people make different choices.  We might begin by discussing the value of facial expressions in communication, while taking an honest look at the idea of the “male gaze” and the undoubted objectification and sexualisation of the female form that is endemic in all cultures.

This is a longer and more frustrating approach, but far better than one which says that you are empowered by being criminalised.  Unfortunately, such long-term thinking rarely appeals to politicians, who favour the heavy-hand of legislation over deeper, cultural approaches.  A burqa ban is also a convenient dog-whistle for the far-right groups, who mainstream politicians are happy to pander to at the expense of a minority with no discernible political power.

If the burqa and the niqab are oppressive to women, then the only people who can shrug off that oppression is the women themselves.  Ripping off that ‘oppression’, by force and at a time of our own choosing, does not look like liberation at all.  It merely substitutes one form of dictatorship for another, returns no autonomy to the women themselves, and unwittingly endorses intolerance.  The philosopher Alain Badiou has a great formulation:

Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”

Interesting articles taking a similar view at the F-Word and Oye Times.

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
‘Her Eyes’ by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

1. One might also suggest that women who wear too little are similarly brainwashed. After all, are they not persuaded to do so by the diktats of the celebrity gossip magazines?

nothing-covered-but

Fatullayev Demo Photos

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:

Multi-Signature Letter on Azerbaijan

Eynulla Fatullayev is deemed a Prisoner of Conscience by PEN and Amnesty International.
Eynulla Fatullayev is deemed a Prisoner of Conscience by PEN and Amnesty International.

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.

Balkanisation and the Internet

Via Robert Wright, here’s an interesting map of what Europe would look like, should all the current Independence movements in Europe get their way:

Conjecture of Europe 2020, by Chirol at ComingAnarchy.com
Conjecture of Europe 2020, by Chirol at ComingAnarchy.com

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.

Recharge

Greek Balcony

If a blogger goes on holiday, and no-one reads his posts, does anyone notice?

Straight after the Oslo conference, a week in the sun.  There was no temptation to blog any thoughts while I was away, and only one or two brief tweets.  Its funny that, because blogging is an asynchronous medium, I’m only announcing I was away, now I’m back.

I really only mention this to contextualise further photo-blogs, with a Greek flavour, arriving later in the week.