‘That Bastard Pardon’ –Writing on Myanmar Journalists for the New Statesman

English PEN banners protesting the imprisonment of Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuter’s journalists unjustly imprisoned in Myanmar, have been released.

I have written a short piece for the New Statesman, commenting on how presidential pardons do nothing to tackle the underlying injustice, and perpetuate the chill on freedom of expression.

Pardons have a particular place in judicial systems. There may be unusual circumstances where a person has indeed broken the law, but the sentence imposed is inappropriate. A pardon asserts that the conviction was correct, but alleviates the punishment.

That is wholly unsatisfactory in cases where the law has been abused, as it was in the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Although they are out of prison, there has been no acknowledgement by the state that the convictions were a clear miscarriage of justice. In fact, the pardon reasserts the just opposite – that there was nothing wrong with the imprisonment.

Read the whole thing on the New Statesman website. Continue reading “‘That Bastard Pardon’ –Writing on Myanmar Journalists for the New Statesman”

The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate

Mehdi Hasan has provoked a big online debate about abortion, after publishing a column in the New Statesman on whether abortion is a Left/Right issue in politics. Mehdi says that although the Left is usually identified with the pro-choice* argument and the Right with pro-life*, the arguments deployed are (in his view) the opposite of what the Left and Right usually deploy. The Left use the language of individualism and choice, while the Right use the language of vulnerability and equality.

This article sparked a furious online debate about the central issue – Kenan Malik has an excellent pro-choice rejoinder to Hasan’s piece.  There has also been a meta-debate about whether it was even possible to have a reasoned debate about the issue. I was taken with Hopi Sen’s analysis, comparing what a person thinks they said with what people on the opposing side actually hear (see these amusing stanzas for a shortened version).

I tend to think of the central question as a Devil’s Alternative type question. Whatever you choose, the outcome is bad. Trying to devise rules – legal or ethical – for a Devil’s Alternative problem seems futile. Is abortion right? is a trick question: The stuff of utilitarian philosophy lectures and episodes of 24, where you try to work out the course of action that causes least hurt… Knowing full well that any choice you make leads to permenant unpleasant consequences. Perhaps the only way out of the mire is to punt on the central ethical question, declaring it essentially incomplete in Gödel‘s sense: we are not equipped to process such a question properly. It is undecidable. A paradox that exposes the limits of our language and ethical structures. Continue reading “The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate”

Günter Grass and the Free Speech Moment

Last week I wrote a follow up to my Comment Is Free piece on Gunter Grass, this time for the New Statesman blog.

Over the past few days, a “free speech moment” has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League. Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the “free speech moment” has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism. Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author. In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here. The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship. Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event. A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of “work”. English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a “chilling effect” on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These “free speech moments” are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem. But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

The Royals and Privacy

In my rant a couple of weeks ago about the woman formerly known as Kate Middleton, I expressed a good deal of angst about whether I should be passing comment on her religious choices and motivations.  In the comments, Helen called me judgemental and hypocritical.

Writing in the New Stateman, Peter Wilby offers a defence of passing judgement on the Royals and invading their privacy:

What is the point of a Royal Editor if he doesn’t hack people’s phones?  Laws for the protection of privacy should not apply to the Queen and her family.  The monarchy cannot be private: it is a public institution with no significant function other than to satisfy public curiosity. …

… what to everybody else would be private – family, love, procreation – becomes in royalty’s case public, because it determines the line of succession and the identity of our future head of state.

There is a logic to this.  The Royals have also been referred to as the ‘National Soap Opera’ which speaks to the same idea, that we have some kind of right to know everything about them.  Certainly, part of the justification for their continued existence is as role models and figureheads, for which a degree of discussion about their personal lives seems to be part of the quid pro quo (even if the royal social contract was entered into by distant ancestors, rather than the current incumbents themselves). While I am sympathetic to Wilby’s point of view, I think the Royals do need some privacy, if only to stop them going insane.  The last thing we need is a paranoid recluse for a King.

Its interesting that in the 1990s the monarchy was said to be in “crisis”, when every single problem cited was related to personalities and personal infidelities.  While this posed questions about their suitability as leaders of the Church of England, this in no way affected their constitutional status.  And it never has.  I once read that pretty much every monarch before the 20th Century had extra-marital affairs, which never seemed to weaken their status as Head of State.  One of the few faithful monarchs was King Charles I, who plunged the country and the monarchy into a real crisis, by snubbing parliament and asserting his Divine Right to Rule.