Ste complains that a steam train has caused delays to his commute. I find it amazing and bizarre that the station or the rail company have seen fit to pre-record a message, saying that delays are caused by a steam train. Is that a regular an occurrence? One thing I have always thought particularly sad is that the rail companies have a pre-record for “due to a fatality on the line.” It is clearly a frequent enough occurrence to be a necessary annoucement to have in the library, which is sad in itself. And yet it also offends that something so serious and sombre should be delegated to the robotic system. Perhaps I am being an old fashioned ‘digital immigrant‘, but it feels like the sort of thing that should be announced live. I suppose it is a harsh thing to ask the station managers to do. My worry stems from the fact that there is a cadence and a timbre to a real voice that a pre-record does not have. When we cede these tasks to a machine, we lose a whole set of human interactions. We only notice this when the subject matter is something so exceptional as a death. Is this just modernity? Am I being overly sentimental about routine and repetitive information? It is not as if most of these announcements are declarations of love or philosophical debates. (See also: my piece ‘Encountering the Submerged‘ from almost exactly seven years ago, on the aftermath of a railway suicide I saw in Glasgow; and ‘The Best People Aren’t People‘ about non-human tweeters with personality).
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.
When I do a post for Comment is Free, I like to do a round-up here of pertinent and impertinent comments that appear below it. My piece on Gunter Grass pulled in 298 comments, which is a record for me, but sadly nothing to do with my prose. They are the predictable result of writing anything about Israel – partisans of both sides come out in force. One comment, from fellow Comment is Free contributor David Wearing of the New Left Project, stood out:
The equivalence drawn here with the Habima theatre situation is entirely spurious. The Habima theatre has performed to illegal colonists in the West Bank. Those colonies are maintained through a system of brutal repression (including the denial of many democratic rights, such as free expression) of the indigenous population. Individuals and institutions are 100% entitled, as a matter of conscience, to choose not to work with Habima for that reason, and to encourage others to take a similar position. There is no question of censorship. To decline to associate with someone on moral grounds is a democratic choice. No one has suggested that Jews or Hebrew speakers should be excluded blanket-fashion. The insinuation that this is what the proposed cancellation of Habima amounts to is an outrageous slur. Would anyone object to a performance by a Hebrew speaking theatre group made up of people who had never and would never perform in the illegal colonies? Everyone knows the answer to that. Everyone knows that those calling for Habima to be cancelled would welcome such an alternative performance with absolute delight.
So there is no comparison here to the Grass case, where a state (the one which criminally maintains the colonies mentioned above) has declared an individual persona non grata because he has expressed an opinion that the state disapproves of. That is dictionary-definition undemocratic behaviour.
I think that’s true, and my piece should have taken more care not to draw direct equivalence. I was merely trying to make the point that it should be left to individuals as to whether to engage with any piece of art. User silverchain took issue with Wearing, pointing out that plenty of other languages in the Shakespeare festival are represented by countries such as China and Turkey who also abuse human rights. Continue reading “Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass”
Last Monday night I spoke on behalf of English PEN alongside Tony Benn at a meeting a Goldsmiths College Student Union, on the problem of the UK’s new points-based visa system. The system has caused hundreds of writers and artists to be refused entry to the UK, even for short-term visits such as a one-off gig or book launch. Academics and university support staff are particularly concerned with how the system affects relationships with their students: The system places new monitoring requirements on professors to log attendance at individual lectures and inform the UK Border Agency of any ‘suspicious behaviour’. It was clear that, at Goldsmiths at least, neither staff nor students support the new measures. The general mood is that staff should boycott any extra tasks that the UKBA demands they perform. Many were frustrated that such a boycott is not already in operation. However, co-ordinating such action – which really amounts to a simple work-to-rule action, because there is nothing about surveillance of students in any staff contract – nevertheless requires organisation and a sense of momentum. From the floor, we heard the story of a student who has been harassed and harried at every turn in her bid to stay and study at the college. She has spend over £2,600 in legal costs and ‘fees’ for processing various immigration applications. The university cannot give her much help, since they do not want to “act as solicitors”, and she even had to represent herself and an immigration tribunal. The ‘helpline’ she has been given to assist with her problems costs £1.20 per minute to call… and she is frequently put on hold whenver she calls. Belle Ribeiro, the NUS Black Students officer, said that in general, international students do not get enough support when they come to study in the UK, despite contributing a huge amount in fees. The new rules that insist that foreign student carry an ID card will mean that BME students are likely to be disproportionately hassled to identify and justify themselves. And when ID card fraud inevitably occurs, it will be the overseas students who suffer. My own speech was a jeremiad (hat-tip James Fallows for that word) on how this country was sending itself into a horrible cultural decline. The approximate text, corrected for grammar and general semantic sense, is reproduced below. You can check it against an recording. The Rt. Hon. Tony Benn was also on the panel: I’ve put an MP3 of his remarks online too. Continue reading “A Jeremiad on UK Visas”