Wednesday 28 January 2015

On the upcoming general election.

People who know me keep asking me how comes I'm not totally into the election coverage like it's the greatest thing ever; how comes I appear to hate it even more than people who aren't interested in politics. Well:

Politics is fascinating, because it's simply about people and how they can live together. What could be more interesting or important? Elections, however, are not about politics. They are about politicians.

Tuesday 13 January 2015


There's been a lot of this over the last few days:

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish.


This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do.

This is a very good point — right up till the killing starts. At that moment, the cartoon ceases merely to mean what it explicitly and literally means and takes on the extra implicit meanings of support for freedom of speech and solidarity with those who exercise it. Obviously.

(And let's just get this out of the way at the start: I'm not going to publish cartoons of Mohammed on this blog because I am frightened of violent reprisals. I hope I would be brave enough to publish them if I were single. But I'm not, and, during the Kerfuffle, I had people tracking down my family and harassing them, including poking around my back garden. If reporters can do that, so can Salafists. If it were just me, I'd risk it, but I won't risk my kids. Anyway.)

Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party.

Well. Have the NAACP stopped doing what they do? Have Americans responded to the bombing by ceasing their support for civil rights? Have non-racist Americans started being racist because the bomber wants them to? Nope. Did the AUF respond to Breivik's killing spree by disbanding? Did Norwegians respond by abandoning the Labour Party? Have sane non-racist Norwegians started being racist and embracing batshit conspiracy theories because Breivik wanted them to? Nope. Have most Western media outlets responded to the Paris shootings — and previous violent intimidations — by refusing to publish the cartoons, just as the killers want them to? Why, yes, so they have. It seems to me that that is a rather crucial distinction.

So, maybe there have been some other cases, cases where the intimidated have responded to their non-Muslim intimidators by doing exactly what they don't want them to do? Funny you should ask.

On Thursday the 11th of July 2002, Peter Tatchell, George Melly, and a crowd of like-minded lovers of freedom stood on the steps of St Martins-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square and read out James Kirkup's poem The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, which says that Jesus was gay. Then they challenged the police and the DPP to prosecute them for blasphemy. And that protest is the reason why blasphemy is no longer illegal in England & Wales.

So my response to those who think they shouldn't publish cartoons of Mohammed because they're offensive is to ask these two questions.

Firstly, do you think Peter Tatchell really believes that Jesus was gay?

Secondly, does that even matter?

The reason we have freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and universal suffrage in the UK is not that we sat around and waited to be given them. It is that some brave men and women quite deliberately set out to do precisely what they were told not to. I don't see that it matters whether the people telling us what not to do are intimidating us with threats of prosecution or threats of murder. Either way, we should salute those who piss them off.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Provocation and stupidity.

On days like today, I expect hordes of bien-pensants bastards to be eagerly queuing up to blame the victims for their own murders. Give it a day, maybe two. But The Financial Times are apparently trying to set some sort of appeasement speed record, so jumped the queue and published a quite despicable piece by Tony Barber while the bodies were still warm. Publish and be damned — and they are.

This is their current version of the article, with the rather disingenuous disclaimer

This article is an expanded and updated version of an earlier blog posted on January 7

Expanded and updated? Redacted in the face of over a thousand hostile comments, more like. The particularly nasty bits of the original are preserved here:

In other words, Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.

This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark's Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.

Perhaps Tony Barber thinks that he, a man who invokes Voltaire only to undermine him, is a convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. The freedom to say whatever you want, so long as you agree only to say what the men with guns tell you to. No thanks.

Here's what the "stupid" Charb said in 2012:

"We are provocative today. We will be provocative tomorrow. I do this because it's our job to draw about actuality," he said.

He said his job was not to defend freedom of speech. "But without freedom of speech we are dead. We can't live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than live like a rat."

Barber is apparently too fucking thick to appreciate that the staff of Charlie-Hebdo were bravely fighting for exactly what makes his own job possible. They weren't stupid; their latest publication wasn't a fuck-up. They knew the risks, and took them anyway — including publishing the Danish cartoons back when every newspaper in the UK bravely declined to do so. I appreciate why an editor might choose not to publish such things, but I wish they'd be honest about it: just admit they're frightened. A lot of us are, and that's understandable — and worth talking about. Instead, time and time again, we have to put up with this mealy-mouthed smug bollocks about how "We're not frightened, oh no, and we're still staunch supporters of the freedom of the press, but the thing is, we're just far more intelligent and sensitive than those crass cartoonists. Sensitive to the people who are threatening to kill us if we don't do what they want. But we're not frightened. Honestly, what a preposterous notion."

Even redacted, Barber's piece is still awful. He wants to talk about the real threat facing France: the possibility that Le Front National might get more votes.

Surveys show that a majority of French people rejects racism and dislikes extremism

he helpfully informs us, referring not to the extremism of the Al Qaeda cell who gunned down twelve innocent people in cold blood today but to the extremism of people who might restrict immigration.

Look, I have no particular love for France's (or any country's) National Front, but, whatever we might think of their manifesto, can we at least agree that they don't commit mass murder? And that, therefore, while the bodybags are still being wheeled out of the building, the Real Problem That Needs To Be Addressed is not that someone somewhere might consider voting for them? The real problem is the mass murder. The real problem is the assault on freedom of speech. If you're a journalist and that assault has worked on you, that is understandable and I sympathise, I really do. But what you need to do is shut up. Ignore the subject. Go write a piece about trout fishing. Don't try to pretend you're supporting the cause you have so readily abandoned by pissing on the graves of those who died for it.

As an antidote to Barber's despicable swill, I recommend reading Claire Berlinski's visceral reaction. She was there. And she has something more accurate and more distressing to say about freedom of speech:

President François Hollande said the trivial: “No barbaric act will ever extinguish the freedom of the press.” That the statement is self-falsifying seemed to bother him little: That barbaric act literally extinguished the press. Literally. They are dead. Their freedom is thus of little relevance.

Charb, Cabu, Tignous, Honoré, Wolinski, Bernard Maris, Elsa Cayat, Frédéric Boisseau, Michel Renaud, Moustapha Ourad, Merabet Ahmed, Franck Brinsolaro: Rest in peace.

Philippe Lancon, Fabrice Nicolino, Laurent Sourisseau, and the unnamed police officers: Get well soon.

Tony Barber: Go to hell.