The Charlie Hebdo attack is still serving as a hook on which to hang discussions about freedom of speech. So I’m posting here the text of a talk I gave (not quite word for word) at a meeting of the Edinburgh Branch of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) on 16 February.
A couple of days before the meeting, a gunman had opened fire on an event in Copenhagen entitled “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression”, killing one person, and had then opened fire again the following day outside a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing another person. The suspected gunman was subsequently shot dead by police.
Freedom of speech is a precious and complicated thing and warrants discussion. But the demonstrations that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the images and slogans that went with them, didn’t have anything to do with freedom of speech at all.
When I was asked to speak at this meeting, I thought that the passage of time since the attack in Paris would help to give some perspective on it. The murders in Copenhagen over the weekend mean on the contrary that the issue is still a raw one. The background to the Copenhagen incident remains unclear and the repercussions are still to be seen, so I’m going to focus on the Paris attack last month.
Well, this is awkward. It looks as if everyone who supports independence is utterly outraged by THAT Steve Bell cartoon. Quite a few people want to call it anti-Scottish racism. Count me out of both the outrage and the racism claim.
It’s been a bad week for apocalyptic warnings and anti-independence propaganda. Allan Massie, in the Mail on Sunday, warns of “the Thames foaming with much blood.” He insists that he means metaphorical blood but then, just in case you are inclined to think the echo of Enoch Powell an accident, he name-checks Enoch Powell. Allan Massie is evidently a man who thinks he knows how to eat his cake and have it too. Continue reading →
Yesterday’s shootings at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine are a heart-breaking tragedy. First, and above all, they are a tragedy for those killed and injured, and for their families and friends.
Human life is precious. It is not to be taken just in order to make a point.
A photograph shows journalists in the AFP newsroom in Paris holding “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” placards. There are similar placards on the streets of cities around the world.
So we’ve lost, for now. But who’d have thought, even a year or two ago, that we’d be able to put up this kind of a fight against the combined forces of the British establishment, the British media and all the main British parties? And above all against the filthy, greasy machinery of the Labour Party, that tool for the entryism of the ruling class into working class struggle.
Our immediate priority must be the fight against austerity. In Scotland, we need a serious working-class, anti-austerity, anti-racist, pro-independence party at the centre of that fight. If we can’t build a party like that, we’ll have to make do with a movement.
While we’re doing all this, we have to stay involved in the debates and manoeuvres for post-referendum constitutional change. The unionist parties, if they don’t shatter under the weight of their own reactionary baggage, will try to use devolution to hijack and de-radicalise our movement and suffocate it beneath the bling of identity politics. We must do the opposite. We must maintain what we have built, and seize every chance to make ourselves stronger.
The Herald has until today been less independence-averse than most of the British media. Now it says: “We back staying within UK, but only if there’s more far-reaching further devolution.”
Suppose, for a moment, that “far-reaching further devolution” within the UK is a good idea. We are to vote No on condition that we get that sort of devolution, according to The Herald. How does that work? We’ll be voting on Thursday. We’ll have no more devolution then than we have now. If we wish to take The Herald’s advice, we’ll have to cancel the referendum, re-fit it with something like the “Devo Max” option that was excluded on David Cameron’s insistence, and start again.
But The Herald doesn’t say it wants that. It just says that after a No vote the UK parties should, somehow, fix something “with the full participation of Scottish civic society” and that if they fudge this step another referendum will, somehow, be guaranteed to come about.
Back in the real world, all we have is a pledge by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.
Legions of Labour MPs are in Scotland trying to talk us out of independence. Wrong time, wrong place.
If Labour had really wanted to save the Union – though it beats me why they should – there’s something they could have tried. But they’d have had to start in 2010 or 2011, and mostly they’d have had to do it south of the border.
They could have sent their MPs out to build a serious struggle against neo-liberalism. They could have helped make the TUC anti-cuts demo of March 2011 into a launch-pad for strikes. They could have built unity between people whose jobs were threatened and people who were losing essential services. They could have worked to turn the Pensions Day of Action in November 2011 into a wider fight against austerity.
They could have given real support to the student protests against tuition fees. They could have put their party machinery – still formidable after all the years of decline – at the disposal of working class people fighting for a decent life, and sometimes literally for survival.
They could have used their access to the media to argue against neo-liberalism, for unity and for serious action.
They could have built unity by arguing against the scapegoating of migrants, asylum-seekers and minorities.
Instead the Labour Party became an informal partner of the Coalition government.
The Comment is Free section of the Guardian website has become an institution. It looks and feels rather like a collection of blogs, hosted and moderated by the Guardian. The Guardian gets to choose who writes there, and gets to set the moderation policy. It gains readers and web presence.
Fair enough. But the Guardian also gets editorial control. In other words, it determines what its contributors appear to have said. Comment, like lunch, is never really free. Or even as moderately-priced as you think it is. There are hidden extras.
A headline can make all the difference in the world to what readers think an article says. Social media have increased the premium on the headline.
The headline is what you mostly notice when an article is posted on facebook or twitter. A lot of people will “like” or re-post without reading the article, based simply on the headline. A headline can boost a campaign or sink it. It can kick a vulnerable person where it hurts, or bring a smile of relief.
The headline that the Guardian attached to an excellent recent article about Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan was the kind that does damage. It was misleading and factually inaccurate (it was corrected on 8 August). I sent the following protest about it to the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliot:
Talha Ahsan was “freed” by a US court on 16 July, 20 months after being extradited from Britain to face terrorism charges. But he still isn’t quite free. His UK passport has expired, so he is now in immigration custody in the US waiting for the British authorities to supply a new one.
Talha Ahsan has been in jail for 8 years, and Babar Ahmad for 10 years. For most of that time they have been held without charge in high security prisons in Britain. They were extradited to the US in October 2012, where they were finally charged with terrorism offences.
A teenage girl and a 39-year old man who desecrated Edinburgh Central Mosque with strips of bacon have been given custodial sentences at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.
Both of them were said in court to be linked to the SDL. Richard Dawkins called the sentences “law gone mad.” Richard Dawkins is sometimes an idiot. But I have serious reservations of my own about the sentences.
I visit Edinburgh Central Mosque from time to time. It is normally a pleasant experience, so it is upsetting to hear about this kind of abuse. But I am not a religious person. My feelings are a poor guide to the impact of the incident on Muslims.
To devout atheists like Richard Dawkins, I’d begin by suggesting a simple mental exercise. Think of a place of natural beauty to which you are particularly attached. Then think of finding one day that rubbish of an especially obnoxious kind has been dumped there. Add to that the way that you would feel if rubbish that you and your family find particularly disgusting had been left inside your home, with the clear intention of causing you distress.
This sort of mental muscle-flexing would be an interesting exercise, and maybe even kind of important, if we lived in a parallel universe where racism, colonialism and fascism didn’t exist. Now let’s return to our own world. Continue reading →
So now we’ve got the glamour and financial muscle of J K Rowling to reckon with. A million quid. Whew!
I’m told Jaykay writes a bit. She’s intelligent, urbane and – up to a point – well informed. She has carefully set out on her blog her reasons for backing the campaign against Scottish independence. So of course I won’t stoop to abuse. I’ll set out, in a measured way, my reasons for disagreeing with her.