Thursday, February 26, 2009

Free Speech, Wilders and Fire Alarms

Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes’s overrated example of the impermissible was falsely to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. What he was referring to was the likelihood that the people in the theatre would react in a way that would prove injurious. Note that there is nothing intrinsically subversive about the language of such a false warning. Its impact would depend on the audience’s inclination to panic and a belief that it was a genuine fire alarm and not part of the drama taking place on stage. Even then, it is perfectly possible to envisage circumstances in which, in the absence of any corroboration that the fire exists,the warning would be ignored. It happens all the time in hotels and offices when an errant alarm bell rings. Mostly our response is to stay put and carry on with what we were doing until and unless we hear otherwise. In other words, even when confronted with a warning, we use our own judgement about whether the warning is valid. And if the alarm proves false and no harm is done, we don’t ask for the janitor to be jailed.
In the case of Wilders, he was being invited to shout “fire” in the house of lords to an invited audience. Any assumption about the damning nature of his film is an assumption about the reaction of those who see it; namely that they would be incited to feelings of hatred that they did not already entertain. Such an assumption is likely to be made only by those who consider themselves exempt from the contamination they fear in others. It’s the same old prejudice once used to justify the theatre censorship role of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and that still sustains the Obscene Publications Act.
Banning acts of expression before they have been made or can be shown to have caused harm seems to me a dangerous path to tread. It is the path traveled by authorities that, no matter how benign their intentions, believe they know what’s good for us better than we do.
Wilders’ film has been widely seen already. Many have undoubtedly found it offensive. I thought it simply nonsensical: unpersuasive, poorly argued, misleading, crass, technically inept, and in summary worthless. Has it incited me to violence or to break the law? No chance. Has it had such an effect on anyone? There appears to be no evidence that it has.
The most offensive language imaginable can have no impact if it merely evokes ridicule or indifference, or indignation, or revulsion. We may feel, rightly, that children should be shielded from it until they are old enough to form an opinion on its validity. But unless speech can be shown to have incited violence or mischief, there is no good case for banning it. Unless, that is, we are content to be treated forever as children - too immature and credulous to make informed judgements of our own - or even maybe to vote.

Originally written for Open Democracy

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Generic word for plants and animals that have been genetically altered to permit their survival in unfamiliar or hostile environments. Climagen Palm Trees, for example, have been modified to allow them to thrive in temperate climates, which is why they are to be seen growing on northern European beaches, and round the Great Lakes of North America. Similarly, a Russian billionaire has recently stocked his estate in the Urals with woolly-haired climagen elephants in honour of the extinct mammoths who once roamed there
During the last decade, the word appears to have extended its meaning to denote any kind of accommodation of one thing or person to another. People of gentle disposition are being referred to as “climagens”, as are politicians who change their mind.
A compound of “genetic” and “acclimatise”, the expression was originally coined by scientists at the University of Newfoundland who were working on a project to replenish the Grand Banks - once the world’s largest source of the now extinct northern cod - with several species of fast-breeding fish of tropical origin. The original project failed, not for want of technology, but because as soon as the new breeds settled to their northern environment, the fishing industry scooped them up and left the region as bereft of edible marine life as before.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty - 28 February 2009

I believe we need to approach the question of Liberty in the modern state more broadly and deeply than is suggested by the initial comments of Convention participants.
The tendency of all three main UK parties - and notably the two largest - to converge in the centre of the political spectrum means that in respect of many, if not most, of the significant issues of the day, the electorate has no effective choice. If we were to conduct a national poll, for example, on whether the people want private sector involvement in the NHS, or in state schools, or running the railways, or taking over the London Underground, or a third runway at Heathrow, it’s a safe bet that the answer would be a resounding “no”. Yet most of our parliamentarians think otherwise.
Despite the enormous weight of government and opposition propaganda, did the people of these islands agree with the Iraq War, the introduction of fees for university students, the draconian measures embedded in omnibus legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, ID cards, pervasive street cameras, the madness of the Private Finance Initiative, the organization of our economic life on neo-liberal principles?
According to the polls, they didn't. But most of our parliamentarians did.
Government and Parliament alike appear to have sailed away on a trajectory of their own leaving a disarmed and bewildered electorate watching from the shore.
These issues are fundamentally about democracy. They are the apparel in which Liberty shows herself. If we have no voice in what happens to us, our freedom remains theoretical, an empress with no clothes.
Equally critical is the international dimension. European unity may be a wonderful thing, but the EU's unelected officials wield substantial powers and the people of Europe have no direct means of influencing their decisions or removing them from office. Beyond Europe, our government's political posturing and military ventures in other parts of the world are inextricably linked to the imposition of intrusive and authoritarian legislation at home. Is it feasible any longer to think of our freedom as just a national matter, capable of being addressed in isolation from our international alliances and commitments, from global warming, migratory movements, our apparent subservience to transnational capital and the world market?
I do not believe the government's assault on democratic freedoms is solely circumstantial - a reaction to real or imaginary threats; nor that the problem is this government and that its removal would bring the nightmare to an end. Rather it reflects a sclerotic and probably outmoded political and economic system, one that rests on extreme levels of inequality and disempowerment both within our country and internationally. Attempting to reverse repressive policies may achieve some limited success in the short term, but it is unlikely to change the prevailing imbalance between government power and the rights of the citizen, between our image of who we are and the reality of power relations in this country and beyond, between our commitment to neo-liberal capitalism and the multitudes who remain in abject poverty, between cheap imported goods in our local high street and child labour in the back streets of Dhaka, between the unemployed on the picket line in North Killingholme, Lincolnshire and the unimaginable profits of multinational corporations.
My ambition for the Convention on Modern Liberty is twofold: that it will signal the beginning of a root-and-branch examination of the way we are governed, and that it will lead to an exploration of political alternatives that more closely reflect the democratic aspirations of the people who live here.