Thursday 25 March 2010

Freedom to criticise religion under threat again

Some people have a real problem understanding the difference between violent hatred of Muslims and legitimate criticism of Islam. And the same people often seem to have a pretty feeble commitment to principles of free speech.

Two cases in the news today by way of illustration:

Case 1 (via B&W)

Anjona Roy, Chief Executive at Northamptonshire's Rights and Equality Commission, called in the cops on a local MP who criticised the veiling of Muslim women. Philip Hollobone, Conservative member for Kettering, committed the heinous offence of describing the burqa (I think he meant the niqab) as 'the religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head'.

OK, so it may have been a crude way of drawing attention to a serious issue, and I'm no great fan of Mr. Hollobone's politics, but I'm in complete agreement with him when he argues that 'the whole idea of the burka is offensive to women, it demeans women and also shuts off those who wear it from the rest of us in society'. After all, much the same thing has been said by some Muslim women: is Ms. Roy going to inform the police about them too?

Perhaps the scariest thing about this report is Anjona Roy's claim that the decision to make a formal complaint about possible racial hatred was taken 'following discussions with local Muslim groups'. This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, it comes close to giving a veto over issues of free speech to religious groups. And secondly, it looks suspiciously as though Ms. Roy fomented the 'offence' herself by spreading the word among those she thought likely to be offended.

This is just the kind of thing that campaigners warned would happen if the Racial and Religious Offences Act had been passed in its original form. But it appears that some over-zealous officials don't need an actual law to support their campaign to shut down criticism of religious beliefs and practices. Thankfully, the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to take no action.

Last time I looked, there was no right not to be offended in the Human Rights Act - but there is a right to freedom of expression. Surely a 'Rights and Equality' commission should be defending basic human rights, not shutting them down?

Case 2 (via Harry's Place)

An alliance of the Usual Suspects of the pseudo-left, plus some surprising additions, have added their signatures to a disingenuous letter in today's Guardian. The letter tendentiously seeks to link the thuggish activities of the English Defence League with the investigation by Channel 4's Dispatches of extremist activities at some British mosques:

We are concerned by the rise of Islamophobia, the negative coverage of Muslims in the media, the violent street mobilisations of extreme rightwing organisations like the English Defence League, and the rising electoral support for the British National Party. Following Channel 4's recent inflammatory documentary, Britain's Islamic Republic, which saw concentrated attacks on the East London Mosque, the English Defence League marched through central London with placards including the demand 'Close the East London Mosque now'.

This is typical of the rhetorical sleight-of-hand employed by the pseudo-left. Leave aside for a moment the spurious non-word 'Islamophobia', which carelessly elides criticism of Islam with hatred of Muslims. Are we supposed to believe that a legitimate journalistic investigation is comparable to right-wing street-fighting and fascist politics? And are we being asked to swallow the illogical argument that a Channel 4 documentary somehow caused these expressions of violent hatred? As if the bullyboys of the EDL needed an excuse to attack a mosque; I shouldn't think many of them would be able to find the Channel 4 button on their remotes.

The underlying argument seems to be this: we shouldn't draw attention to Islamist extremism (which actually has a lot in common with the fascism that the letter-writers claim to oppose), in case it leads to a backlash against Muslims. Shouldn't just a little of their condemnation be reserved for the mosques that harbour extremist preachers, thus bringing mainstream Islam into disrepute and besmirching the reputations of law-abiding Muslims?

As to why the likes of Helena Kennedy, Eric Hobsbawm, and Dr. Edie Friedman of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, allowed their names to be added to this bricolage of illogicality (alongside the depressingly predictable litany of fellow-travellers like Ken Livingstone, Andrew Murray, George Galloway and Selma Yaqoob): perhaps they thought they were signing a bog-standard Great-and-the-Good protest letter against the BNP and the EDL, and the bit about Dispatches was added by someone on the letter-writing committee as an afterthought.

Some bits of the letter certainly look awkwardly cobbled together:

The East End of London is not new to having its communities attacked by fascists and the media. The 1930s saw the Battle of Cable Street when Oswald Mosley's blackshirts attempted to march into the Jewish community in the area. We cannot allow this terrible history to repeat itself. Further, the documentary, and articles since, have attacked the participation in politics by the Muslim community. We cannot stand by and watch this continue without remark or action.

'Attacked by fascists and the media': so it was the newspapers that oppressed East Enders in the '30s, not just those nasty blackshirts? This 'blame the media' line, creating an equivalence between fascist violence on the one hand and documentaries and newspaper articles on the other, is reminiscent of Chavez's Venezuela or Ahmadinejad's Iran.

And what on earth do they mean by 'attacked the participation in politics by the Muslim community'? Could this possibly refer to the recent furore over attempts by the fundamentalist Islamic Forum Europe to infiltrate the Labour Party and subvert democratic politics in East London? Are they questioning the right of journalists to report this kind of Islamist entryism?

Either the liberals and progressives who signed this letter genuinely believe that investigative journalism is somehow on a par with fascist thuggery, in which case they can no longer claim to be liberals or progressives. Or they are naive dupes of the Islamist-hard left agenda that underlies the slippery rhetoric of this letter.

Monday 22 March 2010

Friday 19 March 2010

Some gay folk church music for a Friday afternoon

Knowing what a fan I am of Arcade Fire, you probably could have guessed I was going to like The Hidden Cameras, if only because the two ensembles have some peripheral personnel in common. The band describe their sound as 'gay folk church music' : how could you possibly resist?

So you think they look and sound like a Toronto-based carbon copy of the Montrealian Arcaders? Well, maybe, but the latter have been starving their followers of new material recently, so those of us who like this kind of David Byrne-inspired eccentricity have to take our pleasure where we can.

This, in its oddly compelling wackiness, seems fairly typical:

I have Alexis Petridis' review in today's Guardian to thank for this latest musical discovery. The band seem to like performing in porn cinemas and churches: the other night they were at St. Leonard's Shoreditch (in aid of a worthy charity), where coincidentally many of my ancestors were baptised (they'd be turning in their unmarked graves).

Incidentally, Petridis seems intent on keeping up this week's Guardian habit of throwaway non-PC insults. The other day we had Tony Sewell telling us that mothers were unable to provide their sons with 'tough love' and that black boys were becoming too 'feminised'. Today's review describes the audience as 'an unlikely alliance of gawky dufflecoat-clad indie boys and their bespectacled girlfriends, older gentlemen with shaved heads and moustaches whose girlfriends are noticeable by their absence...' (my emphasis) How coy, Alexis. Ah, I've just noticed that the last phrase has been excised from the online version...

Thursday 18 March 2010

Oh, to be in England, etc

In the midst of death, signs of life.

A churchyard, somewhere in eastern England, this morning.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

We shan't see his like again, ctd.

In his account of Michael Foot's funeral, Jonathan Freedland reports that Peter Jones, the former vice-chairman of Plymouth Argyle, spoke of Foot's stedfast devotion to the team, 'through thick and thin' , and shared this anecdote:
Arriving for a recent away game at Selhurst Park, a steward asked the ninetysomething Foot whether he was carrying an offensive weapon, whereupon he produced a battered copy of Milton's selected poems, explaining that Milton's poetry represented one of the most potent weapons in English history.
Freedland comments: 'Lying silent in his wooden box, Foot seemed to come alive once more.'

Tuesday 16 March 2010


I've been brushing up my rusty and extremely rudimentary Portuguese, in anticipation of a visit this summer. My dedication to the task wavers, as I swing back and forth between fascination with and aversion from this most unfamiliar of European Romance languages. I keep myself motivated by the dream that one day I might be able to make sense of the volume of Pessoa's poetry that I bought when we were in Lisbon a few years ago (until then, I shall continue to rely on Richard Zenith's excellent translations) - or, failing that, at least order a drink without making a fool of myself.

Someone once described Portuguese as sounding like Spanish spoken by Sean Connery. Not only is this insulting to the Portuguese, who deeply resent such comparisons with their former colonisers, but also completely misleading. In fact, spoken Portuguese sounds nothing like Spanish. There's a closer aural resemblance with Russian, particularly in the way 'l' is pronounced, and in the ubiquitous 'sh' sounds. Not to mention the echoes of French, especially in the frequent nasal vowels ('bon', 'mim'). Then there are the dipthongs, such as 'ao' and 'oes', which are uniquely Portuguese and for which it's difficult to find equivalents in other languages. Finally, after years of learning to unflatten my southern English 'a' when trying to speak French, German or Italian, it's disarming to come across a European language in which (for example) the words 'para' and 'banca' sound like they're being spoken by a Cockney rather than by a Scot.

I started off with the BBC's lively little Talk Portuguese book and CD: all chirpy voices and annoying jingles, but it leaves you with a good grasp of the basics. I've now moved on to Teach Yourself Portuguese, which pleases me by interspersing the dialogues with grammatical explanations: something that BBC language courses, in hock to a spurious pedagogic pseudo-progressivism, seem to have spurned (as I argued here, this kind of withholding of the academic tools of the trade is actually patronising rather than empowering).

I only have two criticisms of the Teach Yourself course. One is the execrable quality of the CD (at least on the version I own), which seems to have been recorded in a cupboard and which features actors with less-than-crystal-clear enunciation (grasping spoken Portuguese, with all those 'shushy' consonants and swallowed vowels, is difficult enough for beginners). The other is the decision to teach European and Brazilian Portuguese together, which is as misguided as the BBC's attempt to combine European and Latin American Spanish in its Suenos course. The pronunciation and even the vocabulary used in Portugual and Brazil are often very different, and listening to the CD it can be difficult to make out which country the speaker comes from, and therefore which form would be appropriate in which location.

The compensation for all of these frustrations is being able to understand just a little of what my favourite Portuguese and Cape Verdean artists are singing about. Here's Mayra Andrade, providing the perfect accompaniment to a sunny spring afternoon:

From Barbauld to boycotts: Enlightenment wisdom for today

I'm nearing the end of William McCarthy's monumental biography of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Having got over my linguistic pedantry, I'm now thoroughly enjoying it. I'd forgotten, though, how long and disgressive literary biographies can be, with every new text requiring extensive exposition, compared to the straight-down-the-line narrative of political biographies (but then my standard of comparison is probably unfair: the last book I read before this one was David McCullough's peerless John Adams).

In reading about Barbauld and the milieu of Rational Dissent, the political and religious debates of late 18th and early 19th century England have often struck me as strikingly contemporary, anticipating many of our own. And Anna Laetitia and her contemporaries, battling for Enlightenment values in a world still dominated by ancien regimes, offer words of wisdom that have much to say to our own time, with its siren voices of anti-Enlightenment reaction. Here, for example, is Barbauld responding to Chateaubriand's Romantic and anti-rational case for religion, but she might just as well as be writing about Eagleton, Fish, Armstrong and other 21st century pro-faithers:

First examine, then believe, and when you have found the truth, let it engage your best affections, is the order which would be recommended by a sober English divine; but this order is inverted by Chateaubriand, who would have us first like, then believe, and when we believe stoutly, we have leave to examine as much as we please...

Every where imagination and enthusiasm, an imagination certainly brilliant and poetic; an enthusiasm, whether real or fictitious we pretend not to determine, takes the place of reasoning and sound argument...

...[H]is partiality for the marvellous and the romantic is every where apparent..[But] if when we ask ourselves what has the author done? what has he proved? it may be answered, he has proved that the Roman Catholic religion, with all its pomps and ceremonies, is wonderfully adapted to amuse the imagination, but he has scarcely aimed at establishing the truth of its doctrines...[H]e makes us suspect that he receives the whole as a matter of taste than of belief.
And here is Barbauld's brother, John Aikin, writing about the 'antisaccharist' campaign of the early 1790s, which saw opponents of slavery foregoing sugar imported from the West Indies. An early supporter of the action, Aikin later became disillusioned with it, and his explanation could just as easily stand as a riposte to those who advocate boycotting the goods of a certain Middle Eastern country today:
I own I am pretty well-convinced that it can now do no good, for if the public is not more earnest in wishing the abolition, it will never be so; and while the demand is limited, the self-denial of a few can have no effect on it. As I am convinced, too, that the public opinion runs strongly against all innovation, and that those who appear to have nicer feelings than their neighbours are looked upon with an evil eye, I can conceive that anti-saccharism may really throw a prejudice upon the cause.

Monday 8 March 2010

Schlock and awe

The caption alongside this image (entitled 'Shock and Awe') in yesterday's Sunday Times described it as an example of its creator Richard Hamilton's 'acute protest art'. Acute? Art? It's less subtle than Steve Bell on a bad day. There's no ambiguity, no originality, no nuance: just a trite encapsulation of a tired political stereotype. And yet this is the person whom Waldemar Januszczak praises in the accompanying article as 'the most important British artist currently at work'. Janusczak is positively giddy with excitement at the fact that, despite his age, Hamilton 'is an artist who cannot be tamed or brought into line':

Here he is, 88 years young, still turning down knighthoods and MBEs, still winding up 'The Man' at every opportunity he gets, still belting out the protests like a teenage agitator at a Trafalgar Square rally.

What a rebel. It won't surprise you that Januszczak is particularly thrilled about Hamilton's typically monochrome take on Middle East politics:

Given what he is saying here about the behaviour of Israel, don't be surprised if Mossad sends a squad of tennis players into Britain in the next few weeks to discuss Wimbledon with him. Which reminds me, where did I put my passport?

Gosh, Waldemar: having a go at Mossad, how daring. The truth is, whether his subject is Britain, Northern Ireland or the Middle East, Hamilton can never be accused of taking time to see both sides of the question, if a one-sided cartoon will grab a bigger headline, and appeal to posturing armchair rebels like Januszczak.

In another throwaway sentence, the art critic compares Hamilton's Blair picture with his early portrait of High Gaitskell, 'his fellow betrayer of Labour principles'. It's just another symptom of what Jeff Weintraub labels Blair Derangement Syndrome. As Jeff says, 'there are serious reasons why people might disagree with Blair's policies and his political style or even condemn them':

But in many cases these feelings about Blair go beyond serious moral and political criticism and slide over into the real of pervasive, all-consuming, obsessional, and even hysterical hostility.

An hysterical hostility to which Britain's cultural commentariat seems particularly prone.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Michael Foot (1913 - 2010)

With the death of Michael Foot, the British parliamentary left has lost one of its towering figures. Politician, journalist, campaigner, scholar, Foot was also one of my early political heroes. When I was studying British Constitution 'O' Level in the early Seventies, we went on a school trip to the Houses of Parliament. While we were milling around in the lobby, a familiar shock of white hair flitted across our line of sight, and an awed whisper passed from boy to boy - 'It's Michael Foot! (thanks to the influence of our teacher, we were Tribunites to a man). It was the first time I'd seen a famous politician in the flesh (unless you count the dreary experience of watching the local Tory MP, Norman St. John Stevas, campaigning outside the shops on our estate).

Even as my politics moved in a Marxian direction in the Eighties, I retained an affection for Foot. He was, after all, the first leading Labour politician to quote Gramsci in a party conference speech. OK, so maybe his time as Labour leader wasn't his finest hour, but the sneering at him on the Tory benches and in their lackey newspapers simply because of his dress sense was shameful.

He was one of the few major politicians of our time - and maybe the last? - who was also an accomplished scholar and intellectual. Here he is, in one of his last public appearances, unveiling a memorial stone to one of his heroes (and another of mine) William Hazlitt, in St. Anne's churchyard, Soho, in 2003: