Friday, 12 June 2015

Critiques of Free Speech & PEN

ON the 2nd, May this year in Dallas, two Islamists tried to do a critique of Pamela Geller's 'Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest' with assault rifles.  Dominic Green argues in the June issue of Standpoint magazine that 'The depiction of Muhammad is a test case for the practice of Western freedoms'.  If a guard had not suspended the art critic attackers' 'freedom of assembly' with a Glock pistol there would probably have been a massacre.  

Days later PEN held its annual dinner in New York at which the PEN board conferred its annual  'Freedom of Expression Courage Award' on Charlie Hebdo.  Six of the dinner's table hosts Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Rachel Kushner, Frances Prose, Teju Cole and Taiya Selasi, resigned, and Salman Rushdie twitted '6 pussies' only later to amend it to 'Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.' 

In an essay in January 1946 entitled 'The Prevention of Literature' George Orwell wrote about a meeting of PEN commemorating the tercentenary of Milton's Areopagitica  - a pamphlet in defence of freedom of the press:

'There were four speakers on the platform.  One of them delivered a speech which did deal with the freedom of the press, but only in relation to India; another said, hesitantly, and in very general terms, that liberty was a good thing; a third delivered an attack on laws relating to obscenity in literature.  A fourth devoted most of his speech to a defence of the Russian purges.  Of the speeches from the body of the hall, some reverted to the question of obscenity and the laws that deal with it,  others were simply eulogies of Soviet Russia.  Moral liberty – the liberty to discuss sex questions frankly in print – seemed to be generally approved, but political liberty was not mentioned.' 

Then with eyes and ears like a shit-house rat Orwell then discerns:

'Out of this concourse of several hundred people, perhaps half of whom were directly connected with the writing trade, there was not a single one who could point out that freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose....  In its net effect the meeting was a demonstration in favour of censorship.' 

When the Salmon Rushdie affair first broke out in the late 1980s, I argued that writers ought to be prepared to take risks in the same way miners and building workers did everyday in their working lives.   Following the recent PEN resignations Salmon Rushdie said:

'If PEN as a free speech organisation cannot defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name.  What I would say to Peter, Michael, the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.' 

In 1946 when Orwell wrote, it was not the fashion on the left to attack the Soviet Union, perhaps with the exception of the anarchists and some trotskyist groups; today even the anarchists are likely to embrace a sickly sophistry when challenged by the quandary of the freedom of the press.  With the Stalinists, the British trade unions and the main-stream left, free speech has often been a difficult concept for them to embrace wholeheartedly as Orwell discerned. 

In a posting on the 'anarchist' libcom website earlier this year someone wrote:  'By the magazine's (Charlie Hebdo) own admission, the point was to offend and provoke anger.' 

The writer disapproves of this because '... by and large, here you're actually getting a reaction from a maligned and marginalised minority community, who already suffer violence and prejudice.' 

I suppose the National Front supporters who were banned by the Church elders from participating in the election hustings at St.Chads Church in Rochdale earlier this year, could equally claim that they too were 'a maligned and marginalised community'.   Though I doubt that libcom would want to defend them. 

Coincidentally, as I write these words an editor on our Northern Voices' Blog is currently facing a 'Rule 27, Panel Investigation' by a Unite union panel, based on a report that appeared in March about a meeting of the Local Authority Regional Sector Committee entitled 'Unite Committee Bins Motion on Blacklisting'.  As George Orwell realised the English Left, and I would say the trade unions, may call for transparency and openness when referring to others, but they often lack a robust ability for self-criticism and self-examination.       

In 1946, George Orwell complained:  'Fifteen years ago, when one defended the freedom of the intellect, one had to defend it against Conservatives, against Catholics, and to some extent – for they were not of great importance in England, against Fascists.  Today one has to defend it against Communists and “fellow-travellers”.' 

Now, not only do we have to fend off the Fascists; the Communists (if they still exist); tin-pot anarchists on libcom; and trade union bosses who are covering-up for those who colluded with companies who blacklist, but we also have to challenge trade union committees that are run like petty fiefdoms, and Labour Councillors who produce pious proposals to cover-up for Labour Councils that do business with, and give public contracts to blacklist companies. 

Naturally, none of this can be as challenging as having to confront the assault rifle analysts in downtown Dallas, but it does make for an interesting life.

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