Monday, December 03, 2007


`Why make a big deal about free speech?' a student asked me after one of my lectures recently. Such a cynical attitude towards the principle of free speech is common today. An army of self-selected censors is currently demanding: `How dare the Oxford Union invite Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, and the anti-Semitic historian David Irving to participate in one of its debates?' The fevered response to tonight's debate on free speech and extremism at the Oxford Union highlights the exhaustion of a genuine democratic commitment to freedom of expression. If there is one powerful argument in favour of holding the debate, it is as a way of countering this illiberal outlook.

There was a time when those who called themselves radical or progressive marched and struggled for the realisation of the right to freedom of speech. These days, so-called progressives are far more likely to demonstrate against the right of people that they don't like to speak openly. They demand the censorship of public expressions of extremist views. Mainstream public figures and officials embrace the role of the censor, and proclaim that freedom of speech is not an `absolute right'. In an era that finds it difficult to uphold any absolutes - absolute truth, absolute good - the devaluation of speech from an absolute freedom to a conditional one fits in well with the prevailing `common sense'. However, once a right ceases to be an `absolute', it becomes a negotiable commodity. Devaluing the freedom of speech so that it becomes a relative right (in other words, a privilege) simply means upholding the right to speak of those whom we like, and censoring the views of people we find obnoxious or offensive.

The censorious response to the Oxford Union debate comes at a time when attacks on freedom of speech are being widely institutionalised. In recent years, numerous laws have been introduced to punish various forms of speech as `incitement to religious hatred', `glorifying terrorism' or `expressing homophobic views'. The New Labour government is set to launch a new crusade against the expression of extremist views on university campuses. Such illiberal attitudes are not confined to Labour. Julian Lewis, the Tory shadow defence secretary, sought to capture the limelight with his very public resignation from the Oxford Union over the Irving/Griffin debate. Of course, Lewis informed us, he is not against free speech - well, he is not absolutely against it. `I think there are people who are confusing this with an issue of free speech', he said. In fact, there is no confusion here; this is a free speech issue.

The moral rehabilitation of censorship

Censorship, of course, has a long history. In Roman times, two magistrates, or `censors', were charged not only with counting the population but also with supervising public morals. Although in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries censorship was frequently driven by a political imperative, its aim remained essentially to police moral behaviour. Twenty-first censorship continues this tradition. Yet today, censorship is not simply pursued by the state or religious authorities; advocacy groups, educators, media organisations and professionals are also actively engaged in rhetorical crusades to ban certain words and/or to promote their own favoured view of the world.

In modern times there has never been an era such as ours, where language is so carefully regulated and policed by both public and private institutions. The main reason for this development is the ascendancy of the belief that words can hurt people far more than we previously suspected, and that people have a right to be protected from harmful words. It is a sign of the times that, today, acts of censorship are not seen for what they really are: the coercive regulation of everyday communication and the repression and stigmatisation of certain ideas. Instead, they tend to be looked upon as enlightened attempts to prevent people from being offended or as a sensible way of minimising conflict.

Words are frequently depicted as weapons that can traumatise and psychologically damage their targets. As a result, the right to free speech often competes with the right not to be offended. From this standpoint, censorship is perceived, not as a form of authoritarian intrusion, but as an enlightened measure designed to protect the vulnerable from pain. The idea that language offends is not new, of course. But the notion that because offensive speech can have a damaging impact on people it must be closely regulated signals an important departure from the past. This new view of speech is based on a radical redefinition of human subjectivity. It assumes that people lack the intellectual resources to deal with competing ideas. And a public that apparently lacks independence of thought or moral autonomy must be protected from making the wrong choices in the marketplace of ideas. At a time when ideas are seen as being potentially dangerous, their suppression can be represented as an act of public service.

The desire to protect individuals from painful words is underwritten by a powerful new cultural script. This means that, today, there is only a very feeble cultural affirmation for freedom of speech. Indeed, one often gets the impression that academics and public figures are more interested in criticising the ideal of free speech than they are in upholding it. Many thinkers seem unperturbed by the role of the state in policing speech. Thus the original impetus behind the demand for free speech - which was based on a fear of the power of the state to censor and persecute people for their beliefs and words - is dismissed as an historical footnote. Those who are concerned about state intervention into public debate are looked upon as having an old-fashioned and irrelevant obsession.

Perversely, some so-called progressive thinkers and activists go so far as to associate free speech with elite privilege. Freedom of speech is seen as something that protects the status of the powerful and negates the views or feelings of the oppressed and the vulnerable. This radical reinterpretation of the role of free speech is paralleled by a fundamental redefinition of what constitutes the problem: for today's critics of free speech, the locus of the problem is not the state but the domain of interpersonal relations. They focus their concern on individual forms of speech that wound those without power. This individualisation of the role of speech overlooks the institutional and cultural influences on public debate, as protecting the individual from psychological pain is seen as being logically prior to upholding the right to free speech. From this twisted worldview, state censorship actually has a positive role to play. Through enforcing laws that apparently protect people from hate and hurt, state censorship comes to be looked upon as championing the powerless.

Critics of the Oxford Union debate argue that the presence of racist speakers offends minority students and could lead to violence. However, history shows that certain ideas will always offend someone. There is no serious form of public speech that hurts absolutely no one. And as the American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, `every idea is an incitement'. Those of us who believe in the formidable power of human intelligence need to remember these words, and dismiss the idea that free speech is not an absolute right as a very bad idea.


Another absurd piece of paranoia from the British Left

British Leftists hate America and Israel so much because America and Israel are both success-stories -- but the Left would look pathetic if they admitted that so they have to come out with some other cock-and-bull claim

Apartheid against Christians is practiced to various degrees -- sometimes to a severe degree -- by Arab states in the Middle East but the British Left says that it is Israel that is the apartheid state. America saved British independence twice in two world wars but the heading on the article below was "We fret over Europe, but the real threat to sovereignty has long been the US"

One knows something is important when the powers that be choose not to acknowledge it in public. Since 1945, Britain has been subject to at least three invasions. Two of these invasions have been massively discussed, and are widely viewed as having challenged and complicated understandings of what it means to be British. The empire came home, in that migrants from former overseas colonies settled here in large numbers, as they never had before the war; and Britain joined what is now the European Union, and became subject to interventions of different kinds emanating from Brussels.

The third post-1945 invasion was just as momentous, yet official and media silence about it is usually deafening. Since 1947, there have been US military bases in the UK: something that would have been unthinkable before 1939.

Schoolchildren in the United States are still taught that London's decision to keep 10,000 troops in the colonies after 1763 was one of the precipitants of the American revolution. Yet, according to the available statistics, over 10,500 US military personnel were stationed in the UK as late as 2005, a higher total than in any other European state, barring Germany and Italy, both defeated in the second world war. In all, well over 1.3 million US personnel have been stationed here since 1950, without - so far as I know - any consultation of the electorate.

It is not the exact number of these troops, however, but what they represent that is significant - namely London's postwar position of considerable clientage to Washington in terms of foreign policy and much else.

To refer to these subjects is to invite accusations of anti-Americanism. But I am not anti-American. I have worked in the US for 20 years. My point is not American power, but rather the double standard that characterises so much British political discourse. Sections of the media and members of both major parties have been all too eager to bang the autonomy drum when it comes to Europe. But there is a marked unwillingness to analyse the challenges to British independence from US influence; and those touching on the subject are swiftly denounced.

The usual rationalisation for this double standard is that the EU threatens Britain's internal way of life, while its relationship with the US does not. This is palpably absurd. Even leaving aside its military bases, America's influence on the domestic ordering of British life has been enormous, though sometimes unrecognised. The central place of deposit for Britain's historic archives at Kew, for instance, used to be called the Public Record Office, but is now re-named the National Archives. Why? Presumably because this is what the US styles its central place of archival deposit in Washington.

More here

Just say no to `No Platform'

Britain: A student at the University of East Anglia strikes a blow for free speech against the NUS's censorious policies

Last week, the students union at the University of East Anglia passed a policy introduced by Richard Reynolds, stating that `in order to discredit illiberal, extremist or racist ideologies, it is necessary to openly confront these ideas and not merely pretend they do not exist'. This runs counter to the policy of the National Union of Students, which is to deny a platform to extremists. Here, we republish the UEA students' pro-free speech policy:

Fight Fascism, End `No Platform'

* You can't win the war against fascist ideas if you don't fight the battles. Banning things just makes us look like we are scared to take them on;

* Saying you `believe in free speech, but...' is meaningless, just as saying `I'm not racist, but...'. Either we are free to say and think what we believe or we are not;

* If fascist groups were to come to campus to debate, our representatives should be inside the room arguing with them and proving them wrong, not just protesting pointlessly outside;

* If we ban these groups, we give them the moral high ground - they can claim they are unfairly treated and accuse those who do believe in democracy of being hypocrites;

* Part of being a student is coming across new ideas, not all of these will be nice, but we learn from them all.

Some myths about `No Platform':

* `Fascist groups will come to, or are going to be invited to, campus'

This does not mean we want them here or we are extending an invitation. They can anyway, it is beyond the power of the Union to stop them.

* `By arguing with such groups (giving them a "platform") we are giving them credibility'

The whole point of arguing with someone is to see who is right; it does not imply we think they are right, quite the reverse is true. Our arguments can always be made better and we can further understand what is wrong with their position - just like when we study outdated academic ideas on our courses.

* `Fascist/racist groups will attack people, especially ethnic minorities, LGBT students and other discriminated against groups.'

This may be true. However, if it is, this is a matter for the police as it would be a criminal offence. You cannot assume people are guilty, however unpleasant they are, before they act.

* `Ethnic minorities, LGBT students and people from other discriminated against groups will be too uncomfortable to debate with such people in the room.'

Democracy requires debate; sometimes that debate can be messy, but to sacrifice controversy for an easy life is to sacrifice democracy itself. Why should we presume that minority groups need special protection? Surely they are as capable as anyone else? To suggest otherwise is not only patronising; it is the very essence of discrimination, which we should be fighting against.

* `The NUS conference would be invaded by extremists!'

The conference was not invaded before NUS had a `no platform' policy. These `extremists' would have to be elected as delegates, like every other NUS conference delegate. And if they don't follow the rules, then, like everyone else, they can be chucked out.


Most murders in London done by immigrants

Most murders in London this year were committed by foreigners, according to Scotland Yard figures obtained by The Times. Of 47 killings between April and September where the nationality of the accused is known, 26 of the suspects — 55 per cent — are not Britons. In 19 cases the killer is believed to be British. In a further 23 cases the nationality of the killer has not been determined. At least 23 of the victims were foreign, including Somali, Brazilian, Irish and Vietnamese citizens.

The killings over the six months are under investigation by Scotland Yard’s Homicide Command and are subject to change as more cases are solved. But the raw data represents a stark illustration of the problems facing forces nationwide as communities change rapidly because of large-scale immigration. The accused in the London sample hail from all corners of the world: Peru, China, Albania, Romania, Lithuania, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

All murder and manslaughter cases involving foreigners — as either victims or perpetrators — present detectives with difficulties in understanding motives and overcoming language barriers. Deep-rooted cultural differences also need to be resolved, involving, for example, “honour killings” and revenge murders stemming from Albanian village rivalries. Increasingly, police have to travel overseas to trace suspects, liaise with foreign forces and speak to the families of people killed in Britain. The result is that murder cases are becoming more complicated for investigators, more expensive for police forces and more time-consuming for the courts.

One of the country’s most senior homicide officers told The Times that the Scotland Yard data was not sufficient on its own to provide firm conclusions, but it pointed to an urgent need for detailed research to determine the nationwide police response to demographic change. “We have to stress that this is just a snapshot and much more work needs to be done to establish if it represents a wider pattern,” said Commander Dave Johnston, vice-chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ homicide working group. “But this does have resource implications for the police. Such cases require the use of interpreters and there can be difficulties understanding some of the cultural issues. Sometimes we have to pursue suspects across national boundaries. “It is hard to say if there is a national trend, but this is something that should be more closely monitored.”

The figures obtained by The Times relate only to Greater London. Other forces contacted said that they did not compile such data or would release figures only through the freedom of information process. But there is growing evidence that new immigrants to Britain are killing and being killed.

Hertfordshire police have had to investigate a murder linked to an Albanian clan feud, and in Cambridgeshire a Lithuanian man was burnt alive. The case was suspected to involve rivalries originating in his homeland. Polish citizens have been killed this year in Leeds, London, St Helens and Wrexham. An Albanian man was convicted over the shooting of a countryman in an Albanian social club in London, and two men were jailed in Tirana for a murder in North London. Four weeks ago Benjamin Marshall was jailed after pleading guilty to the murder of a Lithuanian citizen, Arturas Venckus, in Nottinghamshire.

There is evidence in police budgets of the increased workload of dealing with crimes committed by foreigners. Chief constables are having to pay more for the services of interpreters and translators. With spending at 9.7 million pounds, Scotland Yard is 1 million over budget for interpreters.

The figures from Scotland Yard cannot be presented with scientific certainty as proof of a definite trend. They exclude killings being investigated by the Metropolitan Police’s Child Abuse Investigation Command and by the Operation Trident team which handles gun crime in the black community. Nor do the figures suggest any migrant-fuelled wave of killings. Murders in the capital had fallen from 176 in 2003-04 to 127 in 2006-07. [Not counting blacks!]


Dental meltdown in Britain

More than a quarter of a million people have lost access to a National Health Service dentist since the system was reformed last year.

The Department of Health admits that 266,000 fewer people had NHS dental treatment since a new contract for dentists was introduced in April 2006. Many dentists decided to leave the NHS rather than work under the new contract, which was nonetheless defended by Dr Barry Cockcroft, the chief dental officer. “Changes on this scale were always going to be challenging for the NHS,” he said. “As more and more new services get up and running, we expect to see increasing numbers of patients accessing services.”


British navy 'would struggle to fight a war': "BRITAIN'S Royal Navy would struggle to fight a major war because of years of under-funding and cut-backs, according to a defence ministry study leaked to a newspaper. The Sunday Telegraph said the report was ordered by Defence Secretary Des Browne to counter claims from opposition political parties and the media about a lack of resources in Britain's military. But the study concluded: "The current material state of the fleet is not good: the Royal Navy would be challenged to mount a medium-scale operation in accordance with current policy against a technologically capable adversary." A "medium-scale operation" is similar to Britain's naval involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the newspaper said. The document comes at a time of concern about the capabilities of Britain's armed forces due to a perceived lack of adequate funding for equipment and so-called "overstretch" because of commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Five of the country's former top military commanders last month criticised Prime Minister Gordon Brown for failing to fund adequately the armed forces during his 10 years as finance minister under Tony Blair."

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