Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How a Sensitivity Stasi is eroding artistic freedom

Citywide bans on the `wrong' kind of music; poets put under house arrest; plays pulled lest they stir up violence. what's going on in modern Britain?

Imagine a country where city officials could take it upon themselves to ban art exhibitions, pieces of music and other performances that might, in their view, provoke violence. Where a pub, club or gallery could be threatened with having its licence revoked, and effectively be forced to close down, if it played music or displayed art that has been blacklisted by officialdom. Imagine a country where a young woman could be put under house arrest for, amongst other things, writing poetry judged to be `dangerous'. Imagine a country where the strictures on what you can and cannot say are so stifling that arts institutions censor themselves, sometimes withdrawing potentially inflammatory plays or exhibitions in order to keep sweet with the powers-that-be.

Surely no one would put up with such a regime? Even in Eastern Europe in the dark days of Stalinism, individuals protested against dictators who sought to control art and curtail artistic freedom. Yet all of the things listed above are happening right now, here in Britain, and people are putting up with it.

Today it is reported that Brighton and Hove in southern England might soon become the first city in Britain to prohibit art that `incites racist, homophobic or sectarian violence'. Ostensibly, Brighton council's target is `murder music': Jamaican dancehall and rap songs that have anti-gay lyrics. If the council's proposals are ratified next week, then any venue that plays `murder music' will have its licence revoked.

Decreeing that a certain kind of art is inflammatory, and therefore must be censored, is the start of a very slippery slope. Indeed, the London Evening Standard reports that the music of mainstream artists such as 50 Cent and Eminem, which is considered by some to be homophobic, could also fall foul of Brighton's new licensing regime and find itself banned. The Times (London) reports that Brave New Brighton plans to censor any kind of art that incites `hatred' against minorities, including art exhibitions and plays. Maybe the council should start by outlawing performances of The Merchant of Venice, which some people consider to be anti-Semitic. Or by restricting access to TS Eliot's The Wasteland. Surely every copy of that long poem should be purged from Brighton's bookshops and libraries lest it stir up feelings of hatred towards Jews in the hearts of its readers?

Dee Simson, chairman of Brighton council's licensing committee, says: `I'm a firm believer in freedom of speech but I'm against the incitement of hatred against minorities.' In truth, Brighton's new licensing policy is a spectacular assault on artistic freedom. Yes, the short-term consequence might only be that Jamaican dancehall is banned - but the longer-term implications of Brighton's meddling in the arts are chilling indeed. In interfering in the world of art, music and performance, Brighton officials, like little Stalinites, are sending out a clear message about what is `acceptable art' and what is `unacceptable art'. In threatening venues with closure if they display art or play music that incites hatred against minorities, Brighton is sending a message to artists themselves: `There are certain areas of life you must not touch upon, and certain things you must not express.' Any musician or artist who wants to play or be displayed in Brighton might in future have to purge his or her work of anything that could be interpreted as promoting hatred.

Indeed, in arguing that `hatred' in art is a terrible thing, Brighton officials are even decreeing what kind of emotions artists can express in their work and induce in their viewers or listeners. Much of the greatest art evokes feelings of fear, anxiety and, yes, hatred. Think of Edvard Munch's The Scream, or even Alan Sillitoe's popular short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in which the lead character says all the `coppers, governors, posh whores, army officers and members of parliament' should be put against a wall and shot dead. That certainly evoked feelings of violent anger in my 14-year-old self when I first read it. Aren't `posh whores' (aristocrats) a minority these days? Should they be protected from expressions of hatred in art? If Brighton and Hove had its way, perhaps all art would first be submitted to a focus group wired up to brain sensors to ensure that it only evoked feelings of moist joy and happiness rather than anger or spite.

Brighton is doing so much more than simply messing about with its licensing laws: it is using its power to define what is socially responsible art, and to circumscribe the artistic imagination itself. The gay-friendly city on the coast, with its hippy-chick shops, cool cafes and cannabis dens, is frequently described as Britain's most open and bohemian city. Yet one could now argue that artistic freedom no longer exists in Brighton. If the authorities control what music is played and what art is displayed in the city, through a system that amounts to licensing law blackmail, then Brighton is no longer a free city.

Also today, Samina Malik, or the `lyrical terrorist' as she described herself, was given a nine-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to carry out 100 hours of community service. Malik has been under house arrest at her home in London for the past month. Her crime? She was found guilty of possessing material that might prove useful to a terrorist. That material included her own awful poetry. One of her poems praised Osama bin Laden and another said `Kafirs your time will come soon, and no one will save you from your doom'. Malik was found not guilty of the more serious crime of possessing material with the intention of committing an act of terrorism, and she was not even accused of inciting terrorism. She merely had in her possession pro-jihad poetry, some of it scrawled on the back of till receipts from the WH Smith's store in Heathrow where she worked, and various jihadist documents downloaded from the web. These included The Al-Qaeda Manual, which I once also downloaded - for research purposes, I swear, your honour.

Malik is no TS Eliot, or even Pam Ayres. Her poems were childish and crude; she says she wrote them to be `cool'. Yet her arrest and conviction for downloading written material and for writing dodgy poems is an assault on freedom of thought. Malik has effectively been convicted of a thought crime; she has been punished by the law for what she thought and wrote rather than for anything she did. It took Malik herself, who is clearly not the brightest nail in the nail-bomb, to point out to her judge: `To partake in something and to write about something are two different things.' When someone can be convicted for writing dodgy or dangerous poetry, then the realm of free imagination is itself curtailed: everyone's ability to explore and discuss ideas that are controversial, extreme or just plain absurd is circumscribed.

In the serious art world, self-censorship is rife. At a time when the government has outlawed religious hatred, and when the authorities make wild exaggerations about the problem of `Islamophobia', arts establishments are increasingly editing or withdrawing anything that might be judged irreligious or anti-Muslim. A report by the New Culture Forum listed recent instances of religious-conscious self-censorship in the art world: the identity of terrorists in an episode of the hospital drama Casualty was changed from Islamists to animal rights extremists after pressure from BBC chiefs; a play called Up On Roof, due to be performed by the Hull Truck Theatre Company, was rewritten after the Danish cartoon controversy - its Muslim character was changed to a Rastafarian; the Barbican in London cut out sections of its production of Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims; the Royal Court Theatre, also in London, cancelled a reading of an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata which was set in a Muslim heaven.

The decisive factor behind such self-censorship is not any hard evidence that mass Muslim outrage is brimming under the surface of British society, but rather caution and cowardice on the part of the art world. Only tiny handfuls of Muslims protested over the Danish cartoons and the Pope's supposedly Islamophobic speech; probably even smaller numbers would bother to kick up a stink over a performance of Lysistrata at the Royal Court. Yet arts institutions are sensing that certain things are unsayable and unacceptable today. In our censorious climate, where the government outlaws expressions of `religious hatred' and city councils ban art that `incites hatred', artists and arts practitioners are starting to self-censor anything that might potentially be construed as disrespectful or hateful. In The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's brilliant film set in East Germany in 1984, a Stasi officer lives in the attic of a playwright's apartment and spies on him and his liberal artistic friends. Such an intrusion is not necessary in contemporary Britain; instead, arts institutions have a `Stasi of the mind', a censorious official in their brains telling them to err on the side of caution and ditch anything that might cause a fuss.

Artistic freedom is under assault in Britain. Thankfully, we don't have a Stasi here; but we do have a kind of Sensitivity Stasi - local and government officials who see it as their job to protect fragile sections of the public from offensive, outrageous or hateful art. Authoritarian governments have always interfered in the work of artists. They have always been suspicious of that `Kingdom of Freedom' where individuals have experimented and taken risks in their creation of works of art, free - well, almost - from the demands of the market and the strictures of contemporary morality. Such an arena is an anathema to nervous governments, who prefer to keep everything under their watchful eye and influence. Anybody who values freedom should defend the realm of art and thought from such state interference. As Leon Trotsky and Andre Breton argued in their manifesto for art published in the 1930s, in art there should be `no authority, no restriction, not the slightest trace of compulsion'.


Fitness `is more important than beating obesity in middle age'

This sounds more like the truth but it is probably still exaggerated. Genes are the big factor. The "findings" below are based on self-reports, with all the doubts inherent in that. It is a study of what people say, not of what they do. Psychologists are well aware of the gap between those two things -- which is why we try to validate our tests against actual behaviour

Fitness is more important than thinness in retaining mobility, strength and balance in old age. Middle-aged people who do half an hour's vigorous activity three times a week are half as likely as the sedentary to suffer physical decline and impaired mobility as they get older. "Use it or lose it" was the message, said Dr Iain Lang, of the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, who, with collaborators in the United States, studied data on more than 10,000 people aged between 50 and 69 for up to six years.

Importantly, he said, the benefit of exercise was enjoyed regardless of body mass index. All groups roughly halved their risks of physical decline by doing exercise - so that a fit obese person did as well, or better, than a thin, unfit one. "Some people take up exercise and then give up when they don't lose weight," Dr Lang said. "This research shows that you get important benefits from exercise even if it doesn't help you lose weight."

The research was carried out using data from two ongoing studies, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the US Health and Retirement Study. Both are long-term studies of the changes that take place as middle-aged people move into old age. Both groups - 8,692 in the US, and 1,507 in England - were asked at the start if they did any vigorous exercise. This could include sports, heavy housework, mowing the lawn, sweeping up leaves, or any job that involves physical labour and would make a participant feel out of breath or sweaty. The team worked out from the answers how many of the participants did at least 30 minutes of this type of exercise at least three times a week. They then compared this with the experience of physical decline in the participants.

They conclude in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that those who maintained a reasonable level of physical activity were more likely to be able to walk distances, climb stairs, maintain their sense of balance, stand from a seated position with their arms folded, or sustain their hand grip as they got older. Across all weight ranges, the rate of decreased physical ability later in life was twice as high among those who were less physically active. Being overweight or obese was linked with an increase in disability, but much of that increased risk could have been eliminated by keeping fit.

As examples, 21.1 per cent of English people of normal body mass index (20-24.9) became physically impaired over the course of the study if they did no exercise; only 12.4 per cent of them did if they were active. Among the obese (BMI 30 or over), 31.6 per cent of the English participants became physically impaired if they did no exercise, while only 15.4 per cent of the active ones did. Indeed, being physically active almost eliminated the difference in deterioration otherwise noticed between the obese and those of normal weight. The American data showed similar, if less striking, results.

"There are three truly interesting results from this research," Dr Lang said. "The first is that our findings were similar from the US and the UK, which suggests that they are universal. The second is that exercise in middle age does not just benefit people in terms of weight loss - it also helps them to remain physically healthy and active later in life. And the third is that, in terms of results from activity, weight does not seem to be an issue."


Alternative medicines a `health risk'

The unregulated sale of alternative medicines was putting the public at risk, a fatal accident inquiry was told. Elaine Ferrie said an over-the-counter medical supplement was to blame for the death of her brother. She told Perth Sheriff Court that Norman Ferrie, 64, was a "strong, healthy man who never needed to go to the doctor".

Mr Ferrie, of Invergowrie, died from liver failure in 2004, two months after he began taking glucosamine tablets to counter joint pain in his knee. His doctor said that he appeared to have developed an allergic reaction to the medicine.

Ms Ferrie, 59, said: "There should be testing similar to that for prescription medicines to ensure they are manufactured safely." Glucosamine is a chemical that occurs naturally within the joints and is one of the most popular treatments for joint pain.


Yet more messing around with British primary schooling

The Labour government just runs around in circles. Nothing is ever thoroughly pretested. What is right today is wrong tomorrow

Children are to be taught and tested at their own pace and primary school pupils will study fewer subjects to concentrate more on the basics and a foreign language, under a radical shake-up to be announced tomorrow. Some of the traditional subjects such as history and geography, or art and music, could be rolled into one, The Times has been told. As well as French and German, primary pupils may get the chance to learn Urdu and Mandarin.

The system of "one size fits all" national curriculum tests taken annually by all 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds will be swept away and replaced by twice-yearly tests pitched at the level of individual children. The changes will come in a ten-year "children's plan" to be outlined by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, who admitted yesterday that the British system was not yet "world class".

The aim of the changes will be to ensure that the very bright are continually stretched and the stragglers are given sufficient support. The rigidity of the present national testing system, which challenges schools to ensure that as many as possible reach minimum levels of achievement for their age, will go. Instead a child would take a level four test, for example, not at a given age but when they reach that level.

The new system would allow most pupils to take two shorter tests when they are ready, instead of one longer test fixed at age 11. Pupils could sit their tests either in the summer or the winter, instead of all during one week in May. The reforms are intended to stop teachers spending too much time drilling pupils to pass the tests because children will only sit the assessments when their teachers believe that they are ready. The results will still be published in tables to show parents and authorities how schools are progressing.

Head teachers welcomed the reform but gave warning that schools would still face too much pressure if the results are used to compile league tables. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "We think the concept of when-ready testing is the right concept. I agree we want to get away from the rigidity of the current system."

Mr Balls wants to take out "some of the clutter" from the timetable and make the teaching of a language at primary school compulsory. Sir James Rose, who led the review that promoted phonics as the primary way to teach reading, is to head the first "root-and-branch" review of the primary curriculum for ten years. Mr Balls told BBC 1's Andrew Marr programme yesterday that the curriculum needed to have "more space for maths and more space for reading and also to make sure that every child is being taught a foreign language in primary school."

Recent research from Manchester University suggested that around 51 per cent of teaching time is already devoted purely to English and mathematics as teachers drill young children to pass their SATs tests. The plans respond to concerns that, after ten years of steady improvement, progress in the three `r's at primary school has come to a standstill.

Mr Balls denied that the need for a Children's Plan after ten years in government was an admission of failure. There had been "a sea-change" under Labour, he insisted, adding: "We are doing better than we were, but it's not good enough. We aren't world class. "I want to move to a much more flexible approach to testing which will take the burdens off children and be better for teachers to track the individual progress of every child."


Iran 'hoodwinked' CIA over nuclear plans: "British spy chiefs have grave doubts that Iran has mothballed its nuclear weapons programme, as a US intelligence report claimed last week, and believe the CIA has been hoodwinked by Teheran. Analysts believe that Iranian staff, knowing their phones were tapped, deliberately gave misinformation. The report used new evidence - including human sources, wireless intercepts and evidence from an Iranian defector - to conclude that Teheran suspended the bomb-making side of its nuclear programme in 2003. But British intelligence is concerned that US spy chiefs were so determined to avoid giving President Bush a reason to go to war - as their reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes did in Iraq - that they got it wrong this time. A senior British official delivered a withering assessment of US intelligence-gathering abilities in the Middle East and revealed that British spies shared the concerns of Israeli defence chiefs that Iran was still pursuing nuclear weapons."

1 comment:

David Mullings said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your position that this Brighton issue is would set a dangerous precedent and the very countries that opposed Fascism and people like Stalin are behaving like the very Nazis they despise.

This sounds like Orwell's '1984' or 'Animal Farm' and is decidedly bothersome because it is a growing trend in "developed" nations.