Monday, September 29, 2008

Muslim gang tries to firebomb British publisher of Allah novel

Scotland Yard's counter-terrorist command yesterday foiled an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to kill the publisher of a forthcoming novel featuring sexual encounters between the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride. Early yesterday armed undercover officers arrested three men after a petrol bomb was pushed through the door of the north London home of the book’s publisher. The Metropolitan police said the target of the assassination plot, the Dutch publisher Martin Rynja, had not been injured.

The suspected terror gang was being followed by undercover police and the fire was quickly put out after the fire brigade smashed down the front door. The foiled terrorist attack recalled the death threats and uproar 20 years ago following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the worldwide protests that followed the publication in a Danish newspaper in 2005 of cartoons deemed offensive to Islam, in which more than 100 people died.

Security officials believe Rynja was targeted for assassination because his firm, Gibson Square, is preparing to publish a romantic novel about Aisha, child bride of the Prophet Muhammad. The Jewel of Medina, by the first-time American author Sherry Jones, describes an imaginary sex scene between the prophet and his 14-year-old wife. It was withdrawn from publication in America last month after its publisher there, Random House, said it feared a violent reaction by “a small radical segment” of Muslims. It said “credible and unrelated sources” had warned that the book could incite violence.

Random House reacted after Islamic scholars objected to its contents, saying it treated the wife of the Prophet as a sex object. One of them, Denise Spellberg, of the University of Texas at Austin, described the novel as “soft-core pornography”, referring to a scene in which Muhammad consummates his marriage to Aisha. She called it “a declaration of war” and a “national security issue”.

At the time, her warnings were dismissed by the author. “Anyone who reads the book will not be offended,” said Jones. “I wrote the book with the utmost respect for Islam.” However, Jones admitted receiving death threats after the book was withdrawn.

It was soon after this that the Met appears to have received a tip-off that the British publisher who had subsequently agreed to print it could be the target of an attack. A Met spokesman said three men had been arrested in “a preplanned intelligence-led operation” at about 2.25am on Saturday. Two of the suspects were arrested in the street outside Rynja’s four-storey townhouse in Lonsdale Square, Islington, while the third was stopped by officers in an armed vehicle near Angel Tube station. They were being questioned yesterday on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, a spokesman said.

Rynja, 44, could not be contacted yesterday. He is believed to be under police guard. Yesterday, Natasha Kern, Jones’s agent, said she was shocked to learn of the attack. She said the book had been misinterpreted by its critics and did not contain sex scenes, as had been alleged. “I honestly believe that if people read the book they will see it is not disrespectful of Muhammad, and moderate Muslims will not be offended. I don’t want anyone to risk their lives but we could never imagine that there would be some madmen who would do something like this. I’m so sad about this act of terrorism. Moderate Muslims will suffer because of a few radicals.” Kern said it was too early for her to comment on whether the book should be withdrawn. “That’s up to Martin, and I still need to absorb the fact that he was at risk. I’m just so glad he has not been hurt.”

Residents said they saw armed police break down the door of Rynja’s house, helped by firefighters. Francesca Liebowitz, 16, a neighbour, said: “The police couldn’t get the door open so the fire brigade battered it down.” Another neighbour, who declined to be named, said: “I was woken at about 3am and I looked out the window and I saw several unmarked cars with what I now think were police officers in them. These officers came out of the cars and there was huge screaming and shouting. Some of the police officers were carrying sub-machineguns. “I then saw a small fire at the bottom of the door at the house. I heard the police officers shout and scream and try to get neighbours out of the house.”

The Jewel of Medina is due to be published next month.


Nasty British bureaucrats surrender! They knew that their petty harassment of private medicine would not stand up in court

IVF watchdog lifts ban on Mohammed Taranissi to avoid challenge in High Court. He was so successful he made the NHS look stupid: Unforgiveable!

Mohammed Taranissi, Britain’s most successful fertility doctor, has been cleared to continue running his London clinic by the IVF watchdog, after it agreed to rescind a disciplinary ban imposed last year. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will annul its ruling that Mr Taranissi was unfit to be in charge of his Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre (ARGC), to avoid a judicial review.

The doctor, who has long boasted Britain’s highest IVF success rates, was stripped of his right to be “person responsible” for the clinic last July, after an HFEA committee found that he had been practising without the proper licence.

Mr Taranissi, however, was granted permission to challenge the decision in the High Court, on the ground that the panel could have appeared to be biased against him. Rather than risk a defeat that would have been highly damaging to the authority, it will set aside the decision and pay his legal costs. The climbdown is the latest of a string of costly legal embarrassments for the HFEA over its handling of the doctor. In June last year the High Court ruled it had illegally obtained a warrant to search Mr Taranissi’s clinic, leaving the regulator facing a legal bill that could reach $2 million.

It was also forced to clarify in court comments made by Angela McNab, then its chief executive, in a BBC Panorama programme broadcast last January. Mr Taranissi is suing the BBC for libel over allegations in the documentary that his clinic put pressure on patients to pay for unnecessary treatments.

The HFEA’s climbdown will also encourage the doctor as he prepares to defend a General Medical Council hearing into complaints from two unnamed patients, which begins on Monday. One of the women alleges that the ARGC put inappropriate pressure on her to have particular treatments, and the other claims he failed to examine her properly and was insensitive to her husband. In both cases, he is also accused of failing to keep proper records. Mr Taranissi denies the allegations, which the HFEA investigated in 2003 and 2004 without ruling against him.

The HFEA’s action against Mr Taranissi followed Panorama’s claim that he treated patients during 2006 at a second London clinic, the Reproductive Genetics Institute, while it did not have the correct licence. Mr Taranissi has always rejected the charge, contending that he had been given special permission to continue therapy after the licence expired. He appealed against the sanction, which is among the toughest that the HFEA can impose, and which has been used only once before. The decision to strike out the licence committee’s ruling means that appeal will now not be heard. Instead, Mr Taranissi has been cleared to continue practising while he applies for a fresh licence. The agreement between the parties still has to be sealed by a judge, but this is expected to be a formality.

His application will be considered by six new members of the authority, who were appointed this month at the request of Dawn Primarolo, the Public Health Minister. It was agreed that authority members who had deliberated on the doctor’s case before could not be involved without the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Mr Taranissi said yesterday: “I always maintained that the decision was wrong, and I am delighted it has been set aside. I hadn’t done anything wrong and I wouldn’t accept it.” He said his case had highlighted serious flaws in the HFEA’s appeals process. “It is impossible to complain about their decisions to anyone apart from the HFEA, and that cannot be right,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to take legal action, but most people won’t be. There needs to be a way for people to appeal to a third party, without having to go to court.”


The moronic British ID card

The long-dreaded day has finally arrived: Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, revealed the first UK identity card last week. I have to admit that it didn't look particularly threatening. It was just an ordinary piece of plastic, the size of a credit card, with the holder's name, date of birth, immigration status, and a chip that holds fingerprints and a digital facial image.

As civil libertarians like to remind us, one of Hitler's first acts as chancellor was to impose compulsory ID cards on every German citizen. If the smiling Ms Smith's ID card was the beginning of the totalitarian state in Britain, it came not with a bang but a simper. Still, it has taken six votes in the Commons, and five defeats in the House of Lords, for the Government to get this far. And the price of getting around the legislative obstacle course has been that ministers had to give up their original hope of making ID cards compulsory.

Under the legislation that was passed by Parliament, they will be compulsory only for foreign nationals (people such as my Californian wife), who will need one to enter the UK, to work and to claim benefits. UK citizens will not be forced to carry one: the Home Secretary hopes that most of us will pay the £30 required to get one "voluntarily".

Dream on, Jacqui! Having dropped the requirement that the ID card be compulsory, the Government has destroyed its case for them, because it has ensured that ID cards can't possibly work as an effective tool for catching terrorists or criminals. Obviously, no self-respecting jihadi will carry an ID card voluntarily. There will be other refuseniks, such as those who object on principle to the idea of ID cards (and they include senior members of the judiciary, the House of Lords and all three political parties, as well as thousands of ordinary citizens). So the police won't be able to take your failure to produce an ID card as an admission that you are planning to detonate a suicide bomb.

How, then, will ID cards help the cops track the terrorists? The Government hasn't provided an answer - which may be why the Home Secretary insisted last week that their primary use is to control illegal immigration. And perhaps ID cards will make it more difficult for those not entitled to be in Britain to get through immigration control, although since many illegal immigrants are indeed illegal - that is, they arrive smuggled in lorries and do not come into contact with any of UK's border agencies - it is not obvious how much difference ID cards will make.

A more significant problem will be the inevitable proliferation of fakes. Anyone who claims that it will be impossible to copy or clone ID cards is not telling the truth: any system devised by a human being can, and will, be broken by another human being. The ID card system will not be "foolproof": if there is one certainty, it is that the criminal gangs who make fortunes smuggling illegal immigrants into Britain will find a way to clone and distribute fake cards. And that's without a government official leaving a data stick containing the ID details of 60 million people in Starbucks or on the train.

The system is currently projected to cost a cool $68 billion. You can be sure it will end up costing a lot more than that, and that it won't work as intended.

There is only one computer system in the UK on the same scale as the one proposed for ID cards: the National Programme, the system designed to centralise all NHS patient records. Almost a decade ago, when planning started, that system was budgeted at $10 billion. Then it went up to $12.4 billion. As of last year, it had cost $25 billion - and it still doesn't work properly. Its defenders cite "teething problems". Its detractors note that "some of the most senior officials in the NHS know perfectly well that the National Programme will never work properly - indeed, that many hospitals would now be better off if they had never taken part in the scheme in the first place".

The problems aren't limited to sudden crashes or disappearing data. Medical records have been inaccurately inputted with alarming frequency. Doctors routinely find that as much as 10 per cent of the information is wrong. Just imagine that degree of error transferred to the system for ID cards. If errors are not corrected, the system will be useless as a tool for fighting crime or curbing illegal immigration (never mind the number of innocents it will enmesh in criminal prosecutions). In the unlikely event that those errors are discovered, correcting them will clog the system to the point where it cannot function.

The objections to ID cards do not depend on positing mad, power-hungry politicians eager to snoop on all of us. We could have the most conscientious and morally decent rulers in the world: ID cards would still fail to be worth their cost, because human fallibility will inevitably intervene to ensure that the beautiful new system does not work. If there is one lesson we all should have learnt from the past 100 years, it is that even benign design can lead to pernicious practice.

Our present Government has not learnt that lesson - and it does not bode well for the future of liberty in Britain.


Going over the top in the `climate war'

A recent BBC series showed how dubious scientific conclusions are weapons in the politicised debate over global warming

`Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand. The evidence is clear - the long-term trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise.' (1) This emphatic statement from the UK Met Office yesterday is just the latest shot in the `climate war'. But in truth, the polarised and highly politicised nature of the current discussion on global warming features plenty of people on both sides with their heads firmly buried, using `science' to disguise the real debate about the future political and economic direction of society.

This was neatly illustrated by a recent BBC TV series, Earth: The Climate Wars, which ended on Sunday. Last week's episode, entitled `Fightback' was a particularly one-sided attempt to undermine the critics of the orthodox position on global warming.

Iain Stewart, professor of geosciences communication at Plymouth University, introduced last week's instalment with the words: `Global warming - the defining challenge of the twenty-first century.' The programme examined the arguments made by the two putative `sides' in the global warming debate, to show `how [the sceptic's] positions have changed over time'. But Stewart misconstrued scepticism of the idea that `global warming is the defining issue of our time' with scepticism of climate research. In this story, `the scientists' occupied one camp (situated conveniently on the moral high ground) and the bad-minded, politically and financially motivated sceptics the other. But there was no nuance, no depth and no justice done to the debate in this unsophisticated tale, and it did nothing to help the audience understand the science.

`At the start of the 1990s it seemed the world was united', Stewart told us. World leaders were gathered at the Rio Summit to sign up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the instrument that would pave the way for the Kyoto Protocol. He recalled the excitement felt by researchers at the prospect of the world being united by concern for the environment. `Even George Bush [Senior] was there. But the consensus didn't last.' Sceptics, it seems, are responsible, not just for the imminent end of the world, but also for corroding global unity.

Stewart's intention was to show that `the scientific consensus' existed prior to international agreements to prevent climate change. But the basis of the UNFCCC was not a consensus about scientific facts. It could not have been, because scientific facts about human influence on the climate did not exist in 1992, as is revealed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) First Assessment Report in 1990, which concluded that `The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.' Even the second IPCC assessment report in 1995 did not provide the world with the certainty that Stewart claims: `Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors.' (2)

Instead of consensus and certainty, the UNFCCC was driven by the precautionary principle. Principle 15 of the Rio declaration states: `In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.'

Omitting the role of the precautionary principle creates the idea that scientists have always known that industrial activity caused global warming. So, with the benefit of hindsight, Stewart could lump various objections to the interpretation of controversial evidence which existed at the time into one `sceptic' category. Not according to the scientific substance of the argument, but according to whether the argument was later vindicated; not by the consistency of the argument with reality, but whether or not it `supported' the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

In 1992, the data simply wasn't available to conclude with any great confidence that global warming was happening. But by the logic of Stewart's argument, as long as you were right about global warming being a `fact' at that time - even if that meant in reality you were wrongly interpreting the evidence available - you were a `scientist'. But, if you were right about the unreliability of data in 1992, then you were wrong in 2001, because you were a `sceptic'. If this were just a debate within an academic discipline, such challenges would not have any major significance outside of it. But Stewart, like many others, takes routine and isolated differences of scientific opinion, and groups them to imbue them with political significance.

A warming world?

The first scientific debate Stewart presented concerned the reliability of data generated by compiling the records of tens of thousands of surface-based weather stations. Sceptics had argued that these installations were too sparsely distributed and data from them had been contaminated by urbanisation over the twentieth century. Stewart demonstrated that this is indeed a problem. He used the example of the temperature at Las Vegas Airport - home to a monitoring station and heavily urbanised since it was originally set up - and compared it with the temperature outside the city limits, which was markedly cooler. This suggests that making comparisons over time using data from many such stations, where the local environment has changed, may result in over-stating global warming.

The sceptics' argument was seemingly corroborated in the 1990s by satellite data that showed a slight cooling trend over the 1980s. Ten years later, it turned out that the satellite data had been flawed, Stewart told us. The satellite's orbits had been drifting downward, and the data they had produced improperly compiled. A correction to the data revealed a warming trend. `The sceptics had to admit the world was warming', said Stewart.

But here again, we see an artefact of the retrospective polarisation of the `climate wars'. The truth was that both `sides' were wrong while they had invested their confidence either in the surface station data or the satellite data; both sets of data were `wrong' - Stewart had just demonstrated it himself. But the nuances of the debate don't interest Stewart. `The scientists' are vindicated by any evidence which shows that `the earth is warming', regardless of its quality. The sceptics, on the other hand, are not vindicated for having pointed out that the surface station record was questionable.

The not-so jolly `hockey stick'

Stewart then examined the sceptic claim that an episode in Earth's history known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) shows that current temperatures are not unprecedented in recent geological history. This was countered by climate researcher Michael Mann, who reconstructed past temperatures where no instrument data were available. By analysing `proxies', such as tree-ring width, ice cores, and coral reefs, he produced a graph which apparently revealed that the MWP was not a global phenomenon, and showed current temperatures to be in excess of anything in the previous millennium.

`Sceptics hated it' announced Stewart. Indeed they did. Mann's study remains highly controversial for good reasons. But Stewart gave no time to explaining the objection to these reconstructions, other than to characterise them as `personal attacks' against Mann. The graphic had been the centrepiece of the IPCC's 2001 Third Assessment Report, used to demonstrate the unequivocal influence of human activity on the climate.

Yet perhaps one of the reasons it was so prominent - in spite of criticism - is that Mann himself was a lead author on the chapter which featured it (3). The IPCC is understood to be a meta-review of the available literature on climate change, but allowing authors to review their own work represents something of a departure from the scientific process. In 2007, following continued criticism of Mann's method, the IPCC were far more circumspect about the value of such reconstructions. Where Stewart presented these reconstructions as `proof' of todays high temperatures, the IPCC give the statement that `twentieth century was the warmest in at least the past [1,300 years]' just 66 per cent confidence (4).

Sceptical `guns for hire'

It is only Stewart's binary treatment of the issue into true and false and `scientists'/'sceptics' that allowed him to reach his conclusion: `There are a lot of people who don't want global warming to be true', he tells us. `Cutting back on greenhouse gases threatens the freedom of companies to go about their business.' According to Stewart, companies used the media to emphasise the uncertainties in climate science for their own ends - profit - a cause and strategy taken up by the Bush administration.

This is an almost verbatim copy of an argument put forward by a prominent climate change advocate and science historian at the University of California, San Diego, Naomi Oreskes. She had claimed that the `climate change denial' movement comprised the same individuals and network of organisations that had been instrumental in denying the link between smoking and cancer (5). By emphasising doubt and uncertainty in the claims of honest and decent scientists, Oreskes claims, `the tobacco strategy' aimed to influence public opinion to secure the interests of oil and tobacco companies, and the political Right. It should be no surprise then, that Naomi Oreskes was credited on the first episode of the series.

Stewart's and Oreskes' conspiracy theories depend on reducing scientific arguments to meaningless factoids, and casting the debate as one between goodies and baddies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the film's closing moments. In order to demonstrate that `the sceptics' had changed their arguments in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, the film used footage from the Manhattan Conference on Climate Change earlier this year, a meeting that featured a large number of sceptical writers and researchers.

`For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet, today, he's in surprising agreement with the advocates of global warming', said Stewart. Michaels is then shown giving his talk, saying `global warming is real, and in the second half of the twentieth century, humans had something to do with it'. But there is nothing surprising about Michael's apparent turnaround, because it isn't one. A 2002 article in the Journal of Climatic Research, authored by Michaels et al argued for a revision of the IPCC's projections for the year 2100. Instead of saying that there would be no warming, the paper concluded that rises of `of 1.0 to 3.0 degrees Celsius, with a central value that averages 1.8 degrees Celsius' were more likely than the IPCC's range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius (6). Hardly climate change denial.

What could have been an interesting film was instead a fiction. It attached fictional arguments to fictional interests to legitimise the politicisation of the debate - exactly what it accused the sceptics of. Rather than concentrating on the arguments that have actually been made, Stewart invented the sceptic's argument to turn climate science into an arena for an exhausted political argument for `change' that has failed to engage the public.

The real `climate war' is between those who do not believe that our future is determined by the weather and those who think that `climate change is the defining challenge of our time' and define themselves - and everybody else - accordingly. Don't expect a documentary film about it any time soon.


BBC investigated after peer says climate change programme was biased 'one-sided polemic'

The BBC is being investigated by television watchdogs after a leading climate change sceptic claimed his views were deliberately misrepresented. Lord Monckton, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, says he was made to look like a `potty peer' on a TV programme that `was a one-sided polemic for the new religion of global warming'.

Earth: The Climate Wars, which was broadcast on BBC 2, was billed as a definitive guide to the history of global warming, including arguments for and against. During the series, Dr Iain Stewart, a geologist, interviewed leading climate change sceptics, including Lord Monckton. But the peer complained to Ofcom that the broadcast had been unfairly edited.

`I very much hope Ofcom will do something about this,' he said yesterday. `The BBC very gravely misrepresented me and several others, as well as the science behind our argument. It is a breach of its code of conduct. `I was interviewed for 90 minutes and all my views were backed up by sound scientific data, but this was all omitted. They made it sound as if these were just my personal views, as if I was some potty peer. It was caddish of them.'

Ofcom confirmed it was looking into a `fairness complaint' about the documentary. A BBC spokesman said: `We stand by the programme.'

Lord Monckton, 56, a former journalist and Cambridge graduate, says scientific data shows the world is cooler today than in the Middle Ages. He appeared alongside other sceptics including distinguished Florida-based meteorologist Professor Fred Singer, John Christy, a climate change expert and adviser to the U.S. government and the climatologist Dr Patrick Michaels, of the University of Virginia. All their interviews, he claims, were heavily cut so that they appeared as personal views.

`We do not dispute that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but we do dispute its effects', he said. `The data shows that 2008 is the same temperature as 1980 and that the effects of these changes in the atmosphere are not negative but more likely to be beneficial.'

Lord Monckton played a key role in a legal challenge heard in the High Court in October 2007 in an effort to prevent Al Gore's film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, from being shown in English schools.


How the culture wars killed free expression

Christopher Shinn, the writer of new political play Now or Later, explains how campus censorship strangles debate

In America and Britain, theatre has become a notable battleground on questions of free speech and free artistic expression. In 2004, the controversial play Behzti was cancelled in Birmingham after Sikhs protested that the play offended their community, while in America religious fundamentalists have objected to The Crucible and My Name is Rachel Corrie on similar grounds.

American playwright Christopher Shinn has followed, often in exasperation, the on-going discussions and debates on the rights and wrongs of staging controversial plays in the West. He decided to do something artistic about it: write a play called Now or Later that tackles campus censorship through the very topical lens of the American presidential elections.

Shinn's play is set on the eve of a presidential election. The Democrats are on the point of victory when news breaks out, via political blogs, that the would-be new president's homosexual son, John, has gone to a party dressed as the prophet Mohammed and his friend as the gay-baiting evangelist Pastor Bob.

As footage of the party circulates around the globe, sparking riots in the Muslim world, John is under immense pressure from presidential advisers to make a public apology. While John insists on the importance of free expression, and also that he was attending a private party, his friend Matt points out that he could be responsible for deaths around the world. Principle and pragmatism collide to fascinating effect. Staged in real-time, Now or Later carefully explores the anguish and arguments of this very contemporary concern.

When I meet the man behind Now or Later, he is dressed in casual t-shirt and jeans and overseeing the play's final rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. The Royal Court discovered Shinn 10 years ago - when he was just 23 - meaning that most of his plays, such as Dying City and Other People, have been premiered there, too. The theatre's director, Dominic Cooke, has programmed the play to coincide with the run-up to the real American presidential elections. Now or Later couldn't be more timely.

`I think the first thing I wanted to do was give myself a formal challenge', says Shinn carefully, `which was to write a play in real time and then I started to think, what could happen in real time that is interesting and dramatic? And in politics today, with blogs and 24-hour news channels, things can happen very rapidly. So I started thinking about politics in order to find a subject that was fit for formal challenge. In my mind, I had politics, power and issues of freedom of expression and, as a dramatist, I'm always looking for conflict.'

Shinn says that in Now or Later he is exploring conflicts and clashes between the West and Islam. As he puts it: `With Islam, it is perceived that the current administration is responsible for suffering in the Muslim world', says Shinn, `and therefore there can be no criticising of that world or how Muslims might experience that. The end result is to limit the conversations that Muslims can have about that themselves.'

Nevertheless, Shinn's well-crafted central protagonist in Now or Later, John, is motivated just as much by exposing the censorious nature of Ivy League students, as attacking Muslims in and of themselves. Surely, I ask him, the problem of censorship has its roots within the liberal left rather than any external threat to `Western values'? `Yeah, I think you're right,' says Shinn. `I think in many ways American campuses are a distorted and extreme way of dealing with problems in US culture. The left-wing ideology in these campuses doesn't seem to be related to the way the world is. The antics on campus almost have a feeling of play acting, as it's so divorced from people's lives. Nevertheless, the Ivy League students are the future politicians and opinion leaders so it's worth examining how they're getting a distorted picture of how the world is working.'

As a left-wing champion of free speech, and a fan and reader of spiked, Shinn is exasperated that it is often the left who are now the loudest advocates of blue pens and artistic clampdowns. He reckons that there was a sea change in universities back in the 1990s that has now become politically mainstream.

`As a gay man, I found the left's fight for free expression very beneficial', he says, `but that crossed over into identity politics. From there it was important to privilege the subjectivity of people who had previously been oppressed and marginalised. But instead of this emphasis on a diversity of voices, there became an unspoken rule whereby only people who experienced something, whether as a gay man or black woman, were allowed to speak about it directly. This created a real fracture where these oppressed groups, rather than finding commonality, separated out. These different groups ended up in these retreats which itself created paranoia and bad blood.'

Shinn's work seems to belong to a lineage of American playwrights and artists, from Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer through to Philip Roth, who offer an unflinching examination of the gaping holes in American society. Although European liberals love to dismiss American culture as rather candy-floss and dumb, no other Western nation produces art that is not only self-aware and self-critical, but resists the temptation of self-loathing. Shinn's work is no exception.

`Yes, it is one of the really good things about America', says Shinn cheerfully, `it thrives on that self-critique. You know, you even see it in relation to the Bush administration where a lot of extreme policy has been moderated due to the ongoing critiques and debates. The real strength of American culture is always in searching for ways of moving on from difficulties. That's something I'm proud of within America and what I want to achieve in my work as well.'

Naturally enough, Shinn has been eagerly following the US presidential election and is neither cynical nor goggle-eyed about Obama. `He has no track record so people are projecting all kinds of things onto him', says Shinn. `The Democratic Party haven't yet been in a position whereby they are explicitly running to the right in order to appeal to swing voters.' And as Now or Later deals with the question of a presidential candidate's children, the play unwittingly anticipates the furore surrounding Sarah Palin's pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, who is under pressure to conform to conventional morality. As Shinn says, `yes, all that does evoke the play in general, as it deals with children, sexuality and lies.'

At heart, though, Now or Later is a timely, not to mention, expert exploration of how censorship, and perhaps the need for self-censorship, is acting as a straitjacket within Western culture and politics. Although the play might seem a little didactic, Shinn doesn't marshal the audience into accepting any conclusive argument. Now or Later provokes thought rather than stymies it. `It is one thing to believe in freedom of expression,' he says, `but that may lead to the death of other people. So the play is asking: would you be responsible for that? And then what happens afterwards? So how badly do you believe in freedom of expression?'


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