Slumbering Albion – Philip Pullman, liberty and censorship

Philip Pullman has written a splendid and passionate rant, called “Malevolent Voices that Despise Our Freedoms”, about the way Britain is sliding into a state of passivity against governmental control.

“To mark the Convention on Modern Liberty, the children’s author has written this article for the Times Online”, the header reads. But not long after the piece was posted, it was removed from the Times Online site with no explanation.

Whatever the reason for the removal, such disappearances are treated as damage by the internet and routed around… the piece has been reposted in several places (I found it on Issac Bonewits’ blog). Take a moment to read it, please.

A sample:

We are so fast asleep that we don’t know who we are any more. Are we English? Scottish? Welsh? British? More than one of them? One but not another? Are we a Christian nation – after all we have an Established Church – or are we something post-Christian? Are we a secular state? Are we a multifaith state? Are we anything we can all agree on and feel proud of?

…The new laws whisper:

You don’t know who you are

You’re mistaken about yourself

We know better than you do what you consist of, what labels apply to you, which facts about you are important and which are worthless

We do not believe you can be trusted to know these things, so we shall know them for you

And if we take against you, we shall remove from your possession the only proof we shall allow to be recognised

The sleeping nation dreams it has the freedom to speak its mind. It fantasises about making tyrants cringe with the bluff bold vigour of its ancient right to express its opinions in the street. This is what the new laws say about that:

Expressing an opinion is a dangerous activity

Whatever your opinions are, we don’t want to hear them

So if you threaten us or our friends with your opinions we shall treat you like the rabble you are

And we do not want to hear you arguing about it

So hold your tongue and forget about protesting

What we want from you is acquiescence

To quote XKCD…

Fuck. That. Shit.

“a nicer fundamentalism”

I’ve mentioned here before that I find reading opinions that differ from mine to be stimulating.

Of course, sometimes the thought stimulated is “this person is a fucking idiot”. Such a person is Paul Spinrad.

In a guest blog post on Boing Boing called “Re-engineering fundamentalism“, he notes the following:

It seems to me that every so often, the dominant political and cultural machine grows so large and incestuous that it loses its connection to people and makes them feel powerless and irrelevant. When this happens, in the West anyway, there’s inevitably a revolution of words, of back-to-basics and idealism, against the image-conscious, superficial, wealth-obsessed Babylon. Because it’s based on words, people can place their trust in it fully and spread it, and it will continue to make sense over time. It doesn’t propagate through image, might, or personal influence. This empowers people again– perhaps simply by making them feel empowered.

Big examples are the formation of Christianity and Islam, and the Protestant Reformation. Today we see other fundamentalisms. But the inevitable next one doesn’t have to be intolerant and destructive. If we engage with the task of developing it, rather than avoiding it and leaving it to others, it can be a nice one.

This was my reply:

The last line of this piece is the stupidest thing I have ever read on Boing Boing, and a candidate for the stupidest thing I have ever read online.

The point Mr. Spinrad painfully fails to grasp is that *fundamentalism itself* is a damaging mindset. It doesn’t matter which text or set of ideas – the Bible, the Koran, On The Origin of Species – are taken as inerrant, it’s the act of declaring an idea as absolutely true and trustable which causes the harm.

Fundamentalism stops the questioning part of the mind from working. It is a failure of imagination. It leads the victim to believing those who do not share their beliefs matter less than they do. The results of this are rarely pleasant.

A ‘nicer fundamentalism’ is about as helpful a concept as a cheerful serial killer.

I would also note that at no time does Spinrad attempt to show how fundamentalism can be re-engineered, or even a basic grasp of either the history of thought and belief or any understanding of how fundamentalist belief works. And don’t even get me started on the puerile dualism of “back-to-basics and idealism” versus “the image-conscious, superficial, wealth-obsessed Babylon”.

This is not something I say lightly… actual fundamentalists make more sense than this shite.

(Oh – and anyone considering witty remarks along the lines of “you’re being fundamentalist too” can fuck right off. If I was in a better mood I would explain the difference between a passionately held opinion and an inflexible one. But right now, I’d rather offer you a spoon to eat my sick.)

Absent brain matter – a follow-up

Some commentators took issue with an earlier post of mine in which I referred to people whose brains are all-but nonexistant, but who are still functional people. Here’s a clear example of the phenomenon I described, complete with CT/MRI pictures.  And links to the article about the case in New Scientist and the original story in The Lancet. Just for the record. (Subject pics on left, neurotypical example on right.)

French doctors are puzzling over the case of 44-year-old civil servant who has led a quite normal life – but with an extraordinarily tiny brain .

In a case history published in Saturday’s Lancet, doctors led by Lionel Feuillet of the Hopital de la Timone in Marseille say the father-of-two was admitted to hospital after suffering mild weakness in his left leg.

Scans by computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed that the man’s cerebral cavities, called ventricles, had massively expanded.

“The brain itself, meaning the grey matter and white matter, was completely crushed against the sides of the skull,” Feuillet told AFP.

“The images were most unusual… the brain was virtually absent,” he said.

The patient’s medical history showed that at the age of six months, he suffered hydrocephalus, also called water on the brain, and needed an operation to drain this dangerous buildup of spinal fluid.

Neuropsychological testing revealed the man had an IQ of 75, with a verbal IQ of 84 and performance IQ of 70.

HaHaHa… a little irony for UK’s snooping Home Secretary

There’s something about getting a political gig that, er, alters the moral flexibility of the recipient. The position of Home Secretary to Her Majesty’s Government seems to have an especially swift half-life for becoming a totalitarian dickhead.

Frankly, the (never) Right (also never) Honourable Jackie Smith hit the ground running. Massives of extra expensive and near-useless security theatre CCTVs, planned biometric ID cards, raising the level of general fear of everyone who isn’t quite like us – whether they be olive-skinned with beards or birkas, East European workers, and those of us who enjoy consensual sex and pictures thereof…

…and she gets PWNED by local people applying exactly her principles and mechanisms to find out she’s pulling expenses fraud to get her new house built.


As Caroline Cadwallr of the Guardian put it so well:

Hardly anyone actually shoots themselves in the foot or literally gets egg on their face, so it was a real pleasure last week, in so many ways, to witness Jacqui Smith being hoist with her own petard.

A petard was, in the original French, an explosion of intestinal gas which, in turn, gave its name to a small bomb, such as the one that erupted across the papers last week, when the neighbours of her sister’s house in Peckham, south London, came forward and told the press that she was only there a couple of days a week.

Because, in the small matter of whether she was right to pocket £116,000 of additional expenses by claiming that the back bedroom she rents off sister is her “main home”, as opposed to the house she owns in her constituency in Redditch where her husband and children happen to live, this turns out to be critical testimony.

Standards Commissioner John Lyon twice turned down requests to investigate the matter. It was only when some neighbours, Dominic and Jessica Taplin, wrote to him and repeated the claims they made to a newspaper, that she is there rather less than the four nights a week that she claims, that he agreed to open an inquiry.

It’s this that’s the real beauty of the story. Residents on the online East Dulwich forum (East Dulwich being what you call Peckham if you happen to live there) declared themselves outraged at the behaviour of the neighbours, with words like “snitch”, “curtain-twitchers”, “grassers” and “narks” being bandied about (apparently “Dominic and Jessica Taplin represent all that’s worst about the new smug arriviste elements of East Dulwich”). This is the world that Jacqui Smith has created. The only shame is that they didn’t capture her on CCTV.

If you want to rat out your neighbours, allow the home secretary to enumerate the ways. Do you know someone who claims more from the state than they’re entitled to? Who is “picking the pockets of law-abiding taxpayers”? Not politicians over-egging their allowances, obviously, but “benefit thieves”. If so, call 0800 854 440 now. “We’re closing in with hidden cameras. We’re closing in with every means at our disposal.”

Do they own more than one mobile phone? Then call 0800 789 321. “Terrorists need communication. They often collect and use many pay-as-you-go mobile phones, as well as swapping Sim cards and handsets.”

No mobile phones? What about if they’re “hanging around”? Or, as the Home Office-funded radio advertisement puts it: “How can you tell if they’re a normal everyday person or a terrorist? The answer is that you don’t have to. If you call the confidential Anti-Terrorist Hotline on 0800 789 321, the specialist officers you speak to will analyse the information. They’ll decide if and how to follow it up. You don’t have to be sure. If you suspect it, report it.”

It’s such a lovely turn of phrase, that. If you suspect it, report it. Don’t wait for evidence. Or question your own prejudices. If someone’s not a “normal everyday person” exactly like you, then they could well be a member of al-Qaida. What flawless logic that is. We’re already described as “a surveillance state” by Privacy International, one in five of all CCTV cameras ever made are currently in Britain, and Smith is drawing up plans to intercept every phone call we make and every email we send. The Taplins weren’t snitches – they were perfect citizens in her New Model Army.

And what was Ms. Smith up to while these shenannegans were occurring? Losing her temper publicly at noted drug expert (and my-Beloved-the-ex-neurochemist-shaman’s ex-boss) Professor David Nutt to order him to beg the forgiveness of the families of those who died from adverse effects of MDMA, which he had correctly pointed out is actually safer statistically than horse riding.

Of course it’s all about Nutt having the indecency to use an upper-class sport for comparison… nothing gets deeper in the craw of the ruling class than to point out their hobbies are actually less safe and often dumber than those of the hoi-polloi!

Well, slight exaggeration there. But don’t doubt that her deeply narrow mind will accept no disobediance, especialy over teh evuls of hot sex and drugs that can actually help people heal from thr traumas of both normal life and the deeper scars of abuse and post-traumatic damage. Just the sort of damage our modern life and modern wars produce.

People like that, when not able to recover through their own means, those Vachss calls The Children of the Secret especially, often fall into violent crime, usually as much as victims as perps. Relaxing the therapeutic use of MDMA and restrictions on BDSM play would both add to the possibility of some of these people finding their own recovery. You’d think the attendant lowering of violent crime likely to result would be of importance to the Home Sec. Shame she’s too busy making dodgy expenses claims to care, innit?

Making a mockery

“Censorship, like charity, should begin at home. Unlike charity, it should stay there.” – Dorothy Parker

So the new song by Amanda Palmer has been refused air play by every TV and radio network in the UK.
It’s been described as “making light of rape, religion and abortion”. Here it is.


Understandably, Ms. Palmer had a few things to say about this
She says, in part;
i’d be HAPPY to know that the song out there is going to offend some people….not because i have any interest in making people upset, but because i think it’s better
to talk about these things, argue about them, be upset about them, push them out into the open air, stir the pot around. better that, always, than to sweep them under the rug.

These days that’s a pretty controversial position to take. There’s a real trend towards people declaring their being offended by another’s point of view and using this as justification for censorship.

It makes me wonder, as so many things do, just where the line is drawn – and who decides that. Where is the distinction – if there is one – between humour and cruelty, being genuinely hurt by something said or written and just being annoyed. Why someone can be truly hurt by something they perceive as an insult to their beliefs, and how they react to this. And the difference, if there is one, between doing this and deliberate racism, sexism, homophobic speech and so on.

Are there things which should never be looked at lightly, humorously?
How about Nazis?


Does ‘getting offended’ have a basis in one’s culture, one’s class, one’s political and religious views? Unquestionably.
Consider, for example, the Gay Daleks:


That’s full of quite offensive stereotyping. I am sure some queer folk were offended. But most of the gay and bi people I know find it pant-wettingly funny. Or get creeped out by the “WHITE!! WEE-WEE!!” bit – but still laugh.

How about race? White men in blackface is considered offensive now, certainly. But is Papa Lazarou ? Is it acceptable to have blackface if the thing being mocked isn’t black people but white people in blackface? Or do I only think that because I find The League of Gentlemen funny? Or because I’m white? Is Papa Lazarou more or less acceptable than Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled‘? And if so, is it because Spike Lee is black? Or that the actors in blackface are also?


How about murder? Drug addiction? Paedophilia? Chris Morris had plenty to say about all these, most of it hilarious (and some of it playing non-white people).


…these killings are obviously ironic“.

Is finding something funny an excuse for insulting someone? Is doing so ironically a justification? How about if a group of predominantly white, middle class people dress in Klu Klux Klan robes to protest a perceived injustice? Does their outrage trump the outrage they use as a symbol?

Does it matter if the person making the mockery is a victim of what they mock or not? Amanda Palmer doesn’t think so:

i could try to win points by talking about how i’ve been date raped (i have been, when i was 20) or how I have every right to joke about this if i want to because i’ve had an abortion myself (i have, when i was 17), but i actually DON’T believe those experiences should lend me any credibility, any more so than i believe the director of “life is beautiful” had to have been an auschwitz victim in order to direct that film.
i should be allowed to write about, sing about, joke about anything that moves me.
so should you. so should everyone.

an artist’s (and a human being’s) freedom to do that, without fear of retribution, is the cornerstone of what keeps the world moving forward, not backwards, not standing still.

Is the important difference whether you are trying to give offence or take it?

Is it just about bad taste? Who decides what bad taste is – and is that enough reason not to say something? Isn’t most comedy about bad taste, crossing lines of taboo?

Definitions of acceptable subject matter change. Like most Brits of a certain age, I can remember when the racist, sexist, homophobic comedy stylings of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, TV shows like Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrel Show, were acceptable prime time entertainment. Fun for all the family.

We’re getting perilously close to that horrible phrase “Political Correctness” here. (Take a look at this post – and the comments – for a very good perspective on the term.) I don’t think it’s a good thing to force people into linguistic strait-jackets wantonly. But neither do I think that casual or deliberate insult is a good or acceptable thing – and sometimes there’s damn good reason for objecting to the things someone says.

But also there is the inevitable point that as soon as something is declared taboo… artists and writers will be irresistably drawn to that idea.

In an ideal world, the good and worthwhile ideas would just outcompete the bad and damaging ones. Unfortunately, ideas don’t seem to work that way. Often a bad idea – such as that women, non-white people and those not considered sexually ‘normal’ deserve to be treated as inferior – becomes hardened, enculturated. Fighting this matters – mockery and irony are vital tools in doing so. But any tool can become a trap.

I’m rambling here because I really don’t have an answer. I think that using humour and irony to mock is a necessary thing – but one best used by the less powerful against the status quo. When used by the powerful against the relatively powerless it’s just cruelty – and, as far as I can see, not funny (witness the po-faced results when right-wing satire is attempted). Mockery also works when the participants are roughly on an equal level (as in playing the dozens). But as to who deserves to be mocked and by whom… that’s tricky.

I’m fine with mocking those I dislike – I think that’s true of most of us. Those are, for me, mostly the powerful forces of politics, wealth and religous orthodoxy. I don’t usually find racial or sexual mockery either funny or acceptable. (Except, as noted above, Papa Lazarou and Gay Daleks.) I do find some mockery of people who are like me (mystical types, geeks) funny when it’s accurate, when it’s a well-aimed jibe at the cliches. But not just mocking because, for example, I’m fat and wear glasses.

I’d rather see humour that subverts stereotypes instead of reinforcing them, because the former is a tool of change and the latter is a tool of control. When used to deflate pompousness, arrogance and self-righteous behaviour, it works. When it’s just an expression of “you’re different from me, so I hate you” or just crass sneering at the Other, it doesn’t.

That modern tendency to treat someone with a different perspective than yours as giving you insult is overshadowing so much, perhaps the very things that need to be mocked or resisted. Especially when those complaining about the mockery are in the majority, or wield far more power than those doing the mocking. There is something ludicrous about white middle class Christians picketing a musical they don’t like, or Muslims in a Muslim-majority country holding mass-burnings of a cartoon. It seems to me a sign of very weak faith – if their beliefs are so flimsy that a joke or a book or a story can stir such rage, it does not speak well of them.

I’ve said it before – some things deserve scorn. Some things are best dealt with by laughing at them, because that’s the only thing that works. Nothing scares a monolithic power structure more than someone pointing and laughing at it. But at the same time, a bully teasing someone they overpower is only funny to the bully and their pals.

These days, there are certain groups who wield enormous power over what we are allowed to say and do, which ideas are acceptable and which are taboo. But no matter what they say or do, whether they scream “that’s blasphemy!” or “that’s hate speech!” or “I’ll sue you! I’ll sue you in England!!” or threaten new laws or restrictions or even murder, there will always be those who will (in the other meaning of the phrase) take the piss. Because it’s necessary. Because sometimes it’s the only weapon we have.

Because sometimes, you gotta laugh, ain’t you?

“When you cannot joke about the darkness of life, that’s when the darkness takes over” – Amanda Palmer

(Thanks to my esteemed colleagues Daniel Peacock and Jon Swabey for their perspectives.)