Publish and Be Damned

Publish and be damned; it’s something I will always believe in. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and one which is at risk of being supressed through self-censorship in light of heightening discourses around race and religion. The Charlie Hebdo killings were a tragedy of the greatest kind. They demonstrated the fragile nature of our human rights which are continually threatened and which the cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo risked much to defend. Or so I thought.

Unfortunately, life is much more nuanced than that. It’s all well and good to advocate for freedom of expression, but it’s also necessary to take into account the wider context in which this promotion takes place, something which I had failed to do in relation to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Much like the rest of the world, in light of their death, I saw the murdered cartoonists and writers of Charlie Hebdo as advocates for freedom of expression. Creative minds who were trying to help in some way to reverse the tide of radicalisation and extremism which is currently sweeping much of Europe.

However, although I have no doubt that Charb and his colleagues were good people with good intentions, I have come question whether they realised the political weight their images and storyboards carried. Of course they knew that what they were creating was politically loaded, it wouldn’t be worth publishing if it wasn’t, but were they aware of the policies they were both promoting and legitimising? It was something I certainly hadn’t considered, that is, not until I read comments published in Nouvel Obs and written by Henri Roussel (or Delfeil de ton as he writes under), a co-founder of Charlie Hebdo.

Roussel is known for his disapproval of much of the content published in Charlie Hebdo over recent years. He has accused its former editor, Philippe Val, of using the magazine as a Zionist and Islamophobic tool and questioned Charb’s motives on two previous occasions, after the magazine had published provocative cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. This article was much in the same vein, deploring, even in light of his death, Charb’s continuation of this provocation despite an arson attack and numerous other threats.

Why was Roussel so against Charb’s cartoons? Surely freedom of expression is worth fighting for and promoting when it is being threatened by a wave of extremist radicalisation? Well, yes, of course it’s worth fighting for. But is that really what they were doing? I’m not so sure. Of course, I can’t attest to the cartoonists’ and writers’ motives, but Roussel highlighted an important point: the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were part of a proxy war which France, and many other Western countries, have declared on the Islamic world.

This dichotomous relationship was demonstrated after the killings when there was very much a feeling of either/or: you either supported Charlie Hebdo and Western freedom of expression, or you supported the terrorists and their rhetoric which is, of course, insupportable. Roussel wrote,

I don’t much like it when a head of state speaks of the dead as heroes. It usually happens because citizens have been sent to war and not come back, which is rather the case with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The attack is part of a war declared on France, but can also be seen in the light of the wars France has got itself involved in: conflicts where its participation isn’t called for, where worse massacres than that at Charlie Hebdo take place every day, several times a day, where our bombardments pile death on death in the hope of saving potentates who feel threatened and are no better than those who threaten them…

Indeed, we seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle whereby, because we feel threatened we threaten in retaliation. Foreign policy isn’t restricted to the confines of the front lines or the intelligence agencies, it seeps into all of society. This could not be more evident than in the case of Charlie Hebdo. By declaring a proxy war against various Islamic states and perpetuating a discourse of menace from the Islamic world, the French government, among others, have legitimised threatening behaviours which I believe, in more peaceful times, would be considered abhorrent and certainly would not be praised.

Roussel questioned how an image depicting ‘a naked Muhammed praying, seen from behind, balls dangling and prick dripping, in black and white but with a yellow star on his anus’ was funny. The short answer is, it wasn’t. The explanation is that Charlie Hebdo, like many other areas of society and culture, has been caught in a vicious cycle whereby it feels the need to threaten the menace of Islam in a retaliatory manner. Of course, none of this means that they shouldn’t have published what they did. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right; we will continue to publish and be damned.


Tariq Ali: ‘Renationalise the railways. Cut military spending. Argue with whoever says it can’t be done’

Russell Brand: A Rational Radical

Complaining about the state of politics in our country has become about as habitual as Lords Reform rejection. So, why is it that one particular complainer gets everyone so riled up? What is it about Russell Brand that makes people label him a dangerous radical when, like the majority of us, he’s simply expressing his exasperation at the current state of British politics. Why is his admission of abstention different to any other form of political expression? The answer is, it’s not. The only reason people consider such an expression to be dangerous is because it reveals the flaws in British democracy.

Elections have become the litmus test for democracy, but unfortunately that test is flawed. In Britain, the combination of a first past the post system and an electoral map made up of single-member constituencies has created a situation in which so-called marginal seats take precedence. Indeed, from a political strategist’s point of view it makes little sense to allocate resources to seats whose voters are unlikely to change their allegiance, even if they’re your own voters. Thus, during elections periods the voters which receive the most attention are those who make up these marginal seats.

Unfortunately, as a result of this targeting, the nature of the voters who constitute marginal seats can end up dictating the content of policy proposals, as political parties aim to please these swing voters. Indeed, swing voters are the unique minority who do not necessarily place political parties within a broad ideological framework or, if they do, this factor rarely plays a role in their voting decision. Therefore, a shared characteristic of swing voters, as the name suggests, is their centrist attitude to politics.  Their lack of ideological prejudice means that not only are they moderate, but also that their vote is easily influenced.

This combination of factors leads to political parties tailoring their policies to a centrist political attitude, resulting in a mainstream politics which is largely out of sync with the rest of the electorate’s political interests. However, if this is the case, if the majority of the electorate are further left or further right of the mainstream political parties, how come the Green Party, the BNP, and now UKIP, have never had a following that can match that of either Labour or Conservative? It’s a good question and one whose answer is complex and not entirely understood.

However, today, one of the most significant factors in election outcomes – a factor which has become a trend in recent decades as the British political sphere has morphed into a two-party system – is tactical voting. Just because I put a tick in the box next to a particular political party, this doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in their policies. In an electoral system where some constituencies are one fifth of the size of others and where marginal seats tend to dictate election outcomes, tactical voting has become a necessity either in maintaining that constituency’s seat or in bolstering its main opposition.

As a result, the majority of the electorate end up lumping for either Labour or Conservative, simply as a means to keep the other party out of power. So when the Conservatives, in 2010, ended up with a majority of 36.1%, that did not translate as 36.1% of the electorate got what they wanted. In fact, most likely, only the portion of swing voters who put a cross next to their Conservative candidate really got what they wanted. We can’t even say for certain that the loyal Conservative base got what they wanted, because, well, they probably weren’t voting on policy proposals. The government they voted for might tick the box in terms of historical ideology, but that ideology doesn’t necessarily match their now very centrist policies.

So, what do we do? How do we resolve the problem that we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of prioritising swing voters and tactical voting? Change up your vote next time maybe. That’s what I’m going to do anyway, but I doubt it will help. My constituency is in Scotland where things have radically changed over the course of the past year, but we as a county probably still don’t have enough protest votes to sway the political make-up of Westminster. One thing which would, for sure, radically overhaul the system would be mass abstention. There’s no denying it, the most sensible thing to do, given that my vote will only count if it’s given to one of two political parties whose policies I largely disagree with, is to not vote. Abstention isn’t dangerous, it’s rational, and that’s what scares people about Russell Brand.

‘When will Miliband get the message from his party and stop acting like a Labour politician?’

‘…it’s true the Conservatives are much more united, as their MPs stay completely loyal right up to the moment they leave for a different party altogether.’

The Man With No Home

The Faces of Glasgow

‘Any spare change mate?’ The line we hear daily. The line we often choose to ignore. 

As we go about our day to day business, spending the spare change we say we don’t have, there are people, below the surface of our eye line as we walk by, and below the surface of our more important thoughts, who sit on the cold pavement and watch the world go past. While many think of poverty as being some unreachable monster that lives thousands of miles away in foreign lands with huts and slums, the fact of the matter is we walk by it every single day here in Glasgow. Not fly ridden, famine insilled poverty, but cold, wet, Scottish poverty resting in the people who have to sit on the damp streets and ask for money.

Graham is one of these people. Having been in and out of care for the…

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Free Speech Cardiff

Calling all politically and socially engaged citizens in Cardiff, a friend is creating a social media community around free public speeches, talks and meet-ups in the city. Keep up with her blog to find out about dates for events and for event feedback, she’ll also be looking for guest contributors.

Personality Politics: Our Not So New Obsession

Without a doubt U.K party politics has become more centralised over the past two decades, that is, it has become more about the party leader and less about party policy. This change in our political system can be attributed to many different factors which influence one another: a decrease in loyalty due to a dilution in political ideology; technological advancement, particularly in the media; entrenched distrust in the system as the number of scandals increases; and, of course, the rise of PR.

As our political parties attempted to become more ‘catch-all’ and less ideologically-orientated, the impetus was on the party leaders – or perhaps more accurately, the spin doctors as party leaders – to present this change to the public, to become the best ‘all-rounder’. Thus, we are at stage where personality politics is all we seem to talk about in the run up to elections, which these days is all the time. But nowhere is our increasing obsession with our leaders more apparent than in political TV debates.

One particularly interesting and striking example of this phenomenon is the TV debates which took place in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum. The first two of these debates involved Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, the de facto leaders of the opposing campaigns. The third took a rather different form, involving three spokespeople for each campaign from various political parties or, in the case of Elaine C. Smith, from non-political professions.

Now, anyone who watched all of these debates will most likely tell you that the latter was by far the most intelligible and informative out of all three. However, on brief analysis of the media coverage of these debates it becomes apparent that the latter was the least talked about. Indeed, the BBC website hosts an easily accessible and extremely thorough breakdown of the Darling/Salmond debates, including polling data, social media analysis and key quotes. Whereas, on the contrary, it reveals no articles discussing the third debate, let alone an in-depth analysis.

The few articles and pieces of analysis that can be readily found are in newspapers, primarily Scottish national newspapers, and on the ITV/STV websites. However, even their coverage of the third debate is pitiful in comparison to that of the Darling/Salmond show-down. Thus, a debate which had the potential to be highly influential, if not the most influential out of all three, is forced down the media-agenda and consequently the public-agenda.

Now some people may read this and come to the conclusion that the media are to blame, and they are to an extent. But we must always bear in mind that they are working off of data which is telling them that we, as a society, prefer to hear about the personal politics of our leaders over the political policies of our parties; so much so, that in a vote with two campaigns dedicated to no one party, we managed to assign party leaders.