27 January 2008

Memorial Days

As it happens, I have already disagreed with another blogger today. No, it was not Tim Worstall who responded in a somewhat round-about fashion to my colleague’s complaints about lack of acknowledgement of the work he has done. I have done with that particular issue for the time being, though we shall both return to the problem of intellectual work not being appreciated in this country and the difficulties that creates.

My disagreement, mild and courteous, as I like this particular blog a great deal, was posted on London Daily Photo, run by an amateur photographer called Ham and one of my daily must-see outlets. In fact, I cannot recommend the site highly enough.

Ham, decent chap that he is, posted a picture and a comment to do with Holocaust Memorial Day. My objection was to him ruminating about “tragedies” such as Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur proving that the international community still has not learnt to deal with such matters.

Let us first look at that phrase, international community, which is about as meaningless as can be. Who, precisely, is going to deal with these “tragedies”? This blog has tried to document the developments in Darfur (and Chad) as well as the difficulties of dealing with them. Somehow, I suspect that a lot of people who wring their hands about the international community would not like the only possible weapon said community has being put into place: suspend aid until the governments, armies and militias start laying down arms and behaving themselves. Then stop aid altogether except, maybe, immediate help delivered by the Anglospheric armed forces and start buying goods from those countries (including oil).

Moving on to more important points, I disapprove of the use of the word “tragedy” in this context. Yes, they were all tragedies to the victims, their families and their peoples but the word implies something passive. These tragedies simply happened because the international community was not looking where it was going.

They did not just happen. These were also enormous crimes, even mass murders, committed by certain people for certain reasons and that must be understood. Bleating about the Holocaust as if it were some kind of an inexplicable but horrible event gets us nowhere.

And talking of crimes we come to the point I actually made on the blog: Cambodia does not fit into the pattern at all. You cannot understand what happened there unless you start thinking and writing about all victims of Communism, those in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, in China, in Vietnam and so on. What of them, I asked. Tomorrow morning I shall check if there are any responses.

Some weeks ago I wrote about the Russian authorities fussing about the exhibition of paintings from Russian museums that were to be exhibited in the Royal Academy. The problem was sorted by our politicians and art commissars grovelling to the Russians and speedily passing various regulations that ensured descendants of the Morozov and Shchukin families would not start claiming ownership of paintings that had been confiscated from them soon after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Actually, some of them were confiscated twice as many of the Bolsheviks rather speedily appropriated much of the decadent bourgeois property that was becoming Bolshevik state property. Then they, too, were arrested and once again the paintings were … ahem … acquired by the state.

As both the French and the Russian paintings in the two collections were considered to be somewhat decadent as well as unhealthy, they were not shown in Soviet museums for a long time and judging by the state some of them are in, not looked after very well either. There are cracks in the paint of various C├ęzannes and Matisses and scratches on the Russian paintings that had been taken out of their frames and, more recently, hastily surrounded by bits of wood.

Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard, who did not like the exhibition, anyway, wrote about his disgust that the British government simply rolled over for the Russians. While I think the British government should have demanded something in return, I do think that something good might come out of this mess (apart from the fact that many excellent paintings and many rather second-rate ones are being seen in London).

First of all, I can sympathize with the Russian museum curators who are still at the mercy of the political authorities and must be rather happy to be able to talk to their Euroepan colleagues. The whole Soviet and post-Soviet situation is particularly heart-breaking when one looks at the way Russian culture was integrated in European up to the end of the First World War, with a little bit going on till the mid-twenties.

Secondly, this might see the end of those preposterous claims that collateral descendants of Jewish art collectors keep making for pictures and collections that they have very dubious rights to. As Brian Sewell rightly asks, why are Nazi grabs to be pursued even when they were not, strictly speaking, grabs but not Communist ones?

Can we now draw a line under the whole thing and just acknowledge that stuff happens and just because one’s great aunt may have owned many very good pictures that does not mean that one is entitled to the profit of selling them now at hugely inflated prices?

I must admit, however, much as I liked the paintings – the Russian ones more than the French, which, with very few exceptions are also rans – I was not impressed by the way the exhibition is curated.

It is not really possible to have an exhibition of paintings from Russian museums that were originally confiscated from Russian collectors and not deal with politics at all. There must be a limit to how much grovelling we do to the Russian authorities.

Why, for instance, is there no mention of the art historian Nikolai Punin, who saved many of those decadent works of art? Could it be because then there would have to be some kind of a mention that the man, Anna Akhmatova’s third husband, was arrested twice, the second time dying in the camps in 1953?

Akhmatova’s portrait by Naum Altmann, for many years seen only in illustrations, is one of the highlights of the exhibition. But, true to our reluctance to discuss the tragedy of Communism, little is said about the great poet herself.

Presumably, there could be no explanation of the many people who had to leave the country, abandon their creativity and worse or we would have been denied the paintings.

Look at the portrait of the astonishingly inventive stage producer Vsevolod Meyerhold by Dmitri Grigoriev.

Many of those supposedly new ideas of the sixties were invented by Meyerhold in the twenties. I have seen other pictures of him, photographs by the MVD taken after he had been “interrogated” for months. I have read the letter he, like many others, was allowed to send to the authorities before he was sentenced, with complaints about treatment in prison. Guess what happened to all those letters. Oh, they survived but you will not hear Hizonner the Mayor of LondON or the Liverpool worthies read them out, though Meyerhold’s “complaints” have been translated and published.

Maybe it is best not to read the letter out. I had nightmares after my own perusal.

On Holocaust Memorial Day I feel I ought to talk a little about victims of other monstrous crimes. (When I tried to suggest a memorial meeting for those victims as well in the London Assembly I was called a Holocaust denier for my pains by Comrade Len Duvall, the leader of the Labour group and a very unpleasant ultra-left bully politico. One does not need to wonder too long what his job would be in a totalitarian state.)

So, Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s greatest poets. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, also a poet, a traveller and an officer in the Russian army, was shot in 1921, allegedly for participating in an anti-Bolshevik, pro-monarchist plot. It has long ago been accepted by historians and researchers that there was no plot but a provocation by the Cheka.

Their son, Lev Gumilyov, eventually an historian who propounded some very peculiar theories about ethnicity, was arrested altogether three times under Stalin, released finally only after the old tyrant’s death.

Her third husband I have already written about. Her friend, Lidiya Chukovskaya, barely managed to escape arrest herself and whose own husband, the astrophysicist Matvei Bronshtein was arrested and sentenced officially to ten years without rights of correspondence. That was a phoney sentence, handed out to relatives of many of those who had actually been sentenced to death and executed (or possibly murdered during torture) in prison. It kept the execution figures down.

Chukovskaya described how Akhmatova set herself up as the conscience and memory of the nation. No-one around her was ever allowed to forget even for a moment about the vast prison camp they all lived in. Of course, they could not talk about it but they could exchange notes that were immediately destroyed and memorize poems.

Chukovskaya herself wrote two brilliant novellas about the two big purges, “Sofia Petrovna” and “Going Under”. They were published in the West in the sixties and twenty years later in the Soviet Union. She also found courage, despite everything, to support Boris Pasternak, to protest against the imprisonment of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yury Daniel, as well as other dissidents. As an old blind woman she was bullied by officials of the Writers’ Union because she had dared to protest against treatment meted out to Andrei Sakharov.

Nadezhda Mandelshtam, who also escaped arrest and whose husband, the great poet Osip Mandelshtam was arrested twice and eventually died in a transit camp outside Vladivostok, wrote that when Lyova Gumilyov was arrested for the third time even Akhmatova “howled”. She agreed to write some poems in praise of Stalin.

More to the point, however, she wrote a brilliant cycle “Requiem” about her country’s torment. The poems of the cycle were memorized by friends and were published in the West in the early sixties. They did not appear in the poet’s homeland till the late eighties, twenty years after her death.

And so, on this Memorial Day, I intend to indulge myself and post my translation of the introductory quatrain and note to “Requiem”, the best of all memorials to those millions, who are never remembered by our commentators.

No, I did not live under an alien sky
And was not protected by alien wings -
I was then among my own people,
Where my unhappy people were.


INSTEAD OF AN INTRODUCTION

In the terrible years of yezhovschina I spent seventeen months in Leningrad’s prison queues. One day somebody recognized me. The woman immediately behind me, whose lips were blue with cold, and who, presumably, had never heard of me, seemed to shake off the numbness that had overtaken us all. Leaning close to my ear she whispered (we all spoke in whispers):

- And this. Can you write about this?

I said:

- Yes I can.

Then something resembling a smile glided across what had once been her face.
“Requiem” grew out of that experience and that conversation.

On this Memorial Day, let us remember the people in those queues, the people behind bars, behind barbed wire, in the torture chambers, being dragged to the execution chambers.

Two things need to be added. Firstly, in case anybody is wondering, the reason I write about Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe rather than, say, China is very straightforward. I know more about it. It is not because I consider what happened in the Asian or Latin American countries to be unimportant.

Not enough has been written about China, Vietnam and Cambodia (that scene of an unexplained tragedy) and, in any case, my knowledge is too superficial. I can thoroughly recommend, however, the Inspector Chen novels by Qiu Xiaolong, who lives in the United States. Mostly they are excellent detective stories, far superior to the overwhelming majority of those written in Britain or America. They also give a fascinating picture of Shanghai in the nineties and a very good analysis of the traumatic effects of Maoism and of the Cultural Revolution in particular. Those who can think that far back will recall that the latter was particularly ferocious in Shanghai.

Secondly, what does this have to do with the European Union? As it happens I am not succumbing to the brain fever that considers the EU to be a reincarnation of the USSR. It is not. That very short account of very few people above ought to show that.

However, if we want to move forward in the twenty-first century and overcome the horrors of the twentieth, we must, first of all understand those horrors. Concentrating unthinkingly on the Holocaust (by which I mean not understanding even that) will get us nowhere.

If we want to survive and flourish, to revive the historical process that seemed to disintegrate in the last century we must face up to the truth. Then we can do what we need to do and discard the outdated remnant of that terrible century; the organization that is still stuck somewhere in the middle of it and cannot think its way out; the one and only European Union.

See? I told you there was a connection between all these disparate topics.

25 January 2008

Do we know what it is we do not know?

The follow-up question there would be: and do we care that there are things we do not know we do not know.

First, let me deal with a seemingly small problem that has arisen and about which my colleague wrote in what I thought was a very moderate fashion (well, at first, anyway). It is related to the main theme, I promise you.

The point at issue was the use of material laboriously put together by the editors of this blog, chiefly my colleague, by members of the MSM without any acknowledgement and the subsequent mutual admiration society between them, their friends and sundry bloggers. Devil’s Kitchen is excepted as are all bloggers who use our material and link back to the original. That is what the blogosphere is for and we have no desire to stop that.

On the other hand, neither of us is very keen on the advice that we should shrug our shoulders and get on with life; these things happen and anyway the cause matters more than the individual. Well, that’s very nice, of course, but it is not your work that is being nobbled and we have not empowered anyone to accept apologies on our behalf.

What attitude like that shows is the sort of contempt we have in this country for intellectual labour and achievement, whether it is a piece of research, translation (as I know to my cost) or a programme to enable large companies to get financial information tailored to their needs faster (as I know from someone who works for a very big international news and financial information agency).

These are all products, hard though it is to understand about something that is not a widget and cannot be picked up. The achievement of creating them should be acknowledged.

Intellectual property is a thorny subject but we, on this blog, ask for no money from people who use our material. You are all welcome to it. We ask for acknowledgement. Incidentally, the Daily Telegraph, owner of all those clogs, goes ballistic if their material is used without payment, never mind a link or two. (I have now seen the exchange between Daniel Hannan and my colleague, as well as the odd unpleasant interjection from the odd forum reader and shall leave that particular subject alone. The principle, as far as the MSM is concerned, stands.)

Nor am I impressed by the argument that the cause matters more than the individual. First, let me say, define the cause. I think you may find that the cause as interpreted by various members of the Conservative Party may not be our cause. In any case, if one believes in liberty, as this blog does, one must believe in the importance of private property and that extends beyond widgets.

For the rest of it, people who say never mind who your allies are, think of the cause, remind me of those misguided souls who insisted that one must not oppose anything the Soviet Union did because that plays into the hands of the Fascists or the Nazis. Then the Soviet Union played into the hands of the Nazis; then luckily for the misguided souls, the thieves fell out. Alliance with the Soviet Union may have seemed like a very good idea on the morning of June 22, 1941 and, in any case, there were few choices, but the long-term damage that did is still with us.

This brings me rather neatly to the main theme of this posting. We are fighting a war of propaganda on various fronts, not least in the war against terror or against terrorism, if you prefer.

Let me remind our readers of the following statement by Donald Rumsfeld on February 12, 2002:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are "known knowns"; there are things we know we know. We also know there are "known unknowns"; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also "unknown unknowns" — the ones we don't know we don't know.
According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject it was not an original thought, which miraculously makes it clever, though the evidence for that is not presented and is likely to be rather spurious. Furthermore, the Plain English Campaign awarded it the Foot in Mouth Award in 2003 but that must have been before they were told that it was not original by Rummy.

Frankly, the Plain English Campaign had better award itself the Stupidity of the Year Award. That sentence is very clear, very plain and makes perfect sense, unlike numerous pronouncements by said campaign. (I am told by my colleague that said campaign gave an award to the MoD website for clarity. I rest my case.)

It has, however, been a staple of jokes by clever-dick British journalists, satirists and even, I am sorry to say, bloggers. Two of those I read regularly referred to the statement sniggeringly in the last week. I shall not link to them because I do not want to embarrass them and because they were both rightly lambasted by their readers.

The idea of “unknown unknowns” is well known (if I may put it that way) to all businessmen, managers and even theoreticians of management. Would that it were well known to our policy makers and the people behind them, who supposedly produce the background work. I despair of commentators understanding anything.

As it happens I was reminded of Rumsfield’s dictum this week, reading the obituaries in the Guardian, the Times and the Daily Telegraph of a man I knew slightly for reasons that I need not go into and will not be guessed by our readers (in other words, do not waste your time or space on the forum), Charles Elwell.

Charles, as our readers can see from the two pictures I have posted, was the quintessential Englishman, tall, handsome, bumbling in manner and with a ridiculous sense of humour. It was hard to remember that he was one of the sharpest MI5 operatives this country ever had, cracking the Portland spy ring and uncovering John Vassall’s activities.

After an extremely good war, which included a stint in Colditz, he joined the Service, subsequently marrying one of his colleagues, Ann Glass, herself no mean operative. Ann Elwell, as I knew her, was impossibly glamorous in charm, person and intellect to my youthful eyes and it was even more difficult to imagine her as a successful agent.

Between them, Mr and Mrs Elwell did more for this country and its security than 99.9 per cent of all those self-important politicians, national or local or, for that matter, in Brussels, put together. I am happy to be able to pay this tribute to them here.

However, one must move on. There was an interesting point made in all the obituaries. In the 1970s Charles Elwell moved from counter-espionage to counter-subversion where he produced evidence, which was necessarily tentative, of widespread Soviet activity in the field of subversion. His bosses decided that he was exaggerating and he left the Service in sheer frustration.

Subsequently, he managed to find a useful outlet in the Institute for the Study of Conflict, where he published regular background briefings, which were considered by the authorities to be exaggerated. Even now, after much of what Charles Elwell said has been confirmed by the documents extracted from the KGB archives and published during those few years when it was possible, the obituaries still seem to agree with those MI5 bosses. One cannot help feeling that it is still considered to be somewhat infra dig to be digging into what the Soviets were really up to in all those decades.

The trouble that subversion and its close relation, agents of influence, come under the heading of “unknown unknowns”, considered to be unsuitable for our security agents and, these days when we no longer have institutes for the study of conflict or terrorism or any suchlike matter, even for analysts outside the system.

So we have a situation in which all warnings of Soviet subversion, including the stories that Islamic groups were being funded, armed and trained, were largely ignored or placed into the “exaggeration” file. Others tell that warnings from the early nineties that odd things were happening in some of the British mosques were also filed among the exaggerated “unknown unknowns”.

We are fighting an enemy that is adept at many things, including propaganda. The one thing they do not seem to be able to manage is build up a decent state with decent life for the people in it. So if they cannot have it, nobody can and they will try to make sure that will happen.

They are adept at propaganda and subversion because they were taught by the best – the Soviet elite, while people in the West, Britain in particular, sat back and talked grandly about exaggeration, just as now we snigger at the expression “unknown unknowns”.

Yet what we know about our enemies is still pitifully small and no amount of whining about those nasty Americans deciding that they were the enemy and, therefore, using "inappropriate vocabulary" forcing us to go along with it (something that I hear quite often from people in position of power and influence) while we just want to understand them and show our love for them so they love us back, will help. What we need to do is to go out there and try to find those “unknown unknowns”. Come to think of it, we could start with some of the “known unknowns”.

Coming back to the subject of our other enemy, the European Union and its minions, the same problem can be seen. That Rolls Royce of officialdom, the British civil service, has had rings run round it by the despicable Europeans for decades. No, not all of them wanted to give up everything that may have been once upon a time part of this country’s history and tradition.

Nowadays we call it the Anglospheric tradition, but that, too, gets a superior sniff from too many people, though that comes into the category of "known unknowns".

Quite simply, through not doing their homework, through not trying to understand the “known unknowns”, let alone the "unknown unknowns", they lost out. We all lost out and we are continuing to lose out.

While piecing the picture together, as best we can on this blog (yes, thank you, I don’t need any more lectures on how I must be generous with my work and how the cause matters more than anything – see all the arguments above and leave), we have realized that the EU elite is having a more difficult time than most people realize.

Seemingly victorious, they are feeling their edifice beginning to shake around them, though we, out here, may not feel the tremor yet. It is hard to know what is going on really, what are the “known unknowns” and what are the “unknown unknowns”. Any tenuous work we may do is either drowned out by the usual suspects bleating their political slogans or chanting about the need for another campaign, any campaign or it is dismissed as being an exaggeration.

One of our constant complaints on this blog has been the lack of respect the eurosceptic movement has shown for intellectual work – for research, for analysis, for attempts to get beyond the “known knowns”. All attempts to set up a genuine think-tank that would deal with these problems have failed; all money raised has gone to pointless campaigns, unnecessary umbrella organizations or superficial publications that promote politicians or their parties.

So here we are, still in a mess, still squabbling and still unable to see beyond those “known knowns”. I don’t mind the squabbling as occasionally something comes out of it but I do, very seriously, object to our inability to understand the concept of “unknown unknowns” and to get to a point when we get to know some of them. There can be no solution to problems we cannot even begin to define.

08 January 2008

"Give me liberty or give me death" - Part I

These ringing words end the speech made by Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775. He was addressing the House of Burgesses, the legislative House of the Colony of Virginia and calling for military action against British troops. As the Wikipedia article points out, the words of the speech remain problematic as they were not noted down at the time.

After the War of Independence (or the third English Revolution) Patrick Henry was involved in the debates about the Constitution, at first as an Antifederalist but later as a staunch Federalist, being, apparently, one of the moving forces behind the Bill of Rights, which became the first ten Amendments to the Constitution and which we badly need in this country.

All the while Patrick Henry was a slave owner even though he recognized the contradictions in his stand. Possibly he even recognized the contradictions in his stand on liberty and calls for a strong federal government, though one could argue that as long as the government is controlled by well-defined states’ and individual rights, problems are less likely to arise. How wrong that argument would be can be seen in America’s own Civil War or War Between the States.

This is not, our readers will be glad to know, a posting about American history or even the American presidential elections. The latter will have to be discussed some time but, as St Augustine said in a different context, not yet.

Rather, I should like to muse a little on questions of liberty, freedom of speech, censorship and editorial control. Some readers may want to stop here and go no further. They are welcome to absent themselves.

The subject of freedom of speech is on many people’s mind at the moment and the general agreement seems to be that we are losing our rights. I may point out that when and if we do lose our rights to say what we think we should say we shall not be able to admit to it. In the Soviet Union people were imprisoned for saying that there was no freedom of speech in the country. Anyone who thinks it is the same in Britain or the EU had better produce some definite examples.

The problem with Patrick Henry’s rousing call is one of definitions. On the whole, we know what death is even if we may differ on our assumptions about what happens afterwards. But liberty? How, precisely does one define it?

For Patrick Henry it seemed easy though even he may have had the odd doubt or two after the War of Independence. Liberty meant not being ruled by another power, in this case Britain, and being a republic.

Since for a large number of colonists the notion of Britain being another power was slightly odd and they continued to fight stubbornly against what they saw as treacherous insurrection, even that, the simplest part of it all remains under question. Their liberty was denied them as it was the slaves about whom Patrick Henry did have a twinge of conscience though he seems to have announced himself rather proudly to be a hypocrite and let it go at that.

Nor is being a republic, even with an elected head of state, means necessarily that liberty is guaranteed. The twentieth century, which saw a great deal of liberty extinguished, demonstrated that all too often it is monarchies that guarantee freedom for their subjects as long as there is an adequate constitutional structure.

A long time ago when I was studying at school my history teacher did a very good job of explaining the difference between “Liberty” and “liberties”. (That shows how long ago it was as we still had history teachers who were allowed to teach the subject and explain various concepts in it. Mind you, even then we did not learn about the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars. Rum.)

Liberty with a capital letter and in singular was a grand concept that involved definitions and, all too often, impositions by those who put the definitions into practice. Roughly speaking that is the idea behind the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Liberties, on the other hand, were the acknowledged rights and freedoms of the people that the rulers or the state had no right to impinge on.

As it happens that halcyon state of affairs never existed in England or Scotland, let alone Ireland but the general idea was there somewhere in most people’s minds, as the great French political thinker Montesquieu recognized.

The general idea, I suspect, is no longer there in many people’s minds, not in those who want the state to solve whatever problem there might be from small to large; not in those who think it is always somebody else’s fault that things have not gone right in this country, from Peter Oborne downwards. With liberty comes responsibility but few people want either.

As against the difficult ideas of freedom with attendant duties as well as rights, we have only one notion left: freedom of speech. Not only this is an inadequate and useless idea, it is sometimes contrary to the ideas of real liberty.

Allow me to remind our readers of something that happened in 2005. It involved the Beckhams and their nanny, who, having signed a confidentiality agreement when she took on the job of looking after the little Beckhams, decided on leaving the job that such piffling notions did not apply to her and sold various stories about her ex-employers to the News of the World.

There were various injunctions, counter-injunctions and eventually the young lady agreed not to publish any more than had already appeared in that newspaper but walked away with a tidy sum of money (more than 30 pieces of silver). One wonders what happened to her when the money ran out as it is unlikely that anyone would have employed her as a nanny ever again.

What shocked me about the whole story was that when the Beckhams’ lawyers sought an injunction before the stories were published, citing the confidentiality agreement, Mr Justice Langley ruled that publication could go ahead, on the grounds that the Beckhams were in the public eye and, therefore, had to expect that former employees would write stories about them.

In other words, the ex-nanny’s supposed right to “freedom of speech” trumped not only the Beckhams’ right to their private existence (and let us not forget that young children were involved) but also the contract voluntarily signed by both parties. The truth is that liberty cannot exist without clear understanding of property rights and contractual agreements, honoured by all sides, including the state. Mr Justice Langley, representing the state, refused to honour the agreement.

Instead of recognizing the importance of the matter, we had the media screeching about attempts to “gag” the nanny and the News of the World, not to mention anyone else who decided to repeat the story. Because the Beckhams, particularly Victoria, are not terribly popular, there was a lot of head-nodding, instead of outraged exclamations.

It proved to me something that I had suspected for some time: the nebulous and impossible concept of “free speech” has become a substitute for freedom. The tail was now wagging the dog.

Recently, the question of freedom of speech came up in connection with the still unfinished business of the blogger Lionheart, hitherto unknown to me or many others. My colleague has already dealt with the case, as it stands at present, receiving for his pains a large number of ignorant and a few insulting responses. He ought to follow my example and abandon that forum. It’s not that I don’t believe in freedom of speech; it’s just that I see no point in arguing with people who cannot be bothered to read my postings let alone the Soviet Constitution before they pronounce on various matters.

So, setting aside the idea that freedom of speech is only one aspect of what ought to be a wider definition of freedom or liberty, which would definitely not allow newspapers publish any old rubbish they feel like doing, let us have a look at the concept.

Clearly, there can be no absolute freedom of speech. To be completely trite about it, nobody is allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded cinema. There are laws about incitement to violence, public disorder and affray (in fact there are very many laws about public disorder in the English legal system), libel and slander. These were all there before the more recent race and religious hatred legislation.

No country that has the sort of libel laws that this one does can be called free or can boast of freedom of speech. It is probably necessary to have some laws against slander and libel but the way things are, as I shall try to deal with further on, legitimate discussion of non-private activity can be silenced by the man with lots of moolah.

That is considerably less justified than those French privacy laws we so often sneer at, since freedom should involve some possibility of protecting one’s privacy unless it is in the public interest to know certain matters. It is entirely right that we should know where politicians who legally prevent the people of this country from being able to make choices about their children’s education send their own offspring. I am less certain that we either need to or, in my case, want to know if any of them are having affairs.

Even less am I certain that freedom of speech or freedom of publication is clearly understood by many people. The notion that the only acceptable form of freedom of speech is publishing everything that everybody who can be bothered to do so thinks or says shows an ignorance of writing, editing and publishing that is breathtaking in its intensity.

One of the disadvantages of the internet, heavily outweighed by the many, many advantages is that people who have little knowledge or understanding of a subject still feel the need and have the possibility to express a point of view. You may call it freedom of speech or you may call it stupidity.

Let us have a quick look at our own blog, which has been accused of self-censorship. Do we ever decide not to write about certain subjects because we do not think they are appropriate to our general themes? Sure we do.

Do we ever decide to tread carefully because we have no clear evidence about what may be happening instead of ranting away, regardless of facts and truth? Indeed, we do.

Do we try not to insult people directly but express our views in a more round-about fashion? Sometimes. Do we ever decide not to go with postings for various reasons, some outlined above? Not infrequently.

Does that amount to self-censorship? We prefer to call it editorial work that produces a blog on what we hope is a professional standard. On the other hand, nobody, not even our readers, tell us what we should or should not write about. We have the freedom to act that way. Newspapers do not. If they lose readers and, subsequently advertisers, they go to the wall and no amount of squealing about freedom of speech will save them.

Nevertheless, editors decide what they will publish and if they do not like somebody’s writings either in an article or a letter, they do not publish it. If that writing is sort of all right but needs editing, that is what happens and no, that does not mean that the author’s freedom to express him or herself has been denied. Editing is an essential part of the writing process as are self-editing and self-control.

These notions together with the concept of private property, be it a newspaper or a blog, ought to be self-evident. That they are not shows how far we have moved from any kind of understanding of liberty or freedom of speech.

The only people who believed in everything being valuable as and when it is pronounced or written were the Dadaists, led by Tristan Tzara. It was a short-lived literary trend.

Nor is stream of consciousness writing, when genuine, unedited burbling. I am not a great admirer of James Joyce but I know enough to realize that passages such as Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy is a carefully structured piece of writing unlike some of the blathering one is supposed accept in the name of freedom of speech.

Incidentally those who advocate freedom of expression and who know very little of Dadaism or James Joyce, particularly teachers in primary schools, have achieved a level of illiteracy that has not been seen in this country since the Middle Ages. (I have said it before and shall say it again: it is outrageous how many people of all ages in this country do not know and cannot be bothered to learn how to use the richest language in the world.)

This rant is becoming so very long that I find it necessary to split it into two (and you will be lucky if I stop there). In the second part I shall deal with a couple of cases where the freedom to say important matters is being taken away. This time I shall not be dealing with countries where there really is no freedom at all but with incidents in the West. So I shall end this piece with the words:

To be continued ….

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