Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Free Speech – From the Vaults – Bernard Levin

In Anti-Zionism, Antisemitism, Freedom of Expression, From the Vaults on January 23, 2015 at 10:28 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on January 17th 2015, 12:31 pm

In early 1987 the UK Jewish community was in uproar about the play, Perdition, which was due to be shown at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The play was written by Jim Allen, who had been associated with an extremist Marxist group. The controversy is obvious when one considers the author’s own words about the play: “it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to bring about a Zionist state, Israel.” (Time Out, January 21-28, 1987). While the play was cancelled because the Artistic Director lost confidence in it, a debate raged in the press about the historical aspects of the play, whether the play was antisemitic, artistic freedom and free speech.

Of all the articles written about the controversy, one of the most eloquently and passionately argued was that by the late Bernard Levin for The Times. (“Waking the dead to revile the living,” February  2, 1987, p.16). He accused the play of a “peculiar vileness” from which antisemitism “oozes.” He said the author had unashamedly reproduced “Stalinist disinformation,” to write a play “littered throughout with inexcusable errors and horrible lies.” Despite these views Levin was a passionate defender of free speech. He concluded his article as follows:

…free speech is for swine and liars as well as upright and honest men. I have insisted that any legally permissable view, however repugnant, is less dangerous promulgated than banned, and I would defend its promulgation even if the opposite were true. I have glorified in the central paradox of democracy, which is that it tolerates, and must continue to tolerate, the activities of those who wish to destroy it.

In all the beliefs I have lived, and I am minded to die in them; how then can I defend the suppression of this play? I cannot, which is not to say that if it had never been written it now should be. But it exists, and ‘He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still.’ With a heavy heart, I yet must say it: Let them have their play.

It is a shame he is no longer with us.

Thought Control Would Be Nice

In Philosophy on January 13, 2015 at 6:23 PM

Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (The Abbé de Mably) was an 18th Century French philosopher and friend of the better known Rousseau. He detested private property and his view of liberty make many modern day authoritarian types seem positively liberal. Below is a paragraph extracted from a lecture that Benjamin Constant gave to the Athénée Royal of Paris in 1819 entitled, The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns

The abbe de Mably, like Rousseau and many others, had mistaken, just as the ancients did, the authority of the social body for liberty; and to him any means seemed good if it extended his area of authority over that recalcitrant part of human existence whose independence he deplored. The regret he expresses everywhere in his works is that the law can only cover actions. He would have liked it to cover the most fleeting thoughts and impressions; to pursue man relentlessly, leaving him no refuge in which he might escape from its power. No sooner did he learn, among no matter what people, of some oppressive measure, than he thought he had made a discovery and proposed it as a model. He detested individual liberty like a personal enemy; and whenever in history he came across a nation totally deprived of it, even if it had no political liberty, he could not help admiring it. He went into ecstasies over the Egyptians, because, as he said, among them everything was prescribed by the law, down to relaxations and needs: everything was subjected to the empire of the legislator. Every moment of the day was filled by some duty; love itself was the object of this respected intervention, and it was the law that in turn opened and closed the curtains of the nuptial bed.

Not Voting – In Defence of Russell Brand

In Anarchism, Libertarianism, voting on December 22, 2014 at 4:24 PM

This post originally appeared at Harry’s Place on December 19th 2014, 10:28 am

Democracy has been described as two wolves and a lamb deciding what to eat for lunch. In this analogy, and given a choice, a rational lamb would not agree to a majority vote. If majority rule was imposed on it from above, the lamb might justly feel aggrieved. “Democracy isn’t fair,” the lamb might protest; “I don’t agree with your voting system and I want no part in it.” And who could seriously blame the lamb for refusing to vote? A challenge to the lamb that she could try and convince the wolves to have a vegetarian lunch is likely to be derided.

Last year, the comedian Russell Brand appeared on BBC’s Newsnight. He declared that he didn’t believe democracy was working very well and said that there was a “disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent, underclass” that were not represented by the political system. In his view, this underclass become the lambs in a country full of wolves.

There are many reasons for not voting. The simple one of “I can’t be bothered” is as valid as any other. Other valid reasons include not liking either the candidates from whom you can choose or the political parties that they represent. There could be a single issue that is of dominant importance to the non-voter. A standard example would be someone with a deeply held religious conviction that abortion is murder who cannot with good conscience vote for any candidate who holds a pro-choice position regarding abortion. If all candidates are pro-choice, then, if they are consistent, the citizen will stay away from the ballot box.

In his book, Revolution, Brand responds to his critics who argue that “People died so you’d have the right to vote.” His response is “No they did not, they died for freedom.” What people value is being treated justly – not the ability to vote in elections. It is laughable to suggest that people were prepared to die solely for the right to put a cross on a ballot ticket.  Brand states, “I don’t feel irresponsible for telling kids not to vote, I feel like I deserve a Blue Peter badge for telling them not to riot.”  Voter turn outs in many elections are quite low. It is difficult to know the exact reasons why this is so. Two further options on the ballot slip might assist matters. Firstly, there could be a box for “reopen nominations” for those who do not like the available candidates but do not reject the system. Secondly, there could be a box “Against the system” for those who think like Russell Brand or are opposed to “the system” for other reasons.

There will be a general election in the UK in a few months. There is a gulf of difference between Russell Brand’s political views and my own, but on one point I suspect we can agree. When the details of the rabble of assorted candidates are dropped through our respective letter boxes with associated campaign material, we will both shake our heads and ask, why bother. Really, why bother?

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