May 12, 2009

Is Free Speech Banned in the UK?

Like all governments, the British state has always endeavored to prevent potential troublemakers entering the country. And in 2005, following much criticism from the media for permitting the free movement of sundry psychotic imams, the government’s discretionary powers were strengthened. A further “€œpresumption in favour of exclusion“€ was introduced in October 2008 so that any problematic applicant would have the difficult task of proving they would not “€œstir up tension”€ after arrival.

Two hundred and thirty individuals have been refused entry since 2005″€”a heterodox mixture of radical Muslims (including Louis Farrakhan), “€œanimal rights”€ activists, Holocaust-deniers, the rap “€œmusician”€ Snoop Doggy Dogg, and those guilty of serious financial crimes (including Martha Stewart). On 5 May, the government published a list of 16 people who have been banned from entering the United Kingdom since October last year.

The names of a further six people banned during that period were kept secret “€œin the public interest”€”€”although one of these is the Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who was forbidden to attend a House of Lords screening of his anti-Islamic film Fitna in February. The list sheds considerable light on the neurotic tension that crackles through every area of British life, especially because most of the named individuals do not seem to have been planning to visit the UK anyway.

Most of the 16 would be undesirable guests by any standards”€”Muslim clerics who advocate jihad, a Jewish man who advocates violence against Palestinians, a Kashmiri militant, Russian skinheads guilty of multiple murders. But other exclusions raise vital questions about freedom of expression, such as the stridently anti-homosexual Pastor Fred Phelps (and his daughter) and the well-known American radio presenter, “€œMichael Savage”€ (his real name is Michael Weiner”€”unhappily often rendered “€œWiener”€ by his all-too-plentiful enemies).

Savage is the only one of the 16 to have responded publicly, calling on his listeners to boycott British goods and avoid visiting the UK, and threatening to sue the government. He told British television: “€œFor her [Home Secretary Jacqui Smith] to link me up with skinheads who are killing people in Russia, to put me in league with mass murderers who kill Jews on buses, is defamation.”€

He has a point. Savage is the most obviously “€œmainstream”€ of the 16, an influential controversialist whose radio show is syndicated across 400 US stations and who claims a combined total of ten million listeners. He boasts (with arguably misplaced pride) of having invented the terms “€œcompassionate conservative”€ and “€œIslamo-fascist.”€ He has also made efforts to distance himself from groups with whom it might have been thought he shares certain opinions, although such slightly panicky punctiliousness has obviously proved bootless this time.

Savage combines keen intelligence with intellectual insecurity, defiant boorishness, overweening vanity and unabashed vulgarity. “€œI guess people love my show because of my hard edge combined with humor and education,”€ he says in his inadvertently revealing web biography. “€œThose who listen to me say they hear a bit of Plato, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Moses, Jesus and Frankenstein. I pull from many of my life experiences, including that of father, son, husband, brother, ice cream factory worker, busboy, lifeguard, writer, scientist and my huge library of books.”€

He troubles “€œFlyover Country”€ with not always easily classifiable views on such subjects as climate change (it’s not happening), immigration (pro-legal, anti-illegal), animal rights (in favor), Obama (whom he caricatures halfheartedly as “€œObama Robin Hood”€), Reagan (a demi-God) and so on down the scale of importance to autism (“€œin 99 per cent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn”€™t been told to cut the act out”€) and homeopathy (he is a fervent disciple). His show combines aggressiveness, aggrievedness, mawkishness, suspicion, perversity and philistinism with shrewdness, straightforwardness, lucidity, commonsense, courage and patriotism; it is an authentic slice of a specific kind of Americana. He has written over 20 books, mostly on health and nutrition but more recently on politics, with unsubtle titles like The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on our Schools, Faith, and Military (2003) and Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder (2005)”€”some of which have been bestsellers, which was probably not the case for his 1983 Secrets of Fijian Medicine.

His phraseology is lively to a fault (the omnipresent danger of combining an open microphone with an adulatory audience) and it is probably his excitability as much as his actual views which have led to his proscription. A few examples will have to suffice.
Like Geert Wilders, he has a psychological problem with Islam”€””€œWhen I see a woman walking around with a burqa, I see a Nazi,”€ while the Koran is a “€œbook of hate.”€ If press reports are to be trusted, he also once suggested that “€œAmerica should let its immigrants starve to death in order to ease overcrowding.”€ There is a video of him telling a caller to his show to “€œGet AIDS and die.”€ According to the BBC, views like these have caused “€œgreat offence in the United States”€”€”although even if this is true, why it should matter to British policymakers is not explained.

He is unlikely to succeed with any prospective court case, especially because he will get no back-up from a White House which has no love for conservative talk radio (senior Democrats are calling for the reintroduction of the “€œFairness Doctrine”€ that was scrapped in 1987, which would impose “€˜balance”€™ on conservative media”€”see a riposte here). There have been suggestions that Savage was blacklisted at the behest of Washington, but this may be an unnecessarily elaborate explanation. Brown’s government has proved itself to be supremely capable of making its own asinine decisions.

This brings us to the interesting question of why Savage was plucked seemingly almost at random from Red State AM obscurity by Jacqui Smith and placed amongst the bloodthirsty bizarrerie. Savage has broken no law. He is scarcely known in the UK (although he is a lot better known now). He may sometimes be a buffoon whose views are so over the top as actually to be counterproductive, but he is not a killer, nor an encourager of killing. His bile is aimed indiscriminately at … modernity. Whatever one may think of his shows, they reflect faithfully the views of millions of Americans”€”should they be likewise barred from the UK? And if Savage’s exclusion is accepted, who might be next? Many well-known persons have been accused at some time or other of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or other quasi-medical “€œconditions.”€ Should we then exclude the Pope for his Regensburg address on Islam”€”or Silvio Berlusconi for having said that Western civilization was superior to the Islamic”€”or Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, Tom Tancredo, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Salman Rushdie?

Governments of any complexion will always be tempted to take the easy option and exclude anyone who may mean botheration”€”and left-of-centre governments are also prone to didacticism”€”but they cannot be allowed to forbid entry to someone simply because they don”€™t like their looks or because they have heard bad things about them from a third party. It is ironic and galling to have to listen to such preachiness from a government which generally takes a grossly irresponsible attitude to immigration and generally won”€™t deport even immigrants who have been convicted of the most appalling crimes.

Jacqui Smith argued on the BBC that those excluded had “€œclearly overstepped the mark… [Naming them] enables people to see the sorts of unacceptable behaviour we are not willing to have in this country … Coming to this country is a privilege. We won”€™t allow people into this country who are going to propagate the sort of views … that fundamentally go against our values.”€ But, as Natalie Rothschild of Spiked-online responded, “€œit is in all our interests to defend the freedom to “€œoverstep the mark”€: the right to say, think and believe anything should be the cornerstone of any civilised society.”€

A point Rothschild overlooks is that the postmodern “€œmark”€ is always contingent, and always changing. (The Australian writer Hal Colebatch has written an excellent examination of the subtle ways in which certain views become “€œoffensive”€ while others magically become “€œacceptable.”€) This conceptual vagueness is very convenient for unscrupulous politicians who, like Humpty Dumpty, want words to mean what they choose them to mean.

Presuming the applicant for a UK visa is not wanted for a crime in another country with which the UK has an extradition agreement, the simple rule should always be whether the individual has broken British law and whether he will undertake to comply with it during his (monitored) sojourn. The least infraction should be used to expel them, but until then, whatever they have done or whoever they have met, whatever they may think or are thought to think, they should be allowed as much freedom of movement, association and expression as is compatible with social harmony and national security.

Ideas can already move freely across borders on the Internet, so this blacklist is a largely symbolic distraction from more pressing matters for a teetering government striving to compensate for an unraveling social fabric and hemorrhaging political support.

Smith has tried increasingly frantically to persuade the public that the government is in control by eagerly supporting authoritarian gestures”€”logging all mobile phone and e-mail traffic within the UK, retaining the DNA data of people with no criminal records, extending detention without charge for terrorist offences to 42 days, and restrictions on photographing the police. She is also overseeing legislation to outlaw “€œhomophobia,”€ with the prospect of up to seven years in prison. Most recently, she has overseen the introduction of an identity card scheme in Manchester”€”voluntary but envisioned eventually to be both nationwide and compulsory. Meanwhile, serious assault, rape and murder have increased annually since Labour came to office and are at their highest levels since at least 1997. No wonder, as she explained in January 2008, she would not feel safe on London’s streets at night”€”just as well that going out at night is apparently not “€œa thing that people do.”€

Her ministerial and even political careers are likewise on the brink of dissolution. She is under investigation for claiming parliamentary housing expenses illegitimately, earning an extra £116,000 on top of her £142,000 salary, as well as costing an estimated £200,000 in unnecessary extra policing. She has even made claims for £30 barbecues and £1.50 bath plugs. Also highly damaging was the news that she employs her husband as a personal assistant at a taxpayer-funded salary of £40,000 (legal but always unedifying), and that he spends much of his time writing to the media praising her (without disclosing that he is her husband) and watching pornographic films (at taxpayers”€™ expense, naturally). Finally, her parliamentary majority of circa 1,400 is the smallest of any cabinet minister.

So she will soon be out of office, and probably out of parliament”€”shortly afterwards joined hopefully by the equally over-promoted prime minister (Smith only became an MP at all through an all-woman shortlist). But the policy is unlikely to be much altered by the incoming government, although it will almost certainly be a Conservative one.

The Conservatives have been almost silent so far on this topic, except to say that the publication of the list was a “€œgimmick”€ (without specifying what their alternative would be). They have also been unconscionably quiet for a very long time on the wider question of what views are or should be “€œacceptable.”€ If even Thatcher made no serious attempt to deal with the ragbag of ludicrous assumptions that we tritely call “€œpolitical correctness,”€ it seems correspondingly almost unthinkable that the ultra-cautious Cameron will be willing to address these controversies. On the growing and intertwined problems of whom to admit and whom to exclude, what is acceptable and what is reprehensible, the best that libertarians and traditional conservatives should expect from a Cameron administration is commonsense rather than cant and benign neglect rather than malign intent. We shall have to wait and see.


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