28 December 2004

Free speech?

A seriously written play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre offends a small group. They get away with storming the theatre. The theatre has to be evacuated. The play is withdrawn. Government culture guru Tessa Jowell says she is all for free speech but the theatre was right to cancel the play. Well that’s a great help Tessa.

Nobody wins. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, having no confidence that the police could deal effectively with further violence, shuts down to protect its employees and its audience. That suits the authorities who are spared the task of alienating a ‘sensitive’ community. But in so doing they create a highly dangerous precedent.

The Sikh religion, one of the great religions of the world and the third largest in Britain, tarnishes its own image and plays into the hatred of the objectionable British right wing. Bearded and turbaned, the Sikh men present a visible picture of a culture that is all too easy for the bigoted to deride.

Sikh beliefs are admirable. They believe in one God – logic dictates it must be the same one that looks after Christians, Jews and Muslims. Everyone is equal in His eyes, whatever their caste, creed, or gender. God is accessible without priests. There are no clergy. Other faiths are recognised – no religion has a monopoly on the truth.

Sikhs don’t seek converts, but joyfully accept them. They strive to live a responsible life within the community. They have no ritual for its own sake. Devotion can take the form of action as well as prayer. The use of force is a last resort and only to uphold social justice. Death is not the end – it is the transition to a life where the joy of being in the presence of God can be fully realised.

Christians please note.

Sikhs are particularly strong on sexual equality and, if proof is needed, visit the Sikh internet websites run by and for women. They illuminate all those controversial subjects which the young Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti raised in her allegedly ‘offensive’ play Behtzi – sexuality, abuse, violence, equality, power, social injustice.

Nobody has a right to incite racial hatred, but that is not an issue in this case. Everybody, and especially the artist and the writer, has a right to free speech and a right, even a duty, to interrogate, expose, criticise and even to offend. Churches of all kinds are not immune – nor should they be.

What’s the next step? Ban the Vicar of Dibley? Destroy the Life of Brian. Evict the Kumars at Number 42? And wouldn’t the world have been a poorer place without the immortal Father Ted?

14 December 2004

Tony, Bertie, Ian and Gerry

The great historic, ground-breaking, landmark deal-of-all-deals has been and gone.

But the good people of Northern Ireland, possessed of a peculiar wisdom in these matters, showed little excitement. The old nags of politics have been led to the water before but have always refused to drink. There was no real expectation that they had developed a thirst this time.

Journalists and pundits were jumping up and down. Front pages were put on hold, TV schedules rearranged – we’ll be bringing you special live coverage from the Waterfront! But the Northern Ireland public was not tuning in.

Tony and Bertie put on a display of confidence that the question of decommissioning had been all but settled. General John de Chastelain was ready to turn on the oxy-acetylene and that would have allowed the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning – the most fall-over-backwards title of all time – to report that it had overseen the evaporation of all IRA weapons. Two churchmen, miraculously acceptable to the two opposing sides, would be present to see it all happen.

But that wasn’t enough for one party which wants the whole drama to be photographed and far too much for the other which has nevertheless proudly photographed its own weaponry in the past.

Without taking sides may I respectfully suggest that a demand for ‘sackcloth and ashes’ is possibly not the most tactful approach when seeking an agreement. But I digress.

The deal would have finally produced real power sharing – though not necessarily reconciliation. The great historic, ground-breaking, landmark deal-of-all-deals has been and gone.

But the good people of Northern Ireland, possessed of a peculiar wisdom in these matters, showed little excitement. The old nags of politics have been led to the water before but have always refused to drink. There was no real expectation that they had developed a thirst this time.

Journalists and pundits were jumping up and down. Front pages were put on hold, TV schedules rearranged – we’ll be bringing you special live coverage from the Waterfront! But the Northern Ireland public was not tuning in.

Tony and Bertie put on a display of confidence that the question of decommissioning had been all but settled. General John de Chastelain was ready to turn on the oxy-acetylene and that would have allowed the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning – the most fall-over-backwards title of all time – to report that it had overseen the evaporation of all IRA weapons. Two churchmen, miraculously acceptable to the two opposing sides, would be present to see it all happen.

But that wasn’t enough for one party which wants the whole drama to be photographed and far too much for the other which has nevertheless proudly photographed its own weaponry in the past.

Without taking sides may I respectfully suggest that a demand for ‘sackcloth and ashes’ is possibly not the most tactful approach when seeking an agreement. But I digress.

The deal would have finally produced real power sharing – though not necessarily reconciliation. The public, so often ahead of the politicians, had been hoping for an exercise of common sense. The Stormont executive would be restored, there would be sweeping security changes, the departure of thousands of soldiers, new policing arrangements with republican support, and the IRA ‘leaving the stage’. And Ian and Gerry would win the gold and the silver respectively and be on compulsory speaking terms.

So where do we stand? Blessed if I know. Tony and Bertie will nibble at a range of recycled ideas and gestures. Local politicians will stand firm on their principles (or prejudices) and blame everybody but themselves. Westminster will soon be in general election mode with the added responsibilities of presiding over the EU and the G8 international rich club.

The British public will take no interest whatsoever. They never did. We in our own island will wait for 2006 – that’s the insider’s guess for the next attempt.

Meantime we’ll get on with our lives as we always have done. And we’ll have a nice Christmas.

07 December 2004

Power and giggles

Condoleezza Rice is probably the most powerful woman in the world – and possibly the smartest. A brilliant academic, an accomplished pianist, an outstanding linguist, a football fanatic (American style), US Secretary of State and close friend of the President, gritty and, above all, ambitious.

She replaces Colin Powell, another distinguished Afro-American, whose body language increasingly displayed his discomfort with America’s foreign policy.

It was he who eloquently presented to the United Nations his country’s case for military action against Saddam Hussein unaware that it was based on false intelligence information. The trump card was that little phial he produced from his pocket. If it contained the deadly sarin – the inference being that Saddam had lots of it – he warned it was capable of poisoning a whole city.

While Powell was actually speaking the United States was still retaining 78% of its own massive chemical arsenal of 31,500 tons of nerve and mustard gas including sarin, and the even more deadly VX. The International Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 has required all countries to have 45% of their chemical stockpiles destroyed by April 2004 but the Bush administration in September 2003 requested a new deadline of December 2007 and announced a probable need for an extension until 2012 for the final phase of destruction.

According to the US Army Chemical Materials Agency, as of 26 May 2004, the United States still retains 71.4% of its original declared stockpile.

Condoleeza Rice should be capable of understanding, as many of her colleagues do not, that it is her own country, and its military might, that is feared by much of the world. Yet in spite of her intellect she is prone to clumsy analysis from time to time. In February 2003 she said:

Power matters. But there can be no absence of moral content in American foreign policy, and furthermore, the American people wouldn't accept such an absence. Europeans giggle at this and say we're naive and so on, but we're not Europeans, we're Americans – and we have different principles.

Condoleezza grew up in the deeply segregated state of Alabama and suffered the indignity of being shut out from a world where all the real power, wealth and privilege was held.

As Secretary of State she not only shares that power, she will wield much of it across the world. If power does matter Dr Rice, I hope you will respect those who have less of it than your own.