Monthly Archives: November 2013

Give Thanks and Pass the Pimms: 5 things I’m thankful Britain gave the world

firstthanksgiving

We all know the story. The Pilgrims, with their funny hats and boring names, set sail on the Mayflower towards the New World in search of religious freedom. What nobody ever tells you is that they went to the Netherlands for a bit, or that they didn’t really want to come, or that loads of them got dysentery and died before reaching Plymouth Rock.

We know that Squanto fed them corn, and that the three remaining Pilgrims came together with their kind Native benefactors in thanks giving for the great harvest which kept them from becoming Roanoke version 2.0. We stop there, because the mass slaughter of the native population isn’t exactly “happily ever after” unless you’re Mike Huckabee and think the heathens had it coming and turkey is best deep fried.

So that’s the first Thanksgiving.

Nobody tells you that the Pilgrims were essentially seventeenth century England’s Westboro Baptist Church, but this may explain why Britain is more evolved on issues of religion in the public sphere. They sent their crazy right wing Christians here, and their descendants went on to found Jesusland. I mean Texas. Still, whilst the British may have given us Sarah Palin’s colonial antecedents, they’ve given us loads of good stuff too. So, quickly, here are five things I’m thankful for Britain giving the world:

1. Liberty: Okay, Americans like to pretend we invented this in 1776, but we didn’t. In fact the Declaration of Independence was, outside of being a treasonous document, simply a restatement of English principles dating back to Magna Carta in 1215. Trial by jury, habeus corpus, a free press, and the right to petition were all exported by Britain to its colonies. These weren’t homespun in Boston or handcrafted in Philadelphia. The Brits gave them to us, and their legacy lives on in our Constitution.

2. Newspapers: I hesitate to put this on here, because the British government has borrowed Miley’s wrecking ball to destroy what’s left of press freedom whilst Hugh Grant  watches, twerking and sticking his tongue out in glee. But the British press is a site to behold, a beast unto itself which simply has no American equivalent. The broadsheets are still celebrated as national treasures, even while being regularly ridiculed, and magazines like Private Eye and the venerated but defunct Punch prove that satire is the best defence of democracy. Even the tabloids serve a purpose, for I am keenly interested in everything Chantelle Houghton has to say about Alex Reid’s cross dressing. As I know you are, too.

3. Understatement: “It’s drizzling,” a British friend once said to me as the hurricane hit. The Brits really know how to undercut a moment. Win an Oscar? “I got a trophy.” Elected to Parliament? “It’s a job.” Shag a royal? “His hairline’s receding.” And the great thing is THEY’RE NOT HUMBLE BRAGGING! They really do mean it. You’d think that as an American this penchant for restrained dryness would annoy me, but I actually appreciate it. I think that Americans are too prone to hyperbole, and that dry sense of humour has made me reign in my otherwise outrageous personality.

4. Lucozade: There is no better cure for a hangover than this fizzy, refreshing, hydrating miracle water. I can hardly find it in the US, but I will trek across the city if I hear a store has it stocked. Seriously, I swear by the stuff.

5. Chris Ramsey: Because this.

chris ramsey

So there’s five wonderful things that the UK gave the world, and I’m grateful for all of them. As you may have noticed, this trails off at number four, and by number five, I’ve completely given up. That’s not because I couldn’t think of anything else; there’s so much about Britain I’m thankful for. But there’s turkey on the table and wine in my glass, so I’m off to gorge myself on enough tryptophan and starches that I sleep right through Black Friday and wake up on the other side of consumerism.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

(PS: For the record, I’m very thankful for each and every one of you who read this. I have some great supporters out there, and I am very blessed! I leave you with this video.)

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Chicago vs London: Round Two – Cityscape

It’s tough loving two cities. My London followers get annoyed when I live-tweet Blackhawks games (Jonathan Toews is my pretend boyfriend, after all). My Chicago followers get annoyed when I live-tweet Question Time. I miss so much about London, including Sloane Square, the KR and Soho. But I know there are so many things about Chicago I’ll miss when leave, like Logan Square (full disclosure: my home), the Mag Mile (or Magnificent Mile, aka Michigan Ave., for out-of-towners), and Boystown. Both cities are wonderful to call home, but which comes out on top? I’ve judged them like I’m Sharon Osbourne, and when it comes to a cityscape, only one can reign supreme. But which? Let’s find out. (That’s some lazy writing, but I’m tired and on beer number three, so it’s all I can muster. Sod off.)

Chicago!

Chicago!

1. Architecture. Merchandise Mart. The Gherkin. St Paul’s. St James’. The Willis Sears Tower. The Shard. Both cities are possess magnificent buildings, and I’ve been privileged to walk in the shadows and walk down the halls of many of them. Ever been on the floor of the House of Commons? Breathtaking. The history! The craftsmanship! The sheer grandeur! But I’ve also been to Robie House, amazed at the geometrical genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. Chicago is renowned for its architecture. Its skyline, jutting out of Lake Michigan’s shores like a mass of Gothic lighthouses, is one of the wonders of the world. And while we may lack the gravitas of London, where every corner you turn around something notable happened, our neighbourhoods are just as gorgeous as the Loop. I’ve been to Stoke Newington. Lovely neighbourhood. But architecturally, it doesn’t hold a candle to Logan Square. (Still, the view of London from Primrose Hill is a sight to behold.)

Score: Chicago 1 – 0 London

My feet. Kensington Gardens. 2013.

My feet. Kensington Gardens. 2013.

2. Parks/Greenspace: Londoners pride themselves on their parks, and rightly so. If you enter Kensington Gardens via the Queensway, you’ll find my favourite spot to read anywhere in the world. The thistle fields are breathtaking, and the way they scratch your soles in the hot summer sun can really touch your soul. Then there’s Hyde Park, St James’ Park, Hampstead Heath, and a plethora of neighbourhood parks. When you think of Chicago, you don’t think of greenery. But its aplenty. Our parks rival Paris, in particular the symetrically planned and imacuately pruned Grant Park and Lincoln Park, both of which have preserved the lakeshore in grandeur, harkening more to Marie-Antoinette than the Midwest. Our boulevards likewise invoke the Champs-Élysées, and we likewise have a wonderful community parks system. It’s a tossup, because again London has history on its side. However, Chicago has the lake and its beaches. With that, Chicago wins by a hair.

Score: Chicago 2 – 0 London

underground

3. Transport. I feel like Cinderella whenever I’m in London, because I have to leave the ball well before I’m ready, and usually before I’ve gotten Prince Charming’s number. Cabs are too expensive, and the Tube shuts down at dusk, it seems. Sure, London has great night buses, but that can make a 3 mile journey into an hour-and-a-half ordeal. Chicago, on the other hand, has two train lines (the Red and the Blue) which run 24 hours. Our cabs are affordable. And after our city burned to the ground, we were able to rebuild on a grid, making navigating easy. London carriages offer cushier seating, more space, and are, frankly, safer for standing passengers. It also has an iconic map and “Mind the Gap.” Of course, both London and Chicago have both sold their fare collecting souls to Cubic, so in this way are both screwed. Still, my Oyster card works. My Ventra card? Well, I’m lucky if I can get through the turnstyle after 35 tries.

Score: Chicago 2 – 1 London

London may have won in entertainment, but Chicago had its night tonight. There’s no denying; this city is gorgeous. It’s the most beautiful North American city, and a wonderful place to call home. From May through October, anyway. Now we’re halfway through November and I want to be anywhere but here. It’s freaking cold. But at least we don’t shut down for a little bit of snow. Just sayin’.

Overall score: Chicago 1 – 1 London

10 things you may not know about Skylar Baker-Jordan (or, I’ve got to stop drinking on a Monday)

Like any good writer, I respect deadlines.

Like any good writer, I sometimes get drunk on a Monday night whilst dancing around my kitchen to Glee.

I overslept this morning, and after yesterday’s brouhaha on Twitter-suffice to say, my blogroll brings all the prats to the yard (damn right, they’re dumber than yours)-I really want to lighten the mood. Plus, I’m exhausted. Whilst I may not have the energy to write about Nigel Farage or racist murals (not one in the same, at least in this instance), I’m never so tired that I can’t talk about myself. Luckily Facebook gives us this lovely little game where you tag me with a number and I tell you a certain amount about myself.

Nobody tagged me, but let’s pretend. My number? Whatever I want. We’ll see how far I get before this bores me.

Just kidding. I never bore myself.

1. When I get drunk I sometimes develop this very awful hybrid English accent, which my mate Nick from Chelmsford once described as a cross between Hampshire and Hell. (I can’t remember his exact words, but that’s the gist.) In university I actually would speak in this accent, partly because I thoroughly enjoyed annoying the people in Kentucky who screamed “YOU’RE FROM HYDEN!” and partly because I really do pick up accents quite easily. That’s also why I don’t have a southern accent anymore.

2. I’m not really sure where my love of Britain comes from. I first told my father I was going to move to London as a child, but I think my earliest concrete memory of the UK is Princess Diana’s funeral. A few days before she died I started sixth grade, and my teacher had me tell him a celebrity I’d like to meet. I said her. After that came the Spice Girls, David Beckham, and even EastEnders. I devoured British culture, and I suspect I was so keen on it because it allowed me to, in my mind, move to a different country and escape my unhappy childhood. Britain was a literal fairytale, and it kept me going through some very dark times.

3. That being said, I don’t have some idealised portrait of Britain in my mind. If anything, I’m more critical of it than ever. I essentially majored in Britain in university, including classes in its politics, its sociology, and of course, a degree in its history. Having as many British friends as I do, it’s hard to maintain an Anglophile’s Disneyland fantasy. I see the UK for what it is, warts and all. If anything, this has actually made me love it more. I see a place that values fair play but perhaps takes it too far, that strives for inclusion but struggles with assimilation, but that at the end of the day just wants everyone to get on and have a cuppa. And I like that.

4. Perhaps the most controversial thing I’ll ever say, but I think the Geordie accent is sexy.

Chris Ramsey in all his Geordie sexiness.

Chris Ramsey in all his Geordie sexiness.

There’s nothing hotter than T glottalisation. I don’t know exactly what it is, but something about that raw Northern bit makes me crave a raw Northern bit.

5. Speaking of controversial, I will not talk of Northern Ireland or the Troubles in Chicago. It’s too dangerous. I nearly got into a bar fight with an Irishman once, simply for stating I’m ethnically English. The Irish in Chicago are extremely touchy about this issue, and they’re extremely violent when you’re not. Have you ever had a six-foot-three Irishman lunging towards you anywhere outside the bedroom? It’s terrifying.

6. One of the most romantic moments of my life involved Kensington Gardens at night. Don’t ask me how we got in, but if you haven’t strolled by the Serpentine in the midnight or laid in strong arms with the thistle tickling you, I insist you do it now. Report back. Just don’t have sex in public, because that’s tacky.

7. In brainstorming for my as-yet unwritten and nowhere-near published first novel, I stumbled upon a lovely town called Barnsley. Its people have reached out to me, helping me get to know their city and welcoming me into the fold, even though I’m an ocean and a continent away. I cannot wait to visit, cannot wait to taste a Yorkshire wrap, cannot wait shop at the Poundstretcher on the High Street, and to take a selfie in front of the Barnsley Town Hall. And I can’t wait to write this novel, though I’m secretly terrified, because now more than ever, I want to do Barnsley justice and do it proud.

#barnsleyisbrill

#barnsleyisbrill

8. I am sarcastic in life and vicious in comedy, but I refuse to be nasty except on stage. This extends to politics, Twitter, and yes, the X Factor. I will never tell you who my bottom two are, because I’m afraid they’ll see. I won’t even watch until the top 12 because I don’t like seeing people made national jokes. Cringey television isn’t my cup of tea, and I don’t understand how people can enjoy watching others’ misery. Who are we? Germans?

9. My most successful writing has been voyeuristic, “Sex and the City” style columns and features, where I put my private life in the public sphere. I’m quite good at it, but I refuse to do it anymore, because I’ve become innately aware that my grandparents are reading what I write. I have too much respect for them and their southern sensibilities to, in good conscience, do it anymore.

10. That being said, I’d totally shag Chris Ramsey.

Why James Arthur’s apology is bullshit

James Arthur

James Arthur

I can’t believe I have to tell straight people not to say “fag” and “queer.” Seriously y’all? The words themselves send shivers down my spine, taking me back to my years spent in southeastern Kentucky, where they were regularly spewed in my direction, dripping with the vitriol of threats and intimidation. For three years I was terrorised, and I never once went to school in the morning convinced I’d make it out alive in the afternoon. It was a daily crucible of homophobia.

My story is sadly reflective of so many young gay men and women throughout the Western world. And that’s why, when James Arthur dropped his diss against some unknown rapper, my palm and forehead had a kiki. But if his use of “queer” wound me up, his apology really pissed me off.

James Arthur has sought forgiveness without contrition. He “has gay friends,” he says. Rylan Clark is his bestie! I mean for Christ’s sake, the man likes “Little Britain.” He can’t be homophobic! His backhanded apology betrays a nasty bigotry at worst or, as I truly suspect, an unabashed ignorance at best:

What the hell? There’s no “mistaking” the homophobia here. We’re not misconstruing anything. Does he really think that because he called a (presumably) straight rapper a queer that it’s not homophobic? Apparently so:

 

In fairness to James Arthur, it’s an easy mistake to make. “Faggot” and “queer” are dropped in rap battles like IEDs in real battles. Eminem made headlines earlier this month for the homophobic lyrics on his latest LP, taking me back to the my own high school hell by both using homophobic slurs and releasing new material. He was quoted in his recent Rolling Stone interview as saying “it’s more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or an asshole.” Similarly, South Park made a similar argument several years ago, saying that “faggot” isn’t a homophobic word anymore because the definition has changed.

For fuck’s sake. Let me break this down for you. Where do you think these words get their power? Why are they so insulting? If, in the context these men are using them, “fag” is used to question someone’s masculinity or humanity, it’s because the word is rooted in homophobia. To call someone a fag or a queer is to say they are less than a man, the subtext of which is “gay.” These words are so popular in disses because they cut to the bone, and that blade drips with the blood of martyred gay men.

Likewise, let’s entertain that “faggot” has evolved to mean “bitch,” as Eminem and the South Park pricks have both argued. Terrific. You’ve stripped it of its homophobia and instead varnished it with sexism. Suddenly “faggot” means “woman” and not “gay man?” You’re still using the word to emasculate your opponent, and because sexism and homophobia are so intricately connected, you’re essentially saying the same damn thing.

But beyond this, the fact remains that these words are still used to intimidate, bully, and harass gay folks. It happened in Chichester this month , in South Yorkshire just last month, and in the armed forces, too. It’s not just in the villages and towns, though; it’s happening in the cities too, like this case in Edinburgh and even right in the middle of Trafalgar Square. In so many of these attacks, homophobic slurs (like “fag” and “queer”) were used as the victims were ruthlessly and brutally attacked. And it doesn’t seem the were attacked for being “punks” or “assholes.”

Or, to put it blatantly enough for James Arthur and Eminem, they were called faggots and then physically assaulted for being gay.

So don’t tell me that word doesn’t mean what I know it means. Don’t tell me that the guys in high school were threatening my life because I was a dickhead. Don’t tell me that these words mean something they don’t. The meaning is obvious.

And, because I’m nice like this, I’ll make a deal with y’all. As soon as “fag” and “queer” are no longer used to harass and terrorise LGBT people, we’ll be sure to let you know. Until then, kindly shut the fuck up.

EDIT 18 November 2013 at 12:49 GMT: I just read this on the use of LGBT slurs in schools , and it’s relevant and worth a share.

Gareth Williams, GCHQ, and the crisis of confidence

So Gareth Williams killed himself in some unexplainable sex game gone wrong. He slipped into a bag, padlocked himself inside from the outside (huh?), and within three minutes suffocated. There was no DNA left on the locks, or in the bath in which he was found. In a Security Services safe house.

Well that’s that. Clearly the man thought he was Lady Gaga or Houdini or something, and it was all a tragic mistake. Poor bloke. Whose for a cuppa? That was the message from the Met office, who ruled his death an accidental suicide, despite the coroner saying Mr Williams was likely the victim of foul play. But who needs medical expertise when you’ve already got this one in the bag?

We’re meant to believe that Gareth Williams visited a number of bondage sites and was simply sexually experimenting. I don’t doubt the former; the latter is plausible. Let’s assume this is actually how it happened. How did Mr Williams reasonably garethwilliamsexpect to escape from this bag? Was someone meant to let him out?

Part of the thrill of bondage, from what I understand, is that you’re bound by another. Mr. Williams was a good looking man, and it wouldn’t have taken much to find a partner on one of those message boards. A simple look at a CraigsList personal tells you that not only does it take all sorts, but that they’re brazen and aplenty.

But Williams died alone, at his own hand, we’re told. The how and why remain a mystery, but we shouldn’t be concerned with such trivial issues as means and motive. Come now.

The immediate problem here is that none of this adds up. It didn’t when the coroner’s inquest was conducted in 2012, and it doesn’t now. The Twittersphere is skeptical, and the Williams family doesn’t buy it. But for GCHQ and the Security Services, that’s not the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that I-and people like me-don’t buy it. For years I refused to believe the CIA killed Kennedy, that MI6 killed Diana, or that any of myriad of cockamamie conspiracy theories found in the deepest recesses of reddit. But then came Edward Snowden. Leaving aside any talk of his reasons or merits, Snowden’s revelations succeeded in giving pause to those of us who had previously given credence. And it makes us wonder. If you’re capable of this, are you capable of that?

Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but the mind wanders. As I mused on Twitter, I can’t help but ruminate over the possibility Gareth Williams was poised to become the British Edward Snowden before his death. Or that perhaps we should be more concerned that Edward Snowden is poised to become the American Gareth Williams.

This is, of course, baseless speculation-stray thoughts running through my mind. I’m not suggesting there is any evidence that GCHQ or any other intelligence agency had anything to do with Williams’ death. But for me, someone who until this summer refused to entertain conspiracy theories as anything more than the ramblings of hapless loonies who watched one too many X Files episodes, to now be thinking “Well, what if…” shows just how far these agencies have fallen in the popular estimation.

We don’t trust them anymore. We don’t trust the Met not to try to brush this under the rug, perhaps strong-armed by some covert group of which we’ve yet heard We don’t trust it because the facts don’t add up. We don’t trust it because we know what they’re capable of. We don’t trust it because Toto pulled back the curtain to reveal not the wizard, but the witch.

Don’t get me wrong-the real tragedy here is that a young man is dead and we’ll likely never know why. The real tragedy is that his family will never feel vindicated. But if there’s a secondary tragedy, a social tragedy, it’s that those of us who used to be too reasonable to entertain the drivel about conspiracy theories are now too reasonable to not.

Has America forgotten to remember Remembrance Day?

Saturday night I had my friend Melinda over, along with her friend Jenny, in town from Sydney. Jenny noticed the portrait of Her Majesty, a commemorative token of the Diamond Jubilee, hanging in my apartment, complete with the flags of the Commonwealth countries. We got to talking about the ties that bind not just the Commonwealth, but the Anglosphere-our common language, common law, and common struggle against fascism in the 20th century. At one point, talking about Remembrance Sunday, Jenny asked that she be reminded to set an alarm so that she could observe a minute of silence for the ANZAC forces. It passed without a beat, but it left me something to mull, and raised Jenny very highly in my own estimation.

11 November is commemorated around the globe as a day of remembrance and reflection, of honoring the sacrifices of those who fought and fight for the freedom of humanity. It’s the official end of the First World War, which was thought and hoped to be “the war to end all wars.” History tells us it was, sadly, but the precursor to Europe’s darkest days and Britain’s finest hour. I’m always touched by the sombre, dignified memorials throughout the UK and Commonwealth, the tens of thousands of people who turn out at war memorials around Britain, regular folks who every year remind the world of the struggles for freedom, lest we forget.

I won’t say that we Americans forget, but the horrors of the World Wars are certainly not as vivid in our national memory. Not to reduce this to cultural tropes, but it’s always struck me that the normally reserved Brits offer more public displays of mourning than my compatriots. After all, we routinely wear our hearts on our sleeves and our flag on our lapels. Its not uncommon to walk up to a stranger in

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

uniform and thank her for her service or to buy a drink for the soldier at the bar. We sing the national anthem before every sporting event, pledge allegiance to the flag before the start of every school day, and unlike when the typical Brit sings “God Save the Queen,” when an American says “God bless America,” we mean it quite literally. So you’d think we’d have a more collective tradition of honouring our veterans.

Sure, the President routinely lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. But if you Google “Veterans’ Day Commemorations in Chicago,” you don’t turn up much of anything. Some museum exhibitions, a brunch at a zoo, but nothing on par with the solemn pomp in Britain. You’ll see no crowds at war memorials, you’ll hear few bells tolling at the 11th hour, and for the most part, people go on about their lives with little to no regard for what happened 95 years ago today.

That we don’t really remember may explain why a nation so willingly swaddled in its own flag doesn’t make more of an effort. It could be that America didn’t experience the horrors of having its own cities obliterated. Maybe it’s not the physical scars at all, but the psychological scars of a nation that was quite literally fighting for its very survival that keeps the horrors fresh in the British consciousness. Or perhaps it’s simply that the scars of the World Wars have healed over, but that the memories of Vietnam and Iraq are still open wounds.

It’s likely all of the above, but I think it’s something more visceral, too, something intrinsic to the American character. If you take a look at Facebook, you’ll see thousands of status’ honouring American service personnel, often tagging the soldiers in our own lives, thanking them for their service. And that’s not all so surprising. Americans are famed for that stubbornly individualistic streak, and

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

perhaps that manifests itself most poignantly on this day. In so many ways, this is more fitting for the US. The poignancy of the British commemorations is that a nation so often shy of indulging in its own nationalism, for one day of the year, recognizes the valor of its soldiers and the sacrifices they made. As America shamelessly exploits its military to stoke patriotic fervor, what makes the British commemorations so powerful would make American commemorations feel trite, redundant, or disingenuous.

Besides, it’s not Remembrance Day here. It’s Veterans Day. The name itself invokes a sense of the soldier in the singular as opposed to a collective struggle. America, though fond of jingoistic displays, on this day takes a more reserved approach. We don’t remember as a group, but as individuals, paying modest tribute to our own loved ones. We don’t thank them all. But all of us thank them.

What if Britain had a First Amendment?

There’s been so much talk about the importance of a free press and free speech lately that I feel as though I’m at a salon with Milton and Locke. In light of the Royal Charter regulating the press and furor around the Guardian’s reporting on and release of classified GCHQ intelligence documents , there’s been a lot of talk, including from former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, about the UK’s need for an American-style First Amendment. Indeed, I’ve spoken at length about my passion for the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees, and I realise that I can’t approach British politics through a British lens because my own perceptions are intrinsically coloured by these deeply ingrained principles.

You see, if in the canon of American civil religion the Constitution is our Bible, the First Amendment is most certainly our gospel. In one run-on sentence, the framers articulated the essence of the new nation, the core principles for which so much Yankee blood was shed and which would transform the world:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of greivances.

Now, I refuse to play the part of the arrogant American who feels Britain ought to adopt the First Amendment verbatim. Though our legal system stems from your common law, the two have understandably evolved differently since separation. I’m not even suggesting that our way is the best way. But I think it’s important to understand what the First Amendment means to Americans before discussing whether Britain ought to adopt it as its own.

The problem is, articulating the first amendment in tangible terms is a challenge. Like our taste for cold and flavourless beer and our belief that every household should be armed like South American guerillas, the First Amendment runs in our blood. We don’t really notice it on a daily basis, because it’s not something we often think about. It just is. The First Amendment is like the air around us-it isn’t really palpable; you can’t really feel it until a storm rolls in.

For that reason, it’s easier to explain what the First Amendment isn’t. It isn’t government intelligence agents ransacking a newspaper office and destroying intellectual property in an attempt to curtail publication. It isn’t sending the police to grandma’s house because she doesn’t like gay people. And it isn’t breaking up a peaceful protest and arresting a lawmaker. I’m not saying America always gets it right either. (See: my alma mater’s horrible policy on freedom of speech in e-mail ; the case of the Legal Schnauzer out of Alabama ; or all of the 1960s.) But by and large, it gets the job of protecting our liberties done.

The First Amendment doesn’t grant permission to be like Jeremy Clarkson on steroids, spouting off every inane thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean that you can threaten bodily harm to someone, or falsely report a crime, or the favourite example on this side of the pond, shout fire in a crowded theatre. With great freedom comes great responsibility. I think Spiderman said that, or something close to it.

So what does it all mean? I don’t bloody well know. Asking an American what the first amendment means is like asking a Canadian to define maple syrup. We know it tastes sweet, we know that we love it, and we know that it’s intrinsic to our national identity, but we can’t really tell you why. I suppose it means being able to crassly and tastelessly joke that Prince Harry got a handjob from an Abercrombie manager without fear of the guillotine. It means questioning whether your leaders are who they say they are without penalty or sanity, and it means being able to say the the most vile, repulsive things about me and yet have me defend your right to say it (while laying a verbal smackdown on you, of course).

That’s one of my biggest concerns with the British approach to hate speech. I’m choking on my words right now, but David Starkey articulated it quite well . Britain’s laws against hate speech would never survive under the First Amendment, and thank God for that. As Jonathan Rauch recently wrote in The Atlantic, the freedom to offend minorities is imperative, not only to the cause of liberty, but for the social advancement and acceptance of the minority itself-a similar, if not an exact, argument to that of Starkey. “The best society for minorities,” Rauch writes, “is not

Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

 

the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities.” Indeed, its only by exposing bigotry and ignorance in the public sphere that we can attack it head on and continue to win not only legal but social equality. This applies to gay, Muslim and black Britons today as much as it applied to open disdain for the working class, suffragettes and papists in days gone by. It’s hard to attack an enemy in the shadows, and laws restricting speech push bigots into the night, where they silently seethe with contempt, stifling not only their own hatred but any chance for social growth. Or, to put it another way, you have to counter speech with more speech, not less speech.

Of course, the primary medium for speech has historically been the press. On last week’s Question Time, Paris Lees asked what made newspapers so special that they needn’t be regulated by Parliament. Well, it’s quite simple: for 300 years the British broadsheets have been the conduits of liberty and democracy, as outlined by more than 70 human rights organisations in an open letter to David Cameron. Similarly, Louise Mensch brilliantly makes the point while simultaneously taking the press to task for its own meandering failures. Laws regulate what is or isn’t shown on television, as they also do in the United States, because the First Amendment provides leeway for some censorship of material deemed contrary to public taste and decency, but it’s a fine line and one which is frequently challenged.

But saying that you can’t show nekkid people before the threshold isn’t the same as restricting what can be reported on; nobody dare argues that the journalistic integrity and independence of the BBC ought to be regulated. Likewise, as an American, the thought of a government agency-even one as loosely affiliated with Westminster as that established by the royal charter-sits very uneasy. As schoolchildren, Americans learn of John Peter Zenger, a German-American writer johnpeterzengerwho successfully defended himself against charges of libel and is widely regarded as the Ron Burgundy of the eighteenth century. The Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of the press to print the Pentagon Papers, and set the bar very high for plaintiffs to claim libel in New York Times vs Sullivan, birthing the so-called “Sullivan defence” mandating that the plaintiff prove “actual malice” was involved and intentioned, citing and strengthening press freedoms. The UK, on the other hand, has no Sullivan Defence, and it is much easier to prove libel in Britain than America. A First Amendment, though, could feasibly alter British libel law, and in the United States has continually prevented government (and any public figure) from meddling in what our newspapers report. Still, we’re by no means perfect, as evidenced by the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy movement and the treatment of Michael Hastings prior to his fiery and mysterious death led to an outpouring of shock and grief from journalists around the world, even though his family continues to insist he wasn’t murdered.

It’s for this reason that Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States three spots behind the United Kingdom in this year’s Press Freedom Index, though the US rose fifteen spots from 2012 in large part because of public outrage about the detention of the Occupy journalists. The United Kingdom, is it reasonable to say, should expect its ranking to plummet in light of the current fires of regulation and oversight the Government and Hugh Grant have stoked. David Cameron’s warnings of consequences to publications disclosing the Snowden leaks , as well comments by Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps’ on reforming the license fee, widely interpreted as a threat to cut the BBC funding unless it produced more favourable reporting on the government, are about as helpful as sending Pétroleuses or Mrs. O’Leary to put that fire out.

The debate about a free press and free speech isn’t contained to the broadsheets, though. As important as it is to protect the rights of the good and noble, it’s just as important to protect the rights of the tasteless and crude (here’s looking at you, Jack Whitehall.) In the United States, that means protecting the smut published by Larry Flynt, who recently gave an interview touching on free speech to the BBC’s Newsnight. In the United Kingdom, it’s Page 3. Despite an online petition to ban Page 3 (which, in case you’re gay or American or both, is a page in The Sun with scantily clad women), David Cameron has said he doesn’t support it, despite his admittedly noble but ultimately flawed plan to filter internet porn. That’s a good Tory, because curtailing the freedom of a paper to publish what it will and of consumers to vote with their pocketbooks is decidedly antithetical to small-c conservative principles. Oh yeah, and democracy.

A similar First Amendment argument can be made against the oft-debated banning of the burqa or niqab. This has come up a lot in the last few years, especially following France’s outright ban on full face coverings, and most recently in September, when a judge ruled that a woman could not give evidence in her own trial whilst wearing the veil. Ken Clarke seems to support it, but Baroness Warsi summed it up as un-British. “I think people should have the right to wear what they want in this country,” she said. “Women won the right on what to wear many, many decades ago.” Well, yeah. Baroness Warsi speaks pointedly of the feminist arguments, echoed earlier this fall by Laurie Penny, who drew the conclusion that this isn’t just an issue of sexism, but also of Islamophobia. But if Britain had a First Amendment, would this even be a topic of debate?

Probably not. Take, for example, the case of two Christian women who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to wear crosses on the job. This case would be easily decided in favor of the plaintiffs on this side of the Atlantic, as is evidenced by the prolific case law on religious freedom. Similar is the case of Celestina Mba, a Christian who was sacked for refusing to work on Sundays. She lost her appeal. Accross the pond, though, the Civil Rights Act 1964 requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people of faith, as a nod to freedom of worship and the First Amendment.

Now, this isn’t to say Americans aren’t bigots. Duh. We’re the nation that produced Michael Savage and Mel Gibson. Look at the ongoing struggle of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to simply have a mosque, which while being challenged on planning and zoning laws, is rife with religious subtext-and, also, less-subtle nods to Islamophobia, including the plaintiffs citing fears about “sharia law” and “terrorists.” The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to take the case, allowing for an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Then there was the furor of the pastor burning the Koran in Florida and the New York mosque built close to Ground Zero, which had striking parallels to the case of mosque being built on the eastend of London several years back.

Despite the wishes of the good denizens of Murfreesboro, the First Amendment doesn’t give way to a right to discriminate in the public sphere, though-at least not really. Your rights end where mine begin, and in 2009 I made the argument that it was right to sack a Christian registrar who refused to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The same goes for the Christian couple that wanted to ban gay people from their bed and breakfast. If you’re offering a public service or operating in the free market, you must abide by certain rules, and one of those rules is that you gotta play fair. It’s oft said that freedom of religion is freedom from religion, which is why the Supreme Court banned school-led prayer but not prayer in schools. The distinction is fine yet clear-free exercise of religion in a public sphere is acceptable, but the public sphere exercising religion is not. Frankly, it’s always baffled me why the United Kingdom-with an established church-is so antsy about the former. (If I ever meet Owen Jones, I’ll ask him.)

Less convoluted than the muddy waters of religion, though, is the the freedom of assembly. Two years ago I was living with a rather senior member of the Occupy Chicago movement-well, as senior as a horizontal leadership structure can allow-who was arrested for refusing to leave Grant Park after hours. The Occupy folks didn’t have a permit, which led to quite a few of them spending the night in jail. Still, the right to freely assemble is often cited by those staging protests, such as the storied

Caroline Lucas, the Green party's only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

March on Washington. From what I can tell, Britain’s pretty good on this one too, and the aforementioned fracking protest with Caroline Lucas was busted for reasons similar to the Chicago Police breaking up and arresting the Grant Park occupiers. The difference seems to be that the Balcombe protesters believe the police were ‘heavy handed’, while shockingly, the folks in Grant Park thought CPD did a fair job of things. This isn’t always the case. Birmingham police turned hoses and attack dogs on children in the Civil Rights Movement, and Chicago Police notoriously brutalised protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. And none of this has to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with alleged police brutality, though the First Amendment could feasibly be construed to ensure the people have a right to assemble in a public space. In fact, this was pretty much the mantra of the Occupy Chicago protestors, and regardless of what you think of them, the First Amendment allows a compelling argument to be made.

What’s also compelling, if only for both its blatancy and banality, is the right to petition. It’s oft overlooked in American discourse, because really, writing a Congressman isn’t nearly as flashy as giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly less scandalous than posing on Page 3, unless of course you were writing to former Congressman Anthony Weiner. But it’s important to note that the right to petition grievances was one of the primary factors propelling the thirteen colonies to separate from the motherland. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that “…in every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury,” and provided just cause for insurrection and independence. That King-in-Parliament wouldn’t hear-or rather, validate-the concerns of the colonists was the driving force behind its inclusion in the US Bill of Rights.

What most Americans don’t realise-and would be loathed to admit-is that this right already existed under the British constitution. It’s included in the Bill of Rights 1689 (called the “English Bill of Rights” over this way). So that’s not exactly a novel American concept.

Really none of it is, as pretty much all of this has its roots in Magna Carta or subsequent acts of Parliament. But don’t tell my compatriots that, because it’ll just hurt their feelings. America likes to think it invented liberty. Of course, it didn’t. But it did codify it in a succinct and explicit way, providing the framework for American case law, in turn allowing for the growth of those freedoms, which developed in a way distinct of their British antecedents.

It’s for this reason that looking at what a First Amendment would really mean for contemporary Britain is so interesting, and frankly, needed. The roots are the same, but the blossoms quite different, and in the more than two centuries since our two countries parted ways, my side of the Atlantic has taken things on a slightly different trajectory, ensuring personal liberties over collective cohesion. This is purely anecdotal, but it seems to me the British public prefers it this way. From Question Time/Big Question audience reactions to debates about multiculturalism and secularism to broad support for the HackedOff charter (because really, that’s what it is), and even in conversations with British friends who just don’t understand why we allow the Westboro Baptist Church to picket everything from funerals to fun parks, the Brits seem to like things the way they are. And that’s fine. While I personally feel very concerned about press freedom in the UK, overall, it’s still a functioning democracy. Still, it’s an interesting notion, and as the debate over religious freedom, hate speech, and press regulation continues, I imagine one that will resurface from time to time. Best be prepared.

For an interesting, more learned, and British(!) perspective on this issue, see Jonathan Peters’ July 2012 interview with Lord Lester in The Atlantic.