Tag Archives: guardian

’tis better to give than recieve. That’s crap. But here’s a present anyway.

coalforchristmas

 

Last week, I published my Christmas wish list, and kindly expected y’all to deliver. What can I say? Greed is good. Boris says so.

Still, they say the greatest gift is giving. This is, of course, rubbish, as the greatest gift is cash so I can avoid returning whatever hideous or useless gift you thoughtlessly picked up on your way to the Poundsaver till. But still, in the spirit of the season, here’s my gift to Britain this Christmas:

  • I give the gift of vibration to Lord Heseltine. Get your head of the gutters, you lot. Not that sort of vibration (though maybe 50 years ago…). Phone vibration. This way, the next time his wife rings him as he films Question Time, Dimbleby needn’t be bothered.
  • Guido Fawkes brought to our attention that Boris’ hair is receding along with his credibility. I can’t do much about the latter, but as to the former, I gladly give Boris a box of Regaine.
  • To the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, I give the gift of babysitting. Prince George is adorbs, and I have five nieces and nephews so I can totes handle this, babes. You deserve a bit of a date night, don’t you?
  • I give Lynton Crosby to the University of London Union. He’s great at turning out he votes, and you not so much. I also give solidarity.
  • David Cameron gets a selfie with me, since he’s so keen on being seen with Americans. And since he’s got the Regaine now, Boris can be the flirty blond.
  • Angela Merkel gets a telegraph, since that seems to be the only way she can safely communicate electronically.
  • Putin gets donkeypunched by Uncle Sam. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. Warning: NSFW.
  • I’d like to buy Anjem Choudary a pint. Seriously mate, you need it.
  • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gets this children’s book. Remember what happened the last time Spain messed with a Queen Elizabeth.
  • I give British Gas customers Jack Wills jumpers. You might not be able to afford you energy bills, but you shiver in style with these fashionable fleeces!
  • Katie Hopkins gets a map of Asia. See that big country down to the south? That’s India. It’s a place, you see. And if you look to the northeast, you may be able to locate a lovely Japanese town I think you ought to visit. It’s called Fukue.
  • Alan Rusbridger gets a class on journalistic ethics taught by Louise Mensch. I’ll even throw in a freebie on investigative reporting, since she seems to be the only one uncovering just how badly you’ve British national security.
  • That being said, Edward Snowden gets amnesty here in America, but only if he brings home the documents. And marries my best friend, cos she’s kinda keen.
  • Russell Brand gets a haircut and perhaps a bit of substance, provided he doesn’t abuse it.
  • Laurie Penny gets a mini American flag to waive, as she seems to be here more than I am. You’re not a proper American until you waive the stars and stripes at a street parade. And also eaten a deep fried Twinkie.
  • Rand Paul and Shia LaBeouf both get an English 101 course, which should teach you how to properly cite your sources. And perhaps form coherent sentences. But baby steps.
  • Greg Rutherford gets all the television appearances he wants, and perhaps a new kit deal. Seriously. A boy’s gotta eat.
  • Alex Ferguson gets a villa in Spain or Cornwall or wherever pensioners go to sun themselves. Just steer clear of Florida. It’s like Duck Dynasty down there.
  • Gay and lesbian Londoners and Chicagoans get marriage counselling. We now get to be as miserable as straight people. Ah, equality.
  • Single gay and lesbian Londoners and Chicagoans get tequila. It’ll help numb the nagging this Christmas. Suddenly we have no excuse when grandma asks why we haven’t settled down. Damn.
  • Justin Bieber gets a copy of a biography, any biography, of Michael Jackson. I cannot stand aside and watch history repeat itself. He even had a monkey, for Christ’s sake! No. I won’t be party to this. Justin, we’re here to help, buddy.
  • Chris Ramsey gets my apologies for gratuitously lusting after him, and also an American tour so I can do it in person.

Finally, to all my friends, family, readers, followers, and everyone who has helped make my return to writing this year an enjoyable if tumultuous ride, a massive thank you. I’m still finding my voice, but it’s great to be back. 2014 is going to be tremendous. I can’t wait.

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Tom Daley didn’t come out as gay. Stop lying. (Or, On Biphobia)

tom daley medal

Good on Tom Daley. In coming out, he’s shown more courage than some men twice his age. It’s a monumental announcement, with Owen Jones marking how far we’ve come in such a short time, while elsewhere at the Independent, they celebrate the number of professional athletes coming out of the closet. Yes, it’s a very important day for LGBT people in sport in particular, and in society in general.

But let’s make sure we get the facts sorted.

Tom Daley didn’t come out as gay. In fact, no where in his emotionally raw video does he even mention the word “gay.” He says he’s in a relationship with a guy. He says he still fancies women. He says he’s quite happy, that his father would have been supportive but his family has had mixed reactions, and he says he’s tired of the speculation. He wanted to release an unmitigated message in his own words and on his own terms.

So much for that. The vast majority of the news stories I’ve seen have read somewhere between “Tom Daley Comes Out,” which is a misleading truism, or “Tom Daley reveals gay relationship,” which, of course, implies Tom Daley is gay. In fact, it seems aside from Nichi Hodgson, who beat me to the punch by publishing this succinct piece at the Guardian,, the only person not rushing to label Tom as gay is, well, Tom.

For the gay community, at least, it appears we’ll have all or nothing. Tom’s either gay or he isn’t, and since he likes men, he’s clearly on Team GB – Team Gay Blokes, that is. One internet acquaintance of mine posted a Facebook status defending Tom against those who felt his coming out was nothing more than stating the obvious, encouraging everyone to remember how difficult our own comings out as gay men had been. When I pointed out that Tom hasn’t come out as gay, but as being in a same-sex relationship, I was told to sod off with my “lefty no-labels” nonsense. After all, my acquaintance responded, every gay man pretended to be bisexual in his teens.

A gross generalisation, but a relevant point. Even I was on the “bi now, gay later” plan when I first came out. Telling the world you’re bisexual, to many gay teens, is easier than saying you’re gay because it, at least in my 15 year old mind, creates the illusion you could still have a “normal” life-whatever that means.

But Tom’s not a 15 year old boy. He’s a 19 year old man who has spent much of his life in the spotlight, and has in many ways been forced to mature much faster than myself and many others. His voice may have been hesitant, but it was also confident. He knows his own truth, and we shouldn’t be so quick to assign ours to him out of some misplaced desire for a relevant and relatable cultural touchstone.

To be fair, Tom didn’t say he isn’t gay, nor did he say he is bisexual. As Nichi Hodgson points out, we can only infer his sexuality, as he never clearly defined it. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t know it himself yet. Perhaps that’s because he thinks it’s none of our bloody business. Perhaps he didn’t think he had to.

But let’s play on the assumption that Tom is bisexual (or possibly even pansexual). He was pretty clear that he’s attracted to men and to women. And, like many young LGBT folks, and many in the wider society, he probably wasn’t aware of the nasty strain of biphobia that courses through the veins of our community.

Yet here it is, as usual.

I suppose for many of us attracted only to one sex, we can’t comprehend how someone could be attracted to both. As Owen Jones points out, though, it wasn’t so long ago straight people couldn’t understand how I could be attracted to other men. Some still don’t. Then there’s the aforementioned notion that bisexuality is nothing more than a gay bicycle with training wheels, that it’s just a stepping stone to full acceptance of one’s homosexuality. That it isn’t real. That it doesn’t exist. Couple that with the assumption that bisexuals are “greedy,” “promiscuous,” and/or “indecisive,” and suddenly an entire sexual orientation is invalidated.

You needn’t look further than representations of bisexuality in mass media. On the current series of Glee, Santana’s new girlfriend, played by Demi Lovato, tells Santana it’s time she should be with a “real lesbian,” dismissing if not discrediting the bisexuality of her previous girlfriend, Brittany. Lady Gaga, whom I don’t defend very often, has been singled out for using her bisexuality as a marketing gimmick, even being accused of making the whole thing up. And when Duncan James came out a few years ago, he was greeted with an onslaught of biphobic abuse.

Bisexual people are either confused, indecisive, not fully developed sexual beings, not part of the gay and lesbian community, or liars. They’re not real people with real lives and real truths. They’re deceiving both themselves and us. In doing so, the fear I suspect many gay and lesbian people have is that they somehow invalidate our own struggle. It’s as if finally coming out as gay is completing a gruelling marathon, and coming out as bi is stopping ahead of the finish line.

This is all hogwash. While I understand the gay community’s desire to have more, not to mention younger, visible role models our youth can look up to, I don’t think it should come at the expense of whitewashing an entire sexual orientation from the public discourse. I don’t think dismissing bisexuality as a phase or a fib does us, as gay men and women, any good. It does, however, do bisexual people a whole lot of bad.

Besides, why can’t Tom Daley be a gay role model while still being bisexual, pansexual, or whatever he eventually identifies as? His coming out is still brave. Given the biphobia that is often tolerated in all segments of society, it is perhaps braver if he has indeed come out as bisexual. It took a lot of courage and a lot of self-awareness for Tom to speak so candidly and assuredly about something so personal at such a young age. He knows his truth. He wants us to know it, too.

I only hope we can accept it.

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.