Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Glorifying Terrorism

This was what I thought in 2006: Introduction Andrew McKie The purpose of the stories and the poems in this book is to glorify ter- rorism. More specifically, they attempt to break the law proposed by the British Government designed to outlaw anything which might be read or interpreted as that. Of course, this current Government knows you could ride a coach and horses through this legislation, and that it isn’t supposed to apply to the contents of this book, not really. But that’s what this current Government says, now. My purpose is not to introduce or analyse the work which follows, except to commend it to the attention of anyone interested in what is per- haps the earliest clear ideological crisis of the 21st Century, and to hope that it will be a spur to debate. It is likely that you, like me, will violently dislike or disagree with the implications of some of the entries in this an- thology; indeed, I will go further; I suspect that I disagree more with the political views of the authors of the majority of these pieces than most of its readers will. But I am happy to stand beside them because of the one thing on which we do agree: freedom of speech. It is as well to be clear at once that, in liberal Western democracies, lib- erty is not licence, and that no freedom is unfettered. Full-blown Libertar- ians may wish it otherwise, yet even their ingenuity may be hard pressed to find an accommodation with Jihadists who advocate as a moral duty the extermination of them and all they stand for. Trotskyites and others on the Left may claim a moral equivalence between the force exerted by the State and its enemies, but it is a notoriously partial ground, and depends on your sympathies – the Israelis or the Palestinians? the Irish Republi- cans or (in the six counties) the democratic majority Unionists? the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon or Hiz’bollah? the Russian Federation or Chechen separatists? A bid for neutrality in these No Man’s Lands does little good. Even on the football terraces of Glasgow or Liverpool there is a race memory of dif- ference which goes back three centuries or more before the founding of the clubs. History, even – perhaps especially – invented history, encompasses all our narratives, as great glorifiers of terrorism such as Sir Walter Scott knew. As Orwell pointed out, even the declaration that art is not political is in itself a political statement. And so, while it is almost laughable to hear the BBC describe the be- heading of a Western captive in Baghdad by some terrorist group as the work of Iraqi “insurgents” or “militants” (the more so since most such out- fits are imported murderers), the fashion in which it is ridiculous depends upon what has fashioned your own political views. 7 8 Andrew McKie History may resolve some of your doubts. What could be wrong with Stirling’s memorial to William Wallace, Scots inventor of guerrilla war- fare, or even Mel Gibson’s wildly inaccurate film about him? Or the plaque unveiled earlier this year to Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel? Or the comments by the British Prime Minister’s wife that we should try to understand what drives young Palestinians to become suicide bombers? Or Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, which doesn’t disguise his connec- tions with an armed resistance to apartheid? Michael Collins or de Valera? Che or Fidel? Leon or Vladimir? The decadent Europhile neo-Papist (but Royal) Stewarts or the voice of non-Conformist, Parliamentarian small- landowner England (but Puritanical and Regicide) Cromwell? Custer or Crazy Horse? The fact is that our views of all those contests are coloured not only by our own political standpoint but by results. Though a horrible thing, I would strongly disagree with the view that the bombing of Dresden was a war crime, but it is routinely regarded as that in Germany, and by people without the slightest sympathy for the Third Reich (I don’t know Gunter Grass’s opinion). Whose governments were Left or Right wing: Pinochet’s; Franco’s; Hitler’s; Stalin’s; Castro’s; Deng Zao-Ping’s? Whose were open and whose restrictive in terms of freedom of speech: Nero’s; the Venetian Doges’; Charlemagne’s; Louis XIV’s; Thatcher’s; Ortega’s; Haughey’s; Gor- bachev’s; Kohl’s; Mitterand’s; Berlusconi’s? Since you are an intelligent reader, I suspect that I disagree with you on at least three of your answers to the questions above. Since you are an intelligent reader, I suspect you disagree with at least three of your own answers, and find at least three more which contradict others. Which brings us at last to the contradictory and thought-provoking work which follows. A literature of the fantastic has, paradoxically, less opportunity to trim, conceal and spin than has everyday journalese (itself a tautological phrase). The success of all science fiction and fantasy is rooted in three things. First: it must make, or build. We demand from it worlds that we have not imagined, but which, when they are constructed, we can imagine visiting. Second: it must remain consistent unto itself; in other words, if it falls apart, it can only do so in its own terms (you can’t have vampires in space opera, or spaceships in Faerie, unless you’ve set it up that way). Third, and hardest to explain, but easiest to spot for anyone who reads any kind of fantastic literature: it must be true in some way. Which is just a way of saying that good sf and fantasy are always talking about how the world is, and how it might be. Sometimes ( John Brunner, John Wyndham, Philip K Dick) as prophecy or awful warning. Sometimes (Ursula K Le Guin, Arthur C Clarke, JRR Tolkein) with an almost optimistic yearning. But whichever it is (and all the writers suggested as examples of one ten- Introduction 9 dency have moments of demonstrating the opposite), it is about elucidat- ing the present, rather than predicting the future. Indeed, it is the freedom of sf and fantasy that makes it the most flexible literary form for this purpose: the excursions into the fantastic by Borges, Marques, Havel, Lem, Bulgakov, Kafka and others in the last century were often born of restrictions on what could plainly be said. British publishers may have refused Animal Farm on the ground that no one wanted to read anthropomorphic fables; in the countries where it mattered, everyone got the point. When The Master and Margerita came out in serial form, the magazines flew off the shelves: no one could quite believe the authorities had not realized what it was about. But of course they hadn’t, as they never do. The most vocal opponents of Tony Blair and his ever-more authoritarian declension of Home Secre- taries (at the last count David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid: though who knows by the time of printing?) do not claim him as a Kruschev. I am sure all of them believe that they are doing their utmost to combat the terrorist threat. Which allows us to return to the restrictions which liberal Western democracy has always placed upon freedom of speech, and against which voices have been raised since before Milton’s Areopagitica. But whether the logic of the arguments advanced (implicitly or explicitly) in the pieces which follow create a case for greater freedom of speech, one thing is evi- dent about the new curtailment of expression. It will achieve nothing, can- not, indeed, achieve anything productive in the “war against terror”. The purpose of terrorism is to make ordinary life unsustainable by creating random assaults on the population. The hope is that resisting the ambitions of the terrorists becomes less important than the horrors which may be consequent upon resistance. The game is not worth the candle, they hope we will say. And the result is that families are displaced from Catholic or Protestant areas of Belfast, from Jewish or Palestinian sections of Jerusalem; Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Hutus and Tutsis, and who knows what group next, shuffle from refugee camp to refugee camp. It is perfectly respectable for legislative bulwarks to be raised against such bullying. And so we have in Britain a law against the incitement to riot; we have numerous public order acts; we have laws against incitement to racial hatred, and laws, or proposed laws, against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, ethnicity or religious conviction. But, as I have said, this collection is not primarily about the logic of that existing legislation, but asks only why, when it is already in place, any new law should be required. If some Imam urges the slaughter of all Jews, he may be prosecuted as the law stands. If some Roman Catholic thinks all Protestants damned, or vice versa, he may say so; but if he does so in a particularly incendiary situation, he may be charged with offences under the Public Order Act. 10 Andrew McKie Some believers in International Socialism (Trots) have been arguing since I was in nappies for violent perpetual revolution; though the adher- ents of that doctrine may feel they have been victimised by the state, the state has in fact provided me with the opportunity to read the maxims of their founding fathers at the taxpayers’ expense at every public library, and paid for their adherents to attend places of further education, where they can try to sell me more copies of their tiresome newspapers. Neo-Nazis, when they can avoid calling for measures which offend against the law against incitement to racial hatred, have no difficulty publishing their ar- guments. I personally have no trouble in ignoring those arguments as both wrong-headed and repugnant. I can, however, see no way in which either group should not be allowed to advance its case which does not at the same time compromise the ability of, say, the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Nationalists to do the same. The question, for liberals, for conservatives (who are, in the British tradition, liberal) for socialists (who are, in the British tradition, liberal) is one of proportionality. Whether or not we want unfettered freedom of speech, there is at least a case for the law prohibiting open calls for the assassination of individuals (this is not theoretical, as the Rushdie case demonstrates) or groups (as both the conflict in the Balkans and Islamist and Nazi assaults on Jews demonstrate). I am writing this in the country from which liberal Western democ- racy, inherited from Greece, spread throughout Europe. It is also the cen- tre of Western Christendom; not, perhaps, a doctrine which many of the writers in this book wish to advance against the threat which proudly op- poses it, but a tradition which allowed the evolution of the civilization we are now engaged in defending. Getting here, thanks to a terrorist scare the day before I left Britain, involved a prohibition on carrying laptops, mobile phones and – most dif- ficult for a family with three children, one of them an infant – a ban on liquids, including close examination of baby milk, on planes. I don’t like those curtailments on my freedom of movement, but I un- derstand them as a reaction (even if over-zealous) to a perceived threat. I have myself been fairly close to terrorist bombs several times – South Quay (one failed bomb, one successful); and in Soho and Covent Garden (the Admiral Duncan, the White Swan, the bomb near Centre Point). I was on a train stopped on its way to King’s Cross on 7/7. So I don’t mind these tiresome, temporary, impediments to liberty, be- cause they are temporary and proportionate. Having everything X-rayed and taking off your shoes at an airport may do some good; so may making it illegal to call for the extermination of an entire people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity by birth. What is absurd is to call for a law which prohibits anything which might be characterised or interpreted as “glorifying terrorism”. And, in the Introduction 11 peculiarly post-modernist interpretation in statute, by anyone. You, like me, may not think it enough for Tony Blair to assure you that he’s “a pretty straight kind of guy”. You may start thinking quis custodiet ipsos custodes or, if you’re of a slightly different political cast, who, whom? You’d be right. There’s an important battle going on here, and one which probably only became clear to the West after September 2001. It’s a battle for what we believe in, but whether we’re reactionary Presbyterians or Catholics, liberal middle-of the-roaders, radical Trotsykists or Libera- tiarians or, probably most acutely, devout Muslims who want to hold to traditionalism without being labelled wicked, when it comes to legislation we would do well to ask what we were taught to ask of any remark: Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? The trouble is that it’s a maxim which relies on the good faith of our masters. I have, as you would expect from someone who has made a living writing editorials for The Daily Telegraph, a certain scepticism about this Labour Government. But I have also understood, and indeed supported, certain aspects of its stance on the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, its support for America, its anxiety to tackle what I think is a genuine assault on the values of Western society. That, I’d guess, won’t be shared by many of the writers who follow. What we do share is a demand that we inhabit any area of thought we choose; an assumption that the imagination not only should not but can- not be policed, and a refusal to take the word of “moderate” governments that their illiberal, shoddy and badly-drafted legislation does not intend us to be its target. Under this legislation I can think of plenty illegal sf classics, from Dune’s suicide commandos to short stories by Bob Shaw, John Varley and Bruce Sterling. So can you. All we are asking is that we continue to be allowed to think of them; that the people writing for you in this book con- tinue to be allowed to think of them, and others. If we are not going to be allowed to think as we choose, we choose to be targets – not for terrorists, but for our own legislators. Andrew McKie Montepulciano, August 2006 The book in question was published by Rackstraw Press and was full of excellent sf stories by clever people who often disagreed with my view (as predicted), but were never anything other than wonderful. The book was devised, edited and made by the very brilliant Prof Farah Mendlesohn. Goodness knows where you could get a copy now.