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Liberal Hero of the Week #90: Boris Nemtsov

February 28, 2015

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Boris Nemtsov

Russian statesman and liberal politician
Reason: for standing up for the rule of law and against Putin’s regime.

“I’m afraid Putin will kill me.” That’s what Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov worried aloud a fortnight ago would happen.

Last night, he was shot four times in the back and killed by an anonymous attacker. On Sunday, he was due to help lead a march in Moscow against the war in Ukraine. The man he was afraid of has assumed “personal control” of the investigation into his murder, which must be of great comfort to his widow and four children.

I’ve visited Moscow only once, three years ago. What struck me was the quiet despair of the Russians I met — those working in its universities and civic society — at the state of their nation. When showing me the sights, they explained to me matter-of-factly they would need to bribe the police to ensure their car could be safely parked.

Boris Nemtsov stood out against the endemic corruption and brutality of Putin’s Russia. As James Oates writes of him:

Nemtsov spoke for the Western Russia, as opposed to the Scythian one of Stalin and Putin. He believed in rule of law and rule of the people and he held in contempt those who have subverted and stolen Russia for their own personal greed. Nemtsov was not merely a political critic of Vladmir Putin’s regime, he was a moral rebuke to it. His murder today is a tragedy for Russia. …

Shooting the only major Russian opposition leader still at liberty in the back is clearly intended to underline the danger that liberal, western minded people now face in the dark and paranoid political ghost train of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Those of us cosseted in Western Europe — grown complacent in our democracy — often describe as brave those who speak up for minority views against the consensus. Few if any of us, though, ever have to put our lives on the line. That’s true heroism.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #89: Frankie Boyle

February 21, 2015

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Frankie Boyle

Scottish comedian and writer
Reason: for standing up for free speech.

Three weeks ago, this series celebrated Benedict Cumberbatch. The reason? For challenging race discrimination in the film and entertainment industry. But, in doing so, he used a word, ‘coloured’, regarded as offensive and as a result was subject to a torrent of deeply unfair criticism.

Benedict apologised, profusely. One man who wouldn’t, I suspect, is Frankie Boyle. His comedy walks a tightrope between hilarious and tasteless, deliberately so: he wants his comedy to provoke, to stimulate, to challenge. Too often for my liking, he chooses easy targets — especially people’s physical characteristics — to get laughs. It’s a criticism he accepts. As he wrote this week:

Anyone offended … should note that even on a good day I only really half agree with myself. So why did I write it, if it might offend you? Because it’s worth saying, even though it’s not entirely correct, and I don’t really give a fuck about you, someone who might find a group of words in the wrong order too much to bear.

He continued:

The sheer range of opinion on this planet means you can’t be inoffensive. It’s something that can only really be aspired to within homogeneous groups or authoritarian societies. What would a completely inoffensive cartoon look like? Those little cartoons you used to see in Punch or Private Eye in a doctor’s waiting room maybe? …

I’m actually all for political correctness. If you want to work to change the usage of a word that’s discriminatory then fine, I’m behind you. But that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the culture. You can’t just decide that commonly used parts of a language are evil and that the people who didn’t get the memo must be bad people. …

If you’re any kind of writer these days the culture seems to be saying “Please challenge and provoke me, redefine how I see the world, while I scream my head off every time I hear something I don’t like.”

So now a lot of challenging stuff just doesn’t get made. Good stuff that does get made is weaker because it has to contain the seeds of its own defence. Because when the baleful burning eye of journalism turns upon you, you want to be able to say that it was all completely defensible.

Free speech is exactly that: the fundamental right to express views, no matter how at odds they are with convention or taste or personal preference.

The comedian Chris Rock made a similar point to Frankie Boyle’s a couple of months ago — that culture is turning conservative because of the fear of offending:

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull,4 you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

“You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.” That has always been the liberal critique of the surveillance state, and we now have a surveillance culture. Kudos to people like Frankie Boyle for being willing to make the unpopular point that free speech applies to things you don’t like, not just things you approve of.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #88: The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart

February 13, 2015

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Jon Stewart

Presenter of US Comedy Central’s satirical The Daily Show
Reason: for promoting sane political discourse.

Jon Stewart, presenter of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (he really was born to present it), this week announced his retirement after 16 years at the helm. To US liberals, he’s something of a hero; to conservatives he’d be a bête noire if they could stomach the use of the foreign label.

A Democrat sympathiser, he rose to fame during the Bush II presidency, skewering the Administration’s response to 9/11 and the conduct of the second Iraq war. But that’s not why I’m nominating him as a Liberal Hero. Rather, it’s for his consistent pleas for reasoned political debate, civilised discourse.

Most famously, he did it when he confronted CNN’s Crossfire, accusing its theatrically disputatious presenters of “political hackery” and of “hurting America” by deliberately reducing news coverage to a verbal punch-up. A decade on, his arguments still hold up. Incidentally, a few months later Crossfire was axed — it never quite recovered from his pin-sharp questioning (it really is worth watching the following exchange in full if you haven’t seen it before):

But Jon Stewart didn’t stop there. Six years later, as US politics became ever more entrenched in its self-identification as a divided “Two Americas”, he helped launch the Rally to Restore Sanity, an attempt to reassert the reasonableness, which attracted some 215,000 people.

Here’s how he closed it, with an appeal not so much to some kind of mushy unity, but to respecting political differences without presuming on other folks’ bad faith. He was talking about America, but it applies just as much to our (admittedly much more toned-down) political debate here in the UK:

… we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of the main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. …

Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it, impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

Jon Stewart is a rare combination: an idealistic satirist, who wants to provoke politicians and the media to be better, to live up to their own intelligence rather than dumb down to what they assume the public wants. I don’t think we have an equivalent in the UK, where satire equates to slagging everyone off because. But we can hope.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #87: Daniel Hannan

February 7, 2015

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Daniel Hannan

Conservative MEP for South East England
Reason: for his support of localism.

Former Labour Lord Chancellor once pithily said of the “West Lothian Question” — Tam Dalyell’s famous formulation that it cannot be right for a Scottish MP to be able to vote on England-only matters, but not for an English MP to vote on matters affecting Scotland — that the best way of dealing with was not to ask it. As an answer, though, it takes the pith.

David Cameron was, therefore, right to say immediately after the result of the Scottish referendum, when Scots narrowly but decisively rejected independence, that: ‘We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.’

And this week he revealed his answer: a rather insipid compromise which allows MPs for English seats to have a veto on tax, and issues like schools and health, which affect only England. Though this would thwart the apocalyptic scenario envisioned by some of his more excitable right-wingers — that Labour could push through laws in England thanks to the votes of its Scottish MPs (if it has many left) — it falls well short of empowering local communities to make their own decisions. As the Lib Dems pointed out:

We need to ensure fair English votes on English matters. But we cannot have a debate about devolving greater powers to nations without also considering how we give local areas more power. Devolution and localism must go beyond Westminster. Up and down the country, citizens want change that reflects their local needs and circumstances.

If we agree it is right to give the five million people in Scotland and three million people in Wales a greater say over their local services, then we cannot, for example, ignore the five million people in Yorkshire who have the same rights to local democracy and empowerment. It is disappointing the Conservatives are not supporting our proposal for ‘Devolution on Demand’, which would give more powers to the English cities, counties and regions – especially places like Cornwall and Yorkshire.

But I expect talk of radical devolution of powers from my own party. It’s rarer to hear it from others. Kudos, then, to Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP for South East England, who made clear his own support for localism this week:

The affinity and identity that is the prerequisite for a successful democracy can be found more strongly in English counties than in some entire nations. Hampshire is an older political unit than France. I don’t see any powers that might be devolved to Holyrood under devo max that could not be handled by English county and metropolitan councils. Voters in New Hampshire control their own taxation, welfare and criminal justice systems. Are their cousins in old Hampshire uniquely incapable of self-government? …

England has the weakest local government in Europe. The only EU state whose councils raise a lower proportion of their expenditure is Malta – which is close to being a single extended conurbation. As our local authorities have become enfeebled, turnout has fallen and potential council candidates have been put off. Localism – including tax-raising powers for counties and cities – would restore honour and purpose to council elections.

A former Conservative leader, Michael Howard, once called for “smaller government and bigger people”. He was talking about shrinking the state, rather than parcelling it up. But bigger people is a good, liberal aim. Best of luck to Daniel Hannan in persuading his party of localism’s merits.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #86: Benedict Cumberbatch

January 30, 2015

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Benedict Cumberbatch

Actor
Reason: for standing up to prejudice.

Context matters. So do intentions. Which means that when Benedict Cumberbatch this week used the word ‘coloured’ — provoking one of those wearily predictable storms — it needs to be read with the other words surrounding it:

“I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change. Something’s gone wrong, we’re not representative enough in our culture of different races and that really does need to step up a pace.”

The context makes clear that he considers discrimination against actors on the basis of their race to be a wrong needing righting; his intention is to stick up for those who encounter discrimination.

But, to some (by no means all), his use of an outmoded word more normally uttered by grannies and Daily Express readers, was the real outrage. He quickly issued an abject apology: “I feel the complete fool I am and while I am sorry to have offended people and to learn from my mistakes in such a public manner please be assured I have.”

As Nick Cohen pointed out in The Spectator:

After the battering he has received, I doubt if Cumberbatch will take the trouble to argue for fairer treatment for ethnic minority and working class actors again. Pursed lipped prudes, who damn others for their sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic language, while doing nothing to confront real injustice, are characteristic figures of our time. As characteristic are well-meaning people abandoning good causes because they cannot take the prudes’ condemnations.

It’s not that language doesn’t matter: it does. (Don’t dare call me anti-semantic!) It’s why most of us try and use terms which are accurate, appropriate and don’t cause needless offence — both to avoid inadvertently hurting others’ feelings, and also to avoid our point being lost in a blizzard of recrimination.

But context and intention matter more. There’s more than enough prejudice out there that needs fighting without turning on those already on the same side.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #85: Ruth Davidson

January 25, 2015

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Ruth Davidson

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives
Reason: for sticking up for human rights

Raif Badawi, last week’s Liberal Hero, is too ill from the first 50 lashes he was subjected to by the Saudi authorities to have faced the second 50 or the third 50 that should by now have been inflicted on him. Had he recovered from his injuries he would still have 850 lashes to endure, in addition to his 10-year jail sentence for setting up the Free Saudi Liberals website.

This week saw the death of the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah. It also saw fulsome tributes paid to the King from leaders around the world. A “deeply saddened” David Cameron paid tribute to his “commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths”. Flags were lowered to half-mast at the houses of parliament and at Westminster Abbey: “a church honouring the leader of a country where conversion to Christianity is a capital offence,” as The Spectator acerbically observed. (Though, I merely note, that’s the kind of thing that happens in a church established by the state.)

It would be unfair to pin all the blame for Saudi Arabia’s continuing medieval theocracy on King Abdullah. As The Economist noted: ‘By Saudi standards, Abdullah was a moderniser, appointing the first female government minister and in 2013 appointing 30 women to the Shura Council. These moves drew protests from the puritanical Wahhabi clerics and parts of the devout population, as well as reformers who point out that women are still unable to drive or fraternise with men who are not relatives. Free speech is curbed. A number of Saudis are pushing for religion to have less of a grip on the public sphere, the results of which are strict laws on blasphemy and a ban on cinemas.’

Yet the rush to eulogise jarred, jarred badly. The death of a head of state is not the moment to grand-stand about human rights failings, but nor can they be ignored in favour of bland encomia. Pretty much alone among senior politicians, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson stuck her head above the parapet:

Too right, which is why she’s this week’s Liberal Hero. That is all.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #84: Raif Badawi

January 16, 2015

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Raif Badawi

Saudi Arabian writer who created the Free Saudi Liberals website
Reason: for standing up for free speech against an autocratic regime

A lot of people have spoken up for free speech in the days since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It’s easy for us. The worst most of us can expect if folk disagree is a bit of flak on Twitter.

Not so in Saudi Arabia. Not so for Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes — 50 lashes every Friday for five months — who called for free speech on his website. Amnesty International describes his case:

Raif’s sentence stems from his creation of the website ‘Saudi Arabian Liberials’, which he envisaged as a forum for political and social debate. He was subsequently charged for content he had posted to the site, including an article published on Valentine’s Day 2012 in which he was accused of ridiculing Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – as well as failing to remove ‘offensive’ posts by other contributors.

Raif was arrested in June 2012. In May 2014 he was found guilty of breaking Saudi Arabia’s strict technology laws and insulting Islamic religious figures by creating and managing an online forum. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyal (over a quarter of a million US dollars), and prevented from using any kind of media or travelling until 2034. Raif simply championed free speech.

The Guardian has published excerpts of Raif’s writings. Here’s what he said in May 2012 about the nature of liberalism.

For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.

Often I use the term ‘Hero’ in this column metaphorically. Not this time.

You can support Amnesty International’s petition calling on Saudi Arabia to

Stop flogging Raif Badawi
Release Raif immediately: he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to free speech
Overturn Raif’s conviction and drop all sentences against him.

by adding your name here.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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