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The life of freedom

29 March 2006
For a rally in support of freedom of expression, Saturday's gathering in Trafalgar Square, London, had more than a touch of farce about it. And that, in a sense, was part of the point of the afternoon's exercise.

The grassroots organisers - socialists and libertarians alike - had announced in advance that fascists would not be welcome, prompting (to their relief) members of the far-right British National Party to boycott the rally. The Muslim Action Committee and its supporters — challenging what they view as the “demonisation” of Islam behind the façade of free-speech — were holding their own rally in Birmingham, where they called for “global civility” and a set of restrictions on the press.

That left minor-skirmish duty to others, which helped to highlight the question of just how far you can go (or should be allowed to go) in expressing yourself - even at a freedom-of-expression rally - in the heart of the British capital these days.

Quoting Voltaire and Orwell, speakers declared that nothing is more sacred than freedom, that blasphemy is both a victimless crime and a stain on British common law, that freedom of speech includes freedom to ridicule, and that no one has a right not to be offended. As they spoke, some of the practical applications were being examined on the ground, amid the good-humoured crowd of several hundred people.

An Iranian man was asked to lower his placard, featuring three of the now-infamous Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. On whose say-so? Not that of the police (many of whom were quite busy with their cameras), but of the square’s “heritage wardens”, employed by London Mayor Ken Livingston's government to “protect the fabric of the square and deter petty crime.” The wardens appeared to take the “fabric” bit to heart, disallowing the waving of Danish flags. (The few people with flags then wrapped themselves in them - and passed muster.)

Meanwhile, the cartoons placard was passed from hand to hand [“They can’t arrest us all”], prompting the cry, “I am Spartacus!” (borrowed from Kirk Douglas’s 1960 film Spartacus). The brief nod to the 1st century B.C. slave revolt against a decadent Roman empire wasn’t the only quasi-historical cinematic reference of the day, however. The afternoon owed much to Monty Python’s 1979 satire The Life of Brian, itself a target of fundamentalist Christians offended by its spoof parallels to the life and death of Jesus Christ. (“I am Brian!” As for supporters of blasphemy laws in Britain, “Crucify them!”)

Another flashpoint was the appearance of a protester whose placard was topped by a mask of prime minister Tony Blair, a cardboard swastika hanging around its rubber neck. “Leave him alone,” observers shouted to the wardens. The Nazi symbol vanished, and the wardens retreated.

As rain began to fall, the main messages from the spectrum of speakers (who included Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, human rights campaigners Peter Tatchell and Maryam Namazie, and representatives of "free Muslims" and secular and libertarian groups) were that while all people deserve respect, all ideas do not, and that differences—as in the cases involving the Danish cartoons, author Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the BBC’s airing of the musical Jerry Springer – The Opera – must not to be resolved by violence, harassment or intimidation.

 

"If liberty means anything at all," wrote Orwell, "it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." In other words, the right to offend them.

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