Wednesday, January 17, 2007


The tributes that have been issued to greet Muhammad Ali's 65th birthday on Wednesday provide further confirmation of how the legacy of the former heavyweight champion has been appropriated by the conservative establishment. His life is eulogised as that of a peace-loving, all-American hero. Few even allude to his subversive role in radicalising a generation of blacks and denouncing the war in Vietnam....

Every nation fights for the way its heroes are remembered, but in the case of Ali it has been a knockout blow for the conservative elite, something that is rendered more poignant because Ali, quivering under the affliction of Parkinson's disease, is in no fit state to have a say in the matter. In the eyes of a new generation, he is a Gandhi-esque caricature: non-controversial, utterly non-threatening and devoid of the contradictions that symbolised the deep divisions in postwar American consciousness. The suspicion that Ali's handlers have conspired in this anti-historical process is confirmed by the hagiographic Muhammad Ali Center in Kentucky, a temple inscribed with simpering platitudes and pacificatory iconography.

It is difficult to imagine that any youth who happened to strut in from the ghettos of downtown Louisville would leave with any authentic sense of the provocative role that Ali played in the ructions of the Civil Rights movement, or the polemical way he asserted his opposition to Vietnam: "No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger." But even more disturbingly, the youth would walk away oblivious to the shocking fact that the cause to which Ali gave his puff has failed in many of its most basic objectives.

The 2000 census was unequivocal, recording the enduring concentration of poverty, drug abuse and criminality among black Americans. Is it any wonder that liberal intellectuals discern the rancid whiff of tokenism in the accolades that continue to rain down on the former champion?

Of course, many of Ali's acolytes will be pleased that in the rush to sanitise him in the eyes of white America, some of the hypocritical aspects of his character have been glossed over. There is little mention of the fact that he proclaimed white people were "blue-eyed devils" while not only enjoying friendships with whites but also employing many in his vast entourage. Or that he evangelised about the value of liberty while courting some of the world's most sadistic dictators, including Idi Amin, Ferdinand Marcos and President Mobutu.

Many will argue that Ali was misled by his devotion to the Nation of Islam, the black religious sect headed by Elijah Muhammad, but this hardly excuses the tendency to omit all reference to its implications. Although the Nation's theology was crudely apocalyptic - it believed white people were congenitally unjust, having been bred in a malign historical experiment, and that blacks will be rescued from Judgment Day by a wheel-shaped spaceship - it was its policies on social housing and family values that captivated Ali and other disaffected blacks.

But even here there was hypocrisy. Ali followed the example of Elijah Muhammad in moralising about the virtues of sexual abstinence while living a life of rampant promiscuity. This was never better illustrated than at the Thrilla in Manila in 1975, when Ali caused a diplomatic incident at a presidential reception by introducing Veronica Porsche, his girlfriend, as his wife. Belinda Ali, who had put up with the boxer's philandering for years, flew to the Philippines for an explosive confrontation. They divorced two years later....



Or where will it end?

An antifascist demonstration has been organised for today's performance of Giselle by English National Ballet principal Simone Clarke - her first since being "outed" as a member of the far-right British National Party. Members of the Unite Against Fascism Coalition will demonstrate at London's Covent Garden today in protest against the "BNP Ballerina's" presence in the show: Arts Council funded English National Ballet has refused to comment on Ms Clarke's political views, which emerged after a Guardian journalist revealed parts of the BNP's membership lists. Clarke claims to support a tough line on immigration and told a newspaper that she joined the party on the urging of her boyfriend, who is Cuban-Chinese.

EURSOC holds no brief for Ms Clarke or her party, though we believe it is her right to join whatever political group she likes. The BNP is certainly far right and racist, (though Ms Clarke may not be the latter if judged on her personal relationships).

But barracking a ballet performance because you disagree with the political views of one of the dancers? We are constantly informed that Israel's "occupation" of Palestinian territory is "racist" and "far right". Will people who claim to support Israel be next? Ulster Unionists, too, enjoy little support among left-leaning groups - will they too be targeted as undesirables, if Clarke is ejected from her position? What about supporters of the war in Iraq or conservative Americans in general?

In any case, where would the arts be without dotty political views? Prominent members of the Redgrave acting dynasty were known for their sympathy for communism; Nobel prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter has dedicated much of his recent career to a particularly infantile form of anti-American rhetoric. He was last spotted kissing the behind of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez - a man who shuts down media organisations which dare to disagree with him.

Film-maker Ken Loach gets UK lottery funding to make anti-British, pro-Irish republican movies. Poet Tom Paulin has called for some Israeli settlers to be shot - as far as we can tell, Simone Clarke has not advocated violence in pursuit of her views. Writer John Berger indulges an affection for masked "militants" in Latin America and called for an absurd and creepy "artists" boycott of Israel.

Surely the arts are about free expression, including the right to emit views that in any other public arena would have you certified. Clarke isn't even expressing her views on the stage - indeed, her affiliation was known to no-one until the Guardian's reporter found her name on the BNP's membership list



One of the strangest things about political activists is that they so rarely understand freedom, the very thing they think they are fighting for. Everyone in this country, even a sugar plum fairy, is entitled to freedom of thought and of speech under the law, but there are countless high-minded activists who do not think so. So it was that a group of Unite Against Fascism activists fetched up at the Coliseum in London on Friday afternoon to demonstrate against the fascist fairy, the “BNP ballerina” Simone Clarke.

She is an exceptional dancer who finds herself at the middle of an even more exceptional political drama. Having danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker over the Christmas season, she was soon afterwards exposed as a member of the British National party. On Friday she appeared on stage for the first time since the revelation of her political views in the role of Giselle, only to be booed and hissed by UAF agitators outside the theatre and even inside from the stalls.

“The principal ballerina is a BNP member,” they cried, before they were removed. “No fascism in the arts.” Clarke bravely danced on, however, like a real trouper, smiling throughout; I suppose ballerinas are used to smiling through pain. She was supported in her ordeal, whether she knew it or not, by a bizarre group of champions — 25 members of the BNP, including some of its top brass, and not perhaps your average balletomanes.

How I wish I had been there. All this might be serious in its way, but it is a delicious absurdity too. For one thing the English National Ballet has dancers from 19 countries, some of whom must presumably be immigrants, and possibly dark of skin; I would love to have seen the BNP neo-balletomanes’ faces as they watched these migrant swans leaping about in swathes of floating net and little wings, not to mention several men in pastel tights. How wonderful to think of the skinhead BNP top team supporting all this.

What the UAF activists are trying to achieve is to get Clarke sacked. The English National Ballet has resisted very properly; it has refused to comment on its principal dancer’s opinions, saying her views do not represent the ENB’s views, which in any case does not express any political view. The ENB is in a difficult position though, because it receives 6 million pounds of public money each year from the Arts Council, and this can and will be used by activists to put pressure on the company to distance itself from Clarke. Bectu, the broadcasting workers’ union, is making this demand and Lee Jasper, the race relations adviser to the mayor of London, joined this lamentable demonstration, saying: “The protests will continue . . . English National Ballet have got a real fight on their hands.”

This is a strange story in every way. Despite her fear of mass immigration, Clarke has an immigrant boyfriend of Chinese-Cuban descent, also a dancer; there is a hint of inconsistency here surely, and the BNP certainly finds it a touch embarrassing. And then the protesters in the street, who say that ethnic English people’s fear of immigration is nothing but irrational racism, rather undermined their own case by shouting “We are Muslim, black and Jew, there are many more of us than you” — by this threat confirming that a fear of mass immigration is not merely irrational racism. Brilliant.

All these big bold men lined up against a single rather underweight woman; it is not an edifying spectacle. If only they had the intellectual modesty that she has shown. Explaining to a newspaper that she’d been drawn to the BNP by watching the news and by their manifesto, she said: “I am not too proud to say that a lot of it went over my head, but some of the things they mentioned were things I think about all the time, mainly mass immigration, crime and increased taxes.” The world might be a better place if more people were not too proud to admit that things are complex and difficult to understand.

It is clearly too difficult for Friday’s activists to understand that free speech is indivisible. Perhaps they have forgotten the McCarthy era in America, when performing artists, particularly in Hollywood, were outed, sacked and ruined for their pro-communist views (real or alleged). That was entirely wrong, I hardly need say. But there are plenty of people, including me, who think that pro-Trotsky, pro-Stalin, pro-Mao communism, and all kinds of views expressed by people in the arts to this day, are hateful and despicable, and, I think, a great deal worse than the BNP.

That has never prompted real lovers of freedom to try to silence them; real lovers of freedom accept that to repress one hated view is as bad as repressing its opposite. It will only strengthen the hated view; by contrast the openness of freedom will weaken it, if it is wrong, as the heroic JS Mill so eloquently argued.

Besides, why should anyone take the political views of artists seriously? I know that everyone does these days, and pop stars such as Bono are called upon to pontificate on matters of global concern. But the fact that they are famous and talented does not mean that their views are worth paying attention to (rather as the BNP ballerina’s views are of no interest).

There is no law of nature according to which artists must of their nature be rational, sensible and well judging; rather the reverse tends to be true, because the arts have to do with risk, danger, experiment, originality and inconsistency. They are born out of anger, resentment, joy, contrariness and wildness, with the result that few artists have ever been balanced and well-informed political or moral philosophers.

In fact if artists were judged on their views, theatres and galleries and bookshops would be almost empty. If sensible people had tried to bring down artists of bad and daft political views we would have had no Vanessa Redgrave and no Harold Pinter. Should we ban Brecht from the stage because of his support for the odious East German regime? Come off it. People who loathe their views may love their talents. It is high time that liberals, luvvies and political activists started either to defend free speech, or stopped pretending to.


A good comment from a reader of the above:

"I was in the audience for this performance and I didn't see any BNP 'skinheads' at all, if the BNP were there and I'm they were then they blended perfectly into a respectable audience. The only 'skinhead thugs' I saw were of the left-wing 'UAF' variety - so brave they arrived in a screaming mob to bully a tiny ballerina. Strange people for Tory David Cameron to ally himself with? Seems like the BNP are one of the most moderate groups around these days. Seems like the extremists are in power or even in opposition....."

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