Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pre-emptive censorship is a cross we all bear

London Underground has banned posters for the play Fat Christ, just in case they cause offence. This safety-first attitude is crucifying free speech

There is no undisputed depiction of Jesus, who in the past has been portrayed variously as black, Chinese, alien and gay. Over the years, unconventional representations of Christ and far-flung speculations about his true identity have attracted the ire of the devout and the sensitive. The latest depiction of Jesus to be deemed offensive is the promotional poster for Fat Christ, Gavin Davis' comedic play, which opened in London last night. The poster was refused advertising spots on the London Underground. Perhaps suggesting that Jesus suffered from slow metabolism or indulged in fatty food is the ultimate form of blasphemy these days, when obesity is seen as a mortal sin.

Fat Christ is the story of Jack Taylor, a chubby man looking for his big break in life. His endeavours so far have left him and his pregnant wife so poor that he has to support them by cleaning windows. Jack makes a deal with a top London art dealer to crucify himself. The promotional poster shows Jack tied to a wooden cross, wearing pink-striped boxer shorts and sporting a beer belly. A trickle of fake blood is running down his check and he has a sullen look on his face.

Davis' play doesn't seem to make any serious claims about the way Jesus led his life - it's about a chubby loser-type who ends up portraying Jesus. Other, more notorious cases of `Jesus controversies' involve claims about Christ himself. A well-known example is Dan Brown's smash hit novel The Da Vinci Code, which claimed Jesus was really just a regular human being who married and had non-immaculately conceived kids with Mary Magdalene. This row was topped in 2005, when the BBC televised the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera, in which Jesus appears as a singing talkshow guest. The BBC received 55,000 complaints from a wide spectrum of Christians, censorious media watchdogs, sensitive souls and upholders of politically correct standards. Then there was the `Mullet Jesus' t-shirt, showing Christ with a bad haircut, and, of course, Cosimo Cavallaro's `My Sweet Lord', a nude statue made out of chocolate, which was removed from The Lab Gallery in Manhattan last year.

It is not just `cranky Christians' who are upset by fantastical and playful representations of the Son of God. Others, who believe we all have the right to be protected from offence, come out in their support, even on their behalf. This was the case with the Fat Christ poster, as officials at Transport for London (TfL), which is apparently committed to avoiding offending members of the public, stopped it from being viewed by commuters.

But what exactly did TfL see as potentially offensive in a comic image of a chubby man tied to a cross? Today, when the mullet is unfortunately back in fashion and when it's broadly considered rude to claim that being compared to blacks, gays or Chinese (and, in some circles, aliens) is an insult, what counts as really unacceptable when it comes to portraying Jesus Christ?

Well, the promoters of Fat Christ, who applied for five advertising spots in just one underground station, found out that drawing parallels between Jesus and unhealthy lifestyles is beyond the pale. Davis has said that the poster accurately reflects his play's content and theme and that he doesn't believe it to be blasphemous. Didn't he realise that simultaneously evoking the images of Jesus and all those anti-social slobs who are dragging down the National Health Service, supporting `evil' fast-food outlets and fuelling the food industry's carbon footprint is pure sacrilege?

Perhaps if Davis chooses to do a follow-up play that is less offensive to TfL officials, he could have Jack Taylor look to Jesus for inspiration on how to lose weight. That is what Don Colbert, a Florida doctor, has done. Apparently concerned about the `obesity epidemic' in the US, he advocated the `Jesus diet' in his bestselling book What Would Jesus Eat?. We're told that Jesus was primarily into `natural foods in their natural states - lots of vegetables, especially beans and lentils.He would have eaten wheat bread, a lot of fruit, drunk a lot of water and also red wine.And he would only eat meat on special occasions.' (1) Anyway, who needs fast food when you're able to feed thousands of hungry people with just five loaves of bread and two fish?

As for now, TfL has decided that the public does not share Davis' sense of humour and so it took a precautionary measure, a pre-emptive strike against hurt feelings. As a TfL spokesman said: `Millions of people travel on the London Underground each day and they have no choice but to view whatever adverts are posted there. We have to take account of every passenger and endeavour not to cause offence in the advertising we display.' (2) In other words, the TfL officials censored the Fat Christ poster in accordance with the contemporary commandment `thou shalt not potentially offend anybody, anywhere - ever'.

spiked has on several occasions criticised the prevailing `tyranny of the minority', where it is now enough for a handful of individuals - sometimes even just one person - to cry offence in order for official guardians of etiquette to ban ads, posters and television shows (3). But the Underground ban of the Fat Christ poster displayed the tyranny of no one. Here, no complaint was necessary for TfL to decide that people would be offended before they even had been offended.

This pre-emptive censorship in the name of protecting the public is a worrying display of restriction on artistic expression. And it's not just quirky, fringe theatre plays that get such a treatment. Earlier this month, London Underground refused to allow a poster for a Royal Academy of Arts show on the sixteenth-century German artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder. It showed the artist's nude painting of Venus. London Underground justified the ban in exactly the same terms as its decision to censor the Fat Christ poster (4), and argued that the poster breached guidelines barring advertisements which `depict men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context' (5). Eventually, after widespread media coverage ridiculing the decision, TfL admitted it had made a mistake and retracted the ban.

So far, Fat Christ hasn't been so lucky. But wouldn't Jesus have agreed that a bunch of TfL chiefs censoring comical and artistic posters in the name of no one is not really kosher?


Hatred of ancestral ties from Britain's bureaucrats

A while ago I was on a plane from Helsinki to London. On one side was a Finnish businessman reading a newspaper written in a script utterly baffling to anyone brought up speaking a Latin or Anglo-Saxon language. On the other sat a young man from New Zealand. He was travelling in Europe and on his way to visit relatives in Lincolnshire, where his grandparents had lived before emigrating.

He was travelling on an ancestry visa that entitled him to come to Britain for five years without having to show he had a job waiting for him. This visa was available to him because he had at least one grandparent born in Britain. At Heathrow, the Finn and I move effortlessly though the gates for EU citizens. The last I saw of the young Kiwi, he was queuing up at immigration control for overseas aliens.

Until 1973, when Britain joined the EEC, Commonwealth citizens were able to move relatively freely in and out of the country. The ancestry visa was introduced to allow those who retained close connections with Britain a straightforward entry route after nationality laws introduced in the 1971 Immigration Act threatened to make this more difficult.

Recently, the Government published a Green Paper on immigration and citizenship that raised the question of whether the ancestry visa should be abolished. This is a consultation document and is not final policy; but since it is the second time in four years that the Home Office has suggested scrapping the ancestry visa, someone in Whitehall clearly considers it to be expendable.

The Green Paper states: "Given that the proposed immigration system provides explicit routes to the UK for those coming as economic migrants, family members or refugees, we need to decide whether a Commonwealth national's ancestral connections to the UK are sufficient to allow them to come here to work without the need to satisfy a resident labour market test. We are therefore asking this question as part of the consultation contained within this paper."

This consultation continues until May 14 so here, for what it's worth, is my contribution. No. It should, emphatically, not be scrapped. How can it be possible to allow, for instance, 800,000 east Europeans - or Finns, for that matter - to come here as they choose, as they are entitled to under EU law, yet deny a similar right to people who share a head of state and carry the insignia of the Union on their own flags?

It is not as though many people actually use this route into the country and most go home in any case. In 2006, only 8,490 ancestry visa holders came to the UK, mainly from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Most of them are youngsters visiting the "old country" to work for a few years before going home. Recently, the Edinburgh executive has been encouraging some of the four million Canadians of Scottish heritage to move to Scotland to offset the declining population and birthrate.

Yet the Government in London seems intent upon making this much more difficult. Under the new points-based system for immigrants, which started operating at the beginning of this month, non-EU nationals will be unable to get into the country legally to work or to settle here permanently unless they are highly qualified or wealthy. There are few Aussie students who will fall into that category.

Labour is happy to invoke our history when it wants to make a song and dance about its commitment to Britishness; yet it is content to dispense with one of its most potent manifestations. The ancestry visa is, after all, a symbol of that historic legacy.

You would have expected a mighty outburst of indignation from Parliament about this, yet there has hardly been a squeak. Only Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP for Great Grimsby, who once worked in New Zealand as a university lecturer, has tabled a Commons motion expressing "shock" at the proposal. So far it has been signed by 43 MPs. As Mr Mitchell points out: "The dominions sprang to our aid when we needed them in two world wars and since. Their inhabitants are of British descent. They are keen to maintain Commonwealth ties and associations with this country."

For good or ill, we are members of the EU and it is part of the deal that all its citizens have an unfettered right to travel to this country, as we do to theirs, to work and settle permanently. But we are so keen on emphasising our European credentials that we are in danger of turning our backs on our own people, who twice in the last century helped rescue Europe from the tyrants who wished to run it.

The cemeteries of France and Belgium are the final resting places for many Commonwealth citizens who lost their lives in defence of this country. Does that count for anything in the Government's "consultation" or is this just outdated, old-fashioned thinking? Mr Mitchell's motion puts this well. The ancestry visa, it says, is a historic and a moral obligation and "even to consider getting rid of it will produce shock, anger and dismay in Commonwealth countries which fought two world wars shoulder to shoulder with the United Kingdom, and have maintained close relations since".

Mr Mitchell says that New Zealand officials inquiring about the proposal were left in no doubt that civil servants and ministers in the Home Office "did not consider themselves bound to New Zealand by historical ties". He adds: "This is an amazing betrayal of the Commonwealth, a failure to understand history, and a brutal incomprehension of loyalties, totally unworthy of officials who claim to be 'putting British values at the heart of the immigration system'." Perhaps at some point on Commonwealth Day, a senior member of the Government could set aside a few minutes to ensure this wretched idea is buried, this time with a stake through its heart.


Britain deliberately creates more dependants on the State

More of that lovely CONTROL!

We all know that governments never do anything just for its own sake. They like to "send a message". It might be about smoking, fatness, booze, driving, community - they've gotta send it. We can't be trusted to know how to behave (unlike ministers, who have no vices). So messages are sent. In Budget week they come thick and fast. Don't drink, shun plastic bags, recycle, drive less. But there is a core message, an important one, directed ever more stridently at the poorest people in Britain and designed to deny hope and resourcefulness. If you are poor, the Government's message is simple: "You are not in charge of your life and prosperity. We are. Trust us. Keep on voting for us or you're stuffed."

The means by which the message is transmitted is the creaking tax and benefit system. Looming changes in income tax mean that those earning more than 18,500 a year, which is lowish but not too uncomfortable, will be better off when the basic tax rate drops by 2 per cent. But given the abolition of the 10 per cent tax rate, coupled with the continuing feebleness of the personal allowance (you can earn 104.51 a week before you start paying a fifth of it to the exchequer - whoopee!), the lowest earners are hit. Those on 10,000 a year will now pay two or three quid a week more in tax. However, says the message, that's OK because they can promptly apply for "working tax credits", "family credits" and other benefits.

However doughtily and responsibly you work for your 200 quid a week, even if you need every penny of it to survive, the Government will make you hand over a lump and then give it back, ceremoniously, via its huge and expensive bureaucracy. The message is that if you are poor, you must be kept in the status of client and petitioner. It would presumably save billions in administration if you just let low earners hang on to their wages; it would also fortify that sense of personal and family responsibility that government claims to like. Applying for state benefits as a fit person of working age makes everyone feel lousy, unless - or until - they are so desensitised and deprived of pride that they no longer care. But the abolition of the low tax band and the feeble personal allowance has made benefit-claiming inevitable for more people, for longer.

In the financial-Sunday-section jungle I noticed something else. It was a warning to buy-to-let landlords with tenants on housing benefit. They are usually paid directly, the money bypassing the tenant's pocket. Now an experiment is being run in nine authorities in which the tenant handles the rent money. Cries of dismay from landlords: "We envisage some, used to surviving on 55 pounds per week... being tempted to use the funds for other purposes."

The author cites problems in Blackpool where "insiders are blaming the scheme for intensifying the local drink and drugs problem". Another difficulty is that many would-be responsible tenants still can't find a "basic bank account" if there is the slightest irregularity in their desperate past. Meanwhile, the effect of this small attempt to trust individuals is, the piece says, panicking landlords in deprived areas into selling and making property prices fall. Well, hoorah; why should poorer people pay your mortgage while you watch your investment soar? Let housing associations buy them.

But to me the mystery is that for so long we have happily lived with this presumption that the poorer you are, the less you are to be trusted handling money. Which can only be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Housing benefit - in this expensive country - is a necessity for many. But being expected to conserve and ring-fence the rent yourself has to be better than being babied by the pretence that your rent is not your business. In the same way it is better to keep your own proud earnings - right up to a liveable level - than to hand chunks over and immediately beg nanny government to give them back.

Designers of welfare may contest all this as impractical, romantic, a recipe for chaos. They hug their barely hidden assumption that if you are poor you are ipso facto feckless: drugged, drunk, dumb or spendthrift. A few indeed are, and need special treatment. But in the wider human context the opposite has generally proved true. The poor are not feckless by nature, but careful. Ask any of the vastly successful organisations that offer "microcredit" in developing countries. They lend tiny sums to families, often women, to start businesses; they charge stiff interest yet their repayment record is extraordinarily high - better than many mainstream banks. History and anthropology do not throw up many examples of poor people wasting money. If we have indeed grown a feckless, helpless client population who can't be trusted, it is state messages that have made them that way.

We hear a great deal about the perils of taxing rich "non-doms", these weird creatures who may abandon London if asked to pay a bit more tax, having apparently chosen Britain as their home not out of affection or friendship but just to save a few quid of disposable income. It is wrong, say the experts, to send the poor non-doms the "message" that they aren't loved. In which case, why is it right to send poor Britons the message that they can't trust themselves but only the State? Alistair Darling could ramp up the personal allowance, make it transferable and turn his mind to ways of letting people keep earnings rather than claim benefits. Pigs could fly.


Australia: Crime epidemic coverup

The criminals are black, you see

AUTHORITIES are investigating the high turnover rate of single female teachers and nurses on some Torres Strait islands amid claims of a sex-crime cover up. Peeping toms, sexual harassment, stalking and even rape are among the reasons most listed by white female workers in requests for urgent "compassionate" evacuation and transfer, a source has revealed. One senior Torres Strait public servant yesterday told The Courier-Mail there was a direct link between a high turnover of staff and sex crimes.

Islands such as Saibai, Dauan, Mabuiag and Badu have a much higher turnover of outside staff than other island communities that offer two-year contracts. "Some of these young female workers are only lasting a few weeks to three months before they get transferred out," said the source, who asked not to be named. "We believe there is a cover-up between the rates of reported sex assaults and urgent transfer of female staff on certain islands. There is a direct link between the two that the Government does not want anyone to know."

As health officials met community leaders on Mabuiag yesterday over the bungled handling of the rape of a nurse on the island last month, it was confirmed the nurse had made repeated requests for upgraded security before the incident occurred. The single health worker on the island complained of broken locks on doors and windows, no curtains and no running water. She was refused permission for an urgent evacuation after she was raped and then had her pay docked when she fled on a flight paid for by her boyfriend. The nurse also claimed she previously spent three days with the decomposing body of a heart-attack victim before a helicopter took it to Thursday Island for post-mortem.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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