Thursday, September 29, 2016

Courage and free speech

Courage and free speech

Throughout human history there have been individuals who have been ready to risk everything for their beliefs

August Landmesser refuses to perform the Nazi salute during a visit to the Hamburg shipyards by Adolf Hitler in 1936. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
is a historian and writer. He is professor of European studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is also the director of the Free Speech Debate. His latest book is Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016). 
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Free Speech Debate
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Edited by Nigel Warburton
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Why is free expression so important to us?
‘Nothing is more difficult,’ wrote the German political essayist Kurt Tucholsky in 1921, ‘and nothing requires more character, than to find yourself in open contradiction to your time and loudly to say: No.’ First of all, it is intellectually and psychologically difficult to step outside the received wisdom of your time and place. What has been called ‘the normative power of the given’ persuades us that what we see all around us, what everyone else seems to regard as normal, is in some sense also an ethical norm.
Numerous studies in behavioural psychology show how our individual conviction of what is true or right quails before the massed pressure of our peers. We are, as Mark Twain observed, ‘discreet sheep’. This is what John Stuart Mill picked up when he wrote in On Liberty (1859); that the same causes that make someone a churchman in London would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Beijing. The same truth is gloriously captured in the humorous song ‘The Reluctant Cannibal’ (1960) by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, in which a young cannibal revolts against the settled wisdom of his elders and declares that ‘eating people is wrong’. At the end of the song, one of the elders exclaims, to huge belly laughs all round: ‘Why, you might just as well go around saying: “Don’t fight people!”’ Then he and his colleagues cry in unison: ‘Ridiculous!’
Yet norms change even within a single lifetime, especially as we live longer. So as elderly disc jockeys are arrested for sexual harassment or abuse back in the 1960s, we should be uncomfortably aware that some other activity that people regard as fairly normal now might be viewed as aberrant and abhorrent 50 years hence.
To step outside the established wisdom of your time and place is difficult enough; openly to stand against it is more demanding still. In Freedom for the Thought that We Hate (2007), his fine book on the First Amendment tradition in the United States, Anthony Lewis quotes a 1927 opinion by the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, which Lewis says ‘many regard as the greatest judicial statement of the case for freedom of speech’.
The passage Lewis quotes begins: ‘Those who won our independence… believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.’ This is magnificent, although it also illustrates the somewhat self-referential, even self-reverential, character of the modern First Amendment tradition.
Lewis cites Brandeis, who credits this thought to the 18th-century founders of the US. But those founders would have been well aware that they got it straight from Pericles’ funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century BCE, as reported – if not invented, or at least much improved upon – by Thucydides. ‘For you now,’ Thucydides’ Pericles admonishes his ancient Athenian audience, after praising the heroic dead, ‘it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing the secret of happiness to be freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onset.’
More directly, the US tradition of courage in the defence of free speech draws on the heritage of the 17th-century English. People such as John Lilburne, for example. In 1638, while still in his early 20s, Lilburne was found guilty by the Star Chamber court of helping to smuggle into England a tract against bishops that had been printed in the Low Countries. He was tied to the back of a cart on a hot summer’s day and unremittingly whipped as he walked with a bare back all the way from the eastern end of Fleet Street to Westminster Palace Yard. One bystander reckoned that he received some 500 blows that, since the executioner wielded a three-thronged whip, made 1,500 stripes.
Lilburne’s untreated shoulders ‘swelled almost as big as a penny loafe with the bruses of the knotted Cords’, and he was then made to stand for two hours in the pillory in Palace Yard. Here, in spite of his wounds and the burning sunshine, he began loudly to tell his story and to rail against bishops. The crowd was reportedly delighted. After half an hour, there came ‘a fat lawyer’ – ah, plus ça change – who bid him stop. The man whom the people of London had already dubbed ‘Free-Born John’ refused to shut up. He was then gagged so roughly that blood spurted from his mouth. Undeterred, he thrust his hands into his pockets and scattered dissident pamphlets to the crowd. No other means of expression being left to him, Free-Born John then stamped his feet until the two hours were up.
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As an Englishman, I find particular inspiration in the example of Free-Born John, and those of all our other free-born Johns: John Milton, John Wilkes, John Stuart Mill (and George Orwell, a free-born John in all but name). More broadly, there is no reason to understate, let alone to deny, a specifically Western tradition of courage in the advancement of free speech, one that can be traced from ancient Athens, through England, France and a host of other European countries, to the US, Canada and all the liberal democracies of today’s wider West. But it would be quite wrong to suggest that this habit of the heart is confined to the West. In fact, there have been rather few examples of such sturdy defiance in England in recent times, while we find them in other countries and cultures.
Consider, for instance, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in 2009 for ‘subverting state power’. Both his written response to the charges against him and his final speech in court are, like many of his earlier writings, lucid and courageous affirmations of the central importance of free speech. He definitely does not draw only on Western traditions. For example, in his book No Enemies, No Hatred (2012), he quotes a traditional Chinese 24-character injunction: ‘Say all you know, in every detail; a speaker is blameless, because listeners can think; if the words are true, make your corrections; if they are not, just take note.’
After paying a moving tribute to his wife (‘Armed with your love, dear one, I can face the sentence that I’m about to receive with peace in my heart’), Liu looks forward to the day ‘when our country will be a land of free expression: a country where the words of each citizen will get equal respect, a country where different values, ideas, beliefs and political views can compete with one another even as they peacefully coexist’. The judge cut him short in court before he had finished speaking, but free-born Xiaobo, like free-born John, still got his message out. In his planned peroration, Liu wrote: ‘I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crimes. Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.’
‘They will send me to prison,’ al-Johani says, ‘and I will be happy’
Liu was by this time famous, and that great speech made him more so. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. But perhaps the most inspiring examples of all come from people who are not famous at all: so-called ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People such as the Hamburg shipyard worker who, at the launch of a naval training vessel in 1936, refused to join all those around him in making the Hitler salute. The photograph only achieved wide circulation on the internet more than 60 years later. There he stands amid a forest of outstretched arms, with both his own firmly folded across his chest, a portrait of stubborn worker’s pride. His name was August Landmesser. He had been a Nazi party member but was later expelled from the party for marrying a Jewish woman, and then imprisoned for ‘dishonouring the race’. After his release, he was drafted to fight in the Second World War and never returned.
Again, such moments are emphatically not confined to the West. During the Arab Spring of 2011, a ‘day of rage’ was proclaimed by dissidents in Saudi Arabia. Faced with a massive police presence at the appointed location in the country’s capital Riyadh, almost nobody showed up. But one man, a strongly built, black-haired teacher called Khaled al-Johani, suddenly approached a group of foreign reporters. ‘We need to speak freely,’ he cried, with an explosion of pent-up passion. ‘No one must curb our freedom of expression.’ A BBC Arabic service film clip, which you can watch on YouTube, shows a tall secret policeman, in white robes, headdress and dark glasses, looming in the background as he snoops on al-Johani’s speech. A little further away, armed police mutter into their walkie-talkies. ‘What will happen to you now?’ asks one of the reporters, as they escort the teacher back to his car. ‘They will send me to prison,’ al-Johani says, adding ironically: ‘and I will be happy.’ He was subsequently condemned to 18 months’ imprisonment.
In many places, we can find monuments to the Unknown Soldier, but we should also erect them to the Unknown Speaker.
This is an edited extract from ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’ by Timothy Garton Ash © 2016, published by permission of Atlantic Books.


The Plot to Put Conceptual Art on ‘Melrose Place.’


The conceptual artist Mel Chin, who helped form a group to supply art and props with coded cultural messages on “Melrose Place.” On Friday, at the Red Bull Studios New York, 100 objects from the committee’s work go on display in an exhibition. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

Twenty years ago, the conceptual artist Mel Chin cold-called the offices of “Melrose Place,” Aaron Spelling’s wildly popular prime-time soap opera, with a proposition. What if a task force of artists supplied free artworks and props for the show’s apartment-complex set, with coded cultural messages on pressing topics like reproductive rights, American foreign policy, alcoholism and sexual politics?
Deborah Siegel, the show’s set decorator, listened to this absurd offer and had an instant reaction. “I thought it sounded really interesting,” she said in a recent interview. “So I met with him.”
This was the beginning of a conceptual artist’s dream, an ongoing intervention into the very heart of American mass culture. In late 1995, Mr. Chin and a team of 100 mostly unknown artists, called the Gala Committee, began a two-year experiment, placing objects on the set of “Melrose Place.” They took their cues from scripts provided in advance and in some instances worked with the writers to modify plot lines and develop characters.
On Friday, at the Red Bull Studios New York in Chelsea, 100 objects from the committee’s work go on display in the exhibition “Total Proof: The Gala Committee 1995-1997.


“RU 486 Quilt,” which appeared on the show. Credit GALA Committee

The exhibition, through Nov. 20, will be, appropriately enough, a rerun. Viewers of “Melrose Place” saw a version of it in April 1997, in a television episode featuring an actual exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, “Uncommon Sense,” which included many of the works produced for the set.


Heather Locklear and Rob Estes in “Melrose Place.” An episode in 1997 featured an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which included works made for the set. Credit CBS Television Studios

In it, Heather Locklear, as the hard-charging advertising executive Amanda Woodward, has just taken on the museum as a client and brings her love interest, Kyle McBride (Rob Estes), to the opening for a stimulating evening of art talk.
Much of it takes place in front of a Ross Bleckner-like painting that alludes to the American bombing of Baghdad. That work was ordered by Carol Mendelsohn, the show’s head writer. This fictional opening, filmed two weeks before the museum’s opening, was one of the great meta moments in television history.
Mr. Chin is by now a well-known figure, a skilled organizer of socially provocative works that can last for years. In a recent project typical of his approach, “The Tie That Binds,” he used native plants to create eight drought-resistant gardens along the Los Angeles River. Visitors were invited to take away a blueprint for one of the gardens and replicate it at home, furthering the cause of water conservation.
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The “Melrose Place” idea began when Mr. Chin was shuttling back and forth between the University of Georgia, where he held a temporary professorship, and the California Institute of the Arts, where he was conducting a workshop. “We discussed pop culture and Hollywood,” said Valerie Tevere, one of his Cal Arts students and now an associate professor of art at the College of Staten Island. “How might artists work with TV. What sort of things could happen?”
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Mr. Chin had never heard of “Melrose Place.” “I was not watching much television at the time,” he said in a recent interview at Red Bull Studios.
But if he was not watching, he was thinking, prompted by Julie Lazar, the director of experimental programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Tom Finkelpearl, a guest curator and now New York’s commissioner of cultural affairs, who approached him to take part in “Uncommon Sense.”
Mr. Chin recalled that while on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles, he looked out the window and thought “Los Angeles is in the air.” The city existed in the trillions of electronic impulses its residents sent through the atmosphere and around the world, transmitting social content and cultural symbols. “Our world is transformed by covert information, political messages,” Mr. Chin said. “How would that work if it was art?”
Back home, Mr. Chin watched as his wife, Helen Nagge, flipped the remote and stopped on an arresting image. “I saw this large blond face filling the screen, with blue eyes,” he said. It was Ms. Locklear. “When she moved, there was a painting behind her, and I said, ‘That’s the gallery.’”


Another work, “Think of the Re-runs.” Credit GALA Committee

Mr. Chin began assembling his troops. The name GALA fused the abbreviations for Georgia and Los Angeles, but eventually the committee absorbed dozens of artists around the country.
The team included students; professional artists; a media scholar (Constance Penley of the University of California, Santa Barbara); and an actual fan of the show, Mark Flood, an old friend of Mr. Chin’s from his native Houston.
Mr. Flood wondered aloud whether the project amounted to a sellout. Mr. Chin told him, “We’re not selling anything, we’re getting in.”
Frank South, an executive producer for the show, and Ms. Mendelsohn decided not to mention the project to Mr. Spelling or the network brass. Eventually, word leaked out. In 1997, The New Yorker ran a Talk of the Town article, “Agitprop,” timed to the opening of “Uncommon Sense.” Mr. South said, “I was busted.”
Mr. Spelling, tickled at the idea of seeing “Melrose Place” in the museum world, took the news well. “Just don’t do anything to hurt the show,” he told his charges.


Another work that was featured on “Melrose Place.” Credit GALA Committee

In early 1996, with the series in its fourth season, the artwork began to arrive, first in a trickle, then in a flood. As a safe-sex message, committee members designed “Safety Sheets” for the manipulative, womanizing Dr. Peter Burns: bedsheets in an all-over pattern of cylindrical shapes that, on close inspection, turned out to be unrolled condoms.
When Alison Parker (Courtney Thorne-Smith) became pregnant, the GALA Committee made her a quilt appliquéd with the chemical symbol for the morning-after pill RU-486. “One of the things we wanted to do was to respond to the fact that in network TV, no matter how strong you are, you cannot have an abortion,” Ms. Penley said. “You either have the baby, or you fall down the stairs. We wanted to put reproductive choice back on network TV.”
One of the sneakier placements — the committee referred to them as “product insertion manifestations” — came from the Cal Arts workshop. When Michael Mancini, a character played by Thomas Calabro, visits a hot-sheet motel, he sees the clerk reading “Libidinal Economy,” a work by the French poststructuralist Jean-François Lyotard.
“Total Proof,” organized by Max Wolf with Candice Strongwater, takes its title from an altered photograph of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, with the damage reworked by the artists to mimic the shape of an Absolut vodka bottle. The work was initially deemed too disturbing to appear on the show, but somehow it ended up, in plain sight, on a wall at D&D Advertising, Amanda’s company.


The work “Cause and Effect Rain Coat.” Credit GALA Committee

As the television project gathered steam, the producers turned to the committee to help invent the character of Samantha Reilly, an artist who, after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, heads out to Los Angeles and moves into the Melrose Place complex. Ms. Mendelsohn was flown out to Kansas City to brainstorm with 10 women on the committee who became known as the Sisters of Sam.
“We thought, she could be a Cindy Sherman, or a Kiki Smith, or a Barbara Kruger,” said Ms. Penley, who envisioned a feminist conceptualist. But the producers demanded paintings in the David Hockney mode, with bright pastels.
“They said, “‘Because the camera loves those colors,’” Mr. Chin recalled.
Hijacking the concept, the Gala Committee turned out a series of cheery-toned paintings on the theme of violence and death in Los Angeles.
The Gala Committee called it a day after the museum episode, but the series continued until May 1999. In a half-serious statement for a sale of many of the artworks at Sotheby’s, Mr. Chin summed up the great intervention as the catalyst for “a profoundly radical transformation of worldwide art, entertainment, communication and government.”
The reality was somewhat less dramatic. “We were exhausted, basically,” Mr. Chin said. “It was very stressful, producing on deadline. The potentiality and the pictorial reality had been enlarged, so we decided to stop there. It was time to release it to the world. And think of the reruns.”

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