The dragon in the room: why British politicians need to stop ignoring China

Britain’s instinct with regard to China is first to ignore it, second to see it as a giant pot of money and thirdly to impotently complain about its human rights record. Given the country’s importance for our future we need to be more sophisticated than that.

640_cameron-china

During the run up to the General Election, David Cameron appeared to forget which football team he supported. At the time I took to Facebook to grumble “This story means the General Election will have generated more discussion about football than the rise of China”. If it was an exaggeration, it wasn’t much of one. The Labour manifesto said that: “As power and wealth continues to shift from West to East, our relationship with Asia will be fundamental to our long-term prosperity. Labour will set up an Asia Step-Change Taskforce to ensure a more strategic and effective dialogue with regional partners, including China, both in the commerical realm, and in other areas, from cultural exchange to human rights.”  It was the only reference to China in the document. It’s also the sole mention in any major party’s manifesto that China’s coming ascendancy might change British foreign policy. It’s mentioned a couple of other times but they are all to do with trade. Oh and UKIP make a random point about other countries including China burning cheaper fossil fuels than the UK does!

China just doesn’t come up in British political debates all that much. The media does talk about the country a fair bit but usually as a business story. And as the references in the manifesto imply that’s a lead politicians follow. Even when we acknowledge that there is more to China than money, we see unable to move beyond human rights issues. That lends political discussions of the UK-China relationship an air of unreality. Through our pressure we will apparently cajole China into freeing Tibet or being less beastly to the Falun Gong. In reality, China now has a larger economy, more powerful military and greater clout than the UK, so it is more likely they will influence us than visa versa.

This is in sharp contrast to the US. One of the tenants of Obama’s foreign policy is ‘a pivot to Asia’. This has included sending additional American troops to South Korea and setting up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) a huge trade deal including nations that between them account for almost half of global GDP. The aim has been to strengthen the bonds between the US and its allies in the vicinity of China. Given that most of this originated from Hilary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, it seems likely that the US will be pivoting for a while longer.

It is not only in official circles that Americans are discussing what China’s rise will mean. Gallup polling on which country Americans believe to be the US’s threat produces fairly erratic numbers. But China is always among the top three ‘threats’. The concern is sufficiently widespread that Donald Trump has sensed it as a subject on which he can demagogue. While Mexican and Muslims have borne the brunt of his xenophobia, China has also been a target.

There are legitimate reasons that Europeans would be less interested in China than an American. The kind of thing the US is trying to pivot away from – the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine – are on Europe’s border. The US also has larger Chinese and East Asian diasporas. And there’s the brute fact that what we do just matters less: the US navy might be able to turn back a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the Royal Navy clearly couldn’t.

That said we will increasingly see China playing a role outside its traditional sphere of influence. Let me illustrate that point using two issues.

Firstly, China is being gradually being pulled into the War on Terror. Since 9/11, China has being drawing a link between unrest amongst its Uyghur minority – who are mostly Muslim – and international terrorism. It’s hard to tell to what extent the Communist Party is conflating actual terrorism and peaceful dissent. However, if there wasn’t a link before, the clampdown on the Uyghur’s and their religious freedom has created a blacklash that has radicalised some young Chinese. ISIS now produces propaganda material in Mandarin and has executed a Chinese national. These kinds of trends are pushing China to, for example, becoming increasingly involved in Afghanistan and even conduct negotiations with the Taliban.

Secondly, let us consider the founding of an institution known as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). You will be unsurprised to find out that its stated purpose is to provide investment for infrastructure projects in developing countries – especially those in Asia. Its creation was a Chinese initiative and it was widely interpreted as being its attempt to create an alternative to the World Bank. This hints at what is probably the most profound impact of China’s rise. Since WWII, the institutions and rules governing the international order have largely been those created by Western nations. China is beginning to acquire the heft to change those. There’s a plausible argument that this might be a bad thing. For example, the US feared that the AIIB would reflect the poor standards of governance prevalent within China. That might mean less transparency or loans given without regard to the environmental consequences or potential for corruption. There was also a fear that China would use its dominant role within the organisation to turn it into a tool for promoting its own economic interests: say by pressuring the recipients of loans to use them to buy surplus Chinese goods. These fears led the US, Japan and Australia to boycott the institution.

What makes the saga of the AIIB particularly instructive is that European countries including the UK took more or less exactly the opposite approach to the US. They joined the AIIB and were thereby able to dilute Chinese control of the organisation. China now pledges the AIIB will match the World Bank’s lending standards and has stopped talking about it as a way of solving its ‘excess capacity’ problem. We will have to see how the AIIB performs in practice to judge whether European engagement or American wariness was wiser. Either way the issue has revealed the potential for China’s rise to strain the UK’s relationship with the US. The White House publically rebuked the UK for joining the AIIB and behind the scenes US officials complained that they hadn’t been consulted before Britain made the decision. I doubt that this will be the last time such divisions flare up. For the reasons already discussed it is a lot easier to take a benign view of China from London from Washington. This extends to public attitudes: Pew found 55% of Americans view China unfavourably compared to just 38% of Britains. Staying close to the US has been the overriding objective of British foreign policy since at least WWII. China’s rise may force Britain to re-evaluate whether that’s still desirable or indeed feasible.

Same sex marriage is not a gateway to polygamy

The two issues are not the same: one is about who can get married, the other is about the nature of marriage.

The increasingly feeble efforts of opponents of equal marriage to find (apparently) non-homophobic grounds for their belief often seem to lead them to a slippery slope argument: if we allow gay people to marry then it logically follows that we have to allow polygamy too. No less a figure than John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, made this argument in no less a place than his dissent from his Court’s decision to legalise equal marriage.

More strangely, this argument has now been adopted by those of a more liberal disposition. Take, for example, this piece from the Economist arguing that:

Now that gay marriage is finally legal from sea to shining sea, it’s time for liberals to refine their arguments against polygamy. We need better, more rationally compelling arguments if we wish to be fair in shutting against would-be polygamists the libertarian door that we’ve just blasted open.

I confess I just don’t see the strong connection between the issues that proponents of polygamy and opponents of SSM do. In only the vaguest sense are the issues analogous.

For starters, the nature of those supposedly discriminated against is profoundly different. Being gay is an immutable and fundamental element of a person’s identity. Yes, most individuals probably have some fluidity as to their sexual identity but not enough to prevent a societal norm that one must be straight causing psychological damage to vast swathes of people. For this reason, virtually all legal systems treat sexuality as one of a number of characteristics (the others being race, sex etc.) that require special protection.

Desiring to marry more than one individual is not such a characteristic. It is an opinion or lifestyle choice that generally attracts no special protection from human rights law. It might be that those with religious motivations for their polygamy may be an exception because faith is generally a protected characteristic. However, if they could clear this hurdle they would face another.

Despite the frequent howls from its opponents that same sex marriage was a ‘redefinition’ of marriage, it actually leaves the institution itself almost wholly unchanged. What it does is allow access to the institution to those who were previously denied it. To give it legal effect all that is required is to replace gender specific pronouns in legislation.

In an article for the  Atlantic, Conor Friedersorf explains why permitting polygamy would be a vastly more complicated matter:

….the legal institution [of marriage] is largely concerned with the “designation, without elaborate contracting, of a single other person third parties can look to in a variety of legal contexts.” Three-, four-, or five-person unions would require abandoning that aspect of marriage.

Americans can presently marry a foreign citizen and bring them here, after jumping through bureaucratic hoops, eventually sponsoring them for U.S. citizenship. Would the advent of plural marriage require that this practice be ended? Or would group marriages include the right to confer unlimited citizenships?

When I got married I was eligible to add my wife to my employer-sponsored health insurance. In a world of plural marriage, would this benefit of the institution end, or could I add as many people as I liked to my employer’s insurance plan?

If the parties to a plural marriage disagree about a medical decision that needs to be made on behalf of an unconscious spouse, who would get to decide the matter? Who would receive the Social Security survivor benefits if the patient died? These logistical matters add real costs to recognizing plural marriages––and they lessen the simplifying benefits that marriage confers on society. They also suggest that expanding the definition of civil marriage to encompass more than two parties is a far more radical, fundamental change than was recognizing unions of same-sex couples.

It thus follows that a prohibition on polygamy is not an arbitrary act of discrimination but a decision as to the nature of one of our most important legal institutions.

Which is not to say that polygamy is undesirable.* There is a big difference between saying something is not a human right and saying it is not right. However, that means it’s a subject for democratic debate. And as the ones advocating a change, the onus is on advocates of legal polygamy to provide positive reasons for allowing it. They cannot, as some hope and others fear, simply point to the advent of equal marriage and claim it necessitates their position.

*Though as it happens I would indeed make that argument.

Praising Magna Carta, burying the Human Rights Act

How a mythical version of Magna Carta is being used to undermine real human rights.

Magna Carta – more often invoked than understood

The Onion, with its typical brilliance, once concocted the headline “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be” for the satirical story of

self-described American patriot Kyle Mortensen, 47,….whose understanding of the Constitution derives not from a close reading of the document but from talk-show pundits, books by television personalities, and the limitless expanse of his own colorful imagination. “It’s time for true Americans to stand up and protect the values that make us who we are.

And thinks:

…the most serious threat to his fanciful version of the 222-year-old Constitution is the attempt by far-left “traitors” to strip it of its religious foundation.

“Right there in the preamble, the authors make their priorities clear: ‘one nation under God,'” said Mortensen, attributing to the Constitution a line from the Pledge of Allegiance, which itself did not include any reference to a deity until 1954. “Well, there’s a reason they put that right at the top.

In Britain, we don’t have a codified constitution to reimagine in line with our ideological prejudices. But we do have Magna Carta. And instead of Kyle Mortensen, we have David Cameron, who will say:

… the world was changed for ever when King John put his seal to Magna Carta. “The limits of executive power, guaranteed access to justice, the belief that there should be something called the rule of law, that there shouldn’t be imprisonment without trial – Magna Carta introduced the idea that we should write these things down and live by them.

But that:

“…here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted and devalued. It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system. It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this.”

The legal journalist David Allen Green dissects this peculiar British habit of praising Magna Carta whilst disdaining the human right instruments that are actually in effect. Drawing on a speech by Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption he observes that the document itself was toothless, irrelevant and short-lived. It was essentially forgotten until propagandists in the age of the Stuarts began using it as a basis for their contemporary claims:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.

It is heady stuff, and it should be read aloud, perhaps to Purcell or Elgar.

But read it again carefully, and you will see it says little which is concrete at all. For as Sumption and others have pointed out, its meaning is essentially circular: you shall only be treated by the law under the “law of the land”.  it tells you nothing about what that law should be.  And if the “law of the land” includes, say, an unfettered royal prerogative or other unlimited executive powers, then it offers no protection whatsover; and it didn’t.  It was – and remains – a platitude, a slogan.

And so, the advances in “liberal” protections for the individual in English legal history – the writs of habeas corpus or the rulings against unrestricted warrants – came in unrelated legal developments, none of which depended on Magna Carta.

In fact, for a supposedly fundamental document, there is little to see of its “fundamental” effect: few, if any, cases have ever turned on it.  Although it is often invoked in passing, it lacks the live and real effect of an actual constitutional instrument.  Compare this impotence with the entitlements in the US Bill of Rights, which make actual differences to US citizens every day.

But, but….

But, so what?  Magna Carta is symbolic, isn’t it? And isn’t symbolism important?

So used are many people to thinking Magna Carta is a Good Thing they are displeased at hearing anything about it other than praise.  Don’t you understand, they will ask, that Magna Carta is symbolic?

Symbolism is important. And what Magna Carta is symbolic of is not a great English constitutional principle, but the lack of one.  It symbolises the capacity of people to nod-along at being told they have fictional and non-existent rights instead of having rights which can actually be enforced.  It symbolises that people are content with believing in fairy tales.

Those with political and legal power know this.  It is safe for the government to want you to celebrate Magna Carta, which you cannot rely on in court, whilst it – for example – seeks to repeal the Human Rights Act, which you can.

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, asked Tony Hancock.  Sadly, to the extent it matters, Magna Carta means almost nothing at all.

Now, one could be cynical about Cameron wrapping himself in Magna Carta; he has to talk about Magna Carta for the same reason communist East Germany had to call itself ‘the German Democratic Republic’. I’m inclined to be more generous and see it instead as an example of widespread naivety on the right. They think liberty is intrinsic to Britishness: just look at our history of respecting  freedoms that stretches all the way back to Magna Carta!

One can see this assumption that the British of all people don’t need need onerous human rights standards in the regularity with which opponents of the ECHR observe that it was originally intended to stop the rise of another Hitler and therefore should not possibly be affecting a country like Britain. Indeed, I once heard a Conservative friend argue that it was safe to scrap the Human Rights Act because “it wasn’t like we weren’t free before it passed”.

This is a supremely complacent reading of history. It arises from the conservative proclivity for reducing the word to simplistic binaries: there are free nations and then there are tyrannies. In fact, free nations can act most tyrannically. For example, the US Senate’s report on the use of torture found that amongst other atrocities, detainees had pureed food pumped it into their anuses.

Some of the victims of these cruelties found themselves in Black Sites due to collusion by British authorities. And lest we forget we used torture ourselves in Northern Ireland, in our colonies and even during our proudest moment: WWII.

Sadly, this is not an exception. Britain has a long history not only of freedom but also of oppression. We were the nation that invented concentration camps. British soldiers massacred hundreds of peaceful protestors on a single day in India. The victim’s relatives did not have the option that Baha Moussa’s family did of taking Britain to the ECHR. Or closer to home, we might note that marital rape only became a crime in Britain in 1991. There is thus nothing about being British that makes us impervious to the temptation to abuse and degrade.

That means we need those instruments that entrench a culture of human rights. It is good that we that through the ECHR, we are part of a community of nations that challenge each other to uphold human rights. And it is desirable that the Human Rights Act makes it easier to bring challenges by allowing them to be heard in British courts rather than a massively backlogged one in Strasbourg. Neither Magna Carta specifically nor our history generally gives us any right to imagine we are above such things.

Missing the point on freedom of speech

The staff of Charlie Hebdo deserved to be protected from terrorism and censorship but not criticism of their cartoons.

The murderous terror attack on the staff at the French satirical magazine and the police officers who tried to save them is an atrocity. As such it naturally has produced anger and an urge to defy its perpetrators. That has led to the magazine becoming a symbol of free speech: the hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’ has become a rallying cry, the people behind the magazine have been proclaimed as heroes, the project of offending religions declared to be inherently worthwhile and even the suggestion that as deplorable as their killing was their cartoons were nonetheless unpleasant has itself been seen by some as a taboo. We’ve even had the suggestion from the normally sensible Kenan Malik that we are not only free to publish cartoons that Muslim’s find offensive but apparently obligated to do so.

Clearly terrorism needs to defied and the right to publish without fear of violence needs to upheld but that still leaves me uncomfortable about this identification with Charlie Hebdo. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann does a good job explaining why:

The editors and cartoonists murdered in Wednesday’s attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo are now martyrs for the cause of free speech. Threatened with death for publishing drawings of the prophet Mohammed meant to mock Islamic radicals, they refused to censor themselves, and so were gunned down. They died bravely for an ideal we all treasure.

But their work featuring Mohammed could be sophomoric and racist. Not all of it; a cover image of the prophet about to be beheaded by a witless ISIS thug was trenchant commentary on how little Islamic radicalism has to do with the religion itself. But often, the cartoonists simply rendered Islam’s founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.

This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.” As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian, “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”

So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.

There is something rather illogical in the impulse to proclaim Charlie Hebdo’s output to be more meritorious than it was. Surely the whole point of freedom of speech is that covers speech in general not just what we consider to be good speech?

Indeed in the context of terrorism, we ought to go further. Even had the staff at Charlie Hebdo been publishing something that would have been a legitimate target for state censorship*, say explicit calls for violence against Muslims, then that would have been a matter for the police and courts not Kalashnikov wielding fanatics.

A convincing argument for freedom of speech needs to be able to deal with the fact that not all those who fall under its protection are saying sensible or desirable things. We will often have to  defend people we wouldn’t want to be identified: Je ne suis pas Charlie but I don’t have to be to think they ought to be able to speak out in safety.

Postscript

This comes much closer to my attitude to freedom of speech than ‘Je suis Charlie’:

Though obviously I am not like Ahmed, he’s clearly a much braver man than me.

*To clarify they were not.

There is no such thing as a trivial breach of human rights

For the second part of what I fear will be an ongoing series on why the Tory proposals on human rights are awful, we turn to the notion of trivial human rights. Here let me quote from Mark Elliot’s analysis of this issue:

In some ways, the fifth proposal is the most astonishing. Under it, the use of human-rights laws would be limited to “the most serious cases”. The obvious question which this invites is: what would constitute a sufficiently serious case? The answer given in the Conservatives’ paper is as follows:

The use of the new law will be limited to cases that involve criminal law and the liberty of an individual, the right to property and similar serious matters. There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, ensuring UK courts strike out trivial cases.

This proposal is questionable on a variety of levels. It is, for instance, unclear why cases involving “criminal law”, “liberty” and “property” should be singled out as particularly important. What of free speech, the right not to be tortured, and rights of due process? Nor is it clear what would constitute “similar[ly] serious matters”. It is not even clear by reference to what criteria seriousness and its observe, triviality, would be determined.

There is, however, a larger point here. To focus on the technical difficulty involved in differentiating between serious and trivial human-rights cases would be to confer false dignity upon that distinction. There are meritorious (i.e. well-founded) and unmeritorious (i.e. not well-founded) human-rights claims; but to suggest that there are serious and trivial human-rights claims is to diminish — indeed, misunderstand — the notion of human rights at a fundamental level. This is not to suggest that there may not be a hierarchy of rights (as is reflected, for instance, by the distinction between absolute and qualified rights), but the very fact that a right is considered to be a human right ought to immunise it against any suggestion that it is insufficiently important to warrant judicial protection if unlawfully infringed.

If the Conservative Party wishes to argue in favour of judicial protection of a much narrower range of rights than those that are presently recognised by the ECHR, then it is perfectly entitled to make such an argument — but it is disingenuous to claim that the Bill of Rights would include all of the Convention rights, only to deny judicial protection in respect of those judged to be “trivial”.

As far as I can see, the Conservatives have failed not only to explain what will constitute a “trivial” breach but – as far as I can see – haven’t even given any examples. That leaves me rather unclear what it is exactly I’m critiquing. But as with the matter of “responsibility” that I looked at yesterday, Grayling and the Tories are trying to add what wasn’t missing in the first place.

Most of the rights contained in the ECHR are ‘qualified.’ That the public authority will not be in breach of the Convention if it can show that it was ‘justified’ in interfering with that right. The question of justification is assessed in part by reference to idea of ‘proportionality.’ This means that greater interferences demand stronger justifications. And that conversely, a trivial interference will be easy to justify.

Even for ‘unqualified’ rights, the Court will still need to be convinced that a right has been interfered with.  So for example, Article 5 prohibits the “deprivation of liberty” (i.e. unlawful imprisonment) but distinguishes between that and mere “restrictions on movement.” And the court is pretty serious about what it takes for the later concept to turn into the former. In one case it ruled that police kettling did not constitute a “deprivation of liberty.”

My fear as with “responsibility” is that this is not only unnecessary but another way to take human rights away people the Tories don’t approve of: that a breach will be trivial if it affects ‘our people‘ but not if its human rights of gypsies or asylum seekers on the line.

Human rights law already takes account of responsibilities

Cait Reilly, whose legal challenge to being made to work for benefits was used as an example of the fact judges weren’t taking account of people’s responsibilities – until the Supreme Court ruled her human rights had not been breached.

Legal journalist and blogger, David Allen Green, appears to have got hold of a press release detailing Tory plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. It’s not an encouraging read as it becomes clear that despite the rhetoric the purpose is to curtail human rights. I was particularly disappointed to see the following:

The plan provides a proper balance between the rights of citizens and their responsibilities in our society, and in particular to limit the ability of those who threaten British citizens or society to use human rights laws to protect their interests at the expense of the victims or potential victims.

The reason that this is so depressing is that the Conservatives had appeared to get that it was a pernicious idea to encode ‘responsibilities’ into human rights law. The Commission on a British Bill of Rights established as a result of the coalition agreement failed to reach consensus on very much at all – including whether their should even be a British Bill of Rights – but there was agreement amongst its members (including the Conservative ones) that:

 

….it is in the nature of  human rights that they exist for all human beings equally without reference to whether they are ‘deserving’ or not and that they cannot be made directly contingent on the behaviour of the individuals concerned. We thus do not believe, if there were to be a UK Bill of Rights, that the rights it contained should be made conditional upon the exercise of responsibilities. We do believe, however, that the formulation to be found in a number of the existing Articles in the European Convention on Human Rights whereby the rights in question are subject to such exceptions as are necessary in a democratic society for, amongst other things, the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, is one which should be emphasised in any UK Bill of Rights. We also believe, for reasons which are set out in the body of our report, that a UK Bill of Rights, if there were to be such a Bill, should contain a jurisdiction for a court to award damages but that this course should be discretionary and that in reaching such decisions the courts should be directed to take into account the conduct of the applicant.

It went on to explain that:

Many respondents [to the Commission’s consultation] also argued that responsibilities were in practice already present within the fabric of our present human rights legislation, not least by reference to many of the balancing tests in the European Convention itself. They noted that there were very few absolute rights under the Convention and that both the Convention and the Human Rights Act already focused, correctly in their view, on the rights of others and the wider public interest. For example, the human rights charity, René Cassin, said in response to our consultations that Convention rights are constantly weighed “against the general good of society, such as public health or national security. This is responsibilities by another name.” Others made the point that responsibilities were already embedded in our legal system by virtue of individuals who break these laws being subject to punishment through the normal criminal justice system.

I suppose that one could conclude from this that recognising responsibilities would simply be redundant and therefore harmless. If only that were true.

Reading the list of cases the Conservatives claim they will stop human rights being applied in makes it clear something more sinister is going on. I fear that talk of ‘responsibility’ in this context is dog whistle politics: a way to right-wing voters that ‘of course people like you deserve human rights but not those travellers, terror suspects or immigrants.

What does free speech actually mean?

Duck-Dynasty-theme-shot

Is free speech just about the law or does it also need to protect people from social pressure?

Until this week I was – along with just about everybody else in the UK – blissfully unaware of the existence of Duck Dynasty. It’s a reality TV show about a clan that made its millions selling accessories for duck hunters.

What has brought this program from the obscurity of American Cable TV are some unfortunate remarks by the patriarch of the family. Not only did he compare Shintoism to Fascism and imply that Jim Crow wasn’t all that bad. He also said this:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. … Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right … We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus — whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”

And even more weirdly this:

It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

In the context of an America in which everything must apparently become a partisan issue: left and right have come to different views. For example, Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote on Facebook:

The reason that so many Americans love Duck Dynasty is because it represents the America usually ignored or mocked by liberal elites: a family that loves and cares for each other, believes in God, and speaks openly about their faith.

If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson. Phil expressed his personal views and his own religious faith; for that, he was suspended from his job. In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him–but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree.

Liberals have responded by pointing out that Mr Robertson’s first amendment rights have not actually been breached. The liberal website Think Progress wrote that:

These outraged messages have largely defended Robertson’s anti-gay comments as an expression of his religious beliefs without acknowledging his remarks that African Americans were better off without full civil rights. On that point, they have been notably silent. Moreover, nothing about this situation has anything to do with “free speech.”

Robertson is a free man. He has not been arrested for his beliefs. He could continue to say whatever he’d like and, given the current media frenzy, it would probably be quickly published in many other places. Robertson could even take to his own website and publish whatever he wants to say, and individuals could share it through social media the world over. His freedom of speech has been in no way encumbered.

A&E, as a company, enjoys constitutional protections as well, and is under no obligation to provide a platform for messages it disagrees with. The network’s statement suspending Robertson from filming was telling in this regard: “His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” A&E is not Robertson’s employer, lest it be forgotten that the show Duck Dynasty is about his actual business, Duck Commander, which produces duck calls and other related (and not-so-related) products.

What actually is taking place is that conservatives are taking umbrage because a fellow conservative’s beliefs are being publicly criticized. This happens all the time. When Chick-fil-A head Dan Cathy, whose company gives millions of dollars annually to anti-gay groups, said that homosexuality is “twisted up kind of stuff” that is “inviting God’s judgment,” LGBT groups called for awareness-raising and boycotts while conservatives rushed to show their “appreciation.” The exact opposite happened when companies like Starbucks and General Mills announced their support for marriage equality: LGBT groups offered praise, while anti-gay groups vowed to dump their products.

Surprisingly I actually have some sympathy for the right-wing perspective on this one. No less a liberal luminary than J.S Mill worried not only about formal censorship but also the “despotism of custom.” He worried that social pressures could silence dissenting opinions in the same way as laws. That might not concern us unduly when it’s the bigoted ramblings of Mr Robertson being silenced. However, decades back someone expressing the opposite opinions would have been driven out of public life. Society can be in error and the pressure it exerts can be a problem. However, we must also remember that freedom of speech covers the freedom to criticise and the freedom of association cover the freedom to disassociate from someone we find disagreeable.

So in A&E’s position would I have done? I am won over by Andrew Sullivan’s position that:

Robertson is a character in a reality show. He’s not a spokesman for A&E any more than some soul-sucking social x-ray from the Real Housewives series is a spokeswoman for Bravo. Is he being fired for being out of character? Nah. He’s being fired for staying in character – a character A&E have nurtured and promoted and benefited from. Turning around and demanding a Duck Dynasty star suddenly become the equivalent of a Rachel Maddow guest is preposterous and unfair.

Iowa grants gun licenses to blind people (America week)

I initially thought this was another example of crazy US gun laws  but actually I’m not so sure about.

This Guardian article on the subject quotes this rather reasonable perspective from a blind activist:

The fact is, US law says anyone has the right to bear arms, and if that’s the case, then, in the interests of full equality, that should include blind people.”

But isn’t this dangerous? Potentially, says Macrae, pointing out that it’s dangerous for anyone to carry a gun. “I wouldn’t say it was more dangerous. I’d say we would have to be more responsible in the way in which we behaved with those weapons, discharged them and so on – the person would need to behave responsibly, rather than it being on society to say: ‘Oh, sorry guys, this is too dangerous, so we’re going to exclude you.’

The article cites cases where a blind person might be able to use a gun responsibly for example on a firing range or when hunting with a companion.

I don’t know what I think about this: should I be worried if disabled people are denied a right that able bodied people shouldn’t have either.

Hat-Tip: HB