The limits of free speech

THERE have been a lot of people, the “great and the good” standing up to defend free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings earlier this month. But once the world spotlight was turned on this French satirical publication some of us lefties noticed that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were appallingly racist. Arguments have raged on social media websites with bourgeois intellectuals claiming that Charlie Hebdo was not racist, it was satirical, part of French intellectual culture that we did not understand and was actually making fun of the racists, they told us. We were accused of insulting the dead and attacking free speech.

No one should be killed for drawing cartoons. But that does not mean we cannot say a bad cartoon is a bad cartoon. That is our free speech.

We have also been accused of denying free speech by taking part in a picket of Channel Four at their proposals to make a sitcom about the great Irish Famine of the 1840s — equivalent to Ireland’s holocaust.

A couple of decades ago in Britain we had a culture of jokes about stereotypes: mean Scotsmen, stupid Irish people, mothers- in-law, women drivers, impossibly camp gay people. It was all supposed to be harmless. But it did make life uncomfortable if not utterly miserable for the butts of these jokes. It made life a misery for black, Irish, Asian children in school playgrounds. Gay teenagers were terrified to admit their homosexuality. Some committed suicide because they feared the ridicule.

We had a sitcom, well written by Johnny Speight and with great actors called Till death us do part featuring a racist old man, Alf Garnett played by Warren Mitchell. It set out gently to mock Alf Garnett’s racism and expose the absurdity of it. And that’s what most viewers got from it. But to racists Alf Garnett became a working class hero. The National Front made many recruits on the strength of it. One of the British National Party leaders, Derek Beackon, styled himself, with bald head and walrus moustache to look like Alf Garnett and went on in 1993 to win a local by-election on the Isle of Dogs.

Johnny Speight and Warren Mitchell were both horrified by this effect and dropped Alf Garnett. Even when racism is presented satirically, racists will still draw support and strength from it.

Just a week ago a naïve Channel Four film crew made Angry, White and Proud which they describe as a “powerful documentary that goes inside the growing number of far-right splinter groups emerging in the UK, providing a candid insight into their members’ motivation and agendas”.

The film crew simply followed one individual, a former member of the English Defence League through some aspects of his home life, his outings with fellow fascists and confrontations with anti-fascists. It also gave would-be great fascist leader Paul Podromou, alias Paul Pitt, time to spout his obnoxious views on camera.

No doubt the film crew were certain this in itself would show up the extreme right wing racists and nationalists for the poorly educated thugs some of them are. And that is what many viewers will have seen. But Paul Pitt and his rag-tag handful of followers will have been well-pleased with the publicity and will get some support on the strength of this programme. A similar programme last summer about EDL women led to the women in question getting congratulated by their EDL colleagues and being bought endless drinks.

In both cases the film makers left out a lot of material that could have really underlined the absurdity of the fascists’ claims, for example the time Podromou claimed he would be leading “two to three thousand” on a march from Woolwich to Westminster and ended up with about a dozen on a train, or the time he staged a mass protest of just 14 people (opposed by hundreds of local anti-fascists who were never shown in the film) in Cricklewood.

There is a good reason why anti-fascists insist on “No platform” for the fascists. And if middle class intellectuals think they can get away with expressing racist views because they are just being satirical, they must not be surprised if anti-fascists just don’t get the joke.