Friday, 20 March 2009

Cheer for freedom of expression, but not too loud

Next person to call Greece the cradle of democracy gets their ears boxed, courtesy of me.
It’s not even funny any more. It actually hurts to hear Greeks and non-Greeks sing the praises of our ancient glories when, nowadays, Greece looks more like the place where democratic ideals go to die. Part of that is a government that just doesn’t care enough to even pretend they care. Part is a repressive and irresponsible police force. And part – the worst part – is that chunk of citizenry that doesn’t care to fight for freedom and some times is way too eager to shout against it.
Freedom is great you see, as long as it cleans up after itself and doesn’t cause unnecessary traffic jams. Oh and as long as we like it and it doesn’t take up too much time or clash with this evening’s socio-cultural happening.

But a couple of weeks ago, clash it did.
A co-production of the Greek Lyriki Skini and the Opéra de Nice was expected to be one of those events attended both by genuine music lovers and by those who wanted to say ‘oh yes, I saw Dvořák’s Rusalka, didn’t you?’ Neither group expected the opening to turn into a struggle over artistic freedom, censorship and homophobia.

The story begins with a new interpretation of a known work. Happens all the time. But not all revisionist directors have a vigilante musicians’ union to reckon with.

On opening night, a union picket was handing out leaflets outside the theatre, informing the audience of the dangers lurking in the director’s revisionism. They accused director Marion Wasserman’s adaptation of adulterating the libretto and undermining the work.
And those stalwart defenders of artistic purity would not stand for it.
Of course the libretto was untouched, the score unaltered and the musicians’ union did not object to the orchestration or casting. In fact, this had nothing to do with music. This was about stage instructions, the manifesto denouncing Wasserman's addition of ‘extreme scenes’ of a sexual nature.
Extreme scenes, ladies and gentlemen.
Drum roll please.
A kiss.
Between men.

Homophobes of the world unite.
The union complained to the ministry of culture and staged a picket outside the theatre. Inside the theatre large parts of the audience – possibly egged on by agitators – booed, heckled and jeered when the performers and director took to the stage after the end of the performance. Disgruntled opera-goers spoke to the ‘Nea’ news crew. My favourite was a man who exclaimed he could not possibly bring his wife to ‘shows like this’. His wife obviously inhabits the 17th century. As does the rest of Greece, it seems.

A homophobic picket? An audience that boos its disagreement?
And before you say it was an isolated incident, when, at the Lyriki’s urging, Les-Bi-Gay representatives issued a statement before curtains-up on the second night, they were booed by the orchestra and audience in perfect synchronisation.

So art is to be censored and curtailed and never to show us anything we don’t already know, like, are comfortable in and agree with.
The same applies to life, it seems.

Greece’s Supreme Court has now legitimised the firing of an HIV-positive worker. This is not a case of someone being fired, who also happened to be HIV-positive. This is someone who was fired because he was HIV positive. And the Supreme Court ruled that the firing was legitimate and the man was consequently not entitled to compensation as the decision to let him go was within the limits of labour legislation and the employer’s rights. How?
His presence was disrupting the smooth operation of the company. How?
His work mates were upset.

The man was sacked in February 2005 after his workmates submitted a written request for his dismissal. On health grounds.
Understandably, he appealed and won.
So his employer counter-appealed bringing us to the Supreme Court. That effectively ruled that it’s ok to demonise people and to yield to unscientific fears and prejudiced instincts and to hell with the lives of those who don’t fit into the grand plan of ‘how things should be’.

So to recap: it is the year of our Lord 2009 and people in Greece think that they may catch HIV by sharing a water fountain with a patient, the Supreme Court not only fails to point out how ludicrous that is but goes ‘there, there’ and pats them on the head, encouraging the notion that it’s ok to drive away everyone that makes us uncomfortable meanwhile a subtle reference to homosexuality in a work of art is met with full-blown industrial action.

Let’s cheer the birthplace of philosophy, democracy and ethics everyone.

Oh of course we are all for democracy and freedom. Just not for those who disagree with our tastes and beliefs, those who look different, live differently and smell funny. Particularly not those who smell funny.

So go on children, cheer for democracy, individual rights and freedoms and free speech.
Just not too loud. We don’t want to give people ideas now do we?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Is this a hoodie I see before me?

Last time ‘fashion policing’ actually occurred in Greece, a slightly deranged dictator dispatched policemen with measuring tapes onto the streets of Athens. His name was Pangalos and he objected to short skirts. This time things are more sinister because fashion policing is coming from a democratically elected government trying to outlaw the hoodie. Because trouble-makers wear hoodies you see. Ergo hoodies mean trouble.

Justice Minister Dendias clarified that sporting a hood is not a crime in itself. But if someone is caught breaking the law and wearing a hood at the same time, they will be punished more severely than if they had made a different wardrobe choice.

Is it true that vandals often pull hoods tightly around their faces in order to make identification harder? Oh yes.
Is it true that Athens has experienced a spike in vandalism since December 2008, and that many of the culprits wear hoods? Oh yes.
Is it true that the government has been unable to curb, control or even understand the wave of violence and has thus been ineffectual in every way? Oh yes.
Hence the hood legislation.
It could have been worse. Apparently loud voices in parliament demanded that wearing a hoodie was outlawed as such. This time they were not listened to. Just.

But this law is bad enough as it is – elevating a wardrobe choice to the factor that turns a misdemeanour into a crime in sentencing terms, regardless of context, the severity of the acts committed and the existence (or not) of prior convictions.
And I can’t help but think that this will only help play the statistics game.
Surely the vandals have broken the law already. Hood or no hood they should be arrested. But they are not. Because the police can’t or won’t find them.
How is the hood law going to help with that?

Well it won’t of course. But it will give the police latitude to arrest fringe elements in protests or demonstrators who dare protect themselves against tear-gas – a riot police favourite. The hood law will allow the police to look busy. And it will lead to the harassment of anyone kitted out in ‘criminal attire’.
You think I’m reading too much into this?
Well, if the Greek government can read your character through your wardrobe choices, I can read political intent in legislative reform if I want to. And I have a bit more than a jumper to go on. As the hood law is in good company.

As part of the new bout of legislative frenzy, ‘insulting’ public servants – which includes shouting out chants against the police or parliamentarians – is to lead to automatic prosecution.
Now that’s a blast from the past.
Greece used to have laws that banned citizens from insulting the authorities.
Greece also used to have a dictatorship.
Getting rid of those laws, allowing citizens to protest and, if they so wished, to chant against the police or their government was a huge step towards democratisation. And now it’s being revoked ‘in light of recent events’ according to the Justice Minister.
What events would those be, sir?
Would they have anything to do with the death of a 15-year old boy?
Do I need to remind anyone that the policeman who shot Alex in December 2008 claimed that Alex and his friends taunted him and his colleagues?
In light of recent events, I hardly need to ask myself whose side the law is on.
It wasn’t on Alex’s and it’s not on mine.
It’s not on yours either, unless you are a policeman.

You see, the police need our protection and support now, in light of recent events.
I swear I am not making it up. I am quoting the Justice Minister verbatim.
We cannot yell at the police or insult them, in light of recent events.
We need to protect them from the cowards protesting with their faces hidden.
Thus spake the Justice Minister trying to whip up some rightful indignation.

I for one am not feeling any of that.
I’m too busy being horrified at the government’s blatant disregard for the basic premises of the rule of law and democratic freedoms.
I’m too busy being furious at the government’s evident confidence in their ability to fool us. They think we can’t see through their inability to understand and their unwillingness to act. They think we can’t see the difference between noise and action.
They think we can’t understand the difference between the ‘who’ and the ‘why’.
But we can.
And we can see no-one is addressing why these young people are so desperate, so angry. Why they are out on the streets, wearing hoods, setting things on fire.
So go on, arrest them.
But while you are not thinking about the why, you can keep on arresting and they’ll keep on coming. That’s how it goes. The dispossessed have nothing to lose.

I don’t want to point out the obvious here but the vandals are breaking the law anyway. If they are not yet arrested, it has nothing to do with the existing legal framework.
So these new pieces of legislation are doing two things: mocking us and gagging us. And I don’t much like either of those.

‘We must protect the police’ said the Minister of Justice.
Well, no, not really.
On a good day, they must protect us.
On a bad day, like the ones we’ve been having recently, we must be protected from them.
How a bit of legislation doing that, mr Prime Minister?
Or are you too busy banning yellow T-shirts next?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A lesson in losing perspective: Muntadhar al-Zaidi

Remember Muntadhar al-Zaidi?
We all cheered him when he threw a shoe at Bush in December last year. Some of us even thought ‘oh man, I wish I had done that’. We cheered him and we forgot about him. And when he was sentenced to three years in prison a few days ago, for attempting to assault a foreign leader, nobody really noticed.

Zaidi, a journalist, pleaded ‘not guilty’ to charges of assault, considering his act a reaction to the violence he and his people had suffered in the hands of the American invader. But as it often happens with these things, if you have an army, your trespasses are discussed in round tables, if you protest on your own, you soon find that most of what you can think of doing breaks the law. So Bush is sitting at home and Zaidi is going to jail.

Now, I'm not saying that chucking shoes at people you dislike is an acceptable form of political disagreement. I am saying that, in the context of Iraq, war changes the normal rules of the game.
Of course there is a debate to be had here about the limits of lawful protests and the boundaries of legitimate expressions of disagreement. But this debate cannot be had in war-torn Iraq, not yet. Not while the US occupation forces are still on the ground. Not while democracy and civil society are still just words in textbooks.
But rather than admitting that the debate regarding acceptable limits to freedom of expression cannot be had in the context of a war and what Zaidi did cannot be judged as if it were done in peace time, the court ploughed on ahead regardless.

Surely, when shoot-outs on the streets are a daily occurrence, the boundaries of what constitutes ‘violent behaviour’ ought to be slightly adjusted to fit reality?

But even if context is not taken into account, a three-year jail sentence is radically out of proportion with the nature of the crime, if flinging a shoe can be described as a crime at all, raising important questions about the sobriety, independence and reliability of Iraqi courts.

It is telling that Zaidi’s lawyers failed to convince the court to reduce the charge of attempted assault to insult. The courts were evidently making a point, still the tragic irony of the terminology is way too poignant: In the context of an on-going war, you would expect people to know the difference between a flying loafer and mortar. But everyone is in a flap over insulting the Americans and moderation has gone out the window. Premier Nuri Al-Maliki described the throwing of the shoe as a ‘barbaric act’ in December, earning himself universal scorn for having no sense of perspective. Obviously the sentencing has done his reputation as an American mouthpiece no favours.

The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory is shocked and dismayed at the harshness of the decision. Public opinion in Iraq, however, remains divided, some believing that a foreign guest should not be insulted under any circumstances and a journalist should be able to keep a cooler head. Others of course have hailed Zaidi as a hero.

The court had a chance to diffuse this situation without taking sides, but the harshness of the sentence imposed shows they have no such intention.
The anti-American Shiite factions have already accused the pro-US factions of leaning too heavily on the judges while the response form Maliki’s party was the incredibly callous: “If this case was politicized, the punishment would have been harsher.”

And the Americans?
Desperate to leave Iraq, they have stopped caring about their legacy.

This was a unique opportunity to lead, to inspire, to show what democracy, free speech and toleration look like in practice.
Maybe they did lean on the judiciary to get retribution of sorts – and if that happened it shows a complete lack of vision, humanity and imagination.
But maybe they didn’t lean on the judiciary at all. They left the Iraqi judges to fret over expunging the insult and placating the Americans on their own and, in doing so, they missed a momentous opportunity to lead, teach and inspire.

So Zaidi is going to prison for throwing a shoe at Bush.
Bush goes home to tend to his presidential library after carpet-bombing Zaidi's country.
And ‘democracy-building’ in Iraq has gone from being an empty shell to a hollow promise, not even symbolically upheld by those who made it.

So when we start wondering when America went beyond caring about democratisation in Iraq, remember Muntadhar al-Zaidi.