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A bonfire of the freedoms

It is traditional at this time of year to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. My Catholic family never had a problem with doing that. Fawkes was a terrorist before the name was invented. But for variety’s sake, effigies of many public figures other than Fawkes have been put on the bonfire over the years. The town of Lewes is particularly known for its vigorous celebrations:

In 2001 effigies of Osama bin Laden were burned by the Cliffe, Commercial Square and Lewes Borough bonfire societies, causing the Lewes Bonfire to receive more press attention than usual, being featured on the front page of some national newspapers, as did the Firle Bonfire Society’s 2003 choice of a gypsy caravan. In 2014 police investigated complaints about plans to burn two effigies of Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, and one model was subsequently withdrawn from the event. In 2015 effigies of David Cameron with a pig, Jeremy Clarkson and Sepp Blatter were burned.

I don’t have much of a problem with that, either. All those mentioned chose to be public figures, apart from the pig.

However I do have a problem with the nasty jerks (nothing to do with Lewes) who made a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower, the building that burned down in June 2017, killing 72 people, and put that on their bonfire. To laugh and joke about innocent people dying in agony is despicable. The proper response is scorn.

The actual response in the UK of 2018 was to send Plod round to scoop up a load of “gaffer tape and white tags” in a clear plastic bag and carry it away for detailed forensic analysis. Given that the six “suspects” voluntarily handed themselves in, why it is deemed necessary to search for their fingerprints on discarded pieces of cardboard is not clear, unless it is intended to feature in the first episode of the long-promised CSI South Norwood.

“Grenfell fire: When does causing offence become a crime?” asks the BBC.

I don’t know, when does it? It wasn’t a crime when I was growing up. How odd to think in Lewes and elsewhere a tradition of burning public figures in effigy grew up and persisted in the centuries since 1605, despite rulers who were quite happy to chop off an ear or two as a punishment for seditious libel. Now we have the Human Rights Act and everything, but jerks get arrested for burning a cardboard model.

My guess is that the police know perfectly well that even in these days of declining freedom, this example of causing offence still does not qualify as a crime. The performance of evidence bags solemnly being carried away in front of the TV cameras as if they had discovered the lair of a serial killer was not as pointless as it might seem at first. The process was the punishment.

27 comments to A bonfire of the freedoms

  • Gene

    “The process as punishment” is how we will slowly slink into totalitarianism. You won’t go to a gulag, but you might never work in your chosen field again. You’ll be publicly embarrassed in front of your whole community–not sent into exile, but given every incentive to move away from your home. When the established processes begin to lose their deterrent power, new steps will simply be added to the soft repression. No torture, no imprisonment, just a slow accretion of bureaucracy, social media shaming, “community service” sentences, and shrinking prospects for a happy existence. When a few unfortunate souls snap, the guns will come out briefly as needed, and the laws will, one by one, quickly and quietly, be expanded in scope. Turn the ratchet, start again.

    Surely someone has written a novel along these lines, no?

  • Christian Moon

    Good instance of the feminisation of our public space.

    In a more masculine tradition, taking the piss out of these poor people in Grenfell Tower would have been accepted as helping to discharge the emotional load of grief and anger attached to the disaster. As men, to function most effectively, we need to get back to a measure of detachment from these emotional entanglements, and humour helps us get there.

    As for the piousness of everyone’s condemnation, well that needs deflating most of all.

    What chance?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Christian Moon,

    Possibly because I am female I would be happy to see “the feminisation of our public space” if I thought it meant a return to standards of decorum enforced by social pressure.

    The thing I object to is that an ever-shifting definition of what is acceptable is enforced by policemen and politicians quite happy to wear the mantle of law enforcement but who do all they can to avoid testing their actions in court, because that would involve people hearing the defendant’s side of the story.

  • Christian Moon

    Natalie Solent (and we did meet once, long ago at the National Liberal Club, which I value to this day),

    I completely agree with the point of what you have written, that last sentence must stand for the ages.

    I do however play devil’s advocate on the question of decorum: confining our imaginations within the limits of what is decent (and conventional) means confining them, and by confining ourselves we stop ourselves from freely thinking through all the possibilities in a particular set of circumstances. I reckon the cost of this is rather high, because it limits the scope for innovation, which I value very highly because it is the real source of all our flourishing.

    Inventive humour frees us to think what would otherwise be unthinkable, and so unthought. We agree that it should not be squashed by process of the police, but I don’t think we can justify our intolerance so easily either.

  • Bruce

    It seems sadly unsurprising how many folk seem to have missed, deliberately or otherwise, the point of the Grenfell Tower effigy caper.

    These comedians were unlikely to have been symbolically burning the poor bastards who were in that fire-trap.

    Their “voodoo” would have been more properly directed at the abomination which embodied and represented shitful architecture, homicidal construction techniques, criminally incompetent provision of internal fire services and terminal bureaucracy; all clearly encapsulated in these “anthills” for humans.

  • pete

    The police have nothing to lose by going in heavy handed against these people.

    If the prosecution goes ahead they can claim to have acted correctly.

    If it doesn’t, they will still have gained brownie points from their politically correct bosses in government.

    We saw a similar thing with the Tommy Robinson arrest and imprisonment in Leeds – the police and junior judges don’t care if they make mistakes because they know that people in positions of authority and influence are judging them on their attitude and obedience more than adherence to the law and proper legal process.

  • bobby b

    “The process was the punishment.”

    Then overwhelm them with having to carry out the process.

    The only proper – the only possible – response to the criminalization of offense is to become ever more offensive to the effing little bastards.

    Someone wants you charged because you’ve disparaged their sexual orientation? Tell them they’re plug-ugly, too.

    Someone’s threatening prosecution because you appropriated their native burrito? Tell them you did it because it was the only thing in their culture worth saving.

    I’m charged with fat-shaming you? No, you fat-shamed you. Lose some weight or you’ll die early.

    What, Officer, you want to question me about how I might have hurt some thin-skinned little flake’s feelings? Are you proud to be the police? What’s your pronoun of choice? “Miss Manners”?

    If you’re at heart a sympathetic person, all of these things are hard to say. But I’m tired of being beat on with my own empathy – and criminalization is the ultimate beating – and I don’t see any other approach having a chance of shutting these people up. I’m normally a polite guy, and I’ll grant deference in many ways, but as soon as you demand it, screw off.

    This must become the default response if we are to overwhelm their enforced deference.

  • Bruce

    Ayn Rand nailed it decades ago in “Atlas Shrugged”:

    “Did you really think we want those laws observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them to be broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against… We’re after power and we mean it… There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Reardon, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

    Or, there’s “Show me the man and I will find you the crime.” Applied politics from Lavrentiy Beria, all round nasty man and Stalin’s NKVD chief for quite some years.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “The only proper – the only possible – response to the criminalization of offense is to become ever more offensive to the effing little bastards.”

    It’s not the only possible response. The other is to use their own weapons against them, and complain constantly of the offence you feel at what they say about you. Complain about hate speech when they say they hate you and your politics. Complain about discrimination in left-dominated industries like journalism or academia against you based on your beliefs. Make unfalsifiable accusations without evidence, and complain when you are not automatically believed purely because of your sex. Invent hundreds of new minority groups to be a member of, and demand representation for all of them. Report everyone who criticises Israel or America or white people for racism. Report feminists for sexism. Report religious organisations for religious discrimination. Overload the system with noise and false alarms, until they turn the alarm system off.

    I don’t recommend it. I think it’s likely to result in moderates rejecting *both* sides and telling us we’re no better. But the primary argument for supporting freedom is the knowledge that the system can come for *you*. Nobody but the racists truly care about free speech for racists, and nobody but the holocaust deniers cares about free speech for holocaust denial, and so long as the system only targets speech they don’t agree with and don’t like, nobody will fight for it. The biggest argument justifying the removal of free speech is that most people think its loudest proponents are horrible people, who bully and harass and offend/upset the innocent, and who deserve to be silenced. Being even more horrible to them only strengthens that argument. But when they see the system targeting their own speech, or even just realise that it can, then they’ll care.

    It’s still an uphill struggle to make them realise that getting support for safeguards for their own speech means also defending the speech of those they despise, but at least there’s a chance.

  • bobby b

    “It’s not the only possible response.”

    Yes, I’ll concede that there are indeed other possible responses, but the one you recommend (ETA – okay, not “recommend” – cite) seems to me to be the one we’ve been trying to pursue, unsuccessfully, for a decade or more. If we simply buy into their overarching system and try to enforce our own sets of subrules in an attempt to demonstrate that their system can be gamed, we’ve conceded the essence of our objection. It then becomes a battle of public relations – is it more impolite to criticize Islam than nationalism? – and, sad to say, I think we’ve lost that argument.

    It cannot be, “certainly, let’s use the criminal justice system to enforce civility, and here are our definitions of civility.” At that point, we’re reduced to arguing, in many instances, that it’s not impolite to speak badly of ________ (fill in your choice of classes in need of protection.)” It turns into the lifeboat argument, where the winner (in the public view) holds that, no, somehow everyone must and will fit into the lifeboat, when that isn’t the case and in fact violates the explicit rules of the hypo. We lose on niceness.

    We must pursue the idea that civility isn’t something to be legislated and enforced criminally, but must instead be arrived at by consensus and enforced through associational freedoms. We must reject every attempt to criminalize impoliteness even when we agree that something is impolite. We’ve tried facially accepting this and then arguing around the edges, and we’ve lost. We must simply reject it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    NiV:

    “[T]he primary argument for supporting freedom is the knowledge that the system can come for *you*.”

    Yes.

    Or at least, that’s the one that’s most likely to get traction with the people who aren’t sure about the value of “freedom.” Its practical value to any given individual is that it’s the only protection he can have for his own self against the demands that others propose to make him comply with, whether he likes it or not. And it has to be a condition of a proper social-political order that applies to all willy-nilly, because every person in the society is a particular instance of the “any given individual.”

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    “We must pursue the idea that civility isn’t something to be legislated and enforced criminally, but must instead be arrived at by consensus and enforced through associational freedoms. We must reject every attempt to criminalize impoliteness even when we agree that something is impolite. We’ve tried facially accepting this and then arguing around the edges, and we’ve lost. We must simply reject it.”

    Unfortunately, I do not think that this will work, at all, against people who are power hungry hypocrites who can use others to do their dirty work. Admittedly, there are, for example, gay police officers, who will delight in arresting a Christian for proselytizing publicly. And there are police officers who will delight in using their authority to punish, sadistically, just ‘because’, and knowing that the prosecutor will back them up, since to do otherwise is to p.o. the cops. (For example, “Did you know your horse is gay?”).

    The real assholes in this are the Commissioners and chief Crown prosecutors *who do not stop this shit*. They have the power: they need only say “Are you crazy? We can’t prosecute for that!” The scary bit is *that they do prosecute for that*. Which tells us a lot about them, not much of it good.

    And some day soon I guess, we will hear of some such asshole getting trashed, or worse, and it will actually be *in self defence* of the right of speech and freedom. And the assholes already deserve it but do not have the self awareness to recognize that they are, in a sense, asking for it.

    Any over/unders on how long? I give it about a year. To a certain extent it depends upon how the Tommy Robinson affray turns out.

    Solzhenitsyn was so right, when he wrote about how ‘they had burned in the camps, that they had not met the Chekists at the building’s front door and killed them then.’ (I paraphrase: the wording did not stick, but the concept did).

    And just BTW, I wonder if there are many judges who already have a security detail?

  • bobby b

    “Unfortunately, I do not think that this will work, at all, . . . “

    Neither do I. I think that in it clearly lies our best chance of success of all options, but that doesn’t mean I’m optimistic.

    It’s more likely that we’re now on the upper slopes of the descending-side sine wave pattern of social decay and regeneration that we’ve seen . . . forever. I doubt it will be drastic (edit to “abrupt”), but I think we’re getting closer to, rather than further from, a “dark ages” sort of period of history, and I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to alter this path. I think we’re the Russian Whites in 1921 or so, and we’d best find shelter.

  • Gene: “Surely someone has written a novel along these lines, no?”

    That was a novel? Well, there’s your answer. Too many people appear to have taken it as an instruction manual.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    In a more masculine tradition, taking the piss out of these poor people in Grenfell Tower would have been accepted as helping to discharge the emotional load of grief and anger attached to the disaster.

    Well, I am a pretty masculine sort of bloke, and I think that people who joked about the accidental deaths of those people are scum of the earth, not funny, at all. Christian Moon, you are a dickhead, and I duly crown you with that moniker. Sorry, but there it is.

    I agree with the substance of the post, and the point about the process as punishment. The jerks who did this deserve whatever scorn comes their way, and social ostracism is part of it. Being a wanker deserves to carry some form of cost, in my view. But the criminal law is not what is needed here.

  • Christian Moon

    I value your contributions on this site as well as NS’s, and I hope the gratification you must feel from your personal abuse of me is some recompense to you for how much you have given me to enjoy over the years.

    Not sure on this occasion you’ve done much more than offer that abuse though.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Yes, I’ll concede that there are indeed other possible responses, but the one you recommend (ETA – okay, not “recommend” – cite) seems to me to be the one we’ve been trying to pursue, unsuccessfully, for a decade or more. If we simply buy into their overarching system and try to enforce our own sets of subrules in an attempt to demonstrate that their system can be gamed, we’ve conceded the essence of our objection.”

    I think it doesn’t help that both suggestions are motivated by anger, and that’s rarely a good guide to strategy.

    But yes, it’s no good using their weopons against them if the aim is to win the battle with their weapons. The aim has to be to persuade everyone to put down their weapons in the knowledge that they too could get hurt by them. Personally, I think it’s best to keep the moral high ground and persuade people of the principle by argument and explanation, but I confess I often find the temptation to demonstrate the principle (while making clear that it’s a demonstration) to be highly seductive.

    “It’s more likely that we’re now on the upper slopes of the descending-side sine wave pattern of social decay and regeneration that we’ve seen . . . forever. I doubt it will be drastic (edit to “abrupt”), but I think we’re getting closer to, rather than further from, a “dark ages” sort of period of history, and I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to alter this path.”

    Maybe, but I’m not convinced it’s not an illusion caused by our own cultural viewpoint. The idea that the past/present was/is a cultural golden age, and the changes in society are towards decay and disaster, is pretty universal.

    Most people today don’t really believe in free speech (only in “free speech for people like me”), but then I’m not sure that they ever have. We observe that “there are, for example, gay police officers, who will delight in arresting a Christian for proselytizing publicly”, but that’s mainly because up until a handful of decades ago a Christian police officer would have delighted in arresting a gay for displaying it openly. “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” We knew about the free speech principle long before then, but we didn’t apply it. The rules we enforce may change, but the fact that we enforce them remains constant. It feels less like a sine wave, more like painting the Forth bridge. By the time you finish at one end of the bridge, the other end needs repainting again. Stand still anywhere on the bridge and you will see a ‘sine wave’ of sharp progress and slow decay, but it’s only because of where you’re standing.

    But trying to look at it objectively, it’s hard to see how in the age of the internet we can really say that we don’t have a lot more free speech than we used to. The words ‘free speech’ still garner automatic respect in the public debate as something good and important. When something like this comes along, you can say “But what about free speech?” and everyone knows immediately what you’re talking about, and feels the need to justify their position against it – which considering the tiny proportion of people who *truly* believe in it is quite remarkable!

    I don’t think we’re so badly off, and there’s reason to be optimistic. But that doesn’t mean we can relax – there’s lots still to do, and lots of opposition acting to erode it.

    It’s a bit like economic progress, really. There are many who wail about rising inequality, poverty, austerity, debt, and environmental degradation, and who tell us that society is in progressive decline. But at the same time, even the poor of today in many ways live better than the wealthy of a century ago. That doesn’t mean there are no problems left and everyone is as wealthy as we’d like them to be. But the continued existence of problems, and even the appearance of new problems, doesn’t mean things aren’t getting better.

  • EdMJ

    The 5 who burnt the model and handed themselves into police last night will be questioned today by police. They will then be publically hanged, drawn and quartered live, on next Wednesday’s episode of Loose Women. The people who clad the Grenfell tower are rumoured to be planning on watching the event from the safety of a villa in the Caribbean.

    https://rochdaleherald.co.uk/2018/11/06/people-who-make-a-flammable-models-to-face-higher-standard-of-justice-than-people-who-make-flammable-flats/

  • The people who clad the Grenfell tower are rumoured to be planning on watching the event from the safety of a villa in the Caribbean. (EdMJ, November 7, 2018 at 10:16 am)

    I expect the watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) who demanded everyone make such towers green on the outside – thus ensuring Grenfell would be red on the inside on that fateful night – plan to attend and enjoy themselves, much as they would if the accused were displayed in physical rather than metaphorical stocks.

    For the record, I do not care for the manners of those who burned Grenfell tower in effigy. But I care much less for the manners of those red-inside ‘greens’ who pretend the disaster was everyone’s fault but theirs.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Both the aeronautical and medical-device/pharmacutical professions record all the decisions they make using software which gives an electronic document trail: this enables any error to be quickly traced and fixed. And it works – despite billions of usages a year, very few lives are lost in these disiplines because of error and even less through criminality. Construction should try it.

  • Watcher

    Future prime minister Harold Macmillan burned fellow Tory Neville Chamberlain in-effigy in 1938. Novelist Bruce Chatwin was most upset as an eleven-year-old when his headmaster burned effigies of Viv and Clem Atlee on his school’s bonfire. Mrs Atlee’s blazing pumpkin hat was especially vivid in his recollection.

  • Fraser Orr

    I think for me it is part of the same trend — the idea that if there is a problem the government should fix it, and our senses are so dulled that we can’t even imagine an alternative. “Poor people can’t feed their family”, let’s pass a law and make the government feed them, “Diabetics can’t get health insurance”, let’s pass a law and have the government cover them, “cable TV companies are messing with net neutrality”, let’s pass a law and have the government be the arbiter.

    This is simply a natural extension, “I’m offended by what that person said”, let’s pass a law and have the government intervene.

    It is as if, in many people’s mind, there is no such thing as the private sector. As if the private sector has never solved any problem in history.

    However, I particularly liked your description of “the process as the punishment.” Although I was aware of the practice, I think that phrase encapsulates it really very well.

    It was something I was recently discussing with my kids. In the US it is not, de jure, against the law to be disrespectful to policemen. However, de facto, they can apply “the process as the punishment” to make it an effective crime with a very unpleasant punishment. If you sass the cop for pulling you over, or refuse to let him look in your trunk, he can, arbitrarily with no judge or jury, invoke a pretty unpleasant punishment on you. Irrespective of your guilt or innocence, there are no consequences for him for doing so.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Fraser Orr, I should mention that the phrase “the process is the punishment” is certainly not original with me. But it is a phrase that neatly describes a common phenomenon, and knowing that phrase made me attuned to how common the phenomenon was.

  • Paul Marks

    Being a rude scumbag is not a crime and being a group of rude scumbags is not a crime.

    Well not in a free country is it a crime – but then this is no longer a free country.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Fawkes was not a terrorist, he was a would-be assassin. A terrorist kills to terrorize others who are not killed, to cause them grief and fear and thereby affect their behavior.

    For instance, an IRA thug who sets off a bomb in a pub frequented by Protestants. The people he kills are unimportant. His object is to compel the Protestant leadership in Northern Ireland (and the British government) to submit to the IRA’s political demands.

    Fawkes’ intent was to kill all the Protestant rulers of England, thereby exposing the country to Catholic takeover. It would be as if the IRA sought to blow up the Parliament Building in Stormont while the whole assembly was present, including the First Minister and his cabinet, intending to move into the resulting power vacuum and take over.

  • DP

    Dear Miss Solent

    This is the Big Lie in action. No crime has been committed, but the police behave as though one has. Repeat.

    People will come to believe such actions are crimes and when it is made a crime, will wonder what the fuss is about because they thought it was a crime all along, and they’ll get on with their lives, until one day there is a knock at the door and they will find the police investigating them for something which they thought wasn’t a crime, because it wasn’t, but the police will act as though it was.

    Etcetera.

    DP

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