Show Hide image

In this week's magazine | Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer guest edit: Saying the unsayable

In this week's magazine.

A guest edit by acclaimed novelist Neil Gaiman and singer and artist Amanda Palmer:
Saying the unsayable


Actor Michael Sheen on the obsession with money that’s threatening our democracy.

Rowan Williams on the value of blasphemy.

John Simpson: Don’t believe the hype – the Iraqi army can win.

Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro: the NS conversation. They talk fantasy, religion, terrorism and politics.

Amanda Palmer on the modern age of endless, foaming outrage.

Acclaimed American writer Andrew Solomon on the truth about gay parenting.

The porn star Stoya on what adult entertainers don’t talk about.

Lenny Henry on the black glass ceiling in television.

George Eaton: As the EU referendum battle begins, the advantage lies with the in campaign.

Plus: Stephen Fry on “the genocidal mania of Hamas”


Rowan Williams: the case for blasphemy

The former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams makes a case for blasphemy in his contribution to the theme of censorship:

For most of human history – and for rather a lot of the world today – blasphemy is the cardinal case of saying the unsayable. What could be more transgressive than mocking or abusing the all-powerful creator of the universe? But what is interesting in the history of religions is that this isn’t always about attacking or rejecting faith itself.

Williams asks why blasphemy is considered so sinful:

If God is real, then presumably God can cope with anything we choose to throw at Him. If God is not real, the experience of rejecting what we think we know of God is a way of discovering whether the notion of God actually matters to us. If, worst of all, God is incompetent, sadistic or indifferent, the language of protest at least allows us to die with some integrity and dignity; we have – as Ajax and Job have obviously concluded – nothing to lose.

If God is real, these “thought experiments” are all to do with testing what we really believe.

Williams concludes by considering the positive effects of testing one’s own faith and the negative effects of not allowing individuals to express doubt:

If you are forbidden to voice the hard questions, this might suggest that faith survives only by never being challenged. The person who actually expresses their fury or disgust or disillusion can, at least sometimes, be demonstrating faith of a sort, confidence that, if God is real, it is possible, even necessary, to say what you feel about Him – and that, unless you can say this, the God you started with is not worth believing in. This underpins many of the Jewish Psalms or the poems of George Herbert or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Blasphemy resists the conspiracy of silence about the agonising difficulties of belief, resists the stifling of a real and honest response to an unjust world.

[. . .]

Herbert, Job and some of the Psalms remind us that sometimes the seriousness of faith is most effectively explored precisely in the risky business of testing the limits. And without such testing, such forcefully expressed doubt, you may never know the real strength or weakness of what you claim to believe. The secularist needs to understand some of the internal critique that faith is always struggling with; and the believer needs to recognise that blasphemy isn’t necessarily a matter for panic, let alone violence. It may even be a gateway into a larger and more durable commitment.


Michael Sheen: The tyranny of mere wealth

One of Britain’s finest actors, Michael Sheen, delivers a rousing denunciation of the obsession with markets and money which is threatening our democracy.

It’s easy to forget that democracy is an imposition. It does not arise naturally. Its victories and progressions are often pulled from grasping hands that wish them to be withheld. Its aim is to express the will of the people, and for that will to be the basis of the authority of government. It is made manifest through the institutions that are created to reflect it and the mechanisms that are put in place to deliver it.

He refers back to Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive use of the Sherman Antitrust Act 1890 to break up large industries and stop them from becoming monopolies, when a very few wealthy heads of corporations were beginning to exert increasing influence over industry, public opinion and politics after the American civil war:

Wealthy heads of ever-merging corporations consolidating wealth and exerting influence over the policies of democratically elected government. Public opinion being shaped by a mainstream press owned by many of the wealthiest people in the country. Political parties becoming ideologically indistinguishable. Sound familiar?

Sheen concludes that we must “defend ourselves against a plutocracy by proxy”:

If we are to withstand the truly terrifying possibilities that something such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a free-trade treaty that jeopardises the future of the NHS as we know it – might visit upon us, then we must be vigilant, informed and organised. Look it up, read about it and be ready. The challenge of our immediate future is that the architecture of our democracy clearly needs to be reformed. We have to ensure that it serves the will of the people more fairly and provides for greater equality and inclusivity.

Can our leaders be trusted to take that delicate but supremely important journey of renewal on our behalf? Can we trust them to do it in a way that leads us away from the “tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy”, and towards an ever purer expression of the greatest imposition of all – true democracy?


John Simpson: Don’t believe the hype – the Iraqi army can win


John Simpson reports from Baghdad that the Iraqi army is not as useless as the media would have you believe:


Is Islamic State (IS) really “poised” to descend on Baghdad? That’s what the news headlines would have you believe. But when I arrived in the Iraqi capital, soon after the fall of Ramadi on 17 May, and began to speak to diplomats, politicians and military observers, I realised that even the Iraqi army’s catastrophic mistake in Ramadi didn’t mean that IS, also known as Isis, was winning the war.


From the Iraqi government’s point of view, the worst aspect of the capture of Ramadi was the humiliation. At least 1,500 soldiers were chased out of the city by about 150 Isis fighters. This is what caused the US secretary of defence, Ashton Carter, to go on American television and accuse the Iraqi army of not having the will to fight. (Vice-President Joe Biden later had to ring the Iraqi prime minister and explain that Carter had actually intended to congratulate the Iraqi army on its splendid fighting.)


Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation

Neil Gaiman’s New York Times review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel
began a debate about the borders between fantasy and literary fiction. The
New Statesman brought them together to talk about the politics of storytelling, the art of the swordfight and why dragons are good for the economy.

On genre:

Neil Gaiman Let’s talk about genre. Why does it matter? Your book The Buried Giant – which was published not as a fantasy novel, although it contains an awful lot of elements that would be familiar to readers of fantasy – seemed to stir people up from both sides of the literary divide. The fantasy people, in the shape of Ursula Le Guin (although she later retracted it) said, “This is fantasy, and your refusal to put on the mantle of fantasy is evidence of an author slumming it.” And then Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times reviewed it with utter bafflement. Meanwhile, readers and a lot of reviewers had no trouble figuring out what kind of book it is and enjoyed it hugely.

Kazuo Ishiguro I felt like I’d stepped into some larger discussion that had been going on for some time. I expected some of my usual readers to say, “What’s this? There are ogres in it . . .” but I didn’t anticipate this bigger debate. Why are people so preoccupied? What is genre in the first place? Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?

On class:

KI Maybe there’s a dimension we’re not really tackling. Is there something about books – as opposed to films and TV – that’s inextricably linked with a sense of class? Do you remember Educating Rita?

NG Of course.

KI What happens there is, when a working-class girl wants to “better herself”, she goes to college and studies literature. That’s what separates her from her class roots. She can’t relate to her family any more, but she seems to be equipped in some kind of way to move into the middle-class world. There’s always been that aspect to books. I’ve been very aware that is part of why some people want to read my work: they think it’s prestigious to be seen to be holding a book by a literary author in their hand. If they are trying to make their way up the class ladder, it’s not enough just to make a lot of money: you’ve also got to be able to converse well about culture, read certain kinds of authors and go to certain kinds of plays. I’m always very uneasy about that.

On terrorism:

NG It is the monstrosity that waits there inside normality, that waits in humanity. I wish that all monsters could be serial killers, could be crazed, could be dangerous, but the problem is that they’re not. Some of them are, horrifyingly, people who in their own head have somehow got to the point where they think they’re doing a good job, doing the right thing. But they’re still monsters.

KI You wonder about Boko Haram, these people who shoot buses full of children, who believe girls shouldn’t be educated and so on. Do they actually believe that they’re doing good?

NG The tragedy for me of something even like 9/11 is that I do not believe that the people piloting those planes were going, “I am an evil person doing an evil thing.” I think they were going, “I am doing what God wants, I am doing God’s will; I am doing good, look at me striking against evil.”

On fan fiction:

KI Is fan fiction today an example of stories starting to mutate? Now you have this phenomenon, which involves both professional writers – P D James writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or Sebastian Faulks writing another James Bond – and amateurs making up things around their favourite books, and writing prequels and sequels.

NG It’s not a new phenomenon. I love the fact that, you know, in the early versions of King Lear, the story had a happy ending. Shakespeare turned it into a tragedy, and through the 18th and 19th centuries they kept trying to give it a happy ending again. But people kept going back to the one that Shakespeare created. You could definitely view Shakespeare as fan fiction, in his own way. I’ve only ever written, as far as I know, one book that did the thing that happens when people online get hold of it and start writing their own fiction, which was Good Omens, which I did with Terry Pratchett. It’s a 100,000-word book; there’s probably a million words of fiction out there by now, written by people who were inspired by characters in the book.

Read the Gaiman/Ishiguro conversation in full below.


Amanda Palmer on the scourge of endless outrage, the power of empathy and playing the Hitler Card

Our guest editor Amanda Palmer writes that we live in an age of endless, foaming outrage. She argues that the only answer is to try to feel empathy for other people, no matter who they are.

Palmer uses as an example “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, her controversial work about the Boston Marathon bomber, and the response it provoked.

By the time I turned on my phone after lunch, the poem had been discovered by the right-wing news sites and the blog had 1,000 comments. One website said it was “the worst poem ever written in the English language”. Even generally lefty Boston journalists wrote op-eds condemning me for daring to write such an insensitive poem at such a sensitive time. Too soon, they said. Too far. Too much.

What frightened me about the Poem Kerfuffle weren’t the attacks on my poetry skills. It was the realisation that I was more alone than I had thought in my stance on compassion, expression and how we use art to cope with tragedy. How dare you empathise WITH A MURDERER? My Twitter feed had filled up with hate so fast that I couldn’t even read it all. A television news programme referred to me as “a loser”. Someone told me that I should have a bomb shoved up my cunt. An emailed death threat came in, credible enough for me to talk to the police. One concerned Boston journalist found himself “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”.

[. . .]

On 13 May, the jury in Boston began deliberating over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt and fate. I found myself thinking not about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty but trying to imagine how it would feel to spend days, months, years in isolation, hearing the screams and wails of the guy in the next cell who mutilates himself with razor blades and swallows nail clippers. Trying to imagine how it would feel to be strapped to a gurney as a fellow human being inserts a death needle into both of my arms. I found myself imagining what it must be like to take the witness stand to explain how I looked down to see my own bloody legs lying on the sidewalk beside me. And I imagined how it would feel to be on a jury, having to drive home every night after court, my head hitting my pillow knowing that I must, along with 11 others, cast a vote for someone to live or to die. I can’t imagine I was alone in imagining these things.

[. . .]

Frans de Waal, the Dutch primatologist, says: “Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Here’s the thing: I did not and cannot know exactly how that teenage bomber felt. But I will dare to imagine. I must. I believe we all must. I believe it is only through the flexing of that small, frail, imaginary muscle of empathy that we will build the strength to erect a new human architecture on this fragile, fragile planet – a stronger one, one of connectedness and understanding.

Read Amanda Palmer’s article in full below.


Andrew Solomon: The truth about gay parenting

In an honest and uplifting piece, the acclaimed American writer Andrew Solomon reveals truths about gay parenting and describes the joy of living in an unconventional family. He begins by remembering the years before he came out:

Gayness was for a long time so unsayable that it received an epithet to designate it so: the love that dare not speak its name. I grew up entrapped in the unsayable nature of what I was, hoping that if no one spoke of it, it wouldn’t be true. I inhabited a contrived yet fortified secrecy, and I defended and comforted myself with silence and euphemisms. A well-worn conundrum from an introductory logic class holds that if you say to someone, “Don’t think of a white bear,” that person will immediately think of a white bear. If you actually want the person not to think of a white bear, you should talk about butterflies instead. I turned my sexual orientation into a white bear and hoped everyone would think about something else, and the more I wished it, the less they did.

Solomon writes that even after coming out and meeting his partner, John, for many years he was “still only an intermittent champion of gay pride”:

Then we had children. Children confiscate your mask, leaving you far more exposed than lovers can. You can manipulate the valences of your own concealment, but once you have children, you have to bear in mind how your point of view becomes theirs and you are morally obligated to become an exemplar of self-esteem. No one much wants to be belittled but we tolerate slurs surprisingly often for ourselves; for our lionised children, we demand freedom from insult. I’d had a facile answer when people asked me whether I had a wife but had to summon a more vigorous one when they now asked whether my son had a mother, because while the first question sometimes seemed patronising, the second often seemed accusatory.

Gay parents are habitually made to feel that we must somehow love our children twice as much as anyone else to prove we have the right to be parents at all. We are expected to be thankful for having obtained rights that most people have enjoyed since time immemorial. I am grateful for the husband and children I couldn’t have had before those rights were conferred, and indebted to the people who have made lives such as mine possible. For the rights themselves, however, I prefer not to be any more appreciative than I am for having a fire department, snow removal on public roads, internet access, freedom of religion, or any of the other benefits that accrue to the population at large.

He concludes:

Our son doesn’t have a mother and a father. He has two fathers. A single mother I know is always attracting sympathy for how hard it must be to be “both Mom and Dad”. But she is not Mom and Dad; she is a single mother, which is its own rich phenomenon.

So, there you have the further misperception from which we must emerge. All men are created equal but not identical. New family structures are different from mainstream ones. We are not lesser but we are not the same, and to deny the nuance of that asymmetry is to keep us almost as ensnared as we were when our marriages and families were impossible. Acquiescence to ­historical standards is still commonly recognised as the essence of good parenting but I would emphasise the equal power of imaginative breaks with tradition. Modern families are different from Victorian ones; rich lives are different from poor ones; old parents are different from young parents; Asian mothers are different from British ones. The ways my family and I love one another are as radical as they are profound. Love is a general term; only by expanding the collection of specificities it encompasses can we continue to vitalise it.


Stoya: What porn actors don’t talk about

The porn star and writer Stoya considers how, although “working in pornography means talking about – and doing, filming, distributing and marketing – things that frequently go undiscussed in public”, there is one thing that people working in the adult entertainment industry don’t discuss:

In stark contrast to all this discussion of bodies and sexuality, one thing we rarely talk about openly is pay. Which makes us a lot like many other workers.

She discusses the vast discrepancies in pay rates that result from this secrecy:

A well-known performer who had her heyday in the late 2000s once told me that her rate for a double penetration scene was $12,000. I’d just started performing and was under exclusive contract with a single studio – a situation much more like being a direct employee than an independent contractor – and had no experience with agencies or booking my own freelance gigs to check this figure against.

Her rate seemed plausible, though – being penetrated by two male-bodied people at the same time, one in the anus and one in the vagina, certainly seemed to carry a higher risk of mechanical trauma. Double penetration scenes were rare, as were performers willing to be the receptive partner in them, and rarity tends to add value in any market.

So, when I decided that I wanted to perform in a double penetration scene and the owners of the studio I was with asked how much I wanted to be paid for it, I told them I wanted $12,000. We settled in the middle. Years later it turned out that the performer who had set my expectations so exorbitantly high was actually paid 12 – or possibly 14 – hundred dollars for those sorts of scenes.

She concludes that openness between actors about their pay is the only solution:

In this case, the lack of transparency around rates and my belief in an outrageous lie worked in my favour. And, as one of the rare occasions in which a performer got the much better end of a deal, it makes for a cackle-inducing story when I’m with my peers.

[. . .]

Every job has its own scale of standard rates and its own complex system of extra bits of cost, risk and value which must be navigated. To me, the most glaringly obvious way of arming workers to attain appropriate pay is to drag all of these numbers and factors out into the sunshine and discuss them openly.


Lenny Henry: There’s only one certain way to smash the black glass ceiling in television

Lenny Henry argues that ring-fencing money for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) productions – with shows that have black and Asian representation both in front of and behind the camera – is the only way to smash the black glass ceiling:

[To] misquote Beyoncé, “If you like it then you should have put a ring-fence on it.” When the industry really likes something and wants to make sure it works, it ring-fences money for it.

The broadcasters have raised concerns informally, in whispers, about whether ring-fencing will ghettoise black programmes and black people working in the industry. It is a concern not shared by the senior BAME people who signed the letter. Or they whisper that ring-fencing money for BAME productions is illegal. Well, I went to the leading discrimination lawyer in the country to get her legal advice on exactly that question – and it is not.

I honestly believe that broadcasters want to solve the problem of the lack of BAME people in the television industry. But I also think they should listen far more closely to the solutions being proposed by the BAME people actually working in the industry. All the people I talk to think ring-fenced money would be a good idea.

George Eaton: As the EU referendum battle begins, the advantage lies with the in campaign


In the politics column this week, George Eaton looks towards the fight over the EU referendum:


By the end of this parliament, the UK may no longer be a member of the European Union – but this was little discussed during the general election. At no point in the campaign – with the exception of Tony Blair’s speech on the subject on 7 April – did the issue acquire the prominence that it deserved. Partly owing to the mistaken belief of many that Ed Miliband would become prime minister, the prospect of a Labour-SNP alliance attracted far more scrutiny. After the Tories’ victory, it is the European question that will now define British politics. The bill guaranteeing a referendum by the end of 2017 was supreme among those included in the first Conservative Queen’s Speech in 19 years. No piece of legislation in recent decades has been as potentially consequential.

Eaton writes that the pro-Eu side have the upper hand. Although the Eurosceptics’ great hope is that anti-establishment sentiment and discontent with the Conservatives will manifest itself through an Out vote:


[...] the possibility of a referendum as early as next May reduces the risk of it functioning as a vehicle for midterm protest. Should economic growth collapse, the incentive to avoid further turbulence will only sharpen. History may yet record Cameron as the Prime Minister who presided over three referendums (on the Alternative Vote, Scottish independence and the EU) and preserved the status quo in each. For a Conservative leader, it would be an apt legacy.




Alice Dreger explains why “anti-vaxxers” might not all be foolish.

Neil Gaiman on a night at the PEN awards in New York with Charlie Hebdo.

Lawrence Lessig: In Washington, money talks louder than ordinary Americans.

Laurie Penny on lefties and learning from political correctness.

Hayley Campbell on the online parallel universe of unpublished thoughts.