Notes in the margin: Super Ted

The not-for-profit foundation dedicated to "ideas worth spreading".

Where can you find Morgan Spurlock talking about product placement, Bill Gates addressing the problems of state schools and David Byrne opining on architecture and music? At Ted Talks, that's where.

It's a stealth success: from its original 1984 conference on technology, entertainment and design, Ted has turned into an international hydra dedicated to the spread of (mostly) good ideas. Each speaker gets up to 18 minutes to deliver a lecture on a subject of their choosing, accompanied by props, visualisations, slides and, occasionally, live music.

The Ted empire now includes the Ted conference (held every spring in Long Beach), Ted Global (its sister event in Europe, held this year from 12-15 July in Edinburgh), Ted Women and Ted India. Then there are Ted fellows, who are given funds to do everything from spreading slam poetry to "growing" clothing from bacteria.

Perhaps most excitingly, there are now Tedx events, where any local organiser can apply for a (free) licence to hold an evening of talks under the organisation's banner. There have been 1,500 of these around the world in the past two years, including several dozen in the UK. There are some coming up: on 4 June in Oxford, on 7 July in York and 17 September in Bristol. See for details.

If you asked me to name my favourite Ted speech, I'd be torn. The first contender is Steven Johnson: in his 2010 talk “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?" (, the American author elegantly lays out his thesis that the English coffee house was crucial to the intellectual flowering of the Enlightenment. "Before the spread of coffee and tea, both elite and mass folks drank alcohol," he says. "You had an entire population that was drunk all day."

But, in the end, I would always pick the gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. It's not just his ZZ Top beard, his 90 miles-per-hour delivery or even his assertion that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born. No, it's the moment when a rotund man in the audience asks whether he could live past 100, as the gerontologist predicts. "If you lose a bit of weight," de Grey shoots back, totally without malice.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.