Under the blue whale: at the PEN gala in New York. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Being shocked is part of living in a democracy, said the Charlie Hebdo editor. Being shot is not

NS guest editor Neil Gaiman writes the diary.

To purchase a copy of the Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer guest edit, visit newstatesman.com/subscribe, download it from the App Store or subscribe on Kindle.

Six writers had pulled out of hosting ­tables at the PEN literary gala in New York. To host a table, you sit with eight people who have bought expensive tickets to the shindig in the vague hope of mingling with real writers. Your task is to make pleasant writerly conversation and not to spill your wine. Also, not to show disappointment when you realise that the whole table has been block-booked by, say, Google, and the people next to you don’t know who you are.

The six writer hosts who pulled out from the gala did so because among the awards that would be given that night was one for courage, going to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo. It was for having the courage to put out the magazine after the 2011 firebombing and after the 2015 murders – and the six writers did not want to be there when Charlie Hebdo got that award.

I was asked if I would host a table. I said of course. So did Art Spiegelman; so did the cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

I tell my wife. “You are doing the right thing,” she says. Then, “Will you wear a bulletproof vest?”

“No. I think the security in the natural history museum will be pretty tight.”

“Yes. But you should wear a bulletproof vest, anyway. Remember, I’m pregnant,” she points out, in case I have forgotten. “And our child will need a father more than a martyr.”

My assistant calls me regretfully on the afternoon of the gala. “With a little more time,” she says, “I could have got you a made-to-measure bulletproof vest, the kind the president wears under his shirt. But all I can find at this short notice is an oversized police flak jacket. You would have to wear it over your tuxedo . . .”

I weigh my options. On the one hand, possible death by gunfire. On the other, definite embarrassment. “That’s OK,” I tell her. “I’ll be fine.”

I wear a bow tie. Art Spiegelman wears his Nancy comic tie, to show that he is a cartoonist, and we travel uptown by subway. We reach the museum. There are police in the streets and on the steps and TV crews – mostly French TV crews. Nobody else is wearing a bulletproof vest. There is a metal detector, though, and we walk through it one by one, authors and officials and guests.

Hanging above us as we eat is a life-size fibreglass blue whale. If terrorist cells behaved like the ones in the movies, I think, they would already have packed the hollow inside of the blue whale with explosives, leading to an exciting third-act battle sequence on top of the blue whale between our hero and the people trying to set off the bomb. And if that whale explodes, I realise, even an oversized flak jacket worn over a dinner jacket could not protect me. I find this vaguely reassuring.

Tom Stoppard is given an award first. Then Charlie Hebdo’s award is given. Finally, they give an award to the arrested Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. I wonder why the idea of being in the room while Charlie Hebdo is honoured upset the six former table hosts enough that they had to not be there and they couldn’t have turned up for the bits they liked and supported and just sloped off to the toilets for the bit they felt uncomfortable with. But then, I don’t get only supporting the freedom of the kind of speech you like. If speech needs defending, it’s probably because it’s upsetting someone.

I suspect that the reason why it seems so simple to me and to those of us from the world of comics is that we are used to having to defend our work against people who want it – and us – off the shelves.

The first comics work I was ever paid for was in the 1987 Knockabout Comics book Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. I was one of a few writers and I retold several stories, mostly from the Book of Judges. One story immediately got us into trouble: an account of the attempted rape of a male traveller to a town, thwarted by a host who offers the rapists his virgin daughter and the traveller’s concubine. A gang rape follows and the traveller takes his concubine’s corpse home, cuts it up and sends a segment of it to each of the tribes of Israel. (It’s Judges 19 and it’s pretty noxious.)

I was 26 and soon after publication I found myself on the radio defending the book, as a Tory MP complained about the lack of prosecutions for criminal blasphemy and how both the book and those who made it should be locked up; I watched the Sun attempt to stir up popular anger against it; and then, a few years later, I watched the Swedish publisher of the book fight to stay out of prison for publishing it over there.

Outrageous Tales was, let us make no bones of it, an offensive comic (we weren’t using the phrase “graphic novel” much in 1987). Its purpose, at least as far as I was concerned, was to shock, to point out that the Bible contained material that was outrageously unpleasant and to bring that out into the open, to let it be talked about, seen, discussed. The book existed, in part, to shock and to offend, because it was a reaction to material in the Bible that we found shocking and offensive.

In retrospect, I am glad I was not sentenced to prison for blasphemous libel, like Denis Lemon a decade earlier; glad that Knockabout’s Swedish publisher got off; and doubly glad that the fundamentalist Christian extremists back then mostly reserved their murders for doctors who performed abortions and did not, to the best of my knowledge, kill people who wrote or drew comics.

Comics and cartoons can viscerally upset and offend people. Cartoons and comics get banned and cartoonists get imprisoned and killed. Some comics are hard to defend, especially if you prefer prettier drawing styles, lack cultural context, or were ­hoping for subtlety. But that does not mean that they should not be defended.

Back beneath the fibreglass blue whale, Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, concludes his speech. “Growing up to be a citizen,” he reminds us, “is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

***

Now listen to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer discuss censorship and creativity on the NS podcast:

 

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

No, the battle in Momentum isn't about young against old

Jon Lansman and his allies' narrative doesn't add up, argues Rida Vaquas.

If you examined the recent coverage around Momentum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was headed towards an acrimonious split, judging by the vitriol, paranoia and lurid accusations that have appeared online in the last couple days. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this divide was between a Trotskyist old guard who can’t countenance new ways of working, and hip youngsters who are filled with idealism and better at memes. You might then be incredibly bemused as to how the Trotskyists Momentum was keen to deny existed over the summer have suddenly come to the brink of launching a ‘takeover bid’.

However these accounts, whatever intentions or frustrations that they are driven by, largely misrepresent the dispute within Momentum and what transpired at the now infamous National Committee meeting last Saturday.

In the first instance, ‘young people’ are by no means universally on the side of e-democracy as embodied by the MxV online platform, nor did all young people at the National Committee vote for Jon Lansman’s proposal which would make this platform the essential method of deciding Momentum policy.

Being on National Committee as the representative from Red Labour, I spoke in favour of a conference with delegates from local groups, believing this is the best way to ensure local groups are at the forefront of what we do as an organisation.

I was nineteen years old then. Unfortunately speaking and voting in favour of a delegates based conference has morphed me into a Trotskyist sectarian from the 1970s, aging me by over thirty years.

Moreover I was by no means the only young person in favour of this, Josie Runswick (LGBT+ representative) and the Scottish delegates Martyn Cook and Lauren Gilmour are all under thirty and all voted for a delegates based national conference. I say this to highlight that the caricature of an intergenerational war between the old and the new is precisely that: a caricature bearing little relation to a much more nuanced reality.

Furthermore, I believe that many people who voted for a delegates-based conference would be rather astounded to find themselves described as Trotskyists. I do not deny that there are Trotskyists on National Committee, nor do I deny that Trotskyists supported a delegates-based conference – that is an open position of theirs. What I do object is a characterisation of the 32 delegates who voted for a delegates-based conference as Trotskyists, or at best, gullible fools who’ve been taken in.  Many regional delegates were mandated by the people to whom they are accountable to support a national conference based on this democratic model, following broad and free political discussion within their regions. As thrilling as it might be to fantasise about a sinister plot driven by the shadow emperors of the hard Left against all that it is sensible and moderate in Momentum, the truth is rather more mundane. Jon Lansman and his supporters failed to convince people in local groups of the merits of his e-democracy proposal, and as a result lost the vote.

I do not think that Momentum is doomed to fail on account of the particular details of our internal structures, providing that there is democracy, accountability and grassroots participation embedded into it. I do not think Momentum is doomed to fail the moment Jon Lansman, however much respect I have for him, loses a vote. I do not even think Momentum is doomed to fail if Trotskyists are involved, or even win sometimes, if they make their case openly and convince others of their ideas in the structures available.

The existential threat that Momentum faces is none of these things, it is the propagation of a toxic and polarised political culture based on cliques and personal loyalties as opposed to genuine political discussion on how we can transform labour movement and transform society. It is a political culture in which those opposed to you in the organisation are treated as alien invaders hell-bent on destroying it, even when we’ve worked together to build it up, and we worked together before the Corbyn moment even happened. It is a political culture where members drag others through the mud, using the rhetoric of the Right that’s been used to attack all of us, on social and national media and lend their tacit support to witch hunts that saw thousands of Labour members and supporters barred from voting in the summer. It is ultimately a political culture in which our trust in each other and capacity to work together on is irreparably eroded.

We have a tremendous task facing us: to fight for a socialist alternative in a global context where far right populism is rapidly accruing victories; to fight for the Labour Party to win governmental power; to fight for a world in which working class people have the power to collectively change their lives and change the societies we live in. In short: there is an urgent need to get our act together. This will not be accomplished by sniping about ‘saboteurs’ but by debating the kind of politics we want clearly and openly, and then coming together to campaign from a grassroots level upwards.

Rida Vaquas is Red Labour Representative on Momentum National Committee.