From the US, it is curious to follow the debate in Britain on the government's attempts to introduce a ban on incitement to religious hatred. Here, the First Amendment to the constitution:
Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech
is so ingrained in the national consciousness that it is hard to imagine this debate taking place in anything like the same way (I'm not commenting on the true extent of freedom of speech here - what I am talking about is the context in which these kinds of debates take place).
My instinctive reaction is to oppose the measure - I think it is always right to take a sceptical view of government attempts to limit opinions being expressed. But one of my weaknesses is being open to persuasion on all kinds of issues (try me), so I went looking for arguments in favour of this measure.
From my search, it seems they are rather difficult to find. In blogland (at least the part that I inhabit), there seems a general opinion against this legislative move. Norm is excellent on the issue, posing the rather unanswerable question:
Why should your beliefs as a Christian, Muslim or Jew be protected from criticism, satire, ridicule, in a way that mine as an atheist or socialist, or hers as a vegan or his as a nudist, aren't.
Put like that, I find it difficult to argue against Norm's position. One would have to accept that religious ideas are intrinsically more valuable than others, intrinsically more in need of protection. This would be a strange and, in my view, sinister step for a society to take.
My good friends over at Lenin's Tomb and Dead Men Left have, as far as I'm aware, not commented on this issue. A thought-provoking posting on this Islamic blog provides a convincing critique of an ignorant Telegraph piece by Charles Moore, but does not really have much direct relevance to this piece of legislation.
It falls then to Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian to come to the defence of this Home Office legislation. Is this the only such opinion piece (apart from those written by government ministers) out there?
She starts promisingly, ridiculing the annual spate of 'Christmas in crisis' stories that are in the press. These are now as much part of the British holiday season as mincepies and mistletoe, yet Christmas still seems to arrive with unnerving inevitability. Maybe next year it will be cancelled... She says, quite rightly:
There's a curious phenomenon in the complex politics of identity that is increasingly evident ... it is how the established majority inverts its status to one of victimhood.
Indeed, it is remarkable how many of those in the positions of most power and influence (to put it in US-speak, white, Anglo-Saxon protestants) have somehow managed to frame the debate as if they were the most discriminated against.
From there on, though, Bunting's piece fails to impress. It does not address the key issue raised above (ie, what is it about religious ideas that make them intrinsically more valuable than others). Indeed, it rather takes the wind out of its own sails at the end by stating that the law will make little difference anyway to help Muslims.
That said, the whole issue does raise some valid questions. Muslims are undoubtedly facing increased hostility which it would be irresponsible to dismiss by hiding behind the defence of freedom of speech. Society is currently failing to address their valid concerns.
But I am very far indeed from being persuaded that this legislation is the answer. I fear that the real solution is much more difficult than adding a few well-meaning sentences to the statute book.
Shortly after midnight on a very chilly West 65th Street finds me queueing for the M66 bus.
No, I don't really expect you to be all that interested in bus queues, but bear with me for a minute or two, as this is a sociologically interesting one.
Firstly, it is a queue, not just the usual random huddle that seems to have taken over all bus waiting areas from London to Los Angeles. Secondly, nearly all the 40 or so women in the queue (it is a very long queue) are wearing fur coats. And not just any old fur coats, but some of the finest animal pelts to be found in the Madison Avenue boutiques.
I can think of few cities where one would see such a sight. The small hours of a Sunday morning, and some of the most privileged creatures on the planet are doing such a plebeian thing as queueing for a bus which, when it arrives, is carrying the usual scattering of Hispanic workers off to start their night shift in some underpaid sweatshop. An evocative picture of modern New York, wealthy, exploiting and exploited; yet safe enough, at least here, for befurred grandmothers to think nothing of taking public transport wearing clothes the cost of which would go quite some way to buying someone else a house.
The reason for this rather remarkable queue is that the Metropolitan Opera has just spewed its patrons onto the street and the denizens of the Upper East Side, having forked out several hundred dollars for their tickets, are saving the five or six dollars it would cost them to take a taxi home.
I am OD-ing on opera at the moment. Last night it was Handel's Rodelinda. Again, superlative singing. Again, sumptuous but unimaginative staging. The Met seems unable to resist the temptation of having live animals on stage. One poor singer had to declaim a speech from atop a horse. The moment is spoiled, of course, as the audience inevitably starts tittering.
The title role was taken by the Renee Fleming, one of the numerous current darlings of the opera world. But more remarkable was the countertenor David Daniels as Bertarido. Amazing to think that this opera, first performed in 1730, is only now making it onto the stage of the Met. Fashions change. Not long ago, Handel operas were seen as unperformable. They may never replace La Boheme, but their onward march into the standard repertory seems unstoppable.
I'll leave the last word to the opening lines of the programme essay on Handel (a note for other opera houses, the Met gives away its programmes for free):
It's a funny thing about "Golden Ages": they are almost always behind us, and are often only recognized in retrospect.
Interesting to muse on what Golden Ages we are currently unwittingly experiencing and of which, in twenty years' time, we will regret the passing.
Trotted off last night to West 13th Street for a bit more culture. This time, British author Alan Hollinghurst was reading from and answering questions on his latest novel, the Line of Beauty, which recently won the Booker prize.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It contains some of the most beautiful English you will find anywhere, combined with Jane-Austen-like social commentary on 1980s Britain.
Hollinghurst's reading of his own text was intoxicating, and his answers to the audience's questions candid and self-deprecating. Interestingly, he let slip that the BBC is considering producing a three-part series based on the novel. As the screenwriter involved is none other that Andrew Davis (the current king of British telly adaptations), this augurs well.
Last night saw me in my best shirt taking one of the $20 standing places for Wagner's Tannhauser at the Met. It's my third time at the Met since arriving in New York a couple of months ago, and the experience confirms a trend.
The quality of the singing at the Met is extraordinarily high. I have yet to see a weak link. It certainly matches or even surpasses the greatest European houses.
The productions, however, take a bit more swallowing for someone used to the approach on the old continent. In Europe, opera directors see it as their task to reinterpret the repertory - to put their own, 21st century stamp on the classics. This enrages many people, and while the risk of disaster is far from remote, the rewards from the intellectual challenge can be great.
The Met has chosen a different path. Here you get just what it says on the tin. And only that. Sumptuous costumes. Hyper-realistic sets. Not the minutest departure from the instructions of composers that may have been writing 100, 200 or more years ago.
While it is unlikely to frighten the horses (indeed, there were several horses on stage for last week's Aida), the problem with this approach is that it limits the reach of opera. It maintains it preserved in aspic as a beautiful museum piece to be admired, but not to be explored.
So, while I am sure I will never leave a Met production furious at the director, as has often been the case in Europe, I also doubt that I will ever leave having had my eyes opened to a new facet of a great classic.
Dead Men Left has a powerful posting on the Labour government's failure to meet its own targets on reducing the emission of the pollutants believed to be responsible for climate change.
There's little to argue about here - the article is quite right about the government's craven surrender to the road building lobby. However, I think something is missing from this argument.
Government itself does not go about producing all these emissions. Much of it comes from the activities of people like you and me. We drive our cars, we heat our homes, we consume and consume and consume. We create and work for businesses that do likewise. Does it not therefore follow that the responsibility for this failed manifesto commitment is as much ours as it is Blair's? Or is Blair's failure really his inability to nanny us into behaving in ways that we know are right but which we are too weak to adopt without his assistance?
If we really want to tackle pollution, we cannot leave it solely or even mainly to governments. Governments, while always having a key role to play, will always be too scared to push us hard enough - to push us to reduce the perceived quality of our lives for the sake of the greater good. We must do this ourselves willingly. Until we recognise this fact, I fear that blaming governments is merely a way of appeasing our own guilty consciences.
I may be a long way away, but still this story made me feel better about the world. La Scala has reopened, and to much acclaim it seems. Congratulations to all involved. Perhaps I'll make it to a performance there myself some day.
Closer to home, I'm off to Tannhauser at the Met here tomorrow. The role of Elisabeth is taken by Deborah Voigt, the woman whose fame spread beyond the opera world when she was turned down by the Royal Opera for the role of Ariadne by being, ahem, a tad on the corpulent side. It is reputed that she has been on a diet (perhaps she has her eye on the title role in Die Frau ohne Schatten). I will report back to all you opera lovers out there on her performance.
Norman Geras has a link to a moving set of photographs detailing some of the atrocities carried out under the Saddam Hussein regime. Norm is one of the most eloquent writers in favour of the war and his posts are often thought-provoking. He goes on to say:
And there are those who profess to have just known that it was wrong to support the war to get rid of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Something about this last statement, which echoes much of what Norm has been saying over the past months, got me musing. I have a number of questions for the pro-war left that I would like to pose without any hidden agenda. I'll start with this one:
Is there a moral imperative to campaign for and support the Western invasion of all countries with rogue regimes?
There are a number of regimes around the world that I would like to see changed. This list includes, but is not limited to, China, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iran and North Korea.
Let's take the first of these: China. Every day here in New York I am accosted by Chinese exiles handing out leaflets on the horrors that are perpetrated by the state in their native land. If only a fraction of their allegations are true, then the Chinese regime must be one of particular evil. If one takes the arguments of those in favour of regime-change in Iraq at face value (that Saddam was an evil ruler and that those against the war were effectively supporting the continuation of his oppression), does the West not have a moral duty to invade China, or at least make clear to the Chinese that they face attack if they don't change? By not doing so, are not we all in the West as complicit in what goes on in China as the anti-war movement was accused of being in Iraq?
Needless to say, the logic of where this takes us is worrying...
I suppose there comes to every new blogger that first thrill of being recognised elsewhere in cyberspace. Today, it was my turn. Aimlessly surfing my favourie sites, I came across this on Dead Men Left. I feel quite humbled. What next? Will the New Yorker be calling?
But I'm still waiting for my comments boxes to be tickled.. Hey ho.