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Art and freedom of expression

28 Mar

Our consideration of the human rights in any country should include the freedom of artists to express their heart, writes Deeyah Khan – a critically acclaimed music producer, composer and an Emmy award-winning documentary film director – in this statement she submitted to the United Nations in March 2014.

Art is a powerful form of communication which has a unique ability to transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries, an exploration of what it means to be human. Art can be brash or sublime, basic or intricate, and is one of the first forms of human expression and which remains rooted in the creative potential for innovation and transformation. It has an extraordinary capacity to express resistance and rebellion; protest and hope. It can start conversations; it can bring subjects into the public sphere, expose abuses and to point towards new worlds: to touch people in a deeper and more affecting way than academic and political discourse, to move us to tears, to laughter and to action. There is a reason why artists, intellectuals and women are usually the first targets of oppressive regimes, of fundamentalist groups and of reactionaries of all stripes, who cannot bear any positions that threaten their perceived monopoly on truth or which expose their corruption and cruelty.

So, where art is transgressive, it is decried as immoral, seditious or contrary to religious rules. Artists are silenced by many means, from harassment to imprisonment, from censorship to accusations of blasphemy; which can itself be a death sentence. This precious human resource is formed from deep continuities with our artistic traditions with the fertile exploration of new forms to make up the glorious potential of creativity: surely one of the pinnacles of human achievement and experience. The English radical poet Shelley considered poets to be the unacknowledged legislators of the world: the future is in the present as the plant lies in the seed, he said; and art has the potential to realise this future, a future of equality, diversity and unity. In this sense, artists should be considered providing a vital, but under-appreciated contribution to the functioning of civil society.

Artists everywhere, and in all periods, have taken a role in standing up for human rights and human dignity through their explorations of the human condition, particularly in times of unrest, oppression and chaos. It is no wonder that its liberating and unbounded potential to speak truth to power is feared by those who remain invested in the suppression of the human spirit. Where the media is controlled, art becomes the last voice of freedom; more trusted than official outlets, a channel for dissidence, a telling of alternate histories, alternate futures. Where women’s voices are silenced, women’s self-expression is an act of defiance, of refusal of the strict limitations of gender roles. Where societies are based in fear and oppression, art is a seed of hope for a better world. The creative process itself generates a sense of inner liberation which lays the seeds for calling for broader liberties. Art is a form of expression which is often one of the most available, even to the poorest individual: the tools required can be as simple as a voice, a pencil or a humble drum.

The potential for change that art can bring is shown by the extraordinary means taken to crush it: such as attacks by militant religious extremists on artistic expressions and artists in countries such as Mali and Pakistan. Last year almost 20 artists were killed. Thousands more were censored, or persecuted. Many incidents are never made publicly known – those who experience daily threats from fundamentalists in Northern Mali, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan or who are victimized by the internal conflicts of Syria or Sudan, amongst many other assaults upon artistic freedoms the world over.

When musicians, who are questioning political repression and corruption through their music, are imprisoned in Russia, Turkey, Vietnam or Tunisia, it is an attempt to silence voices, which can document oppression and express hope, and dictators wish to conceal their oppressions as much as they wish to stamp out hope. During the early days of the uprisings in the Middle East, for instance, musicians – like ‘El General’ of Tunisia – played an essential role as truth-tellers, exposing political and financial corruption as well as providing rallying anthems, providing a sense of solidarity and unity to those on the street. In the words of a rapper from Gaza, who has since been forced into accepting protection by Gothenburg City Council: “I am the CNN of the street”.

The first ever UN report on freedom on artistic expression and creativity published by the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of culture last spring was a long-awaited achievement, raising many crucial questions, calling upon governments to take action; and for violations to be recorded. However, international reports on violations of human rights tend to focus on media freedom, to the exclusion of other forms of expression. The vitality of artistic creativity is necessary for the development of vibrant, plural cultures. Artists – in the words of the Special Rapporteur – “have proven their ability to bring counterweights to existing power centres in many developing countries and inspire millions of people to discuss, reflect and mobilise”.

Organisations such as Freemuse, Arterial Network and the National Coalition Against Censorship have been established to document violations, but in comparison to the numerous organisations documenting and defending freedom of expression for journalists and more conventional political activists, artists have few organisations to monitor violations worldwide, and to provide support to people at risk, and to lobby for the changes in laws which limit the freedom of expression and for the changes in policy which would make states take responsibility for the protection of artists and of artistic freedoms.

The freedom of expression has become a focal point of clashes between groups in society, reflecting internal conflicts whether these are religious, cultural or political conflicts in nature. Pavlos Fyssas, known as Killah P, an activist against fascism, used his rap music career to criticise the rise of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party, in Greece. He was stabbed to death by a party member. While the attention of the international media has focussed on the restrictions upon Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the imprisonment of punk activists Pussy Riot, somewhat out of the media eye, several of Mali’s world famous musicians joined forces in creating awareness of the cultural disaster of the country.

It should not be the case that only the persecution of famous artists raises outrage: a barely literate Afghan wedding musician threatened by the Taliban deserves the same support and the same attention as globally known artists, even though these rarely attract the same diplomatic attention. In a world which fears women’s participation, and women’s voices, being a woman and an artist is itself a political act, an act of resistance against the strict gender roles and limitations placed women in our world. For more than 30 years, Iranian women have not been permitted to sing solo, nor to perform before mixed audiences. We also need to recognise that it is not necessarily only the state or fundamentalists who pose a threat to free expression: for some, particularly women, the threat against their safety comes from their own relatives. Pashtu singers like Ghazala Javed, killed by her husband after she filed for divorce; Shamim Aiman Udas, killed by her brothers in a so-called ‘honour’ killing at a time when Pashtun militants were engaged in a campaign of harassment of musicians.

The marginalization of women artists, the censorship of free expression, the harassment of artists, has effects beyond those who are victimised and their families, it impoverishes debate, and delimits some of the most profound expressions of the human spirit. I believe that art is as necessary to democracy as a free press. And yet it is suppressed across the world, sometimes in more discreet ways than through the violence expressed against individuals in Mali and Afghanistan. Art is suppressed through the institution of blasphemy laws, through the high pressure tactics of special interest groups who consider their own sentiments more valid than freedom of speech, leading to subtle and devastating self-censorship; where those who distribute and market art, through galleries, publishing houses and concert venues, are rendered fearful of the implications of the most iconoclastic forms of art, which are often the most generative.

Art and freedom of expression are vital elements of any functioning democracy, and priceless human treasures. Our consideration of the human rights in any country should include the freedom of artists to express their heart. The persecution of artists must be recognized as political rather than as a facet of tradition or faith: as acts of repression against dissidents, differing from more overt political activism only in the method of expression; methods which are as old as humanity and deeply engrained into every culture and tradition, which have moved, inspired and unified people for generations. As a woman, and an artist, I believe in the power of art to bring about social change, and I believe that it is in our common interest as human beings to ensure that artists have the freedom to speak out; to release the plant from the seed.


Deeyah Khan wrote this statement about the role of art and artists in civil society for her presentation at the United Nations Human Right Council in March 2014. But, as it can be seen on the video above, because of time constraints and personal preference, Deeyah eventually decided to leave the manuscript and just speak from the heart.


» We recommend you also read this compelling and well-written story about Deeyah’s life as an artist:
Rebel filmmaker & music producer Deeyah shares life on International Women’s Day

via Arts Freedom

Police clash with protesters in Ukraine

26 Nov _71274270_71274263
ukraine-police-clashes

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians, bearing European Union flags and chanting “down with the gang!” marched through Kiev on Sunday in a pro-Europe rally denouncing President Viktor Yanukovich’s U-turn in policy back towards Russia. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

I’m on the Square! Where are you?

You wouldn’t necessarily expect the European Union to be such a rallying cry in Ukraine, but Ukrainians are so enraged by a government decision to suspend trade deal negotiations with the EU that they have been rallying protesters under the hashtag #євромайдан (“European Square”). Opposition demonstrations were held in the cities of Donetsk, Ivano-Frankovsk, Lutsk, Uzhgorod and Lviv. Kiev’s Independence Square is a focal point for protests – just as it was during 2004′s so-called Orange Revolution. Back then, protesters were bolstered not just by their strength in numbers but also by SMS messages: mobile phones were key for organising protests, avoiding police cordons and ordering supplies. Now, the protests are mostly being galvanised by social media. Ukrainian digital marketing expert Maksym Savanevskyy says there has been an explosion of calls-to-arms online since the government’s decision on EU talks.

This video, dated November 22, was taken a day after the Ukrainian government U-turn, saying that it would instead look to revive talks with Moscow. A large crowd turned out at Maidan Nezalezhnosti to protest the decision, and the protests have continued since.

This footage shows the scene near Independence Square on November 25 as thousands took part in demonstrations.

IKEA executives questioned over snooping claims

19 Nov

French police are questioning top executives of the Swedish furniture chain IKEA after allegations that the company illegally used police files to spy on staff and customers

Ikea has admitted breaching its own ethical standards after it was accused of obtaining information from police files about its staff and customers.

Ten people, including four police officers, have already been placed under investigation.

The arrests of the chief executive officer of IKEA France, Stefan Vanoverbeke, his predecessor, and the chief financial officer, come after more than a year and a half of investigations.

Police searched the company’s head office outside Paris 11 days ago, at which time the company said it was co-operating with the inquiry.

YouTube

Lessons in the art of revolution from Sun Tsu

14 Nov ap5904fd239e74cf67

The Art of War is frequently quoted by activists, but many on the Left shy away from actively grappling with the deeper lessons of this ancient text.

Written in approximately 544 BC, The Art of War is a timeless treatise on the role of the General as protector of the State. However the principles expressed, and the systematic nature of Sun Tsu’s arguments ultimately constitute a way of thinking, or a state of mind, rather than a literal set of prescriptions such as those of later scholars like Carl Von Clausevitz. It is this almost philosophical approach to the subject that makes it so useful and broadly applicable to almost any protracted conflict, including and especially activism and political struggle.

“There is a proper season for making attacks with fire,
and special days for starting a conflagration.”

Sun Tsu writes to “those preoccupied with the welfare of the State,” and he begins at the beginning; “Warfare is the greatest affair of State, the basis of life and death, the fundamental essence of survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.”

From this challenging introduction, Sun Tsu takes us progressively from First Principles to ever greater levels of detail, extrapolating the principles he has laid down. Chapters follow the natural course of any major conflict, from estimating and calculating the prospects of success to the waging of all-out total war, involving the entire State from lowest to highest, and every resource available.

Sun Tsu does not confine himself to matters pertaining only to fighting, but rather ranges from Grand Strategy to the deployment and disciplining of individual soldiers and the management of their moods and moral.

In his chapter on “Estimations”, Sun Tsu advises the reader to carefully count the costs of war before embarking upon it. Even a casual reading of his formula reveals the astonishing breadth and sweep of Sun Tsu’s mind, weighing everything from the value of the national treasure and the capacity of the populace to pay for the war, to the moral rightness of the cause and the willingness of the people to fight. If these factors are not in one’s favour, Sun Tsu makes plain, one should sue for peace and avoid conflict at all costs. Sun Tsu never minces words; “If a General follows my methods for estimation, and you employ him, he will certainly be victorius, and should be retained. If a general does not follow my methods for estimation, and you employ him, he will certainly be defeated, so dismiss him.”

Sun Tsu continuously saw every campaign and action in economic terms. Campaigning is expensive; while wars are being fought, normal life is disrupted. Every day of fighting costs money, even if the troops sit idle. Death and defeat can come as easily by running out of money as by anything the enemy might do.

“The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of
pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep.”

Therefore Sun Tsu had much to say about waste and folly – he considered those who were wasteful and expended their men and resources recklessly to be fools. And, in a pattern that is often repeated, he drew the inverse corallory, that foolishness lead to waste, destruction, death and defeat. He had little time for the impatient and the reckless, and advises that those who exhibit great character defects, by flinging their men into hopeless fights should be marked as prey. Sun Tsu advocated inciting fools to destroy themselves by doing things which exposed their vulnerabilities and put them at a disadvantage. Victory after victory can be won simply by keeping one’s opponents befuddled and running, exhausting themselves through pointless activity.

Sun Tsu’s sense of economy extends even to his writing style. Almost every practical prescription made by Sun Tsu is founded upon a small handful of key philosophical principles, which if understood, would enable the wise “General” to divine what needed to be done in almost any situation, no matter how chaotic.

Sun Tsu uses single words to encapsulate entire precepts, and these words form the basis of “meditations” one may perform to gain wisdom and understanding.

One key precept is contained in the word “Deception”. Sun Tsu states categorically, “Warfare is the Tao of Deception.” He goes on then to explain how in a multitude of ways, deception can and ought to be used to trick the enemy and gain advantage, and thus assure victory. By using the word “Tao” in conjunction with this, the highest spirit or essence, he is in effect saying that no victory can possibly be won without resort to deception, not merely occassionally, but continuously.

It is worth noting here that States routinely practice deception, to the point that it is almost impossible to believe they are not lying every time they speak. From the Prime Minister, down to the lowest Policeman tricking a frightened girl into confessing to crimes she did not commit, lying and deception are the bread and butter of the State, it’s stock in trade.

“He who is skilled in attack flashes forth from
the topmost heights of heaven.”

In the same vein, the State will brook no secrets or privacy amongst its citizens, as this would allow the citizens to engage in deception, thus posing a risk to their power. So the State increasingly classifies even ordinary and mundane facts and documents as State secrets, while at the same time massively increasing surveillance on its citizens. Sun Tsu, noting this, would have considered that the State had in fact declared war on its people by this posture. And the only reasons for doing so would have been for either hope of gain, or fearfulness of loss. For Sun Tsu assumes that all action or inaction relative to the conduct of war is based on only those two motivating factors.

Contrast the deceptiveness of the State with the openness and naivity with which most activists conduct their affairs; there are few if any secrets, politics and passions are worn on the sleeve, communications are not secured, even when they are known to be spied on and recorded. We may consider this conduct “high”, “moral” or “principled”. But in war, there is no quarter given to honour or naivity. Sun Tsu would have called this reliance on mercy of our foes folly.

The failure of deception may be in part compensated for by use of the other principles Sun Tsu sets out. For many of Sun Tsu’s principles act as weights to counter advantages and relative strategic and tactic weaknesses. Where deception is not entirely possible, there is the interplay of the “orthodox” and the “unorthodox”.

Sun Tsu uses the principle of “Orthodoxy” to describe diversity of tactics, a term which today in activist circles has come to be associated with pointless anarchistic violence. To Sun Tsu however, tactics are either “orthodox”, that is, normal and expected, or they are “unorthodox”, ie they involve an element of surprise or uncertainty. Sun Tsu advocated that the orthodox and the unorthodox should be mingled and intertwined constantly, so as to prevent the enemy from anticipating one’s moves. And sometimes, even the simplest thing could contrive a sudden and unassailable advantage out of a hopeless situation.

“The highest realisation of warfare
is to attack the enemy’s plans.”

Thus the consideration of the orthodox and the unorthodox leads us to another lesson for activists; the resort to the same tired tactics, the same old marches sent down the same old routes, singing the same old songs and waving the same faded flags makes us predictable, and thus vulnerable. The insistence that street protest is the only effective form of action, an insistence that flies in the face of repeated and ever-compounding failure is an example; activists are now routinely met with overwhelming force repeatedly brought to bear as activists foolishly mount the same actions again and again and again, until the spirit of the people is completely broken. This is not the fault of the police, it is the fault of years of unimaginitive thinking on the part of organisers. There is nothing heroic about stupidity. Years of undeviating reliance on endless campaigning, against overwhelming forces, using the same orthodox tactics is and always was destructive folly according to Sun Tsu.

“When deploying the military in battle, a victory that is long in coming will blunt their weapons and dampen their ardor.”

“No people has ever profited from protracted warfare.”

“The army values being victorious, it does not value prolonged warfare.”

Sun Tsu shared a disgust of violence and the waste it entailed because he as a soldier had done violence, and was repulsed by it. It is only arm-chair warriors and those who will not actually have to fight who glory in war and wish for chaos. This is why Sun Tsu repeatedly advocated that victory should be obtained whenever possible without fighting. As in his section on Estimations, the war begins first in the mind, and is fought and won there, the rest being merely the manifestation of the genius and skill of the great General. Indeed, to the degree that bloodshed is necessary at all, Sun Tsu lays the blame at the feet of the General, and makes it plain that this resort to violence is a mark of his lack of ability. It is evidence of the General’s lacking in intelligence, that he could not figure out a way to win without violence and destruction.

“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

“Thus the highest realisation of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities. This tactic of attacking fortified cities is adopted only when unavoidable.”

“Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures other people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys other people’s States without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of preservation.”

“This tactic of attacking fortified cities is
adopted only when unavoidable.”

As activists committed to political resistance, we frequently cringe and shrink back from such militaristic language, even if it is a metaphor for political struggle. Naturally, we are not advocating violence here. However the conflict we are engaged in is one which we cannot afford to lose. Certainly our enemies, those who would exploit us, and grind us to dust in poverty, or in prison are not so squeamish. The State is ruthless at times in its exercise of power. But short of violence, we must understand that our cause depends on our recognising that we are being warred upon, and that we cannot afford any longer to not study these ideas or continue as if we would somehow be protected from harm by the purity of our intentions.

We must commit ourselves to political resistance, while at the same time learning the lessons of the Art of War as if our very lives depended upon it. Because who is to say that they do not?

-Linda, Socialist Aotearoa

 

Students Protest in Bulgaria

12 Nov sophia

Riot police clashed with students who formed a human chain blockading MPs inside Bulgaria’s National Assembly in Sofia today. Students have led repeated demonstrations demanding the Socialist-led government resign. Students were joined by university lecturers on Sunday who say that successive governments have failed to reform Bulgarian politics and allege corrupt ties with business.

Dimitar Valchev, one of the students “occupying” Sofia University, writes that the “ruling parties.. feel comfortable enough to ignore all this … It is a pleasure for me to be a part of this group, along with others like me, who did not give in to the apathy.”

On Sunday, university lecturers sent an open letter seeking the resignation of Sergei Stanishev, President of the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

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