Archive for January, 2015

The details are hazy; I forget the reason for the party or how the conversation had turned to my education, but what I remember is the interruption – or at least the gist of it. From across the room came the semi-inebriated voice, “well what good is an English degree?”

Art and literature

Photo: Beki Dambrauskas

The speaker, a law student whose mouth would share its last load of bile with the toilet, continued: “All I ever see English students doing is reading books.”

Just one reply occurred to me, “and what did anyone ever learn from those?”

In hindsight, only a bad or hypocritical law student could have made the criticism in the first place, but the original point – however clumsily made – is not an uncommon one: that some educations are not worth having.

This week, Nigel Farage has announced a new UKIP policy. If elected, his party would ensure those studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) do not pay tuition fees.

One could argue that students of these subjects have all the financial incentive they need. Popular perception says that they go into gold-plated careers while those in humanities become starving artists, unhappy teachers or McDonald’s employees.

This view is, of course, wrong – most UK leaders were students of humanities, the arts or social sciences – but even if it wasn’t that wouldn’t make it wise to value STEM subjects more highly.

Asked to assess the worth of William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you would be thought to have missed the point if your first concern was with how many copies of Lyrical Ballads they had shifted.

The worth of these works – or of Shakespeare or Beethoven – is not measured in dollars and cents, but through their contributions to world culture. If we are to disparage the artistic endeavours of failed painters, penniless hacks or graduates we should at least apply the same standard.

Good creative work has a real and lasting value all its own. Name some ancient philosophers and odds are you’ll come up with a few names whose ideas are still being discussed today. Try and do the same with ancient engineers and the average person would have a tougher time.

I don’t say this to trivialise the importance of STEM subjects, but to ask why we encourage one over the other. Can you name a healthy state where culture is forsaken in the name of science or maths?

How much poorer would we be if every playwright, poet and composer without immediate or apparent commercial prospects moved on to a more realistic career?

The loss isn’t just one of the mind, but one with real world implications. Look at Zola and J’accuse or Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. These works, as governments knew, had explosive power.

The irony of all this is that the cultural exports of the UK are worth their weight in gold anyway. We are punching well above our weight here.

At time of writing, three of the top ten places in the American Billboard Chart (including numbers one and two) are held by British acts. Authors like the inescapable J.K. Rowling are read by paying readers the world over. Are these exports of so little value at home?

It’s true to say that great works aren’t dependent on a university education, but the whole field of culture is cheapened for those trying to find their direction when a state shows it will only invest in other fields of learning.

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Charlie HebdoOn Wednesday, three masked gunmen murdered 12 people, ostensibly in response to satirical cartoons published of the prophet Mohammed.

It is a sad comment on our society that on hearing this, my first thought was of how long it would take for the massacre to become the fault of the victims. It is sadder still that my curiosity should be so quickly satisfied – less than a day.

As always they do, the apologists begin their defence with something akin to, “It’s terribly sad, but…” What follows wastes no time in explaining how those slaughtered were the architects of their own demise.

In anticipating this reaction, I recalled the words of George Galloway before an audience in New York in September 2005. He said: “You may think that those aeroplanes in this city on 9/11 came out of a clear blue sky. I believe they emerged out of a swamp of hatred created by us.”

However, on the day of the most unashamed attack on free speech in recent memory, I dared to hope that the loathsome MP for Bradford West might hold his tongue. My hopes were, of course, soon dashed.

In a post on his Facebook page, the admirer of the late Saddam Hussein condemns the murders, before explaining that the French government has been “facilitating” such carnage, daily, in Syria. This from a man who said Syria was “lucky” to have Bashar al-Assad, the Ghouta gas murderer, as her president.

The cartoons of Mohammed “cannot possibly” justify the murders, he continues, but then Charlie Hebdo was guilty of “provocative actions” in publishing them.

The real victims, he says, are the beleaguered Muslims of racist France. Never mind the 12 families whose loved ones will never come home, what intolerance have they suffered?

Reaching his predictable conclusion, he argues The West is fixated on confrontation with the Muslim world. Perhaps NATO stepping down its activity in the Middle East was a provocation, ay George?

Arguments like Galloway’s are not without precedent. When a bounty was put on Salman Rushdie’s head in 1989 for the crime of writing a novel, many prominent figures who enjoy the freedoms of liberal society excused their reticence about the fatwa with attacks on the author.

Noted feminist Germaine Greer refused a petition in support of Rushdie, saying (as if it were a bad thing) that he was “an Englishman with dark skin.” Late historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said he “would not shed a tear” if the author were waylaid in a dark street and thus caused to “control his pen.”

Assume the worst of an artist and the worst of their work. Does the production of such work – be it novel, cartoon, essay, whatever – thus become a crime, much less a capital offence?

There is a grim tendency amongst people who think of themselves as forward-thinking to try and rationalise terrorists actions’ as merely reactions; their wrongs as responses to wrongs.

In an Oxford Union debate in 2013, Mehdi Hasan – the former politics lead at New Statesman and The Huffington Post – proclaimed: “There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism or any of the world’s religions.”

Quoting Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, he continued: “What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

Maybe Mr Pape knows the motives of those claiming divine inspiration better than they do. In any case, this attempt to divorce suicide attacks from their religious rationale was received sympathetically by the learned audience.

In the same way, Mr Hasan has already dismissed any notion that the Charlie Hebdo murderers were inspired by their faith, citing as evidence a news report which says a lead suspect was “not religious” as of 2005. Part of the same news report which says the culprits shouted “allahu akbar” he ignores.

For Mr Hasan, the blame lies – as it must – with The West, for its actions in the Middle East. He highlights his news report again, which says the suspects were sympathetic with Iraqi ‘insurgents.’

I’ve yet to see it satisfactorily explained how the murder of satirists based 2,400 miles from Baghdad is a result of the Iraq War.

To my mind, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were citizens of a democratic country exercising their right to free expression. Yet already their eulogies are being poisoned with the suggestion of blame.

Responsibility for Islamic terrorism lies only with those committing it. We cannot tackle those who would destroy free speech until we forgive ourselves for using it.

Je Suis Charlie.