Blasphemy, protest and the fight for free speech

You’ve probably noticed that there have been protests all over the world about a film called The Innocence of Muslims. These protests have resulted in the death of  the US ambassador to Libya and the deaths of at least nineteen people in Pakistan as well as others around the Middle East. Yesterday there were protests about the film in Birmingham, fortunately without the deaths that have accompanied protests in other countries. The film in question is laughably bad. It is ultra-low budget with bad acting and plastic toys as props. It is however extremely offensive to Muslims, and seems to be deliberately so.

The film seems to have acted as a trigger which has been added to all the anger already there about past interference and wars by the US and other western states. The protesters attacked US embassies and burned US flags perhaps because they blame America as a whole for the existence of the film. This is wrong however. The film makers are in a country where they have freedom of speech. They have the freedom to believe what they want, talk to who they want and say what they want and the government cannot lawfully stop them. The same applies to the group that wanted to burn the Koran  last year which caused similar uproar, and to the French magazine that printed cartoons of Muhammed. It also applies to protesters here. In fact in Birmingham here in the UK the police said this:

“West Midlands Police have no power to ban a static protest – in fact the right to protest peacefully is a sign of a healthy democracy and we have a positive duty to facilitate that right.”

(I wish our police forces were so enlightened about other protests.)

Under the European Convention on Human Rights here in Europe we have a specific set of freedoms around the topic of free speech: freedom of conscience and religion, (Article 9) freedom of expression, (Article 10) and freedom of assembly and association. (Article 11.)  It is exactly these same rights that apply to both those who wish to adhere to a religion and those who do not believe; to those who wish to speak publicly about their religion and to those who wish to publicly criticise it; to those who wish to protest on the streets and those who wish to protest in opposition to them.

There is an argument that when something such as this film is likely to  inflame such a vast and violent response that the freedom of expression of the film makers should be limited to prevent the response but that cannot happen. While we could ban idiots from provoking riots, banning idiots would only lead to oppression because someone has to decide who is the idiot, and that decision is not guaranteed to be trustworthy or correct.

These protesters need to realise that banning the film means violating freedom of expression, and that in doing so they are endangering their own rights to talk about their religion or to protest. They are not thinking in those terms, however, and merely wish to enforce their own religion at the cost of all other opinions. Preventing such a scenario is the very reason why in the US and Europe we  have freedom of expression that is meant to apply to everyone.

The protests about the film The Innocence of Muslims have taken a darker turn today. A Pakistan government minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has offered a bounty of a hundred thousand dollars for the murder of the makers of the film.

This is not freedom of expression or freedom of conscience and religion; it is the exact opposite. It is someone wishing to force their religious view on other people by any means necessary including murder.

In the end these people are only allowed to protest because they have the same freedoms that they demand be taken away from the film makers. (Or at least the protests are being tolerated, in countries where such freedoms are not enshrined in law.) It’s all or nothing. If I want freedom of speech then people I disagree with also have to have it. Demanding that they don’t would be stupid. Something that has escaped a great many people.


Protests in Birmingham against American anti-Islam film [Birmingham Mail]

YouTube under new pressure over anti-Muslim film [BBC]

Pakistan film protests: 19 die in Karachi and Peshawar [BBC]

Anti-Islam film: Pakistan minister offers bounty [BBC]


The Co-operative group and Atos

Welfare campaigners have recently come across this July 2009 announcement on the Atos website.

The Co-operative Group and the Co-operative Financial Services choose Atos Healthcare

London, 22 July 2009
Atos Healthcare, the number one occupational health provider in the UK1 and a business division of Atos Origin, today announced that it has won a contract with the Co-operative Group (tCG) and Cooperative Financial Services (CFS).

Under the new contract, Atos Healthcare will provide occupational healthcare services for the 82,000 employees who serve around 10 million customers a week through food, pharmacy, travel, funeral care, motor dealerships, legal and financial services. Atos Healthcare will provide pre-employment referrals and absence management including physiotherapy and workstation assessments to help improve employee wellbeing and reduce absence.

Atos Healthcare are the company that carry out Work Capability Assessments for the government to determine whether people are too sick to work and will receive benefits (Employment Support Allowance) or will be told that they are fit to work and abandoned on Job Seekers Allowance at a time when we are desperately short of jobs. People claiming Job Seekers Allowance and people receiving Employment Support Allowance but considered able to return to work in the near future are sent to work placements and flagship government schemes like The Work Programme. Assessments are wrong much of the time and people are dying because of them. More recently Atos Healthcare have also been awarded the contract to assess people for the new Personal Independence Payments which will replace DLA. As a result Atos have been the subject of much protest.

Many companies who use forced work from unpaid workers who receive JSA and ESA have been subject to boycotts by people revolted by what they see. At the same time we are in the midst of a global financial meltdown caused by international banks and so banks too are despised. The Co-operative Group touts itself as ethical and has been seen as one of the best alternatives for banking and grocery shopping and other services. Like many people, I shop and bank with The Co-op for these reasons and so I am disapointed to find that some of the money I spend with Co-op goes to Atos.

When asked via Twitter about their connection with Atos The Co-op replied:

I personally will stick with the Co-op for now but as a member I will try my best to put pressure on them to dump Atos. If that doesn’t work I will boycott them too. However, another worrying thing has emerged today. This morning a former Co-op bank employee told me that:

At the bank they stressed they weren’t ethical but a bank with an ethical investment policy, an entirely different proposition.

This raises whole new problems which I will investigate urgently.

What’s the difference between 1930s Germany and modern-day Britain?

Before we start I would like to point out that I am not a historian and I am not a sociologist and as such I have done my best to present the information here as I understand it. With that out of the way, I’ll start with an overview of how disabled people were treated in Germany during WWII.

1930s Germany

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda
A poster about how expensive disabled people are.

The Aktion T4 programme ran in Germany from 1939 to 1945. In the 1920s  Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, part of an extreme eugenics movement, advocated killing those who were judged to have “life unworthy of life.”  In the 1930s there were huge cuts to state institutions causing overcrowding and Nazi propaganda emphasised the cost of caring for mentally ill and disabled people. In 1939 parents of disabled child Gerhard Kretschmar wrote to Hitler to ask him to permit their child to be killed. Hitler agreed and immediately set up a committee whose job was to organise more such murders – Aktion T4. When the war started parents were told that their mentally ill and physically disabled children were being sent to special treatments centres. In fact they were murdered without the knowledge of the parents. The programme was soon extended to adults, starting in Poland then in Germany. Throughout the programme Hitler knew that there would be huge opposition to such killing and so he never put his orders in writing. The one exception was a secret letter written to authorise the formation of the Aktion T4 programme, mainly because his justice minister would not cooperate without one. The programme operated in secrecy until it was too late for most people. Under the programme at least 200,000 disabled people were murdered over six years, either through lethal medication, starvation or gas chambers.

Modern Britain

Now we jump forward to Britain today. The events I describe in the paragraph above are unthinkable. No government minister, no tabloid newspaper, no man in the street would advocate such things, right?

That’s not quite true though. Most of the pieces are in place. We have propaganda pushing the idea that sick and disabled people are scroungers, workshy, lazy. This propaganda is coming from government ministers, their special advisers, and tabloids like the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mail. Even broadsheets like the Times and the Telegraph have contributed. Such propaganda has even been raised by MPs in the Work and Pensions Select Committee and ministers told to stop. The propaganda is working too, with hate crimes against disabled people up in vast numbers.

We have many people fighting to legalise assisted suicide, inadvertently promoting the idea that life for some people is not worth living. Sure, we’re only asking for voluntary euthanasia, but what other factors might be in play? Pressure to stop being a burden, financial problems, cuts to care all contribute to a desire for death. If euthanasia becomes legal what is to stop people from being pushed to kill themselves? It may be overt or it may be through suggestion and through making their lives hell. (This is more my fear of how it could go wrong than any judgement on my part for or against euthanasia.)

We have cuts to local authority care budgets, starting in Worcestershire, that mean anyone whose care costs more than sending them to an institution will lose some care. The politicians argue that it’s a choice because people can choose to move to a care home or to cut some of their care provision. But what to cut? Eating? Washing? Dressing? Using a toilet? We have already seen people lose in court after fighting to not have to wear a nappy. Adults are expected to soil themselves rather than get help to use a toilet. We have also seen the loss of the independent living fund. The net result is loss of care or institutionalising people. Most care homes are run by private companies and neglect does not seem uncommon. I think more abuse and neglect is likely especially when companies are cutting costs because they have underquoted better homes.

We have sick and disabled people being  judged as fit to work and told to claim job seeker’s allowance and look for work, and we have even more seriously sick and disabled people being placed in the Work Related Activity Group. Both groups are subject to The Work Programme where they are expected to undertake unpaid work experience for large companies, and government plans are to make such work placements of unlimited duration. Work makes you free.

Under these plans anyone who is seen to not be cooperating with The Work Programme and other work related activities will see their benefit income slashed. Those on Job Seeker’s Allowance can have their entire allowance removed entirely for weeks, even six months. Those on Employment Support Allowance (e.g. too sick to work) will see three quarters of their allowance removed. Of course anyone who has been judged as fit to work or has been placed in the WRAG is expected to be capable of going on work placements even if their assessment was wrong and they are waiting a year for an appeal, and even if people are seriously harmed by trying to work. The result is that those who don’t destroy themselves trying to find jobs that don’t exist or going to endless work placements will instead not be able to afford food, clothes, fuel bills, rent and more. Many will be able to use food banks but some will not be physically able to get to them and food banks rely on charity from other people who are struggling too.

The result

Is it such a large step for disabled people to be dying? No. It’s already  happening. Reports in April claimed that 1,100 people had already died after being placed in the work related activity group. That’s more than thirty people a week. This is what Chris Grayling calls “Tough love.”

Some government ministers make policy decisions without thinking about the consequences of what will happen in practice. Others are fully aware of what will happen and just don’t care. Either way, they are often covered by claiming that their policy in itself does not harm people, even though the flaws with implementation allow people to fall through the net and come to harm. Government ignore evidence. They dismiss statistics, they blame the previous government, they claim that processes are being sorted out now, they claim that any harm is the fault of the sick or disabled or unemployed individual. The Government are hiding behind Atos and A4e who are “just carrying out orders” but they way they carry out those orders makes things even worse. Government ministers have the same attitude as many other people in power – they can say “make it happen” and the minions do the dirty work.

In 1930s Germany the government themselves ordered the rounding up and the killing of disabled people. In modern-day Britain the government can claim that it is not their fault, even that it should not happen, but private companies and the chasm of bureaucracy between various government departments are what kill people. Starvation, homelessness and neglect are what will kill people. The implementation is different and the scale is different but the attitude and the outcome are the same.


Further Reading

Godwin’s law must die [A Latent Existence]

Action T4 [Wikipedia]

Disabled benefits claimants face £71 a week fines for breaching work plan [The Guardian]

32 die a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit [Mirror]

Early day motion 295 [Parliament]

Work-or-starve plans for seriously ill welfare claimants might backfire [Eklesia]

Past Caring? [We are Spartacus]


The Paralympics tell us nothing about most sick or disabled people

I’m struggling to believe that I have to say this, I really am, but here goes:

The Paralympics tell us nothing about most sick or disabled people.

No, really, they don’t. The athletes taking part in the Paralympics, just like those in the Olympics, represent the elite. They are the people who are lucky enough to have time for training, money for equipment, the physical ability to push themselves that far. Just as you could not expect any person who is not yet disabled to run as fast as Usain Bolt or to dive with as much skill as Tom Daley, you cannot expect a disabled person to run like Oscar Pistorius or swim like Ellie Simmonds.

For sick or disabled people the struggle is not to get to Paralympic standard but to achieve the same standard as most people who are not disabled. That’s what disabled means. For whatever reason the combination of the way that society is arranged and the impairment that a person has means that they are unable to function in the same way as most. Disability makes everything harder. It makes things more exhausting. It makes things more expensive. It makes things take longer. Sickness and disability can require everything that a person has and still not allow them to function. For many when the impairment is too great no amount of adjustment or struggle can overcome that, although technology and the efforts of those around them can provide other means for a happy life.

For a lucky few that sickness or physical impairment is not a barrier to Paralympic greatness. Even then, though they may be able to run or swim or shoot they might still not be able to dress themselves or wash themselves or cook for themselves. We should celebrate their sporting abilities, but we must not think that sporting ability tells us anything else at all about Paralympic athletes or any other sick or disabled person.