A Quango Free Speech Fandango

Do you know what a quango is?

I didn’t, until I read Jackie Ashley’s commentary in The Guardian entitled “Livingstone’s suspension is an affront to democracy” with this marvelous subhead– “Londoners voted for a mayor they knew to be outspoken. They don’t need a faceless quango to protect them.”

Quango is a Britishism for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization (QUANGO). Quangos are nominally independent bodies, developed largely by the Tories as an alternative to official government agencies.

The quango in question, the Adjudication Panel for England, has suspended Livingstone, mayor of London, for what many see as anti-Semitic comments.

Here’s Jackie Ashley’s account of those remarks:

So his now notorious late-night exchange with a reporter from the London Evening Standard, who happened to be Jewish, was pretty unexceptional by Livingstone standards. His relations with the paper are dire and he accused its man of being “a German war criminal” and “behaving just like a concentration camp guard … doing it because you are paid to”. Then he described the reporter’s employer as “a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots”.

Robust, certainly: but does this really warrant his suspension as mayor of London for four weeks, from Wednesday? Who, you may want to know, has the power to suspend someone with a huge democratic mandate anyway?

Ashley complains that it is anti-democratic for this three-person quango to discipline Livingstone. She also defends him against the suggestion of anti-Semitism:

You may or may not agree with Ken’s views on the Middle East, but to move from his hostility to the actions of the state of Israel to suggest that he behaved in an anti-semitic way is gross. He has made clear, on these pages and elsewhere, the distinction between his loathing of the Holocaust and his admiration for the Jewish people, on the one hand, and his anger about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, on the other. He has worked with the Board of Deputies of British Jews against the National Front. His hatred of the Mail group is connected to its pre-war admiration for the Nazis. He has to be allowed his strong views.

As a free speech advocate, I couldn’t agree more with Ashley’s call that Livingstone (dubbed “Red Ken” for his hard left politics) should “be allowed his strong views,” even when, as in this case, they are needlessly insensitive and hurtful.

The response to speech we don’t like, should be…more speech, to borrow from Justice Brandeis. Unfortunately many in the European Union lean towards the “social responsibility” school, which inevitably leads to legislation banning “hate speech” and, as can be seen in the Livingstone situation, government oversight of political discourse. Not good. In the United States, most attempts at enforcing politically correct speech have occurred on college campuses–and are increasingly being resisted.

Let’s agree with Ashley that Livingstone should be able to trumpet his often bizarre and provocative views without fear of removal from office or governmental reprisal, but also without accepting her notion that he is free from anti-Semitic inclinations.

This is man, after all, who is on record as arguing that Britain’s treatment of the Irish was worse than Hitler’s of the Jews; who gave Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi (an Egyptian cleric banned from the U.S. because of his advocacy of violence) a warm welcome to London; and who begins tossing around the word “Zionist” whenever he discusses Israel and the Palestinians. Note well: Livingstone’s most objectionable comments to the London Evening Standard reporter came after the reporter had identified himself as Jewish.

(The Anti-Defamation League has few doubts about “Livingstone’s record”).

At best, Livingstone is a boor. At worst, he is infected with the virus of anti-Semitism, despite his recent claims that his maternal grandmother may be Jewish. The sunshine of free speech is the best disinfectant.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

The fastest sport on two feet

The average American sports fan knows that when pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Florida (usually around this time in February), spring itself is, to use the cliché, just around the corner.

For those of us Northeasterners whose childhood sport was lacrosse, not baseball, the signal is, instead, the first full weekend of men’s collegiate lacrosse, which commences tomorrow.

Lacrosse is a beautiful sport; full of grace and violence, finesse and strength, played on the verdant fields of March, April and May. It is distinctly American—native American. The brilliant Syracuse University goalkeeper of the late 1950s, Oren Lyons, the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Nation, once explained the spiritual origins of this Indian game to Bill Moyers:

Lacrosse is The Creator’s Game and he loves to have the contest and the vitality of the contest. And so, the harder you play — you’re supposed to play it as hard as you can — but, don’t cheat and you do things fair. Everything is always fair. Always fair. Do things fair.

( The brief lacrosse game director Micheal Mann included in his often underrated 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans” captured the spirit of a natural and spontaneous sport, with players grabbing crosses (sticks) and joining the fray at will.)

Sadly, the wooden crosses in “The Last of the Mohicans” are now artifacts. I learned to play with a wooden stick (pounding its stiff leather pocket into playing shape), but by the early 1970s metal and plastic had triumphed—today’s equipment uses titanium shafts, plastic heads and mesh. The newer sticks are uniform in their balance and the way they handle—but in my mind, they could never match the deeply personal and idiosyncratic appeal of a wooden crosse.

Despite the high-tech equipment, its players and fans revere the traditions and legends. Oldtimers still talk about Jim Brown, who took to the field at Syracuse as a midfielder and, while famous as a football running back, is also regarded as possibly the greatest lacrosse player of the 20th century.

Today it’s hard to argue that a midfielder should be considered the most dominant player in the modern high-scoring game—the balance of power has swung over to the attack. For my money, the greatest attackman of the last century was Cornell’s Mike French (with all due respect to the Gait brothers, Gary and Paul, and Casey, Ryan and Mikey Powell). French did set the Division One all-time career scoring record with 296 points in just three years of play (before freshmen could play varsity).

In 1975 I helped French pad his career totals while attempting (and attempting is the correct word) to guard him in a Harvard-Cornell game—the Canadian scored three goals in my one half of play (I was mercifully banished to the bench). I’d like to claim I had some success in defending against him, but it wouldn’t be true.

While he isn’t in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame like French, I maintain that attackman Mike Hynes, a teammate in high school and national standout at Maryland in the 1970s, remains the most inventive and entertaining player I ever saw. Not blessed with French’s combination of speed and size, Mike always found a way to win, either by scoring or assisting. Mike was recently inducted into the New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

College lacrosse has been dominated by the same teams (Princeton, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Cornell) for the past three decades. While defending champion Hopkins is the consensus preseason choice to win the Division One NCAA title this year, there’s some sentiment for Duke (the Blue Devils lost to Hopkins, 9-8 in the 2005 final.) Princeton is looking to rebound after an uncharacteristically poor 2005 season. For 2006, I’m rooting for Cornell.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Nobody asked me, but…

With apologies to Jimmy Cannon…nobody asked me, but…

  • I don’t use the Italian names (“venti, grande”) when I order coffee at Starbucks. I ask for a large decaf coffee–I let the counterperson (“barista”) translate my order into Starbucks speak.
  • Beleaguered Harvard University president Larry Summers won’t last until the Ides of March (see here). The media leaks from the University’s governing board (the Harvard Corporation) are the equivalent of throwing chum in shark-infested waters.
  • Should the words “good” and “taste” ever appear in the same sentence as “costume” and “ice dancing”? The Winter Olympics Authenticity Award goes to the Italian pair who glared at each other after a tumble. They have my vote.
  • Why do the announcers on National Public Radio all sound like they want to play the part of Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant from a 1940s high society film? Who talks like that? Is there an American (outside of the People’s Republic of Cambridge) with an accent anything close to that of NPR’s upper crusters?
  • A Supreme Court nominee in 2035 will have to step aside because of a compromising posting on their college Facebook page.
  • Kobe Bryant may be leading the NBA in scoring, but if I’m starting a team tomorrow, LeBron James is my first pick. He makes every player around him better, and in last night’s All Star game that was evident.
  • I think you’d get even money on whether the Rolling Stones will stop touring before the Feds capture fugitive South Boston mafia boss Whitey Bulger. (The other paper in my hometown, the Boston Herald, has been running excerpts from Howie Carr’s book on the “hunt” for Whitey Bulger).
  • When I first read John Perkins’ ”Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” (profiled in the Sunday New York Times), why was I reminded of all those books proving that the CIA, organized crime, Texas oil interests or shadowy government agencies assassinated President Kennedy? Look for Oliver Stone to buy the movie rights.
  • If they gave Academy Awards for best casting, wouldn’t the latest version of “Pride and Prejudice” win hands down?
  • Remember when Krispy Kreme Doughnuts stock was a sure thing? No longer. You know you’re in trouble when you are compared to the Hard Rock Café.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Neither Red nor Blue: a beginning

This is my first post to “Neither Red nor Blue,” an occasional blog on topics of the day, political and cultural.

Readers should be forewarned: my interests are varied (from media criticism to the state of college lacrosse, from dolphin behavior to country music), and this blog will reflect that eclecticism.

I hope to offer a slightly different perspective in my commentary–an independent and authentic one. I hope that what appears here reflects a philosophy of expressing views “without fear or favor of friend or foe,” to quote that marvelous newspaper tagline.

It is also my hope that “Neither Red nor Blue” will meet the Old School standards of journalistic objectivity; as late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once noted, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but no one has a right to his own facts.” I would hope that my facts will also be your facts.

Stranger than Fiction

Novelist Julia Glass had an intriguing op-ed in Friday’s New York Times, “Meanwhile, what is truth?” (found here, courtesy of the International Herald Tribune). Glass uses the recent controversy over faux memoirist James Frey to pose this question:

“Why do readers suddenly seem to prefer the so-called truth to fiction? It’s a foregone conclusion that memoirs now sell better than novels, that magazines are giving short stories the shaft. Has fiction become a dirty word?”

Glass gives a number of reasons for the decline in the interest in “the outmoded business of literary fabrication,” including this one:

“Much of contemporary entertainment slakes a thirst for the pain and abasement of others. Fiction doesn’t cut it anymore because no one really and truly suffers. In fact, this is crucial to what fiction does. Through it, you experience empathy in its purest form because what you cannot experience is blame. Blame requires at least one beating heart.”

She adds that “it feels unnatural to be carried away on the private, illusory adventure of a novel,” and “Americans want their diversions short, loud and filled with telegenic hardships.”

And yet…there is something unsatisfyingly incomplete in Glass’ argument.

What does she miss? I think readers respond to storytelling and authenticity and the popularity of Frey’s writing has as much to do with its perceived “realness” (now gone) as with “telegenic hardships.”

There is a market for authenticity—in memoirs, journalistic accounts and, yes, in novels.

Those same Americans who, according to Glass “want their diversions short, loud and filled with telegenic hardships” will turn to long novels when the author delivers a compelling and authentic story, grounded in a mix of imagination, research and (dare we say its name?) reportage.

Consider Elliot Perlman’s 628-page “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” Thomas Kelly’s 390-page “Empire Rising,” Tom Wolfe’s 752-page “Charlotte Simmons”–all three of these novels offered readers those elements. Not surprisingly, these novels, all published in 2005, were not showered with awards from the literary establishment (and two of them, Perlman’s and Kelly’s, bore the additional burden of being critically dismissed as historical fiction).

There may be something, however, to what Glass says: to the extent that American literary fiction relies on imagination (“illusory adventure”) and writing workshop tricks instead of storytelling founded deeply in a writer’s experience, why is it surprising that readers are turning elsewhere?

; ; ;

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved