Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
“And if we live by books, and if we live by hope,
Does that make us targets for gunfire?”
To which the answer appears to be “Yes”.
The words come from a beautiful Stuart Murdoch song about a man with an illness; I think he is visited by God (“Tied to the yoke with a decent bloke, who was stern but never daunting.”) The film which accompanies the music certainly invokes Christianity, the sort that I like (I’m drawn to the song for lots of reasons; self-selection bias.)
There’s a focus in the video on the Christ of St John of the Cross, Glasgow’s most famous picture. A representation of the Christ, which once caused such controversy that a (possibly mentally ill) man attacked it in the Kelvingrove (art gallery and museum). He tore at the canvas with his hands. Was there a link between his pictorial violence and one tribe or another of the religion which, back then, held most of Scotland in its sway? I don’t know, but I doubt the attack was motivated by the aesthetics of colour.
You see, Mr and Mrs Authority? It’s perfectly possible to be both a “random nutter” and to be motivated towards violence at the behest of religious tropes.
The attack happened decades ago, long before my own mis-spent university afternoons hanging around the gallery. But visit the Kelvingrove today and there the Christ of St John of the Cross still hangs, the city’s crowning artistic glory. Fuck you! shouts proud Glasgow, fuck all you weird people with a problem about art and its representations, either sacred or profane. This we call important, this we call beauty, this we call religious, and this freedom to display all of that – we call that ours. Dear, green place.
Fuck you! we all shout. Je suis Glasgow, and Charlie, too. Unless your image-hating-ness, that is, derives from an Islamic background; then we’ll churn out article after article about how there’s “a difference between freedom to offend, and deliberately causing offence, so because some Muslims take offence at pictures of the man that they choose to worship, it would probably be best were Charlie Hebdo no longer to print cartoons of Mohammed. Here, let us help you rip the image down.”
Is “fuck” offensive, by the way? Or is it “just” a word? A word is just an image, after all, a representation of a sound which is a representation of a thing which is almost ubiquitous throughout and beyond humanity. Is your offence my problem, or yours?
Well: there’s no such thing as “just” a word. They are powerful things, word/images, which is why those who would control us seek always to control them, and why, more locally, I chose to “fuck” today on purpose. (Sorry: I needed a bit of lightness, here, even of the childish sort.)
Because normally I wouldn’t: cause offence mindlessly, that is. Trying to cause as little offence as possible is more than my modus operandum; it’s almost a pathological dysfunction. If I cared less about causing offence, I’d be…I’d be like those swaggering horrors who have colonised our public spaces, caring not tuppence whether they drive your car off the road or push you out the queue or make your train journey unbearable or terrify you into avoiding their drunken town centres. I don’t want to be like those people. Not being bullied, by becoming another bully: it doesn’t feel like a solution.
So – sorry about the “fuck” – shall we nod knowingly with the clever columnists and their invented dichotomies between freedom and offence? We might even laugh along with the Pope, and his threat to punch people who insult his own religion; thank goodness it’s not just Islamic types whose sensitivities we have to indulge – that would feel perilously close to discrimination!
No, this won’t do. Here is what staring at the Dali in Glasgow taught me: attacks on the image of Christ were a diminution of myself, little care though I had (then) about any form of religion. The connection to be made today isn’t just the obvious one, that all our freedoms are diminished by the attack on Charlie Hebdo. It’s that other bit, the bit you probably missed in the fourth paragraph, if you answered “Yes” to my question: is there potentially a link between the attack on the Kelvingrove picture, and the tropes, however perverted, of the religion to which its attacker adhered? It’s this link which our leaders have deliberately ignored.
It’s nearly four years since I wrote a column for the Telegraph about the Islamist campaign of intimidation against gay people in parts of East London, and the deafening indifference of the authorities to tackle its (blindingly obvious) root cause and causers.
And unlike Theresa May, it didn’t take the cold-blooded murders of Jews in a supermarket in Paris to make me wonder if Britain, too, could become a country where Jews might live in fear for their lives. I’ve thought it for the best part of a decade. All you had to do, Home Secretary, was to ask Jewish people how they were feeling.
You think it’s a coincidence that the Jewish gay Tory group leader in Tower Hamlets has suffered years of verbal abuse from the public gallery while he tries to hold Lutfur Rahman to account? Or that no-one in “authority” has done anything consequential about it? My other half – a quiet man, whom I think I’ve seen angry maybe once in ten years – is unprintable about the lack of action (Another inquiry! That’ll learn ’em!) from government agencies about the ongoing, low level intimidation and the endless scandals, educational and electoral, in that borough of a non-party state.
It’s only a council Tory being shouted down/ it’s only gays being attacked in the East End/ it’s only female Muslim pharmacists being bullied into wearing a niqab/ it’s only yet another election whose result no-one seriously trusts/ it’s only some university society segregating the sexes/ it’s only a few schools in Birmingham, too/ it’s only another Brick Lane Muslim cafe owner being intimaded about the “Je Suis Charlie” sign on his door.
Gay people, Jewish people, Muslims who want to choose their lives for themselves: do you think the haters care about the difference? Did you think they’d stop there? Ask Lee Rigby’s family.
But while we on the non-Islamist part of the politico-religious spectrum have fought with one another over topics which matter only close up to our lives, and which will always be soluble within our comfortable, liberal democratic home, our enemies – the enemies of freedom, which is to say, the enemies of love – have been gathering over more existential matters. Seeing how far they could get, step by increasingly threatening step.
Meanwhile, Government ministers and other public servants have lectured us about the illegality of drawing a link between what is happening at the “extreme” of one religion and the violence on our streets. Now the Home Secretary appears to be astonished at the rise of anti-semitism in the country. “Goodness! We must wipe this anti-semitism out! With a redoubled political campaign!”
“And he told me to push, and he made me feel well/ And he told me to leave that vision of hell to the dying.”
We’re in a waiting room. The Jews and the gays are closest to the door marked “Exit”, same as it ever was, except these days the liberal Muslims sit with us too. Outside, that noise you can hear, that scrabbling at the walls, that’s a piece of our priceless artwork being hacked about, someone ripping the corner off the Christ of St John of the Cross. And then the bits next to the corner. And so on.
Just a few lone nutters, right? Whose hatred for those of us inside the room comes, apparently, from precisely nowhere. “Priceless artwork” is a metaphor, just in case anyone in government is reading.