Tag Archives: China

Trump’s Military Expansion wins US hearts but won’t educate American minds

Military $ Up, Foreign Aid Down

Donald Trump wants to spend $54 billion more on the US military, whilst cutting foreign aid and environmental policies to pay for it. Sadly, US surveys during his election campaign indicated around 55% support for this policy. He would do better spending $54bn on education and integration. Meanwhile, over 120 retired US generals and admirals wrote to Congress urging it to maintain diplomacy and foreign aid which has been labelled as “bloat” by some Republicans and could be cut by up to a third.

“This is a landmark event and message to the world in these dangerous times, of American strength, security and resolve…We must ensure that our courageous servicemen and women have the tools they need to deter war and when called upon to fight in our name, only do one thing: win.” – Donald Trump

US military spendingThe US already spends around $600bn a year on the military and department of defense. That figure is equal to the next dozen nations in total, dwarfing even China’s $150-200bn, Saudi Arabia’s $80bn and Russia’s $70bn. In fact, it spends over 40% of the world’s total military expenditure, making it the world’s military policeman or soldier. America has around 5% of the world’s population but nearly 50% of its military power, in terms of navy, missiles and expenditure. Only Saudi Arabia spends more proportionately, around 10% of its GDP, often buying from American suppliers.

America has around 5% of the world’s population but nearly 50% of its military power, in terms of navy, missiles and expenditure. The US Navy is bigger than the next 7-10 navies combined. Only Saudi Arabia spends more proportionately, around 10% of its GDP, often buying from American suppliers. 

Does America not realise that it is its interference in world military conflicts that has precipitated some of the terrorist response. It’s time for superpowers to put their guns away. It’s time for more foreign aid, not sovereign raids.

US defense budget graphic 2016

Books not Bombs

Bernie Sanders, like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, wants to see the nuclear deterrent reduced, and spent better elsewhere. The US spends twice as much per capita as the UK on Defence, indeed the proposed increase is equivalent to the entire UK annual military budget.

Trump’s CPAC Speech was Sabre rattling

“We will be substantially upgrading all of our military, all of our military, offensive, defensive, everything. Bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and hopefully we’ll never have to use it, but nobody’s going to mess with us, folks. Nobody. It will be one of the greatest military buildups in American history. No one will dare question, as they have been, because we’re very depleted, very, very depleted sequester. Sequester. Nobody will question our military might again.” – Donald Trump, CPAC

Trump has also said that he will “obliterate ISIS” and his language sometimes sounds like he could quite possibly go after Iran and North Korea at this rate.

“We don’t win anymore. When was the last time we won? Did we win a war? Did we win anything? Do we win anything? Do we win anything? We’re going to win. We’re going to win big, folks. We’re going to start winning again.” – Donald Trump, CPAC

He sees wars as something to win. He would do well to remember the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo:

“Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle won”.

The last time a Western leader presided over such a large military expansion it ended in the Second World War, just what does Donald Trump want to start? Appealing to the hearts of Republican traditionalists who want a strong America won’t feed, heal, educate, or inspire the minds of its citizens, Democrat or Republican.

Got the Brexit Blues? Lost your Pink Beret! Reckon Orange is the new Black?

March for Europe, Paint it Blue

Yesterday, around the UK, from London to Edinburgh, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge, tens of thousands marched for Europe in an attempt to #paintitblue ahead of parliamentary discussion of the 4-million-plus second referendum petition. Peter Tatchell joined the march and Eddie Izzard, in high heels, gave chase

Orange is the New Black

Meanwhile, Theresa May was away in orange declaring to the US and China that “Brexit means Brexit“, “Free trade means free”, and Britain’s independence would be great – how quick they change their tune, or rather outfits?

Theresa May - "Better off in the European Union"
Theresa May – “Better off in the European Union”?

Political Language turning the air Blue

“Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” – George Orwell

In an article in the Economist about how Republicans and Democrats in the US use political language, it was asserted that liberals try to talk facts and policies whilst conservatives are unafraid to aim for the gut.

“…conservatives use language more effectively than liberals in communicating their deepest values” – George Lakoff, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic

The language of politics has also become the toxic language of hate, turning the language of the streets, rallies and even political advertising, blue – not pro-EU, but xenophobia and anti-immigrant fear and racism, both leading up to and since Brexit.

All Black takes on Pink Beret

In other news, europhile Eddie Izzard in hat and heels had his pink beret “headgear stolen near Downing Street by a man dressed in all black with a balaclava covering half his face. Despite wearing high heels, Izzard gave furious chase as police caught the man and tore back his beret while he was pinned to the floor. He then dusted off the pink garment and placed it back on his head before marching to Parliament Square.” – Guardian

Eddie Izzard said: “There was one guy… he went up and snatched my beret – which has a British flag and an EU flag on – and he marched off, he stole it.” The comedian said of the police that they “did fantastic”:

“…there was an inspector, some other officers in there, they took him down. I got my beret back, but it’s gone off as evidence – my beret is now in evidence. I’m out, transgender for 31 years and if anyone steals my pink beret, I’ll get it back.” – BBC

Just to keep things serious, here’s The Pink Berets from the movie Hop (2011):

Political Fashion

Now let’s stop obsessing about what trans people or female politicans wear and get back to what really matters. Oh ok, here’s a quick survey of what female leaders are wearing this season, Eddie – get on trend!

Political Fashion Orange is the new Black
Political Fashion, Orange is the new Black?

Saudi Arabia mass executions & death sentences a Human Rights travesty

Saudi Arabia State Executions Escalate

2015 saw a rise in Saudi Arabia‘s public executions, some 157 people according to Amnesty International – there were 90 in 2014, 192 in 1995, the previous peak. Even more shocking was that 2016 began with 47 in a single day, on New Year’s Day, allegedly all ‘terrorists’ including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Iran has threatened reprisals with molotov cocktails already thrown at the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Meanwhile even mainstream media commentary is now comparing the House of Saud to ISIS whilst Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) praised the message it sent to terrorists. Saudia Arabia has now ordered Iranian diplomats out and Bahrain followed suit, severing diplomatic ties, a day later, along with UAE and Sudan creating a new Middle East crisis.

ISIS Saudi Arabia Executions Any Difference via Khamenei
ISIS v Saudi Arabia Executions “Any Difference” asks Iran’s Khamenei

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Iran too, despite its own record executions, has compared Saudi Arabia to ISIS. Ayatollah Khamenei the self-titled “Leader of the Islamic Revolution” calling it a “White ISIS” and asking whether there are “any differences” between them.

Other atrocities apart, and excepting the variant methods of execution (Saudi still has stoning and flogging punishments, though often commuted to jail time, not to mention posthumous crucifixion), what is the difference between the continued practice of state executions by America, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the so-called Islamic State, all of which have executed dozens of people a year. Iran has executed hundreds – perhaps a 1000 making its condemnation of Saudi Arabia somewhat hyprocritical. Pakistan has 6-8,000 people on its death row and in 2015 carried out 316+ executions a massive increase on the handful of 2014. Egypt (500+) and Nigeria (650+) have also been resorting to issuing death sentences (2014 figures).

Saudi Arabia's human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016

Ironically, the Saudi Arabian national flag features a sword – the very means of public execution, before each of which verses from the Koran are read justifying the sentence. Offences can include atheism, drugs crimes, homosexuality, insulting Islam, and sorcery!

The Death Penalty

Whilst just over a dozen countries had abolished the death penalty 30 years ago, today over a 100 have ended the practice. Some among those that have kept it, though, have increased its use in recent years in the name of countering ‘terrorism’.

Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International
Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International

Thousands a year are sentenced to death worldwide but fewer are carried out, some 20,000 people are incarcerated under a death sentence, yet to be carried out. In 2014 over a 110 people in 9 countries had their death sentence reversed, leaving them exonerated as innocent. This is the biggest reason to end the practice. Three times as many countries commuted death sentences to other forms of punishment.

“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.” – Amnesty International

Twelve countries still use hanging and ten use shooting, only Saudi Arabia and Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) behead people, swift but brutal. US executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have steadily fallen since to 28 in 2015, but over 3,000 remain on death row.

A Foreign Office spokesperson has commented, saying that:

“The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country. The death penalty undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.”

Perhaps the UK should criticise America, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China’s position on capital punishment, alongside Islamic State? As David Cameron was challenged to do and amongst excuses for close ties with Saudi responded with:

“We oppose the death penalty anywhere and everywhere” – David Cameron, October 2015

Executed Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014, Sheikh Nimr had opposed violence calling instead for peaceful protesters to resist the Saudi state and police bullets using “the roar of the word” and non-violent agitation, though he was not opposed to celebrating the deaths of tyrants. Mohammad al-Nimr, his brother, was arrested for merely tweeting about the death sentence but has since called for calm despite his own son on death row. Al-Nimr was pro-democracy and against “murder in the name of God”.

“The [Saudi] authorities depend on bullets … and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice”…We do not accept [force of firearms]. This is not our practice…We welcome those who follow such attitude…Nonetheless, we cannot enforce our methodology on those who want to pursue different approaches…The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of bullets.” – Sheikh al-Nimr

“The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors. The Khalifa family [in Bahrain] are oppressors, and Sunnis are not responsible for their actions. These are not Sunnis, they are tyrants. The Assad family in Syria are oppressors, and Shiism is not responsible for their actions. Never defend an oppressor. It is never justified for someone who is oppressed to defend [another’s] oppressor.” – Sheik al-Nimr, 2012

Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr Crufixion

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook

Ali al-Nimr, nephew of executed Nimr al-Nimr, was arrested when just 17 for participating in Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations against the Saudi Arabian government. He was subsequently convicted by confession under torture. He is now 21 but in 2015 he was sentenced to death by beheading and then posthumous public crucifixion. As of today over 1.5 million people have signed just one of the several petitions to commute or cancel his sentence.

The UK Government believes that it can “achieve most by speaking privately and regularly to our Saudi interlocutors” rather than publicly confronting its ‘ally’. The Foreign Secretary recently said that he did not expect Ali al-Nimr to be executed and Shadow Minister Hilary Benn  has called on him “to seek fresh assurances that he will be reprieved.”

However, by threatening death to so many, and carrying out more than previous years, it is easy for Saudi Arabia to mollify the West with a couple of concessions and reprieves without denting its religious and political ethnic cleansing of opposition.

Political Prisoners in Saudi Arabia

Islamic Human Rights Commission IHRCSaudi Arabia denies it has any political prisoners but unofficial estimates from human rights bodies including the UK-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) suggest that up to 30,000 are imprisoned for political crimes against the Saudi state.

Back in November 2011, after the fatal shooting of four Shias, Sheikh al-Nimr had called for:

“[the] release of all those detained in the [Arab Spring] protests, and all prisoners of conscience – Sunnis and Shias.”

Raif Badawi Flogging

Saudi Arabian political blogger and recent recipient of the EU’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, Raif Badawi, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for “insulting Islam” and also received the first tranche of 50 or a 1,000 lashed whipping sentence. Subsequent installments have been suspended based upon his poor health, exacerbated by his latest hunger strike, these last three weeks which has led to a deteriorating medical condition.

Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought
Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Wahhabism and Saudi Arabian History

Saudi Arabia has a wealth of cultural and religious history, is the birthplace of Islam, home to Mecca, Medina and Mohammed. It is rich in oil and other resources but beyond poor when it comes to human rights, democracy, and accountability. It offers the West tokenistic concessions in exchange for continuing its own ruthless totalitarianism.

Its brand of Islamic belief is Sunni as opposed to Shia, and an extreme version of that called Wahhabism or Salafism. They are stricter forms of Sharia Law based Islam, literalist, anti-Western and puritanical. Jihad, whether missionary or military, can be seen as a legitimate expression as well as expansion of Islam against its detractors.

Saudi Arabia, Extremism and Terrorism

Dr Yousaf Butt, senior advisor to the British American Security Information Council and director at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, says of Saudi Arabia:

“…one thing is clear: the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia. And if the world wants to stamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator.”

He goes on to quote Wikileaks and other sources that purport to show Saudi’s financing of terror groups, several thousand Saudis are alleged to be in ISIL’s ranks. More easily verified is the funding of extremist Wahhabism via mosques and madrassas worldwide.

Saudi Arabia’s Hypocrisy on Human Rights

This same country was recently chosen to head a United Nations human rights selection panel. If it weren’t so serious and concerning, this would be satire. What’s worse is that apparently the UK supported their appointment.

Whilst Saudi Arabia has appeared to give women token political rights in recent municipal elections, they still can’t drive. Restrictions on political dissent and freedom of speech continue unabated and punishments for religious disagreement, in particular Saudi’s Wahabi version of Sunni Islam. As a result Freedom House’s freedom index ranks Saudi Arabia bottom on all counts.

Saudi Arabia is also the largest market for the British arms industry along with billions of other business deal tie-ups. As a result Britain is unlikely to publicly condemn Saudi too often, human rights will remain compromised by commercial interest. Indeed, a senior Government minister today defended close links with Saudi Arabia arguing that they enabled us to “tell them what we think”. True and unhypocritical condemnation of executions can only come when America and other countries also end the death penalty. Equally, rightful opposition to Islamic State (ISIL) should be accompanied by calling state-sanctioned extremism by Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and others to account too.

Eurovision, entertainment, entente or enmity? Austria’s Conchita Wurst Genderqueer Drag act wins! Russian revulsion and reactions

The Eurovision Song Contest was established post-War to bring nations together in peaceful pop appreciation but as ‘greater’ Europe’s nations (including Russia and Israel) battled it out over national pop songs (mostly sung in English!) on 10 May, new conflicts arose.

Conchita Wurst wins Eurovision 2014First, there was the new enmity between Russian and Ukraine and the break-up of the former Warsaw-pact voting block. Second, there was the usual analysis and outcry at nationalist and neighbouring countries mutual self-interest voting patterns, not to mention vast divisions between the newer 50/50 split between public and professional jury votes.

Finally, there was the homophobia and indeed, transphobia, of some nations (Belarus, Russian and even some Austrians) complaining about Austria’s label-defying gay genderqueer drag diva Conchita Wurst, who went on to win the contest.

Russia-Ukraine | Reaction | Voting | Camp/Queer History | Conchita Wurst | Bearded Women

Eurovision Song Contest logo

2014’s Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in Copenhagen, Denmark, was the 59th competition, having begun in 1956. This year, 37 nations, competed, and it top-ten trended on Twitter most of the week, such is the European, if not international following of the entertainment extravaganza.

Eurovision 2014 – Russia and Ukraine

Tuesday’s semi-final had more at stake than music as rival posturing nations Russia and Ukraine continued their war of words.

Eurovision Song Contest #JoinUs

Both Russia and Ukraine made the semi-finals with Ukraine’s entry drawing cheers and Russia’s, boos. Eurovision 2014’s tagline #JoinUs had a darker new meaning as Russia wants Ukraine to “join us” having already taken Crimea to a dubious vote – just like Eurovision!

One of last year’s Eurovision stories was Twitter top-trending as hundreds erroneously re-tweeted a BBC story about Azerbaijan’s failure to nominate any points to Russia’s entry in the Eurovision song contest and Russia’s foreign minister calling this “outrageous”!  Except this was 2013, and a conspiracy theory at that, with the report that Azerbaijan’s President subsequently ordered an inquiry into how its votes for Russia apparently went missing. In the game of Eurovision “Risk” Russia had given Azerbaijan’s entry maximum “douze points”.

This year, Russia’s entry, the Tolmachevy Twins, aged 17, seemed perfect Eurovision fare, beautiful on the eyes and ears, a popular choice – apart from being Russian. Their song and teenage innocence with respect to all the international politics meant they were received well until they progressed to the final and were booed by the Danish and international semi-final and final audiences, who seemed strongly anti-Russia’s stance against gay rights, Crimea and the Ukraine. During the awarding of points almost every award of any points to Russia was greeted with jeers rather than cheers as the voting public punished Putin for Russian territorial aggression and anti-LGBT laws.

Ukraine’s own entry, Mariya Yaremchuk, also qualified for the final with the added visual drama of a suited male dancer running inside a giant hamster wheel to her song “Tick-Tock”.

In the end, Conchita Wurst of Austria won by a large margin 290pts (beating Netherlands 238pts), but Ukraine, with 113 points to Russia’s 89 points, will be pleased it came 6th over Russian’s 7th place! Ironically, Russia gave Austria (5pts) one more point than it gave to Ukraine (4pts).

Russian news sites during the week reported on the respective nations’ entries as “aggressive”, “militant” or about supposed political messages hidden in the songs.

Russian and International Reaction to the Eurovision 2014 Winner

The morning after Eurovision 2014 was won by gay genderqueer drag artist from Austria Conchita Wurst had Russian politicians reaching new lows of homophobia and European “liberal” condemnation.

The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted that the Eurovision result “showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl.”

According to TheJournal.ie, another Russian politician, the ultranationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, told Rossiya-1 state television:

“There’s no limit to our outrage. It’s the end of Europe. It has turned wild. They don’t have men and women any more. They have ‘it’. Fifty years ago the Soviet army occupied Austria. We made a mistake in freeing Austria. We should have stayed.”

Zhirinovsky has been described as “One of the most enduring fruit loops in Russian politics” – note that was ‘enduring’ not endearing. He is stubbornly sexist, homophobic, racist, anti-Western. He has called for the deportation of Chinese and Japanese people, threatened a female journalist with rape, and crazily suggested that the British royal baby would suck Russian blood!

Russian hip-hop rapper Timati had over 76,000 likes in just 15 hours for his Instagram post about Conchita Wurst in which he wrote that her win was symptomatic of a “complex mental disorder of modern society”. He went on to bemoan having to explain gay kissing to children, bearded trans – “and that’s supposed to be normal”,and to praise Putin for banning LGBT Pride Parades.

Russia’s reactions are somewhat, ironic and hypocritical given that in the 2003 Eurovision Contest they were represented by faux-lesbian t.A.T.u. and their same-sex kissing. Again, in February, at the Sochi Winter Olympics the Russian Olympic team marched out to the music of t.A.T.u.’s Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova, dressed as schoolgirls, kissing in the rain.

Eurovision Block Voting Scandals

Eurovision’s extra political undercurrent this year is nothing new as block-voting has been allegedly going on for decades, whether Greece-Cyprus, Scandinavian, Balkan or Warsaw pact blocks. Whilst mutual voting may have helped Ukraine win in 2004, Russia in 2008, and Azerbaijan 2011, it seems that for many former Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact countries cooperation is now over with Russia’s perceived aggression in the real world outside of camp pop culture.

Eurovision’s Camp GenderQueer History

Eurovision is no stranger to camp, drag or trans artistes, such as Israel’s pioneering 1998 trans winner, Sharon Cohen performing as Dana International. Sharon had come out as transgender aged 13 and had transsexual surgery (SRS/GRS), aged 21, in London in 1993. Initially, she had performed as a drag act but she had also felt female from a very young age. Her background was Romanian and Yemenite Jewish and her Eurovision entry received strong opposition from Orthodox Jews, calling her “deviant” and other traditionalists who attempted to block her competing in Eurovision as Israel’s entry. She said after winning, “I want to send my critics a message of forgiveness and say to them: try to accept me and the kind of life I lead. I am what I am and this does not mean I don’t believe in God, and I am part of the Jewish Nation.” Winning meant Israel hosted 1999’s Eurovision and again conservative forces attempted to keep “sexual perversion” out of Israel’s “holy city”, Jerusalem.

Eurovision 2002 saw Slovenia set feathers ruffling by entering the first drag act, rather than a transwoman, a trio called Sestre.

In 2007 double divas ruled the competition as Denmark’s DQ performing “Drama Queen” came from the back to pip Ukraine’s own Dolce & Gabbana wearing drag act Verka Serduchka to win the contest. Verka, a.k.a. Andriy Danylko, had to overcome Ukrainian opposition to their act in the form of radio protests and statements in the Ukraine Parliament labelling him as “grotesque and vulgar”.

Last year, Turkey allegedly refused to broadcast the show because of a same-sex kiss by Finland’s entry.

Austria’s GenderQueer “Bearded Lady” Drag Queen

This year’s Eurovision has seen Austria’s innovative genderqueer entry, Conchita Wurst, steal the show and go on to win it. She has not been without controversy, though, and has attracted her own oppositional battles, but along gender/sex/uality lines not state sovereignty lines as with Russia and Ukraine.

Conchita Wurst

Vienna-based Tom Neuwirth performed as a “drag” persona Conchita Wurst – a thinly veiled euphemism for “Vagina Sausage”. What makes this creation stand out further is that Conchita sports a very neat and kempt beard! Well, thickly brushed on eye shadow to be accurate.

It is ‘said’ that Tom-Conchita identifies as “gender neutral”, “trans” and prefers female pronouns. “While identifying as gender neutral, she uses female pronouns to describe herself but still likes to play with drag, satire and gender identity.” Hence most labels struggle to fit them, somewhere between gender identity and gender performance, neither traditional drag nor typical trans, male nor female, seem to 100% fit, and their preference for “gender neutral” seems best, whether that extends to non-binary is something we just don’t know.

Conchita Wurst performs at Eurovision 2014Tom-Conchita’s Eurovision official profile page gets all the gender pronouns mixed up – and some people are still mixed up in trying to define her, I say, let her stay unboxable. 

No doubt some trans may be horrified by Conchita’s depiction of a “bearded lady” after issues with British TV’s Little Britain and Paddy Power’s transphobic “Spot the Tranny” competition. Conchita is happy to use the term “bearded lady” and adopts it as a “symbol of tolerance”. Asked what was special about Conchita’s entry, she said:

“For me the most special and honoring thing is that Austria shows tolerance and acceptance and I’m so happy to be this statement. I’m allowed to be the voice of their beliefs during this time and this really makes me very proud. We, and not at least myself, want to stand for a society without hate and discrimination. And if I’m honest, I think everyone of the contestants should stand for the same, cause we are joining a very opend minded project, so they should be open minded too…I really hope that I get the chance to change some minds all around Europe. I want to show them that you can look whatever you want and that everybody must have the right to live their life however they want it, if nobody gets hurt…I really want to convince them to be the best version of themselves rather than a bad copy of someone else! You can do whatever you want if you’re not hurting anyone.” [sic]

No stranger to controversy and prejudice, their involvement has attracted protests from homophobes and transphobes in Austria, Belarus and Russia, describing the competition as full of “European liberals” and “a hotbed of sodomy”. One Russian politician has called Conchita an “Austrian freak” and that “the future of our children depends on us” banning them from Eurovision. Armenia’s entry, Aram Mp3, described Conchita as “not natural” and offered to, “help her to … decide whether she is a woman or man”. Conchita responded with:

“I am a working woman/queen and an incredibly lazy young man in my free time and that is not going to change. If you have problems understanding that, then I would be happy to sit down with you and explain it to you in more detail. And with your homophobic comments, that is a conversation that we really need to speak about.”

Curiously, trying to find the exact source of Conchita’s response results in about 50 references to “working woman” and some 80+ to “working queen”. For instance, the HuffPost version has “I told him I don’t want to be a woman. I am just a working queen and a very lazy boy at home.” For a transwoman, a beard and a name with all the sexual innuendos Conchita Wurst has would be somewhat strange. Yet for a drag queen she seems to prefer life as a woman to that of a gay man. Whatever her labels and self-identity she is free to be who she is and/or wants to be. Conchita said:

“I feel more comfortable in this persona than being a boy at home … Being a teenager, a gay teenager, in such a small village is not that much fun. I am part of the gay community and most gays have a similar story to mine.”

Even in liberal California a Psychology Professor polled their class and 77 out of 138 said they found Conchita’s appearance “offensive or confusing”. Obviously, it is confusing, but there is a big leap from confusing to offensive. They also said:

“I think having a beard and having a feminine body at the same time the singer shows that he/she is still in the process of transformation (from male to female, Which is ok) …[but] … there are only two kinds in all species in the world………male or female? Anything in between is considered unusual… But in Conchitas case, I think he/she is crossing a very thin line which actually is not only unethical, (and I don’t care about the ethical part) but just confusing, absurd and almost unexceptable. Every single one of my gay friends thinks this way and I can prove it… Even my gay friends are offended by Conchhita. Actually they’re furious and angry at her.” [sic].

Conchita’s song called “Rise Like a Phoenix” can be heard here:

You can follow Conchita on Twitter or on Facebook, where she has 40,000 likes, around the same number as the Austrian facebook campaign against her which also attracted nearly 5000 signatures on change.org. Conchita summed up her motivation and message in a Radio Free Europe interview:

“My stance is that I fight for something positive rather than against something negative. I was always an outsider and I was confronted with discrimination. I don’t want this to happen to the next generation.”

Conchita Wurst Eurovision Ireland interviewGarrett Mulhall Of EurovisionIreland.net interviewed Conchita in November 2013 about her music and mission, ideology and identity, and she had this to say:

[Conchita] “I have arms like a man, face like a girl, and also the beard, and I told them that this is, that there are people out there who are in between you know and I took them by the hand and I said you are here (the boy), the girls – here, and I am just in the middle…I think they understood that there is more than a surface of a person” (11m27s)

[Garrett] “I think you being at Eurovision is a pivotal point in Eurovision’s history, and it’s one that I’m very glad about, because, … Eurovision was established so long ago to bring a war-torn Europe together and times have moved on now where we’re trying to bring different people from social backgrounds or gender backgrounds or … whatever, … we don’t want to label people anymore, and tolerance is obviously a very important thing to you…” (12m20s)

Many have challenged her sexuality, gender identity, presentation and pronouns – She prefers “she” and “her” and is more comfortable as Conchita than Tom the “lazy boy” she dresses down as, however. her male partner didn’t know she was Conchita as well for a week or two.

Our need to label, even as minority communities, to claim, correct or reject, her personal expression, is indicative of a common human need to categorise, define and then decide whether they are a threat or not. She is a threat to stereotypes of man, woman, gay, trans, drag queen, for she does not conform to any in a traditional way. Some trans are up in arms over her beard and for the possible inclusion of a drag queen under their umbrella. Some gays see her as too female too often. Some women oppose her use of female pronouns and, again, the beard.

By her own description, she does not fit, but is “in between”, non-binary, and that she is more than just her surface. By her own admission she is not transgender, or at least it is more artistic expression, “I am a drag artist”, she says.

Indeed, in performance, and initially in the interview there is a touch of drag and gender performance about her, but as she settles into talking about equality and acceptance, the seriousness takes over and her feminine expressions remain, but more integrated less performative. These are not judgements or criticisms, for I find the more I listen to her the more I love her. We all need to get beyond the “surface” of a person and cease visual and labelled judgements.

Her goal according to the Irish interview (around 15-17 mins in) is for people to engage and talk about difference, to start to think, to accept – whether they like/love it or not. That much she can 100% regard as being successful in. People are talking – good for her! Conchita made it through Thursday’s semi-finals to Saturday’s live final after some delays down in part to questions as to whether Belarus had even broadcast her act, such is the opposition to her from some quarters. Indeed, after her win on May 10, she was condemned by the Russian Orthodox Church and many in Russia were shaving their beards off in protest – the men that is!

Conchita Wurst performs at London LGBT Pride

After Eurovision Conchita Wurst has been in great demand and was the headline performer at 2014’s Pride show in Trafalgar Square, London on 28 June. She was introduced by veteran gay rights activist and Magneto/Gandalf actor Sir Ian McKellen with the words:

“Showbusiness has always led the way when it comes to the freedom to be yourself. So, Conchita is following in the footsteps of our predecessors. There is a long tradition of outrageousness and confidence that performers embody, and that has an enormous impact. It clears the way for others to dare to be themselves. She has done just that.”

Conchita Wurst said before the parade how much she was “looking forward” to it and what Pride meant to her:

“Let us be proud about who we are and let us give a statement for love, respect and tolerance. And most of all let us be proud and think about those LGBTI people around the world, who can’t make a Gay Pride in their countries.”

Chair of London LGBT+ Pride, Michael Salter said:

“Conchita is an incredible example of the power of having the #freedomto be oneself. Winning Eurovision, she raised the profile of the LGBT+ community across a continent and sent an important political message. We are thrilled that she is coming to celebrate Pride in London.”

Balpreet Kaur, bearded Sikh woman

Balpreet Kaur bearded Sikh woman PCOS All of this recalls the recent challenge to not only typical female gender presentation but also traditional Sikh expectations by Balpreet Kaur who has Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) but has embraced her facial hair which it caused and let it grow to a full beard. Her baptism into the Sikh faith now requires her not to cut it. At school and online she was bullied to the point of self-harm and felt suicidal but found huge public support and acceptance for her brave stand. She has now accepted herself, her beard, and discovered a new confidence and humour – read more about her.

[Parts of this article were initially posted here and here.]

 

World Press Freedom Day – Journalism is essential to political accountability and personal liberty

May 3 is the twentieth World Press Freedom Day, a day to be celebrated, whether you like the media you read or not. Doing their job and trying to write free of political pressure or censorship has meant 200 journalists are currently imprisoned worldwide in countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Iran, Palestine, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Freedom of the press means several things. Firstly it should be free of government influence, free to criticise in-power politicians, free to champion the causes of out-of-power ones and those who may have become political prisoners. As the recently deceased Tony Benn MP once said of democracy and those in power: “To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you?” – surely one of the tools of challenging politicians is a free Press which should go hand-in-hand with democracy. Tony Benn power democracy quote 2005 No journalism will ever be completely free of personal or political influence, therefore to be truly free, we need journalism of all flavours, passions and persuasions. From long established broadsheet papers like The London and New York Times, The Telegraph, Washington Post and Guardian, to Internet HuffPost, Wikileaks and even tabloid or so-called “gutter press” papers, and combative Radio 4 Today Programme and interrogative Paxman Newsnights – they are all necessary. If we believe in freedom of speech/writing then we cannot seek to control that based upon personal preference for a different style of news or belief on what constitutes news.

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” – Thomas Jefferson

Journalists should equally be free to write without editorial or media-owner pressure to toe a particular line. Any piece that bears their name should carry their opinion and theirs alone. They should even have input and a veto on headlines, which are so often written by others after their piece has been edited and approved. This is a part of journalistic transparency which we should be able to see in every article or story. Either in tandem with this, or in addition, there should be rules preventing monopoly and/or government ownership of the Press.

A sad but now inherent part of newspaper history was the so-called “Yellow Journalism” of the 1890s as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer II of Pullitzer Prize fame battled it out for readership, lowering the tone and truth of reporting in the process of pursuing profits over accuracy. We would now call much of this “Tabloid Press” now, though the shape and size of a paper need have no bearing on its quality of content. The “Yellow Press” has, however, still been responsible for bringing people and politicians to account, even if it can also be blamed for causing offence, ‘outing’ people – whether their sexuality, gender or infidelity, it has been cited in cases that have led to suicide – so I am not saying that the media is perfect, just that it is necessary in an open, if not for, an open society.

“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose” – George Orwell

Whilst writing should, in principle, be free of ‘hate’ speech, libel and slander, it must, however, be free to express opinion and should only incur sanctions when breaking human rights, equality and defamation laws. A right to disagree and be disagreed with is paramount to press freedom and journalistic integrity. That said, opinion pieces should have a right to reply and/or comment with moderators being sure to only police hate speech, insult and injury, and not rights to express personal, political or religious beliefs. Noam Chomsky said that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”, it is freedom for all or it is censorship. “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. You must defend all of it or be against all of it.”, as Scott Howard Phillips said, albeit concerning the US 2nd Amendment and right to bear arms. In John Stuart Mill’s 1859 book, On Liberty, he wrote much that holds as true today, if not more so, as 150 years ago:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In the Danish political drama, Borgen (Season 2 Episode 2), the female PM, Birgitte Nyborg, is encouraged by her faithful friend and gruff colleague Bent Sejrø that a clever politician gathers around themselves people who may disagree with you. Not just as part of the episode’s Sun Tzu “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer” theme but in order to create better policy. Only surrounding yourself with people who agree with you will not save you from mistakes.

World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day was declared at the end of 1993 by the UN General Assembly. It is commemorated on 3 May, the anniversary of the 1991 Declaration of Windhoek (Namibia) to promote “Independent and Pluralistic Media”. Among other principles Windhoek declared that:

  1. Consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.
  2. By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.
  3. By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.

Back in 1946, the UN had declared “freedom of information” to be a “fundamental human right”. Press Freedom Day, therefore, seeks to:

  • Celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • Assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • Defend the media from attacks on their independence;
  • Pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize

On 2 May an independent panel of media professionals declared Turkish journalist Ahmet Şik the 2014 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize winner. An investigative reporter and exposer of human rights abuses and corruption, Şik was injured whilst covering the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul last summer.

Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom Award

On 1 May Al Jazeera English Egypt producer Mohamed Fahmy, who is currently under arrest and detention, was awarded the Canadian Press Freedom Award for a “Canadian journalist who has made an outstanding contribution to the right to freedom of expression in the face of inordinate persecution.” Fahmy had previously worked for the BBC and CNN, and wrote an account, Egyptian Freedom Story, of the Arab Spring of 2011. Fahmy has donated the $2000 prize money to the family of another journalist, Mayada Ashraf, who died whilst covering political demonstrations in Egypt last month.

Al Jazeera Journalists detained in Egypt

Journalism is not a Crime, Amnesty International #FreeAJStaffAmong the hundreds of journalists gagged, detained, or killed, worldwide, are two other Al Jazeera English staff – former BBC journalist, Australian Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed, held in detention by Egypt for “broadcasting false news” – for “false”, whatever your opinion, read “disapproved”. In the prison where they are being held pen and paper are banned yet the power of journalistic truth and persuasion won Fahmy access to them and he was able to smuggle out a letter this week:

“I hereby appeal to the global advocates of press freedom not to hold Egypt, the country of my birth responsible for our wrongful detention. Only certain individuals in the system who lack the understanding of the fundamentals of journalism are to be held accountable. One way to reverse this misunderstanding is to start with the man next to you, and in my case that would be the illiterate prison guard convinced that by broadcasting protests in Egypt to the Western world simply makes me a traitor. His more educated disgruntled boss who has prevented me from having a pen and paper in my cell has become more lenient by time when I continuously highlighted certain values of journalism like transparency and the importance of having a watchdog to question the government that pays his salary and evaluates his performance. The metamorphosis has begun and the fact that this letter has been released from prison and published is in itself a victory to be celebrated and hopefully not the last.”

Another Al Jazeera journalist, Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy, has been imprisoned without trial since last August and has now been on hunger strike for weeks and lost nearly 35kg and not received medical attention. [Update: Elshamy was released on 17 June after 10 months in prison without charge or conviction.]

Fahmy described this as a blatant “breach of human rights” and added in his letter:

“I see no better occasion than today to remind the world about the plight of these men and that there are dozens of respected, local Egyptian reporters and citizen journalists who are suffering in prison awaiting trial, they are simply prisoners of conscience.”

(See and hear the letter read out in an Al Jazeera English video) The Egyptian judge at the 3 May bail hearing wished the 3 detained Al Jazeera journalists a happy Press Freedom Day then refused bail with no sense of irony at all. At the hearing Peter Greste said for the benefit of other reporters present: “You can’t have a free society without a free press. In Egypt today you know that you can’t provide balance as long as you can end up in prison like us.”

[Update: Sadly, the 3 reporters – Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were handed down guilty verdicts on 23 June for 7 years for spreading “false news” and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, charges they continue to deny and say they were only carrying out their duties as journalists and reporters. Nine other defendants tried in absentia, including three foreign journalists, received 10-year sentences, two have been acquitted. Of the twenty defendants in total nearly half are Al-Jazeera journalists. #AJTrial]

[Latest: Fahmy and Mohamed are among 100 prisoners to be released and/or pardoned today as part of Islam’s Eid al-Adha holiday and Egypt’s attempt to re-legitimise its Western standing]

Censorship

Early 20th century Ukrainian-Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov – he was born in Kiev, but moved to Moscow – managed to simultaneously both offend and please Joseph Stalin and have books and plays not only banned but also protected by him! He superbly put that a journalist without freedom is like a fish without water:

“To struggle against censorship, whatever its nature, and whatever the power under which it exists, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate supporter of that freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn’t need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn’t need water.”Mikhail Bulgakov, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov A Life in Letters and Diaries

Voltaire

If Press freedom is like water for journalists, just as the air all of us breathe, it is not something that can be restricted. The right to free expression and opinion is a universal human right. I’ll end with the infamous non-quote by Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This was actually said by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire, 1906. What he did say in a 1770 letter, was:

“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

Many have given their own lives in order to report the news or their views, whether professional or “citizen journalists”, but Press freedom means supporting the freedom to express even the views we may detest or disapprove of. Press Freedom Day means reminding the powers that be that the “world will be watching” their treatment of journalists and freedom of speech.

This article was first published on Bubblews and subsequently a version was published on my Google blogger/blogspot account.