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Teenager Convicted of Hate Crime for Posting Snap Dogg Lyrics

Every now and then, I need to take a step back and check I’m not exaggerating the looming threat to free speech. And then, along comes a story like this, which confirms: nope, things are bad for free speech, and they’re getting worse. This week, things took another little turn for the dystopian when a teenage girl was convicted of racism for posting rap lyrics on Instagram.

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Yes, you read that correctly. A British teenager has been convicted for posting the lyrics from a rap song (I’m Trippin’ by Snap Dogg) on a social media site. As if to illustrate a fundamental problem with censorship, we don’t know exactly which lyrics she posted, because news sites didn’t specify. Thus, not only is the girl being censored, but so is coverage of the “crime”.

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To give a feel for the Orwellian atmosphere, here’s the BBC trying to report the trial, without itself offending anyone:

“The words Russell used on her account contained a racial label which some people find extremely offensive… PC Dominique Walker… told the court the term was “grossly offensive” to her… Russell’s defence had argued the usage of the word had changed over time and it had been used by superstar rapper Jay-Z [at Glastonbury]…”

Being somewhat braver/stupider than the BBC (and having listened to the track), I’m going to hazard a guess that the word was Nigga, a term that is liberally used in hip-hop (and, of course, has its roots in the racism of the old US Deep South).

This court case is worrying at multiple levels, and should deeply concern anybody that is worried about the future of the Internet as a free medium. It provides yet more evidence that the Establishment has now seized on “hate crime” as a tool of authoritarianism. PC is no longer the realm of well-meaning (if misguided) students, but of the police state. As I’ve blogged previously, Theresa May – hardly a well-known leftie – previously banned Tyler the Creator, a rapper, from touring the UK because his lyrics were deemed to be misogynist and homophobic. Did May genuinely care about the feelings of people who never listened to Tyler’s music anyway? Or did she simply enjoy finding a new excuse to ban a black man from entering the country?

Context should be important, and yet has been apparently ignored by the court. The fact that the girl (it seems) meant no offence is deemed to be of no importance. The fact that the word formed part of a song was of no importance. The fact that the word was not being used to abuse somebody was of no importance.

The ruling, bizarrely, appears to have been strongly influenced by the view of an individual police officer, who claimed the word was “grossly offensive” to her as a black woman (one presumes that she isn’t a fan of the work of Snap Dogg and other rappers). In doing so, the court has made a deeply racist judgement that the view of one black woman is representative of all black people. No white person would be deemed capable of speaking for white people – so why does the legal system patronise black people in this way?

Not all black people agree with PC Walker. The rap artist Greydon Square makes this clear in his hard-hitting tune, N-Word. In 2007, the black American (but London resident) comedian Reginald D Hunter named one of his stand-up tours “Pride, Prejudice and Niggas”, and was promptly banned from advertising it on London transport. If anything illustrates the madness of censorship, it’s the irony that a black man from the Deep South was censored by a British bureaucracy in order to protect the feelings of black people.

The teenager – whose name I won’t repeat here, but who has been named in the mass media – is now branded a racist: something she probably is not. This, in the current era, is akin to being labelled a “communist” in 1950s America.

Most of all, the ruling raises a serious question about impending censorship of the Internet. Snap Dogg’s videos and lyrics can be found on YouTube and in many other places. Should his work now be taken down, to avoid offending people like PC Walker? Of course, this would apply broadly to hip-hop, as well as to literature and cinema.

People that think the state might censor non-black people, but not black people, for use of the offending word, is doubly naive. Firstly, that would be illegal under equality law. And second: Really? Which part of “the lessons of history” did you miss?

The word also appears in the great anti-racist novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Would the state be misguided enough to censor this  work too? I think they just might.

SESTA, FOSTA, the End of Craigslist Personals, and the War on Sex

I have long predicted that the porn panic – the war on sexual expression – would engulf content far beyond pornography. The takeover of the British anti-censorship movement by members of the fetish-porn scene has thus been frustrating, as it has suggested that the threat to free speech is about the needs of people with unusual sexual tastes. I have predicted, in particular, that dating sites like Craigslist would be hit hard, as they allow people to post adult images on their ads. Last week, Craigslist did indeed close its dating section, but in response to legal changes in the US, rather than the UK.

While the UK’s attacks on Internet freedom have focused on the “need to protect children from pornography”, US attacks have focused on prostitution (labelled as “sex trafficking”). Using the latter excuse, the United States just approved a pair of laws, known as SESTA and FOSTA, which criminalise online services that enable “sex trafficking”. While this might seem a worthy effort, when one scratches the surface, we find the hand of anti-sex feminism at work, as usual, and the story is not as it seems.

The trafficking panic has been rising for a decade, and has long ago been exposed as largely mythical by tireless campaigners such as Brooke Magnanti and Laura Agustin. Magnanti’s book The Sex Myth outlines how the panic rose in the UK, leading to Parliament approving funds to tackle sex trafficking; but although anti-trafficking campaigners had claimed thousands of victims, the police could find hardly any. Agustin, in her book Sex in the Margins, outlines how illegal immigrant women enter the sex industry voluntarily as an alternative to lower paid (illegal) hotel work, but are dismissed as “victims” by campaigners.

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Illegal immigrants who sell sex are thus labelled “trafficked women”, and then rescued. Agustin refers to the anti-trafficking movement as the Rescue Industry. The Rescue industry is, in reality, a merger between the anti-prostitution movement and the anti-immigration movement. Now, when brothels are raided to “rescue” trafficked women, the women are often sent to asylum camps before being deported – hardly the rescue of helpless victims that people tend to imagine.

Despite the fact that genuine victims of sex-trafficking are more rare than one would assume from reading the headlines, politicians have been persuaded otherwise. The first American victim of the panic was Backpage.com, which last year was forced to drop its famous escort listings. SESTA / FOSTA is the latest example of this. American sex workers have strongly opposed the new law, arguing that without places to advertise, they will be forced underground, and inevitably face more dangers as a result. The police too say that street prostitution has increased since Backpage was closed. But the Rescue Industry is now a well-funded juggernaut with the power to shout far louder than sex workers.

Once escort ads were banned, US sex workers moved to classified ad platforms like Craigslist, which have never allowed blatant escort advertising. When SESTA / FESTA was approved last week, Craigslist had little choice but to close its dating section – a little corner of Internet freedom that has thrived for years.

Although SESTA / FOSTA doesn’t apply in the UK (where anyway, prostitution is legal), Craigslist is a US business – so the UK has lost one of its most vibrant dating and adult contact services.

What is the future for UK escort listing sites like Adultwork.com and Viva Street? On paper, there is no reason for them not to continue. But I predict that the Digital Economy Act, which already enables porn censorship, will inevitably be extended to block new categories of content, and that “trafficking” will feature in the next list of targets.

Milo, Berkeley, and the Death of the Spirit of the Sixties

This week’s protests to prevent a controversial speaker – Milo Yiannopolis – from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, are a sad indictment of the of the state of progressive politics. The location of the incident, once the birthplace of a great liberal movement, makes for a sad comparison with the great radical era of the 1960s.

Those of us who were teenage activists in the 1980s felt we’d missed out on something. Our parents’ generation (at least, in our imaginations) had the civil rights movement, the great anti-Vietnam war protests, the hippy movement, Black Power and psychedelia.  Their soundtrack was Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Joan Baez, Motown, Simon and Garfunkel. We had Reagan and Thatcher, mass unemployment, power ballads, and yuppies. They had great progressive victories, we got used to experiencing defeats.

We, children of a grey London that was run down and depressed after half a century of economic decline, dreamed of the California of the 1960s. I read Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, and knew all about San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury district, the centre of counterculture, although in reality, my entire experience of travelling outside Britain was limited to a couple of short trips to France.

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And I read about the university campus at Berkeley, near San Francisco, the heartland of 1960s American radicalism; a radicalism which, already by the 80s, was ebbing away. In response to repression, Berkeley had been birthplace to the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, which aimed to ensure that everybody on campus was given their right to speak. It was, in today’s terms, the mirror image of the current student obsession with “no platforming” (i.e. censoring) ideas considered unacceptable. While the movement was left wing, it is important to realise that it created a space for all political speech. As the Wiki page notes: “This applied to the entire student political spectrum, not just the liberal elements that drove the Free Speech Movement”.

Contrast this anti-censorship attitude with what happened this week. Milo Yiannopolis, a provocative speaker of the right, was due to talk about “cultural appropriation” – a bizarre, illiberal idea, now popular on the left, that access to culture should be segregated by race. “Cultural appropriation” popularises on the left an idea that the 1960s left stood firmly against: that people should be treated differently based on nothing but their skin colour or racial origin. It is a bullying and authoritarian ideology, and has resulted in racist incidents like a famous attack on a white man for the “crime” of wearing dreadlocks, and the cancellation of a reggae festival because too many white people were involved.

Milo is a well known shit-stirrer, and enjoys winding up easily-offended illiberal types. He’s annoying, often (but not always) wrong, and I’ve done my best to avoid him. Unfortunately, some on the left have decided instead to promote him, by protesting against him, having him no-platformed, or calling him a “Nazi” for no good reason. Thanks to these intolerant arseholes, we’ve had to put up with Milo being everywhere, and getting a lucrative book deal. Thinking about it, this is pretty much the same way that “liberals” helped Donald Trump reach power. Thanks guys.

Fans of George Orwell will enjoy what happened next. Milo (a gay, Jewish man), due to speak out against a racist, pro-segregationist ideology, faced protest by people calling him a “Nazi”. The talk was cancelled, and riots ensued. And (did I mention?) all this happened at Berkeley, once the home of the Free Speech Movement. Oh, and then Donald J Trump, perhaps the closest thing to a fascist ever elected in America, tweeted to defend free speech against attacks from left-wing Berkeley students. We live in the age of irony. Or perhaps the era of facepalm.

Western liberalism is facing its greatest threat since the 1940s, if ever. The far-right may soon seize control in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. And if you’re expecting a defence of liberalism from the left, it seems you’ll be disappointed.

Free speech must be defended as a universal human right. Human rights cannot be stripped from people on the basis that they’re Muslims or Communists. Nor can they be stripped from people on the basis that they offend other people. The left will not defeat the fascist right by being more fascist than the right. That way lies tyranny.