By Padraig REIDY, Senior writer at Index on Censorship.
I don’t know who thought bringing Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala to Britain might be a good idea.
The French inventor of the quenelle had suggested that he would visit footballer Nicolas Anelka in solidarity ahead of his FA disciplinary hearing. The footballer faces a five-match ban after he made the controversial gesture during a match late last year.
Now I may be wrong on this, but if I were in serious trouble over making an abusive and racist gesture, the last person I’d want at my side would be someone with several convictions for anti-Semitism.
Anyway, regardless of whose idea an impromptu trip to the UK was, the result is that Dieudonné has been banned from these shores. The Home Office announced on Monday that the “anti-Zionist”, “anti-establishment” comic was subject to an exclusion order comic would not be welcome.
Exclusion orders are strange things. One can certainly understand the logic behind them: any state, ultimately, has the right to control its borders, and if the Home Secretary decides she doesn’t want someone here, then surely she should be allowed keep them out.
But you’ll never get a detailed explanation from the Home Office about exactly why someone has been banned – just stock phrases about their presence not being in the interests of the nation.
And they are doled out seemingly at random. Just a few weeks ago, Gábor Vona, leader of Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik party, was able to come to London and address a meeting here. This in spite of calls by the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust, London Jewish Forum, the Jewish Leadership Council and anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate to have him barred.
Fine, you might say; that was a slip. Vona should have been banned too. But how far are we prepared to take that argument? And are we willing to have the government tell us what is acceptable and what is not?
The problem with arguments about the limits of free speech is that they always, in the end, boil down to context. Everyone knows the famous phrase about “shouting fire in a crowded theatre”; but while most cite it as an example, I think they’d be shocked by its provenance.
The phrase comes from a judgment by one Oliver Wendall Holmes. In an infamous case American legal case from 1919, US supreme court judge Holmes ruled that a socialist leader at the time, Charles T Schenk, had no right to distribute leaflets in Yiddish denouncing the US’s involvement in World War 1, and calling on people to resist the draft.
Even during wartime now, such a clampdown on the disemmination of an opinion at odds with the mainstream would be seen as a terrible infringement of civil liberties, and rightly so.
But at least it was a finding of a court of law. The problem with the UK’s exclusion order is that they act as a kind of pre-emptive censure – punishment for a crime that might not even happen.
Dieudonné, as a European Union citizen, has a right to travel freely to this country. Dieudonné has never committed a crime in this country. And yet he has been subjected to legal censure.
In his home country, Dieudonné wears his convictions for anti-Semitism and denegrating the Holocaust as a badge of honour. They are, he and his supporters believe, proof that a Jewish-dominated establishment is out to destroy them.
It’s hard to overestimate the value of paranoia to far-right, anti-Semitic politics. Dieudonné will no doubt use this ban to prove that the “Zionists” are controlling England as well as France.
The British far right will no doubt use this too, to make a point about what BNP leader Nick Griffin, author of anti-Semitic pamphlet “Who Are The Mindbenders?” calls the “controlled media”.
Gabor Vona’s London Jobbik rally on 26 January went ahead, but a combination of spirited counter-demonstration and bad weather turned it into a damp squib.
Perhaps we should be a little more confident in free speech (and the British weather) and prepare to defeat Dieudonné in on our home ground.
* Padraig Reidy is senior writer at Index on Censorsip and tweets at @mePadraigReidy