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The Difference Between Censorship in the US and Russia

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We hear a lot of kvetching in the Western press about censorship in Russia. The ever-amusing Josh Keating over at Slate tells us that Russian bookstores have been pulling Maus from their shelves because the graphic novel features a swastika – that dastardly Putin at it again, banning Nazi propaganda:

“Before we scoff too much, it’s worth remembering that Maus has been challenged by skittish school libraries in the United States as well, but the case does illustrate something about how censorship works in contemporary Russia.”

(Before we scoff too much, American retailer JC Penny came under fire in 2013 due to a Michael Graves teapot because said teapot bore an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler.)

In light of this, a recent round of ginned up “outrage” has me so puzzled and wondering if maybe we should be wondering ourselves if we are living in a censorship-free society. Pop singer Ariana Grande was filmed — without her knowledge — in a doughnut shop, licking a doughnut and then daring to disparage a tray of what I can only assume were bacon grease-filled deep-fried butter bombs with bacon-butter icing. The singer, viewing the tray, said the following: “What the f*** is that? That’s disgusting. I hate America. That’s disgusting.”

So, naturally, Americans got offended and Grande was shamed into issuing an extensive public apology and canceling scheduled appearances. Actor Rob Lowe weighed in, calling her apology “lame.” TMZ called her comments “fat-shaming.” Here I was thinking that part of being American means you get to say “I hate America.” I thought we were Je Suis Charlie. I guess not so much.

Sergei Dorenko calls this horizontal censorship. In “The Geometry of Censorship,” Mark Ames analyzes Dorenko’s “vertical” censorship, of which he accuses the Kremlin of employing, and compares it to the “horizontal” censorship of the West:

“This was contrasted to our “horizontal” censorship in the West: rather than coming from a tyrannical top-down force, our censorship is carried out horizontally, between colleagues and peers and “society”; through public pressure and peer pressure; through morality-policing; and from within oneself, one’s fears for one’s career, and fears one can’t necessarily articulate, fears that feel natural rather than imposed upon.

“Under vertical censorship, you know exactly who you fear, and therefore, who and what to avoid or sneak around and oppose. 

But horizontal censorship feels like it comes from everyone and anyone, depriving the censored of martyrdom status.

Which makes our “horizontal” censorship in many ways more effective and powerful than the cruder Kremlin “vertical” approach to censorship—according to Dorenko’s theory.”

I do not intend to take a pro-doughnut licking stance, but I do think that this incident is indicative of a distinct problem in American society. Celebrities and other public figures must issue heartfelt and repeated apologies after their remarks are made public, and are still socially and professionally shamed into retracting their comments. Unless they are Donald Trump and say things Americans secretly agree with and/or find hilarious, many times they are unable to recover their professional standing.

It may be easy to dismiss the pastry-related peccadilloes of a 22-year-old pop singer, but horizontal censorship gets carried over from the entertainment sector into political and foreign policy debates.

In Western society, horizontal censorship is tied to the offender’s self-worth. One misplaced comment or one poorly-worded Tweet, and suddenly that person’s value as a human being goes off the cliff.

Examples of social and cultural censorship in the United States are legion – from the Dixie Chicks criticizing George Bush and radio stations voluntarily pulling their music, to Seth Rogen having to apologize because he didn’t like American Sniper. The example that is particularly heinous is the personal and professional attacks endured by Dr. Stephen F. Cohen over his stance on Russia and Ukraine.

Cohen, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and New York University, a former adviser to CBS news on U.S./USSR relations, and my spirit animal, has consistently dissented from the party line on Russia and Ukraine and has been rewarded for his pains with character assassination in the American media. Even the virtuous Slate got in on the action – running an article about Cohen, entitled, “Putin’s Pal.”:

“As Cohen made Russia’s case and lamented the American media’s meanness to Vladimir Putin  in print  and  airwaves, he was mocked as a “patsy” and a “dupe” everywhere from the conservative to the liberal.

Now, as the hostilities in eastern Ukraine have turned to the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Cohen is at it again—this time, with a  long article  in the current issue of The Nation indicting Kiev’s atrocities in eastern Ukraine and America’s collusion therein.

The timing is rather unfortunate for Cohen and The Nation, since the piece is also unabashedly sympathetic to the Russian-backed militants who appear responsible for the murder of 298 innocent civilians.”

Never mind that Cohen has been consistently proven right. Never mind that there still is no conclusive evidence that the Eastern Ukrainian rebels are responsible for MH-17.

The shameful treatment of Dr. Cohen is particularly pernicious because, like during the lead-up to the Iraq War, it ignores a voice of peace among those clamoring for war. Only recently has the “liberal” Huffington Post seen fit to include Cohen’s viewpoint on the Ukraine crisis. Considering that U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War while HuffPo jumped enthusiastically on the anti-Russian bandwagon from Sochi onward, their recent about-face appears as a weak attempt to appear unbiased.

In fact, this type of opinion-shaming isn’t limited to Western media sources. Earlier this year, I received a private message on a social network from a Ukrainian in response to post I had written in a news article’s comment section. I kept it so I can quote it here:

“i hope you get ill and die in pain, you dirty russian c**t troll” (Asterisks mine.)

Censorship in the United States comes from all corners, in deleted Tweets, extensive groveling apologies, and condescending lectures on what not to say to vegetarians. In authoritarian vertically censored societies, the devil you know has told the citizenry what speech is and is not acceptable. In horizontally censored societies, the devil you don’t know can appear at any time, to police your words, actions, and where applicable, deem you, your apology, and your value as a human being worthy of acceptance and you of forgiveness.

It sounds a lot like what Keating refers to in Slate:

“We may associate censorship in authoritarian countries with jackbooted police marching into libraries to confiscate banned literature, but more often, in Russia at least, it’s self-censoring for fear of violating intentionally vague laws.

As the Times wrote recently, ascribing the reaction of Moscow theaters to a new law banning obscenity in public performances, Cultural figures in Russia today describe a climate of confusion and anxiety. One publisher was quoted as saying that in Soviet times, at least we knew the rules.”

If Keating’s fear-mongering has any basis in reality, then it must be a brave new world to those who remember living in the Soviet Union to finally experience Western-style horizontal censorship first-hand.

Which is worse — overzealous compliance with laws that, while admittedly vague, give citizens a guideline about what might fall under their purview – or a society that claims to be free and open but has consistently shown that it hasn’t evolved much beyond its infamous witch trials?

I think we can all agree that censorship in all forms is wrong, but I do think that we would all have one less problem without America’s puritanical exceptionalism.

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Vienna school under fire for sex ed class using doll for children as young as six

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According to Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper, a teacher used a doll to explain “how sex works” to the children, while also encouraging them to use their hands and fingers on the doll. 

She said she wanted to “enlighten” the children about aspects of sex education. The children in the class were between the ages of six and ten. 

The teacher also explained to the children that “condoms should be used if you don’t want to have babies”, the newspaper reports. 

One boy was told to remove the clothes of the doll but refused before being told that he had to do so. 

The boys parents removed him from the school, saying that he was “overwhelmed” after the class and had started touching his sister inappropriately. 

“We have never seen our son like this before, he was completely overwhelmed” the parents said anonymously, “we are taking him out of the school.”

“We can already see the consequences. 

“A few days after these disturbing lessons, a classmate came to us to play. Like many times before, the boy also played with our ten-year-old daughter. This time he suddenly wanted to pull her pants down.

Peter Stippl, President of the Association for Psychotherapy, said that while sex education was crucially important, it needed to be age appropriate in order to be effective. 

“(This type of sexual education) scares the children! They get a wrong approach to the topic and their natural limit of shame is violated,” he said. 

“Sex education must always be age-appropriate and development-appropriate. Many children are six, seven or eight years old – or even older – not interested in sexual intercourse.

“We should never explain sexuality in schools in isolation from love and relationships. It makes you feel insecure and afraid. It harms the development of children.”

The Austrian Ministry of Education will now set up a commission to determine who will be allowed to teach sex ed in schools. 

The city of Vienna is also investigating the specific incident. 



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Madrid’s Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado granted World Heritage status | Culture

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Madrid’s famous Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado boulevard have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The decision, made on Sunday, brings the total number of World Heritage Sites in Spain to 49 – the third-highest in the world after Italy and China.

Up until Sunday, none of these sites were located in the Spanish capital. The Madrid region, however, was home to three: El Escorial Monastery in Alcalá de Henares, the historical center of Aranjuez and the Montejo beech forest in Montejo de la Sierra.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez celebrated the news on Twitter, saying it was a “deserved recognition of a space in the capital that enriches our historical, artistic and cultural legacy.”

Retiro Park is a green refuge of 118 hectares in the center of the city of Madrid. Paseo del Prado boulevard is another icon of the capital, featuring six museums, major fountains such as the Fuente de Cibeles as well as the famous Plaza de Cibeles square.

For the sites to be granted World Heritage status, Spain needed the support of two-thirds of the UNESCO committee – 15 votes from 21 countries. The proposal was backed by Brazil, Ethiopia, Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Mali, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.
Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.Víctor Sainz

Prior to the vote, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the organization that advises UNESCO, had argued against considering the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park as one site, and recommended that the latter be left out on the grounds that there were no “historic justifications” for the two to be paired.

This idea was strongly opposed by Spain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Andrés Perelló, who said: “What they are asking us to do is rip out a lung from Madrid. El Prado and El Retiro are a happy union, whose marriage is certified with a cartography more than three centuries old.” The origins of Paseo del Prado date back to 1565, while Retiro Park was first opened to the public during the Enlightenment.

Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado.
Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado. Víctor Sainz

The ICOMOS report also denounced the air pollution surrounding the site. To address these concerns, Madrid City Hall indicated it plans to reduce car traffic under its Madrid 360 initiative, which among other things is set to turn 10 kilometers of 48 streets into pedestrian areas, but is considered less ambitious than its predecessor Madrid Central.

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in the Chinese city of Fuzhou and was broadcast live at Madrid’s El Prado Museum. Perelló summed up the reasons to include Retiro Park and El Paseo de Prado in less than three minutes.

“When people say ‘from Madrid to heaven’ [the slogan of the Spanish capital] I ask myself why would you want to go to heaven when heaven is already in Madrid,” he told delegates at the event, which was scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, UNESCO evaluates 25 proposals for additions to the World Heritage List. In the case of the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park, the site was judged on whether it evidenced an exchange of considerable architectural influences, was a representative example of a form of construction or complex and if it was associated with traditions that are still alive today. The famous park and boulevard sought to be inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1992, but its candidacy did not reach the final stage of the process.

Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).
Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).Biblioteca Nacional de España

The effort to win recognition for the sites’ outstanding universal value began again in 2014 under former Madrid mayor Ana Botella, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), and was strengthed by her successor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist Ahora Madrid party, which was later renamed Más Madrid. An advisor from UNESCO visited the site in October 2019.

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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Ryanair reports €273m loss as passenger traffic rebounds

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Ryanair has reported a €273 million loss for its first quarter even as traffic rebounded during the period.

The carrier said it carried 8.1 million passengers in the three month period, which cover April to June. This compares to just 500,000 in the same period a year earlier.

Revenues increased 196 per cent from €125 million in the first quarter of 2020 to €371 million for the same quarter this year. Operation costs also rose however, jumping from €313 million to €675 million.

Net debt reduced by 27 per cent on the back of strong operating of €590 million.

“Covid-19 continued to wreak havoc on our business during the first quarter with most Easter flights cancelled and a slower than expected easing of EU travel restrictions into May and June,” said group chief executive Michael O’Leary.

“Based on current bookings, we expect traffic to rise from over five million in June to almost nine million in July, and over 10 million in August, as long as there are no further Covid setbacks in Europe,” he added.

Ryanair said the rollout of EU digital Covid certificates and the scrapping of quarantine for vaccinated arrivals to Britain from mid-July has led to a surge in bookings in recent week.

First quarter scheduled revenues increased 91 per cent to €192 million on the back of the rise in passenger traffic although this was offset by the cancellation of Easter traffic and a delay in the relaxation of travel restrictions.

Ancillary revenue generated approximately €22 per passenger the company said.

Mr O’Leary foresaw growth opportunities for the airline due to the collapse of many European airlines during the Covid crisis, and widespread capacity cuts at other carriers.

“We are encouraged by the high rate of vaccinations across Europe. If, as is presently predicted, most of Europe’s adult population is fully vaccinated by September., then we believe that we can look forward to a strong recovery in air travel for the second half of the fiscal year and well into 2022 – as is presently the case in domestic US air travel,” he said.

However, the airline warned the future remains challenging due to continued Covid restrictions and a lack of bookings and that this meant it was impossible to provided “meaningful” guidance at the time.

“We believe that full0year 2022 traffic has improved to a range of 90 million to 100 million (previously guided at the lower end of an 80 million to 120 million passenger range) and (cautiously) expect that the likely outcome for the year is somewhere between a small loss and breakeven. This is dependent on the continued rollout of vaccines this summer, and no adverse Covid variant developments,” said Mr O’Leary.

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