Terence Blacker: Freedom, democracy and rank hypocrisy

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The Independent Online

The great freedom of speech crisis has thrown up some unlikely victims. Last week Prince Charles was presented as "the dissident Prince" and likened by one of the more excited commentators to a British Dalai Lama. The ghastly old fascist Irving is languishing in an Austrian gaol, writing his memoirs and humming "Lili Marlene". Now Ken Livingstone is said to be the latest victim of the thought police.

There are more important issues at stake here than an egotistical politician behaving rudely, we are told. The reason why he will be mounting a fight in the courts, incurring massive legal costs (for himself, one hopes, and not for London), is that his case strikes at the heart of our most cherished principles. Free expression is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Then there are the rights of voters to consider. "I am going to do everything that is in my power to have this attack on the democratic rights of Londoners overturned," he has written.

If the Mayor's case is based on principles of free speech and democracy, it would probably not be a good idea for him to look for support from his hero Fidel Castro. As it happens, these are the precisely the political values which, if Ken were supporting them in the country he most openly admires, Cuba, would earn him a jail sentence of between 14 and 28 years.

An extraordinary double standard afflicts those of our public figures, mostly on the left, who bend the knee to Castro. As good social democrats, they support political and expressive freedom across the world. On the other hand, they manage to remain profoundly respectful of the man who has suppressed these things with more ruthlessness than almost any other leader in the world.

According to the records of the writers' campaigning organisation PEN, there are over 70 journalists, academics and even librarians who now languish in appalling prison conditions in Cuba, having once dared to argue for parliamentary democracy in their country. Arrested at the end of March 2003, they were tried behind closed doors and each sentenced to lengthy jail sentences under a catch-all piece of legislation forbidding acts "aimed at subverting the internal order of the Nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system".

After almost three years, the effects of malnutrition, isolation, lack of visits and medical care, and beatings in punishment cells have taken a terrible toll, physical and mental, on those who once dared to write in favour of elections.

Yet, out here in the free world, these heroic people are largely forgotten. Ken Livingstone, who extended an invitation to Castro to visit London on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, has refused to temper his admiration with a single word of concern about human rights in Cuba. Other prominent figures are equally adoring and uncritical. George Galloway, who is said to be compiling a coffee-table book on his hero, has described Castro as "the most impressive man I've ever met". Even our own Mark Steel, bemoaning Gordon Brown's lack of socialist integrity, wrote this week that, for Labour stalwarts, "Brown only has to make a speech saying he cares about the young and they think he is Castro."

Fidel, apparently, is an emblem of left-wing virtue. What is it about this evil old dictator that turns the brains of even those with principles to pink putty?

The patron saint of self-pity

Ever since 'Springtime for Hitler' bloomed on stages across the world, all sorts of daring subjects have been given the musical treatment. In Britain, a show called Milk Snatcher! (or something like it) recounted the life of Mrs Thatcher. Across the world in Seoul, a musical called Yukon Story will be an everyday story of starvation, torture, rape and suicide in North Korea's most notorious concentration camp.

All the same, the news that the great Randy Newman is currently at work on an opera based on the life of Jane Fonda, right, pushes back the boundaries of taste. With a brilliant ear for melody and lyrics which contain the kind of irony at which American writers excel, Newman is a musical genius. He is also no respecter of persons. His only recorded opera, Faust, cast James Taylor as God and Bonnie Raitt as Mary Magdalene while Newman himself was Satan.

What on earth will he do with the patron saint of female self-pity? I fear that, yet again, Jane is about to be badly disappointed by a man.

* The three brave bishops who will be living on the minimum wage during Lent have provided a useful reminder that now is the time to reflect on our pampered lives with a small act of deprivation.

Most Lent resolutions are essentially solipsistic, reflecting more a concern for our own health or pocket than for higher things. For a true sense of 21st-century denial, we should turn to the upper echelons of American management where senior executives have recently been in a state of psychic meltdown at the prospect that their BlackBerries may close down as result of a lawsuit.

These devices are highly addictive, but then so are computers and that adult equivalent of a child's comforter, the mobile phone. Here surely is the true source of contemporary alienation and anomie. Closing ourselves off from cyber-buzz for a day a week would be a Lent resolution with meaning.