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Ken Loach, the film director, is demanding heavy censorship
on films and art exhibitions. After praising Senator McCarthy and his important
work in the US in the 60s, he demands that art works by blacks and Jews be
barred from being shown. Oh, and he also wanted to remind everyone he has a new
movie coming out.
More precisely, the story goes as follows: The Edinburgh film
festival got a grant from Israel, at the huge amount of 300 pounds, to allow
the Israeli filmmaker, Tali Shalom Ezer, to come to Edinburgh for a screening
of her film Surrogate in the festival. At which point Ken Loach (a modestly successful
director but considered by some critics) steps in and says: “The massacres and state terrorism in Gaza
make this money unacceptable,” he said. “With regret, I must urge all who might
consider visiting the festival to show their support for the Palestinian nation
and stay away.”
The intervention brought an immediate capitulation from the organizers.
In a statement the festival said it accepted that Loach spoke “on behalf of the
film community, therefore we will be returning the funding issued by the
Israeli Embassy”. (quoted from http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article6322826.ece)
So no, Ken Loach didn’t explicitly mention McCarthy, but is
there really much of a difference? Yes there is. The McCarthy issue was with a
clear political choice of the people involved, while Loach’s has to do with the
country they come from. Even McCarthy didn’t go that far.
Loach is not saying anything about the artwork, simply going
after the money. This is nothing new for people advocating censorship. It’s
almost always: “How can public funds be used to support such an exhibit” and
the threat is almost always financially. For instance the censorship committee
won’t say the director has to edit out certain scenes, but will otherwise give
it an X rating which will cause it financial ruin. One would think that as a
film director, with the long history of the fight for censorship on films, he
would be against censorship, one would think.
But, if I’m criticizing Ken Loach, and I am as I find his
actions despicable and the immediate caving of the Edinburgh film festival
saying that Loach spoke “on behalf of the film community” deplorable, but if I’m
criticizing him do I think he’s wrong to do what he did? That’s a much tougher
question that has been discussed on THINQon in different contexts: Regarding
censorship in sports in why is political racism accepted and more
generally in Where are the limits of political activism. Personally, I
don’t have an opinion yet on the matter and am hoping these discussions can
The general question is very hard. Where should we draw the
line, and is censoring anybody we disagree with a reasonable political move?
But what I find surprising is: Why is this question constantly come up
entangled with Israel? As the discussion on the limits of political activism
showed, it happens in every household. Why then does it seem to get to these
levels only with regards Israel? In The international response to the
Gaza attack the discussion quickly moved to the question of south Africa and
are the cases similar. I don’t remember but was the South African embargo also
with regards South African artists and scientists as is the case in Britain and
More importantly, if people accept such actions why don’t
they act the same way where it is perhaps much more important and could have a
larger effect in many other fields, for instance in recycling? Moreover, the
American government is involved in its fair share of horrors, as is certainly
the British government – did Ken Loach never accept government money? Does he
call for all state money to be purged from supporting the arts? (Does he prefer those 300 pounds go to buying
What I don’t understand is why does Israel manage to enrage
people beyond their sense so much more then it seems any other issue in the
world (where there are so many important political issues the world is facing).
Certainly racism no one cares about any more, or chauvinism, or cure for
diabetes, but anything having to do with Israel can ensure him to get headlines
– and I’m sure it is completely coincidental that he has a movie coming out
just now. Oh ya, it has nothing to do with wanting the press to talk about him.
The Jews are used to being a comfortable target for attack
in order to get the public attention but it is always funny to see.
To finish I wanted to ask, if someone calls for art
censorship based solely on the artist’s origin, shouldn’t they themselves be
censored? That is, why would anyone who cares about art go to see his films or
would even agree to distribute and show them? Personally I would boycott
anything he does. But I won’t just say of him, of anyone who calls for a boycott
on someone else based only on their origin. I wouldn’t accept it about a black
person, a Chinese, a Jew, or a Muslim.
In case it wasn't completely clear to everyone, I should add as postscript that no, surprisingly Loach didn't actually say anything about McCarthy, nor about censorship or blacks or Jews. Not explicitly. The first two lines were obviously my interpretation of what he was really saying and where his logic leads, to which many will disagree. In general, people advocating censorship very rarely actually use that word.
I was surprised to hear about Ken Loach's involvement in, as you say, censoring art based on the artist's origin. But when I read the London Times article you cited, I reached a different conclusion about this case.
In short, I think your characterization is mistaken, and Loach is not calling "for art censorship based solely on the artist's origin," nor even attempting censorship at all. I'm aware that there are notoriously many forms of censorship, and that it can occur in very subtle ways, yet this doesn't seem to qualify. Calling this censorship reminds me of Sarah Palin's recent claim that Carrie Prejean's first-amendment rights were being violated because people made fun of her, and because she was in danger of losing her job because of something she said.
Apparently what Loach demanded was for the Edinburgh Film Festival to refuse a small grant from the Israeli embassy, money that was to support a filmmaker's trip to the festival. I don't understand why this grant had to be given to the festival in order for the filmmaker to get it; why couldn't the Israeli government just pay for the filmmaker's trip directly? I'm pretty confident this isn't stipulated by festival rules. But given this constraint, the question is: should the festival accept money from the government of Israel? It seems to me entirely consistent for the festival to refuse this financial entanglement on political grounds. People may argue about the basic political disposition here, but that's obviously a different question from the supposed act of censorship.
The case would be different if the festival were refusing to show the film because of its country of origin, or if the UK were refusing a visa to the filmmaker. Things like the latter have happened in the US in recent years, and I find it often outrageous and frustrating. One difference is that the hypothetical immigration case treats a non-governmental individual as a government representative, which the present case does not. (They aren't rejecting her film or her presence.) More generally, these cases differ from the present one because they concern the political autonomy of art. While I would argue this autonomy is not absolute--and absolute autonomy would make no sense anyway, would in fact be undesirable for art--I think it is an ideal that often needs to be defended.
Consider another comparison, between this action and the widely-circulated proposal that organizations divest themselves of financial holdings in Israel. It seems to me that for any arts organization with the same political disposition, the refusal of money from Israel is an easier choice. It can be argued that divestment inflicts economic damage on private citizens of Israel, and moreover investing money in Israeli companies doesn't necessarily imply support of the country's government. But accepting money from a foreign government creates precisely this kind of entanglement, and it's a much simpler choice to refuse it.
(It occurs to me that this distinction between "private citizens" and "the government" is dubious. But I think it is necessary if somewhat artificial: even if the government of any country is seldom monolithic, the politics of sovereign states treat it as if it is. Anybody participating in a country's politics, as citizen or public servant, needs a finer grasp of things. But from the outside, and especially in financial transactions, it becomes necessary to talk about "the government of X.")
It seems to me that what is at stake in the argument around Loach's demand is mainly, "what are the festival's political commitments?"; and most of the online argument implicitly or explicitly concerns this. In a curious reversal, people are calling the festival's decision censorship, but I think Loach's point was precisely that the festival's autonomy is compromised whenever it accepts a grant from a government. You compared this to censoring art from South Africa, but I would say it's more accurate to compare this to refusing money from a the South African government, while letting the artists' work be shown.
Some of your points seem valid to me. You say that the US government has been involved in atrocities and might justify similar actions; in fact, I believe some arts organizations prefer not to receive federal funding. By asking if Loach never accepted government money (from the UK, presumably), you seem to be implying that the UK is similarly compromised morally, and so are most governments. We have to choose our political battles, though, and it's not clear to me whether the UK has lately done anything that Loach or the festival directorship would find as objectionable as Israel's recent actions.
I'm glad the festival decided to pay for the filmmaker's trip. But consider that, in the worst case, the filmmaker either pays for her trip herself, or doesn't come--so the film would be shown, like most films at most film festivals, without the director in attendance. When Sir Jeremy Isaacs of Film Four said that "[t]he idea that Ken Loach should lend himself to the denial of a film-maker's right to show her work is absolutely appalling," he seemed to me to invent an interesting new right to have an arts organization accept money for your work from anybody whatsoever.
About McCarthy, I must say that I have no idea what you mean. Did Ken Loach ever mention him? Beyond the story about the Edinburgh festival, is there some other occasion when Loach, as you say, "prais[ed] senator McCarthy and his important work in the US in the 60s" and then "demand[ed] that art works by blacks and Jews be barred from being shown"? I'd be interested in reading about it if there is, but knowing Loach's films, it sounds doubtful.
Before explaining more then, I'll say immediately that I didn't say he was wrong to do what he did. I personally disagree with the specific issue, but that's a matter of opinion. What is at stake is the general question of the limits of political discourse (post), on which I am undecided and this poses an interesting test case. I do dislike the fact that it is again, like so many issues nowadays, has to deal with Israel, but as I said, he has a movie coming out and this is how to make the newspapers.
Now you say this has nothing to do with censorship and here we diverge completely. Let me explain something of the art world to you - it has also to do with money. Perhaps you think money has no role there, but it is rarely the case. I'm sure as a film goer yourself you were influenced more than once what film to go to by the presence of the director there. Moreover, if the filmmaker wants talk about her film with distributors she needs to be there and sell her film. Otherwise no one will see it, and there is no difference between that and not allowing it to be shown. Ken Loach definitely understands the importance of money to the art world or else he wouldn't make such a fuss about money would he. As to why the money had to go through the festival to her and not directly - I don't know the specifics of this case, but I do know that many times institutions give out fellowships but the fellowship needs to be paid from somewhere and they ask for participation from different bodies. It is safe to assume that unless they knew they would get this money they wouldn't offer her the grant nor would have invited her. (The round about way of the money is common in many instances). And then without inviting her they might not have shown the film as it makes it less interesting. Now maybe this doesn't happen with the Nobel prize, but even the Oscars are influenced by how well a showing they think the winner will give. You say the festival decided to pay for her this time, but as next time
they won't accept this money they will also think twice of inviting
Israelis as they won't have the money to pay for them.
Without her there the film will be much less distributed in the world and hence less seen. Censorship almost always works like that and very rarely by saying - This mustn't be shown. If you are surprised why Sir Jeremy Isaacs (no relationship I assume?) of Film Four is so appalled, it is because he understands exactly what Loach is doing.
Loach himself, early in his career, had his work censored, but maybe like they say about children who were abused later abuse their kids, he moved to be the censor.
Perhaps it still seems to you very far from McCarthy and no black art exhibit (which by the way I mentioned almost immediately was not what he actually said but where his logic leads to; a logic that is not very coherent in any case). This is because you are looking at the details and not the general argument, and because you are sticking with governments and not groups. I was about to give an example but I don't want to write a racist comment even as an example of what a racist could say. So I'll say this, censorship comes from a certain moral judgment that you demand the artwork/artist follow. And then if you don't agree with what they are saying politically you demand they remove it. There is no difference in this case and following his logic right wing people will bar left wing people from coming and vice versa. It doesn't have to stay with states.
And about US and British governments, to use Ken loach's own words (from, by accident almost three years ago when his previous film was about to come out, completely accidental of course): "We must also oppose the terrorist activities of the British and US governments in pursuing their illegal wars and occupations." It was again then something against Israel and his Palestinians brethren with whom he needs to connect every time a film of his comes out.
You ask should any money be accepted - no it shouldn't. But this line is very sketchy. I would be very interested if someone would find out where does the money for Ken Loach's films come from. If it comes from shady banks is that ok? If it comes from Saudi Arabia where women have no rights is that ok? If it comes from oil money, or from companies doing business with Iran? With companies who hurt dolphins? From companies which sell cigarettes? The money has to come from somewhere. Each person and their own wars. Ken Loach can decide for himself that this topic is of the foremost importance for him and to not accept money from whoever he wishes. But the moment it is speaking for British cinema as the festival declared then wouldn't that demand immediate reaction on the same coin? That is not accepting anything that has to do with British cinema money. That's my question? You say what he does is ok, but then why a boycott of him by whoever doesn't support his opinion the same thing? You want to say it is just a matter of accepting money from a government but governments are one kind of body and when you accept that logic it continues elsewhere.
I will say again, censorship is almost never saying: This mustn't be shown. It's by limiting the audience, and there are many ways people use to do that.
Thanks for "explaining that to me." I think I already remarked that censorship takes many forms, and yes, the director's attendance may bring more people to that screening at the festival. So it would be nice if someone pays for this filmmaker to travel (as they did, in the end). But I don't think this means that the festival needs to accept money from anyone who will give it.
Should the festival accept money from a Taliban organization, the Iranian government, human traffickers, or druglords? If you answer "no" to any of these, then your argument has to rest on one of two kinds of claim:
(a) The festival should have different political principles. E.g. it should not be so strongly opposed to Israel as it is to the Taliban or human traffickers.
(b) The festival can adopt what principles it likes, but in actions of this importance it should draw the line in a different place, somewhere between Israel and the Taliban instead of between the British government and Israel. (I don't mean that things are actually on a line, but my point is that this kind of political choice involves deciding who's "in" and who's "out," and you might be suggesting that Israel should still be "in" even if the festival still publicly opposes some of Israel's actions.)
Neither of these concerns the legitimacy of refusing money to support a filmmaker's travel. If you want to question that (and I think you do), you'll have to say that the festival should accept money from anybody at all.
"You say the festival decided to pay for her this time, but as next time
they won't accept this money they will also think twice of inviting
Israelis as they won't have the money to pay for them."
So apparently the Israeli government is the only one who will pay to support filmmakers in Israel? Really?
"Loach himself, early in his career, had his work censored, but maybe
like they say about children who were abused later abuse their kids, he
moved to be the censor."
You seem to be pretty sure about your interpretation of Loach. I'm not.
An example: in the first post you implied that he has in the past urged other actions like this one, while you also continue to claim that he's just targeting Israeli Jews to raise awareness of his own new film. One or the other, please. Besides, this method of attack reminds me of the conservative press in America, which is constantly criticizing Hollywood actors for making any political speech. While their politics is sometimes silly, this notion that artists shouldn't be political outside their art, or that if they are it has to be for self-promotion, doesn't hold water for me. This goes doubly for a filmmaker like Loach whose work is often directly political.
(It might be worth suggesting that, if anything, the "controversy" will raise awareness of the other filmmaker's work, which otherwise would indeed pass under most film buffs' radar in a way that Loach's film would not.)
"Perhaps it still seems to you very far from McCarthy and no black art
exhibit (which by the way I mentioned almost immediately was not what
he actually said but where his logic leads to; a logic that is not very
coherent in any case). This is because you are looking at the details
and not the general argument, and because you are sticking with
governments and not groups."
You wrote: "Ken Loach, the film director, is demanding heavy censorship
on films and art exhibitions. After praising senator McCarthy and his important
work in the US in the 60s, he demands that art works by blacks and Jews be
barred from being shown." This was the opening sentence of a post that you entitled, "Ken Loach is demanding heavy censorship on films and art exhibitions." Nowhere did you say that he's not actually demanding that art works by blacks and Jews be barred from being shown.
Later in the post, you said that "Ken Loach didn’t explicitly mention McCarthy," but since you wrote earlier that he praised him, I took this to mean that he didn't mention McCarthy on this occasion. If he didn't praise him, why did you say he did? This seems characteristic of your alarmist rhetoric. And maybe I'm still missing any place where you retracted the statement that "he demands that art works by blacks and Jews be barred from being shown."
Yes, I still disagree with the comparison to McCarthy, who used the US government to end the careers of many Hollywood workers because of their supposedly un-American politics. Your earlier point was that at least McCarthy didn't base this on nationality but on political opinion. If Edinburgh were banning Israeli films or preventing Israeli filmmakers from working in the UK, then I might accept the analogy.
Moreover, sometimes it's the details that are important. You sound pretty convinced that your interpretation is right, but this conviction seems to have a quasi-religious quality, and I wonder if there's much point in discussing it further.
"You ask should any money be accepted - no it shouldn't. But this line
is very sketchy. I would be very interested if someone would find out
where does the money for Ken Loach's films come from."
You can see the list of producers for his films at the IMDb. My point isn't to defend the life and career of Ken Loach from any possible reproach; but I don't see any "shady banks," Saudi Arabian companies, and so forth. You go on to imply, with some justice, that all money is ultimately implicated in morally/politically bad things. But as I said before, you have to pick your battles unless you want to be apolitical or else retire to the wilderness in disgust. Your argument will lead to the apolitical option, I think.
"Ken Loach can decide for himself that this topic is of the foremost
importance for him and to not accept money from whoever he wishes. But
the moment it is speaking for British cinema as the festival declared
then wouldn't that demand immediate reaction on the same coin?"
I'm not sure what the latter part means, but as I see it he wasn't speaking for anybody: he was urging a particular organization to act on a political stance. The festival's press release said that it accepted that Loach spoke "on behalf of the
film community." Other British filmmakers can argue with him and try to convince the festival that Loach's anti-Israel politics aren't representative. Even then, the film festival could choose to follow the consensus or not.
"You say what he does is ok, but then why a boycott of him by whoever doesn't support his opinion the same thing?"
It sounds to me like this is at the heart of what you wanted the discussion to be about.
Loach isn't urging a boycott of a filmmaker because of the filmmaker's opinion. He's urging that the festival refuse money from a government because of the government's actions.
Your point might be interesting in regard to films that are perceived as some kind of hate speech; how should individuals and governments respond to this? Since art (and especially commercial art like film) is not totally autonomous, the question is thorny -- but insofar as a film is also a form of speech and contains other kinds of speech, it is obviously subject to public censure and, in the worst case, legal action. But divergent opinion is far from hate speech, and Loach isn't even concerned with the film's content or the filmmaker's opinions.
That said, you're obviously able to boycott Loach's films, and to urge others to do the same. I hope that this will not become a common tactic, reducing art to the artist's opinions, but it seems reasonable to refuse to pay for the work of someone whose politics are repugnant to you. Yet I suggest that you're wrong if you claim that the situation is symmetric.