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Let’s hope the spirit of Voltaire survives

If you live in the UK this week, you’ve probably seen the stories about the release of an old membership list for the British National Party (BNP).  The BNP is an ultra-right wing political party, “committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948″.  They have had connections with the National Front and other violent fasist organisations and are generally condemned by mainstream society.

Given their unsavoury policies and dubious connections, it is hardly surprising that many of their members choose to keep their affiliation with the party secret, but even if they were open about their membership I doubt that any of us would be happy about our personal details, including full addresses and telephone numbers, being broadcast over the internet.  Some of the people on the list face losing their jobs (it is a dismissable offence to be a member if you are a service police officer) and talk radio DJ Rod Lucas has been dropped for his membership.  Other members have apparently already received threats.

To add to the confusion, spoof websites claiming to let you search the list for names of people you know,  under the heading “Find the Nazis near you” have appeared, allowing you to add the names of your friends ‘to wind them up’.  There are also Google maps mashups to show you if any members live nearby.

Fortunately the British press so far seem to be resisting calling for a witch-hunt and hopefully any threats and perscution will be limited.  Much as I might disagree with the stated policies of the BNP, their members and the people who support them have a right to their opinions, providing that they exercise them in a non-violent way.

Any persecution of their members is only likely to reinforce their case that they are prevented from stating their opinions openly and potentially add to their members.  Claiming victimisation is a classic way for extreme views to gain currency.   Let’s hope that they aren’t given the satisfaction.

It’s also surprising that the owner of the blog who originally posted the list doesn’t seem to be facing any sort of prosecution.  Publishing anyones’ personal details without their permission I would have thought would, at the very least, be in breach of the Data Protection Act.

(Incidentally, Voltaire didn’t say “I disagree with what you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it” as he is often quoted.  The phrase appeared in a later book, The Friends of Voltaire (1906), written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym S[tephen] G. Tallentyre, as a summary of his beliefs.  He did however say “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” which I think is a far better motto to adopt)

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