Permission to speak?

Who gets to talk about nuclear power should not be controlled by the nuclear lobby

By Linda Pentz Gunter

If you are not a fan of English soccer (football), you might not have been following the brouhaha over comments made recently by Gary Lineker, one of the UK’s most well known — and arguably well respected — former England football stars.

You might also be wondering why I am writing about it here. Hold that thought.

Lineker was responding to the Conservative UK government’s new “We must stop the boats” policy, designed to turn away so-called “illegal” asylum seekers fleeing for their lives and attempting to land on UK shores, something the government described as “a crisis” of numbers that the British people want solved.

Lineker, who has housed refugees in his home, wrote on his personal Twitter site: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used in Germany in the 30s.”

The BBC duly suspended him from Match of the Day, one of the most popular shows on British television and which he has hosted since 1999. Athletes, they seemed to be saying, should stick to sport. Supporters of the government’s “let them sink” policy seemed to agree, loading up the vitriolic attacks on Lineker for stepping over the touch line. The same critics also used “othering” language toward asylum-seekers, calling them “these people” and “rapists and murders”, thus giving full credence to Lineker’s fears that the government rhetoric did indeed smack of the rise of Nazism. Which brings me to my point.

You don’t need a degree in nuclear engineering to understand that nuclear power is dangerous, unnecessary and immoral. (Photo by Push Europe/Creative Commons)

In our movement, we are routinely confronted by those who argue that if we don’t have a nuclear engineering degree, we have no scientific knowledge on which to base our opposition to nuclear power.

The media seems to share this view and considers “experts” worth quoting as limited to those with corporate ties, neckties, and government lanyards. How often do we read articles about nuclear power (or any environmental issue for that matter), in which government and industry spokespeople are quoted at length, while a hapless representative from civil society is granted a soundbite snippet in one of the concluding paragraphs, only seen by those willing to read to the end?

I have a degree in English and Italian literature. But on social media platforms I’ve been characterized mockingly as “only an English teacher,” the assumption being that I therefore cannot possibly know anything about nuclear power. (I was never an English teacher — but since when has the pro-nuclear crowd been attentive to facts?)

One New York radio shock jock tried to trip me up during a dawn interview in March 2011, as the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolded, by demanding an explanation of the difference between becquerels, curies and rads. Being absolutely certain that no one in his listening audience of up-before-coffee, right wing conspiracy theorists had the slightest interest in the matter, I told him so. He then tried the “hysterical woman” tack, to which I responded that since he was the one who was shouting it seemed to me that he was the hysterical one.

It’s ridiculous to suggest — and a deliberate suppression of freedom of speech — that your degree, however long ago you might have acquired it, henceforth limits your thinking to that subject alone and that after the age of about 21 the human brain loses the capacity to learn anything new. The day you threw your mortar board joyfully into the air, or signed with a premier league team, that was the moment when all new thinking stopped. Whether it’s English literature or English football, that is the only topic on which you are qualified to comment. For the rest of your life.

By the same logic, then, only those who make nuclear bombs should be allowed to discuss them publicly. What kind of a world would that be?

I am reminded of the famous Marcel Pagnol quote: “My advice is to look out for engineers. They begin with sewing machines and end up with nuclear bombs.”

Gary Lineker, like many high profile people, discusses all sorts of topics of interest on his personal twitter account. So does former tennis player, Martina Navratilova, and Star Trek actor, George Takei, who endured the Japanese internment camps right here in the freedom-loving USA. During Trump’s tenure as US President, Takei’s twitter feed was chock full of searingly biting — and often wickedly funny —bullseyes. No one banned him from stage and screen.

During his playing days, tennis great Arthur Ashe, an African-American, led a boycott of his sport against apartheid South Africa. That move fed into the wider sanctions and global outcry that eventually ended that cruel regime. But Ashe was “only” a tennis player. He, too, faced endless reprimands that “politics and sport shouldn’t mix.”

When sports stars, including Arthur Ashe (center) and other celebrities, speak out on political issues, awareness is raised and change happens. (Still from: How Arthur Ashe Changed Activism/YouTube)

Many celebrities, like many of us, are intelligent, thinking and caring human beings. Unlike us, they have a platform and a huge audience. If they sound the warning about Nazi-style rhetoric and policies — or  even, if we are very lucky, the unacceptable horrors of nuclear power and nuclear weapons — thank goodness for that.

We can’t let the voices who speak up for humanity — and humanitarianism — be silenced, even though that is what the BBC thought it was doing by suspending Lineker. Instead, in a brilliant backfire — or to use a soccer term, own goal — the BBC ended up silencing itself with a mass walkout by football match commentators and studio hosts. After which, they quickly reinstated Lineker. And in a clue as to what kind of gag order they might have struck, Lineker promptly tweeted that “however difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away. It’s heartwarming to have seen empathy towards their plight from so many of you.”

This skillfully put to rest the other criticism thrown at Lineker and those of us who joined the outcry at his suspension: that now all the attention was on him and not on the plight of asylum seekers. I disagree. His tweets and the attempts to silence him may have constituted a battle over free speech but it also rocketed the inhumanity of the UK government’s immigration policy into the spotlight in a way no amount of earnest editorials or picket lines in Whitehall might have done.

So with or without that PhD in quantum physics, we will keep speaking out against the extreme dangers of nuclear power. Because as human beings who can read, think and analyze for ourselves, who can separate fact from fiction, and who know the difference between empirical evidence and pro-nuclear propaganda, we have a duty and a responsibility to do so. Otherwise the next nuclear tragedy will be on us.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline photo of protester speaking out by Glenn Halog/Creative Commons.

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