Skip to main content

CHARLIE HEBDO - FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION - AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

About a week has passed since the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in France. Clearly, there were other targets. Clearly, there was collateral damage. I grieve for all who died and praise all of the heroes. But Charlie has received most of the international publicity and is the subject of most of the commentary. I've read American and European news reporting and opinion pieces. I've interacted with friends around the world on social media. I've been thinking.

It's time to write.

I've never subscribed to the theory of American Exceptionalism. Alexis de Tocqueville observed a bustling, vibrant bunch of Anglo-Saxon American go-getters in the early 1800s and thought that they were the cat's pajamas. But the American Revolution has been widely misrepresented and continues to be misrepresented to this day. Its leaders were landed gentry chafing under the rule and, perhaps more importantly, the taxing authority of an absentee landlord. The Founders were in the majority slaveholders and did not end slavery given the opportunity, continuing to hold slaves in full knowledge of the moral bankruptcy of the practice. They were perfectly willing to ally with Native Americans in time of war and they were perfectly willing to invoke Manifest Destiny in order to screw Native Americans out of hearth and home in times of peace. They didn't give their wives the vote and they impregnated their female slaves. They've been made into saints, but their sandals were covered in mud.

Having just trashed the Founders, it would be easy to assume that I hate my country of origin and have left it in disgust in order to live a life of decadence in France. Not true. (Well, living out my life in decadent circumstances is a consummation devoutly to be desired, but...) I have been fortunate to have lived in a country that encourages folks like me to speak our minds in this way, free from fear of reprisal. And that's the point. That's one of the things that the Founders got absolutely, positively, 100% smack dab on the button correct and that has continued to be a vital foundation of American society. Freedom of Expression.

But from Facebook trolls to respected columnists, a new meme has emerged: "The murders at Charlie Hebdo were horrible and without justification, but it must be said that Charlie Hebdo was lousy satire."

Well, I say: "No, it must not be said."

The quality of the satire is totally irrelevant and bringing it up at a time like this is both naive and dangerous. Naive because the quality of the satire had nothing to do with the murders. Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh are cases in point. They weren't targeted by book reviewers or film critics. They were targeted by terrorists. Not for quality. For content.

And that's what makes this meme not only naive, but dangerous. In assuming that quality is somehow relevant, the way is paved for censorship. With censorship, punishment.

I submit that the responses to artistic expression are not the responsibility of the artist. If they were, one could almost accept censorship. Indeed, that's how censorship gains a foothold - blaming the artist. In fact, the responses to art are personal. The artist has a right to represent. The viewer has the right to reject. But it ends there. It makes no difference if the art is good or bad. We need Punch and we need MAD Magazine. And we need Charlie Hebdo. Here's why.

After World War II, the Europeans felt the need to censor certain speech. Perhaps understandable. Definitely a mistake. Obnoxious and relentlessly insulting speech is the ONLY test of a belief in freedom of expression. Shading a full-throated defense of such speech with caveats, saying that Charlie didn't have the absolute right to print what they printed without expectation of harm, connecting quality to this discussion, defining one form of speech as acceptable and another as criminal, you've opened the door to more than censorship, you've opened the door to punishment. If Charlie hadn't the right, didn't Charlie deserve to be punished?

Who decides what is obnoxious and insulting? Who decides guilt? Who decides punishment? If the answers to these questions are not the free market, then the answers are that the State decides what is obnoxious and insulting, who is guilty, and what the punishment should be. Anyone who is truly satisfied with allocating that kind of power to the State is not a proponent of freedom of expression.

Tomorrow there's time to judge quality, to decide not to view the cartoons or buy the publication. Today is not the time. You have the right to add conditions to your condemnations. Absolutely. But using that right today paints you with the same brush as Charlie's misogyny painted them. You do indeed conduct yourself as you accuse Charlie of conducting itself, using rights to no valid purpose. You've become Charlie. And you do not deserve to be punished for it.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

GRAND CAFE OCCITAN: RESTAURANT REVIEW

  We made our way to a new restaurant the other day, up toward the hills past La Liviniere in the small town of Felines-Minervois. None of our party had been there before, but a friend had visited and said that she'd enjoyed it. She's a vegetarian. First clue. Now don't get me wrong. I have no gripe with those who choose to go meatless. I understand the environmental concerns and I understand the horrors of factory farming. But I also understand that form follows function in the design of tools, in the design of appliances, and in the design of human teeth. Our incisors and canines did not develop over the course of hundreds of thousands of years to rend the flesh of a fresh-caught broccoli. We are omnivores by design, Darwinian design. And I enjoy eating omni. Enough preamble... I never went inside the Grand Cafe Occitan. A young lady who would be our server met us at the front door of the nicely pointed old stone house, leading us to a pebble-covered courtyard on the side

THINKING OUT LOUD...

GRACE SLICK, BREXIT AGAIN, SELF CHECKOUT, AND MORE: #18

    GRACE SLICK I just listened again to Volunteers , the last Jefferson Airplane album with the 'classic' lineup. 1969. Perfect. Sometimes sloppy. Sometimes over dramatic. But perfect. And Grace Slick. Grace. Slick. Perfect. BREXIT & CONSERVATISM Except for the 30% or so who've drunk the Kool-Aid, can we all agree that Brexit is not working out as advertised? And that the Republican Party in the USofA has sold its soul to a cadre of authoritarians who think they are the true small-d-democrats but who don't want everybody to have a vote and won't abide by a vote that they don't like? How did it happen that, in the name of political conservatism, two countries put into power incompetent leaders financed by greedy elites? And I just read that Michael Gove thinks that Liz Truss is toast because her agenda has been shredded. Whose agenda has been shredded more thoroughly than Gove’s and why would any thinking person be interested in his opinions except to liste