Wednesday, January 14, 2015

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.

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