When power becomes blatantly criminal, it’s time to make people shut up. That time seems to have come throughout the Empire. Freedom of speech is increasingly threatened, both in the United States and in “old Europe”, although the attacks come from quite different angles.
In the United States, the assault is clearly led by far right fanatics such as David Horowitz, who is inciting students to denounce professors who dare try to teach them something they didn’t think they already knew. The purpose is clearly to ban criticism of United States war policy.
In old Europe, the assault is more subtle and probably less lucid in its aims. It is led in part by people who consider themselves on the left and who seem blissfully unaware of the danger of limiting freedom of speech.
In Germany, it has long been illegal to deny that the Holocaust took place: the offense called “the Auschwitz lie” can be punished by up to three years in prison. German television insists relentlessly on Hitler and his crimes, as if he were still lurking in the wings. This has done nothing to prevent the rise of neo-Nazi groups. It may even have helped them grow, in accordance with the phenomenon, demonstrated in the Soviet zone, that establishing “official truth”-even if true-can be the best way to make many people believe the contrary. But more than that, the far right in Germany seems to be gaining ground as a result of widespread disillusion, especially in Eastern Germany, with the neoliberal economic policies that were supposed to bring prosperity but instead have brought growing unemployment and poverty.
In any case, the center left government of Social Democrats and Greens has undertaken to react to rightist demonstrations by broadening the law against “Volksverhetzung”-a concept that can be translated as “incitement of the masses” or “poisoning of the minds of the people”. In the future, it should not be enough to prosecute persons who “approve, justify, deny or play down genocide of Jews and gypsies” in a way apt to “disturb public peace” (a vague notion). The new law would make it equally criminal to speak in any of those ways about any case of “genocide” condemned by any international court whose jurisdiction has been recognized by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Now, judicial history is marked by famously unjust verdicts reversed after long struggles to right the wrong. But the German law could make it a crime to challenge the International Tribunal on Former Yugoslavia, set up by NATO powers to control and manipulate political conflict in the Balkans, when it officially convicts Serbs for “genocide”. Anyone who points out that the Tribunal’s definition of “genocide” has been contrived for political purposes, and that its procedures are blatantly prejudiced, might risk being arrested.
If there are to be limits on freedom of speech, they should be directly related to action. Thus, if a political leader exhorts a hall full of followers to go out and commit a pogrom, this can legitimately be considered a criminal act. But the trend is to expand criminalization of speech far beyond such incitements to embrace expression of opinions, including opinions about the past-about facts which by their very nature may be debated but cannot be changed.
In France, the restriction on freedom of speech also began with criminalization of “the Auschwitz lie”. And as in Germany, it is unlikely to stop there. Incitement to racial hatred or discrimination has been outlawed in France since 1972. In July 1990, the French National Assembly adopted an amendment extending the 1972 law to persons who dispute the existence of crimes against humanity, as defined by the Nuremburg tribunal, and “which have been committed either by the members of an organization declared criminal […] or by a person found guilty of such crimes by a French or international jurisdiction”. The intent of this law was clearly to punish statements denying the reality of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. However, the unspecified reference to “international jurisdiction” may have unwittingly opened the door to prosecution of persons challenging the verdicts of quite different international tribunals, such as the NATO-linked tribunal in The Hague.
The 1990 amendment, known as the “Gayssot law”, was introduced by a Communist member of the Assembly. It seems that the French left, especially the Communist Party, in its understandable desire to preserve the legacy of the French Resistance during World War II, has seen no danger in setting a precedent for punishing speech as well as acts.
In recent years, the context has changed considerably. In the face of worldwide protests over treatment of Palestinians, increasing efforts have been made to extend the definition of “anti-Semitism” to cover criticism of Israel. By insisting that there can be no distinction between Jews and “the Jewish state” (a proposition vigorously denied by many if not most French Jews), and thereby identifying criticism of Israel with “anti-Semitism”, the ultra-Zionists seem to be provoking the anti-Semitism they denounce. Whether or not this is deliberate is debatable. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, a skilled and assimilated population that Ariel Sharon is openly trying to lure to Israel by claiming that Jews are not safe anywhere else, and notably not in France because of alleged anti-Semitism.
Once criticism of Israel is identified with anti-Semitism, it becomes implicitly taboo because of the association of anti-Semitism with holocaust denial. A main practitioner of this moral intimidation is Roger Cukierman, a far right Zionist who presides over the “Representative Council of Jewish organizations of France” (CRIF). In April 2002, Cukierman actually hailed the surprisingly strong showing of Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential elections as a “good lesson for the Arabs”. Cukierman surely does not represent the countless French citizens of Jewish origin who are not members of Jewish organizations. Nevertheless, CRIF’s annual dinner has become a “must” for France’s political leaders, who listen docilely each year while Cukierman castigates them for not doing enough to stop anti-Semitism. (The exception, two years ago, was a Green who walked out after Cukierman identified “Greens and Reds” with fascist “browns” on account of their support to Palestinians.) This year, sixteen cabinet ministers bowed their heads while Cukierman attacked President Chirac’s foreign policy. By this is meant Chirac’s opposition to the U.S. war against Iraq and attempt to pursue a balanced policy toward the Middle East.
This illustrates the fact that the “fight against anti-Semitism” is increasingly being injected into geopolitical discussion, as a pretext for stigmatizing growing opposition to policies of both Israel and the United States.
This stigmatization has reached a new pitch with the current campaign to silence, legally or illegally, the French comedian Dieudonné. The campaign began back in December 2003 following a short TV sketch in which Dieudonné, dressed as a uniformed Israeli settler in the Palestinian occupied territories, called on young people to “join the American-Zionist axis of good”. This was punctuated by “Isra-heil!” An uproar ensued. Jewish organizations were largely successful in forcing theaters around France to cancel Dieudonné’s appearances, sometimes by threatening violent disruption. Nevertheless, courts dismissed all the numerous lawsuits brought against him. When he succeeded in finding a theater that would let him perform, he won standing ovations from a full house.
Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala is the French son of a mother from Brittany and a father from Cameroon. As rather frequently happens, his education in Catholic schools turned “God-given” (the literal translation of his Christian name) into a freethinker sharply critical of all religions. In his one-man shows, he habitually parodies all religions without exception including the animism of his African ancestors. Irreverence is a staple of French humor, which constantly ridicules Catholicism and Islam in the most outrageous terms.
Insisting on his commitment to equality and universal human values, Dieudonné has refused to censure himself as his critics demand. They have been lying in wait. In a press conference in Algiers last month, he cited the expression “memorial pornography”, coined by an Israeli historian, Idith Zerkal, to refer to aspects of certain commemorations of the Holocaust. Apparently, none of the Algerian journalists saw fit to report this particular remark, which reduced it to a private expression. However, it was picked up by a Zionist website, www.proche.orient.com, which spread the word that Dieudonné had described the Shoah as “memorial pornography”.
A new and more violent “Dieudonné affair” was launched. The stock in trade of comedians is excess and bad taste. On both those counts, Dieudonné is relatively mild. His manner is good natured; with none of the venom caracterizing certain U.S. talk show hosts. Back in Paris, Dieudonné told the press that his words had been distorted. He had never mentioned the Shoah itself, and stressed his respect for the victims of that great tragedy-a tragedy for all humanity.
But it was not enough to correct misquotes.. Whatever his words, hostile reporters demanded to know: “but what did you mean?” In other words, what did you think? The criminalization of spoken words leads almost inevitably to the attempt to criminalize unspoken thoughts. Explaining his political outlook, Dieudonné said that his fight against racism led him to oppose “exacerbated communitarism” which sets one
religious community against another. But why was there no memorial for victims of the slave trade? Why was it that subsidies were available for some 150 films on the Holocaust, while he was unable to get backing for a film on the “code noir”, the legal basis for the French slave trade? This did absolutely nothing to assuage Dieudonne’s critics, and the chorus of media attacks in the following days became more virulent. Bernard-Henri Levy flamboyantly described the comedian as the “son of Le Pen”- regardless of the well-known fact that in his home town of Dreux, Dieudonné has been politically active in opposing Le Pen’s National Front. For Dieudonné, the cancellations and death threats are pouring in.
Even if he wins in court, as he has in the past, the media are clearly out to destroy him. The significance of this campaign goes far beyond its effects on the career of a talented young performer with children to support. Two more general effects can be signaled.
First of all, the campaign against Dieudonné amounts to an attempt to silence a leading voice of secular universalism with a strong following among young people of all communities in France, notably-but by no means exclusively-among children of immigrants from African and Arab countries. Many, unlike him, are religious. But if veiled Muslim girls can laugh at the comedians’ satire of Islamic extremists, why is similar satire of Orthodox Zionist settlers not allowed? Why does the CRIF have more influence than any organization representing the far more numerous Muslim community? Isn’t the secular universalism of Dieudonné a healthy response to the threat of conflict between religious communities? Secondly, and perhaps of even greater significance, the campaign against the French comic is a small part of a broad tendency to use the charge of “anti-Semitism” to silence criticism of United States policy in the Middle East, including the conquest of Iraq. This is sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle. The expression “memorial pornography” is no doubt lacking in both precision and good taste. But it expresses a certain fatigue, not least among a number of Jewish high school students, with the constant commemoration of a terrible past tragedy, to the exclusion of others (the bombing of Hiroshima, for example). There is a growing suspicion that this repetition is not really helping to ensure that “it can’t happen again”. Rather, it is being exploited to silence opposition to the war policies of the United States and its main partner in the Middle East. Such opposition, after all, was the meaning of Dieudonné’s parody of “the axis of evil”-essentially concerned with the present and the immediate future, and by no means a denial of the past.
On the ideological level, the constant reference to the Holocaust, with the suggestion that a new persecution of Europe’s Jews may begin tomorrow, creates a subtle but profound cleavage between the United States and “old Europe”. For Germany, obviously, but also-with infinitely less justification, but equal insistance from American critics-for France, reference to the Holocaust arouses an endless sense of guilt, disqualifying those European powers from any future geopolitical role.
For the United States, on the contrary, the Holocaust has become the key feature of an ideology justifying U.S. military intervention to “save victims” around the world. This is based on the mythical notion (which ignores, among other things, the decisive role of the Red Army in defeating the Third Reich) that it was the United States that finally came to the rescue of the victims of the Holocaust. The implication of this myth, which underlies the enormous exaggeration of “the return of anti-Semitism” in France, is that Europeans, if left to their own devices, will probably start to persecute the Jews once again. And only the United States can stop them.
Thus the myth of benevolent U.S. military intervention is empowered by the ideological exploitation of the Holocaust, just as “old Europe” is disempowered by it. This is one reason why politicians and media in Europe by no means all of them Jewish-who want their countries to follow Washington find it politically useful to keep harping on the Holocaust.
This is not respect for the victims but exploitation of them. By a constant implicit blackmail, the pro-NATO politicians and media help keep Europe morally crippled, disqualified from opposing the U.S.-led wars to remodel the Middle East.
There seems to have been more indignation in French media over some garbled reports of remarks by Dieudonné than over the total destruction of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. In such a world, is there much place left for humorists?
DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions published by Monthly Review Press.