After Paris, Transposing Europe and America

Freedom of thought-expression-publication/presentation (for each is part of a unitary process starting from the free individual’s mind and entering an uncensored public domain) is the cherished tradition helping to define a democratic society and giving credence to the sacredness of Ideas as perhaps best dignifying the human spirit—but it is not an ABSOLUTE right. Liberals may rally around the standard, in its most persuasive form, in John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” But radicals cannot and should not, because the community as such also has rights which must be respected, explained, and cogently defended. I share with millions the heartache over the murders of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and deplore these acts, no matter what might be charged against France, Europe, and the West in their treatment of the Muslim world. Cold-blooded murder is never justified, whatever the perpetrators believe are grounds of provocation and redemption.

Satire is not license for self-justifying defamation of character, whether of a religious leader (as in this case an act deeply hurtful to the follower, with inevitable spill-over to the religion itself), or of a leader of a nation, also in an adversarial context (surprisingly throughout the discussion of Charlie Hebdo, no mention is made of Sony Picture’s “The Interview,” which possibly raises more serious consequences, leading to a nuclear stand-off and impending war). Am I suggesting there are limits to political satire, and beyond that to free speech in general? Reluctantly, yes, mindful that imposing such limits could be as abusive and totalitarian as the converse situation, the societal-cultural damage to whole peoples if such “freedom” is left unrestrained. Regrettably, then, there are no satisfying standards for reaching a determination, but incitement, gratuitous slander, callous disregard for the sentiment of the community (WITHOUT in any way exonerating acts of reprisal: murder is murder, twisted minds are twisted minds) must be recognized as more than exhibiting bad or questionable taste; they violate the rights of others. Too, in practical terms (yes, there is a real as opposed to metaphysical world, one I hold is the province of the radical, the other, the refuge of the liberal), needless provocation—the case here as well as with “The Interview”—while titillating to the cognoscenti produces conflict that would cost human lives.

In France, we are not reliving the Dreyfus Affair, nor are Hollande’s words, which I appreciate in the abstract because in fact expressing eloquently humane sentiments, really true to the mark, in light of France’s own history of colonialism and subjugation of peoples under its control—as well as dutifully following the US lead in Iraq and Afghanistan, its NATO membership, etc. To repeat: my unequivocal condemnation of the slayings of Charlie Hebdo staff and police officers, yet the surrounding context is not what it should be, democratic top to bottom—and therefore France, Europe, the West, especially given the treatment of the Muslim population and rising hate-incidents, do not come to the episode with completely clean hands. And the case against satire-with-impunity holds equally with respect to the US, the assassination of Kim, however jocular the setting, does extend beyond bad taste, almost as though part of the underlying psychopathology of looking for war. Had there been internal criticism of the Muhammad caricature in France, or that of Kim in America, at least those on the receiving end could be assured of internal debate and disagreement, rather than a near-unanimity of glee and cynicism, to be interpreted as a preliminary attack on THEIR independence and security. Is no one in either country at all regretful at the glibness, meanness, in depicting—in true ethnocentric flair—a cartoonish Other?


The New York Times editorial, “The Charlie Hebdo Massacre in Paris,” (Jan. 8), reveals not soul-searching so much as the need to close ranks. It describes the “brutal terrorist attack,” quotes Hollande’s remarks, “This was an assault… on ‘the expression of freedom’ that is the ‘the spirit of the republic,’” and then, in what might be construed as scathing criticism appears rather as high praise: “The editors, journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo reveled in controversy and relished hitting nerves. The magazine’s editorial director, Stephane Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack, had scoffed at any suggestion that the magazine should tone down its trademark satire to appease anyone. For him, free expression was nothing without the right to offend. And Charlie Hebdo has been an equal-opportunity offender: Muslims, Jews, Christians—not to mention politicians of all stripes—have been targets of buffoonish, vulgar caricatures and cartoons that push every hot button with glee.” I cannot summon the same nonchalance (“an equal-opportunity offender”) as though pushing every hot button does more than mix commercialism (a special edition of one million has been announced by the survivors) and incitement.

The editorial points out Charlie Hebdo’s past history of controversy over the portrayal of Muhammad, and draws a conclusion I partly agree with: “There are some who will say that Charlie Hebdo tempted the ire of Islamists one too many times, as if cold-blooded murder is the price to pay for putting out a magazine. The massacre was motivated by hate. It is absurd to suggest that the way to avoid terrorist attacks is to let the terrorists dictate standards in a democracy.” Of course, cold-blooded murder cannot be accepted under any circumstances—and the hate-motivation for the massacre goes without saying. But what of the argument about avoidance of terrorist attacks? We have no proof, but long-standing intervention in the Middle East, US military bases in the region, wars directly against Muslim countries, subsequent treatment of refugee populations, might have causal significance in the rise of terrorism, even helping to explain 9/11; and on specific topic here, “dictat[ing] standards in a democracy,” what are they, and is absolute free speech (“buffoonish, vulgar caricatures and cartoons” calculated to offend, to think otherwise, especially the “glee” involved, being obtuseness of a high order) one of them?

The Times is right when it states, “This is also no time for peddlers of xenophobia to try to smear all Muslims with a terrorist brush.” And it rightly calls out rightist groups in French society: “It is a shame that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front party, which has made political gains stoking anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fears, immediately sought political advantage with talk of ‘denial and hypocrisy’ about ‘Islamic fundamentalism.’” But what of xenophobia as the ingrained ideological weaponry fueling EU-US confrontation with Russia, and the probably still deeper American xenophobia characterizing its counterrevolutionary global posture (rationalized as anti-terrorism) and confrontation with both Russia and China? Terrorist attacks are not the whole picture. That which is attacked has also attacked in its own right, with greater preponderance and for a longer time.

My New York Times Comment on the editorial, same date, follows, revealing, in contrast to the above, a more conflicted view because of the immediate impact of the heinous nature of the crime, and because I was struck by a parallel set of dynamics of Charlie Hebdo and “The Interview,” in which, for America, we see the soft approach of character assassination met thus far by no North Korean response, whereas for France, character assassination is met with horrendous physical assassination. Perhaps if we could dispense with assassination of all kinds from every quarter and conduct international politics with justice and toleration uppermost, this would be a better world. Then, satire might be raised to a Swiftian level, rather than wallow in the ghoulish humor of genocidal nightmares. My NYT Comment:

The eloquent, deeply moving response of the people of France–the defense of freedom of expression as a cardinal human right–is too important to be confined as a response to the vicious murders at Charlie Hebdo. This must also be a wake-up call for the people of America, which, unlike the French, do NOT have a heightened value for the expression of free thought.

In America it is not Muslim extremists who are trying to curtail intellectual and political freedoms, it is we ourselves–not with AK rifles, but with Patriot Acts and other manifestations of thought control. I cannot imagine Pres. Obama saying what Pres. Hollande has said in defense of free thought. For Obama and AG Holder have used the Espionage Act to prevent not only freedom of discussion but also revelations of war criminality.

Imagine Americans massed in a giant public square affirming freedom of speech. To most of us, that specific freedom is not worth caring about. The whole thrust of counterterrorism is acquiescence, submission to authority, on matters increasingly far afield from the putative subject matter within its scope.

We are now the National Security State, McCarthyism Redux, to what should be our everlasting shame–and is not. I therefore reach out in solidarity with the French people who still find the freedom to think among the most precious of human gifts. Je suis… Yes, to all the critics of war, intervention, assassination, I honor you. Stand fearlessly for reason and the right.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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