The Charles Hebdo affair presents a difficult dilemma to liberals and the left in general. Typically, they have no problem with censorship of views they don’t like. They jump on board campaigns to fire college professors for publishing about race differences or White dispossession, and they shed no tears when some poor soul in the media gets fired for blurting out something about Jewish power in Hollywood. They would love for such people to go to prison.
But they want to think of themselves as principled and high-minded. So what to say about the murderous attempt to shut down Charlie Hebdo?
Here’s what Jonathan Chait says in New York magazine:
Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that Charlie Hebdo is crude and even racist. Freedom of expression is not a strong defense of crude, racist, or otherwise stupid expression. Indeed, one of the most common and least edifying defenses made by people who have proffered offensive opinions is that they have the right to free speech. The right of expression is not the issue when the objection centers on the content.
This last comment—that “the right of expression is not the issue when the objection centers on the content”— reflects Chait’s intellectual arrogance about the dogmas of liberalism — that for example, there is no such thing as race, but if there is, genetic differences are irrelevant to average group differences in IQ or any other trait important for success in the contemporary world, etc. From his point of view, these dogmas are set in stone and massively supported by scientific data. So it’s perfectly legitimate to exclude people who dissent from these dogmas from having any voice in the mainstream media, and exert pressure to get them fired them from their jobs or put them in jail.
And Chait, as a prominent contributor to the elite media, is well aware that he is in a great position to do exactly that.
But that’s not what’s at issue here. Charlie Hebdo is obviously not attempting to be intellectually rigorous, and poking holes in its content would be child’s play. Their content is indefensible. So why tolerate Charlie Hebdo when you are unwilling to tolerate James Watson or Jason Richwine?
The approved answer is that we must stand up for Charlie Hebdo because they have been threatened with violence. Here Chait relies on Ross Douthat in the New York Times:
The kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.
In this sense, many of the Western voices criticizing the editors of Hebdo have had things exactly backward: Whether it’s the Obama White House or Time Magazine in the past or the Financial Timesand (God help us) the Catholic League today, they’ve criticized the paper for provoking violence by being needlessly offensive and “inflammatory” (Jay Carney’s phrase), when the reality is that it’s precisely the violence that justifies the inflammatory content. In a different context, a context where the cartoons and other provocations only inspired angry press releases and furious blog comments, I might sympathize with the FT’s Tony Barber when he writes that publications like Hebdo “purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” (If all you have to fear is a religious group’s fax machine, what you’re doing might not be as truth-to-power-ish as you think.) But if publishing something might get you slaughtered and you publish it anyway, by definition you are striking a blow for freedom, and that’s precisely the context when you need your fellow citizens to set aside their squeamishness and rise to your defense.
Whereas far too often in the West today the situation is basically reversed: People will invoke free speech to justify just about any kind of offense or provocation or simple exploitation (“if we don’t go full-frontal seven times on ‘Game of Thrones’ tonight, man, the First Amendment dies”), and then scurry for cover as soon as there’s a whiff of actual danger, a hint that “bold” envelope-pushing might require actual bravery after all.
Jonathan Chait’s take away message from this manages to include the inference that Jews, having been supposedly been victims of laws against blasphemy during the Inquisition, naturally believe in “liberalism and liberty”:
Must all deliberate offense-giving, in any context, be celebrated, honored, praised? I think not. But in the presence of the gun — or, as in the darker chapters of my own faith’s history, the rack or the stake — both liberalism and liberty require that it be welcomed and defended.
The problem with this is that there is a very large area between fax machines and murder — like being fired from one’s job or going to prison for saying things liberals don’t like. These are very serious costs to contemplate before expressing one’s well-founded opinions, and when a society allows such costs, as pretty much every Western society does in one form or another, it is just as much an attempt to have “veto power over liberal civilization” as murder and threats of murder.
Liberal civilization disappeared in the West along with the increased power of the left. In the U.S., organizations like the ADL and the SPLC have lobbied for and supported thought crime legislation. And they have pressured governments and private companies to fire those with opinions they dislike. Throughout the West, it’s the same story, with a central role for Jewish activist organizations (e.g., Guillaume Durocher on France, Andrew Joyce on the UK, Brenton Sanderson on Australia; myself on the U.S. and Canada).
So imagine this paraphrase of Douthat’s central point:
The kind of blasphemy that Prof. James Watson and Jason Richwine (and many others) engaged in had the consequence that they were fired, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to fire you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the censorious have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by devastating economic sanctions to one’s livelihood, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the SPLC and the ADL cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.
But don’t expect Chait — or Douthat or the rest of the mainstream media — to get on board with that. Remember, censorship on the basis of content is just fine unless someone wants to actually kill you for saying it. Anything short of murder is just fine—an ideology that certainly satisfies the interests of contemporary Western elites who control the media and are able to exert effective economic pressure on dissidents. As noted in Francis Carr Begbie’s article, there are very different mechanisms utilized by elites and non-elites for censoring public discourse.
But make no mistake. Liberal civilization in the West has been destroyed, and its destruction was carried out by the same people who now congratulate themselves for having reasoned, enlightened views on free speech.