January 14, 2015

The West Isn’t Really Standing With Charlie Hebdo

The struggle to consistently defend free speech.

The West certainly likes the idea of standing with the little paper that could. A week after jihadis murdered two cops and 10 employees of the French satire paper Charlie Hebdo, the streets of Paris thundered with the march of more than a million people supporting free speech and denouncing violent Islam – among them France’s François Hollande, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the paper whose staff was obliterated a week ago published another edition that hit the newspaper stands in Paris this morning, selling out in minutes.

It seems the West will defend the right to state an opinion, no matter how unsettling or contrarian. (Well, unless you oppose any part of the Left’s agenda.) But already the signs of cultural rot show through the narrative. People are standing with Charlie today (or as the French say, “Je suis Charlie”), while the institutions that claim to defend the ideal of free speech are falling away.

This is a cultural double standard. The New York Times – once a paper that fought with the U.S. government all the way to the courts over whether or not it could publish materials deemed classified by the government – backed away from publishing the simple caricature of Muhammad because a group of radical Islamists might take their grievances to the court of violence and terror instead of public opinion.

“There are times for self-restraint, but in the immediate wake of the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory, you would have served the cause of free expression best by engaging in it,” Floyd Abrams wrote in a letter to the Times editor. Abrams was the lawyer who defended the Times during the Pentagon Papers trial.

While the White House admitted it was a mistake for the president to skip the Paris march, Press Secretary Josh Earnest can’t give a straight answer to reporters if Obama believes blasphemy is protected under the First Amendment. When asked if the White House gives its “absolute support” for the mockery of any world institution – sacred cow or no – Earnest replied, “There is nothing that the individuals at that satirical magazine did that justified in any way the kind of violence we saw in Paris last week. No. That is the most important principle that is at stake here. At the same time, it would not be the first time there was a discussion in this country about the responsibilities that go along with exercising the right to freedom of speech.”

So Earnest is only objecting to the level of violence against Charlie Hebdo? Would the White House condone a frivolous lawsuit to bully the paper into submission? Of course there are responsibilities that go along with the freedom of speech. But in the aftermath of a mass murder, the White House needs to reaffirm that free speech doesn’t apply only to banal conversations, but also to speech that enrages and offends.

Average Americans are just as petty and feckless as their leaders. Just last month, it was every citizen’s patriotic duty to see the trash film “The Interview.” This month, it’s every red-blooded Westerner’s assignment to share a picture of Muhammad that took a Frenchman no longer than five minutes to draw. It should go without saying that the freedom of speech applies to these works too, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that much blood and ink has been spilt over aesthetically bad work.

In fact, we generally find Charlie Hebdo’s work offensive ourselves.

A recent poll asked Americans if it’s ever okay to blaspheme another religion. The results were not good for the First Amendment, as just 37% of the respondents agreed that blasphemy is protected speech, while 32% said no, and 31% had no clue.

So much for standing with Charlie.

Conservative editor Rod Dreher says we only like the idea of standing with Charlie. “But what makes it kitschy is that we love thinking of ourselves standing in solidarity with the brave journalists against the Islamist killers,” he writes. “When the principle of standing up for free speech might cost us something far, far less than our lives, most of us would fold. You didn’t see liberals wearing ‘I Am Brendan Eich’ slogans; many on the Left think he got what he deserved, because blasphemers like him don’t deserve a place in public life. Nor did you see conservatives brandishing 'I Am Brendan Eich’ slogans, because they feared they might be next.”

This is why the narrative about the Charlie Hebdo is so powerful. As Dreher points out, the cartoonists there were not reporting fact when they were killed. They were making satire. Yet, after their office was firebombed in 2011, after their colleagues were killed last week, the survivors felt so strongly about their work that they once again picked up their pens.

The world was watching. Normally, the paper prints 60,000 copies and sells half of them, but this edition would be printed three million times, translated into Spanish, English and Arabic, and distributed worldwide. The paper needed a remarkable cover.

Cartoonist Renald “Luz” Luzier drew the front page of the newspaper reborn. In a press conference unveiling the drawing, he said, “We needed a front page that would make us laugh. … I had Muhammad, he was holding a sign, ‘Je suis Charlie,’ and he was crying… And I wrote ‘all is forgiven’ above. And I cried. I drew and I cried and we had our f—ing homepage. I’m sorry, we drew him again.”

In an interview, Editor in Chief Gérard Biard explained the cartoon and the paper’s position: “It is we who forgive, not Muhammad.” Forgiveness is speech worth defending.

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