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Charlie Hebdo, Free Expression and the Freedom to Offend

Charlie Hebdo, Free Expression and the Freedom to Offend

I was unusually proud of Obama today when I saw that he was making a full-throated defense of free expression in the wake of today’s savage attack of the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It’s good to see Obama standing up for human rights, and more importantly for the core values of our civilization: the values that have lead to unparalleled freedom and prosperity for billions of people globally. It is sad to see these values under threat today, in today’s attack and others, by those who think that being offended is a justification for murder.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this particular brand of Islamist violence around the world in the last couple of years in response to “offense to Muslims.” A YouTube video allegedly provoked the protesters at Benghazi. Deadly riots ensued in Afghanistan and elsewhere after Terry Jones declared his intention to burn Qurans in Florida. Of course, we all remember when Danish embassies around the world were violently attacked, and riots broke out over the Muslim world where almost 200 people were killed, because Danish newspapers published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed.

It is one thing when this violence occurs abroad–in mob protests encouraged and sanctioned by corrupt regimes to score political points–it is quite another thing when violence hits the source. Therein do we we see the true contrast between the values of those who, despite what the apologists may think, wish to create a theocratic dictatorship, and those who seek to uphold civilized values of freedom of religion, expression and thought for all people. When Salman Rushdie was forced into exile by a fatwa issued on him and the assassination attempts that followed, the apologists on the left and the right condemned his alleged offense of Muslims instead of the hit put on him by a foreign preacher and the people who attempted to carry it out. We have seen Lars Vilks, Theo van Gogh, and others been murdered for offending Muslims, or in the case of Hitoshi Igarashi, murdered for translating a work alleged to have offended Muslims. We have seen attempted assassinations and death threats against Kurt Westergaard, Ettore Capriolo, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others.

And now, we can add to the list of victims of Islamist violence the 12 cartoonists and journalists who were murdered in cold blood today by home-grown crazies shouting Islamic phrases in unaccented French as they proved, quite sadly, that the sword can be mightier than the pen. What happened in Paris is sickening and inexcusable, and it is good to see a near-universal condemnation of this violence as well as a full-throated defense of free speech.

But rest assured, the apologists have already started to come out of the woodwork. Ezra Klein–before the bodies were cold–wrote:

Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won’t be found in Charlie Hebdo’s pages. They can only be found in the murderers’ sick minds.

It’s as if these people thought, “we should murder a bunch of journalists in cold blood,” and only then decided to research some religions, luckily finding one that offered the precise pretext they needed to accomplish their goals, and went about creating an elaborate backstory whereby their murders would now be justified because the victims had insulted their new ideology.

Klein goes on to say “can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do.”

Except people do do it. They do it when they are instructed to by their religion. And it isn’t even a difficult leap to make: they said they did it to avenge their prophet. Why is that such a difficult pill to swallow?

Over the next couple of days, we expect to hear a predictable response from Klein and others like him: most Muslims are peaceful, Islam is not a religion of violence, this is all about politics, not religion, etc. And for the most part, these points are a distraction. Because of course most Muslims are peaceful. Of course most people–of any religion–only want to live their lives peacefully and prosperously.

But it’s a straw man. The question is “do we have a problem with the way Islam is understood and practiced by an unacceptably large number of people?” The answer is clearly yes. Are there crazy Christians and Jews and Hindus? Absolutely. But that, too, is a distraction. Islam is unique in the world today as a religion with a large number of followers who believe in values contrary to modern conceptions of human rights. Over 90% of Muslims in Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Malaysia believe that a wife is always obliged to obey her husband, according to Pew. The same poll found that over 70% of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan support the death penalty for apostasy.

Although most Muslims in the US are far more tolerant, 8% of American Muslims believe that suicide bombings are “sometimes” or “often” justified to defend Islam. That’s a scarily high percentage. It only takes one person to do something deadly.

This may sound like fear mongering, but it isn’t–I could put all the usual disclaimers in here: most Muslims are peaceful, I have Muslim friends, etc, etc. The fact is, that this has little to nothing to do with Muslims as people. It has to do with whether the civilized world–and that includes most Muslims–are doing enough to combat backwards thinking and medieval values. Are we truly doing what needs to be done to stand up for tolerance that allows people to practice their religion freely, but not intolerance that allows them to impose their religious beliefs on others through violence and intimidation?

The US probably has the best constitutional framework for this, in that, as a strictly secular political sphere with religious practice guaranteed freedom by the first amendment, we are able to strike a balance between the political and the personal. We should not follow the prescriptions of lunatics who think that banning Muslims from entering the country or outlawing religion is the solution. We should, however, be OK with enforcing our secularism to the benefit of Muslims, worldwide, who share the same values. These are the people who are most in danger–those who are actually tolerant and free-thinking, who are living under regimes or in societies that put them at risk for their beliefs. We need to stand up for the victims of Islamofascism, who are usually Muslims themselves, and protect them–let them emigrate, defend their rights abroad, call out their oppressors and support their revolutions.

The apologists will not get us there. The xenophobes won’t get us there. We need a third way.

Here’s where it starts: it starts by insisting that the values of the first amendment are not just American values, but global values. That people should be allowed to practice their religion freely as well as believe what they want to about anything, and that includes other religions or not having a religion at all. Most of all, people must be free to offend people who don’t agree with their ideas, because that’s the point of free expression. The first amendment doesn’t exist to give people the freedom to state a popular opinion. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Or, to put a finer point on it, from Rushdie himself: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Then, these values must be disseminated somehow, maybe through a combination of political and cultural ambassadorship.

At this point, though, I have to admit that I don’t know what’s actionable here. What can we actually do? Other than be on the right side of the debate, and standing up for values of modern civilization, how can we actually turn back the tide of an ideology that, if anything, is getting stronger and its followers more numerous? We can’t go to war against every nation whose values we don’t share. We can’t round up all Muslims because of a few bad apples. We are at risk of being impotent while we get bombed and shot at by an enemy that is far more motivated and bloodthirsty than we are.

So I don’t have the answers–I just think it’s important that we realize this is a problem, and that true liberals get on the right side of history to help come up with a solution.

January 7, 2015Comments are DisabledRead More
Is Violent Revolution Worth It?

Is Violent Revolution Worth It?

I saw Les Misérables tonight, and aside from it being an absolutely fantastic rendering of one of my favorite musicals, it got me to thinking about the role that revolution–particularly violent revolution–plays in our romantic and historical imagination.

850884The main theme of Les Miz, for the uninitiated, is redemption, but the story also focuses on the June 1832 Paris uprising, which was a failed one-night rebellion by students against the restored monarchy of Louis-Philippe, a rebellion to which Victor Hugo was clearly sympathetic in his original treatment. The musical has a rousing anthem for the rebellion, “Do You Hear the People Sing,” which makes up the finale, and consequently is being hummed by every audience member leaving the theater. In this anthem, we see the poor and downtrodden people of Paris fomenting revolution, joining forces against the powerful and entrenched elites as they suffer in the street. It is a powerful moment in the film which has the audience on its feet cheering on the people against their oppressors, yet it ends in tragedy as the young students all end up killed at their barricades as the people they hoped to join their movement shutter their windows. The cause of the rebels and what they died for is all but forgotten to history, and would be only a footnote if Victor Hugo hadn’t enshrined it in his book. And we are left thinking about the almost pathetic nature of the failed rebellion; that final moment when the students realized that their brief moment of agitation has resulted in only their own demise.

It got me thinking: is a violent revolution ever worth it?

If you are planning a violent revolution or overthrow of your government, you can likely expect two outcomes. Success, in which case you and your cronies have accomplished not only a political transition but you now have the opportunity to establish your new world order. Presumably, as leader of the revolution you will have some role in the new government as well. If your revolution fails, however, before 1950 you will likely be killed no questions asked; today you will at least end up in prison for the rest of your life.

In the case of failure, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with the revolution, for obvious reasons. No matter how just a cause is, when you’re dead or in prison there’s not much you can do about it. In the heat of passion it is easy to rush to arms to defend a principle, but not so easy to think it was all worth it if, at the end of the day, nobody will remember you or your little uprising. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would like to be martyrs for a cause, but all I can do is feel sorry for them. On the one hand, there is bravery in standing up for your principles in the face of oppression; on the other hand, there is foolhardiness in fighting to overthrow a bigger and stronger enemy. Even if you are right, you’ll be dead, and no one will know. The ink of history is the blood of dead revolutionaries. Most of their causes were undoubtedly just. It didn’t matter in the end.

So failure doesn’t interest me. What I want to know is, in the case of successful revolution, is it worth it–and I mean is it worth it morally, as either a participant or a sympathiser? In other words, has any good ever come of violent revolution, and would we expect any good to come out of a future one? (Although “good” is a relativistic term, let us say that generally “good” means improvement in the general wellbeing of society on the whole, and not just the party of the revolution.)

My short answer based on a cursory reading of history is that no, violent revolution has almost never had positive results. The most successful violent revolutions were either unmitigated disasters in their political and economic consequences (the Bolsheviks, the Fascists in Italy), completely unsuccessful in terms of their stated goals (French Revolution) or ended up installing and entrenching more oppressive regimes than the ones they supplanted (Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Algeria, Uganda). On the other hand, the most successful revolutions have largely been peaceful. Take the fall of the Berlin Wall and the transition out of the USSR, which took place with no bloodshed or violent revolution. Upon the independence of India, although partition was a nightmare, the removal of the original British colonizers was peaceful. Egypt in 2011, despite the tensions today, was largely been a peaceful transition. In South Africa, we have an interesting case of a former failed violent revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, coming back to lead a peaceful transition 30 years later. It’s a fortunate thing, too; in an earlier age, Mandela would have been sentenced to death for treason at Rivonia. Instead, he was given a life sentence with his co-conspirators.

Looking at the historical record of revolutions, it strikes me that there are a couple examples of violent revolutions that have actually worked. The first is the American case, where colonists fed up with taxes took up arms and over the course of a couple years were able to claim their own country. Another case is Libya 2011, which successfully overthrew Gaddafi and is now organizing self rule quite successfully. It’s a little too soon in Libya, but hopefully it will work out. Those are two examples–I’m sure there are some others.

blog-5-ideas-pk-revolutionaryBut the overwhelming weight of history seems to be against violent revolution as a solution to political problems, even when it is successful. In the cases where revolutions have been successful, they have either been regime changes where there was enough popular pressure to dismantle the status quo without much violence, or they have been violent overthrows resulting in a drastically reduced quality of life for the greater society, and often a society very much different than the one intended by the revolutionaries.

I have some ideas for theories that may account for this. The first is that a political situation in which violence is necessary is one where there are entrenched interests in the status quo. These are interests that are willing and eager to defend violence against the regime with violence in turn. These interests would be supported by a large silent majority that funds or benefits from the status quo. This means that, if successful, the revolutionaries may merely be superficially victorious and all their real work lies ahead of them: work that includes the subversion of pre-revolutionary ideas and people. Any successful revolution would naturally succumb to the temptation to quash dissent and prevent counter-uprisings. The reason why a Libya revolution would be successful in the long run while a Soviet revolution would not be is there were only a handful of people supporting the Gaddafi regime, whereas many more people would have supported Tsarist or proto-capitalist Russia in opposition to a Marxist takeover. The key, I think, is in the tipping point where people are willing to openly oppose their government vs. the silent support of people to the status quo. Once a revolution is successful, it becomes the status quo and it must make a business of suppressing supporters of the old regime. In Libya, it’s not so much of a problem, but in Russia, millions of people had to die for the revolution to “succeed” in the long term.

Another theory is that political situations which devolve into violence are usually in spheres where dialog and compromise is made impossible, either by intransigent factions, warring ethnic groups, tenuous confederations, or terrorism. In these situations, violent revolution may be possible, but in doing so, the power vacuum is opened up for lots of players to take a role in shaping the new political order. The French Revolution comes to mind here. This situation, however, makes it nearly impossible to improve the general welfare, as no political stability can be had when there are many factions jockeying for power. War does not breed economic success.

Finally, successful violent revolutions simply make it too easy to install dictators and military chiefs that are unwilling to give up power. Countless dictatorial regimes started as violent revolutions: Pinochet’s Chile, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Idi Amin’s Uganda, Soviet Russia, Maoist China. It’s much harder in history to find dictators who came to power through peaceful means: Hitler and Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti come to mind of course.

So going back to the proud and foolish last stand of the ABC Club in Les Miz, I find it interesting that the weight of popular imagination in literature is usually in favor of the idealist revolutionaries who want to overthrow the system. We root for the underdog. We think a just cause justifies martyrdom in case of failure and don’t necessarily think about the downside of success. In any event, the best revolutionaries are not necessarily the best governors.

One caveat: I wouldn’t say that, just because violent revolutions haven’t worked, that they haven’t been necessary or desirable. It may be true that the Soviet Union eventually collapsed rather silently, but only after 75 brutal years of oppression during which violent revolution, like the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, was the only hope people had to break out of the system. Thinking about how to overthrow a truly oppressive regime that will fight back with violence, despite having relatively little support, like North Korea today, it is hard to imagine any solution other than violence, and it is easy to justify these solutions morally. However, it is also not hard to imagine that when North Korea eventually does fall, it will happen because of the economic collapse of the system and/or a domino collapse from external invasion.

So maybe my thesis should be contoured around the notion of violent revolution in a relatively stable and open society, where dialogue is permitted, economic growth exists, and there exist basic democratic institutions. In the United States, we have factions on both sides of the spectrum calling for some sort of violent revolution: the rhetoric of the Marxist left which often invokes the language of oppression to propose violent overthrow of capitalism, and the radical right which has proposed violent overthrow of the United States based on the principle of individual sovereignty. The latter group may be more worrisome because they are heavily armed, although the former group has more the weight of history behind their “noble” cause and is more prone to sympathy.

But for those of you out there who look to foment revolution as a radical solution to the problems we have as a country, remember this: the thrust of history is almost always against the short- or long-term success of violent revolution, regardless of the nobleness of the cause.

PS. Someone encourage me to examine this thesis further in the form of an actual, organized essay on the subject.

December 26, 20122 commentsRead More
Brian is in the Kitchen

Brian is in the Kitchen

It was Thursday night and I found myself in the seizième arrondissement taking a video of my French friends taking a shot of Unicum for the first time.  Their faces were distorted in pain, a look that any Unicum pusher knows so well and delights in.  After our Unicum, we found ourselves at a bar at Trocadéro.  We closed down the bar and had to relinquish our seats so they could be stacked and stored as we finished our drinks.  Afterwards we all crashed, myself most of all after a long travel day.  And so began my long weekend that was all too short in my second favorite city in the world.

Paris for all its faults is a jewel of architecture, history and culture, and there is no better reminder of this than the endless flow of tourists who clog every nook and cranny of city during summers, pouring out of Notre Dame and the Louvre and cramming the metros with their camera lenses fixed skywards and their feet tripping on the legs of cafe tables.  But there are also the timeless Parisien scenes: the booksellers on the Seine, the waiters with immaculate black and white uniforms conjuring platters of foie gras and croque monsieur like magicians, the street performers, the omnipresent accordion sound drifting in the air.

Friday my host, Jonathan, went to work so I went to the left bank, to Shakespeare and Company.  It is not the same Shakespeare and Company Hemingway fondly remembered in A Moveable Feast, but it is at least half a century old and filled with books and tourists to read the books.  The reading room upstairs was nearly empty when I went upstairs and finished A Moveable Feast looking out on Notre Dame across the river.  It became the fifth Hemingway I have read, making Hemingway one of my most frequented authors.  I picked up a copy of Green Hills of Africa while there, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce.  It seemed appropriate to purchase the books at their authors’ inspirational nexus.  Friday night I met up with Jonathan and he took me to shabbat dinner with his cousin and his girlfriend and two other friends.  Aside from the opening kiddush, the dinner was like any other and flowed with wine and rapid conversation.  Malheureusement my French competency is not what it might be and I found it very difficult to participate at speed with my hosts, who were gracious enough to include me in English several times in the conversation.  I found that it was much easier for me to understand the flow of conversation than to speak, and although many things slipped past me–notably all the joke punchlines–I was able to understand the humor of dialogue and participate as such.  Jonathan and I had discussed my libertarianism earlier that day, and he brought it up at the dinner table which led to a short interchange about the relative merits of American-style individualism and French-style communitarianism.  Jonathan and his friends are in the upper strata, more or less, of French society, so it was interesting to hear their take on French society and what they expected from the future.  Jonathan’s cousin and his girlfriend are moving to Singapore, and Jonathan will be trying to move to the US as soon as possible.  Critics of American exceptionalism will often point out how much better various indicators are in other countries in the world, especially Europe, but I found it revealing how desperately these young people in this particular class are trying to flee France, a country that, after all, has been very good to them and their families.  I heard many times how America was the greatest country in the world.  I also found it interesting one passionate defense of French socialism by a guest at the table, in light of the fact that most of the people she knows are trying to flee French socialism as soon as possible–and the new 75% tax imposed by François Hollande doesn’t help the situation.  At one point the subject of pig latin came up and I became the de facto educator of pig latin at the table.  My French friends had never heard of pig latin before, and were quite amused in their attempts to speak it despite their many errors.  Michael, our host, had particular trouble translating the “ay” sound, instead using “ah,” much to the amusement of his girlfriend.  One thing I noticed, being a passive observer of dinner conversation without the ability to participate, was the flow of conversation topics.  As the proverbial fly on the wall I was able to follow the conversation from elephants to caves to attics to rumors to politics to airplanes to consulting to business to chocolate and that was 4 hours.  I found the simultaneous attempt to follow the conversation and understand French and drink wine to be quite exhausting, but worth the experience.  It has only motivated me more to learn French much much better, a promise I made to Jonathan and I intend to keep.  Friday night we crashed and slept in the next day.

Saturday Jonathan and I met up with Michael for petit déjeuner where we had croissants and hot chocolate and toast with honey and orange juice.  Michael unfortunately is recovering from a fractured shin, so he is on crutches and our walking range was limited.  We drove into the city and parked on Île de la Cité.  As we got out of the car, someone across the Seine decided to dive in for an afternoon swim.  He paddled around in the river for a couple minutes before a patrol boat fished him out.  We crossed the bridge and descended upon Paris Plage, a new initiative whereby a “beach” has been built on the formerly paved bank of the Seine.  This beach is one lane of traffic wide and is basically a sand pit.  Many children play with sand pails and parents bring beach chairs, but this is not a beach.  I learn that Paris Plage was met with derision as a project, both for its cost and its disruption of summer traffic, which we got a taste of on our drive down the right bank.  It seems pretty silly in retrospect, but I suppose enough people are enjoying themselves on this “beach” to make it worthwhile.  The bank of the Seine also hosted a disappointingly awful dance trio who inexplicably drew a huge crowd.  After our brief excursion to the beach, we went back to the seizième and got sushi takeout for a picnic.  We picked up Michael’s and Jonathan’s girlfriends and all ended up at the park with our sushi and fruit picnic.  More French was spoken.  More English was spoken with me than before.  Wine was flowing.  After the picnic we went to the cinema on Champs-Élysées and saw Starbuck, a Quebecois movie about a sperm donor who, 20 years later, finds out he has 500 children that want to meet him.  It was an endearing movie but not that good.  It was in Quebecois French without subtitles.  I understood most of it.  After the movie we relaxed at home for a bit before going out for a party.  The party was good.  I learned that in France, many people learn English using textbooks starring a character named Brian.  The question is posed to the students, “Where is Brian?” to which the students respond, “Brian is in the kitchen.”  It thus became imperative to take a picture of Brian in the kitchen.  We did.  The party lasted until 5am.  I had a train to catch at 9am.  I crashed.  The French stayed out for two more hours.

Paris was cathartic for me.  This was my sixth time in the city.  No reason to do all the tourist stuff, although when I arrived I did walk for two hours from Châtelet to Rue de Belles Feuilles while on a conference call with Ustream, which my phone bill will be none too happy about.  But on the walk I passed by the Louvre, across the Pont des Arts, down Saint-Germain, across Les Invalides, to the Champ de Mars and around the Eiffel Tower to Trocadéro, and the next day I walked from Rivoli across Île de la Cité and Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company, through the Latin Quarter to Pantheon and Jardin Luxembourg, and finally to Odéon and Place Saint-Michel.  So you could say I did most of the things tourists would do, although at this point I can do it without a map and I have a sense of ownership over my route.  Paris is my city, or so I hope it to be one day.  But the most important part about being in Paris for me was the soul of the city, the jazz music in the air, the smell of crêpes and waffles, the sweeping memories of bygone eras: kings, princes, all the wars and republics, the settling of the Seine, the height of power, the darkness of occupation, and through it all the constant beat of Gallic optimism.  There is no other place where roads and history and life intersect on the same metaphysical plane: past, present, future, left, right and center, night, day and eternity.

The next day I took the train to London at 9 in the morning.  The Eurostar train was high speed and whipped through the chunnel at breakneck speed, leaving us with our ears popped on both ends.  London is gearing up for the Olympics, but I saw none of it, opting to catch a train to Oxford to see my good friend for lunch, before turning around and coming back to Hampton Court Palace where my family rented the Fish Court to have a reunion, 16 years later, of our first family vacation.  It’s a full week of vacation for them, but I was only there for the night.  Dinner was at a new Lebanese restaurant in the town, and dessert was a bottle of Graham’s port bottled 1912–its 100 year anniversary.  It is hard to imagine how much different the world was when every person who made that bottle was alive and well and optimistic.  It has been only 100 years, a blink in history, but an eternity for a young mortal trying to imagine how dead and buried he will be when 2112 rolls around.  In the last century there were two world wars, three brutal totalitarianisms, the transformative liberalization of the global economy, the internet and the politics of interconnectivity, a cold war and a space age.  It is hard to imagine what will happen in the next 100 years.  The port was delicious and perfectly preserved.

At 5 in the morning on Sunday I got up and began my trek back to Budapest, with a Eurostar train from London to Paris Nord, the RER B from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle, the EasyJet from Charles de Gaulle to Budapest T2, and finally a taxi to work where I finished out the work day with 2 meetings and a great dinner at Klassz in Budapest with my Ustream colleagues.  I was reflecting during a mad dash through Waterloo station on Sunday to make the train to Hampton how travel is the one thing I am truly exceptional at:  making ambitious plans, improvising, learning by direct experience, catching the trains on time but also lingering at the memorable and ephemeral moments along the way, and never having too much of a plan in order to avoid disrupting the discovery.  Nothing I have ever done or will do comes close to the experience of making it from point A to point B in as interesting and unique a route as possible, with as many things as possible accomplished along the way.

July 24, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Liberte, Egalite in France?

Liberte, Egalite in France?

It’s happening in France today as it has happened across Europe.  The steady declination of individual liberty and the overstepping authority of the state.  It is not just an isolated incident anymore, but a pattern of invasion.

The latest outrage is a new ban in France which went into effect today.  Anyone caught wearing a full face veil, an Islamic burka or equivalent face covering, will be subject to a fine and a “citizenship course.”  (I don’t know what “citizenship course” means, but that sounds an awfully lot like Mao’s reeducation camps to me.  But I digress.)

Islamic women, like any other people–if they are to be acknowledged as people–have as much a right to wear what they want to wear as anyone else.  States historically have often intervened in the clothing choices of its citizens, often in the legislation of “public decency,” such as a ban on nudity in non-designated areas.  States have also legislated occupancy-related clothing requirements such as masks for doctors or helmets for motocycle riders.

What’s ironic in this case is that the people who are most effected by this new law in France are not only exempt from any occupancy requirements, but they are practicing an extreme form of modesty that shouldn’t offend anyone.  And if they DO offend people, that isn’t a justification for banning the veils on legal grounds.  That goes against every fundamental notion of free speech:  that the speaker has a right to speak as much as the listener has a right to be offended, but that no speaker or listener’s right is more important than anyone else’s.  This is why even hate speech, in America at least, remains tolerated: because of the hesitancy of any court to open the door of deciding which speech, or which offense, should matter more in the eyes of the law.

But more important than a fundamental right of expression through clothing–a right that has been taken away in history to deprive citizens of their humanity in more than one case (yellow stars of David and the Scarlet Letter come to mind)–is the ever creeping infringement of the French government–and indeed, governments across Europe–on the rights of their citizens.

It starts with restrictions on free expression where they will be missed least:  bans on anti-semitism or denying the Holocaust, bans on hate speech, bans on religious symbols on display in classrooms, and last year, bans on minarets.  Add to the long list of activities citizens can no longer perform: wearing clothing that many believe–like it or not–to be either traditional or required by religious law.

These bans may seem innocuous, mostly because they are the most publicly supported.  It’s easy to ban speech when people can universally or near-universally despise it.  There are many people whose speech shocks the conscience.  But it is just in these situations where the freedom of speech is MOST important.  The rights of the minority of an opinion and the majority are indivisible and logically equivalent.  As John Stuart Mill wrote in his treatise on the subject, On Liberty, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

What’s next for France and Europe?  The banning of political groups that support the Islamic veil?  The banning of public Islamic prayer?  The banning of private Islamic prayer?  What about the banning of the Koran itself?  And how quickly these new laws can be used to turn against all other French citizens, to deprive them of liberty, to take away their fundamental rights because an arrogant belief in uncontested moral superiority?

There are two arguments I have heard routinely to justify the ban itself, on legal and political grounds:

A)  The ban does not target Muslims, but applies to all people, therefore it is not a targeted ban on any one group.

This is pure crap.  The bill was passed as a burqa ban, understood to be a burqa ban, and continues to be a burqa ban.  And the law makes exceptions for occupancy-related masks and “Masks used in “traditional activities”, such as carnivals or religious processions,” which somehow doesn’t include the right to practice one’s religious laws in public.

B)  The ban is there to protect France from Islamization; as Sarkozy himself said:  “The burqa is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.”

This argument is logically equivalent to a state banning a value system, a way of life, an act of speech or anything else that goes against the “values” and “ideals” of that state.  First of all, who is Sarkozy, or any French politician, to decide what constitutes the “values” of French society?  And if he has that right to decide, what rights is he giving his successors?  The right to decide that Muslims, and their very existence, are a threat to the values of the French state?  These very arguments were used in Europe–and France–before, albeit for a different religious and cultural minority.  The BBC is even calling this situation “the Muslim question”–if that doesn’t make your hairs stand up on end.

Furthermore, if the logic of the ban is to encourage equality and French unity, it will clearly have the opposite effect.  French Muslims who are forced to wear the veil will be forced, now, to stay indoors to avoid the fine, thus rendering them effective prisoners in their own homes.  Not to mention the alienation of Muslims in general from the French state: a recipe for more dissidents, more protests, and no doubt, more reactionary behavior from the state.

This creep of unilateral state action against citizens may seem justified–it may even seem necessary–but therein lies its danger.  I fear for the French people, as they have just given the state the power to decide key questions on their liberty, and sooner than they think, they will be unable to stop the juggernaut when it has gone too far.

April 11, 20111 commentRead More