The newfound free speech crusaders borne of the January 2015 murders of 10 Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris sought to promulgate a new and quite dangerous standard. It was no longer enough to defend someone’s right to express their ideas while being free to condemn those ideas themselves — long the central tenet of the free speech movement (I defend their right to free speech even while finding them and their ideas repugnant). In the wake of the Hebdo killings, one had to go much further than that: It was a moral imperative to embrace and celebrate the ideas under attack and to glorify those who were expressing them, even to declare ourselves to be them (#JeSuisCharlie).
As a result, criticizing the content of Charlie Hebdo’s often-vile cartoons became virtually blasphemous. It became common to demand that one not only defend the right of the cartoonists to publish them but also, to show “solidarity,” one had to republish those cartoons no matter how much one objected to their content — thus adopting that speech as one’s own. Opposition to lavishing these cartoonists with honors and prizes was depicted as some sort of moral failure or at least insufficient commitment to free speech rights, as evidenced by the widespread, intense scorn heaped on the writers who spoke out in opposition to bestowing Charlie Hebdo with an award at a PEN America gala.
A dangerous conflation was thus imposed between the right to express Idea X and one’s opinion of Idea X. Of all the articles I’ve written in the last several years, perhaps the most polarizing and anger-generating were the ones I wrote in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings: one article that rejected the demand that one must celebrate and even republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons by criticizing those cartoons and illustrating the results of applying this new, dangerous standard (celebrate offensive and blasphemous cartoons by republishing them) universally; and then a series of articles defending the PEN America writers who objected to the Charlie Hebdo award on the ground that one could simultaneously defend free speech while refusing to praise, honor, and glorify those whose speech rights were under attack.
The most dishonest and confused commentators distorted mine (and others’) critique of the content of Charlie Hebdo’s speech into an opposition to free speech itself. “When Glenn Greenwald castigates the dead Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for racism,” decreed the anti-Islam high priest of New Atheism, Sam Harris, “he’s not only proving that he’s a moral imbecile; he’s participating in a global war of ideas over free speech — and he’s on the wrong side of it.” Similarly confusing these distinct concepts was Quillette’s Jamie Palmer, who, after surveying my years of work defending free speech rights for everyone both as a lawyer and a journalist, somehow concluded that “it would seem logical to suppose that Greenwald’s solidarity with the staff of Charlie Hebdo could be taken for granted.”
What was clear all along, and what I argued repeatedly, was that it was not a belief in free speech that was driving these demands that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists be honored and revered and their cartoons be celebrated. Free speech was just the pretense, the costume.
Indeed, most of the political leaders who led the “free speech parade” in Paris (pictured above) had long records of suppressing free speech, and few of these new free speech crusaders uttered a word as the free speech rights of Muslims have been assaulted and eroded throughout the West in the name of the war on terror. What was driving this love of Charlie Hebdo was approval of the content of its cartoons: specifically, glee that it was attacking, mocking, and angering Muslims, one of the most marginalized, vulnerable, and despised groups in the West.
The proof of this was delivered yesterday. Charlie Hebdo published a characteristically vile cartoon depicting drowning victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston as being neo-Nazis, with the banner that declared “God Exists”: because, needless to say, white people in Texas love Hitler, and it’s thus a form of divine justice if they drown.
That led to a virtually unanimous tidal wave of condemnation of Charlie Hebdo, including from many quarters that, just two years ago, were sanctifying the same magazine for its identical mockery of Muslims. Yesterday’s assault on white sensibilities also led many people to suddenly rediscover the principle that one can simultaneously defend a person’s free speech rights while expressing revulsion for the content of their speech.
The examples are far too numerous to comprehensively cite; some representative samplings will have to suffice. Here was Piers Morgan in January 2015, with a beloved tweet that was re-tweeted by almost 24,000 people:
Here was the same Piers Morgan yesterday:
For the crime of mocking white Americans, vehement scorn for Charlie Hedbo was commonplace yesterday. “An evil, despicable cover,” opined National Review’s Tiana Lowe, who nonetheless added that “the losers at Charlie Hebdo have a God-given right to publish it.” Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, long a fan of Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Muslim cartoons and an advocate of the duty to republish its content, yesterday announced that, actually, one may hate and denounce the cartoons while still supporting the cartoonists’ free speech rights: “The Charlie Hebdo cover is offensive & dumb, and I fully support their right to be as offensive & dumb as they like.”
The right-wing actor James Woods announced: “So much for ‘Je Suis Charlie,’ I guess,” calling the cartoonists “French traitors” in a hastag he added. National Review’s Byron York, showing a picture of the new cover, was similarly candid: “Today, we are not all Charlie Hebdo.” One popular tweet, from journalist Jason Howerton of the conservative Independent Journal Review — who previously mocked news outlets for not showing the full Charlie Hebdo anti-Islam cartoons — declared that one should not, after all, share Charlie Hebdo cartoons that one finds objectionable: “Was going to go off on Charlie Hebdo for that sick Texas cover. But then I realized that’s what they want. Fuck you. I’m not sharing it.”
It’s almost as if the glorification and praise for Charlie Hebdo that became morally mandatory in 2015 had nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with love of the anti-Islam content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. This new rule that one must not only defend Charlie Hebdo’s free speech rights but also honor and praise its work seems to have disappeared rather instantly, violently even, as soon as its targets stopped being Muslims and began being white Americans. This person put it best:
really angry at charlie hebdo today for doing the thing they always do except this time they did it to a group i feel connected to— Tom Bloke (@21logician) August 31, 2017
What happened here is beyond obvious: Charlie Hebdo was fun, delightfully provocative, bold, and deserving of awards when it was publishing mockery of Muslims. When its cartoonists began publishing exactly the same sort of thing aimed at white Americans, they became “vile,” “evil,” “despicable,” “losers,” and “traitors.” As the author Robert Wright put it this morning: “I’m guessing PEN won’t be giving Charlie Hebdo an award this time around.” The viral 2015 Twitter hashtag campaign would have been much more honest had it read: “#JeSuisCharlie (*pour les bandes dessinées sur les musulmans”): “#IAmCharlie (*for cartoons about Muslims).”
Whatever else is true, let this episode bring about the full and permanent death to the new, warped principle that to defend free speech, one must celebrate the ideas under attack and honor those expressing them. It should have never been difficult to grasp the basic yet vital distinction between defending the right of ideas to be expressed and celebrating those ideas. Now that a Charlie Hebdo cartoon has been aimed at white Americans, offending white Westerners, it seems the wisdom of this principle has been rediscovered.