CHARLIE HEBDO. A month ago, no one had even heard of it here in North America. And now? The magazine is selling millions of copies, many of them States-side. I see that for roughly $16,000 you can buy the first post-attack edition on eBay.
Is this a victory for free speech? I don’t know. I enjoy the irony that attacking the publication has only made it more widely circulated than ever before. Maybe that’s a victory for viral marketing, publicity and Capitalism. As for freedom of speech, I’ve lost count of the editorials here in the West explaining decisions not to show the offending covers. They are all of a cloth, and go something like this:
– The covers have no news value
– The images are readily available elsewhere, if you must see them
– The cartoons are deliberately offensive and in poor taste
– Viewers and readers will have their sentiments outraged
Now, there is no human right that says your cartoon must be shown on the news. And I agree that the images I have seen are strenuously rude and calculated to cause offence. I gather the Pope himself said, in an offhanded way, you should expect a punch for being so rude. (I’ll have more to say on that.) But the arguments against showing the covers, above, don’t hold their marbles. Here’s why.
The covers have no news value
If you’re hosting a news program and find yourself saying, “this thing I’m talking about on the news, right now, has no news value,” then don’t expect to be taken seriously. Exactly this happened on PBS NewsHour Friday. The news value of the Charlie Hebdo covers is self-evident. You know what doesn’t have news value? The stuff that isn’t making the news. See how that works? You can argue with me about the judgements of news editors, but I don’t think you can deny that Charlie Hebdo is a for-real news item.
The images are readily available elsewhere, if you must see them
So what? Since when do you open the New York Times expecting to be told that you can read about something in the Wall Street Journal. Seriously, Main Street Media? You’re going to skip on printing the covers because , aw shucks, someone else went ahead and did it for you? Again, I can’t take you seriously. I call bullshit on this one.
The cartoons are deliberately offensive and in poor taste
Who is deciding for me what’s too offensive for my tender mind to handle? Who is censoring the news clean of the stuff I’m apparently not adult enough to take?
The guardians are.
Iran is “led” by something called the velayat-e-faqih. Do you know what that means? It’s the “Guardianship [velayat] of the Cleric [faqih].” Everyone in Iran is a ward of the state. The clerics are their guardians. The leaders make sure that the people are protected from anything un-Islamic. And, fortunately, they do a lousy job of it—but they do try.
Here’s a news flash: we don’t need freedom of speech laws to protect nice, friendly, middle-of-the road, feel-good consensus views. No one has to be placed under round-the-clock armed guard protection for writing books called “It’s a Swell Idea to Call Your Mother Once in a While” or “Ice Cream Goes Great with Apple Pie.” Non-offensive, non-challenging, non-controversial views protect themselves, by being boring and useless.
Once you decide to not protect the rude ideas, you’ve hollowed out free speech. It no longer exists. It’s a big joke. You’re saying, “I will bravely stand up for your right to say that puppies are cute.” B.I.G. D.E.A.L.
Here’s the truth: media people are afraid. I had coffee with a journalist friend of mine, and he told me there are now guards roaming the news floor. I get it. The world is scary. So admit, media execs, that this is about risking the loss of readers and revenue, and maybe even an attack. Be honest.
Back to the Pope. He says that if someone makes a rude comment about his mother, that person should expect a punch. I agree with the Pope on this one, and since I’ve never cared for Jesus’ stupid and dangerous teaching to turn the other cheek, I applaud His Holiness for advocating the defending of one’s mother.
But guess what? Punching someone is assault. In most jurisdictions, it’s illegal. And wrong. You might well be charged with a crime. If you seriously injured that person, you could spend time in jail—even though (in my view) you were justified in hitting him.
There’s also a difference, or should be, between attacking the ideas and behaviour of the mighty and powerful in print, and insulting someone’s poor mother. If the Pope can’t see the difference, he probably is not fit to pronounce on nuanced matters like spirituality, faith and theology. Maybe he should take up boxing instead.
Let’s get this straight. Islam is a religion of two billion followers. It claims for itself to be the final revelation of God. Mohammed claimed to be God’s Prophet, and his words are held by his billions of followers to establish eternal and universal truths whose authority commands our total obedience. Perceived disobedience, or even unorthodoxy, can lead to your disfigurement and death. Entire countries are now governed by clerics, under a harsh form of Islamic law called Sharia.
Does this sound like a poor, vulnerable target to you? No way. Islam has enormous social, ideological and military power. And it’s a set of ideas, some of which are stupid, irrational, dangerous and cruel. The same is true, in my opinion, of every other religion.
Anyone working for a satirical magazine whose purpose is to critique powerful and potentially dangerous ideas has a duty to ridicule the excesses of Islam’s self-appointed spokespersons and enforcers. It’s nothing at all like telling someone his mother is fat. I repeat: nothing at all. Unless, of course, this fat mother claims to have given virginal birth to a god who rose from the dead and took a magic-carpet ride in outer space before coming back to dictate The Bible 3.0—and that if you don’t believe all of this, you are an infidel who deserves death. Or, if they are feeling generous, maybe just to be a persecuted minority of second-class non-citizens.
Viewers and readers will have their sentiments outraged
Dear offended religious people: do you know that I have my sentiments outraged daily by the things you do and say? It’s true. I am outraged when I see Catholic propaganda that says we should ban assisted suicide because suffering is a beautiful gift from God. (If so God is a lousy gifter: He should have a Returns Policy.) I am offended when clerics and priests say that atheism is destroying civilization and that earthquakes are punishment for gay marriage and “you can’t be a good person if you don’t have God in your heart.” People actually have said that last one to my face, and every time I barf a little into my mouth.
There are so many religious ideas I find offensive and barbaric that I could write a book listing them. (Note to self.) I can’t get through lunch without some offensive religious idea or pronouncement drifting into my personal space. My head is pounding as I type this, because I can think of hundreds of examples.
Do I insist that these offensive ideas be banned from being reported in the media? No, I don’t. I accept the fact that not everyone agrees with me. I deal with it by going to the market place of ideas, where I appeal to reason and argumentation. Some of the people on the other side of the argument believe that, with God on their side, they have the right and even duty to kill me for my views. (Someone described as a “Saudi Muslim leader” is going to the courts instead—that’s a somewhat encouraging novelty.) I notice these are also the people who are most vocal about not criticizing religion or offending religious sensibilities.
So to recap: I get to be offended every day by religious ideas and action, but—for goodness sake!—don’t say anything rude about religion, because that’s mean and offensive and in poor taste. Racist, even. Notice how it’s been mostly liberal, free-speech types who’ve caved in to this idea that we shouldn’t offend religious sensibilities. They point out to me that I wouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that I’ve protected the free speech of those losers, too. Because it is speech. If it’s something more than that, I’m open to the conversation. Just keep in mind that banishing speech does not solve any real-world problem—it only makes your precious sentiments feel better.
The next person to ban an “Islamophobic” university campus publication will most likely be wearing an “I am Charlie” pin on her lapel. It’s a truism worth repeating: the barbarians never charge the gate—it’s always opened from the inside, by self-loathing people who secretly wish for the destruction of their society.
This week the gate opened. All of the nice liberals have decided it’s more important to be deferential to religious sensibilities than it is to take a controversial stand for freedom of speech.
That’s exactly how we are going to lose this battle, folks.