Even Ross Douthat came out swinging yesterday in favor of the slain cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo ("The Blasphemy We Need"). Since it is difficult to find even one square inch of common ground between right and left in American politics, this ought to have come as good news. Unfortunately, Douthat's Take is yet another of the many, many exercises in facile hypocrisy we've seen since yesterday.
In a flagrant attempt at a "bipartisan" tone that duped the pundits all over Twitter, Douthat wrote:
[I]f 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.
It is very convenient for the likes of Ross Douthat to suddenly proclaim himself an advocate for "blasphemy" at the exact moment that twelve "blasphemers" were murdered by alleged Muslim extremists. More convenient still, that the kind of Blasphemy We Need happens to be blasphemy against Islam. No problem at all there! It is unsurprising in the extreme that the most hawkish, pro-Iraq War pro-Bush and anti-Islamic conservatives are now falling all over themselves to defend Charlie Hebdo. One cannot help wondering how keen Douthat would be on blasphemy that included cartoons of the star-spangled anus of Jesus Christ.
On the other side of the political spectrum, a lot of the same people who are ordinarily deeply concerned about sensitivity and tolerance have, in the last twenty-four hours, discovered themselves to be full-bore advocates of unfettered expression. Nothing easier than to be for free speech—today. To be one hundred percent pro-Charlie Hebdo's provocative humor is now de rigueur, because one of the only absolutely OK things for literally everyone to be against is massacres.
In any case, Douthat was singing a somewhat different tune in 2007, in a weird essay about religious allegory in Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Here, he declared that "the fight for decency in American popular culture" had been lost:
The result is the unrestrained and unrestrainable popular culture of today, where every concept, no matter how lowbrow or how vile, can find a platform and an audience [...] an FCC crackdown on a raunchy radio host only nudges him into a lucrative new spot on satellite radio; a community that manages to keep X-rated movies out of its theaters and video stores is just pushing money into the pockets of sleaze merchants [...] Small wonder that America's movies and music and television shows make us enemies in traditional societies around the world, and small wonder, too, that many cultural conservatives, despairing of their country's future, embrace withdrawal from the world into a narrow, well-defended Christendom, where their families and their faith can be protected from the lowest-common-denominator swill that washes against the walls outside.
To be fair, Douthat followed this doleful assessment with the thinly argued but hopeful conjecture that a less-homogenized, more pluralistic culture would have more room for the meaningful consideration of religious questions. Like on Battlestar Galactica. It's true, Battlestar Galactica is fairly interesting that way.
I too am a free-speech advocate, and am therefore in favor of people spewing absolutely the most heinous bullshit, if they must. It's a relief, however, to see people realizing that lot of the stuff that Charlie Hebdo published was really gross and racist. The massacre took place against the backdrop of an ugly strain of xenophobia in France, and the rise of Marine Le Pen, who represents a faction substantially worse in its virulent racism even than our most rabid right-wing partisans. It will be terrible if this massacre results in any kind of traction for Le Pen's National Front (founded by her dad, the truly repulsive bigot, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, and I still can't believe a real political party can even be called that). Such a result would be diametrically against the avowed leftist politics (such as they were) of Charlie Hebdo.
Marine Le Pen's party is a party of hate. And Charlie Hebdo—however legitimate its position about free speech, however much the staff may have styled themselves freewheeling leftists—trafficked in hateful images and ideas that often tracked uncomfortably closely with the ultragarbage peddled by the fascistoid National Front.
I want the Charlies Hebdo of the world to say every revolting thing they want to say. But here is the exercise of my own free speech: Those guys were gross. Fanning the flames of xenophobia at a time of increased violence against Muslims and their places of worship is stupid. Not because it endangered the writers of Charlie Hebdo!—it was their look-out, if they thought these things needed saying—but because it endangered innocent Frenchmen working abroad and made it harder to fight the very grave problem of xenophobia at home. Because a bunch of idiots would be like, très très drôle, it's so funny to hate Mohammed (mdr)! Surely journalists should at least try to take some responsibility for how bigoted, ignorant people are going to "take the joke."
Juan Cole had a fine analysis of yesterday's events, pointing out that these murders are political in nature, carried out for the specific aim of fomenting hate and polarization, and pointing to Norway's low-key, unsensational treatment of Anders Breivik as a good model to follow.
Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe's future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream.
All who believe in the value of a free press grieve when a journalist is killed or jailed for speaking out. Also: We want to be civilized. We want to tell the truth, and we want to treat one another with respect. These events need a nuanced analysis and response, because the two imperatives are always in tension: the need for deliberately giving offense where that is warranted, against the desire to show universal respect and tolerance.