Sunday, January 11, 2015

Missing the Point

Our response to the murder of 17 innocent people in France this week seems to gradually be sliding, as I feared it might, away from the first outpouring of big-hearted sympathy towards cowardly, vituperative squabbling. The vultures have descended and are already worrying the remains. What seemed at first like a teachable moment about the importance of liberal principles, is now increasingly turning out to be a victory for illiberal anti-principles on all fronts. On one side we have the Murdochs and the Mahers, who would plainly like to use the attacks as yet another pretext to roll back civil liberties protections for Muslim people (who are justifiably afraid right now, in France especially, for the safety of their lives and property). On the other we've got the voices insisting that the Charlie editors, while they shouldn't have been harmed, were nonetheless guilty of printing "offensive" or "racist" material, and that other publications should refuse to follow them in the choice to depict Muhammad, etc. And the horrible thing is that probably both will get what they want! We'll get the craven identity politics and the erosion of Muslim peoples' civil and human rights-- and perhaps a newly revamped War on Terror to boot.

If there were two all-important principles that might have been reinforced by our response to these attacks, rather than traduced by it, they were as follows: 1) freedom of expression and association must be protected from all assaults, whether by terrorists or governments; and 2) no system of ideas, including religious traditions, should be exempt from criticism or satire. To hold a system of ideas up to these things is not the same thing as expressing bigotry or racism against the people who ascribe to it. 

And how are we doing on these two fronts, so far?

1. 
Far from the horrors of terrorist attacks showing us the importance of free speech and free association for all people, they seem rather to encourage people and governments to violate protections for both. Never more so than when it comes to the free speech and free association of Muslims. As Glenn Greenwald points out, in a challenging, sometimes disagreeable, but not entirely off-base essay (critiquing, I have to admit, some of the attitudes I've expressed here over the last few days), the erosion of the free expression of Muslim people has gone on apace during the last decade and a half, without ever inspiring the same kind of passionate fulminations that greeted the Charlie attacks. 

One might add to Greenwald's examples some of France's own anti-terrorism policies, which are likely to become even less respectful of basic freedoms as a result of the attack. Human Rights Watch tells us that existing French counterterrorism law allows authorities to detain people merely on the grounds of their "association" with terrorists or terror suspects. What is meant by "association" here is left unclear. Is publishing on a Jihadi website "association" with terrorists? Is reading such a website? Is knowing a person who writes for or reads such a website? And so on. The end result, HRW argues, is that France is effectively "prosecuting people because of who they know and what they think."

It's only one small example of the many ways the War on Terror have proved more toxic to freedom than has non-state terrorism. But the people whose freedoms have been eroded by it are in most cases those without power, without privilege, standing outside the dominant ethnic and religious groups in our societies. So we hear little about their fate. 

But the identity politics side is having its day too, it must be said. They are contributing their portion to the sapping of liberal defenses, though their victory is more one of attitudes than of state coercion.

I've argued already, following Ross Douthat and others (and this is the argument Greenwald questions, though I stand by it), that so long as one faces a plausible threat of injury or annihilation for breaking a taboo, it becomes morally imperative to violate it, to prove that such threats cannot deter free speech. Yet much of our media seems to be pandering to the same taboo that got the staff of Charlie Hebdo killed, out of a desire "not to offend Muslims."

But I'll say it again: surely, far more insulting to Muslims than any drawing is this notion that they are all uniformly outraged by the same things that upset fundamentalists. Do all Muslims everywhere regard the depiction of Muhammad in print as blasphemy? Even if they did, would they view this prohibition as one that was binding on non-believers the same way it was on Muslims? If we answer "yes" to these questions, are we basing our answers on anything other than the totally unrepresentative actions of a handful of mentally disturbed people with guns, whose motives and backgrounds we are scarcely equipped to fathom as yet?

Most religious people in a pluralistic society have some restrictions they try not to transgress by their own actions. The fact that not everyone else in the society obeys the same rules, however, is not rendered an "offense" to their faith simply on this basis. It is not an "offense" to Orthodox Jews if the New York Times serves pork in its office cafeteria. It is not an "affront" to Catholics if it serves meat on Fridays, and so on. To assume that all Muslim people would have such tremendously shorter fuses than these groups, and would be thrown into a rage by the New York Times reprinting newsworthy cartoon depictions of Muhammad, is to perpetuate an Islamophobic cliché that is surely more insulting to Muslims than any drawing.

Most importantly of all: Can we not agree that there is something profoundly distasteful about the efforts being made now by some voices-- including Greenwald -- to cast doubt on the characters of the Hebdo staff after they were just murdered for taking a principled stand? I admire much of Greenwald's work, but his latest essay seems in part a repellant exercise in trying to plant seeds of doubt against people who courageously insisted on a point of conscience and refused to back down in the face of threats.

2. 
The French government, like our own, has participated in counterterrorism policies at home and abroad that intolerably violate the human rights of Muslim people. The French intervention in Mali has been riddled by such violations, for instance, and we've already taken a look at its policies on counterterrorism. The Human Rights Watch press release cited above includes the following gruesome accounts of the fruits of those policies: 
"Rachida Alam, 34, was arrested along with her husband in May 2004. She was subjected to 25 hours of interrogation during her three days in police custody without once seeing a lawyer. A diabetic, Alam had to be taken to the detention facility’s hospital three times. […]
Emmanuel Nieto, 33, was arrested in October 2005 largely on the basis of statements made by a man detained arbitrarily in Algeria. Nieto claims he was subjected to physical abuse at the hands of the police during his four days in custody, including being punched, forced to kneel for long periods of time, and grabbed by the throat. He was questioned for a total of 45 hours in 13 different sessions."
The stories are a decade old by now, but HRW informs us the same policy of detaining suspects on the basis of mere "association" is still in place in France. There are no doubt others being victimized in the same way as we speak, whose names we will never see in the news.

Such rights violations in custody and the basic racism and religious discrimination that inform them are the real scandals. These should be the things we view as "offensive" and "controversial" in our society.

But instead, many voices charging "racism" have chosen to focus their attack on the innocuous cartoons penned by 10 innocent murder victims. 

I admit, like most people I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks. But from what I've seen since, the staff of that magazine, while pushing their share of hot buttons, were trying to criticize religious ideas that probably do deserve satire and questioning, rather than printing bigotry. Some of the Charlie cartoons, it has been pointed out, even portray Islam and Muhammad in a basically positive light, and contrast both with fundamentalism and its votaries. A writer in The Hindu -- a voice of left-liberal secularism in India -- opines:
"[I]n some of the ‘provocative’ cartoons, the Prophet is shown to be at his wits’ end as he surveys his present day followers saying 'it is difficult to be loved by idiots.' In another cartoon, the Islamic State is beheading the Prophet — Charlie Hebdo may have been trying to rescue Islam from the extremists. Perhaps this is precisely why extremist fury surrounded the publication."
Holding fundamentalist taboos up to ridicule and scorn is not the same thing as fueling the fire of Islamophobic sentiment. Of course, the Murdochs and the Mahers would like it to be, but they would like a lot of things that the world desperately needs to do without.

Ah, but the Left is not the only one elbowing its way to the front, in the aftermath of the tragedy, to ensure that we utterly conflate the valid criticism of ideas with the bigoted hatred of people. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the French Prime Minister has declared -- in response to the attacks and to fears justifiably associated with them of rising anti-Semitism in France: 
“It is legitimate to criticize the politics of Israel. This criticism exists in Israel itself. But this is not what we are talking about in France. This is radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is anti-Semitic. There is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Behind anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
One senses Goldberg in the background nodding in agreement.

Of course, one isn't sure what "anti-Zionism" is meant to mean here. It might just mean "anti-Semitism," in which case the Prime Minister proves his own declaration correct, if tautological.

But in ordinary language, "anti-Zionism" means simply the belief that Israel should not identify itself as the nation of its majority ethnic group, but should rather, like every liberal democracy in the world, define itself as the nation of its citizens, of whatever race or religion they may be. Is that anti-Semitism? If so, then Jewish intellectuals from Tony Judt to Joe Slovo have all been "anti-Semites."

***

How are we getting it all so backward so quickly? 

In his story "The Earthquake in Chile," the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist depicts a phenomenon that has now become a mainstay of our social psychology: namely, the fact that sometimes disasters, far from bringing out the worst in people, at first arouse their most generous impulses. The extremities of emotion involved in such scenarios force out of their path the ordinary fears or prejudices that distance us from one another on more ordinary days. "Given a certain amount of love, indignation, generosity, magnanimity, [...] the result is always the same," writes William James. "That whole raft of cowardly obstructions [...] sinks away at once." We saw this in the first day or so after the Charlie killings.

Yet all too often, this new generosity is founded in a group solidarity than shows definite limits to its expansiveness. It is a kind of circling of the wagons. And there have to be some outside the circle.

I, for one, remember being in Boston during the Marathon bombings and their aftermath. I remember that feeling of shared astonishment, horror, and grief. I remember the people calling me from all over the country to make sure I was okay; I remember the frantic emails and the search to see if anyone I knew might have been harmed at the bombing site. It was a horrible event and a frightening few days, but what I most recall from it now, a year and a half later, is the goodness and compassion it elicited in people. The "Boston Strong" phenomenon was meant to give that feeling a name and to inspire it further.

But that mood has shifted and altogether soured now that the surviving suspect of these bombings, the younger of the pair of brothers who were responsible -- only 19 years old at the time of the killings -- is facing a potential death sentence-- and that in a state that does not itself recognize the death penalty! The very best he can hope for is a life sentence without chance of parole. And this sentence, as human rights advocates have pointed out before -- is really a kind of death sentence as well. It guarantees, that is, as much as capital punishment does, that Dzhokhar will die in prison, without ever seeing freedom again.

And our government is virtually guaranteed to inflict one or the other of these two death sentences on a 21-year-old because of that same group spirit that was so generous at first -- the one that has now made us into a mob so hysterical over terrorism that it is willing to deprive a 21-year-old boy, a child by any reasonable lights, of his life. Boston is "Strong" all right. It has the strength of the whip hand, of the wolf with its prey. It's got the firm grip of the fist that holds the guillotine rope.

Will the response to the attacks in France follow the same path? Let it not be so! For once!

The Charlie Hebdo staff took an incredibly courageous stand for liberal principles of freedom, tolerance, and the peaceful exchange of ideas, and they were gunned down for it. Let's make sure the principles for which they perished bloom from our response to the atrocity, rather than withering under it.

Let's not just do what we usually do, and add one more note of plangent truth to those old questions of the Pete Seeger song: "When will they ever learn? / When ... will they ever learn?"


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