The op-ed below, a pretty good defense of freedom of speech, is also weird because it’s written by Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times. I’m usually not in the business of seconding conservatives, but they seem to be mounting more defenses of free speech than do liberals these days. At any rate, the topic of his column is how writers who criticize religion (read: Islam) are cowed by violent reactions from Muslims, and wind up taking a weak-tea position.
Now readers may find many reasons to go after Stephens here: he’s a right-winger, “only right-wingers defend free speech because they feel like they’re being censored,” and “why Islam, among all religions?”.
But what Stephens says is especially apposite because of last week’s beheading of a French high-school teacher who showed his students (after giving them the opportunity to leave the class) two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo satirizing Muhammad. The teacher, Samuel Paty, paid with his life, decapitated by a Muslim terrorist. Will people start tut-tutting about the cartoons as they did after the Charlie Hebdo murders? I think they’ve already begun—in Stephens’s own paper.
Stephens draws from the Atlantic piece below by George Packer, a reprise of Packer’s Hitchens Prize lecture, and a piece is well worth reading. But I’ll skip it to get to Stephens and the NYT. The indented passages below are from Stephens:
Remember that the showing of the cartoons by the French teacher was part of a free speech class, and was considered discussable material because many people find it offensive. Remember too that Charlie Hebdo was mocking not Muslims, but Islam and its tenets. It wasn’t something I’d do if I valued my life, but the teacher did apologize afterwards. That didn’t matter, though. When Muslims call for the murder of a teacher in Sudan who named a teddy bear Muhammad (on her students’ suggestion) in her class, and she’s subsequently arrested, tried, and jailed, you know that somebody’s values are amiss.
At any rate, Stephens recounts some shameful experiences in journalism, centered on the cowardice of writers after the Charlie Hebdo murders:
In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.
There weren’t many: the critics of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons included Jimmy Carter and, shamefully, PEN America, many of whose members boycotted the group’s award of its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo. And remember when Yale University Press published a whole book about the cartoons and their effect—without showing them? That was pure cowardice on the part of a publisher.
What these examples show, and what Packer brilliantly captures in his speech, is what might be called the encroachment of the unsayable. It’s an encroachment that, in its modern form, began with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” which was deemed blasphemous. In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.
As in all the other instances, the immediate reaction has been heartbreak, defiance, solidarity — followed, typically, by a quiet moral concession. Often, this takes the form of a “yes-but” response in which the crime is condemned while also viewed as an answer to a provocation that is itself indefensible.
. . . The upshot of these controversies has been a kind of default to a middle position that goes roughly as follows: Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics. It’s a compromise that is fatal to liberalism. It reintroduces a concept of blasphemy into the liberal social order. It gives the prospectively insulted a de facto veto over what other people might say. It accustoms the public to an ever-narrower range of permissible speech and acceptable thought.
And, as Packer notes, it slowly but surely turns writers, editors and publishers into cowards. Notice, for instance, that I have just described the suspect in Paty’s murder as a “Chechen.” Why? Because it’s accurate enough, and it’s not worth dealing with the choice and precision of a single adjective.
Yes, of course he means “Chechen Muslim,” but won’t say that, which you might say is cowardice on Stephens’s part. In the end, Stephens seems to include himself as a “gatekeeper of liberal culture”, which surprised me, but also decries the cowardice of publishers in taking the “middle position”:
We are killing democracy one weak verb, blurred analogy and deleted sentence at a time.
I should be more precise. When I say “we,” I don’t mean normal people who haven’t been trained in the art of never saying what they really think. I mean those of us who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of what was once a robust and confident liberal culture that believed in the value of clear expression and bold argument. This is a culture that has been losing its nerve for 30 years. As we go, so does the rest of democracy.
I haven’t seen any editorial criticism in the mainstream liberal media of the mindset that led to the French decapitation, though I don’t read every liberal site. Where are the op-eds saying that one should be able to mock religion without fear of losing one’s head? Where are the criticisms of blasphemy laws, of blasphemy mindsets? Certainly not in Stephens’s paper, the New York Times. Yes, the paper did publish a few articles on the attack by and killing of the Muslim who sawed off the teacher’s head, but with no editorial condemnation of notion of blasphemy that lead to the murder. And you know why. The NYT, being woke, dares not defend the right to criticize Islam or its oppressive doctrines. The paper’s staffers would quit in droves.
The latest piece on the French incident, below, is mainly on how the country, especially its Right, is cracking down on Muslims, and I can’t help but read into it the kind of “middle position” that Stephens mentions. Reader Philip, who sent me the link to the piece below, was quite exercised by it, and wrote me this (quoted with permission):
Surely at least a few other readers have forwarded this to you: the NYT refulgent with concern about Islamophobia and right-wingism. Where is the righteous concern for Islamofascism-motivated decapitation?
When I wrote him saying, “well, they did report on the murder,” Philip responded:
I congenially acknowledge the Times’s previous coverage, the tone of which seems reasonably neutral compared to that of the below article. What got me was that the latter prominently quotes those criticizing the teacher for showing the caricatures (re: the Danish cartoons), but who apparently are not similarly inclined to criticize the murder(er) and Islamofascism (a word the Times seemingly won’t print, unlike Islamophobia). To be charitable, maybe they did criticize the murder and the Times did not report that.
Read for yourself.
I think Philip is right in criticizing the one-sided slant of the article above, though I am not as exercised about it as readers may be, as that slant is pretty subtle. But I think it’s still there. Yes, the French Right is way too “Islamophobic” in the genuine sense, and perhaps the French government did overreact in rounding up people who were not suspects in a kind of “radical Muslim housecleaning”. But two bits struck me as editorializing.
The first one is this paragraph:
Thousands of people took to the streets in cities around France over the weekend to demonstrate their horror at the killing on Friday. And politicians, especially on the right, jostled to sound the alarm against “the enemy within,” as the hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, put it in a radio interview, referring to so-called radicalized Muslims.
“So-called” radicalized Muslims? I think that, in fact, there are genuine radicalized Muslims in France, one of them being the killer of Samuel Paty. I’m not quite sure why the “so-called” is there. Surely it wasn’t a characterization by Darmanin.
And despite the French support for Paty and demonstrations against his murder, the paper spends the entire last part of the article quoting those who criticized Paty’s showing of the cartoons:
Mr. Macron will deliver a solemn eulogy to Mr. Paty on Wednesday at the Sorbonne. He has already been hailed as a martyr of the French Republic. The emotion of thousands who turned out for him across France was real. A huge gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris recalled the ones held after the attacks of 2015.
But a few wondered about what had transpired in Mr. Paty’s class.
“I feel like it’s very hard to use these cartoons for strictly educational purposes,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, EHESS, in Paris.
“Secularists think that it is their right, because of the law that allows blasphemy and any form of mockery of religion. But on the other hand, there is the feeling that in doing so, it is the Muslims who are despised, not the prophet,” he said.
“By using cartoons to teach freedom of expression, we do not understand that we offend people,” Mr. Khosrokhavar said. “There are a thousand ways to express freedom of expression, so why choose this one?”
Françoise Lorcerie, an education expert at the National Center for Scientific Research, said she had never heard of using the caricatures of the prophet in a classroom setting for students of that age. And she was critical of Mr. Paty’s invitation to Muslim students that they leave the class to avoid being offended.
“Obviously these caricatures are wounding for Muslims,” said Ms. Lorcerie. “I’m not so sure about presenting these caricatures, without some sort of justification,” she said.
From the standpoint of the absolute value of secularism, “it doesn’t conform to his obligation to be neutral,” Ms. Lorcerie said. “There should be a reflection on all of this.”
And that’s the end of the piece. Only critics of the cartoons are quoted, not those who defend the right of Paty to show them—even if it was unwise. So yes, I think the NYT is occupying what Stephens called “the middle ground”, striking the Faustian bargain: “Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics.”
The NYT apparently includes teachers along with writers and artists. But how do you teach a free-speech class without referring to “offensive material”, or, better yet, showing it?