Sunday, January 11, 2015

Que Vive Charlie

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
—S.G. Tallentyre (pen name of Evelyn Beatrice Hall), The Friends of Voltaire, 1906

“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
—The late Charlie Hebdo editor “Charb” (Stéphane Charbonnier) in 2012 after his offices had been firebombed

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”
—President Obama, addressing the UN General Assembly in 2012

Today something like a million people are marching in Paris to rally for unity in the wake of the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. Among the many taking part will be a very dear and longtime friend of mine, who lives in the Paris region. He made a poster for the occasion.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo

Personally, I am a bit cynical about facile posting of hashtags, like the ubiquitous #JeSuisCharlie, as a response to outrages like this. But a million people in the street does make a powerful statement. And world leaders can make powerful statements. That is why it was such a missed opportunity in 2012 when President Obama addressed the United Nations in the wake of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The administration had attributed the paramilitary attack to outrage over a YouTube video, and it undertook a campaign in the Moslem world with its own videos condemning the YouTube video. And the maker of the video was very soon arrested in the middle of the night in Los Angeles, although supposedly by coincidence since the charges had nothing to do with the video, the posting of which was not actually a crime.

To say the least, the administration’s performance was not exactly the robust defense of free speech that some of us would have hoped for. Nor was it encouraging when, in 2012, the president’s spokesman Jay Carney said of the Charlie Hebdo firebombing that “we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”

To be fair, the the president’s words, which I have quoted above, were in a context of a long list of people to whom the future should not belong. But his rhetorical approach was unfortunate. At moments like this, leaders need to speak clearly and forthrightly and not use passive voice or, as in the president’s case here, use a negative construction to make an ostensibly positive point. His apparent message was that the future should not belong to the intolerant.

Not giving offense to followers of a particular religion, however, was not the most important value to highlight that day. Freedom of expression is crucial to Western civilized values. That means not using violence against those who give offense—no matter how provocative.

If the values we cherish in the West are to survive, we need leaders who are willing to defend and proselytize those values with the same passion—if not the same methods—as those who oppose them.

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