Christopher Hitchens was, at one point, the darling of the American leftist intellectual community. His scathing was then turned towards the same targets as the likes of Noam Chomsky. Hitchens’ break with ‘the left’ came when the Iranian Ayatollah declared a ‘fatwah’ against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Maybe that sentence looks like mad-libs to you. That’s ok. The point is that Hitchens felt that the left was not vocal enough in defending free-speech.
It can be easy to equivocate (that is to say, be intellectually wishy-washy), especially as an academic. Most situations are more complicated than the media presents them, and few people act truly irrationally, so there is a point to trying to understand the logic of ‘madmen’ or other bad guys.
I can point out, for instance, that republishing the cartoons depicting Mohammed is needlessly inflammatory (let alone the fact that the cartoons themselves are pretty unfunny). Or that in a climate of tension, poking a bear is a bad idea. But all of that is done under the assumption that certain rights go before everything else. If I critique the cartoons, it’s with the unspoken caveat that “but of course freedom of the press is essential”.
There are times when the unspoken assumptions have to be reaffirmed. I debated whether to even write this post. I would hope people assume I’m in favour of freedom of the press, and against barbaric murder. But I was driving this weekend and noticed that the sign outside of a credit union read “Je Suis Charlie”, the phrase that has been used to show support for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack in the past week. And that really struck me. Not the phrase, but the fact that the people working in an otherwise unrelated business felt strongly enough to want to do that.
There can be no question here. The attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices is unconscionable. The first reaction has to be condemnation. We’ll get into specifics as time passes, I’m sure, and I would never deny anyone the right to argue their point of view, but we have to start everything by stopping and recognizing that satire is an essential component of Western society, and that an attack on satire is an attack on the fundamental bases of what makes our society good. And fun, for god’s sake. For that reason, je suis Charlie. And so are we all.