That was an incredibly moving scene in Paris yesterday, the largest civilian mobilization in French history, which is quite a history. We must hope that the humanist (an important word to which we’ll return) solidarity on display there can be sustained. To see so many people from so many religions and non-religions and so many different countries all saying the same thing is an all-too-rare sight in this petulant world.
But a little part of me wondered from time to time if we all really are saying the same thing. Let us suppose that Charlie Hebdo had published a cover showing Jesus and Mary Magdalene and a couple of the disciples besides absorbed in a sexually adventuresome tangle, and a couple of deranged militant Christians had gone in there and mowed the staff down. Or let’s imagine it was Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob similarly depicted, or Moses, and a couple of Jewish religious fundamentalists had committed the slaughter. How would, and should, our reactions be the same, and how would and should they be different?
This is where certain lines and distinctions can be drawn. Everyone left to right would criticize mass murder. We’re all against that. The Christian and Jewish identity organizations would all denounce them. Abe Foxman would put out a reassuring statement. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League...well, actually, based on his dubious response to this tragedy, it would be a little harder to predict how much sleep Donohue might lose over the murder of Christian blasphemers.
But by and large, that’s the easy part. Now come the harder parts. Would we be chanting Je Suis Charlie in ideological unison the way we are now? I think we most certainly would not be. Would conservative Catholics, even those not out there on Donohue’s unique wavelength, link arms with liberals and secularists to defend the right of a blasphemer of Jesus? Would Benjamin Netanyahu, in my Jewish hypothetical, have made a special pilgrimage to Paris to express his solidarity with the dead who had so defamed his faith? I think never in a million years (and by the way, remember that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas did do precisely this by attending Sunday’s March).
I think it’s pretty obvious they would not be nearly so enthusiastic about the sanctity of Charlie Hebdo’s rights to make satire in these cases. I, for my own part, would be, as would (I think) most of my friends. Then there’s a contingent to my left (yes, conservative readers, there is a contingent to my left, and they’d be delighted to fill you in on my numerous apostasies and on mainstream liberalism’s pusillanimity more generally) that would respond to the inevitable “they got what was coming to them” nudge-and-wink rhetoric from conservatives by opposing all that even more vociferously.
Each of these three tendencies is distinct, and each is protesting in this case against, or in behalf of, somewhat different things. All oppose murder and support free speech in vague terms, but after that they diverge. The theological-conservative tendency says Je Suis Charlie chiefly out of its revulsion at Islam and fear about its power—fear that it can strike us anywhere anytime. For them, a slaughter by an extremist Christian or Jew would not be qualitatively even the same kind of crime, because this crime to them is absolutely emblematic of a religion whose inherent qualities provoke this fanaticism, and which terrifies them.
On the...I’m grasping for an adjective here; multicultural is too tread-worn. So let’s just say on the left, there is condemnation of the killings, of course, and defense of Hebdo’s rights. But the greater preoccupation on the left is to preempt and counter the theo-conservatives and to search high and low for evidence of racism on the part of others—including Charlie Hebdo itself, for some of the cartoons that we know about, the one about the Nigerian girls most notably, but even some of the anti-Islam ones. Fear of power comes into play on the left also, but in a very different way than on the right. People on the left, who will tend to see Muslims as victims of Western power objectives and think Christians and Jews have plenty enough power to fend for themselves, will be more likely to see Muslims in general (though not mass murderers) as victims.
Both of these positions are relativist in almost exactly the same way. They’re mirror images of each other of course, but for both, how to respond to this atrocity is chiefly about which set of actors threatens their world view—Muslims (for the right) or the mostly Christian and somewhat Jewish capitalist power structure (for the left).
But the response should be about humanist values and nothing else. This isn’t about power relationships or who’s offended and who’s not. It’s certainly not about racism, either Charlie Hebdo’s or the right’s, and it isn’t even about free speech per se. It’s about the specific right to commit blasphemy, especially through satire, an activity that, as Jeffrey Goldberg noted a few days ago, is “directly responsible for modernity.” Obviously it’s not the only precondition of modernity, but it’s up there.
The Christian and Judaic systems do have more modernity than Islam has right now, there’s no doubt about that. This is the smidgen of a point the right has, although 1) I hate to cede that point to “the right,” because it is a fundamentally liberal point that liberals should be willing to make, i.e. that the Muslim world needs more liberalism, and 2) the right embeds it in so much paranoid and bilious upholstery that it gets buried and alienates many who might otherwise agree. But I do wonder what would happen to an American publication that published a blasphemous drawing of Jesus and friends of the sort I described above.
The editors probably wouldn’t end up dead. But note that I feel comfortable only saying “probably,” not “definitely.” Without question they’d get death threats, hundreds or thousands of them, and they’d need police protection, and they’d lose advertisers and sponsors and maybe be forced out of business and not be able to find decent new jobs. None of those things is painful death, so that’s a difference and an important one. But it’s not as clean a distinction as merely defending the right to commit religious offense, period. That’s what modernity is, and we could use a little more of it ourselves.