National Security & Defense

After Charlie

(Rob Stothard/Getty)
It’s time for the EU to rediscover the value of free speech.

To look at most of the photographs of the march in Paris the Sunday after the terror attacks was to see something glorious after the horror that had gone before. More than a million people had gathered to proclaim their defiance in the face of jihadi insistence — enforced in this case by mass murder — that Islamic fundamentalists would determine what could or could not be written, said, or drawn about Islam.

And then there were the images of the leaders — Merkel, Hollande, Cameron, and all the rest of a somewhat motley crew (but not Obama) — marching side-by-side, sometimes with arms linked in a gesture of unity.

But all was not as it seemed.

The Independent explained:

Now, a different perspective on the leaders’ portion of the march has emerged in the form of a wide shot displayed on French TV news reports. It shows that the front line of leaders was followed by just over a dozen rows [of] other dignitaries and officials — after which there was a large security presence maintaining a significant gap with the throngs of other marchers

The unfortunate symbolism of these arrangements hinted at some very inconvenient truths.

The Parisians who marched that day were rallying for free speech, but many of the leaders who turned up, not to speak of the man who hosted them, believe in no such thing. There were the obvious grotesques — the Russian foreign minister, the Turkish prime minister, the president of Gabon — but then there were the subtler hypocrites, politicians such as Britain’s David Cameron, prime minister of a nation beginning to get a taste for prosecuting those who tweet, post, or say the wrong thing. If reelected, he’d like to see the U.K. introduce a system of speech suppression (Extremism Disruption Orders) under which otherwise law-abiding “extremists” could be banned from the airwaves or even from using social media for spreading “hate,” that most elastic of terms for an authoritarian on the make.

And then there’s France’s President Hollande. He cannot be blamed for the manner in which an earlier (right-of-center) French government encouraged the private prosecution of Charlie Hebdo for republishing those pesky Danish cartoons, but it was on his watch that France criminalized speech for “publicly condoning” terrorism, behavior that, while thoroughly obnoxious, is very different from inciting terrorism. Since the atrocities in Paris, there has been a wave of arrests for breaches of this law.

Then again, quote Voltaire all you like, but the French state has not been keen on the wrong sort of opinion for quite some time. Charlie Hebdo had risked falling foul of the country’s extensive laws against “hate speech,” laws that have claimed Brigitte Bardot, that icon of an older France, as well as fashion designer John Galliano (admittedly he behaved like a jerk, but . . . ), among their higher-profile victims (Bob Dylan — yes, really — dodged the bullet). Turning to more political folk, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s populist National Front, might still face charges for remarks she made comparing the Muslim prayer sessions that occasionally fill city streets to the Nazi occupation of France. At least no one is trying to ban her party anymore. Back in the 1990s, a petition calling for the proscription of the National Front secured nearly 175,000 signatures. And who organized that petition? Charlie Hebdo. Ah.

So, no, for all the #JeSuisCharlie, Europe is not about to rediscover the virtues of free speech. Free speech is too dangerous, too disconcerting. The idea of putting a stop to it is all too seductive to those in charge — or those who would like to be. That’s hardly a new phenomenon, but, in the context of a Europe that nominally takes pride in its embrace of freedom of expression, the result has been to create certain, well, contradictions.

For an example of this, take a look at Veronica Palm, a left-wing Swedish MP who reported a fellow parliamentarian to the police for suggesting on Facebook that the events in Paris were — how shall I put this — difficult to reconcile with the notion of a “religion of peace.” At around the same time, Palm was tweeting #JeSuisCharlie, apparently without irony. We can only guess at what was going through her mind. What was going through mine was the thought that there is quite a bit of cult in multiculturalism: Some true believers simply do not understand where their faith has taken them. Others have cottoned on only too well. They see no problem with silencing “blasphemers,” and if they feel any need to justify themselves, they can do so with the observation that every society has deemed certain forms of speech beyond the pale.

But something else might be at play. Back in the early 1970s, Sir William Armstrong, a very senior British civil servant, explained that the function of the British government was the “orderly management of decline,” a phrase then applauded for what was thought to be its bleak realism. A variant of that approach may be at work in Europe today: A good number of the clearer-headed politicians running its governments (there are some) must know perfectly well that the combination of multiculturalism and mass immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, has left the continent in a treacherous place. They recognize that this is less than ideal but that it is how it is, and it must be managed. If that management has to include curtailing some sorts of previously free speech, so be it.

There are, however, some changes that are too profound to be orderly and too large to be managed. That may be what we are seeing develop in Europe today. What passes in the EU for a system of immigration control is buckling, and it is not easy to understand how the arrival of fresh millions will ease the integration of those immigrants who are already there. But this is not solely a question of immigration. The two brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings were born in France. The problems of integration stretch over generations, and they have been made worse by prejudice, isolation, economic stagnation, continued high levels of immigration, and, in the case of a segment of the Muslim population, by the lure of a violent ideology that offers meaning and excitement to lives that have little.

State-sponsored multiculturalism has made matters worse, by definition encouraging division over unity and group identity over individuality. Some of its consequences have been less far-reaching than is often imagined (thus France’s Muslim population is very far from monolithic), but many of the laws that buttress multiculturalism have made matters worse. In that connection, it’s worth noting this observation by Jonathan Turley, writing in the Washington Post:

While France long ago got rid of its blasphemy laws, there is precious little difference for speakers and authors in prosecutions for defamation or hate speech. There may also be little difference perceived by extremists, like those in Paris, who mete out their own justice for speech the government defines as a crime. To them, this is only a matter of degree in responding to what the government has called unlawful provocations.

Quite.

When it comes to religious sensitivities, free speech has a useful educational effect. To be sure, it can be inflammatory and it can be uncomfortable, but it can puncture fanaticism as well as reinforce it. The roughness of debate helps develop the thick skins that our era of hair-trigger sensitivities so badly needs. Walling off religion from the regular hurly-burly does just the opposite.

Sir William Armstrong was both too optimistic and too pessimistic. As the 1970s dragged on, there were increasing signs that British decline would be largely unmanageable and anything but orderly. But then came Mrs. Thatcher and, eventually, proof that a brighter future was possible. Armstrong’s “realism” was revealed to be defeatism dressed up as tough talk. Those leaders who are realistic enough to identify the predicament that Europe faces but see no alternative to policies — such as clamping down on free expression — designed purely to stop the pot boiling over may well be similarly defeatist. And, in the end, they might achieve nothing more than a postponement of the disaster that is coming their way.

There is no easy answer. Trying to resolve this mess would be a long, slow slog with no guarantee of success, made all the more difficult by the institutional, financial, and judicial constraints of European post-democracy, not to speak of the intellectual, political, and cultural challenge that such a rejection of the elite consensus would represent. That said, a good place to start would be a retreat from laws that seem intent on creating a right not to be offended. One might think that the massacre in Paris would have prompted a move in just that direction. That the opposite appears to be true says all that there is to be said.

And all those hashtags, #JeSuisCharlie and all the rest? Nothing more than suitably postmodern crosses in the cemetery where free speech lies buried.

— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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