Alison Bechdel is pretty great

Putting everyone in the picture (click for source)

Cartoonist, memoirist, and Broadway legend Alison Bechdel has found herself involved in the controversy over PEN’s decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo.  She explains her mixed feelings about this situation, and why she took the action she took, in this blog post.

I added a comment to that post, in which I expressed my admiration for Ms Bechdel (she really is quite admirable!) and briefly rehearsed some of the points I made in posts here and here.

Blasphemy in America

Many in the West have spent the week and a half since the shootings in the offices of Charlie Hebdo rehearsing the same conversations about Islam and the concept of blasphemy that have been cropping up regularly since 14 February 1989.  One theme that appears with regularity in these conversations is that the elite culture of the West has been generating a continual flow of extreme blasphemy, mostly directed at Christianity and its symbols, for over two centuries.

I think this is true, but I haven’t recently seen what I think is the obvious conclusion to draw from this fact.  As a result of all the anti-religious talk and imagery that has been booming out since the Enlightenment, the educated classes in Western countries are divided into two large categories: nonbelievers, for whom “blasphemy” is a word that cannot have any meaning; and believers whose faith has survived so much mockery and insult that they cannot seriously suppose that any further blasphemy will pose an urgent threat to anything that needs preserving.  Neither category can sympathize with the demand for prohibition of blasphemy that emanates from the Muslim world, as embodied for example in the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s tireless advocacy of an International Convention Against Blasphemy, much less with the extreme violence that marginal figures like the gunmen in Paris employ to penalize blasphemy.

If freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate,” and we in the West, believers and unbelievers alike, do not in fact hate blasphemy (though believers certainly dislike it, and nonbelievers can often see harm in it,) then it is no wonder that phrases like “free speech” and “freedom of expression” have come to sound like dirty words to many who live in societies which have not experienced hundreds of years of irreligion.

Freedom of thought is always freedom for the thought we hate

Discussion of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo would, I think, benefit from a focus on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1929 dictum that freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate.”  It’s only when a good many people hate a thought that private violence or state-sanctioned coercion against the people who insist on expressing it is likely to attract support.

Charlie Hebdo has long specialized in airing thoughts that range from the unpleasant to the disgusting.  Not only Muslims, but decent people of any sort are unlikely to read much of any issue of the paper without a sense of revulsion.  To say, as so many have done in these last 48 hours, Je suis Charlie or Nous sommes tous Charlie is rather a bold act, or would be if 99% of those saying it had ever seen an issue of Charlie Hebdo.

I affirm that freedom for the thought we hate, that is to say, the assurance that one will not suffer violence because one has expressed ideas that someone finds obnoxious, is indispensable to a free society, and that without it no other freedom can long survive.  In that sense I would be tempted to join in saying Je suis Charlie. What, then, do we say about Anwar al-Awlaki?  In 2011, President Barack Obama openly ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and justified that killing on the grounds that Mr al-Awlaki had spoken in favor of terrorist attacks against Americans and that terrorists had sought him and his words out for comfort.  No evidence was presented that Mr al-Awlaki had been involved in any terrorist act, and there was no judicial process regarding him whatever.  Mr Obama simply ordered a drone strike, and the killing was done.  The following year, Mr Obama was reelected president.  The most prominent candidate to call for a criminal investigation of the killing of Mr al-Awlaki, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, received 0.03% of the votes cast in that election; Mr Obama’s leading opponent, former Massachusetts governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, enthusiastically supported the president’s deadliest policies, and promised to expand them.

As an American, I would ask my countrymen: If we as a people sincerely believed in protecting the freedom of the thought we hate, where would Mr Obama be today?  How can we say Je suis Charlie if we are not prepared at the same time to say “I am Anwar al-Awlaki”?

If we cannot take that step, then the freedom we actually support is not the freedom of the thought we hate, but the freedom of people of whom we approve to express their contempt for people of whom we disapprove. That is an odd sort of freedom.  Political freedoms as traditionally conceived require the established authorities to renounce parts of their power, to subject themselves to various sorts of accountability, and to recognize that the rights of minorities, even minorities of one, sometimes take precedence over the will of the majority.  The freedom of the approved to scorn the unapproved does none of those things. On the contrary, it gives more power to those authorities who take part in deciding who will and who will not be invited to join the charmed circle of the approved; it prevents the authorities being held to account for anything they might do to those outside that circle; and it elevates the majority to an unchallengable, virtually divine status.  Nothing could be more totally alien to the irreverent spirit that Charlie’s newfound champions claim to cherish than this kind of pseudo-freedom.