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why I am not a free speech fundamentalist


January 2015
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Yesterday, I listened to Harlem Desir – french secretary of state for European affairs – at Columbia U about his commitment to fighting an old problem, antisemitism. He cited incidents such as the Jewish children in Toulouse and the 4 people in Brussels as proof of antisemitism. But, antisemitism isn’t the problem in the Charlie Hebdo affair; although it is in the Coulibaly affair. Nor should the Charlie Hebdo attack be called a fight for free speech, but rather demeaning speech, and demeaning humor as rabbi Lerner suggests, editor of Tikkun  Lerner has been sent death threats by pro-Israel fanatics, and his home was attacked and painted “nazi” and “self-hating jew” on the gates for denouncing acts of violence against the Palestinians [
One professor at the Desir talk yesterday – Harcourt- launched islamophobia [as though the term was a ‘new’ idea] as a third problem and discursive intervention re the problems in France vis-a-vis alienation by certain groups.  The other two problems Frances faces, according to Harcourt, are racism and discrimination. But no one in the panel took up his lead to explore the question of islamophobia. No one got his or her hands wet even with questions about Dieudonne M’bala M’Bala vs Charlie Hebdo: why is Dieudonne’s antisemitism different from Charlie Hebdo’s. Desir responded in one line that ‘one’ is hate filled. And the other? Not? I wonder which “one” that might be.

It cannot be the object of Charlie Hebdo’s derision, the French Muslim. who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded, as rabbi Lerner says.

In the context of islamophobia as a cause of ongoing and deepening alienation in France and Europe – when someone says jesuischarlie they’re saying noussommesislamophobes, too. Desir said that four million people demonstrated for freedom of speech after the attack; Desir said that they’re at war against extremism and jihadism, not Muslims or Islam, even though the two are sometimes interchangeable.

This islamophobia question could easily have been explored on a Columbia platform. That’s one of the reasons I attend such talks, and this one particularly.  It is a conversation that is long overdue and much needed in and by France, without anyone being locked up in light of the new french law of November 2014 which prohibits anything resembling hate speech. The talk was at a space – NYC- where freedom to ask was indeed tres permissible.

There was no mention by anyone in the panel or audience of Charlie Hebdo firing cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for having made an anti Semitic remark []. No mention of Charlie Hebdo’s racist depiction of Christiane Taubira as a monkey [she is the ‘black’ minister of justice in France of French Guyanese origin], and no mention of the crude caricatures of bulbous nosed Arabs in various sexual positions splayed across Charlie Hebdo’s pages particularly since post 9/11. No mention why cartoons mocking the holacaust can’t run. No mention of the Danish newspaper – Jyllands-Posten – which published caricatures of the prophet in 2005, but rejected cartoons of Christ because they feared it would ‘provoke an outcry’.  No mention why Charlie Hebdo didn’t run cartoons of victims falling from the twin towers. And why? How would the crowd have reacted worldwide, but especially their number one ally, America? Would that be considered free speech or downright offensive and in poor taste? Would it have profoundly offended the dead ones’ loved ones? A resounding yes!

Many have quoted Voltaire’s ” I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” in order to support France and Charlie Hebdo’s free speech.  But, as a paper bird suggests in her excellent blog “Why I am not Charlie” these same people forget how much Voltaire loathed Europe’s ‘barbaric immigrant minority’, the Jews, at the time he lived []. When people say they support Voltaire’s words they’re supporting antisemitism, too, since Voltaire spoke ill of Jews. He is dead, but not his ideas, and French live by the words of their “great men” as any: Germany or India or Russia or Italy. I, too, love words, and great words, by great men and women, including Voltaire’s. But let’s not forget that this free speech that Charlie or Voltaire depict is framed by western media as a horrendous threat to Western civilization, but they are also part of the same ‘race’ of people [in the camusian sense] that condones horrendous acts on the ‘Other’, repressing the Other’s freedom to speak and their freedom of assembly when convenient or inconvenient.  Sometimes what is ‘outside’ a frame is more important than what’s ‘inside’.

True free speech is a radical idea. JenesuispasCharliedutout.


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