Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Waiting For Piety in the Free-Speech Furor

It's gratifying, I suppose, to see so many organizational journalistic worthies hoisting their logos high to rush out statements condemning the massacre by Islamist religious terrorists at the offices of the infamously rascally French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Good for them. Let's hope they all stay on course and affirm their unequivocal support for free speech, including speech that might offend a religious sensibility to the degree that the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo chose to push it, for the sake of satire.

But let's just say I'm skeptical.

I remember back in 1989 when American journalistic worthies convened symposiums and arranged somber press conferences after a panjandrum of fundamental Islamists in Iran issued a "fatwa" against -- on my old block in Philly we would have called it "put a contract on" -- Salmon Rushdie,
for the crime of blasphemy.  At one press conference in New York that still stands out clearly in my mind, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese, along with lesser solemn cynosures of the Manhattan literary establishment, spoke in condemnation of the threatened violence -- but nevertheless managed to cough up empathy for the aggrieved zealots at the same time.

Each man clearly stated, while we media wretches scribbled respectfully, affirmation of the precept that while freedom of speech is paramount, free speech also needs to avoid showing undue disrespect for the sensibilities of ... well, of bat-shit crazy religious screwballs who will threaten to kill you if you are known to have said something offensive to their well-tended sensibilities.

When I ventured a surprised question to Mailer -- Mailer! -- as to whether he truly believed that free speech came with restrictions not to offend those who are perpetually poised to be offended, the great man glowered darkly while the other assembled media reacted as if I were Helen Thomas barking an inane question to a baffled Ronald Reagan.  My question went unanswered.  Mailer and his even tinier but exquisitely well-tailored companion Talese turned instead to the better behaved among the questioners.

So excuse my cynicism now in anticipating similar reactions from some elements in the higher echelons of media respectability, all currently wringing hands over the massacre of the French journalists. Just watch,  As soon as the horror fades and it's less shockingly rude to note that these murdered French journalists and cartoonists were essentially merry, noisy, wise-ass journalistic provocateurs, the grand declarations of support for free speech from some of the dreadfully serious editorialists will come forth with well-considered admonitory caveats.

(The New York Times tonight has a compelling paragraph in its sidebar on the exploits of Charlie Hebdo: "Week after week, the small, struggling paper amused and horrified, taking pride in offending one and all, and carrying on a venerable European tradition dating to the days of the French Revolution, when satire was used to pillory Marie Antoinette, and later to challenge politicians and the police, bankers and religions of all kinds."  

--That brilliantly distilled ounce of history is very crucial to the debate.)

But basically, I fear that we soon will again hear stated a proposition in some of the media that I still can hear Mailer -- Mailer! -- making that day, which is that religion in any of its astonishing variations somehow must be ceded exemption from ridicule, harsh criticism, disdain. Because, well, because we're talking about religious belief, is why. And we must respect religion after all.

And that will be an insult to the memory of those murdered French journalists, who believed no such thing, and died horribly, practicing what they preached.


Here's an interesting short documentary, released in 2013 at the Oslo Freedom Forum, called "Collision: Free Speech and Religion," which addresses the right of free speech as a foundation of freedom itself, as opposed to "the supposed right not to be offended:"

COLLISION: Free Speech and Religion


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