To Be or Not to Be… Charlie! The Freedom of Expression and the Journey within Its Boundaries
From the very beginning I should mention that what follows represents a collection of personal opinions and thoughts that will never claim to be the ultimate truth. This does not mean that I do not feel strongly about them and consider them undeniably true. Obviously, as part of this debate every different opinion is welcome because, after all, we are actually examining freedom of expression, which includes the right not to be… Charlie.
For those not familiar with Charlie Hebdo, it is a French satirical magazine. On January 7, 2015, its Paris headquarters was attacked with machine guns by two Arab terrorists, killing thirteen people for the simple reason that it had printed some cartoons making fun of the Prophet Mohammed. The terrorists considered those cartoons to be blasphemous.
An additional reason for their reaction was also attributed to the poor quality of these drawings. It makes you wonder – if the quality of the cartoons had been exceptional, would the attack not have taken place? Definitely a ridiculous way to confuse freedom of speech with the quality of the drawings. In its editorial of November 16, 2015, România Liberă draws a firm conclusion: “One thing which is clear concerning the attack on the magazine is that it was an assault on freedom of expression as a fundamental value of the structure of a liberal Western society”.
Since when did freedom of expression became so important?
Because this horrific attack occurred some time ago, many of my friends and colleagues wondered why I am spending time with an issue which does not dominate the headlines. That left me perplexed. Is freedom of expression not fashionable any longer? Should we concentrate only on daily events?
For someone who lived under the tragic period of the communist regime, when the very idea of freedom of speech was downright dangerous, even mentioning it aloud would make you a perfect candidate for some time in jail. To my terrible disappointment, today a simple debate on this issue seems totally uninteresting, especially among young people: the topic seems trivial and does not require special attention. If you allow me an analogy: it’s like the air we breathe. It does not seem important, looks like routine, but the moment we stop having it we start to panic.
This makes me believe that most of the problems of today’s society are due to this ambiguity concerning the idea of truth. Consequently, in the absence of this principle, the fundamental issues in a society tend to be misunderstood.
An editorial from The Wall Street Journal on May 5, 2015 puts it crystal clear, as it always does: “The insults are permitted by the First Amendment of The American Constitution. The terrorists in committing this criminal act were hoping to intimidate everybody else and make them quiet and speechless. This attack is not against the publication, it’s an attack against the fundamentals of a liberal democracy”.
Yes, we love democracy, but let’s be serious, it’s not for everyone
At this point we are confronted with the crucial dilemma of a liberal democracy: when democracy is taking measures to defend itself against an enemy, it betrays its very essence and ceases to be a democracy. Therefore, anyway it chooses, it has limited chances of survival. That’s why democracies must be appreciated like a rare flower, a miracle with numerous enemies. To paraphrase Churchill, we can say that “democracy looks like a poor choice if we don’t consider the other options that give you no chance”.
What I found extremely intriguing was the lack of a consensus among those sharing a common ideology: the conservative camp. And this was not only in Romania, but also in most Western countries. For a week after the attack, everybody seemed to empathize with the “Je suis Charlie” crowd; a week later, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” came to appeal to different personalities. The American Fox News television station, considered to be the conservative voice of America, had its most famous star Bill O’Reilly joining the “Je ne suis pas Charlie” gang, leaving most of his colleagues surprised and confused. There was even an intense debate on the issue with another rising star, Meg Kelly.
And there was a lot more. When the PEN American Center with its over 4.000 writers and columnists decided to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the Charlie Hebdo magazine, 200 members were unhappy about it and six prominent writers refused to participate in the award festivities. Main culprit invoked: intolerance and bigotry.
It is as simple as that: political correctness does not include the truth
It is worth mentioning that according to the political correctness ideology, the truth is irrelevant and unimportant. It was not surprising then that two major American newspapers – The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal – took opposite sides on the issue in their editorials (The New York Times is available in communist China, while The Wall Street Journal is forbidden. As if you needed further proof).
The New York Times writes: “The cartoons of Mohammed obviously were not in reality examples of freedom of expression. They were presented as a form of hate and bigotry and curiously as an attack on liberty”. This terrible confusion and incoherence is, in a nutshell, a typical leftist philosophy.
The Wall Street Journal on the other hand is more to the point with a brief statement: “Some Western writers have abandoned the support for free speech”.
In the beginning of this article I mentioned that I’m open to listening to a large diversity of opinions, even to those promoted by ideological groups. What happens in reality is that, based on how strong such groups are, a consensus is reached which ultimately shapes public opinion. The general of this leftist army is undoubtedly The New York Times, which decides which way to go ideologically. It has the power to create opinions even when the facts are not there, using what is known to be “might is right”.
Going back to the idea that the so-called “hate speech” or the alleged bigotry are offensive, I sometimes wonder when somebody offers us something revolting, offensive, how should we react?
Don’t bother me with facts. I already made up my mind
I myself am offended by the Marxist ideology and its supporters, a system which created communism, the most atrocious killer of all the political systems known in world history. Surprisingly enough, the essence of Marxism can be summed up in a single word: envy. That represents one of the most despicable characteristics of the human being: envy. And since envy will always be part of human nature, it explains why Marxism can be fashionable today. The envy of the people that have by those who have not is the key to the left wing philosophy. It disregards the fact that most of the “have-nots” never even tried to get ahead. They prefer a plain simple existence, with the government being the patron saint. They will never take a chance or risk for an idea. Their enemies are the people who have succeeded in life due to enormous efforts, sacrifice and the courage to have ideas, leaving behind a peaceful existence, and trying to change their destiny.
This description of inequality in a society was promoted by Marx, who evolved from a modest analyst into a philosopher, today largely ignored for his philosophical work, which at the time gave him a sense of respectability (Thank you, Mr. Feuerbach! Thank you, Mr. Hegel!). Therefore, Marx became the guru of all the left wing economists. In the area of economics, except for the beloved word “envy” mentioned earlier, he has little to show. In reality, presenting a utopian future world, in which we are asked to believe, he promoted his own religion: “The Communist Religion”. Because there is room in people’s mind for only one religion, he became an ardent adversary of the existing religions, calling them “opium for the people”. Strangely, he was replacing opium with something a lot more dangerous: heroin – The Communist Heroin.
Is this Marx? I never knew. Nobody told me
It is time to go back to the main topic of this article: free speech. When different ideas compete, the truth wins. In this fight what counts is the power of the arguments. Any attempt to forbid a different opinion is a losing proposition. Nonetheless, that is what political correctness is trying to do. The one who believes he can win by forbidding the opinions of the others is unrealistic. There are so many different ideas, that trying to control them all is preposterous. Moreover, by trying to forbid them, you get the opposite result, making them more attractive, as it usually happens with the forbidden fruit. Not to mention that it makes them attractive to the conspiracy crowd, to the professional disbelievers and to those who think you have something to hide. If you try to have a dialogue to reach common ground with this crowd, it becomes impossible. Most of the arguments have nothing to do with facts, they mostly depend on a political conviction.
It didn’t start overnight
It is obvious that the struggle for this principle of a democratic society has a rich past during which, in the course of debates, a lot of important personalities have argued for a freedom of expression without evasive formulas and self-contradictory statements. In 1859 the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty, that the columnist Andrei Cornea calls a kind of “bible” for the freedom of expression, stated that a free society should not forbid its public expression even in the case of shocking, unusual or eccentric opinions. On the other side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin stated: “Without the freedom of the thought, the wisdom of a nation will not exist; without the freedom of expression, the liberty of that nation will not exist”.
Two hundred years later we find a similar situation when Islamist militants sought the death penalty for Salman Rushdie for a book he has written. At the Frankfurt book fair, Iran cancelled its participation because of the presence of Salman Rushdie. The author has spoken firmly against the violation of writers’ freedom of speech. He stated: “The limitation of the freedom of expression is an attack against human nature. Without this liberty all the other liberties fail. There are no liberties without free speech. Not only violence and terrorism are a menace to the freedom of expression, even more so the intolerance born from the political correctness pushed to the extreme”.
Surprise, Surprise. If everything until now looked simple, things can get complicated
It is worth mentioning that freedom of expression cannot be only oral, but also factual. The Supreme Court of the United States has decided that other types of action are covered by this legal principle. The Ku Klux Klan winning the right to march in front of a black church is only one such example.
Another aspect of this type of freedom is one that is very controversial in the rest of the world: the right of the candidates’ supporters to spend an unlimited amount of money for the electoral campaigns of their choice. Restricting their contributions could be interpreted as limiting their right to expression.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan vetoed a Congressional resolution called deceivingly the “Fairness doctrine”. He stated that the Government has no business to instruct the media as to what kind of partisan talks can be held on their political programs. This would contradict the First Amendment of the Constitution and replace a heated debate which was actually the aim of the show in the first place.
One of the less known aspects that plays an important role in the existence of the freedom of expression is the respect for private property. The common argument is that if the owner of a newspaper does not want to publish an article in his/her paper, the freedom of expression argument does not apply. The owner should be the only one who should be able to decide what goes in his/her newspaper. It is his money and he takes the risk. Anybody who feels unfairly excluded and does not find a newspaper owner to agree with him should start his own newspaper, his blog, his Facebook account, so that he can promote his ideas.
The libertarian position in this case is crystal clear. The dean of the Austrian School of Economics Murray N. Rothbard presented it in the following way: “Freedom of expression means basically that everybody has a right to say whatever he wants. What is not mentioned is where this can take place. He can definitely do it in a public place. Not the same thing on somebody’s property. The property right precedes the right to exercise the free speech. If you want to have your opinion heard, you are always free to rent a hall”. All this is largely explained in his book The Ethics of Liberty.
Things became more complicated when a private location is certified as a public one. I am talking about a couple of bakers in the United States who refused to bake a cake for a wedding between two men, invoking the freedom of their religious beliefs. In the end, the Court decided in favour of the newlyweds, considering the confectionery a certified public place that was not allowed to discriminate. In a similar case, an employee of the City Hall refused to certify a gay marriage. She was fired, the reason being that a state employee has to follow the rules and her only other option was to quit. It is important to mention that in this case we have an unusual confrontation of two freedoms: freedom of expression and religious freedom.
Maybe it’s time to do some mathematics: let’s say some people are 1,000% sure, 100% sure or maybe not so sure
Perhaps this is the right moment to mention the fundamental mistake that has completely misdirected the Charlie case. The situation occurred because people have the tendency not to assert themselves firmly for the fear of being attacked, and by doing that they try to please all the parties involved. In Charlie’s case the statement in question is the following: I fully agree with the absolute freedom of expression. The trouble is that it is followed by a conditional sentence that creates exceptions to this otherwise absolute statement.
Interestingly enough, we have a similar situation in the Romanian Constitution, article number 7. The problem is both linguistic and lack of logical support. If you want to use an absolute statement, it cannot be followed by a sentence that contradicts its initial meaning. However, the formulation that an element is absolutely well defined cannot be followed by a sentence that says “except in the following instances”: if you want to have some exceptions, you have to replace the word absolutely with the expression in general. Otherwise you have created a perfect oxymoron. The Americans are right on target here: you cannot be a little pregnant.
Be nice to him! So what if he’s got a gun to your head
A typical misconception is that being nice to your aggressor will make him realize how wrong he is and he will stop attacking you and ask to be forgiven. This is insane. If you take a stand you only provoke him, claim the so-called peacemakers. This attitude literally looks at the picture upside down. If there is something that invites him to be more aggressive it is exactly the opposite: weakness, fear and timidity. It gives them a wider scope for action showing them that they have nothing to fear. The belief that if we present ourselves as “good boys” we will be left in peace is not only hilarious, but also dangerous.
When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “The Evil Empire”, all of the so-called reasonable people who appreciated “peaceful coexistence” (a notion introduced by Henry Kissinger) went down on their knees begging the Russians not to get angry. In fact, “peaceful coexistence” was the perfect tool for the communists to take over the world. For those who do not remember, “peaceful coexistence” was defined as a concept in which two different systems, each having its share of qualities and defects, must coexist and respect each other. The realistic and firm position that Ronald Reagan took sent the Soviet Union to the history trash-bin, right where it belonged. The difference between standing up to the enemy and turning the other cheek is obvious.
As a perfect conclusion, I would like to mention an article written by Cătălin Ștefănescu in Dilema Veche having a significant title: “Tolerance is a code name for being submissive and burying your head in the sand”.
It is also the right time to address those who see only the short term implications of their decisions. A way to describe them is by using the expression: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. A typical product of this way of thinking is the very much hated “political correctness”.
You cannot say it better than that to conclude
I quote again from an article in România Liberă by Cristian Câmpeanu: “Our world, our Western free society, built with the sacrifice of tens of million people, is currently under attack by a primitive ideology that wants to destroy it and if we do not find resources to defend it we will witness the end of civilization as we know it. We should stop having multicultural dreams. The only civilization that is capable to accommodate at the same time a superior standard of living, safety, individual freedom and equality is the Western civilization, in other words, the capitalist democracy. Once that disappears, mankind will enter an era of tyranny, oppression and inequality”. If you are dedicated to freedom of expression and you consider it the cornerstone of a democratic system, then this essay will not seem strange to you.
Unfortunately, freedom of expression has many enemies inside nations, as well as outside them. And this is not only the case of Romania, in which the communist past represents a heavy burden in the fight to turn it into a true Western democracy. That is when its citizens do not make an effort to comply, but their behaviour comes naturally.
There are troubles in the land of the free
Believe it or not, even the country that prides itself with the Statue of Liberty (a gift, that is true) has major problems. It would suffice to focus on what is happening in the American higher education institutions where the future leaders are being formed. Following the example of the proletariat in pre-communist period, the students have formed militant groups, imposing their will on the way these institutions are run. Firstly, they do not allow journalists to participate at their meetings. Maybe they have something to hide? Their main grievance is racism, quite strange for a country with a Black president elected twice and with the head of the Justice Department who is also Black. They insist that any professor must pass a litmus test based on their demands. Five presidents of major universities were fired. Any newly hired professor must be approved by them. They gather in large number and chant “hate speech is no free speech”. Needless to say, besides being an absolutely false claim, nobody but them can decide what hate speech actually is.
Fortunately, that was not always the case. An ex-president of the University of Chicago defended freedom of speech on campus when in 1932 he allowed the president of the Communist Party to present his ideology, stating that the fight against dangerous ideas is to confront them in open debates and not by forbidding them. Today, the reaction to this kind of mob attitude in universities started to evolve. The same University of Chicago has published a manifesto entitled: “The Foundation for a different kind of modality in education”. It states that a university is fundamentally dedicated to the idea that a debate cannot be eliminated for the simple reason that some of the ideas promoted by a number of members can be considered offensive or immoral, all these based on a wrong concept and leading towards a dangerous path. Each member of the community rather than the university establishment must decide for himself and instead of seeking to outlaw the free speech, present arguments and ideas that contradict the main consensus.
Until now only two universities, Purdue and Princeton, have adopted this resolution.
Meanwhile, on campuses, these aggressive militant crowds continued to grow. The ad-hoc committees decided they had the right to hire the people who would follow this type of thinking and refuse those who would not. Wait a minute! I heard somebody saying this is a kind of communism in an early stage. Poor naive fellows, including myself, who all thought that communism was finished with the crash of the system! Good luck!
By the way, it’s not over until it’s over (Yogi Berra’s famous expression)
In 1971 when I was working for Radio Free Europe in New York, I interviewed William Buckley, the founder and the ideologist of the Modern Conservative Movement. Considering that in Central and South America communism was on the rise, I asked Buckley, baffled, how it is possible that after communism has turned out to be a failure it continues to look attractive. His answer was brief but right to the point: “They have the vanity to be the first ones to prove Marx was right”.
It is interesting to mention that Marx’s vision of communism professing that everything was supposed to be free did not follow him in his grave. Those who took care of his burial place are much more realistic. Given the huge number of visitors, they have instituted a ten pounds fee for those visiting, which produced over half a million pounds profit. Today we do not have an exact information about whether or not Marx is turning in his grave.
Admirers of the free speech from the whole world, unite! Sounds familiar? Maybe if it worked once, it might work again
As a conclusion to this essay about freedom of speech, I feel that the best way to proceed is to create a committee/a foundation whose task is to advocate for and protect free speech, becoming a “watch dog” for this cause. It should single out any deviation from the normal state of facts twisted by dictators, autocrats and various other groups that believe they have a monopoly on the truth. We have decided that free speech is an absolute “must”. We cannot live in a place in which one cannot express ideas regardless of the existence of different opinions and to do so without being marginalized, practically being eliminated from the cultural environment by a social consensus created by individuals with a hidden agenda. If you allow this situation to develop, it would create a kind of social inquisition and we would become a pariah. An elegant way of forbidding your opinion is “Oh, darling, you don’t say that!”. This formulation should not even be used by an intellectual elite that, by the way, is the one that sets the tone for the public opinion.
This foundation which I envision to set up should attract personalities that carry some weight and consequently grant it respectability and moral authority. They will carefully scrutinize media, cultural and political events and signal any wrong step. They will present their own opinion, but not to render a verdict or to pretend to be the holder of the absolute truth. For the people who care for freedom of expression, such a foundation would be of enormous help to show them who is trying to backstab a free society in a treacherous way.