New York Times Won’t Fight for Free Speech

– A New York Times editorial about the ideological fallout from the Charlie Hebdo massacres notes that the Hebdo editor in chief Gerard Biarddemanded that we “finally…rid our political and intellectual vocabulary of the dirty term ‘laicard integriste.” The Times says the following about this: “Loosely translated, those words mean ‘die-hard secularist.’ What Mr. Biard was cahllenging was the argument that committed secularists like himself and the staff of Charlie Hebdo had essentially brought this tragedy upon themselves, and that there is, by implication, a sort of moral equivalence between deeply held secularist views and the ‘religious totalitarianism’ – his words – that he and his staff loved to skewer.”

This is really just using the attack to place the idea his magazine stood for, French-style secularist absolutism, above criticism. (From wikipedia: “French political leaders, though not by any means prohibited from making religious remarks, mostly refrain from it. Religious considerations are generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate….Many see being discreet with one’s religion as a necessary part of being French. This has led to frequent divisions with some non-Christian immigrants, especially with part of France’s large Muslim population. A debate took place over whether any religious apparel or displays by individuals, such as the Islamic hijab, Sikh turban, (large) Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David, should be banned from public schools. Such a ban came into effect in France in 2004.”) A satirist’s ideals should be as subject to criticism as the things he satirizes.

– The NYT editorial doesn’t comment on this, instead going on to cite and comment on further remarks by the Hebdo editor in chief:

“Even as people lamented the massacre, he wrote, some of them offered a maddening qualifier: ‘Yes, we condemnt terrorism, but…’…
“Obviously there can be no ‘but’ in condemning the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the ideology that encourages murder in the name of religion….
“Yet” (you knew that was coming!) “there are legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression in this tragedy.
“In the wake of the terror attack, French authorities began aggressive enforcements of a law against supporting or justifying terrorism, including arrests of people who spoke admiringly about the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.”

Well, okay, perhaps free speech demands that we allow those things. Is that what the Times means by “legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression”? No.

“Not surprisingly, their [French authorities’] actions have raised questions of a double standard – one for cartoonists who deliberately insult religion, when their cartoons are certain to antagonize Muslims at a time when anti-Muslim feelings are already at high levels in France and across much of Europe, and another for those who react by applauding terrorists.” This sentence indicates that blasphemy, at least against Islam, is pushing the limits of free expression, somewhere in the range of advocacy of violence.
“The difference, according to French authorities, is between the right to attack an idea and the right to attack people or incite hatred.
“The distinction is recognized in the various laws against hate speech or inciting violence that exist in most Western states.
“Freedom of expression is broader in the United States, but there, too, there are legal limitations on speech that involves incitement, libel, obscenity or child pornography.
“But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky.”

So for the New York Times, it is difficult to separate blasphemy not only from European “hate speech” crimes, but from banned expression like incitement, libel, and child pornography. Note the description of blasphemy as disgusting- even if one agrees, isn’t free speech all about protecting what some find disgusting? Note the slippery use of the word “dangerous.” It implies that obviously legitimate legal limitations on speech exist only because this speech is “dangerous,” and of course it eliminates the moral distinction between speech that is dangerous because it incites violence and speech that is dangerous because it angers people willing to commit violence in response.
The Times’ editorial closes as follows: “That the tragedy in Paris has served to raise these questions is in no way an insult to the members of the Charlie Hebdo staff who perished.

“Shocking people into confronting reality was, after all, what their journal – which they proudly called a ‘journal irresponsable’ – was all about.”

The reality that we’re supposed to confront is, presumably, that whenever someone makes a point of committing blasphemy against Islam, one can expect that there is a decent chance that a fair number of people will respond murderously or otherwise violently.

Normally, people demanding that we “confront reality” about Muslims, and the possibility that we may have Islamic law violently imposed on us, are right-wingers arguing that we ought to fight for our free institutions and are in a clash of civilizations or something of the sort. The New York Times operates from the same basic premise, but for it the right to blasphemy isn’t worth dying for, so we ought to perhaps abandon it.

– Perhaps if the Times editorial board read Vox.com, they wouldn’t be worried about any such danger. In contrast to the New York Times, Vox.com appears to reject the premise that those who commit blasphemy against Islam are in any particular danger, arguing that what we have instead are more or less random murders. Vox noted that they themselves showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and didn’t get any death threats from Muslims, and apparently would have us generalize from that experience.

Ezra Klein’s Voxplanation on the matter does at least have the virtue of not giving the terrorists legitimacy, though it has the demerit of being divorced from reality. The NYT editorial board and countless others, including Jeopoardy! champ Arthur Chu, a journalism dean writing in the USA Today, and the Bishop of Rome himself, evidently believe that as long as you give a perfunctory “of course there is no justification for terrorism,” you have unimpeachable antiterrorist credentials.

This is nonsense. I couldn’t care less whether you endorse or condemn terrorism, and neither do the terrorists. What I care about is whether you’re willing to grant them the right to dictate terms because of their terrorism. By “grant them the right,” I don’t mean just saying, on pragmatic grounds, that they have a certain power and one has to appease them, though that would be bad enough. I mean holding that, because they are willing and able to murder for their ideals, those ideals have a certain moral standing; that violence shows just how offended they are, and therefore just how wrong Charlie Hebdo has been. These distressingly common arguments invariably treat offensiveness of the speech and danger of resulting violence as part of the same argument, interchangeable ideas. They treat terrorist violence as natural, understandable. It really doesn’t matter that they condemn it.

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Simmons Versus Barnwell on Joe Flacco and Clutchness

Recently, Bill Simmons wrote about Joe Flacco, a so-so regular season quarterback who played poorly the first seven playoff games of his career, then had a seven-game stretch of extraordinary playoff performances over several years, the last of which came right before the article was published.

“For most of the history of modern sports – say, 1950 through 2005 – we would have raved that Joe Flacco was ‘clutch’ and left it at that. Ten years later, it’s much riskier to spit out a blanket statement without offering additional evidence…We’re too sophisticated about sports, mainly because of a relatively recent infatuation with advanced numbers and unconventional metrics….[Now] you can’t just say ‘Joe Flacco is clutch’…Joe Flacco has played a series of games that have made it seem like he’s clutch, but that doesn’t mean he’s clutch.”

Simmons is questioning the skeptics, critiquing the critiques. Why can’t we say Flacco is clutch? If he’s played a series of games that make it seem like he’s clutch, how is that different from saying he’s clutch? Does “clutch” mean anything more than that a guy plays that way, an observable quality? Or is it a “thing in itself,” inaccessible through observation?

Of course if the stats crowd wants to say “clutchness” is by definition an essential quality of an athlete, a personality trait of the kind they always ridicule, not subject to empirical observation, then it is impossible to confirm by their methods- but then impossible to debunk, too. If on the other hand it is something subject to observation, then the difference between “being clutch” and “playing in a series of games that make it seem like he’s clutch” collapses. (A middle range option is those studies that show that clutchness doesn’t exist, because the variance in playoff performance is on average just normal variance. That might tell us clutchness doesn’t exist in the aggregate, but does it tell us Joe Flacco isn’t clutch?)

On the other hand, Simmons’ colleague Bill Barnwell raises the question of predictive value. Flacco’s first seven playoff performances told us nothing about what would happen in his next seven, and “I’m not sure I believe that Games 8-14 can tell us very much about what he’ll do over his next seven playoff contests, either.” The first seven games and the last seven even out, to where Flacco is around his regular season average. (Or maybe Flacco got more clutch over time?)

But Simmons’ argument doesn’t care about predictive value. He assumes what has actually happened, what we observe, is more real or matters more than what we can predict might happen, the underlying qualities we deduce behind it.

Thoughts on Commentary on the Attack on Charle Hebdo

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Matt Welch over at Reason noted the magazine’s cartoons making fun of Jesus, and asked “which media entity in this Culture-War-scarred country (America), with its stronger free-speech protections, would have the courage and latitude to blaspheme both major religions,” adding that the magazine “blasted authority and piety of all stripes.”
There’s people who view piety as a bad thing, and for many of them making fun of it is an all-important task, a way of exposing religion as a fraud and opening people’s eyes. Blasphemy is for these people the highest expression of free speech, the reflection of the highest purpose of free speech. Defense of free speech itself and defense of the content of this particular kind of speech can be almost one and the same, from this perspective.
From this view, everything should be questionable, but the value of these questions comes from the fact that people like Matt Welch already know the answer: “authority and piety” is wrong, illegitimate, false.
For me, free speech is valuable as a process. The substance of any particular speech in question may not have any particular merit, but it is up to the reader or listener to judge this (which doesn’t mean their judgments will be right.)
Going too far for me in the opposite direction from Welch is first ballot Jeopardy Hall of Famer Arthur Chu, now a writer for the Daily Beast. He believes the right to free expression is “a universal,” but that the content of Charlie Hebdo’s speech lacked merit. One can believe these things without contradiction. But Chu nevertheless blatantly contradicts himself. In the free speech is good bit, he says that where the threat of violence exists, “we should strive for the standard of knowing what we say might attract violence but speaking out as though the threat did not exist. That is the essence of the virtue we call ‘courage,’ and the staff of Charlie Hebdo displayed it and should be honored for possessing it.” But then he says “Charlie Hebdo is also a crap publication and people need to stop celebrating it and making martyrs out of its staff. [They] were human beings with families, friends, and loved ones. Their deaths should be mourned for that reason. But no more so than the Sodexo building maintenance man or the two cops who were also killed in the crossfire.” So which is it?
If you’re killed for your speech, you’re a martyr. Welch and Chu disagree about the merits of the speech. But if we intrinsically value free speech, it matters that Charlie Hebdo stood by its convictions in the face of danger; and their deaths don’t matter just as deaths, but as they relate to free speech. If Chu truly wants to separate the question of free speech from the merits of any particular speech, he ought to celebrate martyrs for free speech independently of the content of their speech.
Chu further argues that Muslims are a persecuted minority in France, and so making fun of them constitutes “shooting down” rather than speaking truth to power. He compares their willingness to antagonize Muslims with their apology for an anti-Semetic portrayal of Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, wife of the sone of Nicholas Sarkozy, when “Muslims in France are clearly worse off overall” than her, which shows that “when push comes to shove, that they’d rather be aiming downward than upward.” This should show us the limitations of using power relationships as the basis for our moral standards. An anti-Semitic caricature is an attack on an entire group of people (a group of people that is frequently a target of violence in France), and the social standing of the immediate target really doesn’t matter at all. Presumably Chu wouldn’t actually defend the anti-Semitic caricature; but he presumably also wouldn’t object to satire mocking the Sarkozy daughter-in-law in other ways. Clearly, then, it isn’t only the social standing of your target that matters, but also the content of your mockery.
But nevertheless, did Charlie Hebdo “shoot down” at Muslims? No, because the cartoons in question didn’t make fun of them at all; they weren’t bigoted, weren’t comparable to the anti-Semitic caricatures. They made fun of Mohammed, which they knew would antagonize Muslims. There’s all the difference in the world, which is a good thing. It allows us to maintain a social norm against fomenting bigotry, defined by a neutral standard, while not maintaining one, or not nearly as strong a one, against attacking something a group holds sacred.
And they were shooting up, because, obviously, they antagonized a group of people that included members who were willing and able to kill them, which is certainly more than they could have feared from Nicholas Sarkozy’s daughter-in-law, or the French equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League. If we accept Chu’s standard that shooting down in satire is a vice and shooting up is a virtue, then the world is entirely right to respect and celebrate Charlie Hebdo.
Ross Douthat had a sensible take on the matter: blaspheme isn’t really admirable or desirable under most circumstances, but when there is a mortal danger for a particular kind of blasphemy, that blasphemy “clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly neds to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization.