Thoughts on Gary Trudeau

I have major problems with Gary Trudeau’s denunciation of Charlie Hebdo, but I’ve already shared such thoughts at length. I also, however, have a more minor problem with his piece.

The White House took a lot of hits for not sending a high-level representative to the pro-Charlie solidarity march, but that oversight is now starting to look smart.

This form of argument is common: people criticized x at the time for doing y, but y now looks smart. If you can show that subsequent events have vindicated your argument, you’re in great shape. You have a sort of external standard, independent of the argument itself, by which to judge it a success.

If you can’t point to subsequent events, though, all you’re really saying is “people criticized x for doing y, but I think doing y was smart.” (Or perhaps, “elite opinion has subsequently decided that doing y was smart.”) Your argument should stand on its own merits, not on some imaginary external vindication.

In Trudeau’s case, his argument is that Obama was smart not to show solidarity against blasphemy law terrorists because “[t]he French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace. Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column. Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another.” This really has nothing to do with subsequent events vindicating Trudeau’s argument, and so Trudeau is just employing a rhetorical crutch.

Now let’s look at the merits of this particular argument: we should not stand by Charlie Hebdo, because they are contradictory for allowing anti-Islam cartoons, but not anti-Semitic ones. Obviously, being contradictory isn’t the core of his objection- it isn’t that he thinks Charlie Hebdo is too inconsistent a supporter of free speech to warrant Obama’s solidarity, and that if only they unapologetically published anti-Semitic stuff, Obama should stand with them.

His objection, rather, is that cartoons mocking what a religious group holds as sacred are as bad as material that maliciously stereotypes a group of people. So just as there is a taboo on attacking people groups, especially vulnerable ones, Trudeau would place one on attacking people’s beliefs, provided these people consider those beliefs sacred.

As a general rule, “don’t say anything that threatens sacred beliefs” runs into problems. But of course one people don’t agree about what is sacred; a Christian might find a Muslim’s beliefs blasphemous and vice versa; both might find an atheist’s beliefs blasphemous, a vegetarian might find a meat eater’s beliefs blasphemous, someone might find criticism of herbal medicines blasphemous, and it would never end. One solution is to impose a partial theocracy: pick one religious group (Muslims, for instance) and give them veto over what can and cannot be said. Another is a kind of secularist oppression: nobody can say anything in the public realm for or against any religion or belief system, so that we purchase public peace by keeping everyone’s beliefs insulated from each other, and from criticism.


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