On Charlie Hebdo and the culture of free expression

Posted: January 11th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Foreign Policy, Journalism, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Charlie Hebdo, so I’ll keep this short. I won’t add to the debate about whether the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, or racist to France’s minorities, or just crude, because the best thing about writing online is that you can link to stuff rather than repeat it.

What concerns me is the idea that the only ‘right’ response to the attack is to re-circulate the paper’s cartoons. Jon Chait and Ross Douthat have argued that the right of free expression is meaningful specifically because it protects expression that some find objectionable. And we have to promote that objectionable speech, to show that we’re still protecting it, or the terrorists win.

But the reason liberal societies protect free expression, including offensive speech, is the belief that there’s a market for ideas. And that bad ideas, if they circulate freely, will lose out: people won’t buy those magazines, or watch those TV shows, or download those songs, and the ideas will disappear.

A central component of that ideal is that we have to be as free to not consume or circulate speech as we are to make it in the first place. Insisting that everyone who believes in free expression share a Charlie Hebdo cover or they’ll be an apologist for terror is entirely out of spirit with what free expression means. It is thought policing, which is as fundamentally illiberal when it appears in the pages of New York Magazine as when it comes from the mouths of clerics.

The best response to the attacks is to actively have these debates – about whether the cartoons were good satire or bad satire and why, about how terrorism comes about and what to do about it, about identity in modern Europe – not silence them all as somehow demeaning the dead, because debate is how free societies work out what they believe. If we don’t have debate anymore, we’ve got nothing.

In Praise of Television

Posted: April 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | No Comments »

I am not to going to fall into the trap of taking stock of the President at his hundred day mark because that is silly. The 100th day was defining for Napoleon and FDR, but for few others. George Bush’s first hundred days were uneventful; he was defined by the two years between 9/11 and the entry into Iraq. The tone for the Clinton presidency was set over the health care contraversy and the breakdown of relations with Congress, in other words, the period between summer 1994 and winter 2005.

I am going to take stock of the President’s press conference, however, and the press that covered it. In the introduction to their liveblog on the event, the Times’ Adam Nagourney and Peter Baker posed an interesting question–would more journos ask silly questions about the 100-day mark, or use the opportunity to ask substantive questions to fuel policy stories? As it turned out, the one totally stupid 100-day question came from the Times’ own Jeff Zeleny: what had “surprised, troubled, humbled and enchanted” Obama about the office. It reminded me of the stereotypical shrink in movies whose only line is “and how does that make you feel?”

Obama’s answer did not inspire confidence. Basically, he was surprised that the economy is such a mess, even though it’s been that way since before he was elected. He was troubled that Washington didn’t go postpartisan at his command, even though that’s a silly goal he should really give up. He was humbled to discover that he’s not the center of the “tapestry of American life” after all, a suggestion that he has a wee bit of an ego. And he was enchanted to find out that our servicemen and women are really lovely people, something he surely should have known before.

The questions for the rest of the session were better, with the prizes for hardest hitting going to CBS’ Mark Knoller asking about the torture memos (has Obama read the memos Cheney keeps referencing which show that torture works, and is Cheney right in describing what the memos say) and NBC’s Chuck Todd asking about Pakistan (would the US invade to secure the country’s nukes if it feared them falling into Taliban hands).

The takeaway: for all the snide remarks print journalists like to make about their superior rigor compared to the alleged talking points hackery of broadcast, it’s the TV guys who had their priorities straight last night. As I’ve said before, TV still matters.