If you were to ask someone who believes strongly in an alternative form of medicine, especially one that markets itself as being natural and holistic, he will tell you that conventional treatments for cancer basically operate in the following way: you take something that is harmful to the body such as radiation or toxic chemicals and bombard the cancer with it in the hopes that it will kill the cancer before either it or the cancer kills the body. It occurs to me that this way of describing conventional anti-cancer treatment - one lethal enemy of the health of the body killing another – could also be used to explain what occurred in Paris on January the seventh.
You probably already know all about the event to which I refer. Media commentators have been talking about very little else for days now. On the morning of Wednesday, January the seventh, a pair of Algerian jihadists, wearing masks and screaming “Allahu Akbar”, invaded the office of the smutty French trash rag Charlie Hebdo and began shooting the place up. About 24 people were hurt, half of whom died. What had twisted the terrorists’ knickers into a knot was the newspaper’s publication of cartoons that depicted Mohammed in an unflattering manner, much like those published by the Danish Jyllands-Posten in 2005, against which riots broke out all over Europe.
Since then entertainers, politicians, newspaper columnists, television talking heads, bloggers, and countless other assorted people have jumped on the “Je Suis Charlie” bandwagon, either expressing their solidarity with the victims of the attack or, to paint their motives in a more cynical light, trying to capitalize on the public’s outrage over the massacre. Whatever their motives, people who would ordinarily agree on nothing have come together for a moment, however brief and fleeting, behind the besieged journal. To such people Charlie Hebdo has become more than just a lewd and irreverent publication. It has become a symbol of the highest values that are held dear by France and, more broadly, all Western societies. Thus, the terrorist attack in turn is seen as an attack on those French and Western values.
Now, should we inquire as to what specific Western values came under attack the answer we would inevitably receive would be freedom of speech. On the surface this makes a certain amount of sense. The newspaper printed something which was considered to be offensive to Muslims and for that they were punished and silenced with lethal force. If we pursue the matter further, however, by thinking a little about what freedom of speech actually entails, some inconsistencies in the Charlie Hebdo = free speech = Western values under attack from Islamic jihad position appear.
What we understand “freedom of speech” to mean, depends a great deal upon whether we relate it primarily to the power of government or to the rights of the individual. If we think of freedom of speech in terms of the power of government we think of it in negative terms, as a limitation upon government power, as the idea that it is an inappropriate abuse of the state’s coercive and legislative power, to tell people what they can and cannot think and say. If we think of freedom of speech in terms of the rights of the individual, we think of it as a positive right that each individual possesses to say whatever he wants.
Both understandings of freedom of speech can be either absolute or limited. If we think of freedom of speech as a limitation on state power, the absolute form of this concept is that the state must under no circumstances forbid or punish any speech whatsoever. A more limited version of this understanding would be that while the state should not outlawing thoughts or their spoken expression it is within the state’s rights to forbid words that incite other people to commit crimes, violence, and sedition. If we think of freedom of speech as a right belonging to the individual, the limited version would be that an individual has the right so say whatever he wants provided he is willing to pay the consequences of his speech, such as, perhaps, a punch in the nose for insulting someone’s mother. The absolute version of this understanding, however, is that the individual has the right to say whatever he wants under any circumstances and that this right should be protected by the state.
I should note, here, that to my mind, freedom of speech only make sense when thought of in the first sense, as a limitation on state power.
To accept, however, that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on Western values, and that the particular Western value that came under attack was freedom of speech, requires that we think of freedom of speech as an individual’s right to say whatever he thinks because whatever else the terrorists might have been, they were not representatives of the power of the state. It is not necessary to hold the absolute version of this because being murdered is not a reasonable consequence that anyone should expect to have to pay for freedom to speak. Nevertheless, a problem is apparent in that if freedom of speech is a right belonging to the individual, it is a right that Charlie Hebdo sought to deny to those who disagreed with them. Indeed, the far left newspaper attempted to have a popular right-wing political party banned and outlawed for their political views. Ironically, it was the party’s stance on immigration and multiculturalism to which the newspaper, now a victim of the consequences of their own liberal position on these matters, objected.
This brings me back to the illustration with which I started. If Charlie Hebdo must be seen as a symbol of anything, it is best seen as a symbol, not of France, the West, Western values in general, and especially not of the freedom of speech that the newspaper claimed for itself but would deny to its opponents, but rather as a symbol of the disease that has been eating away at Western civilization since the beginning of the Modern Age – liberalism. Like all illustrations this one breaks down if pushed too far. Whatever else might have been going through the minds of the Kouachi brothers as they plotted their murderous attack, they were certainly not trying to save Western civilization from its fatal disease and so only fit their assigned role in the allegory, in that what they represent is as deadly to the West as the liberalism represented by their victims.
Since its origins in Renaissance humanism, “Enlightenment” rationalism, and Scottish empiricism several centuries ago, liberalism has spread throughout the Western world and, in the last century triumphed completely over its competitors. Unlike a fine wine it has not improved with age and, as Tory journalist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne pointed out in an insightful speech to the Athenaeum Club about ten years ago, its principles and pieties have become degraded to the point where it now threatens the very freedoms it once championed. We do not need to look far for an explanation of this. In the days of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, liberalism was one of many competing doctrines and it operated in what was understood by all, liberals and non-liberals alike, to be a Christian cultural climate. While constrained by the context of this climate liberalism was at its best and was able to accomplish such reforms as are to its credit. At the same time, however, its ideas corroded that same cultural context. Around the time of the Second World War the corrosion reached the point where the Christian cultural climate could no longer provide a constraining context.
Liberalism, in other words, has undermined everything which made its own worthy accomplishments possible. In doing so, it has made Western civilization vulnerable to the kind of attacks liberalism itself fell pray to on January the seventh. The Christendom that understood itself as Christendom and produced such leaders as Charles Martel and Jan III Sobieski was not vulnerable in the way the postmodern, liberal, West is. Charlie Hebdo represents the worst form of liberalism possible – a smug, self-assured nihilism, that attacks the very idea of the sacred in any form that it might take. To identify ourselves and our countries with the representative symbol of this liberalism is to commit the very cultural and civilizational suicide that such enemies of the West as those who committed this atrocity wish for us.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca