A necessary corrective to the well-meaning but impotent “Je suis Charlie” cris de coeur. Yesterday that was a social media phenonemon, hashtag solidarity in the spirit of the “Bring Back Our Girls” phrase that circulated months ago after the Boko Haram kidnappings. Months later, the girls still aren’t back. And we — particularly our major media outlets — are most emphatically not Charlie. As Matt Welch said, “few of us are that good, and none of us are that brave.” If you doubt him, pay close attention to the many, many cartoon tributes to Charlie Hebdo appearing today in newspaper op-ed pages or being favorited on Twitter and Facebook. Most are variations on “the pen is mightier than the sword,” which is nice but hollow in this case for the simple reason that virtually none of these tributes takes the bold extra step of featuring Mohammed in the cartoon. The trend is towards stronger anti-blasphemy norms, not vice versa. Let’s keep what’s left of our dignity by acknowledging that, at least.
Steyn’s point, amid the “Je suis Charlie” cacophony, is that if more of us really were like Charlie, the Hebdo staff probably wouldn’t be dead. They assumed the entirety of the risk in defying Islamic taboos because their bigger, stronger, better funded brothers and sisters in western media declined to share it by publishing the images themselves. Even now, with blood on the floor in Paris, many of them are still blacking out the cartoons. (The Washington Post is a notable exception.) How do you censor the images those men died defending and then say “Je suis Charlie” with a straight face? And more to the point, how do you do it when those images are at the center of a major international news event? Steyn makes the same point here as Ross Douthat did yesterday. It’s one thing to reject a cartoon of Mohammed on grounds of poor taste or poor skill. That’s an op-ed decision. It’s another thing entirely to refuse to publish it when it’s part of the lead story in every paper in the western-speaking world. Douthat:
[T]he kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that 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 needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.
But their strategy did succeed. They machine-gunned a roomful of satirists, daring western media to defy them by printing the cartoons themselves, and most declined. The pen is mightier than the sword only if you’re willing to use it. Where does that leave liberal civilization?
All I ask here is honesty about what’s happening. It’s easy to tell someone who works for CNN, “you be the guy to put your life on the line by showing the cartoons.” There’s a reason there are so few Charlies. If self-censorship is the future, though, let’s be honest about why it’s happening. That’s why I part ways with Steyn in his criticism of this image:
Selective pixelization: in pic of dead CH editor, NY Daily News blurs cartoon of Mohammed, leaves hooked-nosed Jew pic.twitter.com/yCEJPfBc3m
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) January 7, 2015
He’s right that it’s disgraceful for a western paper to censor Charlie Hebdo cartoons, particularly on the very day that the man in that photo died for his right to display that image. I’m glad, though, that they only pixellated Mohammed and left the Jewish caricature alone. There’s honesty in that: “Sensitivity” would require that both images be blurred, but this isn’t about “sensitivity” and never was. This is about fear and no one fears a group of Hasidim descending on the Daily News offices with AKs. The clearer the double standard is, and it’s awfully clear here, the more you force people to confront it. That’s a small comfort in our censorious age.