On Charlie Hebdo and Sacred Cows

Cross-posted from Facebook.

A few of my more liberal friends seem to be taking the stance that “yes, it’s horrible to be killed for what you say, but c’mon, Charlie Hebdo was really racist / xenophobic / Islamophobic!” I don’t speak French and have no particular insight into French media, so I can’t really say it isn’t (although I think this Atlantic article below does a decent job of explaining what Charlie Hebdo actually is).

But I would like to point out that there is a difference between racist xenophobia and a general disdain for sacred cows. An attack on an institution, its beliefs, or its leadership is not the same as an attack on a group of people. It may very well offend many within that group, but offense is not malice. It may very well be wrong, but it is not wrong because it is racist or xenophobic.

By way of analogy, suppose Charlie Hebdo published an image of Thomas Jefferson fucking a slave. Right-thinking patriotic Americans would almost certainly take offense, but it wouldn’t be fair to simply describe the image as anti-American or America-phobic. It is less an assault on the American people and more a mockery of American exceptionalism. The left, most of all, should understand that distinction.

There’s an article floating around stating that Charlie Hebdo is not satire because satire is directed at the powerful and Muslims are not powerful in France. That may be the case (see above disclaimer about my lack of Frenchiness), but there’s a difference between mocking a people and mocking the icons and ideas which hold power over them. An unemployed marginalized refugee from Syria does not hold much power, but the restrictions against the depiction of Muhammad do.

That distinction matters. Much of the left is built on the principles of both respect for people without regard to their origin, and on “speaking truth to power”. But if you conflate a people with the things they believe, then following this first tenet excludes an entire class of “power” from the second. In its own way, an obscene depiction of a revered religious figure speaks truth to power as much as a protest that ridicules Wall Street, a speech by the Dalai Lama that “offends the feelings of the Chinese people” or, more topically, a satirical movie about the assassination of Kim Jong Un.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission apparently lifted the ban on corporations spending money in support of a candidate. I haven’t read the decision yet, but I have some general thoughts on free speech versus campaign finance reform generally.

On one hand, we don’t limit political speech. It runs contrary to the first amendment. You might say that corporations warrant a special exception, but there’s a lot of “potentially political” speech out there that I think should be protected. The second Star Wars prequel, V for Vendetta, V the TV show, and Avatar all could be construed as not-so-subtle attacks on certain politicians and parties, yet all of these were creative works by corporations worthy of first amendment protection (well, maybe not Attack of the Clones, but the rest are pretty good).

On the other hand, we really don’t want the wealthy being able to buy influence with large contributions. So what do we do?

Traditionally, the way to counter speech you don’t like is to speak up yourself. In the past, it was pretty hard because there was only so much airtime on TV or pages in print media. Today however, it’s really a lot easier. The costs of putting your own 30-second campaign ad on YouTube are trivial. Tools like Digg and Reddit make it easy for people-driven movements to raise awareness or draw attention to your YouTube clip without any of them spending a penny (well, maybe they have to pay for Internet access, but you get the idea).

The reason you can buy influence with money is that speech, the kind that reach large numbers of people, is expensive. As the cost of speech goes down, the influence of wealth does as well.

Yes, today, you’ll probably reach a larger audience with a TV ad than you will with your YouTube clip. That’s likely to change in the next decade or so however. TV (as we know it) will die, and it should die.

So rather than griping about the decision, perhaps activists should spend more time trying to increase broadband access.