12 January 2015

The 'intolerance' of Charlie Hebdo and the abuses of liberty

While Doug MacEachern's op-ed equating partisan name-calling with the Paris massacre remains the most inane commentary on last week's atrocity, William Donohue's may be the most offensive. Donohue is the man behind the Catholic League, the pressure group that throws fits over any portrayals of Catholics in the media that Donohue finds offensive. He has complained in the past that Catholics are one of the few groups in the U.S. that it's OK to treat in print the way other minorities once were but don't accept today. Donohue seems to believe that any criticism or mockery of Catholicism is akin to hate speech. Since the Charlie Hebdo magazine treated Catholics about as roughly as it did Muslims, it's not surprising that Donohue's press release on the massacre expresses little sympathy for the murdered cartoonists. Sure, he writes that "killing in response to insult ... must be unequivocally condemned," but there's arguably some equivocation already when the press release is headlined, "MUSLIMS ARE RIGHT TO BE ANGRY." For most of the world's mourners this past week, to condemn the killing is to affirm the cartoonists' right to publish their provocations. Yesterday's massive demonstration in Paris was a call for tolerance, but Donohue writes that we can no more tolerate "the intolerance the provoked this violent reaction" than we can tolerate the reaction. You did read that right: William Donohue called Charlie Hebdo intolerant. He cites no instance of the magazine advocating the suppression of Islam in France or the deportation of Muslims. For Donohue, the cartoons themselves are sufficient proof of the magazine's intolerance. How can cartoons be intolerant? Presumably by failing to respect the sense of what is sacred and what is taboo that prevails among Muslims, not to mention Catholics and perhaps other aggrieved parties. While Donohue repeatedly deplores the killings, and must be deemed sincere -- for Donohue is an honorable man! -- he declares his "total agreement" with Muslim anger over years of intentional insults from Charlie Hebdo, remembering too well the magazine's drawings of "nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms." He notes that the cartoonists courted death out of narcissism. How so? Like intolerance, narcissism for Donohue consists of a failure to respect the sacred. The proof of narcissism in the present case is a cartoonist's comment that "Muhammad isn't sacred to me." That attitude got the man killed, Donohue says. What's sacred to one, apparently, must be sacred (or else taboo) to all.

To those who suspect Donohue himself of intolerance (if not narcissism), he appeals to the wisdom of James Madison. The closing quote of the press release comes from Federalist 63: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.” While this isn't entirely irrelevant to the Charlie Hebdo controversy, Madison was not writing about intemperate speech or expression. Federalist 63 is his defense of the Senate proposed by the Constitution against critics who feared that it would introduce an aristocratic element into the American government. In context, Madison means democracy when he writes about liberty on this occasion. His fear was that a unicameral legislature elected every two years would be incapable of taking the long view of American interests. He wanted some body with a longer or more secure tenure to check the presumed passions of politicians inflamed by the ephemeral issues of the last election cycle in the long-term interests of the country. As a civilized if not enlightened man of his time, Madison would probably join Donohue in deploring the vulgarity of Charlie Hebdo's anticlerical cartoons, but whether he would be as sensitive or solicitous toward the taboos of all religions, as Donohue might assume, or whether he would regard deference to those taboos as the sine qua non of religious tolerance, is far less certain. Since Madison hoped to constrain the influence of temporary passions over politics, he might well be unmoved by the anger of people he would most likely view as irrational religious fanatics, and he'd probably want the country's leaders to remain unmoved as well. Madison wrote that "When Indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude," and that "Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it." Who, then, in the Charlie Hebdo controversy, in France or here, would be guilty of "abuse of liberty" in his eyes? Everyone, probably -- including those, like William Donohue, who consider themselves innocent bystanders.

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