The Paris terror attack and free expression

What are the limits of free speech?


WASHINGTON, January 11, 2015 — The murderous terror attack on the offices and personnel of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, was a despicable crime that should outrage civilized persons everywhere.

Islamic terrorism is a growing threat in Europe and the United States, but a threat made worse by the “open door” immigration policies of Western governments. Such an attack should awaken the French nation to the extreme dangers of unrestricted immigration by Muslims who have no desire to integrate into French society.

In a broader view, such a violent incident must be seen as a reflection of the results of the ongoing destruction of traditional French culture and heritage—a process now radically advanced. Here’s hoping that this dreadful incident will propel immigration restrictionist Marine Le Pen forward in the next French general election.

Yet, embedded in our legitimate outrage and horror, there is another profound question that also needs to be examined, and it goes to the very heart of American and Western concepts of freedom of speech and thought, and whether speech and thought should be limited in any way.

I find it ironic to see some of the “talking heads” of the Neoconservative Right in the United States zealously defending unlimited free speech—including resoundingly foul, pornographic speech—outside the United States, while here in the good old US of A, many times they have been in the forefront of efforts to curtail, or at least punish, such domestic manifestations. Am I the only one to observe that many mainstream conservatives over the air (e.g. on the Glenn Beck network, Megyn Kelly on Fox), in glowing and semi-eloquent terms, are now in the forefront of not just the very justifiable condemnation of murder and terrorism, but defending what basically amounts to the unlimited right to print extremely blatant pornography?

Just recently I tuned into a program on Beck’s network, the Dana Loesch segment. Loesch, who advertised herself as a fallen-away Catholic who is now an evangelical Christian, interviewed Bill Donohue, head of the very conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue had authored a controversial commentary on the Paris terror attack, “Muslims Are Right to be Angry,” in which he attempted to make an important point:

Those who work at this newspaper have a long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning of public figures, and this is especially true of their depictions of religious figures. For example, they have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms. They have also shown Muhammad in pornographic poses [e.g. anal sex].

 What Donohue was pointing out in his essay is that even in Western countries there are or should be, sometimes written, sometimes unspoken, inherent limits on “free” speech, “free” expression, and the “free” press. Those who go well beyond those limits, invite a reaction, and especially when dealing with fanatical Muslim extremists. By lampooning them using vile pornography, with their history of terror, the editors should have anticipated violence.

In any civilized society there are always limits of some sort, if the society doesn’t wish to descend into anarchy. In earlier times, most such limitations were based on inherited traditions and religious belief, incorporated into settled law: e.g., laws against public blasphemy, no public pornography, public nudity banned in most locales, certain pornographic words and expressions not used in print. Indeed, a sex act in public—like ones ostentatiously depicted in Charlie Hebdo—will still get you arrested in most corners of America!

Many of those limitations were (and are) self-imposed. Thus, for thirty years Hollywood imposed on itself the oversight of the anti-pornography Board of Review (the “Breen” board) from the 1930s until the 1960s, rather than face the wrath and boycott of Christians (mostly Catholics). But just as American culture began to slide into moral confusion and degeneration in the 1960s, Hollywood swept away those limitations, and now almost anything goes on the big screen—and the TV screen as well—and Hollywood defends its frontal attacks on traditional belief and morality through appeals to the same template: very few, if any, limitations on free expression in our “democracy.”

Yet, and here’s the rub, there are—mostly unwritten—limitations that exist today and that are harsher and more severe in many ways than ANY of the old “blue laws” or Hollywood censorship activities of the past.

Obviously, in the press, on TV, over the air, you can’t use the “N” word (unless, of course, you are a black rapper); if you do, you are cast out into the barren land of disgrace, probably will lose your job and reputation, and eventually be forced to apologize on your knees to Al Sharpton and any other civil rights hustler. More, increasingly there are a whole series of words that now are considered “sexist,” “hateful,” and “hurtful” to women and homosexuals. Use such terms, and the wrath of the media and the political class comes down hard on you.  In most of our colleges and universities, such enforced political correctness can be severe. Especially outrageous is that such PC intolerance infects most of our state-supported institutions of higher learning, and increasingly all of public education.

But what is curious is to see how many mainstream conservatives—the Neoconservative elites on talk radio, Fox, at The Wall Street Journal, etc.—react confronted by such circumstances.

Thus, a Dana Loesch or Megyn Kelly will deplore justifiably the profanation of Christian symbols. We only need to go back a few decades to recall the government-supported “art” “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano and the strong reaction by cultural conservatives. But today many mainstream conservatives are in the forefront of defending the unlimited right of Charlie Hebdo to print whatever extreme cartoonish pornography it wishes.

In her interview with Bill Donohue, Dana rebuked him for his assertion that there are limitations that should exist on expression and speech and that such limitations must exist if a society is not to descend into anarchy and total amorality. Repeatedly she asked: “Tell me what are the limits?” The question Donohue was not given the time to ask her was this: “Do you believe that there are ANY limits to expression?”

Donohue really never had the opportunity to explain his response, but his essential point was well taken. A fuller explanation might have included the following: Traditionally, our religious legacy as a people and our public orthodoxy have dictated standards and limitations, whether in law or self-imposed. Lawmakers, filmmakers, artists, and others were expected to more or less observe such sensibilities. It seemed common sense—even if on occasion there were those who pushed the limits.

During the past half century in the United States there has been an ongoing battle between those—the so-called “silent majority,” those geographically in a broad belt stretching from the Midwest and Old South to the Rockies (that frightened Philip Roth so much!)—who to some degree continue to believe in more traditional religious and moral creeds, and those, largely centered on the extreme left and right coasts, who push for a radical transformation of America.

Such an ongoing culture war involved and involves everyone, whether we want it or not. I cannot imagine that a self-professed evangelical Christian like Dana Loesch would defend a foul pornographic depiction of Jesus Christ engaged in anal sex without a murmur.

Certainly, there is the broad issue of free expression here, and certainly this is the issue that our mainstream conservatives zero in on. It is a valid point. But they seem to forget or ignore that free expression and whatever limits, if any, are imposed on it are irrevocably and necessarily joined to what is being expressed and how it is being expressed. This is what Bill Donohue was trying to say, only to be drowned out by Dana’s mindless harangue. Limitations on speech and expression are and have been part and parcel of Western civilization, whether they come from the tried experience and beliefs transmitted to us through religious tradition, or superimposed on an unwilling society by the radical left. Limitations of some sort will always emerge, and, in fact, they are essential and even necessary for societal stability.

Let us deplore and condemn the terrorist attack; murder and terrorism must be punished in the harshest manner. But let us re-examine our immigration policies and the subversion of our culture by such groups. And let us also understand that every culture, including our own, exists only if there are limitations, either of the traditional sort as a tested inherited legacy, or imposed by radical minorities. An unthinking defense of “free expression,” without understanding what is included in the expression, as the essential symbol of Western society, misses the mark and contradicts reality and common sense.

Bill Donohue was raising a legitimate point that should be considered. As James Madison said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”


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Boyd Cathey
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.