The New Right/Left Free Speech Battle Lines

From Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to the far right in France, conservatives are declaring solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

Members of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance remember victims of the Paris Massacre by creating a memorial wall of cartoons at Chalmers Street Redfern on January 8, 2015 in Sydney, Australia.

Photographer: Jennifer Polixenni Brankin/Getty Images

Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is that sort of figure who exists because the media needs him to. The "League" is not a large membership organization; it sends out a lot of press releases, basically. After the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Donohue/the League issued a statement insisting that Muslims were "right to be angry," because "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." They didn't just mock the Prophet Muhammad; "they have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms."

Leaving aside the question of why Donohue's examples of "anti-Catholic" parody were so offensive, the statement found very few takers on the right.  On Thursday, Donohue appeared on the radio show of Catholic, conservative writer Hugh Hewitt, and was ripped apart.

"You blamed the victim before their bodies were cold," said Hewitt. "I don’t believe any cardinal or archbishop in the United States has stood up and said I agree with Bill Donohue’s statement."

"They’re calling me up," insisted Donohue.

"Have one of them go public," said Hewitt.

"What are you talking about?" asked Donohue.

"Have one of them go public," said Hewitt. "I don’t believe it, Bill. I do not believe you. I think you are lying right now."

The conversation degraded from there, with Donohue huffing that Hewitt couldn't engage him intellectually, but the link to the conversation got around. There never was much room on the right for critics of Charlie Hebdo; the libertarian magazine Reason (where I worked from 2006 through 2008) had for years been covering its survival amid threats and pleas for restraint from the government. From Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to the far right in France, conservatives are declaring solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

They're also battling critiques of the magazine from the left. In Jacobin, author Richard Seymour warned that cheering on Charlie Hebdo's work was playing into the hands of Marine Le Pen and the French far right. "Journalists are not legitimate targets for killing," he wrote. "We also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized 'secularism,' or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution."

Around the same time, the journalist and author Max Blumenthal was tweeting examples of Charlie Hebdo cartoons that looked racist. One of them, portraying a black French cabinet member as a monkey, looked purely racist until a reader noticed the context–it was a joke about Le Pen's party. "Even when supposedly deployed in response to racism," answered Blumenthal, "it's hard to see how black politicians drawn as monkeys passes as clever satire."

If you look for that cartoon on Twitter today, you'll see lots of conservatives deriding liberals who retweeted it without context. Conservatives (and liberal journalists who aren't invested in the left's critique) have excavated examples of everyone from the president to the former French minister of justice criticizing Charlie Hebdo and others for mocking Islam at sensitive moments. On the right, going forward, the de facto position is likely to be the one former French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in 2006: There is a right "to smile at everything."

Sarkozy, who polls far ahead of current French President Francois Hollande in tests of the 2017 election, is likely to say this again as he comes back. In his runs for the presidency, Sarkozy neutralized the far right with those kinds of stances. This is one reason the right is adopting an absolutist position on free speech and criticism of Islam–it would be dangerous if they waffled, and the morally correct position was left up to Marine Le Pen.