As a tribute to Theo van Gogh I would like to talk a little about a ground breaking conquest made by Europeans during the last few centuries of Europe's history, a conquest which today is under threat: Freedom of Speech.
My first point is this: Freedom of Speech implies the right to annoy people whether they are individuals or NGO’s, business corporations, communities, or states. Or to put it very simply, Freedom of Speech implies a duty to annoy people.
Unfortunately, the opposite opinion is becoming the norm: Now Freedom of Speech is seen as the right to say and write things which neither annoy, shock or hurt people's feelings. So Freedom of Speech perceived in this light has to be anodyne and tasteless.
It has to be soporific – just like the news broadcasts which only talk about sport and the weather.
A multitude of NGO’s – like the ones that attacked the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo for reprinting the Danish Muhammed cartoons or the people that accuse Renaud Camus, Alain Finkielkraut, and a hundred others of being reactionary and islamophobic – want Freedom of Speech to be something that does not upset anybody.
The duty to annoy people
We are repeatedly told by the bien pensants [the right-thinking] and by the watchdogs of political correctness that we should not push Freedom of Speech to its limits - but living in accordance with this half-idea would mean that Freedom of Speech is a purely theoretical freedom conserved in a museum, where it cannot disturb anything or anybody. A freedom in a glass case with a lock on it, because it is not supposed to be used.
This means, that in spite of the fact that the essence of Freedom of Speech is its inbuilt duty to annoy people, we would have invented an insane, contradictory imperative about a freedom which we are forbidden to avail ourselves of.
One only has to listen to the latest news in France to understand that the country has fallen prey to a new and not sensitive form of McCarthyism which no one has the power to curb.
This new McCarthyism is from the Left, and it will soon grow into a hurricane that blows down everything in its path. In France we now live in a country under surveillance where denunciations – a postmodern clone of the DDR - are the order of the day.
The infamous attacks on the philosopher Marcel Gauchet by far-left NGO's are the most recent example of this. Political correctness – often confused with the morality which it has usurped – is now the party line. The same way as it was in the DDR.
Tomorrow children will probably denounce their parents to their school teachers for having said something politically incorrect (about men and women, about human races, or about marriage, about homosexuals or about the difference between the sexes!).
Children will be the law enforcement officers of Goodness inside the family.
The French socialist government is gradually building up this reign of terror from the school upwards.
The origin of this pathological situation can be found in the suicide of the French Left which in the eighties 1. replaced class struggle by a feel-good ”moraline” (a word coined by Nietzsche for the residue left by decomposition of morality) 2. replaced the worker by the immigrant, and
3. the people by a mosaic of identities.
The dictatorship of the NGO's
France is now in the grip of a strange and unexpected dictatorship: the dictatorship of the NGO's.
Many indolent minds are alarmed at the thought of reliving the horror of the thirties and all too easily let themselves be led to comparing the two periods.
”The thirties are back again” scream the operetta antifascists who with foreseeable stupidty fill the newspapers with their moral condemnations.
But as Nietzsche said, intelligence is the exception, not the rule (a rule which now in Western democracies seems rather to be stupidity than anything else), but as Nietzsche also remarked, history does not go backwards like crabs.
The evils of the thirties won't be repeated, they will just take on different forms, and they could even start precisely among the people who have sworn to resist and protect the rest of society from them. Yes, they could very well start there among the self-appointed guardians of society and grow inside them like a malign cancer which then spreads from them to everybody else.
It is furthermore quite possible that the evil we are talking about (repression and shaming) in the future will be the work of the defenders of Human Rights, the people that remind us of former atrocities, but connect them with people today who have nothing at all to do with them.
The evil may come from the do-gooders, the ”humanitarians”, the people who think of themselves as the ”real people” but unconsciously form movements dissimilar to those of the thirties only in the sense that they are movements of ”goodness” and of ”virtue” which purport to defend Human Rights.
But like a thief in the night, the criminal pops up where one least expects him.
What was formerly the tyranny of the majority, the totalitarianism of the State, will tomorrow be the cruel dictatorship of the NGO’s of which France has many: Ligue des Droits de l'Homme, SOS Racism, MRAP, Le Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires (CRAN). Political crime will come back through a different door, and current events forshadow it all the time.
The selective indignation
And now my second point: Looking round the internet I find certain events that seem to me to be very revealing.
One of them is something I have unearthed in the archives of a magazine, Le Parisien:
Four years ago, pressure from the parents of pupils who – rather like don Quichotte with his windmills - have taken up arms in a comic war against fascism and forced school authorities to delete the name of Kléber Haedens, a great writer honoured three times by the Académie Française, from the official name of the College of La Garenne-Colombes, with the excuse that Haedens in bygone days was a member of the right-wing ActionFrançaise.
However, unlike Céline or Brasillach or Rebatte or Drieu La Rochelle or even Heidegger – not forgetting Schmitt - Haedens did nothing reprehensible. His only crime was, as the magazine Rue 89 remarked at the time, that he was reactionary.
And that was all. Reactionary as also Joseph de Maistre, Donoso Cortès or Louis de Bonald were in their time.
In other words these parents, all of them antifascists and antiracists, who - full of their moral superiority - fought so heroically for changing the name of the school, had put the memory of Kléber Haedens on trial for a thought crime.
Interestingly enough all this is in stark contrast to the poet Jacques Prévert who praised ”the red, the hard, the red sun of Revolution” (he was speaking of the Soviet Union) and who has never had his name removed from anything called after him despite the fact that his much vaunted communist revolution shed rivers of blood and served as the sinister background for Solzhenitsyn’s novels and the testimonies of Chalamov.
In Toulouse there is still – quite shamelessly – an Avenue of the USSR!
How many high schools, colleges or faculties bear Prévert's name despite his enthusiastic support of the Communist revolution?
In his frenzied tribute to the master of the Kremlin, soberly entitled ”Joseph Stalin” Paul Éluard writes ”Thanks to him, we can live without knowing autumn /The horizon of Stalin is reborn each day”.
Let us pass over in silence his homage to the Communist leader Maurice Thorez in a poem from 1950 with the title”The Twelfth Congress”!
But since the thirties – thanks to Victor Serge - when the nature of the Soviet regime was revealed to everybody except those who refused to see it, we can only laugh sarcastically like the grim reaper in a danse macabre in Prévert’s poem ”The USSR: The only promise”.
In this poem – at a time when there were mock trials and hangings of putative dissidents, right in the middle of the purges and the liquidation of the Ukrainian peasantry, and right in the middle of the Gulag years - Éluard says:”Brothers, the USSR is the only path to liberty”.
It seems that for today's antiracists praising totalitarian communism (as did Paul Éluard in his eulogies of Stalin and the USSR in its most criminal phase) was a much lesser crime than Kléber Haedens whose only misdeamour was to work as a secretary for the right-wing Charles Maurras.
Poul Eluard can be honoured in schools, colleges, media schools, and the high schools bearing his name, but not Kléber Haedens!
The thougt crime has been reinvented
This society of censorship which would have been unthinkable thirty years ago when the love of liberty – born of the age of enlightenment – was dominant. But no more. The thought crime has been reinvented, and one is amazed to see that the censorship organisers are the very people who allege that they are continuing the historic struggle for freedom and emancipation.
For who is it that is calling for repression? Who is calling for berufsverbot? Precisely those who say they are opposed to it! Didn't they demand that Alain Finkielkraut be excluded from the École Polytechnique and his radio programme Answers beterminated?
Didn't they lobby to have Eric Zemmour sacked from television and radio? Didn't they want Sylvain Gougenheim kicked out of teaching? And thatPétré-Grenouilleau has his literary award taken from him?
Didn't they do their best to ensure that Renaud Camus lost all his readers? Didn't they lobby to have his books put in a special lost souls section in libraries? Didn't they call for the punishment of Ivan Rioufol?
In their eyes the Freedom of Speech, which they claim to champion, is only tolerable if it confirms what they themselves hold as true.
There is absolutely no doubt that the film The Nun (which contains a possible lesbian innuendo) would be wildly applauded by all the censorship fanatics who pose as freedom fans.
That is because it is anti-Christian. But if the director Jacques Rivette (who made the film from an adaptation of a story of Diderot) did the same thing with islam, he would be taken to court.
He would be insulted in all the media.
The anti-racist NGO's would organise street demonstrations. People would spit at him. And the same thing would happen if a sarcastic film like Habemus Papam was released with a title like Habemus Imam.
The Human Rights Organization and the organisation calling itself Against Racism and for Friendship among Nations would cry ”racism”! The non-religious Left that applauded Habemus Papam would be nauseated by a Habemus Imam. This society of censorship that practises selective indignation is a society where there are thought crimes.
Everybody monitors everybody else, often supported by a squad of lawyers with an eagle eye for any written or spoken deviation from the norm. And the norm is the Greater Good. Yesterday this Greater Good was the proletarian revolution, today it is antiracism.
The hunt is on non-stop and the hounds are barking, and when the hunters return, the press demands to see their trophies, the heads of those who have been lynched. They are to be put on show each week for the enlightenment of all. Aha! They have unearthed another delinquent suspected of racism!
Everybody rushes to assist the merciless hunters shouting tally-ho, tally-ho, tallyho!
The ideological hunt infects society and turns it into a mutual monitoring club like the former DDR, where denunciation of thought criminals is the order of the day, and the much vaunted Freedom of Expression has in reality lost all meaning.
The new conformity
My third point is this: A new type of conformity is appearing. A society, which was formerly oppressed, now threatens to become an oppressor itself. After seeking freedom in the Age of Enlightenment by demanding freedom from the power-holders in the state, society is now disintegrating into NGO's, communities, groups or lobbys and threatens the very liberties it once sought for.
Soon blasphemy, tobacco smoking, alcoholism, and islamophobia could become criminal offences under pressure from the NGO's and similar groups.
These groups who in their own eyes are advocates of identity, respect, and gratitude are campaigning – sometimes without knowing it – for restrictions of liberty.
Freedom of expression implies the right to annoy people whether they are NGO's, businesses, communities, states, or individuals.
One might say that Freedom of Expression and the obligation to annoy other people go hand in hand. Freedom is always dangerous; it is always an attack because it affirms that which frightens people most in the modern world: the individual. And precisely therefore it is always perceived by conformists as a terrorist attack.
Unfortunately the opposite belief is being put about: That Freedom of Expression merely amounts to saying and writing things that do not annoy, shock, or upset anybody.
Many of the NGO's, that have attacked Charlie Hebdo for reprinting the Muhammed cartoons, see freedom of expression as the right to say things that do not annoy them. So now the pundits of good behaviour recommend not using it completely.
A professor of philosophy has said this very clearly on an internet site: ”Robert Redeker has abused freedom”. Which means that in the professor's opinion Freedom of Expression should just be theoretical and so anodyne that nobody can be offended by it.
But the freedom to annoy (which is in reality the backbone of Freedom of Expression) presupposes that people are grown-up enough not to let themselves be annoyed.
Conflict is the true father of democracy
Polemos – conflict – is the true father of democracy.
Democracy is founded on people's ability to see that conflict is a fundamental fact of life.
Democracy is the permanent and necessary arbiter of conflict and does not try to hide the fact. It is the only political regime which is fuelled by conflict. And so nothing is more paradoxical than democracy because in contrast to all other regimes it is held together by conflict. A democratic regime can only last because people in it are at odds with each other and do battle with each other in public.
And the result of all this mutual disagreement is unity.
The fact that people disagree is a sign that democracy is in good health. Consensus is a sign of illness, and unanimity is the sign of its demise.
Consequently Freedom of Expression is intimately connected with the conflicts that give democracy its structure and framework. And it is particularly connected to the conflict of ideas. Connected to their collision, to the struggle between titans, to a boxing match of giants. Democracy can only exist if there is a latent civil war. A civil war of words.
In the last pages of his autobiographical novel Les Mots (Words), Jean-Paul Sartre talks of his pen as a sword and thereby places himself in the centre of political democracy. If we were to commit patricide by assassinating Polemos in order to become one big happy family (as the antiracists, human-rightists and political parties would like us to do) we would in effect be putting an end to democracy.
So what shall we call the psycho-political mechanism that shuns all conflict? Let us call it conformism. It is an ”-ism” that aspires to close the history of Freedom of Speech.
Who knows if this same conformism will one day drive the ”human-rightists” to make praising tobacco a capital offence?
Who knows if one day they will manage to have members of parliament taken into police custody for adressing a female minister as ”Madame le ministre” because the latter against the rules of grammar, insists on being adressed as ”Madame la ministre”?
Who knows if somebody will one day be accused of racism for mentioning the Arab slave trade? Or just for including it in a wider and more comprehensive view of slavery? Who knows if pointing out the positive aspects of colonialism will one day incur a fine?
Who knows if it tomorrow will still be possible to recall that French Algeria was a civilisation with its successes and its charms without of course hiding its darker sides? And that it was possible to live happily there? And that for some people it was a blessed time?
I do not share these views, but I can understand that for those who were born when Algeria was still a part of France (in the same way Alsace and Lorraine were) it was perfectly legitimate for them to think that.
Who can condemn this kind of patriotism? Not me! Conformism masks both sectarian interests and selfishness under an ocean of politically correct clichés and turns Freedom of Expression into nothing more than an empty silk handkerchief.
Conformism is no longer class conformism, it now copies the middle class conformism of yester-year that Flaubert was so much against. No longer a political conformism imposed from above, conformism now comes from society itself.
It is societal rather than social, and it draws its strength from a new idol-worship of society instead of drawing on the social element in society. It thrives on the cowardice of democratic institutions and it thrives on the incredible cowardice of political figures in situations like that of the Muhammed cartoons in particular and everything relating to islam in general.
In several countries including the officially Muslim states plus the alleged socialist states like Cuba, China, North Korea not forgetting the mafia-like dictatorships of the Third World, the old order of the state oppressing Freedom of Expression still weighs heavily on the unfortunate citizens who are subjected to it. They are imprisoned, tortured, mutilated, and assassinated for thought crimes.
But in some Western countries – especially France – the idea of breaking the society down into separate communities is the driving force behind another kind of censorship.
Another thing which gives rise to concern is the manipulation of words. For the past twenty years journalists and politicians have made liberal use of the term ”community”. They speak of ”the Muslim community”, ”the gay community”, ”the Jewish community or ”the Corsican community!
Or even ”the school community” (la communauté scolaire) apparently oblivious of the fact that the school is not a community, but an institution.
This watering down of the concept of community is really an impoverishment of a political idea. The word ”community” now amounts to nothing more than an attempt to fit everybody into one big happy ”living together”.
But living together means saying goodbye to Freedom of Speech, democracy, and politics. It threatens Freedom of Speech and casts doubt on the need for it.
And since the hall-mark of democracy is the co-existence of conflicting views, antiracist neo-conformism will inevitably usher in an age of post-democracy.
And therefore the maxim of the defenders of liberty should from now on be:
Don't let conformism stifle polemos on the pretext of making the many communities into one big happy family. Because this sort of regime would mean a society opposed to democracy.
Strangely enough the anticommunitarian and republican argument is usually planted in the fear of conflict. People shout about communitarianism fomenting conflicts, unrest, and clashes. They say it dislocates national unity and makes everyday life a permanent conflict.
For this reason communitarianism has got itself the reputation of being a danger to democracy.
But this is a crooked way of seeing things. Reality is very different. The goal of communitarianism is to make the political arena opaque and superfluous and to introduce heterogeneity in its place. It presupposes that there can be peace between communities that rarely meet each other. And this in the end would mean a republic without conflicts.
It would be a republic of differences that have folded into themselves and do not oppose each other.
Which means, that the communitarianism so often defended by antiracists poses a threat to the idea of a democracy. Because democracy thrives on clashes and not on social pacifism. Instead of supporting democracy social pacifism undermines it.
Thank you for your attention.
Oversat fra fransk af Geoffrey Cain