To locate where the line is drawn between my being simply “upset” and “surprised and upset,” I can point to the difference in my reactions to the spate of recent extrajudicial executions of unarmed blacks by police officers and my reaction to a policeman’s murder of Tamir Rice – the Cleveland 12-year-old with a toy gun on a playground whirligig who was shot to death within a few seconds of the policeman arriving on the scene and who was left dying on the ground without the officer or his partner rendering aid. Vicious, homicidal racism gripping adrenalized police officers in an America which is unmoored, dumbed-down, polarized and media-spooked and, to top it all off, has a supercilious black President, fills me with bleak despair, but does not surprise me. A police officer shooting a child – of any race – and then not feeling compunction or even just the natural impulse of an adult to succor a child: that shocked me.
To get back to France: I was somewhat shocked when I learned, a few years ago, that it was against the law in France and other European countries to deny that the Holocaust had occurred. Since in the United States one has the freedom to say anything one wants, it had not occurred to me that in the liberal democracies of Europe it might be criminal to express an opinion. As a Francophile and an admirer of European governments’ general tendency to fashion legislation to principle, instead of the other way around, which is the way it is done here, I excused what I supposed was an anomaly – the criminalization of Holocaust denial – by taking into account the immense trauma that the Holocaust, along with Nazism and World War II, had inflicted on Europe.
What shocked me most, then, about France’s criminalization of the expression of support for BDS, was that there, in the birthplace of the Enlightenment, people could be prosecuted for promoting an idea, a political policy – and one that posed no existential threat to France, itself. It’s not as if BDS supporters want to overthrow the French Republic. To that primary surprise of mine (which caused me to be shocked, instead of merely upset) was added a secondary surprise.
I knew that Europe has officially condemned Israeli colonization of Palestinian territory and was somewhat sympathetic to Palestinian complaints. [Here’s where I start looking things up on Google.] In 2011, France, Germany and Great Britain voted to condemn the settlements – along with all the other Security Council members at the time, except for you-know-who, who vetoed it. In 2012, France joined most of Europe and the rest of the world in the UN General Assembly’s approval of non-member observer status for Palestine. (Germany and Great Britain abstained.) So, I was surprised that, even if the French government had some reason to disapprove of BDS, it would go to the lengths of outlawing it, since BDS proposes a non-violent, but still practical, method for achieving a goal set by French policy.
Googling around, as I lined my thoughts up to write this, I discovered that my view of BDS has been a narrow one. It was based on what I knew of its American wing, which is made up mostly of Jews – most notably the orthodox “liberal Zionist” (his own term) writer and journalist, Peter Beinart. It turns out that in Europe, BDS has anti-Semitic leanings. During the summer I had read about pro-Palestinian activists in Spain who forced a music festival (whose theme was “Peaceful Revolution”) to cancel its invitation to a not particularly political Jewish-American entertainer. (This “upset” me, but certainly did not “surprise” me.) I had not realized, until now, that BDS was the group behind this particular instance of hysterical anti-Semitic foolishness.
So, now I understand that France’s objection to BDS is linked to its criminalization of Holocaust denial. But I can’t excuse it, I can’t rationalize it, on the same grounds. The Holocaust happened. It happened to Europe. It was hideous, traumatic, wrenching, a stupendous crime for which any nation which had been occupied by the Nazis, and other nations who failed to react to it, must bear a historical shame and a historical remorse. Therefore, the denial of the Holocaust is, for Europeans, a uniquely abrasive and painful evil. However, to expand Europe’s response to Holocaust denial to a criminalization of all anti-Semitism, for the government to call out the police when a repellent idea is expressed, instead of simply responding to it with reasoned arguments, humanitarian revulsion and scathing derision, is a deep and perverse betrayal of modern European civilization. And it is a slippery slope.
Just how slippery a slope it is can be shown by France’s highest court recently upholding the convictions of BDS members for demonstrations in 2009 and 2010 in Mulhouse. (This was the news story which alerted me to the French criminalization of BDS.)
I’ve read a number of descriptions of these demonstrations– on websites of both sides – and it seems as if they had the narrow focus of encouraging – oh, well, demanding – the boycott of Israeli products by the Carrefour supermarket chain and its customers. This is the same strategy that was adopted by France and many other governments in the 1960’s to change the internal policies of another country which had earned almost universal United Nations condemnation.
The BDS demonstrators were charged with “provoking discrimination, hatred or violence toward a person or group of people on grounds of their origin, their belonging or their not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a certain religion.” (Interestingly, Carrefour did not press any charges.) A local court acquitted them. The prosecution appealed. The acquittal was overturned by an appeals court and last week France’s supreme court, the Court of Cassation, upheld the appeals court’s conviction of the BDS demonstrators. I gather that the reasoning behind the conviction was that, since many of the supermarkets’ customers for Israeli imports were Jews, those Jewish customers were being discriminated against by the BDR demonstrators. Maybe, maybe not – but the fact is, a law like that stinks.
And that brought me to the Wikipedia article on hate speech. Talk about shock. I had no idea. It seems that just about every democracy or aspiring democracy in the world has similar stinky laws against hate speech – except one. In the United States, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right of an American citizen to express hatred. In 1969, in a ruling supporting the right of a Ku Klux Klan member to spew racism, the Court ruled, “The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a state to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force, or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
That is a pretty high bar. I remember being shocked – at first – when the Supreme Court in 2011 upheld the right of a bunch of weirdos who call themselves a Baptist church, to picket the funerals of soldiers killed in action, carrying signs that say things like "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers." On reflection, I realized that the Court’s decision was not shocking. Not only was it not a surprise – the Supreme Court ruled as it always has ruled – it was not even upsetting. The “upset” I felt, when the decision was reported, was the same “upset” I always had felt about the antics of the “Westboro Baptist Church.” My sentiments about the Supreme Court decision can best be described as a complacent sense of pride.
I’ve thought seriously about this for a few days; it’s not off the top of my head; and I know it’s comparing apples to oranges (rotten apples to rotten oranges); but: If I had to choose one evil or the other, I would rather live in a country where corrupt government in the pockets of the gun lobby endangers the lives of its citizens by refusing to regulate the sale of firearms than in a country in which the expression of a thought can be prosecuted as a crime.
P. S.: I am not blind to the fact that, although we enjoy pretty much unlimited freedom of speech in this country, our liberty to speak our minds is being increasingly curtailed. (I’m using Jefferson’s distinction: “freedom” is freedom from something; “liberty” is the liberty to do something.) We can say something controversial without worrying that we might be arrested. We cannot say something controversial without worrying that it might lose us our friends (real and ethereal) and our jobs and turn us into pariahs.
There always are limits to what we are at liberty to say, depending on where, when and to whom we say it. Jefferson probably did not dilate on Sally Hemming’s charms to Martha. I wonder if he ever dilated on freedom and liberty to Sally? But now those limits, instead of providing us with direction, as they used to, are muzzling us. For example, to become the object of cold disdain, mention “entitlements” among conservatives, or “states rights” among liberals, or “race” among academics. Or – imagine a guy, in 1955, weighing the pros and cons of saying to a woman he knew and would like to get to know better, “You’ve got a really nice ass.” In 1975... In 1995... In 2015, he wouldn’t even think of saying it.