GARLAND, Texas, the Patent Office — You were great, Charlie Hebdo, but they do things bigger in Texas. Anti-Sharia activist Pamela Geller’s Draw-the-Prophet contest in this Dallas suburb was historic — a celebration of art in the face of tyranny, a 21-gun salute to democracy, tolerance and free speech, and a chance to win $10,000. With renowned Dutch Islamoskeptic Geert Wilders and the SWAT team roaming around there was no shortage of freedom-lovers on hand to facilitate dialogue.
Like Salman Rushdie, Geller understands that speech is an important front in “the battle against fanatical Islam.” (Other fronts involve drones, black sites and enhanced interrogation techniques.) Like the British philosopher J.L. Austin, she knows that speech and action are two sides of the same coin. Like Kevin Costner, she trusted that if she built it, they would come. And come they did, with assault rifles.
“This is a war, and the war is here,” said Geller, as the two attackers fell and the smoke cleared. And indeed, who would deny that Texas is ground zero in the creeping Islamization of the West? Simply to set foot in the Lone Star and Crescent State these days is to go cold in the shadow of the mullahs. Geller explained how Muslims are “proselytizing” in the state’s public schools, and how the American media operate according to Sharia law. And while the average Texan cowers under his 10-gallon hat pretending none of this is happening, the Long-Island-born-and-bred Geller is out there daily, waving her hands and trying to stop this thing.
“We are here for free speech,” she said at the event’s outset. “Everything else is smear.”
And with that, Geller alighted upon a shining truth of our post-Hebdo world. In the dark days before we were all Charlie, free speech was a sort of meta-principle governing discourse between people it posited as equals. The discourse itself was typically about something else, often involving attempts to entertain or persuade. That was fine, though in retrospect a bit pansy-ass. In the glorious dawn of the new era, free speech is the sacred subject itself, to be brandished at those lesser than us, whether local immigrants or far-flung adversaries in the global war on terror. Thus it was that the literary and human rights organization PEN America awarded Charlie Hebdo a Freedom of Expression Courage Award — for its “urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say, in order to make it sayable.” If the only thing the Greatest Generation had to fear was fear itself, apparently the only thing we have to speak freely about is free speech itself, and no free speech about free speech is freer than a picture of Muhammad naked on his hands and knees with the Muslim star painted on his fundament. There may be ways of burnishing our sacred principles that don’t involve desecrating theirs, but I doubt they’d be as efficient.
Also speaking at the Garland event was Wilders, the Dutch politician and leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom, and boy did this fellow speak freely. He may look like a Dairy Queen vanilla dip tucked into a toy suit coat, but push his buttons and you don’t get a soft serve. Islam is a “religion of hate,” he averred, to thunderous applause. The prophet “led a gang of robbers who looted, who raped, who killed thousands of people,” he explained, and was “a warlord, a murderer and a pedophile.”
In short, by PEN’s own measure, Wilders was the Western world’s most urgently brilliant man that evening. He dared to say the unsayable: “Our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one.” He followed it up with the unthinkable: “We must de-Islamize our societies.” Finally, for good measure, he upbraided Muslims for having no sense of humor. Smile on your way out, inferior ones! I keep checking the Twitter feeds of the most prominent Hebdoistes for praise, solidarity and retweets. No word yet.
Where indeed is the solidarity? “The crucial distinction is not between those we like and those we don’t,” Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker in defense of PEN America’s decision, three days before Garland, “but between acts of imagination and acts of violence … The Charlie Hebdo staff kept working in the face of death threats, and scorning an effort to honor that courage gives too much authority to those who want that veto.” But Gopnik too has gone quiet since Texas, as has Rushdie.
This is no time to go yeller — you are either with free speech or against it. The first 15 years of the 21st century have witnessed an unprecedented alliance between right-wing force projection and what, from the left, might be called muscular intellectual humanism. The fruits of that collaboration have been many; the liberation of Iraq is merely the sweetest. It would be a shame to see that alliance weakened by ambivalence over an unwanted tribute.
It’s not that I don’t get the embarrassment. Geller’s event made gauchely explicit that which ought to be felicitously implicit. Show, don’t tell, as they say, and it’s hard to show the superiority of Western civilization when you pronounce ‘smear’ smeeyahr. “Je suis Charlie” sounds best from mouths that speak a little French; ideally, Geller would rally her huge following to fight wars, and leave to the better-suited few the job of romanticizing them.
But this isn’t an ideal world — it’s a roll-up-your-sleeves, shoulders-to-the-wheel, line-in-the-sand sort of world. And what does it mean when Charlie itself won’t stand up and pay tribute to those paying tribute to them, and braving gunfire to do it? Hebdo film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret dismissed the Texan tribute with a Gallic shrug. “Pamela Geller is obsessed with Islam. She wakes up thinking about Islam. I wake up thinking about coffee,” he said. Their top cartoonist — Rénald Luzier, a.k.a. “Luz” — affected a similar nonchalance, saying he won’t draw Muhammad anymore because “he no longer interests me.” As if fighting for freedom were a choice, rather than a duty.
Let me tell you what “Je suis Charlie” means to me. It means every man, woman and child in the free world drawing and hand-delivering an obscene cartoon to every Muslim they know. If your friend looks startled or puzzled, hold up the palm of one hand to stay their stammer, and with the other unfurl your New Yorker like a Roman scroll and read to them aloud from Gopnik: “The real social contract at the heart of liberal civilization is simple: in exchange for the freedom to be as insulting as you want about other people’s ideas, you have to give up the possibility of assaulting other people’s persons.”
“But I would never condone, much less consider, resorting to vio—“
“This is not the time for ‘yes, but’,” you say, cutting them off at the pass. Then patiently explain that with the exception of obscenity and certain forms of pornography, incitement, shouting fire in a theater, libel, slander, revealing classified domestic surveillance programs, copyright infringement and, last but not least, trademark dilution, American freedom of speech is absolute; and that the French variety, with a few additional exceptions pertaining to crackpot historical theories and varieties of religious dress, is also pretty free.
Whatever we do, people, let us seize this pivotal moment in the history of our sacred principles; let us not — for failure of nerve — lose the urgent brilliance of now. Let us not turn the clock back to ’90s claptrap such as this:
“Free speech” is just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance. We give our preferred verbal behaviors that name when we can, when we have the power to do so.
With all due respect to éminence grise Stanley Fish, that was the Sept. 10 way of thinking. For when towers come down, when jets scramble and scream, when shots ring out and the nostrils fill with sulfur, the mind clarifies, leaving us all, thank God, knowing better.