Monday, August 04, 2008

Roger Cohen on free speech:

On the firing of an old bigot for slandering Jews in France, a country whose greatest crime was arguably against Jews:

"Curtailing speech is generally far more dangerous than allowing even vile views to be aired, not least by a cantankerous has-been like Siné."

On the firing of an old bigot for slandering blacks in America, a country whose greatest crime was arguably against blacks:

"Over a week went by between the insult, at once racist and sexual in its evocation of crinkle-haired whores, and the ouster. Time enough for a number of middle-aged white guys to opine that Imus had been a careless idiot, was contrite and should keep his job. [...] Some people never get it."

I doubt if Roger Cohen sees a difference between references to "nappy-headed 'hos" and ones to "shaved Jewesses"--both are follicular insults against women who come from ethnic groups not known for having fine, blond hair. The insults were not about basketball players or heiresses, per se, but about the groups they represent to the bigots in question.

No, the difference here can be attributed to the fear among Jews (or those named Cohen and thus perceived of as such--I don't know if the columnist is Jewish) of seeming too concerned with Jews and not focused on Humanity. To get all in a huff because of anti-Semitism is to be one of those whiny Jews. Better to have that noble distance when discussions turn to anti-Semitism, and to reserve one's visible fury for bigotry directed at any group other than one's own.


FLG said...

I actually had the exact same thought about what he wrote about the Imus incident.

gabbiana said...

I thought of Imus, too, when I read this article (though I hadn't read Roger Cohen's earlier piece until now). The difference is, when Imus was fired, Americans didn't read it as a blow against free speech, because it wasn't. Imus was *fired* by his corporate bosses, yes, but certainly no one *silenced* him; thereafter he was free to say as he pleased in whatever forum would have him. If Imus had wanted to march in a white robe, burn a cross (on private land), or just start blogging over at, no one could have stopped him. In other words: Freedom of speech for Imus, but also freedom of association for his employers.

And so for me the weird thing about Siné's case is that freedom of association -- his bosses' right to choose which opinions represent their publication -- is being conflated with freedom of speech. Which... is ridiculous. I'm sure that Siné could find another forum in which to whine about Jews if he wanted. Instead, he -- and, it seems, many of his countrymen -- are making his firing about some noble ideal instead of just business. And that is le crap.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Right. So the difference is not in the firings--neither of which violate anyone's speech--but in their reception. It's clearly a mistake to conflate free speech with an inalienable right to get paid to say offensive things before a national audience. But why does Cohen just echo the reception?

gabbiana said...

Man, yes, that was the point, wasn't it? I think I was just excited by "conflating." I never get to use my words anymore...

Anyway. The short answer is: I don't know. Cohen himself provides one explanation: That Siné's firing could provide further ammunition to what Cohen sees as growing antisemitism in France. So is Cohen's prioritizing of racial bigotry over antisemitic bigotry just a weird expression of self-interest? I'm not sure. I know that I go out of my way *not* to be offended by borderline slights (eg) to world Jewry. And while I'm not afraid that someone is going to attack me in the street because I'm Jewish, maybe my attitude is self-preservation all the same; certainly that's the impulse that I think is behind my cracking all the Jewish jokes before anyone else can get to them. ("Of *course* my checkbook is balanced.") If I insult myself first, or if I laugh along with the Sinés of the world, they can't get to me.