Category Archives: Free Speech

The Worst Way To Fight Fake News

There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” lately, apparently because some people blame it for Donald Trump’s election. Over at Bloomberg View, columnist Noah Feldman, who’s also a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard, thinks it’s time to do something about it. Basically, he doesn’t think our experiment with free speech is working out:

In the free marketplace of ideas, true ideas are supposed to compete with false ones until the truth wins — at least according to a leading rationale for free speech. But what if the rise of fake news shows that, under current conditions, truth may not defeat falsehood in the market? That would start to make free speech look a whole lot less appealing.

I’ll leave the legal analysis up to the lawyers (Scott Greenfield’s review of this article is scathing), but I think the professor has an interesting analysis of the problem. I think his solution is wrong, which I’ll get to later, but his analysis is still interesting.

But to take the marketplace metaphor seriously means admitting that sometimes, markets fail. Holmes himself gave us the most famous example of market failure when he said, in a different 1919 case, Schenck v. United States, that even “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”This thought experiment in turn led Holmes to his most famous formulation of free speech doctrine: that the question in every case is whether the words “create a clear and present danger.”

Falsely shouting fire in a theater is a perfect example of market failure in the communication of ideas. The person shouting knows he is lying — but others don’t know, and won’t have time to check. The words will cause an immediate panic, even if everybody is acting rationally, because the only logical thing to do is to get out, and get out quickly.

The “marketplace of ideas” is mostly a metaphor, not a literal marketplace, but putting aside the questionable value of Holmes’s example, this is actually a fairly good analogy to the kind of market failure that can occur because of asymmetric information between the parties.

As the Nobel Prize winning economist George Akerlof showed in his classic 1970 article, “The Market for Lemons,” asymmetric information can systematically distort the quality of what’s available in the market. In his stylized example, if good cars and lemons are both for sale, and consumers know this but don’t know which are which, they will be willing to pay the average price. That will lead the sellers to withhold the good cars, which could fetch a higher price — but that in turn will lead consumers to lower the price they are willing to pay. The resulting spiral of adverse selection leads to market failure.

As it happens, it’s a lot more expensive to generate true news stories than false ones. News requires reporting and research and institutional structures like editors and fact checkers to support them. Fake news only takes one person’s imagination. And there is certainly information asymmetry between the person who writes a story and the person who reads it. Applying the Akerlof analysis suggests that fake news could conceivably drive out true news.

This is an interesting example of applying economic thinking to a problem that is not normally considered economic in nature. “The Market for Lemons” argued that in the presence of asymmetric information about quality, buyers wouldn’t know how to identify quality products and therefore the market would not reward sellers for quality. Sellers of high-quality products would therefore leave, and the process would spiral down until only very low-quality products were trading. In the worst case, the market would disappear completely.

Ackerlof’s paper takes asymmetric knowledge about product quality as a given, but in real-world markets it’s often not clear whether asymmetric information is a serious problem. That’s not a slam on Ackerlof. He was clear about his assumptions, and there’s strong evidence that asymmetric information does cause real problems in some markets. (It rules how insurance plans are designed and sold.) But there’s also evidence that many real-world markets have found ways to circumvent the problem.

The most common solution is for sellers to try to reduce the information asymmetry by establishing and maintaining a reputation. This makes use of the fact that buyers will want to purchase the same product over and over, so if a seller has a history of producing good products, buyers can rely on that history to guide their purchasing decisions. This sets up a positive feedback loop: The seller’s reputation gives buyers confidence in the product and therefore a willingness to pay more money, and that increase in potential future revenue makes it valuable for sellers to have a good reputation, which makes it worthwhile for sellers to build a good reputation by expending the effort to produce a quality product.

Another common solution is for buyers to try to reduce the information asymmetry by relying on third parties to provide reliable assessments of product quality. I had to buy a snowblower for the first time this year, and I relied on information from knowledgeable friends, Consumer Reports, a variety of web sites, and online buyer reviews at Home Depot, Lowes, and Amazon. In this age of the internet, information is easier to find than it’s ever been.

(Other solutions, such as offering easy returns and product warranties are effective as well, but I can’t see a way to apply them to news.)

Feldman, however, doesn’t seem interested in any of these solutions. He goes straight to stepping on necks:

The classic solution to market failure is regulation. Holmes, in his fire-theater example, certainly believed that was permitted by the First Amendment.

The question is whether government regulation of fake news would be justified and lawful to fix this market failure.

Justified? No, not even under Holmes’s example. If you’re in a crowded theater and someone shouts “Fire!”, your best move is to get out as fast as possible. You don’t have time to reflect on the shouter’s claim and debate it with your fellow theatergoers. The “market failure” in shouting fire in a crowded theater is that there’s no time for the “marketplace of ideas” to operate.

Reading the news doesn’t come with that kind of urgency. There’s plenty of time to research stories and read what other people are saying about them.

Obviously, it would be better if the market would fix the problem on its own, which is why attention is now focused on Facebook and Google. But if they can’t reliably do it — and that seems possible, since algorithms aren’t (yet) fact-checkers — there might be a need for the state to step in.

Here’s where Feldman tries to play a trick on his readers. He starts by saying the problem is that Facebook and Google are unable to function as fact checkers, which is fair enough, and then he says the state should “step in.” But he doesn’t just want the government to provide the fact checking that he says is needed. He wouldn’t need to write an article about that because fact-checking isn’t legally controversial: Government employees are free to research the statements of fact within a news story and publish their evaluation, and government press offices do that all the time already.

No, what Feldman wants is for the government step into the marketplace of ideas and pick winners by force, which is why he runs into concerns about constitutionality.

Under current First Amendment doctrine, that wouldn’t be allowed. The Supreme Court has been expanding protections for knowingly false speech, not contracting it. And it would be extremely difficult to separate opinion from fact on a systematic basis.

From there, Feldman’s argument dissolves into attacking a straw man with a flurry of hand waving:

But we shouldn’t assume that the marketplace of ideas works perfectly. And given that, we shouldn’t be slavishly committed to treating the marketplace metaphor as the basic rationale for free speech.

Perfection is not the standard. I don’t think anyone believes the marketplace of ideas is perfect. But if you propose to replace the free market with something else, you should at least do your audience the courtesy of trying to explain why your proposed solution would be better, and Feldman doesn’t even try. It’s like he thinks it’s just obvious that of course government can do this.

The current freakout over false news depends on two major items of concern: (1) That fake news is produced by liars, and (2) that fake news is believed by fools. Feldman’s proposal is utterly lacking in detail, but I’d love to hear why he’s so sure that his solution will not be created and carried out by more of the same liars and fools.

For Christ’s sake, we’ve spent the last year and a half watching a gruesome demonstration of how government leaders are chosen. What in God’s name makes anyone think those people should have the final word on what’s true in the news?

False news that hinders public discussion and encourages irrationality may have a role in the marketplace; but it doesn’t contribute to the good functioning of democracy.

Speaking of democracy, politicians are notorious liars. Unsurprisingly, so are a lot of the government functionaries who work for them. I’m not talking about crazy anti-government conspiracy theories, either, I’m talking about the routine lies that government employees tell to keep their jobs and make them easier: Cops lying about incidents, experts exaggerating their credentials, and department heads who refuse to recognize facts that would be inconvenient for the continued funding of their departments.

I’m talking about the Drug Enforcement Agency refusing to recognize the medical benefits of marijuana long after its acceptance by the medical community. I’m talking about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. I’m talking about the numbing sameness of the lies that many cops tell on the stand. I’m talking about the legal fictions that label people as drug dealers when they don’t deal drugs, as pimps when they aren’t pimping anyone, and as money launderers when they aren’t laundering money.

I’m sure Professor Feldman imagines that when the government implements his fake news suppression program they will decide which news is real or fake with the help of wise and honest scholars (such as himself). I think it’s more realistic to assume it will be staffed by people like TSA agents, DMV clerks, and those public school administrators who call the cops when a kid makes a shooting gesture with his fingers.

A Bad Remedy For Bad Climate Speech, Again

A few months ago I complained that New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and other state Attorneys General appeared to be starting a campaign to intimidate climate skeptics and/or deniers under the guise of investigating ExxonMobil.

Now comes news of a counterattack: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has issued congressional subpoenas for Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, along with nine climate activist groups, requesting all relevant communications between the groups and the attorneys general in order to investigate a possible conspiracy “to act under color of law to persuade attorneys general to use their prosecutorial powers to stifle scientific discourse, to intimidate private entities and individuals, and deprive them of their First Amendment rights and freedoms.”

I have two responses to this development:

(1) AH-HA-HA-HAHA! LIVE BY THE SWORD, DIE BY THE SWORD, MOTHERFUCKERS!!! PAYBACK’S A BITCH, AIN’T IT?

and

(2) This is really very wrong.

I have no actual sympathy for AGs Schneiderman and Healey. They are government employees, public servants subject to oversight and review. They started this, and for their attempts to stifle free speech they deserve to be gang-subpoenaed by congress, repeatedly.

The climate activist groups, on the other hand, are citizens exercising their free speech rights to discuss matters of public importance and — to the extent that they communicated with various attorneys general — petition the government. They don’t have to explain themselves to anyone.

As I said before, this is not how science is supposed to work. That’s not how debate over public policy is supposed to work.

A Bad Remedy For Bad Climate Speech

When I’m reading a news story, there are two words which almost guarantee I’ll be cringing by the end: Attorneys general. The position of attorney general is usually seen as a stepping stone to higher office, so it’s often occupied by some subspecies of spotlight-seeking control freak. Just one of them would be bad enough, but when a bunch of attorneys general from different states take the time to work together toward a common goal, you just know it’s going to be something awful, something like passive aggressively pressuring Google to censor search results, vilifying MySpace because the AGs didn’t follow proper procedures, or accusing Craigslist of human trafficking. I mean, Christ, thirty-five of them got together to complain that Four Loko booze comes in cans that are too big.

This time a pack of twenty AGs are attacking the free speech of climate change skeptics:

Not only do Schneiderman and his new claque climate crusaders aim to force ExxonMobil to repent (while possibly extracting some cash along the way), they also evidently intend to shut up non-profit groups to which the oil company donated funds that have questioned the notion of impending man-made climate catastrophe.

In service of this goal, the Attorney General of the U.S. Virgin Islands Claude Walker has issued a subpoena to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute. According to CEI, the subpoena demands that the non-profit produce “a decade’s worth of communications, emails, statements, drafts, and other documents regarding CEI’s work on climate change and energy policy, including private donor information. It demands that CEI produce these materials from 20 years ago, from 1997-2007, by April 30, 2016.”

Admittedly, this is not a direct attack. The main thrust of the investigation is aimed not at CEI but ExxonMobil. The attorneys general are investigating whether ExxonMobil lied to investors about the effects of climate change on shareholder value.

For example, changing patterns of Arctic ice thawing could disrupt the company’s oceanic drilling and shipping operations, and thawing permafrost could cause upheavals that might damage buildings or pipelines, as could increasingly violent weather patterns. By playing down climate change, critics (and attorneys general) might argue, ExxonMobil is playing down the costs they will incur. Of course that applies to any business that could be affected by climate change, not just the oil companies that are the favorite targets of environmentalists.

A more specific concern is the oil in the ground. Oil companies make their money by pumping that oil out of the ground and selling it to people, and a large part of their current stock value comes from the expectation that they will be able to continue doing that for many decades into the future. The problem is that burning those enormous oil reserves will do immense damage to our planet’s climate. So it’s quite likely that world governments will at some point force the oil companies to leave most of their reserves in the ground — at least if the world is going to limit warming to the commonly cited 2°C target. In other words, because of climate change, oil companies will not be able to make nearly as much money as everybody thought they would. Therefore, by playing down climate change, companies like ExxonMobil are effectively lying about the value of their stock.

It’s an interesting economic point, and the same reasoning applies to coal and gas companies as well, but so far we haven’t seen the expected massive decline in the stock prices of companies with large fossil fuel reserves. The capital markets don’t seem to believe that we’ll be leaving all that oil, gas, and coal in the ground. That may be a realistic analysis: Current predictions are for an increase in fossil fuel consumption over the next couple of decades, likely blowing through the 2°C warming target.

There are a lot of unknowns here, and unknowns are risks, and risks are supposed to be disclosed to investors. Have the oil companies been doing it right? I haven’t got a clue, but that’s what the attorneys general are claiming to be investigating.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure the Competitive Enterprise Institute has nothing to do with any of this. They have no obligations to investors in the fossil fuel industry. So how did they get sucked into the investigation?

It sounds like the attorneys general are pursuing some sort of conspiracy angle in which ExxonMobil was paying CEI to mislead the public as a means of influencing investors. I suppose that theory gives them plausible legal cover for harassing CEI. However, given that U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker worked for eight years as an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that former Vice President Al Gore was included in a recent press conference about the investigation, it seems likely that this move is less about financial fraud and more about finding a way to strike back at ideological enemies in the climate argument.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman started his investigation of ExxonMobil last year, but the subpoena to CEI didn’t come until after CEI attorney Hans Bader published an article critical of the investigation, which sounds a lot like retaliation. I can’t help thinking that some of the attorneys general are enjoying the chance to slam an enemy of environmentalists with the high cost of fighting or complying with the legal process. And if they could find a way to implicate CEI members in the conspiracy, all the better, right?

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds argues that this is illegal:

Federal law  makes it a felony “for two or more persons to agree together to injure, threaten, or intimidate a person in any state, territory or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the Unites States, (or because of his/her having exercised the same).”

I wonder if U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker, or California Attorney General Kamala Harris, or New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have read this federal statute. Because what they’re doing looks like a concerted scheme to restrict the First Amendment free speech rights of people they don’t agree with.

I don’t know if Reynolds is right, but this kind of legal action seems to be part of a disturbing trend in which environmentalists have been trying to use the legal system to suppress the free speech of climate change skeptics.

I suppose it started with climate scientist Michael Mann’s lawsuit against several critics, including columnist Mark Steyn at the National Review and Rand Simberg at CEI. That’s just one guy (and he kind of had a point, even if the lawsuit is apparently stalled), but more recently 20 climate scientists signed a letter to President Obama calling for far more dangerous action:

We appreciate that you are making aggressive and imaginative use of the limited tools available to you in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change.

The RICO statutes are one of the biggest loose cannons in federal law. Originally intended to help fight organized crime, RICO laws have been used to enhance penalties for things like securities fraud and teachers altering test scores or to fight marijuana legalization. Apparently, there’s been some talk in the Department of Justice about using RICO against climate skeptics, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see DOJ joining the attorneys general in their crusade against bad science.

Even Bill Nye “the science guy” is kind of okay with jailing people over climate science:

Asked about the heated rhetoric surrounding the climate change debate, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s previous comments that some climate skeptics should be prosecuted as war criminals, Mr. Nye replied, “We’ll see what happens.”

“In these cases, for me, as a taxpayer and voter, the introduction of this extreme doubt about climate change is affecting my quality of life as a public citizen,” Mr. Nye said. “So I can see where people are very concerned about this, and they’re pursuing criminal investigations as well as engaging in discussions like this.”

You know who else’s quality of life is going to be affected? Everyone involved in the fossil fuel industry, if we switch to greener energy. You don’t think they’d like to shut down climate scientists’ claims of anthropogenic global warming? If RICO actions about climate science had been available a few decades ago, oil and coal companies would have used them to suppress research into global warming by labeling it a conspiracy to destroy the energy industry and hurt the U.S. economy.

About the potential for a “chilling effect,” Mr. Nye said, “That there is a chilling effect on scientists who are in extreme doubt about climate change, I think that is good.”

But it’s not just going to be people with “extreme doubt” (whatever that means) who experience chilling effects. It’s going to be every scientist with a theory that suggests global warming isn’t as bad as we think it is — every researcher who theorizes there’s a bias in the satellite record or a natural carbon sink that’s more effective than expected. When trying to decide whether to pursue the research, they’ll have to ask themselves if it’s worth the risk of severe legal problems, and they’ll have to line up advisors, assistants, partners, and funding agencies that are also willing to face the risk. Or they could play it safe and pick a different research topic.

That’s not how science is supposed to work. That’s not how debate over public policy is supposed to work in a democracy. Environmentalists had no trouble understanding this concept back when Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was engaged in a bogus investigation of Michael Mann and the University of Virginia for supposedly manipulating data to prove global warming.

It’s not a question of who is right and who is wrong. It’s not even about who is lying and who is telling the truth. It’s about how we as a society are going to make decisions together. It’s far better that we talk things out and let everyone be heard than that we enlist attorneys general to imprison or impoverish those with whom we disagree. The best remedy for bad speech is good speech. Not a RICO prosecution.

Even Trump Has Freedom of Speech

I was disappointed that the Trump rally on Friday here in Chicago was cancelled. It’s not that I was planning to go, but it was disappointing the way it happened. And I’m disappointed that folks on the left are applauding it or taking credit for it.

To be sure, Trump brought it on himself. The aphorisms are plentiful: You reap what you sow. Live by the sword, die by the sword. What goes around, comes around. Trump applauded and even encouraged violence at his rallies. He set the rules of the contest, and now he’s complaining that his opponents are playing by them.

It’s actually kind of a law of nature: Trump’s embrace of violence unsurprisingly drives away the peaceful protesters, which leaves behind the kinds of protesters who aren’t afraid to mix it up, and probably even attracts protesters who look forward to busting some Trumpkin heads. So it’s not surprising that things eventually blew up. Trump and his supporters got the response that they created. Thugs begat thugs.

But…

Even Donald Trump has the right to free speech. I’m not talking about the legal First Amendment right, which doesn’t really apply to private action. I’m talking about the basic moral premise that underlies the First Amendment: Within some very broad limits, people have a right to say what they want. Whatever they want. Even if other people don’t like it. Even if they themselves have no respect for freedom of speech.

And perhaps even more important than Donald Trump’s right to speak is the right of other people to hear what he has to say. People who come to his rallies ought to be allowed to hear him speak, and the rest of us should respect that right. That doesn’t mean opponents can’t protest his speech. There’s a difference between speaking out against Trump and blocking Trump from speaking. When Donald Trump is speaking to cheering supporters and crowds of protesters are shouting in the streets and the police are keeping the peace rather than taking sides, that’s American free speech at, well…perhaps not at its finest, but certainly at its most exuberant.

On the other hand, if anyone violently attacked Trump supporters, I fully support arresting them for it. (And vice versa, of course.) Similarly, if protesters disrupt Trump’s speech, I have no problem with them being escorted from the premises. They have a right to speak, but they don’t have the right to prevent Trump from speaking in a forum assembled for that purpose, nor do they have the right to prevent others from hearing what he’s saying.

Granted, I’m not entirely convinced that anyone other than Donald Trump was responsible for shutting down the Donald Trump rally. At the time he called it off, there hadn’t been any injuries or arrests in Chicago. I think it’s possible he saw a chance to skip a rally and blame it on the opposition, and so he took it, and now he’s using it to play the victim card. But as Donald Trump might have said, I like Presidential candidates who don’t cancel their rallies. Who’s the pussy now, Donald?

Except…

When the cancellation of the rally was announced, the only proper response from any protest organizers who really respect free speech should have been either (1) an apology for letting things get out of hand, (2) criticism of the rally organizers for not providing enough security for Trump to feel safe, or (3) calling Trump out for cancelling his own rally and blaming it on the free speech of others. Depending on what you believe caused the rally to be cancelled, any one of these might be appropriate.

Some of the protesting organizations, however, are taking credit for stopping Trump from speaking. That’s nothing to be proud of. Even if he quit for reasons of his own, claiming credit shows they have little respect for free speech. And if they actually did shut him down from fear of violence, that’s even worse.

In our open society, the remedy for bad speech is supposed to be good speech, not violence. Trump doesn’t understand that. “Freedom of speech” is just a buzz phrase he uses when he senses it might help him. The rest of us should try to be better than that.

Censorious Thugs Detected In the Holodeck!

Rapper Chief Keef was originally scheduled to perform at the Red Moon Theater in Chicago at a benefit for the family of Dillan Harris, a 13-month-old baby killed in a car accident. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office put pressure on the venue to cancel the concert,

The city called Red Moon and requested they not host the concert, calling Chief Keef “an unacceptable role model” who “promotes violence.”

Apparently Mayor Emanuel is acting as the arbiter of acceptable musical performances in Chicago. So if you’re planning to have gangsta rappers or outlaw country singers at your event, be sure to run them past the Mayor’s office first to make sure they are morally pure. Also, I assume performances of Threepenny Opera are now forbidden, because Mack the Knife is a bad role model for the children.

Chief Keef’s performance was rescheduled to be at the Craze Fest concert festival in nearby Hammond, Indiana, but Hammond Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr. reached out to shut that down as well:

“I know nothing about Chief Keef,” Mayor McDermott, 46, said. “All I’d heard was he has a lot of songs about gangs and shooting people — a history that’s anti-cop, pro-gang and pro-drug use. He’s been basically outlawed in Chicago, and we’re not going to let you circumvent Mayor Emanuel by going next door.”

First of all, circumventing Illinois by going next door is kind of northwestern Indiana’s value proposition: Drive toward Indiana on I-80 and you’ll see a dozen billboards for fireworks stores and strip clubs.

In any case, the argument for kicking Chief Keef out of Craze Fest comes with a bit more of a rationalization:

All of the Craze Fest acts — which included Riff Raff, Lil Bibby and Tink — had been previously vetted because the event was held at a public park…

That sounds at least superficially reasonable, except that when public space is involved, I’m pretty sure the authorities aren’t supposed to discriminate against the views expressed. Just because newspaper vending machines are placed on public sidewalks doesn’t mean government authorities can control what stories are printed. They shouldn’t be allowed to control the content of musical performances either.

There’s one more thing, and if you haven’t spoiled it by reading the links, it will blow your mind: Chief Keef apparently has outstanding warrants in Illinois (for a missed DUI hearing and child support), so he was never planning to come here anyway. Instead, he was going to appear by hologram, which is apparently a thing we can do here in the future.

So what this boils down to is that, except for a difference in display technology, the mayors of Chicago and Hammond now think it is their business to tell event producers what they can have on television. Logically, it’s no different than them putting pressure on movie theaters to not show Roman Polanski movies. Even if they have a valid point — that watching Polanski movies or Chief Keef concerts is repugnant — they have no business using the power of public office to force their cultural tastes on others or to prevent others from exercising their own cultural tastes.

I don’t know anything about Chief Keef, but Mayor Emanuel is right that there are bad role models involved: He and Mayor McDermott are censorious thugs.

Update: First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh weighs in:

Unless I’m missing something here, then, this is a pretty clear First Amendment violation on the part of the City of Hammond. And it seems to me that, in America, performances by controversial singers can’t be “basically outlawed,” even “in Chicago.”

To Publish or Not To Publish

Rick Horowitz has an interesting post about his decision not to display any Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Er, in other words, his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre consisted of an explanation of why he wasn’t posting Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (Did you follow that? It was all very self-referential. Anyway…) I thought about that myself when I wrote my own post about the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I decided to include just a single image.

I had thought about a similar issue a few years ago, when writing about threats against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which had published cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed. In that case, I didn’t see a reason to include any of the images under discussion. As my regular readers are no doubt painfully aware, Windypundit is mostly just a lot of words. I don’t normally include images unless I have to. So the way I saw it, there were only two reasons for including the images in a post: (1) News value, and (2) saying “Fuck you” to assholes.

I have no objections to saying “Fuck you” to assholes, but posting offensive images risks saying “Fuck you” to the wrong people. If a racist politician used the N-word in a speech, and some kind of black militant group assassinated him for it, I see no problem with telling them to go fuck themselves, but I wouldn’t use the N-word to do it. I may want to say “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” but the N-word says “Fuck you for being black.” It’s the wrong message in so many ways.

The same is true for the offensive images of Mohammed. Instead of saying “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” I might inadvertently be saying “Fuck you for being a Muslim,” which is not at all the message I want to send. So when writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I decided not to use the images to say “Fuck you”.

The Charlie Hebdo images were slightly more complicated because I didn’t even know how to tell if they’re offensive. Translating from the French is the least of the problems. Things like racist epithets and stereotypes are culturally defined in a complicated way, and I wouldn’t have a clue what constitutes anti-Arabic or anti-Muslim material in French culture. The cartoons are not drawn realistically, but I can’t tell which oddities are considered racists stereotypes and which are just the Charlie Hebdo style. Some people say the cartoons are racist and others say they’re just over-the-top satire, and I don’t know who to believe. It’s a messy situation.

It is for this reason that I reluctantly did not sign on to Marc Randazza’s “We are Charlie Hebdo” post. I understand what he’s doing — Randazza is a Kung-Fu master of “Fuck you” — but I felt that by signing onto the post I would in effect be signing onto the messages in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and I don’t even know what those messages are.

I realize not everyone who publishes the images (or signs on to Randazza’s post) feels they are endorsing the content of the cartoons, but that’s how it felt to me.

The other reason for including the offensive images would be if they have legitimate news value. When writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I thought the actual images were marginally relevant, but there’s no point in embedding a dozen images in a post when I would normally just link to them. Embedding the images would be gratuitous, and therefore just a “Fuck you,” about which please see the previous few paragraphs.

Pretty much the same line of thinking applied to the Charlie Hebdo images, except that the slant of my post was that the people making the images were pretty bold in the face of censorship and violent opposition. In particular, I thought it took big brass balls to publish this image right after their offices were firebombed:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

That’s got to be a giant “Fuck you” to the (presumably) homophobic religious nutcases that would firebomb a magazine because they didn’t like the cartoons, and I felt you really have to see the image to understand the magnitude of the message. That’s why I included it in the post. (And of course you need to see the image in this post to understand why I felt that way.)

I have to admit that posting that image also allowed me to issue my own small “Fuck you” to the terrorists in a way that I hope wouldn’t unintentionally offend anyone who doesn’t have it coming. Also, I hope it will be enough to get me past the inevitable gormless trolls who insist that anyone who doesn’t publish the images is a coward.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I am not Charlie.

Honestly, until this shit happened, I didn’t know a damned thing about Charlie Hebdo. I don’t have a clue what Charlie Hebdo stood for, so I’m not about to identify myself with them or support their editorial agenda, whatever it is.

Besides, in my mind, “I am Charlie” links to the scene in the 1960 film Spartacus where rebellious former Roman slaves refuse to identify their leader Spartacus by all claiming “I am Spartacus!” thus consigning themselves to be crucified alongside him. That’s real dedication to a cause. And as Matt Welch points out, Charlie Hebdo was run by badasses. Their own government went after them for offensive speech and they fought back and won. Muslim extremists firebombed their offices, and six days later they responded with this:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

(“Love is stronger than hate.”)

By comparison, I’m publishing this blog from the middle of the United States of America which is still — despite all the problems detailed here on a regular basis — a bastion of free speech. The worst that’s ever happened to me for something I wrote is that people left nasty messages in the comments or said mean things about me on their blog. The worst that’s ever likely to happen to me is that I have to find another job because my employer doesn’t like something I wrote. If someone shoots me, it’s more likely to be my wife than terrorists.

Look, whatever Charlie Hebdo stands for — I don’t know or care what it is — I stand by their right to believe it and say it and publish it. It’s insane to kill someone for drawing comics and saying mean things. The gunmen who shot the Charlie Hebdo writers and artists are a bunch of terrorist assholes, and I want them all to die in a fire.

But my saying so doesn’t get me any points for bravery. I’ve got it easy. I realize that many of the people posting “I am Charlie” don’t mean it this way, so this is not a knock on them, but to me “I am Charlie” feels like trying to portray myself as having courage on a level that is simply not required for what I do. My world is not that dangerous. I am not Charlie.

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