Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Necessity of Distinction

Courtesy of Azure magazine, I have found this extraordinary article by French New Philosopher Andre Glucksmann. Glucksmann was one of the first French intellectuals of the ’68 generation to break with his colleagues’ traditional catechism, attacking Soviet oppression of dissidents and supporting Ronald Reagan’s deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe. Here, he grapples with the new totalitarianism and its stance on cartoons of Mohammad and Holocaust Denial.
[N]ow [radical Islam] has all of Europe in its sights, which it accuses of having a double standard. The European Union allows the Prophet to be denigrated with impunity, but it forbids and condemns other "opinions" like Nazism and denial of the Holocaust. Why are jokes about Muhammad permitted, but not those about the genocide of the Jews? This was the rallying call of fundamentalists before they initiated a competition for Auschwitz cartoons. Fair's fair: either everything should be allowed in the name of the freedom of expression, or we should censor that which shocks both parties. Many people who defend the right to caricature feel trapped. Will they publish drawings about the gas chambers in the name of freedom of expression? Offence for offence? Infringement for infringement? Can the negation of Auschwitz be put on a par with the desecration of Muhammad? This is where two philosophies clash. The one says yes, these are equivalent "beliefs" which have been equally scorned. There is no difference between factual truth and professed faith; the conviction that the genocide took place and the certitude that Muhammad was illuminated by Archangel Gabriel are on a par. The others say no, the reality of the death camps is a matter of historical fact, whereas the sacredness of the prophets is a matter of personal belief.
When the Islamist fanatic affirms that Europeans practise the "religion of the Shoah" while he practises that of Muhammad, he abolishes the distinction between fact and belief. For him there are only beliefs, and so it follows that Europe will favour its own.

Civilised discourse analyses and defines scientific truths, historic truths and matters of fact relating to knowledge, not to faith. And it does this irrespective of race or confession. We may believe these facts are profane or undignified, yet they remain distinct from religious truths. Our planet is not in the grips of a clash of civilisations or cultures. It is the battleground of a decisive struggle between two ways of thinking. There are those who declare that there are no facts, but only interpretations - so many acts of faith. These either tend toward fanaticism ("I am the truth") or they fall into nihilism ("nothing is true, nothing is false"). Opposing them are those who advocate free discussion with a view to distinguishing between true and false, those for whom political and scientific matters – or simple judgement – can be settled on the basis of worldly facts, independently of arbitrary pre-established opinions.
Refusing to face the cruellest historical facts, on the other hand, heralds the return of cruelty. Whether the Islamists - who are far from representing all Muslims – like it or not, there is no common measure between negating known facts and criticising any one of the beliefs which every European has the right to practice or poke fun at.
What is at stake here is not only the freedom of the press, but also the permission to call a spade a spade and a gas chamber an abomination, regardless of our beliefs. What is at stake is the basis of all morality: here on earth the respect due to each individual starts with the recognition and rejection of the most flagrant examples of inhumanity.
This extraordinary essay cuts to the essence of one of the issues which caused me to start this blog: the absolute importance of distinctions. The Chomskyite phenomenon is most horrifying in its negation of distinctions, its annihilation of the possibility of thought. No utterance of the good professor represents this better than this one on the subject of Holocaust Denial, which represents precisely the horror of which Glucksmann speaks.
I'm saying that if you believe in freedom of speech then you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like, I mean Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked, right, so was Stalin. If you're in favour of freedom of speech that means you're in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise, otherwise you're not in favour of freedom of speech.
Of course, neither Goebbels nor Stalin was in favor of freedom of speech, which is why they killed so many for daring to exercise it. Nor can the issue even be raised in relation to totalitarian societies and their leaders, who do not accept a right of free speech in the first place. In fact, the essence of the totalitarian society is the denial of any natural rights pertaining to the individual and, ultimately, the existence of the individual himself. This holds true as well for totalitarian political cultures, such as neo-Nazism, radical Islam or, for that matter, your average Chomskyite. Most importantly, however, the denial of the Holocaust is not a view which one “despises” or “favors.” It is not a view at all. It is an expression of intellectual psychosis, of the anti-historical unreality which is the inherent product of the totalitarian mind. There is a distinction between this and a view which one dislikes or disagrees with. Whether you think Holocaust Denial should be banned or not, it cannot be addressed on the same terms as one would address a statement in favor of a flat tax. To address Holocaust Denial as though it were simply another point of view which any reasonable or decent person might hold is, inherently, to annihilate reason itself, and thus, all the rights to which reason has given birth. One can say that Holocaust Denial should not be banned, or that men should not go to jail for it, but to argue that we are honor bound to grant it the same respect as any other political statement, or that we are nothing but censorious dictators if we do not do so, is a crime against both freedom and speech. It negates them both by rendering them meaningless. In doing so, it makes power the only arbiter of truth, and renders us all silent.