Now, to speak of a "law-and-order myth" is not say that law and order themselves have no real value. It is simply to observe that under duress, our ability to discuss and assess that value is significantly hampered by a powerful affirmation of the sacredness of the principle of law-and-order. Of course, that sacredness tends to be more strongly held by those who proportionally benefit from it, a demographic which manifestly does not include the communities who lost Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and so many others to police violence in the last year. The myth is variously held along a spectrum, with those at the far end tending to think of it much more as a cruel joke than as anything sacred. (About a week into the police "slowdown" in New York, originally intended as a protest against the alleged ingratitude of those, like the mayor, who dare question such police tactics as stop-and-frisk or "broken windows" patrolling, one Bed-Sty resident summed up the relief many in her neighborhood felt at the reduced police presence by joking "so this is what it feels like to be white.")
On the other end of spectrum, to those most deeply under the spell of the law-and-order myth, such as NYPD Union President Patrick Lynch, criticism of the police constitutes not merely an endorsement of police murder, but an actual cause of police murder. And yet, miraculously, the consensus that the murder of Officers Liu and Ramos was a tragic crime that no amount of systemic abuse and corruption could exculpate is unanimous. No critic of NYPD policy or tactics actually believes the murdered officers were to blame for their own deaths.
There are other myths. The execution last week in Paris of 12 people in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has inflamed a foundational story known as the "myth of the free press." As with the law-and-order myth, to invoke a free press myth is not to say that there is no value to free speech, but rather that the more we view it in its mythological capacity, the less we are able to observe how it operates in real life. In mythological mode, free speech, like law-and-order, is absolute. In actual life, like law-and-order, free speech it is selectively applied (as often as not along unconscious biases), and balanced against other concerns.
Because the tribes to whom speech and security are sacred do not perfectly overlap, we are now in the odd position of observing many of the same people who cautioned against valorizing the NYPD after the loss of Officers Liu and Ramos getting very prickly with those who caution against lionizing Charlie Hebdo. Showing the same reticence to declare "Je Suis Charlie Hebdo" as we might have been to declare three weeks ago "I am NYPD" is seen as a failure of nerve by a number of liberal writers who seem to me to be as enchanted with the myth of speech as white blue collar culture is with law-and-order.
One such writer, New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, seems to me to characterize the failure-of-logic that typifies the defense of the mythological right to speech, which invariably invokes a third foundational myth: the existential threat of Islamism. In short, this story goes, unique among all audiences, only Islamists will kill you for saying the wrong thing. Therefore it is essential to say the wrong thing, to ensure they don't win. Think I'm oversimplifying? Here are Chait's exact words:
Given the fact that violent extremists threaten to kill any journalist who violates their interpretation of Islam, establishing the freedom (I argue) requires committing the blasphemy. To argue, as some have, that the threat is wrong, but that journalists should avoid blasphemy out of prudence allows the extremists to set the rules.I would hope it's obvious that Islamists are hardly unique in their willingness to kill you for saying the wrong thing. Mike Brown and Eric Garner are just two recent examples out of a long history of black men being lynched for insufficient deference to their superiors.
But even granting the premise, for the sake of argument, that only Islamists kill for speech, if there's something brilliantly tactical in the defense of Western Civilization behind the imperative to do the very thing an enemy despises, I am at a loss to see it. Publishing in spite of a violent reaction may be one thing, But to publish because of the inevitability of a violent reaction--what's so "free" about that?
For one thing, such a policy exposes you to the rudimentary counter-tactic of faked outrage. I am hardly the first person to observe that manufactured tension between secular liberal values and traditional Islamic values is exactly the desired result of Al Qaeda-type militant groups. (The implication that Islamists could never be so calculating as to fake out and exploit Western sensibilities displays a dedication to yet another unfortunate myth, the irrational, beastly Oriental. Hassan Chop!)
Furthermore, the critics Chait singles out--Glenn Greenwald, Joe Sacco and Maria Bustillos (I'd highlight other similar and notable critiques by Saladin Ahmed, Freddie DeBoer among numerous others)--state nowhere that I can find that writers and artists should self-censor potentially blasphemous material. What they do say is assert is that (1) Many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons allegedly intended as satirizing blasphemy certainly appear to American eyes to embody a lot of racist, xenophobic and classist stereotypes, and (2) One can support the act of free expression without needing to endorse its object.
Greenwald uses the standard, but still serviceable, illustration of the ACLU defending the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, while simultaneously condemning the content of their speech. Ever wary of being accused of violating Godwin's law, I prefer instead the analogy I began with: We wholeheartedly support the right of NYPD officers not to be assassinated, even while we condemn their corrupt use of power to promulgate violent and systemic racism. Why cannot we carry over this same bicameral analysis to the question of cartoons that may or may not have been simultaneously satirical and hateful?
In both the rally to the barricades of the NYPD, and to those of Charlie Hebdo, a sacred principle is being held up as a conversation stopper. In the former case, where the conversation is stopped in the name of law and order, we find nascent fascism. In the latter, where the conversation is stopped in the name of conversation itself, we have something even more absurd. In the end, free speech is not so much about speech itself as it its about dialogue. Freedom to have the next word, but never the last word. Let the lovers of power marinate in their own sanctimony. We lovers of conversation have a higher calling.