Freedom is a joke. Specifically, a satirical joke.
The recent terrorist attack in Paris highlights perhaps the great political dilemma of the current age, that of Western freedoms being used to destroy Western freedoms. But perhaps just as importantly, its target was perfectly chosen.
Democracy requires more than the legal right to vote. It requires the freedoms to own property, to travel, to speak one’s mind, and to litigate to protect oneself. It thus requires the social institutions and customs which can sustain and support these things and also an underlying sense of community in which these individual rights take shape and have meaning. Indeed, classic liberal freedom assumes the idea of the nation state.
In the nineteenth and the twentieth century, national identity gave an otherwise disparate group of people from different classes and ethnicities a larger common context, history, and purpose which ameliorated the differences. Thus, in Britain one might vote Labour but accept that, when the Conservatives won the election, they had the right to govern until the next election. Something deeper than political ideology bound people together. The nation state was not a sufficient precondition for Western democracy but it was arguably a necessary one.
The situation today is different. The nation state is under huge pressure. Mass immigration, the worldwide economy, the rise of militant forms of Islam allied to a deeply anti-Western political imagination, and the availability and speed of communication have all served in different ways to undermine it. The West’s self-confidence that it is the meaning of history is gone. More significantly, the shared sense of identity, the communal structures and the traditional processes by which liberal democracy thrives have all vanished or are being rapidly redefined or eroded. And, of course, it is the very freedoms of the West which provide the context for their destruction at the hands of its enemies.
Then, there is the ideological quandary in which the Left now finds itself. Militant Islam represents everything the historic Left should despise: a patriarchal feudalism which treats women like chattels and uses the full force of law against homosexuals. But Islam represents the repudiation of the West, especially of America. It also draws its strength from being able to play the ethnicity card. Not all Muslims are people of color but the majority are, making criticism of Islam vulnerable to accusations not only of Western imperialism but also racism. This is why some on the bien pensant Left have taken the view that the French satirical magazine was asking for it, because it had a track record of lampooning Islam and Muslims. That is hate speech, though not as harmful or indeed as hateful as putting a bullet through somebody’s head.
Given all this, it makes perfect sense that the enemies of democracy and classic liberalism would strike at a satirical magazine. Satire has often been the first and most discerning enemy of power and tyranny which is why it is so hated by the powerful and the tyrannical . And it is also thrives upon the most basic of liberal freedoms, that of speech. Think of Karl Kraus and his satirizing of the Nazis. Think of those who in the West today are most subversive of politically correct pieties: is it not the great satirists who simply refuse to allow the great and the good to take themselves seriously without challenge?
Those who think the satirists had it coming are correct but not in the way that somebody who keeps crossing a busy road with their eyes closed is headed for an accident. They had it coming because satire – one group poking fun at another – lies at the heart of what it means to be free in a democratic society. And that is what the Islamic militants and, sadly, the illiberal voices on both the Right and, particularly these days the Left, hate more than anything else.