For the first time since arriving in France two years ago, I find myself with a strong affective commitment to this place, including to the principles that are at stake in the mass reaction to the attack. I am always wary of encroaching jingoism, and instinctively shy away from participation in mass sloganeering of the sort 'Je suis Charlie' has become.
At the same time, I feel light-years away, politically, from the ignorant 'social justice warrior' version of politics, mostly coming out of North America, which says, basically: "I'm sad people died and everything, but, um, racist satire is not OK." As if there were no problem of who is going to be in a position to offer the final verdict on the OK/not-OK question. The state? Death squads?
More mature Marxists, too, whose political consciousness pre-dates the rise of Twitter, are returning to their familiar lines about how freedom of speech is just an empty liberal piety, a merely formal freedom, etc. Yet it is not only liberals who consider this freedom fundamental. There are also many different species of left anti-authoritarians who do. It is true that we find common cause with liberals at moments of crisis, like this one, and are astounded to see the depth of the rift that is revealed by the crisis and that is always there in Euro-American political culture, between the people who think the Enlightenment still has some light in it, and the ones who think that, since its dark side was exposed in the past century, and since the words liberals value so much are simply an ornamentation of the structural violence they hold in place, we might as well just move on to the next phase, the one of open violence.
To my mind Jacobin Magazine, which in its name openly affiliates itself to the most illiberal strain of the French Revolution, to a movement perhaps best known for innovations in beheading (do a search on 'Olympe de Gouges' -- a French feminist who took the idea of égalité a bit too literally), best represents this 'Sad news, but...' reaction. I think it's despicable. I think blasphemous, insolent satire is a fundamental freedom, and that it is a feature of French political culture --a 'value of the Republic'-- worth defending, not uncritically or jingoistically, and not in a way that serves as a pretext for xenophobia and bigotry, but still in a way that doesn't concede an inch. It's just a mistake to suppose that a happy medium can be struck between freedom of expression and the threat of violent reaction to this freedom-- by moving from 'R' to 'PG-13', softening an image, say, of the persons of the trinity having anal sex into one that depicts only fellatio, or of a same-sex kiss between a Muslim and an Orthodox Jew, into one of them holding hands. It just won't work, and it's in this sense that the freedom has to be absolute in order to count as a freedom at all.