Against politeness

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Photo by Zach D. Roberts for Nation of Change.

I have been made aware of my European identity early, and often. I was born in France, walked my first steps in Ireland, survived my growing pains in Northern Ireland, was educated in Germany, entered adulthood in Switzerland. Every one of those places is determined and defined by war, either present or past, the scars evident for a naked eye to see. Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the Balkans, Austria, Poland, all those bright blue lakes of my childhood and the snow-tipped cold mountain ranges have carried ghosts, whispers and whimpers of the deported, the exterminated, the shellshocked, the wounded of two world wars, at the very least. When a 20 year old student from the University of Nevada called Peter Cvjenatovic says he attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend because the “European culture” means terrorizing the local population with torches and swastikas, brown shirts and black boots is his right, my stomach churned; I blinked at the photo of his comb-over, his facial traits distorted by fanaticism as he screamed “Blood and Soil” on American ground, and the image of a young Otto Van Wächter came to mind.

It’s a nightmare, a nightmare from which we are told not to wake up; it would be an “alternative” reality, a legitimate product of economic disenfranchisement, a “fringe” not present or represented in the current Trump administration, a “rise” contrary to the decades-spanning files of the FBI’s counter extremism task force. It is none of those things, and this piece aims at explaining two things: the issue of free speech absolutism in times of violent politics, and the necessity to call to action without concession.

Free speech absolutism in the age of Trump

 One of the glaring differences in constitutional rights between the US and European member-states – at range, for the purposes of this argument, states party to the ECHR – is the interpretation of the right to free speech, in freedom of expression, opinion, and information. Contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution in the US and Article 10 of the ECHR, the vast difference is of a historical nature, and can vary from state to state in Europe. When it comes to ban on political parties, memorabilia, symbols, or speech, the United States applies a blanket to free speech with a narrow hate speech caveat. In the case of France, a debate regularly arises on the criminality of denying the existence of the Shoah; in Germany, Nazi memorabilia and even performing the Hitler salute in public are banned. Those, to the outside eye, seem necessary given the specific political context inherent to those two countries. In the United States, it appears that events taking place during the 2016 electoral campaign and more recently in Charlottesville, VA have raised the issue of a narrowing, culling, and roughing up the edges of absolutism.

It started when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented the leaders of the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, after the mayor refused them a permit to march. And march they did: the night before the rally itself, the crowd descended on the University of Virginia (UVA) campus in Charlottesville with tiki torches, singing and chanting slogans while marching in pants and shirts, at night, startling the local population with imagery much too familiar to the South and eerily cognizant of its effect on the western world at large. Many felt the ACLU, an organization crucial to the respect of civil rights in the country and generally affiliated with the organized political left, had let them down. The ACLU had been fundraising since the January transition on a platform of opposing the Trump administration at every turn. In that, they delivered: they took the refugee ban to court; they protected journalists targeted by the president’s desire to control the narrative; they were front and center against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Representing a hate-filled, extremist movement’s right to protest was perceived as a betrayal. Politically, it may be. But the ACLU is a legal organization based on the equal and fair application of constitutional rights; they are not to blame, absolutism is.

There are plenty of arguments in favor of absolutism. They will all highlight that limits to free speech and freedom of the press would yield to state discretion, to judicial bias, to political suppression. They will misquote Voltaire and discern from the old English law that civil rights are not here to be restricted, and that civility will do part with the belief that all positions are equal. They will argue that it’s necessary for expression to take place so rebuttal can also be present and public, and that pushing extremist views further into darkness legitimizes their claim to oppression. In this specific example, they will say that the history specific to mid-20th century Central Europe and French occupation are not the same as the legacy of the Civil War in the United States. Meanwhile, statues of confederate leaders are tumbled down all across the South, and monuments are being used as meeting points for white supremacists. It is very possible to then argue that the legacy of the Civil War has in fact not been dealt with; that the criminal justice system in the United States continues to disproportionality punish black and ethnic minorities; that police violence is unabated and unrestricted; that affirmative action and voting rights are under attack. Is this a reason to curtail free speech? Is extending hate speech territory a violation of free speech? Should the ACLU not accept First Amendment complaints from white supremacist groups?

Legally, the ACLU is being consistent. This is the interpretation of the First Amendment as upheld by the Supreme Court. The aforementioned defense of absolutism makes legitimate points that have been demonstrated as correct: there is a long-standing trail of political bias in freedom of expression. One recent element comes to mind, and that is a much cited court case against former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen being booted off court after filing a defamation claim, the judge outlining in his decision that what is true can not be defamatory in nature: it is therefore legal to refer to Marine Le Pen as a fascist in the course of political debate. This did not prove that hate speech laws in France criminalizing historically verified facts or the ban on neo-nazi parties in Germany are a violation of a fundamental right. Speech is not, as much as one would like it to be, a fundamental right. It is not cited as an absolute because its very nature can pose a threat. What we consider when curtailing free speech is the imminence and reality of the threat said speech poses, and in that states do in fact exercise quite large discretion in determination and definition. Political positions are threatening if they dissent or attack the powers that be; religious beliefs can be seen as isolating and discriminatory. If we do consider human rights to be universal in both nature and scope, we must define them by what they are not. If we are to believe civil rights should be accessed by all, limit them to what they do not tolerate. If political rights are to be exercised safely and in the interest of the collective, they cannot be extended to beliefs that in nature are threatening and lethal. When it comes to the ghosts of slavery and Nazism, ghosts that are very much palpable and cyclically return to haunt the West, there is no debate. Refusing to tolerate such positions is not a question of specific party membership, or political affiliation. Refusing racial supremacy goes far beyond a flag, a border, or a constitution. It is committing to human rights. We should, and must, draw a line.

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Photo by Zach D. Roberts for Nation of Change.

Polarizing attitudes and the Free Ride Theory

 A rose may be a rose by any other name, but an old professor of mine coined the following concept as the Free Ride Theory, and it applies. The dominant narrative, in both glossed-over history reenactments or modern cinematography is that most French people were in the Resistance, the Vichy supporters were passive opportunists, the vote to grant Marshal Pétain full powers all but ignored. This was not the case. A small portion of the population was, in fact, supporting the Vichy regime; held anti-Semitic views; called for the end of Front Populaire policies; believed the Reich could restore order and glory to the fading empire. Another small faction found itself on the other side of the spectrum: they joined the Résistance, engaged in sabotage, conducted counter-intelligence missions, provided safe passage to England, dragged compromised comrades behind enemy lines. The large, vast majority was neither. To support Pétain was to support beliefs that could be unpalatable for many; to join the Résistance was to take incalculable risks. Activism was lethal, and for many, the decision was made for them: communists, Jews, gays, pacifists, artists, they would have died regardless. They were young, had no families to feed, and so many found themselves with the need to follow in exile, or simply rejected resistance because they rejected conflict.

When Paris was liberated in August 1944 and General De Gaulle marched on the Champs-Elysees, people rejoiced, cheered, embraced the Allied troops, whether they had been pro-actively engaged in their victory or had hidden in their rooms waiting for the war to end. The latter, according to my professor, benefited from the actions of a few: they were freed without having seen concentration camps, without having lost a limb or a relative. They rejoiced despite not sacrificing anything in the battle. It was, to him, the free ride all passengers on the merry-go-round win if one child grabs the prize. One fights for the many – and the many claim the same prize as the one. It’s the rule of activism: not everyone can contribute to the resistance as much as the other, but all must win. It is a basic fact of socio-political frameworks, and it must be understood that not every citizen was going to be physically present in Charlottesville, VA over that fated weekend during which fundamental values were tested in an almost unprecedented fashion.

But there is something to be said about commitment to those fundamental values, and to this extremely recent need not to polarize, not to draw lines, not to erect barricades, to compromise. Barack Obama was praised as a Democrat president for reaching across the aisle when most had elected him on a quite progressive platform. This created resentment, bitterness, a feeling of betrayal on the less centrist side of the Democratic party. What’s fundamental is however, by definition, not a question of bipartisanship. It is about collective identity: it is not about local policies or electoral cycles. Those values are often written (or described) in constitutional texts. As such, the United States will hold its First Amendment as a fundamental that cannot be taken away from any American. It however does not say that other American must consider this particular exercise of speech as of equal value to, say, the fight for universal health care, or a Gawker article.

Everywhere, human rights are under attack. They were held as a breakdown in national identity during the Brexit referendum. They were defined as responsible for the sharp divide between the presidential candidates in France. They are at the heart of a 5 year-long civil war in Syria. They are denied to millions of refugees in makeshift, sub-par refugee camps in Australia. Under the guise of civility and tolerance, we are accepting their violation as a legitimate political discourse. We are refraining from resisting and encouraging others not to protest them, we are classifying them as a fringe, a phase, a temporary ill to befell our otherwise civilized, evolved, democratic society. They are none of those things and history has proven that by never taking a stand, or by assuming there is a reasonable expectation of equal treatment and republican commitment, we will fail. Later, the fabric of society will be unraveled, slowly undone, until the law no longer protects the vulnerable and the body politic belongs to a violent few.

Now is the time for a strong moral, ethical and legal line to hold against what have constituted the backbone of modern human rights law as we know it. There is no equivalency to be drawn and no position to “agree to disagree” when fundamental rights are so directly at stake and leaders of the movement discuss creating an “ethnostate”. For all the signs that dystopian pop culture has created in the last few years and the success it’s generated – from Black Mirror to The Handmaid’s Tale – the difficulty to translate this generation’s anxieties and fears for the future has not made it onto the streets nor has it formed a substantial support of the recent warning issued by Human Rights Council treaty bodies. An innate and otherwise legitimate denial of violence in any shape or form from centrist corners has yielded passivity, an apathy, lulling vast portions of the population into a false sense of security. Those movements are not “fringe”; they are not “lone extremists”; they are an armed militia, and they have long claimed casualties. For 74% of the attacks committed on US soil to be attributed to extremists in the last 9 years, it is long, long time to show solidarity in disagreement and initiate false parallels. We are who we stand up against.

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About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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