“Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.” The words of Edmund Burke seem particularly relevant as we survey the reaction to the murders in Paris last week of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, police officers, and shoppers at a kosher supermarket by three self-proclaimed Muslim gunmen. Millions took to the streets of Paris and other cities carrying banners “Je Suis Charlie” to proclaim their support for the freedom of expression the exercise of which had cost the journalists their lives and to show that the values of the French Republic – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – actually mean something. Needless to say, this was too good an opportunity for the politicians to miss and some 40 world leaders gathered in Paris to join Sunday’s march.
Those present included Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and now President of the European Council, pictured arm in arm with Chancellor Merkel, the current Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz, British prime minister David Cameron as well as leaders from other European and Middle-eastern countries, several of whom are no strangers to imprisoning journalists whose work displeases them. Notably absent was any leading politician from the United States.
Prior to leaving for Paris, Kopacz had said that it was important for Poland to be part of this expression of solidarity with the French. “My presence in Paris is proof of our membership of the free world, which is why I accepted the French President’s invitation to join other world leaders in standing by his side, it is a sign of solidarity,” she said. And from the French President Francois Hollande “Paris is the capital of the world today”, after marching down a Paris street arm in arm with Germany’s Angela Merkel (who appears less than keen on the citizens of Dresden marching to express their concern about the impact of Islam in Europe, not wholly unconnected with events in Paris) and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan.
Except, of course, with the breath taking cynicism which defines the new political elite, they did not actually march anywhere but staged a pretend march in a heavily guarded empty street (picture here). And, if this demonstration of contempt to the electorate was not enough, it was straight back to business with 12 EU countries (France, Germany, Latvia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the U.K.) releasing a call for increased internet surveillance in the interests of “security” before they had even left Paris. Which is rather odd, you might think, since the three gunmen responsible for the Paris murders were themselves well known to the police and had been under surveillance. David Cameron has promised more surveillance powers to the UK security services if the Conservatives win the general election in May although it is clear that existing powers are too open to abuse as it is.
Be that as it may, the true enemy of free speech is not the nutter with a gun – it never has been – but the state which cannot bear criticism, or which seeks on the spurious grounds of security or political correctness to stifle, rather than to engage in, debate and our own self-censorship, whether through fear or a wish not to be seen – whatever our true opinions and, indeed, common sense or the evidence of our own eyes tell us – to be going against the PC zeitgeist. And, what is worse, is how even the young in our universities are increasingly throwing in their lot with the coalition of the thin-skinned and the PC thought police. Universities should be the places where all ideas are freely discussed, not training grounds for tomorrow’s thought police, an issue highlighted in this recent article from the Spectator. This does not bode well for the future of free speech.
Free speech, as I began last week’s piece (Free Speech) has to be an absolute right. It is to be hoped that in most cases folk will not feel the need to engage in gratuitous offence to make their point but if they do, that is simply a price worth paying. And if folk stray beyond that and incite others to actual violence, for example, the criminal law is there to punish. As it is better that a guilty man goes free than an innocent man be imprisoned so it is better that a man be offended than a man be denied free speech.
But back to the march that never was. Being charitable perhaps we should remember the words of Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”