The Perils of Rigorous Skepticism

Like any good eighteenth century Englishman, the poet William Blake (1757-1827) didn’t like the French. It was their rigorous skepticism that often veered into ridicule and mockery – and he thought the Enlightenment was a big mistake. They started that, and the idea that we could figure out the world on our own, all of it, through observation and logic based on those observations – the new scientific method that was all the rage – appalled William Blake. Where’s the wonder in that? What about God? What about faith?

Blake, however, didn’t take a packet-boat across the Channel and shoot up a bunch of irreverent people in Paris, for mocking God. He wrote a poem instead:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,

And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

That’s one response to mockery, or what seems like mockery – dismiss those who mock what you know to be true. The truth will remain the truth no matter what they say. They’re not worth thinking about, especially if they’re French – but there was no stopping the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which among other things led to our American experiment in democracy. That was a product of the Enlightenment. Men could govern themselves, using reason, all on their own – what God said was interesting, and perhaps uplifting, but it was rather irrelevant. It was our job to figure out, among ourselves, how best to order civil society, and to keep working on it as circumstances changed. That’s our job. God had other things to do.

Some people don’t see it that way – about half of the Republican Party, for example – the evangelicals and other social conservatives, and Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court – forever talking about what God intended and telling everyone else they’ve completely misunderstood what the Constitution actually says, if you read between the lines. They don’t like science either, or reason – that stuff is just the puffery of human pride, and pride is a sin and an affront to God, and so on. The laws we pass to order civil society should reflect and enforce God’s will, as we humble ourselves before Him.

Madison and Franklin and Jefferson and all the rest, products of the Enlightenment and Men of Reason, would be appalled at such thinking, but America is by far and away the most overtly religious modern nation, ostentatiously so. We’ve had our loud and insistent evangelicals with us from the beginning, with tent meetings and Great Awakenings and the Scopes trial. That’s as American as apple pie – and these folks would like that Blake poem. Israel’s tents do shine so bright, no matter if someone says Happy Holidays not Merry Christmas each December, and the French are awful people too. Somehow that got mixed up in this too.

That might be because when the French had their revolution in 1789, what with France being the home of the Enlightenment, they took its premises far more seriously than we did. Church and state were completely separated and they never argued about it again. Each does its thing, indifferent to the other. Americans might find this odd, or refreshing. Yes, France is nominally Roman Catholic, but if its citizens take that religion seriously, that remains a private matter. It isn’t a private matter over here – ask any politician – but over there Voltaire and Rousseau won the day, and their tradition of rigorous skepticism lives on.

That may have reached its height with the existentialists in the fifties – Sartre and Camus arguing that life is inherently absurd, with no demonstrable a priori meaning, so you have to create your own meaning – a terrible burden but real freedom, without illusions. That way of thinking is as French as tarte Tatin – their version of apple pie – and many Americans just don’t get it. Are these French people ridiculing and mocking religion? William Blake thought so. The French would say they weren’t, it’s just that reason and rigorous skepticism are very good things too. Those are what define who you are. Descartes said so – “I think, therefore I am.” This has been going on a long time.

Of course one thing leads to another. Rigorous skepticism does tend to veer into subtle ridicule and mockery – “Ridicule is a 1996 French film set in the 18th century at the decadent court of Versailles, where social status can rise and fall based on one’s ability to mete out witty insults and avoid ridicule oneself” – so there’s a nasty tradition here. It’s a very French thing, which William Blake hated, and it’s also a modern thing, and someone has had just about enough of that:

Shouting “God is great” in Arabic, masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical magazine Wednesday, killing 12 people including the magazine’s editor, his bodyguard and prominent cartoonists.

Police said two or three hooded attackers armed with assault rifles infiltrated the building near the Bastille monument around 11:40 a.m. local time and opened fire on a staff meeting at the magazine Charlie Hebdo. The weekly publication has published controversial depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad that angered Muslims around the world.

The gunmen went to the second- and third-floor editorial offices and separated male and female members of the staff, calling out names of the journalists they were seeking, a doctor who treated survivors reported. After shooting dead 12 people — eight journalists, two policemen, a visitor and a maintenance man, the gunmen fled, authorities said.

William Blake only wrote a poem. These guys don’t do poetry, but they did hit at a core French value:

French President Francois Hollande addressed the nation Wednesday night, vowing to see the perpetrators captured and punished.

“Freedom will always be stronger than barbarism,” Hollande said, adding that France has always been able to overcome difficulties and counter assaults on its most dearly held values.

That would be the one’s ability to mete out witty insults and avoid ridicule oneself, but others aren’t impressed:

Video shown by public broadcaster France Televisions showed two gunmen in black outside the magazine offices after the shootings, firing at random down a narrow cobblestone street flanked by apartment and office buildings.

“Hey! We avenged the prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo,” one of the men could be heard shouting in French in the televised video.

Yeah, well, the Enlightenment isn’t dead yet:

As evening fell, thousands of demonstrators gathered in historic Place de la Republique to show their anger, sympathy and solidarity with the assassinated journalists. Some lit candles, others raised copies of the magazine or simply held pens aloft to show their support of the cartoonists who died.

President Obama condemned the attack and promised French officials any help needed to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world,” the president said in a statement. “France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offers the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers.”…

The reformist Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA issued a statement saying it “categorically condemns the barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, and mourns with the families of the victims.”

“Nothing justifies this barbaric and inhumane attack,” said Nasim Rehmatullah, national vice president of the community. “Islam and Prophet Muhammad teach that life is sacrosanct and specifically forbids any worldly punishment for blasphemy. The culprits behind this atrocity have violated every Islamic tenet of compassion, justice, and peace.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations also denounced the slayings.

The UN, the Brits, the Russians and everyone agreed – the Enlightenment wasn’t all that bad – even if these folks were irreverent:

The magazine has incurred the wrath of Muslims in general and Islamist militants in particular for caricatures that included the prophet Muhammad naked and in a wheelchair pushed by an Orthodox Jew.

The last tweet by the magazine before the attack displayed a cartoon depicting Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.

They didn’t take seriously what others take seriously, and they died, and Ezra Klein says this:

Yes, Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that delighted in controversy and provocation. Yes, it skewered religion and took joy in giving offense. Yes, the magazine knowingly antagonized extremists — Charlie Hebdo’s web site had been hacked and its offices firebombed before today; French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had asked of its cartoons, “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” And yes, Charlie Hebdo’s editor said in 2012, prophetically, that “I prefer to die than live like a rat.”

But this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.

What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won’t be found in Charlie Hebdo’s pages. They can only be found in the murderers’ sick minds.

Klein cites Max Fisher here writing about the famous “Love is Stronger than Hate” cover picture, a drawing of two men kissing, a terrorist and a cartoonist:

Part of Charlie Hebdo’s point was that respecting these taboos strengthens their censorial power. Worse, allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists’ premises: that free speech and religion are inherently at odds (they are not), and that there is some civilizational conflict between Islam and the West (there isn’t).

These are also arguments, by the way, made by Islamophobes and racists, particularly in France, where hatred of Muslim immigrants from north and West Africa is a serious problem.

And that is exactly why Charlie Hebdo’s “Love is stronger than hate” cover so well captures the magazine’s oft-misunderstood mission and message. Yes, the slobbery kiss between two men is surely meant to get under the skin of any conservative Muslims who are also homophobic, but so too is it an attack on the idea that Muslims or Islam are the enemy, rather than extremism and intolerance.


Allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists’ premises. That was true in the criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s covers, and it’s even truer in today’s crimes.

Maybe they did go too far, however – really offending otherwise good people with deeply held religious beliefs – except that Jonathan Chait follows that logic:

On the one hand, religious extremists should not threaten people who offend their beliefs. On the other hand, nobody should offend their beliefs. The right to blasphemy should exist but only in theory.

They do not believe religious extremists should be able to impose censorship by issuing threats, but given the existence of those threats, the rest of us should have the good sense not to risk triggering them.

The line separating these two positions is perilously thin. The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome. The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

That actually makes sense, because it doesn’t makes sense, but the Middle Eastern scholar Juan Cole sees something else going on here:

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination. …

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophohbic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.

That anagram is explained here and Jean-Marie LePen and his daughter are to France what Pat Buchanan and Sarah Palin are to America. This may have been a provocation, or, as Time’s James Poniewozik explains, it may be more of the same:

Terrorism, by definition, is never just aimed at its direct victims. The slaughter in Paris was aimed at every news organization that now has to decide whether to show the cartoons. It’s aimed at anyone who reports the next story like this. The Sony hack was aimed at anyone considering another movie that might offend radicals. (Already, one thriller about North Korea has been cancelled in advance.) It’s all aimed at any media corporation that looks at the headlines of shootings and hacking, thinks of the danger, however remote – not to mention the potential legal liability – and decides, you know what, it’s not worth the trouble.

And it works. That’s not the inspiring, uplifting thing I want to say right now. But unless all of us reject the kowtowing and the playing-it-safe, it absolutely has worked and will work again.

Alyssa Rosenberg sees the same thing:

These are difficult equations of governance and freedom; how to express respect for the beliefs of others without sanctioning attacks on those who offend those beliefs; how to exhort private individuals and companies to courage, while also protecting anyone who might suffer as a result of their actions. And as we experiment with our calculations, we reach different and unpredictable results. In the United States, “The Interview” has inadvertently become an advertisement for a new model of movie development, netting $31 million in online sales and rental fees. It’s as much a lesson about commerce as about courage. But in France, at least twelve people are dead.

In the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the hack of Sony Pictures, we see the costs of making provocative art and protecting the people who make and distribute it. But we shouldn’t let these consequences blind us to the very high price we would pay for backing away from such a defense: a grayer, duller, smaller society, in which much milder challenges to orthodoxy and taste are met with ugliness and violence.

That’s what we have our Tea Party for, but Slate simply reprints Christopher Hitchens’ reaction to the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy back in 2006:

Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet – who was only another male mammal – is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find “offensive.”

George Packer, in the New Yorker, puts that this way:

Because the ideology is the product of a major world religion, a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam. Some well-meaning people tiptoe around the Islamic connection, claiming that the carnage has nothing to do with faith, or that Islam is a religion of peace, or that, at most, the violence represents a “distortion” of a great religion. (After suicide bombings in Baghdad, I grew used to hearing Iraqis say, “No Muslim would do this.”) Others want to lay the blame entirely on the theological content of Islam, as if other religions are more inherently peaceful – a notion belied by history as well as scripture.

He’s not buying it:

A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents. Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique. Charlie Hebdo had been nondenominational in its satire, sticking its finger into the sensitivities of Jews and Christians, too – but only Muslims responded with threats and acts of terrorism. For some believers, the violence serves a will to absolute power in the name of God, which is a form of totalitarianism called Islamism – politics as religion, religion as politics. “Allahu Akbar!” the killers shouted in the street outside Charlie Hebdo. They, at any rate, know what they’re about.

Then it gets complicated:

These thoughts don’t offer a guide to mitigating the astonishing surge in Islamist killing around the world. Rage and condemnation don’t do the job, nor is it helpful to alienate the millions of Muslims who dislike what’s being done in the name of their religion. Many of them immediately condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo – in tones of anguish particular to those whose deepest beliefs have been tainted. The answer always has to be careful, thoughtful, and tailored to particular circumstances. In France, it will need to include a renewed debate about how the republic can prevent more of its young Muslim citizens from giving up their minds to a murderous ideology – how more of them might come to consider Mustapha Ourrad, a Charlie Hebdo copy editor of Algerian descent who was among the victims, a hero. In other places, the responses have to be different, with higher levels of counter-violence.

But the murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend – against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.

We should all practice rigorous skepticism then, even if we are, now and then, told that it’s un-American, or even French of all things, and even if the price is sometimes high – and mockery and ridicule are fine too, even if Bill O’Reilly is perpetually angry at Jon Stewart. O’Reilly will be fine. He’s a big boy. William Blake might not have liked the Enlightenment one bit, but he’s dead, isn’t he? The Age of Reason doesn’t have to be.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Perils of Rigorous Skepticism

  1. Russell says:

    Surely one of the most thoughtful expressions on a day of tragedy.

  2. Rick says:

    A few things I wanted to mention.

    First of all, maybe you have been curious, as I have, how this reportedly left-wing publication got its name. According to Wikipedia, its name was…:

    …derived from a monthly comics magazine called ‘Charlie Mensuel’ (‘Charlie Monthly’), which had been started … in 1968. Charlie took its name from Charlie Brown, the lead character of Peanuts – one of the comics originally published in ‘Charlie Mensuel’ – and was also an inside joke about Charles de Gaulle. … (‘Hebdo’ is short for ‘hebdomadaire’ – ‘weekly’)

    And while we’re on the subject of criticizing Islamist religious belief, could someone explain this “Allahu Akbar!” that killers keep shouting after they murder somebody? I know it’s supposedly translated as “God is great!”, but what I want to know is, what do they mean by “great”? There are, of course, at least two different meanings of the word:

    * One is “really, really big”, in which case I’d have to ask, “Okay, God is really, really big, but what’s that got to do with you running around murdering people?”

    * The other is “really, really good”, in which case my obvious question then is, “If God is so really, really good, why’s He telling you to run around and murder people?”

    But also, I must say, nicely done! — especially your take on the differences between France’s and our response to the Enlightenment! We really are two totally different cultures, each with its own history.

    I had always seen the major difference being that our revolution, with no guillotines and such, was less violent than France’s — which I guess can be seen today as ironical, although maybe not so — but there’s always been more to it than that. In fact, you’d think that our country, over here in the new world, should better exemplify the break with old world thinking than one of the countries over there, but that doesn’t seem to be the case on the issue of religion in general (so why are Americans more religious than the French?) but also Muslims in particular.

    What stands out in my recent memory as an example of how France treats its Muslims differently than we do is, for one thing, the controversy several years ago that arose when France banned head-scarves for students — America would never do that — and, for another thing, reports that Muslims in Marseilles, for instance, don’t feel nearly as integrated into French life, and don’t feel as “French”, as Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, see themselves as Americans. This is not to say that something like the Charlie Hebdo murders couldn’t happen here, but if it did, I can imagine many of us here thinking of it as being somehow, well, maybe the sort of thing you’d expect to see in France.

    And not to make too much of our differences — since Obama’s statements yesterday, that France is our oldest ally, really does resonate with me; I like France, and not so much despite Freedom Fries, but partly because of them — but then, there is this observation from Ezra Klein, who stands firmly behind the ideals of Charlie Hebdo:

    Yes, Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that delighted in controversy and provocation. Yes, it skewered religion and took joy in giving offense. Yes, the magazine knowingly antagonized extremists … Allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists’ premises.

    And Jonathan Chait seems to chastise those who might criticize Charlie Hebdo for being a bit too over-the-top:

    On the one hand, religious extremists should not threaten people who offend their beliefs. On the other hand, nobody should offend their beliefs. The right to blasphemy should exist but only in theory. They do not believe religious extremists should be able to impose censorship by issuing threats, but given the existence of those threats, the rest of us should have the good sense not to risk triggering them. … The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

    But therein lies the difference I see between France and America on this.

    While most everyone I know, along with myself, probably are great believers in Freedom of Speech, and certainly hope the bastards who murdered those cartoonists suffer a horrible and bloody fate, I still think a publication like “Charlie Hebdo” would have a hard time even existing in this country in the first place, or at least as anything other than just another whacko-fringe, probably online, rag that hardly anybody in America ever heard of.

    Why? Simply because of a difference in philosophy over here:

    In Judeo/Christian (although not necessarily in that order) America, the thought of telling little Muslim girls that they are not allowed to wear head scarves to school wouldn’t occur to most of us — because here, our own version of the separation of church and state would prohibit it — and similarly, our own concept of Freedom of Speech does not depend for its continued existence on insulting people’s religion, just because we can. It’s one thing to understand that Freedom of Speech allows you to legally say almost any stupid and rude thing that crosses your mind, but that’s not to say you should.

    In fact, to me, the principle of Freedom of Speech is not best served by exercising it to excess, by pushing the envelope of civility and tolerance of those who don’t agree with us; the exercise of freedom is expressed more clearly by a citizenry who doesn’t have to denigrate people they don’t necessarily hate anyway, just to prove some point. Still, I think the French, who are the original coiners of the word “ideology”, have always been quicker to stand behind abstract principle than we have. We Americans think of principle as a boring waste of time, and tend to find other hobbies to occupy our attention — and maybe, sometimes, it’s best that way.

    But none of this, of course, should be taken to mean that I don’t wish those Islamist slugs who did this should burn in hell, assuming I believed in such a place. (Which, I guess unfortunately, I don’t.)


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