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22.12.11

Freedom of Ignorant Speech?

Vartan Matiossian
 
The December 21 editorial of The Los Angeles Times, "France Considers Armenian Genocide Bill," continues the American time-honored tradition of taking the First Amendment to the utmost extreme and senselessly complaining about those narrow-minded and headstrong Europeans who do not understand the gist of it.
For starters, the title of the editorial is reasonably misleading. It is not a genocide bill. The French General Assembly passed that bill in 2001 and turned into an official recognition, even though the Senate did not consider it. We are still waiting for a similar bill to be passed by the American Congress. The unending tragicomedy of bills introduced every year to the mercy of the all-powerful Turkish "ally" (who has been telling his will to the Department of State since 1934, since those days when MGM was going to film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh) are just, let's remember it, for a non-binding declaration, nothing more and nothing less. 
It is a good sign that the opening sentence of the editorial says: "The killing of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was an act of genocide. The Holocaust was a fact." But it is absolutely ludicrous to read the following declaration of vacuous pride: "Yet Americans are free to deny the reality of either — or make outlandish assertions of all kinds — without facing punishment by the state." One's freedom ends where another person's freedom starts. However, the American principle of freedom of speech seems not to understand that. If you have a complaint, then go to the courts and argue. Other democracies are more willing to avoid you a trip to the court. They understand that it is reasonable to establish a limit to the amount of "outlandish assertions of all kinds" you can utter. And yet, they are undeniably... free countries.
And yet, the editorial boasts that "residents of France will be denied that privilege if its parliament adopts a wrong-headed bill to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide." A privilege? They have already been denied the "privilege" of denying the Jewish holocaust since 1990, when the Gayssot Act was passed by the French parliament. But the editorial has conveniently forgotten that such a law even exists.
Today, the lower house of the French parliament passed the bill. Whether there are just political reasons behind it or not, it is irrelevant. Two years ago, Turkey and Israel were great friends and the Israeli lobby stood behind every attempt to counteract any Armenian genocide bill in the U.S. Congress. These days, the Knesset has decided to consider such a bill. So, politics is always there, even if moral and historical issues should be at the top of the list.
Of course, intellectual dishonesty is easy to spread. Armenians are not Jewish, while Armenia is not Israel. One wonders whether The Los Angeles Times dared to write a similar piece twenty years ago when the Gayssot Act was passed; we could not find any mention of the act in its website (perhaps the files are not entirely online). But it dares to write now: "France is not the only European country to take a narrower view of freedom of expression than the United States does, but to make it a crime to state a view about history — even an incorrect view — is an especially egregious act of preemptive censorship. Political correctness is one thing when it holds sway in the culture, politics or academe and quite another when it dictates how the criminal law is conceived and enforced." And, thus, they can write black over white: "The reason the French bill deserves condemnation is that it would be a monstrous violation of free speech." 
Still, the newspaper reminds its readers that freedom of expression "isn't some American fetish" and throws in our face article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One wonders again if they have ever heard of something called Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. They would be surprised to know that it was passed 222 years ago by the National Assembly of... France.
The editorial ends by saying that they disagree with the opinion "that the killing of Armenians was not an example of genocide." But they add that it "deserves protection, not punishment"? It is hard to deal with people who play with words. How do you make them understand that this is not a matter of "political correctness"? Would the newspaper be willing to "protect" an article denying the Holocaust by publishing it? Isn't that "freedom of speech" too?
As in the case of the Gayssot Act, this is a matter of fighting outright lies and denial. The president of the Assembly of American Turkish Associations, Ergun Kirlikovali (or someone using his name), graced the "Comments" section of the editorial with a four-part piece of his mind, of which we will only quote two lines: "If passed, this legislation will replace historical scholarship, debate, and dialogue by totalitarian, disciplinarian, and authoritarian laws." How would the writer call the article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code? A demonstration of historical scholarship, debate, and dialogue? Is this twisting of reality what The Los Angeles Times wants to foster?
We must protect freedom of speech. What about the willing exploiters of that freedom? Do we want to protect freedom of ignorant speech?



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