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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Free Speech in the EU: On the Judgement on John Galliano's Anti-Semitism

On March 1, 2011, Sidney Toledano, CEO of the French fashion house Christian Dior, wrote that he was dismissing its chief designer, John Galliano, after the surfacing of a video that showed "his anti-Semitic outbursts at a Paris bar." The word choice of outbursts by The New York Times is interesting, for the actual video shows him in a rather mellow, notably intoxicated, "well you know" mood. The article's writer admits that the designer had used "a slurred voice." Galliano was telling a Jewish couple that they should feel lucky that their ancestors were not killed by the Nazis because so many did not survive. He said ‘‘people like you would be dead,’’ and  ‘‘your mothers, your forefathers’’ could have all be ‘‘gassed.’’ Although applying a rational criterion to a drunk man, I wonder in what sense he meant ‘‘I love Hitler.’’ Considering that Galliano is gay and Hitler sent homosexuals to concentration camps, I suspect that Galliano was lying simply to hurt the couple in what was undoubtedly a back-and-forth in a verbal fight.  Indeed, it takes two to tangle, and the rest of us might do well to recognize the difficulty in interpreting a snipet without having observed the entire contest.

While hurtful and inappropriate even in the midst of a disagreement, Galliano's aversarial comments hardly constituted an outburst, as if he had lost control of himself and thrown his bar table against a wall. Why, one might ask, would a journalist at a major New York paper use a word that (deliberately?) overstates the case against the designer?  Perhaps even in a free society, there is a tendency to gang up on an unpopular, even loathed, minority opinion in a way that distorts the story in order to give occasion for further fulminations. We don't know, for example, what the couple might have said to Mr. Galliano that sparked his vitriole.  Lyes Meftahi, a 38 year old Parisian who runs an audiovisual company, said that Mr Galliano was certainly drunk, speaking slowly and slurring his words. So much for any outburst. Furthermore, the witness said that the designer was keeping to himself and was ‘‘provoked’’ by a woman, who had called Mr. Galliano ‘‘ugly.’’  Mr. Galliano himself was threatened with violence at one stage during the altercation according to Mr. Meftahi. It is difficult for the rest of us to know what happened based on an objectionable snipet.

Rather than defending the designer, whose comments I concur were highly inappropriate (note that I'm applying rationalism again to a drunk person),  I want to contend that the rush to judgment against him had a certain amount of presumption attached. That is to say, we as human beings may tend to presume we are in a position to judge when in fact we are not. Taking ourselves as gods on earth in effect, we tend to assume omniscience rather than limited creatureliness as our mantle. For a part to take itself as the whole is to truncate reality itself into a mere projection of the part. Lest we forget, we are all fallible, even when we judge with apparent certitude.

For example, that Mr. Galliano had "helped to energize Dior after he joined it in 1996 as creative director, increasing sales and making it a jewel of the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury-goods empire" was wantonly or unintentionally tossed aside by Mr. Toledano in what bears all the signs of a rush to judgment. In its statement, Dior said it had ‘‘immediately suspended relations’’ with Mr. Galliano and ‘‘initiated dismissal procedures.’’ It cited the ‘‘particularly odious comments’’ contained in the video. It is as though the weight of history came slamming down on the star designer, suffocating him from even proffering a self-defense before the fall of the guillotine. In the face of this injustice, it might be quelle dommage pour M. Galliano were it not for his own choice of weapon. He undoubtedly esteemed his own faculties too much in assuming he could handle being drunk. Again, human beings do not have as much pith as we tend to think.

To be sure, anti-semitism and racism ought to be relegated to the ash heap following the twentieth century. For all its technological progress, that century was remarkably decadent and stagnant.  In early 2011, the world dared to hope that popular protests sweeping the Middle East might have been ushering in a new progression of freedom in the establishment of republics in what had been autocracies for centuries. Would that region sport the tolerance that is necessary for a free society to truly be free? Can it look to Europe, where certain speech, even in a small group, can get one thrown in prison? According to The New York Times, "French law makes it a crime to incite racial hatred; the statute has been used in the past to punish anti-Semitic remarks."  Yet to incite seems to connote a public broadcasting or speaking format, as in inciting the mob to storm the Bastille (or, as in 1792, the republic's prison filled with aristocrats and clergy--a massacre that Robbespierre denounced as a travesty of the rights of man). Does a person incite hatred against a particular group simply be giving his opinion in a dispute with another person?  The dubious applicability of the French law seems to hinge in this case on treating a private gathering, albeit in a public establishment, as a public (political) event.  Of course, in the United States, even the latter is protected by the first amendment on free speech, but even there hate crimes exist. In the European Union, where speech is punished on account of the Nazi experience, the society looks overly restrictive and unfree, at least from an American perspective. To be sure, the reverse has also been the case. In 1948, for example, the U.S. Government banned showings in the U.S. of the American documentary, Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today, even as Germans were free (and encouraged) to see it in Germany. The American military did not want Americans seeing the Soviets as allies (and the Germans, whose help the American govenment was then seeking against the Russians, as enemies). It is precisely such a proclivity that the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to thwart. The human species is insufficiently equipped to be able to curtail innate freedom effectively.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/02/fashion/02dior.html?pagewanted=1&sq=john galliano&st=cse&scp=2

See related essay (essentially completing the wider argument)  in this blog: http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2011/03/westboro-churchs-anti-gay-and-john.html