Debates on Monday #18
“It is incorrect that I declined an invitation from the President of France to partake in the solidarity march in Paris today,” starts Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s explanation as to why he did not attend said march on Sunday. “In fact,” the statement, published on Facebook, goes on “the President of France did not send any invitation. The night before last, however, I did receive a letter from the French Embassy, wherein they expressed gratitude for support to the French and pointed out that foreign visitors who so wished, could attend the march. That invitation from the French was not declined, on the contrary, measures were immediately taken to ensure that a representative would be present on Iceland’s behalf. I was interested in showing up myself, as the events in France and various related things have had a great effect on me, as on many others. I am sorry that this did not work out, but I am even more sorry to see falsehoods about that steal attention from what matters most: sympathy with the victims and the importance of discussing the foundation of human rights and its defences.”
Sidenote on meaning as tastelessness
Thesis: Any potential response to a terrorist attack lies on a zero-sum axis between the stupid and the tasteless. The axis lies perpendicularly across the divide between the meaning of words and their performance (fig. 1). These days, the Left focuses on sentences with truth-value, i.e. meaning. From the point of view of accomplished linguistic performers, facts can seem tasteless. Meanwhile, the Right emphasises performance, words intended to do stuff, such as channel emotion towards political objectives. From the vantage point of meaning, such performances are stupid.
Let me add a weight on the scale of tastelessness: the response of State officials to a terrorist attack such as the one in Paris last week is about one thing only: power. As proven, time and again, States do not care about lives, as such. States deal in power. When a State declares certain topics off-limit for free expression, for whatever reason, the decree is backed by institutes of power that have learned to impose their rule mostly without any need for death penalties. In current Icelandic law, this goes, for example, for the limits imposed on ridiculing God and other god-like notions. “Jesus was a great lover” is a line which I could, theoretically speaking, be prosecuted for.
I’d probably have to go further than that, though. The only two lawsuits for blasphemy actually conducted in the country, until now, were occasioned by writings in which power figures were ridiculed alongside religious entities. The latter case, in 1983, involved comics, which remain forbidden —the ones hereby illegally republished, above and below these paragraphs. I am not doing anything heroic, they have appeared online before. It is in fact highly unlikely that State authorities would react to such things these days. At the moment, it is a matter of some urgency for any state that wants to count as Western to display its allegiance to at least this aspect of the freedom of speech: the freedom to insult religious entities. They won’t do anything, but they could and they have, and under different circumstances, they very well might again.
By definition, only a State is able to impose its will as it does. All sorts of formalities, all sorts of intricate language games, have been established so that such decrees can be enforced without bloodshed, but the effect remains largely the same as back when kings used to have dungeons and torture chambers. Any non-State actor who wants to grab that sort of power can only do so via a convincing threat of physical harm, even death. If States collectively react to that with a bit of hyperbole, it is not because of the body count, not even for the sake of freedom, but in response to a perceived challenge to their authority.
The fact that States have their own lousy reasons for any particular viewpoint, doesn’t mean that a person would never have other valid reasons for reaching the same conclusion. Jájá, je suis Charlie. But je suis not Charlie for, or along with, you masters of war.
Prime Minister One Shoe
Everyone agrees on the main banalities of the matter: free speech is good, murders bad, and murders as reaction to whatever expression are both absurd and despicable. The rest is etiquette. There being no material disagreement between the two sides playing Charlie-or-not-Charlie, the game can go on forever. We’ve been there before, this is familiar territory. Whatever the importance of marching through it, it is neither pleasant nor enlightening.
Which is why Sunday came as such a blessing: on Sunday, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð did not attend the solidarity march in Paris. The one Merkel did. Obama did not, but regrets it. Cameron was there. The leaders of Israel and Palestine were both there. As were prime ministers or, alternately, top members of most of Europe’s governments, including those of the Nordic countries. Except Iceland. No Icelandic minister attended. Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson was reportedly busy planning his upcoming barber shop conference. Not even Iceland’s Ambassador to France was there —the person representing Iceland was the Ambassador’s stand-in.
I’m not sure if I care or not —as a matter of fact, I’m not sure anyone does. Debating what kept Sigmundur Davíð away is in any case a matter of much less gravity than playing Charlie —one more episode in the sitcom Prime Minister One Shoe. Which is ample reason, right now, to linger on it for a moment. And it certainly is a bit perplexing. According to the logic practiced by Sigmundur Davíð until now, even more than government leaders in general, the Paris march should look like the PR-opportunity of the year. Until now, opportunity is all Sigmundur is about. Even his new year’s address concluded on the word opportunity.
It wasn’t an invitation anyway
In his Facebook statement, quoted above, the minister explains that his absence did not constitute a declination, as such, because a) the offer passed his way was not, technically speaking, an invitation, and b) no one replied to it. They just did not show up. So there. This, predictably, did not settle the matter. People kept asking why. Sigmundur’s ministry then issued a statement, early Monday, citing all sorts of reasons not to go: the notice was too short, the minister’s schedule too tight. His public relations manager even added that “everyone can see that traveling from Iceland is always a bit more complicated than going from Europe. That alone is self-evident.” Icelandair flies KEF-CDG daily. I checked.
Obviously these all fail to be actual reasons. Together they actually constitute a prime example of Freud’s broken-kettle logic, often cited by one Slavoj Žižek: here’s your kettle that I borrowed, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it was broken when I got it anyway. Why did Sigmundur not go then?
Not even the rain is that megalomaniac
According to reports from Paris, no authority figure stood ceremony at the solidarity march: ministers arrived by bus, they say, to take their stand with the multitude on the street, Boulevard Voltaire. (The possibility went through my mind that this is the reason why Sigmundur chose to stay absent: that members of the public were not expected to show him proper respect. But then, that sort of megalomania would be over the top. The thought alone is not polite at all, let alone once put into words. So it remains bracketed.)
Had Sigmundur attended, he would of course have been one more leader targeted as a hypocrite, along the lines of: you who have abused the freedom from expression by clouding your term in office with obscurity faster than any prime minister in recent memory, while your supporters grab the country’s critical media to silence reporters —you will now pose as a defiant champion of the free press? And you intend to pose as “one of the people” while at it? Really?
It would be dishonest, in other words, not to admit that Sigmundur Davíð’s absence in Paris is at least coherent. The Minister even ended his Facebook note, above, by stating his habitual reluctance towards free discourse, as he, once more, chastised the public for speaking about the matter at all: “I am sorry that this did not work out, but I am even more sorry to see falsehoods about that grab attention from what matters most.” What’s the word … consistent. The guy is consistent, gotta give him that.
Since the mid-20th century we have at least two ideas about what words do. The first idea, which has been there all along, is that words carry meaning, which can then prove to be either true or false, according to circumstances. The second, more novel, idea is that words are uttered as a performance, by which they may accomplish something, bring about a different state of affairs than was the case before the utterance.
At times, for example in the Minister’s note above, his use of language fails to mean and perform at the same time. The note’s sentences neither bear any informative content, nor do they accomplish any sort of act. Such complete linguistic failure seems to have become protocol at the ministry: the public relations manager’s reasoning that a weekend trip between Reykjavík and Paris is too complicated for the ministry to orchestrate, obviously has neither any relation to facts, nor does it manage to quiet people, as seems to be the only possible intention behind more or less anything they say these days.
Rumours abound, of course. Or, in any case, a rumour. The rumour cites reasons that most people would not only understand, but might even be a little relieved if confirmed. Or refuted, for that matter. There are facts. Obscured as they may be, the facts of the matter are a matter of fact. That’s the way things jive. Was the minister scared? Was he tired? Is he lazy? Does he feel awkward among crowds? Or did he realise, upon pondering the French Ministry’s welcoming non-invitation, that he cannot consistently be Charlie without, at the same time, being, for example, Reynir Traustason’s DV? Is the minister that coherent? Is he, what they would call, that tasteless?