Three years ago, the French government banned a public service advertisement produced and placed by supporters – friends, families and associations – of children with Down Syndrome. The ad campaign – called “Dear Future Mom” – was an attempt to convince Europeans NOT to abort children diagnosed in utero with the disease. To a normal person – particularly an American or Englishman – this might seem an entirely uncontroversial notion. To the French, however, the ads were highly provocative, as the Wall Street Journal noted two weeks ago:
In France three TV networks agreed to carry it as a public service. The feedback was glowing—until that summer, when the government’s High Audiovisual Council, or CSA, issued a pair of regulatory bulletins interdicting the ad. The regulator said it was reacting to audience complaints.
It wasn’t until after the foundation retained legal counsel, in December 2014, that the nature of the audience complaints became clear. There were only two.
The first objected to the foundation’s antiabortion position generally rather than the ad itself. The other came from a woman who had terminated a pregnancy after receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis. She still mourned that child every day, she wrote. Using the familiar lexicon of contemporary censorship, she added that she found watching the ad “violent.”
The foundation appealed, and the case eventually came before the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court. The council in November affirmed the ban, holding that the ad could “disturb the conscience” of women who had had abortions after a Down syndrome diagnosis.
At first blush, this might seem both ridiculous and authoritarian. What, pray tell, could make the French government think that images of children – CHILDREN! – with Down Syndrome are offensive? Moreover, don’t the French believe in free speech? Don’t they consider this bedrock principle of Western Civilization worth protecting, even if it causes some consternation?
Surprisingly enough, the answers to those questions aren’t simple and they have their genesis some four centuries in the past.
When we in the West write and speak of that phrase – “the West” – we often make the mistake of treating it as a singular, indivisible entity, as if the entire history of all Western nations is identical to that of all the others. It is true, of course, that “Western Civilization” is a solidly cohesive concept, a culture derived from the Mediterranean stew of Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian influences and unique among the civilizations on earth. But that’s not to say that the whole of that civilization is homogenous. Indeed, the differences between and among the various component cultures of “the West” can, on occasion be significant enough and important enough to place them on opposite and irreconcilable sides of specific questions or policies.
At the risk of radically oversimplifying the distinctions between components of the West, one of the greatest and most relevant divisions exists between the Anglo-American culture and the continental culture. This division has many causes and many ramifications, from England’s unique history as an island nation to its hasty Reformation. Chief among these differences, though, is likely the course and the influence of the Enlightenment. Again, at the risk of oversimplifying a very complex process, the English reliance on, and deference to, tradition, history, common law and precedent insulated it from some of the more radical features of both the French and the Scottish Enlightenments. The English had a system of governance and of peaceable petition of the sovereign – dating to the Magna Carta – that not only influenced its greatest thinkers’ ideas about God, man and the state, but also provided a secure and widely-endorsed cultural foundation which precluded much of the Enlightenment’s extremism.
As a result, the Anglo-American tradition was less overtly antagonistic to God and religion, less reliant on rationalism and skepticism, and more connected to the intellectual and philosophical conventions of Judeo-Christian morality. In practice, what this has meant is that the Anglo-American tradition has, more or less, been the dominant driver of the political belief-system we understand as “the Right” or “classical liberalism,” whereas the more radical French-Scottish-continental tradition has been the dominant driver of the political Left, of the Enlightenment-driven rejection of history and of what Burke called “prejudice.”
Consider, for example, that the intellectual progenitor of the Anglo-American post-Enlightenment was John Locke. Locke shared many of the sympathies that would be found amongst the philosophes of the French Enlightenment – especially Voltaire – but his arguments were nevertheless based mostly on tradition. He borrowed heavily from Thomas Aquinas and, in fact, penned a well-respected (but often forgotten) apologia for Christianity, in which he concluded that faith and reason can and MUST coexist in harmony.
Locke’s notions that all “rights” are God-given and therefore indissoluble greatly influenced the American Founders, to the point where Jefferson echoes Locke’s ideas, almost verbatim, in the American Declaration of Independence. The American Constitution – and its Bill of Rights, specifically – formally establishes the principle that man’s rights are derived from the Creator and are thus NOT the gifts of the sovereign and may therefore not be abridged by the state.
By contrast, the intellectual progenitors of the French and Scottish Enlightenments – men like Rene Descartes – actively sought to reduce man’s capacity to reason alone. The French Enlightenment initially pursued the idea of religious pluralism, but quickly turned against religion and “superstition” more generally and Catholicism specifically. Voltaire, of course, insisted that society “écrasez l’infâme,” or “crush the infamous thing” – the thing in question being Christianity – and described God Himself as “a strange king who wanted to test the obedience of his subjects on ridiculous things, and who punished them afterward well beyond their crimes.”
Voltaire, his admirer Denis Diderot, and eventually Jean-Jacques Rousseau greatly influenced the intellectual and aristocratic French and, in large part, inspired the French Revolution, which proved, both in impetus and outcome, to be terribly different from its American counterpart. The leftist French Revolution not only attempted to sweep away the foundations of society, including especially its religion and morality, but also sought to establish a radical regime dedicated not to the rights of man as derived from God, but to the rights of man as established by the collective, by the people whose will constituted the new sovereign.
Note that the absolutism of the American First Amendment (“Congress shall make NO law…”) is absent in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man: “any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, except to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law,” where the law is defined as “the expression of the general will.” The state, in other words, grants and modifies rights in the French-continental tradition, the Creator being a superfluous and likely harmful superstition.
Now, the manifestations of these cultural differences within the West are pervasive, though often subtly so, as the controversy over the “Dear Future Mom” ads demonstrates. In this one incident – paradoxically important yet trivial – we see the differences between Left and Right, Anglo-American and continental, and traditional and Enlightenment in unmistakable detail. The ad asks only that future mothers not kill their unborn children because of a birth defect; that they accept these babies as children of God, damaged, perhaps, but nonetheless deserving of love. The moral principle here is unmistakable – all life is precious. The French state, however, adopts the moral position that the potential harm done to the “feelings” of television viewers is preeminent and trumps even the lives of unborn children. This latter position is morality unmoored from tradition, disconnected from the foundational civilizational principles of the West (from Sophocles to Jeremiah to St. Paul), and derived from the Enlightenment rejection of a God-centered moral universe.
Additionally, and perhaps more relevant to the current Western political tribulations, the French government’s position is a blatant and unapologetic rejection of the right to speech as an eternal and immutable natural right. Rather, the French state – empowered as the representative of the general will, even if that will is expressed by only two people – has decided that the right to speech is superseded by the right not to be confronted by upsetting ideas, thoughts or images.
It is no coincidence that the ad aired elsewhere – including in Great Britain and the United States – without incident and without government notice, much less action. The differences among the factions in the West are both important and longstanding. That’s a lesson we – and those whom we seek to shelter in the protection of “Western” rights – would do well to remember.