Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Flowers for Voltaire

We went yesterday afternoon to the Pantheon in Paris – walked up the Rue Mouffetard and past the Ecole Polytechnique on the Rue Descartes. We had visited the Pantheon before, and I had a very specific reason for going back this time, which was to leave flowers at the tomb of Voltaire. You remember, good old Enlightenment Voltaire? ‘I disagree with everything you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’. Free expression is under deep attack from the new clericalists (nearly exclusively Islamist when it comes to violence, but with too many Christian, Jewish, and secular progressive fellow travelers, hoping to cash in on fear of Muslim violence against those who offend them with a reversal of the Enlightenment’s great achievement in removing the legal sanction against heresy and blasphemy), on the one hand, and in deep surrender by today’s morally spendthrift, multiculturalist heirs of the Enlightenment, on the other, who frankly have no legitimate claim to the title “liberal.” Voltaire would not recognize those who call themselves ‘liberals’, supposed defenders of universal rights today. Today’s multiculturalists would shut up Voltaire in a hurry, and then hound him from place to place; if he were to find refuge, it would not be in Geneva, but, as in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in the United States – as against the whining of Western, including American, “progressives,” who despise America’s First Amendment, mostly because it is so … liberal.

So I thought I should walk up to the Pantheon to leave flowers at the grave of Europe’s chief historical defender of the principle of free expression. The guard was very kind and let me leave flowers in front of his statute. Actually, there are lots of flowers and notes left at different tombs all over the Pantheon – a lot when we were there for Malraux, Rene Cassin, even some for Jean Monnet. But none that day for Voltaire.

(There is one other person in whose memory I make a point of leaving flowers each time I visit – Bartolome de las Casas, the Catholic monk who was one of the earliest to declare within the Catholic Church and in the teeth of the Spanish monarchy, that the New World’s inhabitants were … human beings. His famous work, Tears of the Indians, is a classic in the history of the development of the idea of liberal and universal human rights. His ancient church is in Guatemala, and when I am in Alta Verapaz, I make a point of going there to leave flowers.)
(The Pantheon, of course, reflects precisely the deeply ambivalent, divided inheritance of the Revolution in France. The great temple of St Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, seized from the French Church following the Revolution and turned into the ‘temple of the nation’ in an act of simultaneous religious desecration and secular sacralization that characterized a revolution defined by Rousseau as interpreted by Robespierre. At least twice it was revived as a Catholic church but then re-seized and returned to secular functions.)