French Thought Police and the Creeping Dictatorship of Virtue

A new French law to combat so-called “fake news” fits in all too well with the growing establishment campaign to censor dissident opinion by one means or another, argues Jean Bricmont. 

By Jean Bricmont

The French government of Emmanuel Macron has introduced a new law to protect the French from “fake news” during election periods. This vaguely drafted amendment to existing press law seems to have been inspired by Macron’s resentment at rumors circulated against him during last year’s presidential election – which didn’t prevent him from winning. Widely opposed by opposition parties from left to right, and by most journalists, this amendment fits in all too well with the growing establishment campaign to censor dissident opinion by one means or another. The main pretext is the copycat Clintonite accusation of Russian “interference in Western elections.”

Applying initially only to election periods, to protect “our democracy”, this attempt to legislate the difference between true and false is a dangerous step in the door toward official censorship. Similar plans to ban “fake news” are brewing on the European level.

The law is superfluous to start with, since the existing 1881 French press law already sanctions insults, defamation and the artificial creation of panic, such as shouting fire in a crowded theater. But Macron’s government wants to go much farther, outlawing the spread of “false information”, obscurely defined as “alleging or lending credibility to a fact lacking verifiable elements of a nature to make it believable”. (…“une allégation ou imputation d’un fait dépourvue d’éléments vérifiables de nature à la rendre vraisemblable”.)

This definition is both unclear and potentially far-reaching.

To start with, a skeptic could ask what are the “verifiable elements” proving the existence of God, of life after death or of the effectiveness of prayer. There goes religion. How about the “verifiable elements” proving the effectiveness of astrology? There go some popular daily newspaper features. Numerous scientists have raised questions as to the “verifiable elements” justifying psychoanalysis without receiving satisfactory answers. Should psychobabble be banned in the name of combatting fake news?

And what should be done with post-modern French philosophy, whose most famous names take psychoanalysis very seriously and pride themselves on leaping to subjective conclusions? No one proliferates more fact-free assertions than Bernard-Henri Lévy, which so far has not interfered with his position on the board of major media from Le Monde to the cultural channel Arte.

But that’s only the beginning. What do we do with scientific theories that have been advanced without experimental confirmation? For example, string theory in physics and various hypotheses in cosmology.

In fact, many scientific discoveries begin with unproven hypotheses. Better not mention them!

Bernard-Henri Lévy: No one proliferates more fact-free assertions. (CNN Screenshot.)

And what about mainstream media? In one recent news report after another (Skripal poisoning, chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the falsified murder in Ukraine of an anti-Putin journalist, not to mention the responsibility for firing a missile that shot down a Malaysian airliner in July 2014), there is a big difference between the Western version of the facts and that which prevails in Russia, Malaysia, Syria and much of the non-Western world.

A Mental Border with Russia

Instead of Pascal’s “truth on this side of the Pyrenees, and error on the other side”, we would be establishing “truth on one side of the Mediterranean, error on the other”. Or rather, truth exists up to the Eastern border of NATO, with error on the other side. This is no way to advance toward universal understanding. The only way to resolve our differences with the rest of the world is free discussion. Inasmuch as the law against fake news seems to be designed mainly to counter what Western governments describe as Russian propaganda, there is a strong likelihood that it can only enforce the mental border between us and the Russians.

When the independent journalist André Bercoff simply raised a couple of questions concerning anomalies in reports of the amazing rescue by Mamoudou Gassama of a child hanging from a Paris balcony, his own colleagues instantly condemned him for “provoking doubts” and engaging in “conspiracy theories”. The official regulatory agency, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, hastened to open an investigation… of Bercoff. President Macron had invited Gassama to the Elysee Palace, offering him French citizenship and making the event an exemplary national legend. Thus sacred.

It is an odd sign of the times to reproach a journalist for asking questions. Leaving aside the rescue incident, raising questions used to be considered a primary function of journalism. If it is better to let ten guilty persons go free than to imprison one innocent man, in terms of rational scientific method, it is better to have ten extravagant doubts than one unchallengeable dogma.

It is true that what the dominant media call “conspiracy theories”, going everywhere from legitimate questioning of their own narratives and of official assertions to the wildest fantasies, do indeed proliferate on social media. But can anyone believe that describing Bercoff’s doubts as “conspiracy theorizing” will in any way stem that proliferation?

Françoise Nyssen: Public broadcasts must combat reactionary ideas. 

The French Minister of culture, Françoise Nyssen, has decided that public radio and television, financed by taxpayers, should be devoted to combatting French people’s “highly reactionary” ideas, notably concerning “diversity”. Note that Macron’s ruling party, Republic in Movement, considers “reactionary” exactly what was considered progressive only a few decades ago: defense of public services and national sovereignty. Is it legitimate to oblige adults to pay for their own ideological re-education?

I by no means suggest that the current government is consciously intent on installing a totalitarian regime. The problem stems rather from the overwhelming subjectivism of contemporary culture in which talk of “values” leaves little space for concern for facts or objectivity. This is increasingly true even in discussions of scientific or technical progress. Of course, legislation cannot be fully objective, but since the Enlightenment reflection on freedom, the ideal has been to seek to establish reasonable rules to protect the individual from arbitrary power. This rule applies particularly to freedom of expression.

Those who speak endlessly of their values are merely trying to show off their own moral superiority. That is the basis of the corruption of the legal system in the matter of “fake news”, the reaction to Bercoff’s doubts, and the crusade of Madame Nyssen against what she considers “reactionary ideas”. Once a group of people convince themselves that they embody Virtue itself thanks to their “values”, they become unable to perceive any legitimate grounds for limiting their own power. That could be called the totalitarianism of the naïve.

This article originally appeared on RT’s French-language site. It was translated and adapted by Diana Johnstone. 

Jean Bricmont is professor of theoretical physics at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), and author of numerous articles and books, including Humanitarian Imperialism, La République des Censeurs,and Fashionable Nonsense (with Alan Sokal).

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28 comments for “French Thought Police and the Creeping Dictatorship of Virtue

  1. June 15, 2018 at 6:06 am

    “I by no means suggest that the current government is consciously intent on installing a totalitarian regime.”

    I would. Totalitarianism is the logical end point of the postmodernist/neoliberal/globalist ideology.

  2. anastasia
    June 13, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    This is truly Brave New World type stuff. So scary

    • susan sunflower
      June 13, 2018 at 5:56 pm

      it tends to be remarkably ineffective …. you may be too young, but both “Year Zero” (Pol Pot, Cambodia) and “the Cultural Revolution” became reigns of terror but also, by their excess, by both the potent enemies and martyrs made, they delegitimized their claim to leadership.

      In both Iran (under the Shah) and Iraq (Saddam) “national security” consumed the government’s budget … didn’t really need an external “enemy” ….. The Soviets weren’t alone in also created an “open-air prison” of informers and surveillance

  3. susan sunflower
    June 13, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    Having watched my home country, USA, abandon “American Values”, “Christian values” and largely “humanitarian values” over the last 30-40 years at accelerating pace (Reagan as accelerant) while I can wish the French good luck, I hope they are paying attention to status-quo neoliberalism-mongerers struggle to inspire anyone about much of anything after largely losing ground … except for feel-good identity politics victories (that seem in danger of roll-back and re-litigation … see also abortion.
    “Your Virtue Will (probably) Not Protect You” may be hard to swallow, particularly in a still largely Catholic Country … it’s important to avoid taking the vigorous cheers and applause from the choir (your team, the status quo) and the too frequent silence coming from the mob outside. The American Democrats could “count on” the support of the African American and other POC voters…. too many disappointments and that “sure bet” audience of supporters are weary.
    Neoliberalism is very hard to tweak to look generous or responsive or “liberal” or egalitarian (because it’s largely the opposite) …

    I remember “Buy American” campaign from the 1970s, particularly trying to save the American clothing industry; I remember there never being much of a “boycott China” campaign because out of the gate too many of America’s richest retailers had already sold American manufacturers down the river …

    I hope the French are watching the Democratic Party’s difficulty in resurrecting “American Values” (that I largely grew up believing in) even in the current era — it’s very hard to “believe” in democracy with the both-sides-do-it chicanery, voter suppression/voter roll scrubbing, gerrymandering, false resumes and criminal pasts, and even the banality of much identity politics or special interest pandering … Joe Arpaio and other loathsomes, as well as machine politics toadies of both parties.

    Neoliberalism is a straight jacket of “you can’t get there from here” …. Zizek, years ago, had a line about how never in our history have we been told of endless breakthroughs and innovations, possible miracles and at the same time been told they’re not available to you (too expensive) … Yes, work 3 jobs (low unemployment) to make the salary you earned at your peak …. to exhausted to shop as a perk.

    Religious influence has vanished …. to no appreciable benefit …

  4. Seamus Padraig
    June 12, 2018 at 12:19 pm

    “The problem stems rather from the overwhelming subjectivism of contemporary culture in which talk of ‘values’ leaves little space for concern for facts or objectivity. This is increasingly true even in discussions of scientific or technical progress.”

    It’s actually been true for a while now. Anybody else here remember the Sokal Hoax of the 90s?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

  5. Piotr Berman
    June 12, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    “alleging or lending credibility to a fact lacking verifiable elements of a nature to make it believable”

    Bizarre indeed. My understanding of “verifiable”, as opposed to “verified”, is that there is a method that could verify a statement (I would not call it a “fact”). Since the law is not inspired by metaphysics or psychoanalysis, one should consider what does it mean in terms of controversies like Scripal affair. The argument (a proof according to “some people”) that the government of Russia performed an “chemical attack on British soil” had roughly those elements: only Russia had all three: ability to produce the chemical that was involved, motivation and “necessary brutality”. But one commentary in NYT doubted the motivation and theorized that Putin did it just for the heck of it. Would it be sanctioned under the new French law, or rather the statements on the unverifiable motivation would? And how to verify the lack on the necessary brutality on the part of other governments that had the ability to produce the chemical? In the meantime, the mere ability to produce the chemical was proven to be far from unique.

    Does it mean that indulging in such speculation would be, by law, restricted to persons enjoying immunity, say, diplomatic?

    In the same time, an organization within EU that aims to fight “fake news” complains that it lacks sufficient resources to combat fake news, and as an example it asserted that majority of posts on social media concerning Scripal affair followed “Russian narrative”.

    Another interesting element is that “conspiratorial fake news” often conjecture a role of secret agencies that is “verifiable” if we allow the access to secret documents, but that access is not legal so perhaps such speculations are “unverifiable” in the intention of this law. But governments themselves invoke secret documents that they cannot disclose. But actually they could, so for them it is verifiable, but not for hoi polloi who lack such privileges and should keep their mouth shut.

  6. backwardsevolution
    June 12, 2018 at 2:54 am

    Jean Bricmont – good article.

    “Once a group of people convince themselves that they embody Virtue itself thanks to their “values”, they become unable to perceive any legitimate grounds for limiting their own power. That could be called the totalitarianism of the naïve.”

    Here’s how I see it: once a group of people can successfully convince you that they are merely acting out of some pie-in-the-sky “values” and you fall for it, that could be called the downfall of the naive.

    These guys are used to doing whatever they want and they don’t ask permission. When their plans don’t work out well for the citizens, as they almost never do, they pretend that they didn’t know what would happen, and then they ask for forgiveness. Meanwhile, they’ve become a lot richer and your country is destroyed.

    This is a war between the elite class (who do have an agenda) and the working class (who have no agenda at all). It is a war between the globalists (multinational corporations and their bought-and-paid-for media and politicians) and the nationalists (who want to maintain their own cultures, sovereignty, provide jobs for their citizens, and concentrate on their own country).

    The TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) was an agenda they had that would have shipped more jobs overseas. The migration crisis in Europe is also part of their agenda; it’s not just happening out of the blue.

    The problem for them is that people are starting to realize that the elite’s agenda is never good for them and the prey are starting to get uppity, to ask questions.

    Nothing good can come from allowing them to shut down free speech. Do not let them.

  7. backwardsevolution
    June 12, 2018 at 2:07 am

    Saw a quote the other day: “We have a First Amendment in this country because there is a Second Amendment.” Think about it.

    The elite must be getting worried. Even George Soros is saying that things aren’t turning out like he’d planned they would, and you can see the concern on his face. These elite have had a wonderful time the past thirty or forty-odd years: favorable governments that they have purchased, favorable laws that they have lobbied hard for, an owned media, great fortunes amassed, inequality everywhere, a surplus of cheap labor. Who would want to lose that by allowing the rabble to discuss openly who is causing their demise? You’d want to shut down that type of speech. It’s actually dangerous to the elites.

    They are used to flying false flags all over the place and getting away with it. They are used to telling lies like we’re sending your jobs overseas, but, don’t worry, there’s going to be tons of new well-paying jobs to take their place. Not! If the average guy starts questioning these things too much, how the hell are they supposed to rip you off? They can’t.

    No, they want you believing that democracy is alive and well, that you actually have a “say”. They want you to believe that getting rid of fake news is for “your” protection.

  8. Typingperson
    June 12, 2018 at 12:26 am

    Hmmm. So news orgs pushing the Russiagate nonsense–backed by not a shred of evidence nor actual, verifiable fact–will be the first targets of the Macron government’s crackdown on “fake news”. Right?

    The stupidity of this new edict–and Macron”s cynicism and corruptness in introducing it–are self-evident. Where is Mark Twain when we need him?

    France doesn’t have much of a democracy if the government must resort to banning oppositional viewpoints. Or if a foreign government can sway a national election–per the USA and now French governments’ still baseless claims–with a few thousand dollars spent on Facebook ads.

    We here in the West are going down the rabbit hole fast. What bizarre and sinister nonsense.

    • rosemerry
      June 18, 2018 at 6:10 pm

      I have noticed the “land of human rights” does not have free speech-the criticism of Israel is “antisemitism” while islamophobia is encouraged and the widespread demonization of Russia even in “sports” papers is almost universal.

      • Anne Jaclard
        June 20, 2018 at 2:35 pm

        That’s why American-style First Amendment protections are better than hate speech laws- however well-intentioned, they are always used to attack the far left and shut down critical voices on foreign policy, using the presence of a few “terrorists” or white supremacists as an excuse. With the way Europe is heading right, who knows? Will they be redefined to mean “hate” against whites?

  9. mark
    June 12, 2018 at 12:13 am

    Why not just set up a Ministry of Truth?

  10. Jeff
    June 11, 2018 at 8:27 pm

    You knew it was coming to this when they started to call RT/Sputnik propaganda. I read some notes from a long time (30+ years) American resident of Asia who comes back to the US every year for a refresher wherein he notes that Americans seem to have a worldview totally divorced from reality. They are divorced from reality because the MSM in the US is largely a propaganda echo chamber telling us how great we are and not what’s really happening.

  11. susan sunflower
    June 11, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    Truth Out: Exiled From DC, Steve Bannon Is Stoking the Racist Right in Europe

    https://truthout.org/articles/exiled-from-dc-steve-bannon-is-stoking-the-racist-right-in-europe/

    Guardian: If Trump wants to blow up the world order, who will stop him? Yanis Varoufakis

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/11/trump-world-order-who-will-stop-him

    I was amused by the controversy about Putin’s bouquets of roses to world leaders … objected to for usual reasons … but suggesting a courtly “return to form” in diplomatic courtesies.

  12. Drew Hunkins
    June 11, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    The second they officially denounce Diana Johnstone as a purveyor of fake news is the day I’ve completely had it with the homo sapien species.

  13. F. G. Sanford
    June 11, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    What this really amounts to is the criminalization of suspicion. The government is allowed to be suspicious of you, but you’re not allowed to be suspicious of it. Verified “facts” include things like “acceleration due to gravity”, which is still 32 feet/10 meters per second per second. It’s a fact, but they still get upset when folks bring that up. But it ain’t goin’ away, and as long as those videotapes remain available, people are going to be…suspicious.

  14. Stephen P
    June 11, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Here’s something that won’t be reported by our MSM fake News.

    Yemen – U.S. Grants Approval For Genocide

    http://www.moonofalabama.org/

  15. Realist
    June 11, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    The problem with such a law is that it allows the enforcers to simply “define” the truth without ever searching for it. People may then be incarcerated for just bucking the will of authority, not lying, cheating or proffering false narratives. How far does anyone think science would progress if the establishment made certain lines of inquiry verboten because “the issue is already settled?”

    It would be pretty hard to sustain any religion under such an operating procedure. And though it wouldn’t bother me, most people wouldn’t like that. Prove that anything described in anybody’s holy books ever really happened.

    • Typingperson
      June 12, 2018 at 12:40 am

      “People may then be incarcerated for just bucking the will of authority, not lying, cheating or proffer in false narratives.”

      Hmm. Describes Assange and his situation to a T.

      • Typingperson
        June 12, 2018 at 12:41 am

        ?proffering?

        Drat autocorrect!

  16. Jon Dhoe
    June 11, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    Wow. Deliberately worded to confuse: “false information”, obscurely defined as “alleging or lending credibility to a fact lacking verifiable elements of a nature to make it believable”.

    How can a fact lack verifiable elements?

    FACT
    noun
    1. something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
    2. something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.
    3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.

    This the final coup in France?

    https://therulingclassobserver.com/

  17. Tom Welsh
    June 11, 2018 at 2:21 pm

    ‘“…alleging or lending credibility to a fact lacking verifiable elements of a nature to make it believable”. (…“une allégation ou imputation d’un fait dépourvue d’éléments vérifiables de nature à la rendre vraisemblable”.)’

    You left out the most important domain of applicability, and the one on which such a law would have the most crushing effect.

    Politicians’ promises.

    One could look, for example, at everything M. Macron said and promised before his election. How verifiable are those statements? How believable is M. Macron’s good faith?

    Hein?

  18. Joe Tedesky
    June 11, 2018 at 1:29 pm

    Back after 911 MSNBC showed their true self by censoring Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield, and Jesse Ventura. Every bit of the news coverage covering this tragic event of 911 went in lockstep to the governments official story. Little by little America and apparently it’s European counterparts have been moving in the direction of a controlled press. In fact they have won that battle, and now it’s clean up time so as to put all the stray objective opinions to rest. Fake news has accomplished one thing though, and that is we Americans now have our own individual news to shred apart, and yet most of it isn’t even worth the read.

    • Realist
      June 11, 2018 at 3:02 pm

      Such a law will actually entrench “fake news” propounded by the government and the media elites, rather than allowing it to be outed by free investigating and reportage. The act is just plain old censorship wrapped in new buzz words.

      • Joe Tedesky
        June 11, 2018 at 4:46 pm

        I also see fake news as a way of keeping everyone guessing to what is the truth. You have your opinion, and I’ll have mine, is working beautifully due to the doubt put out there. There is no confirmation to the truth, or so it seems. This keeps our country’s citizens divided, and this little trick with fake news is a huge part of their scheme.

        Thanks for the reply Realist, I always take away something of value from your intelligent comments. Joe .

  19. June 11, 2018 at 12:33 pm

    Great article but this caught my attention. “To start with, a skeptic could ask what are the “verifiable elements” proving the existence of God, of life after death or of the effectiveness of prayer. There goes religion.”

    This is not an attack on religion but an attack on censure ship being floated by French and other governments, including our own.

  20. mike k
    June 11, 2018 at 12:21 pm

    The march of authoritarian government continues unabated in the modern world. Free speech is the last barrier against totalitarianism. We lose this precious right at our peril of being hopelessly enslaved by a chorus of Big Brothers around the world.

    When CN goes down, the darkness will be almost complete. That silence will be deadly.

    • Tom Welsh
      June 11, 2018 at 2:23 pm

      The silence will be temporary. Gradually it will be replaced by a distant muttering and roaring, as of millions of downtrodden peasants reaching for their scythes, mattocks and ropes.

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