Friday, January 16, 2015
Je Suis Charlie depuis deux jours
Only the Independent targeted the mix of defiance and puerility that combined in Charlie Hebdo's fatal art. That paper's front page illustrated a middle finger lifted from out of Hebdo's yellow background, its own bold frame ready to be dramatized by an inker's touch. That touch died, digit extended, surrounded by blood spilled into or as if red ink.
The New York Times refused to reprint Charlie Hebdo's often juvenile, if sometimes clever in startling or unsettling ways, determinedly satirical cartoons that led to the murders of eight artists, three police (one of Algerian descent), two more dead, and two days later, four Jewish hostages. A Yale UP book on the 2006 Danish cartoons did not dare to include those depictions. With such hesitancy by publications purporting to critically investigate this issue, I fear this leads too much to caution. While understandable, this failure of nerve lest nervousness grow may erode our liberty due to too much tolerance. Inviting discussion, as I sort through journalism, memes, and commentary I've compiled, in ‘Je Suis Charlie depuis deux jours’, (‘I Was Charlie for Two Days’), I share here an array of perspectives as I watched and participated in the spirited discussion and debate. The whole episode spanned two-plus days, but it warped rapidly online.
Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian also asserted that his paper should not reprint the images. From what I can gather, neither the Irish Times nor the Telegraph printed any of them as well. More on that as this essay continues. For now, at least Freedland also covered what in the aftermath of the attacks remains to me tellingly an under-reported aspect. Freedland asks why innocent Jews at a kosher supermarket should be held as if guilty of crimes in Gaza by the IDF. This reductionist ‘blaming the victims’ was also being marshaled to spin the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists' fate. This direction, as far as I could follow, emerged soon after the initial shock many testified to on hearing about the attacks.
First, I noticed my FB feeds and profile photos or friends fill with ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and fellow cartoonists' responses in solidarity. But, a few hours later (at least in the time lag given my ability to call up coverage and my own delay keeping up with the media blitz, for at work I had not even learned of the incident--indicative of my multicultural milieu, for better or worse, avoiding any such discussions), I found another twist. This asserted that while of course we do not justify violence, we feel sorry for those who found the caricatures offensive and racist and despicable, and we deplore their promotion, just as we would any which once darkened the pages of Der Stürmer or a tabloid.
Jay Michaelson issued a progressive's call for ‘maintaining composure in the face of anger. We should not deny the rage we feel at Jews being targeted in a kosher grocery store while they buy wine for Shabbat. That would only make the anger worse. But we should channel it into effective responses with cold, clear reason.’ This is how I first learned of the hostages taken, as this aside. I found no other posts on it, and when I scoured the NYT and LA Times websites, ‘grocery store’ in the latter led the sub-heading. After the sad standoff was over, three killers gained their martyrdom. Four Jewish shoppers had died for the sin of being caught in an ordinary business doing ordinary things hated by those who captured them; nobody else remarked on this directly in media or FB that I saw.
Christopher Hitchens took a nuanced turn on what is not found in a kosher market, and how we live with competing impulses between control and abandon. Back in 2006, he discussed the reaction to ‘the Danish cartoons’ and the refusal of most media to risk sharing them: ‘The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a “holy” book. But I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object.’ Wise words.
Giles Fraser, speaking of sacred fetishes, linked the terrorists to the cartoonists: both as iconoclasts. As for the Enlightenment values, two days before the attacks, the cover star of that week's CH issue, Michel Houellebecq was interviewed about his new novel (released the day of the attacks and at #1 already), which dramatises the buildup to an election in 2022 France when ‘Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.’ He claims that those ideals are lost amidst dead consumerism and capitalism, as Islam rises and perhaps Catholicism might join forces with it against secularism. It has lost its appeal as a counter to the fundamentalist upsurge.
Houellebecq goes on to tell The Paris Review: ‘My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.’ And, ‘Islam is an image of the future. Why has the idea of the Nation stalled out? Because it’s been abused too long.’ No stranger to frank satire, I hope he is safer in Ireland than in his native land these intolerant days.
Jeff Sparrow in Australia considered a satirical cartoon published and then apologized for there during last year's Israeli incursion into Gaza. He asked how many would cheer its anti-semitic stereotypes. He distinguished defense of free speech from condoning the dissemination of such imagery: ‘you don't have to like the project of Charlie Hebdo to defend its artists from murder, just as you can uphold media workers' right to safety without endorsing the imagery they produce’.
Nigel Duara explained that this imagery reveled in a rather sophomoric intent to rankle and irritate, but being French and secular, it tried to raise everybody's hackles. In 2012, The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff, offered what was the only inoffensive cartoon possible. ‘”Please enjoy this culturally, ethnically, religiously and politically correct cartoon responsibly.” It was four black lines. An empty box.' When spaces are illustrated, how much do readers and publishers collude in doing harm by stereotype? In Irish, NÓS recalled the precedents of the Third Reich and of Punch in Victorian England in spreading depictions that we acknowledge as worthy not of satire but contempt.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation balanced the tradition of Swift and Voltaire with a caution about the restriction of rights online and off. The speed of dissemination of the cartoons complicates the role of the press, as no censors or filters can shield journalists in a ‘global field’ where they are now vulnerable. Buzzfeed showed how many British and American press outlets have cropped or blurred CH covers, while others, as noted above, refused to reproduce them.
Michael Deacon at the Telegraph suggested the terrorists did not care about the cartoons themselves, but were using this as ‘bait’ to tempt counter-measures in turn guaranteed to stoke more support for Islamic extremism. Juan Cole popularised a similar thesis that the attacks were part of a canny agenda: “'Sharpening the contradictions' is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.’ In passing I must testify that some on the fringes of the media had accused Israel [and the U.S.] of responsibility under a ‘false flag’ operation smacking of the Reichstag Fire, as the attacks followed France MPs seeking national recognition of Palestine. I wonder if this accusation persisted after Jewish hostages were executed.
Naomi Wolf on social media urged restraint. She shifted blame back at Western hegemony for the anger expressed against CH. Others castigated ‘white privilege’ as indulging in unwise cruelty, goading on Muslims who then lashed back out of pride and solidarity. Others wondered why American policy was not held culpable, and the pro-Israel lobby. These retorts seemed to convince many progressives. For, once the sense of what the cartoons conveyed had been (if briefly) spread on the net (if less so in much of the mainstream press), the insistence that the freedom to publish provocation was weighed against--and found wanting by many on the left--fears of impending crackdown on Muslims by Europeans beholden to NATO and the U.S.
Wolf’s rhetoric and rush of words transmitted expresses this counter-narrative: ‘So now Hollande [thanks, typo corrected] is saying “France is at war with Terror” and this exactly echoes the “global war on terror” and “we are in a war footing” language that let Bush and Obama strip an open civil society at peace of every liberty and launder billions into untraceable “War” black holes. Worst of all is the way the open peacefulness of Europe is going to be shifted into constant terror hype fearmongering and militarization with continual attacks on civil society from the state. Beware beware France you have a far worse threat facing you than terror attacks!’
Oireachtas Retort listed a litany of ‘recent curtailments of freedom of expression’ in Ireland by the media and the government, exemplifying how nations less directly involved in the struggle between Islamism and secularism also encourage compliance to the norm as imposed by censorship and ignorance. For me, having the ability to seek out offensive content is as important as having the option to choose not to seek it out. I want to decide for myself, not thanks to a mullah or mogul.
Socialist Worker issued a SWP statement: ‘The media present Charlie Hebdo as simply a “satirical magazine”. But it is not the French equivalent of Private Eye as some commentators have suggested. It may have been once, but it has become a specialist in presenting provocative and racist attacks on Islam. That does not justify the killings, but it is essential background.’ This summed up another line of counter-attack, placing the Parisian crimes within a wider geopolitical, and right-wing dimension and equating Islam with a ‘race’-based polity. This to me feels at odds with what Malcolm X saw on his hajj to Mecca, when he witnessed blue-eyed and fair-skinned pilgrims join those of many ethnicities to fulfill their Islamic duty, I note in passing.
Simon Schama reminded readers of the history of satire against potentates, pontiffs, and princes as part of European progress. After all, the liberating dimension aligning humanist opposition and secular confrontations against those who rule in the name of gods from above or of the market also merits mention. ‘The horrifying carnage at Charlie Hebdo is a reminder, if ever we needed it, that irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom. I suppose it is some sort of backhanded compliment that the monsters behind the slaughter are so fearful of the lance of mirth that the only voice they have to muffle it is the sound of bullets.’ He upholds a ‘right to ridicule’, against those who send in clowns.
Joe Sacco began by mourning his fellow cartoonists. Then he reflected on their foolhardiness. This caught the double-take of many like him in the media, a day or so after the attacks, when initial ‘Je Suis Charlie’ posts and candlelit rallies with ‘Not Afraid’ blended with the second opinions of those who realised that the responses of Muslims angered by the cartoons might be taken more seriously than those of a more privileged, and therefore suspect, class of intellectuals and humanists, and those on the right who sought any opportunity to stoke anti-Islamic slogans and actions, from the Western ‘white’ world. This did, however, tend to polarise responses, as if none in the Muslim world, wherever that spans, objected to the murders and celebrated dissent.
Andy Borowitz tweeted: ‘I guess one part of their plan that the terrorists didn't think through is now Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are being seen by millions around the world instead of a few thousand in Paris.’ While this tweet was shared by those pleased by this, others reacted that mockery had met with revenge. And some of these did not seem overly displeased by this, even as they averred that the cartoonists did not merit death for art. Their riposte echoed: what right does the colonial have to ridicule the colonist?
David Brooks at the NYT may differ from that paper's editors. He chided a double standard. ‘Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.’ I made this same point before I read Brooks. I also wonder: many Irish a fortnight ago were angry at the BBC proposing a comedy about the Famine. How far can we push the limits of what we may find funny, but not others? Americans usually have fewer legal restrictions than elsewhere but socially, pressure continues to discourage many ‘offenses’. In Britain, ‘incitement’ is illegal for speech deemed leading to racial hatred; also, laws applying to all must be distinguished from codes applying, fairly or not, on a campus that tries to police itself apart from rest of society.
Ross Douthat takes up a defense of blasphemy. Although he and Brooks are the conservative minority at the New York Times, their stance encouraging opinions and depictions with which they disagree sustains a type of principle many liberals back away from taking to its uncomfortable limits, in a time when tolerance and sensitivity are urged, and when everyone is jittery about spreading hate. Yet, for reasons of public order and concomitant discretion in diplomatic rhetoric, this divergence from frank talk can echo when our politicians decry in Paris ‘terrorism’ without naming its context more specifically. This is another way we dance around the suppression of freedoms in the Islamic heartland. There is a ‘squeamishness,’ as Douthat's article links to in other journalism, about how many react. Part of the problem is that culture, religion, identity are all wrapped up into a massive package labelled ‘Islam’ differently than much of the secular realm, where many of us try to set religion into a category apart.
Here we turn to those not from Europe but from the Islamic world who have protested its ideology. While I raised this in exchanges with those on the left who took the ‘CH had it coming’ side, my claims that those in Islamic regimes also faced incarceration, torture, and death met with no reply other than that free speech used in such excess unwisely egged on those who, outraged, lashed back. I also challenged those sympathetic to Islamism to account for the crackdowns on those from Islamic nations who expressed opinions similar to CH. Could they be denigrated as ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’? The pro-Islam, and somewhat anti-secular response, from those who some on the left supported is typified by this blog post, shared from Al Javieera: ‘One can condemn violence and at the same time sustain a critical stance against Charlie Hebdo. One can condemn the “asymmetric warfare” of masked gunmen and also reject racism, tyranny, and hate. One can denounce cold-blooded massacres while also unsubscribe from the horrible, orientalist titillation of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the mental passivity of liberalism.’
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who knows firsthand the price paid by those who provoke Islamist power, fled her Somali homeland and then from the retaliation she faced after Theo Van Gogh was murdered and she went into hiding in her adopted Holland. Therefore, she feared capitulation once more. She urged the media to reprint the cartoons. It was our duty to stand up against forces sympathetic to jihadists: ‘The more we appease, the more we indulge, the more emboldened the enemies of freedom become.’
Salman Rushdie, who escaped a sentence of death, invoked as if in Islam's name, concurred in his statement. ‘Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. “Respect for religion” has become a code phrase meaning “fear of religion.” Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.’
Maryam Namazie agreed. She cites Raif Badawi's flogging with the first round of 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia as one of many abuses and threats against those in Islamic heartlands who speak out. ‘With the focus now on Charlie Hebdo and the crucial need and right to criticise Islam and religion, though, let us not forget the many across the globe who face execution or imprisonment for “insulting the prophet” and criticising Islam. Below you will find some examples which include Muslims, believers and atheists; the charges aim not to protect “Muslim sensibilities” as we so often hear in the west but to protect the status quo and the political power of Islamists’-- As an Iranian activist now in London, this data verifying oppression may counter the ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’ charges brought by some on the left who decry the Charlie Hebdo content as akin to Nazi, Klan, or orientalist caricatures.
And at least some outlets like the Huffington Post printed enough of the cartoons to let us judge, rather than editors or activists or clerics, about what we could reflect upon, laugh at, or cringe from. The Daily Banter went further, showing some other outlets would not due to explicit content. The Onion, as true satire, merits a reprint of their 2012 sketch: ‘No One Murdered Because of This Image.’ Still I note that that satirical site did not include the Prophet in their send-up of holy images desecrated gleefully.
Finally, the staff at Charlie Hebdo issued this simple remark: ‘Les caricaturistes sont morts dans l'exercice de leur métier et pour notre liberté. Leur plume était leur arme.’ (‘The cartoonists are dead in the course of their trade and for our freedom. Their pen was their weapon.’) May peace prevail.
The Pensive Quill Jan. 12th 2015. Thanks to Anthony McIntyre and Carrie Twomey for publication.
P.S. Inevitably, more to share: Nick Cohen emphasises the necessary awareness to battle self-censorship: ‘European liberals ought to have stopped, as the lash fell on Badawi’s shoulders, and wondered about their queasiness at criticising the religions of the “powerless” and “marginalized”. The Saudi Arabian monarchy is all too powerful, as are the other dictatorships of the Middle East. Power depends on where you stand and who stands below you. The unemployed man with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian journalist. The marginal cleric may have a hard life, but if he sits in a sharia court imposing misogynist rules on British Muslim women he is to be feared’.
Olivier Tonneau offers a valuable insight into CH’s mission and equal-opportunity satire from its French contexts: 'A wave of compassion followed but apparently died shortly afterward and all sorts of criticism started pouring down the web against Charlie Hebdo, who was described as islamophobic, racist and even sexist. Countless other comments stated that Muslims were being ostracized and finger-pointed. In the background lurked a view of France founded upon the "myth" of laïcité, defined as the strict restriction of religion to the private sphere, but rampantly islamophobic - with passing reference to the law banning the integral veil. One friend even mentioned a division of the French left on a presumed "Muslim question".
As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by these comments and would like, therefore, to give you a clear exposition of what my left-wing French position is on these matters'….Tonneau's whole Mediapart essay merits reflection, as does this presentation, Le Monde journalist Nabil Wakim's explanation 'to my American friends'.
Max Fisher at Vox continued their critique of what they chide as Islamophobia, and also pointed out as does Tonneau the double layers at work, for better or worse, in the CH satire and 'news-mixing'. The Understanding Charlie Hebdo site places various cartoons in this perspective, as a corrective. Meanwhile, Olivier Cyran, a former staff member, confronts CH: '''Muslim bashing" dressed up as “intransigent defence of freedom of expression” has become your front-window showcase, which you take care to replenish regularly.' This stance 'allowing you to occupy a non-negligible segment of shameless Islamophobic opinion on the left.' Cyran, in a long letter documenting many cartoons, concludes: 'The machine for refining crude racism isn't just profitable, but also extremely fragile'.
Daily Kos shared a few of Cabu's CH cartoons, targeting French reactionary and state icons. See also at DK 'On not understanding 'Charlie": Why many smart people are getting it wrong.' About the sneering that replaced sympathy rapidly among some critics on the Anglophone left, Leigh Phillips at the Canadian site Ricochet takes on the standard reproach voiced as I noted above within a day or two: 'Of course the killing of journalists is a bad thing, so the argument goes, but come on, Charlie Hebdo is "a racist publication." So what do you expect? is the implicit, victim-blaming conclusion.'
Kenan Malik at the Marxist site Redline avers to the past two decades, when many leftists may promote 'a moral commitment to censorship, a belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence'. David Riley at the Buddhist blog The Endless Further frames this hesitation for free speech within that system's fundamental aspiration to right speech: 'Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?' Out of another definition of the right to pleasure and to autonomy rather than conformity, Suzanne Moore takes a feminist stance. She retorts: 'don’t ask me to have respect for these kinds of fundamentalism that have none for me'.
My wife and I differ. She insists that if the cartoons targeted Jews, it'd be a very different matter, and besides, try as she might to reconcile the need for free expression with the magazine's images, she does not find them funny. For now, let's let survivors at CH have the last word, or pictures saying more than my past four-thousand or so words above, in their new issue (summed up in English).