Some thoughts on reactions to Charlie Hebdo
Published by marco on
After a few days of coverage, the Charlie Hebdo attack had already started to resonate with the same vibrant religious fervor in France as the 9–11 attacks quickly did in America. Through the entire (mainstream and largely fringe) spectrum, though, there was an utter lack of awareness that what happened at those offices was just another normal day in the many places where the West exerts its influence.
Just how sympathetic do the French suppose an average Libyan would be to Parisian wails over these unwarranted and unprecedented attacks? By that I mean the Libyans that recall the hundreds of days on which they could see French jet fighters soaring overhead, dropping bombs indiscriminately, sending them back to the stone age and delivering whole swaths of the country over to warlords.
The shock, the awe, at the Hebdo attack seems—as Noam Chomsky described the similar reaction to the 9–11 attacks—to be due to “guns being pointed in the other direction, for once”. When the West wipes out entire families and villages, it’s not newsworthy. When Western journalists are murdered in their own offices on a quiet street in a Parisian arrondissement, “the world has changed.”
That France is in large part responsible for the destruction and unrest and warlordism of North Africa in no way excuses the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices. Only an idiot in search of a straw man would infer that. But acknowledging the context of the attack might help explain it. It will help us perhaps conclude that the attack was perpetrated by angry madmen rather than the usual claptrap: that it was a mad religion or entire culture that was behind it (and which must, with heavy heart, be eradicated for if not its, then at least our, own good).
Context and logic will be, of course and as usual, ignore. Tragedy will be utilized to entrench existing power. It will be high time for revenge-taking.
On a dangerous ideology
One of the first reactions I read was the article The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders by George Packer (The New Yorker). I was struck by the innocence and utter tone-deafness of the following paragraph,
“They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. […] The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. […] The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.”
Mr. Packer expect every single one of his readers to guess that the ideology to which he is referring is Islamofascism. But a more astute and less rigidly brainwashed student of history would guess whatever you would call the ideology promulgated by the West. Capitalism? Globalism? Economic Colonialism? Every one of the statements in the citation above applies ten-fold to the United States, or to NATO. The ideology of the perpetrators of the recent murders in Paris was clearly the target of Packer’s prose. But that ideology is a positive piker when compared to the sheer destructive power of that of the U.S., spreading democracy and opening private markets everywhere its businesses need them.
Is Charlie Hebdo art worth fighting for?
Is that just a stupid question? (Spoiler: it’s mostly a stupid question.)
The post Long Live Formal Freedom! by Justin Erik Halldór Smith discusses the stupidity of saying that racist cartoons should not be protected by free speech—which is where many arguments quickly ended up, whether they meant to or not.
“At the same time, I feel light-years away, politically, from the ignorant ‘social justice warrior’ version of politics, mostly coming out of North America, which says, basically: “I’m sad people died and everything, but, um, racist satire is not OK.” As if there were no problem of who is going to be in a position to offer the final verdict on the OK/not-OK question. The state? Death squads?”
This is not at all the argument I am making. People can make crass and at-times funny but also at-times silly and stupid cartoons—everyone’s jokes fall flat sometimes. No-one should die for doing so.
What happened in Paris was a major crime. Just not more major because it happened in France, to Westerners. All of the other times—where the victims were far less classically photogenic in Europe—were crimes of just as great import.
But no-one really gives a shit until it happens here, in the West. And then it must be stopped and stamped out immediately and, of course, taken absolutely seriously and given the highest priority. And talked about and discussed and analyzed endlessly.
And solidarity with people otherwise considered wholly obnoxious and unpalatable must be evinced throughout the political spectrum. It’s bad but no worse than many, many other events. To make this much noise about Charlie Hebdo says quite a bit more about you than you think it might. Smith disagrees, though, to a large degree. I’ll cite him at length,
“We are living in such an image-critically illiterate age that jihadists in France and professors in American universities alike are entirely unable to interpret the Charlie Hebdo cartoons beyond a dull, clerical registering of the content of the images. There has been virtually no effort to make sense of their context, nor indeed of their success or failure as instances of the art of caricature. The attackers say “These images are an insult to the Prophet and they must be avenged,” and the social-media activists say, “Um, these images are racist, and that’s not OK,” but the critical skills at work in both cases are roughly the same. I certainly will not defend all of them, though I do think many are works of true inspiration. They have little in common with the hack work in the Danish newspapers (to which the great Art Spiegelman gave generally low grades) that set off this brutal campaign against cartoonists some years ago.”
Smith finds the cartoons to be high art in many cases, saying that one must make an “effort to make sense of their context, nor indeed of their success or failure as instances of the art of caricature.” Well, you don’t have to. But you have to not be so offended by it that you want to kill someone. That I can totally get behind. Mad Magazine also had/has some brilliant and cutting satire/parody, but it’d be hard to label anyone who didn’t find them funny as a Philistine.
I personally think that Hebdo is pulling everyone’s leg and even Smith’s normal vigilance has been covered in wool. Charlie Hebdo received 1 million euros from the French government to boost their first printing after the attacks to 7 million (from a regular circulation of about 40,000). They printed a cartoon of Mohammed with not one, but two poorly disguised dick-and-balls on his head. Hilarious. Absolutely the height of art and provocation and political statement. That’s about on the same level as A Million Ways to Die in the West and yet nobody’s calling that high art.
Smith veers a bit too close for comfort to the argument that anyone who thinks Hebdo too crass for their taste has tastes utterly lacking in nuance and sophistication. If you don’t think Mohammed with a Jewish star in his ass is funny, then you should learn French and French culture, enlighten yourself and then you’ll see what’s so funny. Or not. It’s the classic it’s-not-bad-art-you-just-don’t-get-it argument, which works to a degree and can be based on noted sources—Smith cites éminence grise Art Spiegelman—but it’s a hard argument to float effectively when you’re going for mass appeal and the masses just refuse to agree.
Uphill battles can be worth it, but you should pick them wisely. Smith also may be suffering a bit from what typically happens when you’re deep enough in a foreign culture and language to get the jokes, but not deep enough to notice the deeper nuance. You’re just so happy that you fit in somewhere other than home that you end up liking cruder humor than you would in your home culture or mother tongue.
Smith concludes by drawing interesting parallels between offensive and noxious material produced as advertisement for a corporation versus the same produced to promulgate a personal or political opinion.
“We are now entirely unable to understand that a rag that specializes in satirical caricatures has different rules governing its representations than those governing, say, a glossy brochure issued by a political party, or, what is nearly the same thing, an advertisement for some corporate product. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t in that business, and it’s that business that stands to gain most from the elimination of satire as a viable form of opposition.”
It’s an interesting point, but I read it differently than I think Smith intended. If you’re trying to sell something, He argues that there is a lower bound for crassness, one that shouldn’t be there for political statements. I argue the opposite: there is no lower-bound for crassness for corporate work, but it’s the crassness with which our whole culture is imbued, that is like the air we breathe and so, we don’t notice it.
Even highly morally questionable ad campaigns—that seek to draw the poor into even deeper debt—don’t draw any fire. But a cartoon mocking religion—or even mocking other races—is too evil to allow to exist. The advertising you see every day that forces a nearly morality-free lifestyle down your throat draws no similar ire. And why would it? No-one ever told us that there was something wrong with that. It is, in fact, the right thing to do. Drawing a prophet’s face out of penises and testicles? That’s way over the line. Because genitals are bad.
We will see later that Charlie Hebdo was careful to attack the powerless. And the powerless attacked the equally powerless Charlie Hebdo (their circulation of 40,000 was laughable, no?) And the powerful sit back and chuckle while everyone buys all of their crap and centers
Defending freedom or racism?
In Smith’s post, he references the article On Charlie Hebdo by Richard Seymour (Jacobin), citing it as an example of exactly the kind of craven liberal kowtowing to moral relativism that he hates so very much. He writes,
“I think it’s despicable. I think blasphemous, insolent satire is a fundamental freedom, and that it is a feature of French political culture –a ‘value of the Republic’– worth defending, not uncritically or jingoistically, and not in a way that serves as a pretext for xenophobia and bigotry, but still in a way that doesn’t concede an inch.”
But reading the article, one sees that it says nearly exactly the same thing that Smith himself wrote, though he painted it as nearly diametrically opposed. Smith is normally much more careful than this and I can only imagine that he, despite his protestations to the contrary, is swept up in this same Je suis Charlie bullshit peddled by lesser and even more careless intellects.
For example, the Jacobin article writes
“Now, I think there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow “legitimate targets,” and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.”
In its lead, it warns that “we should fear the coming Islamophobic backlash.” I don’t see this as anything other than a warning to those who will get so swept up in their support (of freedom of the press) that they end up in opposition of a target (Islam) they did not themselves choose. This is sage advice, and advice that it appears Mr. Smith needs to consider, though I have a feeling that he pushed publish a bit too quickly on his article, as seems to be nearly everyone’s wont these days.
Jacobin is not the only one making the following argument; it seems to actually be a given that Charlie Hebdo often crossed the line, not in its viewpoint or its opinions, but often in its representation.
“I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that — irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.”
Hypocrites in power
The article In Solidarity With A Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons by Glenn Greenwald (The Intercept) analyzes the main tenet of free-speech activism.
“Central to free speech activism has always been the distinction between defending the right to disseminate Idea X and agreeing with Idea X, one which only the most simple-minded among us are incapable of comprehending. One defends the right to express repellent ideas while being able to condemn the idea itself. There is no remote contradiction in that: the ACLU vigorously defends the right of neo-Nazis to march through a community filled with Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois, but does not join the march; they instead vocally condemn the targeted ideas as grotesque while defending the right to express them.”
This seems clear enough, no? You can interpret “Je suis Charlie” as expressing support for the idea of free speech and freedom of expression without supporting their at-times racist drawings. As Jacobin stated above: there isn’t really any doubt that many of the drawings were racist. Greenwald agrees, and tells us why they not only got away with it—in a country where even a tiny whiff of anti-Semitism is crushed mercilessly and without a care in the world for freedom of expression (as we’ll see below)—but are now lionized in death for their great contribution to culture.
“[…] it is simply not the case that Charlie Hebdo “were equal opportunity offenders.” Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. […] the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews. Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome. And this messaging – this special affection for offensive anti-Islam speech – just so happens to coincide with, to feed, the militaristic foreign policy agenda of their governments and culture.”
The article What everyone gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and racism by Max Fisher (VOX) presents the argument that Hebdo is lauded now because it didn’t speak truth to power, but acted more or less as an organ of power.
“Within the French culture war, Charlie Hebdo stands solidly with the privileged majority and against the under-privileged minorities. Yes, sometimes it also criticizes Catholicism, but it is best known for its broadsides against France’s most vulnerable populations. Put aside the question of racist intent: the effect of this is to exacerbate a culture of hostility, one in which religion and race are also associated with status and privilege, or lack thereof.”
The article France Arrests a Comedian For His Facebook Comments, Showing the Sham of the West’s “Free Speech” Celebration by Glenn Greenwald (First Look) discusses the way in which France expresses its support for freedom of speech mostly for anti-Muslim points of view.
“Since that glorious “free speech” march, […] “France ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism.” […] Vanishingly few of this week’s bold free expression mavens have ever uttered a peep of protest about any of those cases […] where Muslims have been prosecuted and even imprisoned for their political speech. That’s because “free speech,” […] actually means: it is vital that the ideas I like be protected, and the right to offend groups I dislike be cherished; anything else is fair game.”
In a just world, Dieudonné’s comments on Facebook should be just as vigorously defended as the genital-laden drawings of Charlie Hebdo, “That’s true even if he were murdered for his ideas rather than “merely” arrested and prosecuted for them.”
Kill the Terrorists!
Jacobin finished its article by chiding that,
“The argument will be that for the sake of “good taste” we need “a decent interval” before we start criticizing Charlie Hebdo.”
On the other hand, we don’t need to wait a decent interval for (what counts for) justice in the more enlightened countries of the West these days. The three alleged gunmen have passed Go without collecting two-hundred dollars and been dispatched to meet their maker without a charge, an arrest, a trial, a conviction, a sentence or the involvement of the involvement of any members of the judiciary. It was purportedly a three-day manhunt and shootout that ended in the tragedy of all terrorists dead.
And we swallow this story whole … why exactly? At the same time that protests erupt in every corner of America about police brutality against minorities and illegal tactics and illegal arrests, we believe wholeheartedly that French police would never, ever be capable of such a thing. The U.S. might lie all the time, but if France says it caught and killed the guys, then that’s how it went down.
And almost no-one will see anything wrong with that. In fact, I’d wager that even to point this out is tantamount to sympathizing with journalist-killing extremists—because we like to keep things super-simple.
Why is it so hard to arrest people these days? Wouldn’t we rather bring them to trial, so that they can answer our questions about their horrific crimes? Aren’t we worried about having gotten the wrong guys? Should they have been killed? France does not have the death penalty, so it wasn’t legally a just punishment. Hell, were the guys they killed even the perpetrators? Why did they do it? Only speculation from here on out because they will never say a word about it. How many were there? Who actually did the killing? No-one cares.
When a much more horrific act is perpetrated on utter children—Brejvik’s 70+ murders in Norway a few years back—the perpetrator is brought to trial and questioned about his motives. In this case, the world is satisfied with a quickly tied knot on the “case”.
Everyone loves a parade
Speaking of simple, as detailed in Who is Marching Anywhere to Honor Those Killed in Baga? by John V. Whitbeck (CounterPunch),
“Bibi Netanyahu, […] has lectured Western leaders that “the terror of Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Al-Qaida” won’t end “unless the West fights it physically, rather than fighting its false arguments””
This from Netanyahu, whose leadership of Israel included presiding over indiscriminate killing of thousands of Palestinians, among them more than a few journalists, whom Israeli soldiers would mistakenly kill despite their being emblazoned with a giant “Press” tag.
It didn’t take long for England to jump on board, taking advantage of the opening provided by the attack. Here’s David Cameron, cited in the article UK prime minister wants backdoors into messaging apps or he’ll ban them (Ars Technica)
“The attacks in Paris demonstrated the scale of the threat that we face and the need to have robust powers through our intelligence and security agencies in order to keep our people safe, […]”
Of course, David. It’s clear that the problem is that England doesn’t have enough control over its citizens. Can anyone even imagine how much George Orwell would be drinking should he catch a glimpse of 21st-century England?
The terrorists always win
The article Striking Fear in Paris by Uri Avnery (CounterPunch) points out what should be obvious—that the drastic overreaction by France was certainly a gigantic reward for anyone desperate or disturbed enough to think that their viewpoint was worth losing their own lives.
“By committing two attacks (quite ordinary ones by Israeli standards) they spread panic throughout France, brought millions of people onto the streets, gathered more than 40 heads of states in Paris. They changed the landscape of the French capital and other French cities by mobilizing thousands of soldiers and police officers to guard Jewish and other potential targets. For several days they dominated the news throughout the world.
“Three terrorists, probably acting alone. Three!!!
“For other potential Islamic terrorists throughout Europe and America, this must look like a huge achievement.”
And not just Islamic terrorists: preening narcissists everywhere will be paying very close attention. Although the main result of these acts will be for the West to double down on what most likely caused them in the first place because “we won’t be cowed by terrorists.” So for every one of “ours” that “they” get, we’ll take out thousands of theirs. And make no mistake, this most-likely result is obvious to the leaders of the free world. They get to collect even more power for themselves while blaming Muslims. At the worst, people they do not know or care about will die.
Avnery goes on to chastise the organizers of the march because they refuse to try to figure out how to really solve the problem of people killing each other for stupid reasons.
“To conduct an effective fight, one has to put oneself first into the shoes of the fanatics and try to understand the dynamic that pushes young local-born Muslims to commit such acts. Who are they? What do they think? What are their feelings? In what circumstances did they grow up? What can be done to change them?”
The article goes on to provide a fascinating analysis of Israeli involvement in this current chapter—Netanyahu invited himself!—and the history of Jewish and Muslim movements in former French colonies like Algeria (North-African Jews almost all sided with the colonial power).
And finally: psychoanalyzing hate
The article Are the worst really full of passionate intensity? by Slavoj Ži(z)ek (New Statesman) takes a typically contrarian view but provides a truly fascinating lens through which to view the whole affair. It has everything you would expect from a Ži(z)ek article:
- Contrarian beginning
- Trenchant analysis
- Mention Hegel/Nietzsche
- Big finish condemning our liberal democracy and capitalism
The only thing missing was a reference to Lacan.
I kid. It was quite a strong article; I had a hard time picking only a few citations and had to cut drastically. I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety at the link above.
Ži(z)ek starts off with the boilerplate condemnation of violence etc. etc.
“Now, when we are all in a state of shock after the killing spree in the Charlie Hebdo offices, it is the right moment to gather the courage to think. We should, of course, unambiguously condemn the killings as an attack on the very substance our freedoms, and condemn them without any hidden caveats (in the style of “Charlie Hebdo was nonetheless provoking and humiliating the Muslims too much”). But such pathos of universal solidarity is not enough – we should think further. (Emphasis added.)”
Žižek advises as Avnery does: “Of course we should not overreact, if by this is meant succumbing to blind Islamophobia – but we should ruthlessly analyse this pattern.” That is, we should not ignore the act, but neither should we enter the moment in history as a pivotal one. Ži(z)ek goes on to describe the dialectic as it is presented to us.
“We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” seems perfectly to render our present predicament: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.””
We in the West are decadent and too lazy to defend ourselves whereas the Muslim radical is full of revolutionary vigor, following a single-minded purpose. And therefore—here it comes—we need our Colonel Jessup on that wall, doing our dirty work, protecting us from a universe bent on our destruction and, most importantly, allowing us to continue to live in our dream world. A demand that we yield more rights that we aren’t using and more money for the military quickly follows.
Žižek goes on to psychoanalyze the fundamentalist terrorist (as presented to us).
“However, do the terrorist fundamentalists really fit this description? What they obviously lack is a feature [of] authentic fundamentalists, […] the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? […] In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. (Emphasis added.)”
I would be more precise here: fundamentalists fight to defend a lifestyle that they want to lead and that they want everyone in their group to continue leading. But they acknowledge—at least somewhere deep down—that this lifestyle is very rigorous, at-times brutal and simplistic, especially when compared with the Western lifestyle, which appears on the surface to be all sunshine and rainbows.
Western society is also rigorous, at-times brutal and simplistic—especially in the U.S.—but it hides it much better. It sells it much better. But the idea of a small group of extremists deluding the rest of society into working against their interests—does that ring a bell? In the West’s case, in capitalism’s case, it’s the 1% or 0.1% hauling around everyone else by the nose. Instead of a promise of heavenly reward, the carrot is reward in this lifetime—just as elusive and fictive. The fundamentalist is afraid that the support system for his lifestyle will jump ship. And without a support staff, nobody’s cooking dinner for them.
“How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.
“The problem is not cultural difference […] but the opposite fact [sic] that the fundamentalists […] have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority. (Emphasis added.)”
It is important to remember that this is probably true of all fundamentalists—the Islamists we’re meant to condemn as well as those running our world for us. And I think that there’s more than a bit of fear mixed in—fear that their scam will be found out. That is always the fear, no? The slave driver on a galley is utterly aware that he stays in power through conviction alone. Were his slaves to rise up, they could easily overwhelm him. In the same way, the 0.1% know that the best defense is a good offense. The mullahs as well. Keep your minions on the back foot, keep them bobbing and weaving, keep them distracted, keep them producing for you—else they might just start thinking.
The fundamentalism of our own dear leaders in the West is more dangerous because (A) it is largely invisible because it’s part of the background, so (B) they have already won. As Žižek himself says in his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the underlying ideology is more fundamentalist and deep-rooted than its comparatively minor and much more obvious enemies. These disposable enemies are used to keep people distracted from the control the overarching ideology has over every aspect of their lives. They are allowed to direct all of their hate there where it suits the prevailing powers the most, expending their revolutionary effort without damaging the existing power structure.
But that power structure is just as fundamentalist and perpetually scared. It knows that it can only maintain control as long as it continues driving forward, pointing to innumerable versions of Emmanuel Goldstein.
“What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s − those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism − should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”
↩“French leaders need to take a hard look at their own totally incoherent foreign policy […] By taking the symbolic lead in the regime change war in Libya, France turned that country into a black hole of Islamic extremists. France collaborated in the murder of Gaddafi […] The NATO destruction of Gaddafi’s Libya brought France into war in Mali, in pursuit of an elusive enemy that Gaddafi had managed to control.”
An interesting article published a few years back CHARLIE HEBDO: Not racist? If you say so… by Olivier Cyran sums up Charlie Hebdo as follows:
“You claim for yourself the tradition of anticlericalism, but pretend not to know the fundamental difference between this and Islamophobia. The first comes from a long, hard and fierce struggle against a Catholic priesthood which actually had formidable power, which had − and still has − its own newspapers, legislators, lobbies, literary salons and a huge property portfolio. The second attacks members of a minority faith deprived of any kind of influence in the corridors of power. It consists of distracting attention from the well-fed interests which rule this country, in favour of inciting the mob against citizens who haven’t been invited to the party, if you want to take the trouble to realise that − for most of them − colonisation, immigration and discrimination have not given them the most favourable place in French society. Is it too much to ask a team which, in your words “is divided between leftists, extreme leftists, anarchists and Greens”, to take a tiny bit of interest in the history of our country and its social reality?”