Monday, February 16, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

I will give you a brief resume of events that took place in France in January, not because you don’t already know them, but just so that I can establish exactly where I stand with regard to those events. Two Islamicist gunmen burst into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot dead ten members of the magazine’s editorial team. In making their getaway they also shot dead two policemen. After a long chase, armed police cornered the gunmen in a factory. There was a firefight and the two gunmen were shot dead. Meanwhile another Islamicist gunman took hostages in a Jewish [Kosher] supermarket in Paris. Four hostages died in the gunman’s shootout with police before the gunman himself was shot dead. In a couple of days, then, nearly twenty people had died in violence initiated by Islamicists (please note carefully, I say “Islamicists”. I do not say “Muslims”.) Among other things, Charlie Hebdo was noted for cartoons ridiculing Mohammed and Islam.
So where do I stand on these events?
Obviously, I’m as appalled as you are by the massacre of the journalists (and the policemen and the hostages). Obviously I do not believe that people should be murdered for what they write or draw, any more than that they should be murdered for their race or beliefs. Like you, I could now produce a string of platitudes on the necessity of satire to offend and provoke; and on freedom of the press. I understand why the French police acted as they did and why there was such public outrage. There were condemnations of the gunmen’s actions ranging from Rotterdam’s “secular Muslim” mayor saying Muslims should “f**k off” if they don’t like satirical cartoons in the European press; to world leaders gathering in Paris and taking a photo-opportunity in solidarity with the French government and in support of “free speech”. (Yes. It was a “photo opportunity”. Despite the captions that appeared in some of the press, the world leaders – with no American representative present – in no way led any march or demonstration. As you may easily check, they were posed briefly on a closed street, swarming with security, with just a few hundred people behind them, far from the real demonstrations.)
I should add that many Muslims also publicly condemned the murders, often taking care to remind the wider public that one of the murdered policemen was Muslim. Right-wing pundits (in France, American and Britain) were quick to chastise Muslims for not condemning the attacks. Such pundits simply showed that they were not listening, as many Muslims did just that – and this is why I refer to the gunmen as Islamicists and not as Muslims.
Now I do not wish to get side-tracked into the hypocrisy of many people (especially political leaders) who claimed to be avid supporters of “free speech”. It’s easy enough to show how, in many states and in many ways, speech is (sometimes legitimately, sometimes illegitimately) circumscribed. Think carefully about such issues as slander, libel, incitement to riot, Holocaust-denial and the concept of “hate speech” before you suggest that speech is, or should be, completely “free”. But, while accepting the concept of “free speech” in a general sense, I do take great issue with the attempt to elevate Charlie Hebdo into the desirable standard of what “free speech” should be. There were massive demonstrations (literally millions strong) in Paris and elsewhere, adopting the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”)  - clearly modelled on “I am Spartacus” – to suggest their solidarity with the dead satirists. This is fully understandable in the immediate aftermath of the murders, just as is the fact that the “come-back” issue of Charlie Hebdo (produced in the offices of the centre-left newspaper Liberation) at once sold millions of copies, far exceeding any earlier print-run of the magazine.
But on longer reflection, I adopt the slogan “Je ne suis pas Charlie”. I believe the publication is at best a crass and puerile piece of deliberate provocation. Note very carefully, I am not in any way saying the editorial staff were “asking for it” or deserved to die. But I am saying that not everything freely expressed is to be applauded, endorsed or encouraged. And Charlie Hebdo was and is something conducted in the voice of the bullying playground loudmouth shouting scatological insults.
I am heartened to note that I am not the only person to argue this. In his op ed piece in the New York Times, “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo”, David Brooks noted the hypocrisy of the soi-disant defenders of  “free speech”, declaring:
Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.” He goes on to list American campuses and newspapers that shut down debates on unpopular topics, or shut down unpopular voices. [Another op ed piece, “Je suis Charlie until je get scared”, noted how American newspapers such as the New York Times loudly supported Charlie Hebdo, but refused to run any of its cartoons as they were “offensive”.]
More to my point, however, Brooks also wrote of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonic methods:
When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to ‘épater la bourgeoisie,’ to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs….But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.” He called for the ending of “speech codes” and more mature listening to the viewpoints of others.
More urgently, Mehdi Hasan, political director of the Huffington Post, wrote:
Let's be clear: I agree there is no justification whatsoever for gunning down journalists or cartoonists. I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility; and I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend.”
Hasan also remarked: “Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic.” In saying this, he was knowingly responding to the threadbare argument that overtly racist cartoons in Charlie Hebdo (of Muslims and Jews; of France’s first black justice minister Christiane Taubira, depicted as a banana-eating monkey) were really “ironic” and were ridiculing racists.
Naturally, there have been “replies” to Hasan, one from Dan Hodges in the Telegraph printed under the heading “This isn’t about free speech – it’s about the freedom to live in a secular society” and presenting the argument that in a secular society people must learn to grin and bear it if they are confronted with insulting rubbish. (To which I reply - quite so, but they are also entitled to point out that it is insulting rubbish.) There are also other lines of defence for Charlie Hebdo. One popular one is the claim that it is an “equal opportunity” offender – it doesn’t caricature and ridicule only Muslims, but it also caricatures and ridicules Jews and Catholics and all religious faiths. In the face of mounting (internet) awareness of the types of cartoons Charlie Hebdo routinely produces (bigoted, racist and sexually explicit), somebody posted a collection under the heading “The Charlie Hebdo cartoons nobody is showing you”, reproducing Charlie cartoons that ridiculed the military, the far right, national politicians and so forth. All good left-wing targets and therefore, apparently, “proof” that Charlie Hebdo is left-wing and progressive and entitled to attack whomsoever it will. This argument falls a little flat, however, if you look up the article by Olivier Cyran, translated as “Charlie Hebdo not racist? If you say so…”. Olivier Cyran is a former long-term cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, who resigned in disgust some years ago. He wrote his piece for Le Monde in December 2013, over a year before the terrorist attacks. Basically he says that the magazine, despite its claims to be an “equal opportunity” offender of religions and cultures, really has gone over to a radical and deliberate baiting of Muslims
Which brings me at last to what I think is the most intellectually dishonest defence of Charlie Hebdo which I have yet read. It was written by the self-described left-wing and secularist pundit Olivier Tonneau in France’s Mediapart. Like many others, Tonneau tries to argue that Charlie Hebdo is mainly a left-wing, secularist publication and that it spends most of its time attacking Le Pen’s Right Wing National Front. Tonneau claims that Charlie Hebdo attacks all religions equally and argues “it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and was after all only intended for a French audience”.  Then his arguments become particularly foggy. Apparently “it is only by reading it or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or homophobic”. Tonneau lectures us that “laicite” [secularism] “does not deny anybody the right to express their religious beliefs, but it aims to found a society on a political contract that transcends religious beliefs which, as a result, become mere private affairs.”
Alarm bells ring for me at this point. My experience tells me that secularists who say religious beliefs should become “mere private affairs” are really saying that they don’t like religions contesting their views publicly – and the word “mere” designates something of little importance. In other words, it’s a recipe for banning public expressions of religious belief and hence violating the very principle of free speech and expression which secularists claim to hold dear. Then there is the schtick about cartoons only “appearing” racist and homophobic because (silly old imperceptive us!), we’re not seeing them in “context”. Frankly, the cartoons either are or are not racist and homophobic, and the defence of “context”, like the defence of “irony”, doesn’t alter this fact. But most interesting is when Olivier Tonneau proclaims – probably revealing more than he intended to – that the magazine is “intended for a French audience”. Well yes indeed it is – an audience of white French men and women who enjoy belittling the Muslims, Jews and Christians in their midst. For at his point we have to ask what feelings the (cover) cartoons are intended to produce and who would most enjoy them and whom they are most intended to affect.
Ask yourself seriously how much the cover cartoons of Charlie Hebdo tend to promote reasoned and just debate. If it were only radical Islamic fundamentalists the cartoonists wished to attack, and if it is now insisted by sophists like Olivier Tonneau that Islam in general was not their target, then why did they draw cartoons that would be equally offensive to radical zealots and to millions of peaceable Muslims? (Though, of course, those peaceable Muslims would not resort to murder to register their discontent.) In what way do depictions of Mohammed sodomising a goat, or of pregnant Muslim women cheating the French welfare system [both of which have graced Charlie Hebdo covers], contribute to a reasoned public conversation on radicalism or terrorism? What’s the intended effect of an Easter issue which has a depiction of Jesus at the Last Supper with the caption “Le diner des cons” [The Dinner of Assholes – the name of a French comic movie]? For that matter, why have another cover depicting a group of cardinals in the Vatican dancing in a circle as they sodomise one another? Is the intention to make Catholics (or other Christians) say “Gosh, what a reasonable argument! How wrong I have been in my beliefs all these years!” Of course not. Like the pornographic propaganda that was produced in wartime, the aim is to titillate readers with smut and reinforce their prejudices. I’ll leave you to decide what is intended by the magazine’s habitual depiction of Jews as doddery old fools proclaiming that they are immune to criticism (another Charlie Hebdo cover)
Please let’s not have high-sounding phrases about satire always being provocative and always giving offence. The best satire gets us to look at ourselves, our habits and our society, in order to highlight what is wrong with them. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are designed to make its readers look down on others, feel superior to others, condemn and ridicule others, without any reasoning involved.
Accepting the production of crass, puerile and provocative cartoons may be one of the tests of “free speech”. But another is my right to say that they are indeed crass, puerile and provocative. Knowing full well that this slogan has now been used in Niger by Islamicist zealots who have burned down Christian churches, I nevertheless say  Je ne suis pas Charlie.
Footnote: In the wake of the events in Paris, Kerre Woodham penned an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald. It quoted the New Zealand cartoonist Tom Scott saying how necessary it is to nurture the satire of cartoonists. After all, he said, cartoonists in the 1930s were the first to see through Hitler and draw pictures ridiculing him. I assume Tom Scott was was thinking of David Low and the like. But I would have to say that cartoonists as a group are not necessarily seers and prophets. Perhaps you’d like to look up the work of another very influential cartoonist from the 1930s, Philipp Rupprecht. I found myself looking up his work as I was thinking about Charlie Hebdo. Rupprecht’s caricatures and constant sexual innuendo – bordering on pornography – are in the same tradition as Charlie Hebdo.

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