Saturday, 10 January 2015

Some Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Like so many people, I spent this week following the developing story around the massacre at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators, which ended yesterday when they were killed during a hostage standoff, and one of their accomplices was also killed while holding hostages at a Jewish grocery in Paris. I've also read so many words of commentary on "what this means" that I thought it would be worthwhile adding my own two cents.

Generally, I feel that this incident has become yet another instance for commentators (like myself, I suppose) to air their own deeply held and often misinformed opinions. It's also turned into one of those moments where people who don't respond the exact same way as everyone else gets categorized as "aiding the enemy".

For instance, there's this story, which started with USC professor Marc Cooper calling New York Times editor Dean Baquet a coward for not publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and ended with Baquet calling Cooper an asshole. While I've previously suggested that sometimes the NYT and other US news outlets twist themselves unnecessarily into knots to avoid using swear words, I feel in this case Cooper was being self-righteous - a lot of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published really were offensive, and some to the point that they ceased to be funny but just mean-spirited. You may say that's the point of satire, but the point of living in a free democracy is that you can also choose not to speak (a choice I wish a lot more people would make).

The best reaction I've seen came from Will Self, speaking to Vice:
"Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons [of Muhammad] I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from H. L. Mencken's definition of good journalism: It should 'afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.' The trouble with a lot of so-called 'satire' directed against religiously motivated extremists is that it's not clear who it's afflicting, or who it's comforting. This is in no way to condone the shooting of the journalists, which is evil, pure and simple, but our society makes a fetish of 'the right to free speech' without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right." 
In his response Self hints at the most vexing aspect of Charlie Hebdo's output, which is that in insulting Muslims this paper run by white, middle-class French people was going after France's immigrant underclass. If some paper here regularly ran cartoons insulting blacks or Hispanics, most Americans would justifiably be disgusted - but here we're blinded by our own principle of integrating people, so we're unaware of just how alienating European cultures are to their own immigrants. People who say immigrants should "just integrate" miss the point that the wider societies in places like France, Britain, Germany or wherever aren't willing to do their own part to integrate newcomers.

My former J-school classmate, Ed Krayewski, writing in Reason, seems to miss this point when he suggests that the original cartoons were fine because Middle Eastern satirists publish the same kind of thing. There is a question of context here, as Middle Eastern satire targeting ISIS or Islamic fundamentalism is aimed upward, at the power structure, rather than downward, at those crushed by it. The examples Ed cites are also from countries bordering but not currently ruled by ISIS, and make fun specifically of the terror group, rather than of the Prophet Muhammad or of Islam itself. Or in other words, it's on the same level as this:

The other piece I saw that showcased Western ignorance and bias was this one from, which starts with the phrase "If you thought the Arab world celebrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a blow against blasphemers, some Arab-language newspapers tell a different story."

It's stupid because it assumes, as seemingly a lot of Western (and particularly American) people do, that the Arab world is a single entity that agrees on everything and has exactly the same viewpoint, stretching from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Any Arab will tell you that this is flatly not the case. The piece gets better, as it depicts a number of cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and criticizing the idea of killing over cartoons, but I can't get over the premise (and what's worse is that in the original piece's lede the word "celebrate" links to Fox News on September 12, 2001, reporting on how Palestinians celebrated the attack on the World Trade Center).

To close, I also want to discuss the perpetrators for a moment, as it's so easy to dismiss them as thugs with no sense of humor (which they became, of course). But I can't help feeling a sense of lost potential there, as I saw an NBC report showing Cherif Kouachi's early life before he turned to terrorism and murder. In some home-made music videos (he wanted to be a rapper), Kouachi's smiling and clowning, arm around his friend as he raps.

Whether he'd have made it in the music business or not is irrelevant, but it's a shame that so many youths are being twisted and perverted to the side of fundamentalism. If we really want to stop more of these attacks from happening, the answer is not to silence Charlie Hebdo, or to spy on every young man at risk of becoming radicalized, but to find avenues for these guys to express themselves beyond violence.