Je suis désolé, mais Charlie ne parle pas pour moi…

Just a few days ago, in a thoughtfully argued Daily Beast posting criticizing the “Je Suis Charlie” phenomenon, Arthur Chu wrote:

“The public discourse isn’t between people who think they ‘asked for it’ and people who don’t—it’s entirely among people who agree that the violence was unacceptable, but some of whom feel that this obligates them to elevate Charlie Hebdo to heroes and to hold up ‘Je Suis Charlie’ signs, and others who don’t.”

I’m among those who do not.

But with considerable ambivalence.

On the one hand, I believe deeply that radicals and dissidents especially need to take the principles of democratic free expression seriously and not ever acquiesce to the logic of the heckler’s veto wherein the most intolerant or the most violence-prone defenders of the status quo order determine the permissible range of discourse. Historically, radical dissent has always been the first speech to be repressed in such a setting.[1]

On the other hand, of course, that commitment often entails defending the rights of idiots, goons, and bullies to express a lot of nonsense or worse. We should be able to criticize the contents of a publication without it being necessary to add that such criticism is not equivalent to a call for censorship (even of the self-imposed variety) let alone to an endorsement of the kind of hideous violence visited on the staff of Charlie Hebdo,[2] but that’s sort of where the forced choice of the aftermath of this week’s act of barbaric violence has taken us.

So, consider all appropriate condemnations of cowardly terrorism and disclaimers about liberty of expression and so forth said. And thus said, can we move on and speak honestly about what the publication Charlie Hebdo was and was not before we all sign up for our Je Sui Charlie tee-shirts and wear them around with our chests all puffed out like little heroes of solidarity?

2011 Charlie Hebdo cover depicting a cartoon figure of the Prophet Mohammed (comically identified as this edition's "editor") with a bubble saying, "100 lashes if you're not dying of laughter."  Just one example of CH's courageous brand of brilliantly biting satire...

2011 Charlie Hebdo cover depicting a cartoon figure of the Prophet Mohammed (comically identified as this edition’s “editor”) with a bubble saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.” Just one example of CH’s courageous brand of brilliantly biting satire…

Charlie Hebdo is not all about Islam (much of it is French Leftist flatfooted satire of a disappointingly amateurish nature), but when it takes on religion—and Islam in particular, it reveals itself as a publication with all the unfunny anti-Islamic derangement of Bill Maher on a smug, self-satisfied tear.[3]

Ranging from juvenile bathroom wall grafffandalsism to drooling hatespooge, calling this inkpuke material “satire” is like confusing Ayn Rand with a serious thinker.

Sure, no one who is not a believer should be made to feel like they are bound by the constraints of someone else’s religion (that’s one large point that is lost on the pro-life movement and supporters of Hobby Lobby). But, while I’m a big fan of lampooning the intolerance of religious fundamentalists, and I defend an atheists’ right to call religious faith stupid or dangerous (though I find such views silly and self-contradictory), I reserve the right to name extreme versions of such anti-religious expressions “hatespeech” when they cross the line into terrorizing discourse, especially when that discourse “punches down” rather than up (as Arthur Chu explicates the situation with Charlie Hebdo).

CH congratulating its own significance while mocking Europe's Muslim underclass. The Caption: "Charlie Hebdo publishes picture of Mohammed."  The balloon: "My dear, I am going down for 5 minutes, I'll get the newspaper."  Punching down.

CH congratulating its own significance while mocking Europe’s Muslim underclass. The Caption: “Charlie Hebdo publishes picture of Muhammad.” The balloon: “Dear, I am going down for 5 minutes, I will grab the newspaper.” Punching down.

And make no mistake about it, but for the risk of violent reprisal from otherwise impotent, self-styled “Jihadist” nutcases, CH’s chimpish flinging of poop in the face of Muslims in a European, French-language periodical is hardly courageous, and in no case is it any sort of tweaking of entrenched power that satire was born to dare. Honoré Daumier this ain’t.

Moreover, more than a few cartoons in Charlie have been much more than giggly uses of the image of The Prophet; they have been unmistakably anti-Islamic—not anti-Islamist in the sense of mocking or defaming the ideology of revolutionary/radicalized jihadist Islamism— but rather mocking the religion itself. Or maybe Muslims.[4]

2012 CH spoof on the incendiary American hateporn film "Innocence of Muslims", In its "satirical" rendition of the film that sparked violence across the Islamic world, the naked Muhammad  is shown (as in the actual film) posing for a pornographic movie.  The caption in the inset reads "Muhammad was born a star!"

2012 CH spoof on the incendiary American hateporn film “Innocence of Muslims”.[5] In its “satirical” rendition of the film that sparked violence across the Islamic world, the naked Muhammad is shown (as in the actual film) posing for a pornographic movie. The caption in the inset reads “Muhammad was born a star!”

CH makes constant, ambiguous use of turbaned, bearded figures that seem to deliberately blur the distinction between representing Muhammad and representing a stereotyped “Islamist”.  The slyly unstated subtext is clearly that Islam is un-French.[6] Indeed, much of CH’s anti-Islamist content could be easily mistaken for the kind of Muslim-bashing shit one might associate with the French National Front or some other European (or American) rightwing nationalist group. It is telling that the label “anti-Islamic” does not carry the same social bite in Europe or the U.S. as do “antisemitic “ or “racist”. I think the kind of self-congratulatory, Muslim-baiting shit Charlie engaged in could fairly be labeled “Euro-supremacist”.  No kidding.

So, are the writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo guilty of provoking their own deaths? For the love of God, NO!  We all understand that nothing they published was the motivation for behind these cult executions.  They were targeted only because they worked at a high-visibility soft target of convenient shock-value. Like the hostages the terrorists killed at the Hyper Cacher grocery in Paris, the staff at Charlie  were innocent victims of hideously intolerant religious fundamentalism used as a pretext for violent bloodlust.

But the impulse to mindlessly cry “Je Suis Charlie!” is no less absurd than acting as if watching “The Interview” is some sort of bold stroke for liberty or a defiant stance of solidarity with brave filmmaking independence.

I think we can and must mourn the tragedy of people being slain for pissing off intolerant monsters while refraining from uncritically beatifying juvenile, unfunny shockmongers as martyrs for liberal democracy. I mourn the death of this week’s victims of terrorism in Paris and I pray for comfort and healing for their families and friends.  Victims, not martyrs.



[1] Owing in large part to radicalism’s methodological reliance on deliberately transgressive discourse to illuminate the stultified, power-laden nature of the status quo assumptions embedded within the range of “reasonable” discourse.

[2] Frankly, the offending Charlie Hebdo covers are so dull they don’t even really merit an angry letter.

[3] But without Bill’s informed sophistication and nuanced subtlety on matters of religion in public discourse. (Sarcasm alert!).

[4] That’s the fun of French satire! It’s so cleverly polysemous you just can’t pin down who or what is being satirized.  But Charlie Hebdo is a lefty publication, so it couldn’t possibly be racist, could it?  No.  Just fiercely committed to pushing the limits! See?

[5] More of that clever, slippery polysemous French satire.  Are we satirizing the dangerously stupid piece of shit American  racist hatefilm? Or are we satirizing the stupid Islamic people who use violence in an intolerant and illiberal attempt to intimidate dumb (American, NOT French) would-be satirists? Who knows? So much anarchic fun!

[6] And please spare me any lectures about French laïcité; I not only admire France’s uncompromising commitment to a secular public square and the special separation of religious discourse from public debate, I believe it is precisely what that great American Francophile and Founder Thomas Jefferson had in mind for the meaning and purpose of the federal Constitution’s First Amendment version of his own Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  HOWEVER, neither secularism nor  laïcité can legitimize anti-democratic bigotry against people of faith (as distinct from a pro-democratic insistence that people of any and all faiths must check the expression of their sacredly privileged religious beliefs at the door of public discourse.