Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Greenwald on Charlie Hebdo

As a follow up to The Disgusting 'Buts', a quote from Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is wrong on the Charlie Hebdo affair; he is another who thinks the Western hegemony narrative is the lens through which these murderous events should be viewed. His comments in Salon are rather more guarded than one might expect; perhaps he's mellowing slightly. Nevertheless, this extract clearly betrays his sympathies:
So you have a magazine that became known in the Western world, regardless of what the reality is, for publishing images that are very offensive and upsetting to the Muslim minorities in the West, and whose cartoonists were turned into heroes and martyrs … who were victims of Muslim violence. I think the reason why people are so eager to turn them into martyrs and heap all sorts of praise and awards on them is because it does make us Westerners feel good about ourselves; it tells us that we’re the victims and the people who we’ve been bombing and invading and torturing and pillaging for the last 15 years are actually the evil ones.
It fuels this whole war narrative that has been sustaining a lot of really bad policies in ways that are quite propagandistic and manipulative, because of the heavy emotions involved.
That 'regardless of what the reality is' is telling; Greenwald is talking about his and his confreres' perception of CH as Islamophobic, not the reality of CH, which, as I wrote before (and GG acknowledges), is somewhat different. I agree a lot with his concerns about the war narrative, and it's obvious that Western intervention has been toxic in the Middle East. I certainly don't feel good about it; I presume he means that it feeds some kind of dehumanisation, an othering, of Eastern culture, and I don't doubt there is still a lot of that going on.

But that issue is being clumsily crow-barred into the CH affair. CH have become victims of the chilling effects of totalitarian religion on public discourse - that is the primary lens through which these events should be viewed. They line up alongside other victims of that narrative, such as Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Raif Badawi.

Is it too much to hope that Greenwald might recognise that these threats to free speech override his bete noire? After Snowden, you would think he could see that.


Report from the Washington Post on the Award ceremony:

(Photo "Avijit Roy" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Avijit_Roy.jpg#/media/File:Avijit_Roy.jpg)

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Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Disgusting 'Buts'

“It is quite right that PEN should honour [Charlie Hebdo’s] sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting ‘buts’"

So said Salman Rushdie, referring to the boycott of the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo, and I agree with him. But, and I hope that this is not a disgusting 'but', I want to suggest one reason why the 'shameful six' (and more) see things differently. In short, I see Charlie Hebdo as more a latter day Freethinker whereas they see it as more a latter day Der Stürmer.

The Freethinker magazine was prosecuted in the UK in 1883 for blasphemy, eventually found guilty and its writers and publishers sent to prison. Der Stürmer was published from the 1920s to the end of World War II with no threat from the blasphemy laws, as far as I can tell. George Foote, Freethinker's founder, wrote in Prisoner for Blasphemy:
IN the merry month of May, 1881, I started a paper called the Freethinker, with the avowed object of waging "relentless war against Superstition in general and the Christian Superstition in particular." I stated in the first paragraph of the first number that this new journal would have a new policy; that it would "do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation," and that it would "not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that might be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense."
Julius Streicher expressed no such aim for his Nazi rag.

Here I have a confession: my A-level and poor conversational French is inadequate to judge the contents of Charlie Hebdo. There are resources springing up to help the anglophone and French culture illiterati - see Understanding Charlie Hebdo Cartoons. If it was just down to my viewing of its cartoons, I might think they were racist. In fact, I think it's possible they have published racist cartoons. Nonetheless, from the views of its principals it's clear to me there are significant disanalogies between the Nazi tabloids and this French magazine which means we can celebrate it.

To be fair to the dissenters, let's be clear to what they object: they are happy to defend Charlie Hebdo's freedom of speech. Francine Prose writes:
I believe in the indivisibility of the right to free speech, regardless of what – however racist, blasphemous, or in any way disagreeable – is being said.
Prose admires their courage too:
...I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire...
Here's her disgusting 'but':
I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor. 
And later she says:
Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.
A Freethinker cartoon
This last comment is reminiscent of The Spectator's comment on the Freethinker blasphemers compared to more illustrious blasphemers, such as Matthew Arnold and W.K. Clifford:
So far as we can judge, the only difference between the language and caricature-pictures of Mr. Foote and the language of se[v]eral of our recent Freethinkers, is that Mr. Foote used the bludgeon, while they used the rapier.
The Speccie was actually defending Foote on the grounds that he was low-born and therefore inveterately crude! But the same patronising attitude to the output of Freethinker and CH is displayed by the Victorian magazine and Prose.

Prose cites 'saying things that need to be said' and 'working actively to tell us the truth' as the things that PEN should be supporting. In fact, of course, it's clear to those of us who support PEN that CH are saying things that need to be said, and it's hard to understand Prose's view that they are not (and perhaps the truth of what they say could be defended too).

Peter Carey said:
All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.
And Teju Cole wrote:
...in recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre. It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try. Even Voltaire, a hero to many who extol free speech, got it wrong. His sparkling and courageous anti-clericalism can be a joy to read, but he was also a committed anti-Semite, whose criticisms of Judaism were accompanied by calumnies about the innate character of Jews.
Cole is clearly wrong to say that 'the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations', as the graphic here indicates. In the last 10 years the vast majority of CH output is political; of the religious satire, ridiculing Christianity and other religions outnumbers attacks on Islam by more than 5 to 1. (It would be interesting to see a similar analysis of the last three years, say, to see if Cole's accusation carries any more bite more recently.) Of course, that CH is racist is not a given either. But the evidence suggests that Cole, and Carey, see CH more as a race hate organ like Der Stürmer than a bastion of free speech pushing against blasphemy, like the Freethinker.

In fact, in the face of violent threats to their free expression CH refused to be cowed; that courage is what PEN should celebrate, regardless of the content. Well, not completely regardless; in my view it is their challenge to blasphemy that specifically qualifies them for this award. Blasphemy is a victimless crime established to defend orthodoxy. Katha Pollitt in an excellent piece in The Nation:
These attacks had nothing to do with supposedly racist insults from privileged white people, and everything to do with perceived deviations from orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is anathema to free thought, and free expression is a vital tool in the spread of free thought. Without free expression, free thought withers; a sort of Millian heterodoxy is the goal of the Freethinker and CH alike, and they want to challenge anything that threatens our ability to express what we think, regardless of orthodoxy. Religious extremism, powered by blasphemy, is therefore a prime target. And note that Islamists more often attack Muslims they consider heretics than they do satirists. The CH murders were not a result of any putative racism on the cartoonists part, but a result of their blasphemy.

One CH journalist said:
We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept,
And Charb told the LA Times:
It's not exactly our drawings that have power, it's our stubbornness — a stubbornness to continue doing what we feel like doing, through drawing.... It comes from the fact that I have nothing else. The only thing we have is our freedom of speech. If we give up on that, we'd need to change fields. Do other things.
Is that not worth celebrating, especially in the light of the price they have paid? CH's work is necessary, contra Prose, especially given how pusillanimous the mainstream press is when it comes to blasphemy. Deference is given to religious sensibilities which is never given to political sensibilities. Another CH contributor, Robert McLiam Wilson, wrote:
Yes, Charlie is tasteless and discomfiting. Have I somehow missed all the gentle, polite satire? That amiable, convenient satire that everybody likes.
That's the point of it, it will offend. And if offendees have established a bogus offence to protect their beliefs, that offence must be exposed as bogus, often, to reduce its power of taboo.

Der Stürmer, on the other hand, was prosecuting a crude anti-semitism descended from centuries of Christian hate crimes. True, it attacked other faiths too, but its primary target were the Jews, including individual Jews. This was not pushing against extremism of all types, nor was it pushing back against blasphemy.

Perhaps the dissenters see the analogy with hate speech in the crude cartoons that CH and Der Stürmer both employ? I think CH's cartoons have been defended successfully, but what if they couldn't be?

In that case, I think their courage in standing up to those who want to impose an orthodoxy by enforcing their blasphemy laws on the rest of us is still worth celebrating (although it might be more muted), especially by an organisation that is set up to defend free speech. Incidentally, Leonard Levy writes in Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie, of Freethinker's G.W. Foote:
Foote relished being vulgar and vicious, and he was every bit as bigoted as the worst of those whom he savaged. (p.480)
Levy's otherwise excellently footnoted book gives no support for this claim, but I bow to his scholarship. Even if Foote was a bigot, he should still be celebrated for his courage in standing up to the blasphemy laws of the time, in defence of the principles of free speech. No such courage could be attributed to the publishers of Nazi tabloids. They had no interest in free thought; they were looking to impose their own orthodoxy.

For standing up, largely alone, against the traducers of free speech, Charlie Hebdo deserves celebration.

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