Monday, January 12, 2015

Suis-je Charlie?


In the wake of the horrific attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, many have adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie,” expressing solidarity with the beleaguered magazine. At the same time, there has been push-back against the slogan because Charlie’s cartoons often leave readers uncomfortable. I don’t pretend to add much to this debate, but do want to underscore three points often lost in the discussion.

When Le Monde said “We are all Americans” after 9/11, nobody took this to mean that the newspaper supported everything Americans do and have done. By the same token saying “je suis Charlie” does not imply you agree with everything Charlie Hebdo ever published, nor even with broad patterns in its coverage and satire. Indeed, regular contributors to the magazine did not always agree with everything it published.

At the same time, the widespread, rather un-thinking, chorus of “Je suis Charlie” risks turning Charlie Hebdo into a symbol, in a way its regular contributors, not surprisingly, detest (Luz, Willem). So it is worth thinking a bit more about what it is about Charlie that you support, and acting on that.

As a common formulation of what satire is supposed to aim for, this describes much of what Charlie aims to do. There is, then, a certain hypocrisy in criticizing the magazine for allegedly "afflicting the afflicted" (i.e. targeting weaker groups in society). After all, the magazine itself is, at the moment, undeniably “afflicted”. Kicking them while they are down because they are deemed to have been guilty of the same sin is uncharitable, at best.

Moreover, religious beliefs do not fit neatly into this dichotomy. Certainly Islam, as such, is hardly afflicted: it is a global religion, it is the second religion in France, and many of its adherents are immensely wealthy and powerful. At the same time, many Muslims in France disproportionately find themselves on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

So when Charlie publishes a cartoon poking fun at certain features of Islamic doctrine, is it punching up (at a successful religion whose authorities do not like being questioned), or down (at poor people for whom religion is central to their identity)?

Significantly, Charlie’s cartoons lampooning Islam generally attempt to be careful not to focus on particular non-religious characteristics of its adherents. For this reason, Joe Sacco’s comparing such cartoons to his drawing (as a deliberate provocation) “a Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class” misses the point: There is an enormous difference between believing that some people, simply by birth, share characteristics worth criticizing, and believing that some people subscribe to a particular interpretation of a religion that is worth criticizing.

Charlie’s cartoons are vulgar, puerile, smug. Often they appear designed to be crude and provocative merely for the sake of being so, rather than in order to make a deeper point. However, the level of offensiveness is very context-specific. It is very difficult for outsiders to interpret political cartoons, and many observers have jumped to erroneous conclusions about  some widely-republished Charlie cartoons (as Olivier Tonneau nicely points out).

Claims that the magazine is systematically racist or xenophobic have come almost exclusively from people living outside France who have not bothered actually to look at the evidence, relying instead on what they have read or seen second- or third-hand (I've decided not even to bother linking to some of these misguided rants). Fortunately, the covers of Charlie Hebdo are available for anyone to look at.

By my count, over the past 100 issues, 39 of these covers have attacked mainstream French politicians (mostly president François Hollande), 13 have targeted the French far right (mostly Marine le Pen and the Front National), 18 take aim at French VIPs, 10 at Christianity (mostly the Vatican), 6 at xenophobia, 6 at Islam, and 5 at anti-semitism (some of these are double-counted). Less common targets include sexism (3) and racism (2).

The picture that emerges is of a virulent distaste for any kind of authority — religious or otherwise — that prefers obedience to questioning. (As Scott Sayare notes in the Atlantic, “Charlie Hebdo preaches a stringent interpretation of laïcité”) If your favoured authority is among those attacked, you may find Charlie quite offensive. Fortunately, most people, including the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims, simply ignore or laugh off such offense.

Some people, however, are either unable or unwilling to laugh off any perceived offense. Allowing such sociopathic, humorless, irrational zealots — call them shits, for short — determine what can and cannot be published is a losing proposition. (A relevant example in the present context: the 1977 movie The Message did everything it could to avoid giving offense, but still failed to satisfy the shits). Declaring “je ne suis pas Charlie” on the grounds that its cartoons were likely to set off some shits is thus a very bad idea. First, because there is no end in sight, and second, because doing so concedes not just that the pen is not mightier than the sword, but also proposes that the former ought to bow to the latter.

As Ted Rall points out (in an article with a rather unfortunate title), political cartooning is widely on the retreat, both because people fear the shits and because the traditional employers of political cartoonists — newspapers — are in decline. If you support political satire, rather than (or in addition to) changing your Facebook picture to "Je suis Charlie", consider doing one or more of the following:

1) donate money to Charlie (via the link on their website) to support continued publication (and the increased protection its contributors will undoubtedly require)

2) if you find Charlie problematic, support the work of other political cartoonists and satirists. Two excellent books by American cartoonists which publish cartoons alongside the artist's notes on why, and to whom, they were controversial are Rall's America gone wild and Aaron McGruder's All the rage (which appears, unfortunately, to be out of print). Also, although I challenged Sacco's response to the Charlie attacks above, just about everything he has ever published is great (including, most recently, The Great War, and Bumf).

3) if you don't like political cartoons, but do want to support political cartoonists' rights, donate money to organizations that support freedom of speech, such as the ACLU.