You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered 12 people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).
In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo‘s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”
Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.
Some folks don’t like Charlie
Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an anti-fascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National - France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right - and its current president, Marine Le Pen.
While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.
With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State”. He added: “However, because the honour of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”
While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on January 9 2015.
To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.
Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defence is that a violently racist image was being used to satirise racism”.
Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National - so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?
Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.
The refugee crisis in Europe
More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand-wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.
That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken. The point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.
Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag 'Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”
Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister - perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism - but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.
At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an anti-fascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the 18th-century Enlightenment.
Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.
Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”
Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?
As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasise these values yet again right now.”
I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.
Critique and its responsibilities
I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.
There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.
We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products - whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines - for superficial marks of ideological impurity.
This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover - much less appreciate - complexity, ambiguity or instability of meaning.
There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt - e.g. in writing posts like this one - where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.
Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.