Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

I'm going to have to interrupt our scheduled William James programming today with a message of solidarity and friendship to the people killed in France and their friends and loved ones. The news must have broken yesterday while I was in a self-imposed, blog-writing exile from the rest of the internet, and I didn't see it until this morning. Once I did, I could do little more than stew with horror and guilt. Horror at a thought I couldn't get out of my mind-- the thought of the appalling contrast between how the day must have begun for those 12 people -- a boring, ordinary day at work, most likely, with meetings and phone calls-- and how it ended. The guilt, I suppose, is a kind of survivor's guilt. I think of the astonishing moral courage it took for the Charlie Hebdo staff to publish the images they did, despite years of death threats and an actual firebombing of the office. It brings home to me how little I risk on a daily basis, by contrast, for the sake of principle.

Maybe it would be ideal, if less human, to react to every tragedy that comes along in the news with equivalent outrage, but, as Conan O'Brien said in a response to the killings yesterday, this story must strike a special chord in anyone with any pretensions to doing social criticism or satire, in any medium. It shows me all over again how unusually protected I really am, and how easy it is for me to lob my own fusillades from behind the fortress walls, compared to the people around the world who have to go on throwing them amidst plausible threats of assassination or terrorism or disappearance or arrest or torture.

I try to do what I can to afflict the powerful in my own country-- to condemn mass incarceration and CIA torture and Guantanamo detention and NSA surveillance and ICE deportation as often and as hotly as I can, even if no one listens. But I know all the time that I am effectively protected from experiencing these abuses to my own person in retaliation. I am protected because I am white and a U.S. citizen and native-born. The real risks, the ones that require actual courage, are run by people without these privileges. I am protected too, as a blogger, by relative obscurity-- a mixed blessing.

But perhaps more than any of that -- I am protected by the basic magnanimity of the pundits and ideologues and true believers against whom I argue. They might react to me with venom or vitriol or hateful comments, if they stumbled onto this blog, but they would probably not hunt me down and kill me. Much as we might appear to despise one another, on the internet, we actually display a profound trust in each other's most elementary generous impulses, to the extent we exchange our views without violence. The killings yesterday show that even people who enjoy some of the above privileges, are yet not safe if this last and most important protection breaks down.

People like the Charlie Hebdo staff, who go on publishing even without all these protections (and they must have known, from previous threats on their lives, that they could not count on the last and most important of them) are doing something to which no apt comparison can be made to anything I've published on this blog. I just don't face the same kind of dangers. (Even the Church of Scientology, to whom I've tried to give a few lumps, seems to be less into the vindictive litigation-, stalking-, and harassment-game than it used to be.) I can only admire from a great distance and wish the others good luck.


There have been and will continue to be some voices saying that, however horrible and unjustified the killings were, the Charlie staff still should not have tempted fate the way they did. Others will say they were at any rate wrong to print offensive material, even if they ought not to have been killed for doing so. A New York Times Op-Ed from earlier today condemned the killings in no uncertain terms; but the author also confessed that during previous stays in Muslim countries, he had resented Charlie for its "willful and unnecessary provocations." Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, meanwhile, offered the following display of lunatic solidarity, on behalf of humorless reactionaries of all the world's creeds. Bracketed by the most cursory and insincere nods toward condemnations of the violence I've yet to see anywhere, Donahue goes on:
"It is too bad that [Charbonnier, the Charlie editor] didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, 'Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.' Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him."
How touching. The Fascist International is still alive and well. One might have thought Catholic rightists and Islamic fundamentalists would have little regard for one another, but I guess they're all brothers beneath the stake and oil. Donahue has reminded us once again of the truth of one of Nabokov's observations in Speak, Memory: "[A] kind of family circle has gradually been formed, linking representatives of all nations, jolly empire-builders [...] the good old church-going Russian or Polish pogromshchik, the lean American lyncher, the man with the bad teeth who squirts antiminority stories in the bar," and so on.

I owe the Donahue link to a dismayed Ross Douthat, who says in his column today everything that needs to be said to refute this whole genre of depraved and craven apologetics. Namely, Douthat insists, as soon as someone wants to threaten you with death for saying something, you have a moral obligation to say it. Even if what you are saying is not especially brilliant or tasteful or sound or what-have-you, as soon as someone wants to prevent you from uttering your proclamation by force, then voicing it becomes a profound act of courage and moral witness. He writes:
"[W]hen offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.[… I]f publishing something might get you slaughtered and you publish it anyway, by definition you are striking a blow for freedom, and that’s precisely the context when you need your fellow citizens to set aside their squeamishness and rise to your defense."
Amen. I don't get to say it often, but I agree with every word Douthat has written here.

Of course, the NYT writer above, unlike Donahue, was not trying to suggest that the Charlie staff members were responsible in the moral sense for what happened to them. Still, I have to protest against even the suggestion that they had "provoked" anyone, in the proper sense of the word, by their editorial decisions. To suggest that printing cartoon pictures of Mohammed, or of anything else, is the same thing as "provoking" a violent response, is already to imply that violence is somehow a reasonable or predictable response to having one's religious beliefs poked fun at or ridiculed. When of course, it is not. It is an entirely unacceptable response in every way, and it is the person who makes this response, not the person who is the target of it, who bears ultimate responsibility.

Besides: not only would it be wrong to adjust one's behavior or expression to avoid offending people set on violence, it would also not really be possible to do so. The kind of people who are likely to engage in terrorist acts are not following some mechanistic program, in which a given input of offense yields some predictable quotient of violence. They are not people motivated, by and large, by ideology. They have plenty of ideology, true, but they put it on and molt it again as it suits them, and the content of this chameleon-ideology is always secondary to the psychological needs it fulfills-- the needs for meaning, activity, power, and a feeling of "social solidarity," as Bruce Schneier puts it.

They might be Islamic fundamentalists today, but they could just as easily have been Symbionese liberationists in yesteryear. Speaking of a young revolutionary she once encountered, Joan Didion diagnoses his goals and motives as follows: "The world [he] had constructed for himself was one of labyrinthine intricacy and immaculate clarity, a world made meaningful not only by high purpose but by eternal and internal threats, intrigues and apparatus, an immutably ordered world in which things mattered." These are the kinds of things people are after when they engage in terroristic violence. If yesterday's attackers hadn't chosen to persecute people for drawing images of Muhammed, it could just as easily have been for something else, and we'd have no real way of knowing in advance what it could be. As Jon Stewart said in a recent Fresh Air interview: "You cannot outsmart crazy."


This last point also tells us why, most fundamentally, people of good will are correct in insisting these attacks have nothing at all to do with Islam. They are correct, however, not because the "true" Islam is "a religion of peace." There is no one true Islam, or true Christianity or Judaism. Each creed and ideology in the world is infinitely various and many-feathered, and can be put to any use you please -- and that is why these good people are correct. There may be justifications in Islam for sparing the innocent, but there is also no end of horrific religious violence apparently sanctioned and condoned by the Muslim tradition, the literature of which describes Muhammed and his successors carving a swathe of atrocity through Arabia, forcing conversions, taxes, or death on the non-Muslims they encounter (much as the IS is doing today). The Christian and Jewish Scriptures, meanwhile, portray an unmistakable (if ahistorical) genocide of the native Canaanites in the Book of Joshua. They not only portray it, in fact, they celebrate it as the fulfillment of a divine commandment.

Every faith and creed and ideology has material in it to justify violence, if people want to find it there.  Even, or perhaps especially, Western liberalism! This point is worth emphasizing right now, as we are likely to hear a lot of nonsense in the coming days and weeks about "Western Civilization" being imperiled by "barbarity" or something to that effect. We will hear this despite the fact that "Western Civilization" has been and continues to be a quite active purveyor of barbarity. In the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James says something that is particularly relevant here for several reasons at one:
"Certainly," he writes, "the unhesitating and unreasoning way in which we feel that we must inflict our civilization upon 'lower' races, by means of Hotchkiss guns, etc., reminds one of nothing so much as of the early spirit of Islam spreading its religion by the sword."
 Ah, and I see over at the Atlantic that Jeffrey Goldberg is already off to these unwholesome races. "Europe Is Under Siege" reads his headline. Please! The attack yesterday was committed by three deranged individuals, not by a siege army.

We know almost nothing about these three men's personal history. We don't know what mental illnesses or other afflictions they may have suffered from. We don't know what violence or traumas may lie in their past. We have no idea to what extent they were a part of any larger agenda than that of their own deluded, diseased, but no doubt to them compelling, interior universe. Sure, they declared some allegiance to Al Qaeda, but so did the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, and that story turned out to be basically a wish-fulfillment of their own devising.

My guess is yesterday's gunmen turn out to be people suffering under a host of mental afflictions; possibly they were the victims of violence or abuse as children. And I suspect it will transpire that they acted alone, for reasons that had everything to do with their own private demons, and nothing, at last, to do with religion or ideology or the particular so-called "offense" the Charlie editors had given. If it hadn't been pictures of Muhammed, it would have been something else that blew the lid.


I hope this also indicates to us why we should ask the French authorities to capture these men if possible without taking their lives, to give them their full rights as defendants, and to treat them generally as human beings, possessed of basic worth, who are suffering under we know not what delusions and inward afflictions.

We also need to monitor closely and condemn utterly any violence that breaks out against Muslim people, in France, in the States, and everywhere else out of some kind of warped "retaliatory" impulse (and some already has, though mercifully without casualties so far). And we have to speak out against any use our own governments may make of these and similar incidents to roll back civil liberties protections for Muslim people and others, and to go on protesting against the appalling human rights abuses our governments commit in Muslim countries and against Muslim detainees in Gitmo and elsewhere.

Responding in this compassionate way, rather than with violence, will ultimately be the best tribute we could make to the 12 people killed yesterday. It would be a grave insult to their memory if instead we puff ourselves up with a lot of bombast about "Western Civilization" and use it to commit injustice. Here's why:

The thing about a genuine sense of humor, and the Charlie staff displayed this well, is that it is an all-encompassing thing. Humor is no respecter of persons, and it is partial to no creed. Once you start to see the essential humor in one official bromide, one absurd piety, one preposterous belief, one somersaulting casuistry and implausible self-justification, you start to see the humor in each. To honor Charlie, therefore we have to see the humor in everything, and mock and ridicule everything-- including the ludicrous taboos of Islamic fundamentalism, to be sure, but including as well the hypocrisies of our own governments.

One last point about that "survivor's guilt" mentioned above -- I think I've put my finger on exactly its sum and substance. The reason I feel it, and probably everyone who tries to write satire and social criticism in some form must feel it, is that to find myself still standing while others are dead makes me doubt whether I have yet said enough outrageous stuff, trodden on enough powerful toes, insulted enough prophets and presidents, in my own writing. Plainly, we who remain alive are doing something wrong, to be paid this unbidden compliment of not being harassed and threatened by ideologues the way the Charlie staff was. 

Of course, it is a blessing not to be followed or wiretapped or detained or hacked or assassinated, whether by terrorists outside of government or by terrorists within it -- but it cannot but make me feel that I must be going too easy on someone.

In a poem on the Nazi book-burnings, Bertolt Brecht imagines the thoughts of "an old poet, one of the best," who discovers that his own works are not to be included among the destroyed literature. He is outraged, and rushes to beg the authorities charged with the burning:
"Burn me, [...] burn me./ Do not treat me in this fashion. Don't leave me out. Have I not / Always taught truth in my books? And now / You treat me like a liar! I order you: / Burn me!" (Hays trans.)
Those of us who survive to poke fun another day, to offer another barrage of mocking salvos against priests and prophets and mullahs and dictators and directors-- we cannot help but feel as the old poet did. "Am I not doing my best to speak the truth? To puncture all pieties and disgrace all duplicities? And yet, you still haven't chosen to crash my website, you still don't come to my door, you still don't bug my phone, you still don't threaten me? How dare you treat me like a liar in this fashion! I order you: attack me!"

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