Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tout est Pardonné

Image from The Guardian
Voilà -- the cover art too shocking and offensive to be carried this week by most mainstream media outlets. And I suppose it is a rather shocking image, in the best sense of the word. The surviving handful of the Hebdo staff could have offered the world a quite different message, after all. They could have offered a message of rage, anguish, even hate -- and it would have been hard to blame them if they did, a week after their friends and colleagues were killed. Alternatively, they could have backed down and refused to portray Muhammad. They could have followed the taboo for which their friends were murdered, out of a justified fear for the lives that are left to them. And again, it would have been hard to blame them. 

But they did something quite different from either of these. For one thing, they persisted in violating the taboo for which their friends were killed, showing that they could not be deterred or silenced by fear. And at the same time, they scrawling over the image: "All is forgiven." 

Not only that, but they have depicted the prophet, whose "honor" was supposedly vouchsafed by the massacre, in fact shedding tears of pity and humanity for the victims. "What is the real dishonor?" -- the image asks. "What is the real blasphemy? -- This innocent cartoon of a man weeping -- or the reason why he weeps?"

Nor should we have expected anything less beautiful and magnanimous from these satirists. A video posted to the New York Times website earlier this week, shows the Charlie Hebdo staff from a few years ago, when they were all still alive, at work on one of their earlier depictions of Muhammad. It was the famous one in which, in the final version, the prophet is shown balling his fists in frustration and declaring: "It is hard to be loved by idiots." The staff describe to one another the message the image conveys: "See, Muhammad is nicer than you [i.e., the fundamentalists]. You are the real caricatures." Their latest cover art says this as well, and says it even better.

In a sense, this really is the most shocking, provocative, outrageous thing they could have done with their cover. Who could have predicted they would create something that managed so perfectly to have both its tongue in its cheek and its heart in its hands? Who could have dreamt up an image like this one, that manages both to spurn all threats and show courage in the face of violence, while also forgiving the attackers -- saying, we will insist on responding to you with humor and generosity, rather than with hate? "This is not the cover the world wanted; it is not the cover the fundamentalists wanted; but it is the cover we wanted," they said -- and they're right.

Humor is something "elevating," Freud once said-- especially when it makes its appearance in front of the gallows or the firing squad. Humor is part of how we declare our highest victory over death, despair, sorrow, and fear. And the humor displayed on Charlie's new cover elevates them above both their enemies and their false friends alike. The drawing is the most definitive response that could be made to every crackpot and goon and unbidden hanger-on who has figured in this story and its aftermath. It must utterly disappoint the far right, who have tried to make the Charlie staff martyrs to their own unholy cause, and who want blood and Islamophobia in response to the attacks. It throws the violent threats of the fundamentalists back into their faces. It refutes the leftists who were crying that Charlie had been "racist" from the start. To all of them, it says: You are the real caricatures, not this drawing!


There have been a lot of people the last few days pointing to the disproportionate attention that the Charlie victims have received this week, compared to the thousands massacred by Boko Haram in Nigeria and many others killed in Yemen, compared to the blogger flogged with 50 lashes this week by America's beloved "regional partner," Saudi Arabia, compared to the Jewish victims of multiple terrorist attacks in France in recent years, compared to the Muslim victims of civil liberties violations in the War on Terror -- take your pick. There is no end of ghastliness in our world, and none of us responds to each of its rearing hydra heads with equivalent horror and outrage. Many have speculated, meanwhile, that the reason we in the West have spent more time and ink deploring the Charlie attacks is due to the fact that the victims were white, to the entrenched racist and Islamophobic attitudes born of the War on Terror, and so forth.

It is true that all of us, imperfect human beings that we are, empathize most easily and quickly with the experience of people we take to be "similar" to us -- culturally or professionally or otherwise. Meanwhile, I have no intention of speaking for or defending the reasons why Fox News, say, cares a lot about the Charlie Hebdo story. They are probably not good ones. 

But I can share some of the reasons why this story stuck in my own craw to a special degree. I hope to show that they are not all entirely dishonorable and discriminatory ones, even if not always perfectly evenhanded. 

The first reason I care is simply that I have some vaguely creative and journalistic and satirical ambitions myself, and can't help but sympathize to a special degree with who the Charlie editors were and with what they were trying to do. The second reason, though, is a little stranger. It has to do with a slightly eery coincidence that happened to me the day before the attacks -- a coincidence of the kind which probably means nothing in itself, which tells us nothing, but which we endow after the fact with significance-- a "message" for our lives and behavior. 

A few weeks ago or so, I had been reading an article about the career of Susan Sontag that was linked through Arts & Letters Daily. A quote from Christopher Hitchens featured in the article that described Sontag's role in the Salman Rushdie affair. I was rather struck by its opening lines:
"Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too."
The impression this leaves is first of all one of admiration for Sontag's efforts, along with a renewed respect for Rushdie's act of courage in publishing his book, plus outrage at what he had to suffer as a result, and what his harassed or murdered translators and publishers abroad had to suffer, along with their families and friends. 

The other impression is one of bafflement, however. The question arises: Why did the others mentioned by Hitchens need all this coaxing at Sontag's hands, before they'd come to Rushdie's defense? Why the need for all the cajoling and "shaming," as Hitchens calls it? Wouldn't the left-liberal intelligentsia be the first to jump into the picket line in defense of someone publishing a serious work of literature, who was being threatened with death for questioning the pieties of a despotic crank like the Ayatollah?

Of course, we know all the reasons why it didn't pan out this way -- at least not so simply. There was still that residue from the 'Sixties of Fanonist Third Worldism to contend against -- the one that had replaced Stalinism by this point as the most generous source of moral inanity on the Left. There was also no doubt some justified guilt on Western intellectuals' part about the role their governments played in supporting the terroristic Iranian Shah. Such guilt must have perversely translated into affection for the apparently anti-Western Islamic Republic (despite the fact that this regime, in addition to being intrinsically abhorrent, also proved itself quite content to purge the Communist Party that had helped it gain power in the first place -- and to collaborate with some of the United States' worst policies in the Contra scandal).

Yes, we know the reasons. Yet, from our vantage point in 2015, they all seem so patently ridiculous! How could people not have seen that they were ridiculous? Why on Earth should a literary novelist like Rushdie, trying to make an important point about religion, be "punished" for the sins of the West? Why should anyone think it would somehow give quarter or credence to Western actions abroad to defend Rushdie (one would think it would do quite the opposite rather -- show, that is, that the Left is acting for conscientious reasons). What could Rushdie's actions possibly have had to do with "imperialism" and with anti-Muslim "racism"? 

It seems so obvious now, to me at least, that the Left should have sprung immediately to his aid -- and not just with a fairly neutral endorsement of his right to speak freely, but with a positive endorsement of the content of what he was trying to say! True, I haven't read The Satanic Verses. And yes, the Salman Rushdie of 2015 seems to have mostly been reduced to an HBO squawking head who writes self-justifying memoirs in the third-person. But none of that is really to the point. The point is that, successful or otherwise, The Satanic Verses were an attempt to poke holes in fundamentalist pieties and wedge the door open to an intelligent and honest engagement with Islamic religious ideas as ideas. Why on Earth did the Left not recognize it as such? Why did they not at once recognize that no system of ideas should be exempt from criticism, if that criticism is based in truth and honesty? Why did they not recognize that opposition to deplorable Western policies and opposition to deplorable Islamic fundamentalist ones did not have to cancel each other out?

And now I get to that weird coincidence mentioned above.

Last Tuesday, the day before the news of the Hebdo attacks broke, I was sitting on a train on my way from Chicago to Boston, and puzzling through all this. The thought kept occurring to me: How would I respond, if a similar thing happened today? Would I display the clarity of purpose that Sontag did? Or would I suddenly go weak-kneed and mealy-mouthed? Would I come up with some reason why things were different this time-- some reason to exempt the killings and intimidation from criticism? Would I catch that infectious cowardice mentioned by Hitchens above? I thought back to the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006. I thought to myself: We haven't heard anything about any similar cartoons in the news lately. I wonder if that sort of thing wouldn't provoke such an uproar anymore.

And amidst these thoughts, I'm ashamed to say, I expressed a wish: a wish that some such controversy would arise, that some attack would take place. To test my valor, I guess. 

So what, right? We all make idle wishes that we don't really mean and wouldn't actually want to come true. We make all kinds of half-serious predictions to ourselves on a daily basis, and 99% of them never materialize in reality. The fact that one of them did, this one time, means nothing.

But ludicrous as it is, I couldn't help but feel when I saw the news a day and a half later: This is my fault! I asked for this! I did this! Like most secular people, my surface atheism hides a subconscious belief in God, I guess. On some level, I must believe that some being out there is listening to my every thought, weighing it, and will one day hold me accountable.

As human beings do with the meaningless randomness of the universe, I chose to endow this coincidental event with meaning. I told myself that the very least I could do, in such circumstances, was to show solidarity with the people who had been killed. And not just solidarity with their rights, but solidarity too with the content of what they were trying to say (and yes, Glenn Greenwald, I do understand the distinction between the two).

In an essay charging hypocrisy against those who defend the editorial decisions of the Charlie staff, Glenn Greenwald writes, among other things, 
“When we originally discussed publishing this article to make [the point about hypocrisy], our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least.”
It becomes clear, from the material Greenwald does publish to prove his point, that what he means here by "cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews" are simply hate-filled anti-Semitic cartoons. I certainly don't want to defend such things or their moral equivalents. Yet to say that these are the moral equivalents of what Charlie Hebdo was trying to do in depicting Muhammad,  is simply to assert what Greenwald should be setting out to prove. 

Let it be clarified: the debate in all this is not really over whether or not free speech should be protected against violence. No reasonably person is disputing that. Besides, if anyone in our society is a sincere proponent of free expression, it is Greenwald -- that is not in doubt. Nor is any reasonable person, if you press her or him on it, trying to say that anti-Muslim hate speech is an admirable -- or even remotely acceptable-- thing (even though the right to express it should still be protected). That is also not up for serious dispute, outside the ranks of the National Front and their American equivalents.

The question up for dispute here is whether the Muhammad cartoons are in fact anti-Muslim hate-speech, or instead make a serious point about religious ideas? We recognize the distinction between the two things all the time when we talk about Judaism or Christianity. Why can't we recognize it when we talk about Islam?

Greenwald can't actually think, after all, that "sacred figures to Jews" are somehow held exempt from all criticism and satire in our popular culture. Moses and Yahweh have been the butt of jokes for centuries, and still are today (never more so than at the hands of Jewish comics!). I'll give you an example I'm fond of:

In an episode of his eponymous TV show, Louis CK includes a riff on the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is the scene, more specifically, in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. God, Louie points out, behaves in this incident "like a shitty girlfriend." Then, slurring his speech, Louie imitates a drunken Deity crashing Abraham's house in the middle of the night. "Hey Abraham! Hey, wake up! Hey-- I want -- I want you to... kill yer son! Yeah! Kill yer son! Otherwise you don't really love me! If you really love me, ye'll kill yer only son!" and so on.

I don't think any of us would interpret this riff as "anti-Semitic." Nor does acknowledging some truth behind its satire somehow imply that Judaism is entirely devoid of value as a religion and a way of life. Instead, I think we can see that Louie is trying to make an important, if provocative, point. It's a point, I take it, about the contrast we often find in religion between the grandeur of its moral ideals, and the content of so many of its stories and doctrines. In contrast lies humor.

Ok, you might grant that Louie was making a valid point-- or at least, a point serious enough that it doesn't simply count as "hate speech." But maybe he expressed it in a way that was "insensitive to believers"? Maybe he should have written something that took religious ideas more seriously, even while criticizing them?

True, Fear and Trembling this isn't. And yet, isn't it obvious to us all, at some level, that this comic riff has a value that is distinct from what you can gain from putting the same points into some sober treatise on theodicy? Don't we all see, at last, that our cultures are enriched by making room for both Louis CK and Soren Kierkegaard?

I see no reason at all why the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo have been more "insensitive" or "offensive" than the Louie CK riff. I don't see that they entirely devalue Islam and its followers any more than Louie entirely devalues Judaism, Christianity and their followers. 

The only difference I see is that the Charlie staff knew they might be killed for the points they were trying to make, and therefore had to show more moral and physical courage to make them.

Islam, like the other major religions, has a considerable mixture of good and evil in its doctrines. Like Christianity it has an appealing moral universalism, for instance-- but the reverse side of this same doctrine is an often ferocious vindictive streak against those who are not part of the faith community. This is most obvious in the doctrine of eternal punishment, which both conservative Islam and fundamentalist Christianity share. In both faiths, the question must arise: how can you really see non-believers as fully human -- if at the same time you are also willing to worship and submit to a God who would condemn them all to eternal suffering?

To pry open some of these doctrines to intelligent and conscientious criticism -- to keep the good and discard the bad -- some satire is surely in order. Some points must be made that are "provocative" and not always delivered with the utmost "tact."


Meanwhile, as I've tried to insist in every post I've written on the subject this week, we have to insist that the same values of free expression and civil liberties for which the Charlie staff perished must also inform any response to the attacks. 

Here is where the legacy of the murdered people will be more harmed by their false friends than by their enemies. I am thinking of the rancid hypocrisy displayed by the French government, in marching for "free speech" one day, and imprisoning more than 50 people the next on charges of "hate speech" and "glorifying terrorism." I am thinking of the countless ways in which our governments' counterterrorism policies violate the freedoms that supposedly define "Western Civilization." I am thinking of Sami al-Arian. I am thinking of Guantánamo Bay and CIA black sites. I am thinking of the American Muslim citizens targeted by a racist dragnet in New York, who have to this day been denied justice. I am thinking of the 21-year-old who is being threatened with the death penalty right now for his guilt in the Boston Marathon bombings.

The point to insist on, in this case as in the Rushdie case, is that we do not have to find ourselves simplistically bracketed onto one "side" or the other among all these hypocrites and malefactors. We don't have to be partisans of either Western militarism or of Islamic fundamentalism. We don't have to make excuses for either. It is possible to remember and sympathize with the claims of the oppressed and the underdog and the victim of violence in every case that comes along, and not to close some of them off from our circle. We can resist the temptations in this rotten world to participate in the atrocities of either one murderous tribe or another. We can practice what Graham Greene liked to call "the virtue of disloyalty."

I see this virtue in the Charlie cover above. Long may they prosper.

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