Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Nous sommes Charlie, et Salman, et Johnny Fartpants

There have been some interesting reactions to l'affaire Charlie (as well as plenty of boringly predictable ones). If I'm reading him right, David Timoney reckons that it's no big deal, free speech-wise, on the grounds that Charlie Hebdo didn't have anything big or clever to say and was just a low-circulation comic with fart gags; more Viz than Voltaire.

In contrast, The Plump cites a leftist Frenchman by the name of Oliver Tonneau, who insists that Charlie Hebdo was campaigning about serious subjects from a progressive viewpoint that warrants solidarity, not sneering, from fellow leftists:
It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece). Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maĆ®tre! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.

If Tonneu's description is anywhere close to being accurate, (and he's not the only anti-racist lefty who is out and proud to be Charlie), Charlie Hebdo sounds as if it might truly deserve the "I'm Spartacus" treatment it's been getting from its supporters.

But even if Tonneau's dead wrong and Charlie Hebdo is nothing but a gang of overgrown schoolkids making *hilarious* rude noises to annoy the grown-ups, solidarity is still in order. Censorship by murder was insane enough when people were threatening Salman Rushdie, but if you think that was mad, what about Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells rocking up in ninja fancy dress, ready to assassinate Johnny Fartpants unless the authorities agree to Ban This Sick Filth Right Now? If you think somebody's being  juvenile or unfunny, you just mock or ignore them. If you feel the need to ban or shoot them, you have seriously lost the plot.

Alternatively, if the magazine really does shout out on behalf of minorities, take the piss out of the extreme right, prick authoritarian pomposity and ridicule mindless dogma, as Tonneau claims it does, then it would be a pretty sick joke to see it abandoned by the left and opportunistically embraced by nitwits like the Front National and TV "experts" who can't tell the difference between the West Midlands and Riyadh.

You could say, as Chris Dillow and Kate Belgrave have, that it's hypocritical to stand up for free speech in this area, when the powerful have already effectively closed down free speech on so many issues that matter and when so many knee-jerk authoritarians have hopped on to the "je suis Charlie" bandwagon. 

True enough, but two wrongs don't make a right. If other vested interests have already more or less succeeded in enforcing their arbitrary authority, I don't imagine that capitulating to the whims of yet another set of self-appointed censors will do anything to reduce our sense of learned helplessness in the face of unreasonable demands.

There's a more specific form of hypocrisy going on here, from the French authorities who have appropriated  Charlie's uncompromisingly secular rhetoric, whilst continuing to support such bastions of sectarian privilege as state-supported Catholic Schools. The hypocrisy isn't lost on the people behind Chalie Hebdo, as today's editorial makes clear: 'We thank from the bottom of our heart all those individuals and organisations who are sincerely and profoundly Charlie… We pour shit on all the others who don’t give a f*** about us in any case.' and neither is the irony of an unsolicited endorsement from the God Squad ('What made us laugh the most was that the bells of Notre Dame rang in our honour.'). It'd be good to see Charlie's natural allies outnumbering such incongruous bandwagon-jumpers.