Charlie Hebdo and the Muhammad cartoons

The new issue of Charlie Hebdo is featuring the same Muhammad cartoons that provoked the terrorist killers five years ago to attack and kill CH staff members and cartoonists. The trial is starting now, so the magazine republished the cartoons. I subscribe to CH (digitally), and I’m trying to download the issue now, but the app isn’t responding. I’d ascribe that to popularity or to interference, but I suspect it’s just an unreliable app… NOTE — it worked. The app responded, and I’m looking at the issue.

So, where do I stand on CH? They should have the right to publish and not be murdered. Just so you know what I think. I suppose I think that, if they were wise, they would do more outreach in schools. Of course, they wouldn’t be allowed to, that would be supporting atheism… It’s only natural that Muslims consider attacks on Islam to be attacks on their bubbe and zayde (or teta and seedo). Many communities do not make the distinction between insulting “the religion” and insulting “the believers.”

There is research that shows that we react to attacks on values that are core to our identity (e.g., gun control) in ways indistinguishable from how we react to physical attacks. See the brilliant podcast You Are Not So Smart, #171.

(And, frankly, if you have to explain a joke or a cartoon that much, it isn’t working… you can blame the audience if you like for not “getting” it, but that doesn’t cut much ice when you’re sweating in front of the bare bricks…)

A good old friend of mine is disturbed that a recent poll (article in CH, article in Le Figaro) shows only 59% of French approve of CH’s publication of the cartoons, and that 18% of Muslims “do not condemn” the murders of the CH staff. My friend bemoans the lack of support for the French concept of laïcité.

As I understand it, laïcité just means that religion shall have no sway over government, which I think has a lot of support. I suspect that this is more, why should Muslims or young people who are sympathetic with them, be OK with a magazine that gratuitously offends a people who (in France) are underdogs and experience discrimination.

(Sidebar—Note the difference between the US idea of Freedom of Religion and the French concept of laïcité. Here in the US, the government cannot establish religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof. In France, religion may not interfere with government! I love that, and I wish we had more of it here—no more political “prayer breakfasts”, things being Under God, and so on. If only that were considered rude and wrong, as it is in France.)

(Sidebar to the Sidebar—Different histories explain this. Our revolution wasn’t explicitly about religion, but many colonists left England because it had an official religion that was not theirs. As soon as the Puritans got here and could exercise their religion freely, they set about docking the ears and noses of Quakers. They weren’t for “freedom of religion” except for their own. In France, the Revolution was against the aristocracy and the church. In the immortal words of Diderot, “The revolution is not over until the last King is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” For the history of this not-really-a-quote, see here.)

(Sidebar3—I wonder, since the French government owns all places of worship, why they permit Saudi petrocrat financing of Wahhabist extreme Islam. I suppose it must all be about the Euros. I have no information about this topic, but this is a blog that, after all, few people will ever see.)

And a lot of French people support the publication of the cartoons for what I would consider the wrong reason, namely that it does offend Muslims — that it “owns” them, to use the modern US phrase. I don’t think the pure, intellectual “freedom of speech” argument especially impresses kids in the banlieues who can’t get a job; and I don’t think it’s what is motivating a lot of the people cheering CH on — they just don’t like Arabs and Africans and enjoy seeing them insulted and humiliated.

I know that CH claims (vociferously!) that they are not aiming at Arab or African individuals but the religion, and they have anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic cartoons (and they must have anti-Protestant cartoons, but none come to mind…). Also, that Islam is a vastly powerful structure with a billion people under its sway. And this is very true. A lot of people who have strong opinions about CH have no idea what they actually publish. If you can read any French at all, I recommend taking a look. It’s quite amazing and very different from what you’d find in the US. If you’re thinking, Oh, isn’t it like Mad Magazine? you’re so, so wrong. There just is no equivalent.

While I am not religious myself, I do identify with Judaism and can feel personally threatened by attacks on the religion I don’t believe in (I do say the prayers on Friday night sometimes, though). But I do love a good “Hasids behaving badly” story when I see it in the Forward… And when CH mocks Judaism, it is more about Israel and circumcision and Hasidim and Haredim, which I agree are good targets for mockery (they’re not me, after all! Well, circumcision, sure, but I don’t have religious feelings about it; I never had a bris). They don’t have nice, bien-pensant Reform or Conservative Jewish congregations in Europe AFAIK, so there’s less of a target there and I am pretty much spared. So I acknowledge that it’s easy for me to support the right to negative speech that isn’t about me.

I love CH, and I love the culture that produces it, but I don’t agree with everything they do. They recently had a piece with several cartoons about how ridiculous it is to target Confederate monuments in the US—complete with what I consider offensive caricatures of black people. Their claim is the monuments are “just” speech. Of course, the speech they embody is saying, You will always be second-class citizens, you will always be under threat, you will never be safe, you will never be equal, we will kill you if we feel like it and we will be backed up by the police and justice system and we will never face punishment, while you must do as we say immediately and without question or we will kill you and get away with it because “we were scared”.

You know what I think about Confederate monuments? I think melt them into slag right there on their plinths. But, yes! I acknowledge that’s not a pure, principled, “all speech must be sacrosanct and left to express its message loudly forever” ideal. I prefer Germany’s approach that decided that pro-Nazi speech (in the form of monuments, among other things) should be removed. They made a national decision that certain speech was bad and had no place in a modern Germany. I’m perfectly OK with that.

I think Freedom of Speech and Freedom from Fear are in conflict much of the time. I understand that Congress cannot infringe FoS, but can’t do jack-shit about FfF, which is a “freedom” made up by FDR.

I know that fans of Confederate monuments claim that the “speech” they represent is something anodyne about pride, valor, respect… just like the Confederate flag is about sweet tea and magnolia blossoms. I am reminded of something a school friend’s older brother used to do: he’d swing his fist at his kid brother’s head and, at the last second, stop and coolly brush his hair back. So, induce fear and then claim deniability. He wasn’t going to hit him! (he just wanted to see him flinch…) This is cousin to the Schrödinger’s Douchebag phenomenon.

Anyway, I haven’t got a nice, tidy wrap-up. I approve of freedom of speech, including speech that intends to contradict or criticize someone else’s speech. And—just so it’s explicit—I’m against murder. I know! Brave stand.