Charlie Hebdo and PEN

Michael Moynihan on the “newly minted French satire experts”:

There is no need to relitigate the main points in Charlie Hebdo’s defense. The context of those cartoons stupidly flagged as bigoted has been explained by a number of baffled French observers. And ask yourself: Should you trust the judgments of newly minted French satire experts, most of whom don’t speak French and have never held a copy of the newspaper? Or should you trust Dominique Sopo, the Togolese-French president of SOS-Racisme, France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization, who made the obvious point that Charlie Hebdo was the “most anti-racist newspaper” in the country? Those accusing his murdered friends of supporting the very things they so passionately opposed, Sopo said, were either motivated by “stupidity or intellectual dishonesty…Every week in Charlie Hebdo—every week—half of it was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”

Indeed, the assumption, repeated ad nauseam since January, that the newspaper was “obsessed” with Islam was effectively rubbished by two French academics writing in Le Monde, who pointed out that in the last decade only seven of 523 covers Hebdo covers dealt with Islam. Twenty-one attacked Christianity. Having extensively reviewed the paper’s political content, they delivered a straightforward verdict: Charlie Hebdo was “undeniably an anti-racist” publication. And barely mentioned by either critics or supporters of the PEN decision was the small detail that when the shooting began, the Charlie Hebdo staff members were discussing their participation in an upcoming anti-racism conference.

And Adam Gopnick writing in the New Yorker:

But surely if some partisans had gone in and gunned down, say, the staff of the hideously anti-Semitic cartoon-heavy journal Der Stürmer back in the nineteen-thirties, well, one might have condemned the violence, but would one have honored those cartoonists? The right response here is that cartoons are not magic Rorschach blots. They speak just as lucidly as epigrams, and the actual content of Julius Streicher’s hideous cartoons of Jews was clear: they were not mocking Judaism; they were threatening the lives of Jewish people. “Your religion is ridiculous” is as different a message as can be from “You are a degenerated race, you want to rape our daughters and steal our goods, and we will do away with you.” An insult to an ideology is not the same as a threat made to a people. Nor does one in any sense, logical or historical, flow from the other—a truth we know exactly because the people most inclined to say that a religion is ridiculous are those who were brought up practicing it.

A few more thoughts below the fold.

A number of the PEN writers have referenced the Christiane Taubira cover, which is actually a useful touchstone. If they understand that the cover is satirizing the remarks of a far-right National Front politician who said that Taubira should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than government” — that the cover was, as my pal Derf writes, “calling on all far-right creeps to unify under this racist imagery they have chosen” — if they understand these things but still object to the apparent racism of the image itself, then at least they have done their homework.

But if they take the image at face value and believe themselves to be righteously protesting a vile, racist, right-wing cartoon — then they are just instant Twitter experts, denouncing murdered artists who can no longer speak on their own behalf.

A lot of the objectionable Hebdo stuff turns out to have other layers of meaning, once you dig into it — as anyone who’s paid the least attention should know by now. Which is not to say it’s an approach I would choose. Using ugliness to satirize ugliness is still ugly, and — as we have seen — too easily prone to misinterpretation. (And that Boko Haram cover — it’s hard to see that one, even in the most charitable reading, as anything but a cringeworthy misfire.)

Still: for all that people talk about the universal language of cartoons, anything beyond the simplest visual commentary is actually pretty hard to decipher when you don’t speak the language or have much in-depth knowledge about the political culture it’s referencing. My own work doesn’t seem to translate well to other countries — even Canada! — because there’s too much the audience is expected to know.  When I draw the orange guy or the guy who looks like a turtle, Americans understand that I’m drawing Boehner and McConnell, and everything that signifies, but it tends to be lost on foreign audiences. 

Also: I understand that “intent” does not shut down a discussion like this, but if members of an organization devoted to freedom of artistic expression are going to sign onto a letter of protest denouncing murdered artists, I do think they have an obligation to try to at least try to understand the work.  Several of the PEN signatories have openly acknowledged they know nothing about Charlie Hebdo. The editor of the literary journal n+1 suggests that his concern had more to do with what others might think than with the murdered artists’ courage, or lack thereof, writing, “it seemed to me that ‘Je suis Charlie’ was a way for people to re-pledge their commitment to the War on Terror.”

Gah! That reductive hashtag. Sometimes it seems like this whole controversy is as much about that hashtag as it is about the cartoonists who were killed because they drew things. Americans who had never heard of Charlie did a quick google search and saw the Tauburi and Boko Haram covers and thought, “Good lord, I’m not Charlie.” And so an attempt to show solidarity with the victims of an atrocity quickly turned into a battleground of social media narcissism. Maybe that’s just the world we live in now, but I found it profoundly depressing to watch as that secondary dispute overshadowed the fact that these cartoonists and their colleagues had just been gunned down (as they were discussing their upcoming participation in an anti-racism conference, according to the Moynihan essay linked above). This has happened again with the PEN controversy, as debate over the artistic merits of Charlie Hebdo overshadows the fundamental issue of free speech and the assassin’s veto.

(There’s also a tendency to dismiss the Hebdo cartoonists by pointing to objectionable things their government has done in the wake of their massacre. I’d hope the logical fallacy of that critique is self-evident.)

The jihadis calling for new attacks on American cartoonists are not connoisseurs of the art form, carefully distinguishing between cartoonists who punch up and those who punch down. They’re extremists looking for inventive new ways to conduct assymetrical warfare, and unfortunately satirists have become symbolic targets.

As for Pamela Geller, that icon of rational thought who once advanced the theory — in all seriousness — that Obama’s real father was Malcom X: yes, I support her right to free speech, and her right to exercise it without threat of injury. But don’t conflate Charlie Hebdo and Geller — the former satirizes eliminationist rhetoric, however imperfectly, while the latter champions it. As Jeet Heer writes in a typically insightful essay, it is a clarifying distinction.