Fattening Frogs for Snakes

When last we spoke…

One squireen was eulogizing yet another one. The still living one, Perry Anderson, found hope in the existence of a newish magazine, Jacobin. It’s been said before: hope that is seen is not hope.

So: to the moment. Jacobin wasted no time posting a comment on this week’s killings in Paris, on the first round, anyway.On Charlie Hebdo’ was written by a Richard Seymour, a regular Jacobin contributor, here reprinted from his blog, which is nothing less than Lenin’s Tomb. Mr. Seymour is further identified as the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder; and according to Amazon.com, he is also the author of a book-long posthumous excoriation of Christopher Hitchens.

Here’s the opening sentence:

Many journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been murdered by bampots brandishing what appear to be machine guns at close range.

And yet, Mr. Seymour seems to make a living with his pen. That ‘at close range’ is intriguing. The point, you’d guess, is that these people were shot at close range, an evocative detail. If only he’d said that. Instead the operative verb is—what? Murdered? Too distant, and murdered at ‘close range’ is hardly idiomatic English.

Brandishing? If someone holds a gun a couple of inches—‘at close range’—from someone else, it’s a significant detail—until the trigger is pulled, at which point the ‘brandishing’ loses its significance. Do we even know that these weapons were brandished at ‘close range.’ The trouble in Paris was not that somebody displayed a weapon. Somebody used it. Appear? They are machine guns, and Richard Seymour, for one, has not seen them ‘at close range.’

Two further points to be noted in this sentence. First, people have been ‘murdered.’ Murdered is a word to be avoided in serious political writing. The killing you don’t like is murder. If a given killing is particularly odious, you must show it to be so. The thesaurus is not your argument, and not your friend. Mr. Seymour, of course, is not alone in this slovenliness. But then, a Richard Seymour is never alone.

Second, ‘bampots,’ or as we might say here, headcases.

It might be comforting to view the Kouachi brothers as nuts—the lone nut tag is unavailable—but they are entirely rational actors. ‘We have avenged the Prophet’ (a reference to the legendary Arabian military commander, Muhammad). If, as many believe, and as many others, innocent of even the slightest Muhammadan beliefs, publicly profess, the ‘Prophet’ must not be insulted—in fact, even a flattering picture may be deemed a mortal offense—consequences can be expected. That they will be deadly should also be expected. Charlie Hebdo is being described as ‘satirical.’ Let’s consider the career of Nadr bin al-Harith. He, in his day, was a satirical poet, who singled out Muhammad as a comic target. Muhammad predicted an eternity of hellfire, whenever Nadr should die. Muhammad’s power grew. Nadr’s head was cut off. Satire closes on Saturday night, only if it makes it past Friday prayers. Anjem Choudary, a Muhammadan cleric in London, published a comment on the Paris events in USA Today. He said that, of course, those who insult ‘the prophets’ must be punished. He would, as you’d expect, be much less solicitous of say, Mousa/Moses or Isa/Jesus. But then, nothing prevents a true believer from being a liar. If he’s right, if, I repeat, Charlie Hebdo’s staff are in hell right now, as, in the blink of an eye, I will be, and Richard Seymour, too. We’re talking about different things. That’s all.

Howard Dean provides a useful contrast. ‘They [the Kouachi btothers]’re about as Muslim as I am.’ The no-true-Scotsman formulation is best avoided, even more so if you are not yourself a Scotsman. He also called the Islamic State a ‘cult’—one that rules an area larger than Vermont. Not a Muslim cult, he said, just a ‘cult.’ it’s worse than we thought: an army of true believers, and they don’t beleve in anything! He added that none of this is to be found in the Qur’ān. A reminder: in 2004, Howard Dean told the press that his favorite book in the New Testament was Job. Is this (or Richard Seymour) who you’d send to teach the path of reason to those on the jihadi path.

True, Mr. Seymour’s article was written in great haste. True, too, that it were better never written.

Here’s the rest of the first paragraph:

It is too soon to have a complete, coherent political narrative of these killings. All one can have at this point are the correct but platitudinous points about there being no justification for this, that all attacks on journalists are abhorrent, that freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood, and so on. If you really need that sermon, you’re in the wrong place.

After 9/11, Noam Chomsky published a comment. He opened with a throat-clearing acknowledgement of the event, perfunctory to the point of comedy, before making clear that at Chomsky Inc, it’s business as usual. Some people claimed that Chomsky was—go figure!—wanting in sympathy, in fact, a little cold. Compared to Richard Seymour, though, Chomsky is Johnnie Ray.

A few points about the paragraph:

‘All attacks on journalists are abhorrent.’ A piety. For his journalism, Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg. If the radio stations in Rwanda that co-ordinated the genocide there, had been attacked—and announcers killed—where would the moral quandary be?

‘and so on’: too good!

‘you’re in the wrong place’: y’know…

But above all, ‘freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood.’ For sure, that last drop won’t be his. But the question of freedom of speech shouldn’t be hurried. It can be viewed as an ideal, something to be aspired to, regardless of actual conditions at any time, in any place. It can also be regarded as a constituent element of an existing regimen, something that armed power has produced and maintains.

Freedom of speech is a value. But is it a Western value or a universal value? The Western/universal debate is hot these days, and implicates more issues than free speech. The veiling of Muhammadan women has inspired a lot of talk. Should a woman be forced to wear a burqa? Well, some ensconced here in the West will point out that women here are ‘expected’ to wear makeup in public, so same difference. Well: the religious police in Manhattan will not beat a woman for not wearing blush. What’s really wrong with the sort of dummy critique that defends the imposition of the burqa is that it is made by the sort of people who are not themselves subject to that imposition. Let others suffer, so long as I can preen. Or consider the ‘issue’ of clitoridectomy. There are some, safe here at home, who defend the practice, as authentic, and a bulwark against ‘cultural imperialism.’ Butover there, those who are cut don’t have much say; over here, those who understand so virtuosically are at zero risk of suffering the procedure themselves.[1]

The debate—Western or universal?—is a little pointless. Any putatively universal value will be, by definition, also a Western value. Is it therefore only a Western value? Even the blandest ‘Western’ value can not be expected to command universal assent even from the least heterogeneous Western population. No universal value, then is possible.

Universal-enough values, though, are possible. Slavery and piracy are certainly not universally reprehended. Something loves the whip. But universally enough they are. And so, it became possible for armies and navies to scour the earth, exterminating every slaver and pirate they could lay hands on.

Freedom of speech, as an ideal, is pretty amorphous. Americans commenting on Charlie Hebdo have thoughtlessly referred to the First Amendment. American law is not binding on the Kouachis nor on French officials. What may be said in ‘the West’ varies from country to country. Libel judgments can be had in English courts that would be nowhere available in America. Promulgation of Holocaust denial is a felony in Austria, as David Irving learned. Freedom of speech acquires clear definition only as it is enforced. You are free to say what you will insist on saying. A state can be expected to use force to protect its citizens from those who seek to impose a narrower free-speech regimen. Popular resistance can claim greater free-speech rights from a state. Free speech is better understood, not as something separate and immune from power, but as a function of power. The question is not what you may say, but what you can. Adorno noted how much aggression is inherent in freedom. Free speech is not innocent. It had better not be.

Mr. Seymour goes on:

The assumption is that the killers are members of some sort of Islamist group, possibly linked to Islamic State, and are exacting political retribution for the publication’s regular satirical attacks on Islam by executing its journalists. And about that, I do have something beyond the obvious to say, just as a starting point.

What ‘that’ is—Mr. Seymour, remember, is a writer of books for a living—is hopelessly opaque (and we’re better off not bothering to ask). Now, there has been general agreement on both the identity and the motivations of the killers in Paris. About that—something or other in there—he’s got something ‘beyond the obvious’ to tell us. And about ‘that,’ he tells nothing, going on to talk about anything else.

He goes on to attack M. Hollande for using the word ‘terrorist.’ The word, he sniffs, is not ‘scientific’—a fetishized word choice; and as if anybody had called it scientific—but ‘normative’—whatever that might mean. It is true that the word terrorist should be avoided. It’s often been observed, though too often to weasely ends, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Better to offer this definition: a terrorist is an armed man you don’t like. The word gets tossed around promiscuously, applied even where no violence at all is involved. So, point 2 of the definition: anyone you don’t like. Mr. Seymour has one simple objection: it makes Muhammadans look bad.

And now, at long last, ‘On Charlie Hebdo’ turns to Charlie Hebdo. Mr. Seymour summarizes it as ‘what is frankly a racist publication.’ (Whether the frankness is Mr. Seymour’s or Charlie Hebdo’s our author leaves us free to guess):

I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that—irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes—the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.

Richard Seymour, the very model of an anti-racist, has here said what he came to say: Those dead guys? Racists! ‘I will not waste time arguing.’ True to his word, he offers zero argument. (The waste of time is a separate issue.) He ‘simply take[s] it as read’—pompous prick. The representation of Islam is racist, he says. It is wearying to have to go over this again. Muhammadanism is a religion. It is a body of doctrines. One may have negative opinions, even vilely negative ones, about it—or about any religion—without ethnicity coming into issue. Clearly, one could be anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. The distinction is possible. It is noteworthy that in this impassioned declaration of ‘anti-racist’ purity the words Muslim and Islam ring over and over. Such words as Arab, African, black, non-white, non-European do not appear even once. Think of a few real -world examples. Mockery of the ‘prophet’ Joseph Smith is not a racist assault on blondes. In Sudan, Muhammadan Arabs have waged genocidal war against non-Muhammadans, and they have done so in the name of Islam. They have also waged genocidal war against Muhammadans who were not Arabs. In the Levant, minorities have been largely eliminated. The Islamic State has attempted, mostly successfully, to cleanse the world of Yazidis. That they are a distinct ethnic group is incidental. Their offense is a theological one. Christians in the Levant (as in Egypt) are for the most part the remnants of the indigenous population from before the Arab conquest. They, too, have been targeted for their religion, not their ethnicity.[2]

To buttress his non-argument, Mr. Seymour offers a non-bibliography: ‘you do your research.’ He cites Edward Said’s Orientalism, notorious junk, and ‘some [unspecified] basic introductory texts [They would be ‘texts,’ wouldn’t they?] on Islamophobia.’

Ah, Islamophobia. An ailurophobe sees a cat and has a panic attack. A quick trip to the ER, the administration of an anti-anxiety med and we’re good to go. If there is somewhere in the world someone who reacts similarly to, say, the sight of a crescent: same prescription. A negative opinion, however justified, of a religion is not a phobia. The ailurophobe is sick, pathological, incapacitated. None of these words would apply to Charlie Hebdo. If a phobia is an irrational fear, Charlie Hebdo was not in the least irrational, and ‘fear’ is hardly a word one would associate with them (just as ‘courage’ is not a word one would associate with Richard Seymour). The term Islamophobia is the medicalization of an ideological disagreement. It has all the intellectual integrity of Soviet psychiatry.

And then, he allows,

come back to the conversation.

What conversation? With him?

He next offers ‘a detour.’ And why not? He wasn’t going anywhere anyway. Here, he harks back to 1988, when three members of the Provisional IRA were shot dead on Gibraltar.

The three Provos were unarmed when they were killed, just as he says. But they had gone to Gibraltar to bomb the military facility there. The pre-Gerry Adams Provos talked in a way that has grown unfamiliar. They shot at the English military; the English military shot at them. They laid ambushes for the enemy; the enemy laid ambushes for them. What they complained of was the official stance that there were no belligerents involved. There were only civil disturbances, with the forces of order on one side, and common criminals—murderers, in fact—on the other. If the army had a shoot-to-kill policy (see the Stalker affair), if it conducted military operations as military operations, this was a war. The prison protests and the hunger strikes turned entirely on the question of belligerent status. Amnesty International, he says, was mightily displeased. But so what? Amnesty’s original remit was the defense of prisoners of conscience. Those who took up arms against a state would have to find other champions. By turning into an all-purpose shop, it lost a great deal of credibility. And so what? The point of resorting to arms is to overcome the opposing military force, not to look like the poor put-upon bastard in the piece. Seymour invokes the Tories. But Labour was in power in 1969, and through much of the ’70’s. The IRA was at war with the English state, irrespective of temporary party majority, or of Richard Seymour’s preferences. Thatcher threw the word murder at the IRA. She did that often. The word was indispensable to Baroness Thatcher—and to Mr. Seymour, her rhetorical Mini-Me.

Is the detour over? Sure, but let’s take a moment to remember that for many years to use the word ‘terrorist’ in the UK almost invariably referred to the Republican guerrilla. So much for Mr. Seymour’s terrorist-is-code-for-Muslim claim.

Next, he invokes ‘You’re with us or against us’ and the War on Terror. When George W. Bush talked with us or against us—fourteen years ago—it was a piece of—uncharacteristic—bluster. Look at the reality. It was never part of American foreign policy—how would it be?—to deny other nations a right to neutrality or to remain uninvolved. Even The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic, which spent years actively co-operating with forces killing Americans, suffered no adverse consequences.[3] The War on Terror was a clumsy usage, designed precisely as a sop to Muhammadan sensibilities. It was, in other words, the very opposite of Mr. Seymour’s portrayal. And the phrase hasn’t been used for six years. He has not gone rummaging through the storehouse of remaindered political slogans for anything real. Mr. Seymour knows his red meat, and he knows his dogs.

The penultimate paragraph: He says sternly that there will be no ‘decent interval’ [scare-quotes in the original]. Right: his article was contemporaneous with the autopsies. He then warns of the anti-Muslim backlash, or rather, the scale of the backlash. It’s coming, coming for sure, but when, but it’s coming. And when it does… Richard Seymour will be there, tall on the wall, prepared to…and the paragraph is rounded out thus:

it is essential to get this right.

Not ‘important,’ not ‘think this through,’ not ‘not be over-hasty.’ It is essential to get this right. From Mr. Seymour’s pr page at Wikipedia:

Seymour was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland to a Protestant family.

Why am I not surprised?

And his grand ending:

we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.

That backlash has been upgraded to inevitable. The Muhammadan population of France is large, and growing, with immigration from Muhammadan-majority countries continuing steadily. France’s Jewish population is declining, and the pace of that decline seems likely to pick up. But take it from Mr. Seymour: Muslims are under siege. The tally so far: four dead Jews in Paris, 2,000 dead in Baga, Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram, and in Iraq, and in Syria…’Fetishized’: lay Freud and academic Marxism, all smooshed up; ‘racialized’: that thing that needs no proof; “‘secularism’”: look at Charlie Hebdo, if you can find it, and judge for yourself how justified the scare-quotes are; ‘blackmail’: it’s very brave, how Mr. Seymour stands up to it. No solidarity with a racist institution. Of course not. But can’t he go further? Les damnés have struck a blow against their tormentors. Twelve racists, by Mr. Seymour’s lights—and they are very bright—have been struck from the list. Even better, a racist institution has been, for now, forcibly closed. Just rejoice.

Richard Seymour is anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-Zionist, very productive. He is a thoroughly illusioned bourgeois. A ‘leninologist,’ he dwells in Lenin’s Tomb (only virtually, alas). In this world, an Ulyanov without the Abwehr, without the Left Mensheviks, without the Cheka, is—nothing, is—Richard Seymour.


When Robespierre was led up the scaffold, his jaw had to be held in place with a length of cloth. After, none wept for him.

Jan. 11, 2015

1 A video from Iran has turned up on YouTube showing people dancing to a song by Pharrrell Williams. I find it appealing, but the government there took a dimmer view, and there were arrests. There are quite a few people over here who would be happy to justify that government, or at least insist that it mustn’t be criticized too strenuously. Foucault’s commentary on the ‘Monotheist Revolution,’ an older malignancy at rut with a newer one, provides one template.

2 Gabriel gave the uncreated word of God to an illiterate Seal of the Prophets, and—There’s a lot to be believed. You will believe it or you will not. Mr. Seymour, whose Christian name memorializes Richard I, England’s great Crusader king, fabled slayer of Saracens, singled out for abuse, incidentally, by Edward Said, believes none of it. Saying so would be insufficiently opportunistic.

3 The illustration for the Jacobin article is a photo of a Front National rally. The FN, which defeated every other party in France in the latest elections to the European Parliament, was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Charlie Hebdo and was barred from taking part in today’s march. The inclusion of the photo is, very simply, a lie. Whether the author or the editors came up with it, and which acquiesced are not very consequential questions. A better question: do the editors of Jacobin seriously believe that they are preferable, at all, to Marine LePen?