The Trouble with Charlie

In 2006 Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands-Posten cartoons (as did First of the Month), and were sued by three Muslim organizations. This attempted use of the courts to punish speech did not provoke any memorable censure by the people who have recently protested PEN’s decision to honor the courage of the journalists who worked (and then died) at Charlie Hebdo. In that same year Alberta’s Human Right Commission investigated a newspaper (the Western Standard) over its republication of the cartoons; defending itself cost the Western Standard $100,000 (which would have bankrupted First of the Month many times over) and cost the organizations making the complaint nothing—by no means an inefficient approach to suppressing speech. Teju Cole and his allies within PEN seem to have let this episode, too, pass without comment. On November 2, 2011 the offices of Charlie Hebo were firebombed, which seems to have yet again failed to provoke any indignation from Cole, Prose or the rest. On January 7th Islamist murderers shot dead twelve people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and at this point Teju Cole could no longer keep silent. In a piece titled “Unmournable Bodies”, which was published in the New Yorker a few days later, he attacked the dead journalists.

Cole wrote of “racist and Islamophobic provocations”, “obscene and racist speech”, “ideologues”, etc.), and while at the very end of the piece his title’s unmournable bodies are identified as the victims of American drone strikes, some readers may suspect that those bodies are not the ones Cole himself finds unmournable. He was not quite the first to offer this response the situation in Paris, contributing his remarkable piece to the highly-charged debate erupting about the proper way for journalists to respond to the political murder of journalists—not least remarkable for being a debate—after one Jacob Canfield had already offered up “In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism”) on a website titled The Hooded Utilitarian, and Canfield either anticipated or originated a number of the tropes that have inflected this illuminating discussion. After boldly and briskly warning other commentators against any excessive regard for our slaughtered colleagues, Canfield set out the basic argument against excessive (i.e., any) sentimentality about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, and made a damning revelation: “Its staff is white”. In case the hasty reader overlooked the dispositive force of this argument, Mr. Canfield repeated it: “these cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking”. Then he repeated it again, referring to “the same edgy-white-guy mentality”, then again (and most memorably) “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire”, and again (“white, male cartoonists”) and again (“Cartoonists tend to be white men”) and again “Calling fellow cartoonists TO ARMS is calling other white men to arms”, all this in a piece under a thousand words long. And when Mr. Canfield was informed that the dead included copy editor Mustapha Orrad, who was murdered by the terrorists along with journalist Zineb El Rhazoui, Canfield explained that his point was that Charlie Hebdo’s chief editor was white, and that “The controversial cartoonists being mourned as free-speech martyrs are all white men.”

In case you didn’t get it, those bastards were white, and also men. Lest the hasty reader miss the ineluctable significance of this, Canfield spells it out: at various times he refers to “incredibly racist cartoons” a “racist asshole” (one barely cold in the ground at the time Canfield was writing), tells us that “Their satire was racist, and remains racist”, refers to the work being “virulently racist”, reminds us again about its “racism”, later about its “hateful racism”, and finds space for one more use of the adjective “racist”. But this may overstate the degree of repetition involved, for it seems likely that ‘racist’ is a sort of anaphoria, a rhetorical strategy allowing Canfield to economize on his use of the phrase “white men” (Cole was more abstemious—in around 1600 words he only used the words “racist” or “racism” six times, and never more than twice in a single paragraph). The implication that absolutely predictable and odious beliefs will always be found in people on the basis of their race and gender may seem odd in a writer who is simultaneously decrying racism, but a foolish consistency is proverbially the hobgoblin of small minds.

The controversy subsided a bit, until on the 10th of April Garry Trudeau gave an acceptance speech for the George Polk Award he’d received in February. The Polk awards are named after a journalist who was murdered, almost certainly by a Rightist government, for his refusal to abandon a story when covering the Greek Civil War. With an impressive display of dark humor not always visible in his cartoons—few wits would have been so inventive as to blackguard men for grotesque rashness on the occasion of receiving an award named after a journalist who’d been thus honored for what was widely considered the same disposition—Trudeau took the occasion to attack Charlie Hebdo’s dead cartoonists. Like their colleagues at Jyllands-Posten back in 2006, they were fanatics and responsible for deaths, as were those who reprinted their cartoons. Earlier in his remarks Trudeau had referenced Canfield’s apparently durable contribution to the discussion: “Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.”

Leaving aside the concluding decrescendo, which risked and for my money achieved bathos, there are other difficulties in this passage. For one thing, Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier didn’t always punch up. Les Femmes savants does nothing of the kind, nor do Daumier’s études musicales. Are great non-French satirists any less prone to “punching down”? Juvenal, normally considered among the very greatest of satirists, may have punched up, to use this new taxonomy, in satires IV, V, VIII, XVI, but II (its targets are among others, homosexuals) III (foreigners and parvenus) VI (women) and XV (a few more choice words on foreigners) seem to punch down. Aristophanes? Acharnianspunches in both directions, as does most great satire: there’s the attack on Cleon, but then there’s the more prudent “People among us, and I don’t mean the polis, Remember this—I don’t mean the polis/But wicked littlemen of a counterfeit kind” could be considered a bit less brave, and for that matter The Clouds is not always considered a case of punching up. Is Fielding punching admirably up with his portrait of Squire Western but shamefully down with the satirical rendering of Mrs. Deborah Wilkins? Unlikely, because Fielding never forgot that power is relative: Mrs. Deborah is very, very dangerous to people who are at her mercy, as were the men who murdered the Charlie Hebdo staff: they were certainly dangerous to the men they shot. Other commentators have pointed this out with reference to Charlie Hebdo’s slaughtered journalists, but it is almost amazing that anyone had to do so.

An evaluative theory of satire that denies greatness to Molière, Daumier, Juvenal, Aristophanes and Fielding may need a bit of tweaking. But Trudeau clearly likes the theory just fine as it is, because he doubles up on what I take to be his to debt to Canfield: “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.” So the plangent ironies peculiarly visible to Charlie Hebdo’s critics abound, and Trudeau was clearly relishing them. While I have sometimes had my doubts on this score, at least Trudeau knows that Trudeau is terribly funny. I am not sure, however, that with his ironical observations on Charlie Hendo’s cartoonists he was not himself punching down. After all, those colleagues are now six feet under, and it would be difficult to punch up at them.

Little if any of the sophistries and sheer ignorance inflecting the most recent posturing—the arguments and assertions made by the bold heretics refusing to honor the courage ofCharlie’s dead by PEN—is much of an advance on the first pieces by Canfield and Cole. The grotesque comparisons between Nazis and neo-Nazis and the murdered cartoonists are already present in Cole, and have reappeared with great consistency, made by people who are apparently innocent of the fact the France’s Front National has been Charlie Hebdo’s chief target for quite a while. Assertions that the cartoons are incontrovertibly racist point to the presence of large noses on caricatures of Arabs, but exaggerations of stereotypical physiognomy are the almost invariable technique of caricature. On this theory René Goscinny’s and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix is not only Italophobic but Francophobic, analytically indistinguishable from both Charlie’s cartoons and also from anything published by Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer. An older and less sophisticated theory held that cartoons cheering on murder are different in kind from ones disgusted by murder, but the closer readers among us have junked that one—as Jimmy Durante noted, the nose knows, and now also tells, indeed tells all we need to know.

Cole points to one cartoon to claim that obvious anti-Black racism obviously informs one cartoon: “Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism).” But the defense has persuaded millions of French supporters of Charlie Hebdo, most strikingly the Minister of Justice herself—she marched in support of Charlie Hebdo’s dead. Why might she have done that?

An extremely useful website explains the most execrated cartoons to Anglophone foreigners. The cartoon of Christiane Taubira as a monkey is titled “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste”: Racist Blue Union. points out that:

The font chosen (serif) is reminiscent of traditional right-wing political posters. Left-wing and communist posters in France usually use a sans-serif font. This is the first hint that the cartoon is mocking a right-wing element. The blue and red flame logo on the bottom-left is the logo of the Front National, a far-right political party in France…Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, drawn as a monkey…is referencing various occasions of far-right activists depicting Taubira as a monkey (online sharing of photoshops, sound imitations, calling out, etc.). The title is a play on words of Marine Le Pen’s slogan “Rassemblement Bleu Marine” (Navy Blue Union). The cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebook-shared a photoshop of Justice Taubira, drawn as a monkey, and then said on French television the she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government” [Le Monde] (she was later sentenced to 9 months of prison). The cartoon is styled as a political poster, calling on all far-right “Marine” racists to unify, under this racist imagery they have chosen. Ultimately, the cartoon is criticising the far-right’s appeal to racism to gain supporters. The cartoon was drawn by Charb. He participated in anti-racism activities, and notably illustrated the poster (below) for MRAP (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples), an anti-racist NGO.

The website similarly glosses a dozen more cartoons, many of which have been cited by people who seem to be quite invariably non-French assailants with at best a sketchy understanding of French politics. The website announces that more glosses are coming, possibly a Sisyphean effort, since the will to indict seems infinite, but the appetite for understanding another visual culture derisory. Keith Gessen, one of the PEN members protesting the award to Charlie Hebdo, asked whether he had ever seen a copy of Charlie Hebdo, tweeted that “No. Nor would my French be up to it if I did.” By the standards of the current debate, this was heroic intellectual honesty. One of the more original responses to the loathing for Charlie Hebdo was published very early—on January 13th—and titled“Unmournable Frenchies”. Its author argued that it was not perfect ignorance of French political culture but rather a certain sort of very old Anglo-American Francophobia that best explained the toxic indignation aroused by the millions who have rallied to Charlie Hebdo. It is an interesting argument, marred in my eyes by (among other things) an excessive insouciance about the Terror of ’93, but at least it is ingenious. Charlie Hebdo’s enemies on the Left have not so far needed ingenuity—they are filled with conviction, and have until very recently been opposed only on the Right. That has only recently ended—theGuardian has generally been pretty good, as has been the Nation’s Katha Pollitt. This is cheering, because piling on is rarely attractive. Piling on to deny the dead the honor that can now be their only consolation has been surpassingly ugly, but the timidity on the one side and the impunity and shamlessness on the other looks to be over. If some gossip I heard tonight about relatively few of PEN’s dissidents still being willing to speak on the record is accurate, these writers may not be among the bravest people in the world. Their disdain for courage may thus become more comprehensible, but the intensity of their animus toward the dead remains at some level perfectly baffling.
CORRECTIONS: When this piece was first posted, Jacob Canfield was mis-identified as Scott Canfield and Garry Trudeau’s first name was misspelled as Gary.