Thought Balloons

If Smoler is to be criticized for anything, it is for an excess of kindliness…

—The ‘punching­ down’ meme was heard immediately after the Charlie Hebdo killings, but it was not very prominent. More common then were variations on the themes of insensitivity and offensiveness. What’s changed? To call the dead insensitive and offensive served in a pinch­—­­­this was an emergency, after all—­­but it was hardly sufficient. People, viz., Charlie Hebdo’s progressive critics, who presumably are principledly on the side of the transgressive, could not rest easily in the same motel room as, say, Jesse Helms. One will need to be offensive and insensitive, selectively, and needs are inarguable.

Punching down’s just the ticket. For ‘We the undersigned, as writers[sic], thinkers[sic!], and members of PEN’ who wrote to denounce—’respectfully’—the award to Charlie Hebdo, talk of punches serves a stylistic purpose: in context, calls for sensitivity and inoffensiveness come across as more than a little prissy. But if punches are being thrown, by someone, well, there are about two dozen corpses that have to be, somehow, acknowledged. And vivid is better.

The ideological thrust of ‘punching down’ is more central. The dissociati of PEN are something greater than neutral. They are, as one hears so often in recent years, on the right side of history. They have aligned themselves with the subaltern.

But but but…when is one not punching down?[1] ‘Afflicting the comfortable’ has been trotted out (Small mercy, not ‘truth to power’ so far). There are almost 200 signatories to this anti-­Charlie letter. In those numbers, there is great comfort, surely. The attitudes on display in the letter are nowhere anything new, and nowhere seriously controversial. These dissidents ‘staunchly [in solidarity with Bouvard and Pecuchet] support expression that violates the acceptable[!].’ They allude to ‘journalists and whistleblowers[!] who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.’ Well, first, what is this ‘good’[2] they invoke so blithely? And how do they know it, and do all of them know it? We can be sure of one thing: what makes this ‘good’ ‘greater’ is that it is innocent anything dialectical. More important, though, these signatories will not lose, or risk, their lives, or their freedom. When this is all over, their position on the proper guest lists will be secure. The fastidious are always welcome. ­­

—From the letter:

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

The syntax is off—to them, the cartoons must be seen, etc.—­­but we know what these wordsmiths mean. We know, because it’s so rote. ‘Marginalized, embattled, and victimized’: not one term considered, let alone argued. ‘Shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises.’ To start with, the Charlie operation was hatched in Yemen. Second, avenging ‘insults‘ to the ‘Prophet’ started in the Seventh Century A.D., when France, as such, hardly existed. Third, ‘shaped’ how, exactly?

What does France owe, exactly, to an immigrant from Canada, or from Detroit? Take one of France’s more recent ‘colonial enterprises,’ military action against jihadis in Mali. A Teju Cole must, inevitably, side with the relative indigenes against the colonial masters. No punching down! The word ‘colonial’ in this entire discussion is obnoxious. What Europe did in sub­-Saharan Africa is not comparable to her relations with the Arabs, and, more broadly, dar al-islam. Muhammadan assaults on Europe, and on France in particular, went on from the Eighth to the Nineteenth Centuries, and consisted largely of mass killings, enslavement, rape, and plunder.[3] The exploits of ISIS today show its members to be keen students of history, Even if we focus only on the almost recent history of Algeria—as we’re expected to do—­­and if we set aside Pontecorvo’s film, which is, not least or last, a brilliant pr job for an indefensible one­-party state, we find something a little different from the accepted history. If it was a war of ‘savagery,’ a common enough description, it was resolved not because the French ever came close to military defeat, but only because the French nation proved less persistent in depravity then the FLN (and later the GAI). It should be remembered­­—or for the benefit of our ‘thinkers,’ learned­­—that the overwhelming majority of those killed by the FLN, in hot pursuit of liberation, were Muslim.

The letter contains a reference to ‘devout Muslims.’ But aren’t their devotions their business, and how do they become somebody else’s problem? But then—­’the Prophet.’ The title is bad enough, the capital worse, but worst of all, so close to ‘devout Muslims,’ ‘their Prophet’ might have been expected. Instead…, no honesty is to be had from these people. And last, ‘intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.’ Our belle-lettrists don’t know, and won’t be told, anything about the cartoonists’ intentions. ‘Further’ is, of course, question-begging. ‘Humiliation and suffering’: this is a cartoon we’re talking about. ­

—Elsewhere in the letter, we read that the PEN award

also valorizes selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-­Islamic, anti-­Maghreb, anti-­Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

This passage comes almost immediately after a passage claiming that ‘equal­-opportunity’ offensiveness couldn’t really be equal…That Charlie was not selectively offensive had just been conceded, and not just arguendo. ‘Valorizes’ is a word that was bound to show up. The best, though is ‘anti-Maghreb.’ Somebody worked at this. How doth the busy bee! Mashriqis get a pass, apparently. It’s those Maghribis we love to hate. UBL, Saddaam, al-Zarqawi, al­Baghdadi, all bad enough, but at least­­—not one of those.

—Garry Trudeau;

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charliewandered 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.

Garry Trudeau made a career of political commentary, for which there was a ready audience. He invited that audience to enjoy the spectacle of the inferiority, moral and intellectual, of the other guy. That’s how political entertainment works. Trudeau doesn’t specify who that ‘powerless, disenfranchised minority’ is. They are presumably North Africans and their descendants—metropolitan France’s sizable black population does not figure in the fantasy world of the signatories. But are these beurs ‘powerless’ and ‘disenfranchised’? Minorities do not cast the deciding vote.

Republican voters in California may be irrelevant in a Presidential election. But they are not disenfranchised[4], and they can only be called ‘powerless’ by someone intent on a dishonest argument. The drawings were ‘crude’ and ‘vulgar.’ A stylistic choice surely. The range of artistic talent at Charlie was not on display, and not to the point. Trudeau, who never got rich as a draftsman himself, might want to step lightly here. And ‘closer to graffiti than cartoons’? So what if they were? And look at them: they aren’t. What would Trudeau have to say about Philip Guston? Nothing too interesting, I’m pretty sure. And Basquiat and Keith Haring, who were explicitly inspired by graffiti artists?

Trudeau, it’s been noted, is wrong on French law. Houellebecq was prosecuted—and acquitted—for calling Islam the ‘stupidest’ religion. Had he called its adherents stupid, he might have been convicted (cf. Brigitte Bardot). The distinction may seem elusive, but it is such things that have summoned lawyers into existence. Trudeau is not expected to know much about French law—voila!—or really, about—no, let it go. He should, at least, try to make sense. Inciting is urging someone to do something. Charlie might incite someone to have a beer during Ramadan. It does not incite people to ‘violent protest’—against Charlie. And how is a cartoon in Paris ‘directly’ connected to Niger? A few years back, Benedict XVI gave a rather high-toned lecture at Regensburg. Nobody has described it as either crude or vulgar, and as we might expect, a man in a white cassock doesn’t travel with a can of spray paint…Nevertheless, there were widespread ‘violent protests’—voila! (unless it’s ecce—and many people were killed.

—Francine Prose:

The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.

Ms. Prose is universally recognized as a competent novelist, so when she speaks of ‘narrative’, we are bound to listen. But what narrative? The skin of the victims was not shown, and that not all the victims were of Western European stock is not something she’s in any hurry to disclose: her own narrative has its demands. That the victims were Europeans was less important to the media splash than the fact that this had taken place in Europe­­—in Paris!! The Kouachi brothers were the ones who made religion central, not the ‘narrative.’ Can a narrative, that imaginary imaginary ‘feed neatly’ into anything? What are these cultural prejudices, and what are the disastrous mistakes? To hear her explain herself would be great fun, albeit not for her.

And a little later:

The bitterness and rage of the criticism that we have received point out how difficult people find it to think with any clarity on these issues and how easy it has been for the media—and our culturee—to fan the flames of prejudice against Islam. As a result, many innocent Muslims have been tarred with the brush of Islamic extremism.

She sees bitterness and rage. I see someone who expected plaudits for her sensitivity and brilliance. Her moral one-upmanship proved a bust. Ah well, ‘clarity’ is ‘difficult.’ But then, if the only alternatives are fanning the flames and tarring with the brush, we owe it, not to her, but to the many innocent Muslims, to do better.

—Smoler misspelled Trudeau’s first name and in discussing Scott Canfield, neglected to add that Mr. Canfield apparently prefers to be known as ‘Jacob.’ I’m sure Smoler had his reasons. Whatever they are, I salute him for carrying on a delightful First of the Month tradition. I would add: I know Dr. Smoler and hold him in high regard. But were I to learn that he thought Gary or Garry Trudeau was something worth knowing or that Scott Canfield likes to use a different name [5], or if he knew the names and the spellings of the Kardashians, in such case, I would no longer be at home to him.

—Scott Canfield a/k/a Jacob Canfield, a/k/a Jacob Monir Canfield is an interesting case. Unlike Trudeau, he is a very talented draftsman. Look him up. He is described online thus:

He works at a tea shop and reads a lot.

There’s even a photo of the blackboard in front of his tea shop.[6]His intervention comes as no surprise. What did surprise me was this: Something about Scott Canfield triggered a memory, something I hadn’t thought of in decades. A friend in high school told me about a neighbor of his, talking about his pet dog. Every time I see that little pink hard-on peeking out, he said, I just want to stomp on it. The memory came unbidden, but somehow, it feeds neatly into the narrative.

—The state of the cartoon ‘controversy’ is discouraging. Guns have been drawn, and been fired. Bodies are piling up. One might say, if one were so minded, that the issue had been joined. It was bad enough that pencils were being juxtaposed with Kalashnikovs. Today even the propriety of drawing is still being argued. We should be well past January. The ComicCon spinoff in Garland TX has been damned as ‘provocative.’ It’s hardly necessary to share Pamela Geller’s views across the board. We do owe her this: without her, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi would still be burdening the earth.


1 Yahoos can be mocked, and there will be paying customers there to get it. I myself enjoy quoting Barack Obama, who sets new standards for vacuity and pomposity, but many other people are less amused than I am.

2 Elsewhere in the letter, it’s ‘the good of humanity.’

3 Or, as the late Mu’ammar Qadhdhaafi called it, ‘the light of civilization.’

4 By the way, disenfranchised and un-enfranchised do not mean the same thing. Confusing the two may serve a polemical end, but it is more likely, as in Trudeau’s case, just slovenly.

5 One variant spelling is Kanfield.

6 One takes it as read that the Western tea shop is a frankly racist institution. It is particularly galling that such ardor on the Charlie issue could be feigned by one whose Orientalizing profiteering­­ and vice versa!­­ has been the cause of so great anguish to billions.