By Isaac Butler
Ernesto Miranda, from whose legal troubles we get the term Miranda Warnings with their attendant right to remain silent, ended up going to jail anyway. The State retried him, this time without the problematic confession that caused his earlier conviction to be set aside, and a jury found him guilty. He later died in a bar fight.
Clarence Earl Gideon, from whose legal troubles we get the right to have a State-funded attorney, tried to refuse legal counsel and represent himself even after he had won at the Supreme Court. The judge in his case was so irate that he yelled at Gideon from the bench and then essentially forced him to use a lawyer.
Not everyone defending a right (or representing it) is ideal.
Here’s what I know. If you perform an act of expression, and someone threatens you with violence if you continue performing it, and you perform it anyway, that performance becomes heroic. This is true regardless of that performance’s content. This is true even if it is racist.
At the same time, it’s important that those of us who stand firmly for free expression look with as open eyes as possible at what we are defending. This is what it means to be an adult, to try to see the world as it is, to probe deeper, to live with ambiguity and contradiction. Just as we can admit to ourselves that maybe sometimes people fraudulently abuse the welfare state, or that the right to protection against unreasonable searches occasionally means that guilty people go free.
In the wake of the attacks on Charle Hebdo, however, the effort to see Charlie Hebdo’s expression for what it is has been made very difficult by a number of factors. First there’s the instant polarization that happens in these kinds of cases. On the one hand some people seem to think that any critical estimation of Charlie Hebdo supports violence or condones the attacks. On the other side are people who pay lip service to the idea that artists should not be assassinated in their place of work, but are really far more concerned with whether or not Charlie Hebdo is racist. This latter move is a kind of respectability politics of the mind, where free expression can only be fully supported if it has nice manners and pulls its damn pants up.
Both are ways of hiding ourselves from the complexities of the world behind a shield of total certainty.
I have no certainty. I am not even sure what it means to call the Charlie Hebdo cartoons racist, or who gets to decide. I found many of the covers I've seen to be really repugnant. But they weren't meant for me, or for an American context. And I worry that without understanding their context, in our rush to interpet them (racist or not) and then insert a moral dimension into that definition (good/bad), we're essentially embarking on a cultural imperialist enterprise, where we define someone else's culture for them and then condemn it.
For example, I shared one of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo as definitive proof of its racism. It seemed an obvious choice, as it featured a black government minister as a monkey. Yet, I soon learned that, had I spoken French, I would've known the cartoon was explicitly framed as a fuck you to the nationalist right wing, essentially saying that this was how they see the world.
This is not to say that nothing Charlie Hebdo did was racist. But I also wonder why the question of is this racist or not? seems to be where the conversation is stuck. And I wonder at the lack of curiosity going on here, that so few people opining on this story seem to be doing any journalism at all to figure out or understanding Charlie Hebdo.
So... I am trying to live with doubt, in the ambiguities and the difficult spaces. So instead, I offer here, a list of everything I’m reading about Charlie Hebdo in an effort to learn and understand, despite not speaking a goddamn word of French.
Writing in the attacks immediate aftermath, Freddie DeBoer cautions us against asking (and answering) dead moral questions: "We are having a series of loud, impassioned, righteous conversations about questions like “Should people murder?” and “Should we have the right to publish cartoons?” We’re debating, in other words, dead moral questions, and for the same reason we always do: because that debate allows us to ignore the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness. To read the people writing about this attack, this is the fundamental question at hand: were these killings OK? If that were actually a moral question worth asking, then it would provoke disagreement. And yet I see no disagreement. None at all."
Jordan Weissmann at Slate writes about how we must both admit that Charlie Hebdo frequently published racist work and were often courageous. "It’s wrong to approach this issue as an either-or question, to blaspheme or not blaspheme. Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms."
Writing at Femnisting, Katherin Cross writes about how "Holding these ideas in tension — the recognition of the unnecessary prejudice of many Charlie offerings, and respecting those who were lost — is part of the challenge many of us face going forward."
Oliver Tonneau, a radical French leftist, discusses Charlie Hebdo in the context of French leftist politics. "Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience."
On the Leftist tip, Cinzia Arruzza, who knew one of the men killed in the attack, asks "is solidarity without identity possible?" in a great piece providing further context. "Its defenders, in the wake of the criticisms and accusations of Islamophobia Charlie Hebdo started to receive, kept pointing out that its satire was addressed to all religions indiscriminately. Whether this is true or not (and I think it is not entirely true), this answer shows a fundamental misunderstanding about context — that same misunderstanding that led part of the French left to capitulate in favor of an abstract republican secularism on the occasion of the discussions regarding the scarf law. Muslims are not only a largely oppressed and exploited minority in France, they are increasingly becoming the scapegoat of the economic crisis, the mirror upon which white Europeans project their deepest nightmares and fears."
Juan Cole, as with many hot button news stories involving Islam, is essential reading. Here's Cole on how "despite rising racism, European Muslims embrace democratic values." Here's his highlighting of muslim condemnations of the attacks. Here's his explanation for the strategic goals of the attacks.
Lebanese cartoonist and satirist Karl Sharro writes about free speech, satire and Islam. "There is a risk in framing what we do as satirists and cartoonists as a heroic battle against extremism. For one thing, this implies that only ‘worthy’ works of satire should be defended on the grounds of free speech. For freedom of speech and expression to mean something, they must be defended on their own terms, not because of their political usefulness in the fight against extremism."
Here is Joe Sacco with a one-page cartoon about the nature of satire, and how race and power intersect with it. Coincidentally, Joe Sacco's most recent book-length work is itself a work of satire. I wrote about this book for Hooded Utilitarian before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but what I wrote resonates in some slant-way with the latest news. Ruben Boling, another cartoonist, is none too pleased with Sacco's piece.
Here as well is R. Crumb, whose work Sacco both draws from and surpasses in genius, writing in the Observer.
Hooded Utilitarian is hosting a variety of pieces about Charlie Hebdo. Most famously, here's Jacob Canfield in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, talking about how we can both embrace free expression and call out the cartoons for being deeply offensive. Canfield pretty much got this whole examination of the content of the cartoons rolling in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and while I don't agree with everything in his piece, I think he raises some questions that defenders of free expression must grapple with.
Here's Marguerite Debaie about free expression, cartoons and satire in the Middle East (here, as well, are some cartoons from the Middle East responding to the killings). Relatedly, in Politico, Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani talks about touring the Middle East, and what comedy is and is not allowed in both the Middle East and the United States.
One of the great ironies of this story is that France, like most of Western Europe, actually does not legally support a positive right to free speech and expression. Both are limited in all sorts of ways and there is no enshrined right to speech akin to our First Amendment. As a result, Charlie Hebdo has routinely found itself saddled with legal troubles. This academic article provides a great survey of those troubles and their results.
A journalist for Charlie Hebdo, Zineb El Rhazoui, writes about the office culture of CH and what it's like to work there. That link, BTW, is to a tumblr that translates the article, it contains a link to the original in French if you want to check their work. This is a work of memorializing, not politics, but worth reading in part because Zineb El Rhazoui is neither white not male, and, as she points out, one of the murdered employees of Charlie Hebdo was their Algerian copy editor, who had just gotten French citzenship. Another layer. More complexity.
I found that article through the now essential tumblr The Great Hiatus, which is trying to respond, within the heated context of tumblr to people's questions and claims about the cultural context in which Charlie Hebdo exists. Occasionally makes some overheated claims (like that literally no one in France could've thought that any of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were racist) but still worth checking out.
Glenn Greenwald cheekily posts some more blasphemous cartoons in solidarity with a free press here.
Kenan Malik suggests that this whole story is way more multi-valent and complex than we'd like to admit and, further, that some of our well-meaning concern about offending Muslim communities has the side effect of treating Muslims as monolithic and thus dehumanizing them further. "The irony is that those who most suffer from a culture of censorship are minority communities themselves. Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice."
Laura Miller has a great, searching, questioning essay in Salon about Charlie Hebdo, representational politics, context, and art. She asks a lot of questions that are well worth asking, but I'm particularly interested in the practicality of her essay. Namely, if we dislike certain drawn representations of Arabs, Muslims, Muhammad and Islamic extremists, how should they be drawn? Because if there is no way to draw them that's acceptible, what we're actually doing is cordoning off a whole part of the world and the daily news and saying it is out of bounds to cartoonists.
Finally, in closing, a benediction from Hari Kunzru:
"If I have anything hopeful or uplifting to contribute, this is it – that anyone who tries to fit the world into binaries is necessarily fragile. The slightest hint of complexity, and their brittle self-identity may shatter. To refuse the jihadi’s logic of escalation without becoming mired in grubby pleading, we have to say – and keep on saying, keep on writing with our pens that are supposedly so much mightier than their swords – that life is not so simple, that our many problems do not have single, total solutions, that utopia is a dead place, without life or change, without air."