Saturday, January 10, 2015

Suis Je Charlie Hebdo?

#Je suis Charlie Hebdo; #Je ne suis Charlie Hebdo. Hashtag slogans are corny, no matter what the cause. If at first they may spark a quick burst of solidarity with the human catastrophe du jour, by the second time you see them, they are already stale.
The minute #JeSuisCharlieHebdo took the internet by storm as a kneejerk protest against the despicable murders in Paris of the satirical magazine's cartoonists, staff and one Muslim policeman (#JeSuisAhmed), many pundits took to clarify that they were not Charlie Hebdo. For Charlie Hebdo's particular brand of satire is indeed mostly leaden, offensive, and unfunny. To me, unfunny is the most offensive fault of comedy, its most unforgivable sin, because it is usually tone deaf, mean spirited, and many times, deeply corrosive. Totalitarian governments have always used unfunny humor for nefarious ends. The sense of humor of the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao was to deride, stereotype and dehumanize people. Often, they did this through caricature. Totalitarians don't tend to have a funny sense of humor. They have vitriol, which is not funny. They can viciously deride others but tolerate no jokes about themselves. So it is with fundamentalist islamists. They are totalitarians: they abide no dissent. Punishment means death.
Those who are now bravely stating that they are not Charlie Hebdo complain about the offensive nature of the magazine's cartoons, about the fact that they cross a line, are racist, are a part of the mainstream media (this apparently is some sort of sin, even though it is an independent magazine with a modest circulation), and aim to offend the most downtrodden sector of French society, in this case, poor, unassimilated, discriminated Muslims who are there as a result of French colonialism. According to those who are not Charlie, the sin of Charlie Hebdo's brand of humor is that it is exclusionary, racist, and hateful. This may be true, but it is no reason to die for.
The difference between Charlie Hebdo's heavyhanded satire and that of, say, the Nazi regime, is that the magazine felt it was involved in a fight to preserve and exercise their right to be offensive; to use, and even abuse their freedom of expression guaranteed under the law. What is permitted as free speech in France may be debatable, and perhaps in the future, open to change. The French obsession with insisting that their citizens be no different clings on to an idealistic notion of a secular republic which seems increasingly unattainable, as in reality, communities in France are not only very different but alienated from one another. These are crucial questions for how France deals with its ethnic and religious minorities. But this is also not a reason for the murder of these people.
Those wounded by Charlie Hebdo's humor could resort to a number of responses, from angry letters to the editor, to legal recourse, to disseminating funny or unfunny cartoons about French liberals themselves; God knows there's plenty of comic material there. These brainwashed, ignorant idiots opted for murder.
My problem with the train of thought that focuses on Charlie Hebdo's morally suspect humor is that it provides a slippery slope towards virtually blaming the victim. The French government had asked the magazine to stop publishing inflammatory drawings, the magazine had been threatened with violence before; hence, they had it coming. This is dangerous thinking because it detracts from the fact that in no universe is publishing offensive cartoons about anything a justification for murder. If we become inured to the abject absurdity of killing someone for their opinions, we will cease living in a free world. We might as well welcome back the Inquisition.
All those who start their harangues assuring us that of course they in no way justify the killings and then go on to blame France, the white man, colonialism, racism, and in effect, the offensive cartoons, may have a point. But they are mis-assigning blame. The blame lies squarely with islamist terrorist groups that recruit the criminal and most desperate elements in Muslim communities to terrorize the world for their own political agenda. If these kind of arguments take hold, someone can arrive at the conclusion that the Jews who were shopping at that kosher market in Paris when they were taken hostage had it coming to them because Israel, and Gaza and, you know the drill. Or that the people who died in 9/11 deserved it because of America's imperialist, idiotic foreign policy. No. Nobody deserves terror.
Another false moral equivalency troubles me. Some complain, rightly, that when 16 Europeans get killed everybody has a fit, but no one cares about over 200,000 Syrian dead or whatever other large number of non-white human beings are being currently traumatized elsewhere. Certainly, this is a good opportunity to remind everyone that islamic fundamentalism is killing and terrorizing far more innocent people in Africa and the Middle East than French citizens in Paris, but the comparison is uneven. The reason for the massive outpouring of shock and outrage at the Charlie Hebdo's murders stems less from us callously caring only for our our own, than from the infernal disproportion, the chilling insanity of killing someone over some drawings. It hits closer to home, not because we are indifferent or racist, but because most of us do not live in war ravaged countries, in hellish situations that rage on for years for which our outrage has muted into helpless despair. I do not argue with the fact that we should be equally tormented by every injustice that takes place in the world, but this brutal attack was shocking. People reacted with shock. Why are we being taken to task for our outrage?

The democratization of opinion in the internet has brought us a new kind of creature: the hectoring social media commenter.  The comfort and anonymity of our screens now serve as our own personal bully pulpits. Some use their virtual soapbox to spew the vilest defamatory commentary. Racists say vicious things in forums with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Antisemites are already claiming that the attacks in Paris were orchestrated by the Mossad. On a thread online, a commenter declared that she could bestow no sympathy to the cartoonists, but that she felt for their families. Who is she, God? What kind of senseless, asinine posture is that?
Among liberals with a conscience, the fashion is to be offended by everything and to accuse everything and everybody of racism. In this cacophony of opinion, everything is equally racist. If someone decides to dress up as a geisha and they don't happen to be Japanese, that is decried as racist cultural appropriation (a particularly insidious academic term that drives me crazy). Wearing a geisha costume to a party is equivalent to saying that Blacks provoke their own deaths by not obeying the law. What happens then is that the actual meaning and manifestations of racism get watered down and equalized with irrelevant, politically correct whining.
Because the persona we project publicly on the internet is who we wish to be, rather than who we really are in our innermost hearts -- flawed, prejudiced and far from saints -- online, people become moral crusaders. Apparently, on the internet people have never had a contradictory thought; prejudice has never crossed their minds. Most of us are guilty of harboring prejudices, but all we hear online is a chorus of insufferable self-righteousness.
I am not Charlie Hebdo because there are wittier, less toxic ways to champion freedom of thought, belief and expression. But I am Charlie Hebdo because I should not live in fear of a violent death for expressing my opinions, offensive as they might be to anyone.