Lost in translation: Charlie Hebdo, free speech and the unilingual left

Photo: PicOfJo

In the 48 hours after the Paris massacre, much of the anglophone activist and academic left were quick to sneer at public displays of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists and journalists of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and criticized the vigils, demonstrations and editorial cartoons from other artists as siding with racists.

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Of course the killing of journalists is a bad thing, so the argument goes, but come on, Charlie Hebdo is “a racist publication.” So what do you expect? is the implicit, victim-blaming conclusion.

The millions of people, atheist, Christian, Jew and Muslim — including trade unionists bearing the drapeaux rouges of the communist CGT union and activists from far-left groups such as the Parti de Gauche and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste — who spontaneously filled the streets of towns and villages across France in solidarity with the slain journalists and in defence against this manifest attack on freedom of speech, or who changed their social media avatars to a black square with the words Je suis Charlie were, in the words of prominent British socialist commentator Richard Seymour writing in Jacobin magazine and on his own blog, “platitudinous,” “mawkish and narcissistic” and engaging in a “blackmail that forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.”

Elsewhere many leftists such as Jon Wilson writing on LabourList have declared “Je ne suis pas Charlie” and that this is about Islamophobia and war. Those who stand up for freedom of expression today, they argue, are at best unwittingly performing an ideological service to militarist elites and at worst actively lining up with the war party just as liberal hawks such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen and Paul Berman did after Sept. 11, 2001.

The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days

The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days, as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s “obvious racism,” only to be told by French speakers how, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.

The best example here is the very widely shared cartoon by the slain editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, of a black woman’s head on a monkey’s body above the phrase Rassemblement Bleu Raciste (Racist Blue Rally). The French are aware that the woman in the cartoon is the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, and that the red, white and blue flame in the cartoon is the logo of the Front National, which had recently gotten into hot water for publishing a photograph of a baby monkey and the words “At 18 months” next to a picture of Taubira and the word “Now.” The Front National’s slogan is Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Navy Blue Rally), a play on the name of their leader, Marine Le Pen. It is obvious to any French person familiar with the political context that the cartoon is mocking the racism of the Front National and indeed Taubira herself, in the wake of the massacre, has mounted repeated defences of Charlie Hebdo.

Another would be the cartoon of pregnant Boko Haram sex slaves under the slogan “Hands off our benefits!” which many English leftists held to be a self-evidently racist commentary on the Muslim “demographic threat,” when the cartoon is actually a clunky “first-world problems” commentary on complaints over the French government restricting child benefits for top earners, suggesting that rich French people really have nothing to complain about compared to people’s travails in northeast Nigeria.

In an extremely widely shared post (Over 90,000 shares as of the time of writing) Jacob Canfield at The Hooded Utilitarian showcased a series of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and declared, “Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.”

First of all, its staff is not all white, not that a small newspaper with a tiny all-Caucasian employee roll is automatically a signifier of racism in any case. Copy editor Moustapha Ourrad, for example, was among those murdered by on Wednesday. Next, the cartoon that Canfield feels is homophobic, of a male Charlie Hebdo writer kissing an imam under the words “Love is stronger than hate,” was the cartoon that filled the front cover in 2011 the week after the paper’s offices had been firebombed by Islamists, completely destroying all their equipment, for printing an edition “guest edited” by the Prophet Mohammed to celebrate the election of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamists of the Ennahda party in Tunisia. This was also the time of growing conservative opposition to gay rights, culminating in the country’s massive right-wing Catholic anti-gay-marriage protests of recent years. Five months earlier, the government had crushed legislation to legalize same-sex unions.

In this context, the cartoon can only be seen as expressly anti-homophobic, giving a big, wet, cheeky kiss to the likely homophobic Islamists who had tried to kill them. (One friend told me after I explained the context behind this cartoon that it was still problematic because “at a time when Muslims in Western countries are the target of Islamophobic prejudice, we should be sensitive to their religious sensibilities. A cartoon of two men kissing is offensive to them.” To my mind, if there’s anything homophobic going on here, it’s the idea that gays should hide themselves so as not to offend those who maintain a hatred of homosexuals.)

How can we trust these leftists’ critical analyses of other events in foreign lands such as Ukraine, Syria or Mali if it turns out they haven’t done their due diligence as researchers when it comes to the far more accessible French context? These otherwise well-meaning but non-French-speaking knights-in-social-media-armour have embarrassed themselves by spouting off about things they know not quite enough about. This is not clear-headed thinking. This is not leftist or anti-racist thinking.

It is an illogical, self-destructive, identity politics mess where all accusations of racism are instantly believed and anyone who raises questions is racist themselves. Accusations of racism (indeed any accusations) must be substantiated by the accuser, not automatically presumed to be true. Automatic presumption of racism without substantiation is not anti-racism; it is cowardice and vanity, as it suggests the individual is more interested in ensuring he or she does not appear racist rather than in actually countering racism.

But this episode is about more than just the willful ignorance of a unilingual left luxuriating in its whipped-up dander; there are deeper worries about how such left and liberal critics are approaching freedom of speech in general. The whole affair is quite the nadir for the identitarian left, an object lesson in how its current tendency toward a censorial, professionally offence-taking prudishness is limiting the left’s advance, cutting us off from how most ordinary people live their lives and navigate prejudice, and a breach with hundreds of years of leftist thought and practice with respect to the enduring question of freedom.

Charlie Hebdo is, above all, a child of the upheaval of May 1968. It was founded in the wake of the publication ban on its predecessor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, after the latter cheekily poked fun at the right-wing president and hero of the Resistance, Charles de Gaulle, upon his death.

It was born a left-wing publication, indeed a far-left publication, brimming with insolence and bile for capitalist, governmental and clerical elites. In the English-speaking world, malheureusement, we don’t really have a tradition of satirical newspapers quite like Charlie Hebdo or its rival Le Canard Enchainé (The chained-up duck), which combine cheeky editorial cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion. The closest approximation would be Private Eye in the United Kingdom. But the format has spread throughout the francophone lands, with imitators in Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Africa, both sub-Sahara and the Maghreb.

Charlie also embraces a politics of anti-clericalism — a species of militant secularism that targets priests, monks, nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis and, latterly, imams and mullahs specifically as individuals (believed to be pompous, hypocritical figures preaching a morality that they do not observe themselves) and not just as representatives of a religion — that dates back to the original Jacobins in the French Revolution. Anti-clericalism has also existed in varying forms in Spain, Latin America, Québec, Russia and contemporary Iran.

The targeting of Catholic priests by anarchist revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War and Orthodox priests by Bolsheviks were two of its most violent expressions. But anti-clericalism never really existed in the same way in the Protestant (and thus anglophone) world due to the break with Rome in the 16th and 17th centuries and Protestantism’s transformation of an individual’s relationship with the church hierarchy and God himself. Related to this, the paper’s style of comedy, gouaille — a bawdy, impertinent, insolent, often obscene humour corrosif — is a part of a Parisian tradition that finds its origins in the time of the French Revolution as well, and which Arthur Goldhammer, the translator of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, explains well: “It's an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful.”

It’s not witty. If anything, it’s rather juvenile. In mocking the idea that there should be no graven images of Mohammed, one of Charlie’s cartoons was of a naked prophet with a star instead of a bumhole under the slogan “A star is born.” It’s puerile, infantile, not infrequently unfunny. It’s fart jokes. It’s whoopie cushions. It’s Monty Python’s masturbation-themed and Vatican-mocking “Every sperm is sacred” sketch.

Leftists must make a distinction between blasphemy and racism. The two are not the same thing. No one has the right not to be offended. This is not an arcane point. After decades of legal abeyance, blasphemy and “religious insult” laws are making a comeback.

Meanwhile, for the most part, Charlie Hebdo’s politics have been progressive. SOS Racisme, the main anti-racist NGO in the country, has partnered with Charlie in the past in campaigns against anti-immigrant politics, such as a joint campaign in 2007 against DNA testing for migrants aiming to be reunited with their families. Following the massacre, the organization offered its support to the newspaper and denounced the attack as an assault on free speech. The editor murdered this week by the Islamist gunmen, Charb, was a long-time member of the French Communist Party, supported the new far left Front de Gauche, opposed the adoption of the proposed neoliberal European constitution in 2005 and illustrated Marx: A User’s Guide, the 2014 book by the late, brilliant socialist author Daniel Bensaïd. One of those killed, Bernard Maris, was on the scientific council of ATTAC, the NGO critical of corporate-led globalization; ran for the Greens; was a critic of EU austerity and the eurozone; and wrote for a number of other left-wing publications.

The paper has no set editorial line per se, and its journalists frequently disagree publicly, but among the favourite targets of its cartoons and journalism are the far right and other partisans of anti-immigrant politics, corporate malfeasance, banker shenanigans, cuts to public health care, tax havens, and the arms industry. A scoop in Charlie from last November, for example, revealed threatening text-message extortion of an assistant of a right-wing senator already indicted in an investigation into municipal vote buying. The paper is a furious opponent of the Israeli government’s regular assaults on Gaza. It defended Roma against government round-up and deportation. Charlie Hebdo is part of the “mental furniture” of the left in France.

As Charb wrote in Le Monde in 2013, “It’s no secret: the current editorial team is split between supporters of the left, the far left, anarchism and environmentalism. Not everyone votes, but we all popped the champagne when [conservative president] Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in May 2012.”

Of course, nothing stops one from being racist and otherwise left-wing, just as there are sexist animal rights campaigners and homophobic trade unionists. But describing Charlie as a “racist publication” makes readers think that the paper is akin to the house journal of the National Front.

Charlie, like many organizations, is a jumble of good and bad politics. In the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, like Christopher Hitchens, the editor at the time, Philippe Val, took a “clash of civilizations” turn that infused the paper. If the mockery of imams was just in keeping with the anti-clerical tradition, and obscene cartoons also targeted the Catholic hierarchy, there now seemed to be an undue emphasis on Islam. It also — like many on the French left, even anti-war campaigners — backs the contemporary ideology of laïcité. Strictly translated, laïcité is the French for secularism, but the translation doesn't do it justice. It's a sort of state-enforced anti-religionism rather than a simple government neutrality in the face of different faiths as exists in the U.S. (but not in Canada), but typically focused overwhelmingly on Islam.

They are right, those who say it is hypocritical to be raising the banner of freedom of expression today if one did not raise it in the face of the headscarf and burqa bans. (Formally, in 2004, it was the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols in schools” that was restricted and, in 2010, face coverings in public, including motorbike helmets and balaclavas, were outlawed, but everyone knows who was being targeted). But the obverse of this is also correct: If you opposed the headscarf and burqa bans, then today you must rally to the defence of freedom of expression with respect to Charlie Hebdo.

They are right, those who say it is hypocritical to be raising the banner of freedom of expression today if one did not raise it in the face of the headscarf and burqa bans.

There is hypocrisy elsewhere as well. If Charlie typically rested unbothered by accusations of Islamophobia, its famed fearlessness reached its limit when cartoonist Maurice Sinet (nom de plume Siné) faced accusations of anti-Semitism. In 2008, Siné wrote in a column about rumours that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was to convert to Judaism prior to marrying the heiress of household appliance multinational Darty, joking, “He'll go a long way in life, that little lad.” He was prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, as the sentence allegedly linked Jewishness with financial success, although the judge dismissed the case. Siné was in any case fired by Val, a decision that was defended by a series of right-wing intellectuals and attacked by their left-wing counterparts as a betrayal of free speech.

As a result of Philippe Val’s post-9/11 Hitchensian tubthumping, as we in English might describe his stance, a number of journalists felt they could not in conscience continue to work for the newspaper and quit, publicly criticizing the paper. Many people who claim to “criticize everything” actually don’t criticize everything equally, and in fact do single out certain racialized minority groups for unique opprobrium and so genuinely are prejudiced in some way. Many of the current wave of New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher are examples of this: they claim to be criticizing all religions, but in fact reserve special criticism for Islam.

Even if no one particular Charlie cartoon can be said to be racist, and even if the paper also published covers depicting Pope Benedict kissing a Vatican Swiss Guard, a Palestinian woman being shot by an Israeli settler shouting, “Take that, Goliath!” as part of an anti-Zionist series entitled “The Torah Illustrated by Charb,” and many other cartoons that the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper categorises as anti-Semitic (Honourably, The Forward has actually re-printed one of these “anti-Semitic” cartoons, in solidarity with Charlie after the massacre), overall, the paper’s hard-on for ridiculing Islam above all other targets fits with this “equal-opportunity offence” narrative. Some friends of mine say they stopped reading the paper around this time. One Catalan friend told me, “Charlie Hebdo used to be left-wing. It’s made my stomach turn for some time though.”

However, there is a difference between a left-wing newspaper gone rotten and a racist publication. For all of Hitchens’ support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I couldn’t at any point suggest he was a racist.

I offer all this history as background, as additional context that has been ignored by the “Je ne suis pas Charlie” critics. But I’ll go further: It shouldn’t even matter.

Even if Charlie Hebdo were a racist publication, the murders would still be an assault on freedom of speech, and leftists should still rise up with all the indignation that so many French people have righteously displayed. Not because, as elites have it, the Paris massacre is an attack on “Western values,” values that plainly do not exist outside of hackneyed, hypocritical bromide, but because freedom of speech is a left-wing issue. Indeed, it is the most important issue we should concern ourselves with. Everything else we ever do depends on this foundational freedom.

It is vitally important to be on guard against the certain wave of attacks on Muslims across France and the rest of Europe in the coming days and weeks.

It is vitally important to be on guard against the certain wave of attacks on Muslims across France and the rest of Europe in the coming days and weeks. Already at the time of writing, there have been some 15 violent reprisal incidents against Muslims since the murders in Paris, including shots fired and three training grenades tossed at a mosque in Le Mans, shots fired at a prayer hall in Port-la-Nouvelle, and a bomb blast at a kebab shop in Villefranche-sur-Saone.

We must also be prepared to mobilize against the predictable, fresh round of efforts by elites to expand the security and surveillance state. Already, a panicked EU is to seek new anti-terror powers in the wake of the attack.

It is also worthwhile to recall how the Paris massacre fits within a wider story of a continued Western imperialist project in the Middle East. Although Western military intervention in Muslim countries undoubtedly produces “blowback,” whoever did this is not merely “reacting to Western imperialism.” They are autonomous actors. To reduce these murderers to automatons responding to military interventions in Iraq (a war France did not participate in) or Mali actually erases subaltern agency and thus is its own species of “noble savage” racism. Historically, anti-imperialist Arab resistance was primarily secular and socialist, not Islamist. We are abandoning our progressive brothers and sisters in these countries who are caught up in their own civil war that intersects with and is exacerbated by the Western War on Terror. The targets of political Islam, remember, are primarily other Muslims, such as in the case of December’s Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in which 141 were killed, 132 of them children. The same day, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed 25, including 15 children on a school bus, in Yemen. Rather than reinforcing Western imperialism, acts of blasphemy can — depending on how they are mounted — be an aid to secularists who are fighting Islamist reaction.

Author Kenan Malik puts it well when he writes how the Charlie massacre connects to the front lines of struggle for free speech in the Middle East and within Muslim communities in the West. “What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms.”

Likewise, Iranian-French graphic novelist and author of bestseller Persepolis Marjane Satrapi defended Charlie in an interview with the New York Times, arguing that criticizing the paper was “the wrong conversation.” “I wasn’t always in love with what they did, but I was in love with the idea we had one magazine that was this subversive,” she told the U.S. daily. “People have the right to have a different point of view, and to provoke. If we allow acts like this to create a climate of fear, we will have lost our freedom.”

And indeed, many Muslims see the attack on Charlie as akin to the attempted assassination by ISIS of the Syrian revolution’s activist-cartoonist Raed Fares. While Western leftists scoffed at what they felt was the mawkish Princess-Di-style sentimentality of the Je suis Charlie meme, many Muslims in France and worldwide were perfectly happy to embrace the slogan. While the delicate flowers at the CBC and the Guardian were fretting over whether to reprint Charlie Hebdo drawings, Arab editorial cartoonists in Lebanon, Qatar and Egypt were made of much tougher stuff.

It is also necessary to point out the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of the French president marching along other world leaders in defence of freedom of expression when in September, domestic authorities banned protests against Charlie cartoons as well as Palestinian solidarity marches during the Israeli assault on Gaza last year. The West’s strategic ally, Saudi Arabia, on Friday mounted a public flogging of the jailed liberal blogger Raif Badawi, a double standard that Arab cartoonists have lambasted.

Many of those among the elite who today make reference to freedom of speech made no such reference when U.S. forces bombed the offices of Al-Jazeera in Kabul and Baghdad, when NATO targeted Serbian TV, or when seven Palestinian journalists were killed by the IDF last year. Leaked documents appearing in Britain’s Daily Mirror suggest that in 2004, George Bush and Tony Blair considered bombing the Qatar headquarters of al-Jazeera, a building where 1,000 people work. As the Dutch-born Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop said upon seeing world leaders march in Paris in solidarity with his slain colleagues, “We have a lot of new friends, like the pope, Queen Elizabeth, and Putin. We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”

Many of those among the elite who today make reference to freedom of speech made no such reference when U.S. forces bombed the offices of Al-Jazeera in Kabul and Baghdad, when NATO targeted Serbian TV, or when seven Palestinian journalists were killed by the IDF last year.

But the hypocrisy of elites over freedom of speech does not make freedom of speech something leftists should oppose or be unconcerned about. Indeed we should expect liberal democracy to be incapable of defending basic liberal principles. The left should not fight elite hypocrisy with its own version of hypocrisy.

There is a worrying trend on the left to dismiss freedom of expression as part of the colonialist project, to repudiate free speech as a meaningless elite piety. In recent years, the liberal-left, particularly in the anglophone world, has taken to demanding the censorship of “offensive” or “triggering” speech, and student unions, theatres, universities, schools, municipalities, art galleries and other public venues have increasingly shut down a wide range of speech acts. Even many traditional civil liberties groups appear to be cowed. Demonstrators go beyond protesting those they oppose, and now try to actively prevent them from speaking, as in the case of efforts to disinvite Bill Maher from UC Berkeley last year — ironically during the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement protests. In 2014 in the United States, campus protesters prevented commencement addresses by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, attorney general Eric Holder, and IMF head Christine Lagarde. According to campus free speech group FIRE, 39 protests have led to the cancellation of protested events on campuses since 2009. All this is contrary to traditional leftist defence of freedom of speech and must be strongly opposed. The politics of the speaker should make no difference here.

We counter bad arguments with good ones. The minute that we begin embracing censorship, it will be our own ideas that sooner rather than later will be deleted by the censors. And the irony is that while these calls to censorship frequently come from the “social justice left,” it is precisely as a result of the liberal foundation of freedom of expression that the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle and gay liberation have achieved all that they have.

Today, we cannot denounce the Conservative government of Stephen Harper for muzzling climate scientists or efforts by energy giant Kinder Morgan to restrict the freedom of expression of anti-pipeline protesters if we don’t also stand up for the right of those we disagree with — and in particular those we strongly disagree with — to speak.

Speech acts whose content we agree with are easy to defend, so defending them is not really defending free speech at all, but rather just asserting our own speech. This is just as arbitrary as the vis et voluntas, or “force and will,” attitude that King John took to executive decisions before he was forced signed the Magna Carta, the first civil liberties charter and founding document of all our freedoms, 800 years ago this year.

It is worthwhile recalling how Noam Chomsky in 1979 not only signed a petition in defence of the freedom of speech of French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, but also, because the grand old man of the left so believes in this ideal, wrote an essay, “Some Elementary Comments on the Rights of Freedom of Expression,” that was printed as a preface in a book by Faurisson. Today’s leftists spurning free speech are dwarfed by Chomsky, a moral giant who was even willing to defend hate speech.

“Even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic pro-Nazi — such charges have been presented to me in private correspondence that it would be improper to cite in detail here — this would have no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defence of his civil rights. On the contrary, it would make it all the more imperative to defend them since, once again, it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defence.”

The left would do well to remind itself that freedom of speech is not a pick-and-choose buffet dinner. Throughout our history, from Robespierre to Stalin, every time we have spurned this freedom as a bourgeois bagatelle, as a trinket to be set aside for the sake of solving allegedly more worrying social injustices, disaster has swiftly struck.

Freedom of speech is no liberal bauble. It is the first freedom, upon which all other liberties depend.

Longue vie à Charlie Hebdo.

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