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What we talk about when we talk about Charlie


At the Frieze blog, Jörg Heiser mounts a long, nuanced defense of Charlie Hebdo against a number of left-leaning intellectuals who have denounced it as a racist publication in recent days. He criticizes writers such as Richard Seymour, Tariq Ali, Teju Cole, and Will Self for insisting that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is not a free speech issue, and for ignoring the magazine’s extensive history of lampooning all forms of tyranny, hypocrisy, and—yes—racism. As Heiser puts it: “It’s fair enough to object to what can be considered racist and islamophobic content in Charlie Hebdo, as long as one acknowledges its anti-racist and anti-fascist content as well.”

Heiser continues:

So why do these writers, at different levels of intellectual integrity and capacity, take these positions? I think there are three possible answers. The first one would be that the urge to react and make sense quickly inevitably produces inaccuracies, half-blinded guesses. The second answer would be that for the sake of creating more traction for the argument, simplifying its message is key, hence one leaves out anything that doesn’t fit one’s ideological search mask. The third, and possibly more telling or interesting answer is that there is a more complex process of rationalization at play, to do with the dynamics of guilt, shame and blame.

Heiser goes on to suggest that Charlie Hebdo upholds many of the ideals that leftists hold dear. He also argues that the iconoclasm and blasphemy that the magazine practiced with such ruthlessness is essential to a robust civil society:

The realm of art and satire has other rules than the one of news journalism. Whereas we can rightly demand journalism to stick to the facts and play by the rules of the most basic decency, in a civil society there must be a realm where ‘out of line’ behaviour and tourettish insult and grotesque can play themselves out without constant governance, not only out of sheer tolerance but also because it is in that realm of anarchic parody and thought that a civil society can question its explicit as well as unspoken rules.

Read the entire piece, entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Charlie,” here. What do you think? Is Charlie Hebdo a racist magazine, or is in at equal-opportunity offender? Does the latter really negate the former? Were writers like Richard Seymour and Teju Cole too quick to denounce the magazine without fully appreciating its nuanced politics and satirical style?


Here’s an additional post by Jörg Heiser on his Facebook:

I have yet to see one of those major voices who, in the first days after last week’s Paris attacks, obviously based on having seen a small selection of online jpgs, loudly stated that Charlie Hebdo was a fundamentally racist and islamophobic publication to actively concede to the evidence produced that – minimum – proved that CH, even if one still considered them racist, at least also had a substantial record for incessantly attacking the rising French far right, the mayor voice of anti-immigration in France.

Instead of that concession, many of them do two things: they either completely ignore the evidence and just go on as if nothing happened; or they first outright reject the evidence produced in a quick manner and second change subject, screaming told you so in response to the arrest of Dieudonné.

I.e. they change subject from whether CH is racist to whether France has double standards on free speech - again a twisted form of victim-blaming, as if anyone in their right mind, least CH, had ever considered the French power elite impeccably virtuous in this regard, and as if CH somehow inappropriately benefitted from that double standard (wow what a benefit to be killed for), which ironically corresponds with CH having called out the French power elite for it in the past (for example in response to Chirac being against the hijab in 2004, but for preventing the juridical system from investigating Alain Juppé).

Glenn Greenwald (…/days-hosting-massive-free-speech-m…/) for example, reducing the ones who disagree with the CH-is-racist-mantra to “one French leftist” (…/charlie-hebdo-letter-my-british…), while referring them to one single letter by a former CH employee (…/Charlie_Hebdo_articl…) from December 2013 (i.e. a month before the killings) who a) well might have an axe to grind with former colleagues b) weirdly lists as the first major example of CH’s alleged outrageous examples of racism one that is by ASSOCIATION (an article in CH ABOUT a Dutch cartoonist); another example is calling them out for a hoax reportage about ‘sex jihadists’ in Syria (which chillingly seems to have foreseen by a few weeks what actually then WAS reported as factually happening in Syria to thousands of Yazidi women).

That said I do think that many of Tignous’s drawings have a racist lean; and Wolinski’s old boy sauciness was often, not always, tediously sexist (but do I need to add there are many others still alive that deserve so much more to be called out for much bigger crimes?). I do find myself defending a publication that I actually have no “truck with whatsoever”, as Martha Rosler put it expressing a similar sentiment.

In any case I’ve seen too much evidence of CH calling out the blatant racism of France’s far right to lump them all together and write them off, into their grave, as a bunch of islamophobic hate mongers (yes, blasphemous they were, which for me doesn’t equal ‘fear of religion’, i.e. phobia, but fearlessness of religious dogma). But what does Glenn Greenwald, whom I generally admire, do, and others in his vein? They continue lumping them all together, in passing, while changing subject to France’s double standards (oh wow, you did find that out?).

All of this prevents us from agreeing on what should be the minimum consensus: a) Freedom of Speech as an issue should not be left to the hypocrites and bigots in power (Saudi-Arabia sending their ambassador to the demonstration in Paris as just one blatant example; Putin and Obama at least realized the hypocrisy…) or to the far right morons trying to hijack it, and b) that we all need to ward off anti-immigration and xenophobic propaganda and state politics by forming left-to-liberal-to-even-conservative minimum consensus coalitions against it; not sectarian victim-blaming.
Just saying.