The Left Comes Not to Praise Charlie Hebdo, but to Bury It

Charlie Hebdo
AP Photo/Claude Paris

If there were ever really a bright moment in the sun for Charlie Hebdo magazine’s slain writers and editors to be hailed as free speech martyrs, it’s just about over.  The Left is very uneasy with the notion of celebrating people who delighted in trampling on sacred narratives about power and victimization.  To be brutally frank, modern “liberals” aren’t all that wild about free speech, either.

The painful conflict occurring within the liberal mind is perfectly captured by the confused title of a Slate post by Jordan Weissmann, “Charlie Hebdo Is Heroic and Racist: We Should Embrace and Condemn It.”  Judging by the URL for this post, its original title was even more provocative: “Charlie Hebdo, the French Satirical Magazine, Is Heroic. It Is Also Racist.”

The “racist” angle for this critique is based on the preference of Charlie Hebdo editors for depicting Mohammed (whom Weissmann is very careful to refer to as “the prophet Mohammed,” in a reflex that has become remarkably widespread among Western journalists) as a “hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.”

You’ve got to love that “rightly or wrongly,” which at first seems like the Slate writer genuflecting in the direction of Islamic piety; hey, maybe they’re right, and drawing pictures of Mohammed is an unforgivable offense against God!  But no, he threw that in there because liberals are making a game attempt to claim that millions of Muslims have been misreading their sacred texts for centuries, and there really isn’t a prohibition against depicting Mohammed in Islamic law.  Never mind what your imam says, let The New York Times explain what your religion really means!

Edward Said doesn’t just make a cameo appearance in this piece; the spirit of his post-colonial theories about victimization and power politics hangs over all that follows:

This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.” As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian, “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”

So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.

Is harassment from that “growing nationalist movement” the reason sizable chunks of France are now considered “no-go” for non-Muslims, including the police, or is the nationalist movement’s growth a response to those conditions?  As for France’s ban on the hijab, it was implemented because French law states that citizens cannot conceal their faces in public spaces.  The ban was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights last summer, which ruled that it was “not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face.”  There are valid security reasons for prohibiting such disguises in public.  Imagine how much more difficult it would be to capture a fugitive like Hayat Boumeddiene, partner to the terrorist who took hostages at a kosher grocery store in Paris on Friday, if she could slip on a hijab and vanish into a sea of similarly covered women.

But when everything is viewed through the lens of victimization – people of color are the eternal victims of white racism, while the powerless cannot be guilty of sins such as racism and intolerance.  This thinking is common across the Western world.  For a recent domestic example, consider the “Black Brunch” protests, in which innocent white diners enjoying brunch at “white space” restaurants were targeted for harassment by anti-police demonstrators solely based on the color of their skin.  The demonstrators responded with angry disbelief when their actions were described as racism because they believe themselves in possession of unassailable virtue due to their status as powerless victims; they’re protesting persecution by a racist system, so they can’t possibly be racists themselves!

The Left is deeply invested in such power theories, where the moral character of an act is judged largely by who performs it, their position in society, and the historical conduct of whatever demographic they belong to.  Islam is a minority religion in the Western world, so it receives special consideration from people who pride themselves on vigorously insulting Christian or Jewish sensibilities at every opportunity.

Such political theories also serve as useful cover for the abject cowardice of atheist, iconoclastic, transgressive, irreverent liberals who are not eager to irreverently transgress the one form of “religious extremism” that is likely to kill them or firebomb their offices for doing so.  That’s why you’re hearing so many self-serving “pen is mightier than the sword” encomiums to free speech from people who refuse to reprint the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  A German paper called the Hamburger Morgenpost tried reprinting them, and promptly found “rocks and a burning object” sailing through their windows.  That doesn’t happen when a magazine disrespects Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.  The Amish are “extreme” by any definition of the term, but no one is worried about offending them.  The American Left spent a good deal of the 2012 presidential campaign telling us that Mormons are extreme, at the same time HBO was using them as material for a turgid soap opera.  Let me know when courageous Hollywood moguls decide to give Mohammed’s story the same treatment they’ve recently given to the stories of Noah and Moses.  One suspects the negative response to such a film would not be confined to laughter, a few angry op-eds, and box-office indifference.

More from Slate:

Much of the debate following the massacre has focused on the binary question of whether it’s ever acceptable for Americans and Europeans to offend Muslim traditions. Should we defend depictions of Mohammed on free speech grounds? Or should we discourage them altogether? Jonathan Chait says the answer is obvious. “The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism,” he writes at New York magazine. “One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat concurs. If an act of blasphemy can land you on a hit list, he argues, it should be “welcomed and defended” as a defense of liberal values against thuggery.

But 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. We need to recognize, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias argues today, that standing up for magazines like Charlie Hebdo is a “regrettable” necessity, in part because it provides cover for anti-Muslim backlash. “Blasphemous, mocking images cause pain in marginalized communities,” he writes. “The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups.” And the more those groups are mistreated, the more angry radicals we can expect to see.

So what should we do? We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it. We have to point out when an “edgy” cartoon is just a crappy Islamophobic jab. We shouldn’t pretend that every magazine cover with a picture of Mohammed is a second coming of The Satanic Verses. Making those distinctions isn’t going to placate the sorts of militants who are already apt to tote a machine gun into a magazine office. But it is a way to show good faith to the rest of a marginalized community, to show that free speech isn’t just about mocking their religion.

I notice nobody seemed terribly interested in condemning the “obvious racism” behind Charlie Hebdo‘s equally crude caricatures of Jews.  One of the standing media insults to the memory of slain editor Stephane Charbonnier involves running photos of him holding up issues of his magazine and blurring out the “blasphemous” covers, in quiet submission to the sensibilities of his killers.  The most egregious example of this bleak art involved digitally blurring the image of Mohammed from a photo of Charb holding up a cartoon labeled “Untouchables 2″… but leaving the image of the hook-nosed Jew unblurred.

This business of casually conflating violations of Islamic law with “racism” gives the game away because racism offers the purest distillation of liberal power theories.  Islam is not a “race.”  Quite a few of the conflicts in the Islamic world today involve warring ethnic and national groups who are all Islamic.  But racial theory is the Left’s favorite stage upon which to debate power theories because racists have no valid defense against the argument, and can be breezily told to shut their pie-holes.

The problem with treating free speech as a “regrettable necessity” is that people who regret doing something are not difficult to dissuade.  Free speech is tricky for an orderly society because people will inevitably use it to offend each other.  Those who believe in centrally-planned society, in which order is imposed on a micro-managed level by a wise and powerful State, often find themselves thinking that offensive, disruptive speech isn’t worth fighting for.  The ability to decide what constitutes unacceptably offensive speech is an enormous source of power, irresistibly appealing to the collectivist … especially when he’s pretty sure his preferred political team will end up wielding that power.  The classical liberal finds the conflict between social harmony and unruly free speech a permanent, and often vexing, feature of free nations; the modern “liberal” has a long list of speech he’d love to prohibit and doesn’t mind tacking that list onto the demands from a “persecuted” minority.

“We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it”?  That’s not exactly a bold battle cry.  Whoever said that racism, or even bad taste, should not be condemned?  Condemnation is speech answering speech.  Censorship is power obliterating speech.  The former bears no relationship whatsoever to the latter.  Anything less than unconditional defiance of censorship is a concession, and once that concession is on the table, negotiations for outright submission can begin.

As for whether Charlie Hebdo is the second coming of “The Satanic Verses”… remind me again what happened to the first coming–and its author?  Many of Salman Rushdie’s defenders thought his book was poorly written, or found its subject matter offensive.  Qualified defenses of free speech aren’t worth as much as full-throated defiance because the quality of speech should not be used to measure the value of freedom.