On the Variety of Ways to Not Praise Charlie Hebdo

There are so many excellent ways to not praise Charlie Hebdo, because there are so many aspects of what they do and have done that deserve something other than praise. But it’s very hard to not praise the dead. Especially the martyred dead, for whom praise is compulsory. It’s so hard to say anything about dead people that isn’t praise, in fact, that in order to say anything about Charlie Hebdo that isn’t praise, you need to open by declaring that you condemn their deaths. For example, Arthur Goldhammer’s piece from Monday begins with this extravagant and doomed attempt to inoculate himself against the counter-charge that he is secretly a fellow traveler with terrorists:

“There is, of course, no justification for the murder of political cartoonists. Nothing I say should be construed as in any way mitigating the horror of the Jan. 7 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine by two gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In no way do I excuse the crime or accuse the victims of somehow bringing it on themselves. This should go without saying, but as I have learned from the reactions to what I previously published on this matter, it bears repeating, and even then there are some for whom it will not be enough.”

He is, of course, right: it will not be enough, for those to whom he is speaking. But why is he speaking to them? To those who would construe criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s racism with an actual desire to see them murdered—to those for whom “with us or against us” is still a compelling narrative—there is no amount of preamble that will make it okay for you to criticize Charlie Hebdo. “With us or against us” is compulsory, because don’t you know we’re at war? It “bears repeating” because it will not work: just as it should go without saying, but doesn’t, saying it over and over again will only confirm to those who hear you that you are obviously protesting too much. Why make such a big deal about how you aren’t accusing the victims of bringing it on themselves if, after all, you aren’t saying EXACTLY THAT? 

Those people can fuck off. Why have a conversation with someone that will take what you say and insist that it means literally the opposite of what you're saying? Let them have their fun, but they have nothing interesting to say.

Meanwhile, I want to observe how very strange it is to see a magazine that takes a pride in pissing people off, that is meant to be blasphemous and offensive and provocative and unsettling—a magazine whose entire reason for existing is supposed to be that it is irreverently outside the mainstream—be transformed into something which one feels compelled to regard with reverence, a thing in whose name assembled heads of state will pretend to march. This is something to which PEN America has contributed, by giving them an award for courage. They have made it even harder to not praise Charlie Hebdo.

It is been so very interesting to watch as the choice to not do something—such as to not honor Charlie Hebdo at a PEN fundraiser, to “respectfully disassociate” oneself from the decision to give them an award—has become illegible as an act of individual conscience and dissent, and has become compulsively re-scripted as an “attack” on Charlie Hebdo and, therefore, a secret sharer in the violence that killed eleven of its editors, writers, and artists. This is what happens when #JeSuisCharlie began to imply tout le monde. The default was to “be” Charlie, such that to dis-identify with that magazine not only had to be asserted (since it was presumed that you identified with them), but marked you as crossing a line, as being against us, instead of with us.

This is not what the victory of free speech looks like. Or if it is, we’re talking about a compulsory liberation, and that contradiction in terms should give us pause. Many people regard Charlie Hebdo’s work as further marginalizing Muslims in French society; I, for example, do not think you can weaponize racist images to fight racism. But there are many others who feel different versions of the same principled uneasiness with what Charlie Hebdo does. I don’t need to cite them, and I don’t want to: if you’re open to the argument, you’ll respect my choice to hold that position—you’ll be interested in hearing it, and want to think it through—but if you’re not, you’ll take the opportunity of names to create ad hominem attacks on the people who say those things.

I dislike what Charlie Hebdo does. I’ve spent enough time reading their words, flipping through the archive of what’s available to me to read and view, and I’ve read an exhaustive amount of commentary to come to that conclusion. I also sympathize with what they are trying to do, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. The way efforts to be antiracist become racist in practice is the farce which so many white people make of themselves that, if we weren’t so reliably constant in doing it over and over again, it would be tragic. I am Charlie, in the sense in which I am also lots of things I don’t particularly want to be, but which I can only control and moderate and improve if I acknowledge.  I am more Charlie than I would like; to say #JeSuisCharlie, for me, is to say that I also sometimes have good intentions that go wrong.

To me, the best argument against giving Charlie Hebdo an award is that a “Free Speech” organization shouldn’t be in the business of giving awards at all, that doing so degrades the function of such an organization. Charlie Hebdo is a good demonstration of why that is, but it’s not exactly their fault. After all, #JeSuisCharlie is, by definition, something only those who are not Charlie would ever have to say. I don’t think Charlie Hebdo ever demanded that you’re either with us or against us; from what I can tell, they mostly tried to avoid that as much as possible, as well they should. I think highly enough of their intelligence, in fact, to presume that they probably see their defenders as the bullying windbags they are. Charlie Hebdo never saw themselves as bullies. But making it compulsory to be Charlie Hebdo, to make what they expressed synonymous with expression itself, was to bully on their behalf.

This is why giving awards for Free Speech is such a strange idea. To award and celebrate some kinds of speech (but not others) will inevitably mean drawing distinctions between good speech and less-good speech, no matter how hard you try to pretend that what is being honored is simply courage, in the abstract. The Islamic state’s A/V club is also “courageous” in expressing its point of view, if literally the only thing we mean by that word is commitment to expressing an embattled point of view in the face of great obstacles. And we obviously don’t only mean that. There is a good reason why Charlie Hebdo and ISIS are not sharing the award: we judge the content of ISIS’s speech acts to be horrendous and horrible, and also they kill people. The terribleness of that organization disqualifies their “courage” from having the kind of meaning that PEN wants to honor.

The flipside, however, is that once you open the door to honoring the content of expression, there is no going back. If PEN wanted to celebrate the “spirit of Voltaire” and liberal tolerance, they should have tolerated Charlie Hebdo: they should have defended to the death their right to make racist cartoons, and also observed how fucking racist those cartoons were. The test of liberal toleration is tolerating speech you don’t like. If you like Charlie Hebdo, then giving them an award for courage is not that. It requires very little to tolerate speech we approve of.

I disapprove of a lot of what Charlie Hebdo has done in the past, but I respect the fact that their politics are changing, as one’s politics always must. “I will no longer draw the figure of Muhammad,” said the cartoonist who drew the Prophet for the first post-massacre edition of Charlie Hebdo; “It no longer interests me,” he said. I don’t think it was ever interesting, but it has become such a cliché over the last few years, so profoundly unchallenging and generically repeatable, that no artist worth the name can do very much with it anymore. The only people who hold “draw Muhammad” contests are hate-mongers like Pamela Geller, because what is happening is not art, but aesthetic equivalent of throwing bacon at a mosque.

You cannot honor “Free Speech” in the abstract without hollowing it out. I am opposed to violence against artists, journalists, writers, and dissenters because I am opposed to violence. People should not be violated, and cartoonists are people too. This is actually a very easy principle to observe in practice. And that’s why it’s just a bad idea to praise Charlie Hebdo, which represents (or is saddled with) a very particular, aggressive, and arrogant form of weaponized speech. You cannot honor Charlie Hebdo as the embodiment of courageous speech without honoring the content of their speech, their politics, and what they do with their courage. To praise “expression” in the abstract by honoring a particular version of what might make it praiseworthy makes it no longer abstract. Another organization they didn’t honor was Pamela Geller’s Islamophobic mob, despite the fact that they, also, drew cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. The difference is that Charlie Hebdo is satire while Geller is deadly serious. But if there is something to this difference – and there is, I think, just not quite as much as a lot of people seem to think – then let us observe that satire is being made to carry the burden of “better than Pamela Geller.” I wouldn’t want to place my fate on so slender a reed, but hey, you be you.

No matter how many times you insist it is not, no matter how hard you work to draw that distinction, PEN cannot give awards without asserting, in some sense, that Charlie Hebdo is better than ISIS or Pamela Geller’s mob. And they are better! But good lord, practically everyone is. And as Teju Cole put it, is it a good use of our headspace and moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular, “rather than Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning, who have also paid steeply for their courage, but whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie’s?” What about the Ethiopian Zone 9 bloggers? What about, what about, what about. A choice was made, and there were reasons why that choice was made. Pretending that there weren’t is just subterfuge. Charlie Hebdo was honored for what they continued to say, not for continuing say. All speech is born free, but some speech turns out to be more free than other speech.

Though I have my own opinions about Charlie Hebdo, I’m trying not to talk about them here. I’m trying to talk about PEN, and the unstable place where it’s trying to keep its balance. This has turned out to be difficult to do: criticisms of PEN’s choice and of the implicit system of evaluation behind it have been turned, over and over again, into ATTACKS ON CHARLIE HEBDO. There is some justice to that, since the dissenters have blurred the line themselves. But it’s also useful to step back from that claim, and to do so very explicitly. It is one thing to talk about Charlie Hebdo in Paris; it is another thing to give them an award in New York City. And whatever Charlie Hebdo means in that original context, it means something else here.

As Keith Gessen asked: “When people in France, in their mourning, declared “Je suis Charlie,” they were expressing grief, an identification with the victims of horrific violence. But what were people expressing when they said “Je suis Charlie” in the US?”

One of the reason why white people love talking about “racism” (rather than, say, “white supremacy,” “privilege,” or “anti-blackness”) is that it makes the problem something you can good-think your way out of, something you can separate yourself from, and cleanse yourself of the guilt for. To not be racist, you literally have to do nothing more than decide not to be racist, and then go forth and sin no more. Done!

The value of “racism” as a concept for white people, in other words, is that it allows us to think we can escape it. We can’t. You can’t. I can’t. No one can. “Racism” is an emergent property of societies structured by dominance, societies that function to oppress and dehumanize certain classes of people using an arbitrary and historical biological concept to do so. Deciding not to be racist or participate in racism is like trying to avoid traffic. You can do your best, and you should, but your options are limited; the problem is a whole hell of a lot bigger than individual choice. Moreover, race exists because racism creates it, and trying to find racism inside a person’s soul is like trying to find the “kill” in a gun, so it can be removed. The machine works, and it does a certain thing, as does a society structured by racialized injustice. Try not to be the person pulling the trigger. Really: try as hard as you can. Don’t drive during rush hour. But the difference between a gun and white supremacy is that a gun doesn’t fire by itself; white privilege is letting the world favor you without needing to lift a finger. White privilege is benefitting from racism without needing to be racist. You might be able to stay home, but there are a lot of people who have to drive to work, and your staying out of traffic doesn’t help them all that much.

To the extent the category has meaning, I am racist and so are you. With my conscious mind I struggle against it, but I always, immediately, and unconsciously react differently to different people, depending on how the world I live in has indoctrinated me to identify and view them. So do you. It’s the worst kind of intellectual cowardice to pretend you don’t “see” race, because you do see race, and—because there is no race without racism—seeing race makes you racist. Nobody gets out clean from this swamp of white supremacist shit. The question is what you do with it. Do you clean yourself off as best you can? Or do you pretend your shit doesn’t stink?

“Is Charlie Hebdo racist?” is not an interesting question. If you accept that everyone is racist, that we are all stuck for the time-being inside a shitty system that hurts people, then asking whether Charlie Hebdo is racist is a question with no stakes. Because you can’t ever find the racism in a person, it’s a question that can only produce a presumption of innocence. The interesting question is whether and how you are working to drain the swamp.

What if PEN asked what kinds of speech fostered a world where there was less violence? Doing that would be to admit that choosing who to give an award to is actually a political and ideological choice, as it obviously is. But then we might have a conversation about why mean-spirited satire that explicitly seeks to “banalize” Islam is judged to be more powerful, more worthy, and more anti-racist than other forms of expression. We might also have a conversation about whether provoking Islamists into submission is the way to deal with the militancy of that political tendency (because no matter how hard Charlie Hebdo might work to distance itself from Pamela Geller, Pamela Geller knows better). We might have a conversation about whether you can attack an idea or a faith without also attacking the people who are born into it. We could talk about whether a picture of the Prophet Mohamed being sexually humiliated has anything to do with anti-racism, or if it just repeats and reiterates the symbolic violations, and does so in ways which have real consequences.

In the end, I find Alain Mabanckou’s “il n'y a pas de France sans arrogance” attractively honest. I think I draw a different conclusion from that fact—Mabanckou was the writer who presented Charlie Hebdo with the award yesterday—but it’s the right framing. Arrogance is not a pretty thing, in and of itself, and if you want to defend aggressive secularism as a cultural value, then it’s good to call it by its name: Laïcité is a particular mode of French arrogance. Laïcité is the assertion that a broad range of existential orientations towards the universe are merely “religions” (in this context, a word for pre-modern myth and superstition), along with the arrogant assertion that there is one existential orientation that is transcendent, fundamental, alpha, and omega. It is the state. You can have other gods if you want, the State declares, but none before Me: I am because I am, and anything that is not Me must bow down and give way.

If secularism is an anti-religion, the insistent absence of religion, then its insistence gives the game away, because the state is such a jealous god, demanding such a complete monopoly on reality: it wants what religions have, the right to dictate how it is normal to live. The state is

(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

That’s Clifford Geertz’ “Religion as a Cultural System,” which if you read against the grain, might accidentally de-secularize (and even decolonialize) the formations of religion that narcissistic Western secularisms tend to produce. These terms are much too capacious: if this is what a religion is, then how is the secular state anything but a religion? Secularists will insist that religions are false ideologies, that their symbols are mere masks for power and domination, their moods and motivations deadly to the human spirit, their conceptions of a general order of existence rooted in superstitions, and their realistic facticity utterly fictions. But in this way, the Secularist protests in exactly the way a religion would, demanding, like a religion, that the other “Gods” are all false. If you allow a religion to become a cultural system, then what is the secular state but a competing cultural system? This is what it is: a cultural system that brooks no competition.

A believer has difficulty with the idea that their culture is one culture among many, of course, because you cannot believe in a thing and also think that it is a “belief.” I have my own beliefs, too; I am a secularist, and I was born into the religion of the state, from which I’ll spend my life trying to disentangle my identity, and never quite succeeding. I believe in it too deeply, quite, to really believe that it’s quite a belief (I write these words, in other words, because I struggle to make them true). But no matter how hard I try, I still believe, very deeply and fundamentally, in the particular kind of disbelief that “secularism” enshrines. To me, the Holy Trinity is an interesting and even beautiful fiction. But Democracy, on the other hand, is a transcendent truth to be fought for, even to die for in certain cases; I believe this on a level deep enough to stop seeming like mere belief. Democracy is no less a system of symbols formulating a general order of existence than is the Holy Trinity; democracy also has its claims to factuality and realism, its texts, its canon, and its saints. I think it’s a good one. But the fact that I believe in it doesn’t make it something other than a religion-as-cultural-system; the fact that I believe it is true makes it hard for me to regard my own belief as mere belief. Believers never do.

The trouble with radical secularists is that they so often jump past this contradiction, forgetting that they, too, are believers. They have such confidence in their own clarity of thought, and such contempt for mere believers. For the passionately intense disbeliever, getting rid of “religion” means that whatever is left behind turns out to be Science and Truth. But there is no outside to cultural belief, as ethnographers like Geertz started to understand: there simply is no opting out of ideology, and to think that you have done so is often to become the worst kind of fundamentalist. If you think you’ve found the Archimedean point from which to understand the world’s illusions as such, then those who believe in them become fools whose beliefs can be safely dismissed, whose words can be ignored, and whose humanity can be bracketed off. If you congratulate yourself on having found Reality, then you are in danger of becoming its tool. Because what makes your belief different than anyone else’s is the fact that you believe in it, and real belief – if it means anything – means the inability to acknowledge that you might be wrong.

Apostacy is always still a kind of belief, in other words, but derived from a negation: to disbelieve in a belief is still to fetishize the thing being unbelieved in, to worship by your hate. Iconoclasm emerges from this unbelief: what’s the point of smashing idols if you don’t believe they contain Gods? Bigotry, too, needs to believe in the thing being hated, far beyond the point where that thing exists: the bigot who throws bacon at a Mosque believes in the power of that symbol, or the bigotry would have no object. Race doesn’t exist either, but racists not only created it, they need to keep creating and re-creating it, by demanding that it does exist. To disbelieve in the humanity of black people, you must imagine into existence a coherent, distinct group of black people who are, in being black, no longer human. But blackness is a structure of negation, before it is anything else: Africa was not black until the slave trade and no one is black without the presence of race hate. But in a world where race hate does exists, where white supremacy names a deep complex of historical memory and experience and daily practice, calling race a “social construction” is like calling a border just an arbitrary line in the sand: it is, but pretending it doesn’t exist is a good way to get shot. Bow down to that idol, or have your head cut off.

Race-hate and faith-based bigotry are not the same things, exactly; the symbolic violence of antiblackness is particular in its insistence that race is binding, permanent, existential. Whiteness needs blackness to be fundamental. If a black person could become white, after all, then whiteness has no meaning. But faith-based bigotry believes the damned can be liberated: to blaspheme against the symbols of Islam is to push Muslims towards disowning them. Race-based bigotry always contains at least a kernel of genocide, but faith-based bigotry believes it is offering the believer the choice to switch teams. Such blasphemy is meant to be a kind of symbolic torture, in fact: by attacking the site of a Muslim’s identity as Muslim, the blasphemer demands that the Muslim give up everything that identity binds him to. If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, demands the secular blasphemer, he cannot be my disciple.

But blasphemy is always an oath of allegiance to a new God that is haunted by the presence of its predecessor: just as the new Testament was haunted by the old, or as Islam was haunted by Jesus’ claim to be the son of God, or as Protestants were haunted by Catholic iconography, the modern secular nation-state is haunted by the presence and claims made by its predecessors, and for this reason, must constantly and persistently blaspheme them, to remind itself that it doesn’t believe. The secular state needs religion, without which it doesn’t exist: as secular, the state is an anti-religion that understands itself by reference to the thing it is not, the thing which in disbelieving, it un-bows down to (up from?). Its liberation – its liberty – needs this other for its own self-definition; without the mental slavery of false gods, it has no truth, no freedom.

That the state pretends not to be a religion causes it to produce warped and strange notions of what a religion is. When laïcité allows the state to tell a fifteen-year old schoolgirl that “a long skirt ‘conspicuously’ showed religious affiliation, which is banned in schools by France’s strict secularity laws” and expels her from the school until she submits to the local God’s arbitrary strictures, this is religion in everything but name. It is a much less vicious form of gendered violence than murdering schoolgirls for Islam, yes, certainly, but if we’re comparing the French state favorably to Boko Haram, then the damning faintness of the praise speaks for itself. At least they didn’t murder her for wearing the wrong clothing! Let us give them an award. But we are still describing a claim to transcendent truth that jealously defends its privileges against other claimants, a God whose self-evident reality is seen to stand in sharp contrast to the mere idols and myths of its competitors.

Laïcité means that while some kinds of blasphemous satire are officially supported by the state – in the case of Charlie Hebdo, to the tune of one million euros – others are outlawed. Laïcité describes how a nationally-mandated theory of colorblind post-racialism can become a defense of majoritarian privileges: some forms of religious observation become invisible and naturalized (those which have become private, a matter of personal conscience), while those with a public component—those that might challenge the State’s injunction to have No Other God Before Me—will render their practitioners ineligible for citizenship. To be Muslim is to be something other than “Français de souche,” then, because Islam is a religion and “French” is not-religion. There are the essentially French—whose Christianity has long found ways to integrate into the secular state religion—and then there are those who need papers to (partially) counterbalance their immigrant origin, whose religion will refer back to it, no matter how many hexagonal generations they can trace back.

There are so many ways to not praise Charlie Hebdo, then, but one is to pretend that it is something other than an arrogant expression of French secularism. Laïcité is in the French constitution and expresses a French chauvinism that is either a good thing or a bad thing, but is definitely a thing. It is a white mythology, as a great French African author once put it; it pretends to be universal by hiding its origin, even from itself. And when those who praise Charlie Hebdo also demand that you have to understand French culture to understand Charlie, when they claim it’s a French thing--You Anglophone rubes just can’t understand this particular mode of special hexagonal humor!—what they are saying so very clearly is that it’s a culturally-rooted and nationalist tradition. You can think that this is a good thing or you can think that this is a bad thing. But to pretend that it isn’t a thing – to pretend that weaponized Laïcité is something other than an arrogant expression of a particular majoritarian culture – is to fall into exactly the kind of hypocrisy that Charlie Hebdo ostensibly stands against, blindness to self of the self-righteous. French universalism is deeply parochial, as anyone who doesn’t have their head up their France understands. Let’s not praise Charlie Hebdo for this; they deserve better.