top left: Jean Cabut
top right: Bernard Verlhac – “Tignous”
bottom left: Stéphane Charbonnier – “Charb”
bottom right: Georges Wolinski
I’m still following the discourse on the Charlie Hebdo killings. It may be just because this killing bothered me more than most things lately, but I think it seems to have struck a nerve all around. And the response is all over the map. It’s hard to know where to start in picking through the pieces. Teju Cole has a powerful piece called “Unmournable Bodies” in the January 9 edition of The New Yorker. That’s as good a place as any. Cole lived in Nigeria till age 17 and it is evident his view of things is helpful in broadening our perspective.
Cole’s New Yorker piece made two points I think are worth stressing. One, that it is possible to defend the right to obscene and even racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. And two, that when we’re done giving the horrific event its due, we need to avoid hypocrisy and admit there are other horrors equally worthy of our attention, and some of these are of our own making.
What I think comes out of the accumulation of facts behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre is that there is no way to speak out on controversial issues without making enemies, and without looking like you are in bed with the wrong side. It’s like when you march in a protest for a cause and discover you’re marching next to some idiot with a sign rooting for a different cause, one you’re loathe to be associated with. You’ve simply got to insist on your right to agree with disagreeable people, and hope people will give you time to explain that just because you agree with part of what they say, you don’t necessarily agree with it all – or even most of it.
I commented the other day on something Arthur Goldhammer said – that we should not “sacralize” the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo since it would be betraying their life’s work of desacralizing everything. I thought that if you focused not on their intentions but on their accomplishments, that their iconoclasm, labeled foolishness by so many, could also be seen as heroic. That put me at odds not only with Goldhammer, whose speaks in a voice I resonate with, but with several of my best friends, as well, who argued that I was the one, not Goldhammer, with the wrong set of priorities.
Trouble is, no sooner do I hear myself say that free speech is the greatest of freedoms than I come across an article by Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun who argues that liberty is merely prelude to the right of an individual to see the sacred in everyman, and I find myself shifting a little bit. Not really, since I still have trouble with “the sacred,” but I sense the wisdom in the man’s understanding of human behavior, and am reminded that there are times when one would do well to talk less and listen more.
OK, but what am I to do with my gut feeling that there really is something about radical Islam that is different from other radical fundamentalisms, that religion (all religions) can be the source of inspiration for compassion and kindness, yes, but also for violence and destruction. Why should I go on listening to protestations that the limitation of women’s rights in Islamic countries, the fatwas, the armies of ISIS and Al Qaeda are something to be swept under the rug as “not the real Islam.” Why is the real Islam not the actual lived Islam, the attempt to bring back the caliphate, the widespread insistence that the sharia should take precedence over civil law? And, while we’re at it, are the men in silks and satin, the magisterium and tradition of the Church not the real Christianity instead of the words of a rabble rouser long ago who urged us to sell all we have and give to the poor?
The problem, of course, is that if I pursue that point of view and argue that the most conspicuous of toxic religions capturing our attention today is radical Islam, the inspiration behind ISIS and Al Qaida, I quickly find myself in bed with the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, one of America’s most notable right-wing ideologues. And of right-wingers generally, including conservative talk show host Steve Malzberg, on whose program D’Souza appears in this YouTube video. Liberals (i.e., my people) defend Islam; only conservatives criticize it.
And when I probe for more of Malzberg’s opinions, I find myself siding with him as he interviews the British radical Islamist Anjem Choudary. Choudary asks Malzberg if he’s Jewish “so that he knows who he’s dealing with,” and I am put off. But then, as they talk, my sympathies for Malzberg give way to sympathy for what Choudary is trying to say and is not being allowed to – that the west has not done right by the Muslim Middle East and that whether one considers their violent response justifiable or not, it should not be dismissed as unexpected.
My point in spades: you can’t be surprised when you nod in agreement over the declaration that Hitler built the Autobahn. Here I am agreeing with the radical fundamentalist who defended the 9/11 attackers, calling them “magnificent martyrs” and who argues for the implementation of the sharia across Britain. (No!) And who makes the case for the Charlie Hebdo event being a natural understandable blowback response to western imperialism and the murdering of Muslims and Arabs by the United States, Israel and others. (Yes!)
Then I come across an article by Maggie Gallagher in her new incarnation as senior fellow at the American Principles Project. Remember Maggie? Maggie G was the central voice of opposition to the rights of same-sex couples to marry, founder of the National Organization for Marriage before turning it over to Brian S. Brown and throwing up her hands in defeat and moving on. (By the way, she’s not the only rat to leave the sinking ship. Go to their website these days and it’s as if everybody is in hiding: unless you know to type in /about/ after the url you will find nobody willing to identify with the group.) She has admitted her life’s work against gays and lesbians has gone belly up, but continues to bang on about the importance of Roman Catholicism and the need to spread its values. Now she’s on the side of those who would downplay Charbonnier and the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, because she’s a friend of the sacred, she tells us. Freedom of speech be damned. Can’t mess with the sacred. And oh, by the way, “I believe Mohammad is a false prophet,” she assures us.
And just when I think I’ve finally found somebody I don’t have mixed feelings about, somebody I can disagree with all of the time, I come across this: She won’t join in with all those claiming “Je suis Charlie Hebdo.” Because he’s a blasphemer, and not a hero, right?
Well, no. “I am not Charlie Hebdo,” she tells us, “because Stephane Charbonnier and his colleagues were heroes and I am not.” Because she’s safe and Charbonnier put his neck on the line. Damn. It’s like my father used to nag at me, “Even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day.” She blogs here if you’re interested.
And who is Maggie currently at odds with? David Harsanyi, whom I agree with much of the time. He’s a libertarian, and supporter of gay rights. Islam is not mocked enough, he tells us. Should be mocked more. Right.
And supporter of Glen Beck.
In the past couple of days, I’ve taken the position that the principle of free speech is so basic, so important to freedom generally, that it must be defended at all costs, and run aground with friends who argue that prudence is the better form of valor, that one needs to show good taste and not be offensive, and besides, only fools put red flags in front of bulls and complain when they charge. I find my fervor cooling and come to see the wisdom of the opposite opinion, that people have the right not to have their sacred cows insulted, that women should not be harassed by whistles and catcalls, that gays and blacks should not have to endure hate speech, that Jews should not have Nazis parading through their towns. And then I remember how I celebrated when the Supreme Court insisted that such freedoms are at the heart of our constitutional rights.
It’s been an interesting couple of days, trying to get perspective. I have not changed my mind on very much. I still think the United States is a killer force with a self-destructive foreign policy, that drones kill innocent people and Guantanamo and torture make us hypocrites and Dick Cheney is a war criminal. I still think that free speech, including the right to say stupid and offensive things, is as essential to democracy as security is, and maybe even more so, and that without it we will never get our democracy back. I think information is necessary as well and Edward Snowden is a hero, as are the Charlie Hebdo four, and the Germans are right to recognize that and we Americans are wrong not to.
I’ve learned a lot more of the lay of the land, where people stand and what they are willing to fight for, and I’m happy to report my respect for friends who disagree with me still goes up in my estimation when they do so.
It’s been a bumpy ride and I’m looking forward to riding some more.
Photo credit: Agence France-Presse, Getty Images