Thursday, January 15, 2015

On the Charlie Hedbo killings

It's taken me a while to write about the Charlie Hedbo killings. It takes me a while to write anything anymore in this august journal, but it wasn't just that.

I felt genuinely stirred by one thing, first and foremost. The Charlie Hedbo staff had some pretty damn enormous stones. Drawing original Mohammed cartoons, under your own name, when the location of your office is publicly known, after you've already been firebombed once for doing so? That, my friend, is some serious commitment to thick liberty of speech. The ghost of John Stuart Mill is applauding the glorious dead of Charlie Hedbo. They paid the ultimate price to insist that the right to speak one's mind exists not only as a theoretical construct, but one that you can actually exercise. Behold, the roll of honour:
  • Cabu (Jean Cabut), 76, cartoonist
  • Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), 47, cartoonist, columnist, and editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo.
  • Mustapha Ourrad , 60, copy editor.
  • Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), 57, cartoonist.
Alas, I fear we will not see their kind again soon.

The whole #JeSuisCharlie show of support was a mixed bag. I was at least heartened by the extent of explicit public solidarity, though I was inclined to agree with the various commentators who noted that there is a definite strain of false bravery by association in the hashtag, at least compared with the stupendous bravery of the actual Hedbo staff. But this is relatively minor.

One odd and yet somewhat positive result to come from this affair is that it finally, surprisingly dragged a number of US publications kicking and screaming into publishing some kind of depiction of Mohammed. They were for the most part unwilling in initial reporting to show any of the original cartoons that provoked the ire of the killers. They were certainly unwilling to print absolutely any of the Danish Mohammed cartoons a few years ago, to their great disgrace. 

But when the cover of the next edition of Charlie Hedbo was released, it seemed to finally shame some fraction of the American media into growing some balls, no matter how tiny and shriveled. Partly I suspect this was out of sympathy for their fellow journalists, partly because they perhaps sensed that they'd have enough of a justification and safety in numbers. Still, credit where diminutive credit is due, a surprising number at long, long last were willing to show something. According to the Daily Beast, the Washington Post ran photos of the cover, while USA Today and the Los Angeles Times put photos on their website. Even the BBC, to my astonishment, put a picture up, in one online story (which seems to be the the 'trial balloon' option, since you can take it back down again if you suddenly get scared). But of course, cowardice continues to win the day at CNN, ABC, AP, The New York Times, and so on. If you're unwilling to even reprint a cover specifically related to the story, whose depiction of Mohammed is not only mild and inoffensive, but which even contains the words 'All is Forgiven' above it, you'd sure as hell better not claim that you, too, are Charlie.

You can bet your ass that even the current crop of the recently less craven won't run more Mohammed pictures again soon. But the current reversal was made possible by the fact that for a short-lived time, a good number of the usual suspects who would ordinarily trumpet how free speech shouldn't include the right to say anything that might hurt the feelings of (certain chosen) religious minorities were at least temporarily shamed into silence. As expected, it didn't last long. It never does.

From this point on, alas, the story had mainly disappointment for me. 

With the distance of a few days, what strikes me the most about it is the fact that the only approved, socially acceptable response is sadness, and a "show of support", whatever that means. (Of course, half the left can't even muster that, going only for mealy-mouthed equivocation of "I support free speech, but..".).

But even take the #JeSuisCharlie people, whose solidarity I'm still glad to have. What exactly does it get you? You can have candlelit vigils in Paris. You can have hashtags. You can "show support", as an individual, and you can even assemble an impressive number of world leaders to do the same.

But then what?

What, exactly, does anyone plan to do in response? What, if any, policies or actions will change as a result?

The men who invaded the Charlie Hedbo offices were willing to trade their own lives, with very high expectation, to make sure that the people who drew and printed Mohammed cartoons were brutally and publicly killed. They were willing to die to send the message that if you create and distribute pictures of Mohammed under your own name, you will eventually be hunted down, even if you have police protection.

Will future such men be deterred by your hashtags? 

Will they be frightened by your "support"?

It is worth asking whether the killers succeeded in their purpose. Depressingly, I have to conclude that they did.

If you were a cartoonist, what would you learn from all this?

I'd learn, if I didn't already know it, that if I wrote a Mohammed cartoon, there's a strong chance I'd get killed. I might also learn that there's a reasonable chance I'd get a sympathetic hashtag going afterwards. How do you think that bargain strikes most cartoonists?

You don't have to guess to find out. Have a look through The Australian's gallery of cartoons drawn in the aftermath. I see a strong sentiment that the pen is mightier than the sword. I see a distinct lack of new drawings of Mohammed. 

I don't mean to single these guys out as cowards. They've just performed exactly the calculation that the terrorists wanted them to perform: if you draw a cartoon about Mohammed and publish it in such a way that we can identify you, you may be killed. Eli Valley drew about the dilemma quite poignantly here. It ends with the depressing conclusion: "The only context for me is this: call me a coward, but I want to continue to be alive." Not exactly stirring, is it? But then again, what have you done lately that's equivalently brave as what you're asking of him?

Mr Valley is absolutely right in his calculation of the stakes. Doubt not that this is deadly serious. Ask Molly Norris, a Seattle cartoonist in hiding since 2010 after death threats were made to her over her cartoons during 'Everyone Draw Mohammed' day. This is happening in America too. The only difference is that very few got printed the first time around, so there's fewer people to threaten.

Hence, the current implied scenario. Reprinting someone else's otherwise respectful depiction of Mohammed probably won't get you killed. Drawing your own anonymous Mohammed cartoon won't get you killed. Owning up to your public drawing quite possibly will.

Is there any serious doubt that of the people in the west who were, i) willing to publicly put their name to pictures of Mohammed, and ii) were set to run such cartoons in a major print publication, a large fraction were killed last week?

This is why the the terrorists succeeded.

So let's take it as given that "support", while better than opposition, will not in fact diminish the chances of future attacks occurring, nor will it significantly reduce the likely deterrent that the current attacks provide against new people drawing pictures of Mohammed. On its own, support, in other words, won't achieve anything. We return to the question from before. What, then, does anyone propose to do?

There is a very good reason that sadness is the only socially acceptable response. Anger, by contrast, requires action. When people are angry, they might actually do something. Is there anything that current political opinion will actually allow to be done?

The terrorists who perpetrated the act are already dead, so aside from cathartic displays equivalent to hanging Mussolini's corpse, there is nothing to be done there.

And since since we are loudly informed by all the great and the good that such attacks are representative of absolutely no wider sociological phenomenon but are merely the work of a tiny number of deranged madmen, apparently there's nothing to do directly to anyone else either.

So what if one's anger were turned towards the question of how we might ensure that this doesn't happen again, what might acceptable opinion consider?

Various Deus Ex Machina type answers get proposed. Better surveillance! Stop the flow of weapons to terrorist groups! Convince more Muslims to embrace free speech!

Very good. How, exactly, should this be accomplished?

The only one that might have any chance is the first. At least in America, we tried that. It was called The Patriot Act. While it is hard to judge its effectiveness, when the very name of your policy has effectively become shorthand for 'knee-jerk response to terrorism that permanently eroded important civil liberties', you may see why 'better surveillance' is not in fact an ideal policy response.

As for the second option, if anyone has the vaguest idea about what policy France might have implemented that would have succeeded in preventing the terrorists from having access to the weapons they had, I'm yet to hear it.

As for the third, nobody in any position of political power seems to have much of an idea how to get radical Muslims to love free speech other than 'be scrupulously nice to Muslims, insist that they're all peace-loving, don't discriminate against them, try not to offend them by depicting pictures of Mohammed...'

Give or take a few hiccups, it seems to me that this is the policy we've already been trying, no? This, in other words, is what brought us to the current position. Even if one were to think that we haven't done enough in this direction (like communism, true outreach has never been tried!), it surely seems worth at least considering the possibility that this policy actually does not work, and then what else one might do.

The West has collectively taken an enormous bet. It has bet that it can allow mass immigration from certain Muslim countries and successfully include such people into society in a way that doesn't compromise the West's own core values or result in permanent social conflict.

Maybe that bet is right. Every fibre of my being hopes that it is right. But Gnon cares little what you'd like to be true. It care only about what is.

However, the West, and the left in particular, cannot back away from its bet, no matter how high the stakes, no matter what evidence piles up. Because something much bigger is at issue. To acknowledge the possibility that the policy of large scale immigration from certain countries might have been mistaken would be to contemplate the notion that radical egalitarianism is false; that, much as we may hope it to be true, people are not all the same, and cultural systems are not all equally valid.

This will never be given up by the left. Never, ever, ever. 

Muslim immigration was never the cause, it was only ever the symptom. The cause was always our iron belief in radical egalitarianism. 

And this is why, in the end, we come to the conclusion that we knew all along. 

What, exactly, will the West do in response to all this? 


It will do nothing at all.

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