Thursday 5 February 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Free Speech and its Enemies

Part One: All Are Guilty (or Self-Flagellation)

One of the most pernicious arguments advanced to persuade us that the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo were unworthy martyrs to free expression - or were even deserving of much in the way of sympathy - has been the notion that they were the victimisers of a persecuted minority:
But the question needs to be asked: were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo really satirists, if by satire is meant the deployment of humour, ridicule, sarcasm and irony in order to achieve moral reform? Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken's definition of good journalism: it should "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted". The trouble with a lot of so-called "satire" directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it's not clear who it's afflicting, or who it's comforting. 
My objections to this argument, formulated here by the author Will Self in an article for Vice magazine, are great and numerous. For a start, I would have thought it self-evident than anyone who thinks it acceptable to answer cartoons by murdering cartoonists is in pressing need of moral reform, thereby invalidating Self's objection by his own lights.

Furthermore, the job of the satirist is to scorn hypocrisy, double-standards, fallacious reasoning, and pomposity wherever it occurs and without political prejudice. That Self would prefer it if satire were a kind of comedy-activism, preferably mocking only those deserving of his own contempt, is beside the point. H. L. Mencken is of no use to Self here since (a) the quotation he cites is misattributed and originally intended to satirise journalistic moral vanity not endorse it, (b) journalism is not the same as satire, and (c) in any case, journalism ought to concern itself with the pursuit of truth, not the affliction of comfort.

But most important of all, in the service of an argument designed to transform victimisers into victims and vice versa, Self misrepresents the motives of the assassins. It was not the mockery of religious extremists to which they objected, but the disrespect shown to a religious figure they venerated. "We have avenged the prophet!" they cried as they fled the scene of a bloodbath they had committed in his name.
Will Self

Muhammad, Islam's purported seer, claimed to be the vessel of the final and perfect word of god, and he is consequently considered to be a figure of considerable power and authority by Islam's ~1.5 billion Muslims. (He has also been dead for nearly 1400 years, which is about as comfortable as it is possible to get.)

Were Islam a quietist faith, whose adherents wanted nothing more than to be able to retreat from the fallen world, Self's argument that its absurdities are the business of no-one but its adherents might be more persuasive. But Islam is proselytising faith, and in its radical political form - also known as Islamism - it constitutes an aggressive ideology which is expansionist, totalitarian, and revolutionary in character, as well as being both triumphalist and (paradoxically) self-pitying.

Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the assassins of Charlie Hebdo's journalists, are said to have been the cadres of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and as such would have held extremely definite and retrogressive views about the ways in which, not just journalists, but also women, gays, and non-believers of all stripes are required to behave, and all of which derive from a literalist interpretation of Muhammad's own ostensibly inerrant utterances.

In the Shi'ite theocracy of Iran, the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, and the nascent Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, radical Islam enjoys the privilege of State power and its cruelty and retrogressive effects on individual rights and liberty are manifest. But in the West's liberal democracies, radical Islam is (mostly) the province of immigrant minorities from North Africa and the Asian sub-continent. An analysis that goes no further than identifying the underdog will spare its ideology scrutiny and ridicule, and insist that it be treated with the deferential respect its adherents demand. Even, apparently, as religious proscriptions are enforced at the point of a blazing kalashnikov.

Those for whom power imbalance is the only prism through which to understand the moral calculus in a given conflict make two mistakes. The first is to place scant significance on what either side is actually fighting for - if one's person's terrorist really is another's freedom-fighter then it makes no difference whether democrats are fighting to overthrow totalitarian State or totalitarians are fighting to destroy a democratic one. The second mistake is a failure to appreciate the coercive power of the weak: the use of arbitrary violence to intimidate, destabilise, and terrify.

To Self such objections appear to be of negligible importance, and he scorns the assistance Charlie Hebdo accepted from the French government in the aftermath of the violent catastrophe visited upon them, as if this tarnishes a claim to ideological purity to which he has already made it clear the magazine is not entitled: "[S]o, now the satirists have been co-opted by the state, precisely the institution you might've thought they should never cease from attacking."

He chides the journalists of Charlie Hebdo for their lack of responsibility, secure as he is in the knowledge that his own sensitivity to the plight of the weak means he will never have to answer to their vengeful hatreds. This strikes me as not just conceited, but also foolish. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that some capricious jihadi might take it upon themselves to demand the suppression of a Will Self novel because it violates this or that medieval edict, and it is not hard to imagine the high dudgeon that would immediately result.

And let it not be overlooked that four Jews were also murdered by the Kouachi brothers' co-conspirator for no other reason than that they happened to be Jews; a reminder that Islamism's murderous rage is by no means confined to those who denigrate the faith. In 2006, Self publicly renounced his Jewish heritage - an ostentatious display of disgust occasioned by some Israeli policy or other that failed to meet with his approval. I'm dubious as to whether this will inoculate him against Islamist anti-Semitism, should he ever find himself at its mercy.

Self is a man whose languid verbosity tends to be taken for wisdom by the unwary. It would be silly to deny the man's talents as writer, but they prop up childish political instincts. His tutorial on the limits of free speech is followed by the news that he won't be conscripted into a defence of "the Enlightenment project". His objection is of the "who-are-the-real-monsters-anyway" variety.

The reasons that a revolution built upon the Declaration of the Rights of Man spiralled into the gory despotic excesses of the Red Terror are complex and fascinating, but for Self they illuminate nothing more than the unfitness of the Enlightenment's inheritors and "boosters" to pass judgement on anyone but themselves. Like the religious fanatics they denounce, the West's fundamentalists of reason are in pursuit of a chimeric utopia "that if it's perfected it will render the entire population supremely free and entirely good."

No source is provided for this ventriloquised hyperbole because, as far as I'm aware, none exists within the realm of sane commentary. Not content to have damned the Enlightenment's messy inception, Self proceeds to deride its progressive legacy:
[S]uch rarefied progress is precisely what is mocked, not only by the murdering of Parisian journalists, but by the drone strikes in Syria, Iraq and Waziristan, which are also murders conducted for religio-political ends. It is mocked as well by the clamouring that follows every terrorist outrage for the suspension of precisely those aspects of the law that exist to restrain our worst impulses; in particular the worst impulses of our rulers: namely, due process of law, fair trials, habeas corpus and freedom from state-mandated torture and extra-judicial killing.
Self opens his article by announcing he wishes to be clear, before demonstrating a thoroughgoing contempt for moral clarity. He describes the premeditated murder of journalists for perceived lapses in taste and propriety as "evil", but with his casual ruminations on responsibility and the nature of satire, he floats the notion - without having the courage to actually defend it - that the murdered journalists and cartoonists were partly culpable in their own deaths.

And he is at pains to remind us that, while we share the Kouachis' capacity for evil, in our moral complacency we may have exceeded it. Terrorists pursue their delusory utopia at our expense using automatic weapons, while we pursue ours at theirs using drone warfare. In Self's mind, Islamist barbarism convicts us all, its chauvinism and cruelty simply reflects our own. All are guilty, so none are guilty; an exoneration of terrorism by default.

Not only does such lamentable moral equivalence fail to distinguish between the firefighter and the fire but, at a time when much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan are being torn to pieces by religious fanaticism, are the civilisational benefits of universalism, rationalism, and self-criticism really so difficult to discern?

It would be nice if beneath all this contempt there lay some sort of coherent moral argument. Alas, all I can find is the perverse vanity of radical self-disgust. For if the pitiless Deobandi fanatics of the TTP wish to subjugate Pakistan's Swat valley, or if the demonic Takfiri lunatics of the Islamic State wish to enslave Yazidis, crucify Christians, and massacre Kurds, then what right have we to object, still less assist those resisting such violence, when we are burdened with the legacy of Robespierre, Danton, and Saint-Just?

As Christopher Hitchens remarked when he found himself confronted by an argument of comparable masochism at the 2007 Freedom from Religion Foundation:
Well, there you have it ladies and gentlemen. You see how far the termites have spread and how long and well they have dined. When someone can get up and say that in a meeting of unbelievers - that the problem is Western civilisation not the Islamic threat to it - that's how far the termites have got.
This is the first part of what was originally a three-part essay. Part two can be read here, and the concluding part can be read here.


  1. Brilliant article. I would just like to add the name of Zineb el Rhazoui to the names mentioned. She is still working at Charlie Hebdo and was the co author with Charb of one of the Charlie special editions "La Vie de Mahomet". A brave woman who invites the condemnation of apostate as well as blasphemer and who has written a convincing refutation to the ideas of the likes of Ramdani who constantly attemts to conflate blasphemy with racism.

  2. The Guardian has lost the plot. Following the Charlie Hebdo outrage it hurried out umpteen articles with titles such as:

    "After the Charlie Hebdo attack, we must resist the clash-of-civilisations narrative"
    "The Paris attackers hijacked Islam but there is no war between Islam and the west".

    The readers' comments and votes on the comments on the articles were overwhelmingly critical. (At least 80%)

    One reader summed it up as follows: "I don't think I have ever seen as many Guardian readers so diametrically opposed to the paper's editorial policy, and I have to say that I'm not surprised, because if you genuinely believe that Islam is the victim in all of this then you're hopelessly out of touch not only with the prevailing public mood, but also with the very values the Guardian is supposed to promote.

    The UK's leading liberal voice, bending over backwards to accommodate the sensitivities of a religion .... which hates gays, hates Jews, subjugates women and places arbitrary limits on free expression - I never thought I'd see the day."

    You can see the top rated comments on these articles here:

    1. Oh my god, I had not read that Chris Elliott apology.

      "I am aware that many Muslims, some of them friends and colleagues, will have been offended by the Guardian’s use of that image, and I am sorry for that. "

  3. And this is always worth an airing...

    "There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2=4. These are things you don't think about. The students' backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged—a combination of disbelief and indignation: "Are you an absolutist?," the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as "Are you a monarchist?" or "Do you really believe in witches?" This latter leads into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a witchhunter or a Salem judge. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to open
    ness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness— and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings —is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all. The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, "If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?," they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. It is not that they know very much about other nations, or about their own. The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue—openness."

  4. "Alan Rusbridger is not frightened. His reasoning doesn't put him in a position where he needs to be, which is probably why he wasted not one syllable on considerations of security or safety."
    I'm not so sure about this; not that I take any stand on his degree of physical courage, but I think that if he were to shift the Guardian's editorial line to within a locus which corresponded with the opinions of his readership and common human decency, he would have to abandon a lifetime's faith in inexhaustible tolerance and self-negating relativism. That he finds it necessary to employ the talents of the likes of Will Self Jessica Valenti, Seamus Milne, Freedland, Mehdi Hasan and Laurie Penny to maintain the barricades against the great unwashed xenophobic hordes should tell him all he needs to know.
    I think he's afraid to come out and say that maybe he had it wrong all along but by doing so he'd be pissing all over everything he and his organ allegedly stand for. I stopped reading the Guardian long ago...other than the Sport-which has its merits-and the crossword online-still the best. Back when I took an interest I'd say 55% of comments were 'hostile'; these days, as you say, it's more like 80%. I'm not really sure what this all means for the future of the Graun; unless it keeps going as a self-parody relying on clicks from the "fascists who just love to show up for their daily two minute hate" a 'loyalist' recently put in an especially worthy and self-righteous post. I really don't understand it. Is this a viable business model?
    As I say, I've rarely looked at it in the last few years until the last few weeks and my personal favourite is "the Guardian view..." which seems written from the premise that there exists a tribe of people who need to know what the Guardian position is on a particular issue presumably so that they can adopt it in the safe knowledge that they'll be on safe progressive ground. The thing is, I left London 20 years ago for Teesside, and literally never come across anybody who fits this bill. Neither have I met a soul up here who assesses things in terms of 'privilege', 'structural oppression', 'patriarchy' or 'systemic racism' despite the fact that the area tops virtually any leagues of social deprivation. Perhaps only the middle-class, liberal, Oxbridge herd have the required discrimination and sensitivity to detect these oppressions. Are there people who wait for the Guardian to speak out before 'making their minds up'?

    1. Someone has just posted Part 1 of this article on my own site's comments -

      At times like this I like to quote the following condemnation of the moral equivalence of so many of the Guardian's posters:

      "Ask yourself this. When a suicide bomber walks into a bar and triggers the explosive that slaughters a score of relaxing drinkers is he any different from the American soldier who kills a household with a wayward mortar? If you can look beyond the outrageous complacency of the question, I think you will say he is different - culpably, objectively and, needless to say, morally."

  5. Sorry...seems my paragraphs have fucked off into the ether

  6. Great stuff: logical, coherent and brave - which is why the SWP/Guardianista liberal-"left" will ignore it and mutter in private that you're an "islamophobe".

  7. How things change - Here's Rusbridger in November 2011:

    "It's one of the reasons we need the fourth estate. To defend our Moscow correspondent when he's threatened by the Russian state. To get Ghaith Abdul Ahad out of jail when the Libyan government arrests him. To resist the police threats to prosecute Amelia Hill under the Official Secrets Act. To pay the £100k legal and accountancy bills to publish a 10-day series on tax avoidance. To allow Ian Cobain the time and resources to uncover, inch by inch, the story of Britain's apparent complicity in rendition and torture. To support Paul Lewis in his quest to get at the truth of the death of Ian Tomlinson and Jimmy Mubenga; or undercover policing; or the English riots. To give David Leigh the freedom and backing to investigate the illegal bribes paid by BAE or the toxic dumping tricks of Trafigura. To back David Conn as he remorselessly peels back the intersections where big money meets sport. To assemble the team that can make sense of the biggest trove of government, diplomatic and military secrets the world has ever seen – and to publish them comprehensibly and safely.

    "Brilliant reporters, with the backing of a solid, independent institution behind them."

    From: Hacking away at the truth: Alan Rusbridger's Orwell lecture

  8. An excellent, comprehensive and valuable account of the craven insanity that has followed on from the tragic events of 7th - 9th January. Well done.

  9. A well written and comprehensive piece. Excellent work. A valuable springboard to gain other sources of knowledge. Many thanks


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