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Defending against the #JeSuisCharlie Backlash (and Zaid Hassan Calls Me a Jihadist and a Cracker)

As with all things, the Internet has turned against what was ostensibly something good and nice and turned it into a steaming pile of trolling horse shit.  After political cartoonists from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were gunned down while doing their work by insane individuals claiming to have avenged their god, a movement began to show solidarity for the victims: #JeSuisCharlie

What a nice thing to do for the survivors and the families of the victims, for their comrades elsewhere who face the same threats for their expression.  But of course, it’s the Internet, so there has to be a backlash.  Usually, I’m the first in line with some cynicism and snark to take the righteous down a peg, but this is different.  The following was compiled after some discussions on Facebook and I hope it illuminates exactly what is at stake here, not just with the tragedies that occurred in Paris, but with the #JeSuisCharlie movement.

Argument 1: #JeSuisCharlie is just ineffectual hashtag activism.

“If we really were Charlie then we'd be posting offensive images of the prophet in protest. But we aren't. Because we're scared of getting killed for posting an image...So we really aren't Charlie at all.”

It is fundamentally different for satirists to publish images that are offensive as part of a larger political function than for me to do it so I can feel better about a tragedy. I'll leave that kind of posting to the professionals unless I see an image I really connect to that I think my friends ought to see. Showing solidarity is different than slacktivism. No one is saying that they are political satirists upending the religious political structures between East and West. I show solidarity by attending protests, by writing letters to elected officials, and by what I post online. I don't negotiate labor contracts and I don't physically fight back against unchecked police violence. I do, however, do everything I can to communicate my solidarity and support to those who do those things and to their potential enemies.

We should fight slacktivism when people post their annual weird sexually ambiguous and provocative “breast cancer awareness" posts later this year. For now, be glad the families of the victims see "je suis Charlie" everywhere they look. Be glad the woman or man sitting at her or his desk wondering if pressing send on a creative work they believe in will mean putting their life in jeopardy might see that message and find the strength to follow through. My guess is you are Charlie and you support the cause. Don't conflate what's happening here with other causes co-opted and negated by hashtag activism. What is happening is a marvelous phenomenon of the Internet age. Rejoice.

Posting Je Suis Charlie doesn't mean we pwnd terrorism. You can still be sad and pissed about that. Please be pissed about that. Charlie Hebdo was pissed about that. That's the point. The surviving staff went to work this morning. They are putting out an issue next Wednesday for christ's sake. I hope they find a little solace in Je Suis Charlie when they turn away from the screen for a moment of grief today. I hope an image of the thousands of people holding Je Suis Charlie signs or FB pix replaces just one frame of the horror show in their head. This is not some abstract concept, it's solidarity with real people.

Moreover, the reaction from extremists is also real. There's a huge anti-Muslim movement starting in Germany right now. I just saw a message from a friend mentioning how much right-wing Pegida (as they are called) stuff started flooding his news feed after the attack. Je Suis Charlie also broadcasts to those people that their response is not okay and that their views are the minority. Where they had 18k people demonstrate last week in Dresden, only 300 showed up in Berlin along with 5k counter demonstrators. I'll be there next week. I'll be here all week communicating the same message: hate is neither mainstream nor will it become legitimized.

I have family in France who are considerably more open to the ideas of the far-right Front National party. I'm sure we'd get in heated debate about my vote for real Communist president Hollande. But they stand by the #JeSuisCharlie movement. For people of opposing viewpoints, it's an important piece of common ground. Common ground is where dialog starts. It's important to start talking about the danger of knee-jerk reactions and showing solidarity with moderates is essential in times of crisis--when emotions are high and when viewpoints can change.

It's not empty posturing just because we haven't beat terrorism or right-wing extremism. Yet.

Argument 2: Victim Blaming. 

See: Bruce Crumley’s racist Time Article

“In a free liberal society newspapers always like to taunt crazy people with guns and bombs. If you were a free liberal dude, you would find yourself the nearest Latin King you can and give him the double flip.”

First of all, Crumley was, and is, an asshat of royal proportions and Time not much better than the Weekly Reader to anyone whose bothered to pick it up in the last two decades. 

The people at Charlie Hebdo aren't just random people hurling insults--they are satirists whose job is poking fun at people and institutions of power. They do so not as personal insult, but as a function of free expression and political resistance. They do so patently, with the clear intention of using comedy as a tool to level power structures. Crumley is an asshat because he consistently makes reductionist arguments that level the field between, in this case, professionals doing their jobs, and random trolls provoking someone on the street. He also does it with wars, cultures, and everything else he doesn't understand. It sells magazines, but doesn't lead to any better insight on the topic. We ascribe different meaning to the work of professionals because their identity gives context to their message. We, being society, not Time Magazine and not extremists of any ilk.

Quite simply, this is called false equivalence. Covering the news accurately and fully showing the images which have resulted in a massacre, police execution, and multiple hostage situations is not taunting. They are not private citizens making personal attacks on other private citizens. They have a function within society to show images which, though sometimes unpleasant, serve the common good by being publicized (see also; Vietnam War, Abu Ghraib, ISIS executions). US news agencies, like Charlie Hebdo, fulfill a role whereby they are given a different context than private citizens. In the United States, it's called the 4th Estate and viewed by many, including me, to be of equal importance to established entities of power within our social structure. Equating their work with an individual on the street is both reductionist and just fucking dumb.

Also, see Arthur Chu's recent victim blaming at the Daily Beast

Chu has clearly never read an entire edition of Charlie Hebdo and most likely never even flipped through one. Is the New Yorker to be judged just by it's cartoons? How about Mad Magazine? That's a satirical magazine made of mostly offensive cartoons, but it's an important cultural touchstone for comedians, counterculturalists, and a whole lot of pre-pubescent boys. Offensive comics have a long tradition in subversive politics and were especially powerful during the 1960s (see R. Crumb). One of the most potent symbols of the Occupy movement is the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta--a comic book--where the protagonist overthrows the government. All of these things are offensive to the establishment. That's the point.

(R. Crumb "The Book of Genesis Illustrated")

Chu is both tone-deaf and amnesic when it comes to understanding the significance and cultural legacy of offensive comics and subversive satire. Subverting power structures is not trolling. It's an essential function of the fourth estate. The false equivalency of comparing professionals whose job it is to provoke institutions and people in power with the explicit purpose of leveling power structures to 4chan users trolling for the lulz is naive at best. Really, it's irresponsible journalism, published not for its insight, but its ability to incite (clicks mostly). It's a marvel that anyone gives credence to such an ignorant argument given the social context and historical precedent of the work done by Charlie Hebdo.

People went to jail for selling Crumb comics. It was deemed obscene in a court of law. The publisher of Mad was investigated by the Senate for contributing to juvenile delinquency. I should hope that just because one doesn’t like Charlie Hebdo and one finds it offensive, that one isn’t unable to see the value of not just the right of free speech but the exercise of that right. If 99.999% of what they said was pointless and offensive, I would still be as adamant as I am with the assumption that 100% was pointless and irrelevant. It doesn't matter how I feel about it being insightful or relevant. It's for them to say and them to have the right to decide. That's what freedom is. I adamantly don't distinguish between dissidence I approve of and don't. Dissidence is vital to democracy. So is my right to approve and disapprove. You can call their work shit, but don't go victim-blaming because you don't share their taste for democracy.

Argument 3: Censorship redux: the images are not important as long as we know the story.

“Why do you need to see them? The images themselves are irrelevant to the discussion.”

Short answer: because we don't know until we see the images. That's why.

The public's right to know is part of the foundation of democracy. This argument sounds like it comes from the censor's playbook. Every tyrant, every oppressor, makes themselves the arbiters of what images and information the public has a right to see. Neither media editors, publishers, nor public officials can be trusted to act in the public's best interest--a fact born out across the globe by numerous dictators and oppressive regimes everywhere.  Censorship is the sin qua non of oppression.

I may not need to see the bloody images on the news every time. I personally don't enjoy the snuff films and violence that masquerade as news each night. But I do need the right to know, the opportunity to view. I have no problem changing the channel or closing my eyes when I don't want to see, but a blurred image takes away my rights as a citizen.

I live in Germany, in Berlin. A repressive regime did its best to control the populace by limiting information and through pervasive surveillance. Germany now faces a significant anti-Muslim movement and the tolerant and moderate majority is working hard to fight extremism. But the images are shown here. They are shown alongside other Charlie Hebdo images of Catholic cardinals butt-fucking each other--all on the evening news. Because it gives context and meaning to the story and a society of informed adults should be able to handle that shit. Moreover, the last thing a news editor should have to think about is whether or not they can show a cartoon.

As a French citizen, I'm going to say that what's best for me, when I go to vote, is to know that the principals of democracy are being upheld. That no one, whether elected, appointed, or just hired that day, is deciding what I can and can't see. Censorship has no place in a democracy and it's the duty of a free press to make sure of that.


Charlie Hebdo Cover

On a personal note, I love Charlie Hebdo. That is, I love what they do, not necessarily that I always agree with the content of their magazine. I could give a flying fuck about anyone's supposedly sacred religion. These symbols are used to oppress and control. If some dude that maybe lived in the desert a few thousand years ago is treated like more than a man, a god, then maybe people need to be reminded he had some balls--that may or may not have been in the air at some point. These symbols are dangerous and the righteousness they inspire is a threat to free thought. These symbols are the enemies of science, of women, of ethnic minorities, and of the poor. Their purpose is to perpetuate oppressive patriarchal power structures. So fuck the symbols. They should be desecrated along with the hegemonic ideas that underpin their power. I'm not sure why anyone thinks Charlie Hebdo was anything but an equal-opportunity provocateur. They mocked Christians, Jews, politicians, and anyone else who started to feel a little more important than their fellow man. Nothing is sacred because nothing that is sacred to you is sacred to me, or is sacred to our neighbors. That's what I think. I think when the playing field is truly level, the voices of tolerance and acceptance prevail. But we can't level the field unless each of us has the balls of our most sacred ideas thrust into the air.

Also, Zaid Hassan, Oxford scholar and "facilitator and writer who is passionate about bridging divides," called me a cracker and a jihadist.  Because according to his website, he brings together "business, civil society, government and communities to innovate within complex and difficult social situations."

Zaid Hassan calls me a jihadist and a cracker

Knowing that this man runs a consulting company tasked by the Establishment with solving complex problems like the ones that lead to the violence of this past week should drive home the imperative to fight for tolerance and free thought.

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