There are very few media outlets in the United States comparable to Charlie Hebdo. In the magazine category, only The Onion and Cracked come remotely close. There's much more "satire" to be found on TV -- and I don't mean bland examples like Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live. What's closest in mean-spirited spirit to Charlie is probably South Park, because it, too, was an equal opportunity offender, skewering religion, politics and popular culture, all with gleeful, provocative and tasteless abandon. Its creators, too, were targets of threats from fundamentalists of all stripes. The American response was to censor the lowbrow offensiveness.
We don't really "do" satire in this country. Nous ne sommes pas Charlie Hebdo (we are not Charlie Hebdo.) Political cartoonists are a dying breed. As cartoonist/author Ted Rall noted in the L.A. Times, "more full-time staff political cartoonists were killed in Paris on Wednesday than may be employed at newspapers in the states of California, Texas and New York combined. More full-time staff cartoonists were killed in Paris on Wednesday than work at all American magazines and websites combined. (There’s only one full-time staff political cartoonist at a website: Matt Bors. None at a magazine.)"
As a group, American publications have been particularly wary of publishing satirical cartoons of President Obama, lest they be accused of racism. The New Yorker came under such criticism during his first campaign in 2008, when its cover illustration simply skewered racial stereotypes of the Obamas as Kenyan Muslim Black Panther terrorist radicals. The offended audience missed the entire point.
Granted, most right-wing artistic portrayals of the president have been racist, but Ted Rall -- who writes from the pretty far left -- suddenly had his own work rejected by many corporate newspaper pages and websites with the election of the first black president. He was most recently banned from Daily Kos because of what was construed to be an "ape-like" interpretation of Obama.
No, we don't do satire here. We are too easily offended. We're too busy manufacturing outrage and identifying with one side or the other of an oligarchic duopoly who'd just as soon kill us as look at us.
It's actually pretty hilarious that our repressive politicians and their staid propagandists of the corporate press are condemning the killing of French cartoonists as an assault on "freedom of the press." As I wrote about just the other day, the United States itself is abysmally low on the press freedom totem poll -- not because of "Islamic terrorism," but because of the terrorism of the hyper-capitalist police and surveillance state.
And despite all their pro-liberty editorializing, most major media outlets are refusing to publish the "blasphemous" cartoons that sparked Wednesday's massacre. They will give lip service to the right to be provocative, but heaven forfend that they be provocative themselves (unless, of course, it's propaganda provoking whatever negative sentiment the government wants them to project, as in recent anti-North Korean and anti-Putin sentiment, and obligingly characterizing all Muslim victims of American drone strikes as "militants.")
American writers, unlike the French cartoonists, are for the most part not willing to risk their lives and livelihoods for their beliefs and freedom of thought and expression. They're self-censoring, and their fear is spreading to the rest of the world.
The proud French tradition of afflicting the comfortable extends back to Rabelais, Moliere, Voltaire, those heady pre-Revolutionary days when street pamphleteers freely distributed insulting tracts and cartoons depicting the clergy and the Bourbons in most unflattering (and often scatological) lights. Francophile Andrew Hussey has an excellent piece today in the Times on the history of Parisian wit and also offers a rare nuanced look at the current strife between the French and Arab immigrants, who are confined to de facto ghettoes (banlieues) in the suburbs of the City of Light:
What is seen in the center of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society.
What was gunned down on Wednesday in Paris was a generation that believed foremost in the freedom to say what you like to whomever you like. Parisians pride themselves on what they call “gouaille,” a kind of cheeky wit, based on free thinking and a love of provocation, that always stands in opposition to authority.
|(Gustave Dore, illustration from Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel)|
Non, nous ne sommes pas Charlie Hebdo. When the PEN American Center for human rights and literary expression put out its 2013 report on self-censorship and the war on freedom of the press, Lewis Lapham of Lapham's Quarterly wrote that the coexistence of our Second Gilded Age and the rise of the police state is no coincidence. Rising income inequality and the class war have put a huge damper on satire. Where, he asked, are the Mark Twains of the 21st Century when the times are so ripe for a resurgence?
“There are,” said Twain, “certain sweet-smelling, sugarcoated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate… We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express, and another one -- the one we use -- which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy.
”It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation’s advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to reawaken the American spirit and redecorate the front parlor of the American soul.
The exchanges of platitude at the higher altitudes of moral and social pretension Twain celebrated as festive occasions on which “taffy is being pulled.” Some of the best of it gets pulled at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York when it is being explained to a quorum of the monied elite (contented bankers, corporate lawyers, arms manufacturers) that American foreign policy, rightly understood, is a work of Christian charity and an expression of man’s goodwill to man.Contemporary American humor, writes Lapham, serves the purpose of amusing the sheep rather than shooting the elephants in the room.
The grotesque American response to the murders of a dozen French satirists has been to gin up the xenophobia, ramp up the terrorist fear, to pit Fox News against MSNBC, and for all manner of religious fundamentalists and atheist ideologues to come out of their unhumorous cubicles to fan the distinctly unnuanced flames. The mass murder of a dozen people will, unfortunately, present the perfect justification for the neo-cons to continue waging their own war of terror. Ask yourself what came first: Islamic extremism, or American provocation of it?
No, we Homelandians are definitely not Mark Twain or Rabelais or Voltaire or even Charlie Hedbo. And more's the pity.
The French managed to eventually escape their own post-Revolutionary Reign of Terror. Will we?
|"Love Is Stronger Than Hate"|
* Update, 1/9: David North of the World Socialist Website has written an important piece that not only knocks down the hypocrisy of the West's reaction to the Parisian massacres, but criticizes the conventional wisdom that Charlie Hebdo is even part of the grand tradition of the European Enlightenment, when the satirists and cartoonists directed their scorn at the rich and powerful.
In its relentlessly degrading portrayals of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo has mocked the poor and the powerless.
To speak bluntly and honestly about the sordid, cynical and degraded character of Charlie Hebdo is not to condone the killing of its personnel. But when the slogan “I am Charlie” is adopted and heavily promoted by the media as the slogan of protest demonstrations, those who have not been overwhelmed by state and media propaganda are obligated to reply: “We oppose the violent assault on the magazine, but we are not—and have nothing in common with—‘Charlie.’”
The cynically provocative anti-Muslim caricatures that have appeared on so many covers of Charlie Hebdo have pandered to and facilitated the growth of right-wing chauvinist movements in France. It is absurd to claim, by way of defense of Charlie Hebdo, that its cartoons are all “in good fun” and have no political consequences. Aside from the fact that the French government is desperate to rally support for its growing military agenda in Africa and the Middle East, France is a country where the influence of the neo-fascist National Front is growing rapidly. In this political context, Charlie Hebdo has facilitated the growth of a form of politicized anti-Muslim sentiment that bears a disturbing resemblance to the politicized anti-Semitism that emerged as a mass movement in France in the 1890s.
In its use of crude and vulgar caricatures that purvey a sinister and stereotyped image of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo recalls the cheap racist publications that played a significant role in fostering the anti-Semitic agitation that swept France during the famous Dreyfus Affair, which erupted in 1894 after a Jewish officer was accused and falsely convicted of espionage on behalf of Germany. In whipping up popular hatred of Jews, La Libre Parole [“Free Speech”], published by the infamous Edoard Adolfe Drumont, made highly effective use of cartoons that employed the familiar anti-Semitic devices. The caricatures served to inflame public opinion, inciting mobs against Dreyfus and his defenders, such as Emile Zola, the great novelist and author of J’Accuse.North is right. Look at the cartoon posted above. The generic Arab man has the stereotypical hooked nose, while the journalist he's French-kissing (a slur against alleged Muslim homophobia) is rendered as a relative milquetoast, pencil behind the ear and all. I haven't looked at past issues of the magazine, but I should. It's now guaranteed to increase its circulation to numbers unimaginable only a couple of days ago. I think we're in for a huge surge of fascism, a new Reign of Terror in France and beyond, and I think it's going to get mighty ugly, mighty fast.
Let's hope that NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio stands his ground and doesn't restore the Bloomberg-era police profiling of Muslims, a practice that he abolished soon after taking office.
As religion scholar Karen Armstrong writes in her excellent book, Fields of Blood, "every one of the (extreme fundamentalist) movements I have studied has been rooted in fear – in the conviction that modern society is out to destroy not only their faith but also themselves and their entire way of life," adding that "whenever a fundamentalist movement is attacked, either with violence or in a media campaign, it almost invariably becomes more extreme."
She compares fundamentalist Islam with fundamentalist American-style right-wing Christianity, both of which actually thrive whenever they're attacked. Such attacks prove to them that their fears are well-grounded, that the elite secular forces really are out to get them.
And meanwhile, militant atheist Bill Maher, that witty epitome of a creepy new breed of intolerant liberalism, is already back on his soapbox to accuse "hundreds of millions of Muslims" of tacitly approving the murders in France. He's a one-man flame-throwing media army unto himself. What constitutes the American liberal class doesn't dare criticize his so-cool and enlightened vitriol lest they give ammunition to his sometime-paramour and co-bigot Ann Coulter.
That's how simplistic our Homelandian group-think has become. Pick your side, and then don't ever think outside their pre-approved corporate lockbox.