hebdoJan16Before last Wednesday, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo, the left-wing French satirical publication. By the end of the day, multiple TV and radio outlets had contacted me for comment on the massacre of 12 people at the magazine’s Paris office.

I turned down the media requests.  As I told one persistent producer, what could I usefully say on the air as an editorial cartoonist beyond condemning the killing of colleagues? Newsprint was a better vehicle for sharing my thoughts publicly, I figured.

We may not be talking about a teachable moment. I can’t see the Paris massacre and its aftermath as anything but a no-win situation for all but a few. I’ll get to them in a moment.

This is a no-win for Muslim immigrants in France and beyond, who will likely experience greater fear and loathing from others, with finer distinctions between moderates and extremists left to academics and clerics.

There is about as much difference between Whahhabism and Sufism as there is between the Westboro Baptist Church and Unitarianism. Yet most political figures and news consumers don’t even know the difference between Sunni and Shiite.

So it’s also a no-win for all non-Muslims in Europe and beyond, who are now even less likely to interact with people a lot more scared than they are. A Gallic version of The Patriot Act – the idea has already been floated – would be a negative investment for all French citizens, regardless of ethnicity.

This is a no-win for editorial cartoonists across the world, even with the recent bump in professional visibility from the attacks. Publications and artists that release satirical depictions of Muhammed in the wake of the attacks will be celebrated for bravery even while arguably contributing to the public’s reflexive rejection of all things Islamic.

Conversely, media outlets that refuse to reproduce satirical work offensive to Muslims will be condemned for tacitly handing the terrorists a press gag. In a video essay, CBC correspondent Neil MacDonald said his employer and other news organizations should have responded with a mass reprint of the original Charlie Hebdo cartoons that offended the assassins.“We may indeed wish we could all be Charlie; I wish thugs and bullies couldn’t bully my profession, but I know better,” he observed.

Yet here is no shortage of editorial cartoons from south of the border that savage Islam in general, and Muslims in particular, in a manner that isn’t extended to any other religion or people. I don’t think MacDonald is being disingenuous, but he undoubtably knows that in the North American press there is one faith in particular, and one nation, that are off limits for all but the gentlest political satire (I’ll give you a hint: the religion isn’t Bahá’í and the nation isn’t Liechtenstein).

Satire can be a very sharp tool, used as either a scalpel or a dagger. It can also be a blunt force object best left in a corner. Shortly before his death in the Paris massacre, CH editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as Charb) published a cartoon with the heading, “Still no attacks in France,” with a caricature of a Kalashnikov-packing terrorist saying, “Just wait, we have until the end of January to send you our best wishes.”

I believe in free speech. I also believe mock solicitations of violence aren’t worth committing to print.

“By this time, the symbiosis between the West’s military-industrial-security complex and the extremists it purports to fight is virtually complete,” observes journalist Chris Floyd. “The MISC holds the commanding heights of society now, and it is utterly dependent on a steady supply of terrorist attacks (and the constant production of new terrorist entities to fight) in order to keep its power, privileges – and profits – going strong.”

So these are the likely winners in this monstrous state of affairs: the perpetrators of religious violence and the perpetrators of state violence – along with right-wing politicians and their media echo chamber. They too will lose in the long run if the world’s nuclear-armed states and disenfranchised peoples slide into deeper dysfunctionality.

In 1949, Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth – rocks!

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 16


SPIDER sense tingles with peek into cosmos

Last week a group of scientists from universities across the world, including UBC, launched a telescope designed to peer back to the beginnings of space and time.

The team transported the Hummer-sized SPIDER to Antarctica, where it was hoisted 36 kilometres above the earths surface by a helium balloon bigger than a soccer stadium. According to an article in Scientific American, the name derives its insect-like appearance when all six of SPIDER’s cameras are extended. (you may object that insects have six legs and arachnids have eight, but we’re talking about experts in astronomy, not entomology.)

A bit of background here – the cosmic microwave background, to be precise. Back in 1964, two engineers at Bell Labs couldn’t identify the source of background noise in their receiving equipment, which was originally built to detect radio waves bounced off satellites. After ruling out any of the possible suspects – including pigeons nesting in the antennae – they determined the buzz was evenly spread across the sky.

Astronomers believe the engineers found the residual radiation from the Big Bang, cooled after 13 billion years to 3 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. In other words,  the glow from the fires of creation.

The SPIDER’s six cameras are poised to look back to the first half-million years of the universe, the ‘era of light’ when radiation was freed from the hot soup of matter-energy. The researches are looking for polarized light in the cosmic microwave background, a theorized signature of gravitational waves. A positive finding will give greater credence to the theory of cosmic inflation, the linchpin of Big Bang theory. (Cosmic inflation supposedly took the universe from smaller than a grain of sand to a macroscopic scale faster than the speed of light.)

Actually, if we’re to get technical, there wasn’t anything for the inflating cosmos to expand into in the typical sense, because space and time came bundled with the matter-energy from the Big Bang. Wrap your head around that one.

The only thing hotter than the moment of creation are the exchanges online between deists, atheists, and armchair cosmologists on what accounted for the so-called ‘singularity’ that birthed the universe. As author Terrance Mkckenna observed back in the nineties, “What orthodoxy teaches us about time is that the universe sprang from utter nothingness in a single moment… It’s almost as if science said, ‘give me one free miracle, and from there the entire thing will proceed with a seamless, causal explanation.’”

The one free miracle McKenna refers to is the instantaneous appearance of all the mass-energy of the universe (hardware) and the laws (software) to go with it.

No wonder Pope Pius XII welcomed the Big Bang theory in 1951 during an address to the Pontifical Academy of Science.  For the pontiff, the newly minted hypothesis seemed to allow for a narrow but manageable aperture for God’s hand. (The scientific community’s response to this theological endorsement was muted.)

However, “nothing” turns out to be a problematic concept in physics. Every second inside your body and all around you, “virtual particles’’ are popping in and out of existence.  They emerge from the so-called “zero-point field” and disappear back into it in extremely small amounts of time.

These subatomic whill-o-the-whisps have actually been detected in the lab. As long as they dematerialize quickly enough(according to a time-energy variant of the Uncertainty Principle), they don’t violate the conservation of energy or any other physical law.

Similarly, many cosmologists argue a quantum fluctuation in a primeval field scaled up into the ultimate free lunch: the cosmos itself. According to this line of thinking, if you add all the original matter and antimatter together, along with all the mysterious “dark energy” and “dark matter”, the net amount should equal zero.

This sounds like the ultimate accounting trick, sort of like how money is created out of nothing as loans by commercial lenders. Maybe we should call it ‘the Big Bank theory.’

Here’s hoping SPIDER gives us a peek into the vault.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 9