Before 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