I woke up on Thursday morning, January 8, to learn of the massacre of twelve French individuals at the headquarters of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, by two other French nationals, Muslims who claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This Al Qaeda affiliate which operates primarily in Yemen acknowledged that it had directed the Paris attack “as revenge for the honor” of the long-dead Prophet Muhammad, who had supposedly been blasphemed by the bandes dessinées of Charlie’s four famous cartoonists. Right away, I noticed that virtually all of the online stories and posts covering the bloody assault from major media outlets featured a video of the two masked gunmen fleeing their strike that looked severely edited. When I tracked down the original, full version of that video, it showed what was missing: the escaping gunmen wounding an unarmed policeman on the sidewalk outside Charlie Hebdo, then circling back to dispatch the policeman with a shot to the head as he lie begging for mercy.
This was just the most obvious example of media self-censorship in this incident, an act of squeamishness made more ironic by being contrasted in my mind to the regular cop-heavy American TV fare with its colossal—if fictitious—graphic body counts. Add to this the media outcry over the attack on “freedom of expression” that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is assumed to represent and the irony is complete.
Emily Greenhouse commented in Bloomberg (“What’s at stake in Europe’s response to Charlie Hebdo,” 1/8/15) on the “complicated cultural realities” across the continent as illustrated by France. Home to the largest Jewish minority in Europe, France also has the largest Muslim population in Europe. So, while French president Hollande proclaimed a nationwide battle against racism and anti-semitism in 2015, “[f]or all of France’s fine political abstractions, ethnic identity is inescapable. Everyone is obsessed with where everyone else comes from. The French government tells itself that it doesn’t ‘see’ or recognize race, so racism is impossible—but those are just words.” Holocaust denial, as well as overt anti-semitic hate speech, is illegal in France as well as the rest of western Europe, but this is not the case with anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hate speech. Using the case of the French government’s political harassment of comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala to illustrate the larger issue, Greenhouse writes: “It might upset some people that Dieudonné’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Jews—is illegal, while Charlie Hebdo’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Muslims—is not.”
Charlie Hebdo itself exemplified this contradiction by, on the one hand, firing a cartoonist in 2008 for making illegal anti-semitic comments while, on the other hand, regularly printing perfectly legal, nasty anti-Muslim cartoons. Jordan Weissman argued in Slate: “So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. […] We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it.” Free speech absolutist Glenn Greenwald goes the step further in his column “In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons” on The Intercept website (1/9/15). “One defends the right to express repellent ideas while being able to condemn the idea itself.” Greenwald lays out this principle, which he heartily supports, while taking things to an extreme, which is his wont:
But this week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show ‘solidarity’ with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. ‘The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,’ announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”
Greenwald then proceeds to reprint some vile Nazi/white supremacist anti-semitic cartoons, as well as some of Carlos Latuff’s more thoughtful, virulent anti-Zionist cartoons, in a tongue-in-cheek “solidarity.” This is plainly a case of “what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” to use an old cliché. Greenwald proceeds to lambast the suppression of ideas and the media’s self-censorship “out of fear (rather than a desire to avoid publishing gratuitously offensive material)” and argues that “there are all kinds of pernicious taboos in the west that result in self-censorship or compelled suppression of political ideas, from prosecution and imprisonment to career destruction: why is violence by Muslims the most menacing one?”
Glenn Greenwald excoriates unreflective calls for solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in order to bolster his defense of the right to express repellent ideas while condemning those ideas themselves. I do admire free speech absolutists like Greenwald, while not being one myself. One reason I am not is based on “fine political abstractions” like not believing in the concept of “rights.” Our “rights” cannot be guaranteed by some spook in the sky (God) or some piece of parchment (the Constitution’s Bill of Rights) or some fanciful state of nature (which seems in conflict with concurrent notions of “the survival of the fittest”). If we depend on the government to defend our “rights,” then what the government gives the government can certainly take away. And if we depend on ourselves, individually and collectively, to defend our “rights” through organization and action to advance our power, we come awfully close to declaring that “might is right.” The idea of “rights” then is sorely lacking in any intelligent foundation.
My main reason, however, is practical. If I belonged to a minority group, and some other group of people were organizing to massacre me and other members of my minority, I would do everything in my power to defend myself and my group to prevent being killed, including denying my attackers their free speech as a tool for organizing their attempt at genocide. In a previous column, I defended Vidal Sassoon’s history in joining the British 43 Group of Jewish war veterans in 1947 to streetfight against Oswald Mosley’s resurgent fascist Union Movement, with the 43 Group’s intent to bloody the Union Movement’s members, shatter its organization, and crush its social movement. Individual freedoms can never be absolute as they are invariably in conflict, with my freedom to stay alive in conflict with some fascist’s freedom to liquidate my commie pinko ass, for instance. If some Nazi scum were talking smack in preparation of wiping out me and my fellow Reds, I would not hesitate to shut them up to keep them from organizing and carrying through with their plans.
All of this is crucially important, what with the violence at Charlie Hebdo threatening to “fuel support for the far-right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic politics throughout Europe” and here in the United States, again according to Emily Greenhouse. James Neuger details many of the particulars of this supposed turn to the right in Europe, from the National Front in France to Germany’s Pegida, in his article “Europe’s Islam Debate Erupts as Paris Killers at Large” (Bloomberg News, 1-8-15). It is far too simplistic however to argue that Islamic terrorism feeds rightwing reaction, squeezing out “freedom of expression” in the middle. This is actually part of a broader polarization of European politics which sees the rise of more extreme politics on both Left and Right due to a number of factors, as correspondents from The Guardian/Observer sketched in “Across Europe disillusioned voters turn to outsiders for solutions” in November of last year. Listed are not just the National Front but also the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire in France, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy, the ultra-left Syriza and ultra-right Golden Dawn in Greece, leftist German Die Linke as well as rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the rightwing Sweden Democrats and Norway’s Progress Party as well as the leftwing Feminist Initiative in Sweden and Danish Red-Green Alliance. Also discussed are Britain’s UKIP and BNP on the right and the pro-secessionist Scottish National Party, the rise of the Socialists and People Before Profit in Ireland alongside massive popular tax rebellions, and the left leaning Podemas Party that grew out of the indignados protests in Spain in 2011-12 in addition to regional secessionist movements such as the Republican Left of Catalonia. The Left’s anti-austerity and anti-globalization concerns are counterpointed by the Right’s anti-immigrant nationalism, with issues like anti-corruption and secession ranging across the typical Left/Right spectrum. But whether Left or Right, there are aspects to this “rise of insurgent parties across the continent,” to this anti-establishment, anti-EU upsurge, that mark a pause—if not a retreat—from the project of European integration.
How “freedom of expression” will fair through all of this is anyone’s guess.
BAY AREA CONFIDENTIAL…
When Tim Yo started me out with my own column, I was one of the original MRR news columnists. He wanted my column to be a study in three dot journalism a la Herb Caen, replete with snarky news items and snide bits of gossip. I took to the format like a fish to water, and ever since I’ve been a purveyor of snark and snide, news and gossip. Longtime readers remember I covered the incident when the East Bay BASTARD conference took umbrage with the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair for expanding to two days and overlapping one of their conference days. This caused a minor split in the local anarcho scene which produced, among other things, a second annual Anarchist Bookfair. So now there’s an overall Bay Area bookfair and an East Bay bookfair every year because, you know, old splits never die and besides, there can never be enough time or opportunity to sell anarchist merchandise to the kids.
The East Bay Anarchist Bookfair on December 14 of last year was a study in bucolic harmony where the lion lies down with the lamb, and AJODA folks staffed a table near one run by the Qilombo folks without incident. After the demise of Occupy Oakland, all of OO’s myriad tendencies (pacifist, insurrectionist, unionist, communizing, squatter, decolonialist, etc) were in the doldrums, depressed, at a loss for what to do and where to organize, and hence prone to sectarianism and infighting. The whole AJODA/Qilombo kerfuffle that I reported on last year was typical of the internal nastiness that the entire Bay Area anarcho scene was experiencing. The Left tends to form a firing squad, rifles facing inward, when they have nothing better to do. But with the death of Michael Brown, rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Eric Garner, and protests around the country, Bay Area anarchos are no longer inward looking and focused on fighting amongst themselves. They’re looking outward, enjoying an upsurge of demonstrations, protests, and riots almost daily across the Bay Area, and no longer battling against each other.
Suigetsukan Dojo’s Girl Army opted out of providing security for December 2014’s East Bay Anarchist Bookfair, so one of the organizers recruited a bunch of muay thai ruffians to help keep the peace. The verdict: the anarchist bookfair was so mellow it was boring. Just goes to show that it’s nice to have a common enemy in the police and the powers-that-be to generate some scene unity, even if that unity is faux and forced and flash-in-the-pan.