Reprinted from Power of Narrative Blog
Any significant intellectual culture, especially any aspect of that always exceedingly fragile enterprise that rises to challenge established authority and its numerous, labyrinthine dictates of shoulds and should nots, what is permitted and what is not, the limits of correct thought and professed belief, and uncountable and often incomprehensible related matters, is dead: to begin with. Any significant intellectual culture is as dead as a door-nail.
I state this proposition in Master Dickens' manner: emphatically.
I do this not only to amuse myself, if only momentarily, but to keep from going mad. As I further consider the Charlie Hebdo spectacle, its significance and implications grow ever more ominous and threatening. I watch this spectacle, and I want to scream: What is wrong with everyone? Don't you understand what is going on here?
A few people do, and I am always deeply grateful to encounter them. But for the most part, everyone -- and here, I speak of everyone in the West, which is where I reside, most unhappily at present, and where you probably read this -- has enthusiastically rallied to the cause of "freedom," and "freedom of the press" and "freedom of speech" more specifically. Almost everyone screams: Je suis Charlie!
So many damned liars. Allowing for the extremely rare exception, not one of the throng shouting "Je suis Charlie" is at any kind of risk at all, nor do they ever intend to be, not if they can help it. I see a crowd of millions, every single damn person holding aloft a sign emblazoned with big, bold lettering:
I AM ONE OF A KIND!The message loses its charm around the fifty-thousandth repetition, roughly speaking. As I noted a few days ago, uniqueness, as well as courage, abhors a mob. We might be so bold as to say that seeking the comfort of the mob vitiates the message.
I AM UNIQUE!!I AM UNREPEATABLE!!!- Advertisement -
So. Damn liars, a lot of them. Before proceeding to far graver matters, let us consider a ridiculous incident that reveals just how transparently dishonest the Hebdo spectacle is. At the Golden Globe Awards this past Sunday night, Margaret Cho appeared in a running comic bit as a North Korean general, Cho Young-ja. (It was very labored and not notably clever or original. Perhaps you expected Oscar Wilde? This is Hollywood, my dear.) Without missing a beat, numerous critics pounced on this offensively "racist" attempt at humor.
Even Deadline Hollywood made the connection in its opening paragraph: (Emphasis mine)
"Comedian Margaret Cho has responded to critics who deemed her North Korea-skewering Golden Globes appearance racist -- ironically enough, in an evening filled with achievements for diverse voices and cries of 'Je Suis Charlie' in the name of freedom of expression."Aside from the fact that "freedom of expression" allows some racist or otherwise offensive statements but not others -- hardly an unimportant point, and one which will become worryingly significant as we proceed -- doesn't Cho get some kind of special dispensation here? As she pointed out in one of her responses: "I'm of mixed North/South Korean descent -- you imprison, starve and brainwash my people you get made fun of by me." Since Cho is of of mixed North/South Korean descent, doesn't she have the right to engage in this sort of humor, in the same way that blacks can use the word "n-word"? I'm just asking; there are lots and lots of rules about all this, and it's easy to get confused.
But any confusion dissipates when we consider the Paris rally. Let's begin with the description in The New York Times: (Emphasis mine)
"More than a million people joined over 40 presidents and prime ministers on the streets of Paris on Sunday in the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks.Two facts of paramount importance must be noted. First, the target of this massive demonstration was Islamic extremism. The Times (as well as various commentators) tries to camouflage this a bit, with the reference to "violent extremism" -- but, c'mon. When a million and a half Charlies gather together -- each one as unique as a f*cking snowflake, don't you know -- they do so in response to the Hebdo murders. The world's view is that those murders are a horrifying instance of barbaric Islamic extremism.
"Responding to terrorist strikes that killed 17 people in France and riveted worldwide attention, Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists and people of all races, ages and political stripes swarmed central Paris beneath a bright blue sky, calling for peace and an end to violent extremism.
"The Interior Ministry described the demonstration as the largest in modern French history, with as many as 1.6 million people. ..."The world leaders -- including President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain -- joined the march in a solemn line. They moved slowly, clasping arms to show solidarity with the victims. The crowd roared in approval."- Advertisement -
The second fact is painfully obvious, and that obviousness is an essential part of its camouflage. Most of the coverage of the Paris rally focuses on the size of the crowd -- over a million and a half people, all marching in support of freedom of expression! -- and adds as a kind of postscript that over 40 "world leaders" ... "joined" the demonstration. This is completely backwards. When over 40 "world leaders" enthusiastically take part in an event of this kind, that fact alone establishes a single incontrovertible, irrefutable fact: whatever is happening, whatever views are being expressed, none of it is any threat whatsoever to power and authority. More specifically, it is no threat whatsoever to State power. No wonder all those world leaders were eager to take part: the largest demonstration "in modern French history" was nothing less than a glorification of State power.
This truth becomes still more obvious when we remember the actual records of the world leaders in question. Of course, almost no one chose to remember these particular facts. But Daniel Wickham did (via Chris Floyd) in a series of tweets. Here are a few examples of, as Wickham puts it, "the staunch defenders of the free press attending the solidarity rally in Paris today":
"Prime Minister of Davutoglu of Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world
"Prime Minister Jomaa of Tunisia, which recently jailed blogger Yassine Ayan for 3 years for 'defaming the army'
"Sec-Gen of NATO, who are yet to be held to account for deliberately bombing and killing 16 Serbian journos in '99
"Prime Minister Kopacz of Poland, which raided a magazine to seize recordings embarrassing for the ruling party"Perhaps it would be unkind to say that all those Charlies in Paris (and the millions of additional Charlies around the world) are fools, but the characterization is not inaccurate. But it is more to the point to state that all these Charlies are pawns in a spectacle that served to strengthen the foundations of State power. Moreover, and in an especially hideous twist, the demonstration -- with all those world leaders greeted by a crowd that "roared in approval" -- served to bestow specifically moral approval and encouragement to State power.
Given the growing swaths of destruction, brutality and murder that are the product of State power in recent years, and of Western State power in particular, one might have thought that moral approval and encouragement is the last thing one would choose to gift to the monsters who lead those States, at least if one seeks a better world that is significantly more compassionate and caring than the world in which we now live. And note how cheaply the States in question purchased this gift: their leaders offer a few grunts indicating their supposed approval of "freedom of expression" and "free speech," and the crowd happily accedes to their power. No one troubles to recall the chasm that separates what these States claim to support and what they actually do. The leaders of these States now have still further confirmation that as long as they mumble the right words and slogans at critical moments, they can act in the most oppressive and brutal ways -- and they will never be called to account.
And, my friends, we must add still one more element to appreciate more fully the horror of the Paris rally. Here I turn to an article by Rafia Zakaria, "Let's talk about the other dead journalists" (via The Angry Arab News Service). I encourage you to read Zakaria's article in full. Here are some key excerpts (the highlights are mine):
"In France, as elsewhere in the Western world, the attack on Charlie Hebdo is being lamented, and the dead journalists are being celebrated as heroes whose work exemplifies a fearless and defiant pursuit of freedom of expression. However, this fight for freedom of speech is not always seen as a Muslim struggle. Yet the number of Muslim journalists killed defending journalism tells a different story. More than half of 61 journalists killed in 2014 were Muslims, many working in conflict-affected countries such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Somalia. But few have received the recognition or commemoration accorded to Western journalists or a handful who worked for Western media outlets. ...Perhaps the most profoundly disturbing part of Zakaria's argument comes toward the conclusion of her article: (Emphasis mine)
"[T]he evident double standard and selective outrage illuminates the hierarchy of privilege in our moral reckoning in response to acts of terrorism. It is a dynamic that becomes visible only when Western journalists are targeted. ...
"[The] invisibility [of the deaths of Muslim journalists] is part of the routine eliding over terrorism's brown, Muslim victims that allows the extremists' unexamined xenophobia and divisive narrative of us versus them to prevail and persist. Failure to mourn and recognize the sacrifices of terrorism victims equally carries enormous risk. The aversion to terrorism only when it reaches the West or kills Westerners suggests our ease with the banishment of terrorism to some distant terrains. ...
"Muslims are more likely to experience war and displacement than any other religious group. Swaths of predominantly Muslim countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan are in the throes of civil strife. Millions of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans have become refugees in already taxed neighboring countries such as Jordan and Pakistan. Not a single person in these countries remains unaffected by the ravages of violence, by grisly massacres at schools and mosques and restaurants and markets. Yet there are some in the West who insist on turning to these beleaguered, injured and maimed populations to demand collective apology for the acts of any and every killer with a Muslim background."
"While our selective outrage ignores the pain and sacrifices of Muslims, the generalization imagines all Muslims as perpetrators of terrorism. ...For over a decade, the West, led by the bloodthirsty and barbaric government of the United States, has made war on Muslims. The West has invaded and bombed Muslim countries, and tortured, imprisoned and murdered Muslims in a procession of horrors that continue today, and that stretch into a limitless future of pain and suffering. Western leaders have sometimes been at pains to insist that the West is not at war with Islam, but only with Islamic extremism. More and more, the mask slips. More and more, we hear people say, occasionally with regret, but usually with barely concealed glee, "Oh, yes, the real problem is Islam itself."
"The horror of terrorism is meant to eviscerate context. It incites the desire for protection and revenge. The collective blame placed on Muslims, the thoughtless investment of blame and suspicion and the highlighting of freedom of expression as a solely Western value is a victory for extremists. Our selective indignation also gives credence to the idea that all the world's Muslims are already terrorists or potential terrorists. Muslims should not be recognized only when a few of them kill for terrorism and be ignored when thousands of them die at its hands."
In that connection, consider the difference in scale involved. Twelve people were murdered at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Yes, that is a terrible crime. Some years ago, in September 2007, I attempted to capture the difference in scale by addressing Western narcissism, and the narcissism of Americans in particular. Because Western lives, and Western deaths, are of special significance, and unquestionably of far greater importance than the deaths of assorted brown people in other parts of the world, I made some calculations:
"Since Americans' narcissism is so all-encompassing, and because the superior value of American lives and goals as compared to those of all other peoples is regarded as an axiom never to be questioned, let's put these horrors in terms that Americans might understand. Let's make it about you.
"For ease of computation, we'll use approximate figures. Assume the U.S.'s war crimes have resulted in one million deaths. That is roughly 1/26 of the total Iraqi population. An equivalent number of American deaths would be 11.5 million people. 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11. In terms of casualties, 11.5 million deaths represent 3,800 9/11s -- or a 9/11 every day for ten and a half years.
"Let me repeat that: a 9/11 every day for ten and a half years.
"Perhaps you think these casualty figures are highly inflated. Fine. Cut them in half. That's a 9/11 every day for a little over five years.