Je ne suis pas Charlie

I’m always wary about people being overly supportive of causes that already have the support of everybody sane and the wholesale embrace of Charlie Hebdo and the right to draw cartoons offensive to religious nutters fits this to a t. It’s not just the War on Muslims terror fetishists like Nick “glug glug” Cohen who come crawling out of the woodwork whenever some atrocity happens close enough at home, but also all the earnest decent people on the news and out on the streets showing their disapproval for murdering cartoonists. What do you want to achieve with this, or with having Je Suis Charlie graphics on Facebook or Twitter? Especially if you don’t live in France? The murderers don’t give a shit and your government will only use your abhorrence as another excuse for more “security measures”.

I do understand the impulse to do something in the face of atrocity; it’s the same impulse when a particularly well liked celebrity dies a horrible death, that objectively has nothing to do with you perhaps but because you know so much about them, it still hurts you and you want to show that you sympathise with their friends and family. It’s a very human impulse and while we may often sneer at it, it is heartening to see those waves of sympathy cross the globe in the wake of tragedy (or even good news, as in every time an American state legalises equal marriage).

And on some level, the attack on Charlie Hebdo does touch me, not because it’s an attack on my freedom of speech, but rather because they are part of my tribe, of the great global comics family. Those were people I’ve heard of, have read strips by, knew about before the news broke about the attack. I knew of Charlie Hebdo and its irreverant humour even before their first Mohammed cartoons controversy, knew their history of kicking over any sacred cow they come across.

But I still don’t feel comfortable saying “Je suis Charlie”.

For two reasons. First, the murders are not actually a threat to our freedom of speech in Europe. Though it may seem strange or even callous to say this, it’s not actually that brave to make fun of Mohammed here. There isn’t the need to show you approve of the right to make fun of Islam because that’s already a given. Governments won’t prosecute you for it, newspapers won’t censor you, your neighbours won’t shun you, even with the threat of nutjobs coming after you. Yes, Salman Rushdie, yes there’s the murder of Theo van Gogh, yes, there are the Charlie Hebdo murders and there are always other headbangers wanting to martyr the next high profile cartoonist, but doesn’t actually challenge anything to joke about Mohammed or Islam here, in secular Europe. The vast majority of threats to free speech on this subject happens in countries like Egypt or Malaysia, countries our governments are happy to support, and comes in the form of state repression: fines, blasphemy trials, censorship. You don’t face that kind of everyday oppression here for being mean to Muslims, indeed your career can thrive on it if some government official does get shirty with you about it, as in the case of Gregorius Nekschot.

The second is, as I said in my first post, that I didn’t necessarily like what Charlie Hebdo did before the shootings and I don’t believe their murder should change that opinion.

Elite panic

This Bombsite interview with Rebecca Solnit is interesting just for the following extract:

AT One of the most interesting ideas in the book is the concept of “elite panic”—the way that elites, during disasters and their aftermath, imagine that the public is not only in danger but also a source of danger. You show in case after case how elites respond in destructive ways, from withholding essential information, to blocking citizen relief efforts, to protecting property instead of people. As you write in the book, “there are grounds for fear of a coherent insurgent public, not just an overwrought, savage one.”

RS The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster—Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke—proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface—that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic.

But there’s also an elite fear—going back to the 19th century—that there will be urban insurrection. It’s a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the ’85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.

What being privileged is like

One fine evening, journalist Jamelle Bouie decides to sell his old tv to a friend and sets out to bring it over to them there and then, when considers what this would look like:

As I was getting ready to go, it occurred to me that this would be a terrible idea. Not because I would have been carrying a TV at 10pm down a quiet city street—I actually feel pretty safe doing that. But because I would have been a black dude—in a hoodie, no less!—carrying a nice-looking TV down a quiet city street at 10pm.

Had he been white, would he have thought about this? Jamelle himself thinks not, and I think he’s right. For myself, while I do occassionally wonder when doing something that could look dodgy, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been stopped by police because what I was doing looked suspicious. In fact, police officers here and abroad have always been respectful and polite to me, whenever I had to interact with them. The same really goes for any sort of interaction with authority; I’ve always been treated respectfully even when in the wrong, have more often than not been believed on my word when there was no real reason to do so, always gotten the benefit of the doubt when I needed it. In short, I’ve never had to worry about people judging me negatively just of how I look.

That’s something that’s incredibly powerful, in which I’m very lucky as I’ve done nothing to earn this respect, but which from the inside feels like the normal way the world should work; it doesn’t feel like I’m priviledged. This dichotomy, where it’s easier for those without these privileges to see how privileged those with them truly are, is I think responsible for much of the heat around internet debates about privilege.

On the one hand, people like me who enjoy these privileges need to make an effort to see them for what they are, while on the other hand they have never or rarely experienced the sort of harassement people without them encounter regularly. It makes it hard for us to believe them, even when everybody is arguing in good faith and it’s even harder to transform this intellectual understanding in an emotional one, to understand what it is really like to live without this privilege we take for granted.

That’s why simple, to the point and most importantly, unjudgmental post like Jamelle Bouie’s one here are so important, as they provide a way in which we can understand something of how other people live.

Of course not

Alex asks whether politicians learned anything from the News of the World phone hacking scandal:

Also, did the central government have any communications security at all? Did CESG or MI5 not have anything at all to say about this? Didn’t any of them just change their damn password, or even change their damn number?

Of course not. As a class politicians are the group most clueless about ICT and worst placed to make decisions on anything to do with it and that gets worse the higher up the ranks you get. Most modern politicians these days have never been anything but politicians and in that job you only need a pc as a glorified typewriter, while once you get high enough on the ladder the normal computer scutwork most of us have to deal with day to day can all be fobbed off on interns who’ll print out all the important documents for you. So I doubt they’ve spent any time at all thinking about communications security.

Case in point: several Dutch politicians got hit with a variant of what the News of the World did recently, as investigative reporters from the newsshow Één Vandaag “hacked” their voicemails by trying the standard Vodaphone pincode on them. Quite a few ministers turned out not to have bothered resetting this or even knew that they had to do that. Worse, neither did their IT department. Personally I think having voicemail at all is way too much of a security risk anyway and I’d switch it off altogether if I were in such a responsible function, but than that’s too much of a hassle.

What doesn’t help either is that is how much party political business is interwoven with government responsibilities for modern politicians, meaning that there’s a high risk for cross pollution anway. In an ideal world government ministers would have two or three separate mobiles: one for their job, one for journalists and party workers to reach them on and another for the family, but I suspect most people use the same phone for everything…

Inventing Ruritania – Vesna Goldsworthy

Cover of Inventing Ruritania

Inventing Ruritania
Vesna Goldsworthy
254 pages including index
published in 1998

What immediately came to mind when I picked up this book from the library was Edward Said’s cite>Orientalism. Where that book looked at how Europe created its image of the Middle East, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination looks at how the western idea of the Balkans has been shaped or even created by writers of popular fiction and travel literature. Goldsworthy focuses mainly on British literature, as for British writers “the Balkans are sufficiently close to remain in the field of vision, yet remote enough to be relatively free of the ‘traditional friendships’ and ‘historical alliances’ which frequently inspire the specific interests in the area of other European powers” while they are “too far away to be of consistent interest to American writers”. Historically, she limits her inquiries to relatively modern times, from the early nineteenth century up to now, as she argues that the Balkans as an area of interest only emerged as Ottoman supremacy in the area was broken. Before there can be stereotypical images of the Balkans, there first has to be a Balkans, obviously and until the Ottoman empire started to disintegrate there wasn’t.

A book like Inventing Ruritania, which wants to expose the cliches with which western thought has been riddled about the Balkans, can’t help but be political. This is more so when you consider when it was published, in 1998, barely a year before NATO would wage its first humanitarian war against Serbia, just after the wars in Bosnia and Croatia had ended. You could see Inventing Ruritania as a sort of metacritique of the sloppy thinking in Britain and elsewhere with which these events were explained and written about. One of Goldsworthy’s points in this book is indeed to lay bare the sort of racist stereotyping language about the Balkans that is still used thoughtlessly, often by people who would never dream about deescribing areas like Africa or India in similar terms… Yet Inventing Ruritania isn’t a polemic, not even to the extent Orientalism was.

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Alex calls for the end of “call for”

In the midst of a splendid takedown of David Hare’s onemanshow on Berlin, Alex Harrowell articulates his disdain of the phrase “to call for”:

There is a broader issue here; the phrase “to call for” repels me more and more. Its function is to get you out of responsibility for your opinions. I didn’t want war – I merely called for solidarity with the US in fighting terrorism. It also acts as a way of escaping the healthy discipline of detail. It is telling that it is fashionable with the neoconservatives, the Decents, and the hard left all at once – all the retailers of the goods dream-hungry youth demand, according to Leszek Kolakowski.

I call for action on Darfur! But I say nothing of the mountainous problems of projecting force into the roadless and railless interior of western Sudan, nothing of whose infantry are to actually go and get killed there, nothing of who exactly they are meant to kill or threaten effectively to kill, or for what aims. I just called for. Let’s decommission this phrase, like a worn-out nuclear power station – switch it off gracefully, sever the lines and fill the damn thing with concrete, and watch it carefully for a hundred years to see nothing leaks out.

One minor quibble is that by and large the socalled “hard left” (which in any case usually sems to mean whomever is to the left of the speaker) isn’t the main offender in this. Socialists, anarchists, communists all have a healthy, historically validated distrust of relying on the state to further their projects. Social democrats and liberals on the other hand have a history of enthusiasitc support for state intervention. If Iraq and Afghanistan are too obvious, take a look at who the main cheerleaders for intervention in Yugoslavia were.

UPDATE: Interesting discussion of Alex’s post over at Aaronovitch Watch in which ejh takes exception to Alex’s thesis:

The problem comes not when people without power express principle, provided they don’t do so ungenerously: it’s when people do have power and piss about. This is why it’s problematic (though not necesarily entirely wrong) to suggest that Macmillan should have called for an uprising against the bulding of a Berlin Wall, because it would quite likely have been writing a cheque he couldn’t cash*. Geroge Bush Sr wrote a cheque in Iraq 1991 that he probably could have cashed, but then didn’t: that was worse still. But to be honest, in just saying “Stop Apartheid Now” (“Now”? What does that mean, “now?”) more than half my life ago, I wasn’t writing any cheques or taking any risks.

Except the risk of becoming Andrew Anthony. Well, yeah, I’ve met a few. But there’s an opposite but equal risk, that many have also fallen victim to, that people who want to concentrate on practicals to the exclusion of ideals turn into New Labour. That’s what that particular movement in politics was and is all about. Lots of the Anti-Apartheid people ended up like that – and I don’t think I’d err in detecting a large crossover between the people who were most keen to follow the ANC line in toto in the Eighties, and those who were the keenest Blairites ten and twenty years later. I think there are as many ill consequences in going one way as in another.

The Battle of Venezuela – Michael McCaughan

Cover of The Battle of Venezuela

The Battle of Venezuela
Michael McCaughan
166 pages
published in 2004

If there’s any subject where the failure of the western news media to fulfil its supposed function of objectively informing its audience is completely uncontroversial, it should be Venezuela. This was especially apparant during the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez, when leading western newspapers like The New York Times portrayed it as a democratic uprising against a dictator. It ignored the fact that while Chavez had been democratically elected and had made no attempt to suppress political opposition against his government, the coupists immediately suspended the constitution, started imprisoning Chavez supporters and in generally behave like the traditional juntas off Latin America. Even after the coup failed the agitation against Chavez in western media continued, again portraying him as a dictator and a lunatic for withdrawing the broadcasting licence of a television station heavily involved in the coup. In short, it’s impossible to get an objective view of Venezuela from
the mainstream media.

And while there are alternative news sources that attempt to correct the skewed portrayal of the country, but I’ve found for myself that these are not enough to get the whole picture if like me you don’t speak Spanish. Which is why The Battle of Venezuela was such an excellent find, as here you have a short to the point history of Venezuela and the Boliverian revolution, written by a “proper journalist” with no axe to grind against Chavez. At this length (only 166 pages in the edition I read) you can’t expect an in-depth analysis, but as a general introduction it would be hard to beat.

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Orientalism – Edward Said

Cover of Orientalism

Edward Said
396 pages including index
published in 1978

There are some books that I’m sort of ashamed to review, not because the books themselves are so bad but just because I should’ve read them years ago. Orientalism is one such book. Both it and its author are so often namechecked by leftwing bloggers that I felt a slight twinge of embarassement for only reading it now. Also, I don’t know how it is with you, but I’m often wary to read such widely acclaimed books anyway, as there’s something so “Rik the people’s poet” about reading Said, or Chomsky for that matter. It can look poseurish and nobody wants to come over as that.

Nevertheless, Orientalism is a genuinely important book, even now, thirty years after its first publication. It’s main argument — that Asia in general and the Middle East in particular have long been misrepresented in the west as “the Orient”, an exotic world filled with prejudices and cliches in order to serve imperialist goals in the region — may look a bit obvious now, not as radical as it was at first publication, but this is in great part because Orientalism laid out this argument so convincingly first. In fact it had such an impact, that even thirty years onwards there are still people trying to cut it down to size, as a quick Google search shows. It touched a nerve, perhaps not in the least because Said was an outsider to the academic orientalist tradition he was criticising.

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Don’t blog, organise

Hamas knows how to organise


One reason why a lot of Democratic Party insiders have a lot of contempt for bloggers is that we are sitting in front of our computers getting fat rather than getting out where it becomes a public affair. It’s all very well to phone and mail legislatures (and you should), but you need to be out there where people can see you.

Yes, I know people are still shy about being associated with the circus, but visibility matters. It’s a lot harder for the talking heads to pretend that Bush is still popular and people don’t mind the destruction of the Constitution if they’re being deafened by protests.

And 2007 is not 1968. The public isn’t freaked out by hippies anymore, it’s freaked out by losing a major American city, and being known as a nation of torturers, and having our money sucked away by an illegal war and assorted con-men in expensive suits.

Thom Hartmann often points out that neither of the Roosevelts ran as progressives, and Lyndon Johnson certainly didn’t run on civil rights. When progressives came to FDR with their program he let them know that he was convinced, but he needed one more thing: “Make me.”

They did it because we made them. It wasn’t done just by people sitting at home and writing.

Avedon is right. Blogging is a great way to write away your frustrations about politics, but in itself it has a limited capability to change things for the better. Blogs are good at getting you informed about things not covered much in the mainstream media or helping likeminded people discover each other, not to mention help people realise that they’re not alone. But becoming aware and informed is only the first stage of becoming political active. After that, you need to act. Unfortunately, blogging is seductive and you do get the feeling of having achieved something from just having written about something, so it’s easy to keep blogging instead of taking that next step.

For the rightwing this doesn’t matter, as to them blogs are just another part of the noise machine, but us lefties have to be aware that blogs are just one tool we need to use if we want to change things.