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.