Friday, January 9, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil

Punching Down
It's a pretty consistent point of order for critics of humor to say that one should "punch up, not down" meaning that a comedian should (according to this principle) pick targets who are more socially powerful--rather than mocking the weaker parties. From the 'Nerdy Feminist' Blog:
When you run a public shaming blog, you run into all types of bigots and trolls. Perhaps the most boring to me are the ones who try to claim that everything is a joke. The increasingly more popular take on this is "it's satire therefore it is OK and you shouldn't be offended."
The blogger then goes on to say that satire is meant to be some kind of constructive social criticism. Okay. The Omnivore's opinion of "[running] a public shaming blog" will have to wait a bit, alas.

Over on Salon Arthur Chu addresses the topic of "why pick now to talk about Charlie Hedbo:"
More to the point, the Internet is already busy at work deifying Charlie Hebdo as the new Satanic Verses and Charb as the new Salman Rushdie. People are changing their profile photos to crude, racist caricatures of Middle Easterners in solidarity with the principle of “free speech” and the average person’s Twitter feed is one-half gleefully “irreverent” reposts of offensive cartoons and one-half cloyingly reverent tributes to said cartoons.
 This is, actually, a good point: The Omnivore will bet that (a) a lot of people publishing the pictures (in America, at least) have little cultural context for what is being said and what it represents to the immigrant Muslim population of France and (b) might be more hesitant to change their icon to a swastika had someone shot up the Stormfront offices*.

The Omnivore sure doesn't understand the context of the magazine (and has had to rely on 2nd hand accounts). What The Omnivore has learned is, approximately, this:
It has to be said that Charlie Hebdo is an unlikely victim of such unjustified violence. For most Parisians these days, the magazine is a quaint relic of the ’60s and ’70s that has long since lost its power to shock. Only the day before the killings, I had noticed on a newsstand a recent front cover of the magazine that showed a goofy-looking Virgin Mary giving birth to an even goofier-looking Christ. I shrugged and walked on, reflecting on how few people read the magazine these days, how it had only just begun to overcome its money troubles, and what a museum piece it had become.
Basically? The magazine was sophomoric scatological humor and, in keeping with a long-standing French tradition (the chief cartoonist killed was 80 years old), it picked as its targets major religions and their various taboos. This hasn't just upset Muslims. Here The Catholic League's Bill Donohue weighs in on Charlie Hebdo:
Freedom of speech is not an end—it is a means to an end. For Americans, the end is nicely spelled out in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: the goal is to “form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
No fair-minded reading of the Preamble suggests that it was written to facilitate the right to intentionally and persistently insult people of faith with scatological commentary. Moreover, the purpose of free speech is political discourse: it exists to protect the right of men and women to agree and disagree about the makings of the good society.
Hmm . . .

So let's break it down.

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself
Firstly, and let's get this out of the way, while The Omnivore doesn't know everything Charile Hebdo ever said, the examples he can find are along these lines:
Last October, it portrayed the jihadis of Isis as being opposed to Islam by displaying an image of a masked man cutting the throat of his kneeling, turbanned victim, who is saying: “I am the prophet, you brute.” 
The killer replies: “Shut your mouth, you infidel.” The cartoon was captioned: “If Muhammad returned …”
And Slate has a good round up here.

  1. 2006 cover features weeping Mohammed with the headline "Mohammed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalism." The issue reprinted the Danish cartoons.
  2. 2012 cover shows a Jewish man pushing a Muslim man in a wheelchair parodying a French movie where a paralyzed rich man has a black man from the projects push him around. The interior had a satire of the Innocence of Muslims featuring the prophet naked, in pornographic poses.
  3. 2013 cover mocking a political Islamist victory in Tunisia with an issue "guest edited" by the prophet threatening "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter."
  4. 2010 cover featuring a naked woman with a Burqua inserted ... well, you can click the link.

These may not be sophisticated political commentary but they are a fair distance from simple race-baiting. They do have innate messages--in some cases, important ones. The drawing of the prophet as a 'hook nosed' caricature may echo racist portrayals of, for example, black people drawn as grotesques (or the rapacious Jew caricatures used by Nazi propagandists). Whether this is enough to condemn them as specifically racist will vary by reader.

Secondly, let's look at the whole punching-up vs. punching-down thing. While Muslim immigrants are a minority and an impoverished and mistrusted group in France (and, more generally, in Western Europe) Islam as-a-whole is a major world religion. It controls large, wealthy nations, fields armies, and shapes the global economy.

The Charlie Hebdo magazine may well have been more-wealthy white men (and at least one woman--who was killed in the attack ... another was allowed to live) who were pushing the prophet-mocking button for little other reason than "because they could"--but even that assessment has some flaws.

The first is that the "hot-button" issue is (a) unique to Islam and (b) reliably provokes behavior that, erm, kinda justifies it. What does The Omnivore mean by that? Well, the first is that while other religions have restrictions on what their own members are allowed to say or do along various axis's, Islam is pretty unique in requiring the infidel to comply with its demands. From USA Today:
Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
While one can say that the Immam above is only part of a vocal minority, he certainly speaks clealry for a substantial vision of Islam. When that is out there it's hard to see his version of Islam as making "reasonable demands." He's making threats. Real threats. Threats people make good on. That's the action of a (murderous) bully.

 Furthermore, the "punches that were thrown" by Charlie Hebdo were, at least half the time, aimed at (explicitly) extremists that were overseas. One would hope that even the local disenfranchised Muslim population would at least agree with the sentiment that the prophet would be upset with the brutality of ISIS.

If that's so, might one reasonably expect them to weigh the extreme violence and provoked atrocities against the insulting message? If what someone is saying is provoking executions, axe attacks, and beheadings, then that behavior alone is justification to continue saying it.

The Omnivore does not think that Charlie Hebdo, taking shots at the religion-as-a-whole (which is what most of that looks like to him) can be said to be "punching down." If anything, saying the things they said in an area where there are angry fundamentalists makes saying it even more brave. It makes saying it taking an explicit stand against violence--putting one's own safety on the line--in a way most bloggers, for example, do not.

Finally, what about all those Facebookers who are putting up these covers and rallying behind what is unquestionably somewhat tasteless behavior? Should we call them out on it? Well, if you're on the left there's a decent chance that you believe that "every drone strike creates more terrorists." The Omnivore suspects that isn't literally true--but bear with him for a moment.

Even if the creation of martyrs isn't 1-drone-strike-to-X-Number-Terrorists the creation of martyrs is a real thing. In fact, it's even a necessary thing: the creation of martyrs is a force that stays the hands of authoritarian dictatorships everywhere--and sometimes punishes them gravely when they don't restrain themselves. Of course one ingredient in the martyr recipe is that the subject must be perceived as innocent (so Michael Brown is a martyr to some and not to others).

If most westerners find the balance of the men and women massacred in the Paris magazine office to be of relative innocence--and they should if anyone is to believe the necessary preamble of "Of course violence is never justified"--then it is within moral bounds to sanctify them. Picking this time to "raise consciousness" about just 'what those magazine covers' mean is apologism for the terrorists, like it or not.

If you were on about Charlie Hebdo before this happened? Shine on. If you're picking this time to deliver a lecture, though, ask yourself if someone piping up about Michael Brown's strong-arm robbery of cigarillos every time someone talks about how Black Lives Matter is . . . you know, cool? I mean, it's fact, innit? It was on film. It's . . . you know, maybe even relevant to the situation?

If the speaker (who also reliably talks about the amount of marijuana in Brown's system) prefaces his relentless exposition with a note that "Of course Brown didn't deserve to be shot for robbery" does that make his real message any more obscure?

It doesn't. Does it?

* If Stormfront even had offices.

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