The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks was a good time to watch the left devour itself. Some radicals, myself included, pointed out the magazine’s long history of Islamophobic and antisemitic caricatures, and suggested that, though the attack was tragic and indefensible, lionizing an Orientalist magazine was probably a poor choice. Many other radicals––most of them older, white, European Marxists––responded very harshly to the charges of racism levied at Charlie Hebdo. They accused the magazine’s critics of taking certain cartoons out of context (a fair criticism), of not understanding French politics (also a fair criticism), and of indulging “petty bourgeois identity politics” (a less fair criticism).
It is true that a lot of American leftists, who had little if any familiarity with French politics, incorrectly assumed that Charlie Hebdo was a far-right magazine. It is true that a lot of non-French-speaking American leftists declared racist a number of Charlie Hebdo cartoons which were actually intended to satirize racism on the French right. These defenses don’t help much, however, to excuse the many racialized caricatures of Muslims and Jews that the magazine ran as cover illustrations over the past decade or so. These illustrations were intended as direct attacks on certain ethno-religious groups, groups which have been coming under increasing violence and persecution as France has progressively abandoned any sort of pluralist or multicultural inclinations in favor of an aggressive, assimilationist secularism. When Charlie Hebdo published illustrations of sinister, hook-nosed Muslims threatening lashings, Charlie Hebdo stood on the side of headscarf bans. It stood on the side on the side of anti-Arab racists. It fanned the flames of racially and religiously motivated prejudice. It is in this context that the attacks on the offices should be understood––still condemned, of course, but understood.
An Art Spiegelman article entitled “Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Outrage” has resurfaced in the aftermath of these attacks. Spiegelman (author of Maus, and co-creator of the Little Lit series of comic books that made my childhood magical) wrote the article during the Danish cartoon debacle, and expressed many of the same concerns that some leftists are currently expressing re: Charlie Hebdo. One section in particular is worth quoting at length:
I don’t mean to suggest that the Denmark Twelve belong in … exalted company, though I do believe in the right to insult even if it sometimes puts me in the position of feeling personally insulted. It’s just that cartoons are most aesthetically pleasing when they manage to speak truth to power, not when they afflict the afflicted. … [T]he Jyllands-Posten––a newspaper with a history of anti-immigrant bias––seemed somewhat disingenuous when it wrapped itself in the mantle of free speech to invite cartoonists to throw pies at the face of Muhammad last September.
This passage highlights three concerns that leftists, tendance Charlie, tend to gloss over. First, there’s a clear distinction between supporting someone’s right to publish offensive content, and putting them in “exalted company” for doing so. Second, there’s a social obligation on the part of entertainers to punch up rather than down, and attacks on already marginalized populations fail to fulfill this obligation. Finally, “free speech” is a defense readily utilized by the powerful against the weak. (On this note, I would say that the pro-Charlie leftists’ recourse to a bourgeois conception of “free speech” is no better than the anti-Charlie leftists’ recourse to “petty bourgeois identity politics.”)
Still, in a recent series of Democracy Now interviews, Art Spiegelman has stated that he doesn’t believe the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo situations are equivalent, and that the latter’s Islamophobic and antisemitic cartoons are more defensible on the basis that, unlike the Jyllands-Posten, it is not historically a right-wing publication. This is a point on which I will have to aggressively disagree, and it is a point which gets to the heart of a real problem on the left. The notion that left-wing political commitments necessarily absolve one of racism is highly dangerous, and it is this notion which is championed by many of the ossified Trotskyites and other self-proclaimed vanguards in Europe.
We would be wise to remember that the radical left can be, and periodically has been, racist (turn to the uneasy relationship between the American labor movement and immigrant populations for an easy example). As of late, much left-wing racism has taken cover under the banners of atheism and anti-theism. We’ve seen Christopher Hitchens cling to the Marxist label while simultaneously supporting imperialist intervention in Iraq to combat “Islamic fascism.” We’ve seen Bill Maher bolstering himself as a figurehead of the left while simultaneously promulgating Orientalist conceptions of monolithic Islam, backed by cherry-picked and dubious, but spooky-sounding, statistics. We’ve seen an affirmation by much of the left of precisely the same kind of civilization vs. barbarism narrative that right-wing cranks have advanced post-9/11 (narratives which conveniently ignore the role of Western imperialism in bolstering Islamic fundamentalism in the first place). The left is certainly not above irresponsible, racist reductionism, particularly not when it comes to Islam.
Given the degree to which Muslims have been targeted in France over the past decade––both by the government and by a growing force of independent anti-Arab nationalists––it is difficult to make a case that Charlie Hebdo’s negative, racialized depictions of Muslims aren’t “afflicting the afflicted.” The common defense against this, a defense that even Art Spiegelman ventures, is that Charlie Hebdo attacked every religion, from Muslims to Jews to Catholics, and so one cannot accuse the magazine of a racial bias against Muslims. Yet if we proceed on Spiegelman’s own terms, this defense fails, because we are compelled to recognize that not all targets of satire are on equal footing. Moreover, the “but they attack every religion” defense of Charlie Hebdo is very similar to the common defense of some of the more repressive manifestations of laïcité: “but the headscarf law bans all ostentatious religious symbols!” The toll of “equal opportunity offense” will invariably fall harder on certain groups than others. Sure, the headscarf ban concerns all ostentatious religious symbols, but the toll falls hardest on Muslim women and Jewish men for whom such symbols are an integral part of their religious expression. In the same vein, sure, Charlie Hebdo may have targeted all religions, but it targeted Muslims with particular vigor at a time when the French Muslim population was particularly vulnerable, and its attacks on Muslims cannot be honestly equated with its attacks on, say, Catholics. Catholic churches are not being attacked with regularity; mosques and synagogues are. Catholics are not being assaulted and murdered in public with regularity; Muslims and Jews are.
If Charlie Hebdo was in fact “afflicting the afflicted,” and I believe there is good reason to argue that it was, then what should it matter that it was a leftist publication? Even if its purported intent is to attack authoritarianism, does that excuse its racialized “use of the discredited pseudo-scientific principles of physiognomy,” the very same conventions that Spiegelman found so disturbing in the Jyllands-Posten? If the two publications targeted Muslims in similar political climates, using similar tactics, why should one be criticized and the other placed in “exalted company” due to a nominal difference in political allegiance? Anti-Arab racism is just as noxious when it emanates from the left as when it emanates from the right, if not more so.
The compulsion of some progressives and Marxists to forgive racism on the left is disturbing, as is the compulsion to defend this forgiveness as somehow righteous. The refusal to criticize Charlie Hebdo’s racialized caricatures of Muslims and Jews on the basis that doing so is giving into “identity politics” has its roots in the vulgar-Marxist belief that everything in the superstructure is directly and singly defined by class relations. Issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. must thus be discussed only in terms of their direct relation to class dynamics, and no other analysis is politically useful. While I certainly agree that a class analysis is important, and while I have no real qualms with a traditional conception of base and superstructure, I think the knee-jerk aversion to “identity politics” among some Marxists prevents them from having a wide variety of worthwhile conversations, keeps them from accessing some of the more important contributions of post-structuralist theories of identity, and, most importantly for the purposes of this blog post, blinds them to prejudice within their own ranks. If the Marxist left is unwilling to confront its own racists, sexists, homophobes, and other bigots, then the left will allow itself to reproduce the very same racist, misogynistic, heterosexist, etc. dynamics that pervade bourgeois society. The struggle against racism goes hand in hand with the struggle against capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it follows automatically. I maintain that an indulgence of a petty bourgeois racism will be far more damaging to the left than an indulgence of a “petty bourgeois identity politics” which challenges racism.
Finally, I owe it to Art Spiegelman to revisit one of his more crucial points from the Harper’s piece I quoted earlier. Spiegelman emphasizes, and has reiterated in the Charlie Hebdo case, the importance of showing the controversial cartoons which sparked the violence. I think this point is vital. Given my insistent complaints about “free speech” as a theoretical concept, one could be forgiven for assuming that I would oppose further circulation of the controversial magazine covers. I certainly do not. I wholeheartedly concur with Spiegelman that the ability to read and evaluate the offending material is important, but not necessarily for the purpose of defending it or giving it an uncontested platform. The time is for critique and reflection, and most of all for understanding. Understanding why the cartoons were drawn, why they offended as they did, why the attackers felt justified in killing the cartoonists, how we can heal from this attack and prevent further attacks like it, and more broadly, how left-wing radicals might address the problem of Islamic fundamentalism without a blanket condemnation or racial caricaturization of over a billion people. Critique is a crucial part of this process, as is mourning, and I hope that we can find the capacity for both.