Jacob Hamburger’s What Charlie Hebdo Taught Me about Freedom of Speech recently forced me to re-evaluate my views about the controversial French magazine. Like many people, my impression of Charlie Hebdo was that it is a reactionary publication whose portrayal of Muslims is not an iconoclastic insistence on freedom as speech. Rather, it bullies a vulnerable population already marginalized by economic disadvantage and racism. The letterdrafted by PENN writes objecting to Charlie Hebdo being awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award struck me as on the mark:
In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and “equal opportunity offense,” and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.
Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.
To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
I grouped Charlie Hebdo with the American alt-right which has captured the rhetoric of freedom of speech in the guise of a defense against so-called “political correctness”. What is too often left unsaid is most of these “free speech” warriors use the call of freedom of speech to silence people who object to them expressing their racism and sexism. They want to be able to say whatever they like without reflecting on the impact of their words on others without having to consider the potential consequences.
(Since discussions about freedom of speech frequently degenerate into simple-minded accusations of censorship, I should be clear: I do not support state censorship of offensive speech. Instead, we should vigorously contest racist and sexist speech and hold bigots accountable for their views. And when we recognize that our speech is potentially offensive, we should think carefully about whether we should exercise our freedom.)
After reading Hamburger’s article, the case of Charlie Hebdo seems to me more complex. Hamburger writes:
In my recent conversations with Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and the paper’s current editor Riss, I was at first surprised to discover that the paper not only accepts but actually embraces the standards imposed by French law. Riss criticized the American approach to free speech, which extends even to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, as a symptom of the laissez-faireneoliberal attitudes Charlie Hebdo frequently condemns. The paper has never had a problem with censoring racism and other abuses of free speech. In 1995, for example, Charlie Hebdo led a movement to officially ban the xenophobic and anti-Semitic Front National, then headed by Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen. As a satirist, Riss is well aware of the difference between the critical provocation to which cartoonists aspire and cheap racist attacks. In their satire of figures like the Le Pens, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists remain very much within the spirit of France’s laws, adhering rigorously to these legal standards even while mimicking racist rhetoric. Riss does not particularly like that he should sometimes have to defend his cartoons in court, as he has done on many occasions, but he recognizes that this is part of his country’s way of holding him accountable to the standards of responsible satire.
I don’t know if Charlie Hebdo is able to walk this line (there is a cultural barrier that makes it difficult for me to evaluate its satire). What Hamburger’s article suggests is that its editors thoughtfully consider their decisions.
Hamburger points out something important:
Satire is inherently iconoclastic, mocking what is serious, stating plainly what is taboo, and profaning what is sacred. Cartoons can be a particularly powerful form of satire simply because they are a visual medium, with the power to put something offensive right in people’s faces. But good cartoons do not merely cause outrage — they provoke critical reflection. By making the viewer laugh at something one ought not to laugh at, they start a conversation that leads to a serious point.
Which brings me to Joe Sacco’s Bumf. I picked up Bumf from the public library because it’s by Sacco and because I opened it to this page:
Richard Nixon wakes up beside Michelle Obama in the White House from the nightmare that he was a community organizer in Chicago.
Sacco is of course the war reporter and author of carefully reported and brilliantly drawn graphic novels such Palestineand Safe Area Gorazde. Bumf in contrast is an underground comic by an author who is too well-known to write underground comics. As I learned“bumf” is Britsh for useless or tedious printed information or documents which apparently were used in World War II by troops as toilet paper.
Bumf is a hallucinatory hodgepodge in which the atrocities of World War I and the Vietnam War meld together with the second Bush administration, presided over by President Obama inhabiting the body of Richard Nixon. America is the country of NSA surveillance, drone strikes, and extraordinary rendition. The imagery combines Hieronymus Bosch’s garden of delights, Abu Ghraib, and a BDSM club, navigated by a cigarette smoking beast with a chicken’s body and man’s head.
Initially disturbing, after 120 pages, the naked hooded figures cease to register: they have been normalized.
As Hamburger stresses, not all offensive art is the same. Effective satire makes us uncomfortable, then prompts us to reflect. Bumf probably expresses best what Cornel West calls the sad legacy of Barack Obama. Though it is easy to forget a week before the inauguration of Donald Trump, President Obama has been a disappointment to those who voted for the candidate of hope who would provide a clean break from the administration of George W. Bush. Instead, President Obama’s administration in most respects continued the legacy of his predecessors.
One of the greatest dangers to a free society is that its citizens lose their ability to be shocked. Bumpf may in some respects mark the end of an era in which it was still possible to be politically outraged. Sacco’s condemnation of the Obama administration by equating it to the Nixon administration made sense because many of us expected better of our President – we held him to a moral standard. In six days, this may no longer be true.