You Don’t Have to Be Charlie, But You Must Fight for Those Who Are


Last Saturday night (or, well, I suppose by then it was Sunday morning) I found myself in the kitchen of a Parisian apartment, in the genial company of wine, music, and conversation, and as the latter found its way through the former to the infamous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I took the opportunity to enjoy what may be the most pleasant form of argument– one with someone who agrees with me, but perhaps doesn’t agree with me enough.

By the time I arrived in France, in the week following the attack, the drama of the event had already concluded. The killers were dead, the public had rallied, and all that remained, so it seemed, for the return to business-as-usual in a free society was the million-strong publication, on schedule, of the “journal irresponsable”’s next edition.

I hadn’t written on the subject, and didn’t intend to, because I thought it was well in hand with others. The coverage was thorough, and the case for free speech against such a blatant and obvious foe was well-enunciated by all. I shared common cause, indeed, but it seemed opportunistic to snatch at the low-hanging fruit by echoing what everyone had already demonstrated that they knew, and somewhat hollow simply to issue my praise to the French for their displays of solidarity and support (well-deserved though that praise would be).

But now I think there is something left to be said, in particular to those who equivocate their support for free expression in society, and who nurse an embarrassment over what other people do with it. As always, the radical position must criticize the liberal position.

My friend had submitted, somewhat murkily, that it was a question of different values, and in the lull of our agreement, when I tested the waters by saying, “Yes, but we shouldn’t be afraid to assert that our values are the correct ones,” he winced slightly. He had taken the position that, horrible and intolerable though the attack was, the cartoonists had brought it upon themselves by going too far; “[they] crossed the line,” and worse, they did it “too many times.” I countered with the idea that, however important these “lines” may be to individuals, whether in terms of religious sanctity or of social propriety of any kind, it’s a free society’s job to maintain that no such lines exist, and that these codes of piety can’t be enforced on the group. This much he conceded, but he was still uncomfortable with the idea that the sanctity of other people’s religious faith had been compromised, and he seemed to wish for an admonished societal correction after which we all would be more polite.

When it’s media outlets refusing to reprint the cartoons in question (something that Charlie was brave enough to do with the Danish cartoons in 2005), or a feeble politician failing to assert the values of the society they represent, it’s appropriate to see this position as cowardice. But when I put it directly to my friend whether the capitulations of political sensitivity are motivated by concession or fear, and he said, “concession,” it was true. He was one, like many, who admired religious devotion in itself, and who felt alienated from a society that allows the objects of that devotion to be denigrated.

But it’s different for an individual invited into the home of a religious person, over tea or dinner, perhaps, than it is for a public magazine. Yes, Charlie Hebdo frequently said things that you might not say in the polite company of a devout religious person, things that even I might not say in the same situation. Yes, if we approached the subject we might handle it more gracefully, more delicately for the sake of the person with whom we were speaking. But just because we find such decorum admirable in individuals doesn’t mean we can demand it from society.

Perhaps it’s an effect of the personalized tone of media and advertising, the way mass communications are almost unfailingly directed at the impersonal “you”, but people seem to volunteer the idea that the existence of blasphemous materials in media is the same as running into a mosque and interrupting a prayer service to wave incendiary cartoons in people’s faces. I assure you, it is not.

A secular society doesn’t demand that no one is religious, or that no one treats archaic objects and texts with the reverence for which they were designed. In fact it specifically makes room for, and guards from discrimination, those who do. It simply demands that no one is compelled to do likewise, and that’s what this whole thing is about.

Pluralism, the right to live and let live, is one of our values, and the likes of the murderers in this case and jihadis of all types are not fighting for the right to be treated pluralistically. They are not fighting to exclude only the most acerbic mockeries from public consideration. They are fighting for the day when a death sentence for any criticism at all will be the norm. They are fighting, if their own words can be believed, for the day when their beliefs are the singularity.

That’s what gets lost in the question of sensitivity and the self-flagellation over the fear of some kind of cultural collateral damage. For the thoughtfully and authentically faithful, the brash and pointed satire of this kind may be a nuisance or, at most, a challenge. For the idealized, good-hearted Islamic grandmother who doesn’t care what other people believe and wouldn’t hurt a fly, at worst it might be an undue insult, for which we all must be apologetic. But for the would-be dictatorial administrators of theocratic fascism, it’s the clearest way of saying that their day will never come, and that is too important to do without.

We have to preserve the right, in principal and in practice, to treat these things without sensitivity, without grace, and without a respectful, enlightened, congenial tone. In short, we have to preserve the right to be crass. When it is sinisterly and bullingly implied that we all should genuflect before someone else’s god, we have to say then more than ever that the appropriate response isn’t, “No, thank you.” It’s, “up your nose with a rubber hose, you dirty son of a bitch.”

You don’t have to be Charlie, but in order to maintain the backbone of a free society, you must fight for those who are.

Incidentally, I can report that the demand for that new issue I mentioned has been very high; a lot of places have started waiting lists and many people have been placing orders for copies in advance.

Also, as I searched for images of the cartoons I found I was unsure of which to post– it appears that, unlike the case of the Danish cartoons which were about a specific set of drawings, the killings were in response to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamic cartoons in general; I have reposted what appear to have been the greatest offenders below, and I’ll update the post if I find any that I’ve left out.  If you haven’t seen them yet, this is what all the fuss was about:

All images property of Charlie Hebdo.

We Need to Talk About “The ‘N-word'”

Ladies and gentlemen… *sigh*…  nigger.

Some of you are offended right now.  Some of you were offended when you saw the headline.  Some people are just plain offended, in a general sense, but I’ll assume for the sake of getting anywhere that you, dear reader, are a reasonable and thinking person who is not already in the process of writing an angry comment that accuses me of being a racist.  The point is, I just wrote down the word.  I didn’t use it to berate or degrade anybody, I didn’t shout it at someone in the street, and I certainly didn’t pour it out in gasoline and burn it into somebody’s lawn.  I just wrote it.  In some contexts I might even say it out loud.  And context is what it’s all about.

Richard_Pryor_-_That_Nigger's_Crazy_front_coverYesterday morning I was listening to a segment on NPR, an otherwise thoughtful and candid look at the life and comedy of the great Richard Pryor through edited clips of his material along with the discussion of a new biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, with the book’s author, Scott Saul.  Naturally, both host and author avoided saying the word, because (understandably indeed) it’s not the kind of thing that you want going out on the airwaves of a liberally-inclined national radio station at 11 o’clock in the morning.  For the most part their conversation was only passingly affected by this reserve, the way is any such dialog today, but it began to satirize itself when Fresh Air host Terry Gross began referring to Pryor’s 1974 album as “That ‘N-word”s Crazy”.

Now, Richard Pryor never cut an album called “That ‘N-word”s Crazy”.  The album is called, “That Nigger’s Crazy” (as you can see emblazoned proudly on the album’s cover, above).  And it’s rather obvious that the phrase is used in this context as a play on the demeaning quality other people’s perceptions, in the sense of race yes, but more broadly in the sense of wholesale judgment of a person based on the absurdity of their lives and circumstance, a sentiment which is very much at the core of Pryor’s comedy.  But the point isn’t to dissect the effectiveness and existential significance of the album’s title.  The point is, that’s what the album is called.

That means that that album title is a point of common human reference, just as much mine or yours or Terry Gross’ as it is anybody’s.  That is the name by which that work is known to the U.S. Copyright Office.  That’s how it was referred to in promotional materials at the time.  Most importantly, that’s what that artist wanted the album to be called.  It’s an example of someone claiming an epithet as their own, and using it against the ideas that produced it, not some shameful throwback headline that was leveled against them, and it’s condescending to clip the word from discussion in some misguided feat of political correctness; by attempting to preserve racial dignity they ended up neutralizing one man’s act of personal dignity.

What am I to do if I want to quote Muhammad Ali saying, in reference to whether he would go to fight in Vietnam, “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger'”?  A powerful statement, and worthy of examination.  It speaks to the idea that multiple wars were being fought at the time, one by the establishment and one against it, one military and one social.  It speaks to Ali’s sentiments about what was worth fighting for, as a man of his position, in his day and age.  Am I supposed to undercut and neuter that sentiment by saying “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘N-word'”?

What about when I listen to Hurricane, one of the all-time, best ever protest songs, and Dylan sings, “To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum/And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger/No one doubted that he pulled the trigger”, a searing and accurate depiction of the real paradox that beset a wrongly convicted man, running down a focused melody with a driving rhythm, and one of the most emphasized passages of the song?  The entire song is about a real man caught between what people though of him and what he was capable of because of his race and his reputation.  Am I supposed to belittle and diminish that experience by asserting that the people from whom he was alienated thought of him as “just a crazy ‘N-word'”?

In all three of these cases, it isn’t “nigger” that’s disrespectful, it’s the euphemistic attitude, and the idea that it’s one person’s responsibility to decide what’s appropriate to say about the ideas and experiences of another.

But I’ll take it a step further and acknowledge what everybody thinks a story like this is about: the double standard.  Richard Pryor was black, Terry Gross is white, and to a lot of people that means that there are just some things that Richard could say that Terry isn’t allowed to.

For starters, I don’t believe that black people possess a historical prerogative that I do not.  And again, some of you are offended.  But that’s not the same as discounting the difference in our various historical narratives and lineages, or the idea that people have a right to feel however they do about their connection to the past.  I just don’t believe that that connection, whatever it is, should be allowed to define the present.

It isn’t just that I don’t think slavery gives angry black people or sensitive white people the right to be word police, I don’t believe in the individualized historical prerogative, full stop.  I don’t believe in the divine right of kings or blood feuds between families that are passed on for generations.  I don’t think ancestry gets you anything, politically speaking, whether it’s a right to be sensitive or a claim to a thousand year Reich.

And that cuts both ways– it also doesn’t get you what is wrongly called responsibility, but what is really a kind of moral culpability for bad mistakes, even atrocities.  I once had someone who is French, and a dear friend, say to me upon seeing the logo on the package of American Spirit cigarettes that I was smoking at the time, how ironic it was that we (Americans) put them (Natives) on our cigarettes, despite the fact that “you killed them all!”  The circumstances dictated that I responded rather more politely, but I almost shot back that I had killed the Indians about as much as she had surrendered to the Nazis.

In that case it was nationalism, but that’s the gist of identity politics today.  We’re all just proxies for whatever matches us in history, and that is a truly bizarre form of tyranny.  It’s as if I get berated and denigrated because before I was born I failed to go back in time and influence the actions of other people, who were apparently my responsibility because their skin matches mine.  It’s a lot to ask of a fetus, if you want my opinion.

And it all boils down to the central fallacy of all racism, that the only identity you’re allowed to have is that of your category (or some variant subgroup thereof),  that everyone is exactly representative of their category, that categories are homogenous and universal.  It reduces a person to what you already think you know about people like them, and reduces their liberties to the ones you’re willing to allow people like that.

I don’t believe that I should be prevented from using a particular word because I’m white any more than I think someone should be prevented from using a particular water fountain because they’re not, and for very nearly the same reason.  Language is a common resource, and to me it is among the most sacred.  Words and ideas are some of the freest and most flexible commodities we have, and they belong to anyone who can understand them.  It isn’t true just of words that can be used nastily, it’s true of words that liberate and inspire, like “freedom”, “dignity”, “respect”, and “rights”.

People act like the problem with racial tensions in this country is that there’s a word floating around out there with too many letters– if we could just chop off the “-igger” part of it, if we could just lock that string of letters away and only refer to it by proxy, then things will get better and once we’ve all gotten used to it, then hey sesame, no more racism.  But racism isn’t a problem of words.  It’s a problem of phrases, of clichés, of attitudes and suppositions, of prejudice, of synecdoche, of stupidity!  But not words.

The test of it all is how the word is used.  Of course we should decry racism, and lash back against someone who uses “nigger” or a word like it at someone.  But using a racist word isn’t enough to tell whether someone is a bigot.  You have to listen to the rest of the sentence.