From Abu Ghraib to Neukölln: Neocon Repetition Compulsion in Berlin

F._Botero_-_El_Circo

Fernando Botero (1932 -), Colombia, Abu Ghraib, from a series, 2005

Politics in so-called liberal democracies these days is mostly about hating people outside politics. Migrants are by definition non-citizens when they arrive in countries of refuge, walled and warehoused on the social margins, charily granted only limited rights to participate in the political life around them; yet fear and loathing of the symbolic figure of the refugee have helped elect a crazed American president, topple a phlegmatic German prime minister, and drive the dis-United Kingdom out of the European Union.

Although the object of hate takes protean forms (the Polish plumber, the Mexican rapist) the migrant from the Middle East is central to this dynamic. (He—it’s always he—is variously defined as “Muslim” or “Arab,” terms apparently interchangeable.) You hear two things over and over.

1) Muslims are violent. Numbers materialize to support this claim, but the figures rarely withstand examination. (See, by comparison, the recent ignominious deflation of an influential but deeply flawed report by the right-wing Quilliam Foundation, which purported to show that 84% of “grooming gang offenders” in the UK are South Asian. Dr. Ella Cockbain, a lecturer in security at University College London, calls the report “bad science” and adds that “Without clear inclusion parameters, robust and transparent methods and good data, we should be very sceptical of pseudoscientific claims and spurious statistics.”)

7f3a677bf1c010242528c53f005fceb2

German honor: Duelling scars

2) This Muslim (or Arab) violence is rooted in “culture,” meaning it’s nebulous, fixed, and timeless, beyond remedy or repair. After all, Arabs (or Muslims) believe in “honor,” and the rest of us don’t. (Generations of young German men cultivated duelling scars in the name of “honor,” a male rite of passage more violent than most tribal initiations; and the motto of Hitler’s SS some seventy-five years ago was “My honor is loyalty.” These are facts best, and easily, forgotten.) Anthropologists endlessly debate the definition of “culture.” But right-wing agitators and their pseudo-intellectual enablers know perfectly well what they mean when they throw the term around. For them “culture” is bad statistics plus speculative explanations. It’s a toxic but intoxicating brew.

In this important article (published today in German in a slightly different version in Freitag) describing an anti-migrant meeting in Berlin on November 21, Christopher Sweetapple, an anthropologist working in Berlin, unpacks some of the origins of the “cultural” discourse in anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s a discourse increasingly seductive on the German Left. I hope that after reading it you’ll listen to this podcast: a conversation on December 3 between Christopher and two anti-racist migrants’-rights activists in Berlin, “Sahra” and Olympia Bukkakis. Together they raise issues, and amplify voices, silenced and erased by the pseudo-liberal discourse around “violence” and “culture.” Bios of all three can be found at the end of this article. Thanks to Christopher, Olympia, and Sahra for sharing their words with A Paper Bird.

From Abu Ghraib to Neukölln: Neocon Repetition Compulsion in Berlin
            Christopher Sweetapple

I wasn’t looking forward to going to Laidak but went anyway. The purportedly leftist pub is only an 8-minute bike ride from my apartment. They were hosting a talk, “Gewalt im Namen der Ehre – Triebstruktur und Neuköllner Unzumutbarkeiten,” organized by a local initiative with the cheeky name “Ehrlos statt wehrlos” (“honorless but not helpless” in English—abbreviated here to ESW). I hadn’t yet attended any of ESW’s talks or events but did, like many in this neighborhood and city, catch the exchange of Stellungnahmen when ESW popped into existence in early August this year—first their mission statement, and then, rather swiftly, a blistering response accusing ESW of fostering a blatant right-wing populist discourse, co-signed by anti-racist, feminist, Muslim, Jewish and Roma organizations and initiatives here in Berlin.

download

Ten thousand stories in the naked city: ESW logo

ESW’s fundamental provocation is baked into its name, its mission statement, and the title of the talk: “Fighting violence committed in the name of honor; alliance against unacceptable conditions in Neukölln.” Neukölln is a large, populous, centrally-located Berlin district. It’s nationally known for its multicultural population. The “unacceptable conditions” that ESW imagines itself to be bravely facing are problems mainly perceived in the desirable portions of North Neukölln. The “conditions” are Muslim men, doubtless numerous and apparently primed to commit violence solely motivated by honor, or Islam, or something. This talk promised to better unpack how, culturally and psychologically speaking, this honor motivation system works.

37761755_2244644495805059_9154105557378924544_n

This little piggy: Donations till at ESW event, from their Facebook page

Its windowed wall revealed Laidak was already packed full of people, 20 minutes before the event was slated to begin. I castigated myself for not leaving home earlier as I walked in—should I just go home?—no, I’m already here, let’s see if I can squeeze in. The line of us apparent late-comers slithered past the bar into the dimly-lit backroom. By the time I finally crossed the threshold, all remaining spots were officially occupied. The fellas working the small table for the 2€ entrance fee at the door had to announce over my shoulder that the room was at capacity to yet more disappointed late-comers behind me. The speaker then arrived and had to make her slow way through the seated crowd to the lectern/front table, giving time for a few more people to maneuver into the door frame behind me. A man seated next to the speaker began talking. The bar was roaring behind us in the back; struggling to hear, we cajoled the door closed.

His introduction recapped the allegations in the event description on Facebook—street violence against Jews, queers, women and the homeless is on the rise in North Neukölln; Muslim men are the culprits; the media and leftists disallow public discussion and action about this state of affairs; somebody has to take the wheel. He then introduced the speaker.

The lecturer chose to remain anonymous. As promised in title and introduction, her argument made authoritative claims about the cultural psychology of Muslim masculinity in order to better inform the audience, decidedly non-Muslim in address and evident composition, how to combat the plague of violence anecdotally, statistically, tautologically presented as Muslim in character. The question of Muslim-on-Muslim violence (thankfully) was not on the agenda. This was a discussion about why they, Muslim men, are doing this to us—“us” including both victims of their violence and those who profess solidarity with these victims.

This supposed plague of violence was only vaguely presented. Both the introductory comments and her speech raised the specter of “what we all know to be true,” that more Muslims in town have meant more crimes against us. Such a truth should be confirmable with data and evidence. One would expect, first and foremost, a clear examination of the rate of violent crime for the area in question. But no such criminological evidence or discussion was offered. One might also expect the speaker to tarry over data made public by local anti-violence and victims’ advocacy initiatives, like MANEO or ReachOut, or by the Berlin Police. None of which indicates a Muslim crime wave in North Neukölln or elsewhere.

blu magazin graph

Graph published by the gay news website blu, based on data from Berlin police documenting “homophobic crime.” The table is titled “Suspects According to Nationality.” Of course, the religious identity of these suspects is unclear. Perhaps some of the Germans are Muslim; perhaps all of the Syrians are Christian. Without hard data, this is all speculation. But the data don’t indicate a crime wave, that much is certain.

Instead, factoids were marshalled haphazardly. One moment, she mentioned survey results about secondary-education-students’ attitudes as evidence for widespread antisemitism and homophobia among youth with migrant backgrounds. Not long after, she dismissed the inadequacy of official police statistics about hate crimes, offering an example (it was unclear to me whether this was hypothetical or actual) of an alleged Muslim extremist charged with a crime for making the Hitler salute at a Quds Day demonstration. His action, she said, was officially designated as “far-right” and not “Islamist,” which we were invited to see as patently ridiculous. Of course “motivation” for particular crimes may be misreported or botched by authorities. Shouldn’t this, though, spur further thought about the validity of “hate crimes” as a classification per se? And how are we supposed to assess whether or not a Muslim crime wave is underway when all we’re left with is a heap of uncollated incidents and this dismissal of official numbers as Fake News?

ministry of interior crime stats 2017

Table (“Total Volume of Politically-Motivated Crime”) from the Federal Ministry for the Interior, Building and Homeland’s report on the year 2017, published in May 2018. The “politically motivated” crime categories listed in the left column include: right, left, foreign ideology, religious ideology, and unassigned.

Just as the actual North Neukölln Muslim crime wave was asserted by fiat rather than demonstrated, so too was her confident and detailed exposition of the psychological mechanisms which motivate these Muslim perpetrators asserted without locating the source and citational history of her framework. And I can understand why. In the first case, it is always better not to show your hand when the data clearly say otherwise. And in the second, had she provided her audience with sourcing for this psychosocial account of the Muslim Mind, the jig would have been up. This psychosocial vocabulary she walked us through to explain why they do this to us is familiar to anyone sentient during the USA’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Post-Freudian “drive theory,” a quasi-hydraulic account of an “honor/shame” mental economy, a constant slippage between ethnicity, race and religion—none of this strays far from Raphael Patai’s 1973 The Arab Mind. These ideas are embarrassing relics for contemporary social scientists and professionals, and they were central to some of the most disastrous attempts to mobilize the human sciences in recent memory. Their resurrection is shocking and repellent.

Dome of the Crock

Dome of the crock: Covers of Patai’s mess of pottage

Writing for the New Yorker during the Bush years, Seymour Hersh was perhaps one of the first to draw public attention to how Patai’s idiotic 1973 work had become a handbook for US military and intelligence institutions at the time. Throughout the 20th century, US anthropology, whether ensconced in universities or on contract for the RAND corporation, churned out military-friendly readymades: “national personality” studies and Area Studies cultural psychological profiles of Patai’s sort, perhaps most notoriously in Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). Like this ESW talk, Benedict’s book traffics in speculative metapsychology using “shame” and “honor” as primary referents to map the Japanese Mind and Japanese Culture. Other disciplines got in on the grift (Edward Banfield’s 1955 The Moral Basis of a Backwards Society, which studied the “primitive” manners of southern Italy, is a hilarious iteration in political science’s specialized language); but eventually even mainstream anthropology turned one, then several, corners, leaving much of this entire approach in the dust. Not coincidentally, the year in which Patai’s book was published, 1973, was also the publication date of Talal Asad’s edited volume Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter—a dissection of the profession’s deep implication in imperial power which is actually studied and read today without a tongue lodged in cheek.

hood2

Abdel-Karim Khalil (1960 -), Iraq, Detainees, 2004

The Arab Mind’s authoritative, racist fable of the so-called “Arab” psyche armed the personnel of Abu Ghraib prison with actionable fantasy-knowledge about vulnerabilities in “Arab” masculinity, partially motivating several of the forms of sexual humiliation and torture inmates endured. Even more than other anthropological excursions into imperial apologetics, Patai’s ideas are fictions fitted for military use. They found a further theater in which to enact themselves in the still-running show at the USA’s other famous prison colony, Guantanamo. The American Psychological Association and other umbrella organizations of professional psychologists continue to grapple with how their profession was enlisted in enhanced interrogations and torture. For its part, the main professional organization of anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association, recoiled at the rollout of the US Army’s Human Terrain System, which sought to give social scientists the role of battlefield advisors on matters of local culture and custom in Afghanistan.

Bild_pig

And this little piggy: a 2017 poster (“Islam?” Doesn’t suit our cooking. Trust yourself, Germany!) for the extremist Alternative für Deutschland party. The racist politicians eventually pulled the ad, fearing it incited not antipathy toward Muslims but sympathy for the pig.

Even if the ESW speaker didn’t deign to mention Patai or the ignoble tradition to which her discourse belongs, neocon canards do plainly rhyme. They’re a chord easily heard. They gather together comfortably in symbolic space, and they apparently still pack a room. They impose a clash-of-civilizations geopolitics and a billiard-ball model of cultures. They compel a battlefield stance and combat posture whenever the Islam alarm is tripped. They buttress a bundle of irrational certainties about the Islam-designated-out-group, certainties which do not withstand scientific scrutiny. Their recent history and track record is repellent because neocon concepts reek of guarded racial animus and evangelical zeal, not notably noble motivations. Bootstrapped to interpretations of a perceived crime wave, neocon concepts algorithmically suggest a character roster of acceptable victims who, not so subtly, mirror the imputed switchpoints of the lone villain’s psyche—a villain we might call Muhammad Doe. Neocon concepts provide a narrative arc for the salvation of the victims and the vanquishing of the villain. First, we must know our enemy, his culture and his psychology, his habits and hang-ups. Then—the rest is (recent) history.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Franz Fanon directed the reader’s focus to the psychosocial double-binds facing both the colonized and “the other, the white man, who had woven me from a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.” “Woven” is a fitting word to convey the fabrications at the heart of racist oppressions: fabrications that incite an insincere empiricism hell-bent on collecting “a thousand details, anecdotes, stories,” all in the service of extravagant mythologizing about the violent Other meant to excuse violence against the Other. Lamentably, this is no less true in Neukölln than in Abu Ghraib. ESW’s name inverts an old Social Democratic slogan from the 1930s; a party official proclaimed that Hitler had stripped the SPD of strength but not honor. Negating an anti-Nazi rallying cry is perhaps not an auspicious move. The call not to be “defenseless” against migrants carries an undertone of threat. A YouTube account—self-branded with an “antideutsch” symbol and a byline that reads “Donald Trump, OI, OI, OI!”—posted a recording of parts of the November 21 talk, with an ominous #bashback hashtag. Before these concerned citizens start drawing up their plans to bash the Muslim Mind out of Neukölln, they might take heed of this old Hegelian chestnut: “Evil resides in the gaze which perceives evil all around it.”

botero-02

Fernando Botero (1932 -), Colombia, Abu Ghraib, from a series, 2005

The revival of these tropes in ESW’s discourse—or, why not? hate speech—here in Neukölln breathes fresh life into ongoing anti-Muslim racism: that is evident. The task remains to keep the benefit of the doubt alive: to hope that the interest in these ideas on display this November at Laidak is still partially open to facts, still persuadable. But I have no illusions that the task ahead—to disabuse a sizeable swath of the activist left in Berlin of their seemingly cherished neocon clichés—is easy. That remains a large and unappealing undertaking.

It continues to baffle any person actually aware of the conservative and right-wing discourse of the USA to encounter the same language and arguments recycled by young academics who declare themselves antifascists. But this garbage anthropology is not simply baffling or laughable; it’s also dangerous. By smuggling pernicious neocon ideas into progressive spaces, whether leftist cafes or queer-feminist organizations, and arming its hosts with pseudo-knowledge about Islam and the Muslim Mind, the minimal gains made against encroaching anti-Muslim racism are brazenly rolled back. This is a threatening situation for everyone, not least for the Muslims and those-perceived-to-be-Muslim who actually live here.

Again, please listen to further discussion of these issues on the podcast, with:

Olympia Bukkakis, a performer and artist who has lived in Neukölln, Berlin since 2012. She has been deeply involved in the burgeoning drag scene there and organizes the successful show Queens Against Borders. Olympia is a white, trans-femme Australian and a radical leftist as yet unaffiliated with any political parties or organizations.

Sahra (name changed), an activist and educator who also lives in Neukölln, Berlin. After growing up in elsewhere Germany and completing her studies abroad, she came to Berlin and spent many years working inside queer-feminist and anti-racist initiatives and organizations. “Sahra” is a queer German Muslima of color and radical leftist and is unaffiliated with any political party.

Christopher Sweetapple, an anthropologist who lives in Neukölln. He is in the midst of completing his dissertation about his fieldwork among queer anti-racist activists in Berlin; he is the editor of the recently published The Queer Intersectional in Contemporary Germany (available as a free pdf from Psychosozial-Verlag). Christopher is a white US citizen, cis gay man, and radical leftist.

hood1

Abdel-Karim Khalil (1960 -), Iraq, We are Living in an American Democracy, 2004

 

PREVENT free speech: For governments, it’s easy

This letter appeared in the Independent (UK) today:

We, the undersigned, take issue with the government’s Prevent strategy and its statutory implementation through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 for the following reasons:

1. The latest addition to the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism framework comes in the form of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (CTS Act). The CTS Act has placed PREVENT on a statutory footing for public bodies to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism by tackling what is claimed to be ‘extremist ideology’. In practice, this will mean that individuals working within statutory organisations must report individuals suspected of being ‘potential terrorists’ to external bodies for ‘de-radicalisation’.

2. The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.

3. However, PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism. This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.

4. While much of the PREVENT policy is aimed at those suspected of ‘Islamist extremism’ and far-right activity, there is genuine concern that other groups will also be affected by such policies, such as anti-austerity and environmental campaigners – largely those engaged in political dissent.

5. Without due reconsideration of PREVENT’s poor reputation, the police and government have attempted to give the programme a veneer of legitimacy by expressing it in the language of ‘safeguarding’. Not only does this depoliticise the issue of radicalisation, it shifts attention away from grievances that drive individuals towards an ideology that legitimises political violence.

6. PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, PREVENT will make us less safe.

7. We believe that PREVENT has failed not only as a strategy but also the very communities it seeks to protect. Instead of blindly attempting to strengthen this project, we call on the government to end its ineffective PREVENT policy and rather adopt an approach that is based on dialogue and openness.

The full list of signatories is here.

PREVENT (originally Preventing Violent Extremism) is the UK’s government’s flagship program for winning hearts and minds in Vietnam keeping people from going off and turning terrorist. Repeatedly revised and relaunched, it’s one of four prongs of the country’s post-9/11 domestic strategyThe prongs alliterate in a way suggesting bureaucrats with notepads and nothing else to do: “Prepare for attacks, Protect the public, Pursue the attackers and Prevent their radicalization.” (For attackers, the latter comes a bit too late.) The “P” that’s missing is Police. LIke the others, PREVENT is about police power. It works by surveilling marginal, distrusted, and brown communities. There’s no way of measuring how well it’s met its goals, because it has no concrete goals, no benchmarks. Its great success has been the one not mentioned in the glossy pamphlets: it’s contributed to alienating Muslims from society and state, one tenable definition of “radicalization.” A system of surveillance that publicly and legally singles out a minority inevitably makes that minority more marginal, less equal participants in public life: more subjects, less citizens. As in some shadow story by Paul Auster or Robbe-Grillet, the government seeks a criminal that is itself.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

This March, Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, told the BBC he fully endorsed the two most widespread criticisms. First, PREVENT places itself beyond bureaucratic standards of success or failure. “A huge amount of money has been spent on this. At a time when we have limited resources we really need to make sure that we measure it.” Second, it stigmatizes  the people whose hearts and minds good will it’s supposed to be winning. It’s a “toxic brand” among Muslims; counter-extremist programs  “should not be putting Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people”:

He said there was a “spectacular lack of diversity” in local safeguarding services and police forces that meant many of those involved in Prevent did not understand the communities they serve, particularly in cities such as London and Birmingham.

PREVENT has, however, built up a constituency for itself, by ladling out money. And this is perhaps its real goal: not to combat terrorism, but to cultivate support for the metastasis of governmental power. Between 2005 and 2011 alone, Dominic Casciani writes, “almost £80m was spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities,” almost none of them properly evaluated. Rivers of largesse ran to dubious “anti-extremism” groups like the Quilliam Foundation, which claims to combat terrorist instincts among benighted Muslim immigrants, even though most Muslims in the UK seem to regard it with bafflement or disdain. The money keeps Quilliam’s founder, Maajid Nawaz, in an “immaculate and expensive suit,” upscale hotels, and the occasional strip club; whether it keeps Britain safer is a different proposition.

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed by kids saying the darndest things

As with other insecure governments in repressive states, the UK regime’s response to failure has been to tighten the screws of repression. Rendering more people potential criminals makes their enemies your allies; with each opinion stamped Thoughtcrime, its opponents become your friends. The Cameron government is bidding for the gays’ support:

Children who speak out in class against homosexuality could be viewed as potential extremists under Government guidelines intended to prevent Islamist terrorism, Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has suggested. Mrs Morgan said comments by children that they consider homosexuality to be “wrong” or “evil” could “trigger” concerns from teachers under guidance designed to help schools detect possible radicalisation.

They’ll have to put a playground in Gitmo before these people are through.

Quite a few prominent “free-speech advocates” in the UK are not signatories to the Independent letter. One wonders why.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.49 PMCAGE, founded by former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg, mobilizes advocacy and activism in British Muslim communities against war-on-terror abuses. HT is the nonviolent pan-Islamic group Hizb ut Tahrir. You see the problem!  A letter complaining about repression of Muslim communities was signed by Muslims, the believing kind. If only it had been restricted to Church of England vicars, like a Barbara Pym novel! But once they’ve put their greasy fingerprints on the doc, the text goes straight to hell, like Tower Hamlets. Tom Holland, who is a sort of expert on why he dislikes Islam, agrees:

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.21 PMThe whole point of PREVENT is: Muslims must not speak for themselves.

But some non-signatories simply had better things to do. Nick Cohen, for instance — the hero columnist who defends to the deadline to the death a writer’s right to Cohen’s an opinion — spent today Tweeting about a couple of columnists fired by a provincial newspaper.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.49.36 PM

Peter Tatchell, that free-speech martyr, ignored the Independent letter. He was fighting the brutal goons of Sainsbury’s for oppressing a gay magazine.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.39.58 PM

These guys tread gingerly round Muslims when the UK government threatens their free speech, particularly if the excuse is “extremism.” What upsets them way, way more are infringements in their own little pigeonholes or professions — a journalist sacked, a newsrack missing a magazine that headlines them. Such misplaced priorities miss the point. True, states have have less power relatively in this globalizing age, and non-state actors more. But regime upon regime compensates for its impotence to superintend its economy or decide its budget by clamping down on what it can control: privacy or opinion, patrolling intimacies, gagging voices. Those are the spheres where state power rampages unmitigated and unharnessed, in London as much as Lahore. The police are the true menace to free expression around the world. The supermarkets aren’t even close. Ignoring the Ideal-Typus of evil and focusing on its marginal manifestations only abets the repression. (Conspicuously, such freedom paladins also paid no attention to the WikiLeaks release this week of horrifying documents from an EU-based Internet-surveillance company, showing its sinister dealings with dictatorships on several continents. This is where private enterprise really kicks in, selling technology to the censors and torturers. Governments’ power to monitor what you say and think grows faster than Moore’s Law, thanks to their corporate accomplices.)

For some advocates, the threat to free speech is governments jailing, silencing, torturing people. For other advocates, the threat is a student club no-platforming their friends.

I know where I stand. Do you?

IF YOU SEE THIS WORD IN THE DICTIONARY, CALL THE POLICE NOW: Staffordshire Police banner for PREVENT, at http://www.staffordshire.police.uk/

IF YOU SEE THIS WORD IN THE DICTIONARY, CALL US NOW: Staffordshire Police banner for PREVENT, at http://www.staffordshire.police.uk/

Why I am not Charlie

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo:  Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo: Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Erasing differences that actually exist seems to be the purpose here: and it’s perhaps appropriate to the Charlie cartoons, which drew their force from a considered contempt for people with the temerity to be different. For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire. The same line is all over my several timelines:

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

“Those 21 words circling the globe speak louder than gunfire and represent every pen being wielded by an outstretched arm,” an Australian news site says. (Never mind that Voltaire never wrote them; one of his biographers did.) But most people who mouth them don’t mean them. Instead, they’re subtly altering the Voltairean clarion cry: the message today is, I have to agree with what you say, in order to defend it. Why else the insistence that condemning the killings isn’t enough? No: we all have to endorse the cartoons, and not just that, but republish them ourselves. Thus Index on Censorship, a journal that used to oppose censorship but now is in the business of telling people what they can and cannot say, called for all newspapers to reprint the drawings: “We believe that only through solidarity – in showing that we truly defend all those who exercise their right to speak freely – can we defeat those who would use violence to silence free speech.” But is repeating you the same as defending you? And is it really “solidarity” when, instead of engaging across our differences, I just mindlessly parrot what you say?

But no, if you don’t copy the cartoons, you’re colluding with the killers, you’re a coward. Thus the right-wing Daily Caller posted a list of craven media minions of jihad who oppose free speech by not doing as they’re ordered. Punish these censors, till they say what we tell them to!

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.34.32 AMIf you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.22.15 AMYou’re not just kowtowing to terrorists with your silence. According to Tarek Fatah, a Canadian columnist with an evident fascist streak, silence is terrorism.

Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 11.46.59 PMOf course, any Muslim in the West would know that being called “our enemy” is a direct threat; you’ve drawn the go-to-GItmo card. But consider: This idiot thinks he is defending free speech. How? By telling people exactly what they have to say, and menacing the holdouts with treason. The Ministry of Truth has a new office in Toronto.

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.

It’s true, as Salman Rushdie says, that “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” You should not get to invoke the law to censor or shut down speech just because it insults you or strikes at your pet convictions. You certainly don’t get to kill because you heard something you don’t like. Yet, manhandled by these moments of mass outrage, this truism also morphs into a different kind of claim: That nobody has the right to be offended at all.

I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club.The demand to join, endorse, agree is all about crowding us into a herd where no one is permitted to cavil or condemn: an indifferent mob, where differing from one another is Thoughtcrime, while indifference to the pain of others beyond the pale is compulsory.

We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Funny little man: Contemporary caricature of Kierkegaard

Funny little man: Contemporary Danish cartoon of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.”

Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 3.01.25 AM

The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you're circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you’re circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message. #JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.”

Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AM

A few hours later he had to add:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AM

This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides.

We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killingsI mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.

If you appreciate this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Jamie Kirchick loves racist Rod Liddle: The style is the man

Kirchick Liddle copyDiminutive neoconservative Jamie Kirchick has tweeted that the author of this diatribe “is the best writer in the English language,” citing the prose here as evidence. The writer, Roderick E. L. Liddle, known to readers and other victims as “Rod,” is perhaps best remembered for referring to the killers of Lee Rigby a few months ago as “black savages.” He later partly backed off from the term {“If anyone took that wrong way [sic], I’m very sorry”), explaining that he simply used “black” to mean “of Muslim appearance,” and “savages” to mean the same thing.

The piece in question is an all-out attack on the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. It’s worth nothing on its own, but it has a use. You can deduce from it Jamie’s own standards for stylistic merit:

a) Islamophobia and racism (see above);
b) Relentlessly violent invective;
c) Rigorous refusal to cite a source or adduce a single fact;
d) Forced yoking of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate vocabulary for a certain frisson of linguistic shock, e.g. “spurt of fatuity.”

Of these standards, only d) has anything to do with judging literary style. The rest are excellent criteria for judging Jamie.

Probably, like most narcissists, Jamie is secretly judging himself in most of his dislikes and druthers. But this example is a particularly acute, sad revelation.

The gay – Muslim nexus

protect yourselves by buying duct tape

Two groups who face harassment in schools found common ground in Michigan:

Gay and Muslim groups say they are relieved after a Michigan lawmaker agreed to drop a provision in an anti-bullying bill that would have carved out an exemption for religious or moral beliefs.

State Sen. Rick Jones, a Republican, inserted a carve-out for a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” in the Senate version of the bill. The state House of Representatives’ version of the bill did not include the provision.

Jones on Monday (Nov. 14) said he would drop his amendment and vote for the House version after critics said the language could allow gay, Muslim or other minority students to face harassment.

Earlier this year, the chronically crazy episodically sane birther guru Joseph Farah warned, on his right-wing website WorldNet Daily, that there was sinister “patty-cake politics between the Muslim Mafia and the Gay Mafia.”

Why don’t the active Muslim Brotherhood front groups in the U.S. speak out in opposition to policies that would never even be whispered about in any Islamic state on the planet?

I will tell you why: Because they recognize the promotion of this [“homosexual”] agenda in the U.S. actually serves the Islamist long-term agenda. They recognize that the success of this agenda promotes the weakening of the United States of America in multiple ways.

More power to them.