Like almost everyone else commenting on the Charlie Hebdo massacre I know next to nothing about that publication save for the publicity it has received subsequently. From what I can gather it appears to excel in satirical cartoons of a rather blunt and not terrifically funny variety. Despite the fact that I would be opposed to most of its editorial viewpoints I still feel that what happened in Paris on January 7th is terribly sad. But then there was already something sad about a magazine put together by aging leftists who perceived themselves to be located on the cutting edge of political radicalism.
Another establishment cartoonist with similar delusions of outsider status is The Guardian’s Steve Bell. His response to the massacre was to draw the murderers wearing silly clothes and asking, “Why are the fuckers still laughing at us?” No one is laughing, Steve. I suppose it might provoke a titter from a five-year-old who still finds clowns funny but the fact is that there is nothing especially worthwhile or laudable about this particular strain of caricature. If it also fails to be funny then it begins to seem like an exercise in sad frustration.
Perhaps I’m missing the point. I quite like Calvin and Hobbes, and my exposure as a child to the work of Charles Schultz gave me a depth of philosophical understanding that I have never quite been able to recapture as an adult. Cartoons that straddle the void between innocence and experience can evoke a Blakean sense of the lost paradise of childhood, and momentarily provide relief from the stress of everyday life. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, by contrast, seem to embody the very worst aspects of childhood, being puerile, offensive, and spiteful. Childish rather than child-like.
Of course, many will object that my personal taste in cartoons is irrelevant; that the significant point is that we should all stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in the face of this brutal assault on our freedoms. But I regard this position as deeply flawed. Firstly, I would question the nature of the ‘freedom’ that is being defended. As others have pointed out, there is absolutely no freedom of speech in Europe for those who wish to say something radically divergent from the prevailing multicultural narrative. This is true both for Islamists and for the radical right. The freedom of speech that those who have adopted the “Je suis Charlie” slogan advocate is freedom for a broad leftist milieu who support multiculturalism, not for dissident views.
Secondly, I disagree with the world view put forward by Charlie Hebdo and their ilk. Some might see this as short-sighted in the face of the very real Islamic threat. But I would argue that it is the building of false alliances that is short-sighted. The staff of Charlie Hebdo and the wider leftist milieu have never supported anyone from the dissident Right who has been jailed for their views and they will not start supporting them now. This is not a minor disagreement within a wider broad church. I disagreed with the politics of Charlie Hebdo before January 7th, and I still disagree with it now. I will not alter my world view in response to murderers.
Thirdly, I do not support the publication of material deliberately designed to offend people’s religious sensibilities. Perhaps I should rapidly add that I do not support censorship of such material nor the murder of those responsible for it. But neither can I accept the elevation of such material to the summit of Western civilization. To hear our politicians talk you would think that the crude baiting of the most intimate part of Muslims’ religion is the end point to which Western culture has been evolving for two millennia. Never mind the fact that Nick Griffin was put on trial, and wholly condemned by all mainstream politicians, for saying things relatively mild in comparison to the case of Charlie Hebdo. The hypocrisy is stark but not in the least surprising. But this is the difference between Left-wing freedom of speech and Right-wing freedom of speech. They will never make an explicit distinction but it is there whenever you look for it.
Some have suggested that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo should be admired for their courage and I would agree with this. Their actions seemed designed to provoke Muslims and they knew that this was a dangerous path to tread. They certainly showed bravery in this regard. But the most admirable quality is courage combined with wisdom, and Charlie Hebdo was certainly lacking in the latter quality. Their sense of radicalism consists of a hollow “fuck you” gesture aimed at an establishment that withered away sometime soon after ’68. It is the radicalism of the Monty Python generation, forever patting itself on the back for an iconoclasm that was already dated some years ago.
The leftists and multiculturalists who are now so determined to protect bourgeois values such as “the freedom to offend” turned their backs on the working class youth of Europe a long time ago. Their priorities are now clear to see. Rather than engage with the difficult task of building a future for their youth they prefer to play silly and irresponsible games, throwing around their sole Voltaire quote in a pique of self-righteous narcissism. It all has less to do with noble ideas of freedom than with the self-indulgence of a bored elite. The working class youth of Europe have more urgent issues to deal with, as the case of Rotherham (to give only one example) showed.
I cannot join in the clamor to claim “je suis Charlie” because I think that such a position is schizophrenic. The supporters of free speech support that right for those who advocate multiculturalism, but they support jail and censorship for those who oppose it. And in pursuit of this faux freedom of speech we are all expected to support the puerile rudeness aimed at those whose integration within multiculturalism is proving to be most difficult. It is as though the multiculturalists do not really, deep down, believe in their own rhetoric, and wish to undermine their own project through a petulant, yet repressed, act of childish provocation. It is literally insane. Je ne suis pas Charlie.