Instead of listening to the minimally informed voice in your head

There’s one compensation in all the stupid treacherous bullshit about Charlie Hebdo, and that is the discovery of new best friends. Mihir S Sharma is my new best friend for this morning. He has thoughts on The vanity of good souls:

I have already stated, in this column, my reasons for thinking that the highest duty of any writer – or indeed human being – is to refuse to ignore oppression and silencing, even if that silencing is ostensibly on behalf of a marginalised community. Without allies from outside, it is difficult for any stomped-on member of a community to escape. And the focus on that individual, instead of the community to which they are forced to belong by birth, is central to every progressive and humane development in the centuries since writers in France and Scotland created the Enlightenment out of little more than hope and anger. Everywhere the values of the Enlightenment are threatened, mocked and diluted – in our country not least. If you believe the values of the Enlightenment, which stress our common humanity and shared – but not communal – rights, are necessarily racist, European, or discriminatory, then naturally you will disagree with me. You are grievously and tragically wrong, but I cannot set you right in the 500 words remaining in this column.

Members of communities must always be able to escape. A community that locks all the doors is a bad community. A community has to be fully voluntary to be worth belonging to it. It’s much the same principle as that which says marriage should be chosen and not forced – what on earth can be the point of a form of “affection” or “loyalty” that is compelled?

I suppose an exception to that is the military, but then the military is an organization and an institution more than a community. The very word “community” is used to avoid the implications of force and institutionalization; communities are supposed to be cuddly and loving…which becomes a mockery when they are in fact coercive and harsh.

But what I can do is point out how, when it comes to honouring writers, the principle matters – but so does the text. I agree with the New York Six that even if you stand for free speech, you could still say that awarding racists is not necessary. You can defend them, protect them, march in their support. But you need not honour them. In matters of honour, the principle does not trump the example.

But the New York Six violate this, too. For they have indeed put a principle above the instance. The principle is anti-colonialism; and the instance is Charlie Hebdo, the anti-authoritarians. The Six have chosen to ignore a long history of provocation in order to focus on what they see as “selectively offensive material”.

Then he points out the facts. Charlie Hebdo is not lily-white, nor is it obsessed with Islam.

Third, French Muslims are not clinging to religion in the face of an oppressive state. Whatever their economic marginalisation, they are, in fact, the most rapidly secularising Muslim community in the world. According to one estimate, quoted by a Pew Survey, “the fraction of Muslims actively practicing their religion in France is only 10 per cent, which is very similar to that of practicing Catholics”. Eight of 10 French Muslims say they “want to adopt French customs”. Only as many French Muslims say they are French before being Muslim as American Christians say they are Christian before American. In other words, the New York Six have caricatured and patronised French Muslims, in a way Charlie Hebdo never did.

As we just saw that Jon Wiener did in the Nation, guessing at what French Muslims “must” feel about Charlie’s Mo cartoons.

Fourth, it would be wise to listen to the voices of France itself. Just because it is a Western country does not mean that the smug Anglo-American pretend-liberal can immediately understand it. Instead of listening to the minimally informed voice in your head, look instead to the anti-racism movement in France – and to men such as Dominique Sopo, the young president of the organisation SOS Racisme, who turned up to defend Charlie Hebdo at the PEN gala earlier this week. It was, he said, “the most anti-racist newspaper” in France … Every week in Charlie Hebdo – every week – half of it was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.” The magazine’s murdered editor, Charb, was about to publish a book attacking Muslim-hatred. (Read it, it’s awesome.) In fact, as Michael Moynihan pointed out on The Daily Beast, “when the shooting began, the Charlie Hebdo staff members were discussing their participation in an upcoming anti-racism conference”.

To choose to call these people racist, in the service of a half-formed anti-imperialist principle, shows the worst kind of Anglo-American arrogance.

The kind that already had a bad name from the early days of the fatwa, and is now even worse.

Political differences aside, this is what I say to the Six Authors in Search of Character: If you wish to slander the dead, it is your right. But you are a fool to do so. And far worse, you are unkind.

Let the final word go to Charlie Hebdo itself. On its latest cover, it gleefully makes the obvious pun – linking PEN, the organisation, to Le Pen, the racist family that runs the magazine’s favourite target, the National Front. Inside, Pierre Lancon – shot in the face in January – writes sadly of the New York Six: “It’s not their abstention that shocks me. It’s the nature of their arguments. That novelists of such quality … come to say so many misinformed stupidities in so few words, with all the vanity of good souls, is what saddens the reader in me.”

In me too also.


  1. Iain Walker says

    A damn fine article indeed, except for one thing:

    writers in France and Scotland created the Enlightenment out of little more than hope and anger

    While it’s a nice turn of phrase, it’s still a sloppy piece of historical revisionism. Does Sharma really think the Enlightenment sprang out of nowhere, and in these two countries alone, with no precursors?

  2. says

    No, of course not. It’s a façon de parler, not a literal fact-claim. It’s a rhetorical or metaphorical way of underlining the novelty of the Enlightenment.

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