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Charlie Hebdo: The literary indulgence of murder

29 April 2015

3:59 PM

29 April 2015

3:59 PM

I suppose it is asking too much of a writer called Francine Prose that she write prose anyone would want to read. But on the principle you can only track down terrible ideas by wading through terrible writing you have to endure Prose’s prose.

She attempted to deploy her prosaic talent to explain why PEN, an organisation dedicated to protecting the free speech of writers, should not honour the writers and artists of Charlie Hebdo – murdered by Islamists for exercising their right to free speech.

The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East. And the idea that one is either “for us or against us” in such matters not only precludes rational and careful thinking, but also has a chilling effect on the exercise of our right to free expression and free speech that all of us – and all the people at PEN – are working so tirelessly to guarantee.

Note the dehumanisation. She turns a murder into a “narrative” – so she can stop seeing it as a crime. Note the sleight of hand.  Prose judges the murder of her fellow artists by its political implications. She feels that if a free speech organisation honours the victims of the most brutal form of censorship it will “feed neatly into the cultural prejudices” which start wars. If it did not, presumably she would be more generous to the dead.

Note her racial obsessions. She objects to PEN honouring “white Europeans killed in their office by Muslim extremists”. Note that she is so sloppy and so indifferent to the fate of her colleagues she could not find the time to Google the names of the dead before emptying the contents of her mind. Had she done so, she would have discovered that among them was Hebdo’s copy editor Mustapha Ourrad. He would be surprised to hear Prose call him white – assuming, that is, he could have risen from his grave in Père-Lachaise to hear her at all.

Note, finally, the inevitable appeal to victimhood. Honouring Hebdo would impose a “chilling effect on the exercise of our right to free expression and free speech”. Eh? “Our right?” Journalists and cartoonists lost their right to life because they satirised a 7th century prophet. But the writer, you must think about and worry, whose prose will be “chilled” is Prose, who isn’t threatened by anyone or anything – and from the evidence of her piece in the Guardian would run a mile if she were.

The temptation here is to drag up  the old line that some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them. But the authors who broke with PEN are not just stupid but mendacious.

They repeated the lie that Charlie Hebdo was a cowardly publication, which “hit down” on poor and excluded immigrants.

A hideous crime was committed,” said Peter Carey, as he boycotted the PEN award, “but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” Perhaps realising on second thoughts that it may be Carey, who has not one but two Booker Prizes, added that Pen was blind “to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population”.

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As France has a Socialist government which is trying its best to maintain a generous welfare state in hard times, he must mean that the disempowerment comes from mocking Islam in general and Muhammed in particular. Teju Cole appeared to thinks so. He told the New York Times that Hebdo “has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations”. The London Review of Books, which was once a home for intelligent writing and now reads like Socialist Worker without the rapists, spelt out the charge in an error-ridden denunciation.

“For a bunch of white guys [in fact they weren’t all white, or all guys] in a Catholic country [the French church and state have been separated for 110 years] making fun of the pope [a capital “P” for Pope is traditional] is not the same as categorising a beleaguered minority in that country as moronic towel-heads.”

The lie is on two levels. I’ll deal with the racism charge first.

It is the worst of crimes on the intellectual left. When confronted with extreme and murderous theocratic reactionaries, they would rather not face, the most moronic – to borrow the LRB‘s insult – among them explain terror away in the only language they understand. Racism must have made the killer do it. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. Why Charlie Hebdo even showed pregnant Boko Haram sex slaves shouting, “Don’t touch our welfare!” That’s it. That’s why they died.

Those who shout the loudest about respecting “diversity” and the culture of others, cannot stir themselves to respect the French enough to learn their language and understand their culture. If they did, they would know that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing magazine, which used Boko Haram to parody conservatives so lost in paranoia they imagined enslaved Nigerian women were threatening to come to France and steal their money.

Max Fisher of Vox tried to shake up Anglo-Saxon leftists by pointing them to a New Yorker cover showing Barack Obama as a Kenyan Muslim and Michelle Obama as a terrorist. It was a satire of the Tea Party fantasy that Obama was a foreigner, who could not stand for election, his wife was a far leftist and between them the couple married the ideologies of the Mau-Mau and the Black Panthers. No one who understood New York liberal culture could fail to see that the New Yorker was not really saying the Obamas were actual terrorists. Similarly, he continued, as if he were speaking to an unusually stupid child, no one who understood Parisian culture could fail to see that Charlie Hebdo was mocking the prejudices of the French Right.

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Meanwhile Olivier Tonneau, a French radical, who now teaches at Cambridge, wrote an open letter to the Anglo-Saxon left, and explained

Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organised religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! It ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. It took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. Even if you dislike its humour, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.

Tonneau did not realise that many will never allow themselves to understand, because their little world would fall apart if they made the effort.

Let me dispense with their bullshit about biting your tongues out of respect for marginalised and excluded. If this were true, left intellectuals and media would watch what they said about the working class supporters of the Tea Party, French NF and Ukip. If the followers of Marine le Pen had gunned down the staff of Charlie Hebdo, Carey et al would have blamed the murders on the Hebdo‘s “arrogant” attacks on the ideology of ordinary French men and women.

They do not and would not because they oppose racial prejudice. (Or at least some racial prejudice. Not one mentioned that the gang that killed the Hebdo staff were authentic racist killers, as they proved when they went on to slaughter Parisian Jews in a supermarket for no other reason than that they were Jewish.) But they cannot oppose religious prejudice – and in their failure they live a lie far greater and more grotesque than their lies about the dead of Charlie Hebdo.

Prose, Carey, the London Review of Books and so many others agree with Islamists first demand that the world should have a de facto blasphemy law enforced at gunpoint. Break it and you have only yourself to blame if the assassins you provoked kill you

They not only go along with the terrorists from the religious ultra-right but with every state that uses Islam to maintain its power. They can show no solidarity with gays in Iran, bloggers in Saudi Arabia and persecuted women and religious minorities across the Middle East, who must fight theocracy. They have no understanding that enemies of Charlie Hebdo are also the enemies of liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West. In the battle between the two, they have in their stupidity and malice allied with the wrong side.

Most glaringly they have failed to understand power. It is not fixed but fluid. It depends on where you stand. The unemployed terrorist with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian cartoonist cowering underneath his desk. The marginal cleric may well face racism and hatred – as my most liberal British Muslim friends do – but when he sits in a Sharia court imposing misogynist rules on Muslim women in the West, he is no longer a victim or potential victim but a man to be feared.

When I read the literary attacks on PEN’s award to Hebdo, I wondered whether it was worth staying on the middle-class left. Prose’s piece on its own was enough to make me leave in disgust. It seems a corrupted, cowardly, lying and selfish movement bereft on any spirit of camaraderie; and dishonest to its bones.

But then I recollected that PEN stood firm. It politely thanked its various luminaries for their protests and then said it would ignore them.

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