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Friday, 9 January 2015

We can defend Charlie Hebdo without endorsing it


Jeff Sparrow

by Jeff Sparrow, The Drum, Australia, 8/1/2015
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland literary journal and the author of Killing: Misadventure in Violence. On Twitter, he is @Jeff_Sparrow.
We should condemn the Paris killers, but that doesn't mean we must circulate the work of Charlie Hebdo. You can uphold their right to safety without endorsing the racialised stereotypes they published, writes Jeff Sparrow.
No one should be killed for drawing a cartoon. Nor for writing an article, or for editing or publishing one.
It doesn't matter whether you live in Paris or Sydney, New York or Baghdad - expressing an opinion shouldn't be a death sentence.
That's all that needs to be said about free speech and the awful murders in France.
Or at least it should be.
But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it's being argued that, rather than merely condemning the killers, we should, in the name of free speech, republish the magazine's work.
And that's something quite different.
Last July, the Sydney Morning Herald published a cartoon by Glen Le Lievre about the conflict in
Palestine. The image showed an elderly man sitting on an armchair using a remote control device to explode bombs in Gaza. The figure, with an exaggeratedly large nose, was wearing a skullcap; his chair was decorated with the Star of David.*
Fairfax** (correctly, in my view) subsequently apologised for the cartoon: the tropes were, the paper said, uncomfortably close to classical anti-Semitism:
The Herald now appreciates that, in using the Star of David and the kippah in the cartoon, the newspaper invoked an inappropriate element of religion, rather than nationhood, and made a serious error of judgment.
It was wrong to publish the cartoon in its original form.
Had someone subsequently attacked the artist, would that have changed our opinion of the image in question? Would it have been necessary to endorse - or even republish - an anti-Jewish cartoon to defend its creator from harm?
To put it another way, you don't have to like the project of Charlie Hedbo to defend its artists from murder, just as you can uphold media workers' right to safety without endorsing the imagery they produce.
That might seem entirely obvious. But it needs to be said for, if the SMH cartoon was bigoted, so too was much of what Charlie Hebdo published.
Jacob Canfield offers a sample of the magazine's work. Have a look for yourself. It's a gallery of racialised stereotypes: image after image of leering hook-nosed Muslims, with bushy beards and hijabs.
As Canfield says:
These are, by even the most generous assessment, incredibly racist cartoons. Hebdo's goal is to provoke, and these cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking: France's incredibly marginalized, often attacked, Muslim immigrant community.
Once more and again, we can condemn those who kill artists for their art without pretending there's something admirable in xenophobic clichés, particularly given the rising racial tensions across Europe.
Earlier this week, 18,000 people marched in Dresden under the banner of PEGIDA - or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West - demanding a harsh crackdown on immigrants. The group's been dubbed "the pinstripe Nazis", in a country that doesn't use references to National Socialism lightly.
Similar groups are on the rise all across the continent, including in France, where the National Front has reached new levels of popularity, despite a lineage traceable back to old-style Jew-baiting fascism.
Already, the far Right is making political capital from this crime. The circulation of Islamophobic images, even if intended as a gesture of solidarity with the victims, will help normalise a bigotry that's the bread and butter of the National Front and its ilk.
Many of us remember the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when politicians and media pundits stampeded each other into a whole gamut of responses, almost all of which proved to be disastrous.
So right now would be a good time to calm down, to refrain from hashtag politics and kneejerk reactions. What's happened is bad enough. Let's not make matters worse.
 Tlaxcala's Notes
*One of the pictures which inspired Glen Le Lievre:



Israelis watched the bombing of Gaza on Saturday night July 12, 2014 from a couch dragged to a hill overlooking the Palestinian territory. Credit Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
** Fairfax Media Limited is one of Australia's largest diversified media companies. The group's operations include newspapers, magazines, radio and digital media operating in Australia and New Zealand. It owns  The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, amongst others.

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