Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Why I am not a Charlie

In the aftermath of the shooting of the staff of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, we are all encouraged by popular sentiment to adopt the phrase "I am Charlie." Unfortunately, in traditional English usage, "I am a [right] Charlie" means "I have done something stupid or thoughtless." Hence, one translates "Je suis Charlie" at one's peril.

No reasonable-minded person could condone the terrible acts of violence perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, or elsewhere. My main reaction is sadness and sympathy for the victims and the bereaved. What  am concerned with here is the popular reaction to the Parisian atrocities, and this is something that worries me.

I was living in America on 11th September 2001, and the events in New York directly involved some of my students, who were part of the response, and left one of my colleagues mourning a brother who was on one of the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center. I witnessed an immediate change in the social climate of the United States. Overnight and at the following weekend, I struggled to reinvent myself as an expert on terrorism, or at least someone who could say something intelligent and authoritative about it.

The power of mass communication is extraordinary. When it succeeds in coalescing popular sentiment, the results are mind-boggling. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died on 31 August 1997, the writer Ian Jack described the response as "grief police". We all had to grieve—visibly—or face massive public opprobrium. In the aftermath of "nine-eleven", the prevailing slogan was "either you're with us or you're against us." Vigorously, public figures vied to out-patriot each other and out-condemn the vile acts of that fateful day. American patriotism has succeeded in creating a country of extraordinary diversity in which there is remarkably little dissent from the basic principles that launched the nation. This is an amazing achievement, but there are times when the patriotism is taken to ludicrous lengths. I have never been one for putting my hand on my digestive system every time the national anthem is played.

The net effect of "either you're with us or you're against us" was to stifle debate about the motivations behind the terrorist outrages. Publicly to question US foreign policy or actions abroad became physically dangerous, and graphic demonstrations of that danger occurred in my local area. Anyone who was not visibly orthodox ran the risk of becoming the target of militarised, gun-toting thugs who were acting "in the name of patriotism" to police the nation's thoughts and attitudes. At a local town meeting, a Mexican citizen stood up and said, with great courage, that he felt threatened by the American flag. It was a relatively mild admission, but foolhardy nonetheless. For those of us who had grave doubts about US foreign policy, and also some sense of the injustices of Middle Eastern history, it felt as if we were re-experiencing Germany in the 1930s.

Clearly, the hostage-takings and killings in Paris January 2015 have had a deep effect on the French nation's psyche. People feel justifiably outraged and vulnerable to further attacks. As a form of resistance, there has been a surge of support for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It follows a long tradition of political and social mockery. In the dramas of Athens in the fifth-century BC, satyrs, beings that combined elements of man and goat, mocked the heroic events of the past. The plays were lewd and subversive, and thus was born satire. I read English and Italian satirical magazines and I appreciate the ability of satire to illuminate problems in creative and refreshing ways. I rather think the insistent mocking of Mohammed is now in rather bad taste. I also suspect that there are many instances in which modern satire applies double standards : for example, it is rare to see Jews mocked to the extent that Muslims are.

The effect of the Charlie Hebdo affair on Italy is surprising—or perhaps not. Judging by the nightly round of chat shows and televised debates, the country has been shocked almost to the same extent as France has been. Suddenly, Italy seems to have woken up to the realisation that we are all at risk of terrorist outrages, and the main reaction seems to be smarrimento—bewilderment. "Experts" on international affairs and counter terrorism have been dragged in front of the cameras, and have generally acquitted themselves atrociously. Women in hejab have been strategically placed in studio audiences, microphones have been thrust in the faces of inarticulate Muslim street traders in the big Italian cities; the right-wing Northern League has worked night and day to blame it all on immigration (something that required the ingenious application of tortuous logic). Not infrequently, television debates have degenerated into shouting matches, in which the "winner" is the person who manages to bluster loudest and ignore all the other participants.

Charlie Hebdo has intensified the dialogue of the deaf. Events such as this seem to deal a death-blow to the ability to listen to other people's points of view, consider them seriously and reason in a measured way. Many commentators have striven to increase the level of public angst, to make television viewers feel unsafe. Well they might: there is money to be made in the security industry and the way to make it is to ensure that everyone feels unsafe. In supporting Charlie Hebdo, we are supposed to be defending liberal, democratic values of free speech. In this respect, it is a well-known fact that free speech has its limits before it becomes slander and libel. Moreover, free speech is often inconvenient. Marco Travaglio, a highly respectable Italian journalist, went in front of the cameras and, in the Chomskian tradition of giving people chapter and verse, reeled off a long, copious history of occasions on which the Italian Government has censored RAI (the state television channels), often on the grounds that a programme which attempted to probe some wrong-doing was "in bad taste". Travaglio clearly does not suffer from quite the level of selective memory that is so prevalent among others who speak to the television cameras.

The conclusion from all the hubris is that we live in a world of forced consensus. Ordinary citizens, public officials or elected representatives are quite capable of becoming aggressive, to greater or lesser degrees, when faced with apostates who fail to accept what the public regard as a kosher attitude (forgive my archness in mixing religious metaphors!).

I find it unnerving to live in a place in which the debate on terrorism is so immature. It is true that the phenomenon is hard to explain: in a very respectable introduction to terrorism, issued by no less a publisher than Oxford University Press, the learned author seems to struggle to explain why terrorism exists. The fact is that we, the vast majority of people,  who find it utterly abhorrent (and counter-productive, which it most definitely is), do not have the cultural referents to imagine ourselves as terrorists and hence cannot empathise with those who are. A mature debate would see terrorism as a very serious problem, but one that should not be allowed to overshadow other serious threats, including 'natural' disasters and climate change. A mature debate would pay much attention to the roots of conflict in the Middle East, and the role of European countries in fomenting it. Instead we in Europe live in a land of historical amnesia, but the peoples of the Middle East have much longer memories, and that helps explain why they are so often scathing about our pronouncements on terrorism and free speech.