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On not understanding “Charlie:” Why many smart people are getting it wrong

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As one of those American liberal intellectuals who got it wrong by believing my local newspaper-i think it’s very worthwhile to share this. Even though I grew up in a household where French was regularly spoken, I have never been to France or heavily exposed to modern French culture.

I’m disturbed by my own train of thought when I saw this magazine as promoting the climate of racism and repression that so many immigrants face in France. As this article points out; it’s all too easy to see ourselves as more open minded than we really are.

On not understanding “Charlie:” Why many smart people are getting it wrong
Jan 11, 2015 12:00pm PST by tekno2600

Many smart people are getting a flawed picture of Charlie Hebdo. They are concluding, based on simplistic and misleading analysis, that many of the magazine covers and cartoons promoted racist views. In fact, as I will show, some of the covers elaborately lampooned racist views of right wing parties, likeFront National, by imitating some of their imagery, inserting snarky comments, and even posting mock party logos next to the images. Therefore, it would be clear to pretty much any French readers that they were making fun of these things. However, people unfamiliar with the details of this rather elaborate satirical humor are now pulling these images off the internet and claiming them as evidence that Charlie Hebdo promoted the very racist views that they were in fact lampooning. So, I think it is important that we set the record straight.

To be clear, I am not giving Charlie Hebdo unqualified support for everything that have ever said (though I would defend their right to say it), but it does look like many of the cartoons are actually saying the exact opposite of the racist, sexist, and/or Islamophobic messages that people unfamiliar with the magazine are claiming.

Here are a few things you may not know. I will start with a little bit of background information. Some people may think that information about people’s personal lives is irrelevant to this issue. I happen to disagree. I think knowing a little about the people involved does matter. If you disagree, fine. You can take this for whatever it’s worth. First,

the deceased editor, Charb, “was a Communist and his girlfriend’s parents were North African.” She is also chair of the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission.

So, while that information by itself doesn’t prove anything, those facts might at least lead you to ask a few questions about the narrative that Charb is a right wing racist, Islamophobe, and/or misogynist. His partner’s name is Jeannette Bougrab.

However, some people have been pointing to certain images or text on the magazine covers that do look provocative or offensive. Unfortunately, they are often just using google translate to interpret them, because most of the critics don’t appear to be very familiar with French language or culture, much less French political humor or day-to-day controversies. Therefore, I have seen many people proclaiming that the magazine is right wing and racist, when even a simple wikipedia search quickly finds that the magazine’s stated goals were actually to

“[reflect] all components of left wing pluralism.”

So, what is happening here? This takes a bit of analysis and discussion, so let’s take a look below the La grande fleur de Kos et liberté.

First of all, here is a good general discussion of several aspects of the Charlie Hebdo racism controvery.

There are also some good articles here, from Vox:

Charlie Hebdo: Its history, humor, and controversies, explained

Charlie Hebdo and its biting satire, explained in 9 of its most iconic covers

I think many, though perhaps not all, of Charlie Hebdo’s biggest controversies are cases of what I call Onion Fail. You know, like that one time when Iranian state media quoted an article from The Onionthat said Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad To Obama, or that other time when North Korean media quoted a story that said Kim Jong-Un Named the Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012. Quoting a satirical magazine is risky business, especially if the magazine is in another language or requires some understanding or the politics or culture of another country. Satire is about mockery. So, clearly, instead of actually praising Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-Un, they are actually ridiculing them. Simply reporting a word-for-word translation of these farcical articles is going to get the intended message exactly backwards. You’d think the part about Kim Jong-Un having abs to rival Matthew McConaughey’s would have been a tip off, but alas, one of the truly boundless qualities of the universe is the ability to kiss ass and the willingness to receive it.

Some people counter that even in a satirical magazine, they still know racism when they see it. But, not if the authors are actually saying the opposite of what you think they are saying. Take the often cited example below regarding Boko Haram. This has been claimed as a clear example of racism, but that claim is lacking several logical connections. First of all, the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram are not in France receiving “allocs” or family welfare payments, and even if they are eventually rescued from Boko Haram, they are unlikely to ever be in France. Some people have claimed that the French cartoonists are making an anti-immigrant statement by saying, of course they will all end up in France and on welfare. But, that is dubious at best…actually, it’s flat out false. First of all, the girls are from Nigeria (a largely English-speaking) not Nigere (a largely French-speaking country). So, that may be one point of confusion. Some of them may speak French, some may not. Now, of course, not all immigrants to France are French-speaking, though French-speaking Africans would probably have a much easier time of it. But, the idea that they are automatically connected to France or the welfare system doesn’t make much sense.

So, what is the disconnect here? The magazine cover is actually mixing two unrelated stories. This “news mixing” process was a common practice used on Charlie Hebdo covers to create their jokes. Many people are now trying to speculate about the meaning of these cartoons, but their interpretations may not be even close to what the cartoonists intended. To further explain how big this disconnect is, let’s look at some of the discussion coming from a French perspective about what Charlie Hebdo was really saying.

photo Boko3_zps0f850d53.png

Here are a couple of comments from the previously mentioned online discussion forum that make the case that people may be completely misinterpreting the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

“This cover is a double snipe in classical Charlie style, both against Boko Haram and our right wing, NOT against the sex slaves or “welfare queens”. To misunderstand that shows complete ignorance of French press and the left wing / anarchist tradition of Charlie.”

Another commenter echos similar sentiments.

“Charlie Hebdo is known for being left-wing attached and very controversial, and I think they wanted to parody people who criticize “welfare queens” by taking this point-of-view to the absurd, to show that immigrant women in France are more likely to be victims of patriarchy than evil manipulative profiteers.”

Perhaps not everyone agrees with these interpretations, but there does seem to be a general consensus among most of the commenters in this forum who were most familiar with Charlie Hebdo and French politics that the magazine was not a right wing racist publication and that foreigners are in fact misinterpreting these images. As one of them puts it:

“The reality is, Charlie Hebdo is a far left, pro-immigrant publication, of which many contributors have been members of anti-racist organizations.”

As mentioned above, one factor that definitely may contribute to confusion about Charlie’s cartoons is the “news mixing” style frequently employed by the magazine. Often unrelated images are mixed to make a provocative joke. It does not necessarily imply that the two things are equivalent. For example, the following picture show the French Prime Minister, pictured as an ISIS fighter with a knife, preparing to “execute” a cabinet minister who has just been sacked. Obviously, none of this implies that the Prime Minister is literally affiliated with ISIS or that the cabinet minister has been killed. It is just a joke, and it is common in satirical magazines around the world. However, when outside people are unaware of the context, it can be easily misinterpreted.

photo french-govt-isis-parody_zpsa27bb3b8.png

Here is one final example that I think is perhaps the clearest illustration of the point I am trying to make in this diary. This was the image I was referring to in the beginning of the article when I said that Charlie often elaborately lampooned the views of right wing racist parties in France.

As you will see, someone in the Twitterverse has cited the image as an example of racism and has blasted it out under #JeNeSuisPasCharlie. The image shows a cartoon depicting Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who was born in French Guiana, as a monkey. An open an shut case of racism, right? Actually, au contraire.

photo Rassemblementbleuraciste_zpsef56ccf2.png

There are a number of glaring problems with the claim that this anti-racist cartoon is actually pro-racist. First, note that it is drawn by Charb himself. As mentioned in the beginning, his girlfriend was of North African decent and is also chair of the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission. So, it might seem a little strange for him to be promoting a racist image.

Second, look at what the text says: “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste.” This is a parody of the slogan “Rassemblement Bleu Marine,” which is used by Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Also notice the tricolor flame next to the image. That is a mock up of the party’s logo.

This cartoon came out following a controversy in which a politician from Front National shared a photoshopped image on Facebook that showed the Justice Minister as a monkey. The Charlie cartoon is doing a parody of this and saying Front National is racist. Ironically, some people outside of France are using it to say Charlie Hebdo is racist.

I think there are still many issues that can be discussed regarding Charlie Hebdo, including their tone, tactics, and willingness to offend. Perhaps not everyone agrees with their approach. They often didn’t worry about political correctness or niceties in how they expressed their views. Some of them were of the opinion that to be too politically correct, especially when it comes to making religious figures free of ridicule, would ultimately harm the cherished secular nature of the French state. But, what I think is clear is that many, if not all, of the images I have seen cited as evidence that Charlie is racist are incorrect and have actually gotten the message precisely backwards.

I would like to conclude by honoring free speech, in all it forms, and say that perhaps the Charlie Hebdo massacre is a warning for Americans–and especially liberal Americans–that we may not be quite as free and tolerant as we think. In many ways, freedom of expression is more strongly protected in countries like France. I have relied heavily on discussions from French commentators to write this article and I owe them a debt of gratitude. One of these people, an American who grew up in France, had some particularly insightful commentsthat I would like to excerpt from to provide some closing thoughts:

“I don’t think Americans in particular appreciate how intellectually free French culture is. Their thought is an open space populated by fewer sacred cows.One of the levels of freedom they have that we Americans often don’t is a strong respect for others’ privacy and a tolerance of intellectual independence. They seem tolack the overwhelmingly moralizing, missionary tonethat suffocates American political debate just when it starts to get interesting. Also, you are allowed to defend your opinions without placating others. I feel they do a better job with respectful disagreement. As US culture polarizes and inequality increases here, Americans risk becoming a people ever less capable of this.

Just because we think it offensive and we are not free enough to publish it doesn’t mean it has the intent that weascribe to it, or that in France people should also lack the freedom to publish it.

Perhaps I break with some on the Left when I say this, but if I had to chose between political correctness and free expression, even if it may be offensive, then Je suis Charlie. I’d rather be politically incorrect and even offensive than to be beholden to a moralizing and missionary set of speech restrictions, or to unspoken taboos that certain subjects are off limits.

1:00 PM PT: Looks like the diary made it to the Rec List. Thanks everyone. I look forward to well-informed discussion on this topic. Thanks so much.

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Author: ohnwentsya

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