I’ve been taking forever to write up my list of the best books I read in 2014, so I think I’m going to break it up into topical sections spread over a few separate posts. But in the meantime one book from the list seems especially pertinent to current events and debates: Alice Kaplan’s 2000 The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, an excellent study of the life, work, and trial of the far-Right anti-Semitic French intellectual and journalist.1
One of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that has been the subject of attention is this cover:
First presented by many, quite strangely and irresponsibly, as a straightforward illustration of CH’s racism, it’s since been recognized as an anti-racist image, calling out a far-Right publication and the Front National. This article describes some of the history of the racist imagery and gestures of the magazine Minute and others on the Right to which the CH cover was a response:2
Minute’s words “deny that I belong to the human race”, said [Christiane Taubira, French Justice Minister], who refused to prosecute the magazine.This episode reminded me immediately of one described in Kaplan’s book. In 1937, while Brasillach was calling for anti-Jewish legislation in the pages of Je Suis Partout, a law - the Loi Marchandeau – was proposed with the aim of prohibiting “the use of racial hate language in the French press” (Kaplan, 24). “The law,” Kaplan describes, “brought out the cruelest strain of Brasillach’s humor” (24). He penned an article, “The Monkey Question,” supporting anti-Jewish restrictions. Endorsing “a reasonable state anti-simietism,” “The Monkey Question” used “monkey” wherever Brasillach meant “Jew,” while making it obvious that he wanted the reader to know what he was doing. Kaplan offers:
Created by supporters of French colonisation in Algeria in 1962, Minute backed the Front National party in the 1970’s and has been struggling over the past years. Its publishing company went into administration last March and the magazine currently counts only three employees. For the magazine, the infamous front page has been a success: “We wanted free publicity. We got more than we could have dreamed of”, said one of their journalists. Hélène Valette, spokeperson for Minute added: “We take responsibility for this cover. It’s satirical. No one takes offense at the covers of Charlie Hebdo.”
Satirical publication Charlie Hebdo responded to this statement saying: “Some people have actually taken offense at the covers of Charlie Hebdo, among which the Catholic far-right which has sued us 12 times in 20 years (…) Minute does not defend the freedom of the press. It prepares the ground for future racist crimes.” [emphasis added]
This was the writer at his most obnoxious: hyped up by his own brilliance, using his taste for wordplay with a schoolboy glee. All the while…the message comes through clearly. Jews should not be citizens; they are animals, not men. (25)This is relevant today for a few reasons. We see here the attitude Sartre described: approaching public debate not as sincere, good-faith participants but as jesters and gameplayers devoted to undermining the seriousness of the discussion. The combination of terrible clarity and coyness with which the far-Right presents its racism allows them to claim to take responsibility for what they’re saying without really doing so. This is important to call attention to, as Charlie Hebdo tried to do with their cover.
But more important, the case of Brasillach illustrates the truth of the two assertions, emphasized above, made by Charlie Hebdo: the Right, as this case and others have repeatedly shown, hates free expression.3 They resent and resist constraints on their strategic hate speech, but will exploit any opportunity to silence critics of capitalism, Christianity, and white male heterosexual supremacy. With the toppling of the Republic, Brasillach and his fellow fascists wasted no time in putting the reactionary policies they proposed in the ‘30s into action: silencing and killing Jews, leftists, and anyone who spoke out against the regime or defended values opposed to it. It’s been the same for the Christian Right around the world, from Spain to Latin America to Russia to Uganda to the US.
The Right in Europe and the US has long worked to restrict the speech of blasphemers, critics of militarism and the surveillance state, journalists and activists exposing corporate assaults on human and animal rights and the environment, climate scientists, anticapitalist activists, human rights activists,... In the universities, the US Right “wants to drive a stake through the heart of academic life in order to protect capitalism and to defend conservative hegemony from the threat of critical thinking and an educated middle class.”4 In this context, it’s vital to remember that the Cold War witch hunts were not just about Communism, but targeted atheists, those who challenged the racial and sexual order, and numerous others seen as threatening to the existing hierarchy.
Acknowledging the Right’s hostility to free speech and the relationship between their censorious projects and reactionary crimes is essential in this moment. Far too many people are becoming distracted by ignorant (and racist) narratives in which Christianity and “the West” left behind theocratic, violent, and authoritarian ambitions and policies centuries ago. These narratives not only ignore the reality of recent and current reactionary politics in Europe, the Americas, and around the world but naïvely suggest that religiously inspired censorship and violence is the only, or even the most, significant form of reactionary political censorship and violence, further ignoring the ways in which the prohibition of disrespect for religions stands at the heart of all of the efforts to preserve the unjust order from challenge.
We have the opportunity at this moment to bring to light and contribute to the struggle around the globe between the forces of freedom and justice and their rightwing opponents, and especially to show our solidarity with the secularists, freethinkers, and social justice activists oppressed by violent theocratic regimes. But many people are losing sight of this struggle - being drawn toward (self-)censorship; shrinking away from blasphemy and its defense; shortsightedly accepting the simplistic equation of blasphemy and racism cynically encouraged by the Right when it suits them. And these people believe that in doing so they’re opposing racism. Just when we could be, in the tradition of Charlie Hebdo, challenging and mocking all religion and all authoritarian sacred cows and censorship attempts and continuing to push the authoritarians to show their true colors, people are instead backing off and allowing the Right to capitalize on the situation.
With that said, I give you one staunch defender of free expression quoting another:5
1 I don’t know if Brasillach was (alone or in combination with one or two others) the model for Sartre’s portrait of Lucien Fleurier in “The Childhood of a Leader,” but he could well have been.
2 I’ll discuss some of my concerns surrounding the typical responses to this sort of racist attack in my next post.
3 (It’s worth noting that the Civitas Institute mentioned in the Index on Censorship article linked to above is this outfit.)
4 Rik Scarce, “Introduction,” p. 61. In Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex. Anthony J. Nocella, Steven Best, and Peter McLaren, eds. 2010. Oakland: AK Press. (I can’t recommend this book. It’s far too long and has too many problems. But the introduction, which itself comes in at around 90 pages, is worth reading for a grounding in the history of rightwing academic repression in the US.)
5 “Oh, no! SC just praised Nazis! Her comment is indistinguishable from racist rhetoric!”