Saturday, May 30, 2015

Historical quote of the day

“The PSYOP [Psychological Operations] aspect of the PRC [Population and Resources Control] program tries to make the imposition of control more palatable to the people by relating the necessity of controls to their safety and well-being.”
- US Foreign Internal Defense Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Special Forces (1994, 2004)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Saudi religious police and French racist thugs agree


Women choosing their own accessories must be stopped.


[O]bservant Muslim women in France, whose head coverings can vary from head scarves tied loosely under the chin to tightly fitted caps and wimple-like scarves that hide every strand of hair, say the constant talk of new laws has made them targets of abuse, from being spat at to having their veils pulled or being pushed when they walk on the streets.

In some towns, mothers wearing head scarves have been prevented from picking up their children from school or from chaperoning class outings. One major discount store has been accused of routinely searching veiled customers.

Some women have even been violently attacked. In Toulouse recently, a pregnant mother wearing a head scarf had to be hospitalized after being beaten on the street by a young man who called her a “dirty Muslim.”

Statistics collected by the National Observatory Against Islamophobia, a watchdog group, show that in the last two years 80 percent of the anti-Muslim acts involving violence and assault were directed at women, most of them veiled.
[Source]

Quotes of the day

“[I]t was our government that made this very bad arrangement, so the way to fix it is not to ask the CDC to ‘pretty please be more ethical, and avoid conflicts of interest’; rather, as a society, we have to get the government to reject this devil’s bargain, by changing the rules so this can no longer happen.”
- Jerome R. Hoffman on CDC corporate funding
“If you want to see just how long an academic institution can tolerate a string of slow, festering research scandals, let me invite you to the University of Minnesota, where I teach medical ethics….”
- Carl Elliott

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Interlude – the tenderness of patient minds


Wilfred Owen:
Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
I’m still reading Pat Barker’s beautiful Regeneration, drawing it out slowly. I’ve just read the scene in which Barker depicts Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in Owen’s room at Craiglockhart discussing and revising what would become “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”

As an animal liberationist surrounded by the horrors of industrialized animal exploitation, I find the first line more rather than less poignant.

Self-unaware quotes of the day

“What was disillusioning about l'affair Charlie Hebdo was not basic misunderstandings -- which might have been eased through discussion—but immediate name-calling & denunciations; disrespect for a dissenting opinion, in the very name of ‘freedom’ of speech. Hard to comprehend.”
- Joyce Carol Oates on Twitter
“It’s hard...to reevaluate strongly held opinions and to publicly admit that your original opinions weren’t accurate.”
- Glenn Greenwald on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell praising those who’ve retracted their earlier ignorant attacks on Edward Snowden



Quote of the day

“The country’s branding initiatives serve to develop Honduras as an attractive tourism offering, investment opportunity as well as a country with outstanding products and services for export. The efforts must seek to steer the nation’s development with a message that unites the entire country.”
- Aline Flores, president of the Honduran National Investment Council

Monday, May 25, 2015

A narrative that is regularly filled with distortions and misinformation


Robert Whitaker writes about how John Nash’s story has been dishonestly and disrespectfully hijacked in “Reflections on a Beautiful Mind:
…[A]s our country mourns Nash’s death, I think the story of the movie serves as a reminder of how our societal thinking about psychiatric drugs arises from a narrative that is regularly filled with distortions and misinformation. Think of “drugs that fix chemical imbalances like insulin for diabetes,” and of studies that appeared in the scientific literature during the 1990s that told of how the atypicals were so much better than the first generation of psychiatric drugs, and of Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind, and you can see a script that tells of a medical breakthrough and, if truth be told, it is that script that has governed our society’s “treatment” of those diagnosed with schizophrenia for the past 20 years.
I wrote in 2013 about the film’s false claim, its likely consequences, and the responsibility of writers and artists to speak the truth and expose lies.

Quote of the day

“‘You gotta quit naming them cows, Renee. You don’t name them things you eat’. I’m like, well, we ain’t gonna eat ‘em.”
– Renee Sonnen, co-founder of Rowdy Girl Sanctuary in Texas


ABC News Videos | ABC Entertainment News

Story here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Voltaire’s Fanaticism, part 1: the Philosophical Dictionary entry

“In a word, let us contemplate the horrors of fifteen centuries, all frequently renewed in the course of a single one; unarmed men slain at the feet of altars; kings destroyed by the dagger or by poison; a large state reduced to half its extent by the fury of its own citizens; the nation at once the most warlike and the most pacific on the face of the globe, divided in fierce hostility against itself; the sword unsheathed between the sons and the father; usurpers, tyrants, executioners, sacrilegious robbers, and bloodstained parricides violating, under the impulse of religion, every convention divine or human — such is the deadly picture of fanaticism.”
-Voltaire, “Fanaticism,” Philosophical Dictionary

In my report from the panel discussion about Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, I noted that in his introduction Ed Berenson had mentioned an 18th-century play by Voltaire about Mohammed: Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet. Having now read it, I’m surprised the play hasn’t received more attention.

Most striking is its modernity. And I don’t just mean the 2013 translator Hanna Burton’s decision to render Voltaire’s verse into modern prose (though that helps). I mean its psychological-sociological examination of fanaticism as a social phenomenon. Many people, it seems, are focused on the question of who the play is “really” about. People have discussed Voltaire’s knowledge or ignorance of and attitudes toward the historical Mohammed and the early Islamic movement. They’ve pointed to various indications within and without the work - his arguments about historical fact being secondary to artistic effect, his use of imaginary place names,… – as suggesting that he didn’t intend it to be a work of historical accuracy. Many have suggested that the “real” target of the play was Catholicism (or specific sects or movements within it), and that the use of the Muslim figure was just a means to get around Church censorship and avoid persecution.1

It seems to me that these arguments are both right and wrong. The play is about both early Islam and contemporary Catholicism and at the same time about no religion in particular. It’s a very modern work about a social phenomenon: fanaticism. This seems clear from Voltaire’s later Philosophical Dictionary, published anonymously, which contained an entry for “Fanaticism.”2 The play seems to be a dramatized version of the argument Voltaire sets forth in the extended entry.

Fanaticism as a global problem and its consequences

Voltaire’s dictionary entry about fanaticism as a generic social phenomenon was ahead of its time. “Fanaticism,” as Voltaire defines it, is “the effect of a false conscience, which makes religion subservient to the caprices of the imagination, and the excesses of the passions.” He encourages the reader to imagine a temple filled with religious fanatics of various sorts, all engaging in the bizarre practices they believe are demanded by or pleasing to their gods. They then, “full of the inspiration of their respective deities, spread the terror and delusion over the face of the earth. They divide the world between them; and the four extremities of it are almost instantly in flames: nations obey them, and kings tremble before them.”

He presents fanaticism as a global phenomenon, to which all humans are vulnerable. Throughout the entry, Voltaire uses concrete examples – some no doubt historically and anthropologically questionable – to illustrate the various bloody consequences and social-psychological characteristics of the phenomenon. These are by no means limited to a particular culture. Fanaticism almost invariably leads to some form of human (he doesn’t talk about animal) sacrifice: “It is dreadful to observe how the opinion that the wrath of heaven might be appeased by human massacre spread, after being once started, through almost every religion; and what various reasons have been given for the sacrifice, as though, in order to preclude, if possible, the escape of any one from extirpation.” He describes the various categories of people marked for sacrifice in different religious cultures - enemies, children, the “just and good,” the “most beautiful” and “most valuable,” the “purest,” the “most sacred” – offering specific examples of each from a variety of cultures.

He discusses fanaticism’s role in the crusades and the genocidal European conquest of the “New World”:
The same spirit of fanaticism cherished the rage for distant conquests: scarcely had Europe repaired its losses when the discovery of a new world hastened the ruin of our own. At that terrible injunction, “Go and conquer,” America was desolated and its inhabitants exterminated; Africa and Europe were exhausted in vain to repeople it; the poison of money and of pleasure having enervated the species, the world became nearly a desert and appeared likely every day to advance nearer to desolation by the continual wars which were kindled on our continent, from the ambition of extending its power to foreign lands.
Fanaticism, he argues, gives rise to wars, persecution, and massacres:
Let us compute the thousands who have been seen to perish either on scaffolds in the ages of persecution, or in civil wars by the hands of their fellow citizens, or by their own hands through excessive austerities, and maceration. Let us survey the surface of the earth, and glance at the various standards unfurled and blazing in the name of religion; in Spain against the Moors, in France against the Turks, in Hungary against the Tartars; at the numerous military orders, founded for converting infidels by the point of the sword, and slaughtering one another at the foot of the altar they had come to defend.
Fanaticism leads to a violent and destructive intolerance. Voltaire discusses a monk who murdered his brother for holding different beliefs; “Polyeuctes, who went to the temple on a day of solemn festival, to throw down and destroy the statues and ornaments”; the “assassins of Francis, duke of Guise, of William, prince of Orange, of King Henry III., of King Henry IV.; and “various others” - all “equally possessed, equally laboring under morbid fury...” “The most striking example of fanaticism,” notably, is close to home: “that exhibited on the night of St. Bartholomew, when the people of Paris rushed from house to house to stab, slaughter, throw out of the window, and tear in pieces their fellow citizens not attending mass.”

Fanaticism as a progressive illness

Voltaire saw fanaticism as a sort of contagious illness, a “religious madness” or “malady of the mind, which is taken in the same way as smallpox.”3 More precisely, it was akin to a symptom marking the advanced nature of an illness:
Fanaticism is, in reference to superstition, what delirium is to fever, or rage to anger. He who is involved in ecstasies and visions, who takes dreams for realities, and his own imaginations for prophecies, is a fanatical novice of great hope and promise, and will probably soon advance to the highest form, and kill man for the love of God.
The prognosis for advanced cases – individual or collective - was in his view generally negative:
When once fanaticism has gangrened the brain of any man the disease may be regarded as nearly incurable. I have seen Convulsionaries who, while speaking of the miracles of St. Paris, gradually worked themselves up to higher and more vehement degrees of agitation till their eyes became inflamed, their whole frames shook, their countenances became distorted by rage, and had any man contradicted them he would inevitably have been murdered.

…Only let a single people be thus fascinated and agitated under the guidance of a few impostors, the seduction will spread with the speed of wild-fire, prodigies will be multiplied beyond calculation, and whole communities be led astray forever. When the human mind has once quitted the luminous track pointed out by nature, it returns to it no more; it wanders round the truth, but never obtains of it more than a few faint glimmerings, which, mingling with the false lights of surrounding superstition, leave it, in fact, in complete and palpable obscurity.
Anticipating 19th- and early 20th-century elite fears about crowds and masses, Voltaire contends that people assembled in crowds are particularly susceptible to fanatical passions and irrationalities:
That almost despotic power which the enthusiasm of a single person exercises over a multitude who see or hear him; the ardor communicated to each other by assembled minds; numberless strong and agitating influences acting in such circumstances, augmented by each individual’s personal anxiety and distress, require but a short time to operate, in order to produce universal delirium.



We seldom get heated while reading in solitude, for our minds are then tranquil and sedate. But when an ardent man of strong imagination addresses himself to weak imaginations, his eyes dart fire, and that fire rapidly spreads; his tones, his gestures, absolutely convulse the nerves of his auditors. He exclaims, “The eye of God is at this moment upon you; sacrifice every mere human possession and feeling; fight the battles of the Lord”— and they rush to the fight.
His most subtle analysis concerns the leaders of fanatical movements. On the one hand, he presents them as cynical and self-serving manipulators:
Fanatics are nearly always under the direction of knaves, who place the dagger in their hands. These knaves resemble Montaigne’s “Old Man of the Mountain,” who, it is said, made weak persons imagine, under his treatment of them, that they really had experienced the joys of paradise, and promised them a whole eternity of such delights if they would go and assassinate such as he should point out to them.
He offers as an example of the cynical use of fanaticism Oliver Cromwell:
Cromwell said to General Fairfax: “How can you possibly expect a rabble of London porters and apprentices to resist a nobility urged on by the principle, or rather the phantom, of honor? Let us actuate them by a more powerful phantom — fanaticism! Our enemies are fighting only for their king; let us persuade our troops they are fighting for their God.”
Fairfax then “composed his regiment of red-coated brothers, of gloomy religionists, whom he made obedient tigers. Mahomet himself was never better served by soldiers.”4

But, despite what this story suggests, he doesn’t argue that the leaders are merely cloaking their self-serving, material goals in the language of religion. They, too, are fanatics:
What a tissue of frauds, calumnies, and robberies has been woven by fanatics of the court of Rome against fanatics of the court of Calvin, by Jesuits against Jansenists, and vice versa! And if you go farther back you will find ecclesiastical history, which is the school of virtues, to be that of atrocities and abominations, which have been employed by every sect against the others. They all have the same bandage over their eyes whether marching out to burn down the cities and towns of their adversaries, to slaughter the inhabitants, or condemn them to judicial execution; or when merely engaged in the comparatively calm occupation of deceiving and defrauding, of acquiring wealth and exercising domination. The same fanaticism blinds them; they think that they are doing good. Every fanatic is a conscientious knave, but a sincere and honest murderer for the good cause. [emphasis added]
What can check the growth of fanaticism?

As noted above, Voltaire was pessimistic about the prospects for recovery from the illness of fanaticism. Neither laws nor (it almost shouldn’t need to be said) religion could counteract it: “[W]hen the disorder has made any progress, we should, without loss of time, fly from the seat of it, and wait till the air has become purified from contagion. Law and religion are not completely efficient against the spiritual pestilence.”

In fact, “Religion…so far from affording proper nutriment to the minds of patients laboring under this infectious and infernal distemper, is converted, by the diseased process of their minds, into poison.” (With one exception: “There has been only one religion in the world which has not been polluted by fanaticism and that is the religion of the learned in China.”)

Laws, he argues,
are yet more powerless against these paroxysms of rage. To oppose laws to cases of such a description would be like reading a decree of council to a man in a frenzy. The persons in question are fully convinced that the Holy Spirit which animates and fills them is above all laws; that their own enthusiasm is, in fact, the only law which they are bound to obey.

What can be said in answer to a man who says he will rather obey God than men, and who consequently feels certain of meriting heaven by cutting your throat?
There was only one treatment and prophylactic - reason: “There is no other remedy for this epidemical malady than that spirit of philosophy, which, extending itself from one to another, at length civilizes and softens the manners of men and prevents the access of the disease.” While fanaticism both thrived on inflamed passions and further inflamed them, the spirit of philosophy worked through inducing mental calm: “The different sects of ancient philosophers were not merely exempt from this pest of human society, but they were antidotes to it: for the effect of philosophy is to render the soul tranquil, and fanaticism and tranquility are totally incompatible.”

But even this antidote wasn’t always successful. Troublingly, fanaticism could strike even the most reasonable. “It seems as if superstition were an epidemic disease,” Voltaire lamented, “from which the strongest minds are not always exempt”; “[o]ver what precipices do not men fall, notwithstanding their boasted leading-strings of reason!” Even Isaac Newton hadn’t been immune:
Were it allowable for us to reveal the disgrace of those to whom we owe the sincerest respect, I should observe here, that Newton, the great Newton himself, discovered in the “Apocalypse” that the pope was Antichrist, and made many other similar discoveries…. [I]f the exalted Newton imagined that he found the modern history of Europe in the “Apocalypse,” we may say: Alas, poor human beings!
In sum, then, rather than attributing it to any particular religion, Voltaire saw fanaticism as a global scourge with devastating consequences. He tried to find the psychological and social conditions in which fanaticism and fanatical movements took root and spread. He viewed fanaticism as a sort of contagious illness, progressive and almost always incurable – once “the human mind has…quitted the luminous track pointed out by nature,” it was nearly impossible to return to it. He sought to capture the dual nature of the leaders of fanatical movements, both self-serving manipulators and themselves suffering from the same sickness. Finally, he considered possible checks to the growth of fanaticism, arguing that neither law nor religion was effective and placing his hopes in a reason grounded in nature, the tranquil “spirit of philosophy,” while acknowledging that even this didn’t always protect us.

If this were a critical review, I would take issue with some of Voltaire’s arguments, but my intent is really just to summarize them in order to provide the necessary intellectual and political context for reading the play. In my next post on the subject, I’ll talk about the play within this context.

1 Which he did. As Burton notes in the introduction to her translation (p. 16), after some Catholic officials raised objections and forced the play’s withdrawal from the stage, Voltaire wrote to the Vatican and received papal approval from Benedict XIV. Lord Chesterfield, Malise Ruthven mentions in her preface (p. 8), saw the play as a veiled attack on Jesus, and was flummoxed to hear the response of a Catholic ‘who was extremely edified by the way in which this impostor and enemy of Christianity had been depicted’.

2 I had a hell of a time with this. The text I quote from here was published online by the University of Adelaide in Australia. They state that it’s “[d]erived from The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming. I was unsure about the entry because it doesn’t appear in this Project Gutenberg version from 1764. But the entry is included in Volume V, which does appear in the Project Gutenberg version of The Works of Voltaire. I also found a version of the full entry in French from 1826, after Voltaire’s death. It appears Voltaire reworked and expanded on the PD throughout his life, so this might have been the last version. I haven’t been able to discover when exactly this version of the entry was completed or originally published.

3 Voltaire takes care to distinguish between two types of fanatics, of which one bears greater moral responsibility: “There are some cold-blooded fanatics; such as those judges who sentence men to death for no other crime than that of thinking differently from themselves, and these are so much the more guilty and deserving of the execration of mankind, as, not laboring under madness like the Clements, Châtels, Ravaillacs, and Damiens, they might be deemed capable of listening to reason.” [emphasis added]

4 Here Voltaire is quite sociological. He argues that Cromwell could only have succeeded in certain conditions: “in order to inspire this fanaticism, you must be seconded and supported by the spirit of the times.” To “make and to guide fanatics” requires the “profoundest dissimulation and the most determined intrepidity,” but “everything depends, after these previous requisites are secured, on coming into the world at a proper time.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Quote of the day


Capitalist competition:
“In conjunction with its financial and legal advisors, the company has devoted significant time and resources to analyzing a potential combination of Syngenta and Monsanto and remains confident in its ability to address regulatory concerns. This includes the company’s commitment to divest all of Syngenta’s seeds and traits assets and certain overlapping chemistry assets, making Monsanto better positioned than anyone in the industry to create a new company committed to integrated, value added solutions and enabling continued choice in the seed industry.”
- Brett Begemann, Monsanto COO

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Good piece by Paul Street on “Washington’s Continuing Murderous Middle East Myopia”


“No Wise Men Here: Gabriel Kolko and Washington’s Continuing Murderous Middle East Myopia”:
…The U.S. imperial establishment might still rule, but it does not do so through superior intelligence, vision, principles, planning, and strategy. As Kolko suggested in his synthesis Main Currents in American History (1976), it reigns instead thanks to deep structural fragmentation, powerlessness, cruelty, misery, and chaos in the imperial “homeland” and across the world system. It rules over and through disorder, drift, violence, division, and sheer inherited technological, institutional, and territorial advantage at home and abroad. The moment when underlying political-economic and other structural and conjunctural shifts and events will unseat the great post-WWII “rogue superpower” once and for all from its deadly global position cannot be precisely determined of course. There have long been signs that the death spiral of U.S. hegemony is underway; how long the process will take and whether humanity can survive it in decent shape are open questions….
Read the whole thing here.

Luz to leave Charlie Hebdo


Luz, the cartoonist who created the moving cover of Charlie Hebdo in the wake of the attack, will be leaving the magazine in September:
“Each issue is torture because the others are gone,” said Luz.

…“Spending sleepless nights summoning the dead, wondering what Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous would have done is exhausting,” he added.
He’s recently published a new work, Catharsis, which he calls a “therapeutic book,” about his experience of the murder of his friends and colleagues and its aftermath. This article about the book also refers to the dispute among the CH staff which I mentioned recently.

Quote of the day


Today’s quote consists of a series of questions from climate blogger John Mashey:
Will GMU [George Mason University] continue in its resolute “See No Evil” approach?...

Will Wiley consider explaining its 2011-2012 behavior?

Why do so many of the legal harassments of the climate community involve GMU-trained lawyers?

What were Wegman and Said thinking? And why did Johns not tell them this was a bad idea?

What does the academic community think of $2 Million lawsuits to suppress investigative reporting of plagiarism?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Historical quote of the day

“[T]he individual must see that her interests are shared with those of the State; at the same time that the French woman recognizes her feminine significance and is reborn to a new youthfulness through motherhood, she will serve society and achieve the social role expected of her.”
- Santé, beauté, maternité (1941), Vichy familialist propaganda; quoted in Miranda Pollard, Reign of Virtue: Mobilizing Gender in Vichy France (1998), p. 51

Quote of the day

“A downloadable PDF application form for the executioner jobs, available on the website carrying Monday's date, said the jobs were classified as ‘religious functionaries’ and that they would be at the lower end of the civil service pay scale.”
- Reuters, “Saudi Arabia advertises for eight new executioners”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Historical quote of the day

“It appears that this material has the double objective of promoting and encouraging democratic government on the one hand while presenting the dangers of communism on the other. Since Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy its Government cannot be expected to welcome propaganda of the first category.”
- “Proposed Pamphlet Program,” from American Embassy, Jidda, to U.S. Department of State, January 8, 1952; available through the National Security Archive, quoted in Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (2003)

Quote of the day

“Again and again, proponents of free trade agreements claim that this time, a new trade agreement has strong and meaningful protections; again and again, those protections prove unable to stop the worst abuses. Lack of enforcement by both Democratic and Republican presidents and other flaws with the treaties have allowed countries with weaker laws and standards and widespread labor and environment abuses to undermine treaty provisions, leaving U.S. workers and other interested parties with no recourse.”
- “Broken Promises: Decades of Failure to Enforce Labor Standards in Free Trade Agreements,” report by Elizabeth Warren’s staff

Say it ain’t so!


Shocking hints of corruption in Honduras’ ruling party:
Officials said Thursday they are investigating allegations that millions of dollars embezzled from Honduras’ social security institute might have been used to finance the governing National Party.

The Public Ministry said in a statement that authorities were studying checks from supplier companies to the agency’s director and his friends. The companies are alleged to have overcharged for supplies and then kicked back some of the money.

The ministry didn't say which party was being investigated in relation to the case, but the director of the National Anti-Corruption Council, Gabriela Castellanos, said three protected witnesses have said it is the National Party of President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
The LIBRE party organized protests and has demanded the resignation of the “president.” Whatever comes (or doesn’t) of this specific investigation, the regime continues its attack on the remaining vestiges of democracy in Honduras – see this excellent piece by Dana Frank.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The real intent: Stiglitz on the TPP


“The Secret Corporate Takeover”:
…The real intent of these provisions is to impede health, environmental, safety, and, yes, even financial regulations meant to protect America’s own economy and citizens. Companies can sue governments for full compensation for any reduction in their future expected profits resulting from regulatory changes.

This is not just a theoretical possibility. Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia for requiring warning labels on cigarettes. Admittedly, both countries went a little further than the US, mandating the inclusion of graphic images showing the consequences of cigarette smoking.

The labeling is working. It is discouraging smoking. So now Philip Morris is demanding to be compensated for lost profits.

In the future, if we discover that some other product causes health problems (think of asbestos), rather than facing lawsuits for the costs imposed on us, the manufacturer could sue governments for restraining them from killing more people. The same thing could happen if our governments impose more stringent regulations to protect us from the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions.



Rules and regulations determine the kind of economy and society in which people live. They affect relative bargaining power, with important implications for inequality, a growing problem around the world. The question is whether we should allow rich corporations to use provisions hidden in so-called trade agreements to dictate how we will live in the twenty-first century. I hope citizens in the US, Europe, and the Pacific answer with a resounding no.

“If you see something, say something…to a government agency and we’ll put you in jail”


In other threats-to-free-speech news, Wyoming’s new environmental/ag gag law:
[T]he new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government.



The Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws recognize that government officials lack the resources and sometimes the political will to address every environmental problem. Ordinary citizens therefore play an integral role in carrying out these laws. The statutes authorize citizens to bring lawsuits against polluters and recalcitrant government agencies, and citizen scientists have long played an important role in gathering information to support better regulations.

The Wyoming law transforms a good Samaritan who volunteers her time to monitor our shared environment into a criminal. Idaho and Utah, as well as other states, have also enacted laws designed to conceal information that could damage their agricultural industries—laws currently being challenged in federal court. But Wyoming is the first state to enact a law so expansive that it criminalizes taking a picture on public land.

The new law is of breathtaking scope. It makes it a crime to “collect resource data” from any “open land,” meaning any land outside of a city or town, whether it’s federal, state, or privately owned. The statute defines the word collect as any method to “preserve information in any form,” including taking a “photograph” so long as the person gathering that information intends to submit it to a federal or state agency. In other words, if you discover an environmental disaster in Wyoming, even one that poses an imminent threat to public health, you’re obliged, according to this law, to keep it to yourself.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with our Constitution will recognize that the Wyoming law is unconstitutional. It runs afoul of the supremacy clause because it interferes with the purposes of federal environmental statutes by making it impossible for citizens to collect the information necessary to bring an enforcement lawsuit. The Wyoming law also violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech because it singles out speech about natural resources for burdensome regulation and makes it a crime to engage in a variety of expressive and artistic activities. And finally, it specifically criminalizes public engagement with federal and state agencies and therefore violates another right guaranteed by the First Amendment: the right to petition the government.

By enacting this law, the Wyoming legislature has expressed its disdain for the freedoms protected by the First Amendment and the environmental protections enshrined in federal statutes. Today, environmentally conscious citizens face a stark choice: They can abandon efforts to protect the lands they love or face potential criminal charges. [links removed]
Another take.

Catholic employment ethics


I posted last month about the church finally accepting the resignation of a Missouri bishop, Robert Finn:
Finn…waited six months before notifying police about the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, whose computer contained hundreds of lewd photos of young girls taken in and around churches where he worked. Ratigan was sentenced to 50 years in prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges.

Finn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected abuse and was sentenced to two years’ probation in 2012. Ever since, he has faced pressure from local Roman Catholics to step down, with some parishioners petitioning Francis to remove him from the diocese.
It was the first case in the US of a bishop being removed for such an offense, and only came about after a long campaign of public pressure. But really, he was just protecting a child pornographer. That’s hardly as serious as tweeting anti-hate messages:
A priest claims he lost his job as director of Seton Hall campus ministry because of a pro-LGBT Facebook post he made.*

Rev. Warren Hall posted on Twitter Friday afternoon that he was “fired from SHU for posting a pic on FB supporting LGBT ‘NO H8’. I'm sorry it was met with this response. I'll miss my work here.”



Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese, declined to comment on the specifics of why Hall was removed from the campus ministry position, but did confirm that Hall's “term as director of campus ministry is ending.”

Goodness said Hall will still serve as a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark, but will have a new assignment.



Current and former students replied to his tweet with angry reactions to the news.

“Unfathomable,” user Vito Amato wrote on Twitter. “No better representative of my alma mater than you, Father.”

Hall did not immediately respond to a request for an interview, but did post on Twitter that his supporters should use the incident as a reason to have discussions on LGBT issues within Catholic colleges.
Priorities.

* Of course we can’t be sure this was the reason, but it does seem in character for the institution.

#NoAgGag


Speaking of threats to free speech:



Quote of the day

“World War II produced mushroom clouds and 60 million dead worldwide, yet morphed in America into the Good War of the Greatest Generation, a mythic reconstruction of remembrance that eclipsed the real experience of veterans. (More than half a million were hospitalized for psychiatric care.)”
- Ann Jones

Word of the day


Kayactivists.

Interlude - Mô




Saturday, May 16, 2015

Glenn Greenwald’s semi-reverse Dear Muslima


Glenn Greenwald is a sincere and articulate advocate for freedom and human rights and has done an incredible amount of good work. I read his pieces regularly. Which is why I’m so highly annoyed at how he’s positioned himself with regard to Charlie Hebdo and those supporting blasphemy and other forms of free expression that drive some theocrats into a censorious homicidal rage.

It was bad enough that Greenwald kept celebrating the PEN protesters and their ignorant smears while refusing, as they did, to engage with evidence and arguments that could lead to a rethinking of his position. But his latest article on the subject – “Greatest Threat to Free Speech Comes Not From Terrorism, But From Those Claiming to Fight It” – not only continues in that vein but demonstrates a twist on one of the most odious of rhetorical devices: the Dear Muslima.

He notes, correctly, that “[t]hreats to free speech can come from lots of places.” Yes, they can, and that’s essential to keep in mind. It’s not an aside, to be covered in one short phrase before moving on to judging whether some threats are best left unchallenged.

I’m going to approach this from my perspective as an anarchist. There’s a certain irony to the characterization of anarchists as being excessively or obsessively concerned with governments. What’s characterized anarchism from the beginning has been a recognition that any authority poses a threat to freedom. Anarchists have tended to emphasize the threats posed by governments, religions, and economic powers because they tend to be the largest concentrations capable of institutional repression, and often act in league. But we’ve always appreciated that threats to free expression can come from endlessly diverse sources – local gangs, traditional elites, internet harassers, parents and families,… Which danger looms largest for any particular person varies according to circumstance, and even the fact that some threats are more institutionalized and affect more people in a given time and place doesn’t mean the others are negligible.

At the same time, anarchists have – of necessity – remained all too aware of the specific threat posed by governments, including “liberal” regimes. Many of the policies and practices Greenwald writes about had their roots in the repression of anarchists a century ago and, more recently, in the corporate-state war on the animal liberation movement. I don’t know if he’s written about this history, or about recent targeted legislation like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but I wouldn’t necessarily hold it against him if that wasn’t the focus of his efforts. We all have different areas of interest and expertise, and that’s needed: people who specialize in one area rely on those who work in others.

Which is why I don’t understand Greenwald’s choice to frame his presentation of important evidence and analysis concerning some threats to free expression in opposition to those of us who focus – or, in many cases like mine, also focus – on other threats. He follows up his short statement recognizing that threats come from lots of places with
But right now, the greatest threat by far in the West to ideals of free expression is coming not from radical Muslims, but from the very Western governments claiming to fight them.
Again, even in the “West,” the “greatest threat” varies according to circumstances. But generally speaking this is plausible. The problem comes when he jumps from this assertion to a number of mistaken and counterproductive arguments:
Actually, there has long been a broad, sustained assault in the West on core political liberties — specifically due process, free speech and free assembly — perpetrated not by “radical Muslims,” but by those who endlessly claim to fight them. Sadly, and tellingly, none of that has triggered parades or marches or widespread condemnation by Western journalists and pundits. But for those who truly believe in principles of free expression — as opposed to pretending to when it allows one to bash the Other Tribe — these are the assaults that need marches and protests.
The broad, sustained assault is absolutely real. The same can’t be said of some of the arguments implied here:

• that the “greatest threat” to those in “the West” should be the exclusive focus of “Western” activists

• that focusing on threats from governments or groups targeted by Western governments is illegitimate

• that there are no radical Muslims who threaten free expression (at least not in the West)

• that those who defend the right to free expression against the threats and violence of Islamists are a monolithic group

• that all of those who defend the right to free expression against the threats and violence of Islamists focus singlemindedly on this one issue

• that all of those who defend the right to free expression against the threats and violence of Islamists are dishonest pretenders concerned not with free expression but with “bashing” the “Other Tribe”

None of this is true. If “threats to free speech can come from lots of places,” as of course they can and do, free speech needs to be defended against all of those threats. To argue that only some threats are legitimate and worthy of defending against – “these are the assaults that need marches and protests” – is to ignore or dismiss the victims of those threats deemed illegitimate and unworthy (not just Charlie Hebdo, but Raif Badawi, Bangladeshi freethought bloggers, feminist radicals in Afghanistan, Tunisian filmmakers, Algerian novelists,…). It’s as hypocritical as Greenwald accuses others of being.

And the worst of it is that there’s no need to make or dwell on these assumptions. We can defend free expression – all while distinguishing between rightwing racists from those genuinely fighting for universal rights and while appreciating the impact of our own social location – from any and all threats. Some people will focus on the US government; some on the Iranian or Saudi Arabian or Israeli or Russian or Honduran or…governments. Some will focus on university administrations; some on rape and death threats to women and gay and trans people online. Some will speak out for science or activism that threatens corporate interests; some for blasphemers and secularists. All of this is necessary, and while there are reactionary interests always poised to exploit movements in defense of free expression, they don’t discredit any of these efforts.

The last thing a global campaign for free expression needs is for some defenses of free expression to be framed in opposition to others or to show disdain for others.

“Je suis punie”


Well, this is odd.
Earlier this week, Charlie Hebdo management summoned French-Moroccan journalist Zineb El Rhazoui to a “preliminary meeting” to “remind her of her minimum obligations toward her employer following numerous incidents”.

The incidents in question were not specified and the magazine’s management has declined media requests to provide details.

In interviews with the French press, El Rhazoui, a well-known journalist who emerged as a leading voice for the magazine following the January 7 attack on Charlie Hebdo, has expressed her shock over the summons.

…Over the past few years, El Rhazoui has received death threats and lived under police protection – a cause, she has suggested in interviews with the French media, of heightened stress. “My husband lost his job because jihadists unveiled his workplace, he had to leave Morocco, I have been threatened, I live in friends’ guestrooms or hotels and management plans to fire me…Bravo Charlie,” she told Le Monde.

I’m still unclear on what this is all about.

Quote of the day

“These references are not sufficient to support claims and presentations suggesting that Abilify has been demonstrated to modulate dopaminergic and serotonergic activity, or modulate neuronal activity in both hypoactive and hyperactive environments in humans. If you have data to support these claims, please submit them to FDA for review.”
- FDA letter to Otsuka calling for them to “immediately cease” fraudulent advertising of Abilify

So the FDA has at long last gotten around to addressing at least some of this false advertising. The bullshit claims made in promoting Abilify would be funny were it not for the real dangers of the drug, which are also noted in the letter:
The PI also contains several warnings and precautions regarding the risks of cerebrovascular adverse events, including stroke, neuroleptic malignant syndrome, tardive dyskinesia, metabolic changes, orthostatic hypotension, leukopenia, neutropenia, and agranulocytosis, seizures and convulsions, potential for cognitive and motor impairment, body temperature regulation, suicide, and dysphagia.
The claims made for this and other psychiatric drugs are nonsense on so many levels. They’re supposed to treat disorders that don’t exist. The notion that the drugs “correct” or “restore” or “modulate” balances of brain chemicals – Abilify is “thought to increase neuronal activity in hypoactive conditions” and “thought to decrease neuronal activity in hyperactive conditions,” which is (thought to be) quite an amazing feat - has been known to be bunk for decades. It’s been so thoroughly debunked, in fact, that psychiatrists have taken to falsely claiming that they never believed or promoted it.

But this makes little difference, as decades of advertising have firmly implanted the notion in the public consciousness. Today, the very mention of “brain chemicals” carries such rhetorical power as a signifier of scientific knowledge that it doesn’t even have to be given content. Shire’s ads for Vyvanse to treat the newly minted bogus “Binge Eating Disorder” assure viewers that “It’s a real medical condition, and while the exact cause is unknown, certain chemicals in the brain may play a role.” Vyvanse is basically an amphetamine, and how amphetamines affect eating is well understood (as are the serious dangers associated with using them for problems related to appetite and weight). “Chemicals in the brain” certainly play a role in binge eating – they play a role in all of our experiences, thoughts, or actions; it’s a perfectly empty statement. Here, the language of “certain chemicals in the brain” is obviously a sleazy rhetorical trick designed to call to mind “chemical imbalances” targeted by a “medication” designed for the purpose.

At this point, their pharmacological claims could be substituted by “magic” with no loss of meaning or information.

Continuity and…more continuity in US government’s relationship with Latin America


Obama has appointed Mark Feierstein as Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council. He’s “Eager to continue efforts to foster prosperity/security in Americas.”

Friday, May 15, 2015

Quote of the day

“When we talk about democracy and all these words - sometimes we don’t really see what they truly mean - But I think I witnessed that, what democracy really is and how it should work, and how we don’t have that type of democracy in our daily life. They make us think that electing someone is democracy, but it is not. What I saw during the Water Wars was real democracy, direct democracy. Where people come together and make decisions. It was like my voice mattered. I was not a leader of a union and I did not belong to an organized sector, but my voice mattered. I felt like people were listening to me and I was listing to other people, and then together we would make decisions - we were in every process of making decisions. Sometimes we did not agree with some things and there were people with different opinions about strategies, but what really mattered was how we made decisions and decided together. We found ways of doing it together. That is what real democracy is.”
- Marcela Olivera, Bolivian activist

Thursday, May 14, 2015

19 members of Congress send letter to Colombian president supporting cessation of aerial spraying


This happened yesterday, but I’ve only heard about it from Spanish-language sources - I haven’t turned up a single English-language or US-oriented news piece about it. As usual, information about Latin America, even when it involves our government and public funds, is deemed of little interest to us.

The letter is described, and the full text available, in a press release from the office of Rep. Sam Farr:*

“In addition to [Sam Farr (D-Calif.)] and [James McGovern (D-Mass.)], the letter was signed by Reps. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.)”

* Unfortunately, they make the typical error of describing what’s been sprayed as simply glyphosate.

“What are the real Saudi motives in Yemen?”


An interesting article by Joe Lauria.

Quote of the day

“No se puede descolonizar sin despatriarcalizar.” [“You can’t decolonize without depatriarchalizing.”]
- Bolivian feminist and anarchist María Galindo and Mujeres Creando


More graffiti from Mujeres Creando:


“The church crucifies women every day, feminism resuscitates them. (Happy Easter)”


“Sovereignty in my country and in my body.”


“Nothing more resembles a rightwing machista than a leftwing machista.”

An interview with Galindo:



And an article about her most recent book, ¡A despatriarcar! Feminismo urgente, at Feminicidio.net.
El guión oficial del movimiento gay es el matrimonio, el guión oficial de los indígenas es la reivindicación de los usos y costumbres, el guión oficial de las mujeres es el acceso al poder masculino, y así sucesivamente. (70)
The publisher’s description:
La fundadora del colectivo boliviano Mujeres Creando y creadora de “Ninguna mujer nace para puta” nos entrega con este libro una herramienta para la acción. Teoría hecha desde y para la práctica que analiza la historia moderna del feminismo, plantea una hipótesis sobre su fracaso y promueve acciones concretas para recuperar el poder liberador y de transformación de esta concepción de la realidad, las relaciones y el poder, que involucra tanto a mujeres como a hombres.

¡A despatriarcar! Feminismo urgente es un grito que nos convoca a salir de las trampas y casilleros para recuperar la calle y la alegría de crear, junto a otras y otros, nuevos horizontes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

More than just the glyphosate: Colombian and US governments (probably) to stop spraying tons of herbicides on Colombia’s land and people


It appears likely that the Colombian and US governments will stop “fumigating” the country’s land and people, following a WHO report classifying glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen.”

As the Guardian reports, this move follows two decades of contemptuous inaction – or, I should say, contemptuous action - in the face of protests:
Many people, both in Colombia and abroad, have condemned and protested the fumigations for years. The stated reasons - aside from the fact they haven’t succeeded in eradicating coca cultivation - are legion. One such reason is that they have killed 1,000s of hectares of legal crops belonging to 1,000s of campesinos, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, and because of devastating environmental impacts including destroying soil fertility, contaminating water, and pushing coca cultivation deeper into particularly environmentally sensitive, biodiversity-rich regions like the Amazon.

Other reasons include intensifying Colombia’s civil war, facilitating killings and abuses by paramilitaries, encouraging support for guerrillas, forcing people to flee to neighbouring Ecuador, increasing poverty, and causing appalling health impacts. Headaches, vomiting, eye irritations, skin rashes and burnings, poisoning, lower sperm counts, miscarriages, hair loss, respiratory problems including lung cancer, foetal deformations, destruction of red blood cells and mental health disorders have all been reported.
(Seriously, there were representatives of Colombian indigenous groups appearing before Congress 15 years ago.) Indeed, the indifference of the US and Colombian governments and their corporate partner Monsanto was evident from the very beginning:
[T]he assistance package known as Plan Colombia was signed into law by President Clinton on July 13, 2000. Its stated purposes are to eradicate narcotics production and help restructure the country's economy, in particular ensure delivery of social and economic benefits to its cocoa [sic]- and poppy-growing regions. Although approved by President Andrés Pastrana, the Plan was not discussed or approved by the Colombian Congress, the local governments, civil society, or those most affected, the peasants. The Plan will disburse $1.3 billion of a $7.5 billion budget, most of it in the form of military aid, making Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt. [emphasis added]
So there have always been numerous reasons – humanitarian, medical, ecological, political, financial, practical – for the spraying to stop (or not to start in the first place). But the WHO report on the probable carcinogenic effects of glyphosate (in the context of negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government) is the factor that tipped the scales.

Not surprisingly, “Monsanto has responded to the WHO’s research by calling it ‘Junk Science’, ‘biased’ and ‘irresponsible’.” But here’s the thing the news reports are missing: It’s not just glyphosate. The patent on glyphosate expired years ago. The patented product in all of its forms is a mixture of water, glyphosate, and compounds called surfactants which help the chemical to penetrate the waxy cuticles of leaves and can lead the mixture to have especially serious effects on amphibians. Roundup isn’t glyphosate; it’s a glyphosate-based herbicide.

Monsanto benefits from the widespread tendency to use “Roundup” and “glyphosate” interchangeably. Whatever is found about the health and environmental harms of glyphosate alone will inevitably be of a lesser magnitude than what is found about glyphosate+surfactant(s). The confusion plays into the company’s ability to deny the vast violations of human and animal rights from which they’ve profited for decades.

In fact, the company and the US government were secretive from the start about the chemical formulation used in Plan Colombia, making it all but impossible to assess the true extent of the harm. As CorpWatch reported back in 2001:
[A] State Department official in Washington recently told CorpWatch that the relationship between the U.S. Government and Monsanto ‘is proprietary information between us and our supplier. It's exempt from the FOIA requirements too, so I don't think you will be able to get it’.

Monsanto has been equally tight lipped. ‘We don't divulge information about who we sell our product to, or the size of the contract or anything like that, so I can't confirm that... I will not confirm that it is our product that is being used in Colombia’, says Janice Armstrong, Monsanto Public Affairs director for Roundup.
But people at the time believed that they could piece together from assorted evidence that what was being sprayed in Colombia was Roundup Ultra (water, glyphosate, and a surfactant of some sort) plus another surfactant, believed to be something called Cosmo-Flux 411f. As one report stated years ago,
Concern over the possible dangers of Cosmo-Flux 411f prompted the British multinational Imperial Chemical Industries, a supplier of one of Cosmo-Flux 411f’s ingredients, to announce in 2001 that it would terminate its involvement in the chemical’s manufacture as a precaution against being associated with U.S./Colombian fumigation campaigns.
Even if glyphosate had been sufficiently studied at the time of the launch of spraying in Colombia, which it hadn’t, neither Roundup Ultra nor Roundup Ultra spiked with Cosmo-Flux 411f had been in those conditions. Moreover, there’s zero reason to expect that either the concentrations were what they said, or that the spraying – in the context of the Colombian drug war and war between the government and the FARC – was done with safety in mind. And there’s even less reason to believe anything the US government or Monsanto, the purveyors and users of Agent Orange, have to say about the safety of this chemical in military (or any other) use.

This is a true-crime story that has yet to be really told.

A reminder of how much Republicans hate women and girls


Rachel Maddow last night on Republican priorities:



Is Human Rights Watch ignoring calls for genocide in Syria?


Back in March, I posted about a demonstration at the New York headquarters of Human Rights Watch by people protesting the US government’s ongoing campaign to destabilize, undermine, and ultimately overthrow Venezuelan democracy. Two open letters to HRW offered evidence of the organization’s disturbing ties to the US government and its covert agencies. While the March protest focused on Venezuela, the letters cited tweets by HRW Executive Director Ken Roth actually demanding US military intervention in Syria. Quoting several such tweets, the second letter stated that
Such behavior is unbecoming for the head of a major human rights organization and runs counter to the spirit of HRW’s official neutrality toward the impending intervention in Syria. We encourage you to demonstrate greater tact and responsibility in light of the near-inevitability that U.S. missile strikes would have led to violations of international humanitarian law, including the killing, maiming, and displacement of many innocent civilians—as shown by the U.S. bombings of Yugoslavia in 1999, and of Iraq during the 2003 invasion and subsequent years of war.
In recent days I’ve posted about evidence of open calls in Arabic media for a genocidal campaign against the Alawites in Syria. As’ad AbuKhalil appears to be the only person trying to bring attention to this ominous development. As I previously quoted, he notes that he’s “yet to read one article about that in any Western publication” or “one statement about that by any Western human rights organization.”

While he’s been silent about the genocidal rumbling – even as it’s discussed openly on Al Jazeera – Roth continues to propagandize. This week, he posted an image he claimed to depict the aftermath of Syrian government barrel bombings in Aleppo


but which he was later forced to acknowledge actually showed destruction caused by Israeli bombing of Gaza.


Ten minutes later, he posted an image purported to be a genuine “example of Aleppo’s destruction after Assad’s barrel bombs.”


While this one is of Aleppo, the problem is that neither the story featuring the image nor the blurb connected to the image itself say that the devastation shown was caused by a barrel bomb or a Syrian government attack. They don’t say that it wasn’t, and it could have been, but the assertion required an illegitimate interpretive leap on Roth’s part. Furthermore, the Amnesty International report on which the story was based provides multiple photos of the destruction to civilians and civilian areas caused by attacks from various sources, including both regime barrel bombs and opposition “hell cannons.”

As AbuKhalil makes clear, none of this is “to argue against the fact that the Syrian regime and the armed Syrian rebels are both professional war criminals.” Nor is it to suggest that HRW is simply corrupt through and through, and can’t be trusted on any subject; nor that any documented human rights violations shouldn’t be condemned. But ignoring public calls for genocide while irresponsibly disseminating skewed information that can affect attitudes toward those being targeted for extermination is hardly what an independent human rights organization should be doing.

We call on all countries


A third Bangladeshi atheist blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, has been murdered by machete-wielding fanatics. The Swedish embassy had denied him a visa to travel to Sweden at the invitation of Swedish PEN. The International Humanist and Ethical Union, to whom he had reached out, released a statement today, reading in part:
We call on all countries to recognise the legitimacy and sometimes the urgency and moral necessity of asylum claims made by humanists, atheists and secularists who are being persecuted for daring to express those views.

We’ve been in contact with several Bangladeshi humanists, in particular since Avijit Roy was killed in February. These writers are not hateful, not intolerant; they write about science and politics, they are proponents of secularism, they voice skeptical and rationalist arguments, they call for justice and for humanism. They are desperately and increasingly concerned that they, too, have been named on the Islamist death lists.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The trouble with “Enlightenment values”

“Without allies from outside, it is difficult for any stomped-on member of a community to escape. And the focus on that individual, instead of the community to which they are forced to belong by birth, is central to every progressive and humane development in the centuries since writers in France and Scotland created the Enlightenment out of little more than hope and anger. Everywhere the values of the Enlightenment are threatened, mocked and diluted - in our country not least. If you believe the values of the Enlightenment, which stress our common humanity and shared - but not communal - rights, are necessarily racist, European, or discriminatory, then naturally you will disagree with me.” – Mihir S Sharma
In the whirl of debate surrounding the PEN Charlie Hebdo award, I’ve seen numerous arguments framed in terms of celebrating and defending “Enlightenment values.” Many of the substantive arguments themselves I generally agree with, but over the years I’ve become increasingly wary of the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values.” I believe this rhetoric is dangerously misleading and has several unfortunate consequences.

First, I’ve never been too impressed with claims that “Enlightenment values are universal values.” If the values at issue are in fact universal and the primary point is to present them as such, I wonder, why bring up the connection to the Enlightenment at all? Why not just refer to more or less specific values themselves? It seems undeniable that the phrase “Enlightenment values” suggests a connection to, and origin in, Europe and the philosophical work of a collection of white European men. That’s implied whether or not the speaker is claiming their universal applicability.

Moreover, the argument that “Enlightenment” values are universal pretty much inevitably carries the underlying implication (and often the belief) that they’re a sort of gift from Europe to the rest of the world, whenever those other cultures are sufficiently mature to accept them, and casts non-European struggles based on these and related values as derivative of European ones. This isn’t just remarkably arrogant and condescending, but rhetorically counterproductive. It puts non-Europeans in the position of accepting or rejecting values identified as external (European), unnecessarily drawing these values into political struggles. People in non-European countries can then, cynically or sincerely, lead others to believe that contesting these values is an act of liberation. Again, this is a natural consequence of the rhetoric. It’s of little use to keep insisting that “Enlightenment values” aren’t European but universal when the whole idea contains the message that they’re European but potentially universalizable.

Second, Enlightenment figures and philosophies, and the thinking of people following more or less consciously in the “Enlightenment” tradition, are complex and varied. Even when these thinkers broadly share a given value, their views about its meaning or the best means of realizing it don’t always agree. Many Enlightenment philosophers held beliefs that were racist, sexist, and speciesist, and contrary to what’s commonly thought of as the positive contribution of the Enlightenment. Sometimes, these beliefs were fairly marginal to their political and ethical philosophies, but sometimes they’re at the philosophical core. When false beliefs and prejudices fundamentally distort a philosopher’s argument, it’s wrong to suggest that their ideas about democracy or equality are fundamentally sound and just need to be expanded to include those previously excluded. In many cases, the arguments themselves have to be critically reevaluated and reformed.

Here again the notion and rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” cause problems. They create confusion about which arguments exactly are being asserted or defended. Could there be a subtext or racism, sexism, or speciesism in the rhetoric of Enlightenment values, or at least the implication that such issues are tangential to the basic argument, in any given case? (In some instances, people’s related statements or writing on other contexts make it explicit that their understanding of Enlightenment values is perfectly compatible with sexism, racism, speciesism, and homophobia.) The invocation of “Enlightenment values” is more vague than it might immediately appear, and opens the door to misunderstanding and misuse.

Third, the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” interferes with and distorts critique and its reception. Critical work - including feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist analyses – has engaged with the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and their “descendents,” questioning, challenging, disputing arguments, calling attention to prejudices that undermine positive projects, and building on useful ideas. But some critical thinkers have taken the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” too seriously and mistakenly accepted the idea of a monolithic Enlightenment tradition. Recognizing that some ideas espoused by people associated with this tradition are contrary and even hostile to positive values, they’ve sometimes framed their criticisms of those ideas as criticisms of the Enlightenment as a whole.

The rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” can misshape and politicize the response to critical approaches. Even those critical analyses that are grounded in the very values claimed for the Enlightenment have been seen and/or represented as attacks on the values themselves, understood as sacred and timeless in their “original” “Enlightenment” form. Often, these responses are thinly veiled defenses of the status quo – perversely, the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” allows values claimed to be inclusive and universalizing to be employed as a weapon against contemporary liberation movements.

Fourth, although Enlightenment philosophies arose in relation and opposition to European oppression, the “Enlightenment values” rhetoric tends to sideline that oppression or relegate it to the past while misleadingly suggesting the cherished values as the legacy and meaning of the “real” Europe. Furthermore, the claimed promotion of “Enlightenment values” has often served, and continues to serve, as a justification for European crimes, either as a cynical pretext or a sincerely held motive. Imperialist violence and oppression are still frequently couched in the language of bringing “Enlightenment values” to backwards people – through invasion and occupation, “modernization,” “development” and so on.1

Those exploited, oppressed, and victimized by these self-proclaimed champions of enlightenment – and those who see what’s going on - have good reason to be suspicious of the Westerners’ passion for, or even ability to understand, freedom, equality, and justice. They have good reason to suspect them of having motives vastly different from the values they proclaim, and to be very wary of those who speak in the name of “Enlightenment values.” Simply “explaining” again and again that “Enlightenment values” aren’t themselves racist or imperialistic doesn’t address this problem, and in fact contributes to it as it denies the real-world deployment of this rhetoric in the service of imperialism.

Fifth, “Enlightenment values,” ultimately, are abstractions. They capture some aspects of a politics of liberation while ignoring some others. They’re not the be all and end all of political philosophy or practice. Attempts to build societies that fulfill real needs can draw from sources far beyond the past several centuries on a single continent. Peter Kropotkin’s ideas about anarchist communism, ethics, and science, for example, draw from the practices of communities throughout European history and elsewhere, nonhuman animals, the work of non-European scholars,…

And of course liberation movements didn’t begin with Enlightenment philosophy. Movements against slavery didn’t originate with Europeans or from Enlightenment philosophy, but amongst slaves, based on a desire for freedom and self-determination and growing from ideas in African political cultures, indigenous American cultures, and communities being formed in oppressive conditions. The same is true of other liberation movements, as well as those defending the natural environment.

Recognizing this does not, as the “Enlightenment values” rhetoric often suggests, mean rejecting or ignoring the ideas about freedom, democracy, human rights, etc., developed by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, or denying that many of these ideas have been and will continue to be important to liberation movements. It’s simply a matter of appreciating and respecting the diverse sources of valuable ideas and practices. The rhetoric of “Enlightenment values,” in contrast, implies that these diverse ideas about democracy, freedom, equality, and so on and related efforts to fulfill people’s needs are unimportant, uninteresting, or even threatening.

So the use of “Enlightenment values” rhetoric causes several problems: It claims positive values as universal while implying that they’re not actually universal in the sense, which is the only meaningful sense, of having roots and growing organically in non-European cultures. It falsely gives positive values a European pedigree and an import status, thus supplying ammunition to the enemies of freedom who can claim that in rejecting them they’re fighting foreign domination and advancing the cause of liberation. It interferes with relationships of equality and solidarity across cultures. It leaves the substance of the specific values being defended unclear. It misleads both criticism of philosophical arguments and the reaction to critical work, sometimes letting the latter become a cudgel with which to bash liberation movements in the name of sacred liberatory values. It tends to distort European and global history. It ignores the concrete history of how this rhetoric has served as a cover or justification for violent campaigns of oppression, exploitation, and looting. It ignores or dismisses the people pointing to this history, or, worse, accuses them of being opponents of liberation. It narrows our focus to a small portion of potentially valuable global and historical sources of ideas, while downplaying the persistent European sources of oppression and challenges to liberation.

I believe that instead of becoming trapped in this rhetoric we should begin with and continue to focus on specific, concrete needs and values, and be open to considering diverse historical and contemporary sources of liberatory ideas and practices while trying to be as aware as possible of how “Western” cultural traditions and actions have not only promoted but also stood in the way of these values and goals. What’s lost in a sense of cultural superiority is compensated for by real solidarity and...enlightenment.

1 In this violent and tragic history, moreover, Europeans have crushed democratic and liberation movements when these threatened their power, while intentionally (or inadvertently but thoughtlessly) promoting and institutionalizing the most oppressive forces; they’ve then pointed to those forces as evidence of the unenlightened backwardness of the “natives.”

Friday, May 8, 2015

“Europeans hold no patent”: contesting colonialist myths about Charlie Hebdo


Two recent articles by Justin Smith related to the recent PEN-Charlie Hebdo controversy make arguments that go beyond the immediate issue and deserve to be highlighted. Smith tries to situate Charlie Hebdo in relation to the Enlightenment, and, more particularly, to some present-day narratives of the Enlightenment and its meaning for “Western civilization.” This is vitally important because these narratives have real cultural power - they perpetuate colonialist ideas and work to justify racism and violence.

“The Joke” situates Charlie Hebdo’s humor not in a “culturally advanced” Europe but in an ancient, global tradition:
The jihadists who murdered the cartoonists prefer the sort of death that is not tempered by freedom, and they do not get the joke for which their dumb violence is the punch line. Put differently, they do not understand the freedom that governed the lives of the murdered satirists, the freedom by which the satirists both lived and died. Few, in fact, in these literal and self-serious times, were able to understand it. Many insisted that Charlie Hebdo’s satire was a sign that the values of the Enlightenment had outlived their purpose, that those values had been duplicitously distorted to the great disadvantage of the world’s colonized and oppressed. This concern is valid enough, but it was no less valid in the eighteenth century. What this insistence misses is that humor, as a disposition to life, far precedes the Enlightenment, and that Europeans hold no patent on it. It is ancient, and universal, and it is the best thing we’ve got in a world in which we’re all going to die anyhow, a world in which so many malign fools prefer to spoil what little flare of freedom we may enjoy by killing in the name of dogmatic, doubt-fearing, dour, and deathly earnesty. Humor is freedom, and it must be defended — not with guns and bombs, no, but with more, more of the same. [emphasis added]
Smith’s piece Charlie Hebdo and Literature” similarly seeks to complicate humor’s relationship to Europe, particularly by noting the hostility toward humor found in much of the European philosophical tradition:
European philosophy is embarrassed by humor, distances itself from it, and when Kant tries clumsily to engage with it, he shows how unprepared the philosophical tradition is to do so in a rigorous way. …[T]he invocation of ‘I think therefore I am’ at the Paris rallies after the attacks was misplaced;…if we want to make sense of Charlie Hebdo’s humor, we have to look to a very different domain of culture than philosophy, the one that…reaches back genealogically to Rabelais et al. and from there across the Mediterranean to a part of the world Europeans wrongly imagine as the total opposite and negation of their historical experience.1
Both articles, then, attempt to contribute to developing a humanist understanding of humor that isn’t bigoted or nationalistic, a vision that challenges the colonialist imagination rather than nourishing it.

Seen through the colonialist lens, the values represented by Charlie Hebdo, or at least by “Je suis Charlie,” are the higher, Western values of thought, questioning, and democratic freedom - values threatened by the backwards, oriental forces of irrationality, unfreedom, and oppression represented by the jihadists. Within this framework, Western culture is more evolved, more “human” than that of the Muslim world. (I’ll discuss this colonial vision in more detail in one of my next few posts.)

With Charlie Hebdo claimed as a symbol of French or European or Western expression and freedom, the attack set in a global narrative of uneven cultural and political development, the magazine’s “vulgar” drawings themselves, along with its mission of contesting power (including colonialist myths), are marginalized and defanged. The mind-body hierarchy underlying the colonialist vision – given form in the placards quoting the cruelly speciesist Descartes – further serves to sanitize the publication. Once the magazine is falsely assimilated into this tale of Western enlightenment, once its defense is presented as a defense of the civilized mind against animalistic savagery, its bodily humor and its emphasis on Western political violence are rendered invisible.

The PEN protesters are thoroughly, embarrassingly wrong about Charlie Hebdo. But they aren’t wrong to recognize that the magazine and the murders have been claimed by and for a reactionary mythology, exploited by those seeking to advance racist, authoritarian projects. (Not that they’re the first or only ones to have recognized this, or that anyone should be surprised by it.) But our response to this shouldn’t be to credulously accept those claims about the magazine,2 much less to create or accept counter-myths that are merely the mirror image of colonialist narratives.

We need to resist the attempts to draft these artists and writers, against everything they stood and continue to stand for, into a racist, colonialist campaign, and to challenge the colonialist narratives at their very foundation. Locating Charlie Hebdo’s humor in a longer and more diverse cultural history and drawing attention to all of the opponents of this free, biophilic sensibility is a necessary part of this effort.

1 I’m reminded here of Camus’ 1937 “Indigenous Culture: The New Mediterranean Culture” (available in Algerian Chronicles) in which he supports a “nationalism of sunshine” and argues that
Our task here and now is to rehabilitate the Mediterranean, to reclaim it from those who have unjustly appropriated it, and lay the groundwork for a new economic order. It is to discover what is real and alive in Mediterranean culture and therefore to encourage its most diverse forms. …Cities like Algiers and Barcelona have a crucial role to play, namely, to serve in their own small way those aspects of Mediterranean culture that sustain man rather than oppress him.
2 This mythical civilization-vs.-barbarism story of the attack and its meaning hasn’t been promoted by CH itself. From what I’ve seen, they’ve always opposed such bogus narratives.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Quote of the day


I have to return to this one, because it’s great:
What other medical specialty would be asked to endure an anthropologist opining on the scientific validity of its diagnoses?
I don’t know. What other medical specialty has publicly admitted that its diagnoses are scientifically invalid (and I quote) bullshit?

Video of Tuesday’s “Charlie Hebdo and Challenges to Free Expression” forum


The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, which hosted the forum, has already made the video available. It’s about an hour and twenty minutes long. If you prefer to read a summary of the discussion (with a bit of commentary), mine is here.



A frenzied increase in blatant explicit calls for the extermination of all Alawites


This was posted by As’ad AbuKhalil yesterday. I’m reproducing it because of the seriousness of the charges and because I checked and wasn’t able to find any media reports:
The scandal of Western correspondents in Beirut: covering up anti-Alawite genocidal calls and statements by Syrian opposition
If those Western correspondents in Beirut were station in Berlin in the 1930s, they would have assured their readers that all is well in Germany and that there is no danger whatsoever for the Jews of Europe. There has been a frenzied increase in blatant explicit calls for the extermination--yes, extermination--of all `Alawites in most Arab media and by various segments of the exile Syrian opposition and certainly by the various armed groups in Syria and I am yet to read one article about that in any Western publication. I am yet to read one statement about that by any Western human rights organization. Yesterday, there was another low registered, Al-Jazeera Arabic aired a show about Alawites and it featured (by the host and the guest) most explicit calls for exterminating all `Alawites (women and children--they actually said that) in Syria. This is something that does not register in MEMRI because the targeted minority group are `Alawites. [italics added]

With all the vanity of good souls


The new issue of Charlie Hebdo responds to the PEN boycotters:
Inside, a centerfold package of articles and cartoons addresses the PEN controversy.

In an opinion column written in a serious tone in contrast to the comic cartoons surrounding it, Philippe Lançon, a journalist shot in the face in the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices by Muslim extremists in January that left 12 dead, expresses his surprise at the PEN dissenters. He writes that he understands that some writers might want to distance themselves from PEN, and that the magazine itself mistrusts such institutions, “so as not to become one itself — one of those places where it’s indispensable to show how bien-pensant you are in order to get ahead and believe you’re loved.”

“It’s not their abstention that shocks me; it’s the nature of their arguments,” Mr. Lançon continues. “That novelists of such quality — Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi — come to say so many misinformed stupidities in so few words, with all the vanity of good souls, is what saddens the reader in me.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

“Blasphemy is just debate”: a report from yesterday’s PEN forum on “Charlie Hebdo and Challenges to Free Expression”


Before I cover the content of the discussion – which was lively and insightful – I want to note that my hopes weren’t fulfilled: none of the group who chose to boycott and protest PEN’s award to Charlie Hebdo accepted PEN’s invitation to take part in the panel discussion.

Now, I wouldn’t automatically attribute this to cowardice – I can think of a number of reasons people wouldn’t want to participate in public debates (though I expect that among the more than 200 protesters one or two debaters could have been found). But before making the introductions, the moderator read aloud a short joint statement from the protesters, attempting to justify their refusal on the grounds that the forum should be for people to get to learn about Charlie Hebdo and what they do. So declining the invitation to participate does seem to stem from cowardice of some sort (…possibly indicating a budding realization that their claims about CH were ignorant?), rooted either in the fear of having to try to defend their smears in person to CH staff members and those knowledgeable about the magazine or in the fear of discovering that they were very publicly and embarrassingly wrong in the first place. It’s also just…strange. Last night’s gala afforded them only the option of protesting symbolically by boycotting or refusing to applaud the award; but the forum would have provided the opportunity to share and exchange views. Why would professional communicators choose the former? (While I was disappointed by this choice, I continue to hope that at least some of them, after some reflection and research, will come forward and acknowledge that they had misunderstood and mischaracterized the magazine.)

In any case, their refusal was unfortunate, since it was the protesters who most needed to learn about and understand Charlie Hebdo. It was also ironic in that, as I’ll discuss below, one of the major themes of the discussion was that at the very heart of their work is a desire to provoke public debate. The protesters’ refusal to engage in discussion and debate with those they oppose wasn’t just disrespectful to the murdered and surviving staff of the magazine – and it was that – but also contrary to a basic principle of free expression. Defending free expression can’t just be about defending people’s right to express themselves, but has also to involve calling for their voices to be heard and engaged with, for people to listen to what they’re saying, to take their ideas seriously.

So…on to the discussion. The participants were the moderator; PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel; director of the NYU Institute of French Studies Ed Berenson, who provided an introduction locating CH in the historical tradition of French satire; Charlie Hebdo’s editor Gérard Biard; and CH film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret. I’ll talk about a few of the major themes.

Understanding Charlie Hebdo

The values promoted by CH shouldn’t have to be emphasized, but in view of the baseless attacks from some PEN members and others, it was useful to reiterate them. The discussants spoke about CH’s commitment from the start to fighting racism and all forms of discrimination – against not just racial and ethnic minorities but women, LGBT people, immigrants, and poor people.

They underlined that their emphasis was on politics and power, and that their principle targets had long been the French Right, and especially the far-Right Front National. Part of a long satirical tradition, they seek to attack political power – institutions, representatives, icons. Religious institutions, representatives, and icons are only a small subset of the “sacred” phenomena they attack - these also include political parties, nations, and so on. They’re about defying and contesting power in any form.

The discussion returned again and again to their mission to provoke thought and debate. The people who murdered their colleagues and commit other such crimes, they argued, don’t want debate. (They pointed out that the recent attack in Copenhagen actually targeted a debate.) For all they know, they could be murdering those who agree with them – what’s important is shutting down any discussion or debate. Their project isn’t a religious but a political one: to impose their views on others and silence dissenters. In contrast, the CH staff see their work – including blasphemous cartoons – as intended to contest power and open debate.

On differences between the US and France concerning free expression and criticism of religion

The conversation covered important differences between US and French law and culture, specifically between secularism as practiced in the US and laïcité in France and between US and French laws surrounding freedom of expression. Critics of the magazine in the US often seem to ignore the difference between US secularism (or “secularism”) and French laïcité. Laïcité as they described goes beyond the separation of church and state – it understands the public sphere and political discourse as a common space in which religion has no role or status, and outside of which religion (for some) is practiced, and respected, privately. In this context, religion is seen as intruding on the public sphere and publicly mocking religious iconography and practices as political targets is acceptable. This can be difficult to understand here in the US because our system is so different in theory and in practice. The US system wasn’t really discussed at the forum, but as I’ve argued many times it’s based on a bogus sort of compromise in which institutionalized religion is (in theory) kept separate from the state, but religious claims and identities suffuse political discourse and public policy, all while people are expected to refrain from criticizing or mocking religion because it’s an allegedly personal and emotional matter. Whatever the problems with laïcité in practice (and Berenson hinted at some, although unfortunately there wasn’t time to return to them), the US system with its tradition and practice of deference to “personal” religion even as religion colonizes public life is ridiculous and anti-democratic.

In any event, people from outside France should seek to understand their system before pontificating about what is or isn’t within the bounds of acceptable discourse there. I think this also helps to understand the perspective of CH a bit better. They see religion in highly personal and private terms. It only comes to be of interest to them, and a target for their critique, when it improperly invades the democratic public sphere and makes political claims to status and power. So their attacks aren’t on individual believers or their dignity but on religion as a political force. They see believers not as representatives of, or represented by, a religion but as equal participants in a shared democratic sphere.1

Another significant difference discussed is that, while the US has few legal prohibitions on speech, France has speech laws prohibiting, for example, inciting racial or religious hatred, denying the Holocaust, or trivializing the slave trade (I had been unaware of this last one). The panelists differed about some aspects of these laws. Berenson was strongly opposed to all of these prohibitions. Biard disagreed, arguing that there was a meaningful difference between satirizing religion and denying historical facts. Thoret talked about some of the unintended consequences of such laws in this age of social media. Banning language and images from the public sphere and institutional channels, he said, can drive them underground, in a sort of “return of the repressed,” especially into social media where they’re most often seen by the young. The anti-Semite Dieudonné, for example, was removed from French television, and quickly discovered the immensely greater reach of YouTube. Thoret contended that the ideas have to be fought in the public space.

On self-censorship

The problem of self-censorship was raised in two contexts. First, in relation to media outlets and their decisions about whether or not to publish the CH cover cartoon from after the attack or other controversial images from the magazine. All were in agreement, I think, that they believed the media should have shown the images – not without context, of course, but accompanied by relevant contextual information – as a newsworthy subject, as an opening to discussion and debate, and as a demonstration of commitment to the value of free expression.

Once again, they refused to accept the designation of “special” defenders of free expression and other important values, arguing that everyone can and should actively defend them. Biard discussed how the magazine’s original decision in 2007 to publish the Danish cartoons (which they presented thoughtfully, accompanied by commentary) was taken in response to the firing of the editor of another French paper who had published them. It was an act of solidarity when other publications had chosen self-censorship. It’s sad to imagine how things might have turned out had more than one other publication joined them at the time…

Self-censorship was also talked about in relation to individuals. Panelists were concerned about the threats and violence, and the lack of solidarity, leading writers and artists to self-censor. While they made it plain that the attack and public responses haven’t led them to change anything about their approach, they worried about self-censorship creeping in. It’s an especially pernicious sort of censorship since people aren’t always fully conscious of the fact that they’re doing it.

On reading images

Another theme was the question of the different nature of, and complexities in interpreting, verbal vs. visual commentary, words vs. images. Biard and Thoret spoke passionately about the general problem of “illiteracy” (as Caroline Fourest put it in a recent interview) with regard to images, an illiteracy not limited to cartoons or humorous or satirical images but extending to all visual representations. Biard talked about how children are surrounded with images from the time they’re born – on television, in advertising,… - without knowing how to go about interpreting them, and how they’re never really taught how to read them. Thoret, who teaches about film, noted that he’s found his film students often lack the skills to critically analyze images. Both called for public attention to this problem (which has enormous political reach given the use of images by the powerful) and education in reading and interpreting visual representations.

They also alluded to a number of problems with their critics’ attempts to interpret images pulled from their immediate and larger (linguistic, cultural, political, historical) context. Part of the problem, of course, is a basic lack of skill in reading images themselves and of awareness that this skill is lacking or needed. But the difficulties of reading decontextualized images from other cultures, which should be obvious, have been all but ignored, even denied, by the PEN protesters, who’ve arrogantly insisted that not only can they definitively interpret the decontextualized images but that they can speak for people in the French political context.

The moderator asked an important question about the globalization of culture and the issues that can arise when images are seen or used outside of their original context. Biard acknowledged that this was increasingly the case, but cautioned against responses to this phenomenon that would put all of the burden on creators to preemptively address all possible misinterpretations (which would be impossible in any case). He argued that an artist envisioning and trying to guard against all of the ways their work could be misread, intentionally or unintentionally, or cause anyone offense, wouldn’t be able to produce anything. I think this returns us to the question of literacy in interpreting images and the complexities involved with trying to read them across different contexts. Of course creative people have a responsibility to minimize the possibility of misreading and misrepresentation of their work (and I’ve discussed examples of CH staff demonstrating this responsibility), but all of us need to be aware of these problems and, most important, to use caution and humility in interpreting or discussing unfamiliar images.

They also pointed out that CH isn’t just a publication of cartoons. The images appear in the context of words and articles, and are as much a subject of editorial discussion and debate as the written pieces they accompany. Critics, however, tend to treat them as though they’re freestanding, and worse, to focus only on the cover images rather than those within the stories themselves. Moreover, people aren’t, they emphasized, forced to buy or read Charlie Hebdo. Thoret described his dislike of soccer and wish to avoid all things soccer.2 But he’s not compelled to buy soccer magazines any more than people are compelled to buy CH. This wasn’t of course an argument that consumption decisions should trump democratic debate. But it was worthwhile to note, because reading some of the articles attacking CH you’d almost be led to believe this small satirical publication had the power to demand that it be read by every person in France.

On “Je suis Charlie”

They also talked about their response to the support for the magazine following the massacre, particularly from some of the institutions they’ve targeted most viciously.3 They stated that they’ve never been naïve – they’ve always known many of these expressions of support were ersatz and politically self-serving and would evaporate in a matter of months or even days. The film critic Thoret, in keeping with their emphasis on dissension and debate, also expressed his discomfort with the idea of a globally shared opinion, which reminded him of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I think the most poignant remarks concerned their response to the “Je suis Charlie” supporters whose support was and is genuine. Naturally rejecting iconic status, with all of the anti-democratic bad faith it entails, and insisting that they’re not the “owners” of the universal values they defend and champion, they called for those who shared their values not to leave it to them but to take action themselves:
OK, you’re Charlie. So take a pencil, take a pen. Stand up for these values…. ‘Je suis Charlie’. OK, so do it.
Thoret said that he dislikes that they have been singled out as especially courageous, arguing that many if not most people can and do also show courage in these situations.

On the history of French satire

I’m going to close where the discussion opened. Ed Berenson opened the discussion by situating Charlie Hebdo in the bawdy, irreverent, anti-clerical tradition of French political-religious satire dedicated to skewering all claimants to power. (These two articles, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming post, go beyond France to fit their work in an older, global tradition.)

One aspect of this history discussed by Berenson that I’d forgotten or somehow never knew was that Voltaire wrote a play in 1741 called Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet. I impatiently await delivery of the 2013 translation.

Some last thoughts

I was already favorably predisposed toward Charlie Hebdo going into the forum, but I was impressed by Biard and Thoret especially given the stupidity of the protest here; Biard’s opening line - “We don’t eat children, and we don’t eat believers” – was funny, but shouldn’t have been. It’s terrible to be ignorantly accused of being the opposite of what you actually are, and I thought they handled it remarkably well. They seemed deeply committed to challenging power in any and every guise and to provoking thought and debate, and talked about their continuing hope that the current controversy helps to bring about more debate. This made the protesters’ blanket refusal to join the panel all the more aggravating and embarrassing.

And one last note. Almost every piece I’ve read, not only the attacks on Charlie Hebdo but the defenses too, includes some line or other about how the author dislikes and won’t attempt to defend the cartoons. They’re puerile, juvenile, unsubtle, unintelligent, ugly, and just “not funny.” I’ve never been a fan of cartoons, including those meant as political satire, but I’ve now seen numerous images from CH and I like them. I’m sure there are many I wouldn’t care for, but overall, yes, I find them interesting, thought-provoking, not exceptionally ugly, and often funny.

1 I’ll note that their views are less extreme than my own on this subject. While of course I share their concern about religion as an explicitly political force, I also have a problem with “private” belief and the epistemic practices associated with faith. I think faith, even when ostensibly private, always has political consequences.

2 He mentioned one player’s name, and then expressed his annoyance that he even knew it, since it was occupying space in his brain that could be used to much better purpose. I know that annoyance very well.

3 They laughed about the ringing of the bells at Notre Dame in their honor, but correctly pointed out in response to a comment from the moderator that ultimately the Pope did not speak in support of them.