Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This isn't really about free speech, is it? - Letter to Apostate Windbag

Leigh Phillips used to write a blog called 'Apostate Windbag', and occasionally guest-posted at this blog.  He's written this about Charlie Hebdo.  As he called me out by name, I wrote him a letter.  This is a brushed up version of the same.

Dear Leigh,

I read your article.  I disagree with you on many points, but above all I question your commitment to free expression.  You seem to take it for granted that you are a passionate defender of the right to free speech, as the foundation of all rights.  However your article presents evidence to the contrary.

Certainly, there is something superficially hard-headed in your macho denunciation of the “delicate flowers” who don’t want to reproduce pictures of Muslims buggering goats and similar fare.  Yet, the Arab cartoonists whom you say are “made of much tougher stuff” actually seem to fail your test of probity.  Not one of them depicts a single buggered goat, or dole-scrounging Muslim.  In fact, they are pretty timid - making fun of the Daesh numpties, championing free speech, all the platitudinous things that we’ve seen from the more banal anglophone cartoonists of late.  If this is your idea of pushing the envelope in the name of free speech, I am singularly unimpressed.  

Perhaps more troublingly, these same images whose toughness you extol are now being widely circulated as liberal clickbait, with the implied line being that “these Arab Muslims aren’t all savages: some of them are every bit as dull as we are”.  The intriguing thing is that if any of these images had showed a Muslim in the process of deflowering some gentle caprine, none of these websites would be reproducing them.  And I’m sorry to wound your amour propre, but neither would you.

Likewise, you appear to strive for consistency in your principles when you say that the Islamophobic backlash and the ramping up of surveillance/repression is to be opposed.  Yet, curiously you bracket this observation in a couple of paragraphs that are logically discontinuous with the rest of the article, almost as a caveat or aside.  This is odd: who is the major threat to free expression in the European continent today?  A relatively small, ruthless jihadi network who are almost universally reviled, or the governments who with considerable public support ban the hijab, lock up Muslims for Twitter statements, spy on their communities, ban their protests and events, arrest and harass them at disproportionate rates, and occasionally render them to the CIA for some tremendously fun games with water?  

You’re alive to the ways in which the 'Islamists' (like Daesh and the latest Al Qaeda franchise) mainly harm other Muslims, but you give every impression of being oblivious of the racialised way in which free expression is selectively controlled and suppressed, often on the basis of 'counterterrorism'.  I have to ask, since you’re so keen to spit on those caricatured leftists who think free speech is a form of colonial oppression, etc., whether the narrow way in which you construe the issue of free expression is intended to conform to their worst stereotypes of the Eurocentric leftist?  Is this some kind of trolling meta-commentary?

Another indicator that this is about something other than free speech is the gloss you put on Charlie Hebdo's Islamophobia.  It is one thing to defend free expression even for ideas that one detests.  But, while acknowledging the magazine's "hard on" for criticising Islam, you rather sweetly suggest that "no one particular Charlie cartoon can be said to be racist".  I wonder about that.  Oliver Cyran's piece, to which you link, strongly suggests that the phoney "sex jihadists" article and accompanying cartoon was a racist fantasy.  It also argues that the depiction of a Muslim fucking a goat (cf. "goat-fuckers") was racist.  It argues that the Sharia Hebdo cover, featuring Mohammed as guest editor promising a hundred lashes if you don't die laughing, was racist.  Taking his lead, allow me to ask you: supposing there had been a Talmud Hebdo cover, featuring a hook-nosed rabbi promising to take a 'pound of flesh' if you don't die laughing?  And what if the inside pages featured an old Jewish man - or let us say, someone who was depicted as a Kahanist or IDF killer - fucking a pig?  Is it conceivable that you would describe this as anything other than obnoxious antisemitism?  Or that you would actually avoid discussing such unpleasant details?

Still, having had your say on the subject, you go on to cite Marjane Satrapi saying that criticising Charlie Hebdo is "the wrong conversation" right now.  You don't say that discussing the question of Charlie Hebdo's racism is the wrong conversation to have - that would be absurd, since the discussion is unavoidable and you've just expended several paragraphs on it.  Rather, it is the criticism that is to be lulled, while you rally for free speech.

It is also frankly quite odd to sock-puppet Noam Chomsky as a ‘moral giant’, to anchor what is otherwise liberal browbeating in a leftist discourse and shame the supposed belittlers of ‘free expression’.  First question: aren’t you a little old to believe in moral giants?  Second question: if you are going to wield the ideals of a folk Enlightnment much as a goose farmer wields a stick, or an NYPD cop wields a plunger, why not begin with independence of thought, viz. “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage”?  That is, why don’t you just say what you think rather than dogmatically invoking Chomsky's erratic and evasive statements on Faurisson as a kind of moral trump over the rest of the Left?

Perhaps most symptomatic is the "victim-blaming” line that frames your argument.  The interesting thing about all of the 'are-you-saying-they-had-it-coming' pieces being written about the massacre is that, the only way the rhetoric can work is if one knows in advance that no one is actually saying that.  It’s because no one is saying that, that makes it effective as a smear.  It puts people on the back foot, forces them to waste energy stating that which oughtn’t need to be stated.  That’s what makes it such a low, dishonest, bad faith recourse, indicative of full-blown, spittle-lathered, testerical moral panic.  Little McCarthyite touches like that from soi-disant defenders of free speech are, sadly, par for the course at moments like this.

So there you are.  All puffed up and macho when it comes to pissing on Muslims with racist invective in the name of ‘free speech’, but strangely pious, humourless and censorious when some people decline to go along with the spectacle of 'Je Suis Charlie'.  All for free speech, but mainly up in arms about the way it affects white people and is threatened by brown people.  

There’s something very ex-RCP in all this.   Should I expect you to appear in Sp!ked Online any time soon?