Cartoonists: the foot soldiers of “democracy”

in In January 2015, 11 people at the offices of French “satirical” cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered, allegedly by two gunmen acting under the al Qaeda banner. Driven by both political and media figures, the response generated more noise than almost any other event in recent memory. This response included widespread calls to share cartoons in order to antagonize pious Muslims for the good of Western civilization, and over 40 world leaders positioning themselves as great champions of human rights. As I wrote at the time, the sheer deafening volume of the event—and the almost-thuggish calls for skeptics to fall in line—was grounded in what the raw material of the event presented to the ruling class. With its tidy narrative of whimsical artists mercilessly “martyred” by savage Islamist demons for exercising their free speech, the response to the killings was a perfect opportunity to reinforce the narrative of the West’s essential goodness, and a related series of myths about Western civilization.

Embedded in the response was a narrative about cartoonists. According to the official accounting, democracy is powered by dialogues and discussions—and these are driven by information. By crystallizing ideas, cartoonists perform a valuable service. More than that, by acting as impish provocateurs against the predations of undemocratic, illiberal regimes, cartoonists act as “the foot soldiers of democracy.” This was a connection too hyperbolic for me to make, but fortunately the 2014 French documentary Cartoonists: the Foot Soldiers of Democracy made the point for me. Given a Charlie Hebdo editorial from this week, and certain recent successes in the world of graphic novel memoirs, the point is correct, but not in ways its advocates may have intended. “Democracy,” the euphemism used in high places for the free-market capitalist system, is well-served by cartoonists. With their generally vacuous liberal politics, cartoonists are ideally positioned to perpetuate smears against the West’s designated enemies and convey an air of authenticity to propaganda masquerading as conventional wisdom.

In an op-ed conspicuously translated and released in English, the Hebdo editorial board asks “How did we end up here,” claiming to answer the question of how the Brussels terror attack of 22 March happened. Opening by invoking “Law and order fans,” “xenophobes,” “urban-planners,” and “sociologists,” the piece thus distinguishes its authors from both ivory-tower technocrats and more vulgar authoritarian racists. According to its authors, the culprit behind Islamist terrorism is not necessarily Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who had spoken at a French research institution earlier that month. However, Ramadan, a halal baker, and a hijab-wearer all bear a collective guilt. According to the editorial, political correctness has created an “iceberg,” of which non-murderous Muslims are merely the visible minority. Soon after 9/11, the favored metaphor to describe the cause of the terrorist horror was, rather than an iceberg, a swamp, that had to be “drained” in order to “find every snake in the swamp,” as Donald Rumsfeld said. Though the op-ed doesn’t come out and advocate for a solution, it follows that the only conceivable answer, now as then, is more military violence.

This sort of advocacy stops short of an overt call for war in order to maintain credibility with its squishy left-liberal target audience, and it’s understandably popular with various progressive-branded figures who align with the US State Department. However, the capitalist class is currently dealing with numerous issues that the rest of us would call crises. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the era of social democracy has effectively ended, and numerous governments stubbornly resist the Washington consensus, that means more security and terror for the majority of human beings whose whims aren’t turned into statecraft. It also means more propaganda to invert reality, like the idea that the West has been insufficiently violent. The Charlie Hebdo editorial board echoes Tony Blair, who in the past weeks has blamed terrorism on “flabby liberalism” and excess Western humility, too many concessions to political correctness and tolerance, and what Blair identifies as the fact that millions of Muslims are primitive and backwards. In America, Donald Trump channels far-right anger over political correctness by speaking his various bigotries freely, horrifying millions of liberals in the process. However, since liberalism and fascism are slightly different dialects of the same language, the messages of Hebdo and Blair carry weight with a target audience Trump could never reach.

For cartoonists, the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was atypically open with the service they were rendering. Cartooning is obviously an art form that’s as varied as writing or filmmaking, but publishers keep pushing certain kinds of work. Two of the biggest graphic novel memoirs of the last decade were Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Perseoplis 2. Documenting the author’s journey from childhood in Iran to adulthood in Europe, the two volumes were released in 2003 and 2004, right before and after Iran joined the Axis of Evil. French-Canadian author Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang was released the year after North Korea joined Iran and Iraq on the list. A film starring Steve Carrell was in pre-production until it was cancelled in 2014 following the very excellent Sony leaks and subsequent cancellation of The Interview. Last year, I was struck by how hard Riad Sattouf’s graphic novel memoir The Arab of the Future was being marketed, and it’s not hard to see why.

Translated into 15 languages, former Hebdo contributor Sattouf tells the story of his upbringing in 3 different countries: the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya under Muammar Gaddafi, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, and France. In the last 5 years, a NATO war killed Gaddafi and reduced Libya to a failed state controlled by armed factions—a fate numerous NATO countries and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council are trying to impose on Syria. With this background, a book that’s already being hailed as a modern classic offers a look at life in these countries. Despite being a child, Sattouf—and by proxy, the reader—“gets a serious education in the mysterious vectors of power that shape…the political world.” The book “takes its place alongside other classic animated retrospectives memoirs from the region, Persepolis…and [Israeli shoot-and-cry] Waltz with Bashir.” A reviewer for The New York Times fills us in on the specifics:

The Sattouf family lands in Tripoli in 1978. It has been almost a decade since Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi took power and three years since the publication of the first volume of the Green Book, which presents his “vision of society.” The country resembles a construction site, with many buildings in states of repair or disrepair. From this point forward, the story relies on Riad’s perception of the family’s experiences in Libya, even though he was only a toddler at the time. We are being given not memories but reconstructions of memories, whose sources are unclear.

[Sattouf’s father] gets another job, this time in Syria. Like all exiles and immigrants, he returns home dreaming of glory. But Syria under Hafez al-Assad is its own nightmare. There too a cult of personality persists. There too everything is in disrepair.

The Arab of the Future Libya panels

From “The Arab of the Future,” via “The New York Times.”

As ironic introduction, the Times story opens with two panels of the book: a local grotesque claiming that Libya is the most advanced country in the world, among other social achievements. A reader whose knowledge of Libya came from graphic novel autobiographies and the Times would come away with an understanding that Libya was a shambolic, dilapidated ruin—not unlike Syria, which was a “nightmare” of “disrepair.” One would have to get their Libya news from sources other than the Times, or anything hailed as a modern classic, to know that the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya had the highest GDP per capita and life expectancy on the African continent. In interviews, Sattouf cautions that he’s no expert on the Middle East/North Africa region, claiming “It’s inevitable that people ask me my opinion…I knew Syria in the 1980s but I can’t say I know anything about Syria today. I’m no more informed about the situation in the Middle East than the average person who watches TV.” It would be a strange divide that the author professes such a surface-level knowledge of Libya and Syria, given that Sattouf’s graphic novel is hailed as something educational. Obviously, though, what’s useful about a comic memoir of the two most recent victims of NATO violence is precisely that it conveys the same political information one would get from a steady diet of CNN or MSNBC. This way, the State Department line can reach the sort of urbane reader who might think themselves above watching cable news. “The Arab of the Future,” writes the Times reviewer, “will do little to complicate most people’s perceptions of Libya or Syria. Life in both countries seems like a living hell, with no moments of relief or pleasure.” In other words, life before a NATO war doesn’t sound appreciably worse than life after a NATO war—no harm, no foul.

Cartoonists are the perfect vectors for delivering these messages, because of both who they are and what they’re doing. Most don’t evince openly crypto-fascist leanings like the Charlie Hebdo editorial board, and the far-right in America has traditionally been drawn to editorial cartooning. The ones who publish autobiographical travelogues of the designated enemies generally have vague centrist core, consequently they can reliably parrot whatever the mainstream line is on a given target country. As a writer for The New Statesman claimed in a piece on Tintin, cartoonist “Hergé was a sponge. Not known for being a very political person, he often absorbed the dominant narrative on an issue and made it part of his comics.” The same could be said about nearly everyone doing similar work today. Continue reading

Free Speech spectacles are civic-religious rituals in service of colonial civilization

“Imperialism is becoming everyday less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of a nation.” –Lord Curzon, 1898, governor general and viceroy of India

“‘The power that dominates the United States’ [is] unwilling to tolerate the slightest suggestion of culpability for the crimes that it has perpetrated across the globe. At the height of the ideological society lies the conviction of a moral mission, even a divine destiny, authorizing its almost inadvertent drive towards global domination.” -Hamid Dabashi

Colonialism and imperialism, in their classical or contemporary guises, have many ways of appearing palatable, even decent. Those tropes are easy to identify, because they’ve been reliably deployed for hundreds of years without changing. First, Empire targets a group of people, usually because the population sits on top of great territory or resources, then reduces them to an undifferentiated mass (“Muslims,” for instance). They’re given essential characteristics in order to obscure the aggression against them (“Why are Muslims so angry?”), and imbecilic, power-serving bromides are proffered as an explanation for the current historical moment (“They must hate us for our freedom”). One of the central characteristics, attributed to all targeted groups, is an inherent primitiveness, a lack of civilized values if not civilization itself (“They don’t understand our noble, enlightened Free Speech.”)

It’s that last point, about how progressive values are invoked in the service of imperialism, that makes the fact that Charlie Hebdo is liberal a non-substantive point. It’s been said that the magazine antagonized France’s neo-fascists and advocated for immigrant rights, but those aren’t the ideas being mined from this week’s events. In the English-speaking media, there’s been a back-and-forth about how the more shocking images in Charlie Hebdo are meant to be received. However, even defenses of the magazine from charges of racism concede that the magazine itself (and “the French satire tradition” as a whole) has often made a target of Muslims. Sure, Charlie Hebdo mocked the Pope—if it frequently dehumanized a marginalized group in the Empire’s sights as though they’re as strong as one of the world’s most powerful men, then it’s easy to see how that’s useful to power.

While Charlie‘s cartoonists may have claimed that they targeted Islam’s “extremists,” this project fits firmly in the liberal wing of imperialism. According to Professor Deepa Kumar, a key characteristic of liberal Islamophobia is “the recognition that there are ‘good Muslims’ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged.” As opposed to Islamophobia’s “troglodyte version, which is just blatant,” Kumar explains, “there are very complex, sophisticated, and liberal forms,” which make allowances for two types of Muslims: extremist/fundamentalist/terrorist “bad” ones, and “good Muslims, which is people who actually support what the U.S. is trying to do, and nothing in the middle.” According to Vox, separating “bad” Muslims from “good” ones is exactly what Charlie‘s editors claimed to be doing: “The magazine’s own editors have said…its lampooning of radical Islam is aimed at separating out radicalism from mainstream Islam, which is ultimately a service in favor of Islam.” For the sake of progress, Charlie was circulating Arab caricatures to save Islam from itself.

Liberal ideas of progress aren’t opposed to racism and colonialism, nor are they just complementary, but essential to those projects of domination. This has been the case since at least the 18th century—empires have always presented conquest as gifting reason and pluralism to backwards people. Plenty of today’s most strident anti-Muslim bigots, like the New Atheist luminaries, identify as liberals defending the Enlightenment tradition, and they sound identical to both colonial proconsuls and Anders Breivik. Liberalism’s role in Empire is why John Kerry sounds identical to George Bush on the question of why the terrorists hate us (it’s our freedom). France offered pluralist reasons for banning both the wearing of hijab and pro-Palestinian demonstrations last summer during Operation Protective Edge.

Newsweek Muslim RageWithin the construct of liberal imperialism, our advanced values are presented as a decisive fault line marking “Western” societies from other, contradistinct civilizations. Spectacles surrounding “Free Speech” are crucial moments for the manufacturing the borders of Empire’s imagined community and creating the Other. These events—often centered on racist cartoons and the consumption of pork—are wrapped up with a panoply of innocuous political stances and capitalist consumer choices “that trigger a warm feeling of self-recognition and superiority among cosmopolitans,” in the words of Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. After 9/11, Salman Rushdie offered that “to prove [the fundamentalist] wrong, we must agree on what matters: bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, movies, [and] freedom of thought,” along with other basic physical and emotional needs that “the fundamentalist” doesn’t share with humanity, like water and love. This is part of constructing the “assumption of collective Muslim guilt [which] is a common staple of the American mass media,” as Hamid Dabashi recounts in Brown Skin, White Masks. “A particular paragon of twisted reasoning is the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wondered why Muslims around the globe (not just Pakistanis) did not ‘take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people?’ Why would they do so when their Prophet is caricatured in Danish newspapers, but stay home when real human beings had been murdered?”

One of the liberal mantras that’s been repeated a lot since the 2006 Jyllands-Posten event involves depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH…how’s that for edgy speech?). Liberals are wont to shake their heads and say that they just don’t understand how Muslims can be so attached to a mere image. The emphasis on a picture is another invocation of the enlightened status of the speaker and their membership in “Western civilization,” versus the inscrutability of a group so atavistic and primitive that they’re made furious by a cartoon of their Holy Prophet. Like every aspect of these spectacles, in which the mob condemns and repudiates and declares what the Bad Men did “unthinkable,” this is meant to delineate civilization against barbarism—the logic that undergirds colonialism.

It’s strange hearing liberals repudiate blind religious totemism during these spectacles, because a reliable constant is the invocation of “Free Speech” like some sort of fetish-object. Free Speech is a value about which “we” must be absolute, since it protects “our” rights like a guardian angel. Furthermore, the story is that Free Speech is something that actually exists, rather than being a socially transmitted, power-serving fiction. In reality, Free Speech spectacles are liturgies for a secular religion—what Dabashi calls “the ideological society”— one that’s driven by domination and demands as much blind obedience as any other faith. Continue reading