Thursday, 30 July 2015

Socialism and Freedom of Speech

Over on International Socialism, Mark Brown makes a comprehensive attempt to address the tensions beneath the Je Suis Charlie campaign. Coming from a determinedly socialist perspective, Brown recognises the horror of the shootings, but finds the subsequent protests problematic.

He is very clear that there is no place for supporting the actions of the men who killed the French cartoonists, yet he is reluctant to follow the popular narrative that condemned them. Seeing an Islamophobia in both the cartoons that led to the murders and the subsequent protests, Brown carefully draws a line between the honest responses (held by the many people who came out to claim Je Suis Charlie in solidarity with the cartoonists) and the manipulation of this popular movement by establishment powers.

The article is a challenge to simplistic interpretations of the events. A dualism was quickly set up, between 'Western Values' – including freedom of speech – and 'Extremist Islam'. The attack, described as an assault not on a specific magazine but on the concept of free speech, became a focus for anti-Muslim sentiment, and reinforced France's secular antagonism to religious activity.

The emphasis on a socialist response – he is hard on leftists who embrace the establisment line – lends the article a distinctive perspective. There are references to familiar socialist themes (Israel's behaviour, the French Revolution), but the argument is located within a historical context, and spots a worrying continuity in French attitudes to minorities from 1789 onward.

Freedom of speech, he argues, is not simply the right to say anything. By referencing Norman Finklestein, Brown suggests a comparison between the offending cartoons and Nazi propaganda against Jews. With plenty of caveats – including a rejection of the notion that Islam in 2015 is in the same position as Judaism in 1935 – Brown wonders whether cartoons that mock a minority group are less satirical than bullying.

His argument is not that the murders ought to be condoned, but that Charlie Hebdo's history of Islamophobic cartoons is not a bright beacon of freedom, but an expression of French secular prejudice against Islam that also deserves critique. He presents Chris Morris as an example of a satirist who has mocked power, and upset the establishment. This, Brown says, is a more bracing and even socialist use of humour.

The publication of the cartoons is characterised not as freedom of expression, but an expression of a dominant ideology. The ease with which European governments sided with the artists, and the media's representation of the crime, added to this dominant ideology, co-opting both popular revulsion and the ideal of freedom within the democratic, capitalist structure.

Freedom of speech, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, was not upheld by the pronouncements of heads of states, or the French government's decision to financially support the magazine's subsequent issue. Rather, they incorporated the idea of freedom into its own agenda, which Brown suggests is the maintenance of a dualistic vision, of an open 'us' and a tyrannical 'them'.

While this argument does not remove the right of cartoonists to be offensive, or offer sympathy to murderous rampages, it does encourage a complex view of how 'freedom of speech' can be used to remove freedom of speech: all right thinking people were Je Suis Charlie, and any protest against the conduct of the state (which included people being arrested in France for, funnily enough, making anti-Charlie cartoons) was heretical.

At one point, Brown dismisses the comparisons between Hebdo and the British Private Eye. And it is noticeable that when Private Eye responded to the murders, they kept a balance between outrage and respect for victims and Islam alike, with a series of cartoons that revealed (mostly) a more sophisticated grasp of the medium than Hebdo's often crude caricatures. If Charlie Hebdo provoked a mass enthusiasm for freedom of speech, it is articles like Mark Brown's Socialism, Satire and Charlie Hebdo that are reminders of the need for vigilance.

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