Friday, 9 January 2015

Charlie Don't Surf

The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings has been self-indulgent. To call it the "French 9/11" is obviously over the top, but it is also depressing when you consider that most days witness equal or greater body-counts from muslim-on-muslim jihadi violence in the Middle East. Likewise, to describe the murder of twelve people as an "attack on freedom" is no more accurate or helpful than claiming, as Marine Le Pen promptly did, that Islam is at war with France. To suggest that we should all stand in public squares brandishing pencils is the sort of imbecility that Michel Houellebecq, whose caricature adorns the front of Charlie Hebdo's current issue, has long satirised. The media's fascination - with London-based TV news anchors having apparently decamped en masse to Paris - probably owes as much to professional empathy as proximity, but it also owes something to the post-Leveson desire to paint themselves as champions of freedom.

There is a suggestion in the reporting and wall-to-wall commenting that terror on the streets of Paris still has a global significance that elevates it above terror in other areas of France, such as the killings in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, or even other countries. Inevitably, parallels are being drawn with 1789. Hari Kunzru offers liberal even-handedness: "The caricature of the jihadi as a medieval throwback, animated by ancient passions, may be comforting to those who would like to wrap themselves in the mantle of civilisation and pose as heirs of Voltaire, but as a way of actually understanding anything, it’s feeble. ... The jihadi movement is a thoroughly modern beast, which ironically owes much to the French revolutionary legacy of 1789. Though they are religious millenarians, looking to bring about global submission to the will of God, they are also utopian revolutionaries, and have adopted tactical thinking from the various movements that trace their legacy to Paris, and that inaugural moment of modernity."

Kunzru ironically fears that we are being manipulated ("I want to get off the damn bus"), but still recycles the warped vocabulary of "this war", "self-dramatising young men" and "lost boys" (the prime suspects, now dead, were in their 30s and clearly hardened). The significant thread back to 1789 does not run from the jihadists to the Terror, but from Charlie Hebdo to the Parisian media of the Revolution, and specifically Le Pere Duchesne, the radical newspaper published by Jacques Hébert in the early 1790s, which combined performative offence (essentially lots of swearing, aping the supposed manners of the sans culottes) with demands for egalitarian policies and increasing terror against counter-revolutionaries and speculators. It was a leading voice in the campaign for dechristianisation, which, together with its scurrility, would eventually lead to conflict with Robespierre, who favoured the deist compromise of the Supreme Being and the bourgeois ideology of Virtue (which certainly didn't include such liberal use of "foutre").

The counter-revolution and the restoration of the monarchy would drive the politics of the enragés underground, but the tone of vigorous profanity and nihilist contempt that Le Pere Duchesne popularised would remain an influence in French culture throughout the nineteenth century, providing a vulgar chorus to the angry but well-mannered duet of the curé and the schoolmaster that would lead to the gradual separation of state and religion during the Third Republic. This can be seen both in the "realism" of bourgeois French literature (compare Emile Zola to Thomas Hardy), and the proto-modernist reactions against it (compare Arthur Rimbaud to Robert Browning). Rimbaud's famous jibe at Verlaine - "What a cunt you look" - is a perfect example of the "gouaille" that links Le Pere Duchesne to Charlie Hebdo.

From the Third to the Fifth Republic, this contemptuous style would be a vigorous undercurrent of French culture, recuperated and exported globally as "naughtiness" (French postcards etc) and the daring of the demimonde. Obscenity never lost its political role, its ability to épater le bourgeois, which informs the work of authors as different as Céline and Genet. There has never really been an English equivalent to this instrumental obscenity (our causes célebre, from Lady Chatterley's Lover to The Romans In Britain, are ridiculous in comparison), though it is a robust presence in Scottish literature - James Kelman, Irvine Welsh et al. It finally died in France in 1968, as Paris gave up its role in the cultural avant garde and settled for the technocratic virtue that is the true inheritance of Robespierre (Houellebecq's schtick is a disgust with both this empty virtue and the mephitic corpse of '68).

Charlie Hebdo is a soixante-huitard in denial. While Le Pere Duchesne was not the authentic voice of the sans culottes - Hebert was a disappointed bourgeois who used his influence to live high on the hog until he met "the republican razor" - it did reflect a genuine lese-majesté and its uncompromising aggression was admired by its constituency. Some English commentators have wrongly described Charlie Hebdo as the French equivalent of Private Eye. That role is taken by the venerable Le Canard Enchainé, which focuses on political and financial scandals and is consequently dependent on the political and financial classes (much as Private Eye is). The UK equivalent of Charlie Hebdo's spirit of irreverence can be found somewhere between The Sun and Viz. To a large degree, the magazine's limited success (it has long been more talked about than read) is down to it occupying a empty space in the market created by the dull and "virtuous" mainstream French media (there is no real equivalent of our tabloids). The French like to believe they are still capable of "farting in the Pope's face", but their hearts are not really in it.

The political opportunism of Nigel Farage ("a fifth column", the "encouraged division ... of multiculturalism") and Marine Le Pen was predictable, but so was the demand by Andrew "Nosey" Parker of MI5 for more surveillance powers. As Kunzru rightly notes, "We have cracked [down] and tightened for a decade and a half and all we have to show for it is a bloated, unaccountable security state that is eroding the cherished freedoms we claim to be so eager to protect". The news that Charlie Hebdo is to print 1 million copies of its next issue is also opportunistic, though forgiveably so. Its normal circulation is about 45,000, which is down from a peak of almost 150,000 a decade ago (in contrast, Le Canard Enchainé sells around 500,000, while Private Eye sells around 220,000). It will likely revert to under 50,000 within a few months, and then continue its journey south.

The Internet is a challenge for all print media but it poses a more acute problem for ephemeral magazines, particularly those whose content is largely confected opinion rather than selected news. While magazines and newspapers that rely on leaks and scoops will survive, because of the high cost of sourcing such content and the vested interest that political and economic elites have in the media, those whose primary selling point is humour and/or outrage have already been swamped by the Internet's ability to generate and disseminate such material at enormous scale and zero cost (consider the circulation of the ISIS decapitation videos). The attempts by established satirical magazines to move online have largely failed, and even the exceptions, such as The Onion, have been unable to generate sufficient revenue since their print versions folded. Increasingly, the audience for ephemeral print media is ageing. Many of those soixant-huitards are now about 68 years old, funnily enough.

In the circumstances, defending Charlie Hebdo as an icon of press freedom is a dead end. I can't help feeling that some of the defensiveness and protectiveness of other journalists stems from their anxiety over an increasingly poorly-rewarded career and the constraints imposed by economic "realities". Blaming this all on mad jihadis is convenient, and dressing it up as an attack on freedom, in language that echoes the 1790s, elevates the status of the media above ordinary people. As ever, the real beneficiaries of such outrages can be found in the party of order, demanding retaliatory drone strikes on Yemen and more surveillance of the Internet. We've even turned out more armed policemen at British ports, to defend us against "those who wish us harm", as if the Paris killers were determined to extend their spree to London, following in the profane footsteps of Rimbaud and Verlaine.


  1. And it's the party of order who are laughing again, as they use the murder of journalists whose material they loathed to portray themselves as the defenders of 'free speech' and tie themselves in as people we should be showing solidarity with.

  2. And of course, the loss of twelve lives is a tragedy but no need to mention that because it goes without saying, right?

    1. If you're after blogs or other media telling us that murder is a tragedy for the victims and their loved ones (as if we were too stupid to recognise this unaided), then you will not want for alternatives.

      Rather than just repeat what everyone else was saying, which would condemn me to being either inferior or irrelevant, I thought it might be worth offering a different perspective, namely one that considers Charlie Hebdo in the context of French history and the current impact of the Internet.

      Freedom of expression entails the right to say nothing, or to be discriminating about what subjects you do choose to speak on. There is no catechism that needs to be recited first.

    2. I am not denying your freedom of speech, I just find it interesting that when something like this happens the angle certain bloggers take on it, i.e. twelve Westerners get killed, what a great opportunity to point out what hypocrites the west are. The choices people make in exercising their freedom of speech say a lot about them and I will exercise my right to freedom of speech in commenting on it.

      And to suggest people are over-reacting in their response to the execution of twelve journalists in their on own country because there is a civil war in the middle east....I mean wow! Maybe you are over-reacting in your concerns for the plight of the English working class (so called) when there are people in Africa living on $2 a day.

    3. Looks like someone wants to start one of these:

    4. Hey Igor,

      Yes I can see why you would say that, but there may be another way to look it if. I don't expect Arse to condone anything, I don't care if he doesn't. My problem with him is, among other things, is in his twisted view of the world the first thing he thinks about when twelve journalists in the West are murdered is writing a post about what a bunch of hypocrites the West are.

      And no guys...that doesn't mean I think the lives of Westerners are more important than the lives of brown people (grow up, seriously).

      I don't expect to win you over with this argument, no doubt you have already categorised me as a "fascist" (Jesus you even have a link saved for just this sort of occasion), but maybe there is tiny chance you are capable of critical thinking...just maybe.

    5. There really is nothing to debate here really so I won't waste my time. You guys like Arse's posts or at least feel you need to back him because he's one of the good guys, and I think the internet would be a better place without such hypocrites. We will just have to agree to disagree.

  3. Herbie Kills Children11 January 2015 at 11:31

    The problem with people like anonymous is that they want blanket condemnation in only very specific cases. They don't want condemnation when British or American troops run amok or when the British or US government threaten TV stations or when Israel executes journalists, or when...I could go on. But even with non controversial pieces like this they take issue because there is no blanket condemnation!

    People like anonymous appear as the beacons of human decency but when you really think about what they say you understand clearly this fact: They support the acts of terror carried out by British and US troops, they support the rapes, the murders etc etc. You know this to be a fact because of their double standards. if they take the time out to to go wow over your refusal to join the official narrative but they don't go wow when we carry out the acts of terror you have to conclude they just partisans who support terror when it is carried out by us and show utter outrage when we are the ones being attacked.

    Incidentally freedom of speech shouldn't be simply saying what you want, when you want but should demand quality speech, thoughtful speech, speech that doesn't seek to misinform and speak that doesn't mean to manipulate or distort the truth. But this is what anonymous wants, he doesn't demand proper analysis, proper use of freedom of speech. To anonymous freedom of speech amounts to nothing more than propaganda. This is a bigger enemy to freedom of speech than rogue Islamists.

    1. OK, so your argument hinges on the assumption that I condone US and UK involvement, and even murder, in the Middle East.

      I don't think there is anything more for me to say.

    2. Thinking of it, in your simplistic view of the world where people who show sympathy for murdered Westerners obviously condone the murder of non-Westerners, is the reverse also true?

      Don't know why I am even wasting time on you.

    3. Herbie kills Children12 January 2015 at 17:26

      "so your argument hinges on the assumption that I condone US and UK involvement, and even murder, in the Middle East. "

      Absolutely, I would put money on that fact. You know you don't condemn when British and US troops run amok. You know your condemnation is only reserved for special occasions. Your type are so transparent, let me tell you. If you are trying to tell me that you trawl the net every time British or US troops commit an atrocity and demand blanket condemnation from those that don't explicitly give it then you are having a laugh.

      So I think I am the one wasting my time here as you are deluding yourself.

  4. @Anon, re "in his twisted view of the world the first thing he thinks about when twelve journalists in the West are murdered is writing a post about what a bunch of hypocrites the West are".

    Firstly, I'd like to thank you for acknowledging my twisted view of the world. I was worried this blog might be mistaken for just another bland, conformist pile of poo. It's good to know I have succeeded in my aim of being controversial, non-conformist and just a little bit annoying. Je suis Charlie.

    Secondly, the post above is not about the hypocrisy of the West, but about the historical context of Charlie Hebdo and the way that various observers have self-indulgently framed the paper to suit their own prejudices (a champion of press freedom, a beacon of secular values, a victim of Islamofacism etc).

    Thirdly, you do not know what "the first thing" I thought about was when I heard of the murders, so please don't presume to have an inside channel to my mind (unless you work for GCHQ, in which case you might).

    Fourthly, I do not consider you a fascist, and I think you may have misunderstood (or not fully read) the link that Igor posted that refers to the term (it's about the neoliberal abuse of the word). Having said that, a statement like "I think the internet would be a better place without such hypocrites" is the sort of twattery that will leave you open to such a charge.