In the wake of the brutal assault on the Parisian headquarters of satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” the world has been shocked, outraged, and disgusted with radical, militant Islam. Meanwhile, the United States is strangely quiet… and weirdly critical. Not of the terrorists, but of the magazine.
January 7th was a tragic day, as two masked gunmen stormed the building shouting “Allahu Akbar,” and began slaughtering staff, editors, and cartoonists for daring to insult Islam. Leaders around the world joined together in a massive show of mourning and solidarity less than a week later.
America, on the other hand, both as a government and as a populace, has been relatively silent. All things considered, it’s rather out of character for country infamous for inserting itself into every major world event for the last century. Beyond the typical condolences and lip service, the nation made famous for pulling on its cowboy boots and impulsively charging to the defense of anyone who has been wronged (whether they want our help or not) really hasn’t had much to say.
Why is that?
Simply put: Because we don’t know how we’re supposed to react.
As a society, and especially as millennials, we’ve spent the last decade being “educated” in the proper, progressive, enlightened “do’s” and “don’ts.” But now we witness one cultural ideal we’re supposed to admire, gun down another one. What do we do when two of the basic tenets of “progressive liberalism” are completely incompatible?
What do we do when “sacred cows” start killing each other?
American Liberals are at an impasse. For so long, they have been sacrificing the basic rights of Western Liberalism at the sacred altar of “Multicultural Glorification,” that they don’t know how free speech works anymore. The amorphous term “Tolerance” is king… but what happens when tolerating a group that is vocally intolerant of literally everything “progressive” results in dead bodies?
They are horrified by the very real threat of violence that can come from speaking your mind, but the “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag makes them equally uncomfortable, because, after all, Charlie Hebdo is an offensive magazine, right? And they technically started it by making fun of other cultures, right? Right?
Maybe it would have been better if they had just been more respectful of Muslim beliefs; more open to dialogue. The shadows of classical liberalism and its love of freedom might still echo faintly, but they are at odds with the drowning monotony of its inoffensive, 21st century descendent in the United States.
To set some background, let’s not fool ourselves: Charlie Hebdo is far from a wholesome magazine.
It’s crude, lewd, rude, and it absolutely revels in it. Sarcastic in the extreme, the scathingly satirical publication is, for the confused American millennial, essentially what would happen if South Park and The Onion had an unholy love-child that started a political newspaper.
“Michael Jackson: White at last.”
It makes no false pretense; Charlie Hebdo is proudly and offensively irreverent… and would never be able to survive in the United States. If right-wing censors didn’t try and shut it down for it’s often very inappropriate content (and cover art), then the left-wing censors would for its extreme political incorrectness. They go out of their way to be offensive, and they have been publishing extremely controversial covers since 1970. Here’s what some consider their top 16. (If you haven’t picked up on it yet, there is some offensive imagery in that link.)
Muhammad promising “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”
But here’s the kicker: Charlie Hebdo is a VERY left-wing publication.
This wasn’t a conservative bastion. This wasn’t a church. This was an extremely liberal, progressive publication.
They self-identify that way, and that just makes things more confusing for American Liberals.
Charlie Hebdo is fiercely anti-war, anti-nationalist, and anti-organized religion. If they’re not criticizing France’s already vastly reduced military budget as still being too large, then they’re lambasting the Catholic Church for being homophobic and intolerant. You can hardly accuse the artists behind their irreverent caricatures of Muhammad as being bigoted, recalcitrant, conservative racists. Many of the people killed in the attack were known for their extremely progressive views on race, sexuality, economy, and politics. Cabu, “one of the most emblematic cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo,” spent the majority of the last 40 years viciously attacking right-wing ideas and latent euro-centric racism with his art.
But NONE of that matters, because they still created wildly offensive imagery that mocked Islam and Mohammed, and for that, someone felt they had to die.
The worst part of it? The best reaction that Millennial Americans can produce is “Well, they really shouldn’t have been publishing those cartoons to begin with.”
It’s been a week since the massacre, and now that the initial shock and horror has started to fade, people are starting to push back against the lionizing of the bawdy peddlers of satire, and in an incredibly puzzling twist, many of these are social progressives.
This isn’t a case of Islamic apologists like Reza Aslan insisting that REAL Islam has literally nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever, or advocates of sharia law in England saying that the massacres are good thing because it will teach those who disrespect Allah a lesson. This isn’t even a case of typical millennial contrarianism.
It’s a case of seeing people, on Twitter, on Tumblr, and on my own Facebook feed, writing condescending messages about how “well, yeah, they shouldn’t have been killed, but they shouldn’t have been making fun of other cultures either,” and actually believing it.
SERIOUSLY? How do you even equate that? As the shock settles, more and more people are standing up and saying “Je ne suis pas Charlie. I am NOT Charlie.” All because they honestly believe that Charlie Hebdo and its staff were inherently wrong for what they did; inherently wrong, openly racist, and ultimately culpable in the resulting violence. And to the American liberal, it is a perfectly logical line of reasoning.
They are quick on the draw about how they still stand against violence, bigotry and racism (even though that stand would require them to condemn elements of fundamentalist Muslims, which they won’t do, because “bigotry and racism”), but their circular logic ultimately winds up at the same, deluded destination: The idea that even the most equal opportunity satire is still evil if it mocks a group that the progressive establishment has declared as “disenfranchised,” and that said satire is solely responsible for any resulting violence.
If you’re sitting there like some pious gasbag congratulating yourself on your own enlightenment because you’re convinced that Charlie Hebdo and it’s caricatures deserved to be condemned, you are literally the worst kind of person.
Free Speech. THAT is the difference between American liberals and European liberals. Oh, they both might be economic bedroom buddies, low impact socialists, and of the same mind when it comes to sexual liberation, but when it comes to free speech? Say what you will about the French, and I often do, but they will never hesitate to speak their mind. An American liberal? Not so much. Because it might be offensive.
You’re not a social crusader. You’re not even a liberal. You’re just a sell-out who doesn’t REALLY value free speech, or even understand what liberalism means.
Oh, you SAY you do, and you give it plenty of lip service, but when the rubber meets the road, you will remain convicted that the right to free expression ends where someone else’s feelings begin. Because feelings are important, and once somebody is triggered, well, we can’t really blame them for any actions they might take.
Even if that means PULLING a trigger on someone else.
“Not Guilty. I was triggered by his drawing.”
Let me simplify this for you:
Taking the stance that Charlie Hebdo‘s publications are somehow at fault for the resulting violence is LITERALLY THE SAME ARGUMENT as saying “Look at what she was wearing! She was asking for it!”
Do you UNDERSTAND how TWISTED that is? That is literally the TEXTBOOK DEFINITION of victim blaming. You are doing what you have been fighting against for the past DECADE, except NOW, people are DYING.
I don’t know what should be offensive: The subconscious assertion that Charlie Hebdo was asking to be attacked, or the subconscious acknowledgment that Muslims can’t be trusted to control their fanaticism. By taking that above stance, you are affirming BOTH, and weirdly echoing that “patriarchy” you’ve been fighting for so long.
If a video of a woman being verbally harassed (or in some cases, just greeted) drives you to greater action than a video of an Islamic terrorist gunning someone down in the street like an animal, you need to revisit your priorities.
Still not asking for it.
If “Je Suis Charlie” or caricatures of Muhammad make you uncomfortable, then focus on this gentleman instead:
Ahmed Merabet was the man gunned down in that video. A Parisian policeman who was killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo building. A man who had just as much right to be “triggered” as the terrorists.
But Ahmed, and his fellow policemen, who ALSO lost their lives, had to make a choice: Do they choose freedom of expression, or complete, extreme, cultural sensitivity. They chose free speech, and they died for it. Why? Because they GOT it. They understood what living in a free society means. So remember Ahmed. He a lot more justification than you to condemn a comedy magazine, and he did not.
(Not technically a direct quote from Voltaire, but you get the point.)
Americans make a great big show of loving liberty and freedom of expression, but when it comes down too it, we censor with the best of them. America is not Charlie.
As a people, we are afraid of the power of free expression, so we corral it whenever possible, punishing those who deviate from the accepted standards. Right now, “liberal” progressivism is in power, and people who express thoughts that run against it are dissuaded.
Freedom of Speech is the root issue at stake here.
I could speculate as to why the United States administration snubbed the anti-terrorism demonstration in Paris.
I could mock celebrities who think that, somehow, an act of Muslim terror, committed in France, with RUSSIAN weapons, is the fault of lax American gun laws.
I could even join the New Yorker (Seriously, the New Yorker, of all things) in pointing out that the days of claiming Islam to be a “Religion of Peace” are coming to a close.
But the real issue is the matter of free speech. You don’t have to love Charlie Hebdo, but you don’t have to finish the work of Sharia fanatics by shutting them up or condemning them for perceived evils.
All I’m asking is that you take a break from the ceaseless, mindless, and dogmatic defense of “cultural sensitivity” and make a stand for free speech.
Fundamentalist Islam is the enemy of free speech. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. If you offend them, they will silence you at best, or kill you at worst. This time it wasn’t a church, or an embassy. This time it was a very left-wing, liberal newspaper suffering the brunt of their wrath. The staff of Charlie Hebdo was gunned down for not complying.
And how are they reacting?
By printing THREE MILLION copies of their next issue, featuring the Prophet on the cover:
Apparently Frenchmen don’t like being told to shut up…. and I actually respect them for that.
And so, America must choose between two sacred cows:
Do we dogmatically defend the idea of perfectly glorified cultural sensitivity, censor the unpleasant, and condemn Charlie Hebdo for racist bigotry, writing off the outrage as Islamophobia? (Neither of which is true.)
Or do we defend free speech, and the right of free expression, acknowledging its paramount importance to liberty, acknowledging that no man or woman deserves to die for what they’ve written or drawn?
The two are becoming increasingly incompatible, and whether we choose now, or delay it until later, we WILL have to make the choice. I hope we choose the latter, but I fear we have already settled for the former.
Louis Petolicchio lives and writes in Central Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.