Sunday, January 25, 2015

To the critics of Hebdo

I leave for France Tuesday, to attend the Angoulême Comix Fest, the Priz Librairie Book Festival in Provence, and for another book tour around France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I've been putting off writing this post for over a week now, mainly because I've been scrambling to finish as much work as I can before I leave for the month, but also just to let things die down and emotions cool.

If you've been following me on Facebook and Twitter, you how deeply affected I was by the Hebdo attacks. As a (former) political cartoonist, as a popular graphic novelist in France, with both Mon Ami Dahmer and Punk Rock et Mobile Homes on the bestseller list in that comix-crazed country, and as a free speech advocate, the murders of the Hebdo staff hit me hard. 

But what I want to write about today is the backlash.

The bodies weren't even in the ground before critics began piling on. Mostly the attacks came from the English-speaking Left, particularly in Britain and here. Most publications in these two countries wouldn't even reprint the cartoons that led to the slaughter. That's simple corporate cowardice by Big Media Inc., and the subject for another post.  Far more troubling is the reaction of some of our commentators and columnists. I'm going to call out two of them.

Glenn Greenwald's piece for his website The Intercept got re-posted everywhere. Greenwald's take on Hebdo:

Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted, such as the one mocking the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens. 

He then posts a dozen cartoons, culled from Arab and White Power publications, that show the same bile (he thinks), but directed toward Jews.

Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights? Have I struck a potent blow for political liberty and demonstrated solidarity with free journalism by publishing blasphemous cartoons? If, as Salman Rushdie said, it’s vital that all religions be subjected to “fearless disrespect,” have I done my part to uphold western values?

Greenwald (again, so he thinks) is holding up a mirror to us Islamaphobe Westerners. Here are some cartoons that are as bad as the Hebdo ones, but taboo here in the West. Bet they make you squirm, don't they?

Problem is, Greenwald, like many other critics of Charlie Hebdo, and like the jihadists and radical imans themselves, completely misunderstand the cartoons in question! In Greenwald's case, he is flat-out WRONG.

This cartoon is not an attack, as Greenwald mistakenly states, against Boko Haram's sex slaves. It's a dig at Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front Party, a favorite Hebdo target which has made stunning gains in recent elections and which often rails that France's liberal asylum policy results in immigrants, mostly Muslims and Africans, who just want to live off welfare. Get it? France's rightwing thinks even Boko Haram victims are just out for a welfare check! But no one grasps that here, even though it sounds an awful lot like a FoxNews screed about African-americans and the infamous Welfare Queens, no? And comedians and cartoonists here mock that all the time.

Hebdo, which is, in fact, unabashedly liberal and pro-imigration, not racist and rightwing, often does the exact same thing Stephen Colbert does, mocking the rightwing by pretending to be rightwing, and no one is dumb enough to take Colbert at face value! 

Why has this been missed by Hebdo's critics here in America, most of whom were completely unaware that this publication even existed two weeks ago?  Because our Princelings of Media like Greenwald are in a rush to judge, and, frankly,  smug.  You can't understand satire if you don't understand context. In this case, I don't think Greenwald even bothered to get this thing translated, let alone ask a Frenchman what it meant. This is pure intellectual laziness.

The other opinion piece that set my teeth grinding was by Steven Litt, art critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He was moved to muse on the Hebdo controversy after taking in an exhibit on Nazi propaganda at Cleveland's Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. 

No, really.

He writes:

Here's what troubles me: Beyond violating the Islamic prohibition against depicting their prophet, the Charlie Hebdo caricature of Muhammad employs exaggerated ethnic features that, to my eye, come uncomfortably close to racial caricatures of Jews used by the Nazis to create a social and political environment conducive to the "Final Solution."

Yeah, uncomfortably close.... except the Hebdo cartoons were made by lefty cartoonists in Paris while the Nazi cartoons were made by murderous psychopaths who slaughtered millions of innocent people!! Other than that minor detail, they're exactly alike!  Good Lord. My mouth dropped open at this ridiculous comparison. Of all the criticisms I've read of Hebdo, THIS one tops them all!

Now, I've met Litt. He's a good art critic and, for the most part, I enjoy his articles. Many years ago, he even reviewed my first solo gallery show here in Clevo. It was a largely favorable review, but it was painfully obvious he didn't really "get" comix. Not much has changed, judging from this off-target piece.

Litt then links the Hebdo cartoons to France's antisemitism in the years before WWII. The problem there is that the oldest of the slain cartoonists, George Wolinski, who was a Jew, by the way, was all of 11 years old when the war ended in 1945. He and his mother had to flee their native Poland in 1936 to escape the pre-war pogroms. Jean Cabut, aka Cabu, was seven. The rest were born in the Fifties and Sixties. The editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, was born in 1967! These people had absolutely nothing to do with French racial attitudes in the Thirties. That's like dismissing the cartoons of Tom Tomorrow because America once had Jim Crow! It doesn't even make sense. OK, they're all French and France was once pretty hostile to Jews, 75 or so years ago, so ergo..... J'accuse! Litt obviously has no clue that the Hebdo cartoonists are all  progressives, and Hebdo has never been accused of anti-Jewish attitudes. They're not anti-Muslim either. They just don't have much use for religion, any religion.  Litt's train of thought here is as preposterous as it is factually incorrect. Is it so hard to look this stuff up?

He then goes on to compare the Hebdo cartoonists to 19th-century artist Honore Daumier, which is the sort of thing art critics love to do when trying to understand something as lowbrow as cartoons, rather than look at REAL influences like the postwar American humor comics, such as Harvey Kurtzman's Mad, and the great magazine cartoons of the Fifties, ala Charles Addams. In fact  the root of this particular style of European cartooning is right here among the dead. Wolinski and Cabu are comix pioneers in France, important and influential cartoonists purely on their own merit.  They have no more a connection to Daumier than I do. Cartoonists tend to look at earlier cartoonists for inspiration anyways. We're incestuous in that way.  Why art critics always try to trace comix roots back to someone they read about in Art History class is a puzzle. I suppose that's to be expected, especially here in the US where highbrow regard for comix is practically nil.

Litt concludes: 

My view is that the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad is offensive, pointlessly inflammatory and indicative of a double standard over caricatures of Muslims and Jews. 

I am for free speech but I am not, as they say, Charlie Hebdo.

Twisting "Je Suis Charlie" to be some wrong-headed declaration against racist caricatures that aren't, in fact, racist? At that point, I hurled the paper away from me in disgust.

I find it utterly dismaying when American liberals start clucking their collective tongues in PC angst over the Hebdo cartoons. Not to their taste? Understandable. Charlie Hebdo is a political fart joke. It's crass, and tasteless and unapologetically lowbrow. It's not the gentle, wine-sipping humor of New Yorker cartoons. The Intellectual Left has always had a problem with cartoons in this country. My experience with them, especially with oh-so-earnest publications like The Nation, Utne Reader, etc., is that they are FAR more likely to censor cartoons than anyone else. There's just something about comix that raises their suspicions. It's an American thing, not one shared by our French friends, who embrace comix like no other nation.

Hebdo cartoonists and staff, particularly Rènald Luzier, aka Luz, who defiantly drew the latest Muhammad cover and will likely be a jihadist target for the rest of his life, deserve nothing but respect, especially from journalists writing from their cozy, safe homes here in Fortress America.