One of the things that I have learned about Americans after looking at them (us? Honestly, I never know which pronoun to use, though “them” is more and more tempting as the months slide by) from outside, is this: you can really be assholes.
I do not mean that some Americans are assholes the way that some percentage of every country is made up of assholes, though this is certainly true. And I am also not talking about that extreme case where stereotypical guy does exaggerated American thing. Yes, the guy sporting a swastika tattoo and toting his gun to church to “protect” himself and his racist buddies from muslims and black people is an asshole. Yes, the yappy investment banker spending his ill-gotten gains from sub-prime mortgage bundles on Cristal and hundred dollar bills to shove in the g-string of some stripper in some mid-town “gentleman’s club” is an asshole. Everybody knows these guys are assholes, maybe even these guys themselves. Possibly even their moms think that they are assholes. That is not what I mean when I say you can really be assholes.
No, I mean something different, something shared by all, something that even the allegedly well-meaning and open-minded people do, something I probably did for years without knowing it myself, which is this: you decide that you understand a situation in a foreign country based on anecdotal evidence or one or two newspaper articles. You decide that you know what those other people should be doing differently, and you up and tell them. You offer advice or, in some cases, coercion. You assume that different is the same as inferior, bad, suboptimal. You don’t even try to look for the upside, you don’t try to fit in, understand, or adapt. You don’t think of yourself as a guest in someone else’s country, you think of yourself as its rightful ruler. It never once occurs to you that the fact that (for example) millions of French people have been doing something a certain way, sometimes for hundreds of years, without problems or any desire to change might, just might mean that the system they are using works at least okay, or that you might try using it too, at least once, before condemning it as backwards or stupid or wrong.
Let’s take an example situation offered up in one of those books about coping with the terrible French (which you should never, ever buy). Man goes into boulangerie. He buys a baguette. He asks that the boulanger not wrap it in the standard paper square, but instead put it in a sack. The man knew this was coming, he knows the standards at this and other bakeries, he has practiced how to ask for the sack in French. Though apparently having a sack is of paramount importance to him, he has not purchased a cloth sack or repurposed a disposable sack he already owns. Instead, he has focused his efforts on trying to get a sack out of the boulanger, trying to get him to change his traditions, his habits, his business practices, his culture. The book, of course, thinks this is about navigating a problem, getting what you want, what you need out of the French, but I say it is not about how you carry your bread home, I say it is about cultural hegemony. Yes, no one in France has ever needed a sack for their baguette, not once, ever, anywhere1, but you, you know better. 63 million French people are wrong and you are right. GIVE ME A SACK, you demand haughtily, not understanding why the person you are talking to is looking at you with distaste. Hint: it’s because you’re being an asshole.
It’s bad for you when you do this at your local boulanger, but when you trot it out at the level of international relations, you end up with wars on two fronts and no end in sight. And yet, you refuse to back down when contradicted, and you attempt, rhetorically, to occupy a moral high ground to which you, as an American, really do not have the right2. It’s not just the go and bomb the arabs crowd that does this, it’s people on the left as well. You progressives think you don’t do this, but that blind spot just makes it even worse when you do. And trust me, you do.
America, if I had to describe it in metaphor when it is doing this thing that is one hundred percent typical of American assholism, America is a like a guy who has been lit on fire and pushed off the top of a forty story building who, on the way down, covered in flames and crashing to the earth, points at your office and says, you know, buddy, you should really think about washing those windows. Yet you are surprised when the reaction you get is “Really? My windows? REALLY?” A lot of the time, the motes that you all are so fond of seeing are tiny, or even, when contextualized, non-existant. And this is pretty asinine already. But to go on and on about it, with moral outrage in all your tones, when really what you should be doing is begging for a fire extinguisher and a net, that is what makes me say that, unfortunately, you guys can really be assholes3.
Consider what has come to be titled in my head “the Charlie Hebdo incident”. This moment, brought to me by facebook4, served as the kind of watershed moment for me when I first realized that some sort of unbridgeable gap had grown up between me and the kind of people that I used to know (used to be, in fact) when living in the US. It was a small incident for the others concerned, I think, probably now forgotten by them, but for me, it was uncomfortable in ways that caused me to reexamine my whole relationship to identity and place and citizenship. This was one of the first moments where I just felt like I fundamentally did not understand (or even like) Americans, and that Americans fundamentally did not like or understand me. And when you say every day to some French person who asks you that you ARE an American, this is a decidedly unsetting thing to feel.
So Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. The staff there are pretty much dedicated to questioning all authority, especially religious authority, though they are not too fond of political authority either. If they have a political orientation, it’s probably more left than right, and they are at a minimum historically affiliated with anarchists, if not actively anarchist now. They are also fervently pro-freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and are known for publishing the kind of joke that offends someone. Though they are by no means a traditional newspaper, and much of their published work falls in the humorous column, they have very serious political engagements and opinions to which they are committed. They may be cartoons, but they are not Peanuts. They are not even Doonesbury. It’s bitter, mean-spirited satire in service of an uncompromising hard line far to the left of anywhere that the average American can see from his house. Sometimes it’s funny, but there is also usually somebody pissed off somewhere to balance out the guy who’s laughing.
The executive summary, if you want to understand the story that follows is that, for the guys at Charlie Hebdo, a theocracy that censors the media is their worst nightmare. At the time of the incident, and very much in line with these priorities, the guys at Charlie Hebdo had published some cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Not just graven images, but unflattering images, mocking images, some sexualized images. This was at least the second time that had published images of the prophet. I know this because the last time they did it, they got firebombed. This time, the police went to protect their offices after the cartoons appeared, and the French government forbade public protests of their actions5, citing security as a reason.
During the time of the incident, there was a special degree of unrest in the middle east as the result of some crappy film about muslims being sexual perverts that some American, or possibly someone else pretending to be an American, or some guy pretending to be an American pretending to be a muslim, had made as a some kind of propaganda to rile up muslims. Probably. It was one of those murky videos that appears on youtube and no one knows what it is, but it’s pretty clearly not what it claims to be. The Innocence of Muslims, it was called. The film was badly received in the muslim world6 and there were demonstrations in countries with large muslim populations protesting it and protesting America in general. In Libya, Barack Obama was burned in effigy. There was widespread concern amongst the kinds of western states that are always concerned about the middle east and muslims and what they are doing that some extra serious badness would happen.
Horribly, the much-feared badness arrived in the form of the assassination of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with three other Americans working abroad at the embassy there7. The cartoons making fun of Islam, the prophet Mohammed, and religious authority forbidding jokes about religion generally were all published in the pages of Charlie Hebdo just at a time when tempers were already running pretty high on all sides. They also published them at a time when the content was the headline news story of the day, which is Charlie’s stated reason for the timing of their publication. The publication of these cartoons, of course, enraged a certain kind of muslim person, and offended a lot of other, mainstream muslim people, including a bunch who live in France, and offended or unsettled a bunch of not-muslim people, including a bunch who live in France, and also including my friend: let’s call him Mike8. In response, the French government increased security at home and abroad, including forbidding public protests in the streets by muslims.
For the record, I looked at all the cartoons, found the cover funny enough to laugh out loud, and the inside not funny, possibly because I didn’t understand one of the references and needed it explained at length, after which nothing is ever funny anyway, but also possibly because they weren’t that funny. I wasn’t offended by the inside, but I also didn’t go ahhahahahaha. Also for the record, Charlie is not really my kind of paper, and I never buy it, though I do like, and sometimes buy, France’s other satircal newspaper, the Canard Enchaîné9. Make of this what you will.
It was at this moment that a friend of mine from the US ran across a Reuters10 article indicating that public manifs (pretty much necessarily protests by muslims) protesting the cartoons were forbidden and posted on his facebook account that the French government was protecting the rights of Charlie Hebdo but not those of Muslims11, and that this, and the French government, and the French were all racist and hypocritical and horrible. He indicated that the French government was on the side of Charlie Hebdo and working to actively silence muslims. I, stupidly, got into it with him, even though I should know that either you can give pages and pages of context, or you can say nothing, but trying to do these things on facebook is insanity, even though I should just at this point know better. In my defence, I think I was egged on into actual posting by the friend of my friend, who posted in the comments the helpful and witty observation that “France is so weird lately.”
Anybody who is looking to push my buttons by trolling me on facebook should take note now that this type of comment is the quickest route to the end of that road12. I was angry with my friend Mike already, but this is the comment that really made me want to smack someone. The US has produced Fox News, the Tea Party, fake cheese in a can, reality television, genetically modified food, Ayn Rand, that guy holed up in his basement with an aresenal and a bunch of canned ravioli, Haliburton, and exploitative big-money capitalism that has wreaked havoc literally worldwide, and you think FRANCE is weird? (Really? My windows? REALLY?) And since when do the self-proclaimed progressive people dismiss entire countries with a touch of the “like” button? Apparently it’s not xenophobic if it’s directed against a European country. What if I had posted that Nigeria was so weird lately? Korea is so weird lately? Guatemala? Would anybody be considering me an internet wit, or would they all be busy tallying up my racist shortcomings? Oh and lately? Are you some kind of expert on French culture that you are able to sense its small ebbs and flows and determine that before is wasn’t that weird, it was maybe just a little weird, like a 4 on the standard, internationally recognized scale of country weirdnesses, but now, by contrast, it’s up to like a 13, it’s so weird lately?
But I digress.
Rejecting all of that bile and vitriol, I opted for what I considered an extremely moderate post (apparently I was alone in this assessment of the post’s content and tone), suggesting that, while the French government may not have made the right call in forbidding protests, part of their motivation was certainly security, as the offices of the newspaper had been firebombed a couple years before. This little piece of backstory was not included in the Reuters13 item, though I would consider this an essential piece of information to include in any reporting on the subject of Charlie Hebdo and muslim protects. Let’s repeat it here, lest we forget the details. There were French newspaper offices, in the middle of Paris, that were lit on fire in a terrorist attack. In the center of Paris. On fire. For publishing pictures of the prophet. The on fire part of the story is, for me, essential (though apparently I was alone in that assessment, too).
Mike, however, replied that the guys at Charlie Hebdo deserved to be firebombed. Deserved to be bombed. Think it through a minute, all my leftist progressive peace-loving, carefully considered opinion having, diversity loving, cultural difference embracing American who is opposed to the war and never voted for George Bush so it’s not YOUR fault, people who think you are not the assholes of the first paragraph. Because that is exactly and 100% my friend Mike. Mike is so not racist tattooed guy. Not investment banker guy. Not they had it coming fucking arab bastard guy. My friend Mike, thoughtful, intelligent Mike, Mike the peace loving progressive leftist activist guy wrote that French newspaper editors deserved to be set on fire because they made fun of somebody’s religion.
There was some more back and forth after that, but frankly for me, the battle was lost in that moment. That was the moment I first though to myself, damn, Americans can really be assholes. I tried to explain some more later, but that ended with Mike telling me I was wrong and naïve. In the end, I gave up for many reasons, chief among them being that the things that I felt like posting were too aggressive and too mean. Maybe this piece is coming out aggressive and mean, too. If so, I am sorry for it, but what I say is true nonetheless, and it is well past time that Americans heard some of it. Not just those Americans you all know are assholes. All of you.14
So, first of all, let’s fill in some background. Yes, the people demonstrating in Libya were already pissed off, and publishing these cartoons pissed them off more. I grant the premise, counselor. Whether this means you should modify your actions to not piss people off is another question, and one we will get into below. For the moment, though, how many people were pissed off and what were they pissed off about? Well, if you believe the mainstream coverage, there were tons of enraged and dangerous muslims who were out in the streets in huge numbers, a veritable horde of rabid and frothing arabs who wanted blood. And the thing they were upset about was this film, “The Innocence of Muslims”, because everyone knows that these acts of violence and the tensions between countries and cultures are always all about religion.
Except they’re not. The protests weren’t as big as they were reported to be, though the violence committed was serious and, in my view, unforgiveable. More importantly, though, the reason that images of the prophet like this one set off this level of protests and anger and insult is not because muslims, in a vacuum, are crazy religious nut jobs who kill people for disagreeing with them. Does anyone really believe that a country full of happy and prosperous muslims, having no other beef with the west and no history of international or intercultural tension will suddenly and spontaneously take to the streets, murdering foreign ambassadors because some guy posted a video on youtube? The reasons are economic and political as well as religious, and in many ways religion is a tool which can be used to manipulate people politically. Manipulate them into doing stuff they would not normally do, like suicide bomb something (or, in other cirsumstances, declare a “crusade” in the Middle East) and think it is a good idea.
No, people in this part of the world are pissed off for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with pictures of the prophet. Among these reasons is the fact that Americans have spent the last few decades systematically exploiting and manipulating large parts of the muslim world, and then blaming it for being upset. They don’t hate our freedom, but they probably do hate having our tanks in their country. They hate having a decade plus of foreign war of aggression. They hate us for taking their oil and not giving a shit about their people, and then pretending to give a shit about their people so we can go and blow stuff up to protect our interest in their oil. I honestly believe that, while devout muslims will always find cartoons of the prophet offensive, very few of them will ever blow anybody up if they do not also have political and economic circumstances creating a background radiation of pissed-off-ness that is actually the thing that pushed them over the edge.
And whose tanks are these? American tanks. Whose predator drones? American predator drones. Whose gas-guzzling SUVs? Well, everyone’s, but Americans’ especially. My point here is that, if you actually look at the protests themselves, the person being burned in effigy is not François Hollande. The diplomats killed did not come from France and the embassy attacked was not the French embassy. The answers you are looking for are: the American president, the American ambassador, and the American embassy. American. American all three times. Not even once French.
The idea that, somehow, the totally stable relations between the western world and the middle east were somehow disrupted by some French satirists publishing some cartoons of Mohammed in their newspaper in French created, out of some kind of vacuum, a bunch of pissed off muslims who were then gratuitously further silenced by a French government which is systematically racist for no reason at all is just….nuts. Is this really what my left-leaning soi-disant politically engaged friends think is happening here? Seriously? Did they sleep through the last ten years? And if it’s not what they think, then why the hell are they France-shaming? What possible stakes are there in telling this story about how horrible France is on the subject of muslim relations? Because frankly, there has got to be something to explain why this person who is pretty much sociologically identical to me is out there suggesting we blow up satirists for saying that religion is stupid and bad. I cannot accept that he really thinks this. But I can’t convince him that he shouldn’t think or say this, either. Indeed, he thinks that I am misguided and naïve. And he said so.
Well, I think he is being an imperalist American asshole, though I did not say that at the time. Here is what I did not put on the facebook feed.
It is true that the guys at Charlie Hebdo threw some fuel on the fire. But let us not forget that that fire was going pretty good already, and that it was not France who started it, let alone a small French newspaper. So fuck you, Mike. And fuck your France is so weird lately friend of a friend. If we’re going to get out the big post-colonial stick and measure up misdeeds, fine; France has a lot to answer for. But you do not get to hold the ruler because you guys, well, you guys are currently the worst of the worst, and you don’t have a good place to stand to do your measuring. Nobody likes having a finger wagged at them, but when the person doing the scolding is currently the world’s worst citizen, it is pretty hard to not want to smack you right upside the head. (Really? My windows? REALLY?)
When you type that sentence, “this isn’t about what you think it’s about, it’s about silencing muslims” you import all of your context, your culture, your assumptions, to paste your story right on top of my story, of France’s story, and you do not even acknowledge that the pasting has happened. Because for you, right now, in the US, there is a story about silencing muslims. And you are all pissed off about it. And you are probably entitled to be all pissed off about it; I think, in so far as I know stuff about this story of yours, that I am with you. Go, post, rant. For you, in your country, with your issues you have a narrative with your government whereby this kind of thing is, in your opinion, about silencing muslims.
But we aren’t in your country, and we aren’t in your story. And when you don’t get that, you exist on a continuum with every other American throughout the whole history of America who has ever said, oh, this is really about stopping the spread of communism, or this is really about freedom, or this is really about protecting our way of life. Every time America messes with someone else’s elections, chooses a “better” leader for them, sneaks them automatic weapons over the border, assasinates somebody on the sly, starts a foreign war of aggression, takes sides in an international dispute, bullies its way through those international trade talks, dismissing anybody with different values as quaint and unreasonable; every time the US just generally throws its weight – military and otherwise – around to get stuff to be how they want it, how they think it should be, without any reference to how those in the countries concerned think or what they want, it is an example of exactly the same arrogance which allows you to come all up in my country and tell me that you understand it better than I do. Here’s a tip: you don’t. Here’s another one: this is why people don’t like you. You personally, and you as a country. There are reasons your boulanger stares at you in distaste. There are reasons that people bomb your embassies and burn your president in effigy.
Note how I stop shy here of claiming that you deserve it15.
As far as the motivations of the allegedly racist French poeple, there is some serious cultural context missing. When I say, you don’t understand because you don’t live here, you don’t have enough information about this situation to make that judgement, that newspaper article you read is missing a bunch of stuff, I am right, and you should listen to me, not dismiss me as naïve. I don’t think the way that you do, but that doesn’t make me wrong, and it certainly doesn’t make me stupid. This is why I am all pissed off, this is why I type the word “asshole” over and over again in this piece, this is why I see your actions on a continuum of arrogance, a rich heritage of dismissing other people and their cultures, an American tradition of not listening. Because you’re not listening. You never had any intention of listening, you always already think you are right, and you don’t think you need any more information. And you, of all people, you should know better.
There are assumptions that Americans make about their relationships to government that they do not see as assumptions at all, and which are very different from the assumptions that French people make about government and its functions. There are assumptions that Americans make about what freedom is, also not necessarily the same as other people’s ideas of freedom. There are key words floating around, religious expression, respect, tolerance, each of which is constructed a specific way in America and not necessarily set up the same other places. These differences are huge, and yet also largely invisible. And, while not perfect by any means, I am actually pretty well-placed to explain them to you, if only anybody in your country were ever interested in listening.
So, the French government. The French government had advance notice of the publication of the cartoons and, when they asked for it, were also provided with the front and back covers. They asked the editor of Charlie Hebdo not to publish the cartoons, and he went ahead and did it anyway. As a result, the French government closed a bunch of stuff overseas, contacted a bunch of the local, French dwelling muslim leadership, and basically stayed up all night cleaning up what they can only have thought of as Charlie Hebdo‘s mess. To say, in this context, that the French government is protecting the rights of Charlie Hebdo to say whatever they want while denying muslims the same right is not, strictly speaking, accurate. Saying this does not express a full and complete understanding of the situation and the context. I myself am quite sure that even the most progressive and freedom-loving of all French governors looked back in this moment on the days of state controlled media, and wondered silently to himself if censorship was really such a bad thing after all. I am quite sure that the French government considered Charlie Hebdo at this moment, in this incident, a giant, festering pain in its ass, if not actively dangerous.
And yet, somehow, despite everything, since France is a free state, the French government neither could nor would nor did move beyond efforts to persuade and into effots to control or coerce or censor. The bastards.
It feels weird reminding Americans, who live in the land of the freedom of the press, that free states do not, in general, censor the independent newspapers that are printed in their countries, and that this is, on the whole, largely considered to be a good thing. Bombing the people who print things you disagree with is largely condsidered, in these same quarters, to be a bad thing, or I had always thought it was. Have my former quarters changed since I moved out of them? Should I need to say these things explicitly? When did we get to the point where I have to type them out? I do though, and I will: France’s government does not control what newspapers in its territories publish, and it does not censor those newspapers to make life easier for itself, even when it really, really wants to16.
Charlie himself. Yes, what about the guys at Charlie Hebdo? (Or, since the editor has a name, Sébastien Charbonnier17.) What were they thinking, the irresponsible jackass guys, taunting muslims for their own amusement, having no clue about the consequences of their actions, destroying the good efforts of policy wonks and diplomats worldwide? After18 the facebook exchange I went looking and I found an interview of the Charlie Hebdo editor and I listened to it twice19. He explained exactly what he was thinking, which is as follows:
It is grossly irresponsible to let the actions of a tiny, violent, extremist, and crazily religious minority of people determine how everybody else everywhere in the world conducts him or herself, and what we can and cannot say and what we can and cannot publish. What you call being polite and respectful, he calls oppressive, dangerous, irresponsible bullshit. For somebody who does not even believe in god to run around being careful not to print pictures of the prophet so as not to be offensive to those who do is as ridiculous as humoring a crazy person by inviting his imaginary friend to tea, and for an allegedly secular state to make these sorts of concessions to people who are not only religious, but crazy religious, dangerous religious, violent religious is, in his view, irresponsible. Irresponsible is the word he used20.
Now maybe you agree with him and maybe you don’t. And maybe you can also say that his methods are not the right ones to accomplish his goals, however laudable they may be. But mistaking him for that internet troll guy everybody knows who just likes to make trouble and laugh at it is a mistake, as is mistaking him for his corrollary, internet racist guy who uses free expression as a disguise for his racism, cart before the horse style. He’s not this guy. He may not be a guy you agree with. He may not be a guy you like. But you cannot say, in my opinion, that this is some kind of overgrown adolescent Mad Magazine dumbass humor guy gone hopelessly haywire, with no clue what he is doing and with no thought for anyone but himself. This is a guy with a plan, a guy with political ideals, a guy with a pretty uncomprimising hard line and who is quite literally risking death to practice what he preaches. So that respect you Americans all say you have for everybody’s religious beliefs and everbody’s right to an opinion? Let’s just try spreading a little bit of that around so that some few droplets of it get on Stéphane Charbonnier.
And, let’s be honest about our own motivations and cultural blinders. I’ll go first. I would not have printed the pictures myself. I wouldn’t. There are things I don’t say, not because I believe they are not true, but because I think that saying them will be mean or damanging in some way, and their truth is secondary to being nice. This is one of those times I would have stopped myself and not said the thing, out of politeness, respect, not making a fuss, keeping the peace. But I cannot say for sure whether my motivations are fear or ingrained submissive politeness or an absorption of the American construction of what freedom of religion means or actual, genuine conviction about what is and was and would have been the best course of action. Because I am (and despite what this piece of writing may lead you to believe) somewhat timid and fearful of giving offence. I want people to like me, even if I don’t like them. There have been many many times in my life when I have shut my mouth and said nothing even though I knew I was right because I didn’t want to make others uncomfortable, didn’t want to make a scene, didn’t want to have a fight, didn’t want to lose a friend, even if that friend was a crappy one. I was an obedient child, and much of my adulthood was spent obeying, questioning myself instead of others, avoiding giving offense, avoiding even asking for things I wanted. Is this a good foundation for an opinion about political events or public policy? And does it have anything to do with cultural difference? This personal story of a fearful childhood partially overcome is as much me as being either American or French is me, and who is to say where my real motivation is when I say I wouldn’t have published those cartoons? Maybe Stéphane Charbonnier is harder, tougher, braver, firmer in his convictions, more consistent, more morally upright, a hero where I am a coward, a wuss, someone who caves when the hard thing comes.
Also, I am an American, however compromised and dissatisfied and distant. I spent 39 years being told, and believing, that you have to respect people’s religions, even if you think they’re stupid, ridiculous, laughable, dangerous, damanging, immoral, manipulative. Perhaps even especially then. I have internalized this message in what may, unfortunately, be a permanent way. The few forays I made outside these boundaries when living in the US were met with outrage, accusations of disrespect, anger, ad hominem attack. I relish my new freedom to mock the religious, even if only in the tiny space inside my marriage and our shared apartment. But I don’t take that freedom out for a spin in the larger world that much, even though I know I am right and that religion does terrible, terrible harm in the world, even though I think people who are offended that someone made fun of their prophet are weak and stupid, or manipulative, or dupes, even though I think they have their priorities totally out of whack, morally and intellectually, even though I do, privately, look down on them. Maybe there are things that shouldn’t be mocked, things that can’t survive a mocking despite their importance (I have my doubts), but I don’t think your imaginary friend is one of them, and I never will. Despite these deep convictions, I will also never be the first one to sign up to publish the cartoons in question, not because I think the offended parties are right, but because at some basic level publishing them seems mean21. Indeed, in some deeply fucked up way, from my ingrained American perspective (respect everyone’s religion!) publishing these cartoons seems meaner even than blowing somebody up, and I see that this is not logical, not reasonable, not morally correct, but it’s still how it is. This is a cultural blinker indeed, and a dangerous and damaging one, no matter what our constitution does or does not say.
Or maybe self-restraint is the right call; when a crazy man with a gun is staring you down, you may find that the best course of action is to soothe and placate him, even if this means telling lies. You can choose to make a moral stand, but it might be your last one. You can, for reasons of long term safety and the happiness of the many, say that you will never ever negiotiate with terrorists, but this is not much comfort to the people who get blown up down the long historical line of your firm moral stand. There’s political good and then there’s political good, and it can seem like a very small thing to just not publish these cartoons right now if it will save lives, make peace, postpone disaster another couple of months.
So I don’t know, actually, if my instincts are really the right instincts, or even where they come from. I am both jealous and contemptuous of those people who don’t have these kinds of doubts, who are so so sure that Stéphane Charbonnier is wrong and they are right. But even if they are right about his actions, they aren’t right for the right reasons, because they aren’t giving him a fair shake. People who claim to that respect for others’ beliefs and opinions is the highest good, coming even before refraining from blowing people up, should be doing better. I no longer expect better from people, but I still think better is warranted. Necessary. Better is necessary. Especially from Americans, who enjoy vast privilege and power in the larger world.
I can say for certain that I see the slippery slope the guys at Charlie Hebdo are talking about. If I have to make a choice, I would rather live in the world Charlie prescribes than in one where our public schools go ahead and teach students that the world might be only 5000 years old because we’re afraid we might offend somebody by discouting their opinion. The US could use a little Stéphane Charbonnier in the mix, and I am glad, in this particular moment, that I live here and not there.
Imagine with me an American government that responded to the domestic terrorist bombings of abortion clinics in its territories in a spirit similar to Stéphane Charbonnier’s reaction to the burning down of his editorial offices. Call it a thought experiment. The clinic blows up, and the American government says fuck you if you think that will make us stop legalizing abortions. They say, when I catch you – and I will catch you, because this shit is personal now, this shit is a priority for me, violence user, killer of americans – when I catch you, you’re going to jail. They say, you are a terrorist (a real one, not a security theater one), and as such, you do not get a say anymore about how we run stuff, abortion clinics, public education curricula, or anything else, ever. They step up to the plate and go all out, saying I may even build an extra abortion clinic now, just to spite you. But the one thing I am NOT going to do is back down now and do what you want, voluntarily cede my rights because you threatened, because you blackmailed, because you bullied, because you killed and maimed and exploded. You will never convince me, never change me, not one inch, not one milimeter, not ever, not now that you have done this, do you hear me? You can shoot me in the head, maybe, if you must, but you will have to shoot me, because you will never change my mind or my behavior, not after what you’ve done. And don’t talk to me about respect, because we are done with that now, and you are the one who ended it. You are officially no longer part of our national conversation about anything, and the people you were with aren’t, either. Not one unclefucking milimeter, we’re done.
Does this kind of response strike you as an improvement on the status quo or a step down? If Charlie Hebdo‘s editorial staff continues with what they are doing despite firebombings and death threats, they may not be better than I am, but I hestitate to jump to the conclusion that they are worse, and you should too.
Speaking of governments, ideal and otherwise, let’s go back to that idea of naiveté which so clearly got under my skin. For an American, to believe that what the government says about its motivations is a true account of its motivations is, already, always naïve. I get this. I lived this. I voted and was disappointed, I stopped voting because I didn’t see the point, I went back to voting even though I knew it would never work, I tried it all and felt hopeless. I gave up. The relationship of the American citizen to the American government has become one of deep distrust, but also a relationship of us and them. Americans do not believe, at the base, the the government is (or can be, or should be, or could be, or would be, or will ever be again) of by and for and of them. This is not true only for crazy survivalist guy holed up in the backwoods with an arsenal and awaiting the new holocaust. This is true for people of all political leanings and social and economic statuses. It is practically a badge of pride to cast off the teachings of your childhood about democracy and representation and patriotism and don your cynical, doubting, adult persona. “Naive” is the opposite of all this: a sheep, a child, a credulous moron, who sits back and accepts the cover story for why things are the way they are which is, almost by definition now, a lie.
Unfortunately, this cynical posturing has become, for many people, what they think of as activism. (Yes, there are people doing much more engaged and complex political work. But don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Being politically engaged for them means uncovering this truth, this other story, this notthegovernment’s story, and then forwarding it to all your friends. But then your work is done. Creating the other narrative is the political engagement. Being skeptical is, in and of itself, how you stay morally right, the goal and the end of the process. Maybe you sign a petition (I do it myself, from my couch in France, in my jammies, because what else can you do?), but the petition is not the point. The uncovering is. The finding out the truth. The not being naïve.
Even more unfortunately, it seems clear to me that the US narrative of a government not to be trusted is probably accurate22, as is the cynical idea that there is pretty much nothing I can do about it. This brand of facebook activism is unlikely to even make a dent in the corrupt system, but then again, nothing else is likely to do any good either. Not being naïve is pretty much all you’ve got.
So I haven’t got any bright ideas about what to do. I don’t. I admit it. But what I can see from here is that when cynical doubting and a semi-public wringing of your hands is the only power you feel you have to participate in your allegedly representative government, you probably don’t want to hear somebody telling you that they believe theirs. It might even make you mad enough to tell them to go get themselves blown up.
With certain qualifiers, and in these days of mild socialism, I do tend to believe the things the French government says about its motivations and actions. These qualifiers are important, it’s most of the time, it’s almost never Sarkozy and never ever the Front National, and it’s never when I smell something from what I think of as the American playbook. When Claude Géant goes on and on about how we wouldn’t have any problems in this country if it weren’t for the goddamn immigrants, I still smell a rat, partly because I have seen this shit before, in my old home country, in the US. But when the newly elected French president says, I am going to legalize gay marriage this year, I believe him. I believe he might be later than planned, I believe we might have a big fracas about it with people demonstrating left and right (we’re doing that right now), but I also believe he will actually enact gay marriage, and without totally gutting it first. I don’t think he’s lying, and I do not think he has some secret agenda which the gay marriage thing is covering up. I do not think he is either one of George Bushes. But I also, as he’s on the left, do not think he will be pulling a Bill Clinton (oops, instead of gay marriage we’re going to do don’t ask don’t tell!) or a Barack Obama. Like you, I voted for both of those guys, and like you, I was deeply disappointed later on, after a cruel raising of my hopes. I get what that is. This is not that.
Let’s put it this way. I know as well as anybody that when Laurent Wauquiez dons his pretty suit and heads off to be broadcast on tv somewhere, his goal, full stop, will be to forward himself, his party, and their rich, tax-break hogging funders and friends, and that he will employ any means he has at hand to do it, lying, bullshiting, making stuff up, deflection and misdirection, the whole disgusting amoral politican’s toolkit. I know that “lying whore” is basically Laurent Wauquiez’s entire job description. But when I see him doing his act, my reaction is “I do not believe that Laurent Wauquiez is being sincere and telling the truth”, and my reaction is not “I do not believe that the government is being sincere and telling the truth.” And it is especially not, “oh look another lying politician, they are all such liars23.” This may not seem like a big distinction to you, but believe me when I tell you that it is enormous, and it accounts for a lot. It explains at least half of what went down with Mike; why he got so angry, why his “naive” riled me up in return. There was a time, not so long ago even, when even US citizens believed this way about their government. Not the “patriotic” guy who accepts and obeys. The other guy, the one in the streets with picket sign and all the hope asking what’s going on. You’re not that guy anymore, America. France still is. We’re slipping, but we’ve still got some hope.
I think that M. Hollande will probably do, or try to do, most of what he said he would do, and that on those occasions when he does fail, it will be because of technical difficulties or inertia, not bad faith. I also know that his goals are modest, and I would probably have preferred someone else, somebody further left, somebody more ambitious, maybe somebody who would not now be at war in Mali24. But this is still a situation where everyone is, more or less, up front and direct. And so, when the newly-elected president says, after discussing it with some of France’s muslims, we’re not allowing demonstrations about this for reasons of security, I actually believe that security is the real reason. It’s not because I am naïve, and it’s not because I do not understand that security theater is a thing. I know that security theater is a thing. It’s an American thing. It’s your thing. This is not your story.
There are a lot of reasons why I think this difference is a real thing, based on actual facts – the way money works in government, the number of political parties and choices, the comparative absence of lobbyists as a signifcant force in the works, the greater access even marginal parties have to the media, the sheer power of the US and its historical influence both covert and overt since the second world war – but the thing that interests me the most is the attitude of the regular French person (whoever that might be) toward his/her government. It’s not that they trust the government and American people don’t, it’s more that the idea of trusting or not trusting the government doesn’t make good sense as a question unless you already think the government is always and necessarily separate from you as a participative citizen. I think that they still think of government as being theirs, as belonging to them. Collectively. So yes, sometimes stuff happens you don’t like, someone is elected you think is a putz, bad decisions happens, dissent exists. Nobody is saying France doesn’t have any problems or disagreements. But when that happens, you change your government, or you try to. You vote, you demonstrate, you take to the streets, you call your union, indignez-vous!. You do not tweet your cynicism in some witty turn of phrase before making one more decision about what products you will boycott that week before heading off to bed and think that that is government. You try to participate because you believe participation is possible. Because the government is not some exterior iceburg of an impenetrable thing sitting over there, separate from you, untouchable, unmoveable, forever broken25.
When I say that French government is different, when I say it is better, this is what I mean. I do not mean nobody ever does anything stupid corrupt or selfish, that nobody ever lies, that France never experiences problems, even deep and serious ones. I don’t mean we don’t have racists and racism and people who would gladly silence the muslims. We’ve got people whose entire political existence is dedicated to silencing the muslims. They’re horrible and I wish them grisly horrible death. What I mean is, the political process has not been reduced to pure theater, and detached irony is not France’s national passtime.
This is why it is also not sufficient to find me one bad French person, one racist, one homophobe, one Front National voter, one corrupt politician, one elected official who is one hundred percent entirely full of shit and then hold that person up as an example and be like, see? France isn’t really better! This happens to me with great regularity, in fact. There is a certain subset of cynical American person who likes to shatter my temporary joy when something here goes right or makes me happy. People who are otherwise capable of subtle, careful, complex thinking, people who normally see the need for complex explanations, deep context, and a large set of data points, will read a single news item, see that there were demonstrations in the streets against mariage pour tous, and say, hey, are you sure it’s better there? I can’t tell if they’re being uncharacteristically stupid, they’re engaged in that assholism that I am trying to describe in this piece, or they’re just being mean on purpose to harsh my mellow when this happens, but I do know this:
Yes. Yes I am. I am sure it’s better here.
“Better” is not the same as “having no problems”, “making no mistakes”, or “everybody agreeing”. Holding France up to this standard is offensive. We’re allowed to have flaws without being worthless racist naïve losers. France is neither a virgin nor a whore. This impossible standard is part and parcel of failing to recognize that it is, in fact, a whole country and culture, where people get up, shower, go to work, fight with their spouses, yell at their kids, have lunch, stub their toes, endure that one insufferable coworker, stand in line waiting for paperwork, and otherwise lead lives that you would probably recognize as everyday, normal ones. They are susceptible to the same pressures and manipulations and failings as everybody else, everywhere else, throughtout the history of time. The difference is, they live in a state that believes one of its functions is to regulate; to reign in the worst of human behavior and protect the community and the community’s weakest members. French people get that, and they think that the government works for them or, at the very least, they think that it should.
This does not make them naïve. This makes them powerful, solidaire, safe.
Another big cultural difference that is operating covertly in my dispute with my friend is religious freedom. He says “silencing muslims” as if it was an issue of race and not one of religion; silencing muslims isn’t a racism thing, but “muslim” has become a sort of racial identity. Or actually, if I may interpret based on my own previous incarnation, he sort of means both, because in this case religious identity and race exist in an uneasy conflation in the US, and racial and religious discrimination are considered to be basically the same thing. Here too, actually. But this is not good. And it’s not just not good in the sense that there are arabs who aren’t muslims and muslims who aren’t arabs and it’s bad to make these assumptions (something that, to his credit, Mike would probably be first in line to point out).
No, it’s also bad because underlying it is the sense that everybody’s identity is in part a religious identity, and that freedom of expression historically and always means the right to do whatever religious practices you want. That is, in fact, one of the fundamental bases of the US as a country, from its birth: freedom of religion. We see it as having the same status as, and indeed overlapping with, freedom of expression. Part of freedom of expression is the freedom not just to worship how like you in private, but also to publicly express religious ideas, opinions, experiences, thoughts. And I think, fundamentally, that is not what either religious freedom or freedom of expression mean in France.
Here in France we have something more like “freedom from” than “freedom to” when it comes to religion. With certain limits (and these limits are stricter than in the US already), you have the right to practice your religion privately. But you do not have the right to unrestricted religious speech, and you do not have the unmitigated right to pratice your religion publicly. This is not enforced equally for say christians versus muslims, and there are those who try a rhetorical cheat by saying we are secular state with christian roots, but fundamentally, in principle, in the Republic of France, the sitution is the same for everybody and all religions because the state is secular.
You may think that you live in a secular state in the US, but you don’t.
No French presidential candidate, not even Christine Boutin, leader of the christian democratic party, has every been photographed on his or her way to pray at church as part of an electoral campaign strategy. The very idea of it is ludicrous and offensive. Nobody learns about “intelligent design”26 in school. No judge posts the ten commandments in his courtroom. Nobody would think to, but if they did, the government would come down hard and immediately. We do not endlessly debate the morality of abortion, euthanasia, gay civil rights; and even when those discussions do come the forefront of public debate, everybody is very careful not to mention the bible as a reason for doing something. Catholic bishops representing the church in feedback about the proposed gay marriage laws do not say, publicly, anything about what “god”27 thinks. They say they are opposed, that other French citizens are opposed, that children need a mother and a father, that the civil code must be protected, and anything and everything else that they can think of, but nobody sets even one toe over the line that says we have to set secular law this way because my religion tells me to.
French people are also, by and large, more secular themselves. A 2005 poll performed on behalf of the European commission shows French people split equally into thirds: 1/3 believe in god, 1/3 in some wishy-washy agnostic middle ground (“life force” is the term used in the poll), and 1/3 are atheists. Numbers for the US vary by poll taker, but range from 1.6% to 10% atheist depending on who is doing the asking and how. But even those French people who are religious practice privately. Private religious pratice is protected by French law. Public religious practice is not. Public religious speech is not integral to freedom of expression the way it is in the US.
From an American perspective, then, French people have fewer rights. Fewer religious rights, a vastly constrained freedom of expression. They can’t join a cult, they can’t march through Skokie holding a swastika, they can’t pray in school. However, they also enjoy a truly secular state. Religion is not used to make law, or even to propose law (not overtly, again, we have our problems). The French are able to enter any public place unmolested and safe, even if what they want there is an abortion. Pharmacists dispense birth control pills and RU486 whether they personally agree or not, and if they don’t like it, they either suck it up or they stop being pharmacists. Doctors are reimbursed for treatment by the state, and the state – not the employer, not the insurance agency, and certainly not the catholic church – decides what treatments they can and cannot offer, and which treatments will be reimbursed, and how much. No French court has ever ruled that it is legal to fire your dental assistant because you are attracted to her and your christian values outlaw these feelings. No French public school teaches anything but evolution, and no degree recognized by the French state includes “other theories”. No French public library, school or otherwise, bans a book for religious, sexual, or political content. If a French kid wants a book from his school library, he doesn’t need a note from his mom saying it’s okay for his religious beliefs. French children do not die because their crazy religious parents deny them a blood transfusion and get a court order to stop treatment.
So, looking at that list from a French perspective, from an outcomes perspective, it looks a lot like American people have fewer rights. From a French perspective, from an outcomes perspective, American people look totally fucking bat-shit crazy.
I am an outcomes kind of girl. Put me down in the not bat-shit crazy column.
Now go back and imagine the French government telling muslims that they cannot publicly protest the publication of images that offend their religious sensibilities because of their religious convictions. Be careful to imagine that it is the French government and not the American government. You could, indeed, look at it like Mike does: the government is silencing the muslims, denying them freedom of speech. But you could also look at it like I look at it, which is this. Americans live in a world where everyone, even the atheists, has internalized a model of freedom of expression that always includes religion and, in practice, fills the public discourse with ridiculous, offensive, unscientific, untrue, and frankly dangerous bullshit. Bullshit that takes us to war, bullshit that kills people with AIDS, bullshit that is causing climate change and destroying the planet.
Americans look at that steaming pile of bullshit, the very pile of bullshit that is corroding their body politic and their way of life, not to mention ruining the lives of a great many of their neighbors in other countries, and they say that while it is regrettable, everyone and anyone does and should have the right to keep piling it on, even if it kills you, even if it kills us all. Americans believe in the right to express opinions even about questions of fact, they believe the shared structures of society should bend to include their fairy tale about their imaginary friend, they impose a hegemony on everyone they meet and call it diversity, ripping at the very fabric of the language so now even words don’t mean anything anymore and newspapers ask if they should still bother with fact checking. In short, Americans believe in the right to foist their beliefs on others instead of worshiping politely and in private like a nice, normal, French person would. Americans believe that you have the right to go into the streets and yell and scream and wail because someone, somewhere, published something that offended you, the right to demand that they stop offending you, stop publishing things that offend you, stop saying them, stop thinking them. That doesn’t look like freedom to me. That doesn’t look like freedom to a lot of people in a lot of countries, only you don’t listen to them, because you think you’re better than they are, because you think you’re right. You don’t listen to us because you are an asshole.
And when you tell me that I am wrong about all this, that I am naïve, that I am worse than wrong, that I am not free, or that I am denying freedom to other people, when you say that I don’t understand what freedom even means, and that you should have the right to impose your ideas of freedom on me whether I want them or not, well, dude, you are being an asshole, and in a typically American kind of way. You are participating in the great American tradition of imperialism and made up crap. You think you’re different from those people who say that the muslims hate our freedom, but from where I sit you’re doing exactly the same thing. It’s not your job to police my freedom, or import your particular brand of it to my country. But yours could stand a quick second look. Maybe you should try focussing your energies on that. If nothing else, it’ll make you less of an asshole.