On March 30th, Charlie Hebdo published an English translation of an editorial slated for the latest print magazine on their website entitled “How Did We End Up Here?” It’d been standard practice for nearly a year, but this particular editorial drew immediate international attention due to its proximity to the terrorist attack in Brussels and the intensity of the rhetoric. Many, including the author of an opinion piece for The Guardian bearing the title “How Did Charlie Hebdo Get it So Wrong?”, took the position that this editorial was the final confirmation that Charlie Hebdo was, in fact, proper racist for claiming that all Muslims are complicit in acts of terror because they play individual roles in a wider plot to undermine freedom of expression, softening up secular, pluralist societies like France’s for acts of spectacular violence. The editorial’s claims are staggering, espousing a practically Maoist line of reasoning, but it didn’t appear spontaneously on March 30th. Charlie Hebdo’s overt racism has been apparent for quite some time, festering in carefully maintained blind spots until it became too virulent to ignore any longer.
The idea that this particular editorial was a gotcha moment or proof positive of previously unsubstantiated claims rests on the idea that anglophone observers couldn’t possibly interpret editorial cartoons across the vast cultural divide between North America and France. The party line from the publication’s defenders since the deadly attack on their offices thrust its work into the international spotlight has hinged not only on claims of some special cultural and political opacity but a further claim that Charlie Hebdo either couldn’t or wouldn’t suffuse their work with intentional racism because they belong to the ideological left.
The Charlie Hebdo editorial in question spoke at length about a silence that perpetuates their conspiracy theory about the creeping influence of Islam within French society. Supposedly, it’s a silence perpetuated by the forces of political correctness or whatever, but a genuinely astute reading of French politics reveals that the actual silence has been on the part of the socialist establishment who have repeatedly backed out of fights over immigration when National Front or more conventional conservatives bring it to the forefront, going back decades. Last August, roughly eight months after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights issued a report based on interviews and statistics from the Ministry of the Interior, revealing that racism rises when left wing governments are in powerand decreases when the right is in power.
One of the contributing researchers, an associate professor at Sciences Po, the same institution as Tariq Ramadan, the professor singled out in How Did We End Up Here?, chalks it up to a tendency in the French population to naturally oppose the views of the government, but it may very well be the manifestation of the left’s long history of inaction on racism and immigration issues. In a piece in The Nation from 1985 and published online four years before National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was poised to potentially defeat Jacques Chiraq, Daniel Singer presented a compelling case for the failures of the left to effectively deal with the mounting friction with North African immigrants and their French-born progeny going back to the 1960s.
His contention is that the pro-worker policies of the communist and socialist politicians of the time ignored the influx of mostly Algerian immigrants who were imported with the intention of being temporary laborers to fuel the economic miracle, intensifying the frictions that persist to this day. By far the worst example that Singer cites is communists in a municipal council in Vitry threatening to bulldoze a hostel for black immigrants in 1980, but the remainder of his anecdotes are no less damning. The following year, the ruling socialists stalled in their expansion of immigrant rights when right wing criticism pushed them to drop plans to give foreign workers the right to vote in municipal elections. In 1983, two million pamphlets commissioned by the Ministry for Immigrant Affairs countering xenophobic National Front propaganda were held back from circulation at the last minute, again giving Le Pen and his ilk the upper hand in swaying public opinion. The same year, a march from Marseilles to Paris protesting police brutality and discrimination against the Arab community fell on deaf ears despite the concurrent murder of Algerian tourist Habib Grimzi, who was thrown from a train by three delinquents while returning home.
Perhaps most incisive and continuously relevant of all Singer’s indictments of left wing failures in issues of race was his observation about the left wing attachment to the old saying “Nos ancêtres les Gaulois” (our ancestors the Gauls). Which, in his view, perpetuated a white supremacist construction of France. It has ties to the Jacobin tradition within the left, but is most closely associated with historian Ernest Lavisse who rewrote French history to center the Gauls towards a “positive” narrative of the country that took hold in early education and was disseminated not just domestically but to schoolchildren in the African colonies as well. It’s a construction that lies at the center of the racial politics of the country to this day, as demonstrated by a 2013 campaign by the French Museum of Immigration History that placed large ads in the Metro proclaiming “Nos ancetres n’etaient pas tous des Gaulois” (Our ancestors weren’t all Gauls). Thus, despite strident claims to the contrary, the idea that a left wing ideology mitigates or counters charges of racism against Charlie Hebdo has no grounding in the reality of French politics either past or present.
Even with these facts in hand, the publication’s ardent defenders have clung to the idea that the contentious cartoons depicting racist caricatures of Muslim coded North African immigrants are in fact satirizing the rhetoric of the far right instead of playing into it. On a basic level for something to be satire it has to satisfy the criteria of undermining the attitude it depicts, and for something to be satirical of racism in particular, it has to demonstrably undermine notions of white supremacy. Which is a criterion that Charlie Hebdo editorial cartoons roundly and conclusively fail. Projecting an alternate outcome for a toddler who drowned while fleeing the civil war in Syria luridly trying to grope white European women as a young adult, as just one example, is a naked replication of racist rhetoric that requires epic feats of mental gymnastics to reinterpret as a subversion.
It would be enough to defend art espousing repugnant views as being worthy of existence purely from the perspective of freedom of speech, taking up the spirit of that one Voltaire quote that gets misattributed to Thomas Jefferson all the time. Defending freedom of speech doesn’t require apologia, and yet it remains a longstanding tradition within both European and North American comic circles to mount such defences, typically over the voices of the groups being targeted and in direct opposition to the stated intent of the creator.
One of the most recent examples of that rhetoric on display that didn’t have the looming spectre of real world violence coloring the conversation was the intense debate over Jason Karnes’ Fukitor comics in 2013. Fukitor is a largely personal project by Karnes, who, until the Fantagraphics edition published in 2014, was happy to toil in obscurity and hand make all of his comics. As someone who proudly describes himself as being happy to live in a bubble of creative influences spanning roughly from the 1960s to the 80s, he presents a bizarre case for a creator worth pitching a fierce battle to defend, yet the apologia poured in, directly over his own stated intentions.
As described in a review of the Fantagraphics edition, Fukitor is made up of five to ten page genre pastiches characterized by gory violence and a fixation on gruesome rape. When it was featured in 2013 as part of a round up of small press comics by Frank Santoro, he included an excerpt of a story about a group of hypermasculine white American soldiers brutalizing a group of Arab coded terrorists with the typical wiry beards, hooked noses, and garb typical of depictions of Al Qaeda fighters who spouted nonsense words interspersed with unmistakably Arab names. Santoro failed to mention the racist caricatures or pervasive sexual violence in the initial write up and when questioned as to whether it was as racist as it looked by the first commenter he replied with a terse “No, it’s tongue in cheek…” which kicked off an astounding back and forth debate about the merits of Karnes’ work.
Karnes himself immediately jumped in claiming that, despite the very obvious and specific coding, that he didn’t put “muslim” anywhere in the comic and that they were “just terrorists,” refusing to own the implications of his work and further claimed not to understand the implications of racism. Despite his own clear disassociation with satire, several commenters insisted on conducting wildy apocryphal readings that justified their perception that it constituted satire and equated questioning Karnes’ work with calls for censorship. If there were a Godwin’s Law of discussions about transgressive comics in the style of the 60s-70s underground scene, the race to the bottom would be the invocation of R. Crumb.
The debate about Karnes’ work was only superficially about Fukitor and was, more honestly, a proxy battle waged to defend the legacy of Crumb and his contemporaries from pointed critiques about their use of racist caricature and misogynist violence. When Greg Hunter followed up with a review of the Fantagraphics collection, he pointedly ignored the previous fracas to characterize the racism in Karnes’ work as “isolated incidents” while dwelling on the repeated motif of sexual violence against women, betraying a clear bias that minimized the concerns of people of color. All of this is instructive because it’s fundamentally the same lense through which Charlie Hebdo is seen on the left side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The veil over Crumb’s penchant for playing with racist imagery was lifted a very long time ago and most conclusively in Terry Zweigoff’s documentary Crumb, capturing not only the cartoonist awkwardly bumbling through a reply, but also Deirdre English’s viewpoint, who identifies pornography and satire as the intersecting discourses of his work and points out in the context of the notorious family incest strip Joe Blow there’s a palpable sense that Crumb is getting off on the taboo independent of the social satire on display. Robert Stanley Martin, writing for The Hooded Utilitarian, took it one step further and applied the same reading to “Angelfood McSpade,” positing that satire that doubles as a masturbation fantasy for the author necessarily fails at being satirical. Simply put, you can’t satirize imagery you’re clearly reveling in. It’s a seminal critique of Crumb’s oeuvre that obviously expands to Karnes, but more pertinently, the salient Charlie Hebdo editorial cartoons.
Leaving aside speculation about how deeply held the racist beliefs depicted by Charlie Hebdo contributors are, they very clearly revel in the attention that their most contentious work receives. The thrill of being perceived as the enfant terrible of their field is obviously palpable. Every time they draw ire, they double and triple down, chasing the high of inspiring condemnations and popular anger. When taken to the extremes that Charlie Hebdo contributors clearly do, that kind of attention seeking is antithetical to effective social satire.
The most striking result of the headlong rush to baptize the Charlie Hebdo contributors as champions of free speech has been the concurrent campaign to stifle criticism and further marginalize the members of the comics community most deeply affected by the use of immigrants and Muslims as the targets of ridicule, which, again, is antithetical of the reading of their work as social satire. If the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are in fact intended satirically, they would foster discussion of the pertinent issues and uplift the voices of the people they claim to be speaking for, which has so far been the exact opposite of what the international focus since the shootings has wrought.
Instead, the shootings have worked to elevate the cartoonist as a noble martyr and victim of an unjust world seeking to punish them for exercising their freedom of speech. Probably the most glaring example of this within the comics community, and one that’s been carefully swept under the rug by the media attention surrounding How Did We End Up Here, was the series of events leading up to the Charlie Hebdo contributors being given the Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage award. Nesrine Malik, in his previously cited opinion piece for The Guardian, asked how the publication could earn an award for courage while also espousing such repugnant views, but unless the reader clicked the offered link to a previous story, they’d remain ignorant of just how deeply divisive and controversial that decision was. (A more comprehensive account of how the protest developed was published by Vulture.)
A letter of protest signed by over two hundred members of the association was drafted and six of the sixty some odd hosts of the Gala withdrew their participation rather than be present for the standing ovation Charlie Hebdo Editor in Chief Gerard Biard received while accepting the award.The response by the remaining hosts intent on following through with the award was to replace the dissenters with their supporters, effectively scabbing the event with the addition of Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, and Alison Bechdel. Gaiman in particular went to great lengths to inflate his participation in the event by penning a self congratulatory narrative of the galafor the issue of The New Statesman on censorship that he edited along with his wife Amanda Palmer.
Gaiman goes full tilt in building up the idea that the cartoonist as martyr is the central theme of the shootings and their aftermath. Much of it is concerned with fretting over whether or not he should buy a bulletproof vest for the gala owing to the fact that his wife is pregnant and he would be leaving her alone to raise the child if he were martyred like the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Regrettably, his assistant informs him, he would not be able to get a vest that could be worn under a suit on such short notice. She would only be able to secure him a flak jacket that would have to be worn over his tuxedo, and so Gaiman soldiers on, willing to brave the danger to remain swave, stopping just short of identifying himself with James Bond. The Bond allusions continue as he constructs an elaborate fantasy around the blue fiberglass whale above him being stuffed with explosives. To Gaiman this all carries the visceral thrill of pretending to be an action hero. There’s no appreciation for the substance of the critique, or any perspective on the nuances of who gets targeted by transgressive speech.
Instead he drew allusions to a comic he wrote in 1987, retelling a passage from the Bible he intended to shock with a frank depiction of the parts of the scripture that don’t go acknowledged. It seemed to completely elude him that in critiquing or attacking religion, questions of power and privilege need to be taken into consideration. What Gaiman had done with that story was clearly and defensibly satirical. He was prodding at the dominant power and flirting with censure for undermining how those in control wanted their faith to be seen. It bears no relation to Charlie Hebdo’s practice of repeatedly targeting a deeply racialized religious minority within a dominantly Christian society that still asserts a racial identity tied to the Gauls. It boggles the mind that a critical distinction like that could escape such a celebrated author. Especially when it had been brought to his attention with specific emphasis by the very peers whom he’d agreed to replace at the gala. Yet there it is, in his own words, at an event where Biard reaffirmed that Charlie Hebdo was staunchly anti-racist.
The repercussions of that gala, despite the insistence by PEN America’s president Andrew Solomon that an award isn’t an endorsement, are still being felt. The publication has only grown bolder and more self assured since winning the award, right up until all pretense of being satirical or anti-racist was finally shed with the publication of How Did We End Up Here?, writ large in English on the web so that there could be no mistaking it. The effect on Muslim and other marginalized voices within comics has been predictably catastrophic. On April 18th, the final entry of Comics and Cola, an Eisner nominated website hosting one of the most highly regarded collections of comics criticism anywhere, was posted with a terse send off. “This is my last post on the blog. I don’t really know what to say, so I will just say thank you for the support, and for reading.”
The site was a labor of love by its proprietor Zainab Akhtar, a British Muslim who is beloved by critics and creators alike for her keen eye and far ranging taste, but the toll of being a visible Muslim in a space that was proving itself to be increasing in hostility towards her at an alarming rate became too much to take and forced her to step away. It’s an alarming reality and one that she took great pains to characterize as being fomented by racism in recognition of the deeply racialized character of islamophobia and in resistance to being co-opted as a manifestation of the industry’s misogyny. Carefully drawn distinctions have been few and far between in the wider discourse around Charlie Hebdo and the special hostility for Islam that comics harbor, so Akhtar’s statement on Twitter that she’d been ungendered by the harassment she faced is owed special attention. Sweeping statements about the right to offend must crumble in the face of the true collateral damage wrought by the uncritical uplifting of Charlie Hebdo and the silencing of dissent against it.
Kelly Kanayama, currently pursuing a PHD in transatlantic narratives in comics, took further aim at the deleterious effect that the prominence of Charlie Hebdo has had in a vital piece entitled The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in Comics Academia). She begins by narrating the lead up to what would have been her first conference abroad as a comics scholar, a conference about Charlie Hebdo. Already filled with misgivings about the conference, after receiving word that it would be cancelled over security concerns, she witnessed a deluge of messages within the email chain making sarcastic jokes about buying bulletproof vests, likely inspired by Gaiman’s narrative of the PEN gala, from one of the other delegates which understandably drove her to tears:
“When I say I was afraid, I wasn’t just afraid of what would happen at the conference. I was already laboring under the ongoing fear that everything I had built up for myself in Britain could suddenly be taken away, as though it was going to be objectively decided that I didn’t deserve it. Somehow, in defiance of the depression, the anxiety, the neuroatypicality that may or may not be/have been autism (no diagnosis yet either way; updates as events warrant), not to mention an immigration system that was and is growing steadily more racist, I was living a life that I never thought I’d be able to. I was even moving towards what could be considered thriving.”
She goes on to describe the malaise of being a woman of color in academia and the weight it adds to existing in an already high pressure, competitive field. It’s an account that must be read in full in her own words, and not just read but internalized. Gaiman and others besides would have us believe that we ought not to be selective in what expression we support, to not simply defend the bits of speech that we like, but there comes an equal responsibility to recognize our positionality. Gaiman may claim to not be selective in what he believes should be defended as valid speech, but he was incredibly selective in choosing who ought to get a say when he was given the platform to express his views. He refused to name his peers who sat out and did not even deign to address the substance of the critique in blatant ignorance of the tremendous power and privilege he holds over many of those dissenting voices.
The ability to take a prominent role in conversations about free speech fraught with heavy implications for deeply marginalized is a tremendous privilege that cannot be taken lightly or shrugged off. Any discussion of freedom of speech must come with the recognition that it gets applied unevenly and requires the uplifting and centering of marginalized voices to counterbalance that inherent inequality.
The opportunity to create this column and have a space of my own to express this position came directly from the anger and frustration at the harsh realities that forced the closure of Comics&Cola, and it’s a sequence of events I don’t take lightly. As a trans woman, I have battles of my own to fight, ones that frequently put me under scrutiny harsh enough that I’ve contemplated throwing in the towel on many occasions, but that does nothing to mitigate the tremendous privileges I have on matters of race. I’m as liable as any other white person to foul up gregariously on the topic, but I’m also just as capable as anyone else to listen, learn, and hopefully in some small way, ease the burden of those who feel the full force of it. It takes courage to speak up, but courage is no more a virtue than the patience and humility required to recognize when yours is not the voice that should be heard the loudest or travel the furthest.