In Arizona today, as I write, a large motorcyclist rally is being staged outside a mosque where two attackers of an earlier Texas ‘cartoon contest’ to draw the Prophet Mohammed are alleged to have ‘associates’ who need to be ‘warned’. The attackers in Texas were killed (fair warning!), and the justification of the Texas cartoon contest, like Charlie Hebdo in France, has been much debated. Round two however involves a symptomatic escalation: the bikers will display their shotgun weapons in a demonstration where their nifty advance publicity strapline suggests ‘participants should come armed to defend the
first amendment with their second amendment rights’. Free speech protected by threat of arms is the standard muscular militant democratic line. But this looks to me like a latter day cartoon retake of the ‘shoot first talk later’ strategy of all out war. The bikers will remain peaceful, they say, and intend their own cartoon competition – entries for the prize must be displayed outside the mosque, and the prizes awarded [
at the after-party at ‘Wild Bills’. Wild Bills closed for the day, as did Denny’s]. That these provocations of cartoon contests to draw the prophet are in direct support of the Charlie Hebdo attack might seem a turn up for those who had decried France’s recalcitrance to be involved in the Iraq War – ‘Freedom Fries’, remember – but few seem to need to question the wholesome motives of a motorcycling rally for freedom here. Sons of Anarchy indeed: to be clear, the event inversely reinforces a simplistic binary logic, and promotes the cause and intent of the head-choppers.
So I was calling on Kurt Sutter to intervene. Ah well. Celebs.
The Arizona episode follows a recent PEN America decision to make an award to Charlie Hebdo in recognition of their continued defiance of terror in the name, as it is articulated in the award, of ‘freedom of speech’ should be considered an instance of caricature stance-taking. In different ways, also the firebombing of mosques in Germany and England in absurd and disproportionate, and misdirected, response to community ‘targets’; the rise of explicitly anti-immigration parties in Holland, the UK and other European states follow the success of the Front National (FN) in France; the shrill commentaries of the press on other ‘similar’ cartoon attacks – in Texas, and the earlier (2005) case with Jyllands-Posten publishing cartoons critical of the prophet in Denmark, with subsequent attacks and counter-attacks; while we can also look at Iran’s own counter cartoon contest called to mock ISIS and the death squads themselves. All these cartoon caricatures make the defense of freedoms of various kinds also something to be examined, since this goes to the heart – if not the head – of much of the discussion and events contingent upon the ‘war on terror’ and its related ‘projects’.
Projects? Yes. Apart from a critique of jokes, and defence of proper bikers, the main argument I want to present is that alongside the terror war and its military drama runs a project of cultural or moral economy. This operates in all theatres, extending across a mediasphere reaching from television news and radio to disembodied voice announcements at railway stations reminding us not to leave our baggage unattended. The cultural project appears in radio, television, cinema, literature, magazines and newspapers operates to make cartoons something much more serious, and to make serious politics seem like a cartoon. The irony of this should not be lost, nor should it obscure the arms trade and security industry dollars peddled beneath.
The projects are clearly not neutral, and provoke attachments and investments that must further be condemned as racist and chauvinist. Jingoism and prejudice of the highest order are encouraged by distraction and provocation. Reporting cycles are now predictable. A ‘terror incident’ is reported, lack of information leads to speculation of the identity of the ‘terrorists’, assumptions lead to accusations, attacks on persons of Muslim appearance, firebombing and desecration of mosques, further cycles of violence – which itself often goes unreported or is unevenly rported, for fear of fanning the flames. Though massively increased figures for incidents do appear in Police statistics, these are often less newsworthy in the aftermath of a ‘national’ crisis. The flames however are fanned.
The military side of this should not minimised by a focus on cartoon culture. Not just gun sales to bikers, I am also painfully aware that the turnover of armaments and supply production, the logistics and geo-political manoeuvers, the investment and jobs in defense contracting, military careers, strategy, electronics, surveillance and security are not simply economic concerns. But alongside the military industrial investment, I want to argue another economic investment supports this ideological programme. It is reliant on the production and mass distribution of incidents, figures, sensation and affect that provides not only a supplement to justify the military budgets and subsidises credit for global investment, but operates productive cycles within the mediasphere by creating villains, pantomime figures and monstrosity in a way that impact upon us all, all the time.
The politics does not start nor end with cartoons. Even so, the Hebdo cartoons are insulting caricatures. To lampoon the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, is not a practice that can be expected to pass without censure in the eyes of a great many people in this world. The insult to the prophet, as Rushdie surely knows, is not the end of it. Going beyond cartooning, there have been efforts by some to make evident the complex sensitivities involved, but this evidentiality has become the fulcrum for a cynical opportunism that intentionally makes political mileage – political incident, political football, cartoon caricature – out of questions of representation and offence. Attacks upon journalists, cartoonists and translators on the one side, competitions to see who can most provoke on the other, and manipulation of news imagery to grab attention – the essence of both terror attack and public declaration of solidarity after all – are parallel examples of a confrontation in which no one in the stand-off seems likely to win. My argument is that these projects and the cartoon character of politics, have other, less visible, motivations and consequences.
An insult can be an invitation and provocation to risk intervention. The calculated manipulation of the media cycle, the staging of outrage, the intentional dramatization of innocent offence. Man Horon Monis’s crazed attack in Sydney in late 2014 was staged in a café directly opposite the studio window of the Chanel 7 live to air television breakfast show. The bikers who have promoted their ride with guns to the Arizona mosque are not without a sharp sense of media impact, on twitter and facebook, with merchandising tie-ins with t-shirts and flags. And guns. There is no doubt that the PEN America award controversy was also anticipated as controversy, even if it seemed to blow up and backfire somewhat. To give an award to knowingly offensive cartooning was intended to stress that freedom of speech was a principle that included defending the right to be offensive. Some were offended that this entailed giving an award for offence. Clapping or not clapping was mooted. Storm in a tea cup and significant because able to command media time, celebrity intervention of authors like Peter Carey, and return fire from Salman Rusdhie. Carey withdrew from the PEN award dinner that would honour Charlie Hebdo with first six but later over a hundred other signatories to a letter expressing concern that insulting cartoons were here not only protected by freedom of speech, but were being further lauded. Behind it is the intentionality and bravado of the American PEN lining up with a jingoistic militarism that, though not articulated so clearly in the letter of protest, was clear enough. Rushdie weighed in with a succinct tweet – ‘six authors in search of a bit of character’ – which is perhaps wasted talent, but given Rushdie’s significance for any discussion of freedom of speech versus terror assured airtime for PEN.
Amitava Kumar succinctly set out a position in response as a signatory, as reported in The Guardian on 29 April 2015:
“a bunch of overdressed writers in a large room getting up to applaud or, for that matter, not applaud an award isn’t going to change much in the world. Not the number of people getting killed by drones, or getting drowned in the Mediterranean, or dying at the hands of the police in the US.
That said, one of the things that folks like Salman Rushdie taught me when I was coming of age as a writer was that you have to take sides. On the Charlie Hebdo question, I wish I had the triumphant certainty of those who are all gung-ho about the award. I mean, fuck the killers who gunned down the cartoonists.
But as I think of the wars unleashed upon whole peoples and the brutal realities of occupation as well as theocratic rule in the Middle East, you have to ask yourself if one shouldn’t instead be championing those who see the greater violence and who rebel against our own cravenness and our complicities” (Kumar 2015)
Kumar added that many artists and writers continue to fight for expression without western fame, and that he hopes that the gesture of the letter is an “appeal for a small pause”.
“Before we begin clapping, let’s ask if we aren’t just clapping for ourselves” (Kumar 2015)
The question of celebrity authorship is entangled here while terrifying attacks on the population of Muslim lands are justified in the name of ‘terror’ and ‘at home’ racist and chauvinistic prejudice means mosques are firebombed, people are assaulted, police powers disproportionately applied in stop and search and mistaken identity assassination – recall the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes killed on Stockwell tube by the security forces because he resembled (not very) a Muslim surveillance target. Rushdie of course is well familiar with surveillance himself, as now documented in his celebrity points-scoring biographical exercise Joseph Anton which narrates his time in hiding after the fatwah levelled at his earlier novel The Satanic Verses
This becomes all the more interesting when we take up the slogan that became prominent after the attack on the cartoonists in Paris in January. As Jeanne Kay points out Je suis Chalie has many antecedents and she traces the phrasing of Je suis Charlie back to various events such as Kennedy in Berlin [though not there as a donut, too often assumed], and in 1968 student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit being vilified for his German Jewish ancestry by political commentators and the response Nous sommes tous des Juifs-Allemands (‘We are all German-Jews’) gaining prominence. Consider also I am Spartacus. I would add: I am Brian, We are all Zapatistas, We are Everywhere. Kay (2015) makes the case that the unresolved colonial hangovers of the French public sphere meant identification with racist anti-Islamic cartooning – even as Charlie Hebdo could also be offensive to Christians and Jews – was a simplistic binary declaration, here in favor of the Enlightenment over against fundamentalism and the oriental. ‘Through its Mission Civilisatrice, the French Colony had the unambiguous objective to transform its natives subjects into what it called ‘évolués’ – literally, the evolved – through culture, education and moral edification’ (Kay 2015). She also notes the ‘I am Trayvon’ slogan in Ferguson (US) and the ‘Where’s Wally’ (WW2 US slogan, to which we might add ‘Kilroy was here’) as well as Je suis Ahmed, being the name of the French police officer Ahmed Mehrabet killed during the Hebdo office attack and used to indicate a wider identification than that implicated by Je suis Charlie. Kay writes:
‘The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’, therefore, is more than taking issue at the paper’s editorial stance. It is not simply that one should not identify with a racist, misogynistic and islamophobic publication. In the light of its genealogy, it is clear that to identify with Charlie is much more than a show of solidarity or a badge of condolences. It, too, signifies belonging to an identity group that posits itself as morally righteous in the face of barbarism. And this identity group, in the context of contemporary geopolitics, international islamophobia and race-relations in France, comes fully formed’ (Kay 2015).
To reinforce this point I would simply add that another ‘origin’ of the Je suis Charlie slogan has a deeply concerning conservative, even fascist, reference in that the same phrasing structure was used in World War Two as the name for the extreme anti-Semitic and collaborationist French Nazi newspaper, which was called Je suis Partout (I am everywhere). Under the editorship of Antoine Cousteau, and until the liberation published hateful commentary and pro-Nazi diatribes. To proffer a similarly racist politics and see the same Je suis … slogan structure now proclaimed with approval in contemporary France, should give us reason to be cautious with any such ‘solidarity’. Not far away the simplicities of the 99% ignores the need to ‘decolonise’ the anti-globalisation politics of Occupy Wall Street. Such slogans desiccate politics and understanding in a membership drive that precludes critical thinking and demands mass participations in the national consensus.
Don Miller, writing in Australia and author of a book Called Will to Win (2014), has said there can be no clear winner in the new global guerrilla warfare that makes a ‘game’ of politics where aerial and drone attacks from afar are arrayed against knife-wielding head-choppers and suicide attackers in a ‘battlefield’ that is potentially ‘anywhere’ (Miller 2015). In this all become losers, even the bystanders, and even as Governments take advantage to push through new legislations that seem ineffectual against terrorists who terrorise but undermine their cause, everybody else is left to quiver in media sponsored fear, unsafe in the cheap seats, watching the spectacle of endless war. The cover for repressive legislations, spying and surveillance, legal entrapments and constraints on civil liberty is provided by incidents and media focus can only seem like a concentrated ideological effort to maintain geopolitical control in a situation of uncertainty and lack of control.
The cultural project is itself a military economy. Je suis Partout is the dark war-time antecedent of a less grievous but nevertheless misdirected solidarity of those that would protect freedom of speech without restraint. This opens a field for the right and the racists, and many of those who stand in solidarity with cartoonists would not endorse the cartoon macho antics of the Arizona bikers massed with shotguns outside the mosque that is in preparation today.