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The Hooded Utilitarian's Cheap, Lazy Criticism of Charlie Hebdo

Post #1733 • January 9, 2015, 6:29 PM • 4 Comments

This is one of the harder pieces I've had to write, first because I'm galled, maybe even depressed about the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Islamic extremists this week, and second because I have forbidden myself from foul language so as not to stoop in any respect to the nadir of Jacob Canfield. Canfield appeared in Hooded Utilitarian this week with an ill-argued essay saying, in summary,

Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons.

Fuck those cartoons.

How he concluded there is a marvel of psychological projection. The title, In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism, is true enough. But no one had said otherwise. It was just an excuse to go after drawings that had appeared in the magazine and, worse, the freshly murdered cartoonists who made them.

Here’s what’s difficult to parse in the face of tragedy: yes, Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.

Here, for context, are some of the cartoons they recently published.

He presents them. They are the same ones that the rest of the media is reproducing; if you can't view them at HU (the site is getting hammered), an image search will do. He calls out this one in particular...

[Image: ]

...about which he says, Yes, that last one depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens.

These are, by even the most generous assessment, incredibly racist cartoons. Hebdo’s goal is to provoke, and these cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking: France’s incredibly marginalized, often attacked, Muslim immigrant community.

The most generous assessment, that is to say, that can be granted by someone who doesn't bother to question whether his particularly American and politicized interpretation of the cartoons is correct. It is not. Someone on Quora (h/t Mark Borok) asked the community about the context of the Boko Haram sex slaves cover.

This cover is mixing two unrelated elements which made the news at about the same time:

- Boko Haram victims likely to end up sex slaves in Nigeria

- Decrease of French welfare allocations

... Charlie Hebdo is known for being left-wing attached and very controversial, and I think they wanted to parody people who criticize "welfare queens" by taking this point-of-view to the absurd, to show that immigrant women in France are more likely to be victims of patriarchy than evil manipulative profiteers.

Another added:

This cover is a double snipe in classical Charlie style, both against Boko Haram and our right wing, NOT against the sex slaves or "welfare queens". To misunderstand that shows complete ignorance of French press and the left wing / anarchist tradition of Charlie."

Unfortunately, the modern tendency in politics is to establish a narrative, presume its truth, and proclaim accordingly. This was perhaps articulated best by Karl Rove when he famously disdained the reality-based community, but liberalism depends on this kind of narrated indifference to evidence as well. Postmodern politics may consist entirely of competing attempts at narrative control at this point in history. If it's not obvious that the Hebdo cartoons are racist or the Boko Haram one is interpreted correctly, too bad for you - that train has left the station.

Even in a fresh-off-the-press, glowing BBC profile of Charb, Hebdo’s murdered editor, he comes across as a racist asshole.

Really? Here's the Beeb:

Charb had strongly defended Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he told the Associated Press in 2012, after the magazine’s offices had been fire-bombed.

“I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.”

I can't rip this apart any harder than Reason, so I defer to them:

Of the four sentences attributed to Charb, the first should seem obvious coming from a take-no-prisoners satirist, the second is a statement that he understands Charlie Hebdo's humor is not for everyone, the third is a fact, the fourth a refusal to be cowed by violent threats. A pretty low bar for racist asshole, unless you think that "White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out," a sentiment that imposes a racial barrier of entry to engage in satire on certain groups of people, their politics, and religious iconography.

The punching down bit is from the next paragraph.

Now, I understand that calling someone a racist asshole after their murder is a callous thing to do [you don't say - F.], and I don’t do it lightly. This isn’t ambiguous, though: the editorial staff of Hebdo consistently aimed to provoke Muslims. They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.

Why bad and why racist, we never find out, but he complains that the several of the cartoons drawn in response to the massacre stooped to drawing hook-nosed Muslim caricatures, reminiscent of Hebdo’s house style. As proof, he offers these, neither of which is in Hebdo's style and one of which I'm not sure even rises to the level of caricature.

[Image: ]

[Image: ]

But he reserved his worst opprobrium for this cartoon by Shaw, which made the rounds on Twitter hashtagged #CharlieHebdo.

[Image: ]

Political correctness did not kill twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices, he cries.

To talk about the attack as an attack by “political correctness” is the most disgusting, self-serving martyr bullshit I can imagine. To invoke this (bad) Shaw cartoon in relation to the Hebdo murders is to assert that cartoons should never be criticized. To invoke this garbage cartoon is to assert that white, male cartoonists should never have to hear any complaints when they gleefully attack marginalized groups.

Who is talking about the attack this way? Nobody. Not this cartoon, which is clearly saying that the only way to succeed in offending no one is to draw nothing. And no one else on the planet as far as I can tell. There are conservatives who say that political correctness is interfering with our ability to assess the threats against us in the context of this attack, but no one is saying that this is an attack by political correctness. Likewise, no one is saying that cartoons should never be criticized. No one is saying that white, male cartoonists should not have to hear complaints about their work for whatever reason. Canfield is having an argument with someone who exists in his imagination. But now the train is up to full speed and there's no looking back.

Changing your twitter avatar to a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad is a racist thing to do, even in the face of a terrorist attack. The attitude that Muslims need to be ‘punished’ is xenophobic and distressing. The statement, “JE SUIS CHARLIE” works to erase and ignore the magazine’s history of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. For us to truly honor the victims of a terrorist attack on free speech, we must not spread hateful racism blithely, and we should not take pride in extreme attacks on oppressed and marginalized peoples.

A call “TO ARMS” [here he references an image labeled thus, in which drafting tools are arranged into the shape of a rifle - F.] is gross and inappropriate. To simplify the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices as “Good, Valiant Westerners vs. Evil, Savage Muslims” is not only racist, it’s dangerously overstated. Cartoonists (especially political cartoonists) generally reinforce the status quo, and they tend to be white men. Calling fellow cartoonists TO ARMS is calling other white men to arms against already marginalized people. The inevitable backlash against Muslims has begun in earnest.

Of all the hyperventilation overhead, that last line is the worst offender. There has been backlash, in the form of French mosques being attacked. But you really have to be a special shape of snowflake to think that this backlash is being led, in any sense, by cartoonists responding to the attack with cartoons. So in the spirit of Canfield's eventual admission...

Free speech is an important part of our society, but, it should always go without saying, free speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Criticism IS speech – to honor “free speech martyrs” by shouting down any criticism of their work is both ironic and depressing.'s some criticism for him. No one is shouting you down, snowflake. You've had your say. And what you've told us is that you're a twerp. You have revealed grandiose regard for your own interpretive powers, and they have betrayed you. You have demonstrated neither research nor reflection above that would indicate that you ever considered the possibility that something you wrote isn't true. Your political expression is so disengaged from anyone else's actual claims as to be masturbatory. Your editor, Noah Berlatsky, who himself is a piece of work, has ghoulishly allowed you to malign the memories of comics artists who are better than you are and were braver than you will ever be.

Yes, free speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Freedom to criticize doesn't mean that any idiotic manner in which you vent your spleen rises to the level of valid criticism. And while it's bad to fail so hard at criticism, to do so in this particular manner should make us all wonder how much of it is a protracted exercise in you patting yourself on the back for holding political views you think are righteous. My guess: All of it.



A Reader

January 11, 2015, 10:36 PM

Mr. Einspruch, I don't know you, but I love you! Thank you for this blog. It relieves me to know that not all Anglophones are ignorant of French society. (And I'm not French, I just live here.)


A Reader

January 11, 2015, 10:36 PM

I want to thank you for raising your voice against the piece written by Canfield about Charlie Hebdo, a piece which to my horror I found referenced in the New York Times. Canfield seems blissfully ignorant of basic facts. The Charlo Hebdo team is anything but a bunch of white men venting racism. There are blacks and several Muslims on the team, including a veteran of the Tunisian Arab Spring, and a lady columnist who has spoken out in French media and TV defending Charlie Hebdo. Is she racist against her own religion? The paper is left-leaning, even extremely liberal by US standards. Racism has no part in their worldview and they would rather be detested by xenophobes—Canfield got that one totally wrong. They laughed at religion of every brand in their cartoons, at Christians, Jews, Muslims. As the Tunisian-born Charlie Hebdo team member said today on French TV, We are not obsessed by Mohammed. We drew the Pope and Sarkozy at least as often.

Their cartoons were not liked by all in France. Their paper was not a big seller. It was their murder that brought them the support we now see. The terrorists got that backwards. Canfield is as entitled to his opinion about the quality of the cartoons as anybody else. But he should at least check his facts—even if he does not understand the social and political context in which they were published.


Vanessa Luna

January 15, 2015, 11:55 PM

While I don't necessarily agree with everything written in the Hooded Utilitarian article about the attack, I think many of the points are valid. Labeling something as satire doesn't automatically give it a free pass to use all any and all stereotypes without risk if being called out for them.

I think we need to admit that using the cover of culture isn't always right. Sometimes, cultural practices are wrong. Charlie Hebdo may be a cultural institution and I may not fully understand its context in French society, but it sure seems racist to me. Just because something is embedded in a culture doesn't make it right.

Nor did the author's argument above resonate with me. I found it as insubstantial and unconvincing as the author claimed the HU article to be.



January 16, 2015, 6:42 PM

Vanessa, your comment recapitulates Canfield's argument in brief: I feel strongly that this is true, therefore it is true. The term for this is solipsism, and it's as frivolous when it led Canfield to make basic errors of interpretation as it is when it leads you to your I Know You Are But What Am I criticism in your last line above. It sure seems racist to me, eh? It passes the Potter Stewart test and we're all done here? How about the people to whom they don't look racist, such as, for instance, the intended audience? As far as I can tell they have as much claim on reality as you do.

As I said in the comments at HU, depending on the degrees involved, it may be less of a crime to be a racist than a prig. The essence of priggishness is to be horrified at other peoples' pleasure. All this contemptuous, unwarranted certainty about racism and stereotyping at Charlie Hebdo strikes me as priggishness about humor that is not to your liking or Canfield's, and instead of treating it as any other indulgence you don't care for, you bang on self-righteously about its wickedness. Meanwhile real wickedness goes on the world—the murder of cartoonists, to pick something—and yet it fails to arouse any comparable outrage. I happen to agree with you that some cultural practices are wrong, chief among them the conformist prudery among what I think of as the Offended-American Community. (I have also seen them called the Indignati.) I'll take the insouciant jokers at Charlie Hebdo over people like that any day of the week.



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