Charlie Hebdo: Unmournable Frenchies
There was a weird smell to the Anglo media’s stories on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a stench uncommonly like gloating. Before the 12 bodies were even cold, the New Yorker published a sermon by Teju Cole, in which he pronounced the dead Frenchies “Unmournable.” Cole’s refusal to mourn made no sense, rambling through the Inquisition, “France’s colonial history,” US drone strikes on Pakistan, and an obscure 16th-century Italian theologist before he even got around to hinting in a cowardly, incoherent way, that those dead writers and cartoonists pretty much had it coming to them.
There was a lot of that sort of incoherent Anglo gloating going around, the kind where nobody says outright that they’re glorying in some outsider’s misfortune, but everybody gets the message very clearly.
Cole’s gloating was pretty mild, compared to what you found on the Left end of the net. Jacobin, which is actually a pretty good journal sometimes, decided to publish a more aggressive chunk of incoherent gloating by Richard Seymour, which includes this remarkable paragraph explaining, or rather declining to bother explaining, Seymour’s conviction that Charlie Hebdo is “…frankly a racist publication”:
“I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that — irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.”There, you smell that? That, folks, is the stench of grad-school bloodlust, the rectitude one finds so often among people who are afraid of caffeinated coffee, but glory in consigning anyone damned by their favorite authors to violent death. And as soon as the seminar-hunt is on, the clichés come out: “I will not waste time arguing…” “I simply take it as read…” “I suggest you do your research…”
You can hear Seymour starting to bluster and babble here, aware that he’s talking nonsense. That’s one of the best ways to tell when somebody knows they’re writing utter crap: when they start huffing and puffing like a real-estate agent explaining the mold on the bathroom walls as an expressionist mural, and implying you’re a philistine if you don’t see its artistic value.
The best Seymour can do, after all that huffing and puffing, is to cite Said’s book, published in 1978, as if it were the last word on a massacre committed in 2015. Of course, Said had nothing at all to say about what happened in Paris last week, but Seymour’s crude retreat to authority is classic grad-school rhetoric. You pick an author, wave his sacred book around like Scripture, and whack dissenters on the head with it, even when it has nothing to say about the subject ostensibly being discussed. No wonder Anglo Leftist academics feel such innate sympathy with Jihadists; they both enjoy whacking people with sacred texts which have no real relevance to the present moment.
And both groups are authoritarian to the bone, glorying in their ability to swallow camels and choke at gnats. I remember one successful Berkeley academic—I better not use her name, because she’s rich, famous, and notoriously vindictive—who used to do everything but genuflect and cross herself when pronouncing the sacred name “Jacques Lacan,” and a few minutes later assert that science was just another value system, no more or less valid than any other. Grad school in the Humanities teaches you to swallow enormities like that.
So the silliness of these responses doesn’t surprise me. Neither does the raw hate for French culture. You get used to that after a while. For some reason, Said’s lesson about being cautious in one’s presumption about other cultures never applies to France. Said’s weakness was that he wrote a complaint—“look how this bad, evil Western culture depicts my people”—rather than a survey demonstrating that it is a basic rule of cultures to misrepresent any other culture they see as significantly different from their own.
Which is why Said fan-boys like Richard Seymour would never dream of respecting France. They simply go straight to condemning it, just as Anglos have been doing for centuries. In fact, it’s a bitter irony that Francophobia has much deeper, stronger roots in Anglo culture than Islamophobia.
So it’s just business as usual, gloating when the French people are killed. We’ve been doing it since Agincourt, and the biggest gloaters are—naturally—the people who seriously imagine themselves as champions of “the Other.” The stupid fucks will never understand that it’s the dead French who’ve been “othered” here. It would ruin their chance to kick those corpses, the favorite form of exercise for petty authoritarians of the sort who infest Humanities grad programs.
The French are hated for their difference, and that difference is always reduced, in the minds of Anglo hicks, to “indecency.” This has been going on for 200 years, after England reacted to the alleged excesses of Revolutionary France by getting a voluntary lobotomy, in order to insure rectitude and prevent any outbreaks of wit.
The Americans went along with the program so well that even Mark Twain, who could sometimes transcend his sanctimonious Anglo roots, reduced all French culture to “indecency”:
"In certain public indecencies the difference between a dog & a Frenchman is not perceptible."Notions of decency have shifted since his time, but that dismal Anglo disapproval has never budged, never dreamed of extending cultural relativism to include the wild daring of French literature. As far as we’re concerned, it’s all just dirty, and it deserves what it got.
I speak from experience, having been part of The eXile, an attempt to create an impious, scurrilous Left in this language. You haven’t felt hate ‘til you’ve endured the wrath of pious grad-school Leftists who will never forgive you for attempting to communicate in diction that might not be considered seminar-safe. You might think Leftists would be pleased that somebody was trying to translate their sanctimonious cant into language people actually enjoyed. By no means! Only if the “popular” language is as grotesquely outdated, sterilized, and caricatured as Jim Hightower’s—a sort of Howdy-Doody Leftist populism, something like the way a pithed Will Rogers would speak—can it be considered acceptable.
Because these guys are not interested in winning over a bigger public, but keeping control of their turf, the grad seminar room with its frayed beige sofas smelling faintly, or not so faintly, of the Ghost of Street Persons Past. No other territory matters to these people, and the last thing they want to hear is language with the risky diction of a wider world. We at eXile were anathematized so many times, we used to go around humming Mark E. Smith’s great line, “She consigns them all to Hell/She’s the littlest rebel” as our theme song when reading academic-Left hate letters.
Not that we ever worried that the likes of Teju Cole or Richard Seymour would come into the offices with AKs blazing. They’d never have found their way around Moscow, for starters, and people like that don’t pull triggers themselves. It might mess up their CV's. But there were always death threats from more serious people, and we knew that if any of them were ever acted on, we would be un-mourned as aggressively as Charlie Hebdo has been.
People like Cole and Seymour perform the functions of clergy. In the lower-middle class and South, such people still become actual clergy; in the North and upper-middle class, they become a secular analogue, passing community verdicts in sacral language. And one of those functions is the funeral oration. Like many elegies pronounced over those “othered” by the congregation, the purpose of their sermons on those killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacre was to anathematize the dead, to forbid their placement in whatever passes for sacred ground in their circles.
And because Francophobia was mixed with heresy in this case, they were unusually blunt about it—so blunt that even the cynical journalists at Charlie Hebdo (the survivors, that is) were shocked. The French, poor trusting bastards, don’t know how much they’re hated. Well, they know it now. They were angry enough to release this statement, titled “Dear US Followers,” expressing their hurt and shock at the stateside smears:
“You have no idea how much the french community on tumblr is feeling betrayed. We stood by your side many times in the recent weeks, we educated ourselves about the situation in the US, we read, we learnt. Now, our country is suffering and I read everywhere that Charlie Hebdo was a racist journal, that they had it coming.”Of course, not everyone was blunt enough to blame the French outright. The most common evasion was to say that these twelve people were killed because “the West” kills people in the Muslim world. But that’s not what the attackers said. The two men who charged into Charlie Hebdo’s offices yelled, “We have avenged the Prophet” for Charlie Hebdo’s notorious cartoons caricaturing Mohammed.
They did not mention Gaza, drones, or Iraq. Their rage was for the verbal and graphic crimes committed by the journalists they murdered.
Writers like Teju Cole adopted the Gaza/Pakistan/Iraq line and simply ignored the killers’ own explanation, clear and simple as it was. That is what we call, in the lit-crit biz, a blind spot. And it’s a very interesting one, about the size of the Pacific Ocean and just as full of trash. Why would an Anglo critic fail to notice Sunni jihadists’ hysterical rage at mere verbal transgressions?
Because his own culture suffers from the same hysterical sensitivity to verbal transgressions and insensitivity to all else. Anglo culture has always shared this hysterical sensitivity to verbal transgressions, while French culture has delighted, for centuries, in playing with obscenity, blasphemy, and profanity as an intellectual pastime.
Cultures don’t respect difference. Cultures are in the business of destroying difference everywhere they find it. You’d think academics who revere Said would know that better than anyone.
Why, then, do Anglo critics imagine they’re championing difference in cheering for jihadis who kill over verbal offenses? Isn’t it far more likely, by their own premises about the nature of human culture, that they’re cheering for a cultural value shared by Sunni and Anglo culture, but resisted by the weakened, shrinking French culture?
For more than two centuries, since the alleged brutality of the French Revolution terrified the English elite, Anglo culture has been hostile to French “liberté” with sex, language, obscenity, and secularism. The French responded by caricaturing Anglos as hypocritical prigs, addicted to public shows of piety while sinning overtime in private, obsessed with policing language and public morality but indifferent to massive suffering as long as it did not express itself too crudely.
If you’ve ever lived in the Sunni-Muslim world, that French view of Anglo morality will seem familiar. Perhaps the only Pharisees more Pharisiacal than the Anglos are the wealthy Sunni. So there’s no respecting of difference going on when SJW’s cheer for the Paris murderers. There’s enforcement of a shared value at the expense of a weakened outlier culture, France.
That’s the only explanation I can find for the odd fact that cultural sensitivity by the academic Left extends only to Sunni Islam. It emphatically does not encompass Shia minorities such as the Hazara in Afghanistan or the Gulf, and it pointedly excludes Sub-Saharan Africans, such as the Dinka and Nuer, victims of a sickening, decades-long genocide by the Islamists of Northern Sudan.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re seeing two very similar cultures, both insanely focused on symbolic transgressions, punishing a weakened French culture, which has since Sade’s time devoted itself very seriously to verbal transgression as a highly valued intellectual pursuit (as in Sade’s great line, “To imagine even greater crimes, to put out the Sun!”). When it comes to committing truly great crimes, both the Sunni and the Anglos are doing extremely well, completely outclassing the poor old French. But they share a wonderful circumspection, an almost infinite capacity to forgive all but spoken or written crimes. And pretend to believe that “to imagine” in Sade’s phrase is as bad, if not worse, as “to commit” great crimes.
These imagined, verbal crimes are the only ones we can’t forgive. If only dumb hicks like Cole and Seymour had the wit to see that they are cheering on murderers who acted, in essence, as the hit squad of Victorian prigs.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]