by Justin E. H. Smith
Imagine that the French chapter of some international organization decided to give a prize of some sort to the New Yorker. Imagine a dissident faction of this French chapter, plus some Québécois, some Belgians, some Malians, protested this decision, pointing to New Yorker covers such as the one below, and claiming that this American magazine perpetuates racial stereotypes and political slurs. Suppose some Americans then tried to explain that the cover is not intended to perpetuate these stereotypes and slurs, but to comment on them, and to compel Americans to reflect on them, by exaggerating them and distilling them into a single image. Imagine, next, that in response the same French dissenters let that clarifying point fly right past them, and insisted that Americans should really not be fanning the flames of racial discord, given, e.g., the grave problem of police brutality, the current conflict in Baltimore, etc.
At this point, Americans would be right to say to those French dissenters: You ignorant fools, why don't you actually *learn* something about what this cover means, about who it is targeting and why? This is, mutatis mutandis, just what we are seeing now with the American PEN dissenters and their refusal to absorb any new information about Charlie Hebdo. We hear over and over again variations on the non-sequitur claim that PEN is honoring the “cultural arrogance of the French nation” (Peter Carey's words). How? By extending honors to a magazine whose primary function, as is clear to anyone who actually knows how to read and interpret it, is to satirize that nation's cultural arrogance? Again, this makes no more sense than to take the New Yorker cover as a symptom of, rather than a comment on, injustice and inequality in American society.
Classic smear tactics are being employed to make dissenting from the dissent, for anyone already caught up in the momentum, seem impossible: that Charlie Hebdo is 'vulgar' is the most transparently manipulative of them. As if there were intrinsically a political valence to crude humor (if anything, crude humor ought to be claimed, and not scoffed at, by the left, as it throws the body and its joys, which conservatives would like to keep concealed and controlled, into public view). It is smeared by association with cartoons that in fact did not appear in Charlie Hebdo at all. One, recently, a cringe-worthy take on the drowning of African migrants in the Mediterranean, turned out to have been from an Algerian newspaper, not from Charlie Hebdo. When this fact came to light the critics of Charlie Hebdo just moved on without comment. The cartoonist, Ali Dilem, is in fact a new member of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and his cartoon certainly falls flat, but it is undeniably not an expression of French cultural arrogance: it is an Algerian perspective on a gross human-rights tragedy for which France and other prosperous European countries are to blame.
The sociology of this refusal to reconsider a stance that indeed might have seemed righteous in the absence of crucial information coming from France, from people who know how to read French and who know the history of Charlie Hebdo, is basically the same as the sociology of high-schoolers playing chicken on a country road late at night: these kids are cool, and no one wants to be seen to be the first to flinch.