First as Farce, then as Tragedy

I’ve mangled Zizek’s deployment of Marx as a note to self, about the expansion of the Paris shootings into an event of history. My friend Safdar Ahmed manages to articulate everything much more elegantly in this cartoon. And I wish I could reproduce Sam Wallman’s cartoon in Red Flag, and Van T Rudd’s amazing cartoons, but I’m not sure about copyright, so just click on the links.

The shootings represent a crisis in western liberalism, and the bizarre intensity of the global media and of international capitalist heads of state to  contain the complexity of issues behind the tragedy, and simplify and exploit it for the pursposes of some kind of game of thrones style neocrusade fantasy  is reminiscent of Dubya’s response to S11. (In Australia, the attorney general who tried unsuccessfully to remove laws against racial vilification,  is now devising bizarre restrictions on civil liberties, in anticipation of a Hebdo-style massacre in west Wyalong, or Woolgoolga, or maybe even Wagga Wagga.)

So for the remainder of this post, I am adding a catalogue of articles, so I remember what they were, and how the issue became deracinated and abstracted to a question of “free speech” versus “fundamentalists”, to allow a banal universalising gloss to whitewash over the hypocrisy of so many government leaders to join in the memorial march in Paris yesterday, in the name of civil liberties which so many of them have attacked in their own countries.

But watching the newsfeeds and wrangles on friends facebook pages, I am also reminded of the core confusion about race and racism that exists “in popular discourse” or at least in the vernacular speech acts that reflect politically dominant understandings of racism in the modern liberal state.

Firstly, people assume that Race is some kind of intrinsic thing; a biological fact or difference in DNA.

The common assumption is that race cannot be helped or changed (except through genocide), and that racism consists of isolated and cruel taunts or acts of discrimination towards people of different races.

According to this formulation, the good liberal citizen believes that humans are created as diverse, and that we should all tolerate each others diversity

Anyone with any understanding of human DNA knows that the first assumption is absolutely not true. Genetic variation within racial groups is far greater than genetic variation between racial groups. There is no black gene, no asian gene, no white gene, no gay gene. Genes are sequences of proteins that make other proteins. they are really really small and really really specific. Genetics is really, really complicated, and broad variety of DNA sequences are involved in any recognisable phenotype. Except where a phenotype can be reduced to the presence of a specific protein (eg digesting lactose), then locating the genetic cause for anything is slow intricate and complex work.

Writers in the social sciences, examine racialisation; or the marginalisation (or privileging)  of particular social groups who are differentiated according to visible physical features, particular ethnic markers (eg language, religion), and almost always particular economic relations (do they own land or are they nomadic, do they work in particular industries or occupations).

When teaching critical race theory, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is students own schooled perception that racism is about individual acts of meanness and cruelty. The racist abuse hurled at Adam Goodes two years ago is generally the only kind of racism that is acknowledged in the public sphere in Australia. While the media debates the merits of punishing a 13 year old girl for an isolated racist taunt, Aboriginal people are incarcerated at 40 times the rate for non-Aboriginal people, and on average, die 20 years earlier than non Aboriginal people.

Social scientists are concerned more with the latter phenomenon, and generally they do not look for genetic causes of Aboriginal people dying younger, or ending up in gaol more often. Instead, social scientists examine institutions and broader social practices that contribute to the large scale social damage done to racialised groups. We see racist taunts as part of broader discursive practices that reinforce the marginalisation of particular social groups that are racialised through explicitly ‘racist’ speech acts, as well as a broad range of indirect practices and discourses that are much harder to isolate and identify.

I grew up in a racist country town in rural Australia. The anxiety of white people over particular markers of perceived racial difference was and is intensified over my (formerly) black hair, and the black eyes and olive skin of my brother and father. Where the barriers between white vs non white are so stark, they are also quite fragile and fraught. In flaxen-locked ranga land, even white people with black hair have to give an account of WHY, just as anyone anywhere in Australia with brown skin has to answer the question “where do you come from?”.  The selection of who was identified and racialised as Aboriginal in my town was based on lineage, and the multigenerational identity of individuals as part of or linked to particular family units. The racialisation of Aboriginal people was and is intensified according to how they perform culturally (do they walk around at night, or stay in their homes?) and economically (do they work in respectable jobs or not?).

When I travelled to and stayed in Europe the only comparison I could make between the feeling of embedded and embodied racism against Aboriginal Australians was to ask European what they knew of Roma people. (I’m not going to repeat the G words that wound here, because they have the same valency as the A, B and C insults in Australia). And I was amazed, repeatedly, how seemingly educated, tolerant and sophisticated Europeans would repeat almost identical phrases from the redneck adults of my youth, substituting the G word for the A, B and C word. (Some of these phrases, the petty preoccupations of imagined abuses of welfare or charity are detourned by Richard Bell in this video.)

In France, this language is extended to “Arabs”. Arab, in France, means the brown boys of the banlieu; the old ones with a corner shop open all night, the dope dealing dudes in the apartment blocks, the invisible women who don’t pass as French through fleshly exposure, but hide in veils in their houses. In France l’Arabe is a composite of physical features that can be identified as north African (black hair, brown eyes, olive, brown or sallow skin), family names from the Marghreb, possibly an Algerian accent, and one of the many shades of either ethnic, cultural, religious, devout or zealous Muslim. This composite conflates and flattens all of these characteristics. So even the queer pig eating French Algerian who says Essalam Aleikhum when buying a kebab in the Banlieu (and yes, I am referring to my ex-inlaws), becomes only an Arab; a one dimensional cartoon stereotype of brown, Muslim otherness, who faces repeated intense and endless harrassment from the police and national guard, and intense excoriation in the media.

The former president Nicolas Sarkozy referred to them all as “rubbish” and he promised his bored affluent voters in beige streets of the 18eme that he would clear the Banlieu of this rubbish, and hose them from the streets. What he did was reenact the bizarre hauntology of the Battle of Algiers, and ban the Niquab (face veil) from public, exacerbating the public harassment and isolation of ‘Muslim-looking’ women as well as ‘Arab-looking’ men.

So, what I’m trying to say by this, is that to separate anti-Muslim from racist, is spitting hairs in a large festy dreadlock of unresolved colonial conflict, religious intolerance, and economic marginalisation. The French myth of laiicite was built on the systematic marginalisation and forced assimilation of Jewish French people in the nineteenth century, and it did nothing to stop their deportation and extermination by the Nazis in the twentieth. Likewise, it acts as a smokescreen over the deliberate racism of the French government, media and mainstream institutions towards all of its others that it can identify as ‘Muslim’.

What the crazy gunmen did to the cartoonists was unforgivable and unjustifiable. The cartoons in Hebdo did not deserve a reprisal or a revenge, and certainly not on this scale. However they cannot be separated from the broader entrenched and intensifying culture of  racism in France. This racism is based on the perceived ethnic differences of Arabs and Muslims and it is completely imbricated in Islamophobia.

Whether the ribald satire of Charlie is regarded as ‘left wing’ or ‘libertarian’ depends on the context in which it is read. The meaning of images is determined by their frame and the power of visual culture is its capacity to be uprooted and juxtaposed and recontextualised.  In this context, cartoons mocking religious zealoutry cannot be separated from broader racist discourses, and broader racist social relations. I don’t think such cartoons should be either censored or stopped, but I do think the harrassment, marginalisation and incarceration of those who are racialised as “Muslims/Arabs” in Europe, North America and Australia does need to be addressed sincerely and seriously by anyone who expects Muslims to laugh along with cartoons mocking their faith. The latter, reminds me of watching white boys at school cornering a lone koorie, so as they could tell racist jokes, they could point and say “look! it’s not racist! he’s laughing too!”.

Of course the media and government spectacle is designed to osbcure and erase just that. All citizens of “the liberal west” are all meant to imagine ourselves as “Charlie Hebdo” (some white middle aged middle class recovering catholic hetero man), and all meant to imagine that the bad boys of the Parisian Banlieu finding redemption in a gun-toting version of Muslim fundamentalism are the same as the women, kids and men who have fled the gun toting Taliban in Afghanistan, or gun toting Buddhists in Sri Lanka…..

Of course any discussion of “Freedom of the Press” is a complete joke in Australia where the vast majority of media outlets are owned and controlled by an ageing bigotted misanthrope, while the public broadcasting services are increasingly besieged and restricted by a group of corrupt moronic despots who take their model of governmentality from Prince Joffrey.

For now, I’m going back to the wrangling of longer, harder words than my 1500 blog post. But here is a list of interesting articles that have informed and challenged my own nostalgic musings on a country I haven’t seen in almost a decade….

Le Monde’s summary of the International fights to defend the liberty of the press (In French):

Slavoj Zizek’s comment (of course!)

A nice Malaysian discussion of reasonable responses to offense:

A satirical article about Rupert Murdoch’s twitter feed:

Another report about someones twitter feed about the world leaders on a march for freedom:

Here is a link to an actual twitter feed:

A French Writer’s explanation of the background to the Hebdo incident:

A similar critical reflection in the New Yorker:

Wonderful blog post from the London Review of Books:

Tariq Ali’s blog post in the London Review of Books:

An accessible and engaging Marxist analysis of the incident:

Australian left wing commentator Jeff Sparrow’s account:

Great Article from Common Dreams:

A report on the arrest of a rabid anti-zionist maniac in France, showing the limits to Free Speech:

A good analysis from Critical Legal Thinking:


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