No Day for Cynics

This was no day for cynics. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes everyone says enough is enough, and they take to the streets, and the world changes. That happened in 1789 in Paris, when the people, fed up with the political system that had been in place for what seemed like forever, marched to the Bastille, the monarchy’s big prison, and freed everyone who had been locked up there. The revolution had begun, and soon there would be no more monarchies in Europe ever again, except as sentimental window dressing here and there. The people would now rule themselves, for better or worse. Our revolution, thirteen years earlier, had only been an outlier, or a trial run – something that happened out in the middle of nowhere. England would be just fine without us anyway – but Paris was the heart of Europe and thus the center of everything at the time, and the French Revolution changed everything, even if it wasn’t pretty. Robespierre was a bloodthirsty fanatic and Napoleon wanted to take over the world, but things finally settled down. Modern secular democracy became the new norm. The people took to the streets. They would not be denied.

This doesn’t happen very often, but it just happened again, and in Paris again, in the same streets – but this time it had nothing to do with the concept of monarchy, the idea that we should be ruled by those chosen by God to rule us, or so they told us. Divine right is no longer the issue, or maybe it still is. No one wants to be ruled by those who claim they have the right to do so, because the Prophet Muhammad said so, and who say there are strict rules that must be followed, because the Prophet Muhammad said so, or you die, because the Prophet Muhammad said you must. People have had just about enough of that, and of the acts of terrorism used to show us that this was so. There were bombings throughout the nineties, and then 9/11 of course – and our wars in response – and somehow al-Qaeda was everywhere anyway, and the subways in Madrid and London were bombed, and then, suddenly, there was ISIS and Boko Haram and so on. The message was clear. Submit or die.

It was easy enough to be cynical about this. These guys are beyond nasty, and crazy, but we’ll fight a long twilight battle and contain them, and degrade their capabilities, and one day they’d be gone. That was the word. The war on terror would be long. It would be fought for generations. Don’t expect much – but at some point enough is enough, and the mostly unlikely event can be that one thing that is the last straw. No one thought the assassination of the editors and cartoonists at a French satirical magazine, that had made fun of this use of Islam to take over the world, would be that last straw. The associated takeover of a kosher grocery in Paris, run by those damned Jews, and holding those hapless shoppers hostage, and killing four of them, seemed like no more than the usual nastiness. But something snapped. Enough was enough, and the streets of Paris were where the next revolution began:

More than 40 world leaders, including the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister, marched arm in arm in the vanguard of more than a million people in Paris on Sunday in a somber display of solidarity and defiance following a series of terrorist attacks that shook France.

The march, which began at the Place de la République, clogged the broad streets as masses of people converged on the center of the capital to show their support after last week’s attacks, which killed 17 people, including three police officers. The Interior Ministry estimated 1.2 million to 1.6 million people took part.

Dressed in dark coats, leaders from Europe to Africa, including President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, marched slowly and resolutely, sending a potent sign that the world was united and would not be intimidated in the face of terrorism. The crowd roared its approval.

Also in the front line of the dignitaries was Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked closely by a bodyguard. In a rare display of unity, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, stood nearby.

This was unanimous. Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas stood side by side. So did Hollande and Merkel – and they thoroughly despise each other’s economic policies – and Muslims were holding up signs saying they were Jews, and Jews were holding up signs saying that they were Muslims. Everyone had had just about enough of guys who were saying submit or die, and had been saying that for the last twenty years. That’s not how things were going to be from now on.

CNN has a photo gallery of the event – and there’s a cool shot at the traffic circle where the Bastille used to stand. People remember:

At the Place de la République, demonstrators waved French flags and several climbed the imposing Statue of the Republic, a symbol of the republic and the French Revolution, and wielded an inflatable pencil, symbolizing solidarity with the fallen cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo.

People displayed the flags of countries from Morocco to Spain and many held signs saying, “I am Charlie.” Others held up caricatures from the magazine. One demonstrator captured the national mood in a sign: “17 dead. 66 million people hurt.”

Before the march, the French Interior Ministry held a security summit meeting, bringing together top intelligence and law enforcement officials from across Europe and North America, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., to discuss ways to combat and contain terrorism.

Holder announced that the White House would convene an international forum in February “to discuss new means of countering terrorism” – but he wasn’t at the march, nor was Obama or Biden or anyone else. This wasn’t about us, specifically, after all, and it would look bad if we tried to hijack the event to score points. It is counterproductive to tell the world that this or that is about us, not anyone else.

Fox News won’t like that, but this seemed to be a strategic decision. We’ll oversee the practical stuff and keep out of the way. The United States was represented by our ambassador, Jane Hartley.

There are some odd issues here, after all, and Harris Zafar reminds us of that:

Islam does not support people who violently censor free speech. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Qur’an both through direct instruction as well as recalling how Muhammad was insulted to his face and never retaliated. The Qur’an records that he was called crazy, a victim of deception, a liar, and a fraud. Through this all, the Prophet Muhammad never retaliated or called for these people to be attacked, seized, or executed. This is because the Qur’an says to “overlook their annoying talk” and to “bear patiently what they say.” It instructs us to avoid the company of those who continue their derogatory attacks against Islam. There simply is no room in Islam for responding to mockery or blasphemy with violence.

But perhaps most pointedly, the Qur’an tells believers not to be provoked by those who seem to attack Islam, stating very clearly “let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice.” This is supported by the actions of the Prophet Muhammad himself. When he was once returning from an expedition, an antagonist used insulting words against him. Although a companion suggested that the culprit be killed, the Prophet Muhammad did not permit anyone to do so and, instead, instructed they leave him alone.

That doesn’t fit our narrative, and there were complications anyway:

While the rally was intended to help unite the country, it has fanned some divisions. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who was not invited, urged her followers to stay away, saying that the demonstration had been usurped for political ends, “by parties which represent what the French hate: partisan spirit, electioneering and indecent polemic.”

Agence France-Presse reported that a group called the Collective Against Islamophobia refused to participate in Sunday’s rally, citing Mr. Netanyahu’s presence at the event, calling him a “racist against Arabs, blacks and Muslims” and saying he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians.

And there’s looking at it the other way:

The terror attacks in Paris have stoked deep anxiety among the Jewish community in France, the largest in Europe. It was already reeling from a spate of anti-Semitic attacks, including on synagogues and Jewish shops last year, at the time of an Israeli incursion in Gaza.

On Sunday, President Hollande, who has labeled the attack at a kosher supermarket on Friday that left four Jewish shoppers dead a horrific act of anti-Semitism, attended a ceremony with Mr. Netanyahu at Grande Synagogue de Paris, to convey his strong support.

In a meeting earlier on Sunday with Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, Mr. Hollande said that the government would protect Jewish schools and synagogues with troops if necessary, and that it was committed to the security of France’s 500,000 Jews.

But deep fears remain. Mr. Cukierman emphasized that French Jews were committed to France, but he said he understood why parents afraid of sending their children to school were emigrating to Israel, where Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday they would be welcome with “open arms.”

Fine, but this a little more complicated than it seems. There’s history. Hang around the Marais in Paris – the Jewish quarter, so to speak, but now full of gays too, and really irritating hipsters. That’s the go-to place these days, and the French made their peace with European Jews long ago. The Dreyfus Affair woke them up, and that guy was championed by Victor Hugo – a French goy. Hugo’s home in the Marais is now a museum, on the Places des Vogues. And the French also made their peace with what happened in World War II – perhaps Marcel Ophüls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” shamed them. On the tip of the east end of the island where you’ll find Norte Dame there’s a very moving Holocaust monument – right there in the shadow of that famous Catholic cathedral. The real problem is North Africa. Algeria and Morocco were French colonies, and until 1962 Algeria was actually considered a part of France. No more need be said about the Algerian war for independence – a bad business.

The upshot of all this was Islamic anger at France, to this day. Many Algerian Jews fled to France too – and those Sephardic Jews started to outnumber the Ashkenazi, from central Europe, who had been in France forever. Their enemies followed them. That’s part of what’s playing out now. It’s Algeria again. That and ISIS and all the rest. And don’t forget, the Islamic caliphate long ago reached all the way up to Lyon. El Cid turned them back in Spain. Charles Martel turned them back in France, at Tours. This is about more than the Jews – it always was. And if you want to be mad at someone, be mad at Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1492, the year they sent Columbus off to find what he could over here, they expelled all the Jews from Spain – every single one of them. France never did such a thing, even if the matter is complicated. Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared on Saturday that France was at “war” with radical Islam – and that seems to be what this is about.

Everyone is:

A lawyer for Izzana Hamyd, the wife of Chérif Kouachi, one of the brothers behind the attack at Charlie Hebdo, said she condemned her husband’s actions, AFP reported. Her lawyer, Christian Saint-Palais, said Ms. Hamyd, who had been detained by the police for questioning, had expressed sympathy for the victims. He said she never saw any sign in Mr. Kouachi to suggest that he would commit terrorist acts, and said she was “stupefied” by the action, the news agency said.

Everyone is stupefied, but the New York Times’ editorial board argues that leads to good things:

The solidarity march of more than one million people in Paris on Sunday was rich in placards and symbols but appropriately devoid of speeches. Like many in the vast throng that filled the broad boulevards between Place de la République and Place de la Nation, the world leaders who marched a portion of the route with President François Hollande locked arms and embraced. But there was no podium, no pulpit, only ubiquitous signs reading “Je suis Charlie.” For the moment, that said it all.

Good for them:

There’s much that can and should be discussed as a result of the tragedy – about freedom of the press, about the growing backlash across Europe against Muslim immigrants, about Islamist terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Certainly many of the dozens of national leaders in the Paris march – including the leaders of Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Greece – could have said plenty. Many of their countries have known vicious terrorist attacks in recent years; many are contending with rising anti-immigrant movements. …

But with the horror and fears raised by the attacks still fresh, it was important and proper that the first response in Paris – as elsewhere in France, across Europe and across the Atlantic – was a resounding and united demonstration of outrage and solidarity. Simply by turning out in vast numbers, the marchers eloquently demonstrated a shared conviction that Charlie Hebdo was exercising a right fundamental to democracy, the right of free expression. No perceived provocation, no grievance and certainly no religious conviction justifies killing those who wield only a pen.

As in 1789, talk wasn’t necessary:

Perhaps the greatest danger in the wake of the massacres is that more Europeans will come to the conclusion that all Muslim immigrants on the Continent are carriers of a great and mortal threat. Anti-immigrant sentiments were already at a dangerous level, making it essential for national and pan-European leaders in coming days to underscore that extremism is not inherent to the Muslim faith, and that the Islamists themselves are hardly a single entity.

That point was searingly made by the brother of Ahmed Merabet, a French police officer who was one of the people gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack. “My brother was Muslim,” said Malek Merabet, “and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims.”

That was made clear, but Slate’s Jordan Weissmann worries about France:

This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.” As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian – “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”

So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.

That is difficult, and Weissmann worries about more than France:

Much of the debate following the massacre has focused on the binary question of whether it’s ever acceptable for Americans and Europeans to offend Muslim traditions. Should we defend depictions of Mohammed on free speech grounds? Or should we discourage them altogether? …

But it’s wrong to approach this issue as an either-or question, to blaspheme or not blaspheme. Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms. We need to recognize, as Matt Yglesias argues today, that standing up for magazines like Charlie Hebdo is a “regrettable” necessity, in part because it provides cover for anti-Muslim backlash. “Blasphemous, mocking images cause pain in marginalized communities,” he writes. “The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups.” And the more those groups are mistreated, the more angry radicals we can expect to see.

That does raise questions:

So what should we do? We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it. We have to point out when an “edgy” cartoon is just a crappy Islamophohbic jab. We shouldn’t pretend that every magazine cover with a picture of Mohammed is a second coming of The Satanic Verses.

Making those distinctions isn’t going to placate the sorts of militants who are already apt to tote a machine gun into a magazine office. But it is a way to show good faith to the rest of a marginalized community, to show that free speech isn’t just about mocking their religion. It’s hard to talk about these things today, when so many families, a country, and a profession are rightfully in mourning. But it’s also necessary.

Arthur Chu sees it this way:

I mean, Muslims in France right now aren’t doing so great. The scars of the riots nine years ago are still fresh for many people, Muslims make up 60 to 70 percent of the prison population despite being less than 20 percent of the population overall, and France’s law against “religious symbols in public spaces” is specifically enforced to target Muslim women who choose to wear hijab – ironic considering we’re now touting Charlie Hebdo as a symbol of France’s staunch commitment to civil liberties.

Jonathan Laurence adds this:

When the shock and sadness recede, it will become apparent that despite hashtags to the contrary, not all French “are Charlie Hebdo.” Numerous Catholic and Muslim groups offended by their cartoonists regularly filed lawsuits for incitement of racial or religious hatred against the newspaper – including after they republished the Danish prophet cartoons. Despite the understandable temptation to enter into a clear-cut opposition of “us versus them,” we can only hope that other political leaders will emerge to urge caution and respect while rejecting the murderers with every fiber of their being. It would be an unfortunate irony, and a distortion of these satirists’ legacy, if “politically incorrect” became the new politically correct.

Rod Dreher asks here whether Americans would be so quick to say “je suis” if the victims were from an organization they were more familiar with:

I can’t speak for French sensibilities, obviously, but here in America, it’s easy for us on both the Left and the Right to join the Je Suis Charlie mob, because it costs us exactly nothing. Nobody here knows what Charlie Hebdo stands for; all we know is that its staff was the victims of Islamist mass murder, of the sort with which we are all familiar. We know that this murder strikes at one of the basic freedoms we take for granted: freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. Feelings of solidarity with those murdered souls are natural, and even laudable.

But what makes it kitschy is that we love thinking of ourselves standing in solidarity with the brave journalists against the Islamist killers. When the principle of standing up for free speech might cost us something far, far less than our lives, most of us would fold.

Brian Beutler adds this:

The massacre in Paris has awakened a liberal tendency to valorize all objects of illiberal enmity. If an Islamist kills a westerner for a particular blasphemy, then the blasphemy itself must be embraced. We saw something similar just last month when countless Americans, rightly aggrieved by the extortion of a U.S.-based movie company, became determined to find reason to praise a satirical film they would’ve otherwise panned. This is clearly not always the correct reaction to terrorism or extortion.

Kevin Drum puts it this way:

If an extremist gay rights lunatic murdered a dozen members of the Westboro Baptist Church, would we all start showily plastering “God Hates Fags” on our websites? The question answers itself. There might a few photos showing WBC members sporting the phrase because there’s some news value in making it clear what sparked the attacks, but that would be it.

And then there’s Glenn Greenwald:

This week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show “solidarity” with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. “The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,” announced Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”

Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted, such as the one mocking the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens… but no matter. Their cartoons were noble and should be celebrated – not just on free speech grounds but for their content. In a column entitled “The Blasphemy We Need,” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat argued that “the right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order” and “that kind of blasphemy [that provokes violence] is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait actually proclaimed that “one cannot defend the right [to blaspheme] without defending the practice.” …

It is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights… When we originally discussed publishing this article to make these points, our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim commentary and cartoons are a dime a dozen in western media outlets.

This is more complicated than it seems, although Stephen Carter offers this:

Many news organizations, in reporting on the Paris attacks, have made the decision not to show the cartoons that evidently motivated the attackers. This choice is sensibly prudent – who wants to wind up on a hit list? But from the point of view of the terrorist, it furnishes evidence for the rationality of the action itself. Killing can be a useful weapon if it gets the killer more of what he wants. Terror seeks to raise the price of the policy to which terrorists object. In that sense it’s like a tax on a particular activity. In general, more taxes mean less of the activity. If you don’t want people to smoke, you make smoking more expensive. If you don’t want people to mock the Prophet Muhammad, you kill them for it. The logic is ugly and evil, but it’s still logic. …

The terrorist knows what scares us. He believes he also knows what will break us. Our short-run task is to prove rather than assert him wrong. In the long run, however, the only true means of deterrence is the creation of a new history, in which the terrorist is always tracked to his lair, and never gets what he wants.

If our short-run task is to prove rather than assert him wrong, the massive march in the streets of Paris did that. As for the creation of a new history, in which the terrorist is always tracked to his lair, Obama is working on that – the February meeting is the start of that – but the people finally did have to take to the street, all the people, from everywhere. It finally happened. This was no day to be cynical.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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5 Responses to No Day for Cynics

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    If you wish, my own take on the situation in Paris is in my own blogpost for Jan 10.

  2. Rick says:

    I must admit, I’m a bit confused about this part:

    If our short-run task is to prove rather than assert [the terrorist] wrong, the massive march in the streets of Paris did that.

    It seems to me that all that massive march — along with George Clooney pronouncing “Je Suis Charlie” at the Golden Globes — did was “assert” that the terrorists are wrong, not “prove” it.

    And as much as I was impressed with the March when I saw it on CNN, I did keep wondering whether it was a message aimed at ISIS and those other bad guys back in the Arabian Peninsula — that is, “You think you can scare us? You didn’t! And you can’t!” — or whether it was meant as a reaffirmation of the faith of the good people of France and the civilized world who might need to be reminded that we who stick to our heritage of democratic values and principles and rights, are indeed the good guys — and at the same time, a message to those bigots amongst us who may somehow have mistakenly gotten into their heads the idea that it’s okay to pick on people different from us — even Jews, who have apparently been seen as “legitimate” targets of late — and that extremism is, well, “inappropriate” and “unacceptable”, which are 21st century words used by American school teachers nowadays to let the kids know when they’ve really “misbehaved”.

    And if the march was meant to get the attention of terrorists, I wonder how the terrorists are taking it. Were they all sitting around, watching the march on TV sets in some dark hut somewhere in the Middle East, saying, “Uh oh! Now we’ve really stepped in it! Maybe we should have thought twice before we allowed our guys to do this”? Or maybe they’re laughing, saying, “Ha! Now we’re getting somewhere! Look what a splash we caused this time!”

    Or possibly they’re saying, “Look at all these people, holding their ‘Je Suis Charlie’ signs! If they were really Charlie, they’d all be publishing disgusting cartoons that insult the prophet, but I have a feeling we’ve pretty much put a stop to that!”

    One of the tragedies in all this is, they’d mostly be right.

    If the millions of demonstrators really wanted to “prove” the terrorists lost the battle, rather than just “assert” it, they would publish millions of insulting cartoons, and if possible, make them even more disgusting and insulting than the ones originally published by Charlie Hebdo. And maybe they could even make the point more powerful by not just drawing ugly pictures of Mohammed, but also of Jesus, and some “greedy” Jew (with an outrageously-large nose and have him rub his hands together, I guess) and while we’re at it, Buddhist and Hindu and faggot and cripple and lepper and Polack and Spic and Wop and Chink and — okay, I’m running out of ideas here.

    But of course, we shouldn’t, even though that may be the only real way to make our point, because if our point is to prove we have the right to say insulting things about anybody, even things we don’t even believe, than we’re missing the point. Our real point is we have the right to express what we do believe, and that what we do believe about people is worth believing.

    So am I saying that maybe we just have to concede and let the terrorist win this one?

    Yeah, sort of, but really what I’m saying is that we need to be the way we think we should be, and stop getting into pissing matches with a bunch of crazy imaginary Muslims who follow some nasty nutcase make-believe god that not even their fellow Muslims believe in, but who is apparently trying to tell the rest of us how to live our lives, if we value our lives.

    And yes, I did say “make-believe god”. A real God is not going to be some asshole who instructs his followers to murder people. It just doesn’t work that way.


  3. “The United States was represented by our ambassador, Jane Hartley.”
    Thank you for sharing this detail. Without having her name on hand I cannot even get past sentence one when discussing this situation with some of my entertainment-news friends.
    If we simplify outrage to the most basic level, we must condemn acts of violence in all forms, from intimidation all the way to terrorist acts. The masses need a villain and a hero to rally. Let’s hope the march in Paris offered heroic solidarity united to protect free speech as well as religious freedom because the villain here is fear, a face difficult to identify even with the most sophisticated technology and world-wide attention.

    • kvntodd11 says:

      I agree. I hope these marches lead to real positive change, not just Islamaphobia and more hate. Seeing millions of people of different faiths and different nationalities come together gives me hope that these marches will prove that love and understanding truly are stronger than fear and hate.

      • Aclcla says:

        I agree with the post and with you. Im French, i was on this march and can say we were many people from different faiths, religions, political attention.. but we were together, sing together, walk together..

        Hope this moment will reveal, we can do a lot if we want to work together. Alone we can t.

        Charlie is not only french, charlie is the word fighting against terrorist, everywhere at each moment. We are all concerned by this case. We should learn about what happened and take the right way know how we could leave together, in peace and love.

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