Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 18, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Val and Nicholas Sarkozy

Filed under: Charlie Hebdo — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Philippe Val

This is a follow-up to my post on “Representing Mohammad” in which I stressed the importance of Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in 2006. My focus in that article was on the role of Denmark’s elite in supporting Bush’s war in Iraq and opening up a xenophobic attack on immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East seeking political asylum. In this post I want to take a close look at how Charlie Hebdo (CH) decided to align itself with elements of the French political class who were moving in the same direction. This requires putting a spotlight on the magazine’s editor Philippe Val and on Nicholas Sarkozy who was making a bid to replace Jacques Chirac as France’s President.

It is worth pointing out that Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) received the same sort of response from the left that CH is receiving today. For example, in a CounterPunch article dated May 6, 2008, Trish Schuh, a co-founder of Military Families Support Network and a member of Military Reporters & Editors covering the Middle East, wrote:

As a free speech crusader, Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s editor behind the Muhammad cartoons (and ally/author of a Daniel Pipes profile “The Threat from Islam”), had earlier refused to publish denigrating cartoons of Jesus, fearing it would “offend readers.” Jylland-Posten also rescinded sponsorship of a Holocaust cartoon contest for the same reason. Kurt Westergaard, Jylland-Posten’s ‘Muhammad bomb’ illustrator even transcribed a Koranic verse onto Muhammad’s turban to reinforce his message. Westergaard later admitted to The Herald of Glasgow, Scotland that “terrorism” which he said got “spiritual ammunition” from Islam was the inspiration for that message.

If propaganda is a weapon of war, Islam is under carpet bombing. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels described the methods, which define those used today: “Concentrating the fire of all the media on one particular point- a single theme, a single enemy, a single idea- the campaign uses this concentration of all media, but progressively…”

Rings a bell, doesn’t it?

What confuses so many, however, is CH’s long association with the left. The aging artists and writers who were gunned down have been widely portrayed as soixante-huitards, or veterans of the 1968 May-June events in France. I have noticed defenses of CH pointing out that its editor Charb illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s “Marx mode d’emploi”. Bensaid was a member of the French Trotskyist movement who along with Alain Krivine became part of the far left contingent hoping to go “all the way” against capitalism. Meanwhile, on MRZine you can find an article pointing out that Georges Wolinski, one of the murdered cartoonists, supplied artwork for a postcard that was to be used in a campaign to free the Cubans imprisoned in the USA for their role in keeping track of counter-revolutionary terrorists. So how can a magazine that has people like Charb and Wolinski working for it be considered the enemy?

Part of the problem, of course, is that too much of the left thinks in terms of black-and-white, good-and-evil, and friend-and-enemy. In reality, individuals and institutions can be both black and white. That is the whole point of dialectics, after all. In formal logic, you deal with static abstractions but in dialectics you are dealing with change. Heraclitus put it succinctly: the only thing that is permanent is change. Trotsky found another way to express this:

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.

I would argue that Charlie Hebdo could be very well summed up as an exercise in “contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc.”, especially when you take a look at what was going on in 2007 when the Grand Mosque of Paris began criminal proceedings CH editor Philippe Val for publishing the Danish cartoons among other offenses.

President Chirac appeared to side with the Grand Mosque at the time, describing CH’s action as provocative. Before jumping to the conclusion that Chirac was soft on Islam, you have to remember that his administration pushed through the law that banned the headscarf in state-controlled spaces such as public schools. Even though the law would ban the Sikh turban and Jewish skullcap as well, most people understood that the real target was Muslim women. While Bensaid’s party, the NPA, opposed the ban, a vocal minority in the group supported it so stridently that a prominent hijab-wearing NPA candidate resigned.

Unlike Chirac or the NPA, Nicholas Sarkozy was totally hostile to Muslims. Interior Minister under Chirac, he wrote a letter on behalf of Val that was read in court: “I am eager to lend my support to your newspaper, which belongs to an old French tradition, that of satire.”

In 2008 Val showed his gratitude to Sarkozy, whose letter could very well have tilted the scales in favor of his acquittal after his son Jean was involved in a traffic accident that might have led to criminal charges if he had been a kid from the banlieues rather than the President’s son. It seems that Jean had run into a car with his scooter, leaving a dent that in itself is no big deal. But when he drove off before the cops arrived, he might have ended up in hot water.

CH cartoonist Siné couldn’t resist making a joke at Jean Sarkozy’s expense. In a column accompanied by his cartoon, he wrote:

“Jean Sarkozy, worthy son of his father and already a UMP councillor, emerged almost to applause after his court case for not stopping after an accident on his scooter.

“The prosecutor even asked for him to be cleared. You have to remember that the plaintiff was an Arab. And that’s not all. He has just said that he wants to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancé, who is Jewish, and heir of the founders of Darty. He will go far in life, this boy!”

Sarkozy somehow lost his sense of humor when this item appeared. When he threatened to sue CH, Val had a change of heart. He called Siné anti-Semitic and demanded the kind of self-criticism that all of France’s Muslims are being asked to make today. Siné said, “I would rather cut off my balls.”

In keeping with the contradictory character of CH Siné was no Marxist saint. In an August 3rd, 2008 Observer article, he is quoted: “Yes, I am anti-Semitic and I am not scared to admit it. . . I want all Jews to live in fear, unless they are pro-Palestinian. Let them die.” After this outburst, he apologized.

In a letter to Le Monde, some major players in the holocaust industry demanded Siné’s firing, among them Elie Wiesel and Bernard-Henri Levy. Levy offered these thoughts: “Behind these words, a French ear is unable not to hear the echo of the most rancid anti-Semitism.” In a way, the 20 co-authors of the letter were trying to break down an open door since Val was clearly disposed to their way of thinking as reflected in an interview he gave to L’Express on October 22, 2008:

Q: Can we, amid the conflict, be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic?

A: It is impossible. Israel is a democracy and Zionism is the expression shared by the right and left, the Israeli patriotism. “Zionist” is the word for patriot. There are only Jews being denied the right to patriotism. One can legitimately say opposed the Israeli government policy, but say anti-Zionist is to say anti-Jewish.

Val also scoffed at “trendy” anti-colonial movements that enlisted NPA leader Besancenot among others on their behalf. Once upon a time it was noble to be against colonialism but for many it was just a way to get the kind of kicks that the WWII Resistance once provided: “But ten years after the Second World War, for part of the left that missed the rendezvous with the Resistance, the anti-colonial enthusiasm was much appreciated. The Algeria, it was a comfortable catch-up session: easier to fight against the French state as colonizer then the Germans … For some, there is a desire to take on their own or, as in Genet or Vergès, to hate France.”

It would also seem that Sarkozy and Val were united on domestic issues as well as foreign policy based on their response to the banlieue uprising as The Australian reported on November 7, 2005.

On Friday night alone, almost 900 cars were torched, mostly in poor immigrant suburbs. Hundreds more struggling residents of la banlieue — or the suburbs — lost their means of transportation at the weekend. At least 3000 cars have been incinerated since October 27, and late last week copycat attacks spread across France to Normandy, Lille, Marseilles and Dijon.

The clashes sparked 10 days ago by the accidental death of two teenage boys — who were electrocuted after taking refuge in a substation, believing police were chasing them — in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois have paralysed the country.

Arsonists came closer to the centre of Paris on Saturday, striking at neighbourhoods such as Pantin and Montreuil, which are on the metro line. The heart of Paris was hit yesterday, when Place de la Republique, 10 minutes’ walk from Notre Dame cathedral, was closed after the burning of four cars.

“This is like (the protests) of May 1968 — except it is the inverse,” said Philippe Val, the publisher of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

A book published by Institut PANOS in Paris titled “Media and Cultural Diversity in Europe and North America” was much more direct in its characterization of Val’s views. According to its researchers, he described them as nothing more than “anti-Semitic mobs”.

Sarkozy must have really appreciated Philippe Val’s efforts on his behalf since he put him in charge of French Public Radio after he resigned from Charlie Hebdo. If such a character can be regarded as “radical”, then I would have to paraphrase Marx and say that I am no radical.

About the best thing you can say about Charlie Hebdo is that it was a contradictory phenomenon. It was a voice of the left and the right at the same time. All through the history of our movement, socialism has had tensions within its ranks over the same sorts of issues. In Marx’s time, the people in the USA who were building a movement in his name had all sorts of problems. At the NYC branch of the American section of the First International, a San Francisco worker addressed his comrades:

The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.

All we can do in such circumstances is to remain vigilant and never forget the basis upon which our movement was built, namely to unite the working class across ethnic, racial and religious divides to face and defeat a common enemy. We can hardly expect cartoonists with only a fleeting commitment to Marxism to hold up their end of the bargain but let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard.


January 16, 2015

Voltaire versus Mohammad

Filed under: Charlie Hebdo,Islamophobia — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

One of the things heard frequently in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack was Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, a precept that seems consistent with the Enlightenment even if the words were written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 “Friends of Voltaire”.

Not long after Voltaire’s name began to be bandied about, some people began to point out that this exemplar of Western Civilization might not be as enlightened as he was cracked up to be, especially when it came to the Jews. Blogger Scott Long was one of them:

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’Infâme! But what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

In doing some further research on Voltaire, starting with the indispensible Wikipedia, I learned that he more than anticipates much that is being said about Muslims today. Nearly three centuries ago he said the same sort of thing that you can hear on Fox News on the right and Bill Maher on the “left”.

In 1736 Voltaire wrote a play titled “Mahomet” that oozes Islamophobia. After reading it online, I feel as if I have been locked in a room for three hours and forced to listen to Bill O’Reilly out of my right ear and Richard Dawkins out of my left.

It is a strange play with Oedipal overtones. The four main characters are Mohammad (spelled Mahomet), his mortal enemy Zopir, the sheikh of Mecca, and a young man and woman named Seid and Palmira, who are Mohammad’s slaves. Unbeknownst to each other, Seid and Palmira are brother and sister and the long lost children of Zopir. Since they have the hots for each other, the shadow of incest hangs over them.

Mohammad covets Mecca, a city-state that he plans to conquer. He also covets Palmira, who he wants to conquer in bed. To kill two birds with one stone, he riles up Seid with a bunch of radical Islamic rhetoric in order to motivate him to go on a suicide mission to kill Zopir. With Zopir out of the way, Mecca like Palmira will below-hanging fruit ripe for the taking. Of course, none of this happened in history but why let that stand in the way?

You only get one act of the play reproduced on Google Books but it does contain the letters Voltaire wrote to Frederick the Great and Pope Benedict XIV, two shining lights of the Enlightenment. Frederick the Great was totally into the whole Enlightenment thing even though he made an exception for the Poles as Wikipedia reports: He passionately hated everything associated with Poland, while justifying his hatred with ideas of Enlightenment. He described Poles as “slovenly Polish trash”. As far as I know, he did not employ a court artist to put his ideas about the Poles into a pictorial form.

Pope Benedict XIV appeared to be a pretty enlightened soul as well, devoted to science and the arts. To his credit, he issued a Papal bull against the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas but somehow left Africans out of the equation. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Voltaire advised Frederick the Great: “Why may we not go back to the histories of those ancient ruffians, the illustrious founders of superstition and fanaticism, who first carried the sword to the altar to sacrifice all those who refused to embrace their doctrines?”

In his letter to the Pope Voltaire seems to have forgotten what Diderot, his Enlightenment co-thinker, once said or at least was attributed to have said: “The world will never truly be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Nothing about entrails in this 1747 letter to his Holiness:

Most blessed Father—

Your holiness will pardon the liberty taken by one of the lowest of the faithful, though a zealous admirer of virtue, of submitting to the head of the true religion this performance, written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect. To whom could I with more propriety inscribe a satire on the cruelty and errors of a false prophet, than to the vicar and representative of a God of truth and mercy? Your holiness will therefore give me leave to lay at your feet both the piece and the author of it, and humbly to request your protection of the one, and your benediction upon the other; in hopes of which, with the profoundest reverence, I kiss your sacred feet.

Despite this business about feet kissing, some scholars view “Mahomet” as really targeting the Church. In other words, he like Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender even if you sort of had to squint to see the message.

Probably inspired by the 2005 publication of the Jyllands-Posten Mohammad cartoons, some freethinking souls decided to mount a production of “Mahomet” in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, France. The socialist mayor resisted local Muslim objections and allowed the show to go on as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported:

The production quickly stirred up passions that echoed the cartoon uproar. “This play … constitutes an insult to the entire Muslim community,” said a letter to the mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, signed by Said Akhrouf, a French-born cafe owner of Moroccan descent and three other Islamic activists representing Muslim associations. They demanded the performance be cancelled.

Instead, Mayor Hubert Bertrand called in police reinforcements to protect the theater. On the night of the December reading, a small riot broke out involving several dozen people and youths who set fire to a car and garbage cans. It was “the most excitement we’ve ever had down here,” says the socialist mayor.

Yes, just what the French need, some excitement to accompany the excitement going on in Iraq at the time.

I imagine that local residents of the sort that would be demanding French Muslims to disavow the terrorist attack and to get with the program might have stood on their feet and given the play a standing ovation. Where else could you find a character like Mahomet who was just as violent and totalitarian on stage as he was in the Danish cartoon that showed him with a bomb in his turban? Voltaire put these words in his mouth in Act V with a clear intention to turn him into demon:

Beneath a nobler yoke I mean to bend
The prostrate world, and change their feeble laws,
Abolish their false worship, pull down
Their powerless go., and on my purer faith
Found universal empire: say not Zopir,
That whom betrays his country, no:
I mean but to destroy its weak supports,
And banishing idolatry, unite it
Beneath one king, one prophet, and one God:
! shall subdue it but to make it glorious.

At least one Frenchman saw through this Islamophobic bullshit. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte and this is what he thought, according to a biographer:

Mahomet was the subject of deep criticism. “Voltaire,” said the Emperor, “in the character and conduct of his hero, has departed both from nature and history. He has degraded Mahomet, by making him descend to the lowest intrigues. He has represented a great man, who changed the face of the world, acting like a scoundrel, worthy of the gallows. He has no less absurdly travestied the character of Omar, which he has drawn like that of a cut-throat in a melodrama.”

Too bad we don’t have any bourgeois politicians today with Napoleon’s guts.

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