How to respond to Charlie Hebdo?

Twelve people have died in the attack on French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, and the response from many people – from a New Zealand perspective fairly divorced from the immediate impact – is familiar.

We’ve been here before, with violent extremists attacking media organisations for publishing inflammatory cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, though this attack is far more serious. And with the “benefit” of distance, there’s a lot to unpack – about the nature of satire, about the targets of satire, about the freedom of the press, about the right to cause offence – but what worries me is the instinctive reaction many Westerners have to declare “these people died because of these cartoons, ergo these cartoons should be published everywhere!”

It’s especially concerning in the context of this excellent article from Informed Comment, which posits a more complex explanation for the Charlie Hebdo attack – beyond just “they hate our cartoons and attacked us because they hate us”:

This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram).

If we accept this explanation, then the cries to republish the cartoons as widely as possible simply play into the extremists’ hands. Likewise demands for greater government surveillance and further compromises of civil liberties can actually make us less safe by making it a hell of a lot easier for violent extremists – of any persuasion, because there’s nothing unique to Muslim extremists about hating governmental authority – to persuade others that hey, you’re in a fight for your very existence here.

And I just don’t know what the point of republishing the cartoons is. Many journalists have already shown solidarity with the victims at Charlie Hebdo. Many cartoonists have already created their own works in support of the freedom to satirise. Without context – and especially, as I’m seeing in a lot of places, without even a translation of the original French – the cartoons don’t serve as satire, and publishing them seems to simply be “neener neener neener, look at this picture of Muhammad, you can’t stop us” thumb-biting.

As Fredrik deBoer notes, the question of whether we should crack down on violent extremists in defence of the freedom of the press is a “dead moral question”:

Of all the things that you should fear your government will lose the resolve to do, fighting Muslim terrorists should be at the absolute bottom of your list. There is no function that our government has performed more enthusiastically for years.

So any talk about needing to steel our nerves or reinvigorate our efforts against terrorism is frankly a smokescreen.

What really worries me is that none of this is new. We know that aggressive responses just breed more conflict. We know that trying to “bomb them back into the Stone Age” just creates more violent extremists.

In the Informed Comment article above, Juan Cole notes that we have an alternative model to dealing with these kind of acts: the approach taken by Norway against Anders Breivik, which steadfastly denied him the opportunity to become a martyr for his cause.

So why don’t we take it? Why is the first instinct to say let’s arrest them, expel them, and drone-strike their families?

The depressing reality is that in the West, Islam is our generation’s Communism. “Foreign fighters” are our “reds under the bed”. There are many authoritarian people – across the political spectrum – who simply want to increase the reach and repressive power of government (as long as their particular end of the spectrum is in office).

They may paint themselves as moderates, liberals who just really, really love freedom of speech – but you just have to look at the kinds of comments their followers leave and upvote (and no, I’m not linking, but you know exactly what I’m talking about). They know the score, and it isn’t about a careful, thought-through reaction to the acts of a specific, tiny minority of the Muslim population.

It’s only natural to react with abhorrence and disgust at the violent massacre of innocent people. It’s natural to take up the rallying cry of “Je suis Charlie” and march in the streets against acts of terror.

What I fear is that abhorrence being manipulated to justify further erosion of our basic rights and freedoms – the very things George W Bush told us the terrorists hate us for.

Good old-fashioned Kiwi values

[Content warning: contains links to and quotes from violent and anti-Muslim hate speech.]

David Farrar has some … interesting ideas about how to tighten up immigration policy in the wake of the Sydney “siege”.

I think countries such as Australia, and NZ, need to have much more stringent immigration criteria – I don’t mean banning people on the basis of their religion, but asking prospective migrants a detailed set of questions to ascertain if they hold extreme views, and would be happy living in a secular country.

When pushed on exactly how this process would work:

His ideas are obviously silly flamebait designed to feed the residents of his “cleaned up” comments section who enjoy saying things like “I hope that when they shoot the hostage takers they bury them wrapped in a pig skin and fill the hole in with dead dogs and pig shit” and literally threatening to shoot people who downvote their comments.

But he does highlight some interesting aspects of the “values” discussion.

People love to talk about values, left and right. It’s a call to a shared set of ideals which we’re assured are What Built Our Great Community. It’s a signal to display our solidarity against whatever external forces or threats the person talking about them is trying to warn us about.

It’s also a bit of a load of crap.

Take a look at one of the so-called values which David Farrar assures us “95%” of New Zealanders would ascribe to:

The progressive response is an instinctive “lolwut?” followed by joking (wishing) we could apply that “get in line or go home” approach to people we’re stuck with, like Colin Craig or Bob McCoskrie. A more academic response might note that:

… or critique the idea of getting extremists to tick a box saying “I promise I am not an extremist” only works in towns called Christmas.

But I suggest that we take David Farrar at his word and acknowledge that he has a tiny point: the vast majority of people probably would say “yes, I agree men and women should be equal under the law”.

Case closed, right? Voila, values.

Except it’s really, really vague, and that’s the whole point of this kind of values talk. It’s actually totally meaningless; like Bella Swan, it’s an empty vessel for the readers and viewers to pour their own assumptions into.

Anyone will agree with a bland proposition like that. It’s what comes after that divides us.

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – that’s why we must stop women’s scholarships to university!”

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – so we should cut funding to women’s organisations like Rape Crisis!”

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – but we have to remember men and women are very different!”

And there are people out there who honestly do believe that they support “equality” between men and women. It’s just the kind of equality which involves keeping up the sexist traditions of the past which rob women of any real power or agency.

The key thing is this: talk of “values” is the domain of religious zealots and warmongers. The pretence that us “normal” people (white, English-speaking, heterosexual cis men) are united in a “normal” worldview (capitalist, individual, xenophobic) is pushed by the powerful to reinforce their power. In the wake of events like Sydney it’s used to push even more draconian, illiberal laws which only generate more conflict.

David Farrar can dress it up as a reasonable, moderate, proportionate response as much as he likes, but look to his commenters: there’s the true face of “Kiwi values”.

Let slip the dogwhistles of war

In discussions, potential possibility, no commitment, carrying out a scoping mission – the plan to send NZ military forces to Iraq to combat Islamic State is only the vaguest of options at this point. The story was broken by Australian media first, but John Key has wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon, talking up the idea of a joint mission with the Aussies operating under the ANZAC badge.

Yep, in the centenary year of World War One, as he’s on shaky ground over dirty dealings, lying to journalists, granting sweeping new powers to an intelligence service whose political neutrality is compromised, John Key has had the brainwave of flying a (newly-designed) nostalgia flag.

After hearing our Prime Minister refer to the deployment of troops as “symbolic“, given the timing, my reaction was this:

But the political logic seems obvious enough: there’s a good chunk of our national identity in the ANZAC campaign, evoking our rugged go-getting colonial upstart beginnings. And joining the fight against IS isn’t a hard sell, on the face of it, after weeks of news coverage amping them up into the worst threat the world has faced since Saddam Hussein (read as many levels into that as you will.) And of course, they’re just going to be trainers. Not combat troops. They’ll be safe in their little bases running drills for the actual fighters.

The only difficult bit should be balancing the safety concerns with the desire to show some muscle and talk up the “taking the fight to IS” rhetoric.

Yet this isn’t going over easily. We’ve got far too much recent experience of our “trainers” ending up in firefights. Ten Kiwi soldiers have died in Afghanistan, including our first woman to die in a combat role. I don’t think many people really begrudge the idea of sending in reconstruction teams to help a war-torn nation rebuild itself, but we also know, from recent, bloody international experiences, that a warzone is a warzone and there’s no safe little corners where the only threat is someone smashing their thumb with a hammer.

And maybe we – the political nerds, the media, the public – are just a little bored of hearing John Key spin something out of nothing. From the jam-tomorrow promises of budget surpluses to the vaguest of tax cut promises in the election campaign to the “potential possibility” of an ANZAC deployment, even the most die-hard fanboy has to be wondering when we’ll hear the Prime Minister say something concrete.