November 2 marked the seventh anniversary of Theo van Gogh's murder by a pious young Muslim on an Amsterdam street. One of the memorable aspects of that history-making slaughter was the largely despicable way in which the media in the Netherlands and around the world covered it. Many of the accounts of van Gogh's butchering, which was motivated by his short film, Submission, about the plight of women under Islam, hinted – or even stated directly – that van Gogh had been asking for it. He had gone too far. He had insulted Islam and offended Muslims. What, after all, asked one editorial after another, had he expected when he made Submission? He should have known what he was getting into. Freedom of expression was one thing, but giving needless offense to a billion and a half members of a religion? That was just plain over the line. Not sensible. Not prudent. Yes, van Gogh was – in his own country, at least – a famous contrarian, an iconoclast, accustomed to going after sacred cows across the political and cultural spectrum with all the gusto and irreverence he could muster. But to make a film that he had to know would outrage devout Muslims and put him in danger of being killed? Well, that was just stupid. Almost parenthetically, many of the editorialists acknowledged that there was no excuse for the murder. But their hearts weren't in this rote qualification. They were out to condemn not the murderer, but the victim, who, in their eyes, has brought it all on himself.
Cut to November 2, 2011. The Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly, are totally destroyed by a firebombing. The motive seems clear. The magazine's newest issue, in response to the electoral victory of an Islamic party in the Tunisian elections, trains its mockery on Islam. There are cartoons, jokes, parody articles. The premise of the issue, dubbed Sharia Hebdo, is that its guest editor is the Prophet Muhammed himself. Like van Gogh, Charlie Hebdo practices equal-opportunity parody, and over the years has cracked its share of jokes at the expense of Christians, Jews, and pretty much everybody else. But also as in the case of van Gogh, it is apparently Charlie Hebdo's lack of reverence toward Islam that made it a target of violence.
And just as with van Gogh, the bombing of Charlie Hebdo's offices has brought out some of the most cowardly voices in the Western media, once again eager to blame the victim and to preach about the supposed "abuse" of free speech. No, not everyone in the media has taken this line. The major French papers that I've looked at online have stood shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues at Charlie Hebdo in the name of freedom of speech. But other European media have been conspicuously silent. And still others have fulfilled one's lowest expectations. In the Guardian, Pierre Haski managed to blame the firebombing on the alleged fact that Muslims in France “feel discriminated against and unwelcome,” noting that “Claude Guéant, President Sarkozy's minister of interior and right-hand man, even called the growing Muslim population a 'problem' for France.” “Problem,” of course, is putting it very mildly, but it's still not euphemistic enough, apparently, for the Guardianistas. Haski went on to “explain” that If many Muslims in France are, shall we say, a bit too enthusiastic about their religion, it is because that religion “has become a cultural identity, a refuge in a troubled society where they don't feel accepted.” Nor did Haski neglect to drag in the nonsensical contemporary cliché that Muslims, in Europe, are today's Jews – as if European Jews spent the 1930s murdering filmmakers and firebombing magazine offices.
But for first-class dhimmitude in this instance, first prize has to go to Bruce Crumley of Time. In a piece that was described in online reader comments as “abject,” “pathetic,” “loathsome,” “a disgusting, shameful, hypocritical apology,” “the single stupidest thing I've read all year,” “the most asinine article ever posted on TIME,” and “the worst thing I've seen written in a long time,” Crumley, the newsmagazine's Paris editor, started off with his own series of harsh adjectives:
Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren't going to tell “us” what can and can't be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?
Crumley went on to describe the Islam issue of Charlie Hebdo as “coarse and heavy-handed” and as “another stupid and totally unnecessary edition mocking Islam.”
Idiotic, divisive, destructive, petulant, futile, futile again, childish, coarse, heavy-handed, stupid: Crumley is talking about a humor magazine here. And let it be recalled that we live in a time when mainstream humor in the Western world knows virtually no boundaries. The Simpsons has been making jokes about every aspect of American culture for two decades. The Family Guy features a pet dog who has sex with women. South Park has left no target unshot-at (though when it included Muhammed in an episode, Comedy Central's censors stepped in). Sasha Baron Cohen's movies Borat and Brüno are virtually encyclopedic exercises in the ridicule of red-state America, including its religion. At present the South Park guys have a hit show on Broadway, The Book of Mormon, that milks laughs at the expense of Mormonism. On TV roasts, comedians like Gilbert Gottfried and Jeffrey Ross tell Holocaust jokes.
Some of all this stuff is hilarious, some of it isn't funny at all. Every now and then a spokesperson for some religion complains (or, at worst, as in the case of the Scientologists, who got miffed over a South Park episode about them, starts a sinister-sounding “investigation”). But nobody's firebombing anybody over any of this humor, funny or unfunny, however close to the bone it may get – unless the target of the humor is Islam. And nobody's writing articles in major media organs tearing the humorists apart for “creating...division” and “tempting belligerent reaction” – unless, again, the topic is Islam. When The Book of Mormon came out, Time ran an affectionate profile of the creators and noted without any apparent concern that “the show makes mild fun of the wackier elements of the Mormon creation story.” One eagerly awaits a reference in Time to the “wackier elements” of Muslim theology.
Crumley was candid about his inability “to have much sympathy” for the people at Charlie Hebdo – fellow journalists, mind you, whose offices had been destroyed and who would almost certainly have ended up dead if they'd been there at the time. “Predictably,” Crumley wrote, “the strike unleashed a torrent of unqualified condemnation from French politicians, many of whom called the burning of the notoriously impertinent paper as [sic] 'an attack on democracy by its enemies.'” Crumley rejected this reading of the situation, in a paragraph that I hope he will one day smarten up enough to be embarrassed to have written:
We, by contrast [Crumley is apparently using the royal “we” here, unless he has been given permission to speak for everybody at Time], have another reaction to the firebombing: Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there's no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition. But do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of “because we can” was so worthwhile? If so, good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring.
Crumley suggested that the firebombing was just “the kind of angry response – albeit in less destructive form – Charlie Hebdo was after in the first place. What was the point otherwise?”
Crumley was quick to point out that this wasn't Charlie Hebdo's first anti-Muslim offense. In 2007 it reprinted the Danish Muhammed cartoons. Crumley makes it clear he's not crazy about those cartoons either, for they, too, were “intended” to “produc[e] outrage.” He rejects the claim that the cartoons were an effort to stand up for free speech, for “that right no longer needs to be proved” – even though a couple of sentences later he acknowledges that Charlie Hebdo was taken to court for running the cartoons, hardly an example of a society in which the right to freedom of speech is as securely established as Crumley would suggest. Crumley described Charlie Hebdo as exacerbating “very real Islamophobic attitudes spreading throughout” French society, attitudes that have left Muslims “feeling stigmatized and singled out for discriminatory treatment.”
There ensued the obligatory couple of sentences in which the author grudgingly admits that “intimidation and violence must be condemned and combated for whatever reason they're committed.” But it was followed hard upon by the now all too familiar insistence that “members of...free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility and decency in practicing their rights and liberties.” Crumley elaborated:
Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn't bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response—however illegitimate—is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it's pointlessly all about you.
In his final paragraph Crumley spelled out the point he'd essentially been making all along: that the Islam issue of Charlie Hebdo is morally equivalent to the firebombing of the magazine's offices:
So, yeah, the violence inflicted upon Charlie Hebdo was outrageous, unacceptable, condemnable, and illegal. But apart from the “illegal” bit, Charlie Hebdo's current edition is all of the above, too.
The title of Crumley's piece was “Firebombed French Paper Is No Free-Speech Martyr.” But that wasn't its original title. As the URL indicates, it was originally entitled “Firebombed French Paper a Victim of Islamists or Its Own Obnoxious Islamophobia?” – an explicit affirmation that, in the view of Bruce Crumley, Charlie Hebdo, indeed, had it coming, as (presumably) does anyone who dares to joke about the religion of peace.
Reading Crumley's quite fantastical screed, I was reminded of something that British comedian Rowan Atkinson (“Mr. Bean”) wrote in a letter to the London Times ten years ago, in response to proposed British laws against inciting religious hatred. "Having spent a substantial part of my career parodying religious figures from my own Christian background,” Atkinson wrote, “I am aghast at the notion that it could, in effect, be made illegal to imply ridicule of a religion or to lampoon religious figures.” If you tell a bad joke, Atkinson went on, "you should be ridiculed and reviled. [But] the idea that you could be prosecuted for [it] is quite fantastic." Let alone, one might add, firebombed.
The heartening thing about Crumley's article is that it occasioned dozens of readers comments which made it clear that sanity and courage do still exist in some parts of the Western world, if not at Time.
* “Either freedom of speech covers unpopular, outrageous speech or it is nothing.”
* “If the KKK had firebombed a magazine that lampooned Southern racists, would that be the fault of the impudent magazine writers?”
* “Let me get this right--whenever I take offense at a newspaper, magazine, radio or television program, etc. etc.--I now have carte blanche to firebomb their headquarters? Does the writer then agree that Comedy Central has something coming to it due to South Park? Jon Stewart? HBO and Bill Maher? Come to think of it, Time magazine has been quite annoying lately. Hmmm. . . . .”
* “Why don't you publish an editorial about how women who wear short skirts are asking for rape while you're at it?”
* “Free speech means free speech. Period. You don't get to be the arbiter of who is speaking acceptably and who isn't. Who the hell are you?”
* “Mr Crumley very clearly holds Muslims to a lower standard than virtually every other group of people on earth – had this been about a Christian extremist group burning some parody magazine's offices for drawing Jesus, we all know that this article would not have been written....He is, in effect, saying something like 'we can't expect these barbarians to behave like rational people, and should curtail freedoms that are the basis of our nation out of fear of setting them off.'”
* “I get it. We can have freedom of expression as long as we do not exercise it.”
* “Let me get this straight. You can ridicule and stigmatize whoever you want except those who will react violently? Aren't you just giving license to these kinds of reactions and legitimizing them?”
Apropos of Crumley's insistence that “members of...free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility and decency in practicing their rights and liberties,” one reader asked, quite reasonably:
And if they don't[,] what? They deserve violence? The government should shut them down and impose these speech codes on them? Both of these?
Be clear, state what you're trying so hard not to say. Make your call for either fascist government control of speech, or violence as discourse...or try to explain why you're making both these claims and backing off them multiple times in this article.
The problem with Crumley's piece, of course, is that he is not just some isolated jerk. There is a reason why somebody like him has secured a position as Paris editor for a world-famous newsweekly (even if it is one, as many readers pointed out, that in recent years has lost most of its luster as well as most of its subscribers). Crumley has a job with Time because he's drunk the cultural-elite Kool-Aid and is dutifully spitting it back out in our faces. He's embraced the post-9/11 Western establishment dogma about Islam and freedom of expression and has made it thoroughly clear that he is not prepared to breathe a single unorthodox word. What he is serving up in his disgraceful article – which is utterly, breathtakingly bereft of even the slightest understanding of the West's Enlightenment heritage or of his own obligation, as citizen and writer and responsible adult, to defend that heritage – is nothing less than a perfect example of pure, unadulterated appeasement, a readiness to place limits on the very freedom of speech that allows him to spew his nonsense in order to placate a very specific minority who are prepared to respond to certain exercises of free speech with violence and mayhem. It is, alas, no surprise, in 2011, to see such moral bankruptcy on display in a publication like Time, but to continue to come across articles like this year after year, when it is so increasingly obvious where all of this cravenness and cowardice is leading us, is still deeply depressing.
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