No longer Charlie

Je ne suis plus Charlie

Neither my wife Rae nor I enjoyed the Southern banquet we attended in Durham, North Carolina. Right from the start the tone was didactic. We were the only guests and our hosts were determined to teach us culturally ignorant Australians about their superior way of life.

Our hosts’ hospitality consisted not in the warmth of their welcome but in the extravagance of food and drink. The display of wealth was meant to indicate how worthy the hosts were: wealth had come to them because they were good people.

Our conversation turned to those who were not beneficiaries of wealth. Poor people, our hosts asserted, were poor because they did not have the right qualities to attract wealth. They weren’t good enough. In particular they recalled the black Americans of their youth on their plantation, who were poor, lazy and dependent on the benevolence of the hosts’ family. They used the word “Negro” for black Americans.

I’ve been taught that it is rude to contradict one’s host, so I countered this terrifying statement with my recollection of aboriginal families who lived on our farm and the ambiguity of their situation. I tried to emphasise the cultural similarities, not the economic differences between black and white in each country.

As we drove home, Rae and I decided that the whole meal was a lesson in white superiority. We also thought that our hosts would be surprised that we thought this. They were blind to their prejudices. Husband and wife both were highly educated and both happened to be Episcopal clergy.

We saw this blind white superiority quite often in our two years living in the South. A fellow student, an Australian, got a holiday job in the construction industry. He was telling a group of students about working on the roofs of new houses. The white American students were aghast. “You didn’t go on the roof? White people don’t go on the roof.” We queried, “You mean you leave that for black Americans?” “Well, yes,” they said. When we pushed them, they said this colour difference was because they perceived working on the roof as more dangerous.

In his extraordinary speech on race, Barack Obama spoke of America’s “original sin” of slavery. Despite every American’s best intentions, this historical fact worms it way into contemporary life, making Americans appear both racist and hypocritical.

Not that Australians can boast. If America’s original sin is slavery, ours is dispossession. We Europeans declared the country void of human occupation and took it over for ourselves. Our leaders still use the language of terra nullius. Last November our Prime Minister told an international audience that before British invasion Australia was “nothing but bush”.

Outsiders see the apparently systemic disadvantage of Aboriginal people and wonder at the inability of ordinary Australians to see the disconnect between white attitudes and Aboriginal poverty, and our unwillingness to trace the causes back to that original act of dispossession.

Modern Western democracies have blind spots. Going back beyond the war in Algeria to its colonising of North Africa, France’s blind spot is the Maghreb: for the French, the “Arab” from Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria is the “Other”. French people have historically seen themselves as superior to those they deride as less cultured and sophisticated than they are. In particular, the North Africans are seen as inferior because they allowed themselves to be exploited. Add into this snobbery the French disdain for the pieds-noirs, the immigrants of French ancestry who lived in Algeria at the time of the Algerian war and who used their citizenship rights to return to France after the war. Many French-people blamed them for the disastrous war.

My friend and Third Order colleague Susan Pitchford drew my attention to an article by Thomas Chatterton Williams about the experiences of James Baldwin in Paris. Baldwin noted that absolute assurance of the French of the rightness of their approach to law and culture, and their “French-Algerian complexity” which enables them to denigrate anything from North Africa, and by extension, anything Muslim or Arab.

Baldwin in Paris

Charlie Hebdo is a magazine in a particular satirical tradition in France. Its design is to offend, on the principle that Emperors without clothes should be mocked. It trumpets the philosophy of liberté, freedom of expression, giving it licence to mock – in theory – any group in French society. I agree with the statement it its web-page: “Le crayon sera toujours au-dessus de la barbarie” – “The pencil will always be above barbarity”. But note: the French government censored Charlie’s recent attack on Jews. It is not good form to be anti-Semitic; however, Charlie Hebdo has used its freedom to offend Muslims, as a way of offending North Africans, with great frequency.


Obviously – at least, it is glaringly obvious to me – the response to being offended by religious cartoons is not to shoot ten people. If people use offensive language about Christ, I refuse to laugh; I may object in words; and I may discontinue my association with the offender. Violence is not appropriate. That is why I initially proclaimed “Je suis Charlie”: like millions of others, I wanted to be in solidarity with those murdered and their families.


But I now withdraw that solidarity. “Je ne suis plus Charlie”. I now want to stand with the friends of the Prophet, who continue to be offended by the imagery of their founder. Charlie Hebdo can go on publishing and drawing its contemptible pictures, but I now want nothing further to do with it.

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

6 thoughts on “No longer Charlie”

  1. Thanks, Ted, you put words to my initial ambiguity over the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag. I used “Je suis Charlie et Ahmed” in an attempt to acknowledge the pain of Muslim communities and to counter the inevitable polarisation that such incidents incur. I think your piece highlights even more complex subtleties and illustrate Eugene Peterson’s pastoral ministry of “nay-saying” in response to poularised bandwagons.

  2. Great post, Ted. One of the most succinct statements of what I’ve been feeling so far is this: Satire is properly aimed at the powerful, not the vulnerable. That helps me understand why I initially wanted to identify with Charlie Hebdo (satire serves an important social function), but quickly came to feel that this version, while legal, was both wrong and stupid.

    A student wrote to me today to tell me how, since this happened, she has faced the consequences every day as she rides the bus to and from school. Here, in “progressive” Seattle. My heart aches for her & for everyone who has to carry that burden every day.

  3. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you are simply ignorant of the actual meaning of “terra nullius” – it does not suggest land is unoccupied, rather that there is a want of recognisable legal ownership. Compare the concept of res nullius. However, i think you must be being disingenuous when you so crudely misrepresent what PM Abbott actually said. He was specifically comparing modern Sydney’s skyline with the lack of infrastructure apparent upon the arrival of the First Fleet, though current overblown romanticisation of pre-colonial Aboriginal society probably imagines it was otherwise. Like you, I’m on a spiritual quest, but feel abandoned by the Church to which we both seemingly belong but now resembles something more akin to a left of centre political party than a source of spiritual enlightenment. The archetypal Green/Left views apparent in many of your musings reinforce this sorry conclusion. Alan Blackwood, a man who didn’t share your views, would be turning in his grave.

    1. Dear fellow Old Boy,
      Thank you for taking my writing seriously and engaging with what I have written, and for taking the time to disagree. The internet has a habit of smoothing out differences and it’s refreshing to find a serious opponent.

      I am aware that “terra nullius” means “land belonging to no-one”. I was bemoaning the fact that Mr Abbott – and many Australians – seem unable to recognise the extent to which even the landscape had been inscribed by Aboriginal culture, well before the arrival of Europeans. A “lack of infrastructure” may only have been apparent to European eyes, when the effects of fire-stick farming were clearly visible across the continent. I don’t think this is overblown romanticism, although I agree with you that they can be exaggerated. No culture has produced technology like that of our Western culture, and that leaves Aboriginal culture in the shade.

      Whether this is all to the good spiritually, I’m not so sure. The latest iPhone can be seductive. My spiritual quest leads me away from over-valuing these material benefits.

      My politics are to the left. I certainly do not impose my views on others. I understand the research that shows Anglican clergy generally to be more to the left than laity, and I respect the different contexts that have formed us. But in my blogs I claim a space to work through my personal views; views that I would not take into the pulpit if I had one these days!

      Our Anglican church in the West, it seems to me, is quite split politically. But a lot of the life has drained out of the First World church. The vibrant churches of Africa, South America and Asia are much more to the right, conservative politically and socially.

      I am not sure what Alan Blackwood would make of all this. He was a great colleague, but I would not claim him as a friend or a fellow-traveller. He was sometimes forthright in criticising me, and I appreciated that. I respected him and what he had done for the school – and for Australia too. But he knew my “left-wing” views, and he knew I would only express them in the school context if my conscience demanded it. I think he respected that.

  4. I appreciate the openness of your response.

    I stumbled across your blog while under the black cloud induced annually by the deeply ignorant and frequently offensive commentary which invariably now heralds Australia Day. On this occasion, it was some of your writings which provided the straw to break this sorry camel’s back.

    Like Alan Blackwood, I too respect thoughtful, measured difference. You cannot, however, claim to be aware of the actual meaning of terra nullius and yet state “We Europeans declared the country void of human occupation”. The contemporary documents also give lie to this oft repeated fiction.

    As to Aboriginal inscription on the landscape I observe that the environmental effects of fire-stick farming were well described in the 19th century and, I think, are now widely recognised. Given his obviously sincere interest in and concern for the Aboriginal community, I’d be amazed if the former PM was unaware of these. However, I think it requires a quantum leap to imagine them as “infrastructure”. The irony to me is that, though the “progressive” narrative is that Europeans have deforested and caused extinction and that Aborigines have lately been re-imagined as proto hippy eco-warriors, scholarship reveals that the continent is now more heavily treed than in 1788. Likewise fire-stick farming, traditional hunting etc. is implicated in the sorry extinction of Australia’s unique mega-fauna, as well as more recent losses such as the Thylacine from the mainland. The latter consequence of aboriginal settlement/invasion of Australia echoes the loss of equivalent species in North America. All very politically incorrect, no doubt, but seemingly an inconvenient truth.

    I think it facile to be dismissive of Western technological achievement when it is so evidently critical to our quality of life. I too enjoy, whenever possible, the healing properties of being “down south”. From time to time its beauty has lent an intimation of the Divine. However, I don’t delude myself for a moment that my enjoyment is not underpinned by the safety net of Western infrastructure, to which I’m secured by one of those maligned iPhones (truthfully, a very dumb Samsung, but you will appreciate the point). I frequently discern an inverse relationship between the level of material comfort enjoyed and the vociferousness of its detractors. That said, and being wary of opening a new front for discussion, I would add that it seems that what is even more fundamental to the quality of life in modern Australia is not technology. Rather, it is the institutions of a bi-cameral parliamentary democracy, the rule of law etc – all prizes largely bled for and won pre 1788 and on another island. The widespread failure to recognise this or, alternatively, to disparage its significance, reeks of being one of the multitudinous examples of reverse racism so prevalent in recent times.

    Unfortunately, I’m in complete agreement with your assessment of the contemporary Western Anglican/Episcopal Church – it’s what keeps me out of the pews every time I feel drawn to reconnect, which is surprisingly often – my faith is remarkably resilient considering the lack of affirming fellowship which might otherwise be afforded by a congregation.

    Best wishes to you in managing chronic pain, and congratulations upon your discerning choice of school, university college and preferred part of WA.

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