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.
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.