Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Yankee Capitalist Pig-Dogs

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Voltaire’s “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” is certainly a prescient quote following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, insofar as the principle of free speech is necessary to run a free society. It is also a liberal conceit, insofar as the main social utility of free speech is critique of the government in service to creating better governance.

The American concept of free speech is conflated from that to everything, as American society is predicated on perhaps the most pure form of pluralism possible: A people united on the principles of ideology rather than race or creed. The grand experiment has largely been on whether such a thing can exist while inculcating so many disparate peoples, and the answer thus far has been a resounding affirmation.

It also means America is a system of strange dualities: A secular but not secularist nation, one that struggles with not only counter-cultures within its dominant society but also many parallel moieties to that society. Du Bois spoke of bridging those parallels, for instance of being both Black and American, and the difficulty of reconciling those realities to the point where society’s warring ideals are played out within each individual. In comparison, France, a unified culture and nation, is having issues coming to terms with its five million Muslim immigrants: It is feeling a cultural crisis much deeper than America, or at the very least is beginning to go through the issues America dealt with over a century ago and is further along in.

It’s this purview that makes the attack on Charlie Hebdo draw questions as to the muddy nature of such a system. To criticize the paper’s cheap and provocative lampoons of a beleaguered minority is to embolden further attacks on liberal society, but to solely criticize the attackers is to elevate such lampoons as trenchant critiques of a truly hostile otherness when it’s the very concept of otherness that’s the problem.

The closest American parallel to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists would probably be puppeteer Jeff Dunham, whose broad-strokes caricatures (which include Ahmed the Dead Terrorist and Sweet Daddy Dee, a black pimp) have been criticized as being racially insensitive to the point of modern blackface, and who in response to such charges argued that he lampoons “everybody equally.” However, his other characters such a Bubba J, an alcoholic redneck, and Walter, a bigoted grandpa, didn’t address the charges that he is, in effect, “punching down;” choosing easy, acceptable targets marked primarily by the fact that his audiences don’t look like them. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, he largely lost his soapbox, and his TV show was cancelled due to lack of viewership.

His is an “us versus them” humor, and similarly, Charlie Hebdo also fostered something of an “us versus them” attitude, despite also going after such targets as the right-wing political party Front National. Indeed, one of the primary responses to the attacks is a reinvigoration of the criticism of conservative Islam and the rejection that such is racist or bigoted. Le Pen of the FN will, ironically, be quick to benefit from the attack, as well as those of the American right in what they see as something of a clash of civilizations in the vein of Samuel Huntington’s right-wing screed. George Bush’s “crusade” remark echoes in the distance.

It would appear that there is something of an unexplored or at least unspoken undercurrent in the liberal critique of Islam that is separate from the critique of Christianity or other religions, where Islam is bad not because it’s Christianity without the Enlightenment, but that Islam is bad because it’s foreign. Such prejudice rears its ugly head against secularists from Muslim countries as well as the millions of Muslims living without issue in western nations.

By contrast, New York is still likely the best example of “attracting flies with honey” with concern about such societal differences and the question of assimilation, especially when compared with Paris’ aggressive secularist policies. As far as religion goes, New York has effectively achieved the impossible: Muslims, Jews and Christians live in harmony without major issue, and while some racialist police programs have been the point of much criticism, the immigrant experience has largely been one of commonality, which has indeed fostered and promoted a general trend over the generations towards religion moderation.

This may, however, be because America can be argued as before as having a more fundamental pluralism than France’s singular nation/culture. New York is a cultural battleground; a melting pot within which great globules of otherness stew for long periods of time, slowly infusing the rest of the concoction with their unique flavor. While those bits and bobs never fully boil away, it is the boiling that defines the city and through it the country. The point, perhaps, is not full assimilation, for there is no “home culture” to assimilate to – we don’t even have a national language, on principle – and as such the act of being made welcome and lowering one’s guard – to moderate – is much easier and fluid.

There’s a joke by Irish comic Dylan Moran about the uniquely American brand of imperialism, where you have two members of the world’s oppressed underclass sitting in a bombed-out cafe devising means to destroy the Yankee capitalist pig-dogs, when ever so slowly a Starbucks gets built around them, and suddenly they’re Americans!

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