Friday, 16 January 2015

The sentiments of our time

This is a film blog but I will make an exception today and say a few things about something unrelated to film, and instead related to last week's terror in Paris. It was not the first, nor the last, nor the worst terror attack we have seen, and in terms of people killed it pales in comparison to recent massacres perpetrated by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Talibans in Pakistan, among others. But as it was a direct attack on writers and illustrators, on people such as myself, and in Paris too, a place to which I have always felt unusually close, I wanted to say something. And it is this:

A number of racists and assorted nitwits have, inevitably, said "This is the true face of Islam, this is how it really is!" Simultaneously there are those, much more benevolent and sympathetic, who say that "This is not Islam. This is the opposite of what Islam is." While their motives are very different both sides are claiming to know what Islam really is, and can judge which version is the true version. But that is untenable. The big religions have millions of believers who each have their own version of their religion, and when you talk of Christianity or Islam or Judaism you have to accept that it is both good and bad. God, as portrayed in the Bible, is not a benign, cuddly uncle but frequently petty, vindictive and even genocidal. A kind priest who hides illegal immigrants is not more of a "true" Christian than the awful homophobes at Westboro Baptist Church. Islam contains love, poetry and kindness as well as misogyny and extremism; the grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh; Sayyid Qutb as well as my kind history teacher in college. If you want to talk seriously about religion you cannot just cherry-pick the stuff you like and say "This is the truth, this is the real Islam/Christianity/Judaism/Hinduism." There is no such thing; we must acknowledge the totality of any given religion.

Many have also tried to contextualise (or "explain") the events, some with the best of intentions, others with more dubious motives. Some, boldly saying that we need to look at history, look all the way back to 2003 and the war in Iraq. Others at least manage to invoke France's colonial affairs in Algeria. But all these efforts are painfully inadequate. For one thing, what exactly did the Jewish deli store in Porte de Vincennes have to do with whatever Bush and Blair were up to in Iraq? But more to the point, if what happened to Charlie Hebdo can be "explained" (yes, I insist in using "") by referring to Iraq, what are we to do with the assassination attempt on Ettore Capriolo in Milan in 1991 or the attempt on William Nygaard in Oslo in 1993? Or the firebombing of book stores in London and newspapers in the US in the late 80s and early 90s? These attacks (and possibly the murder of the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi in 1991) were because the victims had sold, defended or somehow engaged with Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses and the motives for the attacks were the same as for the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Certain fanatics felt offended by Rushdie's book, and took it upon themselves to kill and maim whomever they saw fit to kill and maim, and so it was in Paris last week. If you want to provide a historical context then do that (and be prepared to take the long view, Al Qaeda are still angry about things that happened in 1492), do not just regurgitate you own pet peeves. Instead analyse the situation based on what actually happened, not solely on the identity of the perpetrators because that is a form of racism too. And the argument "The war in Iraq was a bad thing, therefore all bad things that has happened after it is because of it", and equivalents thereof, is an intellectual dead end.

Quite a few tweets as well as several articles have been published on the theme "Charlie Hebdo is a racist paper and those who worked there were only interested in making a lot of money and kicking down on the weakest members of French society". That is one view but it is worth remembering that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing/anarchist paper which has been attacking every single French president and government since the 1960s, has repeatedly criticised racism, religions (all of them) and fascism, and frequently attacked the French military and police for their violence, racial profiling and overreach. This despite constantly being harassed, threatened with closure, censored, on occasion in effect closed down by the authorities, and additionally having received multiple death threats and been attacked with bombs and such. You may criticise them for their images of Muhammed but saying that they were cowards sucking up to power and pandering to racists is really pushing it.

Finally a few words on anti-Semitism, which is rising all over Europe and was also part of the motivation for the attacks. As you know anti-Semitism is not something new. For an example of how prevalent and widespread it was fairly recently, and in the most civilised of setting, consider Lionel Trilling, one of the leading intellectuals in post-war America. He was a Jew and even though this was after the Holocaust, prejudices and anti-Semitism were still rampant in the US. To quote:
[Trilling] was the first Jew to become an assistant professor in the department; he was appointed by the autocratic president of [Columbia] university, Nicholas Murray Butler, during the summer vacation, so that the faculty would not have to be consulted. Afterward, his former dissertation adviser, Emery Neff, paid a visit to him and his wife, Diana, to explain that he should not understand his promotion to mean that the department would welcome any more Jews.
In Europe it was even worse, especially before but still after the war. It never went away and now it is growing again, in tandem with Islamophobia. Alas, a difference between the two phobias is that many self-named progressives and left-wingers are surprisingly often hesitant to understand, acknowledge or condemn anti-Semitism, whether it comes from high up (such as from the late Hugo Chávez) or from down on the streets. And again "explanations" are provided, with plenty of blame put on the politics of Israel. But politicians blaming their country's problems on "the Jews", as is popular in Venezuela or Turkey, among other places, or the killing of Jewish children on the streets of Europe cannot be "explained". It is part of an ancient tradition which has nothing to do with Israel, regardless of the many appalling actions of its government.

The world is getting uglier by the day it seems like, with intolerance, pettiness, stupidity and equivocations coming from all directions, from all sides of the political spectrum. But maybe it was always thus. I will end with a quote from Trilling himself, from a letter he wrote to a friend in 1946: "What revolts and disgusts me . . . is the hideous involvement of ideals, feelings, social indignations, exhibitions of martyrdom, self-pity. I expect a quantum of injustice in any imperium, expect contradictions as the price of order—what brings me to the puking-point is the fine feelings."


  1. It's interesting to get a Swede's perspective on these issues, especially after seeing so many monolingual Americans on Facebook link to the same handful of blog posts defending and attacking Charlie Hebdo. With the Holocaust still in some senior citizens' living experience, it's amazing that anti-Semitism is rising in France to the extent where 40% of all hate crimes are directed against Jews. In the U.S., Islamophobia seems like a much bigger problem, though; it's much more publicly acceptable than anti-Semitism here, to the point where someone paid for anti-Muslim ads in the NYC subway, and even mild criticisms of Israel get automatic accusations of anti-Semitism. I do think the existence of Israel is a new factor in post-WW2 anti-Semitism that you're glossing over; some foolish people believe that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews around the world and if they have an issue with it, they take it out on people who have nothing to do with Netanyahu. I want to emphasize that this is a problem with anti-Semites, not Israel itself.

  2. Yes, the presence of Israel is of course a factor, which influence both people's thoughts and actions. My point was that anti-Semitism pre-dates Israel, and is not caused by Israel.

  3. To change the subject, what do you think of Ruben Ostlund? He had a minor arthouse hit in the U.S. with FORCE MAJEURE, his first film to be released here, and this week the Film Society of Lincoln Center is showing all 4 of his films. I'm seeing INVOLUNTARY tomorrow and if I like it, I'll go see PLAY Thursday.

    1. I have conflicted feelings about him. Mostly because when I watch his films I'm not sure he knows what he's doing, or whether the scenes mean what he thinks they mean. And when I hear him talk about his films that suspicion grows stronger. I haven't seen Play, but all the others, and while they're not bad (well, perhaps his first film is), they do not convince me.

  4. I think Ostlund's brilliant at framing - I particularly liked his use of low camera angles in INVOLUNTARY - but what he has to say seems 1)tied to his desire to be a Euro-provocateur a la Michael Haneke & Lars von Trier and 2)also tied to Sweden's status as a "feminist, multicultural utopia," as mocked by Karl Ove Knausgaard in MY STRUGGLE: BOOK TWO. (I've never heard Ostlund speak or read an interview with him.) INVOLUNTARY struck me as far sharper than FORCE MAJEURE. I liked it enough that I do plan to see PLAY later in the week, although one critic I trust found it horribly racist.

  5. One thing that puzzled me about Force Majeure was that they were always all alone when skiing. Why were there no others out there?

    There was a heated debate in Sweden about Play, whether it was racist or not (and, inescapably, some critics argued that while they themselves could understand the nuances of the film, the man on the street would not be able to do so, and become racist by watching it, or some such nonsense.)