Satire and Anti-Racism, A Babelian Conundrum
“We ask of you but the right to laugh a little! It is the consolation of the poor, and all of the vengeance which the defeated can muster. The right to laughter, please! To laugh about one, the other; this, and that; about you, about me! No one will be spared.” — Jules Valles
This post is dedicated to exploring the history of the dying art of satire, its usages, its ideals and its critics, using this cover of the French satirical magazine Fluide Glacial as a landing point.
This year has been marred in controversy concerning satire — on the 7th of January 2015, 12 people were massacred in Paris because they worked for a satirical publication called Charlie Hebdo. As a supportive (and unprecedented) campaign called “Je Suis Charlie” emerged (meaning “I Am Charlie”, in the sense that I endorse what Charlie Hebdo represents), a “counter campaign” of sorts was also launched — the “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie”, spearheaded by critics of the magazine.
The critics’ main argument is that, not only was Charlie Hebdo far from being an example for the world to follow, it was hideously crass and unapologetically racist- an entity that aimed to shamefully punch down at minorities (particularly French Muslims).
The topic has remained relevant throughout the year: in early May of 2015, as PEN International prepared to bestow the James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, hundreds of writers belonging to the organization voiced their concerns and withdrew their support from the NGO. Perhaps the clearest reason for their withdrawal can be found within their open letter to PEN:
“To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering. Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
Having grown up surrounded by satire, and being a dual French-Lebanese national, I wholeheartedly believe that the above opinions are misinformed. The reason for that, I think, is simply that those who voiced these opinions have not been exposed to Charlie Hebdo, or the culture of French satire prior to the massacre and are not considering that something might have been lost in translation. Indeed, Charlie Hebdo, far from being an “anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab” publication, is actually regarded as the foremost anti-racist newspaper in France. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the President of SOS Racisme (the most prominent anti-racism organization in France), Dominique Sopo. In an interview given on the 12th of January 2015, Sopo had this to say about those who thought that Charlie Hebdo was a racist publication:
Video Europe 1 : EXTRAIT - Le président de SOS racisme prend la défense du journal qui a été la cible d'un attentat…www.europe1.fr
“Honestly, these people have reached a level of idiocy and intellectual dishonesty that is nothing short of incredible. It’s enough. Charlie Hebdo is the greatest anti-racist weekly newspaper in this country. Every week in Charlie Hebdo, half of the paper is against racism, against antisemitism, against Islamophobia. I mean, these are people who, because of a caricature that did not please others, are being told “oh yes, [freedom of speech] BUT” — there is no “but”. Charlie Hebdo was fighting racism on every front. Cabu (one of the murdered) has made us drawings, he even made us a book. Charb (another one of the murdered) has made us drawings. They have regularly given us drawings for us to do as we pleased. The same with Wolinski (another). Throughout their history, and every single anti-racist organization will tell you — they were convinced anti-racists. So when I hear people saying “Charlie Hebdo=hatred”… did you know that Charlie Hebdo initiated a petition for the firing of Claude Gueant (former French Minister of the Interior and Secretary of State) after he made anti-muslim statements? That would be quite original for a weekly islamophobic newspaper to do, don’t you think? Enough. These people that want to make others believe that Charlie Hebdo was a racist newpaper… it’s scandalous. It’s an insult to the memory and the struggle of these people we’ve lost, that we knew personally. Enough insults to the living and the dead. When we insult and are in such a hateful ideology (as these people), this is what happens. Enough.”
The controversy surrounding the February 2015 issue of Fluide Glacial seems rather tame in comparison; there were thankfully no murders in reaction to its publication, merely a stern article coming from the Global Times, a Chinese tabloid close to the Communist Party. However, we can find echoes of the same miscomprehensions as the ones mentioned above in the Global Times piece. The Global Times posited that the cover was an example of “Free Speech Mania” and that “Europe had better back off somewhat” as “it may intensify clashes”. Clearly, the cover was taken as a direct offense. Hopefully my explanation of what it means will help people reconcile their anti-racist sensibilities with a hearty love of satire and irreverence.
Before we get into that, let’s first ask ourselves, again: what is satire? “The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Thank you Google, you saved us all a lot of time. Now let’s learn a little more about the tradition of French satire.
You might be thinking, “What do the French care about satire, though? They’re the ones who should be satirized, if anything. The powerful should be on the receiving end.” Well, it’s always been the case, actually. As far back as some of the oldest works of French satire, such as Le Roman de Renart, satire focused on the powerful. In the 12th century, when it was written, that mainly meant the clergy and the nobility. Renart, also known as Reynard to English speakers, was an anthropomorphic animal in the tradition of Aesop’s fables; a folk hero of sorts (it’s no coincidence Disney’s Robin Hood was a fox), he played tricks on the nobles, the constables (his archrival Ysengrin the wolf being at the receiving end of most jokes), and the clergy.
After the 14th century, as satirical Latin classics (Horace’s Satires, for instance) were being republished, a lot of authors took to satirizing their era. This is when the main tenets of the tradition of French satire are solidified. Francois Rabelais’ Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, for instance, is probably the most influential text in all of French satire — it’s irreverent and even gross at times, yet emphasizes values that remain an intrinsic part of French culture to this day, not least because it was a tremendous influence on Enlightenment philosophers, who took to heart its critique of the rigidity of the state and of the clergy.
The French Revolution was, of course, a shift in the way satire was conducted: the 11th article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen insured total freedom of the press — if you couple total freedom with hundreds of years of censorship, the only thing that can happen is a cathartic, and massive, surge of expression. Dozens of newspapers were founded then, and satire then truly became the form of expression of the people — it could point fingers and even bring down tyrants.
The first half of the 19th century was a complicated time in France; between empires, rerevolutions and counterrevolutions, satire still found a way to develop visually, always keeping its role of giving a voice to the people. As we move on, satire becomes more and more popular. The growing literacy rate and the proliferation of newspapers made it easy to satirize any and all. At the beginning of the 20th century, L’Assiette Au Beurre, possibly the closest relative to Charlie Hebdo, sees the day. It carries most of the same Socialist-Anarchistic values as the ones we see in Charlie Hebdo: it was shockingly disturbing and violent at times, but also deeply committed to anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and anti-clericalism.
You might say, “I understand a commitment to anti-imperialism, but why did anti-clericalism remain relevant after the French revolution, when the clergy lost its taxing power?” That is a fine question indeed. Let’s look at an Anarchist manifesto briefly.
“The [Libertaire] (apparently a preferred name for a French Anarchist) has no fatherland but the universal fatherland. He is the enemy of boundaries: boundaries of nations, states’ properties; boundaries of fields, houses, workshops, properties of the individuals; boundaries of the family, properties of the wed and the fatherly. For him, Humanity is but one body of which every member has the same and equal right to their free and complete development, be they sons of a continent or another, be they of a sex or another, be they of a race or another. He has no religion: he is a protestant against each and every one. He professes the negation of God and the Soul; he is atheistic and materialistic. He affirms universal unity and infinite progress, and that this unity cannot exist, be it individually or universally, whilst matter is slave of the spirit and the spirit oppresses matter, much like progress cannot be infinite if it is limited by this boundary that humanicides have traced with blood and mud in the name of God.” — Joseph Dejacques
As you can see, religion remained a point of contention, even beyond its supposed disempowerment; it is seen as a fundamental boundary between humans.
I feel like, at this point, I can stop boring you with historical context, and go straight into what I feel is the heart of the matter, here — if this cover isn’t racist, as I claim, what is it? What does it aim to do? Why am I even talking about it if I’m, really, interested in the Charlie Hebdo controversy?
I’ll answer the last question first. The reason I’m focusing on it is because I think it’s a pretty clear cut example of something that might seem horrendously racist at first, but which, with a little bit of digging, can be understood for what it’s really trying to do. This should, hopefully, help one understand French satire better, and perhaps go from the PEN secessionists’ point of view, to that of Dominique Sopo.
Let’s look at a few things here; firstly, the magazine itself. Fluide Glacial is mostly concerned with humoristic satire; it’s not a political magazine. Its aim is to make people laugh. Think of it as a French “Mad”. In this issue, the magazine aimed its sights at cold war era movies such as Les Chinois A Paris, in which the Chinese Red Army invades Paris. The editor-in-chief had this to say about the issue: “This issue says more about France than China. In it we see French people, full of prejudices towards Asian people, who did not learn to adapt.”
Let’s look at some of the characters, shall we?
First, the central character. Here, he is the stereotypical Frenchman: red nosed from drinking wine, smoking a cigarette, wearing a beret. Indeed, the character in question is a French “beauf” — a word with no real equivalent in English, except maybe for “that guy”. It’s a contraction of the word “beau-frere”, meaning brother-in-law; the kind that you try and avoid at reunions. The beauf is brash, prejudiced, stuck in his old ways, and extremely likely to be voting far-right, although he probably wouldn’t tell anyone about it. So, what is “that guy” doing? He’s pulling a rickshaw. Who’s in the rickshaw? The most interesting character on the cover, and possibly the key to our understanding.
The character is unmistakably Asian; but, what is he wearing? A French colonial outfit — the one colonists used to wear in Indochina. Why is that? One possible explanation is that the man in the rickshaw is a reflection of a certain French fear of retribution for its colonial past; a personified reversal of fortune. This is further exemplified by the fact that, at his arm, is a stereotypically beautiful French woman, a reversal of the trope of the womanizing colonizer. What does that tell us about the beauf’s idea of France? We’re given insight into a distinctly French fear — as a country which has, in most aspects, repressed its (“glorious” and important) colonial past, the memory lingers on in the form of a fear that France’s current less glorious days will lead to a period where it is, itself, turned into a colony, where it’s made to live through what it has inflicted on other nations. The beauf’s France thus values (and, in a lot of ways, longs for) its own power and reviles that of any other nation, particularly when that nation used to be a subservient one.
With this in mind, the rest of the picture starts to make a lot more sense.
The restaurants, for instance, bear the worst affront possible to conservative French cooks: they’ve been forced to make Asian dishes! Although they’ve made them a la Francaise, because, otherwise, what’s the point of living? What we end up with, for instance: bo bun (a Vietnamese soup dish) a la Bearnaise (a region culinarily known for its sauce Bearnaise, which is basically melted butter mixed with egg yolk); nem (a Vietnamese sausage) quiche (quiche); steak with soy french fries (a departure form the traditional “steak frites”).
While we might be starting to understand a bit more about the drawing, these is a lot more to extricate from it.
For instance, we can learn that there is a distinct tendency towards the lumping together of the three Asian cultures that are most represented in France: Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese.
The Chinese culture is shown here as being the potential economical and linguistic dominator — taking over the French language as well as the French sense of economical self-determination. This is best seen in the “We speak Chinese” sign on the restaurant, as well as on the sign held by the homeless man, which says “I’m Hungry” in Mandarin.
The relationship between French and Japanese culture is quite complex: one of mutual fascination in many respects (nobody is as passionate about Japan as French people), but with elements of racism thrown in. Here, we can see two depictions of one the most prevalent stereotypes in French culture: the Japanese tourist — which is known to swarm the French capital and take pictures while shouting “photo photo!”.
Vietnamese culture is here represented by its two main connections to France: first, as we’ve noted, the man in the rickshaw is a reflection of the fear of the colonial past of France coming to bite it back. Second, in food, as we’ve seen by the fact that Vietnamese dishes are prominently figured on the “occupied” restaurants’ facades.
So, what is Fluide Glacial trying to do here?
Most importantly, it’s trying to highlight and mock the stereotypes held by French people towards Asians: some of the ones we can see here are the Japanese tourist and the Chinese will to spread economically. The second stereotype is also used as a way of satirizing the sensation of loss of economic power and international relevancy by the French (which does not compare in any way to what was inflicted by the French upon Asia).
It’s also trying to deimperialize: this is evident in the character of the Vietnamese man being pulled in the rickshaw, as he is wearing a colonial attire worn by French officers during the colonization of Indochina. This is done as a way to reverse the roles and possibly engage the viewer to think about France’s colonial past. Moreover, reversing the “womanizing colonizer” archetype is a deft way of engaging primal feelings of ownership over the female gender, which the beauf is particularly prone to.
And finally, it’s definitely attempting to de-coldwarify: the entire issue is set to the tone of mocking Cold War movies with a heavy theme of Chinese invasion and Yellow Peril as well as the attitudes of French people who haven’t wavered from that era. Again, the editor in chief of the magazine said: “This issue says more about France than China. In it we see French people, full of prejudices towards Asian people, who did not learn to adapt.”
Let’s look at another drawing from the magazine so we can continue.
I actually remember seeing this for the first time, and thinking “holy **** that’s racist.” There are, however, ironical elements which can clue us in on the meaning of the drawing. First is the text, which says “we’re no longer at home!”. This is a stereotypical nationalist saying, often used to imply that immigrants are taking too much space in France, that they’ve poisoned what is truly French. What’s ironic here is that those being invaded here aren’t exclusively “ pure French”, and neither is the place they’re in: we can see a typical Frenchman in the foreground eating a kebab sandwich (Arab version of a gyro), but also an Arab man in the background, working the meat on a spit. The fact that they are both terrified by the horde of clawed Asian men turns the cliche nationalist sentence on its head: there is no longer a “chez nous” (a typically French homeland), there is only a multicultural society in which everyone eats kebab (seriously, everyone — even the racists).
With all of this in mind, I realize that there is one crucial, and possibly objectionable, value which I bring to the table. I do not believe that those who use racist stereotypes satirically in order to mock those who use them are racists themselves. One might disagree and think that the very perpetuation of those stereotypes, in every shape or form, is what needs to stop. I understand that point and empathize with the goal, but respectfully disagree: I believe that satirizing racists is the best way to make them fall out of relevance. And I hope I’ve convinced you that the French have a longstanding tradition of satire which can, surely, be used for that intent.
This post is dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the series of terrorist attacks of the 7th, 8th, and 9th of January 2015.