Why Are You Laughing?

charlie-hebdo-trinity   Conversation 1:

–Here is an inkblot. Tell me what you see.

–It looks like Voltaire dressed up as the statue of liberty, holding a torch for liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

Conversation 2:

–Here is an inkblot. Tell me what you see.

–It looks like a rapist.


–It looks like an American MP raping a prisoner with a glow-stick.

In these two imaginary conversations, the “inkblot” is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons where deities and/or their disciples are shown naked and/or fucking. Respondent #1 represents the people posting “Je suis Charlie”. Respondent #2 represents Cherif Kouachi, one of the two shooters in the Paris attacks. The difference between their projections roughly corresponds to the distance between those who see themselves as the natural heirs and defenders of the Enlightenment and those who see themselves as having been thrust into the role of its antagonists.

Among many possible objections to my claim is this: in a classic Rorschach test, the inkblot is an instance of ambiguity onto which the test subject projects his or her own internal conflicts. But Hebdo’s cartoons are in no way ambiguous. One of Muhammad clearly shows a naked man on all fours, ass up, cock and hairy balls hanging down, with a star over his asshole (caption: “a star is born”). The one of the holy trinity clearly shows God [“the father”] getting fucked in the ass by his son, himself getting fucked in his ass by a kind of Masonic-looking one-eyed triangle. Zero ambiguity. Sure, I can look at a turnip and say I see a beach ball, or an actual testicle and see a turnip, but that just means I’m delusional, end of story.

Yes, fine, true. I am not saying that Cherif Kouachi literally saw Abu Ghraib when he looked at Charlie Hebdo’s work. I am saying that he associated one set of images with the other, that he saw the them as belonging to the same genre—and that, in one sense, he was right.

But before I explain, let me clarify what else I am NOT saying.

I am not saying Charlie Hebdo’s staff should have been killed, or that they were “asking for it”. I am not saying they shouldn’t have drawn any of their cartoons, or that we should take away people’s right to draw or post whatever they want, or give others the right to kill them if they don’t like their artwork. I am lobbying neither for political correctness, thought police, or death to Enlightenment values.

I am saying, though, that just as the history of Marxism includes Stalin, the history of the Enlightenment does include many of its proponents’ devotion to the belief that the superiority of their worldview gave them the right, nay, duty, to subjugate the rest of the world. Or, to quote Chris Chivers’s history The Gun: “The British, with their superior firepower, had completed the destruction of the Zulu nation in a morning… show[ing machine guns’] utility in what one officer called ‘wars with people who wear not trousers’.” And since we’re still fighting those wars, it’s worth reading Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” once, out loud—“the sullen, silent peoples Shall weigh your gods and you”—and then taking a look at how some of the “Je Suis Charlie” crowd is shouldering that same load.

Of course, colonialism is now out. Soft, super-sized neo-liberal power is in, backed by what the Department of Defense calls “full spectrum dominance” via a privatized and outsourced military—and Taylor Swift singing “Welcome to New York” [“everybody here/wanted something else”]. Indeed, the prestige and possibilities that power affords meant that for the teenage Kouachi brothers coming of age in a provincial orphanage, as one of their former classmates put it, “if they had a religion, it was Paris.”

Their conversion from worshiping the City of Lights to plotting the murder of its cartoonists, at least according to the NYT, began with a less glittering image of power: Abu Ghraib. The infamous photographs of American MPs humiliating Iraqi prisoners “sickened” Cherif Kouachi enough to inspire him to study a drawing of a machine gun. A decade later, the gun in his hands was all too real.

I’m interested, though, in the middle of the story, the transition from image to reality. Among the documents found naked-iraqi-pyramid-AJon his laptop is one condemning journalists who’ve turned “blasphemy into a form of sadistic entertainment.” Hold onto that phrase for a moment. What does it look like? For Cherif Kouachi, it obviously looked like naked Iraqis forced into pyramids, dog collars, and pantomimed blow-jobs. From there, through a slippage of genres it began to look something like a drawing of God the father getting fucked by his son; the conflation of Sadism with sadism.

Juliette_Sade_DutchThe former, Sadism with a big “S”, is the genre of revolutionary porn pioneered by the Marquis de Sade, whose contribution to the nascent French republic’s war with the Catholic church was a series of novels that imagine total liberation as endless varieties of violent sex while cursing God. Sacrilege in word and deed, simultaneously. (De Sade would probably have loved the CIA’s number one torture-song, Deicide’s “Fuck your God”). Was his obsession with rape related to the fact that he spent 32 out of his 74 years in prison? Debatable, since the charges against him were both that he depicted violent, blasphemous sex and that he kept trying to have it with his hired help, often against their will. Undaunted to the end, at age 70 he began his last affair, with a 14-year-old daughter of one of his employees.

Putting aside the question of whether pedophilia is really liberating, and for whom, de Sade’s aesthetic comes to stand for a commitment to total freedom whose deliberate, proactive offensiveness is literally an offensive against the repressive status quo. In one sense, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons carry on this artistic legacy. Their shock value is Sadistic: they use graphic vulgarity to raise a middle finger to right-wing pieties.

That’s the brave side of Charlie Hebdo. The other, under, side is what happens when the balance of power is reversed and the underdog revolutionaries get the upper hand: sadism sans revolution, torture targeting not an oppressor but a victim. As Elaine Scarry puts it, rather than performing a critique of power, this sadism “converts the vision of suffering into the wholly illusory but, to the torturers and the regime they represent, whole convincing spectacle of power.”

In Algeria, the French had stopped using torture in general, and sexual humiliation in particular, twenty years before Cherif was born. But the year he turned ten, the Pentagon began updating both, for what would become the War on Terror. Initially “reverse-engineered” from studies of communist torture techniques, “sexual resistance training” was added to SERE—Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape—training for cadets. One immediate result was a lawsuit charging that two dozen cadets were sexually assaulted during SERE training in 1993, after which the “sexual resistance” module was dropped. But as a means of breaking prisoners, sexual assault was not. In November of 2001, SERE’s chief psychologist was detailed for four months to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, from whence these particular “enhanced interrogation techniques”, now to be applied to enemy combatants, are thought to have “migrated” to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

As Seymour Hersh and others have documented, these “techniques” were tailored to a particular understanding of “the Arab mind”, which is also the title of the book Hersh calls “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” Distilled into factsheets for soldiers it produces some howlers (“Arab Disunity: Not all Arabs agree on everything”), but also, less hilariously, the doctrine that Arabs are (Hersh) “particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation.” And so boxes of women’s underwear were requisitioned as hoods, and prison spectacles were staged accordingly.

What does all this folly have to do with Charlie Hebdo? Simply that a global context, which, ready or not, we all live in, freely publishing demeaning depictions of long-nosed, brown-skinned people belongs not only to the proud tradition of enlightened freedom but also to the genealogy of Western projections of its own supremacy—in deed as well as word—over [insert derogatory slur]’s inferiority. As a cultural foil, “the Other” is pretty frequently rebranded, but in general (pardon my French), if you bought “kike”, you might also like “spic”, “spade”, “chink”, “shine”, and “dune coon”, aka “sand [n-word].” And if you bought any one of them, you might also agree that “we” owe it to the once and future Enlightenment to save “them” from their own savagery with a bit of full spectrum dominance.

The Kouachis’ equation of two kinds of assault—loaded language versus loaded guns—was fanatically and tragically wrongheaded. But that does not negate the fact that the two do dovetail in reality, in that, in this small postcolonial global village, some villagers are far more free than others not only to say what they please but also to continue living un-bombed and un-exiled. We, the free-er people, are protected not only by our laws but also by an asymmetrical distribution of military-industrial power that simultaneously safeguards our lives and devastates the lives of residents of great swaths of the Middle East. We are even free to ignore this—the 2,000 Nigerians killed by Boko Haram the same week Charlie Hebdo’s staff was murdered, for instance, or the 200,000 Syrians killed in the last four years, or the half a million, or a million (so wide is the scope of uncertainty) Iraqis estimated to have died as a result of the 2003 invasion. Images ridiculing Arabs and Muslims simply abet our ignorance, and ease the continuation of neoliberal geopolitics as usual.

It is no insult to Charlie Hebdo to sketch this bigger picture. Indeed, it aligns with the magazine’s gusto for lampooning the dogmas of the top dogs, whose diverse victims so often suffer parallel depredations across the board. I was gently schooled in the Arab version of despot-busting humor by Iraqi refugees whom I met in 2008. To explain their disillusionment with the Americans’ reign in Baghdad, several quoted the same dialogue from “The Hunchbacked Bird,” a play by the late Syrian satirist Muhammad al-Maghout. In it, a prisoner is being tortured with electric shocks when he starts to laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” his interrogator asks.

“Because my village has been asking for electricity for 20 years,” he replies, “and now the electricity has reached my ass before it reached my village.”

I couldn’t help but laugh with them. I only learned much later that Maghout was depicting not an American but a Syrian prison; the original joke was on Assad Sr., not (either) Bush. But of course, comedy is portable.

And since laughter can bridge such apparently vast gulfs, let us imagine those two departed satirists, Maghout and “Charb”, Charlie Hebdo’s irascible editor, together for a moment in the heaven that neither one believed in. I think they’re having a chuckle at the poor suckers who couldn’t manage to laugh at themselves.

Jennifer MacKenzie teaches English and journalism at Lehman College, CUNY, and her first book of poems, My Not-My Soldier, was released by Fence Books' Modern Poets Series in 2014. Recent poems and essays can also be found in Fence, Drunken Boat, the Near East Quarterly, and the Kenyon Review online.