I like this essay by Teju Cole on the issues around Charlie Hebdo and free speech. Also, this piece by Laura Miller questioning whether the critics describing Charlie Hedbo as racist know what they’re talking about. This problem occurred to me yesterday when a bunch of people I know linked approvingly to this column critical of Charlie Hebdo, explaining why its cartoons were racist and offensive, which included this point:
I know that the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo identify as left-libertarian atheists, and that they’re “equal-opportunity offenders” —the exact same background and mindset as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as Seth MacFarlane, as your typical 4chan troll. I know that, ironically, the last issue printed before the shooting was mocking a self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet and his fear of a Muslim takeover
The ‘self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet ‘ referred to here is Michel Houellebecq. I don’t know a lot about French satire but I do know that this is a dubious way to describe a guy who is arguably the most acclaimed novelist in contemporary French literature, whose last book was a parody of a thriller in which a psychopath gruesomely murdered Houellebecq himself (which won the Goncourt award, the French equivalent of the Booker Prize). His new book Soumission does imagine a France surrendering to Islam. But, via the Guardian’s review:
Some in France have already complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, but that is to miss Houellebecq’s deeply mischievous point. Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues, the novel gleefully points out, really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to “traditional” or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband – just as “Islam” means that a Muslim submits to God.
But Soumission is, arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise. François himself happily submits to the new order, not for any grand philosophical or religious reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay much better – and, more importantly, he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envious fantasy, of his charismatic new boss, who has adroitly converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things … no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”
The novel ends in an almost science-fictional conditional mood, with François looking forward dreamily to his own conversion and a future of endless sensual gratification.
Houellebecq’s previous book was called The Map and the Territory, which is ironic because him and a lot of what’s happening in France are now subject to a classic map-territory problem: we’re confusing descriptions of what’s happening for the events themselves. It’s a reminder that the pundits confidently translating French (and Islamic) culture for us so they can tell us what to think about it all don’t necessarily have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.