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Glenn Greenwald is Wrong Again on Charlie Hebdo

If you considered the January 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo to be of importance to free speech; if you thought the murdered brave, and the dissemination of the work for which they were murdered important, then Glenn Greenwald has some news for you: You’re a hypocritical liar who enjoys picking on Muslims and only purported to believe these things to further an aggressive, militaristic, and anti-Muslim foreign policy.

I say ‘news’ but this is the same line he has been advancing since two days after the attack. He trotted it out it again for the 1st year anniversary. Now he’s had another go, only this time Greenwald has a slam dunk argument. Some people didn’t like their post-Hurricane Harvey cover cartoon:

What happened here is beyond obvious: Charlie Hebdo was fun, delightfully provocative, bold, and deserving of awards when it was publishing mockery of Muslims. When its cartoonists began publishing exactly the same sort of thing aimed at white Americans, they became “vile,” “evil,” “despicable,” “losers,” and “traitors.”  

A fragment of the recent Charlie Hebdo cover likening Texans subject to Hurricane Harvey with Neo-Nazis.


In making his latest argument, Greenwald again relies on a recurring set of false premises and assumptions. Although these have been addressed previously they are important to revisit. They are:

1:  Charlie Hebdo were mocking Muslims collectively.

In his 2015 piece, which he referenced in his latest, he wrote:

Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted, such as the one mocking the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens…Others went far beyond maligning violence by extremists acting in the name of Islam, or even merely depicting Mohammed with degrading imagery…and instead contained a stream of mockery toward Muslims generally…

Greenwald’s inability to parse satire is enough to engender pity for the man. Unless, of course, he is actually able to understand the silliness in applying a literal reading to satire and is simply being dishonest. Perhaps he knows full well that Charlie Hebdo were not attacking “Muslims generally” but merely Islamists and the tenets of religion—I lean towards the latter. Society frowns on mocking a people more than it does a belief, and so Greenwald insists they were mocking a people. I believe the process runs thus: I don’t want to be on the same side as those supporting Charlie Hebdo. Racism is bad. Ergo, Charlie Hebdo were racist. This mischaracterization of Charlie Hebdo allows Greenwald to proceed with his argument and makes any defence of them that much more difficult.

2: Anybody who says they approve of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons, but doesn’t approve of racism and antisemitism, is a hypocrite.

Having falsely established that Charlie Hebdo were just picking on Muslims, he can lay the charge of hypocrisy upon anybody that has ever objected to any other speech. As I previously wrote:

He is pretending to make the following point:

“If you allow Muslims to be demonised then you must allow Jews and others to be demonised”.

But what he is actually saying is:

“If you thought that Charlie Hebdo were right to draw Mohammed then you can’t object when others are racist.”

This is no better than suggesting that if you defend the content and intention of Monty Python’s Life of Brian you are obliged to defend the content and intention of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

3: The murder of the cartoonists was a reaction to the oppression of Muslims and not to Blasphemy. 

Declaring his political enemies supporters of racism is useful in of itself but the blurring of religious satire with racism and hate speech is important to Greenwald for another reason.

Previously in Quillette, Jamie Palmer correctly wrote of Greenwald’s understanding of Western foreign policy and Islamist violence that, “He finds it more convenient to prejudge the former as invariably malevolent, and the latter as invariably reactive.”

To accept that the attackers of Charlie Hebdo committed murder for their stated reasons, to avenge the honour of the Prophet, is to accept the existence of a problem of ideas. If, however, Muslims generally are being harassed, mocked, vilified, and bullied then violence from their quarter can still be explained via Western sins. Of course, Greenwald will offer condemnation of the murders but he can and will never do so with an accurate assessment of their origin. Even such mild complexity as this renders his worldview, and that of his adoring audience, hopelessly compromised.

4: The call to demonstrate solidarity by republishing the cartoons is a call to express support for the content—

It was no longer enough to defend someone’s right to express their ideas while being free to condemn those ideas themselves — long the central tenet of the free speech movement (I defend their right to free speech even while finding them and their ideas repugnant). In the wake of the Hebdo killings, one had to go much further than that: It was a moral imperative to embrace and celebrate the ideas under attack and to glorify those who were expressing them, even to declare ourselves to be them (#JeSuisCharlie).

In all his pieces on Charlie Hebdo, Greenwald posits the existence of this ‘new rule.’ It works on the assumption that to share the content is to approve of it, to celebrate it, or to ‘adopt that speech as one’s own.’ Furthermore, it requires you to accept that this is the purpose of the ‘new rule.’ This is a complete strawman.

The case for sharing the content is about violence prevention. As I wrote on the afternoon of the attack:

If there is an answer it seems to be one of two options. In brief they are:

Option 1: Stop offending Muslims by satirising their religious beliefs and appease the demands of the violent.
Option 2: Show solidarity and publish the offensive articles whenever and wherever possible.

I won’t waste time by explaining why I think Option 1 is a non-starter. I will further state that I know of no Option 3 and am open to suggestions. Option 2 is based on sharing the risk, dissipating it, and in so doing rendering such specific attacks so pointless as to be unworthy of the effort.

I offered this as a principle:

Once art/writing/satire is threatened with violence and murder it becomes important beyond its content.

Countless other pieces have explained why the sharing of speech threatened with terror— especially terror from a force you cannot vote out or compel to amend laws—is important for reasons beyond approval of the sentiment expressed. It demonstrates defiance to threat, it shows that the violent action is pointless, it spreads the risk by increasing the number of targets. Charlie Hebdo‘s staff were threatened, attacked, and then finally murdered. For blasphemous cartoons. Look there for the reasons of demonstrating solidarity not at some bizarre concept of enforced approval.

The most impressive aspect of Greenwald’s latest piece is that he manages to write over 1000 words on this without mentioning the reason why the post-massacre cover is different to the post-hurricane one. Namely, the continued threat of murder. It’s incredible that he thinks we won’t notice.

Only when you pretend that advocating solidarity with murdered cartoonists means you are demanding people agree with all the points made by the cartoons and their method, can you try what Greenwald does. And despite a great deal of effort spent convincing people to share his pretence, he utterly fails. So when he offers up the following two tweets to compare, one is left with an overwhelming sense of “meh.”

Even when gifted with a man who will say anything depending on the weather (such as Piers Morgan), Greenwald fails to demonstrate his point of hypocrisy.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you too are utterly incapable of understanding satire and believe that, with literal intent, Charlie Hebdo were

…depicting drowning victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston as being neo-Nazis, with the banner that declared “God Exists”: because, needless to say, white people in Texas love Hitler, and it’s thus a form of divine justice if they drown.

Now ask yourself how displeasure at that cover demonstrates that you are highly selective about the principle of solidarity or/and just want to bully the Muslims and make new Gulf Wars easier? Is there no other difference between the two covers, and their context, other than that one involves a brown person and the other white people?

The point of the requests to share, to help dissipate the threat, does not apply here because firstly, and hugely, there is no threat. And secondly, note that of the six people Greenwald quotes as expressing disapproval of the Texas cover, five share the offending picture as they do so. Again, as I wrote previously:

You can claim that some of what Charlie Hebdo did is bad (I don’t), even that it is anti-Muslim (I don’t), and still completely agree that the specific work they were killed for, namely the blasphemy and religious mockery, is distinct and of value. It is even easier to make the case for supporting it and disseminating it when it is threatened by violence.

If, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, news outlets around the world had defied the threat and published the cartoons with the caveat that they were neutral about the content, then they would still be adhering to what Greenwald calls the “long the central tenet of the free speech movement (I defend their right to free speech even while finding them and their ideas repugnant).” And the people who advocated dissemination would be content. Though many people–including myself–approved of the content, it is simply untrue that the calls for solidarity were based on forced approval.

Like a sub-prime financial product, Greenwald piles up bad faith upon mistruth and packages it into an argument hoping to convince you that the whole has value.

It doesn’t.

He describes the obvious nomination of Charlie Hebdo‘s staff for a courage in free speech award as “lavishing these [murdered] cartoonists with honors and prizes.” He characterises a tactic of harm prevention as a demand to love the content. He ignores the critically important threat of violence in the hope you won’t notice. He pretends blasphemy is hate speech. He does all this so his playschool view of international affairs, West = Evil, Others = Good, can hold together just a little bit longer.

Once again, this requires him to tell lies about a bunch of deceased, shabby soixante-huitards. With clumsy sleight-of-hand, he makes the anti-racists racist and the anti-imperialists imperialists, and anybody disagreeing with this must be war crazed, Muslim-hating hypocrites. Fortunately, the longer he continues to try this the more ridiculous it looks.

David Paxton

David Paxton

David Paxton is a writer and a MENA Security Consultant. Follow him on Twitter @DavidDPaxton
David Paxton

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David Paxton is a writer and a MENA Security Consultant. Follow him on Twitter @DavidDPaxton

3 Comments

  1. I agree with your tear down of Greenwalt; however, i’m just used to it. Like many conservatives at “liberal” institutions it’s just the status quo. Those like Greenwalt can spout off their nonsense without consequence while we must sit in silence and roll our eyes at the logical fallacies you’ve enumerated. Examples:

    In #1, alter your statement: I don’t want to be on the same side as those supporting Trump. Racism is bad. Ergo, All Trump supporters are racist. (I love how Bannon described himself in an interview as an [economic] nationalist but that was shortened to white (because he is caucasion) nationalist to equate him with the KKK/Nazis.)

    In #2, that’s the core of the pussy-hat people. Clearly, all Trump supporters are rapist and sexual assaulters because of a bragging hyperbolic comment. All the while i’m sure they have shared their own off-color humor/memes/etc among themselves.

    In #3, I think it’s clear how branding ones political “enemies” as racist has occurred. That’s happened nonstop since 2008 since clearly, any disagreement with policies of President Obama was solely because of his race and not because of difference in political/economic/foreign policy views.

    In #4, Ah, the re-publication comment. One only needs to read recent current events about DNS and hosting providers cutting off clients due to backlash/threats against them. What would the reaction be if, in response to the Antifa folks there was widespread re-publication of Spencer’s speeches — not because you agree with him, but because you agree with his Free Speech right to voice his opinions? If Fox or Breitbart or similar were to repost it, the ESPN commentators heads would explode.

    • Gribble the Munchkin says

      You make several undue comparisons here.
      1. Of course no one thinks all trump supporters are racists. However, a clear majority of racists support trump BECAUSE they see their racist views reflected and supported by him. Don’t take my word for it. Hope onto some racist forum (I’d recommend stormfront but they’ve basically been kicked off the web) and see what actual racists say about trump. Trump himself has shown clear racist tendencies (see the court cases about not renting property to black or minorities in New York). To a non-racist, these things are hard to move past. Trumps racism should make him unpopular enough to never get near the presidency, the fact that it didn’t worries and scares us. Clear enough people were racist enough that Trumps racism did not stop them voting for him. Lets not forget the birther nonsense either, in which Trump was THE leading guy.

      2. Pretty much the same. Of course I’ve engaged in off-colour banter with my friends. You’d probably be sickened by the stuff we say to each other. However, this is all in jest. None of us actually do or believe in this stuff. We certainly don’t boast about actual sexual assault. What Trump did wasn’t banter, it was a boast of things that he did. We’ve got corroborating evidence for this too with a number of women coming forward to verify that he does indeed do exactly this kind of shit. Again, this should be a deal breaker for someone to be president. The fact that it wasn’t means a lot of people are so misogynistic that they weren’t put off by boasts of sexual assault, even when it became clear that they were well supported as fact.

      3. We called a number of Obama’s detractors racist because they referred to him as a monkey, carried nooses on marches, over emphasised his arabic middle name and generally acted like racists. Its fine to disagree with his policies, I have huge disagreements with his policies, he is Waaaay too right wing for me, drone assassination programmes are vile and going after whistleblowers like he did is just wrong. Also, again, the birther nonsense, the shit said about Michelle Obama and so on. Just because this stuff might not happen at the more intellectual level of right wing thought doesn’t mean its not happening on the mass market sites.

      4. False dichotomy, Antifa really have a single purpose. Confront Nazis, and if required, punch them. Remove the Nazis and Antifa go home, read a book and maybe grab a nap. They literally have no other agenda. Nazis by contrast want to take over the state through violence and intimidation, evict, repress and murder everyone that’s not white and generally engage in the kind of stuff that the WW2 Nazi made famous. Charlie Hebdo drew cartoons, they should have a right to draw cartoons of whatever they like. Nazi’s want to murder or evict black people. Its not free speech, its violence. If Nazi’s were just drawing cartoons and Antifa were murdering them you might have a point, instead they are marching with assault rifles shouting “Blood and soil”, and murdering protestors. Its not even remotely the same situation.

  2. Pingback: Je suis Charlie – FTN Blog

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