What can I say about that latest controversy provoked by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo? Further comment seems futile. So many have spoken on the topic already. Nothing new or exceptional has been said. It has been a case of the usual suspects saying the usual things. Every ideologue has made their case entirely in keeping with their ideology.
I will not deviate from that pattern. I am (despite a recent wobble) a free-speech absolutist so I maintain the ideologue’s belief in Charlie Hebdo’s right to say whatever it wishes about whomever it wishes. I am not however in any position to say if that particular cartoon was racist or not. I’m a straight, white, European male. The only privilege I don’t have is the right to say if something is racist or not.
I did have a visceral reaction to the cartoon. I thought it brilliant, searing and piercing. Perhaps some context. I first saw the cartoon (with a translation) a few days after I had listened to Brenda Power speak on the radio about the threat to women’s rights that may be posed by the influx of so many refugees (Muslim men to be precise) from the Middle East.
The interview made me uncomfortable because I felt some sympathy for her argument. It’s a discomfort caused by a clash of principles. I am happy (well not happy, more prepared) to pay extra taxes to allow however many millions of refugees need asylum in Europe, to be allowed in. (And if you notice, in the previous paragraph I said influx. I cringe at it, being in a country that will only accept a pathetic few thousand refugees.) I justify this stance because I regard it as common human decency, to save the life of another.
Taking in five or ten million refugees should be our first action. Then we deal with all the problems that this will entail. And those troubles should not be downplayed. It will cause social tension, it will inspire a rise in the far-right, there will be incidents. This is inevitable. But lives will have been saved and in time, Europe will be all the richer for the experience.
Germany has taken in about a million refugees. It is now dealing with the consequences. If it mismanages this opportunity, then whatever remaining enthusiasm there exists in Europe for welcoming refugees will disappear entirely. And that is where the cartoon comes in.
European public opinion is disgustingly fickle. By purest chance, I was vaguely aware of the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean a few years ago. A particular blog I read, mentioned it, but it piqued my interest only peripherally. Then Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, a landing spot for many refugees and where the bodies of many of those who died on the trip are brought ashore. He managed to generate some publicity, but few people were moved. The walls of Fortress Europe remained standing, with the wholehearted support and/or indifference of public opinion. Then that little boy’s body washed ashore just where a camera was conveniently present. Everything changed. The wall was breached and we (some of us) cheered the refugees in.
Syrian passports were discovered on some of the men who perpetuated the Paris massacre. On New Year’s Eve, in Cologne, several women were sexually assaulted.
I love that cartoon because in a single image, with a tiny amount of text, it perfectly encapsulates European public opinion. Thousands of people dying doesn’t matter. A pope pointing at the dying doesn’t matter. A good picture of a dead child, ooh let’s help. Oh no it’s complicated, fuck them.
And that’s probably the saddest thing about the cartoon. Those who are its target, people very much like me, mostly don’t realise they are its target. As brutal and accurate as the cartoon is, it has failed to penetrate the armour of ignorance most Europeans wear. I care not one jot for those who have chosen to be offended by the cartoon. I care only that the lumpen masses whose dimwitted opinions and feelings can be so easily manipulated are too stupid to realise they are being mocked.
And Ireland is patting itself on the back for taking a paltry few thousand people. I despair.