“We are the People of the Enlightenment”: Hebdo, and the Left

“In this field of inquiry, ‘sociological theory’ has still to find its way, by a difficult effort of theoretical clarification, through the Scylla of reductionism which must deny almost everything in order to explain something and the Charybdis of a pluralism so mesmerized by ‘everything’ that it cannot explain anything. To those willing to labor on, the vocation remains an open one.”

–Stuart Hall, Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance

(if this quote doesn’t make it clear, there’s a lot of binary division here; obviously not everyone will fall into the two categories expressed in this post. Oh well.)


Many writers have spilt lots of ink and even more effort in trying to discern some meaning that we can draw from the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 7th. On “the Right” is the usual set of boring articles about the take-over of Islam, Muslims as incorrigible in regards to their faith and the modern state and just a whole host of other issues that really make me concerned for the human condition. I don’t care about these perspectives. More precisely, I don’t think they’re a worthwhile investment of my time. If someone begins a discussion with a set of assumptions about a group of people that fails to mirror the nuance often given to narratives of Western individuals, then I’d rather not spend my time attempting to parse every assumption they have about worlds beyond their own ones.

Instead, I’m more interested in what Hebdo says about the broader context of the Left and what has happened to it in the past twenty years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left has gone in a number of directions, and there have existed attempts to police the boundaries between “productive” and “unproductive” Left policy and action. In moments like this, we begin to notice a powerful set of polarities between what I’ll call “traditional Left” and “multi-cultural Left”. My concept of multi-cultural is not stand-in for ethnic or racial distinction: it’s a poor attempt at incorporating broad perspectives on race, gender, orientation, class and religion into one set of ideological interests; I’d prefer the term “Kyriarchical Left”, but ‘kyriarchy’ as a term has yet to catch on within these discussions. In a sentence, the former is focused on similarities, the latter on difference. A traditional Leftist is born out of the remnants of the mid-twentieth century, with a firm belief in the essential category of humanity. At some level, each binary of identity–race, gender, education, religion–reflects the broader dynamic of class struggle. Traditional Leftists can have their views characterized as believing in some root cause for all ideological problems, and spend careers developing argumentation and reflection on this principal root cause. Usually, the root problem is class, but sometimes it’s different:

“The history of hitherto existing society has been the history of class struggle.”

“This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

“I will argue [in the context of being used for do-good purposes] the problem of the 21st century is the gender line.”

The first one is familiar, the first line of Marx and Engels within The Communist Manifesto. The second belongs to WEB DuBois, in his preface to The Souls of Black Folk. The third is Gayatri Spivak in her talk “The Trajectory of the Subaltern in my work” hosted by UCSB in 2008, minute 35:11 on YouTube. Each of these present the root of some set of struggles in the name of one broad binary.

The multi-cultural Leftist, on the other hand, is the product of a new state formation. Dipesh Chakrabarty terms the origins of these analytic categories as from the “broad church of Marxism” of the late twentieth century. In his words:

“One of the arguments I’m putting to you somehow during the Cold War, Marxism or Marxist literature was like a very broad church. I’m not saying the people were friendly, but the texts were not unfriendly to one another. We read all sorts of texts, whereas now we go through a period where Marxists like Hardt and Negri would consider postcolonials to have kind of gone up a wrong path of Marxism that is not about resisting capitalism” (http://goo.gl/WuhVoK minute 17:30-18:30.)

The tenets of this Marxist church were found littered throughout twentieth century critical theory. Stuart Hall and ”Birmingham School of Cultural Studies” focused on the social and personal perception of racial identity and its aftermaths. Claude Levi-Strauss used case studies of non-Western societies to suggest there existed structure beyond the realm of European imagination. Michel Foucault questioned structure itself, asking how people with power maintained themselves with the presupposition of equality. Antonio Gramsci’s notebooks receive their full translation in 1971. Concepts like ‘cultural hegemony’ become accessible for Anglo scholars.

These created a space where the Left had to re-invent itself from the monolith of thought that was Soviet Socialism. Staughton Lynd’s essay “History of the New Left” takes 1956 as “the obvious year” for starting a history of the New Left. Lynd explains more broadly why this is so:

“That was the year of Khruschev’s condemnation of Stalin at the twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. These events put an end to the hegemony of Soviet Communism in the world radical movement.” (page 2)

Tracing a genealogy of the New Left at this point, we can specifically point to the schism between the Communist Left and the New Left as one in which structure ossified the former. Quoting a source on Mao, “he made his decision [to suddenly change course] after his journey to the USSR where he was appalled by the ideological level of foreign Communist leaders and realized the ravages that bureaucratization had made in the Communist elite of the European socialist countries.”

The end of the USSR was a signal to both the Left and the Right. On the Right, it signaled the triumph of capitalism, the opening of entirely new markets available for the creation of new value, and the freedom from Soviet influence. On the Left, it marked a vacuum in regards to what was an operable framework for future discourse and conversation. Official narratives had to find a new way to orient themselves with the USSR ceasing to exist.


Moments like Charlie Hebdo are often a catch-22 for the developing Left. Indiscriminate violence is something we’d all like to refute, but these refutations must happen in a manner that is reflective of historical reality rather than our imagined conjectures based on what is convenient for civilization; JeSuisAhmed versus JeSuisCharlie. There have been a slough of articles on both sides of this divide, attempting to express the unspoken rules of solidarity and condemnation that goes with any act of abhorrent destruction and complex motivations. The one I find myself continually returning to is Oliver Tonneau’s “Letter to my British Friends” which is a perfect encapsulation of the paradox that is the Traditional Left. His conclusion is precise and elegant:

“This is the difficult argument I am having with my French friends: we are all aware of the fact that the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be exploited by the Far right, and that our government will use it as an opportunity to create a false unanimity within a deeply divided society. We have already heard the prime minister Manuel Valls announce that France was “at war with Terror” – and it horrifies me to recognize the words used by George W. Bush. We are all trying to find the narrow path – defending the Republic against the twin threats of fundamentalism and fascism (and fundamentalism is a form of fascism).”

Yet, reading the road as to how he got there was painful. Where do I even start? There is his homogenizing of particular experiences into a broader narrative:

“It is a necessary consequence of freedom of expression that people might be offended by what you express: so what? Nobody dies of an offence.”

The concept that “no one dies of an offence” is vague insofar as there’s not a clear line between the relationship between written and spoken language and action. In my mind are the number of cases in which women do not respond to male calls for attention, news reporters who knowingly spread false information, and even outright death threats based on the particulars of identity. “No one dies of an offence” is strictly the sort of paradigm that exists for individuals whose notion of speech and offense are not problematized by a world that hates them.

There’s his failure to grasp what certain narratives–Jewish ones in particular–would label naïve:

“Only we do not conflate religion and race. We are the country of Voltaire and Diderot: religion is fair game.”

The question of race and religion is complex, but pointing towards a recent debate over the role of the Jewish star as cultural or religious symbol shows the naïvety in presuming that simply because one is from the country of Voltaire and Diderot, that one keeps them continually straight. Even further, calls to the Enlightenment are often made in a vacuum that conveniently ignores the more problematic issues of Enlightenment thought–Voltaire’s belief in polygenism, for example. The Enlightenment is not be-all and end-all of issues related to race, gender and class.

There’s his lack of historical knowledge:

“And this is something that the Muslim world has begun doing as early as the 19th century with difficulties not dissimilar to those experienced in the Christian World.”

An understanding of secular Islam would not start at the 19th century, where Europe began to value secularism, but from the 8th to 12th centuries, while Europe was still figuring out the relationship between the Medieval papacy and the earthly kings. It was this time period in which the Islamic Golden Age began to make popular use of the following (admittedly weak) Hadith in the Quran: “the ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr.” Such influence led to a widespread development in the scientific method, in mathematics, in logic, in hermeneutics, in medicine and a number of other areas whose relation to the religious sphere were limited. To develop a narrative in which Islam followed Enlightenment ideas is anachronistic and hardly comprehensive.

There’s his complete mis-reading of other Left perspectives:

“Much as it offends the Edward Said vision of cultures as bound to devour or be devoured, the Nadha was fuelled by ideas developed by European thinkers and enthusiastically endorsed by local students and intelligentsia.”

The literary theorist in question, Edward Said, was most famous for the development of a mentality he termed “Orientalism.” His text of the same name developed the historical role that Orientalism played in Western study about the East. It was a set of ideologies and beliefs, often fueled by modern distinctions of historical thought that were vaguely anachronistic and tended to fuel the European imagination in believing the West as a civilization of modernity. Orientalism, on a whole, was a meta-critique of how the West continued to fuel its own affirmations about non-Western culture. As an academic, Said was bound by the same paradox as all post-colonial thinkers: at what point do western theories of knowledge and the production of that knowledge become ontologically engrained in the production of knowledge abroad? Indeed, the number of thinkers who’ve followed in his footsteps–Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabha among others–have also dealt critically with this interaction not in terms of negating the influence of Europe upon other spheres, but in reconciling that influence within the post-colonial project of self-determination.

But of course, Tonneau fails to recognize these historically oriented mistakes. Perhaps because a historic orientation would serve to demonstrate that simply brandishing the Republic as the be-all of political conscious within Western countries is fundamentally not enough. As he notes himself, a large part of the problem revolves around the issue of discrimination within subjecthood. As he states (perhaps a little generalized):

“The disenfranchised, ostracized youth are an easy target for indoctrinators of all sorts.”

Even if we ignore the influence that foreign policies have upon individuals exiled from their homelands (as Tonneau would have us do, with his general dismissal of “Western countries bombing Middle-Eastern countries”) there is no denying that solving this problem requires a resolution of those fundamental words engrained in the French mentality: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” And this is the conclusion on which the Traditional and Multi-Cultural Left broadly agree.


If only a broad agreement were enough for solutions. Unfortunately, as Vivek Chibber’s attempt to “defeat” post-colonial studies show, the Left itself is divided on the question of application. I won’t saddle Tonneau’s letter with all the problems of the Traditional Left, as I think he exemplified its better side. Unfortunately, what tends to pass for the Left within the United States keeps a firm commitment to the idea that the solution to equal opportunities under the law relies on economic pressure. It is to this end that a number of Left activists and journalists lament the passing of MLK and the loss of non-violent protests. The words of Lynda Lowery on NY1 very recently exemplifies how the internalization of nonviolence has become a crutch (in response to whether she sees anything in the march to Selma in Ferguson, 7:30):

“Not so much because the movement I was a part of and I grew up with being noviolent with that non violent teaching. Ferguson hurt my spirit a little bit, I could’ve been a part of Ferguson until they started rioting and tearing up their own–that hurts my spirit to see.”

That “rioting” as an action may be political, may be non-random, or may even be for basic needs (remember when Ferguson rioters broke into a store to deal with tear gas?) seems to be a non-viable option, despite all the work of the Subalternists in the context of India, and scholars like Gyan Pandey connecting the Indian Dalit to the African American. But the traditional Left does not have room for these ideas, not so long as they want to maintain a shaky control on power. Post-colonials, Intersectionality theorists among others are thrown under the bus lest their theories of difference turn to serve capitalist engines as modes of preference, to paraphrase Hardt and Negri.

What made headlines for the United States was not murder, but murder of Western Europeans in an area in which we are not acclimated to violence. The lack of timely coverage for the massacres at the hands of Boko Haram in Nigeria demonstrated the lack of structural interest in resolving our exportation of violence from the dogmatic struggles of Catholicism (that still manifest occasionally, see Timothy McVeigh) to the issues of Islam via colonialism. In the French context, this meant a particular exchange between Christian and Islamic faiths in the broader context of economic exploitation. It’s not a mistake that when Frantz Fanon titled his book “Les Damnés de la terre” (Wretched of the Earth), he lifted the term straight from the Internationale. The relationship between religious and economic degradation can be highlighted, for example, from the history of colonial raids of Islamic temples, or the higher rates of taxation on Muslim families than Christian ones. A history of class struggle in the context of Alergia cannot ignore the role of Islam in that struggle, regardless of how much we’d like to imagine the spread of secularization; another question to those who would like to simplify all modes of struggle into one of economic class.

Even where we’d like to generalize about secularism, whether Western or not, it is also clear that it is bound by linguistics. As a number of English articles are beginning to address, the notion of French lacïté is not one that plays well with the American First Amendment. Structural critique is protected where individual commentary is not. While we’ve created a grandstand issue of “Freedom of Speech” here in the States, we’re failing to recognize that the French notion of religious tolerance does not protect the sorts of individual comments we hold so essential to discourse. Imagine if, every time a comedian made a “joke” about raping an audience member, they faced jail time and a fine. Yeah, I know, it sounds like a pretty sweet time. But no, this is the United States, where we exist under the notion that freedom of speech is essential to societal progress. The role of police brutality might suggest otherwise, but that’s another essay.

At the heart of this struggle between “freedom of speech” and violent opposition is a struggle for most of modernity. We want to reject all modes of violent response, and this goes beyond the specifics of Islamic responses to depictions of Islam. It is not a mistake that the two most celebrated leaders of cultural difference are Mahatmas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both happening to be of the nonviolent persuasion.

Without sinking too much time into the question of nonviolent versus violent tactics, violence is not necessarily irrational. Reading the entirety of “Section II. Self Defense” from Malcolm X develops violence as filling a hole in which the monopoly of violence by the state no longer serves to maintain protection in an equal sense. I wouldn’t necessarily extend this to mean violence as a rational response to cartoons, but a full understanding of Hebdo in the broader context of Empire requires less of a knee-jerk reaction to violence. As iterated earlier, we are not so much concerned with the issue of violence, but where it takes place and who is subjected to it. As Evan Williams has opined for The New Inquiry:

“…and whether one should be killed for a cartoon. (No, but there are so many other things for which people should not be killed but are, like being black in America, that it adds little specificity. Moreover, the category of offense/being offended misses the point so often, given that “equal opportunity offenders” doesn’t mean as much when some of those targets of satire – say, North Africans living in France – are recurrently targeted by police in much more literal ways.)”


Even with the exchanges between the Left and Right in terms of the significance of Hebdo, there is still a sense of essentializing the experience of Islamic citizens; one recent periodical had to say on the French situation:

“Le discours ambiant ne leur laisse le choix qu’entre extrémisme et « islam modéré », alors ils prennent le second, faute de mieux – ou se révoltent en flirtant avec le premier. Et puis il y a une troisième catégorie d’enfants d’immigrés, sans doute la majorité silencieuse : ceux qui prennent au mot ce qu’on leur apprend dans les manuels scolaires. Ceux qui épousent tranquillement et naturellement la culture areligieuse de ce pays, la France, qui est le leur. Ceux qui ne vont pas à la mosquée parce que ce n’est pas leur truc, boivent des coups à l’occasion, tout en fêtant l’Aïd El-Kébir avec leurs parents comme d’autres mangent la dinde de Noël avec les leurs : par convivialité. Imaginez leur désarroi quand des politiciens (pour lesquels ils votent) et des médias (certains payés par leurs impôts) convoquent des imams pour parler en leur nom…

Si le discours d’extrême droite sur « les musulmans en France » est raciste et agressif, celui de la bien-pensance politico-médiatique sur « les musulmans de France » est essentialiste et condescendant. Le « musulman modéré » d’aujourd’hui renvoie, d’une certaine manière, au « bon nègre » d’hier. Oui, Charlie Hebdo doit vivre pour que la liberté d’expression triomphe. Mais aussi parce qu’il y a des caricatures qui se perdent… ”

This ability to parse beyond “Good” and “Bad” Muslim narratives requires meta-critique, a skill honed and crafted by the Multicultural Left; it requires an ability to move beyond what the structure of politics and ideologies have told us is important and to make investigations properly based on the historical questions we uncover. Part of figuring out where and how actions like this cease is a break with the notion that technological advancement and higher standards of living in the present has yielded fruits for all groups equally. It requires learning to respect and understand the politics of difference required of groups beyond traditional distinctions of “free” or not.

The New Left, in its time period was equipped and willing to take on these questions. It seems in the age of “Innovative Disruption,” however, we’ve regressed. In order to get back on track, we need to understand that the umbrella terms of “freedom” for people, often comes with its accompanying umbrella term, “Empire.” The sorts of unilateral dogmatic beliefs in freedom of speech often lead us astray in our ability to understand where it properly matters. The commitment of root ideas that will provide salvation for a wide number of people directly cuts against the pragmatic reality in which the colonial theatre, color, class and gender all intersect in incredibly different ways. To tout “freedom of speech” above all this mess is the equivalent of conceding that we know of no better way to solve problems.

In this light, I propose we don’t bind ourselves by the same vocabulary used time and time again, be it lacïté or the first amendment. We ought to be the sort of society asking why it is that a number of countries agree with the sentiment that Mohammad ought not be depicted (they exist without violence!) I guess it’s just easier to depict Islam in a model similar Michel Foucault‘s investigation of lepers: part of society in a carefully constructed way that makes our own belief systems seem like the best of all possible worlds.


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