After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the groundswell of affirmation for freedom of expression in France, you might have thought that all was well in the land of Liberty, Egality, Fraternity. At least as far as what the state is prepared to allow in the name of artistic expression.
Not so in the small town of Fremainville, in Northern France, whose mayor has removed the statue of a black Marianne from outside the town hall. Here is the statue in question.
And it appears the mayor, Marcel Allègre, wants to keep it that way. He claims that a black Marianne is a “Marianne of liberty, but not a Marianne of the French Republic. She undoubtedly represented something, but not the French Republic.”
So, absolute freedom of expression where the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are concerned, but you can’t allow a black Marianne to represent the French Republic? The cognitive dissonance is staggering.
If the French are serious about freedom of expression, then I suggest the government overrules this stupid, racist mayor, and puts the statue back in place. Furthermore, I suggest they commission more Mariannes, representing all the ethnic minorities.
Including a few Muslim Mariannes, complete with headscarf.
On the very same day satirists in France are killed in cold blood for exercising their right to free speech – including the right to use images which are offensive to many – self-righteous people over here, without any apparent irony, are spluttering in outrage at the use of images in satire which they themselves find offensive.
Because in the hypocritical UK, we seem to only support satire when it’s offending other people, but not when we ourselves are offended:
The attack by Islamic terrorists on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the death of twelve people is appalling enough, even without the implied attack on a free press and freedom of expression. We are naturally outraged, and the impulse to join together in solidarity under the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ banner is almost overwhelming.
But I’m resisting the temptation, and I’m not very happy, because it’s an uncomfortable position to be in. Here’s why. First take a look at the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed cartoons, with English translations.
Some of these cartoons are vile, for example this one.
Compare it to this antisemitic cartoon from the Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer.
Both cartoons vilify an entire religion and by implication all its followers. Now you might say that satire is meant to be offensive, and of course it is. The great tradition of British cartoon satire held nothing back, and Steve Bell is its torch bearer. Here’s an example of his work.
The image of George Osborne is personalised, as with Muhammed, but it’s not implicating every Tory voter as scum of the earth. Or presenting a stereotype, as in the Der Sturmer cartoon, inviting the reader to tar all Tory voters with the same brush.
The point is that if freedom of expression is sacrosanct, then some of those expressions will inevitably be racist, zenophobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic. You have to ask who produced them and why. So the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ meme is fine when you’re defending an abstract right, but the Devil’s in the details. It’s such a big tent that any racist, zenophobe and Islamophobe can happily crowd in, along with the people who genuinely care about freedom of expression.
The ICBMs have been launched. This is it – the End of the World – so what would you like to watch or listen to in the few minutes before a massive EMP wipes out all electronic communication?
There is an urban legend that Ted Turner, founder of CNN, planned to capture this demographic with a pre-Apocalypse video to be played as the last broadcast on his channel, before the bombs fell. It turns out to be true, as reported in the Guardian, and you can see the video here.
Well, what do you think? I think it’s the expression of everything that made a nuclear war possible – sentimental jingoism, aided and abetted by a military band, to convince patriotic Americans that their sacrifice was worth the cause of defeating communism. Appropriating Nearer My God to Thee, famously played by the ship’s band on the Titanic, is particularly cynical. The iceberg was a blameless force of nature, nuclear brinkmanship a calculated political decision.
So what else might we while away the minutes with? Tom Lehrer, who gave up satire when real life began stealing his best lines, brought us this.
See? We’re all in this together. On the other hand, communal spirit sounds suspiciously like communism, so perhaps we shouldn’t go with that. What’s needed is some old time religion, conflating Jesus with the atom bomb.
For myself, the song that’s most associated with the end of the world is Waltzing Matilda. That’s because of Stanley Kramer’s powerful yet understated 1959 film about nuclear annihilation, On the Beach. Nuclear war in the the Northern hemisphere has wiped out all human life, but Australia is unscathed. Unfortunately, radiation is drifting into the Southern hemisphere and Australia waits to see if it will survive. It doesn’t. Everybody dies.
Waltzing Matilda threads its way through the soundtrack, in many different tones and arrangements, as a haunting refrain to the inevitable death of the human race. Here’s the opening scene.
And here’s the final scene.
What’s more sad than a song with no-one left to sing or dance to it?