The symmetry: Charlie Hebdo
[ by Charles Cameron — my apologies for an earlier incomplete draft, quickly withdrawn — first of two, on loose cannonry and mirror imagery — second will deal with recent events in Benghazi ]
Charlie Hebdo recently published some cartoons featuring the prophet…
Okay, I’m always on about symmetry.
I posted a piece titled Messianic symmetries on ZP a while back, noting that both Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu can be viewed as exercising “leadership that makes decisions out of messianic feelings” — the quote comes from an unimpressed ex-Shin Beth director describing Bibi; Ahmadinejad makes the case for his own Mahdist leabings quite well himself.
Symmetry seems like an important analytic category to me, either because it’s there in the build of the world, or because it’s there in the build of the mind. Either way, I think we should take careful notice of symmetries.
Asymmetries I’ll talk about in my next post.
What about the cartoon above, right? It’s clearly based on the photo above, left, which shows Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, holding his magazine with its offensive cartoons / vindication of free speech. And the suggestion is clear that he’s some kind of suicide bomber.
But who is he blowing up, exactly? Himself, and perhaps his staff and anyone else who happens to be within a few yards of his office at the time? France, Europe, the western world — the world itself? And how much irony should we read into the cartoon portrait?
They may have learned the technique from the Tamil Tigers, but these days, in the immediate wake of widespread rioting over the video clip and in the context of someone publishing cartoons that satirize the prophet, it’s clearly Islamist suicide bombers who provide the model for the cartoon of the cartoonist above.
Tit for tat? An eye for an eye? You’re just setting yourself up for a fatwa like Salman Rushdie?
Incendiary rhetoric on one side leads to incendiary behavior on the other, validating the incendiary rhetoric and making the escalation to incendiary behavior all the more probable.
Some of the incendiary rhetoric has its origin in holy books, which also preach peace.
There are Coptic Christians utterly blindsided by the virulence of the video, attributed to one of their number. There are Libyan Muslims utterly blindsided by the virulence of the attack on the US Embassy, attributed to some of their own.
I want to focus not on the specifics of the topic, but on the symmetry.
One writer, observing the partition of India and Pakistan, wrote:
The rioters brought the train to a stop. Those who belonged to the other religion were methodically picked out and slaughtered. After it was all over, those who remained were treated to a feast of milk, custard pies and fresh fruit.
Before the train moved off, the leader of the assassins made a small farewell speech: “Dear brothers and sisters, since we were not sure about the time of your train’s arrival, regretfully we were not able to offer you anything better than this most modest hospitality. We would have liked to have done more.”
Commenting on this paragraph, Ali Sethi wrote recently in the New Yorker:
That is all there is: murder—methodical and quick—followed by a feast and an ingratiating speech. Note the withholding of tags: we don’t know the location of the massacre or the religion of the killers. All we have is a spurt of base instincts.
The point here is that whenever you see a symmetry of opposites, it’s worth considering that symmetry in the abstract, as well as weighing the particular issues that drive your own side or the other.
That, I’d suggest, is one of the implications of that Paul van Riper remark I’m fond of quoting:
What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. We’re only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third is to get a bird’s-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.
I am concerned about hatred, simmering here, boiling over there. I am concerned about what sparks hatred, and what fans it. What I want to draw your attention to here, though, is the process by which one hatred fuels abother, the process of mirror imaging.
Mark Juergensmeyer, a terrific scholar of religion who has published on topics ranging from Gandhi‘s nonviolence to the violence of religionists who consider themselves sanctioned by the scriptures of various religions, makes the point in a recent Religion Dispatches post thus:
The US-based Islamophobes behind the insulting and amateurish video “The Innocence of Muslims,” and those behind the violent protests it allegedly caused around the Muslim world, are kindred hatemongers. Both are extremists with a political agenda, and both want to use this incident to discredit the legitimacy of the moderate governments in power in their respective countries. There is a symbiotic relationship between the strident protesters and the bigoted filmmakers; each needs the other.
We are in a hall of incendiary mirrors, with plenty of kindling: in my view, we should avoid playing with matches.
Thank God, there are also asymmetries.
In a companion post, I’ll take a look at recent, very promising events in Benghazi (h/t to Pundita for a pointer to this particular article), the not particularly unsurprising but unwelcome attitude of a Pakistani minister, and the imbalances that go along with the dangerous balances I’ve discussed in this post.
Oh, and let me digress…
I won the Divinity essay prize back in my schooldays at Wellington College, and received my chosen prize book, the Liber Usualis with its glorious collection of Gregorian Chants, from the then Minister of Defence, John Profumo, MP. Not long thereafter, it was discovered that he pillow talked with one Christine Keeler, a night lady of class, who also pillow talked with the Russian defence attaché. And the story was broken, week by glorious week, by the British satirical magazine, Private Eye.
Which I consequently have an affection for, after all these years. And I tell you this, because Charlie Hebdo, or Weekly Chuck as we might call it over here is, I’d suggest, a plausible latter-day French rough equivalent of Private Eye.
I don’t really like our guys posting inflammatory materials, you see, but I also have an affection for freedom of speech — and for magazines with a satirical bite, too…
So sue me, I contain multitudes.
September 23rd, 2012 at 8:51 pm
I somehow missed one of the key points I wanted to make about symmetric standoffs, halls of mirrors, echo-chambers: the fact that symmetric standoffs can oh so very easily climb the ladders of escalation, halls of mirrors can oh so very easily warp perceptions, echo chambers so very easily create howling feedback loops.
I’ll let David Ignatius make the point for me. In his WaPo post Lessons from an Iranian war game three days ago, Ignatius wrote:
That was pretty much his opening salvo — and he concluded, quoting Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Saban Center, who had organized the war game Ignatius was describing:
And if I may go all psychological for a moment: those who are most adept at making rapid decisions may not be the people best equipped for avoiding cross-cultural misunderstandings. Eh?
September 25th, 2012 at 4:11 am
Charles — re “I won the Divinity essay prize back in my schooldays at Wellington College, and received my chosen prize book, the Liber Usualis with its glorious collection of Gregorian Chants, from the then Minister of Defence, John Profumo, MP. Not long thereafter, it was discovered that he pillow talked with one Christine Keeler, a night lady of class, who also pillow talked with the Russian defence attaché.” —
Divine. Absolutely divine. An aside: One wonders why, with so many ministers to choose from, the defense minister was considered suitable to bestow a prize on a Divinity student. I will be peevish if you provide a prosaic answer such as Profumo went to Wellington — unless, of course, he was also a Divinity student.
September 25th, 2012 at 4:49 pm
Thanks, Pundita. Prosaically, I was only one of many prizewinners that day, the school was founded in the name of the Iron Duke and provided back then an eighth of the Sandhurst intake, and thus for a general prize-giving, the Minister of Defence was appropriate. Less prosaically, they wanted to invite the Pope but learned he had no battalions, so turned to the nearest guy who did. And in the grand lila of things, Great Irony knew I’d wind up at Zenpundit and thought it would be fun in retrospect, and provide me with a neat paragraph.
I do hope I haven’t left you peevish.
September 26th, 2012 at 6:31 am
Charles – “Less prosaically, they wanted to invite the Pope but learned he had no battalions, so turned to the nearest guy who did. And in the grand lila of things, Great Irony knew I’d wind up at Zenpundit and thought it would be fun in retrospect, and provide me with a neat paragraph.”
Somehow all this reminds me of a perfectly ghastly true story about the Buddha. I will have to dig up the details I read it so long ago, but the gist is that a king sought his advice on a political matter; this was years after he’d established the Sangha. Being a renunciate he couldn’t speak to the matter but answsered in a general fashion. The king then used his observations as justification to launch a massacre. In this way the Buddha learned: never make general observaitons to a man with an army at his command.
September 26th, 2012 at 6:38 am
PS: Charles — That last shouldn’t be taken as any kind of a criticism of your interest in war because that would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.