When Peter Cook opened comedy club The Establishment, he was asked by press to describe the entertainment Londoners could expect. He said he would take inspiration from the satirical Berlin cabarets of the 1930s that had done “so much to stop the rise of Adolf Hitler and prevent the Second World War”.
Cook, a truly great vulgarian with a lifelong commitment to taking a shit on everything, knew the power of satire. Which is to say, ineffective against bullets. He would not have proposed satire as a useful measure against the killers of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists but perhaps would have poked a little fun at The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore, who yesterday enjoined us all to “ridicule” these gunmen. “They fear laughter,” she said. Which is probably not terribly true, but, even if it is, certainly not as true as the fact of their fear of Kalashnikov malfunction.
Laughter may be the best medicine yet concocted by citizens of liberal democracies to soothe the pain of knowing that not everyone in the world enjoys their cultural and material comforts. That doesn’t mean it’s an especially potent one. Yet, every other person with a smartphone connected to a Western network seems today to disagree with Cook and with history as they transmit their belief that a war can be resolved with good jokes.
Today, apparently, we are all Charlie and today, we are all circulating some optimistically dreadful cartoons whose crude self-importance rivals some of the worst printed in that publication. Dave Brown of The Independent gives us a disembodied middle finger rising from the cover of a bloodied magazine. Dutch cartoonist Ruben L. Oppenheimer offers up a pair of pencils refigured as the twin towers. The most popular cartoon, initially attributed to Banksy, is the work of Lucille Clerc and here again, the joyful war of the cartoonist on terror is affirmed as we see pencils cruelly broken and then resharpened to document another day.
The message is clear and as unified as the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag that appends it: the civilised people of Paris find creative ways to settle disputes. Well, that is, apart from the Terrors. And the May riot of 1968. And the June Rebellion of 1832. And the Paris Commune. And the Resistance of 1944.
I’m not strong on history but I am reasonably sure that there has been little effective recourse in statecraft to jokes. It is, of course, a lovely idealism that replaces weapons with works of art and if territorial claims could be settled with skill, then the Reichskulturkammer would have come a very distant second to the so-called “degenerate” painting of pre-war Germany.
That cartoons can seem to provoke offence that mutates into brutal violence is not evidence “they fear laughter” and it is certainly not evidence that this laughter is any kind of panacea, despite what a posthumously reposted Christopher Hitchens might have to say on the matter in Slate. And this planned atrocity in Paris is not even evidence of an attack on freedom of expression. It is evidence of war.
We are at war. Of course, it’s a disordered, post-modern war with all the focus of a puppy in a pile of turds. The ongoing conflict between the illiberal East and the “civilised” West makes Vietnam seem like a game of checkers and many of its manoeuvres and players on both sides are illicit, concealed and unwillingly detained in battle.
It’s not just “them” opposing “our way of life” and refusing to sort out their problems in the fashion of Paris intellectuals. One does not simply hold up an art nouveau mirror to a pseudo-soldier whose family has been minced by Lockheed Martin and say “this is the way we do things in the West” with any hope of success. Militant Islamists don’t become militant Islamists because they have no good cartoonists. They become militant Islamists because they have their cultural and social roots in nations where pencils are even harder to come by than clean water.
Let it be plainly said for anyone who might mistake an impatience for righteous idealism with an endorsement of violence: shooting people is terrible. But what is also terrible in its foolishness is to elevate art or satire to a false state of moral primacy. We cannot go to war and endorse, as we explicitly do, the physical destruction of cultural institutions in Arab and Gulf States and then be surprised by retaliation. “How could they do this?” we ask, apparently amnesic that we did it first and better.
Let it also be plainly said that as a professional ratbag myself, I feel very keenly for the slaughtered cartoonists. I know it’s an extraordinary privilege to live in a nation where I can freely commit a thought like “your soft hypocritical faux liberalism and broken pencil symbolism disgusts me” to public expression and be paid for it with no expectation that you will do anything more violent to me than bitch on Facebook.
But, like Peter Cook, I know that this expression is every bit as powerful as Weimar cabaret. Art, satire and journalism do not win battles. At the very best, they can describe those battles in terms we can understand. And I’d have to say, the cartoonist’s art of recent hours is failing on that score. When all we have to recount what may or may not turn out to be the latest conflagration in a 30-year war is a bunch of images that say nothing other than how the production of a bunch of images is somehow a proof of freedom in the West, we might want to rethink what we are doing with our much-vaunted freedom of expression.
We don’t need to use art to tell ourselves that murder is morally wrong. But, nor should we use art to remind us — as though we needed reminding — that what we are doing to Islamic nations is somehow morally right. And I say this not only because I happen to believe that what we are doing in Islamic nations is morally wrong but because I believe that art has no real business upholding the self-confidence of the culture.
Of course, art can do whatever it pleases and I will defend to the (metaphoric, let’s be honest) death its right to displease me. But I will not pretend that the art of the Charlie Hedbo or that which commemorates it was produced free of agenda or context. It was a servant to ruling interests and so, even less empowered to end a war than Peter Cook’s delightful cabaret.