Saturday, December 17, 2016

Books by Friends

As excited as I am by the recent publication of my own book, I'm equally stoked that several of my good friends have books out this season, all of which should be read by you and your loved ones. They are, in no particular order:

Searching for John Hughes, by Jason Diamond
I grew up in Manhattan and the movies of John Hughes were farther away from my experience than Kids, but Jason's memoir is relatable, moving, and enjoyable for its wit and emotion without the necessary pop culture sympathies. 

Hot Sauce Nation, by Denver Nicks
Denver's cross-country survey of hot sauce covers history, science, and personal stories with brilliant prose. 

Stuffed Animals, by Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato
My friend Divya makes incredible art from dead organisms and with her new book, you can too!

Atlas Obscura, by Ella Morton, Joshua Foer, and Dylan Thuras
Atlas Obscura is one of the best sites on the internet, chronicling the most interesting places and things in the world. Ella's labor of love is a masterpiece that should be read for decades to come, if not centuries. 

The Good Immigrant, by Coco Khan and others
I'm still waiting for this one to arrive in the mail, but it's been making waves in the UK, with Coco's essay garnering particular critical acclaim.

Amberlough, by Laura Elena Donnely
This one's not out yet, but you should pre-order it. Lara's fantasy-espionage novel, set in a kind of Weimar dystopia, is a work of unique vision and lush prose. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

We Are Dandy is here!

Dear Readers,

The moment is finally upon us to celebrate “We Are Dandy,” our second survey on international dandyism, this time adding two continents and ten countries to this mighty project. As the world seems increasingly fractious and unmoored, eminent photographer Rose Callahan and I are pleased to report that dandyism not only perseveres but does indeed flourish, even in unlikely and infertile soils.

We spent several months canvassing North America, Europe, Japan, and South Africa for elegant gentlemen, and found ourselves saddled with a surfeit of rakish toffs and sporty knaves all eager to preen and proclaim for our camera and pen. We also somehow managed to convince elegant icon and legendary smokeshow Dita von Teese to write the book’s preface.

I’ll take this opportunity to share a couple of my favorites with you, but I urge you to purchase the book when it goes on sale in the US very soon, ideally from our publisher Gestalten or at your local bookstore. (Although you could also have some company send it to your door via flying robot, I hear.)

Ever yours,
Nathaniel “Natty” Adams

This is the cover, featuring Tokyo's dandy barber Yoshio Suyama

 George Skeggs, the dandy of Soho, London

 "Fresh" & Ntabiso Sojane in Johannesburg, South Africa

 Mark Haldeman and James Aguiar in Brooklyn, New York

 Baron Ambrosia in the Bronx, New York

 Poggy in Tokyo, Japan

 Makoto Iida in Tokyo, Japan

Loux the Vintage Guru and crew in Johannesburg, South Africa

Monday, June 13, 2016

On Islam and Orlando

Updated: See below

More than 50 civilians are dead and dozens more have been wounded in the worst mass shooting in modern American history. The perpetrator, a familiarly pious fanatic, targeted these men and women for the crimes of loving whom they please, expressing themselves, living freely, and enjoying their lives, because in his petty, pathetic, filthy, narrow-minded religion, these people are less than human and their rights as such are forfeit. This is not only because of their sexuality, but for their rejection of his particular brand of his faith.

There are some clear failures on the part of our security. This man was investigated twice by the FBI but still had a security guard license and was still able to get an AR-15 assault rifle and other firearms legally in the county where he committed the crime. This is a scandal. It’s obvious that we need stronger gun control in this country. And perhaps the murderer was mentally ill, and we do need strong services for the mentally ill. But it is suicidal madness to ignore the deeply-held religious beliefs of the killer as the main motive for this attack.

I brace myself for the all-too-familiar bile drip I feel after these events when people inevitably swear this has nothing to do with religion or ideology, and instead seek to blame anything else - usually American foreign policy or Western institutions or even feelings of marginalization among Muslims in the West - for the murder of dozens of gay men and women by a devout religious ideologue. Instead we are all too often told that it is in fact the religious who deserve protection from our criticisms, our cartoons, our words.

The global enemy’s targets include novelists, artists, journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, filmmakers, secularists, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Yazidis, Kurds, gays, women, human rights lawyers, progressive politicians, even the wrong kind of Muslims. What will it take for liberals around the world to unite against such a naked and self-declared threat to the institutions of democracy, pluralism, free expression, and liberty that we know to be necessary to a fair and functioning society? What will it take to even have an honest examination of the belief systems espoused by the killers? When will we stop playing nice with the medieval and prehistoric dogmas which lead grown men to murder, rape, enslave, and indoctrinate their own children in hatred?

I’ve already a few articles of the kind which always pop up after these events when they occur in non-Muslim majority countries: “Muslims fear backlash.” This seems to occur whether the attacks were in New York, Bali, Boston, Madrid, London (during the bombings, beheading of drummer Rigby, and recent stabbing,) Paris (after Charlie Hebdo and November,) Ottowa, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Glasgow, Kampala, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Cologne, Toulouse, Dijon, Lyon, Chattanooga, Berlin, and Brussels (both the Jewish Museum attack and the recent airport attack.) I include this extensive a list so people don’t forget how widespread the problem is. This obviously doesn’t include the mayhem, slaughter, and oppression being carried out in the name of Islam across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. I’m not sure what the exact nature of this greatly-feared “backlash” might be, but so far it seems to mainly be a rhetorical one. It’s true that anti-Muslim rhetoric is something to be worried about (and something to recognize as different from criticism of both Islam and Islamism,) and there are always reports of spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes - often vandalism and some assaults - after episodes of Islamic terror, but pogroms against Muslims have not broken out in the capitols of the Western world, and - Donald Trump notwithstanding - most politicians go well out of their way to stress that not all Muslims are terrorists (as if anyone deserving of being taken seriously has ever claimed that they are.) Muslims are well within their right and reason to be worried about their frightened neighbors’ reactive attitudes toward them when a member of their faith commits an atrocity while invoking Islamic teachings. But I always can’t help but being insulted by the implicit suggestion that the vast majority of citizens of liberal democracies around the world are violent bigots foaming at the mouth to kill muslims given the slightest excuse. If that didn’t happen after 9/11 it won’t happen now. The reaction of most of our fellow citizens has almost invariably been support, outreach, and concern. No embassies have been burned, no hostages have been taken, and no citizens have been set upon by baying lynch mobs. After all, its not like someone drew a cartoon or something.

In global terms Islam is not an oppressed minority religion. There are approximately a billion and a half Muslims worldwide. There are more than two dozen majority Muslim countries with immense power as a voting bloc in the UN (they do, significantly, repeatedly object to any gay rights declarations or legislation.) Muslims living in the West are generally afforded more freedom to practice their religion as they personally see fit than they would be in many officially Islamic countries which seek to regulate and police the faith of their citizens. And nobody is more oppressed by Islamic fundamentalism than Muslims around the world. It shouldn’t be wrong to ask that members of a faith take the lead in getting their own house in order. Indeed, one would think that a far more courteous and kind proposition than offering to do it for them. There should be no shame in insisting that people take an unequivocal stand not just against terrorism (that’s the absolute least they could do,) but against the most outdated and intolerant dogmas and doctrines in their religions - the elements which have no place in a modern society. If coexistence is our goal then honest and open reform shouldn’t be too much to ask in its pursuit. Yet thousands of young Muslims flock to the most unimaginably horrific terror groups around the world while comparatively few seem to be interested in - for example - taking up arms in foreign lands to defend their faith from the extremists whom we are repeatedly told have hijacked something great and good. Instead they insist that “Islamophobia” is a more pressing concern than the droves of their co-religionists seduced by their faith’s most backward, stupid, and outmoded tenets. Reflexively shouting “not all Muslims,” is about as helpful as those who yell “not all men” when confronted with issues of the rape or sexual assault of women. Of course not all of them - but who bears some of the responsibility of preventing this from continuing to happen? Who is in the best position to fight this evil?

Barney Frank, the openly gay former Representative from Massachussetts has no illusions about all of this and generally agrees with my assessment: “There is an Islamic element here. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t do this, but there is clearly, sadly, an element in the interpretation of Islam that has some currency, some interpretation in the Middle East that encourages killing people — and L.G.B.T. people are on that list. And I think it is fair to ask leaders of the Islamic community, religious and otherwise, to spend some time combatting this.’’

Religious fundamentalism - currently most virulent and dangerous worldwide in its Islamic form - is and always has been the enemy of progress and a poor substitute for an informed and reason-based humanistic moral system (when it hasn’t been hostile to such an idea outright.) Religious freedom needs to be protected and defended, but religious beliefs do not, and - especially when they conflict with human decency, peace, and freedom - should be criticized, debated, mocked, satirized, and ridiculed. Whatever warm and fuzzy feelings of personal communion with the godhead or sense of belonging to an in-group or community of the chosen faithful or appeals to charity that religions may provide simply do not outweigh the division, suffering, violence, intolerance, hatred, exclusion, and oppression preached by almost all of their foundational texts and practiced by all too many of their adherents.

In this case, one of the first people to say “this had nothing to do with religion” was the killer’s father. He also said “I don’t know what caused this. I did not know and did not understand that he has anger in his heart.” It would seem that he did in fact know what caused this and that it does in fact have something to do with religion: in the same interview he said “only God can punish homosexuality. This is not an issue for humans to punish.” In a Facebook video he published after the attack, he reiterated: “God will punish those involved in homosexuality," saying it's, "not an issue that humans should deal with."

Human kind has little hope so long as we remain too afraid to question and ultimately outgrow these ancient and wicked beliefs, rooted in superstitious nonsense. Anybody who cares about liberal and progressive values should be firmly on the side of secularism and against religious fundamentalism no matter what religion it happens to be. The international left should revisit its anticlerical roots and extend the same degree of criticism and antagonism to the conservative Islamic right as it does to its Christian counterpart. We can and should rail against the bigoted, homophobic and transphobic American demagogues who want to stop gay and trans people from getting married and using whatever bathrooms they choose, but we should never lose sight of the countless ones in positions of power and influence across the Muslim world who openly want to stop them from breathing. When a Christian fundamentalist attacks an abortion clinic, a chorus doesn’t bleat out “this has nothing to do with his religion.” And yet…

Update: It seems - surprise, surprise - that the murderer may have been a closeted homosexual himself, having visited the club and possibly several others, maybe having asked out a male friend once, and having profiles on several gay dating apps. He was also said to have drunk heavily at the club, something forbidden in Islam. Far from shifting the motive away from religion, this kind of behavior only speaks to the kind of psychological torture religion can impose on people whose identities conflict with the teaching of their faith. Far be it from me to pity a killer, any more than I pity the Catholic priests who rape children. But I can't help but think if it weren't for religion's twisted relationship to human sexuality and the proscriptions and regulations of sexual relationships found in nearly all major religions, we'd see a lot less of this kind of thing. Religion is, historically speaking, the single greatest enemy of sexual liberation and homosexuality in particular. Nothing has persecuted, demonized, or tormented gay men and women than religion and religious institutions. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

More Thoughts About Dress Codes and Headscarves

Last week I wrote about sartorial liberty and the controversy in the West over Islamic dress codes for women (my TEDx talk will be posted soon.) My position - that dress codes are inherently illiberal, especially when applied only to a specific segment of the population or community, regardless of whether the source is secular or religious - remains the same. But, faced with the perverse idea of “World Hijab Day,” in which non-Muslim women are encouraged to wear a headscarf in “solidarity” with Muslim women, there’s one particular question which bears asking and needs honest answers. 

The New York Times has published one of its “Room for Debate” series on the topic, and I unsurprisingly agree with those who argue that hijab is a conservative and superficial symbol of religion and identity, rather than a true indicator of someone’s faith, and that women who choose not to wear the hijab need just as much support (if not more,) than those who do. World Hijab Day legitimizes one particular conservative religious practice and expression over others and risks disempowering, delegitimizing, and undermining the religious credibility and identity of those Muslim women who choose not to practice hijab. 

I believe that those in the most danger deserve the most support. This brings me to my question: is it more dangerous for a Muslim woman living in a conservative Islamic country or community to resist hijab or for a Muslim woman in a liberal society to wear it? I think it’s obvious that the former is much more dangerous, especially when taken on a global scale. Reports of fathers and brothers killing their own daughters, sisters, and wives because of perceived affronts to family honor by even appearing to be insufficiently modest are heard all too often, to say nothing of harsh official punishments in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reports of women in hijab being harassed on the streets in Western cities are also heard, but with nothing like the scale or nature of the threat as the former. It seems obvious that a woman going without a headscarf in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many Muslim communities in the West would run a greater risk of harassment (if not arrest, corporal, or even capital punishment,) than a Muslim woman living in a liberal, secular country who decides to wear one. 

This begs a larger question: which is a bigger problem in the world today - Islamism or “Islamophobia” (although I prefer Maajid Nawaz’s more accurate and helpful phrase “anti-Muslim bigotry.”) I tend to think the former is a bigger problem than the latter. It isn’t just that women, gays, and religious minorities are safer and better off in liberal democracies than they are in Islamist countries - Muslims themselves enjoy more rights and freedoms in secular countries than they do in theocratic ones. Anti-Muslim bigotry in the West is indeed a problem and it needs to be fought against. But Muslims in liberal societies tend to be legally far freer to worship, dress, and live as they choose than Muslims in theocratic societies.  So who is really in peril and more in need of support and solidarity: the woman who dares to wear a headscarf in New York or the woman who dares to uncover her hair in Tehran?

The only World Hijab Day that would approach fairness or justice would be one in which Muslim women who do choose hijab remove it for a day in solidarity with their Muslim sisters who choose not to follow a dress code. Short of that, a day in which Muslim men are encouraged to try a headscarf for a day to support their sisters who wear one - either by choice or by force - might make for an interesting change. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Freeing the Nipple, Banning the Burqa: On Sartorial Liberty

I have consistently seen that, when faced with the twin demons of Islamist theocracy and anti-Muslim bigotry, some of my friends on the left will side with the former rather than being accused of the latter.

I recently had the honor, privilege, and pleasure of giving a TEDx talk in Jersey City on the topic of dress codes and sartorial freedom (I'll post a video as soon as its up.) One dress code I discussed was hijab, or the varied practice across many Muslim communities of either requiring or recommending that women cover themselves up in some particular way. Recently, in one of the usual shows of supposed solidarity that some on the left like to make after a terrorist attack over a not-unfounded fear of a backlash against Muslims, some non-Muslim women are donning hijab. This is a very misguided way to show support for Muslims who face bigotry because by implicitly endorsing the hijab as a symbol of Islam and Muslim womanhood it undermines the claims of validity and piety of Muslim women who choose not to cover themselves and, more importantly, those who are fighting for their right not to cover themselves in places where it is mandatory. Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa wrote an excellent op-Ed piece in the Washington Post about this a week ago and today the always-incisive Maajid Nawaz wrote a column for the Daily Beast on the same subject.

Some might assume that someone as passionate about dressing up as I am would be in favor of dress codes that call for greater formality, but the main point of my talk was that the clothes a person wears are robbed of all meaning and power and neutered as personal expression if they become mandatory - a uniform. As it is, I'm against all dress odes but the narrowest ones regarding safety, just as I'm against all speech codes apart from those proscribing actual immediate threats.

When I say all dress codes I mean all dress codes, no matter what the authority. I think a government telling you what to wear is just as wrong as a holy book telling you what to wear. I think a cop telling women they shouldn't dress like sluts in order not to get raped (the inspiration for the "Slutwalk" marches,) is no more offensive than an Imam telling a girl that modesty is her duty so that she might be protected from the supposedly uncontrollable lusts of men.

As a secularist, freedom of religion is very important to me, as is the freedom to criticize religion. This position, which may seem contradictory is central to the very idea of secularism, and it's been highlighted nowhere more clearly in recent days than in the controversy over Islamic clothing in Western societies. In the most recent Canadian election, the question of women wearing the full face covering at citizenship ceremonies became a campaign issue. Raheel Raza wrote a passionate article in the Huffington Post explaining that by allowing or defending the burqa or niqab, well-meaning liberals were in fact defending a backward, repressive, and extremist version of their religion and validating a cultural practice they themselves see as illegitimate and non-obligatory. Salman Rushdie has in the past talked about the generations of Muslim women in his Kashmiri family who would have fought and died rather than be forced to wear a veil.

Where I disagree with Raza is in her call to ban the burqa and niqab in Canada. I think this is a big mistake. Aside from the fact that it may further alienate Muslims and play into a grievance narrative about Muslims being persecuted in the West, I don't believe that its the government's place to tell people what they can and can't wear. It's a clear violation of freedom of expression, which I believe should be nearly absolute. (I should note that in some instances and places, such as government buildings, hospitals, and schools, prohibiting face coverings and masks make perfect sense to me as security measures.)

This isn't to say that I approve of the burqa or even the hijab. Quite the opposite. I find them unfair, ugly, and inherently sexist, simply because girls are made to wear them but their brothers aren't. A rule applied unevenly to women and men should be the very definition of sexism, to say nothing of the fact that the reason often given for such dress codes is the notion of modesty being a woman's duty. Making female sexual purity a focal point of morality, aloingside poisonous notions of familial honor is terrible. Reducing a woman's piety to her outward performance of chastity is a shallow spirituality. And any god who would demand that half his creation cover themselves would necessarily be a small and petty one. This doesn't strike me as the basis for any noble or grand theology.

Western feminists don't seem to be lining up to denounce Islamic dress codes imposed on women as vocally as they denounce other authorities telling them that they should or shouldn't dress a certain way. They seem uncharacteristically quiet when their sisters in countries with mandatory modesty laws bravely resist them - at risk of great, even corporal, punishment - and ask for solidarity. I can only suppose that this is out of some kind of cultural sensitivity - that it is not their place to criticize another culture. This sort of relativism is a betrayal of internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and universal human solidarity. And it does little good to remain silent on the question of dress codes in a secular society - especially in cases when they overwhelmingly affect the lives of women. The most perverse pretzel-like twisting of this accommodation to extremism is the sight of self-proclaimed feminists donning hijab in "solidarity."

An argument can be made that items like the hijab are important symbols of identity to some Muslim women. Aside from the implication that women who don't cover themselves or who resist dress codes aren't somehow authentically Muslim, the argument that an item of clothing is central to someone's cultural identity doesn't automatically make it a good thing. If it did, we'd be much more accepting of idiots with Confederate Battle Flag patches on their jean jackets blathering on about their heritage and Southern way of life. And, to follow on from an earlier point, dress codes (rather than just dress,) tend to express group identity rather than individual identity, and if the expression is mandatory it cease to be an expression of personal value (i.e. if someone or some authority is telling you have no choice in the matter that also means you have no voice in the matter.) As a result, the hijab is only a meaningful personal expression of piety, identity, spirituality, religion, and community, in circumstances where there is no law or pressure on the woman wearing it, whether from her family, community, state, or clergy.

Again, I don't think banning burqas or hijab is the answer to sexist religious dress codes any more than banning the rebel flag is the answer to racism. I think that Muslim women in the west should be completely free to follow any dress codes their conscience demands of them (provided it is of their free choice and not coerced or pressures,) but people should recognize that that same freedom means that their expression and practice must be open to examination and criticism, and a frank discussion of the value of a female-only religious dress code shouldn't be dismissed, derailed, or silenced by bogus charges of racism, bigotry, or Islamophobia. We must defend peoples freedom to wear what they choose while exercising our freedom to speak out against all dress codes.

For those of us who don't follow religious or clerically-demanded dress codes, we should lead by example, not by making laws limiting how others can dress and express their religion, but by demonstrating to young generations of women of all cultures that a woman's value and worth isn't tied to her wardrobe, and that the right to dress as one chooses is universally empowering, whether you choose to follow a dress code or not.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Katy Perry and the Pleasures of Pop

It’s rare that something I read on the internet that isn’t about ISIS - the world’s worst straight edge youth crew – riles me up, but Heather Havrilesky’s hatchet-wielding “takedown” of Katy Perry in New York Magazine did. When people first learn that I unashamedly love Katy Perry, they often assume that as a 30-something straight man my fondness is purely carnal. There is that, of course, (and why would being one of the most beautiful American celebrities since Elizabeth Taylor be such a bad trait in a pop star?) but I genuinely enjoy her music and I like the personality (or persona,) that she shows the public. What’s more, the reasons I like Katy Perry seem to be exactly the things Havrilesky, and others I’ve spoken with, dislike – or in this case hate – about her.

Havrilesky writes with the venom of someone who, having walked in on Ms. Perry in bed with her lover, has decided to write about her while fuming at a desk in the same room while the adulterers finish. She describes Katy Perry as “the very essence of reassuring, non-threatening stagnancy. She encapsulates that remaining, silent majority (It never goes away! Don't fool yourselves!) that doesn't like to be challenged at all, ever, for any reason — not by women, not by music, not by the weather, not by anything.” Havrilesky then goes on to compare her – to say unfavorably would be an understatement – with Beyonce and Taylor Swift, then presumes to know the mind of Perry by speculating that her endorsement of Hilary Clinton “suggests nothing more than the fact that Katy Perry would prefer to sound like someone who stands for something, even though she isn't that person and never has been.”

Shelly once called poets the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world. It would seem that these days some people expect our pop stars to take on that role. It is precisely the fact that Katy Perry’s music, persona, and polished performances lack the pretension of Lady Gaga’s quasi-glam art school costume party, Beyonce’s bravely standing in front of the word feminist, Miley Cyrus’s Terry Richardson shock pop, or Nicki Minaj’s deeply empowering meditations on the sound of two butt cheeks clapping, that makes her so appealling. Not because we, her fans, are too lowbrow and afraid of being challenged, but because some people can find intellectual interest and fulfillment beyond the Billboard charts.

Katy Perry doesn’t take herself too seriously, and that seems to bug the hell out of people like Havrilesky, who demand that pop stars be more than pop stars. But why should our pop music necessarily do more than give us pleasure? Why isn't the pleasure of pop and end in itself? Does Havrilesky lament the fact that “Mr. Postman” wasn’t a righteous denunciation of the United States Postal System? Or that “Surfin’ Bird” didn’t do enough to raise awareness of the plight of marine fowl? Perhaps “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was a far slyer dig at the patriarchy than I give it credit for. She might point to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” as a right-on feminist anthem, were it not for the fact that it was originally written and sung by Otis Redding.

Yes, Katy Perry’s music is bubblegum. Delicious bubblegum. And while it's true that a diet of nothing but bubblegum isn’t good, the occasional chew, blow, and pop can give people a lot of pleasure and happiness. Unfortunately this kind of pleasure unadulterated by guilt and a vague semblance of making a point (or at least pretending to,) is what some people can’t stand.

Havrilesky claims that Katy Perry doesn’t have a look, and then immediately complains that her look never changes (which would imply that there is, after all, a look in the first place.) For some reason, the idea of consistency baffles and outrages Havrilesky. Katy Perry’s aesthetic palette is rich even if it isn’t eclectic (I would argue that comparing Perry’s stylish Moschino ads to her tongue-in-cheek goofy videos shows quite a nice range of styles for someone often dressed by other people.) It would seem that Havrilesky would prefer a pop star whose costume changes are more radical, like David Bowie or The Beatles or maybe even Duke Ellington’s unfortunate end-of-life Dashikis and ponytail. One would have to assume that Havrilesky thinks the Ramones leather jackets and ripped jeans wasn't a "look" because it never changed. Her sartorial-aesthetic sense is calibrated only as a motion detector.

Katy Perry has one of the rarest qualities in today’s often-sanctimonious celebrities: a sense of humor. She’s unafraid to look silly, make fun of herself, and unapologetically enjoy it. For some reason, a woman having fun on her own terms and getting pleasure out of goofing off isn’t a sufficient “message” for a pop star to have. If you want to see Katy Perry at her best, watch the video for “Birthday,” a hidden camera piece in which she makes herself absurd with makeup and prostheses and masquerades as various awful birthday entertainers (including an elderly stripper and a Jewish comedian,) at actual birthday parties. It’s a perfect, puckish example of Katy Perry’s joyous, life-affirming embrace of pleasure without pretense. Picture Kanye West or Beyonce or Taylor Swift making themselves deliberately unattractive and ridiculous in a video.

One final point. Havrilesky makes a very big deal out of the song “Firework,” somehow operating under the misapprehension that “firework” is never a singular word:
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag — not because you're polluting the oceans, but because you "want to start again," presumably by being recycled? So does Katy Perry. But then she remembers that she's a firework. Singular. Think for a minute about what it takes to be the kind of person who can sing the word firework like it's an actual word, over and over and over again, without feeling the faintest hint of self-loathing.
I’d like you to think for a minute about what it takes to be the kind of writer who doesn’t even bother to open the Oxford English Dictionary to find five different definitions of the singular word firework, the most relevant being “A single piece of pyrotechnic apparatus,” and then publishes an article with a snide and condescending self-assured paragraph about it without feeling the faintest hint of self-loathing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Hebdossards vs. Trudeauvians:" in which I defend the several recently-murdered bullies of the powerful establishment organ Charlie Hebdo who liked to unfairly pick on the 1.5 billion powerless members of the world’s second largest religion.

I promise I'll go back to talking about dandyish things some day, but this is one of those things I just had to write for myself. 

There’s a very unpleasant “conversation” happening right now, made all the more distressing not only because the people taking the side opposing mine are people I’ve long respected but because some of us feel that the principle at stake should be fairly uncontroversial, especially for writers, artists, and intellectuals: when someone is murdered for drawing, writing, or creating something, no matter how crude or offensive, their killers are to be unequivocally condemned, and the content of their work is irrelevant to the matter. Instead, you have what Salman Rushdie has called the “But Brigade,” those people who say “I believe in free speech but...” (listen to the chilling audio recording of the attack on the recent Copenhagen freedom of speech panel discussion - one of the panelists is lamenting this very phenomenon when the shots sound out, chairs scrape across the floor, and people hit the ground in fear.)

When it comes to the massacre of cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the small left wing satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January, one would hope that the murderers be condemned, the murdered be respected, and the survivors commended for not caving in to terror. Instead, a subsection of the world’s literary elite has decided to spread the calumny that Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine, bringing with it the unmistakable suggestion that the staff of the magazine somehow had it coming to them or that they were asking for it. In recent weeks, close friends and family members, most of whom don’t read French and have never lived in France - some of whom have never even been to France - have confidently asserted to me that Charlie Hebdo was racist and unfairly insulting to Muslims, having acquired this second-hand opinion seemingly on faith and a couple of cartoons shown to them without any context. I’ll say again that the cartoons themselves, their content, even their intention, are irrelevant in the most important sense: reacting to art and words, however insulting, with murder and violence is disproportionate, to put it at its mildest.

I don’t want to belabor the points that have unfortunately been necessary for so many people to make: that the editorial meeting that was attacked was about Charlie Hebdo’s participation in an upcoming anti-racism event, that the founder of SOS Racisme has passionately defended Charlie Hebdo as an anti-racist publication, that the magazine had a multi-ethnic staff, that Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of very vulgar French satire, particularly targeting the clergy and religious power. Le Monde, determined to find out whether Charlie Hebdo was indeed obsessed with insulting Muslims or even mocking the religion of Islam went through more than 500 of the magazine’s covers from the past 10 years and found that only seven had anything to do with Islam or the Prophet Mohammed (including times when it was mentioned along with other religions.) Accusations that it inordinately targeted Muslims with its satire are completely, verifiably unfounded. The website has been set up with the unfortunate and tedious mission of explaining the more questionable-looking cartoons to those of us who really have no context for them.

The distinction of questionable-looking is an important one. Cartoons are usually single images. Nuance is not their forte, so they rely particularly heavily on context for the reader’s understanding. As a result, sometimes even the cartoons which seem the most vulgar and offensive at first glance can require a sophisticated understanding of the issues at hand to appreciate the point being made. This is perhaps why so many people, seeing a drawing of a black woman as a monkey or the Nigerian “Chibok Girls” abducted by Boko Haram portrayed as greedy welfare mothers jumped to the immediate conclusion that these are flat-out racist caricatures.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Charlie Hebdo is a newspaper, albeit a deliberately crude and vulgar one, so when they feature a cartoon it’s related to something happening in the news (in fact, whenever Charlie Hebdo caricatured Mohammed, it was because there was some news story related to Islamic fundamentalism or, especially, the political and censorious issues around depicting the prophet.) In the above two instances, Charlie Hebdo was referring ironically to positions taken by the French far-right wing. The cartoonists responsible shouldn’t be blamed too harshly for not working harder to make sure that the relatively few non-French readers of their tiny magazine got the joke about French domestic politics.

Imagine for a moment that someone who speaks no English is flipping through American television and comes across a scene from South Park. Perhaps it’s the one where Native Americans are rubbing slit-eyed half-naked Chinese men on blankets in order to infect South Park’s white population with SARS in order to steal their land. Perhaps its the scene where Kyle gets a “Negroplasty” because he thinks being black will make him a better basketball player. Perhaps it’s the episode in which Cartman, in full Nazi uniform, leads an army of Christian Mel Gibson fans through town chanting anti-Jewish slogans. Perhaps its the episode in which Randy, having guessed the word “Nigger” as an answer on Wheel of Fortune, feels unfairly discriminated against now that everyone thinks of him as “that nigger guy.” In the first case, the viewer needs to know the history of the campaign to infect Native Americans with smallpox in order to steal their land as well as the media hysteria, at the time, over SARS spreading from China. In the second case, the viewer needs to understand common stereotypes about black peoples’ athletic ability as well as controversies about plastic surgery and identity. In the third case, the viewer needs to understand Mel Gibson’s own history as well as the controversy over anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ. In the final case, the viewer needs to be familiar with recent controversies around the use of what’s euphemistically and Voldemortishly called “The N-Word,” and appreciate the risible cluelessness of Randy, who’s too stupid to understand that being called “that nigger guy,” will never be as bad as being called “nigger.”

Without understanding American history, current political cultural context and, perhaps most importantly, the sort of gross and vulgar irony used by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their satire, an unfamiliar viewer might well assume that South Park is a deeply racist show (or misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, Anti-Catholic, Anti-Muslim, or any number of other things,) and I’m sure some humorless people do sourly condemn it for being all of these things and they may have some point. The case of Charlie Hebdo is no different. We don’t need to look far to find another American example of a comedian being righteously pilloried as a racist on the assumption that context is irrelevant. Stephen Colbert, famous for playing an arch-conservative idiot character on television, was the target of an outraged Twitter campaign aimed at having him fired after used a blatantly racist imitation of a Chinese man to make an ironic point about the racism inherent in the Washington Redskin’s name and logo. Again, Charlie Hebdo is no different from this.

What I found particularly distressing is the number of creative, progressive, liberal-leaning people who have subscribed, almost sight-unseen, to the idea that Charlie Hebdo was, if not racist, at least unfairly mean to France’s Muslim minority. Among the many people taking the same side as the Pope and other religious fundamentalists about what is, essentially, an argument about blasphemy and the appropriate response to it, are famous writers including Peter Carey, whose sons I used to babysit. I wrote to Peter to express my disappointment at his anti-Charlie Hebdo protest. It seems to me that Peter and his colleagues who boycotted the PEN America gala have bigger problems with the PEN organization in general, but that isn’t what their statements or protest letter said. They chose to protest Charlie Hebdo’s receipt of a freedom of speech award specifically, citing France’s anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Maghrebi attitudes. Peter went on the call the whole French nation arrogant, and I’ve recently been assured by several people (who, again, have spent little, if any, time in France,) that the French are very racist. Indeed, I haven’t heard so much gleeful gang-up pile-on French-bashing since the Bush administration, and nobody has yet explained to me how calling the entire French nation and people arrogant and racist is any different from calling all Mexicans lazy or all Arabs misogynistic.

The latest buzz-terms, rapidly becoming as cringe-making, cliched, and overused as “problematic,” “intersectionality,” and “self-empowered,” are “punching up” and “punching down.” I’m personally unaware of any hard and fast rules for satire. Indeed I’d think that comedy and satire can’t flourish if shackled with rules and responsibilities, whether from censorious bodies or governments or simply the icy chill of respectability, taste, or consensus. But for the hell of it let’s say that this is true - that the only appropriate target of satire is the powerful, and that to mock the powerless or disenfranchised, as in the case of French Muslims, is never acceptable.

Again, we can look a the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, particularly the ones featuring the Prophet Mohammed (which, again, were only featured in the magazine when there was some topical newsworthy reason.) These cartoons were never mocking individual Muslims but a symbol of religious authority. In fact, many of the cartoons painted a rather sympathetic picture of the Prophet (more sympathetic than the one in the Koran or his biographies, it seems to me,) showing him depressed that so many of his followers were becoming violent, humorless, and censorious assholes, or him being beheaded by ISIS under suspicion of being an infidel - suggesting the belief, commonly asserted by moderate Muslims around the world, that ISIS is at odds with the true Islam of the Prophet. Now, if some Muslims happen to have their own identities and self-respect so tied up with a long-dead man who spoke to angels, led armies and raiding parties, was barely tolerant of most Christians and didn’t seem too fond of Jews in particular, and had highly dubious sexual and marital morals (I’m talking about Mohammed, in case you thought I was back on Mel Gibson,) to the point where even seeing an image of him wounds them to the core of their very being, then I daresay that’s a personal problem of theirs and a very big problem indeed, especially when it has consequences for the rest of us who don’t believe the extraordinary claims of the Prophet. But Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Mohammed were categorically not personal attacks on individual Muslims or incitements to anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hatred, and if people chose to take them as such that’s entirely their fault (and gross misunderstanding,) and not the cartoonists. As it happens, the people who attacked Charlie Hebdo didn’t do it because Charlie Hebdo was racist or “punching down,” or unfairly maligning Muslims. They did it to avenge the perceived honor of their Prophet, as they stated over and over again. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t attacked for being racist. It was attacked for blaspheming.

A little more on this punching up/punching down nonsense and the allegations that Charlie Hebdo was attacking the powerless. Charlie Hebdo consistently satirized the intrusion of religion - any religion - into politics, and globally Islam is absolutely a political force to be reckoned with. The idea that a small struggling French satirical newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 on its best week was some sort of establishment organ using a privileged and powerful position to unfairly insult the icon of a religion that boasts 1.5 billion followers, 49 countries in which it claims a majority (a few of which control great oil wealth and influence,) is the powerful insulting the powerless would be laughable were it not such a perverse look in the funhouse mirror. The fact that there is a measurable power hierarchy between men holding guns and those holding pens should go without saying. Most importantly, the self-righteous are and should be, a prime target of satire, and nobody is more self-righteous than those who believe they know the mind and will of god, especially those who seek to impose this tyranny on others. Anyone who claims such authority or knowledge deserves to have his nose tweaked. That these are deeply-held beliefs is less than irrelevant: the more deeply-held a belief is the more it should be questioned, criticized, and yes, even mocked and satirized. The size or power of an impermeably self-righteous group doesn’t make ridiculing their beliefs any less fair. Where were the authors lining up to cry foul at mockery of the Mormons or Scientologists? Their religions are far more marginalized and powerless globally than Muslims, and nobody bats an eyelid when their patently absurd beliefs are questioned or ridiculed.

In their letter the anti-PEN protesters mention the idea of “expression that violates the acceptable.” The sight of writers suggesting that some language is “acceptable” and others isn’t is very troubling, and it only raises more questions: is the line clear cut and immovable? Is it different depending on the speaker? On the listener? If a man says “nigger” in a forest and nobody is around to hear it is he still racist? What if only nobody black is around to hear it? Most importantly, who gets to decide what is and is not acceptable - the ancient and noble job of censor? Peter Carey? I hope not Gary Trudeau. The fact is, only I get to decide what language is and isn’t acceptable to me, and although I do get to disagree with or ignore what I don’t like, I don’t have the right to hurt the people who say it or even to stop them from saying it at all.

The authors who signed the PEN letter have a difficult question to answer: how is supporting Charlie Hebdo different from supporting Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence in 1989? The question is difficult to answer without an appeal to taste or literary sophistication, especially because the Satanic Verses was arguably far more critical of the foundations of Islam, suggesting that the Koran might have been man-made rather than the revealed word of god and that the prophet was a human man, and just as capable of being venal and power-hungry (of course most of those who condemned and attacked Rushdie hadn’t read the book and if they had any objection to its content it was usually because they’d been told about some version of the subplot in which the women in a brothel take on the names and personalities of the prophet’s wives - as is so often the case, sex, honor, and female chastity and control are great motivators of the self-righteous.) The forgiving prophet of Charlie Hebdo is a sweetheart by comparison.

Many of the issues of offense, blasphemy, hate speech, and satire are rooted in matters of taste whether people always realize it or not: not so much the taste of the creator, but the taste of the individual reader or viewer, which is something the creator is powerless to control or account for directly. A friend, challenging me, asked me why rape jokes are wrong. I replied that I wouldn’t call any joke on the topic of rape was categorically “wrong,” especially not without hearing it first, and that I could think of a few by the likes of Sara Silverman and Louis C.K. that were hilarious. Ok, he conceded, but what about rape jokes like Danny Tosh’s - why were those rape jokes wrong? I believe that they’re not “wrong” but not funny, ironic, or clever, meaning that they lacked the property that makes something a joke in the first place - without which it just becomes a statement or, at worst, a harangue. My friend insisted that the reason a rape “joke” like Tosh’s is “wrong,” is because it might threaten and traumatize someone who hears it, possibly because they themselves have survived sexual assault.

How an audience will respond is something every creative person considers. Tosh probably knew that most of his audience was stupid enough to laugh at anything he says, were in fact dumb enough to mistake a harangue for a joke provided it was offensive and crude enough. But Danny Tosh, like everybody else, has no direct control over how his audience will actually feel about anything. Such emotional and intellectual control is as impossible as it is undesirable, for it reduces the beautiful complexity of the relationship between creator and audience to one of manipulation. Because of the impossibility of completely accounting for an audience’s reaction, something as subjective as personal offense can’t be the precedent for “acceptable” language or expression, because there’s no way to predict or account for it - and to attempt to do so would inevitably lead to self-censorship and prior restraint. Anyone can potentially be offended by anything. They might even be traumatized or profoundly, deeply upset by something someone says. But that possibility can’t be the standard for governing people’s expression.

What does this have to do with Charlie Hebdo? The point is that anyone can simply declare that they find anything offensive -that alone says nothing about the value of the thing in question, and it says nothing about what should be done about the thing. At a security-heavy PEN event which I attended at NYU a few weeks ago, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo’s film critic said that he finds the French worship of soccer players offensive. He thinks it is vulgar and he wishes his children didn’t have to see posters and magazine covers praising the unimportant lives and feats of these athletes everywhere they look in public. But his solution is to not buy the magazines with soccer players on the cover, to not go to matches or watch them on TV, to ignore commentary on soccer, toss out the sports section of his newspaper, and spend his time on what he thinks are more worthy pursuits. The comments drew laughs, as they were no doubt intended to, but they made an important point: in a free society the audience can choose how to respond just as the creator can choose what to create, but violence is never an option when it comes to expressing ideas and opinions.

People have pointed to French hypocrisy in the case of the arrest of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne on hate speech charges for expressing something that could have been construed as sympathizing with the terrorists who attacked Cahrlie Hebdo. Why is Charlie Hebdo’s satire of the Prophet Mohammed protected free speech and not Dieudonne’s tasteless tweets? I agree completely. It’s a scandal and hypocrisy of the first water and a major blow to the credibility of the French government that they have “hate speech” laws on the books at all - including the laws prohibiting Holocaust denial and the Hitler salute (France has a particularly uneasy national conscience when it comes to its own anti-Semitism going back through Vichy, the Dreyfuss affair, and the Catholic Church’s heresy crusades and now seemingly resurgent in some extremist Muslim circles throughout the country) - and still claim to believe in freedom of speech. People may be interested to learn that Charlie Hebdo - who, just to be clear, are not even remotely in bed with the French government or representative of the entire French nation but are dirty old Soixante-Huitards with a very liberal attitude - also agree that the prosecution of Dieudonne for hate speech was unjust. At the discussion at NYU, the two members of Charlie Hebdo’s staff present unequivocally supported Dieudonne’s right to free speech, spoke out against hate speech laws, and righty said that the antidote to offensive, hateful, or incorrect speech is more speech, not censorship, or, in the case of their friends and colleagues, murder.