Thursday, January 8, 2015

Suis-je Charlie?

For a moment I was afraid this meant he was dead, but of course he was born a long time before 1994.
"Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit in May 1968, or not exactly. He was Jewish himself by birth and German by choice. His parents were German Jews who had fled to France in 1933, and he was born stateless in 1945; after his family moved back to Germany in 1958, already a radical, he opted for German citizenship, specifically to avoid the military service demanded of young French men, but he wound up in France anyway, in 1966, as a sociology student at the working-class university of Nanterre in the northern Paris banlieues.

The remark was snark, aimed in particular at Georges Marchais, the leader of the French Communist Party, a citadel of Stalinism and furiously opposed to the ideological irreponsibilities of the student movement, who singled him out (as did the journalists of the French right) as a much more important leader of the movement than he actually was, by way of making the whole phenomenon sound foreign, out of control, disloyal. A "German anarchist", Marchais called him in a May 3 editorial in L'Humanité, not at all untruthfully; with his name, and his flaming red hair, there was no need to add that he was Jewish. "We're all Jewish," Cohn-Bendit responded, "and we're all Germans" (Nous sommes tous des juifs et des allemands).

Then he was banned from French territory, on May 21, and his career as a French revolutionary came to an extremely early end (succeeded by his career as a German and eventually European Green politician, which happily is not over yet). But his apothegm lives on, compressed into meaning something rather different, I think, "We're all German Jews", and bearing a numerous progeny of which #JeSuisCharlie is the latest.

I was not really thinking about this last night, just thinking about the Charlie Hebdo staffers and their awful deaths, and casually accepting the hashtag (hey, I'm a snarkist too!), when I found myself doing something that seemed instantly regrettable, retweeting a #JeSuisCharlie Tweet from Iain Duncan Smith or "IDS", Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green and secretary of state for work and pensions in the Cameron government, known for the gusto with which he works to take away benefits from the poor, as if we were to get Allen West heading HHS:
Iain Duncan Smith has suggested being on benefits is a form of slavery and he is like abolitionist William Wilberforce through his introduction of welfare reforms.
The Work and Pensions Secretary made the comparison in a speech to the Centre for Social Justice, a thinktank Duncan Smith set up in 2004.
He said his benefit changes were about a “journey from dependence to independence” and that that was part of the Conservatives “historic mission – just look at Wilberforce and Shaftesbury.”
Jeez, I thought, who am I expressing solidarity with? and added a quick afterthought—

(How does somebody manage to send a Tweet backwards in time from Monday to last Wednesday, by the way? That's pretty special!)

Actually it's a parody account, so I don't have to feel bad about it after all, but it made me wonder about the slogan: who am I, really, to claim that "je suis Charlie" or all of us are German Jews? Isn't there something really kind of wrong with that, appropriating the victimhood of others?

And indeed, when I looked up the circumstances of Cohn-Bendit's original statement, I could see that he was saying something quite different: We're all oppressed, victims of Nazism, deserving of sympathy and political action on our behalf; and we're all oppressors, if not Nazis maybe Duncan Smiths, ourselves, racists and bullies, with the responsibility to make ourselves better people. You can't invoke one without admitting the other.

And in that connection, it was remarkable to hear that same English cartoonist of the Duncan Smith strip referenced above, Steve Bell, summoned to WNYC radio this morning, where he put it in a still more concise, if less funny, way: "We're all Muslims." Yes, we are. We are the family of the victims of violence, and complicit in whatever violence we fail to oppose; we are Charlie and some of us killed Charlie, both.

George W. Bush bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Prime Minister Tony Blair: "Tony's the kind of guy who looks you straight in the eye and tells the truth", by Steve Bell, January 14 2009.

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