“Tear Him for His Bad Verses”: PEN, Charlie Hebdo, and the Cosmopolitical Writer in Bad Faith

[The following is more of a collage than an argument, strictly speaking, so please feel free to fill in some of the gaps with your own imagination. For a quality argument on the topic, see here.]

Teju Cole:

I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but I don’t think it’s a good use of our headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular. L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand, and any dissent from the consensus about Charlie Hebdo is read as somehow “supporting the terrorists,” or somehow believing that they deserved to be murdered.

Some people in the republic of letters develop a short memory when it’s convenient—when, that is, a little cost-free moralism is to be had, when a few “victims who had it coming” are to be trendily blamed. The offense, if offense it was, of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was in fact identical to that of The Satanic Verses in the eyes of its detractors. When is the last time Cole read The Satanic Verses? Well, I confess I haven’t read it since high school myself, but I do remember a few things. I don’t have the novel to hand, but here is an account from a critic who broadly shares Cole’s politics:

Religious apostasy may have been the proximate cause, but as in other sectoralist conflicts the real struggle was, as always, over rights, labor, and land. As perceived by the book’s detractors, Rushdie’s crime was the combined product of notoriety and an insider status that could effectively translate itself in Anglo-American surroundings, and do so in a context of palpable contempt for an immigrant community of believers in an era, as Syed Shahabuddin put it, of the “new Crusades.” He had, in the view of Shahabuddin, “peddled his Islam wares in the West.”Following the fatwa, Muslim scholars seeking to explain what was outrageous in the book focused on his distance from the working-class Muslims and Hindus he typically wrote about—above all in England (and British Muslims were the first to burn the book publicly). What, for example, do we make of the fact that among them he was often referred to, with deliberate cruelty, as “Simon Rushton”?


If Rushdie had made a point about the adaptability of immigrants, and their tendency to try on identities in order to “turn insults into strengths,” there is an aspect to the writing of these sections that are presented as strengths but that should in all justice be turned back into insults. It certainly was by many Muslim readers of the book.

Remember that Baal in the novel is a court hireling contracted by the Jahilian Grandee to satirize the village poor. His job is to practice on behalf of the state the “art of metrical slander.” It is a key moment in the novel. When the novel arrives at his portrayal of the resistance of the black communities of Britain,we are introduced to their comically overweight leader, Uhura Simba (named after Tarzan’s elephant?), and the fatuous deejay toaster Pinkwallah, the white black man—both vicious send-ups of British dub poetry and the sorts of popular resistance represented by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, and other figures recognizable to postwar British, especially left, readers. These portraits are combined with an almost unreadably condescending passage on the Afro-British communities, an Orpheus and Eurydice parody in “Black speech,” involving two lovers who work in the London Underground. One wonders why the first protests against the novel did not come from the Afro-British communities. It seems particularly depressing that one of the characters—Uriah Mosley—is given the same surname as Oswald Mosley, the 1930s leader of British fascism; a joke that, needless to say, falls flat.

From the perspective of the metropolis, there is a good deal of overlap, after all, between black people, working-class people, and the Islamic faithful. The village poor that the Jahilian Grandee first wants Baal to satirize are the water carrier Khalid, a Persian named Salman, and the black slave Bilal—the riffraff who become the Grandee’s targets because they are early converts to Islam. The scene evokes a psychological truth, for Islam in the mind of many Western commentators is a religion of Semites of Arab extraction, Persians with dark eyebrows, laborers from the Punjab, and sub-Saharan blacks—the kind of people who, long before the Ayatollah posted his bounty, were demonstrating in Bradford, Detroit, and Karachi. What is Rushdie doing satirizing such people through his persona, Baal?

(Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, New York: Columbia UP, 2006, 69-70, 88-9)

But Teju Cole cannot admit any of that because his identity, like that of his cohort at large (Carey, Kushner, Eisenberg, Ondaatje, et al.), let us collectively call them “the cosmopolitical writer,” is to double business bound. It depends on being elite enough not to be mistaken for some mere migrant worker (“I am an Author, after all, and I am better than you”) but still able to don the identitarian mask of the oppressed or the tribune thereof when some rival elites are to be mocked and castigated. Pre-fatwa Rushdie is Cole’s model for the cosmopolitical writer, so Rushdie can’t have been racist, only a bunch of bad cartoonists, merely national, could be racist, and who cares what happens to them? Theirs is a self-serving politics of pure projection, disguised as humanitarian concern. They want to be elites, but silent about it; fellow artists who display the distance between themselves and the wretched of the earth, i.e., who announce the elitism that Cole, Eisenberg, et al. only live, fuck with the brand. Post-fatwa Rushdie has at least aligned belief with practice, however unedifying is the spectacle of his calling his colleagues “pussies” on Twitter.

Of Deborah Eisenberg’s remarks, quoted at the link—

Thus they expended their courage, and ten of them lost their lives, in what was essentially a parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial, and more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism. It is also courageous to bait a hallucinating and armed soldier, to walk around naked in the dead of winter, to jump off a roof, to drink from a sewer, or to attempt sexual intercourse with a wild boar.

—I will say only that she ought to be ashamed of herself. Her words are the left’s version of “don’t dress that way if you don’t want to be raped” and “don’t mouth off to the cops if you don’t want them to shoot you dead.” And, if you follow the logic of the metaphors, about as racist as anything Charlie Hebdo published, unless being compared to “a sewer” and “a wild boar” is somehow a compliment. Funnily enough, if Eisenberg were assassinated for comparing Muslims to sewers and boars, I would say that she did not deserve to be.

Likewise, if Teju Cole were assassinated for what even I took to be the rather high-handed portrayal of Farouq in Open City (plausibly insulting to immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, unless “tastefulness” and “literariness” are all-purpose shields, unless literally only cartoons can be offensive), I would say he did not invite it and that he was a martyr to the writer’s freedom. A Marxist once told me that The English Patient was a thoroughgoing and rebarbative apologia for imperialism; should Ondaatje return his honors for possibly having aggressed against the disempowered? Do these writers understand the test to which they are implicitly submitting their works? Or are they only submitting the works of those they consider beneath them to the test so that they can look in the mirror and see a friend of the people staring back?

Are these anything more than the ironies of liberalism itself, veering between elite delectation and over-compensatory populism? Is an intellectual just one who “recks not his own rede”? Perhaps, as the best Marxist literary critic of his generation now says, we need “an un-critical theory,” by which I gather he means something like what used to be called “vulgar Marxism.” Though of course that too is an aesthetic position parading as a politics, unless he’s laying in a cache of arms he’s not telling us about (he wouldn’t tell us, would he?). The point isn’t exactly theory, after all, but its materialization as practice, and if the wished-for Red Guard ever arrives, they will not ask for the adjective (“Marxist”) modifying the noun (“professor”) before they apply the proletarian brick to the bourgeois brain. The organic intellectual will categorically not have tenure. On the Day of Red Judgment, subject position will be all—contra some sensitive young men these days, there is no quarrel between Marxism and identity politics; Marxism invented identity politics.

I stopped being a Marxist because the gap it opened between my beliefs and my practices was just too stupid to be endured: “This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.” I am a literature-loving petit-bourgeois, a skeptical aesthete, a son of assimilationist and ambitious immigrants, and a free-speech fundamentalist of the unequivocal type. With Borges I say that the universe is my birthright, and someday maybe, if the un-critical theory has its day again, they will put me against the wall for the liberalism I am way too cool to espouse but which they will correctly perceive that I nevertheless embody, and until then (who knows what cowardly lies I will come out with on the day?) I will not pretend that I do not care more for Shakespeare than for The People, whoever they might be and not that I have ever seen them, having only met people in my life so far. Here is a passage from Shakespeare that might be profitably studied in the current context:

THIRD CITIZEN. Your name, sir, truly.

CINNA THE POET. Truly, my name is Cinna.

FIRST CITIZEN. Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.

CINNA THE POET. I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.

FOURTH CITIZEN. Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.

CINNA THE POET. I am not Cinna the conspirator.

FOURTH CITIZEN. It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his
name out of his heart, and turn him going.

(Julius Caesar, 3.3)

Perhaps we poets, not conspirators, might live honestly. I wonder how discouraged frankness is today. For instance, we might just admit, we literary cosmopolitans, that for the most part the “un-critical theorists” are correct: we have embraced a set of values (to name just three: irony, rootlessness, aesthetic formalism) that entail a certain antipathy to the religious commitments of most of the planet’s poor, Christian or Islamic, migrant or native, and that are moreover inimical to most variants of Marxism (perhaps all except the Adornian adjustment, which is just another aestheticism). I can admit it. My own people were poor and religious; they too were immigrants; then they got a bit less poor; then they could afford to have me educated; and here I am, educated and irreligious and literary, and not really able, deep down, to care whose religion I may happen to insult in the course of my literary endeavors, and generally of the belief that everyone should be educated into my self-delighting skepticism. (I used to think the latter belief—economic provision so that we can all become cosmopolitan nihilists—was what it meant to be on the political left, but increasingly I see that I was mistaken, that the theodicy of the revolution demands absolute sacrifice of the sensibility.) And I have made my peace with who I am and with what I want; I’m certainly not going to twist myself up all in knots to pretend otherwise, let alone to join the cosmopolitical writer in his magnanimous gesture of principle conducted over the corpses of his disowned because less elegant brethren.

4 thoughts on ““Tear Him for His Bad Verses”: PEN, Charlie Hebdo, and the Cosmopolitical Writer in Bad Faith

  1. Interestingly, Rushdie was the co-recipient of last year’s Goodale award. The other? Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, “for his company’s contribution of a powerful new tool for communication and expression to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.” A tool that’s now being blamed not only for the devaluation of the written word to the level of a sound bite, but for the degradation of public discourse to that of a disheveled shouting match and popularity contest. Little wonder that Twitter should have been Gamergate’s medium of predilection: the movement was doomed if it used a format where sustained argumentation was expected.

    Eisenberg’s remarks speak for themselves, but what about Francine Prose’s?

    “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”

    Which government, exactly? Not the French, whose main operations were in Libya and Mali in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring (in other words, in and around their traditional sphere of influence), and who had called out the American lies about Iraq even before the war. So, what do PEN members think this award is about? The award page on the PEN website castigates the French government about its limitations to freedom of expression, but the organization’s American members appear to believe the real purpose of the award is to make a statement on the politics of the United States. If that is the case, the award to Charlie Hebdo was moot; and if the real purpose is the worldwide propagation of the American interpretation of freedom of expression, then the award was not only moot (as it wasn’t the French government which threatened it in this case) but objectionable.

    Viler still was Garry Trudeau, of the Doonsbury strip, who pooh-poohed Charlie Hebdo from the rostrum of the George Polk Awards (the transcript can be found at The Atlantic), comparing the plight of the French dead to that time when his strip was getting pulled by irate newspaper publishers, telling his audience how you were never supposed to “punch down” and so on. He cited Molière as an ideal example, apparently oblivious to the fact that although the playwright often punched up, he did not always do so (his most memorable target was the bourgeoisie), and even when he punched up, he was careful never to antagonize anyone who might have had the favour of the court.

    Per Trudeau:

    “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.”

    French law prohibits hate speech that incites violence; the Charlie Hebdo issue that followed the killings led to violent protests by Muslims; ergo the Charlie Hebdo issue must be illegal — QED. Gee, I wonder what wouldn’t end up being banned if all it requires is someone getting violent about it. And yeah, it’s the left’s version of “she asked for it”.

    And really, James Gillray was often crude and vulgar, in a scatological way that is quite reminiscent (at his worst) of Charlie Hebdo, and he’s now regarded as a major cartoonist. Thomas Nast was quite the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigot, and made that clear in his drawings, but he was probably the single most influential American cartoonist of the nineteenth century.

    All I’m getting from the Charlie Hebdo controversy is that Americans, by and large, don’t understand the publication, what it tries to do, and where it’s located politically. They seem to think they are meant to take what is being depicted in the cartoons at face value, instead of considering that the real target of the cartoons is the caricature on display. I don’t doubt the cartoons could be co-opted, more or less easily, by real racists (there is for example a comic strip character — not from Charlie Hebdo — called “Superdupont”, the personification of French chauvinism, fighting against the sinister forces of the Anti-France, whose creator retired for a while when he discovered to his dismay that it was being co-opted by the Front National), but to what extent should Charlie Hebdo be held accountable for that?

    By the way, I’m not surprised that Glenn Greenwald’s outlet, The Intercept, should be all over this, regardless of the irony involved. He’s now saying:

    “As the objecting PEN writers note, one can regard the murders of the Charle Hebdo cartoonists as repugnant, vile and dangerous (as any decent person does) while simultaneously scorning the Muslim-bashing focus of their “satire.”

    What, pray tell, is remotely admirable about sitting in the West — which has been invading, bombing, and otherwise dominating Muslim countries around the world for decades, and has spent the last decade depicting Islam as the Gravest Threat — and echoing that prevailing sentiment by bashing Muslims? Nothing is easier than mocking and maligning the group in your society most marginalized and oppressed. People in the West have their careers destroyed when they’re accused of sympathizing with Islam, not for opposing it. Bashing Muslims and Islam is orthodoxy in the West, both on the level of official policy and political culture.”

    The same Greenwald was writing in Salon five years ago about the “creepy tyranny of Canada’s hate speech laws”. A Canadian university had sent a letter reminding a scheduled guest speaker that “Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression”, and Greenwald was objecting to that idea:

    “For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes, will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them, and will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered.”

    The speaker in question: Ann Coulter — yes, she of “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

    He’s consistent in his distrust of the government, but that’s about it, and now he’s not that keen on having those “adverse beliefs” aired. It’s really the problem with the laxity of American speech laws — they create a vacuum that someone else is going to fill, while allowing for some thoroughly questionable actions being undertaken in the name of the First Amendment (e.g. the MPAA insisting that the State of Connecticut’s ban on excessive sound levels in theaters violates it; the Citizens United ruling; the courts seriously considering whether online threats are protected; etc.). And that’s what this whole affair has demonstrated — in the absence of the government saying “you can’t”, multitudes of busybodies and private interests take its place; and they in many cases are no better and perhaps even worse.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Vett!

      Perhaps I will risk being un-nuanced or even Twittery, but I wonder if all this “French context” vs. “American context” is missing the point a bit. That’s what I was trying to get at in emphasizing how both Rushdie and Teju Cole have written about Muslims and immigrants. I don’t know if you’ve read Cole’s Open City, but the character Farouq, a Moroccan immigrant in Brussels, is portrayed, rather pityingly to be sure, as a resentful, paranoid, anti-Semitic and at least ideologically terroristic figure, who also happens to not quite understand (and possibly to plagiarize) the figures in literary theory that he cites. Farouq’s characterization is surely the refined version of whatever some of those cartoons are supposed to be, so where does Cole get the nerve to be so ludicrously self-righteous? He is just confident that the kind of people who would gun him down for his writing won’t read his writing. This is how racial/sexual identity comes to stand in the place where a politics should be, because the politics themselves are unspeakable on the left today. These Columbia students, who are triggered by Ovid’s rape sequences and want to read Toni Morrison instead, provide another example; as I have argued in other posts here, Morrison’s oeuvre, fiction and non-fiction, contains overt rape apologetics (even by non-feminist standards), but when identity replaces politics, or is disingenuously understood to signify a politics it does not actually embody, such considerations come to seem unimportant.

      And I am not condemning Cole for how he writes about Farouq. I do not share the perspective of Farouq any more than he does, no matter how much I try to “understand” it using the tools of liberal empathy. The whole ideological complex that is “literature” both encourages the empathy and forbids the perspective. I agree with the Marxists, by the way, that “literature” is a recently contrived institution, but I think it is a glorious one, worthy of defense. The reason I bring up Marxism so much is that the politically-correct left-liberals, since they certainly aren’t going to adopt Islamic or Christian hermeneutics, pretend to adopt some of Marxism’s traditional anti-literature tactics—principally the refusal to read irony as such, an insistence on literal interpretation—against those they judge “hateful” or whatever, while reserving the full privileges of the literary to their own productions (e.g., the narrator of Open City is perhaps unreliable, though the novel provides no external viewpoint that would allow us to say so for certain; in any case, were Cole called to account for Farouq, I am sure he would plead irony). I have come to distrust this whole incoherent and hypocritical half-Marxist and half-liberal tradition, finding even its most celebrated writers too false to bear. I prefer writers who take on the full consequences of their positions or who make it largely impossible to tell what their position is (Coetzee, for instance). I am for literature, and that means being against its enemies, whether I like the enemies of those enemies or not. (I am probably less a “free-speech fundamentalist” than an “autonomy of art fundamentalist.”)

      As for bombing Muslim countries, I’ve been against that since the tiny and much-mocked anti-war rally I attended on 20 September 2001, against a war started by a president who said all the right PC stuff (“religion of peace,” etc.) and bombed and tortured Muslims anyway. One may smile and smile and be a villain.

      Amusingly, I cannot stand the Charlie Hebdo aesthetic; hell, I don’t even really care for Voltaire. In the related American tradition, I don’t like Mark Twain or Robert Crumb either. I have always thought satire a low art form, simplistic and ugly. Though I do like this quotation from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, which makes me think again:

      The satiric attitude here is neither philosophical nor anti-philosophical, but an expression of the hypothetical form of art. Satire on ideas is only the special kind of art that defends its own creative detachment. The demand for order in thought produces a supply of intellectual systems: some of these attract and convert artists, but as an equally great poet could defend any other system equally well, no one system can contain the arts as they stand. Hence a systematic reasoner, given the power, would be likely to establish hierarchies in the arts, or censor and expurgate as Plato wished to do to Homer. Satire on systems of reasoning, especially on the social effects of such systems, is art’s first line of defense against all such invasion.

      As for your thoughts on the First Amendment, I suspect I disagree, if I understand your claim: that, in the absence of state intervention, private institutions (and the mob) will control speech. This is not necessarily a problem in my view, as long as private institutions (and even the mob) are willing to take violence off the table. That is the point of civil society: political conflict is sublimated into ideological debate. You raise Citizens United as a problem, rightly, and to that I confess I don’t have a good answer. Civil society requires self-restraint on the part of the rich too. Probably no democratic system is sustainable without the inculcation of self-restraint. (Euro-statism of the type you seem to advocate is something else altogether, more realistic no doubt, “conservative” in the very best sense, but offensive to that part of me that still believes, however naively, in the American civil religion.)

      1. Cole as novelist is a complete mystery to me (as with most contemporary writers, sadly); I had never heard of him before his “white savior industrial complex” article in The Atlantic started getting traction (even though his argument was flawed, especially evident in his mention of Oprah), and my first reaction then was that he was just another Ta-Nehisi Coates.

        Perhaps, if your assessment of him is correct, he is expecting that those who would “gun him down” will have encountered his writings in general-interest magazines, not his books. Whether Cole is enough of a household name to the general American public to be in that position, I do not know.

        (By the way, I’d enjoy seeing your list of young contemporary writers you think are deserving of canonical elevation.)

        I entirely agree with your assessment of the liberal-left’s “refusal to read irony as such, an insistence on literal interpretation” except when it’s the one doing it. That reminds me of a previous response I wrote here, where I mentioned a review of Lena Dunham’s book that predicted her progressive audience would turn on her at the slightest misstep – and this is exactly what happened over a New Yorker column she wrote that got her accused of anti-semitism, even though she identifies as Jewish.

        In the case of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the recent developments from Texas offer a quite telling comparison. The liberal-left people I read didn’t make the slightest distinction between the French newspaper and the Texas contest, no difference between the decidedly anticlerical left-leaning Charlie Hebdo and an American organization that has been called a racist movement. Charlie Hebdo’s largest fault is to be too emblematic of how bitterly the leftovers of May 68 have petered out (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the original Charlie Hebdo folded halfway between Mitterrand’s election in 1981 and his notorious policy about-face in 1983), and certainly it’s not beyond reproach (an ex-staffer, Olivier Cyran, wrote a text accusing it of Islamophobia in 2013). Perhaps, shorn of context, the cartoons are impossible to distinguish from those of the Texas contest; but even that last case, though “punching downward” it might have been, it ceased to be doing so as soon as the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, whether or not it was behind it. It never ceases to bemuse me that the liberal-left, for all its talk of “privilege” and “power”, has all but forgotten Mao’s famous dictum about power growing from the barrel of a gun.

        On satire: might it be that your main concern with it be primarily the result of that category of humour which passes for satire but sounds rather too comfortable to be worth taking seriously? Twain is a flagrant example, and Orwell’s title “the licensed jester” summarizes it quite well. And after him — just naming a few examples that readily come to my mind — it was Will Rogers, Bob Hope, recently Jon Stewart. The reputation of the last two has suffered in recent years, and looking at them, I wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.

        As for my position on the First Amendment, I agree with your summation, except that I doubt that self-restraint is feasible in the United States when everything there appears to foster the opposite.

        If you want a fine specimen of the Twitterization of discourse, by the way, see Jeet Heer’s latest piece (“How Did Everybody Suddenly Become an Expert on French Visual Satire?”) on the New Republic website: it’s an embedded Storify of embedded tweets.

      2. Well, I think Cole is so afraid of being V. S. Naipaul that he tries to become Ta-Nehisi Coates instead in a kind of unconvincing overcompensation. If you’ll indulge me, I will tell you more about his novel. When Open City first came out and Cole was relatively unknown, it generated a certain ideological suspense from page to page; it was very hard to identify exactly where the novel’s ambient irony was meant to land (on privileged elites such as the narrator or on everyone less sophisticated than him?) and for most of the novel’s length, the narrator’s intellectual elitism, however crossed with a Berger-like lamentation over the oppressed, seems to be largely validated. Then the plotless novel has a late plot twist, hinging upon an allegation of rape, and the reader, having been given no clue that this rape occurred in the narrative and also given nothing to go on but the word of one character, is put into the position of having to disbelieve it (thus acquiescing to rape culture) or to give it automatic credence (because only a bad person would think an erudite, sensitive intellectual male incapable of rape, and aren’t we all rapists in some sense?). It is a didactic shock tactic, purely doxological and more sentimentally coercive than the Victorians. I once taught Open City in a course on literary interpretation and, in one of those moments when life itself becomes too “problematic” to be endured by one trying to maintain current standards in a professional setting, some female students began listing all the reasons the woman in the novel was probably leveling a false charge. Wishing to stop the conversation immediately lest I be held liable for its creation of an unsafe space, I thought about telling them they had internalized the patriarchy, but instead I suggested, with a turn back to textual evidence, that Cole almost certainly wanted us to take it as true, given the novel’s overall focus on universal complicity with oppression. But “universal complicity” is a massively self-serving dodge on the part of such a writer, not because it absolves individuals of blame (that is surely necessary at times, if you want peace) but because it makes remediation appear impossible and leaves one in the gloomy Adorno posture of eloquent pissing and moaning over a damaged life that can never be repaired. Which would be fine, if you stop acting like you’re on the political left in any meaningful sense! (As I have, but then I am basically a nihilist at the moment.)

        When Aaron Bady redefines racism to mean “an emergent property of societies structured by dominance,” I can’t understand this to be anything but a gnostic or antinomian spiritual proposition, practically meaningless for how one might really go about ameliorating suffering in a complex society that is, by definition, going to depend on division of labor and a certain amount of unequal reward, neither of which need be structured by racism (in the more old-fashioned sense of the term). He is welcome to oppose all “dominance”—good luck to him!—but I regard it as essentially a frivolous opinion, far more evident of “privilege,” as in Marie Antoinette reading Rousseau, than the pragmatic liberalism or enlightened conservatism it so contemptuously opposes.

        (I would of course accept it, even welcome it, as an artistic vision; art exists to express the void, surely. But artists aren’t claiming to be political writers posing political solutions. Art and politics can never really touch, in this sense, and they should not.)

        Anyway, Coates is far, far preferable to the likes of Cole and Bady, in that he makes clear and earnest policy recommendations; he is a sincere political thinker. Cole and his literary fellows are perhaps another story.

        I’ll save discussion of Jeet Heer for a later day, except to say that I both envy his career and am troubled by it. I always read what he writes and usually learn something from it, but still…

        I honestly don’t know what young contemporary writers are fit for canonization; I probably don’t read enough to say. The best writers today are almost certainly being published by small presses or are even self-publishing; the gauntlet of networking and correctitude one has to run these days even to get a literary agent is unbelievable, especially if you aren’t writing kiddie stuff for adults. I have seen an agent say that if she sees a writer online being “negative about the process” of trying to get published, that will make her less likely to represent that writer. Leaving aside the fact that she really ought to question her own preference for sycophants, followers, and cowards…well, no, there is no leaving it aside, and there goes my publishing contract!

        Your remarks about satire and “the licensed jester” are superb. I love Swift, for instance; his satire is so corrosive that it leaves him and his books and me and life itself corroded; it is not mere laughing at others, like Twain or Jon Stewart, whom I thought I was alone in disliking. Thanks for your informative comments on the French context!

Comments are closed.