So, the US and its allies finally left Iraq. It seems they’ve been there forever. Whether the country will eventually become a better place to live than it was during the terrible decades of war, tyranny and crippling sanctions remains to be seen, though one might at least hope. I suspect that was also what led to the most conspicuous blindside of this week’s celebrity passee, Christopher Hitchens’ career, namely his unswerving support of the 2003 invasion. Besides old-fashioned stubbornness, his stance always seemed to me fueled at least in part by the hope shared by many at that time — even people who largely opposed the war — that it might at least eventually lead to a better life for Iraqis.
Perhaps I’m being too charitable, but it’s a motivation I understand, because I remember seriously entertaining it myself back when the war was brewing, even if it was clear that it would not be fought primarily or even secondarily for that reason, and that our governments were obviously lying to us about their rationale for invasion. Today, after at least 150.000 people have died and several Western democracies (including Denmark) have compromised themselves, all of this may seem moot, of course. Still, our armies leaving Iraq was a necessary step to for things to improve for everyone.
Hitchens. Sudhir Hazareesingh’s critical take on the the writer’s career in this TLS review of his autobiography from last year, Hitch-22, is a fine corrective to those (of us) who tended to overlook the bad in favor of the good in his work. Supplement with Jonathan Freedland’s critique of his and Martin Amis’ stances on Iraq and the so-called War on Terror from the NYRB. D.D. Guttenplan in his Nation review of Hitch-22 provides a more sympathetic and comprehensive overview of Hitchens’ life. Most importantly, and lest we forget that Hitchens was an inquisitive and sensitive writer, read his last column for Vanity Fair, published last week. It’s a killer.
Robinson and Simon. Two notable figures of the American so-called Golden Age of comics, Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon died within a week of each other. Revisit their remarkable careers in Gary Groth’s in-depth interviews with them here and here. His magazine, The Comics Journal, also has a couple of obituaries up: Robinson, Simon.
As the Arab Spring is moving into its second, rather messy and somewhat disconcerting phase in certain countries, it figures that we would get another cartoon flareup. The firebombing of the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is yet another low point in the ongoing and increasingly polarized discourse surrounding free speech and religious iconoclasm today. In this post-Danish cartoons landscape, the despicably violent response of the anonymous firebombers naturally tends to get all the attention, but it is also the easiest part of the event to deal with, in that it can be condemned outright.
The real question, as I see it, is why Charlie Hebdo figured it was a good idea once more to trot out the “likeness” of Muhammad. I found Luz’ cover, showing the prophet threatening a hundred lashes to whoever didn’t find it funny, worth a chuckle, but what purpose did it really serve? Why, exactly, did we need this piece of satire? The extra-legal power exercised by Islamic extremists deserves to be mocked and condemned, but it is also something most of us can easily agree to despise (stay safe Charlie!). It seems to me, however, that the blunt instrument of depicting the prophet merely further encourages these maniacs, while broadcasting once again that the beliefs of millions of non-violent Muslims is apparently not worthy of respect here in the West.
Satire has no prerogative to be constructive, but free speech is such a potent idea that ceding it to this kind of bullying is unfortunate. Yes, we are entitled to insult whatever belief we like, religious or otherwise — and that is how it should be (good on Libération to open their offices to Charlie) — but it would reflect well on our principles if we also employed them to speak out against the general coarsening of what was once civilized discourse.
Gary Groth interviews R. Crumb. This is perhaps the quintessential Comics Journal interviewer/ee constellation, and although this time around is a little light-weight, it’s still the good and fun read you’d expect from these guys.