Charlie Hebdo and the Long Form

To the first: the end of the anti-​colonial era was followed immediately by the not so rosy dawn of neoliberalism. Quickly, Arab nationalism gave way to Gulf capitalism; the always bourgeois PLO gave way to the neoliberal Palestine Authority. Simultaneously, the Arab working-​class suffered a set of quintessential neoliberal losses compounded by what might be called the economic shock doctrine brought on by the likes of World Bank and IMF that came with the end of colonialism and the beginning of the neoliberal era. Thus, before any fruits of decolonization could be fully enjoyed, the working class of the global south found itself living under a newly configured or neo-​colonial imperialism in which one time Arab national leaderships became neoliberal partners with their former adversaries in the West. This has left the Arab and Muslim working classes of the world in a tight squeeze: caught between an ideological war on “Islam”, waged by the likes of George Bush and Tony Blair, and a brutally violent global regime of labor discipline, wealth extraction, employment contingency and proletarian precariousness. Before he took up Kalashnikovs against Charlie Hebdo, Cherif Kouachi worked as a pizza delivery man, shop assistant and fishmonger.  
— Tithi Bhattacharya & Bill V. Mullen

Don’t kill white people. After all is said and done, the Charlie Hebdo outrage, the hashtags, and the million person marches amount to that simple but very powerful dictum. In the eyes of the governments that do most of the killing on the planet and the corporate media who act as their scribes, there is nothing worse than targeting even a handful of white people for death.”
— Margaret Kimberly

The singular insanity of the official media response to the killings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo needs to seen against the backdrop of the sanctioned violence in mass culture and the state violence of the Imperialist West. The mainstream media embraced, firstly, the official version of these killings, despite the obvious glaring questions in this narrative (echoing in some respects the Boston Marathon bombing). Where is the media investigation of the police captain’s suicide? Helric Fredou, 45, the judicial police chief in Limoges, took his own life, we are told, following interviews he conducted with the families of the victims. His suicide was dismissed as burnout and fatigue. Really? Second, as one of the few journalists who openly questioned the cover story, Jonathan Cook asked, in particular, about the video of the shooting of the policeman as he lay on the sidewalk. Third, there has been very little examination of how exactly the police conveniently found Kouachi’s wallet and ID card so quickly (shades of 9/11).

Or, as Craig Paul Roberts adds:

An important fact that supports this inference is the report that the third suspect in the attack, Hamyd Mourad, the alleged driver of the getaway car, when seeing his name circulating on social media as a suspect realized the danger he was in and quickly turned himself into the police for protection against being murdered by security forces as a terrorist.

But the real story, one buried beneath racism, Islamophobia, the potential for the whole thing being a false flag, and media’s indentured service to state power is one that spans two centuries. The story, the real long form narrative here is that of a vast underclass, most either from and still living in the developing nations of the world (the nice term for former colonies or just nations ravaged by the U.S. or Europe), or recent migrants to the developed West and their existence under ruthless police and judicial targeting and control. These are the invisible population, a surplus population, and like poor black and Latino communities in the U.S., their stories are not told . Their voices are not are not heard. Much as the history of colonialism remains buried (every film nominated for an Oscar this year is the story of a white man). In Hollywood film and TV, like in mainstream news, this population is treated in code; in reductive caricature and with regressive colonial imaging. Cherif Kouachi was radicalized in a French prison. His previous work life was all in the most demeaning and low paying labor possible. The world of the disenfranchised, invisible except when perceived with fear by the affluent, a migrant population in Europe who are stigmatized, arrested, and mostly just neglected is one of hardship. The states of the Imperial West, starting with the U.S., treats its underclass as objects of fear and contempt. In the U.S. the prison population, largest in the world by far both in total numbers and per capita, is disproportionately black, while in France it is over half Muslim.

In the U.S. the Latino and Black poor are so acutely marginalized that they live essentially in a shadow world of permanent fear and anticipated institutional abuse. Incarceration is a given. Migrant farm workers, or the unemployed inner city youths of crumbling American cities now literally dying; places like Gary Indiana, or Baltimore, or Stockton California, or Detroit, or areas on the fringes of Los Angeles, New York and St.Louis, are living in war zones occupied by hyper militarized police. The state hostility toward young Muslim men in Europe is equally acute. They occupy those low rent housing blocks on the outskirts of almost every major European city. Immigrant populations from West Africa, central Africa, south east Asia, and the Arab world, find ghettos of anonymity around Paris, Marseilles, or Madrid or Frankfurt, or Brussels. These are areas of social abandonment. In the US, it is other immigrants from the global south; from Mexico, central America, and the Caribbean. The surplus cheap labor of Capitalism.

The long form narrative includes chapters like the Royal Canadian Mounties decent on Inuit communities in Canada, the destruction of traditional hunting and fishing practices, the mass killing of their sled dogs, their placement in settlements and the attendant alcoholism, unemployment and mental illness that follows such cultural genocide. The “Indian” schools in the U.S., the destruction of language and culture on the heels of two hundred years of the genocide of Indigenous peoples. The destruction of 600 tribes. In Australia, the genocide of the Aboriginal peoples almost exactly mirrors the U.S. genocide, including the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, or Tasmania, where the entire population of Tasmanian people were wiped out by white settlers who called it Van Dieman’s Land. After thirty thousand years of living on that island, the Tasmanian people were killed off in less than four. Or Apartheid in South Africa, mirrored today by the ever expanding borders of Greater Israel. The long form. The German colonial genocide of the Togo people, or the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, or the long suffering narrative of Haiti, or King Leopold and the Congo, or Ethiopia and New Caledonia, or Viet Nam. Mike Davis estimated that between 1870 and 1902, alone, the Colonial governments of Europe caused, through ruthless colonial extraction of resources, and Malthusian ideological indifference to the people’s of the global south, the death of forty million people. Perhaps many more than that.

In Europe, travel by bus sometime. I did for several years, from Poland to France and back over a two year period. I did it twice a month. This is how the underclass travel. Bulgarian workers, Romanian Romy, Muslims from Turkey and North Africa carrying cardboard boxes wrapped shut with string, Kurds, West Africans, Somalians, Eritreans, Berbers and Tuaregs. These are cultures fighting hard to preserve their history, identity and cultural knowledge. To protect their collective memory. For when one loses that sense of identity and memory, only psychosis follows. I met only hardworking and exhausted people on my trips. Friendly, intelligent, resilient and never threatening. But in mass media, these are people made into sinister demonic figures, or into cartoon images of stupidity and laziness. Like those on the front pages of Charlie Hebdo. These people live with those images stuck on them. White Europeans see them as those Charlie Hebdo cartoonists saw them. Savage, backward, dirty, dishonest. They are not allowed dignity.

Imagine living with constant lies about who you are. Lies about your history, culture and beliefs. Imagine then having to also work at jobs white people won’t do. Menial and tiring. Opportunities blocked by language, by economics, proximity, and by racism. Racism is structural exclusion. Education is blocked. And always there is ridicule and harassment. There is insult and there is prison. And there are the wars of the Imperialist West. Forced migration. Colonialism never ended. Its transferred its focus. It financialized and as corporatized. The neoliberal agenda of globalization is just a continuation of European subjugation — and this hypocritical outpouring of sentiment for the lives of those dozen or so killed must sting to those immigrant Nigerians, or Iraqis, or Ugandans, Serbs, or Palestinians, or inner city black communities from Oakland to Missouri; or a dozen other societies under siege, recently occupied or bombed. There is a threshold for humiliation. One cannot endure it for a lifetime.

Madness or reaction. or both. And resolve. In media the problems of the Global south are always reformed, partially, by a variety of white saviors. That is the storyline in Hollywood. Self determination of the *other* is denied. It is denied by Capital, and it is denied by the internalized psychosis of the White west as it continues to insist on its privilege and exceptionalism. For the West, civilization means white society. For the anger of those abused, driven to breaking, on occasion to madness, pales before the madness of affluent bourgeois white society. The majority of the truly delusional and insane reside in the white West, in comfort and relative ease. For only stark projection, and sociopathic denial allows for this spectacle of “je suis charlie.” For those knee jerk self congratulatory advertisements of superiority are the actions of the demented.

Whoever is really to blame; the marginalized uneducated Kouachi, or someone behind him, or French intelligence, or just the CIA, the long form of this story remains the same. Commentators on both the right and left continue to see the problem residing in Islam, or among the poor more generally. The pathology in all this is Western, it is Capitalistic, it is white. The insanity, the extremism, and the violence resides 99% of the time in the white West. That is who needs saving.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.