Charlie Hebdo and 'The Interview'

What is the connection between satire and international politics?

Politics can hardly be described without using dramatic or theatrical metaphors. There are directors behind the scenes and players who act according to their parts. The audience is deceived, mostly willingly, though special effects can make the deception real. Satire, though not necessarily a dramatic art, shares in this analogy because it is related to comedy. But the fundamental connection is deception.

Politics is a kind of open deception, a deception that many people, though not the people invested in any particular politician or program, see as flagrant and shameless. Satire is the art of counter-deception. It seeks to undeceive the reader or viewer. It shows him something that appears true or false, while punctiliously reminding him it is the reverse. A particular satire totally deceives only the person who does not recognize that he behaves precisely in the way that is being mocked; everyone else is disabused of some notion or behavior.

Most of all, satire is related to politics because the purpose of both deception and counter-deception is to change people's behavior. All art can be interpreted as political to some extent, but satire is practical in its politics.

In international politics, the need to deceive is fundamentally the same as in domestic politics. Antagonism between nations is not inherently different than antagonism between ethnicities or parties or religions. Civil wars, and international cooperation, show that there is never any firm or reliable division between home and abroad, despite the natural human tendency to focus on what is close to hand. The enforcement of laws is generally more effective in a domestic sphere, but lack of enforcement is often rampant, and conflicts can divide the polity; the international system is mostly anarchic, but military, institutional and ideological frameworks impose constraints.

Any nation that believes itself free (that is, every nation) must contend with the intrusions of others that do not share the same concepts or practices of freedom. When citizens of liberal democracies contend that civil rights should be preserved, they are faced with the criticism that they merely wish to impose their values on the outside world, and indeed they often do. But of course their freedoms are often demonstrably more extensive than those of others as well.

However, as the United States, Europe, Japan and other industrialized liberal democracies have weakened relative to rising powers like Turkey, Iran, India and China, as well as pseudo-states like the Islamic State, a different dynamic has become more obtrusive: the political elite in the Western states are now exerting themselves in trying to impose outside values onto the domestic polity in order to accommodate the populace to challenges from abroad that cannot be readily dealt with.

A popular backlash against the intolerance of foreign regimes or actors threatens domestic stability and leaders' grip on power, and yet the cost of a more confrontational foreign policy is deemed too high. Therefore in an effort to maintain stability, leaders moderately condemn foreign actions, without taking firm counter-measures, while using other tools to distract or pacify the populace so that calls for such measures are muted.

This phenomenon is what we have witnessed, in various ways, with the alleged North Korean hack of Sony and with yesterday's Islamist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Clearly these are two very different events. One involved property theft, the other involved murder. Assuming the North Korean state lay behind the hack, it contrasts with the Charlie massacre for being a state action. The identities of the attackers in France are not fully known, they may have been French citizens or foreign nationals, but they likely acted without (direct) state backing.

Moreover it is hard to call a Norkor hack "terrorism," though it was an act of political cyber-sabotage that had intimidating consequences for states, corporations and some individuals. But the common people were not terrified in the sense that they perceived they could have been victims. The Charlie massacre was terrorism, and even people who do not work in the press or do not take provocative stances on controversial issues feel, with some reason, that they could fall victim to this sort of violence. At the same time the Charlie attack threatens their access to political information and expression, which is a threat of a different order, somewhat closer to the Sony hack.

Still, people are not necessarily wrong to see a connection between the events. They both involve maverick Western artists suffering on some level for their art at the hands of enemies with intolerant ideologies, Marxist-Leninist-Juche or Islamist jihad. Those who hold these ideologies have proved intolerant toward mere words and images. They refuse passively to accept criticism and ridicule from what others perceive as harmless artworks or pranks, but believe a physical response is necessary to deter similar attempts in future.

But there is a dramatic difference in the domestic responses. The Sony hack enabled American leaders to present themselves as champions of free speech opposed to the totalitarian Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Originally Sony attempted to withdraw the film that supposedly caused the trouble. This was of course prudence about Sony's own property rather than suppression of free speech. But it reflected private interests to the neglect of a perceived public good, the public's craving for entertainment and desire to stand up to foreign intimidation. President Obama chastised the company so that he could appear to defend free expression, which both confirmed the public's demand for more courage from Sony and simultaneously distracted the populace from the US defense establishment's inability or unwillingness to prevent a foreign cyber-attack on an American company.

The defense establishment has signaled repeatedly that it perceives cyber-threats to be severe and the cyber-realm to be an international commons comparable to land, sea, air and space. The traditional military equivalent of the hack would be something like an elite DPRK expeditionary force conducting an amphibious landing in San Francisco bay and raiding the headquarters of Google to steal intellectual property and intimidate executives into withholding certain products from the public. Hence the very real US response of crippling North Korea's inchoate internet and imposing sanctions.

By contrast, the Charlie Hebdo massacre forced the French leaders into the awkward position of trying to present themselves as champions of free speech while lacking the ability to present the bad guy in as clear terms as the US could do with the Norkors. To identify the attackers with the ideology with which they self-identify -- Muslim jihad -- risks (somehow) lumping them together with mainstream Muslims, from whom the state hopes to receive compliance or collaboration. Hence the calls for national unity and careful avoidance of anything linking Islam with the extremist ideology of the attackers.

These calls are well and good, but the public wants to feel secure, and part of security is identifying the enemy and taking action to prevent him from repeating the attack. French leaders are wary of igniting a broader confrontation with the majority of Muslims, so they tread softly. But the soft tread comes as an insult to French citizens who perceive rightly that fundamental liberties are at stake and that a policy of accommodation will only embolden jihadists.

Thus the problem is not of the French state foisting its liberalism on the Muslim strata of society -- these attackers were not motivated by the ban on headscarves -- but rather foisting a "tolerance" of certain Islamic (sharia) precepts onto French society, while hoping that security forces can prevent future attacks and avoid further escalation. The domestic policy response is intended to prevent a destabilizing confrontation that would draw on extensive resources from Muslim powers at home and abroad (state or non-state), but at the expense of exacerbating the already growing (naturally, in the wake of violent attacks) anti-Muslim sentiment at home.

The American government and media use the same tactics with relation to the Islamist threat in general and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in particular.

The American media has not changed its editorial policies to respond to the actual circumstances of the attacks in Paris, but has continued devoting more air time to the intolerance of French society, and the dangers of Marine le Pen and Islamophobia, than to the intolerance of jihadism and dangers of terrorism. On NPR, a commentator spoke about how freedom of speech was already compromised in France because it was illegal to deny the Holocaust. The implication is that Muslim jihadists are not the only ones limiting speech and the press. Of course, no other commentator or interviewer corrected him by pointing out the simple fact that the Charlie attacks are primarily about one's right to live, i.e. not be murdered, and secondarily about one's right to speak or publish freely. But the NPR guest's pernicious sophistry at least illustrates that laws regulating speech open the door to abuse by ideological extremists and their intellectual abettors.

The DPRK's threats serve to unite the American (and Japanese) populace against a foreign communist enemy, and thus American leaders have every reason to exaggerate them while also talking up their ability to respond forcefully to them. But jihadist terrorism divides the American (and European) populace by antagonizing the people against Muslims, backing moderate Muslims into a corner and radicalizing them in response, and creating security fears that undermine the leaders. Therefore the policy implemented from on high demands that American and European populations accommodate themselves to Muslim sensitivities, even if that means letting go of certain freedoms, like, say, the freedom to joke around or draw silly pictures.

What the Western political elites and their agents in the mainstream media fail to understand is that satire is more than it appears. Satire is not merely jokes and sarcasm and stuff, but the ridicule of vice. It requires at least some vague sense of what is virtuous as well as what is vicious. Failing to defend this particular mode of speech (and press) is a general failure to defend basic rights but also a particular failure to defend the public's sense of virtue. Politicians end up softening criticism toward violent actors and hardening criticism toward non-violent actors. They do so because they do not wish a conflagration to occur under their watch that would force them from office or worse. This is a tactic of buying time, but it cannot ultimately procure a jihadi-liberal accommodation because it asks (regardless of what politicians say) Western national opinion to share a sharia interpretation of speech and press.

Not only is jihadi vice militating against liberal irony, but liberal "virtue" is stirring against jihadi sincerity. Suddenly strange constellations are forming. Bill Maher, who, however distorted his view of virtue and vice, is a satirist, has enough appreciation for logical consistency that he has pursued his rejection of religion in general even to the point of criticizing Islam. He has thus come to have something in common with a twenty-first century model of the classical liberal tradition, Aayan Hirsi Ali, whose opinions the American left wing is increasingly having trouble smothering. This kind of agreement is symbolic, but it shows movement is occurring.

The process will be very slow and domestic policy will delay it -- the current elite does not want to be pressured by a union of libertarian right and left. So both countries will appear to be shocked the next time jihadists slaughter innocents for speaking or printing their minds. And intellectuals from both countries will appear to be shocked at the savage wave of Islamophobia surrounding them. The French left will still somehow be surprised when Marine le Pen, or someone like her, wins the presidency. The American left will still somehow be surprised when President Obama's foreign policy legacy becomes, among the general public, an object of disdain more frequently than of reverence.