An Open Letter to Laurie Penny

By David Paxton (@canyouflybobby)

Ms Penny,

Apologies for the rather trite format. I am no fan of open letters but I have long been blocked by you on Twitter and this is the remaining method of contacting you openly.

It’s now been over five weeks since the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. 48hrs subsequent to them you posted the following:

Murder is vile and unconscionable. Freedom of the press must be protected. But racist trolling is not heroism. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.

This single tweet is all this is about. You didn’t say much else about the attack as far as I could find. And I looked.

I was appalled by many responses to the attacks and wrote a piece highlighting my problems with them. Your tweet is featured in it under the section ‘Reflexive Smearing’. Reading it back I was still struck by what you had written and think it valid to revisit. I believe there is a disparity between what you profess to believe in, how you usually conduct yourself and the content of your statement. Something doesn’t add up and I would be much obliged if at the very least you could help clarify it and end my confusion.

My objections to your message are as follows:

1: You force equivalence/balance into the statement via the formulation. Namely: ‘The murderer is wrong but so are the victims.’  It seems to suggest you were incapable, for some reason, of being satisfied merely with condemning Islamist murderers.

2: You reduce Charlie Hebdo’s work to mere ‘trolling’. Under some definitions of trolling this might be accurate but you only ever employ it as a pejorative. I am assuming you have done so here.

3: You chose to distance yourself from those expressing solidarity with them.

4: You deny their heroism.

5: You accuse the dead of being racist. I believe unfairly.

The first objection is probably worth leaving. I explained in my previous piece how the selective use of this formulation is perhaps a symptom of something else. I stand by that. But in its plain meaning it is merely the expression of two opinions side by side. I cannot definitively prove the ill-intent of the implied equivalence so I won’t ask you to deny it here. Although as a writer from whom I have read the term ‘victim blaming’ with some frequency, can you not see why your formulation gives off the strong whiff of it?

The remaining four points collectively amount to something quite egregious. I think it is incumbent on you to explain why you stand by your statement or repudiate it and apologise. I shall explain why this is so.

But before anything else I would strongly recommend you read this excellent piece by Frenchman Olivier Tonneau. It’s called A Letter to My British Friends and I’m sure he means you more than me, a conservative. Perhaps after reading it yourself we can be done with this early and move straight on to your repudiation and apology. There are several pieces explaining Charlie Hebdo’s content and style but I chose this one as a starting point because the author’s views are closest to what I perceive to be your own about most subjects.

I was aware of what Charlie Hebdo was since the 2006 Danish Cartoon controversy. However, I speak lousy French and five weeks ago I could not claim detailed knowledge of its content and history. Many of the first voices to speak out after the attacks were adamant of its malign intentions and conduct and there were cartoons, taken out of context, to back this up. Did you see an unexplained cartoon of Boko Haram sex slaves perchance? Is that what made you write what you did?

Knowing as I did that they were a far left, secular, deeply anti-racist organisation, the initial accusations did not ring true to me and I endeavoured to find the context and explanation of the images being circulated. That did take some time. Therefore I can understand how people under pressure to comment quickly and without foreknowledge may well have relied on these spurious accusations of racism. Perhaps you were one of those people? Did you perhaps not know what you were talking about but were as yet unaware of this ignorance? You follow Graham Linehan on Twitter, he set out early to speak against the victim blaming and was quick to disseminate backgrounds and explanations to the more controversial cartoons. Did you miss his commendable efforts before commenting? More to the point, five weeks on, are you still content in calling them unheroic racist trolls?

Assuming you are:

Let’s look at the trolling accusation. Judging the value or quality of satire is difficult. But Charlie Hebdo consistently and unfalteringly engaged in opposition to the following:

  • Corruption in government
  • Unwarranted power of big business
  • Europe’s disastrous austerity policies
  • Israeli actions in Gaza
  • Restrictions on immigration
  • Anti-immigrant policies
  • Any form of racism
  • Organised Religion
  • The Le Pen family, the National Front and their populist politics

Are there any on the list you wish that they didn’t attack? Or dispute that they did? These seem far closer to your political agenda than my own and I would have thought you a confirmed supporter of their efforts. Have you evidence they did things beyond this you felt worthy of condemnation? Do tell.

Even if you choose to describe their pieces and cartoons as being on the level of a troll’s output, surely the specific and righteous targeting elevates it above that? Why did you feel it reasonable to summarise the work they died for as merely trolling? As often as not your use of ‘troll’ is aimed at the sort of rampant misogynists who hurl rape threats at your feminist comrades. At this point I would invite you to examine this obituary of Elsa Cayat. Please read about this wonderful woman, named and singled out by the murderers, the only woman who was. Was her work trolling? If she was Charlie when she was murdered why aren’t you subsequently? Please spell it out.

As for choosing to expressly deny solidarity, I think the case for declaring solidarity is overwhelming, regardless of approval of the content. I made this case here and so will save myself the bother of making it in detail once more. However, a summation would be that for you to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted you’ve a duty to show solidarity with those threatened for free expression regardless of whether you approve of the expression. What is more, not stating “Je suis Charlie” is the simplest way to not express solidarity but to state “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” is something else altogether. The former hashtag came first and the latter was a repudiation of it. You therefore positively stated opposition to standing with them. Is there not something questionable in choosing to make your only contribution to the aftermath of a massacre include a repudiation of solidarity with the victims? I can scarcely imagine the crimes one would have to commit for me to make such a clear statement of separation from them after their cold-blooded murder. Why the hell did you?

“…not heroism”: Well this is a tricky one because surely such things are relative? Allow me to put my refutation in the form of a question. Imagine, you’re an editor of a magazine dedicated to secularism and you know for doing this job you are on the hit lists of active terrorist groups who have already taken serious risks to kill others. You acknowledge that you are under the most dire of threats and following a previous attack you say, and clearly mean, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees”. You can quit any time, but you don’t. Is that not heroic?

Now imagine that after this situation has transpired two religious-extremist thugs enter your place of work, call you out by name and shoot you in the head with an assault rifle. Assume you’ve enough time after realising certain death is imminent to contemplate that a fellow feminist, anti-racist, left-wing writer with 106,000 followers decides to publicly denounce your effort as unheroic. Ok, that might be the last thing on his mind but what if that was the final thing on Stéphane Charbonnier’s mind? Are you happy with that?

I have met two VC recipients and multiple MM/MC recipients, all of whom are heroic by virtue of combating pretty nasty people while being fortunate enough to be armed and trained. I know none who have faced the same people with nowt but a pen and a metaphorical prayer. If that isn’t heroic, Ms Penny, tell us what is? Can you name examples of people who are significantly more heroic? I honestly cannot. We’re up near Dietrich Bonhoeffer levels here. Tell us who has more steadfastly done what they considered right in the face of such apparent risks? Charb knew the risks, they were grave and they manifested in his murder. If you wish to claim this is not heroic that’s up to you but without explaining why, forgive me for thinking you not only wrong but so very clearly wrong that one has to start to question what motivation would lead you to choose to label such clear heroism as the opposite. Would you deign to enlighten? I contend you owe it to the dead whom you so casually choose to belittle.

Finally we’re left with racism. I’ve read thousands of your words so, although never having met you, I think if I were to sum up what you’re about politically, in a few bullet points, ‘anti-racist’ would feature high up and you wouldn’t disagree. I’d then also assume you know the following: Good people have exerted enormous effort to make the charge of racism, when proven, an enormous stigma. In fact it’s so virulent that it’s an enormous stigma even when unproven. The former case is a cause for celebration and for much of the advancement our societies have made regarding racism. The latter is, unfortunately, a temptation for those who wish to discredit or silence people they disagree with by misusing the power of the charge.

There is something uniquely pernicious about casual and false accusations of racism. This is because it diminishes the weight of the accusation that so many have fought to make weighty. I contend your attribution of racism is both false and casual and therefore you are making it easier for racists to express themselves without pause. You are making the social penalty harder to apply. Why did you choose to apply it?

There’s a burden of proof problem here. I could blow another couple thousand words explaining why these avowed anti-racists are not racist but ultimately one cannot prove a negative. The burden of proof is on you. If you are going to make an accusation that defies the stated mission of the newly dead, is the burden not on you to show why? Why have you shirked it?

No matter how hard one tries to think the best here it seems inescapable that you smeared the dead as racists. And with no valid justification. It’s not just an insult to the victims it clearly works against any serious effort to fight racism. How low is that? How do you live with that?

I wonder how firm you are in your convictions? Let’s try this…

12 Dead In French Magazine Shooting

This is the unheroic, racist, troll Stéphane Charbonnier. The man who contributed his talent to the National Movement Against Racism by the way and the one whose activities you felt comfortable to condemn in the same tweet as condemning his murder.

This was his partner:

Jeannette-Bougrab-portrait-en-2007_exact1024x768_l copy

Her name is Jeannetter Bougrab. Of Muslim parentage she had, by the time she got her PhD in public law from the Sorbonne, become a secular atheist. At one point in her career she was the Chair of the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission.

If something is true, it is true at anytime, in any place and in any company. So I ask you if you would be earnestly able to explain to this woman why her loved one was not just a troll, not just unheroic but also a racist? Do you think this news would be a shock to her? That she had given her love to a racist by being duped and that somehow you know better than her? Or do you suggest she knowingly loved a racist? Do you think your evidence would be strong enough to convince her? Or perhaps you merely smeared her loved one from a condition of total ignorance or for reasons of malice? Which is it? Is there another option?

I’ll sum up:

I easily understand why fifth columnist extremists head straight for the implications you made. They seek to shift the blame from their own Islamic ideology. However, I don’t understand how you’ve ended up on the opposing side to Caroline Fourest. Do you understand this? Can you justify it?

Stating you’re not Charlie is on the one hand a contemptible denial of support but on the other a clear statement of fact. You don’t deserve to be considered alongside those that died that day or whom managed to continue producing their magazine in the aftermath. At least not for as long as you are willing to stand by your opinion.

Now this time has passed and you are able to reflect upon what you wrote, have you altered your opinion any?

I would like you to do one of the following:

1: Justify your opinion. For although you have the right to make it, such a strong opinion, especially about those unable to reply, requires justification.

Or:

2: Repudiate your previous statement. Do so publicly and set straight those whom you influence and may have taken your ignorant and precipitant declaration as somehow based on thought and knowledge. Of course, with this should also come an apology and an explanation. What serious person could provide less?