Mourning the Parisian “Humorists” Yet Challenging the Hypocrisy of Western Media


Tribute to victims killed in Charlie Hebdo shooting

A tribute at the Place de la République in Paris to victims killed during the attack at Charlie Hebdo. Credit: Aurelien Meunier/Getty

As the editor of a progressive Jewish and interfaith magazine that has often articulated views that have prompted condemnation from both Right and Left, I had good reason to be scared by the murders of fellow journalists in Paris. Having won the 2014 “Magazine of the Year” Award from the Religion Newswriters Association, and having been critical of Hamas’ attempts to bomb Israeli cities this past summer (even while being equally critical of Israel’s rampage against civilians in Gaza), I have good reason to worry if this prominence raises the chances of being a target for Islamic extremists.
But then again, I had to wonder about the way the massacre in Paris is being depicted and framed by the Western media as a horrendous threat to Western civilization, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, I wondered about the over-heated nature of this description. It didn’t take me long to understand how problematic that framing really is.
When right-wing “pro-Israel” fanatics frequently sent me death threats, physically attacked my house and painted on the gates statements about me being “a Nazi” or “a self-hating Jew,” and called in bomb threats toTikkun, the magazine I edit, there was no attention given to this by the media, no cries of “our civilization depends on freedom of the press” or demands to hunt down those involved (the FBI and police received our complaints, but never reported back to us about what they were doing to protect us or find the assailants).
Nor was the mainstream or Jewish media particularly concerned about Western civilization being destroyed or freedom of thought and association undermined when various universities denied tenure to professors who had made statements critical of Israel, or when the Hillel association, which operates a chain of student-oriented “Hillel Houses” on college campuses, decided to ban from their premises any Jews who were part of Jewish Voices for Peace. Nor was the media much interested in a bomb that went off outside the NAACP’s Colorado Springs headquarters the same day as they were highlighting the attack in Paris. Colorado Springs is home to some of the most extreme right-wing activists. It was a balding white man who was seen setting the bomb, some reports claim, and so the media described it as an act of a troubled “lone individual,” rather than as a white right wing Christian fundamentalist terrorist. Few Americans have even heard of this incident.
And when the horrific assassinations of 12 media people and the wounding of another 12 media workers resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds (indeed, former Vice President Cheney boldly asserted he would order that kind of torture again without thinking twice)?
So don’t be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media-circus surrounding this particular outrage while the Western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that Western countries have been involved in. Or perhaps a bit less convinced that Western societies are really the best hope for civilization when they condone this kind of hypocrisy, rather than responding equally forcefully to all such actions repressing free speech or freedom of assembly. I could easily imagine (and regret) how some Islamist fundamentalists will already be making these points about the ethical inconsistencies of Western societies with their pomposity about human rights that never seem to constrain the self-described “enlightened democracies” from violating those rights when it is they who perceive themselves as under attack.
Yet there is a deeper level in which the discourse seems so misguided. AsTikkun editor-at-large, Peter Gabel, has pointed out, there is no recognition in the media of the dehumanizing way that so much of the media deals with whoever is the perceived threatening “other” of the day. That media was outraged at the attempt by some North Korean allied group to scare people away from watching a movie ridiculing and then planning to assassinate the current (immoral) ruler of Korea, never wondering how we’d respond if a similar movie had been made ridiculing and planning the assassination of an American president. Similarly, the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.
To even raise this kind of question is to open oneself up to charges of not caring about the murdered or making excuses for the murderers. But neither charge is accurate. I fear those fundamentalist extremists just as much as I fear the Jewish extremists who have threatened my life and the Christian extremists who are now exercising power over the U.S. Congress. Every form of violence outrages and sickens me.
Yet the violence is an inevitable consequence of a world which systematically dehumanizes so many people who are made to feel powerless and despairing and deeply depressed about the possibility of finding the milk of human kindness anywhere. The representation of evil dominates the media, and becomes the justification for our own evil acts. And that evil is made possible because so many among us avert our eyes and shut our ears to the cries of the oppressed.
The U.N. estimates that some 10,000 children will die of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition today and every other day in 2015 – 2.5 million live on less than $2 a day, 1.5 million on less than $1 a day. Every day thousands of young women are sold into prostitution or “voluntarily” join it in order to raise enough money to help feed their families. Tens of millions of others work in horrendous “sweat shop” conditions. When some of them and some who know about them and feel outraged turn to various forms of nationalist or religious fundamentalist extremism, their violent actions rightfully get condemned. But the silence at the violence that is structural and a pervasive consequence of the globalization of capital is rarely brought to anyone’s attention.
All of us absorb this global reality into our unconscious, just as we absorb the violence, hatred, and demeaning of others. We tolerate the kind of endless put-downs that the “humor” magazines and even supposedly liberal comedians like Bill Maher perpetrate, not realizing how much damage all of this does to our souls. The spiritual consequences are all around us: people despairing of ever being understood by others, growing distrustful of others, and feeling that no one really can be trusted. A collective and global emotional depression makes so many people withdraw into themselves, sometimes in relatively harmless ways, but often in ways that undermine the possibility of any human community emerging that would be capable of dealing with the social and environmental problems that face the human race, thereby giving freedom for the global corporations and their hired guns in the media and politics to continue to run the world for their own narrow interests and without regard to the well being of other people or the environment.
“But they ridicule everyone’s religion, not just the Muslim’s,” we are reassured. “And shouldn’t free speech and individual human liberties be our highest value, a value that gets put into danger by any attempt to question the societal value of having a public discourse of demeaning others.” But the reassurance isn’t reassuring. That they ridicule everyone is exactly the problem – the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone. But of course not equally destructive, because people who are already economically and socially marginalized are in far greater danger of having this demeaning sting rather than feel funny.
None of this is reason to stop mourning the horrific murders in Paris or to excuse it in any way. But it is reason to wonder why the media can never tell a more balanced story of what is happening our world.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.
________________Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue, and author of 11 books including two national best sellers: The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. He welcomes your involvement in building a Love and Justice movement in Western societies.


6 thoughts on “Mourning the Parisian “Humorists” Yet Challenging the Hypocrisy of Western Media

  1. You appear to engage in precisely the sort of false equivalence I so eminently detest. A few instances, in particular, caught my attention:
    First, you state that you were “‘equally critical’ of Israel’s ‘rampage’ against ‘civilians’ in Gaza” as you were of “Hamas’ attempts to bomb Israeli cities this past summer.” Do you really believe that Israel was on a “rampage” against Gaza’s “civilians” during the IDF’s operational response to rocket fire? Was Israel’s intention to target the civilian population of Gaza the same as Hamas’ deliberate attempt at targeting Israeli civilians? What, precisely, would Israel have stood to gain by having such an objective, besides further disproportionate international condemnation? If it is your (dis)honest belief that this was, in fact, Israel’s goal, and if you altogether fail to see that it was Hamas, and not Israel, which sought to maximize Gaza’s civilian death toll, I’m afraid I shall have to set your opinions aside, as your credibility will be too compromised for me to suspend my disbelief in continued reading.
    Second, you suggest that we ought consider how we might respond to a movie depicting the “ridicule” (really? does this not happen daily in our democracy?) and assassination of an American President–a freely elected leader of a democratic society– as a way to “understand,” I assume, the reaction from North Korea at the way Sony portrayed their gulag-loving, despotic dictator.
    Finally, you say you “fear [Islamic| fundamentalists ‘just as much’ as I fear the Jewish extremists who have threatened my life and the Christian extremists who are now exercising power over the U.S. Congress.” Do you mean to tell me that you honestly believe, exceptions which prove the rule aside, that you have a statistically equal likelihood of being murdered in cold blood by a Jewish settler who dislikes your critique of Israeli policy or a Christian who believes in say, proscribing gay marriage, as you have to be shot in the head by a Muslim terrorist who objects to a cartoon about Mohammed?
    Sir, I support gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, a two state solution, and I am opposed to capital punishment, all in contravention of some Christian and/or Jewish radicals. This does not in any way, however, make these people even remotely as dangerous on a consistent basis as Islamists who routinely behead journalists, hang gays, stone adulterers, bomb newspapers, and burn embassies across the globe.
    There are degrees of moral depravity; would you care to explain to me the reticence to recognize the difference?

  2. Haven’t several major movies been made in which the plot centers around the assassination of an American President? This renders your rhetorical question moot – the movies were made and there was no problem.

    • I do not know whether I should be surprised or embarrassed that so many commenters here are complaining that Rabbi Lerner does not condemn extreme acts from all sides when he clearly does. Perhaps, both surprise AND embarrassment would be appropriate. I am grateful to Mr. Lerner for pointing out the hypocrisy of the reaction of so many people to the tragic events in France and for emphasizing that “the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone” — Jews, Muslims, blacks — everyone. That is why, if I were in Paris yesterday, I, as a strong supporter of the right to free speech, might have participated in the march; but I would have been tempted to carry a sign that said, “I am NOT Charlie.”

  3. This wonderful article, by a courageous rabbi deeply devoted to the Jewish people, yet someone also capable of criticizing Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, gives us much to think about. Lerner directs our attention to a fundamental double standard that is rooted in a kind of moral blindness. Of course we should be outraged at the despicable act of carnage taken against the media workers at the French satiric magazine. But where is the similar outrage at the far greater crimes committed by our own government in places like Vietnam, Iraq, Grenada and Haiti just to name a view; or the effects of the structural violence of poverty and homelessness that ravages millions of lives each and every year.
    While the mainstream media expresses concern about threats to the values of Western civilization by the acts of these Islamic extremists, Lerner is right in wondering why we do not recognize that the heavy handed attempts of right wing Zionists to suppress any and all criticism of Israel is likewise a threat to our cherished values of free speech and association. And as to double standards, why was Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 worshipers in a Mosque in Hebron, not referred to as a Jewish terrorist and why was Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2013, not referred to as a Christian terrorist? Let’s be honest, misguided terrorists can always find certain passages in the sacred writings of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity to justify in their mind their despicable deeds. But let us be careful to never condemn the religion itself or paint all its followers with a broad brush- for to do so is racism.

  4. As a ‘moderate’ Muslim, all I can say is that you hit the nail on the head. When I saw 4 million people march is Paris, I didn’t see freedom, I saw hipocrasy. I believe in freedom of speech but I don’t believe in offence. For instance challenging the Holocaust is not ‘funny’ nor is it ‘anti establishment’, it’s plain and simple insensitive. I would be disgusted if a cartoon dipicted such a thing and I am ashamed when fellow Muslims challenge it. But here’s the difference most Muslim that challenge this are not well educated, lack exposure and grew up in that very isolated cultures, this does not apply to the 4 million that marched. Then the magazine published another cartoon to show ‘defiance’, as to say ‘up yours terrorists’. Here’s the funny thing, moderate Muslims were so offended while people like IS used it to gain more recruitment.

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