Fresh collaboration between The Real Dill, Tonyboy and Bill Thorpe in the UK with support from The Real Art of Street Art
Garry Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, has come under attack from right-wing editorialists and media pundits for publicly criticizing anti-Muslim cartoons appearing in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, calling them a form of hate speech.
Trudeau’s brief remarks were delivered at Long Island University April 10, where he received the George Polk Career Award for his more than four decades of work as a cartoonist, in the course of which he has frequently had to battle censorship of his outspoken liberal views. Only three years ago, 50 newspapers refused to carry his strip during a week when he bitingly attacked Republican politicians who oppose abortion rights even in the case of rape or incest.
The central point made by Trudeau is that Charlie Hebdo was engaged, not in satirizing the powerful, but in vilifying the most oppressed section of the French population, Muslim immigrants, who face the highest levels of unemployment, poverty, police harassment and imprisonment.
Trudeau was of course horrified by the bloody massacre in January at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, when an attack by two Islamist gunmen left 12 people dead, include most of the magazine’s senior cartoonists. He contributed to an online tribute to the murdered cartoonists. His refusal to go along with the retrospective glorification of the content of the cartoons, despite the enormous wave of media propaganda that has followed, is an act of intellectual and moral courage.
For that very reason, his statement has been vilified as an attack on the victims of terrorism, in a series of columns by right-wing pundits, including David Frum of The Atlantic, Cathy Young of Reason magazine, and Ross Douthat of theNew York Times.
Frum made the most sweeping attack, citing the killings at Charlie Hebdo, the related attack on a kosher bakery in Paris, and a subsequent attack in Copenhagen, Denmark, and declaring, “For this long record of death and destruction—and for many other deaths as well—Garry Trudeau blamed the people who drew and published the offending cartoons.”
The right-wing pundit claims that Trudeau applied “privilege theory” to theCharlie Hebdo massacre, justifying it because the victims were from the white elite, while the gunmen were from the immigrant Muslim underclass. “To fix the blame for the killing on the murdered journalists, rather than the gunmen, Trudeau invoked the underdog status of the latter,” Frum writes.
He goes on to claim that news organizations in the United States that reported on the anti-Islam cartoons in Charlie Hebdo did not reprint them because they were afraid of terrorist attack, drawing the conclusion, “Violence does work.”
Trudeau offered a different explanation for the non-publication of the anti-Muslim cartoons in an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he addressed the right-wing attack on his Long Island University remarks. US editors did not reprint the cartoons because they were demeaning and racist, he maintained. If similar cartoons had targeted African-Americans, they would be universally denounced and repudiated.
Douthat and Young both cite Frum’s column approvingly in their own shorter diatribes, echoing his claim that Trudeau had based his remarks on an extreme version of identity politics. These criticisms are baseless slanders, as can be easily demonstrated by looking at what Trudeau actually said. The cartoonist cited the example of the great satirists of the French Enlightenment.
“Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists such as Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
“By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech…”
The same issue was raised in a perspective published on the WSWS immediately after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. WSWS Chairman David North rejected the claim by British historian Simon Schama that the French magazine was in the tradition of the great satirists of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, writing:
Schama places Charlie Hebdo in a tradition to which it does not belong. All the great satirists to whom Schama refers were representatives of a democratic Enlightenment who directed their scorn against the powerful and corrupt defenders of aristocratic privilege. In its relentlessly degrading portrayals of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo has mocked the poor and the powerless.
North explained that the orgy of praise for Charlie Hebdo, summed up in the slogan “I am Charlie,” raised at demonstrations in Paris, was an effort to provide an ideological justification for US and French imperialism:
The killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and editors is being proclaimed an assault on the principles of free speech that are, supposedly, held so dear in Europe and the United States. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is, thus, presented as another outrage by Muslims who cannot tolerate Western “freedoms.” From this the conclusion must be drawn that the “war on terror”—i.e., the imperialist onslaught on the Middle East, Central Asia and North and Central Africa—is an unavoidable necessity.
These efforts are doubly hypocritical, given the onslaught on democratic rights, including freedom of the press, in all the Western countries, especially the United States. The Obama administration has targeted more journalists for surveillance and more whistleblowers for prosecution than any other in US history, singling out those who have played major roles in exposing the crimes of the US government, like Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange.
Trudeau is not an avowed opponent of imperialism, but rather a liberal who apparently supports the Obama administration, albeit with some disappointment. That does not detract from the principled character of his public repudiation of the right-wing efforts to whip up anti-Muslim prejudice.
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Last spring, designer Adam Harvey hosted a session on hair and makeup techniques for attendees of the 2015 FutureEverything Festival in Manchester, England. Rather than sharing innovative ways to bring out the audience’s eyes, Harvey’s CV Dazzle Anon introduced a series of styling methods designed with almost the exact opposite aim of traditional beauty tricks: to turn your face into an anti-face—one that cameras, particularly those of the surveillance variety, will not only fail to love, but fail to recognize.
Harvey is one of a growing number of privacy-focused designers and developers “exploring new opportunities that are the result of [heightened] surveillance,” and working to establish lines of defense against it. He’s spent the past several years experimenting with strategies for putting control over people’s privacy back in their own hands, in their pockets and on their faces.
Harvey’s goal of “creating a style that [is] functional and aesthetic” has driven several projects and collaborations, including a method for “spoofing” DNA, and via the Privacy Gift Shop, his drone-thwarting Stealth Wear line (clothing he claims “shields against thermal imaging…[which is] used widely by military drones to target people,” seen below) and the OFF Pocket phone sleeve, able to keep out unwanted wireless signals.
Harvey’s work is focused on accessibility in addition to privacy. “Most of the projects I’ve worked on are analog solutions to digital challenges,” he said. His hair and makeup style tips – a veritable how-to guide for how to create “privacy reclaiming” looks at home – are “deliberately low-cost.” His current project – software to “automatically generate camouflage…that can be applied to faces” – will allow a user to “create [their] own look and guide the design towards [their] personal style preferences.”
Other low-tech protections against widespread surveillance have been gaining ground, too. Though initially designed as a tongue-in-cheek solution to prying eyes and cameras, Becky Stern’s Laptop Compubody Sock offers a portable, peek-free zone to laptop users, while the CHBL Jammer Coat and sold-out Phonekerchief use metal-infused fabrics to make personal gadgets unreachable, blocking texts, calls and radio waves. For people willing to sport a bit more hardware in the name of privacy, the Sentient City Survival Kit offers underwear that notifies wearers about real-life phishing and tracking attempts, and its LED umbrella lets users “flirt with object tracking algorithms used in advanced surveillance systems” and even “train these systems to recognize nonhuman shapes.”
Large companies are also getting in on the pushback against increasing surveillance. Earlier this year, antivirus software leaders AVG revealed a pair of invisibility glasses developed by its Innovation Labs division. The casual looking specs use embedded infrared lights “to create noise around the nose and eyes” and retro-reflective frame coating to interfere with camera flashes, “allowing [the wearer] to avoid facial recognition.” In early 2013, Japan’s National Institute of Informatics revealed a bulky pair of goggles it had developed for the same purpose.
A spokesperson for Innovation Labs claims its glasses represent “an important step in the prevention against mass surveillance…whether through the cell phone camera of a passerby, a CCTV camera in a bar, or a drone flying over your head in the street.” Innovation Labs says that, with a person’s picture, facial recognition software “coupled with data from social networking sites can provide instant access to the private information of complete strangers. This can pose a serious threat to our privacy.” Though AVG’s glasses are not scheduled for commercial release, Innovation Labs said that individuals can take a number of steps to prevent their images from being “harvested”:
“First and foremost, make sure you’re not allowing private corporations to create biometrics profiles about you. When using social networks like Facebook, be aware that they are using facial recognition to give you tag suggestions. Facebook’s DeepFace was already tested and trained on the largest facial dataset to-date (an identity labeled dataset of more than 4 million facial images belonging to thousands of identities).”
Holmes Wilson of nonprofit Fight for the Future, which works to defend online privacy and freedoms on various fronts, is more concerned with other types of privacy invasion than real-life image harvesting. “It’s pretty unlikely in most of the world that you’ll get followed around using a network of street cameras with face recognition,” he said. “It’s probably pretty likely, though, that you’ll get filmed by police at a protest. But [there’s] not much you can do about that other than wearing a mask.”
Wilson advises people concerned about privacy breaches through surveillance to first focus on the ways in which their gadgets are supplying info to third parties. “The place where it’s easiest to fight back against surveillance is in protecting the security of your messages,” he said, adding that message security “can be a problem for activists, too.” He said apps like Textsecure, Signal, and Redphone can make it “a lot harder for people to spy on you.” Wilson added:
“Phones are the biggest thing. Lots of people think of smartphones as the big privacy problem, but old-fashioned phones are just as bad, and worse in some ways. All cellphones report on your location to the network as you move around. That’s just how they work, and they need to send that information or the system won’t know where to send your call. There’s no way to turn that off, other than by turning off the phone and, for good measure, taking the battery out.”
In collaboration with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future recommends a variety of options for encrypting messages, password-protecting accounts and securing a user’s various communication and browsing activities via Reset the Net. Wilson encouraged those with specific privacy concerns to check out tutorials, resources and break-downs of privacy issues from Surveillance Self-Defense.
Last year, Facebook announced that its DeepFace facial recognition technology can detect a person’s identity from photos with 97.25 percent accuracy, only a hair below the 97.5 percent success rate for humans taking the same test. Currently, a congressional front is preparing to extend surveillance powers granted to legal bodies by Section 215 of the Patriot Act—the NSA’s legal foothold of choice with regard to mass collection of US phone records since 2006, and set to expire on June 1—with the light-on-reform USA Freedom Act.
It seems likely that a growing number of both tech-wary and tech-savvy people will continue weighing how best to ensure their personal privacy, whether by putting stark makeup on or by turning their phones off.
I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.
For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)
But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.
Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.
He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.
Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”
Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.
If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.
All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.
As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.
I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.