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Charlie Hebdo and the Merits of Ignorance

18/01/2016 11:31 GMT | Updated 17/01/2017 10:12 GMT

I've always wanted to write about football. Up until now I've refrained from doing so on the grounds that I know absolutely nothing about it. I know that there are two teams who wear different colours, and that they have to get the ball into a big net, and that sometimes the TV coverage includes erotic slow-motion replays. But that's about the limit of my understanding.

Which is why I was so relieved to read Jonathan Freedland's article for The Guardian on Charlie Hebdo. For here is a man who won't let his non-existent appreciation of satire prevent him from writing about it. For those of you who thought that cartoons appearing in a famously satirical magazine perhaps shouldn't be taken at face value, Freedland is here to tell you otherwise.

The cartoon in question depicts the drowned refugee child Aylan Kurdi and, according to The Guardian's initial report, suggests that he "would have grown up to be a sexual abuser like those immigrants allegedly involved in the assaults in Cologne". Can it really be that Charlie Hebdo, which for years has cultivated a reputation for left-wing values, and been lauded as "the greatest anti-racist weekly" by SOS Racisme, has suddenly decided to reinvent itself as a propagandist for the far right? It would be a strange career move, it has to be said.

Freedland acknowledges that the target may in fact be "the fickleness of the great European public and press, overflowing with tears for a child in August, baring its teeth in anger at the criminals of Cologne in January". Well, yes. This does strike me as a more likely interpretation for a cartoon in an anti-racist satirical publication. Occam's razor and all that.

But no, according to Freedland this is to give the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo "too much credit". We are talking about a group of artists who, in the face of death threats from psychopathic theocrats, persisted in asserting their right to publish their work. They continued to do so even in the aftermath of the January massacre, while spineless media outlets refused to show the very image which had motivated the attackers. Too much credit? Is that even possible?

As Robert McLiam Wilson has pointed out, the majority of Charlie Hebdo's critics have a number of shared qualities: they are not regular readers of the magazine, live outside of France, and don't speak French. This explains why the depiction of Christiane Taubira as a monkey could be so widely interpreted as racist, when it is clearly a satirical take on racist perceptions. This is amoeba-level stupidity, but at least amoebae aren't commissioned to write op-ed pieces in the national press.

Freedland's argument amounts to the idea that artists should avoid expressing themselves if their work could be misinterpreted, particularly by the kind of working-class audiences who enjoyed Alf Garnett for the wrong reasons. Underlying all of this is a fear of the Great Unwashed, those mindless hordes incapable of getting the joke. Freedland went to private school, of course. So he knows better.

If artists are to self-censor due to the possibility of misinterpretation, we may as well abandon satire altogether. As an art form, satire cannot exist without nuance, and as we see from Freedland's article, nuance is likely to confuse.

But perhaps Freedland is joking too. Perhaps his article is a deliberate embodiment of the illiberal censoriousness currently plaguing the Left. After all, it's difficult to imagine anything more preposterous than his assertion that the Aylan Kurdi cartoon "isn't satirical", and that Charlie Hebdo is simply laughing at a dead child. That would be as knuckleheaded as arguing that Chris Morris firmly believes in the moral distinction between "good" and "bad" AIDS.

Of course all of this is really an excuse for me to write about football from a position of total ignorance. So here we go. This weekend Manchester United beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield. It is my contention that had the Liverpool players run a bit faster, or perhaps kicked the ball a bit harder, then they might have improved their score.

That was fun. Next week: astrophysics.