Try ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ and you’ll find that America and Israel are not to blame for all the world’s atrocities

The ‘But Brigade’ has turned its monosyllabic screw until cartoonists become complicit in their own demise

Howard Jacobson
Friday 23 January 2015 18:25
A sign that reads 'Charlie Hebdo Is Sold Out' is seen in the window of a French book shop, earlier selling the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in London
A sign that reads 'Charlie Hebdo Is Sold Out' is seen in the window of a French book shop, earlier selling the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in London

I’ve a proposal to make: what if, instead of employing the Chomsky “but” whenever something terrible is visited on us, we tried saying “and” instead? Not just for the fun of it but to make the world a better, bigger, more inclusive space. “But” shrinks and grudges; “and” amplifies and allows.

Let me remind you how the Chomsky “but” operates. “The attack on the Twin Towers was an atrocity,” you concede, “‘but’…” And here you insert whichever qualifier takes your fancy. “The attack on the Twin Towers was an atrocity, ‘but’ Americans are committing atrocities all the time.” “The attack on the Twin Towers was an atrocity, ‘but’ George Bush is a shit.” Or, how about, “Gunning down the staff of Charlie Hebdo was an atrocity, ‘but’ Israel kills journalists in Gaza.” Would anyone say that? Unless I dreamt it, Noam Chomsky just has.

So now change his “but” to “and” and see what happens. Take your time.

Salman Rushdie, meanwhile, has been doing sterling work on American television and in the American press fingering the “butters”. The “But Brigade”, he felicitously calls them. As someone who has been a victim of ideologically organised “butting” himself, he knows whereof he speaks. “No, we cannot tolerate fatwas on writers, ‘but’ he did insult the Prophet, and you wouldn’t like it if he’d insulted Jesus or Moses.” Which is disingenuous since most of us wouldn’t mind at all.

Chomsky himself has “butted” vociferously over the years about the fatwa imposed on Rushdie, noting that Western intellectuals were up in arms in favour of Rushdie “but” had nothing to say when it came to the imprisoning of Holocaust deniers. A selective truth, since many Western intellectuals have opposed the imprisoning of Holocaust deniers, believing it to be a more effective punishment to leave them wandering round what’s left of Auschwitz and Buchenwald with their rulers and log tables for all eternity. Besides which, the fate of a Holocaust denier touches us less deeply than that of a novelist threatened with assassination, if for no other reason than that a novelist adds to the world’s stock of knowledge, while a Holocaust denier detracts from it. All life is precious, but we mourn less when a skunk dies than when a tiger does.

The equivalising of what’s not equivalent is dear to the hearts of the “But Brigadiers”, who claim a purity of principle themselves, unlike the rest of us, who hypocritically defend one man’s rights and not another’s. There are two answers to such puritanism. The first is Leonard Cohen’s: there’s a crack, a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. Avenging angels might be consistent but humans aren’t. “Everything unconditional belongs in pathology,” Nietzsche wrote, agreeing with Leonard Cohen. Only the pathological believe themselves free from those venial irregularities that make us favour novelists over deniers, tigers over skunks, even though as abstract causes they can be made to appear the same.

The second answer is that the pathological are themselves no better in practice. What principle of pure truth guides Chomsky when he equivalises a journalist killed in crossfire in Gaza with the cartoonists mowed down with malice aforethought in Paris? And while he wants us to see a parity in these deaths, the fervency of his reasoning declares him to be more outraged by those in Gaza.

So how are you getting on substituting “and” for “but”? Jihadists shouldn’t kill journalists in Paris. And Israelis shouldn’t kill journalists in Gaza. Doesn’t cut the mustard, does it? The reason being – leaving aside the preposterousness of analogising massacre and mishap – that it removes the idea of consequence. The “but” that was deemed so necessary after 9/11 – that great “but” from which all the lesser “buts” have sprung – was the “but” of extenuation. It was the first, grammatical step in shifting blame from perpetrator to victim. Not only, on the back of that “but”, was America reminded that others had suffered, that America was instrumental in that suffering, and that America could therefore be said to bear a share of responsibility for what happened, the “butters” finally came within a whisker of condoning the act of terrorism itself.

And so it has been these past few shameful weeks with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Little by little, day by day, the “But Brigade” has turned its monosyllabic screw until the cartoonists become complicit in their own demise and their murder appals us a little less. Yes the requisite noises are made – free speech non-negotiable blah blah – but the “butters” are quick to invoke instances where we do negotiate it: anti-Semites removed from their positions, for example, anti-Semites not allowed to speak what’s on their minds. Funny how it’s always the freedom to be an anti-Semite the “But Brigade” protects. And finally, in justification of murder, the issue of provocation is wheeled out, though the concept of “asking for it” would not be entertained for a second if the crime were rape.

Pace the Papa, he who insults my mother might deserve a stern rebuke, but not with rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs. Nor does being rude to someone’s ma equate to criticising his beliefs. I thought we had long ago decided we are all fair game when it comes to the gods we choose to revere, whereas our mothers, like the colour of our skin, we are given. If the Pope has a vested interest in protecting religion from scrutiny, so does the “But Brigade” have a vested interest in drawing attention away from any atrocity that isn’t perpetrated by Americans or Israelis. Except that there isn’t any atrocity which isn’t perpetrated by Americans or Israelis, for who else is ever on the end of the chain of repercussion, extenuation and blame that begins with that malignant “but”?

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