Paris and Campus Activism

January 2015. Getty Images.


I like to wait some time after a current event and see people’s reactions. To the Paris attacks, everyone is responding exactly as you would expect:

  1. ISIS takes credit.
  2. France declares the attacks an act of war, bombs ISIS stuff in Syria, and smokes out related suspects.
  3. The rest of the world sympathizes with France.
  4. Conservatives in Europe and America want to stop taking in Syrian refugees, and more right-wing backlash, etc.
  5. Liberals criticize conservatives.
  6. People on the internet say all the usual stuff which they think are new and clever arguments on terrorism/tolerance/religion even though these arguments literally appear every time there is a terrorist attack.
  7. I get angry as an atheist because many people still try to tiptoe around calling this “Islamic” terrorism because the thought of accidentally offending people is so much worse than a hundred people being murdered (this goes as far as the movement to get people to call ISIS by the name Daesh instead because “ISIS” implies Islamic).

The only thing sort of unexpected was the universal support against terrorism this time, in contrast with Charlie Hebdo in January. The last blog post I wrote, which seems like a really long time ago, was about the backlash against Charlie Hebdo after the attacks as many people thought their cartoons were too offensive and that in some way they deserved it.

Even the Pope changed his mind about it. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” said Mr. Francis in a victim-blaming allegory regarding the January attacks which killed 12 people. On the other hand, regarding the November attacks, he stated that there is no “religious or human justification for these things.”

So I’m pleased that the world is finally starting to rally together against ISIS. But it has unfortunately taken so many lives, not just in Paris but around the world, to get us to this path.

Missouri and Yale

One thing the Paris attacks did was to totally shut out the campus “activist” incidents from the news.

The Missouri protests seemed mostly legitimate, other than the whole fiasco of stepping in front of a car and touching it to obtain instant victimhood status. There was blatant racism at the school (like not “microaggressions”* but literally dropping cotton balls in front of a black community) and it seemed like the administration didn’t do much about it. Even if the president was totally not a racist but just incompetent at his job, it more or less justifies the protests.

For Yale though, I have to denounce the Halloween costume protests and instead take the side of Erika Christaki. Her apparently biggest mistake in life was to encourage students to think and exercise free speech, in an institution where students are supposed to think and exercise free speech. The backlash against her from some of the students seemed completely out of line, given that it took place at such an elite university. I basically agree with this Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf—its title, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism”, sums it up.

Bonus read: a protest at Dartmouth, with students’ own responses here and here. The first link is disconcerting. A passage:

The large group of protestors began to move up and yell at students on first floor Berry. Students were again yelled at to stand up in support of the protest, and many did so, either out of support or fear.

After making a girl cry, a protestor screamed “Fuck your white tears.”

I was startled by the aggression from a small minority of students towards students in the library, many of whom were supporters of the movement.

When I was at Cornell just a couple of years ago, I never saw anything like this. The closest to campus controversy I witnessed was the day after some rockets from Hamas hit Israel and killed some people. A group of pro-Israel, presumably Jewish, students organized a demonstration on Ho Plaza (yes, that place exists at Cornell). While I watched, another group of students, who I would guess were Muslim, started shouting profanities at the Jewish organization. From what I later heard, the second group was trying to kick out the Jewish group but the Jewish group had already cleared the event with the administration and thus had the right to be there.

But this incident seemed respectful of free speech and was about actual legitimate issues, not Halloween costumes.

*WordPress hilariously auto-corrects “microaggression” to “nonaggression”.

If You Think Charlie Hebdo Needs to Tone It Down, You Don’t Understand Free Speech (Or Satire)


In response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there have been roughly two kinds of sentiments:

  1. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified. (“I am Charlie”)
  2. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified, BUT Charlie Hebdo went too far and shouldn’t have been so offensive. (“I am not Charlie.”)

The second sentiment is what I have trouble with, and it is one that I feel needs to be addressed.

We should be on the same side here. Extremist Islam is not just anti-free speech—it’s also anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, and anti-Semitic, to name a few examples. In fact, to blow your mind further, Charlie Hebdo is actually a left-wing paper. This is just one of the problems of satire, that some people will confuse what a satirist is making fun of with what he or she is actually supporting. Unfortunately, this “some people” category includes people who I would normally view as very intelligent, and perhaps they just flew too quickly into the contrarian nest. (I say this because it’s the left that should be MORE supportive of Charlie Hebdo, whereas it seems that all the detractors I know of are from the left.) I imagine that if the terrorists had attacked an women’s rights convention, the response from the left would be far different. (“I don’t profess to be a scholar of Islam. But it’s plain that some branches or interpretations of the faith view any depictions of gender equality as blasphemy.”) After all, it’s extremist Islam, not offensive cartoons, that brought you Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls, lashes for women as punishment for being raped, and the shooting of an oh-so-offensive Malala Yousafzai. You should have the right to call these out without having to worry about your life.

Now, the way of calling these out is where some people disagree. They think free speech is the right to say what you want so long as it doesn’t offend people. But this is a contradiction in terms: by definition, free speech isn’t free if there are restrictions on what you can and can’t say.

“This is because, in part, the use of printed (and now digital) satire is an old and honorable response to the excesses of government and religion. When the people have no other voice, when the main media outlets are controlled by the state (or too fearful to challenge the state), satire flourishes. One of the few ways the citizen can hold the rich and powerful accountable is to employ humor and satire.” —Robert F. Darden (source)

The right to free speech is the right to ridicule, the right to offend. By arguing that Charlie Hebdo should essentially censor itself, you are calling for the destruction of your own human rights, and this sentiment I find much scarier than a terrorist shooting.


I also feel the need to address the main side point surrounding the issue, which is the claim that Charlie Hebdo is “racist” or “hateful” or “Islamophobic.” I’m afraid most of the articles or comments I’ve read that make this claim seem completely unaware that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing satirical newspaper as opposed to a right-wing serious newspaper, which you might think it is if you didn’t get the satire. Here’s an example where several articles that I know of seemed to completely miss the joke:


Yep, at first it looks quite offensive, even though I’m not sure what it’s saying. Other people had the same idea, but went ahead and created their own story for what it is saying. For example, this Chicago Tribune article titled “Sorry, I am not ‘Charlie'” interpreted this trivially and lumped it with a list of other “offensive” drawings, with the description:

One cover cartoon of four young black women in burqas was headlined: “The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry. ‘Don’t touch our child benefits!'”

The Hooded Utilitarian has an article titled “In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism,” where the author not only shows the above cover in a list of “offensive” covers, but also adds a clever (but in hindsight, non-intelligent) quip, saying “Yes, that last one depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens.”

A quick Quora scan, on the other hand, reveals that some people just don’t understand satire. An explanation by Jean-Baptiste Froment:

This cover is mixing two unrelated elements which made the news at about the same time:
– Boko Haram victims likely to end up sex slaves in Nigeria
– Decrease of French welfare allocations

In France, as in probably every country who has welfare allocations, some people criticize this system because some people might try to game it (e.g., “welfare queens” idea). Note that if we didn’t had it there would probably be much more people complaining because the ones who really need it would end up in extreme poverty.

Charlie Hebdo is known for being left-wing attached and very controversial, and I think they wanted to parody people who criticize “welfare queens” by taking this point-of-view to the absurd, to show that immigrant women in France are more likely to be victims of patriarchy than evil manipulative profiteers.

And of course if we only stay on the first-degree approach, it’s a terrible racist and absurd cover.

And by another commentor, Adrien Lucas Ecoffet:

I can only confirm what Jean-Baptiste Froment and Stephen Reed’s answers have been saying: it’s easy now for non-French observers to imagine Charlie Hebdo as a right wing, racist, anti immigrant publication because of the fact that they have only seen covers about fundamentalist Islam.

The reality is, Charlie Hebdo is a far left, pro-immigrant publication, of which many contributors have been members of anti-racist organizations.

As the other answers have mentioned, this cover is simply the combination of two news stories to make a provocative joke. This is a very common occurrence in Charlie Hebdo front pages.

Overall I don’t think you should make much of this front page. Clearly people are cherry-picking Charlie Hebdo covers in an attempt to prove that it is a racist, anti-Islam publication, perhaps in some form of victim-blaming, when this assertion is absolutely preposterous to anyone who actually knows the newspaper.

Incidentally, this particular issue was preceded and followed by anti-Le Pen front pages, Le Pen being the front figure of the French anti-immigration far right.

I’m not French, I don’t speak French, nor am I familiar with French newspapers or political organizations, but with even a drop of critical thinking, I can say that these explanations make far more sense than what the “Charlie Hebdo is racist” crowd is shouting.

Let’s do more examples!

Here is a Tumblr post with 55,152 notes at the current moment of my writing this. I’m going to link one of the images and quote the entirety of it here (and I bolded a particularly interesting sentence):


Before social media sparks fire and everyone claims the phrase #jesuischarlie I want to point out some lovely truths about Charlie Hedbo that the news media may “forget” to point out.

Though my heart goes out to the victims to the shooting at the Charlie Hedbo headquarters ( I ALSO DO NOT CONDONE THE ACT OF VIOLENCE AS A SOLUTION TO RACISM OR HATE ) I need it to be known that this newspaper was not some sweet periodical that used it’s platform of freedom of speech as a catalyst to social change in France. Before you allow Fox News to label the shooters as Muslim Terrorist and that all Muslims are terrorist and that Charlie Hebdo was a magazines for families and saints you need to know that this newspaper was infamously known for being racist, homophobic, and highly islamophobic. I am not one to laugh at a blatant racist comic as “oh lol free speech” because with free speech comes RESPONSIBILITY.

It should be no secret that the Muslim community in France has often been abused, push to the side, and ignored. Even laws are put in place to prevent then from practicing their beliefs comfortably. For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them? Why can’t this magazine question why we are racist and islamophobic than to continue to justify their belief in supposed “ironic” comics?

My prayers go out to the victims of this shooing. As an artist, a person who works in magazines, a human, and as a French woman I feel their pain.



I will not stand for this magazine, I will not celebrate the privilege of “free speech” to be a disguise for hate. I am a black woman who understands how frustrated one can be as whites continue to use laws as an excuse to be abusive to who we are whether it be religion, skin color, or sexual orientation. I know France is scared, I know people are hurting. But I cannot be this newspaper’s ally. I am an ally for the people of France, I am an ally to the victims and their families but I will not stand in solidarity for this hateful newspaper.


Clearly this author senses something wrong: “For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them?” But she doesn’t go any further or investigate, and instead concludes she understands what the newspaper is about.

The author included the above Charlie Hebdo cartoon, which at first glance looks incredibly racist. However, the first warning bell that went off in my head was the word “raciste.” Now, as I said before, I don’t know any French, but it seems like you’re actually a real racist and drawing a racist depiction of someone, you wouldn’t include the word “raciste” in your depiction. Indeed, some digging reveals the full story (by John Courouble):

In November 2013 a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo depicted the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black (not literally African, specifically she was born in French Guiana), as a monkey. This has been a very popular image to share on Twitter as evidence that Charlie is a racist publication.

The first clue that all is not what it seems is that the cartoon was drawn by Charb – the editor himself. He was a Communist, and his girlfriend’s parents were North African. A funny kind of racist. Next you have to note that the text next to that cartoon says “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste”. This is a play on “Rassemblement Bleu Marine”, the slogan of Marine Le Pen’s national front, and the tricolor flame next to it is the party logo.

So, what you then need to know is that the cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebooked a photoshop of the woman in the cartoon as a monkey, and then said on French TV that she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government”.

The cartoon is literally saying the National Front are racists. I’m genuinely not sure whether propagating the imagery is or isn’t a useful way of mocking the FN, but turning an antifascist cartoon into evidence of racism based on no understanding at all takes some real pathology.

Again, this makes way more sense. It’s like when Obama was portrayed in the following way in The New Yorker, and many people missed the joke.


These are quite entertaining, so let’s do one more, and this time, a more relevant one. This one portrays Muhammad (which you basically aren’t supposed to do, if you believe in censorship and blasphemy laws):


Once again, this looks quite racist at first.

Finished judging yet? Let’s look at a translation:


Yeah. Let that sink in for a while.

Basically, people in the second group assumed that Charlie Hebdo was a bunch of classic right-wing sweep-all-Muslims-into-one-category racists, but hopefully they realize now that it is not the case. As this cover illustrates, they are actually criticizing the extremist parts, by figuratively saying that extremists have turned on their prophet.

So basically:

  • Satirical newspaper staff was attacked.
  • People were sad.
  • People wanted to defend free speech.
  • Some people thought Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t be so offensive.
  • These “some people” don’t realize that Charlie Hebdo is actually satirical and making fun of racists.
  • Hopefully they will realize this and stop with the “I am not Charlie” nonsense.

Once again, to those I’m criticizing (those of you in the “I am not Charlie” group): I think we’re ultimately on the same side here, you might have just been misinformed or leapt too quickly to judgment without careful thought.  The enemy isn’t Charlie Hebdo, it’s religious extremists.

I haven’t looked at or evaluated every Charlie Hebdo cartoon for racism, but based on several examples that seemed clearly racist at first but were actually not (and were actually anti-racist), and based on their track record for supporting free speech, it seems like Charlie Hebdo is an excellent publication to support.

May the freedom of speech prevail.

I am Charlie.


InterstellarFinally, a movie that supports technological progress! (As opposed to condemning it, like every other movie.)

This is just a great movie to exist right now. Granted, some of the messages, as critics have pointed out, are not very deep, but at least it has such messages that no other feature film dares to voice. Messages like nurturing a long-long-term solution, i.e. going into space, rather than plowing through the next harvest. Or messages about scientific tools being more valuable than the next dollar bill, as in the following dialogue:

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?
Ms. Kelly: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…
Cooper: Useless machines?
Ms. Kelly: And if we don’t want to repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this Planet, not tales of leaving it.
Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI. If we had any of them left the doctors might have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain before she died, rather than afterwards. And then my kids could have been raised by two parents….

And then, of course, you have the more obvious ones: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” There is something simple yet infinitely dramatic to these lines.

Interstellar can be viewed in many ways, including as a space- and time-bending love story or as a “negative productivity shock hits the global economy.” I see it, perhaps over-optimistically, as a statement about what humanity can and will accomplish. More strongly, it is about what we must do if we wish to thrive as a species, let alone survive.

Is It Offensive?


North Korea’s recent reaction to American mockery, a trailer for “The Interview,” is overwhelmingly regarded as comical and immature. Our freedom of speech clearly includes the freedom of mockery, and NK’s reaction shows just how insane their leaders are. (There are a very few of those “But what if Seth Rogen actually starts World War III?” people, but it’s hard to tell whether they are trolling or serious.)

In 2012, we put up a trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” and after international bloodshed and attacks on our embassies, we blamed the victims and told them they should have known better than to create works that offended such people. (Related are the 2006 Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons, or Salman Rushdie, for a couple more famous examples.)

So in one case, parody is considered a completely harmless comedy, and in the other, it is considered such words as “offensive” or “disrespectful” or “Islamophobic.” Why are we so hypocritical at choosing what is offensive and what is not? Why do we support one tyranny (i.e., by denouncing those who criticize it) while condemning another?

Are First World Problems Justified?


One thing that often happens in debates I’ve seen is when someone points out a problem with the world, another answers that there is something worse.

Depending on its context, this is the fallacy of relative privation:

A well-known example of this fallacy is the response “but there are children starving in Africa,” with the implication that any issue less serious than that is not worthy of discussion; or the common saying “I used to lament having no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

On one hand, you’re giving attention to a bigger problem, but on the other, you’re derailing the discussion from the current one. To one extreme, we should only be concerned with the absolute core problems of humanity such as poverty, and to the other, we could be perfectly content with giving significant attention to first world problems. How much moral obligation must you have to problems outside your circle?

I’m interested in what people’s opinions are on this problem.

One Second Left

I really enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow (an 8 on my movie list), but one plot detail really bugged me. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not going to spoil anything directly.


(Image link—pretty funny.)

It’s part of a larger category that happens in most action movies actually. This particular example doesn’t happen in Edge of Tomorrow: every time there is a countdown timer where something really, really bad will happen (typically an explosion), the protagonist will save the day with one second left til destruction, whether the timer was originally set to five minutes or five hours. In every action movie there are several of these “just in time” moments. And yes, I understand, this is what makes the movies suspenseful.

That really annoys me.

Did the aliens annoy me? Nope. Time travel loops? Nope. But impeccable luck and timing? Yes.

Is there any deeper meaning behind this? People have said that I over-criticize movie meanings, but I think this does have some harmful effects. The “protagonist always gets the girl” cliché is the worst in terms of social damage for obvious reasons, but “one second left” has its own issues. It distorts our views of luck and chance, thereby affecting our risk judgment, and it turns the extremely improbable into the probable.

A bigger issue still is that the “protagonist wins” cliché, which is in 99% of movies, may warp our sense of justice. There is a known cognitive bias called the just-world bias, where we falsely expect justice to be served (we unconsciously believe in karma), and movies can really take advantage of this. How do you explain why the good side was able to defuse the bomb at the last second? Easy, the good side deserved it. (How might this translate into real life? We feel that we deserve something great, so instead of trying for it, we wait for the universe to give it to us.)

Of course, I still enjoy action movies and TV that use “one second left.” But it just gets difficult to keep up suspension of disbelief when the most absurd chance events happen over and over again.

The Revenge of Geography


This book was very tough to slog through, but the ideas were superb, even if most of them came from thinkers from before the 20th century.


  • Well organized. There are three distinct sections: (1) an overview of several theories of geography (most of which are old and not politically correct today); (2) case studies of the most important zones in the current world; and (3) a short prophecy of America’s own destiny.
  • Good synthesis of ideas. Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are the most referenced.
  • Focuses on relevant regions: Europe, Russia, China, India, Persia/Iran, and Ottoman Empire/Turkey.
  • Makes substantive predictions based on geography. For example, the book (2012) forewarned the recent Ukraine-Crimea-Russia situation.
  • Gives a nuanced view of the role of geography. Kaplan carefully says the determinism is only partial. (I originally had the wrong impression from the title & subtitle that it was going to be more deterministic.)
  • The third section, on America’s fate, is particularly solid. If you could only read 50 pages of the book, it should be the last part.


  • Often, the writing is neither clear nor concise.
  • Not that much original content, though still valuable as synthesis. (The exception is the last section, which has a lot more content.)

Not sure that this book replaces Diamond or Huntington, but it is an excellent addition.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012).The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 223 other followers

%d bloggers like this: