Interview With Charlie Hebdo’s Robert McLiam Wilson

Friday night I had an email exchange with Robert McLiam Wilson, an Irishman that has found himself working at Charlie Hebdo. We discussed satire, writers objecting to PEN America giving on May 5th the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, and how social discourse copes with terrorism and political correctness.
Before we get into food fights at PEN America giving an award to the magazine, and where people seem determined to draw the line for cartoonists and kill satire if not satirists themselves – what were you doing that you ended up working at Charlie Hebdo?

I’m not quite sure. It’s pretty typical of Charlie how haphazardly it came about. The very fine French writer, Marie Darrieussecq suggested it to me. And I naturally said yes without hesitating. I had written a piece (in Libération – shorter English version) in the Big Issue after January’s attack which is perhaps what made Marie think of me.

I don’t think anyone at Charlie Hebdo really has a clue who I am. I think I send my stuff in and they go “Shit, is it that Irish bloke again? Christ, what’s he on about this time?”. They’re nice about it. But a little bewildered.

Your article in The New Statesman sums up the frustration that free speech when denied by the assassin must be defended [still]. There really should be no “but” in that situation. That does not seem to stop people that have no idea commenting on a French publication tackling racism and the far right. The goal posts move if you explain one cartoon. How do we get passed that, without losing our own sanity?

Personally, I think that this is how you get past it. This is the incredibly moving and extraordinary moment when Mme Christiane Taubira gave a eulogy at the funeral of Tignous, one of the the murdered cartoonists. I really sincerely believe that this is the silver bullet. The Charlie Hebdo cartoon which portrayed this brilliant and daunting woman as a monkey was the big, BIG problem in the English-speaking world. It is a shocking and repellent image. It is meant to be so. Because what it is lampooning with horrible viciousness is a far right campaign against this black, female Minister of Justice. A campain of such gross, infantile ugliness that I simply refuse to repeat it any way. Suffice to say, it involved bananas! A thing of toe-curling shamefulness.


Charlie mocked this vileness by trying to show how nauseating it was, how infantile and pathetic. If the Charlie cartoon is a racist disgrace, then why is the subject of that image speaking at the funeral of a Charlie contributor???


I have never met Mme Taubira nor spoken to her. It would be interesting to hear her views. Perhaps, I would be surprised by them myself. But clearly, this victim of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘racism’ did not think they were racist. To be honest, I think it is, if not racist, certainly incredibly presumptuous to think that this educated, powerful woman needs the protection of a bunch of hapless novelists.

If I could have one wish, it is that the boycotting writers would watch this. Even without French, is not her emotion absolutely evident? I don;t think these writer are wicked or stupid people. I think they are ill-informed and extremely sure of themselves. I have always felt that this is a pretty poor combination.

I am desperate for the discourse to become more civil, more measured. And perhaps more respectful of the facts. The abuse heaped upon the PEN boycotters has been personal and vicious (I am not speaking of Salman Rusdie, who can do no wrong in my book…almost).

I beseech them to inform themselves more fully, more humbly. I don’t challenge them to do so. That’s a bellicose idiom and there are no enemies here. I entreat Joyce Carol Oates, whom I admire, to look again at her assumptions. I beg Teju Cole, the unfortunate begetter of much of the Taubira cartoon misinformation, to listen to what she says. I would ask Rick Moody if he thinks I must be racist because I write for Charlie Hebdo.


We should all be talking about the grotesque loss of life almost every week amongst desperate people sailing across the Mediterranean toward countries that do not want them.


That’s a moral issue worth getting all riled up.

I remember mentioning [Mme Taubira] and the cartoon when countering Mehdi Hasan’s New Statesman article  – I hope people watch that video you link to. The emotion needs no translation.

Hopefully people will try to learn about Charlie Hebdo and its place in French political culture, and why SOS Racisme has been vocal in it’s support.
[Here is a translation of the President of SOS Racisme, Dominique Sopo, comments:]
Will satire ever dare to be the same again? Luz will no longer draw Mohammed. Editors at an event today, Free House in DC, mention not being a symbol but making people think and love  It feels like the writers do not see satire and cartoons as a way to think about the world. The terrorists found the cartoons too funny, the writers staying away say they are not funny because it is about religion.

Well, writers don’t like anyone but writers. And they don’t like most of them generally. We tend either not to understand cartoonists, photographers, painters or performances artists or to simply dismiss them. I have some sympathy. Me, I hate musicians. What a bunch of bastards! No excuse for musicians.

Seriously, there’s a limit to how much or how accurately you can comment if you don’t speak the language. I made this point in the New Statesman and some people (very few) actually riposted, ‘duh, what an arsehole! Has he never heard of Google Translate?!’. Clearly, I can’t do much to help people who think that way. But I would seriously suggest that everyone should be more humble before making breathtakingly confident comment about texts in a language they can’t read. And there is generally text – even in cartoons (except when it is clipped off, Teju).

But who knows? Maybe SOS Racisme is wrong. Fuck, maybe is SOS Racisme is racist too! Wow, wouldn’t that be something? I may give serious thought to boycotting those supremacist motherfuckers.

The latest twitter storm showed once again the limits to people using Google translate without finding out the context in the google search box.

Martin Rowson gave a moving – and colourful – acceptance speech on behalf of Charlie Hebdo when they won Secularist of The Year. Hosted by the National Secular Society. Declaration – I had a fabulous three course meal during. He mentioned that the most offensive thing anyone could do was kill another person. I despair that people cannot see the difference between mocking a religious figure as an ordinary human being and something that dehumanises a group of people. Religion is a powerful thing, and all power is accountable to people, not least artists and writers.

I see that Queen’s University Belfast is finally going to host a conference on Charlie Hebdo. Do you think people can be persuaded to be open minded?

I come from Belfast where you learn early in life that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a top lad and a great writer but that he didn’t know much about ordinance. The guys who come to your door with the 9-MM or the AK47 disprove le contrat sociale pretty thoroughly. Those guys are the custodians of your rights. They decide what’s going to happen to you. And the hardware is not a promising sign.

I think this is all about displaced emotion. About the death of politics. In my view, political correctness was one of the most spectacularly successful political movements of the 20th century. Within a generation, it civilised public discourse to a remarkable degree. Not perfect, but absolutely fucking astonishing compared with even as recently as the 1970s.

Identity politics or cultural relativism is something else. For me, there’s only one kind of politics, class politics. And class politics when waged successfully and sincerely will encompass race, gender, sexuality, disability, everything. Because class politics is not about the white working class. It’s about all disadvantaged classes. And sees them as one class.

Queens University did something difficult and classy. They changed their minds. They admitted the mistake. I am now not interested in the reasons. And I hope people don’t sneer or crow now about pressure from outside forcing it or anything like that. And I don’t care about investigations to the Nth degree into the truth of the original decision.

They showed some class. Now, it’s our turn. Well done, Queens. Debate is never a bad idea.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Filed under America, Religion, secular, Secularism, World

2 responses to “Interview With Charlie Hebdo’s Robert McLiam Wilson

  1. Thank for writing this. The crime of Western leftist, especially in the US, buying into the idea that Charlie Hebdo was “racist” is an embarrasment to those of us who consider ourselves part of the left.
    Here’s another good article. Charlie Hebdo: The literary indulgence of murder

  2. The left strikes again… We, on the left, are right; it’s incredible how often we get it wrong. That PEN fellow-traveling boycott idiocy hurt; thank you for getting it right here. And Robert McLiam Wilson absolutely nails it, as we say in America – the boy is… civilized. Thank you.

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