Charlie Hebdo: Death of a Moral Entrepreneur



Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory.”

― Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman


There are few ideas from Gallic culture and politics that the Anglo Saxon world will enthusiastically embrace en masse. The Mortgage, (death-grip), the en-suite toilet, and entrepreneurship are some of the few notable examples.


Of these, the runaway favourite has to be the entrepreneur ; the self styled swashbuckling risk taker that brings innovation, flair and brio to the world of toilet paper, butter and vacuum cleaners.


In the Anglo Saxon world entrepreneurship has made the leap from a principle of commerce to the principle of morality itself: We now live in a moral meritocracy, with a moral marketplace to efficiently distribute our moral resources. And at the centre of this ethical order is the moral entrepreneur.


Traditionally Judeo-Christian morality has been a matter of compliance to The Will Of God and religion a matter of finding out how best to do it. The fundamental innovation of Protestantism was   self interpretation of what God wanted; in the words of the ‘Subway’ advertising slogan, to: ‘Have It Your Way’.


In time, even the freedom to specify olives or mayonnaise on a universal sandwich of existence has paled. Now the moral consumer demands a farmers market experience of hand crafted artisan beliefs. This is amply provided for by a multitude of small scale moral entrepreneurs hawking their versions of the good life from a million social media stalls. Just like Willy Loman in ‘Death Of a Salesman’ there are a million purveyors of moral gizmos to make your life better including:

Women Bishops

Gay marriage

Kony 2012

The campaign against female genital mutilation


Bring back our Nigerian Girls taken by Boko Haram


And on and on


And you, the moral consumer is ‘empowered’, free to fill your spiritual wire basket with as much or as little as you want. But these moral campaigns seem only to offer a high impact/high sugar rush that only lasts a short while. How many of them have already fallen into obscurity after a couple of months of headline grabbing prominence?


This moral meritocracy is the milieu that satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and its contemporaries operate in. Charlie Hebdo’s stand out moral product has been the ‘Image of Mohammed’ controversy. From now on Charlie Hebdo will inevitably be known for printing disparaging and derogatory images strictly forbidden in Islamic practice.


Some might question whether this kind of deliberate provocation is necessary. But these images have to be provocative and offensive to make the point that freedom of speech is a moral good that trumps any moral considerations that Muslims can have. They have to offend or they are pointless. Charlie Hebdo took it upon itself to bring to the Muslims and wider society a lesson; free speech is a morally superior consideration to respect for belief.


Unfortunately for ‘Charlie Hebdo’ this was essentially a bluff. They even went so far as to publish a cover with the tag line ‘still no attacks’. But of course they spoke too soon and their bluff was called.


Which brings us to where we are now.


Everybody recognises there will be consequences from the Charlie Hebdo killings. Politicians have wasted no time promenading at the head of mass demonstrations and putting into place dangerous new ‘security’ protocols. The relationship between Muslims and wider European society has changed. The depiction of Mohammed has become a new red line. The BBC is revising its guidelines on showing images of Mohammed; it is likely that they will now be allowed. This is a sea change from the standard multicultural conventions that have shaped British media policy for three decades.


This is inevitably destabilising to the broad multicultural structures that are a feature of western society. But there is something more profound underpinning this.


The stock that rises and falls on the moral NASDAQ 500 changes from week to week. The more frenzied the trading, the harder to bridge the gap between a western fluid, superficial, understanding of the universe and a Muslim or Christian or Judaic fundamental and eternal one. As the conflict of understanding accelerates each side is driven to express its own understanding in more forceful and explicit terms.


Then there is the Kony 2012 postal problem. Jason Russell, once ‘moral entrepreneur of the month’ discredited the entire Kony campaign after he was caught on video en dishabille. The question inevitably arose: Was he mad when he started the Kony campaign or did he go mad after? And what does this say about people who bought into the campaign?


Collapses such as these are inevitable since so many of these campaigns rely on small groups or individuals. When these individuals fail the entire campaign is discredited. And this again is profoundly disorienting for the consumers of morality: Where can I find a moral supplier I can trust?


And this conflict and disorientation is further exacerbated when moral entrepreneurs start campaigning against each other. The anti Semitism debate is a good example of this with some groups campaigning against the evil of anti- Semitism and others campaigning against the evil of Israeli occupation of Palestine. Pick a side?


Christopher Hitchens’ famous attack on Mother Theresa caused considerable outrage at the time but now is more or less accepted by a certain section of the metropolitan moral market. In some ways Christopher Hitchens was the first moral entrepreneur.


The Bigger Picture


So what does it all mean? Can we draw out any significant lessons from the shooting at Charlie Hebdo?


The first point to make is that the moral entrepreneur aspect is not the whole Charlie Hebdo story. This affair obviously benefits those domestic and international political forces who would like to see France ever more closely enmeshed in the NATO western war on terror.


And there are the disturbing facts that identity cards were reported to be found in the getaway car and that both assailants were killed by the French security forces. Even for those of us who try to avoid overt conspiracy theories there are clearly reasons to be suspicious.


But the focus on Charlie Hebdo as moral entrepreneur offers a long term perspective.


Despite the superficial impression of freedom and variation, the Moral Meritocracy produces similar variations on a theme. Rather like the rows and rows of mass produced mechanically produced raw material packaged and labelled as ‘farm fresh’ and ‘organic’ you can find on a supermarket shelf.


On the list of main ingredients is sexual/identity ‘freedom’, actually meaning state endorsed sexual freedom. Because if sexual freedom is sex without consequences, there is no ‘sexual freedom’ that the state can give you, because this freedom is not in the gift of the state to give. But the state are not going to tell you that are they?


So we can begin to discern among the various campaigns a semi-comprehensive central vision. What is a constantly changing panoply of morality within a central vision? It is the essence of pagan belief.

That the particular morals and deities you subscribe to at any time are the product of circumstances and not principle.


With that in mind, consider this possibility:


The truth is that we are involved as one side of an asymmetrical form of spiritual warfare. But the power relationships are exactly reversed from those of conventional warfare. The spiritual world has collapsed in the west.


Without a central command and a spiritual standing army, the west has been reduced to sporadic and uncoordinated individual guerrilla actions against Islam. They are a spiritual superpower compared to the post Protestant west.


We are taught to celebrate the inauguration of a moral marketplace and moral entrepreneurship, but is it possible this is nothing more than empty war propaganda?


That the west can no longer support ethically or intellectually a unified and comprehensive belief system that makes sense of the world for the people within it?


That in some sense it is Charlie Hebdo who are the intellectual and moral suicide bombers out to bluff the Muslim and indeed the entire monotheistic world?


After Willy Lomans death, his son despite his better judgement, decides to step up and carry on as his father had. To validate his fathers death, so that Willy Loman did not die in vain. In other words:’Je suis Willy Loman’


“HAPPY: All right, boy. I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have– to come out number-one man.”
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman


Sound familiar?