Last Call at la Belle Aurore

It’s easy to imagine the panic that gripped Paris as the Nazis approached during the summer of 1940. In a perverse gesture of cultural sensitivity, the German high command signalled its reluctance to destroy the grand architecture and priceless artworks of the City of Light and so reached an agreement with defenders: French troops would withdraw and allow Paris to be taken without a shot fired. Unfortunately, the German sense of aesthetic decorum didn’t extend to the 72,000 French Jews they later deported and slaughtered in death camps between then and 1944.  I was always puzzled by the logic that prioritized saving buildings and pretty paintings above the lives of actual human beings.


Until today.


Watching the fallout from Donald Trump’s election reverberate across the media, within my social circle and even here in my small town on Vancouver Island, I am beginning to understand the mentality of those German officers a little better. I imagine them gathering in a railway car to study their maps, drink sherry and congratulate each other on their enlightened humanity. Here they were on the brink of conquering a nation, yet determined to spare the enemy destruction of their capital. No stronger argument for German superiority existed … so long as each kept his gaze averted.


In the twenty-four hours since Donald Trump’s victory I have witnessed the averted gaze on many occasions, chiefly in the form of repeated denials that a Trump presidency will negatively affect specific groups within the United States. There have been demonstrations in a number of major cities, often met with counter-demonstrations, one of which led to a friend’s son being assaulted and detained by the US Secret Service. Another friend in California was planning to attend a gathering that was canceled due to threats of violence against participants. Meanwhile, a wave of Brexit-like hate-crimes against Muslims, GLBT folks, Hispanics and Latinos is being reported in both mainstream and social media. The discrediting of “political correctness,” it seems, is being taken as a go-ahead to blow the lid on of some spring-loaded storehouse of resentment. The gloves are off and the imperative “punish the Other” rises to a fever pitch.


And yet some continue to insist this is all just so much exaggeration and melodrama. Calls for calm and acceptance abound, as do attempts to normalize the election of a candidate who ran on a platform of naked xenophobia and nativism – the same candidate who has promised to reverse civil rights legislation, bar Muslims from entering the country, overturn Roe v. Wade and who now calls for nationwide concealed carry legislation. At best, this points to a future that is somewhat less than rosy for anyone who isn’t visibly straight, white and male. At worst, we’re headed for the imposition of a kind of weaponized fundamentalist dystopia. But hey it’s all just politics as usual, right?


The averted gaze, in a nutshell.


It will be easy for “good,” straight, white, Christian people to get along in this brave new world. Trump is taking the messy bazaar of American multiculturalism and stuffing it back into the handy, Ward’n June Cleaver duality of an earlier age: Christian and not, white and black, us and them. You’re either on his side of the fence, or you’re shit out of luck. All Trump’s followers have to do is refuse to acknowledge the danger he poses to their fellow countrymen and -women, ignore the fears and grievances of other races, other religions, other sexualities and all of society’s problems (those that bother WASPS, anyway) will take care of themselves. All they have to do is look away.


Which brings us to the last call at la Belle Aurore: that great scene in CASABLANCA wherein Rick, Sam and Ilsa meet at the bar to drink up the last of the champagne before the Germans arrive. At one point, they step outdoors to listen to instructions from a Gestapo envoy on how to behave when the Germans march into Paris. The Wehrmacht’s arrival is not shown in the movie, but I’ve met people who were actually there. They tell me that most Parisians stood in shocked silence. Some wept. And a few applauded because the Germans were coming to reimpose the duality of an earlier age, one where all you had to do was look away and society’s problems sorted themselves out.


That is where we are right now, folks. Last call at la Belle Aurore. And the Nazis are coming.


Will you look away?


Will you?




Interpretations of radical Muslim terror attacks tend to fall into two camps. One is dismissive of the deeper political resonance of such events, tending to frame them as “lone gunman”-style incidents while the other camp holds a very rigid (and, one could say, un-nuanced) understanding of the international dimensions of Islamic extremism. As happens when views about important subjects polarize, each side becomes identified with a particular political discourse.

The blood is barely dry on the pavement of Garland and already a social media war has erupted over interpretation of the incident. When New York Times foreign correspondent Mukrini Callimachi tweeted a characterization of the shooting in Garland as an attack on an anti-Muslim event, right-wing novelist Brad Thor fired back in a predictably acrimonious fashion and a flame war ensued wherein we saw two sides writ large: one attacking the other for offering what amounts to an apologia for abridging free speech.

“Free speech” is now used as a pejorative term by some on the left who conflate supporting this ideal with intolerant attitudes toward Muslims. The recent PEN dust-up wherein six writers declined the role of table hosts for the forthcoming PEN gala honoring Charlie Hebdo is one example. The writers withdrew, claiming an anti-Muslim bias on the part of CH. In fact, the honor had less to do with the magazine’s politics (which, believe me, are more akin to Alfred E. Newman than David Duke) and more to do with celebrating its perseverance in the face of terror. Yet these writers emphasized a PC interpretation of the proposed award (i.e., “how Muslims might see it”). It was a political gesture, intended to highlight the divide separating these two contrasting takes on the present cultural tension between freedom of speech and radical Islam.

Not only contrasting, but also irreconcilable. We either have free speech in our culture, or we do not. We cannot abridge or water-down or temper a political principle. We can temper our behavior, our own reaction to things that offend us. But when we water down a political principle, we deprive the individual exercise of his own rights – and of his own right to judge.

Put another way – you have the personal choice whether or not to offend Muslims by drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but you do not have the right to make that choice for me or anyone else. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of free expression.

There is an emerging sense in our culture that if we just refrained from expressing certain ideas, drawing certain cartoons, saying certain things, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to cope with lethal terror attacks. It amounts to a softening of the line on free expression, a courting of censorship, a willingness to deal away portions of that freedom in exchange for a kind of fuzzy détente (“we don’t draw cartoons of Mohammed and you won’t try and kill us, ‘kay?”). This sounds reasonable to some on the Left. It also sounds good to British jihadi apologist Anjem Choudary.

Choudary tweet

It’s comforting to know that Choudary’s Sixth Century world-view does not preclude his using Twitter, where all of us (including, presumably, members of Special Branch) can keep an eye on him. A quick glance at his Tweets gives you the totality of the man’s views, and they are as tedious as they are clear. Choudary stands ready, hand extended, to seal the deal. Do what he wants – temper your political principles and artistic culture to suit his beliefs – and you can take the jihadi-approved first steps toward peace with the disciples of his god.

It’s your move.