It has been a very shaky start to the new year. My groaner of a first 2015 post was symbolic of the way the year kicked off. And things may have been looking up until a mass murder in France took the lives of some of the greatest satirical minds of my generation, along with their friends, co-workers and protectors. Charlie Hebdo. I saw this weekly paper on my trip to France in 2011, and it stirred my desire to learn the French language a little. (I got carried away, and am still learning the language, albiet slowly, in fits and starts). The cover of an issue of Charlie Hebdo stood out like a beacon from a newsstand. Whatever that was, I wanted some. I was not disappointed. One reason for the fascination was that Charlie Hebdo destroyed my notion that the French people were not funny. Maybe I was blinded by their appreciation of Jerry Lewis, or the deeply un-funny Gerard Depardieu. Maybe I was just ignorant. But my highly-tuned cartoon radar saw immediately that these French were not only funny, they were hard-core funny. They were not fucking around. No punches pulled. You were being told to get the joke even if you WERE the joke. I was in France to pay homage to Frank Zappa, and he had prepared me well to appreciate the genius of Charlie Hebdo.
Until Wednesday, January 7, that was all there was to it. I sat at my desk, at work, at 7:30am and it was as if I was reading fiction. Two hours after the attack I was reading a headline in complete disbelief. How could this be true? …that kind of reaction. Then the churning stomach, the rage, the sadness, the confusion.
I would see the Charlie Hebdo covers on the internet, sometimes digging a little deeper, and I could understand enough to get the joke. But not being on the scene in France, specifically I am not French and furthermore not Parisian, I could only glimpse the joke. They were playing to the home team. I was watching from afar on a lo-res feed. In Paris, they are heroes. Not “were” heroes. Are Heroes. The French take their satire very seriously. Wine. Charcuterie. Satire. Charlie Hebdo. They were committed to not pulling punches. They were not letting their audience make editorial decisions for them. What is the point in that? Why bother with satire if you are letting the object of the satire tell you what is in-bounds? No. If Le Monde wants to play that game, there is plenty of game for Le Monde. But Charlie Hebdo is the prow of the free speech ship. Taking the brunt of the waves and the weather.
And that, of course, is what will be glossed over as this tragedy is examined by every hack with a microphone or a PhD or a blog (even I am glossing over something, I’m sure). The core concept of free speech, the concept that makes satire and critical commentary possible, is to be free from that kind of sensitivity. The existence of that sensitivity, when it rears its head, is a giveaway to where the next jab should be directed. Like a fighter covering up a bruised rib, that is where you direct the next blow. Charlie Hebdo walked the walk. Their mission was to occupy the deep center of free speech protections and put everyone else to the test. Does the government support free speech? Immigrants to France, knowing full well that they are living in the cradle of free expression? Foreign interests, who may or may not be aiding and abetting by giving quarter to extremist voices? They all stand in some measure as less free than Charlie.
I have made the point that Charlie Hebdo may not have been an outlier as much as the surrounding voices stepped back when called, leaving Charlie exposed and unprotected. The threat of extremist violence is no laughing matter. Not something to be taken lightly. Most people are not dealing with the threat that they will be assassinated for their latest blog post or news article. If you are thinking that I read Tony Barber’s piece in the Financial Times, you are right. When he writes “It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.” Errrr… Tony, they are not purporting to do anything. It is actually free fucking speech, you imbecile. It is not up to the speaker to provide the common sense. Charlie Hebdo was not yelling FIRE in a movie theatre. The common sense is that they have a right to speak and draw and satirize. The offended must have the common sense to respond in kind, with a pen and not a kalashnikov rifle.
But all of that is conjecture. Cabu and Charb are gone. Wolinski, the same. Tignous, silenced. Honoré, snuffed out. This is not an academic exercise. It is the kind of reality we have avoided in the US by sanitizing so much of our public speech (and as Ted Rall points out, by getting out of the political cartoon business, almost entirely). We, Americans, the holders of the flame, stepped back when the call was to step up. We now pull punches as a matter of course, letting the offended set the rules of engagement. We are not alone, but we are a good example. Even the dimwitted David Brooks managed to not make a total hash of this concept in the NYTimes: “Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.”
No. We are NOT Charlie Hebdo. And to maintain otherwise requires proof. What we did is let Charlie Hebdo take the heat while we relax in air-conditioned comfort. That is the truth. Do we want the lives of the good people at Charlie Hebdo, called by name to be slaughtered by maniacs, to mean something in the long term? Can we pay homage to their legacy in a meaningful way?
If the answer is yes then we need to reexamine our lives and our rules and our hysterical reactions. We need to ask ourselves if we are better off living as appeasers or dying as free men. Maybe we will not get all the way there, but if we try then we are at least learning from this sad episode and not just spackling over it like we do with so many other offensive acts. Can we bring ourselves to walk the walk in the face of this aggression? That may very well be the defining question of civilized peoples in the 21st century, and we can thank a group of French “cartoonists” for the lesson.
Image by Dave Brown, cartoonist at the Independent UK.