Follow up Charlie Hebdo: Far-Right, Satire and Free Speech

A number of compelling articles on the rise of bigotry following the attacks in France from antagonistic perspectives.

Anne Norton’s “Charlie Hebdo and Europe’s Rising Right” for the Huffington Post

10 Jan 2015

Article reads as:

I condemn the murderers who attacked Charlie Hebdo. I condemn the demand that calls us to say #jesuischarlie. Condemning murder does not require the embrace of bigotry. The demand that we embrace Charlie Hebdo belongs to Europe’s rightward turn.

#jesuischarlie might be meant as solidarity. But it calls for an identity bounded by bigotry. Charlie Hebdo is a scurrilous rag, willfully offensive, that defended the powerful by attacking the weak. The journal ‘s favored practice was baiting the Muslim minority: developing ever more pornographic and offensive blasphemies. Muslims in France, especially religious Muslims, are a minority, subject to daily slights and institutional discrimination.  Charlie Hebdo manifested its moral courage in a continual parade of hook-nosed Muslims (often Mohammad), leering and lustful, held up for the mocking amusement of secular elites. I mourn the dead. I defend freedom of expression, but I want no part in that. I am not Charlie Hebdo.

They have the right to write, to publish what they choose. We should defend that right, but we are not obliged to praise or agree with Charlie Hebdo. We are not obliged to republish their shameful cartoons, or defend their bigotry. The demand that we do so is another attack on free speech. It is requiring us to speak a script dictated by others, to speak against our will.

I fear for a Europe that embraces these practices.

#jesuischarlie says if you are not Charlie, you are not ours, you are alien. It’s us against them (and you know who they are). There is a close kinship between the seemingly liberal #jesuischarlie and the French right of the le Pens, père et fille. Both know who doesn’t belong. Both seek a single France, unified in culture and practice. Both call for placing religious Muslims, perhaps Muslims altogether, perhaps even those of Arab descent, outside the boundaries of France, of the West.
We can see this in the photographs of the victims, photos that rarely include the two victims with Arab names; two working people: the copywriter and the policeman.

Though they disagree on the France they want, much of the French right and left concur in the demand that France be a single people, alike in their public practices, marked by no sign of religious difference. Right and Left reject the “unassimilable” and regret “the failure of integration.” They seize on the ritual humiliation of those who are not like them as an occasion for solidarity. The “je suis charlie” hashtag makes unanimity compulsory: we must all be Charlie, we must all agree, we must all be one.

No. We should be able to value, and to mourn, the lives of those we disagree with.

I mourn. I am angry at an unjust and shameful attack. I grieve the lives lost — all the lives, not least Ahmed Merabet, the policeman who was one of the first victims of the murderers. His murder is the only one seen, yet it has been rendered almost invisible. Officer Merabet was there to guard Charlie Hebdo. That is duty. That is bravery. That is the defense of free speech. He belongs to a larger France, and a better Europe.


Slate Magazine: 

Charlie Hebdo Is Heroic and Racist


“The editors and cartoonists murdered in Wednesday’s attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo are now martyrs for the cause of free speech. Threatened with death for publishing drawings of the prophet Mohammed meant to mock Islamic radicals, they refused to censor themselves, and so were gunned down. They died bravely for an ideal we all treasure.

But their work featuring Mohammed could be sophomoric and racist. Not all of it; a cover image of the prophet about to be beheaded by a witless ISIS thug was trenchant commentary on how little Islamic radicalism has to do with the religion itself. But often, the cartoonists simply rendered Islam’s founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.”


The Guardian

Charlie Hebdo: We cannot let the Paris murderers define Islam

Ed Husain 7 Jan 2015

Today’s fanatics are blind to the compassion and care in the prophet’s life. Their ignorance must be tackled head on

“The killing of journalists in Paris on Wednesday was not only an attack on France but also an assault on Islam and the very freedoms that allow 30 million Muslims to prosper in the west.

Free speech is not a western concept: it is a universal craving of the human soul. The gunmen ran away shouting that they were “avenging the prophet Muhammad”. How dare they? We cannot let the murderers define Islam.”
New Yorker

JANUARY 7, 2015

The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders


“The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists.

They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It’s the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.”


Satire Lives

Adam Gopnik for the New Yorker (Issue out 19 Jan 2015)

The staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, massacred in an act that shocked the world last week, were not the gentle daily satirists of American editorial cartooning. Nor were they anything like the ironic observers and comedians of manners most often to be found in our own beloved stable here at The New Yorker. (Though, to be sure, the covers of this magazine have startled a few readers and started a few fights.) They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy. There are satirical magazines and “name” cartoonists in London and other European capitals, particularly Brussels, but they tend to be artier in touch and more media-centric in concern. Charlie Hebdo was—will be again, let us hope—a satirical journal of a kind these days found in France almost alone. Not at all meta or ironic, like The Onion, or a place for political gossip, like the Paris weekly Le Canard Enchaîné or London’s Private Eye, it kept alive the nineteenth-century style of direct, high-spirited, and extremely outrageous caricature—a tradition begun by now legendary caricaturists, like Honoré Daumier and his editor Charles Philipon, who drew the head of King Louis-Philippe as a pear and, in 1831, was put on trial for lèse-majesté.

Philipon’s famous faux-naïf demonstration of the process of caricature still brings home the almost primitive kind of image magic that clings to the act of cartooning. In what way was he guilty, Philipon demanded to know, since the King’s head was pear-shaped, and how could merely simplifying it to its outline be viewed as an attack? The coarser and more scabrous cartoons that marked the covers of Charlie Hebdo—and took in Jesus and Moses, along with Muhammad; angry rabbis and ranting bishops, along with imams—were the latest example of that tradition. In the era of the Internet, when images proliferate, merge, and alter in an Adobe second, one would think that the power of a simple, graffiti-like scrawl was minimal. Indeed, analysts of images and their life have been telling us for years that this sort of reaction couldn’t happen anymore—that the omnipresence of images meant they could not offend, that their meanings and their capacity to shock were enfeebled by repetition and availability. Even as the Islamist murderers struck in Paris, some media-studies maven in a liberal-arts college was doubtless explaining that the difference between our time and times past is that the ubiquity of images benumbs us and their proliferation makes us indifferent. Well, not quite. It is the images that enrage; many things drove the fanatics to their act, but it was cartoons they chose to fixate on. Drawings are handmade, the living sign of an ornery human intention, rearing up against a piety.

For those who recall Charlie Hebdo as it really, rankly was, the act of turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety—making them martyrs, misunderstood messengers of the right to free expression—seems to risk betraying their memory. Wolinski, Cabu, Honoré: like soccer players in Brazil, each was known in France by a single name. A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn’t just mock those men’s politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances. It is wonderful to see Pope Francis condemning the horror, but also worth remembering that magazine’s special Christmas issue, titled “The True Story of Baby Jesus,” whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child. (Did the Pope see it?)

Nor was it only people’s pieties that the cartoonists liked to tweak. Georges Wolinski, eighty years old, born of a Polish Jewish father and a Tunisian Jewish mother, caused a kerfuffle two years ago by creating a poster—for the Communist Party, no less—in favor of early retirement, which showed a happily retired man grabbing the rear ends of two apparently compliant miniskirted women. “Life Begins at Sixty” was the jaunty caption. Yet Wolinski, for all his provocations, was a life-affirming and broadly cultured bon vivantwho became something of an institution; in 2005, he was awarded the Légion d’ Honneur, the highest French decoration.

In recent years, Charlie Hebdo has had to scrabble for money. It gets lots of attention, but satirical magazines of opinion are no easier to finance in France than they are in America. Still, Wolinski and his confederates represented the true Rabelaisian spirit of French civilization, in their acceptance of human appetite and their contempt for false high-mindedness of any kind, including the secular high-mindedness that liberal-minded people hold dear. The magazine was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it—offensive to everybody, equally. (The name Charlie Hebdo came into being, in part, in response to a government ban that had put an earlier version of the magazine out of business; it was both a tribute to Charlie Brown and a mockery of Charles de Gaulle.) The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what its cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility.

As the week came to its grim end, with the assassins dead and several hostages—taken not by chance in a kosher grocery store—dead, too, one’s thoughts turned again to the inextinguishable French tradition of dissent, the tradition of Zola, sustained through so much violence and so many civic commotions. “Nothing Sacred” was the motto on the banner of the cartoonists who died, and who were under what turned out to be the tragic illusion that the Republic could protect them from the wrath of faith. “Nothing Sacred”: we forget at our ease, sometimes, and in the pleasure of shared laughter, just how noble and hard-won this motto can be.

Le Pen’s Moment for the New Yorker

10 Jan 2015

“We’ve been predicting this for a long time,” Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the French radical-right National Front party said on Wednesday, shortly after the massacre at the Paris office of the radical-left satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “It was to be expected. This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism. The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

Although Le Pen and the National Front were frequent targets of Charlie Hebdo’s savage mockery, the two were at least as frequently aligned against shared political enemies. As the French say, “the extremes touch,” and when it came to ridiculing the mainstream political parties—the center-left Socialists of President François Hollande and the center-right Gaullists of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy—it was often difficult to distinguish the grotesque caricatures you might find in Charlie Hebdo from those in National Front rhetoric. So, too, when it came to the xenophobia and racism of their anti-immigration polemics, and their baiting of Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment. (Charlie Hebdowas merciless toward Christianity, too, but there Le Pen lost his sense of humor.) Le Pen, the former fascist street fighter, relishes his role as a scourge of the establishment as much as the former Communist street fighters of Charlie Hebdo did, and he has always delighted in an opportunity to taunt his adversaries and critics. When I wrote about him in 1997, I reported that he had asked me, “What do I have to do not to be racist? Marry a black woman? With AIDS, if possible?” After the article appeared, he wrote to the magazine, complaining that, as “an Anglo-Saxon,” I had missed the Gallic subtlety of his wit: he had not said “une noire,” a black woman, but “un noir,” a black man.


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