Nous Sommes Charlie, But Do We Really Want To Be?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 8 2015 @ 3:25pm

Yglesias, for one, is dismayed that yesterday’s attack made martyrs of cartoonists whose work he found distasteful in the extreme:

Viewed in a vacuum, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (or the Danish ones that preceded it) are hardly worthy of a stirring defense. They offer few ideas of value, contribute little to any important debates, and the world would likely have been a better place had everyone just been more polite in the first place.

But in the context of a world where publishers of cartoons mocking Mohammed have been threatened, harassed, and even killed, things look different. Images that were once not much more than shock for its own sake now stand for something — for the legal right to blaspheme and to give offense. Unforgivable acts of slaughter imbue merely rude acts of publication with a glittering nobility.

One of Dreher’s readers makes a similar point:

I am a francophone European, and I sometimes read Charlie Hebdo. I am shocked by these murders and I hope the assassins will be caught and will pay dearly for their crimes. This being said, je ne “suis” pas Charlie et je ne l’ai jamais été: I am not Charlie and I never was.

I’ve always thought that Charlie’s brand of “humour” was despicable and part of the problem, not a solution. I’m not going to change my mind about this because of the murders. The people who died have become martyrs of the freedom of expression, but they were hardly the best defenders of the freedom of expression. First because the freedom to express your opinions does not imply that these opinions are correct – and Charlie was a far left, violently anti-religious rag. It is not because you are free to be vulgar, unfair and insulting that all these things are good. Moreover Charlie was not very good when the freedom of expression of its adversaries was at stake: look at the “Dieudonné” affair for instance.

Dieudonné M’bala M’bala is a controversial French comedian and political activist who’s been convicted many times of antisemitism. Diana Johnstone is on the same page as Dreher’s reader when it comes to Charlie Hebdo‘s spotty record on free speech:

In 2002, Philippe Val, who was editor in chief at the time, denounced Noam Chomsky for anti-Americanism and excessive criticism of Israel and of mainstream media.  In 2008, another of Charlie Hebdo’s famous cartoonists, Siné, wrote a short note citing a news item that President Sarkozy’s son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry the heiress of a prosperous appliance chain. Siné added the comment, “He’ll go far, this lad.” For that, Siné was fired by Philippe Val on grounds of “anti-Semitism”.  Siné promptly founded a rival paper which stole a number of Charlie Hebdo readers, revolted by CH’s double standards. In short, Charlie Hebdo was an extreme example of what is wrong with the “politically correct” line of the current French left.

Indeed, many Muslims on social media are wondering why free speech seems a bit freer than usual when Islam is the target. One such Muslim is a Jordanian friend of Dish editor Jonah Shepp, who didn’t want to reveal her name:

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Meanwhile, responding to calls for other publications to reprint Charlie’s most controversial work in solidarity, Arthur Goldhammer cautions against sacralizing artists and journalists who saw profaning the sacred as their life’s work:

Reproducing the imagery created by the murdered artists tends to sacralize them as embodiments of some abstract ideal of free speech. But many of the publications that today honor the dead as martyrs would yesterday have rejected their work as tasteless and obscene, as indeed it often was. The whole point of Charlie’s satire was to be tasteless and obscene, to respect no proprieties, to make its point by being untameable and incorrigible and therefore unpublishable anywhere else. The speech it exemplified was not free to express itself anywhere but in its pages. Its spirit was insurrectionist and anti-idealist, and its creators would be dumbfounded to find themselves memorialized as exemplars of a freedom that they always insisted was perpetually in danger and in need of a defense that only offensiveness could provide.

Update from the in-tray:

Long-time reader (and francophone) here. I just saw you forward a tweet regarding Charlie download (1)Hebdo‘s alleged racism in its cartoon “Rassemblement bleu raciste” [Update: the Twitter user deleted that tweet, but the image in question is embedded to the right]. I am not 100% certain of the background behind that cartoon. Unfortunately, the Charlie Hebdo website isn’t showing much in the way of past content at this time. That said, a quick google search reveals that this caricature – albeit maladroit – might have been put forth as a criticism of the French extreme right’s racist references to Minister Taubira. I invite you to look at the following links – here and here – which give a bit more detail on the text that allegedly accompanied the caricature. I may be wrong here, but I’m pretty sure that caricature was not the whole story and is mischaracterizing Charlie Hebdo’s position.

The first link is to a web forum and the second is to an article in French, so if any other readers, especially French-speaking ones, have something more conclusive, please let us know. Update from another:

As a French citizen, I was infuriated by your understanding of this drawing by Charlie Hebdo.  This drawing was made as a response to racism found in the French weekly newspaper Minute, which depicted Taubira as a monkey.  This shocking (and I concede awkward) drawing is meant to denounce the racists from Minute and the Front National, the nationalist extreme right party (their logo at the bottom left of the drawing).  The drawing is meant to exemplify how racist and shocking their words were.  I found that title/question insulting the memory of Charlie Hebdo.

Another adds further context:

Charlie Hebdo’s picture of Minister Taubira was indeed posted in the context when many Front national supporters and representatives made racist comments about Christiane Taubira, who supported legalizing gay marriage. They constantly compared her to a monkey and on some occasions taught their children to throw bananas at her.

The title is in fact a pun on the new name Marine Le Pen wanted to give to the Front national so as to nominally distance her own political agenda from her father’s (who was well known for his antisemitic and racist comments). She called her own movement « Rassemblement Bleu Marine » (this name itself included a pun since it means both a « Blue Navy Rally » and a « blue rally around Marine Le Pen » ). Charlie Hebdo just added a pun on her pun, replacing “Bleu Marine” with “Bleu raciste”. It was meant to show that the new Front national around Marine Le Pen was in fact just as racist as the former one and the caricature of Taubira as a monkey was meant to represent the so-called new Front National’s vision of a black female Minister of Justice.

Regarding “freedom of speech”, Dreher’s reader’s comments about a double standard are quite off the topic. From a legal point of view, in the US sense, freedom of speech is restricted in France. The cases that reader mentions does show an obvious double standard when it comes to antisemitism on the one hand and islamophobia on the other, but rather the fact that there is room for prosecution in France if you make public comments that suggest that you support racial inequality or that you deny the existence of events such as the Holocaust. There is no room for prosecution for any kind of religious blasphemy. Charlie Hebdo fought against the idea that anything was too sacred not to be ridiculed or laughed about. Such was their idea of freedom. They were irreverent by principle, but never racist nor in any way comparable to ideologues such as Dieudonné.

In any case, thank you for your coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack and for pointing out the MSM’s lack of courage in reproducing the caricatures. Below is a picture I took at yesterday’s march in Place de la République around 8pm:

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Kids, students, anonymous people are absolutely not afraid of showing these caricatures in public in France. It’s important that they are not and to some degree they are less than they ever were.