Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication, as has been widely suggested in the Anglophone press, though it does not hesitate to risk appearing so if it might draw a laugh. (A good example is a recent cartoon, noted frequently in the past few days, depicting France’s black minister of justice as a monkey; the drawing was in fact meant to skewer the French racists who have portrayed her as a monkey, but those unfamiliar with French politics might be forgiven this misunderstanding.)
The magazine is, however, intolerant of religion and believers of all sorts, and smug in those anticlerical convictions. Dialogue with its opponents was never of much interest, and it has repeatedly chosen to target some of France’s most vulnerable inhabitants for provocation. … “We have a lot of new friends, like the pope, Queen Elizabeth, and Putin,” one of the magazine’s most prominent artists, the Dutchman Bernard Holtrop, told the Dutch daily Volkskrant amid the outpouring of support after last week’s killings. “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”
Dish readers here and here also added crucial context to the allegedly racist cartoons published in Charlie, including the one of the French minister of justice. Addressing those who don’t speak native French, Olivier Tonneau digs even deeper to defend Charlie against charges of racism:
[The newspaper] continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. …
[T]he main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece). Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza.
Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic.
While historians can trace this vital, often bulging vein of French humor as far back as Rabelais, it is easiest—a rationale, after all, that Charlie Hebdo made its credo—to go no further than the Belle Epoque and the birth of le fumisme. Practiced by performers in the cafés of then-exotic Montmartre, fumisme was part disdain, part mockery and zesty provocation, shuffled and dealt with cutting accuracy to its pathetic target—namely, the bourgeois clients who, escaping their humdrum lives and filling the room, couldn’t get their fill of hearing their way of life ridiculed. It was, as the historian Jerrold Seigel has noted, “a refusal to treat the official world with seriousness and respect.”
A French reader of Dreher’s reflects on what society gains from Charlie’s commitment to offending anyone and everyone:
As far as the ‘nasty kids’ and ‘useless provocations’ anathemas go, I’d like to yell that it’s not true, or at the very least offer some extremely important proviso. First, any Charlie reader, and I mean any, would, time and again, choke on a cartoon (even the cartoonists themselves, sometimes). Which, in and by itself, would school you: you’d learn to turn the other cheek, you’d learn to feel others’ pain at being offended, you’d learn to let go of your pain at being offended, and, last but not least, you’d learn that, sometimes, the only offense was to your vainglorious self. Sure, on the whole, that made for an unholier-than-Thou and a leave-no-holy-cow-unskewered weekly: “bête et méchant”. But, for the reader, it was also a weekly lesson in humility and humanity.
Chait doubles down on his insistence that the press has a responsibility to reprint Charlie’s offensive cartoons – something that can’t be said enough:
Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that Charlie Hebdo is crude and even racist. Freedom of expression is not a strong defense of crude, racist, or otherwise stupid expression. Indeed, one of the most common and least edifying defenses made by people who have proffered offensive opinions is that they have the right to free speech. The right of expression is not the issue when the objection centers on the content.
In this case, the content of Charlie Hebdo’s work is not the issue. The issue is the right of publication. Given the fact that violent extremists threaten to kill any journalist who violates their interpretation of Islam, establishing the freedom (I argue) requires committing the blasphemy. To argue, as some have, that the threat is wrong, but that journalists should avoid blasphemy out of prudence allows the extremists to set the rules.