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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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I read Charlie Hebdo for the first time on early sojourns in France, in the 1970s. I am probably a bit of a coward when it comes to comedy—I probably like it sweeter than I should—but I am at least an instinctive pluralist: I really like there to be things in the world, and on the newsstand, that I don’t like. Charlie Hebdo was not to my taste but, on subsequent, much longer sojourns in France I was always glad to see it persisting; it spoke of an older, rawer French tradition that I could appreciate even if I didn’t much care for it. Crude, scabrous, explicit, sacrilegious—its cartooning lacked the charm of the bande dessinée. But France is an uptight country that needs the relaxation of the truly, weirdly unfastened—Rabelais could only be French, exactly because the refined needs the raw.
As time passed, I went on to graduate school, and the history of caricature and cartooning became my academic specialty. And so I began to have a greater appreciation of the ancient roots and impious nobility of the magazine. The Charlie cartoonists worked, I realized, in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, born in a long 19th-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy, which had long ago become vestigial everywhere else. Satirical magazines and “name” cartoonists might survive 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 a satirical journal of a kind found almost solely in France. In those years, I would go to the flea markets and find and buy old copies of the great caricature magazines of the late 19th and early 20th century—Le Rire and La Petite Assiette—and realized that Charlie Hebdo was the last flower, or gasp, of this great tradition. Not at all “meta” or “ironic,” like The Onion, nor a place for political gossip, like the Parisian weekly Le Canard Enchainé or London’s Private Eye, it kept alive this French 19th-century tradition of direct, high-spirited, and extremely offensive caricature, the very tradition begun by now legendary caricaturist Honoré Daumier, or his editor Charles Philipon, who was put on trial in 1831 for drawing the head of King Louis-Philippe as a pear.
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. At what point was he guilty, Philipon demanded to know, since the King’s head was pear-shaped? How could merely simplifying it to its outline be viewed as an attack on the King? The even coarser and more scabrous cartoons that marked the covers of Charlie Hebdo—and which took in Jesus and Moses, along with Mohammed; angry rabbis and ranting bishops, along with imams—were the last, well, fruit of that tradition. This, for a doubtless too pedantic eye, was one of the things that made Charlie matter; distinguishing French culture from our own modernized one.
The Charlie cartoonists were, always, radically democratic and egalitarian in their views, with their one passionate dislike being, simply, the hypocrisies of organized religion. No group has ever been more “minoritaire“—more marginalized or on the out with the political establishment, more vitriolic in its mockery of power, more courageous in opposing people of far greater influence and power than a band of guerrilla cartoonists could ever claim. Like their great predecessors, they were always punching up at idols and authorities—and no one in France was more relentlessly, courageously contemptuous of the right-wing Le Pens, père and fille. In the many years I spent in France, the bracing pleasure of seeing some bit of pious nonsense—from the left sometimes, though more often from the far right—blown apart in an image was the chief pleasure of reading Charlie Hebdo.
* * * *
That perhaps-too-cultured response became nugatory one January morning in 2015, when two Islamic fundamentalist terrorists entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, inadequately guarded by the French police, and with coldblooded cruelty murdered eight staffers as well as a policeman. (They then murdered a helpless Muslim policeman lying wounded on the street outside.) And yet this terrorist atrocity left an honest observer with a somewhat uneasily divided conscience: on the one hand, the Charlie cartoonists were undoubtedly martyrs to free speech, freedom of expression, and the essential fight against fundamentalisms of all kind. On the other… well, a small irreverent smile came to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France, for these anarchist mischief makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of their being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and 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. )
To resolve these two sides of Charlie—the heroic martyrs, the ongoing mockers; the men of the world, the frightened marginalized victims—is the purpose of Open Letter. In it the great Charlie cartoonist and editor Charb—exasperated, logical, intelligent, above all humane—takes apart all the noxious myths that had circulated about Charlie Hebdo in the past that have accumulated in the year since the killings; the myth of its “Islamophobia,” for instance. Charb explicates the difference between mockery and assault in a rational manner made almost unbearably poignant by the cost he and his friends would pay to the wholly irrational.
Throughout, his arguments have a simple distinction at their core—that criticizing an ideology, including a religious ideology, however vociferously, is different from inducing hatred of a people or persons. There is a huge space between an insult and a threat, and it isn’t actually that hard to tell one from the other. In an open society, we all have to put up with insults. Islam, an ideology like any other—as is Communism or Liberalism or Judaism—can be criticized and mocked like any other. Charb reminds us that “the fashion of adding ‘-phobia’ to the end of every other word is perfectly ludicrous. ‘Homophobia’ and ‘negrophobia’ are used to describe the hatred people may feel not toward an ideology or a religion, but toward human beings, pure and simple.”
In other words, saying that someone’s religion is ridiculous is different—discernibly, measurably, significantly different—from saying that some group should be exterminated. Mocking your prophet is not at all like threatening your person. Blasphemy is ridicule directed at an ideology; hate speech encourages violence directed at individuals. Judeophobia—the mockery of the religion of Moses of the kind that Voltaire engaged in at length—ought to be protected, no matter who engages in it, just as South Park‘s mockery of Mormonism should. But Jews and Mormons must not be threatened, either in the practice of their faith or in their confidence in their own continued well-being. Blasphemy is just the fanatic’s name for criticism.
Charb writes, wisely:
A believer can blaspheme only to the extent that the idea of blasphemy holds any meaning for him. A nonbeliever, no matter how hard he tries, cannot blaspheme. God is sacred only to those who believe in him. If you wish to insult or offend God, you have to be sure that he exists. The strategy used by minority group activists masquerading as anti-racists is to pass off blasphemy as Islamophobia and Islamophobia as racism.
The crucial distinction we must defend is that between acts of imagination and acts of violence. The imagination sees and draws and describes many things—pornographic, erotic, satiric, and blasphemous—that are uncomfortable or ugly. But they are not actually happening. The imagination is a place where hypotheses and conditionals rule, and where part of the fun, and most of the point, lies in saying the unsayable in order to test the truths of what’s most often said. An assault on an ideology is not merely different from a threat made to a person; it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people. The idea that we should be free to do our work and offer our views without extending a frightened veto to those who threaten to harm us if we do isn’t just part of what we mean by free expression. It’s what free expression is. The social contract at the heart of liberalism is simple: in exchange for the freedom to be as insulting as you want about other people’s ideas, you have to give up the possibility of assaulting other people’s persons.
Faith is not the enemy. Fanaticism is the enemy. It always is. But only a fool would deny that faith has been the seedbed of fanaticism in mankind’s long and sorry struggle for the light. As much as at times we need to seek “solidarity” among unlike groups, we also need to “desolidarize,” to “unsolidarize”—to put the people we know before the abstract categories we imagine. Come to think of it, making people, with all their flaws, fully visible while leaving generalized types alone is exactly what the caricaturist has always done for us. It’s his special form of bravery.
Foreword from OPEN LETTER. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2015 by Les Échappés. Translation Copyright © 2016 by Little Brown and Company. Foreword copyright © 2016 by Adam Gopnik.